A fetishistic obsession?

Often photographs and real photographic post cards have little or no information to identify the time, person and place. In the case of this photograph the notes on the reverse tell us everything about the location and describe in obsessive detail everything “Ruthie” is wearing even down to the charms on her charm bracelet.

The photograph is numbered (766) and dated at both top and bottom on the reverse which suggests it was filed in a manner to make it easy to locate. You have to ask if this is number 766 then how much more information was attached to the rest of the collection and how big was it?

Now that’s what I call obsessive.

Heretics – latest blurb

Here’s my latest thinking on how to describe Heretics:

A novel of the occult set in 1959 and 1859

You know how the Victorians were very upright, very religious and so prudish that they even covered their table legs? Well it might have been true of a few upper middle class families but for most people the reality was different. Costume dramas perpetuate the idea of the proper Victorian but forget to mention the appalling social conditions, the high infant mortality rate, the prostitution, the violence, the squalor, the baby farms.

The Victorian characters in Heretics are different. They pretend to have the virtues expected of their class but they consider themselves to be heretics for a reason. For a start they practice the occult but they still go to church. They conjure demons but cover their tracks by doing good works. And they are involved in a very dangerous game which could have consequences for the fabric of time itself.

And all of this before Alexander Harrison finds a way to travel back in time from 1959 and join their ranks. Now the race is truly on to stop their common enemy, Bella Nightingale, before it’s too late and she destroys all of their lives…….

Find out more at: www.samsalt.com and darknessbegins.com

Notes

  1. It’s different to previous versions.
  2. It has the key points I want to promote but distorts the storyline somewhat.
  3. The photograph is designed to be eye-catching rather than accurate. The clothes the woman is wearing are more likely to be around 1900 than 1859.
  4. At the Wirksworth book fair the flyer with this photograph and this blurb attracted far more attention than the book I was actually selling.

Gertie Grace and Elsie – Before and After

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Often Cabinet Cards and other old photographs are not in great condition when I acquire them. The question is then what to do with them. As far as the originals are concerned it’s just a matter of storing them in a suitable dry place out of direct sunlight but when it comes to displaying them digitally then I usually make some alterations to the scans. Most frequently I use Photoshop’s autotone feature as it usually brings out more detail and enhances the blacks in particular.

In the case of Gerty Grace and Elsie, a cabbinet card dated on the reverse as December 7th 1905, I went a little further. After autotoning the scan I opened it up in Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2 and did some further tweaking. In this case I brightened a rough circle in the centre of the photograph over the girls’ dresses as there was some fading in this area on the original photograph.

Ideally I would like scans to be as near to the original as possible and that would include the sepia toning but, on the other hand, greater detail is revealed when the black and white conversion is viewed. I still have the card so nothing has been done to destroy the original.

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For this cabinet card of a girl with a fan I have carried out more restoration on the scanned image. Often photographs of this age suffer from foxing – the appearance of brown patches as seen above left. I removed the foxing using the healing brush tool again though I could have spent more time on this to get even better results as a little of the detail on the dress has been lost during the process. I applied a high structure filter in Silver Efex to arrive at the finished image. You can see how much more detail this has revealed, especially in the background objects and furnishings. You could argue that this version has taken it too far but the beauty of doing this is that I can always go back to the original scan and produce a different version.

You don’t even have to be a girl to be a Vintage Dancing Girl

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At some point most collectors of old photographs develop one or more specialist interests. In my case one of my specialist interests is “vintage dancing girls.” This came about because whenever I sorted through lots of photographs I began to notice that there was nearly always one or two photographs of girls in dance costumes, either solo or in groups. You might expect that these dancers would mostly be small girls appearing in some local production but it turns out that there are also large numbers of older dancers (think professional or semi-professional dancers) and even men in drag as this photograph illustrates!

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The three girls in this photograph are typical of this category of Vintage Dancing Girls and they appear to be performing at some open air event with proud parents looking on in the background.

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Groups seem to fall into different types. Some are obviously tap dancing groups whilst others clearly favour more impressionistic styles!

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Some groups of young dancers were clearly more commercially successful. The Dinky Dots (sometimes spelled Dinkie Dots) were around in the 1930s.  Apparently they were active in Bolton for quite a long time. Reminiscences from another young dancer at the Bolton Revisited site notes that ” The Dinky Dots all wore very frilly knickers under their costumes and I was tempted to join them just because I wanted to wear frilly underwear! ”

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Another class of “dancer” seems likely to be just young women who like to dress in dance costume or pose like a dancer as this photograph shows.

