More Stamps

An assortment of postage stamps as were affixed to a parcel.

Frequently ordering items from ebay one might sometimes recieve a parcel decorated with an assortment of old postage stamps. One such delivery came disconcertingly adorned with at least a dozen stamps commemorating the wedding of Charles & Diana – a mere forty or so years after the event itself. Last week there arrived a consignment of stationery whose postage had been paid for by the eight stamps shown above – one of them dating as far back as 1977.

An assortment of postage stamps as were affixed to a letter from the U.S.A.

Other recent arrivals in the post have included letters from the U.S. bearing the trio of stamps above, and, below, one from Russia with half-a-dozen stamps on it.

An assortment of postage stamps as were affixed to letter from Russia.


A copy of the UK 'Signed Independent Bookstore Edition' of 'James' by Percival Everett.

Chepstow Books & Gifts is the nearest proper bookshop to where I live. It’s a good little shop but I seldom buy there owing to my usual penny-pinching preference for used volumes. The amount of stock they can carry, moreover, is necessarily limited by their small premises. Looking around a few weks ago I spotted paperback copies of Percival Everett’s novels The Trees and Dr. No on their shelves and considered buying one or other of them, having been vaguely curious for a few years about this author’s work. Then, displayed on a table, I spied a ‘Signed Independent Bookstore Edition’ of his latest novel James and ended up buying that instead. I finished reading it the other day.

The novel is “a re-imagining of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the perspective of the runaway slave character Jim.” as wikipedia briefly summarizes it. I barely recalled the plot of Huckleberry Finn having read it over forty years ago, but that proved no impediment to enjoying this re-telling of the tale. Hazardous as grafting one’s story on to another writer’s work must be, Everett makes a great success of it here, lightening the desperate drama of the protagonist’s predicament with sharp and clever humour. While it’s not without some rough edges, I don’t think that further polishing would necessarily have improved on the entertaining and thought-provoking story we have.

Percival Everett's signature in a copy of his novel 'James'.


A goat in the grounds of a French château.

The year before last I attended a wedding at a French château, specifically Château de la Malmaison. Not, that is, the similarly-named and rather more famous Château de Malmaison, but this one in Champagne, between Épernay and Reims. An early 19th-Century house, it was built on the site of an older, fortified dwelling, of which there remained only the dried-out moat that had once surrounded it. In the moat, one might find a goat.

The house’s owners keep a small herd of goats which help maintain the grounds. Enticed by the appetising foliage in the fenced-off garden within the moat, the goats often approached the fence as if sizing it up in the hope of finding a weak spot to break through. I took the pictures with my Nikon FM3a on Kodax Tri-X 400 film. The five rolls of film I used over that long weekend were the last ones I sent off to be developed by the excellent Peak Imaging in Sheffield before their closure.

A goat in the grounds of a French château.


A small basket made in Eritrea.

When I had my first blog I’d occasionally run giveaways on it to distribute books and CDs I no longer wanted or needed to whomever claimed them. In the wake of one of these giveaways, I received an email from a young man in Asmara, Eritrea, inquiring about one of the books. He was nominally a student in electrical engineering, he said, but the facilities and the course itself left a great deal to be desired. Having managed to learn English, he was eager to read English-language books, then in very short supply in Asmara. The volume he’d asked about was one I’d already sent elsewhere, but I posted off some others to him.

We maintained a sporadic email correspondence for six or seven years thereafter. Now and then I’d send him more books and other odds & ends, and he reciprocated by sending items in return. I was grateful for the bags of shiro powder he sent – my introduction to that foodstuff. Among the items he mailed to me was the decorative basket pictured above. It’s a beautifully-made thing, roughly 11cm/4⅓" tall, and with a similar diameter. The purplish colouration around the lid (which fits neatly and snugly) has faded slightly over the years. I used it to store garlic for a while until I stopped eating the stuff. Since then it’s been in need of a new purpose.

Brasil Universo

The cover of 'Brasil Universo' by Hermeto Pascoal (1986).

At ‘The Vinyl Spinner’ in Monmouth last month I took a chance on a late-’80s record by the Brazilian composer and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal: Brasil Universo. It cost me £12, so I was relieved to find I greatly enjoyed it. The opening number ‘Mentalizando A Cruz’ begins with a few minutes of arresting solo piano before the rest of Pascoal’s band join in as he meanwhile hums and whistles, the whole thing eventually culminating in a wonky groove akin to off-kilter children’s music. On ‘Peixinho’ guest singer Jane Duboc contributes some vocalese as band-members ‘sing’ along with her on flute and saxophone.

