Reading List

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Compliments of the season

One phrase, two very different Christmas postcards.

The first was sent in 1915 from Netley hospital, a military hospital near Southampton used extensively during World War One.

The second is from a parlour somewhere near Willesden two years earlier.

Derrida's 'The Post Card'

Of late, I've been reading Jacques Derrida's 'The Post Card'. The work documents the philosopher's thoughts on the essence of a postcard, and is perhaps relevant to the two cards above: how they both use the same phrase but in such different circumstances.

It's a slippery text, written as a satire of literary works involving letters. In it, Derrida comes across some postcards in the gift shop of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He explains how he's captivated by them, and then uses the sending of the cards to mock the limitations of language. He pokes fun at the idea of ever being able to understand what someone means through words, obsessing with double meanings and how what words refer to can shift over time and between contexts.

If you're in the mood, it's a mesmerizing piece of writing. If you're not, it's like pulling teeth: a friend once told me you only ever grasp one sentence a page with Derrida, and that's if you actually are Jacques Derrida.

But regardless of how much you feel you're grasping, there's something brilliant about where you end up by reading his work. Its deliberate obscurity and deferral of meaning present a welcome challenge to blind certainty, to unqualified rhetoric, to unchecked power.

And why did Derrida choose the postcard as his vehicle? Well...

“What I prefer, about post cards," he writes, "is that one does not know what is in front or what is in back, here or there, near or far... Nor what is the most important, the picture or the text, the message or the caption, or the address. Here, in my post card apocalypse... reversibility unleashes itself, goes mad”

Four years of my blogging, Derrida sums up in a few lines. Anyway...

Thanks for everyone's comments, postcards and emails over 2013. They're really appreciated. And wherever you are, I hope you have a peaceful and happy time over the holiday period.

All the best,


PS I've noted the possibility of Vine videos sending you mad before so be careful not to look at the two above for too long.

Sunday 17 November 2013

The final Bloomsbury Sunday

Next Sunday (24 November) London's main postcard market will be held in Bloomsbury for the last time.

Due to the rising cost of space in the city centre, the market is having to move to a venue in Clerkenwell.

If you're in London, see if you can make it on Sunday. It's at the Royal National hotel on Bedford Way, from 10.30am. If you do go, you'll discover two extraordinary cultures, both of which offer much for the soul.

First, the fair's a great way to explore the Postcard Age from before World War One, when the British alone sent close to a billion cards a year. Back then, postcards were more than just the stuff of holidays, carrying every sort of message from birthday greetings to poetry.

We might not be in the year 2900 yet, but I think the market already proves right a prediction made by journalist James Douglas in 1909:

“When archaelogists of the thirtieth century begin to excavate the ruins of London they will fasten upon the Picture Postcard as the best guide to the spirit of the Edwardian Era. 
They will collect and collate thousands of these pieces of pasteboard, and they will reconstruct our age from the strange hieroglyphs and pictures that time has spared. For the Picture Postcard is a candid revelation of our pursuits and pastimes, our customs and costumes, our morals and manners."

With hundreds of thousands of postcards in a single room, revelations are everywhere at the market.

Then there's the second culture: today's postcard community. Whenever I go to the fair, as well as buying more cards than I intended to, I invariably learn of incredible social histories from fellow collectors.

Last time,  I spoke at length to dealer Mavis McHugh from Southampton. After hearing my interest in curious postcard messages, Mavis told me about an amazing card she'd sold a few years ago. Sent in 1916, by a soldier billeted in Buxton, the card had 941 words on it. So striking was the minute handwriting, and so gripping the soldier's account of life in the Royal Engineers, Mavis said she couldn't help transcribing it.

Below is a scan of the first part of the message. Mavis needed six pieces of notepaper to copy it out in full.

eBay may well offer up objects of interest but it doesn't provide a chance to share stories like this.

By chance, before the switch to Clerkenwell was announced, I wrote an article for Picture Postcard Monthly on the market's history. It's quite a story. Hope you enjoy it, and that it encourages you to make it on Sunday if you can.

