Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Leon's, Quaker Street, London E1

Leon's was literally a corner shop selling newspapers, sweets and groceries on the edge of Quaker Street and Grey Eagle Street, just off East London's Brick Lane. I took this photograph of Leon's long shuttered-up shopfront in 1988. At the time, it was one of many closed-down businesses that I was recording in the area - before the so-called 'regeneration'.

Just today, I spoke with someone who had very fond memories of the shop, and its owner. With a tear in his eye, he reminisced about a time when Leon had actually given his father shelter in a room at the back of the shop when he was in troubled times.

47 Quaker Street, twenty five years ago
Years after Leon had shut up shop, this is a remarkable coincidence. It is Leon's old shopfront that had been selected for a spray-painted message for 'Crisis', the national charity for single homeless people (whose headquarters are still based just around the corner from the site of Leon's shop).

The 'Crisis at Christmas' campaign had begun in 1971, with a small team of volunteers providing food and shelter for homeless people at the first 'Open Christmas'. Forty two years on,  there will be ten 'Crisis' centres around England and Scotland, staffed by volunteers and employees, welcoming homeless people in from the cold for warmth, support and comfort. 

Happy Holidays

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Seven Seas Books, Berlin

Yesterday lunchtime I dropped in to Housman's Bookshop which has been based at 5 Caledonian Road, King's Cross since 1958. It's a marvelous place, housing a treasure trove of radical books, journals, 'zines and ephemera, and a superb London-related writings section.

In their used-book basement I came across a copy of Jan Petersen's 'Our Street' written in 1934, and published by Seven Seas Books in 1961. It's a book that I'd come across several references to - but I'd never seen it - or knew of a paperback edition.

Several intriguing stories here. Firstly the book itself  which is based on left-wing resistance to the Nazis in an ordinary Berlin street (Wallstrasse, Charlottenburg district). Petersen, a Communist activist, was known to the Nazis, and was on one of their death-lists. So he typed-up two copies of the manuscript of 'Our Street'. One was bound for England in the hands of a German soldier he knew - but it was thrown into the sea to avoid last-minute detection. The other - and the copy that would eventually sell one million copies worldwide - was smuggled out of Germany and into Prague by Petersen himself. Amazingly, the manuscript was first split up into two sections - and then concealed into two enormous cakes that Petersen had baked! The first English translation of the book was eventually published in 1938 under Victor Gollancz's 'Left Book Club' imprint.

But what's the story of  my copy of 'Our Street' - which was published in English, in East Germany, sixteen years after the end of WW2?

Cover design by Lothar Reher

That's down to a fascinating publisher called Seven Sea Books, that was based in Glinkastrasse, Berlin. Seven Seas had been founded in 1958 by the American Gertrude Gelbin, the wife of the German author Stefan Heym.

Heym (real name Helmut Flieg), was Jewish, and an outspoken anti-Nazi who had fled Germany in 1933, and had been living in the US since 1935. He was attached to the American psychological warfare unit during the War, composing destabilizing communications to the German soldiers - but by 1952 he and Gelbin had decided to quit 'the West' in protest of the American involvement in the Korean War. Seven Seas Books initially published Heym's own writing, as well as the work of the 'Hollywood Ten' blacklisted screenwriters.

Significantly, though Seven Seas Books were all in English, and mostly printed for the export market (India, Ghana and Australia were popular destinations). Gelbin also declared that the Seven Seas publications were by 'progressive authors, neglected or censored in their own countries, and favouring work that demonstrated anti-fascist, anti-racist, and anti-war themes, but which also possessed considerable literary merit'.

Although there doesn't appear to be a great deal written about the history of Seven Seas, several online posts include incomplete listings of their output over some twenty or so years. Around 140 books in all...

Written in 1947, this classic part-biography, part-compilation of Jack London''s life and work by Philip Foner was re-printed by Seven Seas Books in 1958.
Below the publishing information inside is the typed addition (as seen at the head of this posting):
 'Printed in East Germany-Soviet occupied'
Published in 1966. Cover design by Lothar Reher

First published in 1953, this Seven Seas Books edition came out in 1966. Another cover designed by Lothar Reher.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Pop art in our kitchen cupboards

Technically, these symbols are known as 'printers colour blocks', or 'process control patches'. They are a tool used to provide information about printing conditions which allows the printer to make quick adjustments. So if something looks too red, then the colour blocks will help to determine if it’s the yellow that is too weak, or if it’s the magenta that is too heavy...

