Thursday, 16 March 2023

Pipe dreams

 "I wasn't picking up cigarette butts..." says Andy, in a scene from Series 2 of the ever wonderful 'Detectorists', as he bumps into Dr Tendai, who, shortly beforehand, had interviewed him for an archaeology job in Botswana.  "Clay pipes," he continues, "I saw some bits of clay pipe in the flowerbed..." He holds out his palm to show the chalky white pipe fragments.  "Broken bits of pipe that people used to smoke."

They do look like cigarette butts, but I've found myself just as acutely aware of their existence as Andy is, any time I'm pottering around in my garden.  Only yesterday I wasn't even digging or anything, I just glanced downwards briefly to where the snowdrops have emerged and a piece of clay pipe was just lying there, looking up at me.  Well, not exactly looking up at me, but you know what I mean.  Not buried, not even dirty.  Just lying there in the open, above the soil, as if it had been strategically placed there by someone five minutes beforehand for me to spot.  Who is that phantom pipe layer?!

These are some of the pipe fragments I've found in the same circumstances, all of them in this small, humble garden, all of them brought to the surface naturally - by worms, birds, moles, voles, Wombles, who knows what, but they just appear now and then, unsearched for - and I love it.  

They may only be tiny remnants of the existence of ordinary men in buckskin breeches with tobacco-stained moustaches but they'll do for me - little time travelling morsels from long-gone lives.  I totally get why Andy holds onto them and keeps them in a glass jar - I do the same.

Back to the scene in 'Detectorists'.  "How old are they?" asks Dr Tendai.  "These ones are Victorian.." Andy points to the thinner fragments, "but that one's early 18th, maybe late 17th Century."  "How can you tell?"  Dr Tendai's curiousity is clearly piqued now.  "Older ones are thicker and they had a much smaller bowl because tobacco was so expensive..."

Thick and thin together

I haven't found any sections with the bowl intact yet but now I know, from Andy's explanation and yesterday's find, that I had in my hand a little piece of (thicker) pipe which must once have been puffed on by someone around 400 years ago.  Here's another fragment with some relief decoration at one end still showing too.

I can't help it, I just love how something so small and simple can resurface after hundreds of years and make me feel that myserious connection the way it does.  I hope I'll keep finding cigarette butts bits of clay pipe in my flowerbeds.


I was wondering about some music to accompany this post too.  Well, I could have given you Crackdust, the Botswanian death metal band mentioned by Andy and Lance in this episode - honestly, they're real - but how about an unexpectedly stompy glam version of the Nashville Teens' 'Tobacco Road' instead?  

Albatross: Tobacco Road, 1975

(Although, if you're still curious about Crackdust...)

Crackdust: Mortal Decay

Sunday, 26 February 2023

Reverting to type

Ah, the typewriter!  Like the Mouli Grater and the accordion, the typewriter is one of those random modern day objects whose combination of aesthetic and purpose just gives me a warm, tingly feeling.  I love the way it looks and sounds, I love its symbolism; it’s imbued with personal memories too.  It came to mind the other day when I stumbled across some wonderful old typewriter adverts from Olivetti – but more on those later.

While we're at it, though, feast your eyes on a Mouli Grater and an accordion...


But back to the typewriter.  My mum had a lovely manual one (I think it may have been a Hermes, or was it an Olympia?) from as far back as I can remember.
  It had a hard, grey, curved carrying case, and all the usual features that give this relatively simple machine such character.  The little bell that warns you when you’re getting close to the right hand edge of your page, the long carriage return lever with its smooth, satisfying action, and those marvellous typebars hammering their characters onto the paper like multiple, cascading fingers.

I got to know that typewriter well as a child, not just through the clicking and clacking and tinging of my mum’s activities (she used to offer home typing services to students and academics) but from my own endeavours at making story books.   Learning to replace the ribbon tape properly seemed so sophisticated, and I particularly liked the fancy double one which had both black and red ink options.  Unlike my mum, who magically knew where everything was without looking, I ‘hunted and pecked’ at the letters, my little fingers not always having the strength needed to imprint them hard enough.  Or I’d accidentally press a couple of the keys at the same time, tangling the long typebars at the centre of it all, which I’d then have to delicately prise apart.

