Reading List

Friday 24 December 2010

Rachel Whiteread

I've been challenged by my tutor, John Reardon, to use my collection of messages in ways that don't simply rely on nostalgia

I know what he's getting at. It's all too tempting to romanticise the messages, to separate them completely from the present. 

To get me going, I've been thinking about the work of artist Rachel Whiteread

A few weeks ago I went to see the Tate exhibition of her drawings. As well as her sketches, the show included some of her collections of objects - from Russian postcards to hotel keys, squashed cans to a cast of Peter Sellers' nose

Whiteread (of the plinth on the plinth in Trafalgar Square, of concrete casts of a terraced house, and of a winding village of old dolls' houses) appears interested in our ambiguous relationship with memory. 

In conversation with Bice Curiger, Whiteread likened drawing to writing a diary. This fits with the feeling you get as you walk round the rooms at the Tate. Peering into the vitrines feels very much like looking into Whiteread's mind. Or her memory.

But in the interview, I was puzzled by her attitude towards collecting. Here are two quotes, one about her collection of dolls' houses and the other on how she regards postcards:
"I started collecting dolls’ houses about 22 years ago, by chance. I bought maybe three or four, and then people started buying them for me. I didn’t really know what to do with them, but I kept buying them, and the more dishevelled and unloved they were, the more I wanted to look after them.... I had wanted to make something that wasn’t sentimental, but would make children gasp when they saw it."
"Explorers took photographers with them, and would make postcards [from their pictures]. Postcards were a way in which people first saw the world. However, I do not want to be nostalgic…"
For both the dolls' houses and postcards, Whiteread is keen to avoid nostalgic sentimentality. But her attitudes to the dolls' houses and to the cards differ substantially.

Of the dolls' houses she says she "look[s] after them". And you can see this in her artwork. Her village brings the collection to life. She resuscitates the "unloved" houses. 

But with her postcards, things are different. Rather than preserving, she has irreversibly changed them. Punched holes into them. Created something new - see the photo below. Whereas she's fallen in love with the dolls' houses as they are or how they've been, the postcards offer potential for what they might become.

I think my interest in old postcards is most similar to Whiteread's love of her houses. My urge is to preserve and breathe new life into them. 

Or to put it another way, I won't be introducing them to any hole punchers.

Thursday 18 November 2010

A quote, a video and a postcard.

From Walter Benjamin's The Storyteller;

no event any longer comes to us 
without already being 
with explanation 

by now 
almost nothing 
benefits storytelling 

almost everything 
benefits information

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Walt's coded love

Postman CCTV

I know most of you have already worked this out but I can officially confirm...  there are only so many hours in the day.

How have I come across this insight? Well, I've just started a masters degree and  - as my absence from blogland suggested - have been struggling to get everything done.

On the upside, neglecting Postcardese has allowed me to achieve all the essentials of student life; a handsome amount of stationery has been procured, my face is suitably unshaven and - while not yet perfect - my I-was-just-about-to-say-that nod is coming along well in classes.

The course is art and politics. And over the coming year, I'm going to try to think through how some of the concepts I'm picking up relate to postcard messages. The end goal? Well the main reason for doing the course is to enjoy having a think about stuff, but on top of that some postcard-related art is going to emerge.

It would be great if people could fire up their imaginations on what this might look like. Or if there's some event, artist, thinker that is relevant, send me a link to

First up is an idea which has come up a couple of times in class  - Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon.

Bentham designed this theoretical prison as a way to demonstrate the power of surveillance. He wanted to explore how isolating and watching prisoners might change their behaviour.

In the Panopticon, inmates were to be kept in cells around the edge of a circular prison - they'd be visible at all times to a guard in the centre of the building. Cells were to be backlit and the guard's hut would have no light, meaning he could see prisoners at all times but the prisoners did not know when the guard was there. Prisoners would, Bentham thought, be conditioned by surveillance into changing their behaviour. Or as he put it, surveillance would "grind rogues honest."

The Panopticon never got built in England but you only have to think of today's CCTV cameras to appreciate how the power of surveillance has become a very real mechanism of power in modern society.

Panopticon postman?

The open nature of postcards means the sender accepts their message may be read by others besides the addressee. There is a parallel between the prison guard sometimes being in their hut and the postman sometimes passing the time by thumbing through cards as he/she delivers them.

The question we are left with is how this surveillance changed the behaviour of our Edwardian postcarders. Worth pondering.

If you have any ideas or comments please put them up on the boards.

Finally, rather than just giving you still images this week, I've uploaded a video which discusses a message affected by the prospect of snooping postmen. Ignore any camera wobble - it's deliberate ;).