Thanks to Katja Medic for the photos above from a visit to the market earlier in the year. The black-and-white shots below are from the archive of Dave Smith, one of the 'Smith boys' who organise the fair.


The fourth Sunday of the month

For the last seven or eight years, I’ve been a regular at the Bloomsbury postcard market in London. To get there I take the Tube, typically, as the hotel where the market is held lies round the corner from Russell Square station. Organized for the fourth Sunday of the month, little ever seems to change there.

At the front desk, the entry process is always the same: empty your pockets for the admission fee, hand it over, and receive a programme and a postcard in return. 

Inside, you’re greeted by the sight of 50 or 60 dealers: most of whom are in the same position each month. 

And then there is the smell. 

With thousands and thousands of cards on sale - even if just for a moment - you can’t help being taken over by the intense smell of postcards en masse.

Bloomsbury market in full flow at the Royal National hotel

Bloomsbury market at the Ivanhoe hotel in the late 1970s

Such aspects of the market are shared by everyone who attends. They (and others) act to create a very communal space. Yet - just as postcard collecting allows collectors to find their own specific niches -  there are also hundreds of very personal rituals alongside the common moments of the fair.

On entering I always go on a lap of the room. I scout for a place to settle, for somewhere I might find a stash of cards I’ve not come across before.

Monday 4 November 2013

A bright and beautiful thing

Thank you to artist-wonder-friend Kate Wiggs for this postcard. Received, in an envelope, last week.

More on Mathilde ter Heijne's 'Woman To Go' can be found here.

Thursday 10 October 2013

For the record

When the Horsemen of the Apocalypse arrive I, like many others, will be anxious at what lies ahead. 

But I'm hoping to take some solace in knowing how little time I've spent filing stuff. 

Ordering postcards: lots of time wasted. Filing important papers: not so much.

(Facing annihilation, I'm also hoping the unironed shirts in my wardrobe will be a source of light relief...)

Other people's filing, on the other hand, I find fascinating. And, very useful.

Take the British Postal Museum & Archive. An astoundingly interesting place. Located at the back of the Royal Mail's HQ in London, it keeps in order the administrative records of the British (sadly, no longer publicly-owned) postal service. 

In the above video, one of the Archive's curators, Emma Harper, explains the significance of some curious postcards she found recently. They're from a largely forgotten period in the history of the postcard  - and demonstrate how change often happens from below. Many thanks to Emma for sparing the time to show me them.

Friday 26 July 2013

On sorting

A postcard collection is never stable, never entirely complete. 

Ten years ago, artist Mary Anne Francis played with the challenge of ordering her collection of postcards in her work 'Unsorted'

Rather than showing an ordered collection, she exhibited her postcards in the process of being classified. 

According to Mary Anne, the installation showed someone “attempting to arrange – sort out – a collection of sorts… but: how to sort a type or type a sort?” 

I’ve come to realise that just as a collection reaches some kind of order, it seems to call out for more of a type and then, inevitably, more of a sort.


Image of artwork in video courtesy of the artist: installation view of 'Unsorted' at e1 gallery, London, 2002

Artwork sourced from Jeremy Cooper's 'Artists' Postcards', Reaktion Books.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Market tour - 8 June

This Saturday (8 June) I'm giving a tour of the collectors' market by Charing Cross railway station in London.

Starts at 10am, outside the northern entrance to Embankment Tube station.

It'll be like going to a museum - only you can touch (and buy) stuff.

So what's it going to be? Suffragette cards?

Snaps of Edwardian London?

Messages from WW1?

Nothing is too specific. There are collectors out there who only collect postcards of fireplaces.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

A collection on display

So, the History Today magazine came out last week. Very exciting. Great to have the chance to tell a bit of the story of Edwardian postcard culture. There's a link here to the first section of the article.

I admit, though, amidst the high of getting the piece published, it's been disconcerting seeing my collection of cards on display and in print. Perhaps it's something to do with what Jean Baudrillard observed: that ultimately you collect yourself.