For decades now, these images have appeared in a vast range of shapes and colours - and often accompanied by complex-looking numerical codes. The colour blocks are usually tucked-away within a product's packaging, so not detracting from the all-important branded logos and text. Very often out of sight of the consumer - until you begin to inspect the packaging a little more closely, or fully open up to flatten for recycling.

They are uncatalogued, everyday, ordinary - and are unheralded. Pop art in our kitchen cupboards.

3634 - 5



The cross-hairs that appear on the inside flaps of cereal boxes and the like are used as register marks - and are known as 'cross-marks' or 'position marks' - which help to make sure that the colours are aligned...

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Karl Bickel & Helvetia

The pilot at the controls of his plane - this is a classic essay by the master Swiss stamp designer Karl Bickel (1886 - 1982) taken from the ‘Air’ set of ten stamps issued in 1923.  It was to be Bickel’s very first collection of designs in a remarkable forty year long career producing some 500 different postage stamps in not only his native Switzerland, but for other countries too, including Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Portugal. Today, ninety years after Bickel’s very first designs, there must still be millions of examples of his work mounted in stamp albums across the world!

Karl Bickel was born in Zurich, Switzerland, and served an apprenticeship as a lithographer, and later worked for a graphic institute producing fashion, merchandising catalogues and postcards. By his early twenties, he owned his own art studio.  A visit to Florence to study the works of Michelangelo was a key influence on Bickel, who soon after returning to Zurich in 1913 contracted tuberculosis. Ironically, this would be a turning point in his life. 

Bickel sought out the medicinal waters at Walenstadtberg. In this peaceful and majestic mountain world, he experienced a series of cosmic visions. From then on he would go on to lead a lifetime of creativity away from the crowds, as a recluse in his beloved natural environment - and combined his more commercial poster and stamp designs with his paintings and drawings, studying the physiognomy of the mountains and rock faces, and his Michelangelo-like representations of people.

Karl Bickel's 40 centimes, violet, 4 cms x 2.5 cms philatelic masterpiece, 1923

But that was not all. For 'cosmic' Bickel also had a more personal project - the creation of what he would call ‘The Paxmal’. This was a peace monument located high above Lake Walen, in front of the dramatic Churfirsten mountain range. A massive spiritual hub which would take Bickel twenty five years to make between the years 1924 to 1949. 

The covered altar-like area with a massive neo-Greek columned entrance has a walled courtyard complete with water pool and sculpted symbols of human endeavour and development. In a Europe decimated and corrupted by the carnage of WW1, Bickel had crafted a far-out place which could stimulate meditation and reflection - for universal peace.

All this began just one year after those 1923 Swiss 'Air' stamps - with the close-up of the pilot's face, half hidden behind goggles and headgear, soaring in the sky above and beyond snow-capped mountains...

'The Paxmal' - 25 years of endeavour

Friday, 22 November 2013

František Hudecek and Bedřich Housa

In an ongoing batch of posts, I'll be rooting through our philatelic past to remember classic postage stamps of the world. A time when post offices once sold these small perforated gum-backed slips of paper in their millions. 

Today, more and more letters and packets are arriving through the door with just generic postage labels affixed to them. And for years now, most specially commissioned commemorative stamps have never got to see much genuine postal use. They're just decorative collectors items, often furnished with garish colour photographs, and aimed at a dwindling fan base. I expect that they still bring in something of a profit for their nation's post offices - but for how much longer?

Time to roll the clock back. Let's begin in Eastern Europe, and a country that is no more:

Here's a marvellous (and rather haunting) set of two from 1957 commemorating the development of television in Czechoslovakia. Regular four-days-a-week broadcasting had begun in 1954, 

Designed by painter, graphic designer and illustrator František Hudecek (1909-1990) who had studied at the Institute of Applied Arts in Prague. 

The engraver is Bedřich Housa who was born in Prague in 1926. He engraved his first stamp in 1949, and he is now a veteran of some 300 issues.

Issued on 19th October 1957. Face Value: 40 Haleru. Printing: Photogravure and Recess. Print Run: 3,745,000

A family watch a costume drama. Slightly bigger print run on this higher value stamp: 3,940,000

Sunday, 10 November 2013


Here's a rather scary reminder of our nuclear past circa 1960. This US comic book-sized publication was designed to equip the reader with the knowledge to survive fallout radiation. It was published by Charlton Press, a company which is best known within comic collecting circles for their horror, SF and romance books (though I've never come across any references to FAMILY FALLOUT SHELTER anywhere).

