Saturday, January 29, 2011
Postcards fall off the edge
Back in the days when travel was a mysterious adventure and you could drink large amounts of free alcohol on flights and the air hostesses were capable of smiling, writing postcards was an integral part of the experience.
On our great teenage Interrailing trip through Europe I remember sitting on a sunny bank looking at the Chateau of Azay Le Rideau like a pefect little stone sailing boat on a calm mill pond full of lilies, while I scrawled on its image.
Rome was the Colosseum and Barcelona Gaudi's fabulous half finished Sagrada Familia. Then we finished our correspondence to our parents with Mad King Ludwig's fantastic castle of Neuschwantsein, a lunatic white fairytale folly rising from the sunny hills of the Black Forest.
To be fair to Ludwig, it's unclear if he was certifiably mad. Even though the men in white coats took him away, it appears they were lacking the necessary paperwork. The King's favorite saying was: "I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others."
Fast forward more than 20 years. I received picture mail today on my cellphone and it struck me that picture mail is to the 21st Century what postcards were from time gone by.
So my wife sends me pictures of her dying father from Canada and I send back pictures of the kids. And with a few electronic bleeps we have neatly encapsulated Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man, me the infant, "mewling and puking" (hopefully not puking too much) and my wife that sad last age of "shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, turning again towards childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound."
Of course all the world's a stage and when we get close to the drop we send postcards from the edge.
I don't talk about this much but back in the days when collecting wasn't a certifiable disease, I had a large collection of postcards. I could boast the presence of most of the significant castles in Wales in my collection. I could also describe the width of the curtain walls. You wouldn't really have wanted to know me in those days; in fact you would have probably crossed the road to avoid me.
I also had some vintage albums that shed a glimpse on a half forgotten world. In the Victorian and Edwardian days when the main form of transportation was the railway or the steamer, Britain's resorts were in their heyday.
People would board the train to take the seaside air at Blackpool or Scarborough, Yarmouth or Skegness, Southend or Llandudno. I always imagine the whispy smoke from the locomotive in those days as it clattered through the countryside. Inevitably the sky would be egghell blue and the passengers would wear boaters.
I'm sure it rained, but by all accounts these were jolly days when folks would suck on brighly colored rock and stride up and down the pier. Nobody seemed to mind that it wasn't Greece because Greece was beyond their imaginations.
It's hard to fathom now as anyone who has spent more than five minutes in Blackpool or Yarmouth will realize. I used to say there's nothing more depressing than a seaside resort out of season but there is; a seaside resort in season.
Today the grand gothic hotels of yesteryear are often half boarded up and the other half is housing social security claimants. The piers are tatty ghosts of the bygone days, frequented by the occasional holidaymaker who can't afford to go to Spain and amusement arcades whizz and bang a lonely waltz for much of the day. The desperate owners of pubs go for cheap gimmiks like strippers to stay in business while the homeless panhandle outside shopping centers that smell of piss.
The advice I have always given people who are fed up with their lives or their hometown is to go to Margate for a day. Think crumbling promenades, burnt out hotels and jellied eels while hypothermia sets in. If that fails think Chas & Dave.
However, in the heyday of the postcard, Britain's resorts were actually fashionable. Some of the postcards and posters from these days have become iconic images such as the Skegness is so Bracing poster produced by the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) in 1908 to promote rail travel to the Lincolnshire coastal resort town.
Skegness became famous as the home of Butlins, the cheap and cheerful holiday camp that opened in the 1930s and spawned satires such as Hi de Hi.
I was amazed to find on its website that Butlins still exists, although I doubt if the red coats still get visitors up early in the morning for fun stretches in the exercise yard.
The humor on these cards was none too subtle. Take, for example Donald McGill's "A Stick of Rock, Cock." The postcard featured a guy with a large phalic looking stick of rock. If the viewer didn't pick up on the rather obvious allusion the words at the top helped him out. As The Independent noted, Margate Council tried to prosecute McGill, who was in his 70s and living in respectable suburbia at the time. Rude clearly. But hardly worth getting your rocks off over.
Those were the days, I don't know what ever happened to my postcard collection now. Maybe a family member will find it in a dusty attic one day and wonder if there was a story behind it. Or maybe he or she will look at it with the bewilderment that the next generation will encounter at the notion of a vinyl record.
As for poscards, I'm sure the traveler of the future will slip smoothly from place to place without leaving a trace. There will be little time or reason to sit on a sunny bank and write a postcard; instead he'll capture the image and send it somewhere instantly, opting for a suggested message on the key pad.
But maybe we will lose something by not spending the time. As Albert Einstein said it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.