4 October 2008

An Awkward Age


This is a slim, annual-format hardback in a tatty dustjacket with a rather charming picture of some nice young people politely socialising. The cloth boards beneath the jacket have a pattern of silver stars that give a first impression of its being something between one of those film review books from the 40s and 50s and an old Bunty annual.

First thing on a random opening is a page that describes various types of musical composition. These include Concerto, Rhapsody, Pastorale and Nocturne. This last comes with a little warning: "Not all nocturnes are restful; but then neither are all nights (think back on 1940-45)." For the readers - who would have been war children - that's some example of a restless night. At the bottom of the page is a stylised motif of two French horns.

Leafthrough. There's a slight gloss to the pages which reinforces the impression that this is really a kind of magazine in hard covers. As a prototype, it has hit all the key elements - a jauntily illustrated mix of advice, fiction and celebrity - that would make up the weekly diet of later generations of teenage girls and young women. The only thing missing at first glance is the advertising. But a slightly slower leafthrough reveals that, rather than punctuating the whole book, the adverts have been quarantined in the last few pages. These are prefaced with a disclaimer which tells us that only a limited number of advertisements from reputable concerns have been accepted by The Teen Age Book. So Cussons, Pond's Cream, Gossard, Max Factor and the Kleinert Rubber Company have all been granted leave to discreetly address the young ladies after the show is over.

The front bits give very little information but say a lot about where this book is coming from. The first bit of text is a credit to Pearl Falconer for the drawings that decorate the endpapers. These are line drawings of teenage girls doing such things as going off to play tennis, cavorting in an apron with a collander full of spuds, putting on a (vinyl) record and sashaying in a ballgown. This is followed by a lurid pink free endpaper which faces the title page. Overleaf from this is a photo (by John French as it happens) of the editor Ann Seymour. The portrait is oval in shape and surrounded by a pink baroque mirror frame design.

Looking into it. We think we have a pretty good idea what a teenager is. We may not know what it wants or what it thinks and we may not know why it behaves the way it does, but we know that it is someone between the ages of about 13 and 19 and we have a name for it.

The teenager is a post-war concept the basic structures of which were laid down during the consumer boom of the late 50s and early 60s. This book is part of the prehistory of the teenager. So much so that the word is still two words without so much as a hyphen to join them, except in one primitive instance where the prescient use of a hyphen is completely undermined by the retention of an apostrophe, thus: 'teen-ager.

The uncertain status of the intended readers is also highlighted in Ann Seymour's brief introduction. "During the war" she says, "you won the right to be considered as young people, not grown-up children." I can sort of see what she's trying to get at, but the implicit suggestion that children are not people grates against my modern parent sensibilities.

Perhaps the best analogy would be that the teenager represents a larval stage of adulthood where the potential grown-up stumbles around in an ill-fitting body comprised of possibilities, worries, hopes and awkward questions. And this, really, is a book of answers to some of those questions. 'How old is old enough for make-up?' 'How do you sound?' 'Who do you think you are?' 'Are you clever with flowers?'

These thorny issues are tackled by writers who would probably have referred to themselves as the better sort of people. There is a relentlessly upper-class feel to the whole thing, making it almost like a handbook for some kind of finishing school. The larging-up of attributes such as flower arranging skills, proficiency at tennis and good posture are all aimed, according to Ann Seymour, at allowing the reader to develop 'so that people are pleasantly aware of you as a charming person'. For a teenager, even an unwitting one of the late 1940s, that's not much of an ambition.

'A charming girl needs to know but two things', opines Ann in her piece on posture, 'how to sit well and how to accept a compliment'. Any further knowledge apparently indicates 'ill-breeding, laziness, indolence and incompetence'. Now that's more like it.

The two world wars were the 21st century's big bang. Many of the fragments that were hurled out from the disruption took decades to coalesce into the forms we live with today, and it's a continuing process. Youth culture evolved in ways that cannot have been imagined by the people who put this book together. Only a few years after this attempt to guide youngsters (young women, anyway) into a life of charming pleasantness, the concertos, rhapsodies and pastorales were completely overwhelmed by a species of night music that must have seemed like it came from hell itself.

4 September 2008

From Our Own Correspondent

THE REPORTERS' MAGAZINE (Sept 1894-Dec 1896)

This is a solid block of a book bound in what's known as half Morocco with green boards embossed with a kind of thin fernlike pattern, leather spine and leather corners. It's seen better days - some of the spine binding has come away and those corners are heavily bumped.