Friday 24 September 2010

A fine set of girls

There's an anxiety associated with communicating

Once a message is sent you don't know how it will be received. You hope you've hit the right tone but you know there's a chance it might be misinterpreted. What's more, as Muriel hints, you're aware your thoughts may be read by others besides the addressee.

And all that was when we were using the one-to-one format of the postcard

Today, our new one-to-many means of communication (Facebook, Twitter, etc) can intensify those feelings of self-doubt. Take leaving a message on a friend's profile for the world to see. If it's left hanging without a thread it's easy to imagine it's been ignored by not just your friend but also by an unknown number of people who've seen it. 

I suspect this has the effect of splitting messages into two broad categories. On the one hand, people aware of the risks in communicating play safe and reveal little. Neutral, innocuous remarks give the impression of not expecting replies. On the other, people in need of a bit of attention feel pushed into saying something quite extreme to guarantee a reaction. 

One thing's for sure, I doubt Muriel would be able to comprehend that her "fine set of girls" is now on show to the world. Sorry M. 

By the way, which one do you think is Muriel?

Saturday 4 September 2010

Grassroots history

A lot of grassroots history is like the trace of the ancient plough. It might seem gone for good with the men who ploughed the field many centuries ago. But every aerial photographer knows that, in a certain light, and seen at a certain angle, the shadows of long-forgotten ridge and furrow can still be seen.
Eric Hobsbawm, "History from below"
Hobsbawm's notion of grassroots history fits well with old postcard messages.

I hope by picking out cards for their messages, we're doing our bit to discover long-forgotten ridges and furrows of ordinary life.

I bought this card last week at the Bloomsbury postcard fair in London. It shows how even the simplest message can transport you into a strangely unfamiliar world.

While the basics of humour don't change, targets do. Would it be acceptable now to poke fun at teetotallers, however gently? And I'd never heard of teetotallers referred to as totes before? Had you?

Sunday 22 August 2010

Instant Postcard Messaging

About a year ago I bought a new mobile phone - one of those fancy ones with a built-in camera. 

It is great. 

I love being able to send images to people and get instant reactions. I'll take a photo of some new glasses I've bought, say, and then send it to my mum. Within a minute she's texted back her thoughts.

How modern you think - how advanced we are. Well not exactly. Those bloomin' Edwardians were there first I'm afraid.

Take the pair of messages above. Gaddesden Place catches fire on 1 February 1905. Already by 18 February, our postcarder has a choice of cards to send showing what happened.

And that he/she decided to send two allows us to enjoy something unique.

Different cards sent on the same day, to the same address, to two brothers (?) about the same fire. This is the collecting triumph I referred to last week. By having both messages, the fire and the sending of the cards seem to become 3D.


PS My mum thought I was trying to look like Woody Allen. So cruel! Yet probably fair.

Sunday 8 August 2010

Splitting a pair

When you’re next in a bookstore look out for Bruce Chatwin’s novel Utz. For collectors amongst us, it’s a compelling read as much of the story centres on what it is to be a collector.

I really like how the porcelain-obsessed Kaspar Utz sums up the experience of being a collector: 
“As a young child will reach out to handle the things it names, so the passionate collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker.”
Now, being the purveyor of ‘life-giving’ touches is quite a responsibility. And one that has its downsides. 

When I bought this card to Miss Gertrud, alongside it sat another also addressed to her. It used the same hieroglyphic-like code, and was clearly part of the same 100 year-old conversation. But, for reasons of me feeling a bit tight, I didn’t buy it. 

Ouch! I regret it.

Whenever I hold the card I always relive the moment I separated it from its sibling. Rather than giving it life, I know I took something from it.

But you learn from your mistakes. And I have made amends for this episode. Next week I will explain more. In fact, it is a collecting triumph that, to quote the lovely Beth, will fill your eyes with joy. Kaspar would be proud.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Excuse this scribble

Dorothy's message to Grandma is a great example of how a postcard can capture a single moment. Not content with just telling her grandmother she's in London, she uses the physical act of writing to bring her experience to life. The bumpy scrawl gives the reader the sensation of being on an underground train somewhere beneath Edwardian London.

There are risks for us here though. Just as we've learnt to understand photography's limits in telling us the truth, we must be a bit circumspect about how much one card can ever tell us about the past.

Although perhaps more honestly so than photographs, postcard messages are of course very subjective. While space restrictions encourage people to keep to the facts, the sender will always give us their version of events. We can't be sure but I suspect Dorothy may well have hammed up the jumpiness of the train for her Grandma's enjoyment. The neat address certainly suggests she regained her poise at some point :)

More generally, postcard messages may also encourage us to fall foul of what Susan Sontag called the 'atomizing' of life.

Sontag was wary of photos; seeing them as no more than thin slices of space and time. She felt there was a danger that by relying on photos, people create histories of freestanding moments (or 'particles') rather than remembering life as it is - continuous. I know when I think back to my favourite holidays or childhood, it's often photos which come to mind first rather than memories of the whole experience. The same reservations must apply to postcardese.

