Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Byrrh apéritif

It’s made by slinging copious quantities of tree bark extract (quinine) and part-fermented grape juice (mistelle) into enormous vats of sweet Muscat wine. Like many products designed to inebriate it was often marketed for its alleged health benefits. For many years Byrrh was one of France’s most ubiquitously promoted brands. The product name was hand-painted on gable ends at the entrance to a thousand small towns and villages all over La France profonde. Alcohol related paraphernalia took the name into bars and restaurants and the premium priced back page of L’Illustration magazine carried their advertising. The examples here commend it for both romance and family life. At its peak in the interwar years, it has steadily fallen out of favour although it remains in production at the distillery in Thuir. Since 1977 it has been owned by Pernod-Ricard who make only token efforts to publicise it. The photo of the hand-lettered sign on a chimney breast was taken in Vannes.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Tarantula Man – baby-faced assassin

Tory ministers are falling over themselves to demonstrate their complete disregard for the civilities of political discourse. Yesterday it was Brexit Bulldog revealing that the papers he fought so hard to keep secret never existed. Overnight we heard from Spreadsheet Phil that the disabled were responsible for Britain’s dismal productivity. And now Tarantula Man, who a month ago engineered his own promotion to Minister of Defence, is calling for all British former Isis fighters to be hunted down and killed. Thereby descending to the same level as Isis – ordering summary execution of his enemies without legal process. Mr Williamson may look like a mortuary technician or a double-entry bookkeeper but he’s not a man to be messed with – he keeps a tarantula as a pet and if pressed, could tear the wings off a butterfly. It would be pointless to remind him that after 6 years of total war, the victorious allies detained and investigated prominent Nazis and wherever possible brought them before a War Crimes Tribunal. Futile because today’s Conservatives are right-wing extremists for whom the rule of law is just another obstacle to be bypassed. With this wretched form of words - “A dead terrorist can't cause any harm to Britain.” – he seeks to insulate himself from all criticism by implying that any who question him are guilty of wishing their country harm. A cynical explanation of his conduct (and this is a man who reportedly takes pride in his reputation as a cynic) would be that he is fully aware his plan would intensify Islamist grievances and inspire more terrorist attacks on civilian targets. Which in turn would raise the level of public fear to exploit for political advantage and pave the way for ever more authoritarian measures. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg, “He’s a thoroughly good egg.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Marxism in Mosaics

Totalitarian regimes always have resources available for large scale public art as a way to reinforce the state ideology. These mosaics adorn the Haus des Lehrers (Teachers’ Building) at Alexanderplatz in what was then East Berlin and wrap the building in suitably uplifting educational messages. It was one of the DDR’s first modernist tower blocks and housed a large library of books on education and conference and meeting facilities for educators. Walter Womacka (1925-2010) designed the scheme, known as Unser Leben (Our Life ) to focus the public mind on the technological and economic achievements of Socialism and the one true path to world peace. Womacka was a regime favourite and had risen through the world of art education to become Rector of the Künsthochschule Berlin-Weissensee (DDR State Art College) from 1968-88. As Vice President of the VBK (compulsory state register of artists) it was his job to identify and expel the ideologically unreliable. He was rewarded with a series of major state commissions for giant murals on public buildings. State approved overseas travel was another regime perk – on a visit to Syria he was invited to paint a portrait of President Hafez al-Assad, father of the present incumbent, Bashar - ophthalmologist and mass-murderer.

The visual language was an embalmed version of the Mexican Muralists with their impeccable revolutionary credentials combined with Socialist Realism, by tradition and practice, an idiom from which all visual excitement was excluded. A gowned and masked surgeon poses in the operating theatre while satellite dishes and communication towers beam down a message of hope. Then a white coated chemist holds up a flask containing the distilled essence of Marxist-Leninist thought. To his right, an astronomer of Asian origin stands in front of a vast radio-telescope while a rocket is launched bearing fraternal greetings to the farthest reaches of space. Elsewhere doves of peace are released into the heavens to melt the stony hearts of the capitalist West. Contented proletarians enjoy the blessings of state-controlled consumption, proudly observing their dutiful offspring acquiring the scientific skills that will take the nation forward into its glorious future. Among all these uplifting messages, it’s difficult to select just one but the constant repetition of the language of pacifism is perhaps the most egregious element. Some guilty pleasures catch the eye – tilting planes and surfaces locking compositional elements, period mid-century infographics and the occasional echoes of Leger, another who never lost his faith in Marxism.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Postcard of the Night No. 12 – Barbary Coast by Night, San Francisco