First thing on a random opening is a page headed 'Right and Left Curves' in normal type, below which are several rows of shorthand script before a florid, but readable, headline announces an article entitled 'Shorthand Typing and Cycling'. Without being able to read a word of what follows, I am left with a Pythonesque vision of a po-faced gent in sideburns wobbling down Ludgate Hill as he tries to balance an ornate lump of cast iron bristling with keys and levers on the tiny handlebars of a penny farthing.

Leafthrough. Well, it's a sea of shorthand squiggles punctuated by illustrations, subheadings in normal type and article headings in a variety of 19th century decorative fonts. There are regular breaks for the title pages of each individual issue. This bound set comprises volumes XV and XVI of the magazine.

The front bits. The Reporters' Magazine was published monthly by Isaac Pitman & Sons. This makes sense as Pitman was a pioneer of shorthand techniques, the inventor of by far the most successful system and the publisher of instruction manuals in the art of speedy note-taking. The editor, Edward Nankivell, was a member of the Institute of Journalists and a founder of the National Phonographic Society.

Looking into it. It is said that shorthand is easy to learn and easy to read, so I've had a quick look at some of the basics in an attempt to shed some light on the deeper content of this intriguing volume. But, apart from a few glimpses, I'm not getting very far with it.

It could be that there's a double barrier here. The shapes still look like some kind of Arabic writing to me. The whole idea of the system is to cut through the complexities of spelling and grammar to give graphic equivalents to how words sound when they are spoken. This is why it's known as phonographic writing.

It's probable, though, that while these phonographers were keen to cut to the chase when it came to the individual words, they were less concise when it came to making sentences out of them. This is a Victorian magazine. With a modern writer using shorthand, it would be easier to anticipate what certain words might be even if I couldn't actually decipher the squiggle. And though I am not so lacking the faculties of finer comprehension that the apparent verbosity of our forefathers, whose literary circumlocutions resonate with an altogether lost eloquence, that I fumble to ascertain even so much as a crumb of meaning from them, yet I feel some justification in declaring that the task before me is rendered that little bit more arduous by their mode of expression.

Which is a shame, because some of the articles look quite interesting. On the face of it, a publication devoted to the intricacies of shorthand technique might not sound the most riveting of reads (even if you could decipher it), especially not when its editor Edward J Nankivell's other obsession was the less-than-dynamic hobby of stamp collecting. But Nankivell was also a journalist and his magazine did not ignore some of the more fascinating news stories of the day.

Of course, there are the reports from the Council on Outlines (which attempted to regulate and develop the shape of shorthand marks) and pieces on the latest typing equipment. But this still left plenty of space to talk about, for example, the arctic explorer Nansen and his ice-breaking ship the Fram. Or Stepniak, the Russian nihilist, who after murdering the chief of the Russian secret police on the streets of St. Petersburg, plugged himself into the network of revoutionaries and anarchists in London that inspired Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent.

Apart from not understanding the content of the magazine, perhaps the biggest frustration is not having any sense of the angle it is taking. There appears for example to be very little in here about the mighty Empire and it's impossible to say how sympathetic the piece on Stepniak, or another headed 'Socialism', might be. Not that Nankivell and his probably pedantic readers were likely to have been closet Bolsheviks. But it's nice to think that - in a spirit of mischievous anarchy and just to show that phonographers know how to have a laugh - the double page spread on the wedding of Isaac Pitman's son Ernest might actually be heavy with sarcasm and finely honed insult. But I guess I'll never know.

12 August 2008

Another Country


This is a smallish hardback with an unclipped dustjacket (21/-, i.e. £1.05) with a list of similar travel guides on the back including The Bernese Oberland, The Dalmation Coast, and Andalusia.

First thing on a random opening is a recipe for something called 'kibbeh', a dish of cubed lamb that is pounded for an hour in a mortar and mixed with salt, pepper and a kind of cracked wheat called 'burghal'. This can be eaten raw or cooked in a shallow tray. Apparently the dish is so popular that the sound of meat being bashed with a heavy pestle is just a part of the background noise of the Lebanon.

Leafthrough. This is neatly laid out in 12 sections interspersed with pages of black and white photographs. The first part runs through all the basics from visas to opening hours and medical services. Subsequent parts look at the major towns and areas including Beirut. The book is in such clean condition (no foxing here, or biro marks or dog-ears) that it's hard to imagine that it was ever stuffed into a suitcase or repeatedly pulled out of a traveller's pocket.

