Saturday, 18 September 2021

And Another Thing

Lo! A two-for-one Deal: Danish Flag and Dutch Delftware
Sand Holm, Still Life With Art Nouveau Ceramics [& idem], 1919

Carrying on from last week's Danish musing, Dear Reader, there were murmurings about things Dutch needing to be spoken of, suggesting perhaps Delftware and other products of their Golden Age. But the direction this post heads is toward a Documentary, viz., The New Rijksmuseum (2014)*

The Old Rijksmuseum, 1878

Amsterdam is another city Your Correspondent hasn't visited [woe!] but in lieu of this deficiency, I have become rather fond of the beguiling portal, the Rijksstudio, that is the digitised collection of its famous national museum, the Rijskmuseum. You can often find me there, rootling around looking for delicious images, usually as blog fodder. Such is the joy of the digital age!

Like many cultural institutions that have had to think up inventive ways to enrich the lives of us all in These Trying Times, the Pipistrello's local temple to artistic stuffs, the AGNSW, has been doing its bit in compensating for the cultural freeze, especially for those holding languishing memberships. 

Imagine my delight when they recently sent out a link to watch a documentary film of the renovation of this Dutch National Treasure Chest. And so marvellous did this film prove to be, I watched it twice!

For why? Unexpected drama comes as ambition meets parochial and bureaucratic obstacles for the building to be renovated and the entrance reimagined. Aesthetic objections, a cyclists' union, a shocking resignation, high emotions and professional disappointments loom over the project as the months and years tick over. 

Curators, who imagine with undisguised passion how their collections will be showcased, endear and infect us with their enthusiasm, living and breathing their speciality as they do (even literally for the live-in caretaker), are still yet fearful the project will succumb to ennui and their precious works become forgotten as the time passes. 

Despite the outward signs of the project's highs and lows, quietly and without cessation the cleaners and restorers are busy busy on the million paintings, stucco, artefacts, you name it, in readiness for the eventual reopening of the museum that looms so large in the lives of all Amsterdam. And such a thorough going-over of everything and sufficient time passes that unknown treasure is even discovered within collections.

Like all Grand Designs, large or small, the whole exercise was beset by not only cost and deadline blowouts, but the peculiarly Dutch democratic process allowed for interference on a dramatic scale. All up, the museum was shut for a decade and the whole shebang cost half a billion euros.

Dutch filmmaker Oeke Hoogendijk was given a behind-the-scenes pass to chronicle this ambitious renovation project. Four hundred hours of footage was originally condensed into a two-part four-hour film, and then further cut down to this two-hour documentary. The result is a fascinating, gripping and mesmerisingly beautiful film. [I watched it twice, I tell you!]

This rather familiar lass now has a cheeky cupid behind her!
Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, c. 1659

And if you love watching art restoration in the modern age, there is also the recent wonderful news about the unveiling of the transformation of this painting by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, courtesy of our Deutsche friends in Dresden, with an accompanying video of the alchemy behind the project.

Officially: Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Bannick Cocq
a.k.a.: The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642

Of course, for something completely wild in the art restoration sphere, the Rijksmuseum website has devoted a whole corner to "Operation Night Watch", showcasing the study and restoration of its centrepiece painting by Rembrandt, wherein artificial intelligence "learned" his painting style to digitally recreate the severed and lost outer edges.

And on that futuristic note, where AI does something delightfully unexpected, I'm now done with D.

Gekalligrafeerd alfabet, Andries Hogeboom, Ambrosius Perling, Dutch calligraphy engraving, 1680 - 1701

* This is merely the official trailer found on the youtubes, but the documentary can be watched through various interweb links for free or small fee, depending on your location.

Image credits: 1:; 2: via Flickr; 3: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister; 4, 5: Rijksmuseum

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

D is for ...

Print of the Capital D engraving from Libellus Novus Elementorum Latinorum by Jeremias Falck after Johann Christian Bierpfaf, c. 1650, Rijksmuseum Collection
... is for

Danish Design

There's a generous smattering of C20th Danish Design to be found around the Pipistrello Casa, and fulsome as we are in our appreciation of the marvellous stuffs the Kingdom of Denmark produces, it is notwithstanding our never once visiting this diminutive and interesting land, nor any of its Nordic neighbours. I know! ...