But, as Postcardy and Debs explained the other week, if we are wanting the truth it may be best to look to the top right hand corner. Our friend the tilted stamp is back. A clear, undeniable sign that Dorothy loved her grandma.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Strangers over time

As well as your weekly postcard daydream, below are two great web projects for you to have a think about.

The first is Postcrossing - the site that has inspired 4 million cards to be sent from stranger to stranger across the world. The second is Richard Renaldi's project Touching Strangers.

Both ponder momentary interactions between strangers - and the undeniable connections we have with everyone everywhere. 

Renaldi's strangers meet for the first time when they have their photo taken together - often appearing to be from completely different walks of life. With Postcrossing, strangers are first and foremost separated by geography.

I guess for Postcardese the defining axis is time. We're here at the start of the twenty-first century while our strangers collate their thoughts at the beginning of the twentieth. But that doesn't stop feelings of real empathy being triggered by what we find on the cards.

Take Connie. I know she and her exam stresses are long gone, and I know I will never meet or speak to her, but I still can't help being moved by the depth of her anxiety.

PS Finding myself in New York through work this week, I've found Richard Renaldi's image of Cheikh, Ailoun, Gracy, Terry and Pape especially comforting. Thanks Richard.

Sunday 11 July 2010

Enjoying the confusion

I went to see Life Game at the Lyric Theatre in London this week - a show where a group of actors recreate defining moments in a person's life. The twist being that the actors only meet the person for the first time at the beginning of the show. The whole night is improvised.

As the show went on, we got to see replays of the guest's first kiss, when his dad first came home wearing a wig and all manner of family arguments. It was great fun.

In fact, the night flew by. Partly I'm sure due to an almighty tension in the theatre from no-one (including the actors) knowing how the night would pan out.

That delight in knowing something unexpected is going to happen reminded me of the feeling of reading a new card. You can feel your eyes widen, your mind cogs stir and an enjoyable sense of confusion play with your head. 

And so, this week I'm not going to introduce the new card at all. No tips or clues. None of my own thoughts to cloud what you think lies behind it. 

You are free to enjoy the confusion in full ...

Friday 2 July 2010

Take One

I said I'd let you know how Sunday's message reading went at my poet friend Valerie Jack's.

Well, it was a lot of fun. The stage was the roof of Val's houseboat! (No really, it was.) The sun did its bit. And everyone got merry on Pimm's, good chat and some cracking verse.

For my contribution I used 12 cards, reading each message twice - once as the sender and once as the recipient. So for 'Come home at once', I tried to give the sender a sense of urgency, and the recipient an air of confusion.

I suspect this was a touch ambitious given my acting skills, but it seemed to get across the ambiguity inherent in communicating through postcards.

Lots of new ideas after the performance. A teacher wanted to use some of the messages to help give a creative writing class. Another woman, thought it would make a good show for the Edinburgh fringe ("with a bit of practice" - duly noted!)

Sunday 27 June 2010

Postcardese Live


A poet friend of mine Valerie Jack asked me to read some postcard messages at a poetry shindig today. Brilliantly, Val lives in a house boat on a canal. Should be quite an afternoon.

I thought selecting the cards to read out would be a doddle. After all, I know my favourite cards.

But reading cards to an audience is quite different from presenting them on the web. Messages written in code don't work for a start. It's hard to convey the splendour of those with wonderful handwriting. And as for cards like last week's sketch of Britain, they're also out.

Instead, messages charged with emotion come to the fore.

Of the cards already on Postcardese, I'm going to read Come home at once, Bob's message from Brampton Park and the pursuit of Mrs Grover's fur tippet. I've also chosen this week's card from Percy (which is a real tear jerker isn't it?)

I'll let you know how it goes...

Sunday 20 June 2010

Postcard jigsaw

Something of a jigsaw puzzle for you this week. I've found a few of the pieces. There must be more though...

Piece #1. Our sender is quite the artist. A map of his journey, presumably.

Piece #2. Something appears to have happened in Hastings. After all, Hastings is not on the London to Liverpool line. A romantic trip away perhaps?

Piece #3. It seems Miss Warden hadn't visited Liverpool before. Would she ever be tempted by une ville "plus charmante"?

Piece #4. With a bit of a squint we can make out our sender worked near the Exchange railway station.

Piece #5. And finally, the French scribbles on the front - is our sender trying to be sophisticated or is French his mother tongue? Je ne sais pas.

Really looking forward to your comments!

PS For a better view of any of the images, click on them and hopefully you'll be able to see bigger versions. Only thinking of your eyes... we don't want you getting like Edith.