Pascoal seems to be the sort of open-minded soul who can find music in almost any sound, and who, given the opportunity, will bring almost any sound into his music. The first track on side B, ‘O Tocador Quer Beber’, shimmies along irresistably for the most part like a popular accordion-powered tune from earlier in the 20th Century – aside from some brief freak-outs where voices and chicken noises come in to the mix. That’s followed by the somewhat discordant ‘Arapuá’, that would seem harder on the ears if it weren’t kept moving so briskly by its propulsive rhythms. The concluding tune, meanwhile, ‘Calma de Repente’ has some heartfelt vocals over acoustic guitars. It’s a varied album full of ideas & with many twists and turns.

The cover of 'The Wonderful World Of Antonio Carlos Jobim' (1965).

The same day, from the same place, I picked up something else with a Brazilian flavour in the shape of The Wonderful World Of Antonio Carlos Jobim (1964), where the great songwriter plays and sings his own tunes accompanied by master arranger Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. Reputedly Riddle’s favourite among the many records he worked on, it’s a thing of mellow beauty.


Chamomile tea in a Spode tea-cup.

One day in the cafeteria at a former place of employment I saw a colleague sipping at a cup of some yellowish infusion, rather than her customary cappuccino. She told me it was chamomile tea. I’d heard of the stuff, but hadn’t hitherto seen anyone drink it. The stress of the place had been getting to her, she said, and she needed something without caffeine in it. Knocking back my usual espresso I felt slightly smug that I was weathering that workplace’s unreasonable demands a little better than her. Within a few weeks though, our roles were reversed. At the tail end of a nasty migraine I had a first taste of chamomile for myself.

It was OK. Its softly bland flavour struck me as unexceptionable. Although a sub-optimal substitute for the proper tea and coffee I prefer, there are times – such as now – when it meets a need. In the picture is some Teapigs chamomile in a Spode cup decorated with a ‘Geranium’ pattern apparently first used ca. 1820. The cup and saucer were given to me about twelve years ago, and have seen very regular use ever since. Alas the cup has now developed a crack along one side so may not have much more mileage left in it.


The gilt titling on the cover of a book entitled 'Esparto Paper'.

Esparto is a species of hardy, fibrous grass native to Iberia and the Maghreb. Its dried blades were traditionally used to make mats, baskets, rope and sandals (espadrilles were made from esparto). From the 1830s it begain to attract the attention of British paper-makers, who had been increasingly desperate for additional sources of raw material for paper pulp other than linen or cotton rags. The supply of rags was becoming ever less sufficient for the ramifying demands of imperial bureaucracy, steam-powered industry and burgeoning mass literacy. In 1850, one Thomas Routledge was the first to devise an economical means of manufacturing paper from esparto. By 1880, it was a mainstay of British paper-making, a position it retained for about a century, until wood-pulp came to predominate, as it had already done in most other paper-making nations.

In 1956 came the publication, by ‘The Association of Makers of Esparto Papers’, of the book whose title is shown above. The volume opens with a pictorial guide following esparto from the harvesting of the grass to the reeling, cutting and stacking of the finished paper. At the end is a short treatise describing the same process. Between them are samples of several varieties of paper such as ‘Offset Cartridge’, ‘Deckle-Edge Antique Laid’, ‘Featherweight Laid’, ‘Duplicator Wove Tinted’, and, as below, ‘Imitation Art’. Art-paper was typically coated to achieve the kind of smooth, bright & glossy finish suitable for the reproduction of paintings, etc. By pressing and polishing uncoated paper it was possible to achieve an approximation of that effect, hence ‘Imitiation’ Art.

A page of so-called 'Imitation Art' paper made from esparto.


Letterpress printing sample incorporating phrases from Wyndham Lewis' 'BLAST' manifesto.

Above is a scan of a letterpress printing sample which incorporates phrases from Wyndham Lewis' Vorticist Manifesto, as expounded in the first of the two issues of BLAST magazine (1914). A friend with a long-standing interest in the various strands of modernism, and a specific fascination with Vorticism, had acquired his own late 19th century printing-press, which he set up in his garage. The sheet above is one of the several products of that press that have come my way. I’ve had a number of sets of letterheadings printed on it too, with, I hope, a new batch to come in the near future.

