Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Things Once Common, Now Extinct. No.2: Small Ads.

OK, small ads are not exactly extinct. There’s still Exchange and Mart, I suppose, and various trade publications, but you don’t see pages and pages of little illustrated ads like you used to - daily papers, magazines and comics all crammed with the most strange and unlikely products aimed at the casual reader. TV and the internet have long taken over as the big advertising mediums. It’s a pity. I really don’t know where you’d go, nowadays, if you wanted to buy some X-Ray Specs or a C-Back-O-Scope.

I love small ads. They offer a great history lesson. You can gauge the state of a nation by the tone and content of the advertisements in any given period. UK women’s magazines during the second World War were understandably full of ideas for making the rations stretch a bit further: ‘Buy Brown and Poulson’s Cornflour! (And look! You can turn the box into a pretty little hat!”) Quite. And then paint your legs with the remains of the gravy browning before you go off dancing at the Alhambra.

Some time ago I managed to pick up a bundle of 1930s magazines from Depression era America, and you can smell the desperation in the content of the small ads: ‘Sell Suits On Our Easy Credit Plan!’ ‘Train For Radio and Electricity’, ‘His Salary Raised While Others Fell’, ‘Play Hawaiian Guitar and Earn Big Money! (One Week home tutor course shows you how.’) I can just imagine some poor hungry cracker spending his last few bucks on a Hawaiian guitar. “Kids, our troubles are over!” Then there were the adverts for liver pills, asthma pills, backache, belly-ache and heart-ache pills…

Most of the superhero comics I read as a boy were from the States. This was during the late fifties/early sixties, by which time the small ads at the back told of a land far wealthier than our own. Why, over there, for just a few weeks of summer fun delivering said comics, you could get yourself a wonderful new bike! Free! And look at the thing – it had E-Z-Shift gearing and whitewall tyres and dynamo lights! Crikey, the whole family could probably sit round it of an evening warming their hands on the glow of the paintwork.

And if you were a lazy sod, like me, who’d far rather be reading comics than selling them, you could just work a little less and go for a BB gun instead. (Whatever that might be.) Even a totally wheelchair-bound kid with leukaemia, like my friend Spiggy down the road, could probably earn himself a Real Working Telescope – simply by flinging comics out of his bedroom window into the neighbouring porches.

Well maybe the reality wasn’t quite so simple. Maybe it would have actually taken a bit longer than the projected few weeks to sell the necessary quota of comics (about fifteen million, if I remember rightly) in order to get that bike. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if there are ancient grey-bearded men hobbling around Montana even now, still trying to shift enough copies of Green Lantern to qualify for a Daisy air rifle.

But it was the dream, you see, that was important. I think that when the era of small ads died away, a lot of good dreams died with it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Things Once Common, Now Extinct. No.1. Knitting.

From about 1929 – 1957 girls used to be born with a knitting needle in each hand. It was a kind of evolutionary and cultural blip, tricky for the midwives of the time but they coped. By marriageable age a girl was expected to be able to knit her own trousseau, and, in some of the remoter parts, a husband to go with it.

Knitting skills became so developed that during the Second World War women were often employed in munitions, taking the place of engineers. My own mother used to knit Halifax bombers. It was all done to the standard Sirdar pattern and straightforward enough, Mum said, although the tail-gunner’s turret required some concentration what with the reverse stitching.

After demob, when all the men came home, this kind of precision knitting was no longer required, but many women kept it up as a hobby. Instead of producing tanks and submarines they knitted clothes for their children – still with that same ironclad quality to the design. This is the knitting that I remember.

Take the balaclava helmet, for instance. It made me laugh this week to hear of some entrepreneur who’d come up with the idea of ‘slashproof’ blazers for schoolchildren – clothing able to withstand a knife attack - as if this was something new. Knife attack? The balaclavas my mother made for me would have been proof against heavy mortar fire. You could have dipped me in a volcano wearing one of those things and I’d have been OK.

