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