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Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Bright In The Background

In the early nineteen-sixties, I received a Kodak Brownie Starmite camera for Christmas. I developed and printed its 127-sized (4cm2) black and white negatives at home. Despite being a fairly basic camera, it is striking how good the image quality could be if you managed to avoid camera shake.

The pictures of Sooty the cat in one of my June 2021 posts reminded me that, in old photographs, objects in the background can often be as evocative as the main subject. They bring back endless associations, and a tale of two naughty boys and a new sideboard.

One outdoor picture shows Sooty sitting on the back doorstep with an old-shaped tall milk bottle instead of the more squat ones we have now (if we have them at all). The only colour picture of him I have, on a Kodacolor film I was given in 1964, finds him sitting next to the asbestos garage. It leaked water underneath the sides, so boards were placed to deflect rain falling from the roof.

Indoor pictures tend to have more things in the background. The Starmite camera had a built-in flash for single-use, magnesium flash bulbs. They shine bright through the years.


Here again is Sooty in our nineteen-sixties living room with its flowery wallpaper. The 405-line black and white television reflects the flash bulb. I am surprised to see we already had a fitted carpet rather than stained floorboards around a central carpet square.

The tiled open fireplace has brass tools and a fireguard. That was a job to get going on a cold winter morning, holding sheets of newspaper across the front to create a roaring updraft. The ships-wheel ash tray had belonged to my great grandfather; its wheel was a cigar-trimmer. In the corner is an ancient (even then), stand-alone electric fire with exposed elements mounted on an insulator. People sometimes lit cigarettes with it.

At the other side of the room, a curtain over the door excludes drafts, with a ‘roly-poly’ draft excluder blocking the gap at the bottom. Also in the living room is the fold-down dining table. The other room, less-used, was kept for ‘best’. 

A fruit bowl stands on the sideboard. It is now in my office, a container for things like device chargers and USB leads. I still pile books on top of it. The circular mirror that was above it is now unused, somewhere in my loft.

I remember the wooden-armed armchairs with spotty red upholstery and antimacassars over the chair backs to protect them from grease when people washed their hair no more than once or twice a week at best, and some men wore Brylcreem or Silvikrin hair oil. I can see, smell and feel it now, white in the jar.

My brother and I would sit in those chairs in the house on our own on Saturday afternoons watching the wrestling on the television (along with up to 20 million others in Britain). There was Mick McManus the villain who always beat the good guy, Jackie Pallo, with his underhand antics. Another great was Yorkshireman Les Kellett, a friend of a friend at Hensall. But my favourite was Ricki Starr, the wrestling ballet dancer, who caused great amusement at the height of sixties homophobia by prancing and pirouetting effeminately around the ring in ballet shoes and tight trunks, a prelude to the delivery of an unexpected lethal drop-kick to his opponent’s head. It was so exciting, particularly the cheating that went on behind the referee’s back in two-man tag-team bouts. Pure entertainment! We laughed, cheered and shouted, and when something decisive happened, we celebrated by pushing down with our feet, kicking the chairs over on to their backs.

One Friday, our parents had a brand new sideboard delivered – the one in the above photograph – to replace the scratched and ancient second hand one we’d had. I can smell its beautifully polished wood. The very next day, my brother and I watched the wrestling on television as usual. Perhaps it was Ricki Starr finishing off his opponent with one of his aeroplane spins, or Jackie Pallo administering his trademark sit on back breaker and arm lever. We jumped and cheered as ever, and kicked our chairs over. The side posts of those chairs were hard. My brother’s hit the brand new sideboard and gouged out a semi-circular groove on the front of the bottom drawer. Zoom in and you can see it. Believe me, there was hell to pay.


30 comments:

  1. So many memories packed into those old photos! I would hate when something new got damaged too soon! I would tell my kids, "we can't keep anything nice in this house! Be more careful!" Not that it made a difference! :)

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    1. It's amazing what you see captured almost unintentionally in old photos. We were in the house on our own then the damage occurred. Wouldn't have been able to do it with parents there.

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  2. The Kodak Brownie Starmite was your magical token of boyhood, like the wooden sledge named 'Rosebud' in Citizen Kane.
    Perhaps only those who grew up in 1950s Britain will understand your text with its mimesis and diegesis as Plato called it, an idea taken up by Eliot.
    Margate station has a design in glazed tiles online:
    *My name is only an anagram of toilets* - T.S. Eliot.
    The mural was designed by Arnold Schwartzman who did the paperback covers for Len Deighton's novels though not the current Penguin Modern Classics editions.

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    1. It was 1960s Britain. I'm not sure how well I understood the 1950s, but yes, as you imply, there are some good reminders of that period.

