English Spoken

We were in Italy earlier this year. And then, of course, we had our trip to Spain last month. We are booked for Venice in September, and, who knows, we might fit a trip in to see all the relatives in the Caribbean towards the end of the year or the beginning of next year. Even in this age of COVID, economic recession, and sky-high oil prices, we still see international travel as a normal part of everyday life. This, however, was not always the case, and I am reminded of this by this photograph from the family archives which shows my “Uncle” Charlie (left), mother and father outside a shop in Calais, France in the 1930s. What makes the photograph instantly recognisable to me is the phrase “English Spoken” which just squeezes itself into the top of the photograph. I can remember my mother showing me the photograph – well over sixty years ago – and saying, “this was when we went abroad”.  During the first five decades of their lives, they had only ever been abroad once, and this photograph marks the occasion, They were on a motorbike tour of the South of England, and they took a day out from their journey and caught the ferry to Calais for a day-trip.

I am using this photograph as an illustration of the importance of ephemeral backgrounds in old photographs – those little details that sneak their way into photographs;  ephemera that become invaluable decades later in dating and placing old photographs. This is a fine example, because you not only have the “English Spoken” sign, but also the delights of a shop window display that could grace any exhibition of economic and social history. I tried adding a little colour, but the slightly sepia original seems to better sum up the era.

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