Copenhagen's be-flagged Tower of
Christiansborg Palace, a.k.a. Borgen*

Why it is that we, and Australians in general, have such a love affair with things Danish? And I speak not just of the delicious breakfast pastries and butter and feta and cheesy whatnots. It's true that the residents of this faraway land make gorgeous and useful things, (and fabulous drama for the telly), but bonus points must go toward Our Mary one day being their Queen. Isn't she just lovely? 

Behold some Mary Magic:

Gala-ed up in 2017 in rubies and caped splendour
(And so complementary with the FWH Wallpaper)

On hat duty for last weekend's
Flag Day in Copenhagen

But with regard to the subject at hand, viz. Danish-Designed Doodads, prithee, Dear Reader, step this way for some long-lived lovelies, notable for being heavy on the Bang & Olufsen stuffs:

My first mobile telephone (a stubborn refusal to own such ugly things was melted away one Xmas!):

Behold the B&O foray into 2G Mobile Telephonery,
The <sob!> now-defunct "Serene" on her docking station

After around a dozen years (!!) of petite clamshell service,
Her beautiful wizardry now lives in Ornamental Retirement

You've already met our beloved Belgian Bakelite telephone, but here are her young Danish cousins:

With bonus D-is-for Daffodils

Umm, yup, another one,
Propping up a shelf of To-Be-Reads

Yes, three telephones for two people in this day and age does seem to be, ahem, excessive. A  bit like the Sewing Machine Situation (and I have some news on that mini mania - there's now a Clare!)

And of course, what landline/s is/are complete without an Answering Machine?

Lo! There is also some audio joy, going strong since Mr. P's 40th birthday :) :

But for another more low-tech Doodad (and I shall not provide a pic of the Danish Art Deco sideboard as I know not the designer's name and besides, the telly sits atop and thus makes for a prosaic composition):

A rather more thrilling midcentury Raadvad Bread Guillotine,
For your rye-bread slicing needs

Today's Flying With Hands model
Demonstrating the Raadvad's utility

And for something somewhat larger but still proximate to the roost, we have the fruits of the creative genius of just one of Denmark's famous architects, viz. Jørn Utzon:

No prizes for guessing

That I speak of the Sydney Opera House

From which these various vantage points

Show somewhat less than the usual throngs of pedestrians

Who at times recently

Were often outnumbered by these perambulators

Nota bene: There are also some words to be spoken of the D-is-for-Dutch-Documentary variety, but that shall come as a Part II to this sufficiently long post.

* I hear tell that the excellent political drama Borgen is coming back for a fourth series in 2022!

Image credits: 1: Rijksmuseum; 2, 4:; 3: via Pinterest; 12: Wikimedia Commons: all remaining: Flying With Hands

Monday, 23 August 2021

I'm Not Gone, I'm Just Thinking ...

... About matters of no special significance.

For inst.: the very large number ten duotrigintillion (10^100) a.k.a. googol has no special significance (in mathematics), according to Mr. Wiki. 

The term googol has been around as a handy shorthand for the mind-bogglingly-big number for a century now but I've only now taken a pause to consider the cultural side of this, courtesy of a weekend binge-watch of the old telly chestnut from 1981, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, wherein the Even Bigger Number googolplex (10^googol) makes an appearance. Viz:

"And are you not", said Fook, leaning anxiously forward, "a greater analyst than the Googleplex Star Thinker in the Seventh Galaxy of Light and Ingenuity which can calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle throughout a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard?"

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1979

Mr. Douglas Adams, of course, was a man of wit and was fully expected to be making merry whimsy with big numbers when he thunk up the Googleplex Star Thinker. And yet ... the makers of our oft-quoted friend around these pages, who'd each be of the geeky variety, if imagination serves me correctly, maintain that it was a mere misspelling when they coined the name Google in 1997 (whence came their Mother Ship Googleplex) and not a tipping of the hat to Mr. Adams.

