Category Archives: Popular culture

Archiving ephemera

Given the volume of paper that flowed into the house from such a substantial list of subscriptions, discussed in the “Reading Ephemera” page, one would expect that piles of back numbers of the various publications might have been stacked in every room. But although there was usually a frantic scramble to impose some semblance of order on the general litter of paper every time the doorbell rang, I don’t remember this being the case. Possibly the paper salvage that had been part of the civilian duty in the “war on waste” during the Second World War continued to influence attitudes to paper ephemera after official programmes had ceased to operate.

1941 Ministry of Supply poster (Source: Imperial War Museum)

1941 Ministry of Supply poster (Source: Imperial War Museum)

In any event, our family seems to have resisted archiving past issues of the periodicals to which we subscribed.  There were, however, a couple of exceptions. The Artist, a large-format monthly targeting a market of amateur painters, was never thrown away, but back issues were stacked inside a long window seat in the front room. They formed a broad stack at one end next to the four or five high piles of piano sheet music. At the other end was a stack of decades-old issues of the arts and crafts movement magazine, The Studio, which my father had preserved from his own father’s collection. Although these two journals were carefully preserved, I don’t recall that they were consulted often, if at all.

My own archival efforts were strangely systematic and selective. With motives that I can no longer recall, I began in my mid-teens to cut out all poems published in John O’London’s, The Listener and Times Literary Supplement and to tape them into scrapbooks.

Sample page containing poems by Benet Weatherhead, Norman McCaig and Alan Ross

Sample page containing poems by Benet Weatherhead, Norman McCaig and Alan Ross

The first volume of these scrapbooks, now lost, included articles and other clippings from these publications, but its two successors concentrate almost exclusively on poems, except for occasional line drawings which seem to have taken my fancy. The third scrapbook is the most systematic—a fat hardcover notebook previously used by my brother for his university chemistry lecture notes—it even incorporates a five page index which must have taken many hours to compile. Looking now at the index of over a hundred and thirty individual poets, it’s striking that so many are still considered notable names in the poetry of the period. The TLS and Listener editors’ preferences seem to have been weighted heavily in the direction of the “Movement” and the later “Group” poets whose influence first derived from their inclusion in Robert Conquest’s New Lines anthology in 1956.

New Lines, 1973

New Lines, 1963

For the most part, these writers recoiled from what they thought of as the rhetorical excesses of Dylan Thomas and revert to the more measured tones they admired in Hardy. The surviving scrapbooks contain multiple poems from these groups, notably Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, D.J. Enright, Donald Davie, Philip Hobsbaum, Edward Lucie-Smith, Peter Porter, and Davil Wevill. The later pages include poems by the differently-influenced Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Theodore Roethke. Neither The Listener nor the TLS seems to have had much truck with the emerging performance-orientated British Poetry Revival or the Mersey Beat poets, though I notice a single poem by Christopher Logue and one by Ian Hamilton. Judging from my almost total recall of several individual poems, I must have pored over these scrapbooks, repeatedly re-reading some entries often enough to commit them to memory. Underlinings and asterisks in the index also provide clues to what seem to have been particular favorites, though the determinants of these choices now seems obscure. Looking now at the asterisked selections, several of which have lodged fairly permanently in my memory, I think that many of them appealed to a young reader’s love of rhyme and emphatic metre more or less regardless of subject matter. Why else would Adrian Mitchell’s “Ode to Money”—“Man-eater, woman-eater, brighter than tigers, /Lover and killer in my pocket,/ In your black sack I’m one of the vipers. Golden-eyed mother of suicide, /Your photo’s in my heart’s gold locket” appeal to someone whose contact with money extended no further than the small change of weekly pocket money?

Adrian Mitchell in the mid 1960s

Adrian Mitchell in the mid 1960s

While perhaps two thirds of the poets appearing in these scrapbooks remain recognizable names from the twentieth century, others, often represented only by a single poem, have passed into literary obscurity.  In at least one instance, though, an individual poem has managed to take on a life of its own beyond the printed page.  Published in 1961, Jenny Joseph’s “Warning”— “ When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
/With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
 . . “ has been absorbed into popular culture and was voted as the UK’s most popular post-war poem in 1996. The poem, or more frequently, its first eight lines, has been reprinted endlessly on posters and greeting cards, and has even spawned an organization for older women, the Red Hat Society. This organization, with its multiple international “chapters” and its on-line shop of society knicknacks, greetings cards and jewelry, must be one of the oddest examples of “escaped literature” &of recent times. Joseph’s poem is cited in the society’s material as the inspiration for its founding, though the society’s structure of membership dues, organized chapters and so forth is strikingly at odds with the more anarchic elements of Joseph’s poem—“I shall go out in my slippers in the rain/ And pick flowers in other people’s gardens/And learn to spit.” Odd as it is, the survival of Joseph’s poem in its many transmutations both in print and in cyberspace is an example of how ephemera can endure quite unpredictably in forms completely detached from their original publication or even from their author. Perhaps no odder than the survival of two of the three original poetry scrapbooks through half a century and a score of house movings.