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  3. Lovely that those cat photographs have lasted so long. As for the gouged out bit in the sideboard - I bet there are plenty of households which can tell the same story,,

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    1. It was the negatives I scanned rather than the prints. I'm sure you're right that there were similar stories in lots of houses.

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  4. My brother and I used to re-enact the wrestling on the living room floor. We got into trouble for getting too rough and too near the tv and furniture.

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  5. My sister and I once decided to use our mother's various pots of coloured nail varnish with their dinky little brushes to paint pictures on the wooden dining table. Hell to pay would be an understatement.

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    1. I can imagine! Maybe mine was an understatement too. I can imagine now how our parents must have felt, and I was held most responsible as the older sibling despite it being my clumsy brother who did it. I'm now reminded of another similar occurrence I might write about.

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  6. You're right! The background of photos is often where all the nostalgia and memories lie -- the clothes! the hairstyles! the furniture and knick-knacks! WHAT WERE WE THINKING? lol

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    1. As regards clothes and hair, we were thinking we looked real hip, Debra. I bet you did, but not me.

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  7. There can be so much information in photos that only those familiar with the scene at the time the photo was taken will be able to discern.

    But I do wonder why you have our late black and white cat Thomas?

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    1. Sooty and Thomas were only two of his nine lives. We'll have to track down the other seven.

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  8. Do you remember that in place of kindling wood, families would often tightly roll up sheets of newspaper and sometimes keep them tightly rolled by knotting them together? It was an effective way of getting a fire started before petrol-scented firelighters appeared in our orbit. Your observational skills are pretty impressive and they help your readers to recall buried memories of their own.

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    1. Not a good observer in real life but with photos you can zoom in and look at every detail.
      We folded newspapers into strips and make what looked like large jumping jack firework shapes. I've also seen single sheets rolled very tightly from the corner into tubes and then knotted.

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  9. I so enjoyed this post! I can spend hours looking at old family photos and yes, it is the items in the background that mean so much. Sometimes I will spot an item that I had forgotten about since my childhood and it will instantly take me back!

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    1. It's strange how they remind us of things entirely forgotten. The memories must have been there all the time but buried.

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  10. I loved this! Although I was born in 1968 (and never lived in the UK), there is plenty I can relate to here, as my grandparents' house was full of 1950s and 60s furniture and other items. In fact, I still use their 1930s sideboards in my living room and their 1960s coffee table as well as other things that belonged to them.
    Did you buid the card house for Sooty with the intention to photograph the cat's reaction to it?

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    1. Older furniture is often much better quality than new stuff.
      We used to build card pyramids and then roll something like a Malteser chocolate underneath or pull a field of string through knowing new would chase it. It didn't work every time and we wasted numerous photographs.

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  11. Had a rueful laugh at the scratch in the new furniture. Having had three very active boys and an equally active girl, the recurrent line in our house while they were growing up was..."This is why we can't have nice things." Mary

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    1. The fronts of the new sideboard drawers were quite soft wood. It was probably not the right thing to buy at that time.

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  12. I loved this wander through your childhood.

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    1. Thank you. I enjoy it too, but to reconstruct and inform - there is no nostalgia of wanting back days that have gone. It's the sort of subject I set out to write about when I started blogging.

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  13. What a mine for memories. We have a few photos from childhood but mostly taken on 'holidays' - days off from the farm to go fishing in the Waitaki River, or rare weekends camping at Omarama. Home has had to be preserved in fallible brain cells. Do you find that when you discuss memories of home with siblings that strangely different things left lasting impressions on each?

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    1. I'm afraid I have no one left now to discuss these things with. I the last one left from that home. But I was lucky that one of my interests was in developing my own photographs, and that I had a camera with flashbulbs, and liked taking pictures of the home and family.

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  14. There is so much there that I can relate to directly. I was very amused by your description of the wrestling on TV. My very elderly maternal grandmother lived with us at that time and absolutely revelled in the theatre of it all. This came as a massive surprise to the young me who had always known my grandmother as one of the most ladylike and 'proper' of people.

    I have really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you, Graham. As mentioned, when I googled it I was quite surprised to see how popular it was. Do you remember: "Your commentator is Kent Walton"? I don't think it was anything like as good even just a few years later, although I had probably lost interest by then.
      If this encourages anyone else to examine their old pictures for a similar post, I would be fascinated.

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  15. Scratching the brand new sideboard! Tsk Tsk. Were you banned from tipping your chairs after that? Or banned from watching the wrestling?

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    1. They couldn't stop us. They didn't know what we got up to on Saturday afternoons when both parents were out. We had supposedly reached a responsible age.

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