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Friday, 7 November 2014


A Bamforth series of postcards from the 1950s
“The miniature gaiety of seasides.”
Philip Larkin: To the Sea

When I look at these postcards I think of England’s favourite modern poet, Philip Larkin. I think the small, grey suburban world he described was inhabited by the same people who bought these cards in the 1950s and scribbled perfunctory messages to relatives back home. I also think of Larkin himself, dragged away from the library at Hull to a seaside resort. It would be mid-summer and he’d be sitting in a café watching the people outside hurry out of the rain. Inspired to write a poem but without any paper at hand, he’d glance over to the counter and see a rack of postcards. There’d be the usual seaside postcards with their double entendres as subtle as a punch, some multiview scenes of the town with a cat or a terrier in the centre, and then there’d be one of these, with dirty washing piled on the sink or Mum’s knickers on the line. Without a second thought, Larkin would grab it, hurry back to his table with the chipped china cup of lukewarm tea sitting in the middle of the plastic tablecloth and start writing. Home is so sad. It stays as it was left.

 These postcards with their inimitable graphic design were produced by the Bamforth Company. We have met James Bamforth earlier, when he was producing real photo postcards at the turn of the century. A man of stern principles when it came to Christianity, alcohol and women, and a pioneer of cinema when Yorkshire was the centre of the world’s film industry (not Hollywood), he was long dead when these were published. Something happened with the company after James died in 1911. As though a great weight had been lifted off someone’s back, it abandoned restraint and became notorious for postcards that frequently crossed a line as far as the Government censor was concerned. There was nothing controversial about this series, unless the censor suspected Middle England was a hotbed of radicalism.

 It’s astonishing to realize that it wasn’t until the 1950s that a lot of English families could take vacations; not just a long weekend with a bank holiday but to be able to head off to Skegness or Blackpool for a whole week. Before that there was the war, and before that the Depression, before that the other war and before that factory workers got Saturday afternoon and Sunday off and were lucky to make a few shillings a day. The British have the trade unions to thank for improving their lives. James Bamforth didn’t think much of the unions, so it’s ironic that the Company made so much in the 1950s from a new generation of holidaymakers, but not as ironic as the next generation wilfully undoing all the good work.

 No coincidence then that these postcards were produced at the time when it was estimated that a quarter of Britain’s families owned caravans. The classic oval shaped two-tone caravan, ideally hauled by an Austin Cambridge or a Morris Minor, was supposed to be the epitome of post-war holiday freedom. Families set off to the seaside, exploring England’s back roads along the way and following their instincts, not a pre-ordained itinerary. Inevitably they ended up in caravan parks, lined up like soldiers alongside hundreds of others. 

 It was also the decade that Butlin’s Holiday Camps took off. With their brightly painted chalets, miniature railways, radio broadcasts, dance classes, shaving competitions. glamorous grandmother contests and nightly amateur theatre, they came to represent the other English holiday; the one where everything was provided so that you need not waste a minute feeling lost for entertainment. Today Butlin’s has come to stand for a particular pos-war Britain; its optimism defined by a vulgar lapse in popular culture, but they were also run on very religious principles. Each camp had an Anglican chaplain and holidaymakers were expected to attend church services. There were bars for Dad to head off to in the evening but most of the activities were designed to get the holidaymakers outdoors and exercising in the fresh air. Not surprisingly, in the 1960s the Carry On franchise spotted the English holiday resort as a prime target for satire. 1977’s Confessions from a Holiday Camp made the Carry On films look sophisticated in comparison.

But back to the 1950s. Notice that what most of these images are celebrating isn’t really the seaside resort but domesticity: the washing up, laundry day, the wife nagging the husband to attend to those minor repairs, the pleasure of a cup of tea after vacuuming the living room, filling in the pools; what Larkin thought was the English way of life: “The fathers with broad belts under their suits/ And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat; an uncle shouting smut; and then the perms”. And yes: They fuck you up, your mum and dad; often by dragging you off to Weymouth or North Wales, where for a whole week you had nothing to do but stare sullenly at people who were just like you.

  So much for the customers; what about the postcards themselves? The designer of this series gets no credit and it is difficult to find out who it was. It wouldn’t be surprising to discover he or she was from Eastern Europe. Pre-war, Czech and Polish designers had specialized in a combination of bold graphics and typography, and post-war a lot found work in Britain. They didn’t need to be familiar with that thing called the National Character because someone in management would have approved the original concept then advised them what would and wouldn’t work. Also, as a recent arrival to Britain, the designer would have an eye and an ear tuned to British idiosyncrasies. Management might not think a pile of dirty dishes or knickers on the line had some unique English quality until it was pointed out to them. The Bamforth Company was prolific and though it is best known for the Donald McGill style (dumb blonde, meek husband, shrewish wife) this series has a distinct style indicating that whoever was behind them knew the theory of design as well as the technique. 

 During the 1950s, the biggest change most postcard publishers were prepared to take was the shift from real photographic black and white to half-tone colour, which was like deciding the Kodak Instamatic was a better camera than the Leica only because it was cheaper. This series would have been among the last produced by any company as real photo postcards, hence among the last to introduce an innovation in design. Other companies may have toyed with the concept but few of them would have understood the broad humour and tastes of lower middle England better than Bamforth, the company that had always known that knickers were funny, and no one liked doing the dishes.

 Offering a critique in Circa of a 1993 exhibition of John Hinde’s colour postcards of Ireland from the 1960s, Eoghan Nolan didn’t find them nostalgic because the “hokum world they picture was hardly ever there”. Nothing looked less like Ireland than a John Hinde postcard of an Irish Butlin’s camp. The postcards here can’t evoke nostalgia for Blackpool or Skegness in the 1950s because the towns scarcely feature. The motifs could be recycled for every resort if so desired, and the photographs in the middle of each card were just as functional, but after this, something would be lost. If there is any nostalgia, it is for a world of dingy council houses, boring, low paid jobs, sunless skies, rationing; a world so drab that hundreds of thousands of British people forewent their annual holiday by the seaside and used the money to emigrate to Australia instead.


1 comment:

  1. A fascinating window into what looks - from a sun-drenched and far wealthier present - like a dreary British past.


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