I had to learn to touch-type the proper way years later, in the ‘80s, after I applied for a job only to find out at the interview stage that a pending offer depended on that particular ability.  I didn’t even own a typewriter but I really wanted the job so I borrowed one – by this time at least a less clunky electric one – coupled with a Pitman’s Teach Yourself Typing book, set it up on the little table in the kitchen of our rather shabby rented flat and set about learning the magical craft of using all the fingers on both hands correctly.  It’s remarkable really, isn’t it, how your brain develops this automatic ‘muscle memory’, yet if you were to ask me to consciously tell you the full keyboard layout I’d struggle.  Anyway, I managed it, I passed a 40wpm typing test and got the job, and the ability to touch-type at speed has never left me.

 Of course we had no idea that just about everyone, regardless of typing skills or lessons, was going to be using a keyboard pretty frequently in the coming years.  How do you type?  Do you have to look at the letters or have you developed your own perfectly good muscle memory technique without using all your fingers?  And did you ever choose to tap away at a typewriter for a fanzine or other pursuit, long before the days of keyboards and screens?

There’s a part of me that would still quite like to own a vintage manual machine.  I want to hear that bell again and slowly wind the paper onto the platen, then see a few imperfections in the results, a slightly wonky line or a tippexed-over mistake.  And of course that familiar font!  But using it regularly would probably frustrate the hell out of me, never mind bruise my fingers, and it would no doubt end up dusty and neglected in a cupboard - alongside a Mouli grater and an accordion.

Anyway, here are some of those gorgeous graphic adverts for the typewriter by Olivetti, from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.


Then there's this great album cover graphic too:

Billy Bragg: William Bloke

Some random facts about the typewriter:

The original version of a machine that impressed letters onto paper was created in 1575 by an Italian printmaker, Francesco Rampazetto.  But the first to be officially known as a ‘typewriter’ was patented in 1868 by American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes.  By 1873 he had produced 50 of these machines but was unable to sell them; it was only when the gun manufacturer, Remington, bought the rights in 1874 that it started to take off.  The first author to submit a typed manuscript to a publisher was Mark Twain. And the longest word that can be typed using left hand letters only is 'stewardesses' (you never know when that'll come in handy).

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Random access memory - revisited


Reposted in tribute to Tom Verlaine 3/12/49 - 28/1/23

I heard a song the other day - I can't even remember what or where and it was barely in my consciousness - but there was a staccato guitar in it and it prompted a thought.  A fleeting one - one of those that drifts in vaguely and out again quickly, like a faint wisp of smoke.  "That sounds a bit like Marquee Moon" went the thought, and promptly disappeared.

But it came back and this time it brought along a random memory - of late Summer 1977, the weather a bit like now, when I had just turned fourteen.  I was venturing - half of me tentatively, and the other half of me very brazenly -  into a lot of new experiences,  most of which revolved around boys and punk.  I'd only bought one proper grown-up album so far and was saving my pocket money for more 12" vinyl.  What were they, about £2.49, something like that?  I couldn't just go out and buy one, it had to be planned. So the cheapo singles bin in Martins was always worth a look in case I could pick up something for 10p, something I didn't have to scrimp for nor plan, but something I could actually take home the same day and play.

A lot of band names were becoming familiar;  I was latching on to what I thought 'fitted' the punk scene, but often without having first heard the music.  I mean, bands like The Cortinas had the honour of getting their name carefully written on my school science overall in permanent black pen alongside the more obvious ones like Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols et al, even though I hadn't yet heard one track by them (the Cortinas, that is) .  I got it wrong sometimes... like, I thought Dead Fingers Talk must be young, new and very raw just on the name alone... wrote that name on my school satchel too... they weren't, though, were they?  And it was the same with Television.  It was a name which was linked to all this new stuff I was exploring with limited means of doing so, and I imagined that they must be making songs at least as aggressive as White Riot or snarly as Pretty Vacant, whoever/whatever they were.  So when I flicked through the cheapo singles bin in Martins and saw the 7" of 'Marquee Moon', I was quick to hand over my 10p and dead excited at the prospect of hearing it.