The front bits tell me that this is the first edition published by Alvin Redman of Fleet Street, London in 1965. Redman's publisher's emblem seems a little 'incorrect' to modern eyes being a profile drawing of a native American chief in full-feathered head dress. The author, Nina Nelson, has also produced a guide to Egypt for the same publisher.

Looking into it. It may seem obvious, but travel guides are written in the present tense. This gives an immediacy to the descriptions of people and places that whets the appetite of the prospective tourist. It is different from the genre known as travel writing where tales are told as recollection. This is functional writing designed to help the reader feel as if they are there, now.

This quality is given a particularly sharp focus in this book. For many Europeans and Americans who lived through the 70s and 80s, the Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, conjure images of rubble-strewn streets and layer upon layer of gutted concrete apartment blocks. And although the 15-year civil war that pinned those images into the Western consciousness has been over for quite a while now, the country still seems only a step away from further tragedy. Contemporary events like the killing of Prime Minister Hariri and the July 2006 war with Israel (from which the country's infrastructure has not yet recovered) mean that it still seems like a place locked in a volatile limbo.

But for anyone reading this book, the Lebanon is the land of milk and honey, with Beirut an exotic playground of casinos, sumptuous hotels and fine restaurants - the Paris of the Orient. Here you can book into the Hotel Bristol and sample the Diner Touristique prepared by master chef Nageeb who, if asked how he came to be one of the best cooks in the region, will simply pat his stomach and smile. You can flag down a service taxi with its red licence plate, jump in with whatever passengers he is already carrying and be whisked off to the Souk Tawile to buy tweeds from Scotland or sportswear from California. And you can round off the evening at one of the city's 20 or more cinemas or at Pepe Abad's Bacchus Caves night club with its celebrity wall signed by famous visitors and its authentic Roman columns.

The Lebanon described here is one that seems at ease with itself in a brief few years of apparent calm between the intrusions of the Turks, the French and the British and the late 20th-century horrors of civil war and persistent violence.

Travellers will always travel, whatever the risks or discomforts, and return to tell their tales. But there has also long been a species of tourist that has wanted to find something a little different from the usual. I'm sure it must still be true, as Nina Nelson notes, that the Lebanon is probably the only place in the world where you can sunbathe on a Mediterranean beach in the morning and go skiing in the afternoon. It is also packed with ancient sites that are of mind-boggling significance and it would be fun to take this modest guidebook and see how much of the author's Lebanese experience can still be had.

29 June 2008

Cross My Heart

BUST-UP by Wallace Reyburn 1971

This is a hardback (of course) with no dustjacket and the photo and titling (I said titling) printed directly onto the boards. I think it's obvious why I picked it up.

First thing on a random opening is a reference to an area of the Adriatic coast of Italy called Nippoli Grandi where, we are told, lady grape crushers who spent all day bobbing up and down in large vats of grapes had taken to wearing a restraining garment called the flatina. Given that I am being asked by the book's subtitle to believe that the inventor of the bra went by the name of Otto Titzling, I don't think I'll be googling either the place or the garment to find out more.

Leafthrough. There are just over 100 pages divided into 12 short chapters with titles like 'The Young Titzling', 'Hans Delving' and 'False Pretences'. Lots of the illustrations look as though they come from Victorian sources, while others - like the design for a bra for trapeze artistes who are likely to spend a lot of their time upside down - have the same style but were clearly drawn for this book.

The front bits (of the book) tell me that this was published by Macdonald & Co., London in 1971 and that it is a first edition. On one of the preliminary pages, the author thanks various organisations for the illustrations, including Gossards, The Corset Guild of Great Britain and The Patent Office.

Looking into it. This is obviously a spoof history, but the key to its success is that you often don't know whether there are any bits that you should actually believe.

In the first paragraph, for example, Reyburn contrasts the unsung Titzling to others whose achievements have led to them becoming household names. George Stetson, for example. Unlike the Italian resort of Nippoli Grandi, that is one I did have to check up on. I found no George but, apparently, a prospector called John B Stetson accidentally invented the hat when showing off with some seal skins. Or, according to rigourous research, the hat was invented by Christy's Hat Company based near Bristol, England. Stetson did, in fact, make an unsuccessful attempt to sue Christy's - but don't even ask how it came to be known as a ten-gallon hat.

The life and work of Otto Titzling - immigrant son of a German bridge designer and Sousa marching music fan who falls in love with Icelandic opera singer Swanhilda Olafson and invents the first bra to cope with her generous upholstery - is interwoven with a history of women's undergarments.