Specifically, the phrases above are from the 6th section of the first part of the Manifesto, which is on page 18 of the original magazine. Lewis was a man of many animosities, some of which seem to have softened over time – I’m not sure if his hostility toward the Victorian era & its artistic productions was among them.


Five volumes published by the Tartarus Press.

Five of the fifteen or so volumes in my library published by the excellent Tartarus Press are shown above. Going from top to bottom, the first was among my earliest Amazon purchases: a 1998 edition, bought when it was new, of Arthur Machen’s novel The Hill of Dreams. It’s a book that made a deep impression on me when I first read it in my twenties. This copy has been in a slightly distressed condition since a run in with my last-but-one dog. Tartarus have published many of Machen’s works, and have done likewise for Robert Aickman, whose collection Cold Hand in Mine comes next. This is a copy from their 2016 edition. Cold Hand in Mine was the first collection of Aickman’s stories I’d read, initially in a tatty paperback, and it remains my favourite of his books.

Third is a collection of Marcel Schwob’s fiction entitled The King in the Golden Mask (and Other Stories), as translated from the French by Iain White. It’s a 2012 edition based on one first published thirty years beforehand. Schwob, whose work was a notable influence on Jorge Luis Borges, has been a great favourite of mine since I first read a story of his in the Atlas Press anthology The Book of Masks twenty-five or so years ago. Next is one of Tartarus' original publications: N.A. Sulway’s intriguing novel Rupetta, with this, its first edition, dating from 2013. Last is one of two volumes (I do also have the other one) comprising the “complete short stories (and other related works)” by Denton Welch, issued in 2005 under the title Where Nothing Sleeps. As with the two volumes above it, this one’s spine has been sunned a shade or two lighter than when it was new.


Some colourful tents in front of Caerphilly Castle.

Here’s a photo of some colourful tents in front of Caerphilly Castle. The tents were there for the duration of the ‘Big Cheese’ festival in 2010. It’s a Kodachrome slide which doesn’t really show that film to its best advantage. Had there been blue sky and brighter sunlight, I think it would have come out significantly better. In any light, moreover, green wasn’t Kodachrome’s best colour. Still, it’s as good a shot as I was going to get on the day.

Mediæval castles are two a penny in this part of the world, though admittedly the one at Caerphilly is on the larger side and fairly well-preserved. I’m not especially fond of the things myself: as with military architecture in general, I find castles to be rather dreary, unless thoroughly dilapidated – or designed to decorate rather than subjugate.


An open pocket-sized Filofax personal organiser bound in pink leather.

When I arrived in St. John’s eleven years ago, there must have seemed something suspicious about the two large bags of luggage I’d brought for a four or five-day stay. In any event I was asked to wait to be questioned by an immigration officer. Having asked about the reason for my visit (to attend a funeral), the lady began looking through my bags and then enquired, as she fished out a pink Filofax personal organiser, leafing through it, whether I’d visited the city before, and what connection I had with the place. I replied that I’d visited several times because it was my wife’s home town, and that she’d recently died and that it was her funeral I had come for. The Filofax had been hers, I added, whereupon the officer dropped it back into my bag like it was hot. After a few more questions about where I was staying and the date and location of the funeral, I was allowed to get on my way.

Among the bereaved are many who take comfort in being surrounded by their late loved ones' personal effects. I, on the other hand, found it less painful to give away or dispose of all but a very few of my wife’s things. The Filofax was one of the handful of mementoes I kept. I still use it to this day, if only as an address book. Filofaxes had their heyday in the ’80s, when they became fashionable accessories, but this one is only about twenty years old–from a time when there had already been several generations of electronic organisers, but before the advent of the smartphone. The Filofax brand is still current now: who is still buying their organisers today, I wonder?

A closed pocket-sized Filofax personal organiser bound in pink leather.


Four CDs of music by (or featuring) Tyondai Braxton.

