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Saturday 15 March 2014


Cat photos
“If cats looked like frogs we'd realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That's what people remember.” 
Terry Pratchett

You can guarantee that right now somebody, or more likely quite a few people, are wracking their brains trying to write a scholarly essay on the phenomenon of cats’ domination of the internet. Statistics, those ever trustworthy numbers, indicate that several thousand cat videos are uploaded to Facebook every minute. People who wrote blogs about poetry and had three viewers a month have discovered that if they write one about cute cats they can get thousands a week. The irony for the scholars is that cat videos are essentially anti-intellectual. You are supposed to sit at your desk for a couple of hours struggling over a difficult issue, every so often switching to a cat video because it relaxes the mind. The other thing to point out is that cats were considered furry little bundles of joy long before we had computers, let along an internet. The difference is that in the old days we sent each other postcards, of someone else’s cat. As for our own little parcels of feline sweetness; we took photos, put them in albums and soon forgot about them.

Another postcard, from prehistory so far as computers are concerned, and a question: who would send this postcard? By that, I mean, which occupation? Librarians, obviously, love cats, so much that most must own at least two, a black one with a personality and a tortoiseshell that thinks life is about lying on cushions. They would have definitely sent this card to each other. Professors of ancient Greek or Medieval history also own cats, but they wouldn’t have sent a postcard like this to their friends, because, back in the day when the arts were valued, they went for whimsical but not cute. Unless of course the recipient owned a dog. Police officers, on television anyway, often own cats. How many have wearily returned home after a long, sordid day dealing with society’s worst and the first thing they do is pour a saucer of milk for their Siamese sweetheart? My experience with hired assassins is limited, but you’ll notice how in novels most of them own cats. It is a clue to their humanity. They might send a card like this, but it would contain a veiled threat: ‘you, and your family, are dead’.

Some postcards of cats may be interesting but most snapshots are; and not always because of the subject. One can understand why someone would want to take photos of their cat – we all do it; most cat owners probably have hundreds – but when said animal looks like this; hateful and diseased, an animal that owes nothing to humans because, frankly, what have they ever done for it, you have to wonder; are there people who just assume all cats are cute. Here's one who isn't.

According to some recent statistics cited by National Geographic, cats in the U.S.A kill “between 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion mammals in each year.” I assume rats figure highly in those astonishing numbers, so I am not too fussed, but that said; the humble squirrel, the innocent groundhog, the neurotic but otherwise non-bothersome chipmunk – which I always assumed was a squirrel but may be more closely related to the plague carrying Rattus rattus, so maybe we’re better off without them – it would be ironic and pathetic if the real blame for the sixth great extinction fell on those dear little soft balls of gentle lovingness, who gaze up at us so expectantly each time we go near the fridge. 

Case in point: a creature with the smug expression of one who has just killed an endangered species for no other reason than it could, yet it is also confident its owner (primary carer?) will ignore the pile of feathers behind the shed because his or her tortoiseshell treasure is the sweetest, most loving thing on the planet.

But an insatiable capacity for murder may not be the most sinister aspect to cats. They have an array of forms of communication at their disposal yet the only time they meow is in the presence of humans. These meows have been measured and amazingly, they fall within the same range as a baby’s cry. Evolutionary biologists are beginning to think that cats developed the meow to mimic a baby’s cry, knowing they would get a positive reaction from humans. Cute? Maybe. Downright deceitful? Absolutely. 

Part of the passage from childhood to adulthood is coming to the realization that cats have no strong feelings regarding being photographed, but they’d rather they weren’t. Also, they don’t like children. Adults feed cats and leave them in peace when they want to sleep on the sofa, which is all cats ask for from humans. Children think cats are better than teddy bears because they can pull their ears and get a reaction. Mother cats love their kittens; watch them care for their newborns and you realize there is no other word for it. This emotion does not extend to other species.