Barbary Coast was the red light district of San Francisco. It sprang into existence in 1849 with the California Gold Rush and for 60 years or more its nightclubs and brothels, bars and gambling dens catered to the needs of an itinerant population of workingmen in search of distraction. Our postcard from the first decade of the 20th. century shows a pilgrimage of lost souls, their haunted faces turned toward the camera – an unwanted intrusion into the pursuit of pleasure. Some furtive, some remorseful and some defiant, they shuffle through the gloom to be separated from their hard-earned dollar bills in return for copious quantities of intoxicants and sexual favours. The agencies of law and order had minimal traction in the district and organised criminal gangs threatened the security of the entire city. Conflict raged with regular arson assaults on the city leading to vigilante justice and public lynchings. It couldn’t last forever – the 1906 earthquake provided the opportunity to rebuild and gentrify the district. The guardians of public morals kept up the pressure on the civic authorities and a few years later a new hostility emerged with a ban on dancing and illuminated signs, restrictions on the sale of alcohol and the expulsion of brothels.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Jolly Coppers on Parade

Until recently it was a British thing to sentimentalise our police force and shower them with uncritical affection. Their legendary courtesy, willingness to redirect those who lost their way and their anachronistic uniforms made them seem less threatening than their swaggering overseas counterparts in paramilitary dress equipped with firearms, tear gas and water cannon. In recent decades the police have had to adapt to rising levels of crime and social disorder and now project a much less comforting presence on our streets, clad in battle-dress with Tasers, bodycams and automatic weapons at the ready. In reality the cosy world conjured up in these postcards never really existed and many aspects of police work were carried out in a summary fashion with little regard for the finer points of justice. The days when police cars came fitted with warning bells and minor offences could be dealt with by means of a sharp smack to the head are never going to return.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Past and Present No. 11: Berlin Elektrische Hochbahn

The waterway is the Landwehrkanal and the lower bridge carries rail traffic to and from the Anhalter Bahnhof some 400 metres to the left. The higher bridge carries the Hochbahn (now U-Bahn 1) between the stations of Gleisdreieck and Möckernbrücke. The vintage postcard shows a distant pitched roof building with an arch. These were the offices of the Berlin Railway Administration and the Hochbahn was routed directly through the archway. The contemporary buildings on the same site are occupied by today’s equivalent – the BVG. On the left of the old card are the offices of the Anhalter Goods Station – this is now the site of the Deutsches Technikmuseum, distinguished by the plane that rests on top of it. The U-Bahn bridge has been stripped of its decorative elements and the Anhalter rail bridge has been replaced by a modern approximation reduced to the status of a footbridge. To see a post from 2011 about the Anhalter Bahnhof, please follow this link.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Gelsenkirchen 1914

Abraham Auty, the writer of these postcards, arrived in Gelsenkirchen from Yorkshire only 2 days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo – in just over a month Germany would be enemy territory. His first postcard, addressed to his son in Wakefield was written and postmarked June 30th. 1914. Assuming he is the Abraham Auty whose birth in 1860 was registered in the West Yorkshire village of Emley, he would have been 54 years old at the time he was dispatched by his employer to the Ruhrgebiet to demonstrate an automatic coal cutting machine to prospective customers. In the 1911 census Auty was described as a coal miner resident in Morley, Yorkshire. To have been entrusted with this task suggests he was well regarded by his employer. It represents one small episode in the immensely important trading relationship between Britain and Germany that in the previous decade had developed to the point where each nation was the other’s major trading partner. Britain at that time still retained a formidable manufacturing capacity but it had been comfortably overtaken by that of Germany – the difference, just as today, was made up by financial services where London held the advantage.