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Here are two more professional or semi-professional groups. The Opal Girls were clearly a successful cabaret act. Their agent was based in Ruislip. The girls in the weird hats were from Egham.

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One thing I’ve noticed is that many dancers and dance troupes came from quite unlikely places like Barrow In Furness, like this group. It is likely that these dancers were based at local dance schools.

You can see my complete collection of Vintage Dancing Girls on Flickr. The photographs have been gradually accumulated over more than five years. Once you start a specialised collection such as this it is remarkable how often you come across other photographs which fit the category. The cost of acquiring these photographs can be as little as a few pence each especially when found in larger collections and seldom cost more than a pound or two. Of course, like any other collecting hobby prices are dictated by how many other collectors there are and the supply of “new” items over time. Fortunately there are so many old photographs that the supply is unlikely to exhausted any time soon.

[It’s worth pointing out that there are other specialist subjects that are very expensive to pursue. For instance if you wanted to collect Victorian post mortem photographs you would be lucky to find a good example for less than £100. ]

Writing in Period: 1859

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(The photographs illustrating this post are both cartes-de-visite (CDVs) though clearly the one with three children is later than 1859 as you can see from the date of the “queen’s prize” of 1871 on the reverse. However, CDVs were produced from about 1854 onwards and would have been at their most popular in the 1860s.)

Many of us think that we have a good idea of what life was like in Victorian Britain. We are so used to seeing depictions on TV and in film that it is hard to not visualise the times as though they were as seen in a BBC costume drama. In setting Heretics in 1859 and 1860 it was necessary for me to research the period carefully to make sure I wasn’t wrong in my assumptions.

One of the things I realised fairly early on was that many of the things we associate with the Victorian period didn’t actually become widespread until later in the nineteenth century. I have scenes set at Christmas 1859 and was expecting to be writing about Christmas cards, presents and turkeys but the reality was different. It was too early for Christmas cards, presents if given were likely be handmade and Christmas dinner was more likely to be similar to our Sunday dinners, featuring beef or ham. The upper classes would adopt the things we think of as Victorian “traditions” first and they would only trickle down to the middle and lower classes only as the century went on.

Clothing was easier to research and there are many contemporary images that can be drawn upon. Still, I found many surprises. For instance, the wristwatch first made an appearance as something women wore and only became available for men much later. One of my main characters, Alex, has travelled back in time from 1959 and has a 1950s crew cut which would have looked quite out of place. Women’s dress went through many changes between 1859 and 1900 and I had to be careful about bustles and boots and the years they were fashionable. I have a young female character, Daisy, and when she first appears I describe her as wearing a grubby dress with bloomers poking out under the hem. Later I found that bloomers were actually a phenomena associated with women’s growing emancipation towards the end of the century and I had to settle for something similar called pantalettes.

The social conditions that existed in 1859 are heavily featured in the novel and I spent a lot of time trying to get these right. One of the most important works to document the lives of ordinary people is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor and is an essential reference of the times. However, my work of fiction is set in the Midlands town of Derby and there is a certain amount of extrapolation. There are of course many locally published accounts of Victorian life which can used as references. The picture I draw of Derby in 1859 is one in which utter poverty exists in contrast to the wealth enjoyed by the upper classes. There is a growing middle class but their conditions are not yet much better than their poor neighbours and there is a growing class of industialists whose wealth will soon begin to rival that of those born to riches.

In Heretics you will find many poor people reduced to sleeping in netherskens, low boarding houses where you could share a room with many other people for a small amount of money, a huge criminal underclass and a burgeoning business in prostitution. In 1859 the age of consent was thirteen but was hardly policed at all. In any case the poorest families would often share their lodgings with several other families and children and adults would also share the sleeping space. The kind of rookeries that existed in London also existed in towns and cities across the country and the sanitary conditions in them were appalling.

In the matter of language, the fact that Alex is from 1959 aids explanations of the language used in the Victorian town. When Alex first hears a nethersken mentioned he can simply ask one of the characters, who know of his origins, what the word means. Similarly there are many other expressions peculiar to the time that he can either have explained to him or he can infer the likely meaning. When he first hears the expression “dollymop” it is obvious from the word itself and the context in which he hears it that it means prostitute. The need to explain the meaning of words cuts both ways – when Alex says “OK” or uses a modern word like “psychopath,” his Victorian friends have to ask him what he means. One phrase that surprised me was the use of “scorched earth” which I assumed came from twentieth century wars but was in use in Victorian times and was used when speaking of military tactics used, for instance, in South Africa.

