The piece below is a first draft of a segment of a memoir I am writing, of Norwich from the end of the war to the present day, and will take in the various collectors and dealers I have come across in the last 50 years, mixed with other personal memories. I will probably publish it on this site, and may eventually have it published, either as book or articles.

~

 

NORWICH

 

I was born into a world of fury. In a small corner, of a small island, a small city was being blitzed and burned by German bombers; not because it was important, but as part of a world wide insanity  that saw our small city as part of a monstrous strategy conceived by a madman.  And in one small part of that 1000 year old city of 100,000 inhabitants, half a mile outside the broken remnants of the centuries old city wall, that had stood firm against all incursions for 700 years, but now encircling a cowering city, helpless against the brutal onslaught from the skies, lay a warren of Victorian terraces, pubs and corner shops; and in one of those small, four room  houses, I first began my journey to, and exploration of,  a world of such profound and wondrous fascination  that even now, a lifetime later, I am still trying to understand its meaning, and grasp its impalpable essence.

A black sky laced with white beams of light, restlessly searching; a distant-thunder rumble of engines high in the darkness; the musty smell of hessian sacking and damp blankets in the semi-submerged shelter in the back garden, with its two rows of bunks and kerosene lamp – these may be trace memories, or recollections of stories told, and films seen, mixed with post war explorations of that same shelter that remained, submerged and weed enveloped, for some years. But however fragmentary my memories of the blitz might be, the shattered city that I emerged into, at Wars end, blinking and stumbling as I tried to make sense of this immense new world, is still as clear and sharp as it was when I first  saw it in those austere, grey,  but wonderfully exciting post war years.

 The heart of Norwich that existed within those broken walls was a medieval warren of streets, alleys and yards; mouldering half timbered buildings leaning over dingy streets, and poverty stricken tenements; street corner pubs and shops; stone and flint churches, warehouses and builders yards. But as well as the sprawling evidence of poverty and , amid the detritus of the centuries old neighbourhoods, vibrant communities existed; and at its heart a bold and proud city centre which told the story of the centuries in one panorama of disparate , incoherent buildings. The centrepiece was, and is,  the  angular art deco City Hall, built and dedicated a year before the war began, just in time to defy the bombs that rained down in those first years. Its bold front steps overlooked a market that had existed since Norman times, which was itself fringed by a row of splendid Edwardian shops and banks, and an arcade whose mosaic and decorative extravagance spoke of the confidence of a time before the first of the great wars that devastated a nation and a city. From those same steps the market was flanked on one side of the square by a flint- built, fourteenth century Guildhall; and on the other side, the great church of St Peter Mancroft, built in the fourteenth century, and the last resting place of the eminent Sir Thomas Browne, and many other locally celebrated worthies,  whose names and deeds have faded with their inscriptions on the melting stone. Looking further from the city hall steps, over the variegated awnings of the market, beyond the Edwardian pride etched into the imposing buildings of Gentleman’s Walk, piercing the skyline as it has for 900 years, is the elegant power of the Norman Cathedral, the equal of any in the country, and to its right, above the foreground buildings, is the immense man made mound that supports the square, stone faced, castellated majesty of The Castle, the arrogant edifice that has overlooked the city from its humble anglo saxon beginnings, nine hundred years ago.  To the east of the elegant sweep of Castle Meadow could be found the open space that was ringed by the cattle market on one side, the huge porticoed central post office, and the multi-roomed three storied Victorian edifice that was the great hotel, all of them overlooked by the winged Victory monument that celebrated the Boer War. This open space led into the great sweep of the boulevard of Prince of Wales road, flanked on both sides by impressive Victorian town houses and finishing at the ornate Victorian train station.

Elysian Fields

This was the Norwich that I began to explore in those post war years, but a Norwich reshaped by the bombs into something less formal, but infinitely more exciting. Our lives were given form by many things; school, home and family most obviously, but also by the wonderful open air playground that Norwich had become: the wreckage left by the war was our elysian fields; our “playing fields of Eton” were the wondrous bomb sites that fired our imagination, and fulfilled our fantasies. We Blitz Rats were occupied all our spare moments by exploring the crumbling walls, rubble strewn spaces and hidden cellars that now became ours, while the rest of society passed by, oblivious to our activities, while they painfully, and happily, slowly, rebuilt their world. I have no memories of any serious injuries suffered by any of us – not for want of trying as my Mother would probably have said – as we climbed broken walls to bedrooms reduced to charred joists jutting out beneath empty windows, recreating the latest pirate adventure 15 feet above the broken ground; or lowering ourselves carelessly into underground caverns through fractured floors, and exploring the echoing basement that was the only remnant of a factory or warehouse  otherwise blasted into oblivion.

The best of these was at the junction of Dereham Road and Barn Road, flanked by remnants of a much earlier age, the old city wall, which then consisted of a length of flint wall with two or three Norman style entrances that used to stand beside the long gone St Benedicts Gate, one of the main entrances into the fortified city. To climb to the top of this notoriously unstable wall, in full view of passing adults, was beyond the aspiration of most, but some of us took on the challenge, although the better option was always the bomb site itself, which was ours, and ours alone. The great advantage of this particular site was that it was directly across the road from my local cinema, The Regal, a beautiful little provincial cinema, built in 1937, and mercifully, from our point of view, spared the bombs. We could leave the cinema Saturday mornings, our imaginations still aflame with visions of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Lash Larue, or the ridiculously glamorous Buster Crabbe of Flash Gordon fame, and shoot, blast, punch and generally obliterate ourselves and each other as we galloped, flew, climbed and dived over mesas and canyons, alien landscapes and hostile environments of all kinds, that we found perfectly represented in the blasted landscape of a war, more real to others than our most vivid fantasies, but of which we knew nothing, and cared less.

Such was the cornucopia of destruction that was my heritage, that The Regal bomb site, although only a short walk from my house, was by no means the first encountered on my journey. The first was in retrospect the most horrifying, because of the possibilities of disaster it represented.

 My house was in a maze of Victorian terraces; a few houses one way was a tiny crossroad, on each corner a staple of life; two pubs, a general store and a butchers, the baker was round the corner beside the general store. That way lay school and grandparents, important in their own way, especially to the adults, but uninspiring to young imaginations. A few houses the other way however, and I would reach the great thoroughfare that was Dereham Road: turn left and the way was clear to the wondrous metropolis that always beckoned me. Before I reached that gateway to discovery however, I only had to go three houses along before I came to a gap in the terrace, a charred and broken gap, a missing tooth in a madman’s grimace, a reminder of the horror just passed. An incendiary had fallen directly onto the house and it had burned to the stone floor, quite capable of taking the whole row with it, but mercifully contained. This was the great fear of my father, trapped in an invalid’s bed a few yards away, and at the mercy of any fire that took control. We could go to the shelter, but the difficulty of carrying him there , and then getting him in , posed so many difficulties that he chose to stay in the house, often kept company by my brother who sheltered under the table, as they  watched the glow through the one dirty window, and probably prayed. He was a brave man who bore his terrible affliction with grace and good humour, but he was afraid of the fire, my Mother told me this years later, and suffered fears and torments that few people experience. Such was the war, and the legacy of the war, as I will discuss later, that we blitz rats never knew about, and so never let temper our delight in our world of fantasy.

This sombre relic was again utilised by us for recreation, although its proximity to home meant that we never felt free to do much more than the always pleasant pastime of leaping from a broken wall onto the unsuspecting back of the more easily bullied member of the gang, and sending him headfirst into a pile of rubble. Big Tony was the usual recipient of this treatment, as he was a big target to hit, was somewhat slow witted and uncomplaining, and sported a purple birthmark that covered half his face, a sure sign of victimhood to our unforgiving eyes. He suffered further humiliation at my hands, when, playing behind a low wall at the barbers on the corner of West End and Nelson street, I threw a stick into the street at an approaching cyclist, with the unexpected, but definitely gratifying result of seeing it lodge in his front spokes and throw him over the handlebars. The enormity of what I’d done soon calmed my excitement, and we quickly scurried away, leaving my victim groaning semi-conscious in the street. On the short walk home I calmed my fears of retribution by persuading a bemused, but frightened, Big Tony, that he had been solely responsible, and would undoubtedly go to prison. “What will my Mum say” he wailed as I left him at the alley leading to his back door; I shrugged, to indicate that you reap what you sow, and went home whistling.

The only other memory I have of Tony was when we were sauntering up Dereham Road and approached the second of the bombsites that led to the city. This was partially utilised as a wood yard at the time, and therefore afforded even more opportunities to cheat death as we clambered over dangerously swaying piles of sawn planks. On this day however we had no thought of the wood yard, but  were stopped at the entrance by a mousey middle aged man in a grubby raincoat. He asked us quietly if we would like to see something interesting, which seemed to two bored boys a reasonable offer on a quiet day. We looked at each other and said “OK”., then followed him into the stacks of wood, where he stopped, turned round and opened his raincoat. We regarded his unremarkable member with some bemusement as we realised that this was the “something interesting” we had been promised; it was of no interest to us and so we exchanged glances, then turned and walked back to the road. Once clear of the yard, Tony was immediately indignant “when he said something interesting I thought he meant chickens, or maybe rabbits, not that”. I sagely concurred that chickens, or even rabbits, would have been far more interesting. And so we ambled away, again aware that adults were a strange species, but un perturbed, and un perverted, never to mention it or think of it again.

Adelaide Street

16 Adelaide street was a four room terrace house, with a narrow enclosed passage running from the street to the back yard, narrow enough for me to be able to straddle the opening and walk up the wall by the time I was seven or eight. The back yard was shared by our neighbours, the Browns. Mr Brown was a grime encrusted coalman, a fearsome taciturn character to my eyes, and to whom  I never spoke. Their only son Georgie, although a couple of years older, was a best friend, but only in the back yard, he never shared our adventures in the outside world, nor joined us at the pictures. We spent most of our time in the back yard, and rarely visited each others houses; one of the few times I remember being in his house, we sat in a corner of the small living room, playing shops with our strips of plastecine, while his parents say round the wireless listening with rapt attention to a new programme called "The Archers". It was not a programme we listened to in our house, and only increased my feelings that the Browns were somewhat different, and somehow connected to the countryside, a world beyond my ken; my tastes were more attuned to  "The Man In Black", classic ghost stories narrated with sepulchral relish by Valentine Dyall, whose doom laden rendering of Bram Stoker's "The Judges House" haunted my imagination for years. Yet another  unforgettable moment, in a childhood of such moments, that helped create the obsessive collector I am today.

 George was a serious boy, well read in adventure "yarns" as he called them, and possessing scientific  facts gleaned from his magazines that brooked no contradiction. He probably regarded himself as my mentor, but I teased him without mercy, deliberately breaking the formal rules he set up for our games, to his eternal chagrin. One particular game involved the ever present water pistols, which on this occasion were used in an assault on the outside lavatory, a pair of which stood a few yards from our back doors. I was defending my lavatory from the inside, while he attacked it by attempting to fire over the gap at the top of the door. Although trapped I had the advantage of a ready supply of water to refill my gun. Georgie insisted that, as an absolute rule, I had to fill my gun from the cistern, and not the lavatory pan. I quickly agreed, and just as quickly ignored him; Georgie's rules were there to be broken after all, that was the point of them to me. He would probably never have realised my treachery, had I not popped above the door while he was approaching and caught him full in his open mouth with a splendid shot. I dropped down again and listened to him spluttering and coughing: "Are you sure you're getting that from the cistern?" he demanded, "it tastes funny". I was laughing too much to answer, and, unsurprisingly  Georgie lost interest in the game, and went indoors.

Beyond these was a narrow overgrown garden that led to a wall that was the boundary of  The Model  School, a Catholic preparatory school for girls, that had an imposing wrought iron entrance gate on Dereham road, but whose playground at the back shared a wall with our back garden. I spent many happy moments precariously clinging to the top of the wall as I watched the girls shrieking and giggling as they took their break, or, most delightfully, when they had their netball lessons in their dark blue bloomers. I was painfully shy, and so dropped back immediately if they spotted me. The only other reason for going into the garden was to visit the large overgrown gooseberry bush, with its lethal thorns, but gorgeous, ripe plump fruit.  We didn't have much in the way of fresh fruit in those days, and the gooseberries, although not to everyone's taste, were a joy to me. The large green berries, with their veins and tiny hairs, were only for the bravest; as you bit into them the tough outer skin gave way with a satisfying crunch, and our mouths were flooded with the sharp acidic juice, that brought tears to our eyes, as we struggled to maintain a straight face, before collapsing into satisfied giggles. The real treat was finding the later, ripe berries, purple and soft, with an incomparable sweetness, that I remember to this day, although, strangely, I can't remember eating one since. Georgie's adjacent garden was a more formal affair, with two rows of wooden sheds that housed rabbits and chickens. Geogie took great pleasure in letting me watch when his father decapitated a chicken, then let it flutter and stagger headless for a few horrifying moments. With a working father, the Browns lived well with their chicken dinners -  but they didn't have a gooseberry bush.

 

I have fond memories of George, and that tiny back yard. It was a large part of the only world I knew for a number of years, along with the streets and bomb sites. A few feet from our back door was the wash house, dark and chilly, with a large stone sink, and not a place I had much time for. Beside that were the pair of outside lavatories, useful for much more than the usual purposes, as related above. My brother Michael, seven years older, and far more knowledgeable and sophisticated than I, would hang on to the door, and swing backwards and forwards yelling "The Bells!, The Bells!  - they made me deaf". I was overwhelmed with laughter and admiration, even though it was some years before I saw Charles Laughton perform the same trick as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", and more years later that I climbed the tedious steps to the real bell tower at Notre Dame in Paris and contemplated the great bell "Jacqueline".  As I stood with a few other visitors, silently contemplating the massive bronze artifact, I had before me an imperishable image of a creaking wooden lavatory door swinging to and fro with a twelve year old boy attached, shouting his incantation to the skies. Thus reality, memory, fantasy and imagination combine and merge to create a new surreal reality that adds colour and texture to the everyday ; thus we collectors and enthusiasts collect more than artifacts, we collect memories and dreams which we weave unconsciously into the commonplace, to add texture to the ordinary, and give potential for everyday to be a new discovery.