Complete runs of publications like the National Geographic, Punch, The Listener or the Times Literary Supplement continue a kind of ghostly existence in the stacks of large libraries, consulted only rarely by either specialized or quixotic researchers. Most of the other periodicals, daily, weekly or monthly, that flowed into our house in such regular tides in the post war years barely exist anywhere except for odd caches of microfilm or digitized files. But the hypnotic power they exercise at first reading ensures their persistence in the reader’s memory. The flotsam and jetsam from these tides of print can persist in memory for decades. Etched still deeper in Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” recording her seven year old self transfixed by the National Geographic and finding, fifty two years later,  a nearly total recall so that “it was still the fifth/of February, 1918.”


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Filed under "Escaped" literature, Periodicals, Popular culture

Reading World War One

Although several of my father’s favorite anthologies date from the period following the First World War, they contain little of the poetry now seen as representative of that war’s experience. J.C. Squire’s three volumes of Selections from Modern Poets include nothing by Isaac Rosenberg and only one Wilfred Owen poem: “Strange Meeting.” Three of Siegfried Sassoon’s war poems are included, but the central theme of many of Squire’s choices is of nostalgia for a lost English ruralism, a credo embodied in the opening lines of Gordon Bottomley’s “To Iron-Founders and Others”: “When you destroy a blade of grass/ You poison England at her roots.” The industrial-scale warfare of the Great War, as well as industrialism itself was seen through this “Georgian” lens as threatening a long-lost Country Life view of  a stable, sunny Britain.

It was the First World War rather than the Second that resonated most with my father’s sense of history and continued to rumble away as a kind of ground bass in his consciousness. All three of my father’s older brothers had enlisted and two of them died in their early forties from the effects of being gassed. Many years later I learned that his mother

At her oldest son's wedding 1919

At her oldest son’s wedding 1919


My father (L), Jack (Centre) and Morley( R) in 1914

My father (L), Jack (Centre) and Morley( R) in 1914

may have managed to prevent my father’s enlistment when he turned eighteen in September 1917. It seems, according to local legend, that she took the bus to the recruiting office and announced, “You’ve had three of my sons and you’re not having another,” with sufficient emphasis to keep my father out of the war. Whatever grain of truth belongs to the legend, it appears that she was reluctant to see a third son sacrificed to the war, despite the  deluge of propaganda urging mothers and wives to send their men to war. women of britain 2However, his father seems to have had a taste for the iconography of military propaganda. He devoted some of his spare time to meticulous reproduction of some of the militaristic images in vogue during the war. Years later, one of these efforts—presumably a copy from a poster or newspaper drawing––dominated one wall of my brother’s bedroom.  A framed, poster-sized coloured drawing showed a mounted cavalry officer in the mid-nineteenth century uniform of the 17th Lancers trampling a dragon underfoot. The caption, borrowed from the Lancers’ regimental motto, “Death or Glory” proclaimed, “No surrender! Death or Glory!” It mirrors the typical imagery of the innumerable posters propagandizing the First World War, though the uniform shown harks back to the style worn by the regiment at the time of the catastrophic Charge of the Light Brigade.

"Charge of the Light Brigade," James Edwin McConnell (detail)

“Charge of the Light Brigade,” James Edwin McConnell (detail)

The painstaking copying of such a piece of military propaganda seems an odd choice of hobby for a man who was to outlive two of his sons—their health irrevocably destroyed by an industrialized form of warfare quite unlike the prancing cavalry triumph in the picture. Odd too that my father would have chosen to preserve and display such a piece of sentimentalized homage to military force. Probably though, both father and son saw little or no connection between such iconography and the carnage of the First World War. For most of my grandfather’s adult life popular culture was suffused with the cultural ephemera of imperialism and his taste for militaristic iconography was common enough at the time. In South Riding (1936), Winifred Holtby describes the Beddowes family placidly sitting at the “well-spread table below photogravure pictures portraying those scenes of carnage so popular in Edwardian dining rooms. Horses lashed about in agony, soldiers fell face downwards in the snow unable to answer roll call, cavalry charged across the trampled corn . . . but the Beddowes family ate with excellent appetite, quite undisturbed by hate and slaughter.” Images like that of the “Death or Glory” poster abounded in advertisements, newspaper illustrations and cigarette cards.