Perhaps these geeky inventors had never read or heard of The Hitchhiker's Guide? Hmmm ...

And another matter of NSS: Mr. Wiki's entry on Mr. Adams speaks fulsomely of his attractions to Apple Inc. and its Macintosh, (and thus a man after Mr. P's heart), and was indeed one of their celebrity endorsers, but also references his once owning an Apricot computer. Hullo, now!

Your Correspondent, as may have been mentioned, studied Computer Science & Pure Mathematics at University around the time the Personal Computer became a thing. [Commodore 64, anyone?] For those students with luxe taste and the pesos for such things, the highly desirable PC was the 1984 Apricot, made by the British firm, Applied Computer Techniques. 

But it was the introduction around then of Graphics as a new subject that shoe-horned the Apple Macintosh into my university's quaintly-named Computer Room, housed within a specially-installed glass cubicle and chained to desks.

Those Graphics students (not Pipistrello) gained supervised entry to what was otherwise locked away from the grubby mitts of those who sneered at the beige boxes, while making this forbidden fruit yet somehow more desirable. 

Ah, Marketing ... 

And yet, InfoWorld Magazine wrote glowingly at the time of the Apricot being "clever, inventive, cosmetically attractive and easy-to-use" and "Apricot's manuals are all beautifully printed and very well written. They even have stylish white-metal spiral bindings. The people at ACT are relentless in their concern for detail!" ... A Manual?!!

The Apricot. A completely different animal to the fruit of Apple's loins.

Adriaen Coorte shows us what's desirable
Still Life with Five Apricots, 1704

Image credit: 1:  via GIFER; 2: Mauritshuis, The Hague

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Alberta Comes In From The Wilderness

A leavening read
After the recent engrossing immersion into the Age of Enlightenment

Bertie, the six-year-old prodigy in Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series, starts school in Book 2. He's a dear little character. While his mother has him destined for great things, he's not shaping up to be popular. But it's heartening to know that Alberta, his feminised name form, may becoming more fashionable after decades in the Classic Names Wilderness. Apparently, Alberta is a jazzy old name.

For English-speakers, feminising names can be rather hit and miss. Just sticking an 'a' or an 'ina' or suchlike on the end doesn't automatically work, for either an attractive ring or timelessness. There's an old-fashioned-ness to most and some just don't sound as if they'll ever cut the mustard for future generations. You can't really imagine a Kennethina rising through the ranks on the Starship Enterprise.

Beam me up, Kennethina!

Some Saints' names work nicely: Paul generously gave us Paula, Pauline & Paulina; ditto various Kings: Alexander begets Alexandra; Henry begets Henrietta. Some feminised names lower in the popularity stakes sound a bit posh as a result: viz. Nigella, Edwina & Thomasina. Very Sloaney Pony.

Bertie's classmates in his Steiner School include Merlin and Tofu. Merlin could feasibly beget Merlina, but Tofu sounds firmly gender-neutral to me.

Image credits: 1: Flying With Hands; 2:

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Pear-Shaped & Humdrum Diversion


" ... and then the book was banned!"

Are things looking a little pear-shaped in your neck o' the woods, Dear Reader? Or is it the humdrum of the workaday that cries out for a diversion? Forsooth, you are in luck, for the first of many gems mined from my recent read* leads to today's Small Adventure:

"Any Man that has a Humour is under no restraint or fear of giving it Vent; they have a Proverb among them, which, may be, will shew the Bent and Genius of the People, as well as a longer Discourse: He that will have a May-pole, shall have a May-pole." 

So did sayeth one 25-year-old playwright Mr. William Congreve** to Mr. John Dennis in his letter "Concerning Humour in Comedy" in 1695, wherein he goes on rather about the Source of Humour***. 