The thought I've been most struck by, however, is how seeing any ordered collection makes it appear inevitable - in this case, as if the cards were bound to end up together. I realise this reaction could be just my own, only too aware of the legwork the collection has required.

But heck, back to enjoying the publication! There is a quick slideshow, above. The voice is me (albeit a little more serious than normal) but all the editing was done by HT's web editor, Dean Nicholas. Thanks Dean.

PS In the article I mention I'm giving a tour of the Charing Cross Collectors' Market in London on 8 June. It's a small fair specialising in postcards, coins, and other ephemera. We're meeting at 10am at the northern entrance of Embankment Tube Station. It's free, so if you're in London that day, come along.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

A spot of news

It's a video blog this week. Too much going on to type!

In the video I mention a new project 'In Between Postcards' where I'm sending a postcard a day from my mobile phone, and asking if this is the future of the postcard.

Here are further details of the project. Please let me know what you think. Have you sent a postcard via an app on a mobile yet? If so, how did you get on?

Finally, a pic of June's History Today. My article on Edwardian postcard culture will be inside. Really looking forward to seeing what people make of it.

The card on the front is of actor Lewis Waller. The HT editors chose it because it's such a good example of the 'undivided back': the message is scribbled in the margin around the picture of Waller, as the other side had to be kept free for the address. Although, I'm guessing the fact he's carrying an iPad also came into the reckoning.

Monday 29 April 2013

Six-second postcards (from hell?)

Just when I thought I'd a handle on what a postcard is, Twitter call their new video-sharing-app Vine the "six-second postcard".

Here's a postcard/vine of a Hong Kong market stall by travel journalist Daisann McLane. To get the sound, click on the top left hand corner of the video.

McLane's video is one of the best travel vines I've seen - the abrupt cuts suit a market scene. But when the repeating begins, like other vines, it makes you a bit  horribly dizzy.

And that's a good one. Via Google, and away from traveling, there are some terrifying vines, their stars trapped in neverending loops of insanity. 

Below is a link to vine videos by US-model Tyra Banks: videos which are too bewildering to embed on a blog.

Friends, take care ;). Only click on the link when someone else is in the room. Tell them what you're doing, and that you want to be rescued in three minutes, or so.

Deep breath. Here's the link.



You're back! I know, I'm sorry, I will never do that to you again. You'll stop seeing the talking copy of Vanity Fair in three days' time. I promise.

Elsewhere, there are actually lots of good vines about. Paul McCartney's created a few vine puzzles, which make you want to see the videos again and again. AND he doesn't sing Hey Jude in any of them.

Plus, here are some vines lauded at this year's TriBeCa Film Festival. The better ones play on the fact that seeing something over and over is hell-like. Jordan Burt's "Dennis" series is especially sinister.

But you're still thinking about Tyra, aren't you? It's ok. You never have to see the videos again.


Of course, it would be churlish to criticise others and not to have a go.

So here we are - a six-second Edwardian postcard - complete with wobbling camera phone...

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Secret postcards... continued

Fascinating putting it together. Three different perspectives on producing secret art.

Thanks to David Bailey, Pete Fowler and Maggi Hambling for sparing their time. And to Sue at the RCA for helping to make it all happen.

I thought I'd share a few more photos of Maggi and Pete taken by the ace Katja Medic

And here are a few bits that didn't quite make it into the article...

Maggi Hambling on being an art student in 1960s London: "Telling people you're a painter can be so tedious. I used to say I was swimming pool attendant at Tooting Bec lido." 

Pete Fowler on the lightbulb full of water on his studio ceiling: "I think I'm going to keep it!"

Finally, from Bailey, the Lennon/McCartney postcard:

PS If you're going to the show, look out for the Alys card below. By chance, one of this year's submissions is a torn half of the card given out at Alys's Tate exhibition.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Secret postcards

The Royal College of Art's 'Secret' exhibition is back in March. To raise money for the college's bursary schemes, more than 1,000 famous and not-so-famous artists will anonymously pit their talents against the postcard's form.