Working on the munitions production lines had given Mum a taste for the mechanical, and it wasn’t long before she got herself a professional knitting machine. There was no stopping her then. The sound of the Passap whizzing back and forth was part of the background noise in our house, and not a week went by when we children didn’t sally forth into the streets wearing some creation calculated to stagger humanity. Jumpers, mittens, hats, skirts…I think I even had a pair of woollen swimming trunks at one point. Although I’ve been trying to block that particular memory out, and now I’ve gone and thought about it again. Damn.

And the wool itself…can’t imagine where that came from. Some very special shop. Beano wool, as opposed to Marks and Spencer wool. It was always flecked – pink with black fleck, green with pink fleck, black with green fleck. But purple with black fleck was the favourite, and this one used to match the complexion of the embarrassed wearer very nicely.

I begin to wonder whether the whole thing wasn’t an exercise in persuading children to leave home as soon as possible. It worked for me. On the very day that my mother knitted me a pair of stilts I ran away and joined the circus.

You really don’t see that kind of knitting any more.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Zen and the Art of Computer Maintenance

I have an uneasy relationship with computers, as friends and regular readers will know. But my latest crash has helped me to understand the beast a little better, and I can now offer a few Zen-based maintenance tips for those interested.

The fundamental mistake I've made in the past is in imagining a computer to be an inanimate object. It’s not. A computer is a godless and uneducated little twerp. It needs to be cosseted, humoured and then finally brought to enlightenment. So:

1. Never place a cup of coffee and a Danish pastry anywhere near a computer. It will become insanely jealous and immediately start to play up.

2. Never go into ‘Search’ and ask three questions in a row that a computer can’t answer. Computers like to appear intelligent and it rags them off no end if you show up the limitations of their 0/1 code system. The sound of one hand clapping is a good example. Hard enough for us humans to grasp, but damn near impossible in binary.

3. Never set a computer a long and boring task and then just wander off in search of something more distracting to look at (a snail crossing the patio, for instance). Computers become morose and recalcitrant if you don’t continually boost their self esteem. You need to stick around, saying things like "Wow! 4% downloaded already and only thirty five minutes gone! This machine is amazing!” Stuff like that. You might then be able to slip out into the kitchen just for two seconds and make yourself some Welsh Rabbit, although it's still likely that you'll find a sly and sulky note waiting for you upon your return: An error has occurred…Windows needs to close...

4. Computers appreciate a little nap in the afternoons. It recharges their batteries. Don’t make them do anything complicated between 3.15 and 4.30.

5. Computers think of themselves as being interesting - artistic even. Learn to pander to their little flounces, and be creative in your response. When your screen freezes, don’t just switch it off and reboot, because then all this BIOS stuff will come up and it’s like reading Catalan. Try pouring a teaspoonful of olive oil into the LAN socket instead, and then sticking the tip of your little finger in there and wiggling it about a bit. This will help keep your relationship with your computer fresh and exciting. I like to keep a tin of lighter fuel and a Zippo on my workdesk. It’s kind of a Hendrix thing. Makes my Toshiba feel like a Strat. I mean I might start typing with my teeth or set the keys ablaze at any moment. Just knowing that seems to keep my computer in a good state of alertness.

6. Remember that in this Zen-like journey together it’s you who must establish yourself as the Master, with your computer as pupil – not the other way around. So when you type ‘BlueBird’ into Google Image search and some big girl with no clothes on pops up, you must appear disappointed but never shocked. Don’t jerk back from the screen in alarm and start pounding at the exit keys will-nilly. Peer a little closer and say, “Well, that’s the worst likeness of Donald Campbell I ever saw. And anyway, what I was really looking for was toffees. The BlueBird brand. As established by Harry Vincent of Birmingham.1927.” Your computer will feel slightly ashamed of itself, but also impressed by your superior breadth of knowledge. It will then achieve enlightenment and go off and get you the toffees.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


My computer's disappeared down a rabbit hole. Again. Managed to get back online with my laptop, but email's not working. Apologies to anybody currently waiting to hear from me.