Humour went thataway ...
William Congreve
Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1709, NPG 3199
© National Portrait Gallery, London

But hunting down the May-pole proverb? Purists might suggest this is a topic for a May Day contemplation, but tra la to that idea. And yet, after perusing the letterly banter (also reprinted by J.E. Spingarn later as Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, if you have a copy handy), and getting no joy from Mr. Dennis either about the humour intrinsic to Maypoles, & finding only one other unrelated mention across the whole of the interwebs****, I thought elucidation may come by employing traditional Flying With Hands research tools and, in this fashion, simultaneously compensate by enriching our lives with images thusly:

Visually punning Christopher Kane AW16 anyone?
She that is a May-pole, shall be a May-pole ...
[And yet I don't remember seeing this look in my 'hood]

How about some frolicking Monopolists?
Puck Magazine obliges with some May-pole satire 
Frederick Burr Opper chromolithograph, 1885

Or was this what Congreve had in mind?

Those more familiar than I with Maypoles, Morris Dancing and the stock-in-trade of Merrie Olde England can see I am barking up the wrong tree with this illustrative crop, as the ribbons and cats are all Victorian embellishments. And while England flip-flopped between Catholic and Protestant mores in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Maypole was banned for stretches as idolatrous symbols of resistance. But they were back in fashion by the time of the Restoration, and Maypoles beheld by Congreve & Friends rather more looked like this, viz:

Maypole before London's St. Andrew Undershaft,
As imagined before Protestant zealots destroyed the "Pagan Idol" in 1547.
Penny Magazine wood engraving, June 14,1845

The infamous 80-foot Merrymount Maypole in Massachusetts, 1628
C19th engraving of grumpy Puritan Militia surveying the sordid scene

Aha! Now it seems to me that while the Maypole's politically-saucy recent-ish history is the simplest explanation of its allure to the satirist, I prefer an idea that it's this Merrymount Maypole that could be the source of Congreve's proverb. For having, through this pictorial sleuthing, inadvertently discovered the tale of Mr. Thomas Morton, the man of the Small Adventure who erected a mighty Pagan-Maypole in the midst of the Good People of New England, we come to the first book to be banned in America! Behold:

Scandalous reading!

It seems that around sixty years prior to Mr. Congreve's youthful musings, Mr. Thomas Morton - lawyer, libertine and lampoonist - published The New English Canaan, achieving notoriety on both sides of the Atlantic. Within this too-hot-to-touch wit-laden tome, he both eulogised Massachusetts as the paradisiacal Canaan and denounced and lampooned the New England colonists. And so it was promptly banned.

Copies of the book became as rare as hen's teeth, exacerbated by it also falling foul of English censors since it was printed in Amsterdam, a known hotbed of Puritan publishing. And if nothing could whet the intellectual appetite of the young Wits who held court at Will's Coffee-House in London, it is the tale of a fellow-lampoonist being censored. And a Merrie Maypole being at the heart of the matter*****.

The Wits at Will's
Pope's Introduction to Dryden at Will's Coffee-House [inc. Congreve clubbing around]
Eyre Crowe, 1858

Well, that's My Theory, anyway. I've not found a shred of evidence to suggest that fifty years after Morton's decease, Congreve and his literary cronies had ever read or even got their mitts on a copy of The New English Canaan or were still talking about it, but I rather believe just mentioning the word Maypole would bring a glint of mischief into their all-knowing eye. 

* A treasure-trove known as Before the Romantics: An Anthology of the Enlightenment chosen by Geoffrey Grigson, 1946, and which will provide seemingly endless fodder for Flying With Hands! Chockfull of Pope, Johnson, Diaper, Swift, Dryden &c. &c. for the oh so interested.

** My book's small excerpt, wherein his observation that "there is more of Humour in English Comick writers than in any others" can also be "ascribed to their feeding so much on Flesh, and the Grossness of their Diet in general", is footnoted with the infamous encounter between Voltaire and Congreve, where V may have been insolent, C may have been a literary snob, and V may have later retracted his critical comments in a mea culpa

*** To wit, upon heading to the fountainhead, Letters upon Several Occasions: Written by and between Mr. Dryden, Mr. Wycherly, Mr. -, Mr. Congreve and Mr. Dennis, 1696. he exposits upon why "Humour is neither Wit, nor Folly, nor Personal defect; nor Affectation, nor Habit; and yet, that each, and all of these, have been both writte [sic] and received as Humour", & offers up his understanding of Humour to be "A singular and unavoidable manner of doing, or saying any thing, Peculiar and Natural to one Man only; by which his Speech and Actions are distinguish'd from those of other Men" and throws in some Choller and Flegm and Spleen. In other words, he helps no-one who is trying to understand what a GSOH means in the Personal Columns.