The Thing on the Stairs

 

David was one of the ragged urchins that infested the Adelaide Street neighbourhood, part of our loose knit gang, but no especial friend of mine. On this particular day however we somehow found ourselves alone on the streets, as we wandered with our ever present sticks, idly slicing the heads off any front garden flowers we could reach, as we wandered past rows of unremarkable terraced houses, looking for something to relieve the boredom. We found ourselves finally out of our familiar neighbourhood, across Old Palace Road, and into a maze of Streets, less than half a mile from our own, and nearly identical, but far enough away for us to be anonymous, and therefore with more licence to attempt exploits that we had to be wary of in our own streets, where we could be informed upon to parents, ever looking for an excuse, it seemed to us, to fly into a rage, and impose irksome restrictions upon our freedom.

We noted with increasing interest that a number of these terraced houses were apparently empty, abandoned even.  The few yards from the gate to the front door were sprouting weeds, with sometimes a large cobweb attached to the door itself. This wasn't necessarily conclusive proof of no occupant , as front doors were not always used  in those days; I personally never saw our front door opened in all the years I lived in Adelaide Street, it was common practise to use the back door at all times. The back doors in the terraces were always accessed by way of a narrow passage every half dozen or so houses, which would lead to the backs of three houses either side, all enclosed in their own back yards. On this occasion we were looking for evidence of neglect, no curtains, and no light or movement inside; and in that long, empty street, on a grey autumnal afternoon we found the perfect site: a pair of houses with weed encrusted fronts, peeling paint on doors and windows, an abandoned cooker barring the way to one front door, and a grimy sack covering half of one window. Through the dirt-encrusted windows there was no sign of life, as they stood lifeless and abandoned, relics of war time displacement probably, and merely waiting for the inevitable bulldozer when the clearances finally began some years later. What made these two dilapidated properties ideal, was that they stood on either side of a passage, and so gave us perfect privacy as we entered it. David was reluctant at first, but my enthusiasm persuaded him that an adventure beckoned with no consequences; I was normally fairly cautious, but that day I could see no downside to what had to be an activity that would produce a great story when we met up with the others later. And so we slipped into the gloomy passageway.

All the passages echoed, and this was no exception, our steps rang in the narrow enclosure, but there was no other sound, no voices, no movement, the houses were ours, and ours alone . At the end , as we came back into the light, a wooden fence enclosed the tiny back yard on our right, while on the other side the yard was open, and filled with foot high weeds, and a wheel less pram abandoned on the back step, further proof that nothing lived here. The fenced-in back yard was the obvious one to explore, as it gave complete privacy, and meant that the ever anticipated shout of outrage from a dangerous adult could be forgotten. The wooden fence was about 5 feet high, and falling apart, but the gate was intact, although leaning dangerously on its hinges. We looked at each other - David wasn't sure, but my excitement had infected him, and so we carefully pushed on the gate. It stuck at first, as it was resting on the ground, but a more determined shove forced it forward two feet, with a hideous grating sound that caused the first, but not the last, shock to my nervous system that day. We stared wide eyed at each other for some seconds, and at that point could easily have run back to the street. There was no reaction from the eerily silent world around us however, and as we calmed down, the partially, but sufficiently, opened gate seemed to invite us in. "C'mon" I whispered, with more conviction than I felt, and we slipped through the forced space into the empty back yard.  The tiny yard was only a few feet square, with a small wash house and lavatory on the right, forming one side, the large sash window straight ahead looking into the kitchen was another, and the rickety wooden fence on our left and behind us, completing the enclosure.  We were alone, cut off from all prying eyes, and on somebody else's property with no one to tell what we could, or couldn't do. I would like to be able to say, for dramatic effect, that at that moment the light began to fade, as the afternoon drew to a close, and a chill entered the air as the sun slipped behind a cloud, causing us to shiver. In truth however, the sky stayed bright, and the air stayed warm; but inwardly, I began to feel a cold emptiness as I realised I was entering forbidden territory; my parents would have been horrified if they knew where I was, and their opinions were the only moral compass I had, not that it had ever stopped me before, but this time it seemed I might be taking a step too far.

The yard was empty, except for a small pile of rubble under the window, which showed little of the gloomy kitchen beyond. The back door was set in the wash house, at the point where it made a right angle with the wall the window was set into.  David was whispering that we should go home, we'd done enough, and part of me was in full agreement; but I also felt that the chance we had might never come again, and I was sure that John, the leader of our group, and the only one I ever gave ground to,  would have been through the door already if he had been with us. I was determined to see it through, and with another urgent "C'mon", I tried the door knob. It spun round without effect, already broken, and the door inched open as I pushed it. Our progress seemed inexorable, predestined, although not entirely welcome, but an open door had to be entered, even an ever more reluctant David could see that, and so I sidled in, with my nervous companion close behind.

Once inside, the comparative brightness of the afternoon light was obliterated, and we were immersed in a grey half light that forced its way through the filthy window. The room we were in was small, and completely stripped of all signs of habitation. All that remained were some bundles of newspapers, and a few boxes. Everywhere was covered in dust, and smelled musty and damp. The bareness of it all was a disappointment, as it soon became obvious that no great adventure or treasure was to be found here. At the far end a doorway lead to the front room that looked out onto the street, but as the door was missing we could see pretty clearly that that room was equally bare. On the left hand side of the door, the closed in stairs led up to the two bedrooms; we knew this without looking because all the houses had much the same layout, and this house was very similar to the ones we lived in. There was little to excite our interest in these gutted rooms, but we were emboldened now we had made the breakthrough, or break-in to be more exact, into this new lawless environment, and so , after a brief whispered conference - a whisper was the only appropriate form of communication in this dead house - we decided to explore upstairs.

We carefully crept forward to the stairs, and together looked round the corner and up to the dark landing.  The stairs were encased in a blackness that was only slightly alleviated by the faint grey light that seeped in through the upstairs windows, and it took a few moments before our eyes adjusted to this new reality, but when they did we were confronted by a horror that shook our senses, and stopped us breathing, as our flesh crawled and tightened over our bloodless faces, and cold jolts of nervous energy prickled behind my ears and down into my contracting stomach.  We both moved together, instinctively, as turning, and bumping into each other , we ran for the safety of the back door. We stopped there, finally breathing again, but our hearts still pounding, as we tried to make sense of what we had seen. As we had become accustomed to the darkness of the stairs we had begun to make out a deeper blackness in the middle of the stairs, a few feet above our heads. It gradually resolved itself into the shape of a man, a body, a thing on the stairs. This was indeed the adventure we had looked for, but now we had found it, we had no idea of what to do about it. Leaving and going home was the best idea in many ways, but a waste of an opportunity that might never come again. The quietness of the house was confidence building; there was no sound nor movement, and whatever was on the stairs was likely to stay there. "Is it dead?" David whispered, not sure what the most comforting answer would be, "Must be" I said, also not sure if that was a comforting thought or not. By this time there was an unspoken assumption that we would not leave without further investigation, and so we looked around for a tool to aid in our examination of the cadaver. A short length of steel pipe in the washroom seemed to serve and so, armed with a familiar implement, we again approached the stairs.

Again we peered round the corner, and again the blackness resolved itself into the shape of a man, lying on his side, dressed in loose, dark clothes with one arm hanging limply, the thin, veined hand stretched towards us. His face was half hidden, but was pale and lifeless, with one partially closed eye glistening whitely under the mat of dark hair. I heard Mike suck in his breath as I reached out with the pipe and carefully poked the leg of the corpse. I was intrigued , and a bit relieved , to find it firm; I had half expected that the pipe would sink into a putrescent sticky mass of decay, probably influenced by the ghost stories my brother delighted to scare me with. "What's it feel like?" whispered  David;  "Dunno' "  I said, and reached out the pipe again, this time lifting the dead hand. With that one careless,  disrespectful gesture I brought to a close our afternoon of adventure, and almost, it seemed, our young lives. As I lifted the hand, the fingers moved and flexed, and a ghastly catarrhal sound welled up wetly from deep within the wretched creature before me. More terrifying still, its whole shapeless body moved, twisted and lurched up into a sitting position, as the white dead face swivelled towards me, with  the pale, wet eyes staring blindly at first, but then focussing upon me. I was paralysed with fright, I could not move, breath or think, as my mind was overwhelmed by the impossibility of what was happening, and my heart crashed painfully in my chest. I was jolted out of my state of shock by the sound of splintering wood behind me, as David crashed through the back door and into the yard,  leaving me, I immediately realised, alone with the thing. With this thought,  I was galvanised into life, much like the thing before me, which had begun shuffling down the stairs in my direction, and I turned and ran. It was only a few yards to the back door, but in my fear I was clumsy, and I knew the creature was close behind, the long thin arm stretching  toward me, with the bony talon-like fingers an inch from my collar, as it wheezed and snuffled obscenely in that dingy room. David had left the back door open and I was through it and into the yard, gasping with fear, and with only the half open gate to reach. I was through it instantly, leaving a piece of pullover on the latch, as I wrenched myself through the narrow opening, and into the passageway, and finally the street.

David was in the middle of the road, hopping from one leg to the other in a fever of excitement and fear. "What was it?" he yelled, but I didn't answer; I wanted to get away from that quiet, now cold street as quickly as I could. David had only seen the hand move, he hadn't waited for the resurrection, and so couldn't appreciate the full horror of what we had just experienced. When we had reached our own neighbourhood we talked of the day, and tried to make sense of what we had seen, but we never told anyone else. They wouldn't have believed us anyway, I was a renowned fabricator of stories, and what we had just lived through was too intense, and too visceral to be dismissed as a fantasy. David and I never visited that neighbourhood alone again, and we rarely spoke about it. Whether it would have made the same impression on him as it did on me, I shall never know: he died in a car crash on the Kings Lynn by-pass some years later, and perhaps he never thought of it again, but for many years after I would  dream of that cold, dead street with the pair of abandoned houses and their, sightless blank windows.

The Demon Barber

Old Palace Road ran in a long sweep from Dereham Road to Heigham Street. The Dereham Road end sported minor bomb sites on either side; neither of great interest, but both well used. The east side site had a large advertising hoarding, which we utilised as a massive climbing frame; while the west side doubled up as a wood yard , which gave a lot more variety for our games on what was otherwise a pretty flat, rubble strewn wasteland. The road was flanked by terraces for most of its length, until Armes Street?, after which the western side was dominated by the massive 3 story brick construction that was the asylum. It had a blank forbidding frontage, studded with small high windows, ominously barred and meshed. As children we were sure that lunatics lurked behind those desperate portals, but we never actually saw any; I’m not sure if it was even occupied at that time, but we were always slightly nervous when we walked past it, and glad to leave it behind. This area was made still more interesting though by the terrace of houses on the eastern side. One of the otherwise featureless houses opposite, all with front door, window and tiny front garden, housed one of the many endlessly fascinating characters of our childhood. The clue was in the window of number 192, a grimy placard bearing the legend  “Walter Franklin hairdresser”.  "Wally" was a short, strutting little man, with black brilliantined hair, and always dressed in a shapeless suit. He ran his business from his tiny front room, and on occasion my mother would take my brother there for a hair cut – “a very bad haircut”, he recalls, never one to forget a bad hair cut, even 70 years later. But it wasn’t Wally’s tonsorial inadequacies that concerned us, it was his short temper and furious rages. He was obsessed with the war and Hitler, and we quickly learned that it was possible, from a safe distance, to provoke his passions by sticking out our arm and yelling “Hitler”, or simply shouting “What did you do in the war Wally”. He would become incandescent, waving his arms and shouting imprecations at Hitler and the Germans, in language ripe with the choicest expletives. He would finally calm down to a furious mutter, which seemed to always accompany him as he strode aggressively up and down the street. We always assumed that he was mad, which he may have been, but he was also a notorious drunk, and a legendary gambler who would lurch home from the pub, his pockets carelessly stuffed with pound notes, inviting trouble, but not, as far as I know, ever finding it.

 Wally very briefly became more than just a sideshow in my theatre of life, when one day, while sitting in our front room with my mother and father, we heard footsteps ringing down the passage. “That’ll be my haircut” Dad said, as the knock came at the back door. At this my skin tingled with apprehension; they surely couldn’t have invited Wally into the house! I watched disbelievingly as my mother opened the back door, and there, silhouetted against the blank wall of the wash house,   stood the oily- haired troll, bag in hand. I’d never been this close to him before, I’d always had somewhere to run to - suppose he recognised me. I took my normal course of evasive action when unwelcome visitors arrived, and dived under the table, hidden by the long cloth that reached nearly to the floor. Mother brought him into the living room, his legs close enough to touch from my ground level vantage point. “This is Charlie” my mother said, as Wally looked at my dad lying flat upon the bed. He grunted something, then speedily sizing up the situation, moved towards the bed, threw his bag over my father to the wall, and with considerable agility and speed, clambered up the side of the bed to a kneeling position, and throwing one leg over, he straddled my father’s chest, and with scissors at the ready , he looked down into dad’s somewhat startled face. I remember no more, but if my brother’s testimony is anything to go by, the haircut would not have been of the best, although to have it safely achieved would probably have been sufficient. To the best of my knowledge he never came again, and I was never that close to him again.

 

Family

 

 I was born 9 months after Brenda, my 10 year old sister, died, in hospital, of a long standing kidney complaint. I have photos of her: a genuinely glorious, golden girl whose death left scars in my family that never healed. I was born in the middle of a great war, to a stricken family, but never knew the unbearable sadness they must have felt. Whether my arrival in any way alleviated their suffering I’ll never know, but even towards the end of her life, my mother would sometimes weep for the daughter she had lost, and whose comfort she felt would have helped her, in her despair at the onset of  age and illness. My father must have  felt pain beyond my understanding, trapped in a cripple’s bed, unable to even visit his beloved daughter as she lay dying in hospital; and then on the day of her burial, unable to leave his bed to pay his last respects, waiting at home with my brother, who was bewildered by the family activity, but hadn't been told the terrible truth that lay behind it. By the time I was old enough to have any understanding of those bitter days, the family had come to terms with their loss – as well as they ever could – and their stories of Brenda were told with laughter and affection, and remembered love. In my early, formative years, my sister was still a part of the family, and on many afternoons, I would attend the grave at Earlham Road cemetery with my mother, and she would tell me stories of Brenda, and point out the black specks of birds, wheeling restlessly in the grey sky, and tell me that they were angels, and Brenda was undoubtedly among them. I’m not sure that in those early years I really understood the awful finality of that loss, as she was mentioned so frequently, but in later years I felt something of that ache for a lost companion whose presence I never enjoyed,  but which would have certainly changed my life, and whose absence I mourn to this day.