When my cat was in the best of health, an active day meant moving from the bed to the kitchen, with a couple of spells in the lounge room, and time spent on the windowsill or the balcony. Some of us believe this shows an innate curiosity in the outside world. Animal behaviour specialists differ. Cats like high places to view the world because it puts them at an advantage. As hunters they can track the movements of their prey. As prey themselves, they are in a protected place. Imagine a drug dealer who enters a bar, immediately cases the exits then has to face the doorway at all times in case the police make an appearance. That’s how cats think too. 

A few claims have been made lately regarding the difference between cat and dog owners. The basic formula is: cat = introvert, dog = extrovert, which falls apart as soon as you think about the cat owners you know V dog owners. Apart from the determinable detail that most of us hover around the centre with a preference for one state or the other depending on what is happening in life at the moment, quite a few dog owners I know tend towards the introvert, having little in the way of a thrilling social life while looking forward to that long walk with Spot on the weekend. A more accurate equation might be: dog owners value loyalty, humour and generosity while cat owners are content with sophisticated elegance. 

A troublesome photo, because it appears to make a distinction between cat owner and sheep owner that may be a matter of circumstance rather than a generalization, and one I am not well versed in. Notice how she holds the cat, preventing it from making any sudden moves. I don’t know what cats think of sheep, and vice versa (and incidentally, sheep aren’t that dumb; they know very well what they can get away with) but it does seem the relationship here is a little complex. Imagine our drug dealer again, meeting someone who posed no threat whatsoever but bored the pants off him and didn’t look right to boot. Sometimes you just have to put up with stuff you’d rather not.

Dear little things. Wouldn’t you like to pick them up, say, ‘live with me forever, my soft little sugar balls’, take them home and make a litter? Unfortunately, these examples of feline gorgeousness may be dead. It was very common around the turn of last century to photograph cats and dogs or even chimpanzees in all sorts of beguiling positions, made possible because they’d been to the taxidermist first. Far from being scandalous, this was acceptable, because how else would you get cats to pose? It isn’t that they resist behaving for us; they just have a different way of looking at the world.

Speaking of the dead; there are volumes worth of accounts of people who have been obliged to send their little one off to the great beyond, only to see or hear them return a few days later, and what’s interesting is that when you look at the accounts, it seems the number of cats returning considerably outweighs the stories of dogs. Why? I don’t think these cats are ghosts; it seems more a matter of the owners’ psychology, yet it points to something about cat owners we can almost put our finger on yet remains allusive. 

It is like another mystery about cats. When our cat’s health is good, which is becoming less frequent these days, we can play one, particular Bach CD and she will immediately jump on the sofa and nestle down. No other music gets that response from her. I’ve searched on the internet and found owners who swear their cat does the same to just one Black Sabbath LP. Obviously, cats aren’t hearing a structured composition of musical notes but something else. With dogs it doesn’t matter. Play any music and they will lie down, dribble out both sides of their mouth and wag their tails. Cats are different, and how they respond to music is intriguing. They are enigmatic.


Friday 7 March 2014


Postcards from the Bamforth Company
 “A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack on morality but …  a sort of mental rebellion.”
George Orwell; The Art of Donald McGill.

 Horrid marriages, drunkenness, cross-dressing, vomiting: what we call the English sense of humour. The Bamforth Company is, (or was: as of only recent times it no longer exists) famous for its ‘saucy’ seaside postcards. From the 1940s onwards they invariably featured a guileless girl with huge breasts and a middle-aged man terrified of sex. Before the drawn cards came out however, around 1903 Yorkshire photographer James Bamforth began producing real photo postcards that were described as comic but they were stranger than that. 

 Bamforth was born in 1842 in Holmfirth, a small mill town in the Pennines, and started his artistic career producing lantern slides for public lectures. Most of these lectures were of a religious or temperance bent, what we imagine went hand in hand with a dour, severe outlook on life. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes him as a ‘staunch conservative’ (Conservatives are always described as ‘staunch’) and a supporter of tariff reform, which identified him as a man thoroughly opposed to foreign imports. To think that way in the 1880s meant you backed the Empire to the hilt and liberal ‘laissez-faire’ economics – what today we call the ‘free-market’ – would be the downfall of Britain. Naturally, Socialism, trade unions and suffragettes were also threats to economic stability. 