PPS If you're interested, you can receive the Postcardese newsletter by entering your email in the Subscribe box on the right.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

George - turn them over!

These things are a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves. Their old-fashioned outlook, their graded snobberies, their mixture of bawdiness and hypocrisy, their extreme gentleness, their deeply moral attitude to life, are all mirrored there.

George Orwell, taken from England Your England, 1941
Okay you've got one guess as to what Mr Orwell was writing about! Yup postcards. But specifically, the fronts of postcards.

A truly awesome quote don't you think?

But - and I tread carefully when crossing one of postcardings founding fathers - I reckon Orwell missed a trick. The cards themselves do reveal a lot about a society's psyche. But surely there is more to be found in the messages?

Take Jim's card to Maggie. Turning over the pastel image of a Winchester horizon, you find a real treat...

I love the addition of the "to all" in Jim's message. I'm thinking his interest in Maggie's nearest and dearest was a bit of an afterthought? And isn't there something beautiful in the way he's written Maggie's name. The 'M' is just a delight.

PS By the way, some good news Postcardesers. Postcardese was named this week's Best of Web by
Culture Critic. Good work guys!

Friday 4 June 2010

Postcard poetry

W.H. Auden said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. For our Edwardian postcarders, poems weren't abandoned... they were sent.

I've put a couple of cards up recently containing poetry. Like the card to Miss Cameron in the lead up to the 1906 general election. And then there was last week's card which formed something of a haiku:

Noon. Please. Will meet you.
Love as ever, A. E. S..
Miss Case, New Parade.

While it may not be of Auden quality, this week's message to Robert is a cracking ditty - sensible advice for "when you court a love that's new".

Saturday 29 May 2010

Noon. Please. Will meet you.

No time to waste this week. Written as spoken, our sender's in a rush. His (?) words spill out in a garbled order: Time, courtesy, direction. Stamped at an angle. Signed off with initials.

Or maybe not.

Is in fact the delivery deliberately slow and enigmatic? Are the pauses merely for effect, to give the impression of being in complete control. And standing back, the card does seem perfectly balanced - was it even the first attempt at the message?

Saturday 22 May 2010

Touching the swirls

I went to the National Gallery in London on Friday night. Even if you've been before, I really recommend making a special trip for a late opening.

As the crowds thin out, you get a sensation of being somewhere you shouldn't be. And by 9 o'clock you can find yourself completely alone with best of Van Gogh, Vermeer & Co.

I'm often struck by how even the most familiar painting takes on a new life when you see the original. With Van Gogh's Sunflowers, say, those big yellows and oranges become so vibrant, the paint's texture is more pronounced and you find yourself wanting to reach out and touch the swirls.

Now ok there are no Sunflowers in my collection, I know. But there are some cards which are masterpieces in their own way, and I just wonder - is something lost when they are reproduced on the web? Hope not.

If postcards did make their way into a gallery, this week's card would be the star turn. Roped off and possibly with its own room, it is the biggie. Rest assured, I'll be returning to in future weeks.

So, ladies and gents, make sure your coats are safely in the cloakroom. Mobiles/Cellphones are switched off. And you're speaking in your best gallery whisper.

Miss Emerson's fate is at stake...

Saturday 15 May 2010

To plan or cram?

After last week's post I had some correspondence with design guru Stephen Bayley. (Thanks for the card Stephen!) For him, postcards' magic rests in the writerly discipline needed to communicate in such a confined space.

Thinking about it, I reckon there are broadly two camps of postcard writers. Those who embrace Stephen's challenge, standing back to concoct messages with impact. And those who dive straight in and cram as much onto a card as possible.

Typically, it's the planners who conjure up the star messages. But sometimes, the crammers triumph too. Through the intricacy of their efforts, their postcards can assume a beauty which deserves celebrating.

Two cards this week. One from each camp.

PS To have a proper look at the crammed card, click on the image of it above.

PPS Although postcards had been around since 1870 in the UK, it was only in 1902 that the Post Office allowed the address side to include both address and correspondence. Only then was the current challenge set. Postcardese is very grateful.

Friday 7 May 2010

Sex, drugs and stamps

Last week's Independent on Sunday ran an article declaring stamp collecting to be "officially cool". Hurray.

Now let's just ignore the fact the Independent's arbiters of 21st century cool included Freddie Mercury (dead for 20 years), John Lennon (dead for 30 years) and Ronnie Wood (who took up collecting on leaving rehab). Details, details, I know...

Anyway, there was something spot on in the comments of design expert Stephen Bayley.

He reckoned stamps are "minor art forms... soon to be lost. That realisation generates a wish to collect them, to preserve them as part of a disappearing culture."

Does anyone else recognise that psychology of needing to preserve a fading culture?

Enjoy this week's card - the hunt for Miss Glover's fur tippet.