This post just scratches the surface of the research necessary to make life in 1859 as close to reality as possible. The one thing that stands out for me is that the 1859 I thought I knew a great deal about turned out to be different in some surprising and unexpected ways.

Writing in Period: 1959

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My forthcoming novel Heretics is set in two different time periods, 1959 and 1859. As the main character finds himself transported from 1959 to 1859 we get to see what is going on in each of the two periods. One of the challenges I faced was to make everything about the two periods as authentic as possible. 1959 is to some extent an alien world to many people alive today and even those of us who were alive then may have imperfect memories of what it was really like. So how did I go about it and what surprising things did I discover along the way?

The first photograph at the top of this post is meant to illustrate women’s fashion of 1959. In fact I believe this photo, from my own collection, is from the early 1960s though it has the look of 50s fashion. (You can find out more about the model Ruth in an album at my Flickr photostream.) It was very tempting to use a more eye-catching photo of a woman in a mini-skirt but that wasn’t around until the mid-60s. A search on the internet yields lots of photos from the 1950s of men’s and women’s fashion but how reliable are they as a guide to what people were really wearing? The second photograph above is from a 1953 fashion shoot though fashions featured in Vogue were unlikely to be what women in a provincial town were wearing.

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With men it is perhaps easier as they were more restricted in their choices and their hairstyles. Crew cuts or the ubiquitous short back and sides were everywhere. (There were elaborate pompadours worn by Teddy Boys but that particular sub-culture doesn’t feature in my novels.) The photograph above shows my dad on the left and illustrates the conservative nature of men’s clothing. This actually was taken in the 1950s.

Beyond fashion there were many questions about what the social mores of the time were and how people carried on in public. One of my characters loses his job as a teacher when it is discovered the woman he is living with is not his wife and that she works as a model. It seems impossible that someone could be sacked for living with their partner today but it was entirely possible in the 1950s. There are more female characters than male in Heretics and some their actions are probably unlikely for women of the day when views of what men and women could and should do were different to modern ideas. For instance, the pub was still largely a male preserve and women would be found only in the lounge bar and then most likely with a male companion. Homosexuality was still a crime at this time and attitudes towards it were strongly held. I have a minor character who we would call “gay” today but in the novel he’s referred to as a “poof,” “nancy boy,” or “queer,” all of which were terms used in the 1950s. The word “gay” still meant carefree at that time.

This brings me on to the question of language and it was the thing that took most time and research to come up with a satisfactory approach. There are lots of words and phrases we are used to reading or hearing in current books and films which were either not used or meant something quite different back in the 1950s.  A good example is “cool,” a word which is used so freely today that it has almost lost its meaning. Now I quite frequently hear people use “cool” as a substitute for “yes.” In the 50s “cool” had a much more restricted usage referring to an attitude and a style of dress or type of music. There are many phrases that we hear, particularly in films and TV programmes, that were just not used back then. No one said something was not going to happen “on their watch,” waiters did not serve your dinner whilst saying “there you go” and you didn’t signal that you were responding to someone’s request by saying you were “on it.”

Swearing was different too, though not as much as you might think. There are certain core swearwords that are the same in the 1950s as they are today. Interestingly these core swearwords were also current in the 1850s and earlier. Even “motherfucker,” which I assumed was fairly modern, has been in use since the nineteenth century. Others are of more modern usage. An example is “dickhead” which was first used in the 1960s.

Then there’s the question of what was going on in British culture in general. What music were people listening to, what films were popular, what was the latest trend in cars, how did people act in public? All of this has to be researched and understood to create a believable background. The vast majority of adults in the 1950s were smokers. You could and did smoke in the workplace, on public transport, in cafes and restaurants, in cinemas and pretty much every public space you can think of and therefore you have to factor that into the story. People wore their clothes longer before changing them, deodorants for men were practically unknown, although that was about to change, and together with the ever-present smoking meant that everywhere smelt different to today. If we were to find ourselves back in the 1950s we would probably be surprised at how alien everyday life would be compared to today.

There’s more, much more to know. I find it annoying when I read a period piece or watch a period film to see and hear things which would not have been seen and heard at the time, especially when they have been sanitised. No doubt I have got some details wrong but I do believe it is the writer’s responsibility to put the time and effort into getting period detail, including language patterns, right.

I will discuss the question of how I approached period detail for 1859 in a separate posting.