On the first postcard of a colliery in Gelsenkirchen, Abraham assures his family of his safe arrival, explains that there are 27 collieries in the town, and says he expects to stay between 2 and 3 weeks. The following Saturday Abraham writes home again, spreading his pencilled message across a handful of postcards consigned to the mail in an envelope. He is missing the comforts of home and the absence of tea occupies his mind (“But, But, But, No Tea, Tea, Tea”). On Sunday he observes the local population at leisure with a disapproving eye. “Sunday I am sorry to say is a day of amusements – acrobats, wrestling, racing and parade(s). Church and state militarism all round.” Abraham places a high value on religious observance and writes, “Last Sunday I went to Protestant and Catholic (worship), singing Latin hymns and Litany. Burning incense till we could not breath.” He finds the hot and thundery weather unsettling and even the familiar presence of the Salvation Army brings no comfort – “They are as bad as the rest for talk – you cannot tell what they say any more than interpreting thunder.”

When he gets to work, Abraham sends a full account to his family as follows. “I have cut for the first time today. We are at an inclination of 25 degrees. Machine would shatter to face bottom if not prevented by timber, etc. Our difficulty here was getting oil to the crank pin. I think we have overcome it as I have cut 20 metres German (over 20 yards English) without oiling machine. So if it cuts downhill and keeps its oil we are then very likely to sell 4 machines to go to Silesia, 400 miles away from here.” With the Great War about to break out we can safely assume the Silesia deal never came to pass. Abraham’s impressions of life in Germany are never less than fascinating and expressed in lively prose tinged with humour. As paterfamilias and a man of strong religious principles he remained concerned that his absence from home might lead to backsliding on the part of his offspring – witness the scribbled instruction on the face of a postcard “Eliz. H. Auty go to Chapel in Market St. Sunday”.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Futile Activities – the incomplete jigsaw

Assembling these incomplete jigsaws called for some exhaustive mental effort. The individual pieces were found scattered through a box of miscellaneous clutter – there were no pictures. Each piece was double-sided and progress was very slow until it dawned on me that there were two different double-sided jigsaws that were not easily separated. In the knowledge that the rewards of this task would never measure up to the effort involved I pressed on and these fragmentary assemblages are the results. Not every jigsaw in my possession is incomplete as the latter images show although even here a sharp eye will detect the occasional lacuna. And for every one of these I must have acquired at least four that were nowhere near complete.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Fats Domino (1928-2017)

There’s always been a special place in my affections for Fats Domino whose music never fails to lift the spirits. It’s especially sad that his death has been announced today – tonight’s movie will be “The Girl Can’t Help It”. In my early teenage years the price of an LP was well outside my spending power but an EP (Extended Play) with 4 tracks playable at 45 rpm was just about affordable. The first EP I ever bought, some 50 years ago, was Be My Guest by Fats Domino.  This was my introduction to New Orleans Rhythm ‘n’ Blues and a voyage of discovery that would lead to Professor Longhair, Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, Ernie K-Doe, Chris Kenner, the Meters, the Showmen and Dr John over the next few years.  The Domino method of dancing your blues away was an unusual strategy to find favour with one whose dancing days gave rise to rather more mirth than admiration. Two qualities stand out. First, the irresistible rhythms unique to New Orleans and second, the joyous sound of massed horns, for which credit must go to the arranger, Dave Bartholomew (who will celebrate his 99th. birthday on Christmas Eve). Both features became essential parts of the musical vocabulary of Jamaican Ska. Domino was raised in the Roman Catholic church and thus was never exposed to the visceral power of the gospel traditions.  Musicologists argue that African musical traditions survived more strongly in Southern Louisiana than anywhere else in America.  The rhythms and vocal styles were closer to African originals than elsewhere.

