Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Postcard of the Day No. 35, A Tokonama

This has been a favourite for more than 30 years since first acquired as one of a batch of Japanese postcards bought from Baldur Books in Richmond. Baldur Books possessed a wonderful stock of postcards presided over by the infamously obstreperous Eric Barton. The exceptional quality of the stock fully justified the risk entailed in unwittingly provoking the wrath and contempt of the irascible proprietor. I was fortunate enough to escape unscathed but each visit offered a master-class in the dark arts of customer intimidation ranging from mild exasperation, “Can’t you see I’m trying to finish my lunch?” to outright hostility. The most memorable example of which was the occasion when a customer attempted to buy a stack of about six Hentys and met with a complete refusal to sell followed up with a volley of abuse accusing him of taking advantage of his generous nature while planning to swindle him of an enormous fortune. This was wonderful stuff to watch and it was remarkable how swiftly customers would back down and accept the inevitable when confronted with the full force of Mr Barton’s malevolence.

As for the card, it describes a very different universe where the search for orderly perfection takes priority. A fastidious sense of composition and proportion is combined with a refined sensibility to colour and surface to create an eternally fascinating image in which the eye is invited on a journey of discovery around an almost empty interior. The bonus card below, from the same source, is for Marcel Duchamp. It’s a fine display of Japanese bridal paraphernalia locked into a rigidly geometrically defined space – there’s even a frame that echoes the outline of The Large Glass. There seems to be something in this card that would cater to Duchamp’s obsessive quest to represent human intimacy in the language of bio-mechanics.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Walking on Rubber

Some dazzling interiors from the 1930s courtesy of a promotional pamphlet produced by Leyland Rubber Flooring. They range in style from the rectilinear elegance of Marion Dorn (for Shell Mex) to the civic pomp of Ayrshire County Hall via Ramsden’s Fish and Chip Restaurant near Leeds and the Scala Cinema in Southport. Thus demonstrating the versatility and adaptability of the material. Rubber flooring is still produced in Lancashire and promoted as an environmentally sustainable alternative to the ubiquitous vinyl.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Walking in the Future

I’m living in the past
But I’m walking in the future

The words belong to the great Jamaican master of paradox, Peter Tosh. They seem to embody the fate of these figures from the margins of the postcard universe. Excavated from the random traces of printers’ ink, digitised and processed, they retain their dignity as they stare destiny in the face. Transient images from early childhood to the resignation of old age mark the existence of lost identities and extend a glimmering resonance into the obscurity of the future. In their present form they are weightless, without physical dimension and entirely dependent on the continuity of the electricity supply.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Charlie Gillett

Those of us who take pride in the excellence of our musical tastes do well to remember that our preferences are formed out of a dialogue with family and friends, disc jockeys, promoters and cultural critics. Of all these influences on my personal choice of music none was stronger than Charlie Gillett. In the 1970’s his Honky Tonk programme on BBC Radio London was essential weekend listening – an hour of respite from the self-indulgent excesses of over-paid and inebriate rock stars. The playlists were eclectic and crossed genres that might have seemed on first inspection to be mutually incompatible but Charlie’s encyclopaedic knowledge enabled him to make links and draw comparisons that transformed my understanding of popular music traditions. Gospel, Country, Urban Blues, Tex Mex, Southern Soul, Reggae, Rockabilly, Uptown R’n’B, Bluegrass, Cajun, and Honkers and Shouters all shared airspace and Charlie demonstrated with unassuming erudition how they all belonged in the same musical jig-saw. Hank Williams and Hank Ballard were all part of the same musical continuum. There were interviews, more like conversations, with the likes of Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Emmylou Harris, Dave Bartholomew, Lowell George and Roy Brown that were always enlightening and enriching. Authenticity was a badge of honour amongst blues purists and employed to create narrow and exclusive categories. Charlie liked his music to sound authentic but for him it meant that it was unpretentious, respected its roots and traditions without being constrained, valued musicianship, avoided artifice and came from the heart. The sheer pleasure of making music took priority over achieving fame and fortune.

I bought a copy of The Sound of the City in the early Seventies and marvelled at how smart he had been in doing a post-grad at Columbia in New York and acquiring such detailed understanding of the incredibly complex origins of Rock ’n’ Roll. The Jive Five, the Louvin Brothers, Chris Kenner, Jesse Stone, Merle Travis, LaVern Baker, Prince Buster, and Claude Jeter all appear in the index of a book that remains the best overview of this critical era in music. A few years later he published the pioneering Making Tracks, a history of Atlantic Records and its enormous success across almost all the genres of American popular music. He wrote with great authority for Let it Rock magazine and once featured my personal Ten Best in one of his columns thus earning my undying gratitude.

In recent decades he became the great promoter and populariser of World Music. It became possible to listen to his shows online and remarkably the broadcasting style was utterly unchanged from the early days. Gently conversational, wonderfully informed, wryly humorous and near enough 100% correct in every recommendation he ever made to this listener. John Peel became a national treasure for his open mind, good humour and boundless musical enthusiasm while Charlie Gillett, in possession of exactly the same qualities, plus a large body of published work of lasting value, enjoyed no more than modest public recognition. He has been described elsewhere as self-effacing but he could never conceal his personal warmth, the generosity of his comments or the immensity of his respect for all those who made music good and true. Sadly, Charlie Gillett died last Wednesday after a long illness, leaving behind an impressively large number of admirers for whom his presence in their lives is simply irreplaceable. To read some of the many tributes to this fine man, please follow this link.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Great Railway Stations: Ryde Esplanade

The formerly extensive railway network on the Isle of Wight has for more than four decades been reduced to a single vestigial branch of 8.5 miles, connecting Shanklin on the east coast to Ryde Pier from where passenger ferries run to Portsmouth. The pier is a great survivor. It’s still possible to drive along its 680 metre length and park at the end. Trains formed from ex-London Underground 1938 tube stock make the trip every 40 minutes or so and convey a steady stream of voyagers to and from the island. Ryde Esplanade is where the traveller meets the mainland with the options of onward travel by bus, train or on foot. Between the station platforms and the sea is a concrete apron on to which a surpassingly ugly hovercraft noisily slithers at the end of its ocean voyage from Southsea.