At the end of the exhibition, cards will be sold off for £45 each. Post purchase buyers find out who made their cards.

Photo of the RCA Secret from 2011

Of late, I've been reading Jeremy Cooper's Artists' Postcards, an excellent compendium of how the postcard has been used by different artists since 1900. It's quite a book. And I bet more than a few RCA artists refer to it as they create their cards for 2013.

At a pace, Cooper takes you through the canon(?) of postcard art: René Magritte's postcard magazines, Gilbert & George's Post Card Sculptures, Paul Morton's Thatcher Therapy (a dot-to-dot postcard suggesting you draw a pencil mesh over a photo of the ex-PM), Joseph Beuys' wooden postcards, Rachel Whiteread's hole-punched cards...

Two cards stood out, though. It's always the personal connections ultimately, isn't it?

The first, a 1908 Donald McGill postcard titled "In the Asylum".  The image shows a red-nosed man, grinning from behind the bars of a cell door.

Above him is a sign:

CAUSE: Picture-postcard collecting
CONDITION: Up the pole
REMARKS: Thinks he's a Gibson Girl 

How cruel Donald!? How cruel.

The second card was made by Belgian artist Francis Alÿs. I first came across Alÿs when a friend showed me this film of him painting a line in the middle of a road in Panama. I love it.

This is the Alÿs postcard in Cooper's book:

Image from artpdf blog 

Copies were given to visitors to the Tate exhibition of Alÿs' work in 2010.

The card caught my eye, not just because it was made by Alÿs but because of the contrast with a Rough Sea postcard I bought recently.

The Rough Sea series was one of the most popular in Edwardian Britain. Published by Tuck's, some say it tapped into Britain's island psyche, others that the cards have a deep erotic charge.

While I really like Rough Sea cards, I resist collecting them. One thing I have learnt is that to avoid ending up in McGill's collecting asylum you have to set some limits.

Rather than buying it for the image, I bought it to add to my collection of old postcard messages. Specifically, I bought it to add to a new category of cards I've noticed: empty postcards, postcards without written messages.

Increasingly, I'm coming to think of them as secret postcards.

RCA Secret opens on Thursday 14 March at the Dyson Building in Battersea, London. The sale takes place on Saturday 23 March. If you're going, good luck!

Thursday 10 January 2013

A postcard from "G and G"

Two years ago my grandparents sent me a postcard.

On the front, in Bamforth “COLOR GLOSS”, is a photograph of Morecambe: the seaside resort where they lived from 1948 until my grandmother died in 2012. The card is written by Grandpa yet signed "G and G".

Since Granny passed away the card’s essence rests in the moment it was written, in how my grandparents would have been together when Grandpa put pen to card.

More than the written message, more than the image on the front, the card is special because it was sent by them to me: this card was with us, it appears to say, it is now with you, we once held it, today you do.


Before it took on this aura, the postcard was primarily a puzzle. A joyful, impish puzzle.

When I first picked it up, everything seemed in order. Card No. 49 “Morecambe from the Air”, signed by my grandparents who lived there.

But although I have been to the town countless times, the Morecambe on the card’s front is unfamiliar to me. Its main landmarks no longer exist. At the top is the Central Pier, burnt down more than twenty years ago. In the foreground is the enormous Swimming Stadium, demolished in the 1970s.

The postcard was a temporal trick by my grandfather:

"Hi Guy! Thought you might like this card. I took the photo in the early 1970s. It was good to see you last week. Keep in touch. G and G."

Over Christmas I took the card back to Morecambe with my dad, on a visit to see Grandpa.

We sat in Grandpa's front room, Grandpa, Dad and I, and used the card to reminisce. Over cups of tea, he explained how and why he took the photograph for Bamforth.

To understand how he came to take the photo we needed to go back forty years. To understand the significance of the photo to him, we went back further - to the 1930s.