The creepy cover

Back cover - the yellow rectangle at the top left was designed to place a stamp of the organisations who'd have bought large quantities of the 50c book 

the first its 66 interior pages
Figure 1: areas of attack 

Page 33 - it's not looking good

turn your radio to the Conelrad (control of electromagnetic radiation) frequency

My copy of 'Build your own Family Fallout Shelter' turned up sometime in the late 1980s - found languishing in a pile of second hand Marvel and DC comics at the Islington Branch of the 'Popular Book Centre', which was in Upper Street near the Hope and Anchor pub. These 'Popular' book stores were once a very familiar fixture of London's high streets. Most of the branches that I remember all dabbled in the collectible comic and magazine market as well as offering their local customers cheap and used copies of the likes of Mills & Boon's potboiler romances, Penguin's, Pan's and car maintenance manuals, and their discreetly placed section filled with old 'gentlemen's' magazines.

The upside of the Popular Book Centre was that in the days before the ubiquitous charity shop opened up in closed-down high street units, these were some of the only accessible places to find interesting second hand stuff - especially the less common material that had somehow found their way across the Atlantic.

The downside of the Popular Book Centres was that their ugly price stamps were always splattered on the cover in indelible ink. A quaint reminder of the 20p spent at a PBC, but definitely a down-grade or two for those hoping to cash in on their 'valuable' old treasures!

The last PBC that I remember popping into was in London's Shaftesbury Avenue, and that was well over a decade or two ago, though there were certainly several branches that did make it into the 21st century.

How this relic of the Cold War turned up in London N1 we'll never know...

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Judy Geeson

During the late 1980's I would regularly scour the bargain bins at the various ephemera sales held at the hotels in the Bloomsbury area of London. Wonderful pieces could be found - and this was one of them. A cracking black and white 10" x 8" photograph of the actress Judy Geeson wearing a remarkable example of Swinging 60's chic. The typed-up copy on the back of the print reads:

"JUDY GEESON in the target outfit which Bermans' designer Brian Cox calls a 'MiniUnik'. It is in red, white and blue linen, the boots trimmed to match."

On Target!: though the caption failed to mention the arrow...

...here's the strip of information pasted on to the back

Berman's was a legendary London-based costume house which had been founded by the Russian-born East Ender Morris Berman in 1900.  His son Monty (1912-2002) was responsible for building up the firm, which had begun making costumes for the London stage, into one of the major costumier's for the film industry. 
Berman's list of clients included James Bond's Sean Connery and Roger Moore, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Katharine Hepburn, Richard Harris, John Mills - and Judy Geeson...
Monty Berman was a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force in World War II, who helped organise the famous 654 Squadron, for which he received the MBE. In the early 1970's he successfully merged Berman's, with Nathan's which had been making costumes for the London stage for 200 years. Two decades later the company was bought by Angels, who now own the world's largest collection of costumes and accessories for the entertainment industry - hanging from eight miles of clothing racks in their North London warehouse.
A special tip of the hat to Anthony B in Brussels, Belgium who sent me an email only last week about a little-known late 1960s film with Judy Geeson called 'Two Gentlemen Sharing'.
Judy G was of course best remembered at the time for her role as the wonderfully named Pamela Dare in 'To Sir, With Love' (1967) with Sidney Poitier.playing the British Guyanese-born school teacher Mark Thackeray.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Millie the Model meets the Gears


Following on from my Pop Pic Library post in May, here's another 1960s comic twist on the burgeoning beat music scene. This time from the USA - and the pages of the great Marvel Comics, at the time when a series of 'British Invasion' bands were idolised by the record-buying teens of that nation.
Marvel's Millie the Model had been strutting the catwalks since the end of WW2, but by the mid-60s she'd become infatuated by swinging with the most happening band around - The Gears. A half English, half American combo - whose groovy "go go" sound is - and I quote the band themselves - "one big explosion", and "compared to us, the Hydrogen Bomb is a firecracker".
Millie Collins gets to hang out with The Gears - a fab foursome with the "hard-driving Liverpool Sound". She'll pop on a miniskirt as she dances to their ever-boppin' never-stoppin' beat, and she even gets to sing on stage with them. The Gears make their US television debut on 'The Red O'Hara Show' (Issue No.135) which sees them dazzling the audiences, and landing on the front page of 'Variety' - the headline proclaiming "Gears Great A Go-Go!".

