Reading List

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Postcard from Brussels

Agnès Varda and some potatoes

A couple of weeks ago, I went to an exhibition by the artist and filmmaker Agnès Varda in Brussels. Among her many films, Varda created the extraordinary documentary The Gleaners and I. The film - released in 2000 - explores the lives of those who gather (or 'glean') things which others leave behind: grapes left by winemakers to rot on the vine, potatoes still in the fields after the harvest, food unsold at the end of a market.

As well as looking to parts of society that are rarely given respect by popular media, and her instinct for taking seriously the importance of material circumstances, I find Varda's work really inspiring because so many of her working processes are improvised.

For example, according to Kelley Conway's excellent book on Varda, Varda's decision to base her 1985 film Vagabond on the experiences of a young woman rather than a man came as a result of a chance encounter with a female drifter while on the road. Varda became friends with the woman, Setine Arhab, who went on to stay with Varda in Paris and have a cameo in the film. Likewise, Conway shows how The Gleaners and I changed significantly from the film Varda set out to produce.

This improvised or instinctive feel to her work helps give it a sense of adventure. It seems to allow Varda the space to not just spot the intriguing, but to follow it, and even nurture it in a way that encourages the viewer to follow where their own curiosity takes them. On watching one of her films, I get a sense of wanting to go somewhere, anywhere, to find something new to look at or to talk to someone I don't know - even if this is just the end of my street.

The exhibition in Brussels included extracts from Varda's films, as well as art installations relating to her childhood in Ixelles, the district of Brussels hosting the exhibition.

Varda recreates a pond from a local park which she recalls from childhood

The pond as it is today

In a piece entitled La paravent de mémoire - À ma mére, Varda arranges ephemera relating to her late mother on a folding wooden screen: postcards of Brussels, a half-completed jigsaw puzzle, an interrupted game of patience. On the exhibition's audioguide, Varda explains the screen involves both displaying and hiding: another clue perhaps as to how she is able to let the curious hang still in her films.

La paravent de mémoire - À ma mére

With Varda lodged in my head for my three days in Brussels, I inevitably found myself looking for moments of enchantment, of which Brussels has a ready supply.

Of course - and especially of late in the city - what one finds intriguing can be alarming as much as it can prompt illumination; it can provoke fear and tension as well as hope or amusement.

Friday, 18 September 2015

As archives thaw

"It's a shame not to have more photos around the house. I guess we didn't see the point of taking pictures of ourselves... It's a shame."

I went to the cinema at the Barbican Centre recently to see '45 Years', a new film by director Andrew Haigh.

Before going in, I visited the giftshop and bought a postcard of the Barbican Centre itself. I'm especially interested at the moment in how cultural institutions present themselves, for example which images end up on their own postcards. I'll blog on this at some point.

From 'Barbican Collages' by artist Margaux Soland

The sister film to Haigh's excellent 'Weekend', '45 Years' explores the long marriage of Kate and Geoff Mercer.

Played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, the couple must react to the discovery of the body of Katya, Geoff's former partner. Katya died trekking on a mountain in Switzerland before Geoff met Kate; her body is found after the glacier into which she fell begins to thaw.

Perhaps a theme of the film, Katya's body is one of several material objects from the past - or at least things for a long time out of view - which push the characters in different directions, at times spinning them deep into crisis. These objects include, as it happens, a scrapbook of old postcards. (Of course! ;))

On the train home, no doubt wrapped up in the research I'm undertaking on how museums process objects, I was struck by the potential for 'archived' material to unsettle us.

This seems especially relevant today, given the extent to which archives of all sorts are being opened up: from the digitisation of cultural artefacts, to the leaks of records and emails that individuals would prefer to keep private (wikileaks, Hillary Clinton's personal email account, Ashley Madison...).

One might hope being forced to confront the past necessitates useful reflection, but I suspect this hope stems from our habit (or at least my habit) of searching for means of progress, or even from hard-to-shift ideas of redemption. In Kate and Geoff's case, the uncertainty of how to process the news from Switzerland creates a terrifying situation: their lives could go any which way.

More of the Barbican postcards can be found on Margaux Soland's beautiful website

Saturday, 8 August 2015

A lively unicorn

Ah, the dead cat.  The choice spin tactic of 2015.

It is with regret I bring up the general election. For those still in need of counselling, help can be found here.