**** An archived 1964 US Choristers Guild newsletter equals a total dead-end in my book!

***** In a nutshell, the shady-all-round Devonshire-born Morton had been living in a Utopian colony in Massachusetts, with the non-PC-name "Merrymount" (as in non-Puritanically-Correct), established by him and a notorious pirate soon after the Mayflower landed. His Small Adventure runs the gamut of "subversive" living in the eyes of his dour Puritan neighbours,  viz. pagan practises and "going native" with the local Algonquin tribe and Bacchanalian May Day performances, but his worse crime was to cut in on the settlers' fur trade and arm the said Algonquins. An eighty-foot antler-topped Maypole erected at Merrymount two years in a row was the final straw. The Plymouth Militia arrested Morton, the Maypole was cut down, he narrowly avoided execution and was banished back to Olde England via a spell on a deserted nearby island, and Merrymount was sacked. Spells in prison ensued, but, ever the lawyer, Morton bounced back and tried to sue the Puritans through the Massachusetts Bay Company. King Charles I, naturally hostile to the Puritans, ultimately revoked the Company's charter, and Morton published the fruits of his legal campaign as his book, The New England Canaan.

Image credits: 1, 5: via Pinterest; 2: National Portrait Gallery, London; 3: Rex via; 4: Wikimedia Commons; 6: The British Museum; 7: Penny Magazine via Google Books; 8: via Project Gutenberg; 9: via

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Looking Back To Our Salad Days


Party Of Two -
Them's The Rules Right Now

Well, Dear Reader, it seems that the Good Times weren't to last, for we've been enjoying a bit of "Soft Lockdown" lately in this neck of the woods. It was all lovely at the time and at least we got about and Did Things for a bit. In the way of such things, we didn't squeeze in all the joy available at the time as the expectation was that it should last a bit longer, so there's a lesson there for those keen to find such things. Anyhoo, shall we have a little look back at those Salad Days?

First up, a bit of Family Time via a couple of trips on the train down the coast to visit Dear Parents, where we got to generally loll about and take in some invigorating sea air, which are always top priority pastimes. Dear Mother is pretty cracking at Scrabble, by the by, so the least said about that the better.

On a fine day, three hours south of Sydney
Behold the white sands of Jervis Bay

More recently, the drenching and windy coastline
Where I failed to photograph an obliging pod of dolphins

Apart from the novelty of be-masked train journeys beyond the perimeter of Sydney, which are presently deemed verboten, our gallivanting was of typically local fare: dancing classes for Your Correspondent; lunches and dinners with friends and family; a Greek-flavoured wedding; a couple of lectures at the Art Gallery on the "collision of art and fashion" -viz., Impressionism & C19th Fashion and Oppositional Art & 1920s Fashion; and a short architectural walking tour poking around some new/old city corners. E.g.:

Kan Yasuda marble scultpure, Touchstones, fore
Victorian-era sandstone Lands Department Building, aft

The fresh facade on Sydney Hospital
A Plague Year sandstone cleaning project

When indoor socialising went off the agenda again, walking with friends became the de rigueur opportunities for airing the activewear* on the able-bodied and ant-trails of Sydneysiders could be seen marching hither and thither around the beauty spots. And sometimes getting carried:

No mask required for this hitchhiker

[Nota bene: If you've no interest in the abridged theatrical reviews which follow, avert your gaze now!]

It may be recalled that the Pipistrellos had a musical night out a few months ago, but that was not our only visit to the same concert hall, for we had another glorious night in Angel Place listening to the Pinchgut Opera's first concert for over a year, Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers

Pinchgut Island (sans gibbet & encircling sharks), 1840
Sydney Harbour's island of banishment for incorrigible convicts

Pinchgut (named for the island), under the masterful guidance of artistic director Erin Helyard, ordinarily frolics in the dustier corners of the Baroque period, so the 8-member Cantillation chorus and the Orchestra of the Antipodes, by celebrating a return to the stage with something better known, took the opulent Vespers back to its 1610 roots with one voice to a part, all the better for social distancing, one guesses.

