My love of old vintage picture postcards goes back to my childhood when I would accompany my mother on occasional visits to her uncle, who lived in Keighley, the town of her birth. Fowler Beanland, who was always known in the family – without any trace of sarcasm – as “Uncle Fooler”, lived in what was at the time, a smart terraced house a few minutes walk from the town centre. I would look forward to such visits because the preferred way of keeping me quiet whilst the grown-ups discussed family matters, was to let me look through Fowler’s album of old postcards. He had collected these postcards during the great postcard-collecting craze of the first decade of the twentieth century. When I used to look at the album, when I was a child of six or seven, they would appeal to me because of their colour and their depiction of exotic locations such as Rochdale, Carlisle and Blackpool. Later, when I inherited the album, they would appeal to both my love of old photographs and my fascination for family history. I still have the collection intact, and I look forward to passing it on to my grandchildren. My desktop calendar image today features just one of these postcards, a view of North Street in Keighley in the early 1900s.
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I am a man of simple tastes. As far as food is concerned, all I ask for is a fried egg and a plate of chips. In the drinks department, you can cast me adrift with a crate of pale ale and a bottle or two of single malt whisky, and I would complain to nobody. My friends and relatives are aware of my uncomplicated requirements, and for Christmas I managed to acquire three bottles of malt, two crates of beer and a 10kg bag of Maris Pipers. Only yesterday, I finished the first crate of beer and went in search of the second; only to find it contentedly waiting for me under the Christmas Tree. I shouldn’t have worried, except earlier in the day I had been reading a copy of the Halifax Courier from January 1922 (papers are so boring these days, full of the same old stuff), and found an advert for Whitakers Brewery – one of the holy Trinity of former Halifax breweries. In the advert, Doc Shire comes across a crate of beer that has evidently fallen off the back of a wagon, and declared: “There’s somebody short of a Happy New Year“. I was so pleased that somebody wasn’t me, I adopted the advert as my daily calendar image – and even added a touch of colour for good measure.
I was lying in bed last night thinking, the way one does, about neural pathways. I can’t be sure that is the correct name for the strange threads that connect memories together, but if it isn’t, it will do until a better one comes along. Like country pathways, they tend to avoid straight lines, and cannot resist going from A to B via J, Q and G. What started this thought journey off was the random choice for my daily calendar for today which is a photograph I took at the Halifax Labour Party Flower, Fruit and Vegetable Show some fifty-three or fifty-four years ago. Leaving behind the somewhat quaint vision of these fathers and mothers of modern socialism with their entries for best dressed dahlias and presentation plates of soft fruit, my memory was quickly striding off down every neural pathway in sight. Yes, that is the then Halifax MP, Shirley Summerskill, anxiously awaiting the presentation of prizes. The hall is, I think, the one that used to be below the Halifax Labour Party rooms in St James Street: my memory of the internal layout of the building is less than perfect, although I can remember those stage curtains and back wallpaper as if it was yesterday. From that hall, the neural pathways lead to all manner of people and places, and with the photograph on my desk for this coming day of twenty-first century lockdown, it will provide me with endless opportunities to go rambling in my mind.
This is the outcome of yet another late-night, malt-whisky induced, Photoshop adventure. The starting point was a rather tattered little print from an old photograph album. The album contained thirty or forty prints of entirely unknown origin, which I bought off eBay for less than the price of a cup of tea in a coffee shop. The only clue as to the provenance is a short inscription in the front of the album which states “Winter 1946-7 and Summer 1947. 431 ED“. If the prints were in better condition, I would be loath to mess with them, but they are scratched and faded, bent and blurred, and openly invite me and my pal Photoshop to do our worst with them.
Of this particular effort, all the can be said is that the original blurred photograph was the work of our unknown photographer, the somewhat surreal colouring was the work of Photoshop, and the final decision that it was a face that I would be happy to spend the day looking at across my desk was my own …. with a little help from a glass of Bunnahabhain.
