Christmas 1936

Video

An inscribed bedside clock that makes me think every time I pass it. There are lots of stories, this is one of them…

Composite images, John Stezaker; painting, Henry Carr, IWM; music, Andy Connell and Corinne Drewery.

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Faint lights at sunset… or on the horizon

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Random Harvest, James Hilton

From 1941, James Hilton’s novel Random Harvest… a really excellent cover with just the credit ‘Reeves’ in the corner. It’s the book of the film which I mentioned here. It was a best-seller in the forties (second on the New York Times list of bestsellers for the year). James Hilton is another of those authors unfairly lost in time because of a mis-informed assumption that the work is simply reinforcing bland, reactionary values. He’s actually analysing class and small-mindedness as well as anyone. For example:

“Have you ever been going somewhere with a crowd and you’re certain it’s the wrong road and you tell them, but they won’t listen, so you just have to plod along in what you know is the wrong direction till somebody more important gets the same idea?”

Hilton worked in Hollywood from the 1930s and was involved with some of the most well-loved films of the era such as Goodbye Mr Chips and Lost Horizon. I saw the latter at my grandma’s house as a small child, fascinated as Ronald Colman rescued the love of his life from a magical Himalayan valley. I remember my grandma telling me to wait and see what happened. It was worth it, as she knew, because the rescued girl shrivelled into a 200-year-old crone the moment she stepped from the magic valley, which had us in fits.

Hilton also created the story and the film Mrs Miniver from Jan Struther’s diaries, which along with Went the Day Well is a classic wartime morale-booster.

Road Through the Woods, Pamela Frankau

Road Through the Woods (1960) was bought for the cover initially (not that I didn’t check it was worth reading) but I soon discovered another once well-known and regarded author in Pamela Frankau. J B Priestley wrote that her work ‘just gets better and better… with every word she writes her pen is sharper’. Frankau was also part of Rebecca West’s circle. I want to know why she disappeared, so she’s a name I look out for when browsing the unloved and forgotten in second-hand bookshops.

The Distant Horns of Summer, H E Bates

And finally H E Bates, from 1967. His time will come again without doubt. Just now, those horns of summer seem way behind us. Britain has just had the most beautiful summer in years, so autumn is a little more melancholy this year. Pan has gone away for now…

October 1941: Cries of London

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This is almost a film from the forties in book form – I’m thinking of A Canterbury Tale in the sense that it echoes the opening titles. You can hear the peal of bells and the fonts are as crisp as if lit by the silver screen, ancient art and (for the time) modern technology in perfect union.

This isn’t a faux-gothic recreation of Merrie England: the cover is a perfect example of stylised 1930s design, as beautiful a logo as you’d find anywhere – I imagine it happily at home on Broadcasting House. The fabric cover is rich hopsack, a homespun warmth that is cool in its simplicity, breaking from the leather and gilt tradition as beautifully as the Johnathan Cape Florin pocket books of the early thirties.

The bluntness of Eric Gill’s font puts the William Morris-ish dropped capital in the spotlight…

…and there is nothing muted about the colour, which updates as brightly as the splashes of orange on thirties ceramics.

Cries and Criers of Old London was published in October 1941, not long after the city had been blitzed. It might be affirming the familiar to a shell-shocked city, just as A Canterbury Tale would speak to the nation, but there is a darker side. The cuts are bold and roughly medieval, with The Scream or the Black Death coming to mind now and again.

It’s a poignant book: while the bells peal joyously in A Canterbury Tale and Cries and Criers, the folk in the streets knew they would only be ringing to warn them of terror.