 

TITANS

1

This was bought from the estate of a Norwich legend: a reclusive  collector of the bizarre and unusual, mainly of a sexual or criminal nature. For forty years he scoured the back alleys of the antique trade, and gleefully probed the secretive passions of his fellow obsessives, amassing in the process an amazing, disparate collection of treasures, many of which - such as the item above - only he knew the origin of. When I first met him 30 years ago he was a   man of about 60, a gargantuan 280 pounds, with smooth, pale, and unblemished face, distinguished by a small goatee beard, and tiny watery eyes. His hands were smooth and feminine, with delicate fingers and long, uncut nails. He always dressed, whatever the weather, in a long, checked, once expensive, greatcoat, and a deerstalker hat. He looked like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Orson Welles, and carried with him a pungent aroma of ripe putrescence that lingered long after he had gone. He lived in a tiny four room, end cottage, in a terrace of three; mouldering in the shadow of the gas works, to whom they belonged. Built in the 19th century of grey stone, with no amenities, damp and dingy, and cut high into the side of the hill overlooking the city; Victorian relics, ripe for demolition, much like Ronnie himself - for I speak of Ronnie Rouse, now gone, but for decades a name that resonated among the motley crew of dealers, collectors, charlatans, crooks and obsessives, that made up the fringe of semi-respectable characters  operating in that half world that buys from one side to sell to the other; not fully trusted by either, but irresistible to both. A shadowy world that has fascinated me since I was a child, and which I've now inhabited for too long to ever leave.

I first visited this shrine to perverse eccentricity on a cold winter afternoon, and was immediately ushered into a world where the normal functions of everyday life had been transformed by a mania for collecting and owning, into a tangled undergrowth of objects of desire; the bizarre, the horrific, and, occasionally, the genuinely exquisite. All had been mangled into ceiling high edifices of magazines, books and comics; postcards, photographs and ephemera; piled onto cupboards to create skyscrapers of desire; a mini Manhattan of the rare, the strange, the beautiful and the grotesque, through which we shuffled sideways through the narrow corridors left open, but ever encroaching, as he selectively showed his treasures. A first issue of Film Fun; Amazing Fantasy #15; a Victorian Penny Dreadful; a drawer full of clay pipes in exotic shapes, some from the American Civil War; an rare antique dildo - his much prized "convent cock"; albums full of glorious Victorian postcards, Valentine and Christmas specials with glowing vibrant colours, and delicate textures. On the mantelpiece a monstrous stuffed spider guarded the magnificent ormolu 18th century French clock; while on every bare surface, however small, there flourished a profusion of china ornaments, figurines, bric-a-brac; lead soldiers, toys, and strange objects with no discernible purpose, but which had attracted his restless, magpie eye.

As we sidled through the two downstairs rooms, it was obvious that only a small part of what he had was accessible or identifiable; so much was hidden under piles of paper, quietly rotting against the damp walls, as he relentlessly added more each year to a collection that was already beyond his control or comprehension. We edged up the narrow stairs, lined with more books, to the two small rooms that housed yet more of his madness. On the right, the room full of pornography, his overwhelming passion. Among the thousands of modern glossy magazines were older publications, books and drawings from the last hundred years, cataloguing, describing and illustrating every sexual perversion and variation known to man, woman or beast; including all three at times in various exotic activities; “The room of 1000 cunts” as Ronnie delicately put it with his sibilant chuckle. Ahead was his main room, the room his aged mother occupied for many painful years as she quietly decayed, under the ministrations of her grotesque man-child. Perhaps in remembrance of her recent departure, the only human relationship that anybody knew he ever had, he had acquired a kitten, which he kept in an ornate Victorian bird cage, to stop it defecating over his treasures, a habit it had quickly adopted. The treasures included piles of 1940’s Dandy and Beano comics and annuals, pre-code American and British Horror comics, and his special delight:  pre-war Gems, Magnets, Nelson Lee and Sexton Blake. I examined these in more detail on later visits - the kitten I never saw again. 

On my way out after this first visit, we stopped in the main downstairs room, and he pulled from a pile of books, a 1925 Volume of Forensic Medicine by Harvey Littlejohn; a technical work illustrated with medical photos of victims of crime, both murder and suicide. As the winter afternoon waned, and the grey light faded beyond the one grimy window, Ronnie described in his thin high voice, the horrors that lay within: the throat slit to the spine until it gaped like a monstrous nether mouth as the lifeless head lolled back; the many minor wounds inflicted by the suicide on his throat until he summoned the will to make the final desperate lunge; the head destroyed by the shotgun in the mouth. As he recounted, and displayed, these brutal, despairing assaults upon the flesh, under a single bare bulb, his small eyes glinted, his wet lips collected tiny gobbets of spittle as his excitement mounted, and for the first time in my forays into the murky depths of obsession, I felt a tingle of apprehension as my skin tightened, and I felt a need to get back to the fresh air.

 I went back many times over the next years, and even acquired much later, at inflated expense, the volume of forensic horrors that Ronnie, the quintessential Dickensian Fat Boy, had gleefully used to “make my flesh creep” on that first, unforgettable visit. I got to know him well in the following years, although getting close to competitive, acquisitive and pathologically suspicious Ronnie Rouse was not easy, and we had a number of personal disputes (everything was personal with Ronnie!).  I shared his sense of the morbid delights of sex and death and horror in rancid and twisted combinations; his fascination with popular culture; and his love of the strange; but most importantly we shared that feeling of community that only the true collector knows, especially when I officially joined the ranks by opening my shop in 1985, and welcomed Ronnie, much to his chagrin, as my second customer; the first was much more sweet smelling, although equally obsessive , and a great competitor of Ronnie’s – but that’s another story.

2

"Lambert, Omaha, Rackheath" – this cryptic signature, hidden away in the pages of the old “Exchange and Mart” was the gateway to one of the most fascinating of the legendary collectors and dealers to emerge from post-war Norwich, and the one who had the greatest influence on my later career. Until the 90’s, any mention of Norwich at a collector’s fair, dealing in books, magazines, comics or paper ephemera of any kind, anywhere in the country would soon elicit enquiries about  Tom Lambert. He was known country wide, and further afield, among the cognescenti, and most serious collectors had had some dealings with him. Few, however, had actually met him. He was known exclusively through the pages of the legendary “Exchange and Mart”; a thick newsprint weekly publication, that consisted entirely of classified ads, covering every conceivable commodity, collectable and rarity. It was the bible for collectors, and devoured eagerly every Thursday, as its devotees trawled through the thousands of columns for that long sought treasure or bargain. It was the equivalent of the internet today, and the only way that enthusiasts and dealers from different parts of the country could buy and sell to each other – it was eBay writ small, but still a mighty engine of commerce that allowed collectors to grow their collections, and business’s to thrive, especially the one man enthusiast turned dealer who had a modicum of business sense.

Tom Lambert was on of these, and one of the greatest.  He was born just before the first world war above a pub in Lower Goat Lane, and his life before the second World War is very much a mystery. He seems never to have worked, had no family or friends and simply belonged to that  generation of working class men who struggled through the inter-war depression years leaving no impression on an implacably grey society. After the War, still alone, he seems to have moved among the dealers and spivs who thronged Norwich in that new era when life was hard, old certainties had been destroyed in the preceding holocaust, and the attitude was to take what was available from the wreckage of the old life, without too much regard for an uncertain future.  The mayhem of the cattle market in the centre of the city with the noise of the foam flecked cattle above the shouts of the dealers, as they prodded and beat the bony flanks with their short  thick sticks; the frantic buying, selling, and general dealing at the packed Corn Hall on Exchange Street, where among the agricultural goods and implements, would be piles of boxes of general sale items: random boxes of bric-a-brac; antiques and furniture; books and magazines, a box of Dicken’s original parts, Tom remembered, spilling onto the ground to be trampled and kicked in the general melee.

 This was the chaotic scene that first introduced Tom Lambert  to the possibilities of trading in these un-regarded cast-offs. He would have been joined in these excursions by the ever curious Ronnie Rouse, another loner, alive to the possibilities afforded by these undisciplined activities. Ronnie however would bring to the exploration a genuine collectors instinct for  the cultural significance of these objects, where Tom only saw the commercial possibilities. Their shared interest developed into an unlikely friendship, until Ronnie’s obsessive competitive instinct drove them apart, and into a bitter rivalry that lasted until a brief, wary reconciliation in my shop 30 years later.

By the mid fifties Tom was living in a tiny flat in Norwich, surrounded by his ephemera, and beginning his long relationship with The Exchange and Mart, and through it, the outside world. Within a few years he had moved to his bungaloo at Rackheath – the legendary “Omaha” – and in another seven it was all paid for; an achievement he was proud of, all done from the small kitchen with a notepad and pen, and the Royal Mail. He never saw nor spoke to his customers, there was no emotional involvement (Ronnie Rouse’s great flaw Tom always maintained), everything was pure business, and very profitable.

When I first heard about Tom Lambert he was established and untouchable; a giant among dealers, with a vast knowledge and a remarkable stock, a hard edged businessman whose word was law and whose business practises were implacable: he would offer a price if he was buying, and demand a price if he was selling, and he would not waver by a penny in either case. He had no sentiment and did no deals, everything was a commodity and everything had a price.  Unlike Ronnie Rouse, who was a familiar figure around Norwich, and various postcard fairs in other parts of the country, Tom was never seen in the usual haunts, few people knew what he looked like, and he never spoke of his business. Every day he would either take the bus, or cycle on his old upright bike, into the city. He always made for Chaplefield, his refuge, where he had sat of a bench outside the bandstand or in the shelter for many years. The only photo I ever saw of Tom as a young man, he was sat on the same benches, in the same park 30 or more years before. He would mardle with his cronies and discuss the old days; or get into deep philosophical discussions about the meaning of life, or the nature of the Universe; and sometimes give a wise and illuminating tutorial on the nature of collecting and collectors, and ways of doing business. I know what he spoke about, because his topics were unchanging, although endlessly fascinating, and I took part in similar conversations and debates over a number of years, either in his kitchen, or his wonderfully fecund, rambling  garden, an apt metaphor for  Tom’s discursive imagination.

 

I was told about Tom by Ken, a great friend and a wonderfully inquisitive, alert little man, who picked up scents of collections or treasures the way a hunting dog follows a trail, undetectable to mere mortals. Ken was a man who made things happen by following leads, engineering  introductions, and opening doors; his great tragedy was that when he had achieved his goal, he had no ability to capitalize on it – he was too needy, too greedy, he always wanted to “do a deal”, which to him was synonymous with taking advantage, getting something for nothing. He alienated all his contacts and friends by his total unreliability; he would take, but give nothing back unless there was something in it for him. I stuck with him for over 20 years, despite his failings, because I respected his ability to make links, and because we shared a delight in shady deals and seedy activities. I probably used him the way he used others, but I gave him friendship and support for many years, until his final great betrayal of our friendship caused him to reap the whirlwind; I made sure he got his “comuppance – thrice times filled, and running over” in a way that broke him; not a thought that now gives me pleasure, and I miss him to this day, and freely acknowledge the enormous influence he had on introducing me to the obsessive world of collecting and dealing.

Ken had heard, in his mysterious  way, that Tom Lambert had a vast collection of 16mm films, Ken’s great passion, and that he was approachable, if it were done with discretion. It was easy to get Tom’s address from “Exchange and Mart”, but the problem for Ken was that he didn’t have a car, and so he asked me to take him. I was intrigued by this reclusive figure, and was glad to lead the expedition to the heart of darkness that was Rackheath.

As we approached the post office at the crossroads in Rackheath,  a ruddy countryman cycled the other way, towards the city. Although I had no description of Tom, and knew of no one who had ever met him, I knew instinctively that this was Tom Lambert, a strange insight and one I can’t explain, although given the importance of Tom to my life over the next 15 years, I’m sure he would have recognised the synchronicity inherent in the moment, as I saw my future in that unremarkable cyclist.

We carried on to Rackheath, and soon found the heavy brick gateposts adorned with the legend “Omaha” that led down an overgrown driveway to a slightly rundown, but spacious bungalow.  Tom wasn’t there , which didn’t surprise me, but we did make our first contact with the enigmatic Velma, Tom’s implacable gatekeeper. She was a thin, middle aged woman, with a pinched face and watchful eyes; she rarely spoke and had no discernable personality, but she was fiercely loyal to Tom, and followed to the letter his instructions to admit nobody. We only managed to communicate with her through the letter box, and then, only to be told   “Tom’s not here”, the only words anyone can remember her speaking .  She lived alone in a flat in the city, and took the bus every day to spend with Tom. I don’t know how they met, or what they had in common, except perhaps the need that loners have for an unquestioning, undemanding relationship that is functional but requires no human sympathy. Tom had complete trust in her, and was glad for her to guard his property, and his privacy. In return she had some form of human company, and over the years she would accompany Tom on long walks through Earlham Park, although it’s difficult to imagine their conversation. Tom once admitted to me in his typically honest, unsentimental  way, that those walks were often totally boring, but despite their incompatibility, they stayed together for many years. On reflection she was probably a good, if damaged , woman who gave Tom something missing from his life. When she died suddenly a few years later, he was shocked,  I think, to find he missed her.

