Reading List

Tuesday 14 August 2012

You can only play an ace once

All families have their traditions. When my brother and I were young, one of my family’s was to play cards, play hand after hand of whist.

In the summer, games of whist were a holiday ritual. Night after a night, a pack would come out, be shuffled, then dealt. I would partner my dad, my brother my mum. 

We had our own terminology to describe the action, the Atkins whistspeak, the Atkinsese. Do other whist players talk of  “rounds” and “trumps”? I have no idea. 

We even had our own set of clich├ęs to call on to dissect each round. The winners' smiles would give way to groans on hearing the losers suggest some kind of altervictory. "I think we did very well, given our hands."

One set phrase has really stuck with me, become a maxim of reference in more than cards. Often when someone put an ace down, they would draw breath and declare, “You can only play an ace once.”

An onlooker (there never were any!) might have thought it meant you should wait until the right moment. Hold the ace back for when you need it most. And it did. But there was a second meaning – an ace can only win one trick, whether you play it now or later. 

In other words, just get on and play it.

Which brings me to this card in my collection. My American friends, take note, now is the time to hold onto your hats. Click on the images below so that you can get a proper look.

I found it at a market in North London, near Angel tube station. It’s not a great destination for postcard hunting, most of the traders deal in jewellery and antique furniture. But at one stall, alongside stationery from the American Civil War, were boxes of US postcards.

Spotting the postcards, I slipped into my market routine. Grab a section of cards, flip them over and scan for messages. Sift for Eluard’s gold… 

It was the surname of the recipient that made me stop on the card.

Pitt - a name of high British politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, jarring with the twentieth-century form of the postcard.

Then came the destination. Worcester College, Oxford – by coincidence, the place I studied American politics. At this point, I was already sold on paying the dealer the asking price of £3.50.

But then the message:

March 9
He's put Andrew Jackson's picture back in a place of honour. Ike had dumped it in the basement. Kennedy for President.

Of course, reading the message in Michael's handwritten scrawl gloriously delayed the punchlines, prevented me from making sense of the card in one go. I think I understood “Ike” as President Ike on only the third or fourth reading.

So there you go. The ace: a message from the Kennedy White House, sent only weeks after JFK came into office. The Best and the Brightest assembled in Washington. Hope made tangible in a card. 

And fifty years on, the card, a trace of Camelot, ends up in a Camden market. 

Wednesday 6 June 2012

I bought a postcard from a museum

H and I spent Saturday in Arundel, a market town in West Sussex.

We'd wanted to have at least one day of the long weekend out of London. And as the forecast looked patchy for the bank holidays, we went for Saturday. Ready for a walk and to see some green, we arrived about 11 o'clock on the train from Victoria.

Both of us grew up a long way from London. Yet I suspect it was easy to pick us out as daytrippers from the capital. If my thick glasses and rolled-up jeans didn't give us away, then Helen clutching "Country Walks Near London - Volume 2" must have.

The series by Time Out is worth buying. Over the years it's been useful for getting to know South East England, that is what lies beyond the M25. And maybe the guides have even made London feel a bit more like home. Easier to place.

But there's no messing about. The books cut straight to the walks; buy this train ticket, visit that village, have a drink of this beer here....

And while their blurb is fair - "country escapes that breathe life into the most jaded Londoner" - there is an awkward sense of pockets of the countryside being parcelled up. Lines being drawn without much context.

Fortunately, as ever, we managed to lose our way.

A couple of wrong turns and we were off the Time Out route. With 3G phones beyond signal, we had to rely on chance conversations with passersby.

Of course, this proved to be the making of the walk.

Free from the book, we could now fully relax and take in what was around us: skylarks, field poppies, willow warblers, twisting hedgerows, and even, at one point, a pair of biplanes that looped over us from a local airshow.


Before setting off, we'd been drawn into Arundel itself. Striding past a newsagents selling Salmon's postcards, we'd intended to look round the town's castle.

We failed.

Put off by the hill and distracted by the lure of buying something 'authentic', we ended up in Arundel Bridge Antiques Centre.

For half an hour or so, we parted company. Each off in our own reverie.

I absentmindedly climbed some stairs, and found a real treat - Arundel Photographica.