The process whereby African-American music was neutralised and cleansed for a white audience was described to perfection by Chip Taylor in his 1971 recording, (I Want) The Real Thing. The UK music business was very active in this process churning out a succession of records in which the passion and spirit of the original recording was systematically eliminated by a mediocre and enfeebled performer.  Domino’s recordings escaped this treatment for the simple reason that their appeal depended entirely upon a quality of delivery and personality that could not be replicated. It was impossible to dilute something so intense and be left with anything remotely worth listening to.  The few attempts to cover Domino hits in the UK sank without trace. In the US there’s a role of infamy headed by Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and Teresa Brewer all of whom profited from hi-jacking Domino material and draining it of vitality.

In New Orleans there was no place for the dark and down-home, hard times, lyin’, cheatin’ and dyin’ crapshootin’ blues from the Delta.  There was no great audience for the smooth toned supper club and coffee lounge blues styling of the likes of Nat King Cole.  There was a positive, optimistic, up-beat and life-affirming defiance in the air that found expression in a refusal to submit to the iniquity of racial segregation and a denial of the subservience that the white establishment attempted to impose.

Rick Coleman’s biography, Blue Monday, is a fascinating account of the way that Domino’s concerts in the 1950s became the focus of a long sequence of riots and civil disturbance.  There was nothing in Domino’s performances to incite the crowds other than the music. The principle provocation came from the police whose heavy handed attempts to enforce racial segregation were calculated to incite resistance.  Alcohol fuelled aggression and inter-racial conflict also played a part. The irony of this is that the Domino songbook was exclusively dedicated to good-time music with not a trace of insurrection or subversion.

Domino became one of the great survivors of his generation of R & B performers.  Despite the excessive consumption of alcohol and an addiction to gambling Fats continued at the top of his game while his band members and close associates perished in their numbers from drug and alcohol related illnesses.  His touring days ended in 1995 enabling him to retire his infamous hot-plate and cooking pot in which he brewed up decades worth of pigs’ feet in creole sauce with which to feed himself and his band. Famously he survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005 at the age of 77 when a rescue boat plucked him and his family from the second floor of his home in the Lower Ninth Ward.  He went on to perform at Tipitina’s in New Orleans in May 2007.  He retained a reputation for geniality and modesty despite occasional episodes of seriously grumpy behaviour, marital infidelities and a chronic failure to turn up for scheduled appearances.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Children of the Fatherland

It would seem that growing up in the Weimar Republic was an unusually hazardous experience – danger lurked around every corner and only the most alert and agile escaped unscathed. These trade cards were issued by the makers of Echte-Wagner margarine with the worthy object of raising awareness of the perils of childhood. Multiple threats to life and limb are described here – a world of icy streets with out-of-control horses and a place where a juvenile kite-flyer is electrocuted. Equally improbably a small boy exits a train at speed when the carriage door spontaneously swings open – the consternation of the bourgeois gent with his newspaper is balanced by the indifference of his wife. For the illustrator involved it was not their finest hour – unconvincing clumsily drawn figures frozen in immobility. Nowhere more apparent than the spine-chilling tableau of target-shooting gone badly wrong. A dart has missed its mark and struck a hapless bystander in the eye – her inscrutable assailant makes no effort to help while his companion prepares to shoot as if nothing has happened. Somehow the ineptitude of the artist has inadvertently intensified the horror of the event we are witnessing.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Great Railway Stations Number 12: Tokyo

In 1880 the 26 year old Tatsuno Kingo was working as a student in the architectural practice of William Burges, master of the Gothic Revival. Returning to Japan after Burges’s death in 1881, he established himself as an educationalist and architect in the Western style. Banks and institutions formed the majority of his clients. Later he was appointed architect of Tokyo Station on which work began in 1908. Completion was in 1914 – it opened for business on December 20th. The original 4 platforms have expanded to more than 20 today. A three-storey extended red brick façade with two ribbed domes was designed to impress. A massive steel frame enabled the building to survive earthquake damage in 1923 but US bombing in 1945 greatly diminished it – post-war repairs saw the station reduced to two-storeys while the ruined domes were replaced by simplified angular structures as shown in the last two cards below. A threatened demolition was resisted by the public and a five-year renovation completed in 2012 restored the station to its 1914 splendour. With the singular difference that the present building must compete for attention with the enormous office blocks that tower over it.