He is most famous as a pioneer of cinema. One of the curious things about Britain’s early cinema is how Yorkshire became a centre for all the innovative work. London scarcely features in the story; the real pioneers were often out in small industrial towns and they were likely to be engineers rather than artists or photographers. Bamforth was a commercial painter and it was that skill he brought to lantern slides, creating elaborate sets that were built outdoors and where members of his family and friends acted in tableaux of biblical scenes. By 1898, only three years after the Lumiere brothers showed their first film, he was producing cinematic shorts. Bamforth is sometimes credited with being the first to use the editing technique of cutting away mid-scene to show a bystander’s expression. The humour is slapstick, more interesting historically than for their content, and some can be found on YouTube by searching for Bamforth.

The cinematic influence is all over these cards. The scenes are dynamic and a lot were photographed as though they were stills from films. Bamforth was also a pioneer of the song card. Parlour songs, which as the same suggests were meant to be sung together in a drawing room while someone hammered at the piano, became popular in the mid 1850s. The lyrics are usually trite and sentimental but they are a gold mine for social historians looking for attitudes to everything from drink to adultery and death. Bamforth’s idea was to print out each verse on a card with an accompanying photo. This was smart. Not only would people buy three cards instead of one, the photos encouraged them to collect sets and because they were postcards customers could mail them around the world. 

Here we have a fairly moderate example of Bamforth humour set in a shop selling song sheets. Of course everything in the scene is constructed but given no one buys song sheets anymore, we get an idea of what the business was like when people would wait for the latest hit to make its appearance as a score with lyrics. In the early 1900s Francis, Day and Hunter was the largest music publisher in Britain. In a few years it would join up with the American publisher T. B. Harms and in the 1920s the U.S Justice Department’s anti-trust department would sue them because they controlled over 80% of the music publishing market and threatened to monopolize it. 

Bamforth postcards are also a mine for social historians, though it can take a bit of searching to realize it. Today “passive resistance” is just one form of political action open to us and often Ghandi is erroneously credited with the idea. In 1900s Britain, a passive resister distinctly meant either a suffragette or a trade unionist who used the tactic of chaining themselves to fences. Anyone looking at this card then would have got that connection at once.

The Art of Donald McGill was an essay George Orwell wrote in 1941 where he took the seaside postcard artist’s work seriously as an insight into English character. (No self-respecting art critic would have gone near the stuff.) McGill, who counted the Bamforth Company as one of his publishers, started out producing drawn scenes with, to us, tame double entendres but by the Second World War his cards featured anatomically incredible women and blatant innuendos. Reading Orwell’s essay, especially when he provides a breakdown of the types of jokes, you could run a pencil through McGill and add Bamforth. “Marriage only benefits the woman”; check. “Sex appeal vanishes at about the age of twenty five”; check. “There is no such thing as a happy marriage”; check. “Drunkenness is something peculiar to middle aged men; check. Policemen are fools, lawyers sharks and women rule the home. We could add a couple more. Work is something working class men go out of their way to avoid, and wealthy men are either sinister or stupid. Orwell points out that McGill’s cards aren’t “intended as pornography but, a subtler thing, as a skit on pornography … Caricatures of the English man’s secret ideal, not portraits of it”. His essay incidentally appeared roughly midway between the last Bamforth photo cards and the high point of the Carry On films in the 1960s. Obviously, British society didn’t evolve; it just grew older. 

One subject McGill never broached but was a staple of Bamforth cards was childhood. When it comes to poverty and death especially, we’re not just looking at a lost world but an utterly foreign one as well. The syrupy mawkishness seems macabre today and if it’s easy to say that the infant mortality rate was high enough to create a kind of inurement to death, it’s worth remembering that in the 1850s the rate in some industrial towns was in the vicinity of one in three children dying before their first birthday but by the turn of the century that had improved dramatically. These cards aren’t a social comment on England. Rather, they reflect a particularly stern religious view. It wasn’t for children to question God’s will but accept whatever he dished out with gratitude.