Some of the general drift of this rings true, such as the evolution from rigid corset to flexible girdle. But some of the details are more dubious and seem to have come from Reyburn's knack of taking ideas and running with them until they yield a laugh. What are we to make, for example, of a breakthrough in corset stays technology that involved the use of a lattice of steel strips that would slide across each other to facilitate movement? Interesting and possibly true. Until we learn that the disadvantages of the design include a clashing noise like the Three Musketeers fighting their way out of an ambush whenever the wearer becomes at all energetic, and the risk of lightening strike.

In the 1970s, Otto Titzling enjoyed a brief spell as a functioning urban myth. Unlike Thomas Crapper, the subject of Wallace Reyburn's more famous book Flushed With Pride, Titzling was rumbled fairly quickly.

This is history as bunk and it's strangely inspiring. I'm off to research the story of Willem de Wijper, the 17th century Dutch merchant whose generosity in allowing his sailors to take a loop of fine paper aboard vessels bound for the Indies is generally believed to be the origin of the humble toilet roll.

11 June 2008

Could be Verse

Poems by Children edited by Michael Baldwin 1969

This is a hardback in a dustjacket that has a nice clean design with what looks like a lino-cut illustration on the front and back featuring, among other things, a flying elephant, a fairy castle, a school, a gun and a representation of toothache.

First thing on a random opening is a poem called Saturday in which the poet, Sheron Freer, describes playing with her brother - "A cheerful little chap" who "Tries to get the tadpoles in the Oxo tin, Pokes the dog's eyes and pulls his tail". That's a Saturday I can well imagine.

Leafthrough. I like this book. It has been made with some care and has the kind of clear layout and typography that poetry needs. The poems are separated into intriguing sections with titles like Birds and Beasts, The Face of Things and The Ego Alone and Lost. There are quirky little lino-cuts dotted about as well.

The front bits tell me that the book was originally published in 1962 by Routledge & Kegan Paul in London. This is a third impression dating from 1969. I wonder how much of the subsequent printing was done because this sold steadily through the shops and how much because of demand from schools or teacher training colleges. The lino-cuts were done by Michael Foreman who is a prolific, award-winning children's writer and illustrator who once worked as art director of Playboy.

Looking into it. The poems in this book have a real charm and some sophistication. They speak of the things that concern children, from the minutest details of their lives to the big issues of life and death. And they speak, unwittingly, of life in the early 60s.

Norma Sullivan's poem, One Day I Thought, imagines her as an adult with her destiny defined and contrasts it with all the things she thought she'd be when she grew up - a clown, a model, a star.

"But when it came to choose a job,
I ended up in a biscuit factory."

Today's child would probably have hit on the dead-end finality of a call centre rather than a biscuit factory. Similarly, The Thief of Linkfield Lane draws on daily experiences that would be unfamiliar to a 21st-century child. The thief of the title is 'a tit so blue' spotted by the poet and his Gran through the window of the pantry as it pecks holes in the gold tops of the milk bottles that have been left by the milkman. Quite apart from anything else, I should imagine by now that Gold Top milk has been banned as a health hazzard.

As interesting as the poems themselves is the thought-provoking introduction by Michael Baldwin who made the selection. He ponders such issues as the differences between boys' and girls' poetry and the question of when child poetry becomes adult poetry.

In one particularly fascinating thought he takes contemporary educationalists mildly to task and warns them against assuming that their methods have somehow unlocked a door to allow the children of the 60s unprecedented access to a store of creativity that was denied to their ancestors. He asks whether the Victorian child, for example, was only half developed. 'What we have discovered to have been repressed,' he says, 'has a curiously modern flavour, and the young were not always modern; they were merely contemporary: they were the unselective sponges of all that was superficial to their age.'

Although his concerns are still relevant, his context is definitely that of a bygone era. There is a passing reference, for example, to a literary competition run annually by The Daily Mirror who regularly published a book from the entries called Children as Writers. That one of the poetry judges for several years was Ted Hughes gives an indication of how seriously the newspaper took this initiative. There must have been a shared assumption among the press, drawn from society at large, that 'working class' readers would be interested in such rarefied things as literature and in poetry more challenging than the verses inside a greetings card. Since then, society has apparently ceased to exist and an assumption like that would be seen as commercial suicide.