I remember walkng home with it feeling really chuffed.  I had to go past the petrol station which was usually a bit nerve-wracking because there were always some young guys working there and I didn't know quite how to strike that balance between feeling horribly shy and yet also wanting their attention.  Just having to walk past was a big deal.  Funny how you remember these odd details but I recall very vividly that this time there was a new petrol attendant there, a tall bloke with acne.  He smiled at me.  Actually he stared.  I think I got more of a look than I really wanted.  I didn't fancy him at all... but I sort of wanted him to fancy me... I smiled back.  Then I immediately regretted it, in case I was giving him the come-on, which I didn't really want to even though my heart was beating fast and oh now I'd never be able to walk past that garage again.  It would make it really difficult going into town because that was the main route,  I'd have to take that funny detour down the other side of the hill.... oh what was I thinking.....   Ha, they were confusing times, those early teens.

Anyway, I got home, unwrapped my new purchase and put it on the turntable on the family stereogram.  I was so excited.. hopeful for some thrashing chords, some fierce drumming, hadn't a clue what a song called Marquee Moon might be about, but I'd heard of The Marquee...

Erm, it wasn't what I expected at all.  It was weird.  And the B-side was more of the same!

So, I had to work really hard to convince myself that I could, perhaps, sort of, like it.  Or I could at least grow to like it... one day... maybe.  I played it again.  My sister came downstairs and said she thought it sounded a bit like Yes.  I didn't know what Yes were like but that didn't seem to me to be a good thing.

Well, I kept the single anyway, in my little cardboard box and it stayed there.  I did grow to really like it in the end, although I have to admit, it took time.  And even now I can't be sure, I wonder if I like it especially because I just can't separate it from that time, that feeling, that age and stage in life, the mood it evokes... the memories.  These things are so inextricably linked.

I also got brave and walked past the petrol station again, continuing my ambivalent flirtation with a boy I didn't fancy one bit.  I never grew to like him, although even then there was this naive teenage thought process which went along similar lines to my feelings about the record... like, maybe I would if I really tried... should I just keep playing him again in case....?!

Update 29/1/23... I've appreciated more and more in the interim years just how unique, good and influential Tom Verlaine and Television were.  RIP Tom.

Friday, 13 January 2023

Moving away from the pulsebeat

I’m so sorry that I haven’t been very present on the blogs lately.  2023 hasn’t started out as well as I had hoped as I’ve not been quite right for a little while; I appear to have a flock of sparrows cheeping away inside my head.  (This should surely inspire a surreal piece of artwork some day, I can picture it now…)  They’ve been there for at least a couple of weeks – cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep, incessantly throughout all my conscious hours, and waking me up particularly loudly at dawn, but at least they cheep very neatly in time with my heartbeat.  Normally I love the sound of sparrows, but this – nah.

Anyway, it’s under investigation now and hopefully all will be resolved soon.  I’m carrying on as normal but it’s just making life a bit more tiring and I have to work quite hard not to get down and anxious about it too.  It’s always the way, isn’t it, when you worry of course it just risks making things worse - I should probably switch to a life of hedonism and start drinking and taking drugs but, well, the expense…    Anyway, anything that distracts from and drowns out this pulsing sound is fantastic; I recommend standing by the washing machine on spin cycle but, of course, music is the best thing.

So I couldn’t help thinking of a favourite track from one of the first albums I purchased with my pocket money.  I was going to put some words together about it now but then I remembered that some years ago I’d mentioned it in another post and what I wrote then still just sums it up for me:

The outer sleeve of the fourth (or was it fifth?) album I ever bought was the thickest and stiffest I'd seen.  The card was really sort of heavy, and had a wider than normal spine.  There was a particular texture to it that made it feel different too; perhaps because of its matt silver finish.