Players Cigarette card, 1915

Players Cigarette card, 1915

Both my grandfather and his sons had spent countless hours in Methodist chapels, where, since the 1860s, the favorite non-conformist hymns fused Christianity with militaristic rhetoric. “Christian soldiers” were urged to “Fight the good fight” and “Soldiers of the Cross” were exhorted to “obey the trumpet call” and “Stand up for Jesus.” With such rhetoric and iconography so all-pervasive, no wonder that that it became detached from the reality of war. “Play up! Play up and Play the Game!” my father would expostulate in any number of contexts, sometimes associated with sport, but always remote from its original source in Newbolt’s  “Vitai Lampada” in which the lessons of the public school cricket pitch are transferred to bloody desert warfare in the Sudan,“. . .the regiment blind with dust and smoke./The river of death has brimmed his banks,/And England’s far, and Honour a name,/But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:/‘Play up! play up! And play the game!’”

World War One is now seen as the most literary of all wars of modern times. Its relationship to literary culture has been extensively analysed  by such critics and historians as Paul Fussell. The brilliant work of Fussell and others has tended to focus our attention exclusively on the writers such as Owen and Sassoon who exposed the futility, cruelty and squalor of the war. However, as Peter Buitenhuis has shown in The Great War of Words, Buitenhuis covera cast of established writers (H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett,  Galsworthy,  Masefield, John Buchan, Edith Wharton and even Henry James) systematically  generated jingoistic texts at the British government’s behest, lending a degree of sophistication to the crude imagery of recruitment posters. The theme of the propaganda was the necessity of defending British “decency” and civilization against the onslaught of the brutal “Hun.” It would have been difficult to remain entirely unaffected by this barrage of propaganda from both widely revered “bookmen” in addition to the ubiquitous militaristic imagery. My father’s eldest brother, Wilfred, who was never posted to the front, would refer cholerically to the “Hun” in reminiscences for the rest of his life. The other brothers, Morley and Jack, both severely injured by gas, the latter much decorated for bravery for service in the non-combatant R.A.M.C. in the Somme and the Battle of Ancre, maintained a life-long silence about their war experiences.

Jack in uniform, 1915

Jack in uniform, 1915

On the back of the postcard of Jack in his Royal Army Medical Corps, in what looks like my father’s handwriting, are the lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses:”

                … that which we are, we are;

  One equal temper of heroic hearts,

  Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

  To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.





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“Escaped literature”

One consequence of the intensity with which my grandmother read the few books which were available to her was the way in which their content could become loosed from the printed page and continue a ghostly afterlife, as a species of near-gossip. Fragments from her childhood reading, such as the incident in James F. Cobb’s 1882 novel, The Watchers on the Longships, in which a lighthouse-keeper’s hair turns white overnight from terror at the eerie sounds made by waves in the cave below the rocks, were recounted as historical fact.

For years in my childhood I imagined that my grandmother had personally known a couple who lived in straitened circumstances and had contrived to buy each other Christmas presents, she, by selling her much-admired long hair to wig-makers to buy her husband a fob for his watch, while he, meanwhile, had pawned the watch to buy her a decorative comb for her hair. Only in adulthood when I recounted this story to a startled hearer did I learn that this was O. Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” which I had encountered only as “escaped literature” through my grandmother. This was only one of a number of anecdotes originating in popular literature which I heard my grandmother tell and retell in ways that took on the features sometimes of historical fact, sometimes of gossip. Susan Schibanoff uses the anthropological term “structural amnesia” in her discussion of the ways in which some medieval women readers “behave as if they exist in a totally oral culture, one devoid of written records” in readily detaching texts from their source and integrating them with an ever-changing pattern of oral composition.    This phenomenon of  seamlessly integrating textual narratives into oral transmissions seems to have persisted through centuries to the cultural realities of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Cornwall.

John Bastion's cobbler's shop in Troon

John Bastion’s cobbler’s shop in Troon

O. Henry’s story first appeared in 1906, so my grandmother would presumably have read it as a young married woman and perhaps thought that she and her shoemaker husband were much like the couple in “The Gift of the Magi.” Certainly the narrative of poverty redeemed by love had already been identified as a romantic ideal in her marginalia celebrating “love in a cot” in The Golden Treasury during the years of their courtship. In reality, even though John Bastion plied the modest trade of cobbler, he was something of a “rising man.” Perhaps sensing that industrial shoemaking would soon limit his artisanal skills to mere shoe repair, he soon branched out into property ownership, buying a number of the small “two up, two down” terraced houses in the village and eventually becoming a municipal councilor and, in a small way, “a smiling public man.” The courtship marginalia extolling the joys of love in the midst of “honest poverty” were soon outshone by Mary’s pleasure in her status as “Mrs. John Bastion” and the local prominence conferred by her husband’s position as a town councilor and member of numerous local boards and committees.



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