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Friday 12 February 2021

This Small Change: postcards in prison

This Small Change - a project I'm running with the Prisoners' Education Trust in the UK - is asking museums and galleries to offer printed material to prisoners, to help alleviate the extreme conditions prisoners are facing during Covid 19 lockdowns. I've been a bit quiet on this blog for a while, so I thought it would be good to make amends by documenting the project here. I hope you're well. Gx

Three of the handwritten cards sent with the first delivery from Tate.

"The idea of gold"

In March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, a housemate working in a mental health unit was finding it tough going. The consequences of the lockdown for his patients were becoming severe: among other restrictions, patients were no longer allowed out of the facility, even on accompanied trips. The only accessible external space was a small enclosed garden. As well as keeping everyone safe, staff were under pressure to think of more indoor activities. 

Rooting round the house, we put together a pack of art gallery postcards, including those of works by Rodin, Lubaina Himid, Christina Broom and David Hockney. The next day, my housemate offered them as a gift to patients. While not all the patients appreciated them, a couple really did: they wrote a series of cards to their families who could no longer visit.

Encouraged by the response, I contacted Francesca Cooney, Head of Policy at the Prisoners' Education Trust, to see if something similar would be of interest to people in prisons. Francesca thought it would be worth giving it a try. She explained prisoners were in their cells nearly all day; libraries and gyms had been closed; and all visits cancelled. Alarmingly, there were also reports of more incidents of self harm. 

Together, we devised a scheme to see if museums - themselves closed to the public during lockdowns - could send stocks of gift shop postcards to prison education teams. The hope was that the postcards would be of interest to prisoners in their cells. Given the quality of cards from museums, we felt there was a fair chance this would be the case. As the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard argues, while postcards may be art's "small change", "this small change sometimes suggests the idea of gold".

"I never felt so proud to write to my son. A proper postcard." 

Thanks to the efforts of many people across a number of institutions, the pilot scheme - between HMP Pentonville, Tate and the Postal Museum - was a great success. 

Tate's Distribution Manager, Keith McCubbin, with the first box of postcards.

Despite the challenges of remote working, we were able to distribute 100 'packs' of cards to prisoners. Each pack included a handwritten card explaining the project, a selection of cards from the Tate, and some first class stamps donated by the Postal Museum. 

We were especially grateful to José Aguiar, a prisons education consultant, who worked with men in HMP Pentonville to put the packs together and to distribute them to other prisoners. The different elements of the pack had to be sent into the prison separately and collated by José and his team. We also needed special permission from the governors of HM Pentonville to include stamps in the packs.

José said the men were really impressed with the postcards, commenting that it is rare for prisoners to see anything as beautiful and of such quality as the Tate cards. One of the men said it was the first time he had been proud to write to his son while in prison. For him the Tate card was "a proper postcard". Another said the postcards became "a window" to his family. 

Since the first delivery, we've managed to deliver more cards from the Tate, as well as packs from the Garden Museum and the London Transport Museum. We'll be continuing the scheme this year. On my next post, I'll include a few of the stories the cards have inspired, written by men in HMP Pentonville. 

In the meantime, if you know of anyone who works in museums and who is able to access spare or old stocks of postcards, please get in touch.

The packs being assembled at HMP Pentonville by men serving time there.
Photograph by José Aguiar.  

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