After the exhilaration of the trip along the pier the train plunges into a short tunnel to the east of Ryde Esplanade. The height of this tunnel is 10 inches lower than standard height and is the reason why these ancient refugees from London’s deep tubes have had their working lives extended to more than seven decades. Ryde Pier is formed from three piers running in parallel. The original timber pier was opened in 1814, making it the oldest in Britain. In 1864 a tramway pier (out of use since 1969) opened alongside the original and the railway pier was completed in 1880. Anyone attracted to the lonesome quality of melancholy that attaches to slightly remote and unmodernised transport terminals should treat themselves to a trip to Ryde.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Les Grands Boulevards

Les Grands Boulevards has been the commercial heart of Paris for 150 years. Broad, spacious and tree-lined avenues of standardised apartment houses, banks, department stores, hotels and major retailers run east and west between la Madeleine and Bastille. The relationship between building heights and the width of the boulevards follow the formulae established by the infamous Haussmann and his successors. Roof profiles and detailing of facades were subject to similar controls and formed part of the overarching scheme to impress the observer with stunning perspectives on a vast scale. The mighty engine of the 19th. century Parisian department store is exhaustively described by Zola in his 1883 novel, Au bonheur des dames. Zola’s vision places the store at the centre of a vortex in which massive consignments of manufactured goods are engulfed, circulated, fragmented and finally expelled into the homes and salons of the city, leaving behind enormous amounts of stored energy in the form of cash. The elimination of small shops and the destruction of long established communities as the new boulevards blitz their way through is another part of the story.

Our postcard tour of the neighbourhood shows the scene some 20 years after Zola described it but little has changed. Horse drawn transport is sharing road space with primitive motor cars and commercial signage proliferates in that uniquely Parisian way. Men, invariably wearing hats, and less frequently, women of all social classes hustle through the streets. Crowded pavements, traffic congestion and blurry indistinct images from lives lived and lost bring the scenes to life. The power of business and commerce, as Zola observed, drove human behaviour to an ever more frenzied pitch of activity.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

W S Bagdatopoulos

William Spencer Bagdatopoulos (WSB) is the unsung hero of early Indian advertising illustration. In his hands, the familiar stodgy universe of home and colonial consumerism was transformed into vibrantly hued oriental exotica. The editorial pages of the Times of India Annual regularly featured his work in the 1930s of which the image of the Ganges he produced for Burmah-Shell to publicise a distinctly toxic sounding range of products, was typical. Commercial assignments inspired him to employ local colour in the form of harems, Hindu Gods and processions of gilded elephants to scatter lustre on some fairly mundane products. The magazine extract is from Commercial Art, May 1929 and shows three examples of calendars designed by WSB, sadly in monochrome only. The text is predictably pompous and patronising and tells us nothing about the artist. Hopefully, more examples of his visually sumptuous work will come to light in future.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Postcard of the Night No. 3, Paris la Nuit

The avenue de l’Opéra is almost deserted, the last train must be imminent and a nocturnal flâneur with a face constructed by Francis Bacon, contemplates the scene. The glow of street lighting has been carefully applied by hand and superimposed on a monochrome original. The glamour and excitement of Paris by Night has long since departed. If you look deep into the shadows you might glimpse Brassaï with his Voigtländer camera at the ready in search of even darker material. The visual poetry that Brassaï discovered in La Nuit de Paris did not inspire the local postcard industry. Vintage postcards of the night are relatively unusual in France – the true masters of the genre were to be found on the other side of the Atlantic.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Hall’s Distemper

In the distant days of unregulated outdoor advertising these two heroes of the artisan class could be seen in cut-out form from the windows of passing trains, selflessly plodding through the landscape reminding the travelling public of the existence of Hall’s Distemper. Their journeys took them as far as the Indian sub-continent where this example was published in 1916 in the Times of India Annual. They were also modelled in miniature by Hornby Trains to add a note of documentary realism to an “O” gauge layout. Surviving examples are keenly sought by collectors prepared to pay more than £200 for a mint and boxed specimen.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Masters of the Poster

This is a page from Posters & Publicity 1928 and caught my eye as it shows two poster designers from very different traditions, Leonetto Cappiello and McKnight Kauffer, working for the same client in the same year. Belle Époque and Cubism employed in tandem. Neither artist seems to be at the top of their game here. The Cappiello flair for the dynamic vortex is rather underemployed in these uncharacteristically limp compositions while Kauffer’s geometric lattices rarely look their best when applied to heritage subject matter. The upper right example portraying a printing press carries a lot more conviction than the image of a coaching inn below. Any Cappiello anoraks out there may wish to note that these examples of his work do not appear in Jack Rennert’s magisterial book, The Posters of Leonetto Cappiello (2004).