I bought it some time in 1978, can't recall exactly when, but I remember playing it a lot and for some reason I have a specific memory of putting it on just before heading out to a party. I was kneeling in front of our ancient portable electric heater, a cumbersome thing, which fizzed and popped and clicked in a rather ominous way while emitting an intense heat the smell of burnt dust, but it was the best way to dry my hair. I simply knelt in front of it with my head bent forward so that my hair hung upside down and then when I looked up again, it had dried at right angles to my scalp. A light application of egg-white then set it into spikes.  I was doing all this while listening to the two-minute genius of Love Battery and I Don't Mind, etc.

I loved every track on that silver-sleeved album, but Moving Away From The Pulsebeat was probably the biggest surprise to me on first hearing and seemed like a grand finale.

 Buzzcocks: Moving Away From The Pulsebeat from 'Another Music In A Different Kitchen'

Hope to be in more normal mode soon!

Saturday, 24 December 2022

Creepy compliments of the season!

 Ah, it's that time again, and it just wouldn't be the same here without some bizarre and creepy (or really rather wonderful, depending on your viewpoint!) seasonal Victorian art to usher in the festive season:

Wishing you all a warm and peaceful Christmas time whatever you do and thank you, as always, for being there x

Sunday, 18 December 2022

Abstract moment of the week #13

Oh dear. I have a conundrum and I just don’t know where to turn for the answer.  I’ve tried so many possibilities over and over in my brain, but to no avail.  And you know how it is sometimes, these things play on your mind, they won’t go away, they keep nagging at you and you feel as if you can’t settle until you can get to the solution.  But I just can’t crack it.  So here I am, wondering if there’s any chance that someone reading this blog may be able to help.






Here’s the conundrum:  What on earth is the question in common with all the above that made 100 people when surveyed give them as answers as the first thing they thought of?! (And in order of popularity.)

I guess that’s what happens when you’re channel-surfing on TV and come across the last few seconds of a round in an archive episode of Family Fortunes.  Never mind the floral dresses that look like they’re made from care home curtains, nor the fluffy perms, oversized suits and impersonations of Mavis from Corrie…. even those weren’t enough to distract from the conundrum in front of me: a complete set of answers but no clue about the question.  Any ideas?  I mean, clothes and jam?  What could possibly connect them? And chips?

Friday, 2 December 2022

"Excuse me - do you sell records here?"

 By way of light relief as these dismal Winter days close in on us I’d like to take you to a time and place – a very specific time and place.  It's 1987 and it’s an independent record shop - sound good?  Maybe you’re imagining a rather poky but inviting establishment in a creaky old building - dimly lit with its walls papered in cool, eye-catching posters, a slight, oddly alluring smell of damp emanating from its alcoves, and every available space filled with racks of promising vinyl delights through which you could rummage for hours…

I’m so sorry to disappoint you.  Those were the kind of record shops I’d like to visit but the one I actually worked in during the mid-'80s was somewhat different.  Imagine instead a fairly open area, I suppose it would be called a ‘retail unit’, on the first floor of a busy modern shopping centre.  Harshly lit and with its high walls painted bright green, it was sited next to the pedestrian entrance of a multi-storey car park and right opposite the public toilets.  Ooh, a prime location!  But, for all the less than joyous aspects of working there, it was for the most part an interesting, quite enviable job and the staff were great.  We were great to each other and we were great to all the lovely, enthusiastic, friendly, genuine customers with their hunger for Creation label singles and obscure reissues, etc., who thankfully outnumbered a fair few rude and difficult arseholes we also had to serve (or occasionally kick out).  It was hard to be great to them.  But what none of them, not the nice ones nor the nasty ones, ever knew, was that we also kept notes of some of the items our customers asked for. 