For anyone lucky enough not to be around the UK this year, the 'dead cat' was a new low in electioneering. When someone is losing an argument, becoming uncomfortable at their opponent's momentum, they now throw into the public debate an event known as a 'dead cat'. The dead cat may be horrible to look at, grotesque even. It may incite anger, or disgust. But that doesn't matter. For the person hurling it into view, it is simply better people talk about the cat than whatever they were discussing previously.*

This week, I came across an alternative to the dead cat...

...the lively unicorn.

A couple of years ago an elderly relative gave us use of his car, an old-but-immaculate Ford Focus. It has sat on our road in Peckham ever since - and for most of this time, it has sat idle. In fact, it has been parked up for so long, it's become less a people-carrying vehicle and more a site for community expression: the liberal parking manoeuvres of neighbours have decorated it with all manner of dents and scratches; the bumper resembles a Dulux colour chart.

Anyway, this week, standing by the stationary car, I watched as a small child crashed his BMX into one of the wheel arches.

He got up off the road straight away, thankfully, and assured me he was fine. (I stress I was primarily concerned with his well-being.) But then, clocking the car had something to do with me, he twigged he might be in trouble. Having picked up his bike, he went over to wish away any dent in the car's side. Unaware there was no way I would be able to identify a new dent, he released his lively unicorn...

"Normally," he told me, "I jump right over the cars."

Jump right over the cars?!! He had me. Any possible annoyance at what had happened had no chance of materialising. He began recounting his street-cycling adventures. Riding his 3-foot high bike, he explained, sometimes standing on the hub of its back wheel, he was able to hop over any car he chose. He pointed at the road's cars as if they had been assembled just for this purpose. It was what he did to pass the time.

I challenge anyone to be angry at a boy claiming to be their town's E.T..

Above (and below) is a postcard of Peckham produced by David Hankin. It shows the different sights around this corner of London. Two things worth noting. First, the sky isn't always blue in SE15. And second, if you squint hard enough at the picture of Peckham's Rye Lane, you can just about make out a young superhero bouncing over car after car after car.

* In the case of the Conservative Party, the cat took the form a relatively minor politician (Michael Fallon). As the Opposition seemed to be making headway on the issue of clamping down on tax evasion, he made some pretty low accusations about the leader of the Labour party - that he was someone willing to stab his own brother in the back, and was therefore not to be trusted. Sure enough, the media focused on the dead cat. Tax evasion was left for another year.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Past and Present

Arnside, on the Kent Estuary

"As part of every school holiday, my family would make a trip to a village on the Cumbrian coast called Arnside.

Positioned where Morecambe Bay begins to become the River Kent, the village has two daily tides: one of water which sweeps across the sands behind a tidal bore, and a second of daytrippers which by mid-morning has filled the thirty or so car parking places on the promenade.  

I can remember being part of that second tide and how our day would always follow a set routine: arrive early to grab a slot with a bay view, take a clingfilm-wrapped picnic up Arnside Knott and then, if the sun shone, eat an ice-cream on the stone jetty. 

If all went to plan, and it typically did, we would be on our way home in time to miss Preston rush hour."

This month, I've written an article in Picture Postcard Monthly. Ahead of my book coming out in a few weeks, it's an account of how I came across the first Edwardian postcard I bought for its message.

As I've mentioned here before, I found it ten years ago in 'Past and Present', a small bric-a-brac shop in Cumbria. To some extent, I suspect,  all the other cards I've bought since have been attempts to replay, to repeat, to remember the 'hit' of finding that initial card. 

Past and Present, on the Promenade at Arnside

Looking out from Past and Present

It's not just the possibility of finding other interesting cards that has proved so alluring, however. Understanding the nature of collecting has been equally compelling. 

I admit collecting has been a refuge at times, an escape from reality. But also - indeed simultaneously - it's been a welcome spur for re-imagining, for changing the way I see the Past and Present (and Future). 

The adventure continues to connect histories, and times. And most enjoyably, it necessitates reaching out to others.

" well as being drawn into life in Edwardian Britain, it’s been just as fascinating being drawn into postcard collecting itself, both then and now. 

Discovering the stories of collectors and dealers who’ve helped me along the way has been wonderful...  

like Pauline Harrison who recently found a picture of her grandfather on a postcard at her local fair;

Peter Cove and his tactical brilliance in tracking down a copy of every card by artist AR Quinton;

and Mavis McHugh who once sold a card which carried a 1,000-word message. "

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Best market find ever?