 

 

Ken and I worked out after a few weeks when he was likely to be home, and we finally turned up at his door to be greeted by the great man himself. Tom was an unlikely bookseller - a big man with the ruddy, weather-beaten complexion of a farmer; white hair,  a white stubble, and clear blue eyes. He invariably dressed in the summer in baggy corduroy trousers, with workman boots, a tweed jacket and check lumberjack shirt; in the winter months this outfit would be augmented by a stained and shabby gabardine raincoat. He moved slowly and deliberately, and spoke the same way. He was a cautious man, used to his own company, and wary of strangers. He stood squarely in the doorframe, with one hand on the handle, as if about to close it, and was very noncommittal  regarding our first enquiries. He was reluctant to engage with us, and may well have shut the door if Ken had not launched into one of his masterly spiels. He told him that he had been recommended  to come by one of Tom's cronies, a man called Jack who worked on Tom's garden on an ad hoc basis, and that he had been told Tom had a collection of 16mm films that Ken was interested in seeing, with a view to purchase. Tom was always swayed by the prospect of business, and finally allowed us over the threshold. On that first visit we didn't get further than the kitchen, but we did establish a bond that we were able to build upon over the coming months.

Tom's kitchen was not large and quite sparse: an old cooker and sink; a square deal table in the middle of the room where Tom carried out all his business; and assorted piles of papers and magazines ready to be sorted or sent to customers.  At that first meeting Ken did all the talking and he and Tom developed quite a rapport, something that Ken was very good at developing, especially in the early days of a relationship. At that time I was very much a bystander; I had no particular interest in 16mm films, and in all other respects I was an enthusiastic, but very much an amateur, collector. I had never sold anything in my life, and was very much a punter: at the mercy of dealers, and to be used for their convenience. As they talked, Tom became ever more expansive as he relaxed, and Ken fizzed with energy, enthusiasm and stories: at his best he was  great company and infectiously raised spirits. They finally got round to talking business, and Tom heaved himself to his feet, and moved to the large floor to ceiling airing cupboard that took up half of one wall. He opened the double doors to their full extent and stood back to gauge our reaction. The cupboard was racked out with wooden shelves, 7 to 8 feet high, 5 feet wide, with every bit of space filled with hundreds of reels of 16mm film, in cans and boxes; 400 foot and 800 foot reels; small boxes of odd sized film; and some magnificent antique projectors, fabulously rare, and of extraordinary design. The whole motley assembly was old and dusty,  with peeling labels, rust and cobwebs, and had obviously been accumulated by Tom over years of random dealings, and then neglected and half forgotten, until the right punter came along.

We did no business that first visit, but had established an important relationship, one that we built over the next few weeks with more visits, in which we gained more idea of the extent of Tom's vast collection. The kitchen was only the working space, the other rooms held the bulk of his stock. The large room at the front of the bungalow was racked out with stout wooden shelving that held 1000's of magazines: long runs of Victorian and  Edwardian cycling and motor trade magazines; bound volumes, and piles of loose pre-war film magazines - Picturegoer  issues from the 1st world war to the 50's; Picture Show from the 1st issue in 1919; Film Weekly and Film Pictorial; and very rare and short lived titles like Illustrated Film Monthly from 1913 - 1915. Incredibly rare paperback histories of the cinema from 1913 and 1914, hardbacks from 1912; boxes and piles of odd titles and ephemera from the early days of cinema to the second world war. These were the treasures that excited my interest, but it would be a long time before I could examine them properly, or hope to do a deal with Tom to buy them. This room also contained piles of comics from the 30's and 40's: Dandy, Beano, Sexton Blake, Gem ,Magnet, Wizard and Hotspur,  and piles of annuals from the comic and film world.  Tom also had another room which contained even more extraordinary  wonders, but all these were for later days when I could begin to deal in them myself ; for the moment I was still just browsing, while Ken and Tom discussed a deal on the film.

The bulk of the  film contained in that cupboard consisted of scores of wartime news reels from Pathe News and Gaumont British; many odd films from the 40's such as "Bradman Batting" and other specialist documentaries;  one and two reel movies from 1914 - 17 starring William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and Chaplin, and later two reelers of Laurel and Hardy from the 1920's. All were fascinating and all were rare, but the heart of the collection were the newsreels, and this what Ken focussed on. Tom stated boldly that he wanted £2000 for everything in the cupboard, his business philosophy was quite clear: When you buy you state the price you are prepared to pay; when you sell you state the price you want. The figure is always realistically worked out and inviolable, that way you always have control of the deal, and never get involved in counter productive, and time wasting haggling. A lot of customers think that dealers like to haggle, that it's all part of the game; I can assure anybody reading this that we don't; it's not a game, its a business, a living. We can only continue to invest time and money in the search for interesting items if we have a good idea what we're going to get for them, and therefore know what we can afford to pay.  This business is as much an art as a science of course, and so there is always flexibility built in, but time wasting disputes about price, and spurious deals, are something that the real professional will have no patience with. Any punter that walks away from a deal thinking he has managed to wear down and put one over on the dealer, should be aware that he will be remembered (dealers never forget a bad deal), and any future dealings he may wish to have with that particular dealer will involve an unspoken, but very real, premium, built into the price to take account of the inevitable haggling that will ensue; sometimes that customer will never see some choice items, they will be saved for more appreciative clients. If you think this is a bit extreme, I can assure that over the years I have met many customers who have a psychological aversion to paying the price asked, and will sometimes take their obsession to ludicrous lengths.

We visited Tom a number of times over the next few weeks, during which time I sorted through Tom’s remarkable collection of pre-war magazines, while Ken talked film. Tom liked Ken, as everybody did, and would have done good deals with him, but Ken had a magpie mind, and could never see a bigger picture than the one directly in front of him. He could have used his contacts to utilise Tom’s stock for his own benefit, but he preferred the small deal, with no commitment, and so he lost his chance; but left the door open for me to eventually take full advantage.  But not yet – first the opening act had to be concluded, and this Ken did in his usual way. He bought one reel of film off Tom for £15, and took another to be paid for on the next visit. This was Ken’s normal modus operandi, but not Tom’s – he didn’t trust easily, but was persuaded by Ken’s transparent honesty, a part he could play to perfection. When we left that day Ken was buoyed by the fact that he had got 2 films for the price of one, the only kind of deal that really excited him, but I was a bit concerned that I didn’t have more of a personal relationship with Tom, but was only tolerated as Ken’s friend, which was now looking a more shaky proposition.  For some time after that I asked Ken if he wanted to go back, but he had lost interest: he had worked one of his famous deals, and now was ready to move on. He knew that he would never be able to buy all that Tom had, such deals were beyond his imaginative range, and so the episode with Tom was finished, certainly for him, and, it seemed, for me as well.

 

Customers, Characters and Collectors

In one extreme case, I had a customer who visited the shop a number of times over a couple of years, and was always prepared to spend. He had a large farm in the county, no shortage of money and was an avid collector of films and projectors.  I was the only shop in the area dealing in these, and so he could always find something of interest.  His problem was that he would never pay the asking price, but had to have a deal. It took me a few visits to realise the extent of his problem, but once I had, I was able to price an item high enough initially to give him a discount; a silly charade and one that I found increasingly irksome. On this occasion I had a particularly rare projector screen, of an unusually large size, and almost impossible to find. I knew he had been looking for one for ages, and when he came in the shop I prepared for battle. I showed it to him with some reluctance because I knew it could cause a problem, and , sure enough, he immediately wanted it.

 "How Much?"

I hesitated, because I guessed whatever I said would be rejected, but I was in no mood that day to play tiresome games. I could have asked an outrageous price and then come down, but I gave him a chance to break the habit of a lifetime and be sensible. I offered it to him for the lowest possible price I could , consistent with its rarity and desirability:

"£40"

He shook his head pityingly

"Oh No, No, No, that's far too much, I couldn't pay that"

"This is really rare - you know that, £40 is cheap"

"It's not worth it, I'd rather wait for another one to turn up"

"You'll wait a long time then, I've never seen one before, and I don't expect to see one again"

"I'll have it if you drop the price, but I wouldn't pay £40"

"I'm afraid it's no deal then , I can't go any lower"

With that I walked away to talk to another customer, and left him to consider his position. He wandered around the shop awhile, pretending to look at other things, but actually trying to find a way out of his self constructed dilemma. He finally said he had to go, and would I change my mind and lower the price; I repeated that the price was fair and I couldn't go any lower. He rather plaintively said " This will be the first time we haven't done a deal, I thought we could always come to some arrangement".  "Maybe another time" I said, effectively dismissing him.  He went to the door, opened it, then hovered in the doorway, unwilling to leave the screen he so badly wanted, but unable to pay an asking price, even when he knew it was fair. He looked desperately around the shop one last time, and his eye alighted on a pile of scratched laser discs sitting forlornly on a box. "What're they?"  he asked "Laser discs, but you need a special machine to play them". He walked over to them with a lighter step, and picked up his lifeline. There were only 3 or 4, and completely unsellable, but he was saved. "Would you include these in the £40?" he asked eagerly. I sighed inwardly, knowing I was beaten, and agreed. He was immensely cheered, and obviously relieved, and as he handed over the £40 he picked up his trophies saying "We always manage a deal in the end don't we? If I ever pick up a machine these could be really useful",

(or more likely straight in the nearest bin), I thought, but said nothing, and allowed him his little victory, which meant so much to him.

NORWICH

 

I

 was born into a world of fury. In a small corner, of a small island, a small city was being blitzed and burned by German bombers; not because it was important, but as part of a world wide insanity  that saw our small city as part of a monstrous strategy conceived by a madman.  And in one small part of that 1000 year old city of 100,000 inhabitants, half a mile outside the broken remnants of the centuries old city wall, that had stood firm against all incursions for 700 years, but now encircling a cowering city, helpless against the brutal onslaught from the skies, lay a warren of Victorian terraces, pubs and corner shops; and in one of those small, four room  houses, I first began my journey to, and exploration of,  a world of such profound and wondrous fascination  that even now, a lifetime later, I am still trying to understand its meaning, and grasp its impalpable essence.

A black sky laced with white beams of light, restlessly searching; a distant-thunder rumble of engines high in the darkness; the musty smell of hessian sacking and damp blankets in the semi-submerged shelter in the back garden, with its two rows of bunks and kerosene lamp – these may be trace memories, or recollections of stories told and films seen, mixed with post war explorations of that same shelter that remained, submerged and weed enveloped, for some years. But however fragmentary my memories of the blitz might be, the shattered city that I emerged into, at Wars end, blinking and stumbling as I tried to make sense of this immense new world, is still as clear and sharp as it was when I first  saw it in those austere, grey,  but wonderfully exciting post war years.

 The heart of Norwich that existed within those broken walls was a medieval warren of streets, alleys and yards; mouldering half timbered buildings leaning over dingy streets, and poverty stricken tenements; street corner pubs and shops; stone and flint churches, warehouses and builders yards. But as well as the sprawling evidence of poverty, amid the detritus of the centuries old neighbourhoods, vibrant communities existed; and at its heart a bold and proud city centre which told the story of the centuries in one panorama of disparate , incoherent buildings. The centrepiece was, and still is,  the  angular art deco City Hall, built and dedicated a year before the war began, just in time to defy the bombs that rained down in those first years. Its bold front steps overlooked a market that had existed since Norman times, which was itself fringed by a row of splendid Edwardian shops and banks, and an arcade whose mosaic and decorative extravagance spoke of the confidence of a time before the first of the great wars that devastated a nation and a city. From those same steps the market was flanked on one side of the square by a flint- built, fourteenth century Guildhall; and on the other side, the great church of St Peter Mancroft, built in the fourteenth century, and the last resting place of the eminent Sir Thomas Browne, and many other locally celebrated worthies,  whose names and deeds have faded with their inscriptions on the melting stone. Looking further from the city hall steps, over the variegated awnings of the market, beyond the Edwardian pride etched into the imposing buildings of Gentleman’s Walk, piercing the skyline as it has for 900 years, is the elegant power of the Norman Cathedral, the equal of any in the country, and to its right, above the foreground buildings, is the immense man made mound that supports the square, stone faced, castellated majesty of The Castle, the arrogant edifice that has overlooked the city from its humble anglo-saxon beginnings, nine hundred years ago.  To the east of the elegant sweep of Castle Meadow that ringed this mound, could be found the open space that was flanked by the cattle market on one side, the huge porticoes of the central post office, and the multi-roomed three storied Victorian edifice that was the great hotel, all of them overlooked by the winged Victory monument that celebrated the Boer War. This open space led into the great sweep of the boulevard of Prince of Wales road, flanked on both sides by impressive Victorian town houses and finishing at the ornate Victorian train station.

Elysian Fields

T

his was the Norwich that I began to explore in those post war years, but a Norwich reshaped by the bombs into something less formal, but infinitely more exciting. Our lives were given form by many things; school, home and family most obviously, but also by the wonderful open air playground that Norwich had become: the wreckage left by the war was our elysian fields; our “playing fields of Eton” were the wondrous bomb sites that fired our imagination, and fulfilled our fantasies. We Blitz Rats were occupied all our spare moments by exploring the crumbling walls, rubble strewn spaces and hidden cellars that now became ours, while the rest of society passed by, oblivious to our activities, while they painfully, and happily, slowly, rebuilt their world. I have no memories of any serious injuries suffered by any of us – not for want of trying as my Mother would probably have said – as we climbed broken walls to bedrooms reduced to charred joists jutting out beneath empty windows, recreating the latest pirate adventure 15 feet above the broken ground; or lowering ourselves carelessly into underground caverns through fractured floors, and exploring the echoing basement that was the only remnant of a factory or warehouse  otherwise blasted into oblivion.

The best of these was at the junction of Dereham Road and Barn Road, flanked by remnants of a much earlier age, the old city wall, which then consisted of a length of flint wall with two or three Norman style entrances that used to stand beside the long gone St Benedict's Gate, one of the main entrances into the fortified city. To climb to the top of this notoriously unstable wall, in full view of passing adults, was beyond the aspiration of most, but some of us took on the challenge, although the better option was always the bomb site itself, which was ours, and ours alone. The great advantage of this particular site was that it was directly across the road from my local cinema, The Regal, a beautiful little provincial cinema, built in 1937, and mercifully, from our point of view, spared the bombs. We could leave the cinema Saturday mornings, our imaginations still aflame with visions of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Lash Larue, or the ridiculously glamorous Buster Crabbe of Flash Gordon fame, and shoot, blast, punch and generally obliterate ourselves and each other as we galloped, flew, climbed and dived over mesas and canyons, alien landscapes and hostile environments of all kinds, that we found perfectly represented in the blasted landscape of a war, more real to others than our most vivid fantasies, but of which we knew nothing, and cared less.