Honestly, you need some little amusing highlights when you’ve been on your feet all day in a petrol-infused draught handing over copies of the latest Phil Collins album to a seemingly endless queue on a busy Saturday, so please forgive us.  Really, we weren’t being scornful or sniggering or unkind. We just… well…we just needed a few quiet laughs away from the demands at the counter. (I'm sure this goes on in more shops than we'd care to imagine.)  So we started keeping a list of the most delightful requests, a list that ended up running into several pages.  The thing with these requests was that they weren’t quite right – they were the misheard song titles, confused artist names, wrongly remembered albums (amid other enquiries about TDK chromosome tapes and replacements for faulty "kinky" records.)   As I always loved drawing it was just impossible to resist putting together a few visuals too so, a short while before I left my job there back in 1987, I picked out some of my favourites and compiled them into an A5 booklet with some silly little accompanying illustrations, and named it, ‘Excuse Me – Do You Sell Records Here?’  Incredibly, that had been a genuine question too.

35 years later and, amazingly, I’ve still got the booklet. So, if you'd like to, please travel back with me to the mid-1980s and take up your position as a sales assistant in that record shop, and see what you would make of some of these requests.  Here are some of those depictions with only the mistaken titles/names a customer actually used when asking for them.  Please feel free to suggest what they should be  - they're hopefully not too hard!

Saturday, 26 November 2022


On the very last evening of a wonderful bloggers’ mini-meet in Edinburgh, sitting across the table from me in a pub in Rose Street that warm June night, our lovely pal The Swede unexpectedly passed me a large envelope.

What a sweet surprise!  Inside were a couple of things that he thought would interest me and he was, of course, quite right.  As a lover of art, illustration and unusual historical/cultural artefacts, I was fascinated by the mysterious little book I pulled out from the brown paper package:  ’JOY-TIME’ ! (I can’t help thinking it sounds a bit like the title of a seventies soft porn mag, the sort you’d find, as a curious adolescent, stuffed into a bin in a park during the school holidays and be somewhat horrified but equally intrigued by.  But enough of my memories.)

When I look at long-forgotten and probably, at the time, quite throwaway items like this, aimed at a very young audience, it sets off a whole host of questions.  I’m thinking it must be from the early 1960s – but what would a child think of it now?  Would they be able to make sense of these pictures easily?  The art style (with no artist credit) is really striking, with its limited inks and flat colour overlays.  Each open spread alternates between pages of orange and green only, and blue and red only, with the effect of creating one darker tone where needed from the two colours printed on top of each other.  It looks simple, but having done a bit of screen-printing in the past, I know it takes a fair bit of working out and planning.  There’s a lot of clever use of white ('negative') space too.

The illustrations might even seem a little scary, a little stark, to a child of today.  We mostly flood our books now with bright, warm colours and cuteness, not red shadows and blue hair.  And, you know what, I’m reminded (a little) of this style of tone-reduced / screenprinted artwork too, who’d have thought it?!…

… as well as a certain controversial Seditionaries ‘Cowboys’ design T-shirt which I won’t reproduce here.

But away from such adult themes and back to JOY-TIME.  What about the words?  Some of the phrases really bring home the way language has inevitably changed.

This is probably my favourite page below.  Not just because I’m a fan of ‘Birdies’ but it’s the very graphic use of those two ink colours and the areas of blank paper that I especially like here.  Notice the bird swooping top left and the one in the middle at the bottom – just formed from negative space, a difficult technique to pull off.  The blue shadow shapes too give just the right gravity.  And the way the outline of the girl’s legs are red on one side, blue on the other, which we instinctively know to translate as light and dark.   Sorry, but I get a bit of a kick from noticing this stuff - thinking about the way the artist’s brain works and trying to help mine!

Of course these pages were never intended to be critiqued sixty-odd years on from their creation.  They were just made to delight, to soothe, educate and gently stir the imagination of babies and toddlers, born, as I was, into a world where there were no CBeebies or Kindle Kids.  I very much hope that the baby Swede enjoyed it then too as much as I do now - even if for very different reasons... (And many thanks again.)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...