Run by Chris Nicholls, the shop is astonishing - a sort of camera encyclopaedia. Jam packed full. Viewfinders, lenses, buttons.

Every innovation from the past 120 years of photography seemed to be represented. And honoured by Chris with handwritten cards.

After a while, rather than feeling hurried by the disembodied paparazzi, you felt ok to explore in your own time. The shop's order provided a sense of calm.

The Butchers and Rochesters had been given ample room to spread their folding bellows. And the works of Exakta and Zeiss rested still - happily empty of both film and, for now at least, purpose.

This was a collection to be enjoyed. The shop was quite busy, but the merchandise didn't seem to be going anywhere soon.

Standing there felt like being in a museum. Sure, there was no entrance fee, no audio tour and no invigilators wearing brightly-coloured shirts. And unlike at a museum, with care you could touch what was on show.

But the cameras on display appeared curated first, and on sale second. They were arranged according to their history rather than their price. And crucially, Chris was there to give you as many facts and opinions as you wanted  - who made them, where they were from and how they have been used over the years.

Perhaps, coming from London, it was the presence of the owner that made me feel I was somewhere other than a store; Mr Argos and Mr Boots are rarely on hand to talk through their wares. And ultimately this is Chris' means of making a living. Stock has to turn over sometime.

Predictably, I steered my chat with Chris to postcards. And drew out from him a tutorial on how one of the Rochesters might have been used to make homemade cards.

I even managed to buy a couple of Edwardian cards from a box on the counter. Unsurprisingly, given the people who visit the shop, there were no photo-cards left.

For our walk, the cards acted as bookmarks in the Time Out guide. Back in some sort of use, after maybe a hundred years of passing between collectors' and dealers' albums.

Useful, until we lost our way.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Postcardese events

If you fancy some postcard chat over the next week or so, I've got a couple of performances you might be interested in.

Next Tuesday - 15 May - I'm giving another postcard tour of Waterstones Gower St in London. 

Last time we were helped on our way by George Orwell, Gillian Wearing and E.M. Forster.

This time, we'll be stopping off in the poetry section. And the man, Roland Barthes, is sure to get a look in too.

The tour is something of a walking essay.

With the help of the books on offer, we'll try to make sense of why old postcards are intriguing. Last time we talked a lot about the parallels between collecting secondhand books and the habit of amassing postcards.

Starts at 6.30pm in the secondhand book department on the first floor. Tickets can be bought from the shop.

Then next Friday - 18 May - I'm talking about the history of postcards at the opening of the British Postal Museum & Archive's new exhibition. 

The Post Office in Pictures is at the Lumen Gallery and runs until 31 August.

No tickets needed for this one.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Postcard pressure

Thought I'd share my latest video for Stamp & Coin Mart magazine.

I hope you appreciate the nifty editing. Three hours wading through iMovie's "Help" section proved time well spent in the end.

Found at a postcard fair in Preston, I first featured this card in a blog post back in June 2010.

Now, there are a couple more videos already in the can, but if there's a card on Postcardese you think I should include in a video do let me know.

Rest assured, Matt said the card did make it to the magazine's offices.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Happy Birthday, no, Easter

It's been a while since I put a new, well, old card up on the blog. So with Easter this weekend I thought this one would be good to share.

It's an unusual one in my collection.

I tend to look for those with stamps and frank marks. As signs of authenticity, the King's head and a postmark seem to permit us to believe the correspondents existed, and that a conversation took place.

There's no stamp on this card to Violet. I bought it for Lucy's meticulous correction of her slip in wishing Violet happy birthday rather than Easter.

But looking again, where the stamp would have been, there are other signs that this is 'genuinely' (at least) a card produced in the Golden Age of postcards (1902-1918).

First, the stamp requested is a half penny stamp, or a ha'penny green. Between 1870 and 1918 the postage rate for cards was half that of the penny postage rate for letters. Then, in a tiny upper case font, we see it was printed in Saxony where most cards were printed before the First World War.

And of course, away from the top right hand corner, the format of the card fits with what we know of postcards after 1902. The 'Hartmann line' is in place down the middle, separating the address and message halves.

As to whether the conversation occurred, we can't be sure - although can we really ever be?