Paul Gaywood and Pauline Harrison

Postcards tire me out. Whenever I think that's it, there's no more, I get them, time to move on, a story comes out of the blue that starts the fascination all over again.

In July, I was invited to speak at the Red Rose Postcard Club in Preston. Having grown up in Preston, I was keen to make the trip.

On the night, after reading out a few of my articles - Preston deltiologists are an obliging sort - I asked if anyone had found any interesting cards recently.

Pretty much in unison the club shouted back at me "Pauline has!"

And indeed Pauline Harrison - longtime member of the club and pictured above with chairman Paul - had come across a very special card.

She'd found it at one of the club's postcard fairs, one of the fairs at which she sits by the front desk taking people's entrance money.

A collector of postcards of King's Lynn in Norfolk, that day Pauline had not been in the mood for looking through cards. (Reader, it happens.) In fact, with no more people arriving, she was ready to go home.

Then, at the last minute she decided to look at the cards of a dealer she didn't recognise. The dealer wasn't a regular at the fair. And there, at the stall, much to her delight, she found a photo postcard of King's Lynn.

So what?

Well, her grandfather was on it.


Each year the club runs a competition where members show off cards from their collections.

Needless to say, this year Pauline won it, with a single card.

Brilliantly, here is her competition board....

P.S. A story for another day: for many years Pauline was a Tiller Girl at the London Palladium.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Front to back to front

Rubber Stamp - by Daniel Eatock

I'm a big fan of Daniel Eatock's postcard art. You might remember he was one of the artists featured in the show THE POSTCARD IS A PUBLIC WORK OF ART in London earlier in the year.

Above are both sides of Daniel's brilliant 'Rubber Stamp' postcard. The front is a picture of a rubber ink stamp, which prints stamps. On the back, in the top right-hand corner, is a stamp stamped by the stamp.

I wrote to Daniel to find out more about the design.

He replied as follows...

the object is the work

the postcard displays a picture of the object and an impression from the object

the postcard becomes an infinite loop as the impression on the reverse depicts a stamp but references a frank mark, the cancellation process for stamps

the title Rubber Stamp is funny

A stamp for stamps

Thanks Daniel!

More of Daniel's postcards can be found on his website at

Sunday, 15 June 2014

A postcard of a cup of tea... and another of a cat being mended

Day 17 -  Dear Dye, Thanks for the tea...

Every couple of weeks, I have a cup of tea in Dye's Pie and Mash on Munster Road in Fulham. I've been going there for several years. No fuss. There's chat if you want it. Silence if you'd prefer.

Last year, you might remember Raam Thakrar challenged me to send a postcard a day from my mobile phone for 80 days. For one of the cards, I took the photo above of a cup of tea which Dye had served me. I then sent the postcard to Dye, not telling her it was from me.

Immediately after sending it, I felt a bit embarrassed. It was a stretch to imagine Dye and I had established a friendship, one that would be comfortable with the play involved in sending and receiving this daft card.

It took me months to bring up the card with her, to risk rejection of the offer of play. But then I noticed something that suggested Dye had enjoyed receiving the postcard: she'd pinned it to the board behind her counter. A year on, brilliantly, it's still there.

Another cup of tea

As to the other cards, for some I'll never know how they were received.

For sure, I know the location of many: my friends have theirs, my grandfather still has his, my parents theirs. They all really enjoyed the extra post.

And the one I sent to myself of a toppled post box on Regent Street is in front of me, on my desk.

Day 34 - To me

But what happened to those sent as protests - like that to the Mayor of London on the redevelopment of London's South Bank? In an office somewhere? In landfill?

Day 26 - Dear Mayor... Less shopping, more skating

And did my joke on Day 37 (below) go down well with my cat-loving friends? I've still not got round to asking.

Day 37 : Just in case you ever need Mr Rowntree fixing,
I came across this place today...

Finally, what of those I offered to strangers to create and send? 

Did George (banana, below right) ever explain to his mum why he was at Peckham Rye railway station dressed as a banana? (Day 7) I really hope not.

Day 7: Dear Mum...from George

Thanks again to Raam for giving me the postcard credits, and for devising the challenge in the first place.

A year on, the cards have become my diary of sorts from the summer of 2013. Or at least the images have. The majority of the cards, of course, are miles away...

(If you're interested, you can see the rest of the cards here. And in the interests of transparency, Raam gave me 100 credits to use Touchnote's postcard service for free last summer. Views above, however, are my very own. Other postcard apps are available.)