Monday, 21 August 2017

The Banks are Made of Marble


The tenth anniversary of the first signs of the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08 is being marked, rather than celebrated, by much media commentary – platitudinous hindsight for the most part. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Messrs. Osborne, Cameron and Clegg (aided and abetted by a supine opposition) we now know that that the world economy crashed due to the incompetence of Gordon Brown and the profligacy of the Labour government’s reckless public spending. Anyway, enough of fake narratives – we pay homage here to the spiritual home of casino banking, the USA. Birthplace of the Collateralised Debt Obligation, Credit Default Swaps and the Subprime Mortgage. After 30 years of assiduous creation of their legendary status as brutal and callous deal-makers, the banking community had finally over-reached.


The Los Angeles bank vault is a tribute in gleaming metal to the efforts of the rich to defend their property and the corresponding efforts of the criminal class to get their hands on them without the inconvenience of earning them. All cool reflective surfaces and empty spaces. Most of these cards pre-date the crash of 1929 and include some small town retail banks of the type that failed in the thousands as well as large faceless operations concealed within skyscraper towers and lesser buildings of varying degrees of architectural pomposity.


A New York State farmer named Les Rice wrote the song, The Banks are made of Marble in the late 1940s and Pete Seeger, who was a near neighbour and acquaintance, included it in his repertoire for the rest of his career. In the 2012 clip below, Pete’s accompanied by the Rivertown Kids, a notorious bunch of brain-washed, alt-left, merchants of hate. Watch and shudder. The most stirring version is the one performed by Leo Kottke and Iris DeMent on Prairie Home Companion. Sadly, only the corpse remains visible on YouTube.











Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Santa Fe Railroad Advertising


The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (routinely shortened to Santa Fe) was one of the three major railroads operating trans-continental passenger routes across the USA. The others were Union Pacific (Road of the Streamliners) and the Burlington Route (Vista-Domes and Zephyrs). The Santa Fe comfortably outperformed its competitors in terms of publicity – consistently more imaginative and eye-catching. Santa Fe played up its connection with the Native American traditions over whose lands its tracks passed. And when it came to named trains Santa Fe had by far the most extensive portfolio – including the Super Chief, El Capitan, California Ltd, the Grand Canyon, and San Francisco Chief. While the competition offered Domeliners, Astra Domes and Vista-Domes, Santa Fe tempted travellers with the louche delights of Pleasure Domes. The on-board catering was supplied by the Famous Fred Harvey and ranged from “beefsteak or brook trout to pheasant à la Périgueux”. From 1937 Santa Fe painted its fleet of streamline diesel locomotives in what became known as Warbonnet livery, as seen above. A Native American Circle and Cross motif was displayed on the loco front together with the name of the railroad on a bright yellow ground, itself surrounded by a bright red wrap that extended on to the loco sides in the form of a bonnet. A designer at General Motors (Leland A Knickerbocker) came up with the concept and it was eagerly adopted to great effect by Santa Fe. Competing railroads had trains that were every bit as visually spectacular as Santa Fe’s but their stodgy advertising and publicity was no match for Santa Fe’s bold and colourful offerings. An earlier post featuring Santa Fe advertising can be seen here.







Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Helgoland – Heligoland in Vintage Postcards


The small North Sea archipelago of Helgoland is a place of great fascination – it is remote, historically contested and serially despoiled. Forty miles from the German port of Cuxhaven, it has been successively Danish, British and German. The indigenous population is Frisian by language and tradition and for centuries subsisted on its local herring fishery while outsiders squabbled endlessly over its ownership.


Since these postcards were published in the early 1900s the islanders have twice been evacuated (1914 and 1945) while the topography has been irreversibly transformed by militarisation in two world wars and finally barely survived a series of RAF post-war bombing raids culminating in April 1947 when British bombs only just failed to utterly destroy the islands. Their role as a theatre for Anglo-German conflict is explored in Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea by the German academic, Jan Rüger and reviewed by Neal Ascherson in the current London Review of Books (17 August 2017).


Prior to 1714 when Denmark took possession, the island had switched control between the Danes and the Duchy of Schleswig. Danish rule ended in 1807 (formalised in 1814) when Britain swagged it for its strategic value. During the 19th. century the island developed as an upper-class spa-resort attracting visitors from all over Europe, especially Germany and England. In the era of German unification and nationalism, a view formed that the bracing climate, rugged geography and sturdy self-sufficiency of the islanders represented the essential Germanic virtues and a political campaign for the islands to be part of Germany floated on this wave of popular sentiment.


In the same casual manner that the British would separate territories by the action of drawing a line across a map of the Arabian desert it was decided there was no great advantage in retaining Heligoland and it was agreed to swap it for the German interest in the East African archipelago of Zanzibar. After Germany took charge in 1890 the tourist industry continued to flourish alongside a massive programme of public works designed to transform the island into a defensive structure for the protection of the German Bight and the Kiel Canal. This is the period during which these postcards were produced – they show nothing of the militarisation that was taking place. Instead they show some modest vernacular buildings, fishing boats drawn up on the beach, a church spire and lighthouse and an electric lift connecting the ‘high town’ with the ‘low town’. By the time that British bombing had rendered the island uninhabitable in April 1945, it’s safe to say that not a single one of these buildings would still be standing.




Wednesday, 2 August 2017

What will they think of next? – a Guinness brochure


Here’s a phrase that perfectly encapsulates the exasperation of English conservatism with the onward march of progress. The 16 page illustrated booklet reproduced here was produced in 1954 by Guinness for distribution to the medical profession. Food rationing had finally ended and post-war reconstruction was being followed by ambitious slum clearance projects - the age of the tower block was at hand. Britain’s future was invested in nuclear energy and jet powered flight. Unfortunately this was the year that two Comet airliners crashed into the Mediterranean and with them went Britain’s hopes of becoming a world power in aviation. Easy access to credit in the form of Hire Purchase Agreements helped to boost a sense of prosperity but the age of austerity was giving way to an age of anxiety. The English appetite for verbal and visual whimsy was well catered to in this publication with the addition of a strong flavour of resentment at technological change and a comforting surrender to nostalgia. An unknown scribe at S H Benson (the Guinness advertising agency) wrote the verses and neatly parodied the English instinct to reject innovation in any shape or form – often before adopting it with disproportionate enthusiasm. The illustrations were the work of Antony Groves-Raines – a master of visual charm with a talent for combining his own magic realism and crisp contours with a jaunty amiability certain to please.