Above are four CDs of music by (or featuring) the American composer and musician Tyondai Braxton. My introduction to his work came via the 2007 album Mirrored by Battles (top left), whose front-man he was at the time. Its lead single ‘Atlas’ fascinated me, even if I only seldom returned to listen through the album as a whole. Two years later, Braxton’s solo album Central Market (top right) appeared, a highly original confection of electronic and ‘classical’ instrumentation. The unfamiliar blend of sounds and the peculiarly jaunty rhythms combine to disconcerting effect. I’m still not even sure I like this music, but now and again I’ll get drawn back to listen to it again.

HIVE1 (bottom left, 2015) is a predominantly electronic affair, with the sounds of synths and samplers augmented by percussion. I don’t know whether the percussion is likewise synthetic, or ‘organic’. ‘Gracka’ might be my favourite track on it. Unlike its predecessors, it’s a record I straightforwardly enjoy hearing all the way through. Bottom right is the most recent arrival of the four, ordered a couple of months ago, namely Telekinesis (2022). This is a single composition for large orchestra and chorus (with additional electric guitar and live electronics) that falls into four sections and has a total playing time of about 35 minutes. It’s music inspired by the anime Akira, without being any kind of retrospective soundtrack to it. I prefer the opening two ‘movements’ to the closing ones, but then I’m still getting to know the piece so my feelings could well change.

Kidderton Ash

Some 'Kidderton Ash' goats' milk cheese.

One day about six years ago, on my weekly trip to the supermarket, I found the shelves all but bare of milk and bread. There had been a light fall of snow, a relatively uncommon phenomenon hereabouts, but one which awakens an irrepressible urge in my compatriots to stock up on these two essential items at all costs, lest the inch of snow on the ground bring all food distribution to an immediate standstill. A few bottles of goats' milk were about all that remained: I felt the time was right to try some.

My first few sporadic encounters with goats' milk cheeses had not left a positive impression. I found their caprine tang decidedly off-putting. The milk too had an undeniable note of goat which did not appeal at first taste. On trying it a second and third time, however, my initial distaste gave way to tolerance. I wasn’t converted all at once, but this equivocal experience prompted me to start trying the occasional piece of goats' milk cheese with renewed curiosity. One of those that I grew to enjoy was ‘Kidderton Ash’, an opened pack of which is shown in the photo above.

It’s one of the many products sold by Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses, based in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley. The milk apparently comes from their farms, but I gather the cheese is made in Cheshire. The developing cheeses are sprinkled with ash, which reputedly encourages the formation of an edible rind. It’s a fairly mild cheese with just a slight hint of goatiness adding a little depth to its flavour.

Paper for Books, etc.

Two old books comprising numerous paper samples.

Here are a couple more of the books of paper samples I’ve collected. Robert Horne’s Paper for Books (‘A comprehensive survey of the various types of paper used in book production’) dates from 1961, and is a revised & enlarged edition that followed an original one in ‘53. There were multiple editions of Edward H. Dawe’s Paper and its Uses (‘A Treatise for Printers, Stationers and Others’) with my copy of vol. 2 belonging to the one issued in 1929. I’ve yet to acquire a matching copy of vol. 1. Dawe’s book covers more ground than Horne’s, with sections devoted to writing papers, cover & wrapping papers as well as printing papers.

The samples in Paper for Books are grouped into four sections, the first of which is concerned with “bulky book papers … from featherweights to smooth woves.” On the subject of so-called featherweight papers, Horne’s introductory text has some disparaging remarks which, I think, still have some relevance today (at least here in the UK). Such paper, he writes, “has as much guts, character and ‘feel’ as a wet blanket”. He continues:

Publishers rely on their customers, the booksellers, and booksellers have to please their customers, the public. They claim, in fact, that the man in the street … gauges the value of a book by its bulk: some would even, in their insistence on bulk, seem to claim that the public buys its books by the inch. A 320-page book at 12s. 6d., bulking half an inch, will stay on the shelf, while a 240-page book at 15s, bulking one inch, will sell out in no time! Or so some booksellers seem to believe.

Speaking for ourselves, we should much prefer a book to be slim, printed on good paper, so that it took up less room in the pocket, in a brief case, or on the shelf…. However, Featherweight appears to be what many publishers want, so we muct continue to order it from the manufacturers. For there is no gainsaying that, substance for substance, Featherweight is the bulkiest paper made.


A scan of five assorted bookmarks.

