Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Advertising and Anxiety - the Insurance Business

Our universal fear of the all-consuming flames of an uncontrolled fire is the insurance agent’s most dependable friend. Advertising campaigns confront the homeowner with the dread reality in all its horrors. Those most exposed to the risk are also those least likely to afford insurance cover but readers of the Saturday Evening Post have a lot to lose and the means to insure against the worst. Life is good for them - years of conscientious toil finally rewarded with a precious sense of true contentment.  A new home in a good neighbourhood, an attractive and devoted wife and a brace of bright and respectful children with a pay check to match.  There are camping holidays, family barbecues, outdoor sports, trips to the ballgame and the mall, and two cars on the driveway.  And yet, in the pages of Saturday Evening Post, a sober voice strikes a note of warning. All this comfort and prosperity can be wiped out in an instant - misfortune lies in wait.  It could be unforeseen illness or a faulty fuse, an auto accident or a personal injury, a burst water pipe or a passing tornado.

Hazards are everywhere - the pan of boiling water that tips off the stove, the loose tile that splits the postman’s skull, the winding flex, the rusty nail, the overflowing bath, the uneven path, the falling tree, the unbalanced stepladder and the sting of an angry wasp.  Insurance has the answer to every middle class anxiety.  Nervous about entrusting your child’s education to state schooling?  Insurance can provide the funds for private school fees.  Concerned about the prospect of old age penury?  Insurance offers the savings plan for security in retirement.  Anxious about your health and longevity?  None of us live forever but your life cover will provide for your loved ones if the worst should happen.  Peace of mind is the product - the unforeseen, the unpredictable managed away by the prospect of compensation for catastrophe.

For decades, insurance companies had been shifting public perceptions to present themselves as rock solid institutions guided by philanthropic principles.  They had an interest in maintaining a healthy clientele and embarked on an assiduous programme of publishing advice on fitness related topics.  In the past their social functions had been provided by co-operative and mutual societies, trades unions, non-profit associations and self-help groups.  Their corporate successors made every effort to conceal the commercial side of the business and focus attention on social protections and benefits.  A major aim of the ad campaigns was to soften up the human target for the arrival of the “field agent” on the doorstep.  Primed with a bulging portfolio of statistics and expert in the art of persuasion, the sales force employed every trick at their disposal to land a new customer and make their own jobs that little bit more secure. My favourite onscreen insurance agent is the dim and amoral Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who blunders his way through Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, fatally incriminating himself in his desperation to please morose sexpot, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck).

Monday, 20 July 2020

London Stations in Postcards - Paddington

Paddington occupies a special place in the pantheon of London railway termini, due to a close association with the most admired of Victorian engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Great Western Railway (GWR) which, even today, is recognisably largely his creation.  Since the station opened in 1854 much has changed but the splendour of Brunel’s three-bay arched roof in wrought iron remains undiminished. A unique feature is the provision of two footbridges that span the mainline platforms offering elevated observation points from which a sense of the building as an ensemble can be appreciated - no other London termini can match this.  Architect Matthew Digby Wyatt was responsible for the decorative elements that graced the ironwork and included decorative piercings and wrought iron arabesques that enabled the roof structure to appear almost weightless. Built to serve South Wales, Bristol and the West Country, the GWR had fewer major centres of population on its network than most of its competitors. To compensate the PR and Marketing departments ingeniously devised the slightly dubious concept of the English Riviera to attract mass tourism to the coast of South Devon - an idea soon extended westwards to Cornwall, proudly designated with its own Riviera. In graphic terms this was illustrated by tilting the axis of the Southwest Peninsula to correspond with an outline of Italy greatly reduced in scale, but not entirely dissimilar.

Historically there was a view that you would find a better class of traveller at Paddington. Oxford undergraduates, dons and antiquarians on one platform, country squires and landowners, plus assorted dukes and earls on another, escorted by a retinue of stewards and servants to handle the gun dogs, firearms, and outsize picnic hampers without which no weekend in the country was complete. This notion was much reinforced by William Powell Frith’s panoramic painting, The Railway Station, that was such a popular sensation in 1862 when it was placed on public exhibition in a Haymarket gallery, with up to a thousand visitors a day paying one shilling for the privilege. Visitors were enthralled by Frith’s epic cast of characters and the modernity of his subject.  Frith took an assembly line approach to the business of painting - outsourcing the architectural details to William Scott Morton and commissioning photographic portfolios for picture reference.  He was paid fabulous sums of money by Victorian entrepreneurs who earned back their investment with the sale of countless engravings that anchored the painting in public esteem.  Passengers making for humble Slough or Swindon would have been seriously outclassed by Frith’s gallery of prosperity.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Nabokov Takes the Train

Writing in the New Yorker in 1948 (p 18, “Odette”, July 31st.) Vladimir Nabokov described the excitement of childhood train travel, looking back from his late-forties to his memories of the first decade of the 20th. century. The Nabokov family, in various permutations took the Nord Express from St. Petersburg (via Berlin, Köln and Paris) to Biarritz or the Côte d’Azur on at least five occasions between 1900 and 1914. A retinue of nurses, nannies and servants accompanied them and Nabokov recalled some of those journeys and the pleasures to be obtained by the simple act of looking through the window, in a New Yorker essay that was later revised to form Chapter 7 of his 1967 memoir, Speak, Memory (pages 104 to 108).  These extracts give a flavour of his special talent for translating visual sensations into dazzling sequences of words.

