Reading List

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.

After half an hour of sifting through the boxes of one dealer, I’ll break off to chat to someone I recognize. Maybe a stallholder, or a fellow collector. Maybe the editor of Picture Postcard Monthly; he’s usually found immediately to your left as you come in. Then, at some point I’ll return to the pursuit of cards, find another dealer, and begin looking through their stock.

On top of the chance of finding great ‘new’ cards, I suspect it's the routines and rituals –  both shared and personal –  that make a trip to the market so enjoyable. Aside from the odd tense moment of dealer-collector negotiation, the experience of being there is a very relaxing one. Or in the words of one of the market’s organizers, Dave Smith, “people find it a very comfortable place to be.”

I’ve wanted to interview Dave about the market for a long time. Frustratingly, my first few attempts at doing so proved unsuccessful. For Dave, market day itself is just too busy to spare the time. From setting up at 6 a.m. to removing the stalls late afternoon, there's little time to answer questions not related to the immediate tasks at hand: of answering collectors’ queries at his stall, and of making sure the market is running smoothly. So, instead of talking on market day, I took Dave up on his offer to visit his picture-framing shop in Hendon, in north London, and to interview him there. While busy, the shop is at least a place where Dave can arrange time to take a breather.

On the outer reaches of the Underground network, Hendon was somewhere I’d not been before. And, out of what I think of as Dave’s normal surroundings, it took a while to adjust to seeing him in what really is his permanent place of work. Behind the counter, scores of framing jobs were in the process of being prepared, from old photographs to signed football shirts. Only when I saw some of his postcard stock, shelved in boxes at the back of the store, was I able to connect the shop with the Bloomsbury fair.

It was fascinating chatting to Dave. We talked for almost two hours about elements of the market that are hidden from most collectors, and about the history of the market itself. 

Most interesting was Dave’s account of what occurs at the beginning of the day – how trading begins before the market is properly set up, sometimes even before he has arrived: “It doesn’t matter where they are,” he observed at one point, gently rolling his eyes, “put dealers together and there will always be trading.” 

And then there is the buzz caused by what dealers take to be real treasure: new stock. A recently acquired album from a house clearance, say, will always get the market off to a good start - especially if cards pop up that have not been seen for a hundred years or more.

For Dave, these moments continue to make the market really rewarding, and give it a purpose that goes beyond what is possible through eBay trading. Along with his brother, Phil, who also organizes the fair, Dave still enjoys bringing together enthusiasts in person to share moments of discovery. But as with any enduring institution it is easy to forget that it has not been around forever. In fact, all the rituals and familiar processes obscure the fact that it required considerable ingenuity and effort to create the market, and its continued success is not inevitable.

Bloomsbury collectors fair at the Bloomsbury Crest hotel

Dave was 17 at the time of the first Bloomsbury market, and remembers going along to help set it up. It was the idea of his late father, Clive Smith, and his father’s work colleague, John Smith. The pair – who weren’t related - worked as librarians at The Daily Mirror in Holborn, London; and it was in the newspaper’s library that plans for the market were hatched. After journalists had got all the information they needed for the next day’s edition, the pair would use the ends of shifts to plot ways of putting on a regular postcard fair. Crucially, given their professions, each had a mind capable of categorizing and ordering material like postcards; John had already started producing catalogues of available cards. And so, in the summer of 1977, they booked a hall at the Ivanhoe hotel in central London and invited dealers to take up stalls. Popular straight away, the fair grew quickly, eventually moving venues: first, to the Bloomsbury Crest hotel, and then to its present home at the Royal National in 1990.

Chatting to Dave it struck me how easy it is to forget the debt today’s collectors owe to those who've collected and preserved cards over the years. Perhaps when picking up a card we’ll always think first about the artist, the photographer, the publisher, or the sender of the card. For old postcards though, it's also important to recognize those who make the act of collecting possible. Yes, there is a profit motive to postcard trading, of course there is. But anyone who visits a postcard market will immediately understand it is about a lot more than money: it's a space where collectors uncover forgotten histories, exchange their own takes on the world, and, most importantly, feel comfortable.

Founder of the Bloomsbury postcard market, Clive Smith

1 comment:

  1. Terrific account! - exactly as I see it too - long live Bloomsbury!