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.