This card seems almost ghoulish. The lines are from The Better Land by Felicia Hemans. She was a friend of Wordsworth and Walter Scott and apparently a popular poet in her day. The Better Land was one of her best known though these lines are enough to suggest it is also best forgotten. Imagine telling a five year old on her sick bed not to worry because she’ll soon be in a better place. And yes, young as she is, the girl in this photo knows enough to recognize a maniac when she sees one. 

This one on the other hand may have originated as a lantern slide for one of Bamforth’s lectures. There are records of this poem appearing on a series of lantern slides. Get the last line. Mother is dead and “make father love us more than gin and beer”. How sad. This, in a nutshell, is what the temperance movement started off being about. Mothers were dying in childbirth and fathers did turn to drink and neglect their children. It didn’t take advanced mathematics to see the connection between the number of children on the streets and in workhouses and the social erosion brought on by alcohol, but the logic was askew. Drink wasn’t the real devil. In a world of rigid social stratification, where basic hygiene let alone healthcare was denied to the poor, of course mothers died and fathers found the pressure too much to bear. The real problem with the temperance movement wasn’t that it was a collection of prudes and wowsers but their understanding and solutions to social problems were so simplistic they could only perpetuate the situation. Amazingly, there are still people who believe that if we only gave up drinking and listened to Jesus we wouldn’t need government funded health care.   

But enough of suffering children. Bamforth’s postcards really come into their own when they turn to the subject of marriage. Orwell pointed out that at the heart of McGill’s images was the absolute faith in marriage as the most important and exciting thing that could happen to a person, which was why he (McGill, but also Bamforth) could make such fun of it. But sometimes the original joke gets lost. This is one about the horrors of marriage, but I see two men. One of them is wearing women’s clothes and he’s about to shove an umbrella up the other’s bum. This isn’t just funny; it’s really weird. 

 And this one. Again the basic message is fairly explicit. He’s been hard at work cleaning the house and she has just come home. Note the role reversals. This might have carried a hidden warning about the danger the suffragettes posed. Give women the vote and before you know it they won’t just be running the household but the nation’s economy. Perhaps that was something to worry about back then, but the real question is; why is he holding a doll?

 Here we have a typical policeman. Instead of keeping the streets safe, he’s off in the park meeting his sweetheart. She’s a nanny. No doubt they have carefully planned this assignation. They probably keep to it every afternoon at 3:30. But look at the next card …

Isn’t this just a little grotesque? While the two natural forces of social responsibility, the policeman and the nanny, are off looking at the gardenias, the tramp has turned up; to do what exactly?

  Here’s another piece of strangeness. The man is clearly German; he wears that internationally recognized sign of the German, the monocle. This postcard is copyrighted 1907, too early for it to be war propaganda but it does show how much Germany was considered a threat even then. In 1903 Erskine Childers had published The Riddle of the Sands, a thriller based on the premise that war with Germany was imminent. Presumably Childers wasn’t the only one to think this at the time, hence it was acceptable to make fun of the Germans. Politically, Childers, an Irish republican, represented all that Bamforth abhorred. They differed on Germany as well. Childers thought the country was a threat; Bamforth thought it was a joke.  

The Bamforth Company took hundreds of photos and released millions of postcards on the world, which means they are commonplace, easy to find and still quite cheap, but look beyond the content, to the production of the images. Technically they are often brilliant; expertly staged, composed, lit, photographed and printed. The sets are often elaborate and though we see the same backgrounds appearing frequently, that doesn’t detract from them. Even this scene, which belongs more to religious kitsch than art photography, is still an artful production. Too many photo-historians looking at this era fuss over the old and tired question of Pictorialism V Modernism, as though that was all that was happening. Bamforth’s photo postcards are much more interesting than that.