Pre-performance tuning
Harp, lirone and a lion-headed bass viola da gamba

Then we went not once but twice! to the Opera House to see the ballet.  For we delight in bargains - almost as good as Free Stuffs - the first performance was to the full dress rehearsal of the triple bill New York Dialects. After the retirement last year of Artistic Director David McAllister, there's a new face in charge, hailing from Phoenix in Arizona via the American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet and finally Resident Guest Artist of the Australian Ballet ... dancer David Hallberg!

Such beguiling Classical danseur good looks,
Disguises David Hallberg's avant-garde contemporary taste

DH is looking to shake things up a bit and used the launch of his first season to commission a new work by American contemporary choreographer Pam Tanowitz to sit between two works by the late George Balanchine: the romantic and exquisite exercise in classical technique Serenade and the modernist and abstract neoclassical favourite The Four Temperaments. 

Early birds, again, to the Opera House

The new Watermark proved not to be to our taste, although composer Caroline Shaw's piano concerto of the same name was really lovely, and I'm afraid to say that the flimsy white jumpsuits and jazz shoes adorning the dancers were a bit, well, interesting and the whole brought to my mind androids with a computer glitch trying to dance. There was a fair bit of bouncing about and shaking of feet and I'm sure the dancers had fun, and a diet of story-book ballets can be rather unadventurous when Ballet Dancing is your Day Job, but Mr. P and I are made of old-fashioned stuff and like our contemporary ballet to be less kooky. DH will no doubt hope to wear our stuffiness down with time.

All in all, Serenade was the hands-down favourite. And then we had the bonus of sharing our bus home (cheap night out!) with some of the lissome dancers who were heading back to their temporary Sydney digs somewhere beyond our casa.

Then for proper pesos we got some top shelf tickets for a Saturday night in May when the Melbourne-based Australian Ballet came back to Sydney for another triple bill, Counterpointe. Thrilling and delicious entree-main-dessert this time with Act III of Marius Petipa's Raymonda; George Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux; and a first for the AB, William Forsyth's Artifact Suite. 

A staple in the Australian Ballet's repertoire, Raymonda was taught to them by newly-defected Rudolph Nureyev in 1965, and he and his (reputedly platonic) partner Margot Fonteyn originally danced the leads as guest artists. For our performance, we had real-life husband & wife principals Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo dazzling as the leads, and who dance so beautifully together I can't imagine when they don't use any opportunity to practise, including dancing down the path to their letterbox each morning.

AB's original Raymonda pairing of Nureyev and Fonteyn
Opening night Baalbeck Festival, 1964

This is a proper glamorous tutu and brocade jacket affair, with Raymonda and Jean de Brienne donned in white, and the other dancers in a (tricky) mustard, and straight out of the AB's late 1990s costume box, and a charming counterpoint to the Kermit-the-Frog-green unitards of Artifact Suite. AS is itself a display of hyperflexibility and snappy footwork, and amazing precision between dancers on the annoyingly cramped stage of the Opera Theatre**.

Sandwiched between, we had Principals Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth dancing the Tschai Pas, and they might be my new favourite partnering, dancing this energetic and challenging short piece with its lifts and swooping fish-dives and pirouette competitions with such verve and evident fun. And Benedicte was perfectly full of beans, too, after dancing the rôle of Raymonda for the matinée.

Who else stood out? Soloists Jill Ogai and Nathan Brook, who has won both the recent Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards and was perfectly partnering a fortunate Isobelle Dashwood from the Corps in Raymonda. But it was just wonderful to see everyone again, and who knows if they'll return to Sydney for the rest of the season later this year, so we were pretty lucky to get to two performances. And that's something to crow about!

This extraordinary bit of Garden Art
Found (thankfully) not too near the parentis domo
Hopes you had a Happy Bastille Day!

* Never on the Pipistrello bods, mind!