Above are five assorted bookmarks packed with books I’ve ordered on-line. From left to right:

  • One of several Blackwell’s bookmarks I’ve accumulated.
  • One with a Periodic Table of the Elements on it courtesy of The Book Depository, now defunct.
  • A bookmark from the London Review Bookshop advising us to “Fill your brain with ideas, your bag with books, and your mouth with cake.”
  • A bookmark from the famous Strand Books in New York (“18 Miles of Books”).
  • One from Dark Rose Books whose tagline, on the reverse of the bookmark, is “Sourcing the best gothic books to satisfy your dark side.”

Shelf-Portrait (vii)

A bookcase filled with poetry books.

Three or four years ago I had the idea of devoting more space on my bookshelves to poetry. I very seldom re-read works of fiction: once I’ve read a story I hardly ever feel the need to revisit it. As the passing of time continues to take its toll, it could be that a weakening memory might lend more appeal to re-reading novels and short stories, but for now most the volumes in the fiction section of my library are little more than mementoes of past pleasures. To my mind, poems are more akin to songs in that I can ‘listen’ to them repeatedly with little or no diminution of enjoyment. Such was the basis for a determined effort to make room for verse at the expense of prose.

I allocated one of my IKEA-like bookscases for poetry. At first it was half empty, but gradually it filled up as new acquisitions arrived, until, a couple of months ago, the last bit of free space was taken, as is shown – none too clearly, alas – in the image above. The bookcase is in rather a small room directly opposite my desk. To get the picture I had to clamber underneath the desk with a 24mm lens attached to my Nikon D70S (I suppose I could have just used my phone). About half of the volumes are by individual authors, and the rest are anthologies. The former are organised alphabetically by author name, the latter are grouped more arbitrarily according to ‘keywords’ which may relate to the title, or the editor, or the publisher, or the nationality of the poets featured the book.


Monochrome photo of some dried-out thistles on a hilltop, with a blurred radio transmitter tower in the background.

Along the eastern side of the Taff valley north of Quaker’s Yard and Treharris is a ridge, part of which is known as Mynydd-y-Capel (‘Chapel Mountain’). On this hilltop, Ordnance Survey maps indicate the presence of “Forest Chapel (Remains Of)”. Intrigued by this point on the map, and living nearby at the time, I decided to walk up there and take a look, ascending the hill through Treharris on a road that became a track that became a path that then petered out to nothing as I continued north.

It proved more of a real hike than the leisurely walk I’d anticipated. Atop Mynydd-y-Capel there were wonderful views, but the remains of the chapel – if indeed I was even looking in the right place – were desultory: some scattered bits of grey stone. There was one spot, a natural hollow near what seemed to be the summit, which afforded a surprising degree of shelter from the buffetting breeze, and where there was an eerie silence. I could imagine that being an appropriate locale for spritual reflection.

I stopped to take a few photos along the way. While there was still a track to follow, my eye was caught by some skeletal thistles which foregrounded a radio or TV transmission tower. I used a Mamiya C330 loaded with Adox CHS 25 film to take the picture, and developed the film at home using Tanol, with very pleasing results. I slightly cropped the square frame for the image above. My over-ambitious walk left me dehydrated, footsore, and with the beginnings of a migraine, but at least I had something to show for it.

Five Ties

Five silk neckties.

The necktie has become a thing of the past. It was the done thing at the outset of my career as a software developer in the early ’90s to wear a suit & tie to work, which is what I routinely did for a decade or so. As befits someone my age, I still have at least a dozen of the things, currently all draped around the neck of a mannequin. Five of them are shown in the photo above.

Four of the five date back to the last century. The leftmost one is an Eredi Pisanò tie I bought in Rome in ‘97. The distressed-looking green one has a lovely marbled pattern which is difficult to see in the picture. I picked it up at Alberto Valese Ebrù in Venice, who sold all manner of marbled papers and fabrics. In the middle is a stolen item, a Bill Blass tie that came into my hands after an airport baggage reclaim mix-up in Canada. My then-fiancée spotted the tie in the bag that was not mine, and insisted it would suit me and that I should keep it: I was too besotted (with her, not the tie) to argue the point. Second from right – another one not in the best of shape – is the tie I wore on my wedding-day. It’s a ‘Principles for men’ tie purchased at the Debenhams in Crawley ca. September ‘99.