Such was the cornucopia of destruction that was my heritage, that The Regal bomb site, although only a short walk from my house, was by no means the first encountered on my journey. The first was in retrospect the most horrifying, because of the possibilities of disaster it represented.

 My house was in a maze of Victorian terraces; a few houses one way was a tiny crossroad, on each corner a staple of life; two pubs, a general store and a butchers, the baker was round the corner beside the general store. That way lay school and grandparents, important in their own way, especially to the adults, but uninspiring to young imaginations. A few houses the other way however, and I would reach the great thoroughfare that was Dereham Road: turn left and the way was clear to the wondrous metropolis that always beckoned me. Before I reached that gateway to discovery however, I only had to go three houses along before I came to a gap in the terrace, a charred and broken gap, a missing tooth in a madman’s grimace, a reminder of the horror just passed. An incendiary had fallen directly onto the house and it had burned to the stone floor, quite capable of taking the whole row with it, but mercifully contained. This was the great fear of my father, trapped in an invalid’s bed a few yards away, and at the mercy of any fire that took control. We could go to the shelter, but the difficulty of carrying him there , and then getting him in , posed so many difficulties that he chose to stay in the house, often kept company by my brother, who sheltered under the table, as they  watched the glow through the one dirty window, and probably prayed. He was a brave man who bore his terrible affliction with grace and good humour, but he was afraid of the fire, my Mother told me this years later, and suffered fears and torments that few people experience. Such was the war, and the legacy of the war, as I will discuss later, that we blitz rats never knew about, and so never let temper our delight in our world of fantasy.

This sombre relic was again utilised by us for recreation, although its proximity to home meant that we never felt free to do much more than the always pleasant pastime of leaping from a broken wall onto the unsuspecting back of the more easily bullied member of the gang, and sending him headfirst into a pile of rubble. Big Tony was the usual recipient of this treatment, as he was a big target to hit, was somewhat slow witted and uncomplaining, and sported a purple birthmark that covered half his face, a sure sign of victimhood to our unforgiving eyes. He suffered further humiliation at my hands, when, playing behind a low wall at the barbers on the corner of West End and Nelson street, I threw a stick into the street at an approaching cyclist, with the unexpected, but definitely gratifying result of seeing it lodge in his front spokes and throw him over the handlebars. The enormity of what I’d done soon calmed my excitement, and we quickly scurried away, leaving my victim groaning semi-conscious in the street. On the short walk home I calmed my fears of retribution by persuading a bemused, but frightened, Big Tony, that he had been solely responsible, and would undoubtedly go to prison. “What will my Mum say” he wailed as I left him at the alley leading to his back door; I shrugged, to indicate that you reap what you sow, and went home whistling.

The only other memory I have of Tony was when we were sauntering up Dereham Road and approached the second of the bombsites that led to the city. This was partially utilised as a wood yard at the time, and therefore afforded even more opportunities to cheat death as we clambered over dangerously swaying piles of sawn planks. On this day however we had no thought of the wood yard, but  were stopped at the entrance by a mousey middle aged man in a grubby raincoat. He asked us quietly if we would like to see something interesting, which seemed to two bored boys a reasonable offer on a quiet day. We looked at each other and said “OK”., then followed him into the stacks of wood, where he stopped, turned round and opened his raincoat. We regarded his unremarkable member with some bemusement as we realised that this was the “something interesting” we had been promised; it was of no interest to us and so we exchanged glances, then turned and walked back to the road. Once clear of the yard, Tony was immediately indignant “when he said something interesting I thought he meant chickens, or maybe rabbits, not that”. I sagely concurred that chickens, or even rabbits, would have been far more interesting. And so we ambled away, again aware that adults were a strange species, but un perturbed, and un perverted, never to mention it or think of it again.

Adelaide Street

16

 Adelaide street was a four room terrace house, with a narrow enclosed passage running from the street to the back yard, narrow enough for me to be able to straddle the opening and walk up the wall by the time I was seven or eight. The back yard was shared by our neighbours, the Browns. Mr Brown was a grime encrusted coalman, a fearsome taciturn character to my eyes, and to whom  I never spoke. Their only son Georgie, although a couple of years older, was a best friend, but only in the back yard, he never shared our adventures in the outside world, nor joined us at the pictures. We spent most of our time in the back yard, and rarely visited each others houses; one of the few times I remember being in his house, we sat in a corner of the small living room, playing shops with our strips of plastecine, while his parents say round the wireless listening with rapt attention to a new programme called "The Archers". It was not a programme we listened to in our house, and only increased my feelings that the Browns were somewhat different, and somehow connected to the countryside, a world beyond my ken; my tastes were more attuned to  "The Man In Black", classic ghost stories narrated with sepulchral relish by Valentine Dyall, whose doom laden rendering of Bram Stoker's "The Judges House" haunted my imagination for years. Yet another  unforgettable moment, in a childhood of such moments, that helped create the obsessive collector I am today.

 George was a serious boy, well read in adventure "yarns" as he called them, and possessing scientific  facts gleaned from his magazines that brooked no contradiction. He probably regarded himself as my mentor, but I teased him without mercy, deliberately breaking the formal rules he set up for our games, to his eternal chagrin. One particular game involved the ever present water pistols, which on this occasion were used in an assault on the outside lavatory, a pair of which stood a few yards from our back doors. I was defending my lavatory from the inside, while he attacked it by attempting to fire over the gap at the top of the door. Although trapped I had the advantage of a ready supply of water to refill my gun. Georgie insisted that, as an absolute rule, I had to fill my gun from the cistern, and not the lavatory pan. I quickly agreed, and just as quickly ignored him; Georgie's rules were there to be broken after all, that was the point of them to me. He would probably never have realised my treachery, had I not popped above the door while he was approaching and caught him full in his open mouth with a splendid shot. I dropped down again and listened to him spluttering and coughing: "Are you sure you're getting that from the cistern?" he demanded, "it tastes funny". I was laughing too much to answer, and, unsurprisingly  Georgie lost interest in the game, and went indoors.

Beyond these was a narrow overgrown garden that led to a wall that was the boundary of  The Model  School, a Catholic preparatory school for girls, that had an imposing wrought iron entrance gate on Dereham road, but whose playground at the back shared a wall with our back garden. I spent many happy moments precariously clinging to the top of the wall as I watched the girls shrieking and giggling as they took their break, or, most delightfully, when they had their netball lessons in their dark blue bloomers. I was painfully shy, and so dropped back immediately if they spotted me. The only other reason for going into the garden was to visit the large overgrown gooseberry bush, with its lethal thorns, but gorgeous, ripe plump fruit.  We didn't have much in the way of fresh fruit in those days, and the gooseberries, although not to everyone's taste, were a joy to me. The large green berries, with their veins and tiny hairs, were only for the bravest; as you bit into them the tough outer skin gave way with a satisfying crunch, and our mouths were flooded with the sharp acidic juice, that brought tears to our eyes, as we struggled to maintain a straight face, before collapsing into satisfied giggles. The real treat was finding the later, ripe berries, purple and soft, with an incomparable sweetness, that I remember to this day, although, strangely, I can't remember eating one since. Georgie's adjacent garden was a more formal affair, with two rows of wooden sheds that housed rabbits and chickens. Geogie took great pleasure in letting me watch when his father decapitated a chicken, then let it flutter and stagger headless for a few horrifying moments. With a working father, the Browns lived well with their chicken dinners -  but they didn't have a gooseberry bush.

 

I have fond memories of George, and that tiny back yard. It was a large part of the only world I knew for a number of years, along with the streets and bomb sites. A few feet from our back door was the wash house, dark and chilly, with a large stone sink, and not a place I had much time for. Beside that were the pair of outside lavatories, useful for much more than the usual purposes, as related above. My brother Michael, seven years older, and far more knowledgeable and sophisticated than I, would hang on to the door, and swing backwards and forwards yelling "The Bells!, The Bells!  - they made me deaf". I was overwhelmed with laughter and admiration, even though it was some years before I saw Charles Laughton perform the same trick as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", and more years later that I climbed the tedious steps to the real bell tower  at Notre Dame in Paris and contemplated the great bell "Jacqueline".  As I stood with a few other visitors, silently contemplating the massive bronze artifact, I had before me an imperishable image of a creaking wooden lavatory door swinging to and fro with a twelve year old boy attached, shouting his incantation to the skies. Thus reality, memory, fantasy and imagination combine and merge to create a new surreal reality that adds colour and texture to the everyday ; thus we collectors and enthusiasts collect more than objects, we collect memories and dreams which we weave unconsciously into the commonplace, to add texture to the ordinary, and give potential for everyday to be a new discovery.

The Thing on the Stairs

 

D

avid was one of the ragged urchins that infested the Adelaide Street neighbourhood, part of our loose knit gang, but no especial friend of mine. On this particular day however we somehow found ourselves alone on the streets, as we wandered with our ever present sticks, idly slicing the heads off any front garden flowers we could reach, as we wandered past rows of unremarkable terraced houses, looking for something to relieve the boredom. We found ourselves finally out of our familiar neighbourhood, across Old Palace Road, and into a maze of Streets, less than half a mile from our own, and nearly identical, but far enough away for us to be anonymous, and therefore with more licence to attempt exploits that we had to be wary of in our own streets, where we could be informed upon to parents, ever looking for an excuse, it seemed to us, to fly into a rage, and impose irksome restrictions upon our freedom.

We noted with increasing interest that a number of these terraced houses were apparently empty, abandoned even.  The few yards from the gate to the front door were sprouting weeds, with sometimes a large cobweb attached to the door itself. This wasn't necessarily conclusive proof of no occupant , as front doors were not always used  in those days; I personally never saw our front door opened in all the years I lived in Adelaide Street, it was common practise to use the back door at all times. The back doors in the terraces were always accessed by way of a narrow passage every half dozen or so houses, which would lead to the backs of three houses either side, all enclosed in their own back yards. On this occasion we were looking for evidence of neglect, no curtains, and no light or movement inside; and in that long, empty street, on a grey autumnal afternoon we found the perfect site: a pair of houses with weed encrusted fronts, peeling paint on doors and windows, an abandoned cooker barring the way to one front door, and a grimy sack covering half of one window. Through the dirt-encrusted windows there was no sign of life, as they stood lifeless and abandoned, relics of war time displacement probably, and merely waiting for the inevitable bulldozer when the clearances finally began some years later. What made these two dilapidated properties ideal, was that they stood on either side of a passage, and so gave us perfect privacy as we entered it. David was reluctant at first, but my enthusiasm persuaded him that an adventure beckoned with no consequences; I was normally fairly cautious, but that day I could see no downside to what had to be an activity that would produce a great story when we met up with the others later. And so we slipped into the gloomy passageway.

All the passages echoed, and this was no exception, our steps rang in the narrow enclosure, but there was no other sound, no voices, no movement, the houses were ours, and ours alone . At the end , as we came back into the light, a wooden fence enclosed the tiny back yard on our right, while on the other side the yard was open, and filled with foot high weeds, and a wheel less pram abandoned on the back step, further proof that nothing lived here. The fenced-in back yard was the obvious one to explore, as it gave complete privacy, and meant that the ever anticipated shout of outrage from a dangerous adult could be forgotten. The wooden fence was about 5 feet high, and falling apart, but the gate was intact, although leaning dangerously on its hinges. We looked at each other - David wasn't sure, but my excitement had infected him, and so we carefully pushed on the gate. It stuck at first, as it was resting on the ground, but a more determined shove forced it forward two feet, with a hideous grating sound that caused the first, but not the last, shock to my nervous system that day. We stared wide eyed at each other for some seconds, and at that point could easily have run back to the street. There was no reaction from the eerily silent world around us however, and as we calmed down, the partially, but sufficiently, opened gate seemed to invite us in. "C'mon" I whispered, with more conviction than I felt, and we slipped through the forced space into the empty back yard.  The tiny yard was only a few feet square, with a small wash house and lavatory on the right, forming one side, the large sash window straight ahead looking into the kitchen was another, and the rickety wooden fence on our left and behind us, completing the enclosure.  We were alone, cut off from all prying eyes, and on somebody else's property with no one to tell what we could, or couldn't do. I would like to be able to say, for dramatic effect, that at that moment the light began to fade, as the afternoon drew to a close, and a chill entered the air as the sun slipped behind a cloud, causing us to shiver. In truth however, the sky stayed bright, and the air stayed warm; but inwardly, I began to feel a cold emptiness as I realised I was entering forbidden territory; my parents would have been horrified if they knew where I was, and their opinions were the only moral compass I had, not that it had ever stopped me before, but this time it seemed I might be taking a step too far.

The yard was empty, except for a small pile of rubble under the window, which showed little of the gloomy kitchen beyond. The back door was set in the wash house, at the point where it made a right angle with the wall the window was set into.  David was whispering that we should go home, we'd done enough, and part of me was in full agreement; but I also felt that the chance we had might never come again, and I was sure that John, the leader of our group, and the only one I ever gave ground to,  would have been through the door already if he had been with us. I was determined to see it through, and with another urgent "C'mon", I tried the door knob. It spun round without effect, already broken, and the door inched open as I pushed it. Our progress seemed inexorable, predestined, although not entirely welcome, but an open door had to be entered, even an ever more reluctant David could see that, and so I sidled in, with my nervous companion close behind.

Once inside, the comparative brightness of the afternoon light was obliterated, and we were immersed in a grey half light that forced its way through the filthy window. The room we were in was small, and completely stripped of all signs of habitation. All that remained were some bundles of newspapers, and a few boxes. Everywhere was covered in dust, and smelled musty and damp. The bareness of it all was a disappointment, as it soon became obvious that no great adventure or treasure was to be found here. At the far end a doorway lead to the front room that looked out onto the street, but as the door was missing we could see pretty clearly that that room was equally bare. On the left hand side of the door, the closed in stairs led up to the two bedrooms; we knew this without looking because all the houses had much the same layout, and this house was very similar to the ones we lived in. There was little to excite our interest in these gutted rooms, but we were emboldened now we had made the breakthrough, or break-in to be more exact, into this new lawless environment, and so , after a brief whispered conference - a whisper was the only appropriate form of communication in this dead house - we decided to explore upstairs.