Grandpa first visited Morecambe when he was sixteen years old, on holiday with a friend. Training to be a musician, he was keen to go the ballroom on the pier.

He still remembers stepping into the ballroom for the first time, being awestruck by the sunshine coming through its windows: "It was like going onboard an ocean liner."

While his friend took to the floor with different Morecambe girls, Grandpa experienced a kind of epiphany. He sat by the side of the dancefloor, lost in the splendour of the ballroom, lost in the music of ‘Richard Valerie and his Broadcast Band’. Gathering his senses together, he took a long look at Valerie and thought, that’s it, that’s what I want to do. 

When he returned home, to Colne in East Lancashire, he took up the saxophone. That dance hall favourite. In 1948, having finished his training and having spent several years touring theatres in the North West, he got the call he had dreamt of. He was to become the next bandleader at the Central Pier.

Now married, he and Granny moved to Morecambe permanently. And for the next 17 years ‘Alvin Atkins and his band’ (pictured below) entertained dancers at the Marine Ballroom, above the water of Morecambe Bay.

But fashions change.

When rock 'n’ roll surfaced with “the three-chord bands”, demand for ballroom dancing faded.

Grandpa and his band had to leave the pier.

He took up a weekly residence at the Midland Hotel, the building in the bottom right-hand corner of the postcard. To supplement his income from this, and that earned from teaching music, he opened a photography studio. He began a second career as a photographer, taking wedding photos and family portraits.

It was at his studio that a representative from Bamforth called to see if he would be interested in taking aerial photos for their postcards. The rep explained how it made sense for a local photographer to take the shots; the tide needed to be in, and the weather fair, so it was too much of a risk for a photographer to travel to Morecambe in case conditions changed.

Excited by the challenge, Grandpa agreed.

One Sunday, when the weather seemed settled, he and Granny drove out to Blackpool airport where he arranged to fly over Morecambe with an amateur pilot.

Hands shaking, the lens stuck out of a flap in the door of the plane, Grandpa successfully took the photos from the sky above Morecambe. And so began a sequence of events that would finish with him selling the cards for which he had taken the images.

After the flight, he sent the ‘transparency film’ to a lab in Brighouse, West Yorkshire. A few days later they sent him a box of slides made from the film. Next, Granny and him drove the box to Bamforth’s offices in Holmfirth. And within a few weeks, after Bamforth had sent the images to Holland for printing, Grandpa had bought a supply of the postcards. From then on, outside his studio, he kept a rack of postcards for sale which included a few of his own.

As we continued to chat, Grandpa rooted out a sister card of “Morecambe from the Air”: card No. 35, “Swimming Pool and Marineland from the air, Morecambe.”

This second card shows a reverse angle of Morecambe, taken after the plane had circled the seafront. Brilliantly, as we passed the cards back and forth, Grandpa delighted in a new thought.

Noticing how much bigger the Swimming Stadium was in the second card, he laughed at how it looks like the plane must have taken a dive, flown lower on its return to Blackpool. But this was not the case. Bamforth must have cropped the image.

In fact, they cropped both cards’ images as the slides he and Granny took to Holmfirth were not in postcard dimensions; they were all two-and-a-quarter inch square. That card No. 49 included the pier and the Midland Hotel, both so important to Grandpa’s musical career, was in part good fortune.

As ever, the afternoon with Grandpa passed quickly.

Always the entertainer, he is a skilful storyteller with an ear for what makes a good tale.

And how the postcard delivered on its potential for initiating stories. As Dad and I drove back from Morecambe, we enjoyed listing all the people involved in its production and distribution: Grandpa,
Granny, the pilot, the Bamforth rep, the film technicians in Brighouse, the staff at Bamforth HQ, the printers in Holland, and the wholesalers from whom Grandpa had bought his stock.

The card from “G and G” is now back in my collection, richer for Grandpa's memories. I only wish I had taken the time to ask the other "G" for more of her stories, while I had the chance.

The full version of this article is published in February's Picture Postcard Monthly.