** And no doubt will never be addressed since $200 million is presently being spent on renovating the larger Concert Hall of the Opera House.

Image credits: 1: via sidebar blogger Gods and Foolish Grandeur; 7: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences; 9: Daniel Boud via The Australian Ballet; 11: via Pinterest; all else: Flying With Hands

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Mail Travail & More


Please, Mr. Postman,
Is that a letter for me?
Japan, circa 1890

Mr. P received a business letter the other day which travelled a distance of merely 20 kilometres and yet took a full calendar week to arrive! Words cannot express the disappointment, Australia Post. If, as a society, we are contemplating supersonic air travel again, how can it be that this letter travelled at around 3km per day? Such mail travail ... Yet I know for certain that our postmen haven't thrown aside their modern transport modes and gone all retro-Japanese-postal-runner in a loin cloth and sandals (although I suspect the tattoos are a pretty close fit & for showing them off, it is a style nonpareil), for I see them ambling (Clue #1?) in their hi-viz uniforms and tootling about (Clue #2??) in vans from time to time. Rather a shame, really, as a dashing runner could cover the distance in some small number of hours, even stopping for a bowl of sustaining ramen along the way. 

Somehow, I feel the catch-all excuse of These Trying Times will be behind this.

Shall I suggest that this present sorry state about our mail is reflective of the "deepening twilight of industrial society" and prefigures the looming deindustrialisation* of our civilisation that's regularly chewed over by one of the blogosphere's more interesting musers**? When the presumed linear trajectory of societal and technological progress is set back somewhere, does everything automatically go to Hell-in-a-Handbasket? Should we expect to find our lives now shaped by anarchy? And no wifi? Or do we regroup, and try shooting for the stars again? Or, do we plumb the experiences of our forebears, and discover that the past was indeed a different country, actually quite enjoyable, the food delicious and the weather agreeable, and the locals friendly and photogenic?

For one, I would be quite happy to wind back the clock in the Postal Department, as a quick look at its history presents us with plenty of examples of Better Times for those who once enjoyed sending and receiving missives requiring stamps and envelopes. Indeed, the Postal Service, in its determination to offer a swift and reliable delivery (and turn a handy profit), was mostly ever the model of Futurism and Progress as it embraced innovation and modernity. Shall we see what I mean, Dear Reader?

The Postal Pentacycle
 a.k.a. Hen & Chicks

A recent binge-watching of Lark Rise to Candleford gave me opportunity to ponder this whole business of Progress. Amongst the TV-show's many themes and subplots***, the featured 1890s regional English Post Office dealt with the looming spectre of the Future in many forms. For inst., who could not titter at the pious postman Thomas Brown getting to grips with the arrival of the frightening Bicycle? Reality was otherwise, as the postman's Bicycle was old hat by this time, so Thomas's regulation socks would have been blown by the notion of the Pentacyle, which was trialled in Horsham in Sussex in 1882, although sadly it didn't take off.

It was in 1784 that wealthy and well-connected Bath theatre-owner John Palmer first successfully addressed the notion of a postman Feeling-the-Need-for-Speed. For the preceding 150 years, the public postal service relied upon horse-riding post-boys carrying letters from post-to-post at around 3 miles-per-hour, and local postmasters organising final delivery. The system had many flaws but it was principally slow (mind you, better than Sydney in 2021), expensive,  and subject to such vagaries as post-boys being set upon by highwaymen. As coaches were already being used by parcel couriers, John Palmer found therein a solution. And after financing a trial run which demonstrated the feasibility of Bristol to London in 16-hours, the liveried Mail Coach was born. 

Commissioned poster art for the General Post Office
John Armstrong, 1934
Mail Coach AD 1784

© Royal Mail Group Ltd

After this sluggish start to a public postal service, the Victorian era saw progress in this arena take off like a rocket! By furnishing each with a uniformed postal official armed against bandits with two pistols and a blunderbuss (like the armed Pony Express rider with his revolver and knife, who bore business letters across continental America), within a few years Mail Coaches were safely criss-crossing England, carrying paid-passengers on their express journey to subsidise their private contractors and delivering letters to a hallowed and regulated timetable.