We carefully crept forward to the stairs, and together looked round the corner and up to the dark landing.  The stairs were encased in a blackness that was only slightly alleviated by the faint grey light that seeped in through the upstairs windows, and it took a few moments before our eyes adjusted to this new reality, but when they did we were confronted by a horror that shook our senses, and stopped us breathing, as our flesh crawled and tightened over our bloodless faces, and cold jolts of nervous energy prickled behind my ears and down into my contracting stomach.  We both moved together, instinctively, as turning, and bumping into each other , we ran for the safety of the back door. We stopped there, finally breathing again, but our hearts still pounding, as we tried to make sense of what we had seen. As we had become accustomed to the darkness of the stairs we had begun to make out a deeper blackness in the middle of the stairs, a few feet above our heads. It gradually resolved itself into the shape of a man, a body, a thing on the stairs. This was indeed the adventure we had looked for, but now we had found it, we had no idea of what to do about it. Leaving and going home was the best idea in many ways, but a waste of an opportunity that might never come again. The quietness of the house was confidence building; there was no sound nor movement, and whatever was on the stairs was likely to stay there. "Is it dead?" David whispered, not sure what the most comforting answer would be, "Must be" I said, also not sure if that was a comforting thought or not. By this time there was an unspoken assumption that we would not leave without further investigation, and so we looked around for a tool to aid in our examination of the cadaver. A short length of steel pipe in the washroom seemed to serve and so, armed with a familiar implement, we again approached the stairs.

Again we peered round the corner, and again the blackness resolved itself into the shape of a man, lying on his side, dressed in loose, dark clothes with one arm hanging limply, the thin, veined hand stretched towards us. His face was half hidden, but was pale and lifeless, with one partially closed eye glistening whitely under the mat of dark hair. I heard Mike suck in his breath as I reached out with the pipe and carefully poked the leg of the corpse. I was intrigued , and a bit relieved , to find it firm; I had half expected that the pipe would sink into a putrescent sticky mass of decay, probably influenced by the ghost stories my brother delighted to scare me with. "What's it feel like?" whispered  David;  "Dunno' "  I said, and reached out the pipe again, this time lifting the dead hand. With that one careless,  disrespectful gesture I brought to a close our afternoon of adventure, and almost, it seemed, our young lives. As I lifted the hand, the fingers moved and flexed, and a ghastly catarrhal sound welled up wetly from deep within the wretched creature before me. More terrifying still, its whole shapeless body moved, twisted and lurched up into a sitting position, as the white dead face swivelled towards me, with  the pale, wet eyes staring blindly at first, but then focussing upon me. I was paralysed with fright, I could not move, breath or think, as my mind was overwhelmed by the impossibility of what was happening, and my heart crashed painfully in my chest. I was jolted out of my state of shock by the sound of splintering wood behind me, as David crashed through the back door and into the yard,  leaving me, I immediately realised, alone with the thing. With this thought,  I was galvanised into life, much like the thing before me, which had begun shuffling down the stairs in my direction, and I turned and ran. It was only a few yards to the back door, but in my fear I was clumsy, and I knew the creature was close behind, the long thin arm stretching  toward me, with the bony talon-like fingers an inch from my collar, as it wheezed and snuffled obscenely in that dingy room. David had left the back door open and I was through it and into the yard, gasping with fear, and with only the half open gate to reach. I was through it instantly, leaving a piece of pullover on the latch, as I wrenched myself through the narrow opening, and into the passageway, and finally the street.

David was in the middle of the road, hopping from one leg to the other in a fever of excitement and fear. "What was it?" he yelled, but I didn't answer; I wanted to get away from that quiet, now cold, street as quickly as I could. David had only seen the hand move, he hadn't waited for the resurrection, and so couldn't appreciate the full horror of what we had just experienced. When we had reached our own neighbourhood we talked of the day, and tried to make sense of what we had seen, but we never told anyone else. They wouldn't have believed us anyway, I was a renowned fabricator of stories, and what we had just lived through was too intense, and too visceral to tolerate being dismissed as a fantasy. David and I never visited that neighbourhood alone again, and we rarely spoke about it. Whether it would have made the same impression on him as it did on me, I shall never know: he died in a car crash on the Kings Lynn by-pass some years later, and perhaps he never thought of it again, but for many years after I would  dream of that cold, dead street with the pair of abandoned houses and their, sightless blank windows.

The Demon Barber

O

ld Palace Road ran in a long sweep from Dereham Road to Heigham Street. The Dereham Road end sported minor bomb sites on either side; neither of great interest, but both well used. The east side site had a large advertising hoarding, which we utilised as a massive climbing frame; while the west side doubled up as a wood yard, as mentioned earlier, which gave a lot more variety for our games on what was otherwise a pretty flat, rubble strewn wasteland. The road was flanked by terraces for most of its length, until Armes Street, after which the western side was dominated by the massive 3 story brick construction that was the asylum. It had a blank forbidding frontage, studded with small high windows, ominously barred and meshed. As children we were sure that lunatics lurked behind those desperate portals, but we never actually saw any; I’m not sure if it was even occupied at that time, but we were always slightly nervous when we walked past it, and glad to leave it behind. This area was made still more interesting though by the terrace of houses on the eastern side. One of the otherwise featureless houses opposite, all with front door, window and tiny front garden, housed one of the many endlessly fascinating characters of our childhood. The clue was in the window of number 192, a grimy placard bearing the legend  “Walter Franklin hairdresser”.  "Wally" was a short, strutting little man, with black brilliantined hair, and always dressed in a shapeless suit. He ran his business from his tiny front room, and on occasion my mother would take my brother there for a hair cut – “a very bad haircut”, he recalls, never one to forget a bad hair cut, even 70 years later. But it wasn’t Wally’s tonsorial inadequacies that concerned us, it was his short temper and furious rages. He was obsessed with the war and Hitler, and we quickly learned that it was possible, from a safe distance, to provoke his passions by sticking out our arm and yelling “Hitler”, or simply shouting “What did you do in the war Wally”. He would become incandescent, waving his arms and shouting imprecations at Hitler and the Germans, in language ripe with the choicest expletives. He would finally calm down to a furious mutter, which seemed to always accompany him as he strode aggressively up and down the street. We always assumed that he was mad, which he may have been, but he was also a notorious drunk, and a legendary gambler who would lurch home from the pub, his pockets carelessly stuffed with pound notes, inviting trouble, but not, as far as I know, ever finding it.

 Wally very briefly became more than just a sideshow in my theatre of life, when one day, while sitting in our front room with my mother and father, we heard footsteps ringing down the passage. “That’ll be my haircut” Dad said, as the knock came at the back door. At this my skin tingled with apprehension; they surely couldn’t have invited Wally into the house! I watched disbelievingly as my mother opened the back door, and there, silhouetted against the blank wall of the wash house, stood the oily - haired troll, bag in hand. I’d never been this close to him before, I’d always had somewhere to run to - suppose he recognised me. I took my normal course of evasive action when unwelcome visitors arrived, and dived under the table, hidden by the long cloth that reached nearly to the floor. Mother brought him into the living room, his legs close enough to touch from my ground level vantage point. “This is Charlie” my mother said, as Wally looked at my dad lying flat upon the bed. He grunted something, then speedily sizing up the situation, moved towards the bed, threw his bag over my father to the wall, and with considerable agility and speed, clambered up the side of the bed to a kneeling position, and throwing one leg over, he straddled my father’s chest, and with scissors at the ready , he looked down into dad’s somewhat startled face. I remember no more, but if my brother’s testimony is anything to go by, the haircut would not have been of the best, although to have it safely achieved would probably have been sufficient. To the best of my knowledge he never came again, and I was never that close to him again.

FRIENDS

O

f all our loose gang of friends, John was the most interesting to me. We were both intelligent and independent, and more likely to be leaders than lead, John however was far more self confident than I was at that time, and so exuded a charisma that my more reserved demeanour could never match.  It made him the de facto leader of our gang, inasmuch as our rather disparate group had such an exalted member. We spent a lot of time together, because we could talk and joke together in a way that the others could never  join in with. The others were friends to be used for  our own amusement, whereas John and I were nearly equal, although I was required, for our friendship to survive, to dance to his tune; the only time in my life I've ever given ground in that way. John lived with his mother and younger brother just round the corner from us in West End Street. His mother was an attractive young woman, whose husband had spent 5 years in the services,  and who kept herself somewhat aloof from the rest of the neighbourhood. John was tall, fair-haired and blue eyed, while his younger brother Alan, was short, stocky, and olive skinned, with black hair. A few eyebrows were raised in the neighbourhood, a few comments were whispered behind closed doors, but the war had delivered many different forms of casualties, and there was a general tolerance shown towards the various walking wounded.

I was generally a loner, with nothing much in common with my neighbourhood gang, although John was the exception because he could always surprise me. We were walking along St Benedict's towards the Theatre De Luxe one afternoon, and passed a fruit stall. A few yards on I said to John "Those plums looked nice";  he casually reached into his capacious coat pocket, pulled one out and held it out towards me: "Have one then" he said insouciantly, as he pulled out another for himself.  It was a perfect line, and I'm sure he enjoyed it, as my face registered the requisite  wonderment at his piece of legerdemain. His tricks were not normally something I would have the daring to do myself, but there was one I did attempt to replicate, with mixed results. We were walking past the post office building that adjoined the ever inviting Theatre De Luxe, when we saw a pretty young woman approaching. "Watch this" John said as she hurried towards us. When she was nearly level with us, John said loudly "Yesterday my Dad caught a fish as big as this", and at the same moment flung his arms wide to describe the size. His timing was impeccable, and his outstretched hand caught her breast perfectly. We walked on, then turned round chuckling: to this day I can see the young  woman standing turned towards us, clutching her breast, as she directed a look of furious hatred towards the two scruffy, grinning boys who had treated her with such lack of respect. 

This incident stayed with me, until I had a chance to practise the same trick myself.  My first school was Nelson Street, a little local primary school that had been attended by my father, and brother, and in later years my own children. It had been brutalised by the blitz, and in my day had temporary pre-fab buildings to house many of the classrooms, but also a good sized playground set among some aged oaks. I didn't have a particularly happy time there, mainly due to my inherent shyness, that was exacerbated by being thrown into close proximity to lots of other children I didn't know, and couldn't really relate to. I was probably considered odd, and treated accordingly, which led to some bizarre behaviour on my part, especially directed toward those who made me feel inferior. A girl that I particularly admired, a superior pretty girl, would never even acknowledge that I existed, and to this day I'm not sure I ever spoke to her. My only inter reaction with her came one day when, again ignoring my obvious devotion, she had propped up her heavy oak desk lid while she looked inside; I sauntered past, unable to speak, but determined to let her know I existed, I casually nudged the desk lid and sent it crashing down on her unprotected head.  She was taken to the nurse and then home, while I endured glares from my teacher, and accusations of stupidity, which I was used to. I was happy to face no graver charges, and resigned myself to the fact that Carol - the superior girl - and I, would never be soul mates.

I was not friends with any in my class that I can remember, and actively disliked a number of them. I was poor, and knew it, poorer than most in fact, and so unable to relate to those members of my school who had things I could never aspire  to, like bikes and various spectacular toys. They were probably not far above my working class status, but they had a life that I couldn't hope to have, and even in those very early years, distinctions of class and family were very apparent, and ate away at my self-confidence, while it fed my resentment.  One particular classmate with whom I had never had anything much to do, was one day cheerfully talking about his new bike to a group of friends, to my great annoyance. Although I would never have normally considered giving form to my resentment, on this occasion an opportunity presented itself that I couldn't pass up.

 In the playground during our break, I was walking through the trees with somebody, while behind me I could hear  the boy with the bike talking loudly as he ran excitedly towards our backs. I glanced round to judge the range, and then resolved to put John's trick to the test. As my victim approached at full speed I waited for him to draw nearly level, then loudly said, out of the blue, to my startled companion " Yesterday my Dad caught a fish this big" and flung my arms wide in demonstration. I can't believe I expected it to work, but John's trick was obviously foolproof, and my out flung fist caught my onrushing , and unprepared, classmate full in the eye with terrific force. He screamed, and fell to the floor clutching his face, where he lay, surrounded by anxious classmates and teachers, while I moved away through the trees, mumbling to anyone in earshot, that he had run into me, and I had no idea what had happened. My tingling fist was evidence that I had succeeded far beyond my expectations, and the possible consequences now crowded in on me. I contemplated going home, or maybe just hiding somewhere, but it seemed that any such actions would only lead to more questions I couldn't answer.  I finally waited until break had finished, then filed back into the classroom with the rest of the class, expecting at any moment to be called to account, and dragged out of class to face the headmaster.  My victims desk was empty, and remained so for some days, and every hour of those days I suffered agonies of guilt and fear, although never remorse: I was glad to no longer hear about his bike, but convinced that retribution would come. But although there were whispers from teachers,  directed I felt, at me, and certainly baleful glares that were intended for me, I was never accused of anything more than stupidity , which I could handle; and when the victim came back the next week with no more than a multi coloured bruise fading from around his eye, I finally relaxed and accepted that life would go on.

 

 

Family

I

 was born 9 months after Brenda, my 10 year old sister, died, in hospital, of a long standing kidney complaint. I have photos of her: a genuinely glorious, golden girl whose death left scars in my family that never healed. I was born in the middle of a great war, to a stricken family, but never knew the unbearable sadness they must have felt. Whether my arrival in any way alleviated their suffering I’ll never know, but even towards the end of her life, my mother would sometimes weep for the daughter she had lost, and whose comfort she felt would have helped her, in her despair at the onset of  age and illness. My father must have  felt pain beyond my understanding, trapped in a cripple’s bed, unable to even visit his beloved daughter as she lay dying in hospital; and then on the day of her burial, unable to leave his bed to pay his last respects, waiting at home with my brother, who was bewildered by the family activity, but hadn't been told the terrible truth that lay behind it. By the time I was old enough to have any understanding of those bitter days, the family had come to terms with their loss – as well as they ever could – and their stories of Brenda were told with laughter and affection, and remembered love. In my early, formative years, my sister was still a part of the family, and on many afternoons, I would attend the grave at Earlham Road cemetery with my mother, and she would tell me stories of Brenda, and point out the black specks of birds, wheeling restlessly in the grey sky, and tell me that they were angels, and Brenda was undoubtedly among them. I’m not sure that in those early years I really understood the awful finality of that loss, as she was mentioned so frequently, but in later years I felt something of that ache for a lost companion whose presence I never enjoyed,  but which would have certainly changed my life, and whose absence I mourn to this day.