It all began in February 1966

No 135 - Millie and the Gears make a splash

Go, Girl, Go

I hear this combo really swings - and swing it does

September 1966, and Millie visits Swinging London

Oh, what a let down. I bought issue number 141 on the strength of the Millie & The Gears team-up cover - with the expectation of glamourous Millie exploring London's grooviest spots. But instead, she just ends up partying in a dreary countryside castle owned by the father of an aristocratic secret agent. It may have been fun for her (and her American readership), but I was looking forward to seeing Marvel-style realisations of the swinging City...

...but then after scanning the above page, it became very apparent that the creative team behind 'Millie the Model' had no intention of even bothering to conjure up the London look. In this rather hopeless bottom panel, we have a green double decker bus - and a Routemaster it ain't - and the most useless rendition of a London Taxi ever! So perhaps the castle was a better location after all...

Anyway, nearly a year on, in June 1967, the Gears are back on the front cover - and this time in Marvel's  'Modeling with Millie' Issue No.54. The comic would actually turn out to be the very last issue of  Millie's spin-off title, but it did have a "Positively a Roof-Rockin Happening" finale...


The Music is Gonesville

The Gears are touring the States again, and get a six page story set in ABC television studios, and enough lines for their 'greatsville' lyrics to fill up the musical speech bubbles with such crafted lines as....

and Millie "shakes to the beat on Carnaby Street" on stage, as a guest singer (dressed in a strip-strap swinging style, designed by reader Gina from Brooklyn) for a band that for a couple of years had captivated the hearts of Millie and her female followers, and then silently slipped out of fashion.
it's a mod, mod, world

Perhaps those who know far more than I do about Millie's backstory will have an insight into what happened to the American-born half of The Gears. We're told that they're Joe and Russ Brockman, who in fact went to school with Millie in Sleepy Gap, Kansas - and were always feuding - just like the Davies brothers of The Kinks (who were less kookier than the Gears).

Maybe the Brockman boys were handed their draft papers, and sent out to Vietnam?  Perhaps only to re-emerge as a bluesy rocking bar band after their return - but by 1973 Millie the Model comics were no more...

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Everything's Swinging at Rhyl

Sometimes an old picture postcard can offer up a wonderfully splendid image. I've come across two black and white cards published by the Bamforth Company of Yorkshire, once the world's largest publisher of illustrated comic postcards - and most famously the ones with those saucy gags that were stuffed into postcard racks of every seaside shop in the UK.

Well here in swinging sepia is the fabulous contrast between the stolid and conventional stock photograph of the seafront at Rhyl, North East Wales, and the twisting beats epitomising the groovy vitality of '60s teenage. The girls are fully rounded in typical Bamforth style, almost jerking out of a postcard which boldy proclaims how a mighty popular Victorian holiday spot has turned into a 'with-it' location for the nation's holidaying youth.

The serrated edges of the two postcards are a nice touch - locking these two pictures into a very particular time frame. Apparently Bamforth were so confident about this swinging 60s seaside design of theirs that they produced dozens of versions with the very same cartoon teens dancing at resorts up and down Britain's coastline.

Anybody up for starting a checklist?

...but it looks like we're the only ones on the dance floor

...but is anybody else?

Update October 2014. Here are several more from the same series:

'We're Right on the Beat at CLEETHORPES'

'Everything's Swinging at DOUGLAS(Isle of Man)

'Everything's Swinging at FILEY'
'We're Right on the Beat at BRIDLINGTON'

'Everything's Swinging at ABERGELE'

Tell me more about Bamforth's Swinging Couple...

Bamforth issued a super postcard with our swinging beat couple depicted in glorious COLOUR

The artist is credited - it's Bamforth's very own Arnold Taylor, who spent his working life bashing out joyous and naughty images like this for the Yorkshire-based company. 

The black and white seafront cards were created by cutting out and pasting Taylor's image onto stock photographic images. 

And what about our Beat Girls in Go-Go Bamforth Colour?:

Well, they had their very own colour postcard too...Version A
Version B

And guess what? The Go-Go Swingers even got to dance across the English Channel:

Still 'Right on the Beat' - but this time in French and Flemish too. This Belgian edition was published by Lux of Brussels.