In my mind’s eye there was always snow in winter when I was younger. That same mind’s eye observed week after week of uninterrupted sunshine during each summer. It is, of course, all nonsense: if your mind has an eye at all it is equipped with about as much memory as a Sinclair ZX80 computer. You don’t need a mind’s eye, however, if you had a camera and a decent archive of your old negatives – you can scan through winter after winter of snow and remind yourself just how tough life used to be when central heating meant a paraffin stove in the middle of a room and a foreign holiday meant a day trip to Blackpool (I have been reading too many Facebook nostalgia group posts over Christmas and I am beginning to be infected by their sickly sentimentality). The calendar photograph on my desk today features a photograph I took in the mid 1980s, when we were living in Sheffield. I think it was taken from the bottom of Blake Street in Upperthorpe, but I can’t be certain about that as my mind’s eye was never equipped with a geo-tagging facility. Now that was snow: boot-caking, door-clogging, welly-wetting snow of the finest variety. For a proper, nostalgia-fest approach, I would like to say that snow was like that in the good old days before we started flirting with Europe, but I will refrain in case I attract the attention of fact-checking services.
We were supposed to go out for a walk yesterday, but a single snow flake was spotted drifting over the field at the bottom of the road, so we played safe and stayed inside instead. It gave me an opportunity to scan some photographs of the good old days.
I was trying to explain to someone the other day why I have always steered clear of moving images. Ever since I first picked a camera up back in the sepia days of my youth, people have always seemed to see still images as a poor second-cousin to the magic of moving pictures. At first there was home cine film, and then video cameras; and I was able to explain my reluctance by pointing out that the equipment was bulky and the media was expensive. Once digital video via a smart phone button came on the scene, such excuses became as redundant as a director’s clapperboard. However, despite protestations that wanted a record of little Holroyd running on the sands swinging his bucket and spade, I stood firm and my pictures stood still. It is difficult to rationally explain, but there is something about the way a still image focusses attention on a specific moment, and invites you almost to become an active participant in a scene rather than a passive viewer. Faced with an old film which included two men sat on a rock near the seaside, you would perhaps give them a passing glance – it would be the most you would be able to afford in a world where images were coming at you 24 frames per second. Given a still image, however, you can invest time and attention. You can explore the background, examine their clothes, note the cigarettes, wonder what they might be drinking. You learn to live with a particular moment – a questioning look, a carefree smile – and it becomes more than just a moment in time. In this particular case, I know that the sitting man on the left of the photograph was my father, and it must have been taken in the 1930s. The photograph appears on my daily calendar, and therefore I have him for a full day whilst I sit at my desk. We can sit, chat, and this evening share a drink. Try doing that with an old VHS cassette.
There is nothing like the 1st of January appearing on the calendar to start a rush of New Year Resolutions. I suspect I have now lived long enough to realise that – if you are going to turn over a new leaf, or set out on a new and better trajectory through life – it would be better to start it on a cold Thursday afternoon in the middle of March. Nevertheless, I can’t seem to shake the habit of wanting to start a new diary on the 1st of January: it is a resolution that lasts, on average, about eight to ten days. When my descendants gather my papers together to examine my strange existence, they will be intrigued by the fact that I did so much during the first eight days of the year and then went into wordless hibernation for the remaining 357 days. This year I am limiting myself to the promise to keep my picture calendar going …. until the 8th of January at least.
Had I been tempted to start the more traditional type of diary I could have done worse than take up the offer made by the Halifax stationery and printing company, E Mortiner Ltd, in an advert in the Halifax Evening Courier exactly 100 years ago today. From their shop at the corner of Silver Street and Commercial Street you could buy, for just a half crown (twelve and a half pence to those of a shorter life-span), a Foolscap Diary – three days to a page – and they would throw in a free insurance policy for £1,000 for the coming year.
What with Covid, economic meltdown, social and political crisis and all the other problems we are likely to face in the year ahead, that is an offer I doubt that we will see repeated for 2021.
A seasonal image for the Christmas period: an early twentieth century celebrity postcard. It is captioned “The mother of The Missess Zena and Phyllis Dare“. Zena and Phyllis were musical comedy stars of the early years of the twentieth century, and their mother was Harriette Amelia Wheeler. She was the victim of an unhappy marriage and a violent husband, and clearly directed her energies into encouraging her daughters to go on the stage. As the postcard demonstrates, she also enjoyed a certain celebrity status herself. Her husband, Arthur Albert Dones was a divorce clerk, an occupation that may have come in useful when Harriette eventually divorced him for cruelty and adultery in 1915.
A wet day in Brighouse, fifty-four years ago. Full of memories – donkey jackets, mini cars and Timothy Whites chemist. More resonant in these difficult times, memories of crowded pavements and social interaction.