29 May 2008

Soft-Boiled Crime

Murderer's Maze by John Marsh 1957

This is a lightweight hardback in a dustjacket that is as tatty as the bombed-out plot of post-war Soho that it depicts. I like the cover art, and the guy in the trench coat with the grim expression promises a cracking good yarn.

First thing on a random opening is the line "Who will you say I am? A pick-up from Harridges?" From this I detect that the moral boundaries of the day are going to be tested a little. (A pick-up indeed!) Also, perhaps to avoid giving offence by placing real institutions into the hopefully salacious world of irredeemable sleaze that I am about to encounter, a flimsy disguise has been put onto any place names - in this instance by creating a hybrid of Harrods and Selfridges.

Leaf through: no pictures, about 190 pages and clear enough type that it will probably take only three or four sessions for the average reader to get through. Perfect for airport or bus station.

The front bits tell me that this is a first edition (I doubt there were any more) dating from 1957. The publisher John Gifford produced quite a lot of pulp detective stuff through the 50s and early 60s, including the great Vernon Warren.

Looking into it. Having spent the requisite three or four sessions whizzing through this, I have come to the conclusion that John Marsh is probably a psuedonym used by Enid Blyton when she felt like knocking out a crime novel.

Basically there's a villain who has built a vast underground headquarters beneath a bomb site in Soho where, with the help of some hastily sketched ne'er-do-wells, he plots the robbery of a vising foreign dignitary's jewels. Our hero is a sensible drinker and private eye named Felton who is brought out of a long sulk about the back-story death of his wife when he stumbles upon this case in the process of helping a charming Australian girl clear her dead brother's name after a war-time spying scandal.

There's a romance between the girl and her brother's one-time RAF pal Martin (a simpering foil to the rugged Felton), plenty of hiding in cupboards and overhearing dastardly plans and a bruised hero who strolls off at the end of the book with gratitude ringing in his ears

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is what it says about publishers' gauging of the 1950s crime-reading public. It could be that the audience for the real thing as delivered by Chandler, Hammet or Simenon with his extraordinary psychological insights was considered to be a sophisticated niche. The general readership wanted something that was easier to get a handle on, that was not morally ambiguous and, above all, something that wasn't really 'dirty'.

For a book with the trappings of a hard-boiled detective story, it is incredibly coy - the sort of book that spells 'damn!' 'd--n!'. In fact I'd quite like to know what hideously offensive word has been bleeped in the following quote that occurs during a scrap between a couple of the ne'er-do-wells:

"Put that blade away," someone else shouted, throwing down knife and fork and jumping up.

"It's time someone carved the s____'s heart out!" another man yelled.

17 May 2008

Hats off to Madame Eva

THE A B C OF MILLINERY by Madame Eva Ritcher 1951

This is a smallish hardback in green boards that must once have had a dustjacket and, by the look of the smudged-out number at the base of the spine, was probably in a library of some sort. Madame Eva Ritcher. That's a name to conjure with and I hope the hats in here do her justice.

First thing on a random opening is in the list of illustrations. "Plate 21 Pulling the first piece of sparterie round the block." This is a streetfighting milliner.

Leaf through: There's lots of photos. Some portraits of ladies in hats. They do do Madame Ritcher justice. It's a bit like a Royal Ascot flicker book. There are some how-to photos as well, and a lot of line drawings. There is also a faint purple library stamp on a couple of pages - L.C.C. South East London Technical College.

The front bits
tell me that this was published in 1950, reprinted in 1951 (Festival of Britain year). The portrait photos are by Lenare who was photographer to the toffs of the time. There is an introduction by Elizabeth Bowen.

Looking into it. For novelist Elizabeth Bowen (whose work has been described in her own words as being about those 'who live life with the lid on') there was an 'intense importance' attached to millinery, the art of which was no less than an 'enchanted mystery'.

The book is for the 'laywoman' and the reader whose 'fingers have itched to attempt millinery'. Apparently, Madame Ritcher is adept at making a woman 'hat-conscious'. But Elizabeth Bowen has a warning: 'Hat-consciousness in a vacuum - that is to say, without a good hat to wear - could be a frustrated, unhappy state.' With Madame Ritcher's guidance, that is an agony her readers will be able to avoid.

Apart from some homely advice to work with the best materials you can afford and not to attempt advanced techniques before you have mastered the basics, Madame Ritcher's own voice is strangely absent from this book. I had hoped to find some plummy tones or some withering comments about bad taste, but this is actually a well-organised and thorough how-to book. And it's probably still pretty useful to any hat-makers out there today.