The door of the compartment was open and I could see the corridor window, where the wire - six thin black wires - were doing their best to slant up, to ascend skywards, despite the lightning blows dealt them by one telegraph pole after another; but just as all six, in a triumphant swoop of pathetic elation, were about to reach the top of the window, a particularly vicious blow would bring them down, as low as they had ever been, and they would have to start all over again.

When, on such journeys as these, the train changed its pace to a dignified amble and all but grazed house fronts and shop signs, as we passed through some big German town, I used to feel a twofold excitement, which terminal stations could not provide.  I saw a city, with its toylike trams, linden trees and brick walls, enter the compartment, hobnob with the mirrors, and fill to the brim the windows on the corridor side.  This informal contact between train and city was one part of the thrill.  The other was putting myself in the place of some passer-by who, I imagined, was moved as I would be moved myself to the long, romantic, auburn cars, with their intervestibular  connecting curtains as black as bat wings and their metal lettering copper-bright in the low sun, unhurriedly negotiate an iron bridge across an everyday thoroughfare and then turn, with all windows suddenly ablaze, around a last block of houses.

…… I would keep catching the (dining) car in the act of being recklessly sheathed, lurching waiters and all, in the landscape, while the landscape itself went through a complex system of motion, the daytime moon stubbornly keeping abreast of one’s plate, the distant meadows opening fanwise, the near trees sweeping up on invisible swings toward the track, a parallel rail line all at once committing suicide by anastomosis, a bank of nictitating grass rising, rising, rising, until the little witness of mixed velocities was made to disgorge his portion of omelette aux configures de fraises.

Nabokov’s habit of sprinkling his prose with obscure words is alternately rewarding and problematic.  Intervestibular is easily decoded. To understand Westinghousian (Presently, the train stopped with a long-drawn Westinghousian sigh) you need to know that George Westinghouse was the inventor of the railway air brake which seems not too much to ask of a reader. Nictitating** and anastomosis* are words drawn from the medical vocabulary, rarely found in general usage and calculated to leave most readers in need of a dictionary.  That said, Nabokov’s vivid tapestry of language brings to life transient but vivid sensations with a flair and economy that few others could achieve.

*anastomosis - medical term for a connection between tubular structures (blood vessels or intestinal tubes).

**nictitating (membrane) - protective membrane that slides back and forth across the eye, not present in humans. Sometimes referred to as “third eyelid”.

G. Compiègne 6 - NOYON - Passage du Nord-Express

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Fridge Full of Cold Cash

There are consumers out there for whom the world of contests, competitions and giveaways is their playground. With hard work and persistence, and a little good fortune they can enrich their lives by turning a box top or postage stamp into a year’s supply of dog food or a trolley-dash through Pets at Home. At the top of the profession, an exclusive minority can be found flying first class, scoffing in Michelin starred restaurants and irradiating themselves on tropical beaches in gated resorts, all at no cost to themselves. Online tools are easily available to search for opportunities and all that’s required is an unshakeable faith in the disinterested generosity of big business and a bulk supply of postage stamps.

These examples are drawn from my mid-century data dump - they have a certain rough charm with their basic, shouty graphics, designed to lift the ads off the page and capture the attention of the ever-hopeful consumer on the lookout for free stuff. New cars are the most frequent offer but a refrigerator stuffed with dollar bills is an arresting prospect that could tempt even the most sober reader. No proof of purchase required and only four statements to be deemed true or false - just spare a thought for the unhappy citizens of Nebraska and New Jersey whose state laws prohibit their participation in this bonanza. Inflation note: the contents of the fridge in 1959 would have to be uprated to $220,000 to maintain the buying power. In cryptocurrency this equates to 23 bitcoins (as at May 2020). How to store bitcoins in a fridge is another problem. Not everything is a sweepstake - sometimes there’s a test of skill where some linguistic agility could come in handy. Completing a sentence on the merits of Ivory Flakes must win the judge’s approval with wordplay or internal rhyming. Another popular task is to bestow a name upon the progeny of a brand character (Borden’s) or find a name for a little sleepyhead (Englander beds).

The most ingenious offer comes courtesy of Remington Shavers - the chance to become your own personal fund manager and launch yourself on Wall Street where unlimited wealth could be yours for the taking. The lucky winner could choose their own share stocks to the value of the sum of a single share in every quoted company on the New York Stock Exchange as at May 31st. 1957. 1957 turned out to be a bear market with a marked decline in stock values. But anyone who chose to invest $1,000 in the newly launched Disney shares would be 3 million dollars better off by 2019.