Lately I’ve only worn ties to weddings and funerals. I wore the one on the right of the photo to my niece’s wedding last year. I’d ordered it on-line from Charles Tyrwhitt. Not pictured is the plain black tie I wore to a funeral a few months later. Such occasions are now just about the only ones where knotting a length of silk around one’s neck is still standard practice.

String Quartets

The sleeve of a late-'60s LP featuring the 2nd and 3rd String Quartets composed Carl Nielsen' rum.

Above is the sleeve of a 1968 LP, acquired last month, on which the second and third of Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s four string quartets are performed by the Copenhagen Quartet. I’m still getting to know these pieces, but my provisional preference out of the two is for the more straightforwardly ebullient second over the third. I very much like the record’s cover image too (very much of its time). The style of the drawing or painting seems maddeningly familiar, though the sleeve only credits the ‘Decca Publicity Art Department’ with the sleeve design: I don’t know if they commissioned the image or made it themselves. I have my doubts that it’s an actual depiction of the Copenhagen Quartet.

The record brings the current count of string quartets I have on vinyl up to thirty-one. As well as the Nielsen ones there’s Berg’s Quartet Op. 3; three late Beethoven quartets (nos. 14-16); Borodin’s renowned 2nd (two renditions of that one); three of Dvořák’s (nos. 8, 10 & 12); no fewer than a dozen by Haydn (plus another one misattributed to him); Elgar’s op. 83 Quartet; both of Janáček’s; Ravel’s sole Quartet; Prokofiev’s 2nd; both of Smetana’s; & Tchaikovsky’s 1st. There’s some overlap between that list and the rather longer one of CD string quartet recordings on my shelves. At one time or another I’ve also owned (on vinyl) some Mozart quartets; a couple by Schubert; at least three more of Beethoven’s; four of Bartók’s and yet more of Haydn’s. I’d love to find some of Shostakovich’s quartets too on black plastic one of these days, despite already having most of them in digital form.

Santiago de Cuba

The label on a bottle of 8-year-old 'Santiago de Cuba' rum.

Aside from my old favourite Havana Club, the only other Cuban rum I’ve tried has been the Santiago de Cuba brand. For my 53rd birthday I was given a bottle of the 11-year-old ‘Extra Añejo’ variety. I loved the stuff – I’d say it’s my favourite out of all the rums I’ve sampled in recent years. Last year, the 8-year-old version began to appear on local supermarket shelves, and, in time, I picked up a bottle. I find it very nearly as good as its elder sibling.

This is a brand purportedly “developed to be paired with the finest Cuban cigars”. I can imagine such a combination working very well indeed, but it’s been too long since I smoked my last cigar for me to be tempted to try it. In any case, I greatly enjoy the rum on its own, accompanied only by some good music.

The 'warranty' label on a bottle of 'Santiago de Cuba' rum.

Fine Paper

One half of a set of sample papers included in Silvie Turner's 'The Book of Fine Paper'.

In Silvie Turner’s The Book of Fine Paper (1998), as well as the many descriptions and photographs of hand-made and other fancy art papers, there is a folder within containing eighteen small samples (each about 2¼"x1¾") arrayed “so that their character, weight and texture can be felt”. These range from some filmy 10gsm “Khadi Himalayan” stuff from Nepal to a thick & heavily-textured French 350gsm “Colombe/Larroque Duchêne” paper.

The other half of a set of sample papers included in Silvie Turner's 'The Book of Fine Paper'.

Other manufacturers featured include Fabriano, Hahnemühle and Dieu Donné. The book as a whole has more emphasis on papers for artists and craftspeople than the writing papers that more specifically interest me, but it’s nevertheless a highly informative volume and one I’m glad to have on my shelves. Mine is an ex-library copy that once belonged to the University of Salford, where it seems not to have been much used.

Postcard from Košice

A postcard sent from Košice in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

The city of Košice in eastern Slovakia is one of the locales mentioned in Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH (mentioned in my previous post). Although it didn’t play any sigificant part in the story of “Operation Anthropoid”, Binet recounted how time he spent teaching there in the ’90s was a foundational influence on his becoming obsessed with the subject.

The postcard above was sent to me from Košice in 1989 by my then-flatmate who had gone for a week or two as part of a long-standing inter-university exchange programme. He had the good fortune to arrive at a heady moment when the ‘Velvet Revolution’ was gathering pace, joining with his hosts in some of the on-going mass demonstrations, and learning the phrase slobodné voľby teraz! (‘free elections now!'). His message on the card didn’t mention any of that, praising instead the virtues of Prazdroj, which I already knew and loved in its exported form as ‘Pilsner Urquell’.