 

TITANS

1

T

his was bought from the estate of a Norwich legend: a reclusive  collector of the bizarre and unusual, mainly of a sexual or criminal nature. For forty years he scoured the back alleys of the antique trade, and gleefully probed the secretive passions of his fellow obsessives, amassing in the process an amazing, disparate collection of treasures, many of which - such as the item above - only he knew the origin of. When I first met him 30 years ago he was a   man of about 60, a gargantuan 280 pounds, with smooth, pale, and unblemished face, distinguished by a small goatee beard, and tiny watery eyes. His hands were smooth and feminine, with delicate fingers and long, uncut nails. He always dressed, whatever the weather, in a long, checked, once expensive, greatcoat, and a deerstalker hat. He looked like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Orson Welles, and carried with him a pungent aroma of ripe putrescence that lingered long after he had gone. He lived in a tiny four room, end cottage, in a terrace of three; mouldering in the shadow of the gas works, to whom they belonged. Built in the 19th century of grey stone, with no amenities, damp and dingy, and cut high into the side of the hill overlooking the city; Victorian relics, ripe for demolition, much like Ronnie himself - for I speak of Ronnie Rouse, now gone, but for decades a name that resonated among the motley crew of dealers, collectors, charlatans, crooks and obsessives, that made up the fringe of semi-respectable characters  operating in that half world that buys from one side to sell to the other; not fully trusted by either, but irresistible to both. A shadowy world that has fascinated me since I was a child, and which I've now inhabited for too long to ever leave.

I first visited this shrine to perverse eccentricity on a cold winter afternoon, and was immediately ushered into a world where the normal functions of everyday life had been transformed by a mania for collecting and owning, into a tangled undergrowth of objects of desire; the bizarre, the horrific, and, occasionally, the genuinely exquisite. All had been mangled into ceiling high edifices of magazines, books and comics; postcards, photographs and ephemera; piled onto cupboards to create skyscrapers of desire; a mini Manhattan of the rare, the strange, the beautiful and the grotesque, through which we shuffled sideways through the narrow corridors left open, but ever encroaching, as he selectively showed his treasures. A first issue of Film Fun; Amazing Fantasy #15; a Victorian Penny Dreadful; a drawer full of clay pipes in exotic shapes, some from the American Civil War; an rare antique dildo - his much prized "convent cock"; albums full of glorious Victorian postcards, Valentine and Christmas specials with glowing vibrant colours, and delicate textures. On the mantelpiece a monstrous stuffed spider guarded the magnificent ormolu 18th century French clock; while on every bare surface, however small, there flourished a profusion of china ornaments, figurines, bric-a-brac; lead soldiers, toys, and strange objects with no discernible purpose, but which had attracted his restless, magpie eye.

As we sidled through the two downstairs rooms, it was obvious that only a small part of what he had was accessible or identifiable; so much was hidden under piles of paper, quietly rotting against the damp walls, as he relentlessly added more each year to a collection that was already beyond his control or comprehension. We edged up the narrow stairs, lined with more books, to the two small rooms that housed yet more of his madness. On the right, the room full of pornography, his overwhelming passion. Among the thousands of modern glossy magazines were older publications, books and drawings from the last hundred years, cataloguing, describing and illustrating every sexual perversion and variation known to man, woman or beast; including all three at times in various exotic activities; “The room of 1000 cunts” as Ronnie delicately put it with his sibilant chuckle. Ahead was his main room, the room his aged mother occupied for many painful years as she quietly decayed, under the ministrations of her grotesque man-child. Perhaps in remembrance of her recent departure, the only human relationship that anybody knew he ever had, he had acquired a kitten, which he kept in an ornate Victorian bird cage, to stop it defecating over his treasures, a habit it had quickly adopted. The treasures included piles of 1940’s Dandy and Beano comics and annuals, pre-code American and British Horror comics, and his special delight:  pre-war Gems, Magnets, Nelson Lee and Sexton Blake. I examined these in more detail on later visits - the kitten I never saw again. 

On my way out after this first visit, we stopped in the main downstairs room, and he pulled from a pile of books, a 1925 Volume of Forensic Medicine by Harvey Littlejohn; a technical work illustrated with medical photos of victims of crime, both murder and suicide. As the winter afternoon waned, and the grey light faded beyond the one grimy window, Ronnie described in his thin high voice, the horrors that lay within: the throat slit to the spine until it gaped like a monstrous nether mouth as the lifeless head lolled back; the many minor wounds inflicted by the suicide on his throat until he summoned the will to make the final desperate lunge; the head destroyed by the shotgun in the mouth. As he recounted, and displayed, these brutal, despairing assaults upon the flesh, under a single bare bulb, his small eyes glinted, his wet lips collected tiny gobbets of spittle as his excitement mounted, and for the first time in my forays into the murky depths of obsession, I felt a tingle of apprehension as my skin tightened, and I felt a need to get back to the fresh air.

 I went back many times over the next years, and even acquired much later, at inflated expense, the volume of forensic horrors that Ronnie, the quintessential Dickensian Fat Boy, had gleefully used to “make my flesh creep” on that first, unforgettable visit. I got to know him well in the following years, although getting close to competitive, acquisitive and pathologically suspicious Ronnie Rouse was not easy, and we had a number of personal disputes (everything was personal with Ronnie!).  I shared his sense of the morbid delights of sex and death and horror in rancid and twisted combinations; his fascination with popular culture; and his love of the strange; but most importantly we shared that feeling of community that only the true collector knows, especially when I officially joined the ranks by opening my shop in 1985, and welcomed Ronnie, much to his chagrin, as my second customer; the first was much more sweet smelling, although equally obsessive , and a great competitor of Ronnie’s – but that’s another story.

2

"

Lambert, Omaha, Rackheath" – this cryptic signature, hidden away in the pages of the old “Exchange and Mart” was the gateway to one of the most fascinating of the legendary collectors and dealers to emerge from post-war Norwich, and the one who had the greatest influence on my later career. Until the 90’s, any mention of Norwich at a collector’s fair, dealing in books, magazines, comics or paper ephemera of any kind, anywhere in the country would soon elicit enquiries about  Tom Lambert. He was known country wide, and further afield, among the cognescenti, and most serious collectors had had some dealings with him. Few, however, had actually met him. He was known exclusively through the pages of the legendary “Exchange and Mart”; a thick newsprint weekly publication, that consisted entirely of classified ads, covering every conceivable commodity, collectable and rarity. It was the bible for collectors, and devoured eagerly every Thursday, as its devotees trawled through the thousands of columns for that long sought treasure or bargain. It was the equivalent of the internet today, and the only way that enthusiasts and dealers from different parts of the country could buy and sell to each other – it was eBay writ small, but still a mighty engine of commerce that allowed collectors to grow their collections, and business’s to thrive, especially the one man enthusiast turned dealer who had a modicum of business sense.

Tom Lambert was on of these, and one of the greatest.  He was born just before the first world war above a pub in Lower Goat Lane, and his life before the second World War is very much a mystery. He seems never to have worked, had no family or friends and simply belonged to that  generation of working class men who struggled through the inter-war depression years leaving no impression on an implacably grey society. After the War, still alone, he seems to have moved among the dealers and spivs who thronged Norwich in that new era when life was hard, old certainties had been destroyed in the preceding holocaust, and the attitude was to take what was available from the wreckage of the old life, without too much regard for an uncertain future.  The mayhem of the cattle market in the centre of the city with the noise of the foam flecked cattle above the shouts of the dealers, as they prodded and beat the bony flanks with their short  thick sticks; the frantic buying, selling, and general dealing at the packed Corn Hall on Exchange Street, where among the agricultural goods and implements, would be piles of boxes of general sale items: random boxes of bric-a-brac; antiques and furniture; books and magazines, a box of Dicken’s original parts, Tom remembered, spilling onto the ground to be trampled and kicked in the general melee.

 This was the chaotic scene that first introduced Tom Lambert  to the possibilities of trading in these un-regarded cast-offs. He would have been joined in these excursions by the ever curious Ronnie Rouse, another loner, alive to the possibilities afforded by these undisciplined activities. Ronnie however would bring to the exploration a genuine collectors instinct for  the cultural significance of these objects, where Tom only saw the commercial possibilities. Their shared interest developed into an unlikely friendship, until Ronnie’s obsessive competitive instinct drove them apart, and into a bitter rivalry that lasted until a brief, wary reconciliation in my shop 30 years later.

By the mid fifties Tom was living in a tiny flat in Norwich, surrounded by his ephemera, and beginning his long relationship with The Exchange and Mart, and through it, the outside world. Within a few years he had moved to his bungaloo at Rackheath – the legendary “Omaha” – and in another seven it was all paid for; an achievement he was proud of, all done from the small kitchen with a notepad and pen, and the Royal Mail. He never saw nor spoke to his customers, there was no emotional involvement (Ronnie Rouse’s great flaw Tom always maintained), everything was pure business, and very profitable.

When I first heard about Tom Lambert he was established and untouchable; a giant among dealers, with a vast knowledge and a remarkable stock, a hard edged businessman whose word was law and whose business practises were implacable: he would offer a price if he was buying, and demand a price if he was selling, and he would not waver by a penny in either case. He had no sentiment and did no deals, everything was a commodity and everything had a price.  Unlike Ronnie Rouse, who was a familiar figure around Norwich, and various postcard fairs in other parts of the country, Tom was never seen in the usual haunts, few people knew what he looked like, and he never spoke of his business. Every day he would either take the bus, or cycle on his old upright bike, into the city. He always made for Chaplefield, his refuge, where he had sat of a bench outside the bandstand or in the shelter for many years. The only photo I ever saw of Tom as a young man, he was sat on the same benches, in the same park 30 or more years before. He would mardle with his cronies and discuss the old days; or get into deep philosophical discussions about the meaning of life, or the nature of the Universe; and sometimes give a wise and illuminating tutorial on the nature of collecting and collectors, and ways of doing business. I know what he spoke about, because his topics were unchanging, although endlessly fascinating, and I took part in similar conversations and debates over a number of years, either in his kitchen, or his wonderfully fecund, rambling  garden, an apt metaphor for  Tom’s discursive imagination.

 

I was told about Tom by Ken, a great friend and a wonderfully inquisitive, alert little man, who picked up scents of collections or treasures the way a hunting dog follows a trail, undetectable to mere mortals. Ken was a man who made things happen by following leads, engineering  introductions, and opening doors; his great tragedy was that when he had achieved his goal, he had no ability to capitalize on it – he was too needy, too greedy, he always wanted to “do a deal”, which to him was synonymous with taking advantage, getting something for nothing. He alienated all his contacts and friends by his total unreliability; he would take, but give nothing back unless there was something in it for him. I stuck with him for over 20 years, despite his failings, because I respected his ability to make links, and because we shared a delight in shady deals and seedy activities. I probably used him the way he used others, but I gave him friendship and support for many years, until his final great betrayal of our friendship caused him to reap the whirlwind; I made sure he got his “comuppance – thrice times filled, and running over” in a way that broke him; not a thought that now gives me pleasure, and I miss him to this day, and freely acknowledge the enormous influence he had on introducing me to the obsessive world of collecting and dealing.

Ken had heard, in his mysterious  way, that Tom Lambert had a vast collection of 16mm films, Ken’s great passion, and that he was approachable, if it were done with discretion. It was easy to get Tom’s address from “Exchange and Mart”, but the problem for Ken was that he didn’t have a car, and so he asked me to take him. I was intrigued by this reclusive figure, and was glad to lead the expedition to the heart of darkness that was Rackheath.

As we approached the post office at the crossroads in Rackheath,  a ruddy countryman cycled the other way, towards the city. Although I had no description of Tom, and knew of no one who had ever met him, I knew instinctively that this was Tom Lambert, a strange insight and one I can’t explain, although given the importance of Tom to my life over the next 15 years, I’m sure he would have recognised the synchronicity inherent in the moment, as I saw my future in that unremarkable cyclist.

We carried on to Rackheath, and soon found the heavy brick gateposts adorned with the legend “Omaha” that led down an overgrown driveway to a slightly rundown, but spacious bungalow.  Tom wasn’t there , which didn’t surprise me, but we did make our first contact with the enigmatic Velma, Tom’s implacable gatekeeper. She was a thin, middle aged woman, with a pinched face and watchful eyes; she rarely spoke and had no discernable personality, but she was fiercely loyal to Tom, and followed to the letter his instructions to admit nobody. We only managed to communicate with her through the letter box, and then, only to be told   “Tom’s not here”, the only words anyone can remember her speaking .  She lived alone in a flat in the city, and took the bus every day to spend with Tom. I don’t know how they met, or what they had in common, except perhaps the need that loners have for an unquestioning, undemanding relationship that is functional but requires no human sympathy. Tom had complete trust in her, and was glad for her to guard his property, and his privacy. In return she had some form of human company, and over the years she would accompany Tom on long walks through Earlham Park, although it’s difficult to imagine their conversation. Tom once admitted to me in his typically honest, unsentimental  way, that those walks were often totally boring, but despite their incompatibility, they stayed together for many years. On reflection she was probably a good, if limited, woman who gave Tom something missing from his life. When she died suddenly a few years later, he was shocked,  I think, to find he missed her.