Commissioned poster art for the General Post Office
Grace Lydia Golden, 1948
Loading the Travelling Post Office
© Royal Mail Group Ltd

Fast-forward fifty years and the Royal Mail became an early adopter of the railway. While our endearing postmistress Dorcas Lane and her Lark Rise &c. neighbours were contemplating the arrival of the steam age with mixed feelings as to what such progress might mean to their lives, for the legion of men and women in the employ of the Royal Mail, the railway had already formed the backbone of the postal service in Victorian England. Cheaper travel had lured the lucrative Mail Coach passenger business onto the trains from 1830 (and, joy, paying passengers no longer had to walk up steep hills for the sake of the coach-horses) and quick to seize advantage, the first mail train was up and running and by 1838 the Postmaster-General was empowered by an Act of Parliament to commandeer trains to run at will. By having dedicated carriages to sort as they steamed along, the Travelling Post Office became the next leap.

Although Lark Rise &c. dwelt in the rosy glow of a rural idyll, tentatively and gently meeting each of the changes that brought them perhaps appropriately up-to-date with the rest of the land, and was indeed based upon a memoir, it did feel rather like its inhabitants were insects trapped in amber. While they were toying with adopting a bicycle, in addition to the aforementioned Hen & Chickens, the Royal Mail was experimenting with electric vehicles! 

Commissioned poster art for the General Post Office
Harold Sandys Williams, 1934
Loading Air Mails for the Empire, Croydon

© Royal Mail Group Ltd

The 1890s, when the story was set, was witness to an explosion of ideas and inventions, and the postal service was an enthusiastic participant. Railway costs had started to soar for the Royal Mail, so they shifted their parcel deliveries back onto coaches in 1887, and by the next decade they'd trialled a number of horse-less vans: an electrical parcel van in 1894; a steam-powered Daimler motor van in 1897; then settling on the petrol mail vans in 1898. Then in the blink of an eye, or certainly within the lifetime of our gently annoying friends, they would have seen the glory of Air Mail. And hullo!, here's our old friend Scylla ...

Behold the mercury arc rectifier
(with bonus 1973 fashion)
Which replaced rotary converters from 1959

And while they may not have lived to see the thrilling mercury arc rectifier, above, they would have had an inkling of what was to come as not only did a pneumatic underground railway operate within London, coming and going by the 1870s, it was replaced by a driverless underground electric railway in 1927 that managed AC to DC with rotary converters. The Future was well and truly Now[Then]!

Ms. Davis's address.
Let's be specific,
Royal Mail Never Fails

So how did we abruptly stop this momentum and fall into the hole we find ourselves in today? Dependence upon electronic communication is a simplistic excuse for letting the letter-writer down, for the electricity could be switched off tomorrow. Remember the looming deindustrialisation! So something from the Past may have to step up again, and the present mail travail needs to put a bit more effort into the le travail bit. Meanwhile, on a happier note, sidebar resident Futility Closet yesterday furnished this related piece about a better Postal Success Story (above), hinting that perhaps it's just a personal touch that's required. As Australia Post is not the Royal Mail****, and although there's no hint as to how long it took Ms. Davis's fan-mail to arrive, in this current climate, I daresay it would be an exercise in futility to apply similar creative writing to an envelope destined for an address within this wide, brown land of ours right now.

* And not to be confused with the everyday preoccupation with your postindustrial/dystopian/post-apocalyptic/trad-sci-fi. Obv.

** One Archdruid, John Michael Greer, found over at Ecosophia. Your Correspondent enjoys a catholic taste in blogs as well as books.

*** And many of them I found dull and tedious on this revisiting, rather like with ol' Poldark recently.

**** viz. we are presently rationed to alternate days for letter delivery because of These Trying Times, whereas I hear the Royal Mail can still muster up deliveries six days per week ... although far cry from the between 6 and 12 (count them!) deliveries per day in London in Victorian times!

Image credits: 1: via Pinterest; 2 - 6: The Postal Museum; 7: BBC via

Bats In The Belfry