Certainly, without a stamp the card may not have been sent at all. It might have been delivered by Lucy or under the cover of an envelope, but we will never know.

My hunch is Lucy thought twice about spending 1/2d on a card she'd so carefully prepared, until the moment her mind wandered.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Friday 9 March 2012

The post postcard

In the 10 years I've lived in London, I've spent a lot of time in the Tate Modern gift shop.

There's always a lot of good stuff on offer. Its shelves are packed with books and magazines, helping you make sense of art. And sometimes you even stumble across the odd artist or two.

I'm also drawn to the store because I think it plays host to a new chapter in the history of the postcard; the rise of the "post postcard".

In rack after rack, gallery exhibits are reduced to the familiar 6 x 4 inch form. Hundreds of Dali, Magritte and Rothko replicas standby ready to make their exit from the gallery. For 60p a throw.

However, this is not the postcard section, really.

They are cards, for sure.

But they are not "post" cards.

While some may be sent, we know most won't. They are more likely to end up on fridge doors, in picture frames or as bookmarks - kept by the person who purchases them as souvenirs of trips to the gallery.

This isn't just conjecture. It's there in the design.

Turn a Tate card over and it surrenders any claim on being a "post" card. Gone is Hartmann's line down the middle of the 'back'. There isn't a box for a stamp. And any text is printed in portrait, not landscape.  There is simply no expectation of a message, or of an address.

If I were feeling mean spirited, I might argue that the "post" in "postcard" has become something of an alibi. Would galleries sell as many "small cards of paintings"?

Or to look on the bright side, there continues to be a real warmth in the concept of the postcard, for all it represents as the Digital Revolution continues to gather momentum.

Thursday 2 February 2012

More on Muriel

I've started contributing to a collectors' magazine called Stamp & Coin Mart

As well as writing a column on postcards, I've filmed a few videos for the magazine's website. This is the first one which will accompany the March edition.

Speaking into the camera reminded me of George Orwell's essay Poetry and the Microphone.

Orwell reckoned:
"In broadcasting your audience is conjectural, but it is an audience of ONE. 
Millions may be listening, but each is listening alone, or as a member of a small group, and each has (or ought to have) the feeling that you are speaking to him individually. 
More than this, it is reasonable to assume that your audience is sympathetic, or at least interested, for anyone who is bored can promptly switch you off by turning a knob...."
While it would be a stretch to think "millions may be listening", I hope you're as sympathetic as I was imagining. And can ignore the umms and errs.

Longstanding readers of Postcardese will remember Muriel's card from "A fine set of girls" back in September 2010.

For those of you without a postcardaphic memory, here are the two sides of the card.

I think Muriel's second from the right on the front row. Not sure why - there just seems something furtive about her.

Furtive... what a great word.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Lost in translation - part 2

A month ago, I posted a 1913 card sent from the US to Japan.,, 

Well, thanks to an old school pal (Rupert) and a friend from university (Fuyu) we've now got a translation (or two) .... 

I always feel a bit conflicted in finding out more about the cards. 

Walter Benjamin talked about us living in an age where everything is explained, where "no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation." He speculated about the impact this has on our imagination, and our ability to connect through storytelling.

I like to think the mysteries in old cards offer some resistance to this. But there's still that itch to find out more. 

And sometimes I give in. Hence the appeal for ideas about what was going on with this card. 

You'll remember I found it at a fair in London. And that the card had been sent from San Francisco in the US to Yokohama in Japan. That much we knew.

Now we know a lot more...

And to that we can add Fuyu's thoughts ...

"In the past, Japanese used to make a horizontal writing from right to left, which we never do in contemporary Japanese.
So I read this line from right to left then it makes sense.
The other part is written in vertical writing so it's different.
Although I cannot understand all of it, I can see it is not saying something happy but something sad/bad because I can see some words like "A year with dreadful Japanophobia" "suffered from devastating blow" "lonely" etc.
Does "Japanophobia" make sense? I can't really find a good phrase for this..
But the thing is I cannot connect all of these, so it may be saying something positive in the end..."

Thanks Rupert, Ai and Fuyu. 

Extra information, for sure. Extra painful information, that is. 

But the card isn't shot through, or is it?