The postmark and stamp on a postcard from Košice.

War Stories

Hardback copies of the novels 'HHhH' by Laurent Binet and 'Fatelessness' by Imre Kertész.

Above are two novels in translation I’ve read recently set in World War II: HHhH by Laurent Binet and Fatelessness (aka Fateless) by Imre Kertész. These editions were published in 2012 and ‘05 respectively. Both were acquired second-hand at the excellent Broadleaf Books in Abergavenny.

HHhH relates the rise to prominence of the notorious high-ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich, and follows the ultimately successful plot to assassinate him. The story is thinly fictionalised in a post-modern sort of a way with numerous asides about the author’s misgivings in mixing invention with historical fact, and about the practicalities of writing of the book and of the research behind it – sort of like seeing a movie intercut with scenes from its own ‘making-of’ featurette. How much one enjoys the result will depend, I think, on how well one gets along with Binet’s authorial presence. A few irritating instances aside, I got along with him very well. The story of the assassination is an inherently gripping one, and Binet conveys its high-stakes intensity in fine style.

The plans laid by Heydrich resulted in a flood-tide of death and suffering when they were set into motion. His death was untimely inasmuch as it came too late to help the millions of people affected, though who knows how much more damage he could have done had he lived longer. Fatelessness concerns one person’s experience of Heydrich’s murderous legacy. A 14-year-old Jewish boy from Budapest, initially more bemused than alarmed by the proliferating rules and restrictions imposed on him and his family, finds himself part of a large group of Jews rounded up and put on a train to Auschwitz. Kertész had himself endured a similar ordeal. His narrator has a detached outlook and a relatively dispassionate ‘voice’, which (so it seemed to me) provided some insulation for the reader from the appalling subject-matter. Even so, I found it a difficult story to read.

All the Fun of the Fair

Kodachrome photo of funfair decor.

A few times each year a travelling ‘family funfair’ sets up in playing fields a few minutes' walk from my home. They were there over the Bank Holiday weekend, packing back up and driving away today. I wonder how the funfair business is holding up in the age of the smartphone. Something that catches my eye in funfairs is the frequently garish decorative art painted on the rides.

Kodachrome photo of funfair decor.

The three pictures here were all taken at Axel’s funfair on one of its stops in Southern Sweden back in ‘08, but I’ve seen similar here in the UK. They were taken with a Nikon F80 camera using Kodachrome film, which gave a further boost to the already bright colours.

Kodachrome photo of funfair decor.

Region 1

A stack of three DVD box-sets and six movies on DVD.

At one time I would have owned well over a hundred DVDs. Now, the ones in the picture above are almost all that remain. In my early forties I somehow lost my ability to enjoy movies. Bad films bored me; loud films irritated me (I’d be delighted if I never saw another superhero movie again); and even well-crafted, well-acted films would make me anxious and fidgety – more so if there was any amount of dramatic catharsis in them. Television likewise became more of an irritant than a comfort, and I eventually threw out my TV a decade ago.

The DVDs my wife and I had accumulated were given away to friends & family, or donated to charity shops. Except, that is, for those few Region 1 discs we’d ordered from the US or Canada. I was wary of releasing those back into the wild with no ready way of reminding prospective buyers that their Region 2 hardware wouldn’t play them (unless region-checking could be disabled). I’ve yet to act on the vague notion of selling them as a job lot on ebay. Some of the cases aren’t in the best of shape, with noticeably sunned spines.

From top to bottom we have Amélie (2001); City of God (‘02); Donnie Darko (‘01); Kung Fu Hustle (‘04); Mulholland Drive (‘01); A Scanner Darkly (‘06); season 3 of Canadian TV comedy Trailer Park Boys (‘03); seasons 1 & 2 of the same (‘01-‘02); and season 2 of The Wire (‘03). Media from the earlier part of the ’00s predominates as it became too temptingly easy to obtain films & TV by other means later in that decade. Of the movies, I remember Kung Fu Hustle the least clearly (aside from the plain fact that I enjoyed it); whereas Mulholland Drive is still wedged firmly in my memory (aided by having revisited scenes from it on-line over the years).