 

 

Ken and I worked out after a few weeks when he was likely to be home, and we finally turned up at his door to be greeted by the great man himself. Tom was an unlikely looking bookseller - a big man with the ruddy, weather-beaten complexion of a farmer; white hair,  a white stubble, and clear blue eyes. He invariably dressed in the summer in baggy corduroy trousers, with workman boots, a tweed jacket and check lumberjack shirt; in the winter months this outfit would be augmented by a stained and shabby gabardine raincoat. He moved slowly and deliberately, and spoke the same way. He was a cautious man, used to his own company, and wary of strangers. He stood squarely in the doorframe, with one hand on the handle, as if about to close it, and was very noncommittal  regarding our first enquiries. He was reluctant to engage with us, and may well have shut the door if Ken had not launched into one of his masterly spiels. He told him that he had been recommended  to come by one of Tom's cronies, a man called Jack who worked on Tom's garden on an ad hoc basis, and that he had been told Tom had a collection of 16mm films that Ken was interested in seeing, with a view to purchase. Tom was always swayed by the prospect of business, and finally allowed us over the threshold. On that first visit we didn't get further than the kitchen, but we did establish a bond that we were able to build upon over the coming months.

Tom's kitchen was not large and quite sparse: an old cooker and sink; a square deal table in the middle of the room where Tom carried out all his business; and assorted piles of papers and magazines ready to be sorted or sent to customers.  At that first meeting Ken did all the talking and he and Tom developed quite a rapport, something that Ken was very good at developing, especially in the early days of a relationship. At that time I was very much a bystander; I had no particular interest in 16mm films, and in all other respects I was an enthusiastic, but very much an amateur, collector. I had never sold anything in my life, and was very much a punter: at the mercy of dealers, and to be used for their convenience. As they talked, Tom became ever more expansive as he relaxed, and Ken fizzed with energy, enthusiasm and stories: at his best he was  great company and infectiously raised spirits. They finally got round to talking business, and Tom heaved himself to his feet, and moved to the large floor to ceiling airing cupboard that took up half of one wall. He opened the double doors to their full extent and stood back to gauge our reaction. The cupboard was racked out with wooden shelves, 7 to 8 feet high, 5 feet wide, with every bit of space filled with hundreds of reels of 16mm film, in cans and boxes; 400 foot and 800 foot reels; small boxes of odd sized film; and some magnificent antique projectors, fabulously rare, and of extraordinary design. The whole motley assembly was old and dusty,  with peeling labels, rust and cobwebs, and had obviously been accumulated by Tom over years of random dealings, and then neglected and half forgotten, until the right punter came along.

We did no business that first visit, but had established an important relationship, one that we built over the next few weeks with more visits, in which we gained more idea of the extent of Tom's vast collection. The kitchen was only the working space, the other rooms held the bulk of his stock. The large room at the front of the bungalow was racked out with stout wooden shelving that held 1000's of magazines: long runs of Victorian and  Edwardian cycling and motor trade magazines; bound volumes, and piles of loose pre-war film magazines - Picturegoer  issues from the 1st world war to the 50's; Picture Show from the 1st issue in 1919; Film Weekly and Film Pictorial; and very rare and short lived titles like Illustrated Film Monthly from 1913 - 1915. Incredibly rare paperback histories of the cinema from 1913 and 1914, hardbacks from 1912; boxes and piles of odd titles and ephemera from the early days of cinema to the second world war. These were the treasures that excited my interest, but it would be a long time before I could examine them properly, or hope to do a deal with Tom to buy them. This room also contained piles of comics from the 30's and 40's: Dandy, Beano, Sexton Blake, Gem ,Magnet, Wizard and Hotspur,  and piles of annuals from the comic and film world.  Tom also had another room which contained even more extraordinary  wonders, but all these were for later days when I could begin to deal in them myself ; for the moment I was still just browsing, while Ken and Tom discussed a deal on the film.

The bulk of the  film contained in that cupboard consisted of scores of wartime news reels from Pathe News and Gaumont British; many odd films from the 40's such as "Bradman Batting" and other specialist documentaries;  one and two reel movies from 1914 - 17 starring William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and Chaplin, and later two reelers of Laurel and Hardy from the 1920's. All were fascinating and all were rare, but the heart of the collection were the newsreels, and this is what Ken focussed on. Tom stated boldly that he wanted £2000 for everything in the cupboard, his business philosophy was quite clear: When you buy you state the price you are prepared to pay; when you sell you state the price you want. The figure is always realistically worked out and inviolable, that way you always have control of the deal, and never get involved in counter productive, and time wasting haggling. A lot of customers think that dealers like to haggle, that it's all part of the game; I can assure anybody reading this that we don't; it's not a game, its a business, a living. We can only continue to invest time and money in the search for interesting items if we have a good idea what we're going to get for them, and therefore know what we can afford to pay.  This business is as much an art as a science of course, and so there is always flexibility built in, but time wasting disputes about price, and spurious deals, are something that the real professional will have no patience with. Any punter that walks away from a deal thinking he has managed to wear down and put one over on the dealer, should be aware that he will be remembered (dealers never forget a bad deal), and any future dealings he may wish to have with that particular dealer will involve an unspoken, but very real, premium, built into the price to take account of the inevitable haggling that will ensue; sometimes that customer will never see some choice items, they will be saved for more appreciative clients. If you think this is a bit extreme, I can assure that over the years I have met many customers who have a psychological aversion to paying the price asked, and will sometimes take their obsession to ludicrous lengths, as I will discuss later.

We visited Tom a number of times over the next few weeks, during which time I sorted through Tom’s remarkable collection of pre-war magazines, while Ken talked film. Tom liked Ken, as everybody did, and would have done good deals with him, but Ken had a magpie mind, and could never see a bigger picture than the one directly in front of him. He could have used his contacts to utilise Tom’s stock for his own benefit, but he preferred the small deal, with no commitment, and so he lost his chance; but left the door open for me to eventually take full advantage.  But not yet;  first the opening act had to be concluded, and this Ken did in his usual way. He bought one reel of film off Tom for £15, and took another to be paid for on the next visit. This was Ken’s normal modus operandi, but not Tom’s – he didn’t trust easily, but was persuaded by Ken’s transparent honesty, a part he could play to perfection. When we left that day Ken was buoyed by the fact that he had got 2 films for the price of one, the only kind of deal that really excited him, but I was a bit concerned that I didn’t have more of a personal relationship with Tom, but was only tolerated as Ken’s friend, which was now looking a more shaky proposition.  For some time after that I asked Ken if he wanted to go back, but he had lost interest: he had worked one of his famous deals, and now was ready to move on. He knew that he would never be able to buy all that Tom had, such deals were beyond his imaginative range, and so the episode with Tom was finished, certainly for him, and, it seemed, for me as well.

I spent the next few months pre-occupied with the thought of Tom and his stock, but at this point with no real idea that I might become a dealer. I was still primarily a collector, and I wasn’t sure what kind of business I could pursue with Tom, and his vast and varied stock. I gradually formed the idea of putting together a collection of every Picturegoer  from the 1950’s, something I knew Tom could help with, and which I could probably afford. I had never visited Tom without Ken, and wasn’t really sure what kind of response I might get, but finally decided to take the plunge , and so drove out to Rackheath.  I was nervous as I walked round the back, but glad to see that he was in the kitchen.  I knocked on the door and waited. “What do you want?”, “I was thinking about buying some Picturegoers”, “Ken owes me £15”. My heart sank at that; I had guessed that he wouldn’t have  forgotten, and that I would be regarded as equally unreliable, and so began the battle to again win his trust. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I talked earnestly through the door for a bit, until he finally relented and let me in. Tom was a wise old bird, and I suspect he had never been entirely taken in by Ken, but was impressed by my obvious sincerity and love of the books and magazines. We became friends very quickly, as we talked at length on all kinds of subjects, and told all kinds of stories. I was always a good listener, and Tom was a fascinating man with a wealth of knowledge on magazines and comics, a mine of information on old Norwich, and a penchant for  deep discussions on philosophy, human nature and the cosmos in all its variety, gleaned from his wide, if superficial,  reading.  But underlying all this was the constant pulse of business; dealing was what made his world go round, and our friendship became deeper, because I was always prepared to enter into deals, often far in excess of my natural inclinations.

I was still working at this time, about 1980, and was able to buy regularly, although not in great quantity. Tom however, as our friendship strengthened, saw ways in which we could both increase our output. He began urging me to buy, not just for myself, but to resell at a profit. This wasn’t something I had ever contemplated, but I was finally persuaded, and so began my entry into the often bizarre world of the second hand dealer, that has absorbed me for the last 30 years. The first deal I was offered was a three foot high pile of 1940’s and 50’s Dandys  and Beanos. Tom assured me that they would sell easily, although I was not convinced, but I took them anyway, and so embarked upon my first ever deal. I was keen to sell them quickly, and eventually most of them found their way into “Dr Junk”, a rundown shop in St Gregory’s Alley, whose gloomy interior housed piles of bric-a-brac, antiques (cameras were his speciality), and assorted paper ephemera, all watched over by Henry and his mother.  Henry Collinson ran a succession of shops and stalls in the area for some years, a knowledgeable man in his own field, and always dressed in light coloured suit and waistcoat, exuding an aura of slightly seedy gentility; an image somewhat subverted by his mother, a chain-smoking relic who shuffled around in the background to no apparent purpose.

The ease with which I sold my first batch, and the thrill of actually making money on comics, gave me a taste for the deal that has never faded

THE DEALERS

Norman

N

orman Peake took over the old International Store on St Benedicts in the 60’s, and called himself “The Scientific Anglian”. After the death of Higgins in 1968 , Norman became the latest in a long line of eccentric booksellers, who dealt in quantity before quality, and variety before specialisation. Although he had a scientific background, and would have a cache of obscure geological titles for  specialist customers, his main stock consisted of 1000’s of books picked up in job lots at auctions and jumble sales. He would have the odd rare gem, and a vein of interesting titles in the massive bulk of his stock; but his shop consisted of two floors piled high with mountains of books, often battered and worn, but serviceable for the collector, and a treasure trove for the old fashioned bookworm who would spend hours immersed in the musty mounds of forgotten novels and unread histories; obscure biographies and esoteric scientific and philosophical treatises. These were stacked in floor to ceiling shelving that covered the whole floor space, leaving just narrow alleys to squeeze into, to search for that hidden gem that might be lurking in his vast inventory. The books were then stacked up the stairs that led to a top floor that continued the mad maze of shelving, holding 1000’s more of his battered tomes. The top floor was where I found my film books, and a couple of strange titles, that I still have:

Books from his stock are easily recognised by the large hand written price, enclosed in a square box, which he inscribed with a flourish inside the book, or sometimes, in the case of paperbacks, on the front cover, where he would write with such force as to indent it permanently , and so reduce the value, if it happened to be a collector’s item. Norman was an scholarly man, and was well aware of genuine collectors items, but  the majority of his stock he regarded from a utilitarian viewpoint: the books were commodities to be used, not treasured; read and referred to, but not necessarily kept.

Norman was another of those strange loners, who suddenly appear on the scene with no history, except what rumour will provide, and no known human contacts. He was approachable enough, in a restrained way, but only became really animated when giving lectures in his powerful barking voice, on some esoteric point of science or bibliography, to his usually stunned audience, as Norman’s declamatory style brooked no interruption or contradiction when he was in full flow. Norman  himself  was a short tubby man, dressed in shapeless flannel trousers and linen jacket, with waistcoat  or pullover,  and grimy shirt. He was bald on top with an unruly mass of grey white hair at the sides. His whole shabby, careless personage was embellished with a coating of dandruff, cigarette ash and dust, and he fitted in perfectly with his stock as he shuffled slowly among the racks. Norman was a must visit on the circuit of collector’s shops for over thirty  years, and never changed in any way. That was probably his downfall, for the shop became ever more congested, more incoherent, as Norman aged, and he became less able to control his ever encroaching stock. This is the case with many dealer/collectors who accumulate so much material that it seems to acquire a life of its own, and finally seems to be controlling the collector, and not the other way round. Even towards the end, I would still see Norman shuffling slowly down the alley from some charity shop, or fair, with a box of unnecessary, and probably unsellable, books to add to his already bloated stock. He was finally forced to quit when his premises were declared a health hazard, after a fire on the top floor, and closed.  Norman was a pleasant enough, if unconvivial, man, and a genuine book lover and dealer; one eddy in the great unending river of eccentrics and obsessives who make up this strange business.

 

 

 

Geoff

G

eoff Ives was a dealer in second hand records who first appeared on the scene around 1960, in a little shop in Magdalene Street close to The Mayfair cinema. He was an expert in classical music, which was his main line, and augmented his shop trade with judicious use of the “Exchange and Mart”.  I first began visiting his shop because he did a good line in speech records, which I began collecting, and jazz records, some of which I developed a taste for while listening to my brothers collection when he was out of the house.  Geoff was one of those dealers who worry more about what they are missing, than what they are getting, and later he would dabble in pop music, when it was offered to him. He was aware that pop music had a value, but knew nothing about it, and so suffered agonies of frustration in his inability to determine which records to buy and how to price them. I was a fairly regular visitor with a friend of mine on Saturday mornings, and in desperation he would sometimes ask us if a particular record was “any good”. We took great delight in solemnly informing him that the ancient Frank Ifield single he was debating whether to buy, was an up to the minute pop hit that the kids would be snapping up. It gave us a something to laugh about when we left the shop, and a surprising feeling of power, that we knew more about records than the record dealer. Although he would talk about his records if asked, he was generally uncommunicative, and in the 30 odd years I knew him he was always middle aged and lugubrious, although in later years when I opened my own shop, he would open up to me a bit more, but never too much. In the early days I think he barely tolerated young people, and probably resented his need to engage with us, which he had to do, in case he missed a business opportunity. I was in his shop one day with my mate Mick, examining an LP, when it slipped out of the cover and bounced three or four times across the floor. We were startled by this, and expected a tirade from him, but instead, he merely went to the record, picked it up and examined it, then crossed out the £1 price, substituted 17/6, put it back in the rack and wordlessly resumed his seat. We left the shop, and idly ruminated on how many times we would have to drop an LP before he would give it to us for nothing. He later moved to St Giles where he spent twenty odd years, always middle-aged and slightly morose, ever on the phone to Mrs Ives, his "pigeon", but always a good stopping off point for the occasional special find.

THE SUB-CULTURE

 

B

y the early fifties a small second hand sub-culture had  grown in the little corner shops where small collectors corners had appeared with the piles of discarded comics and magazines that had begun to surface after the war, when paper was no longer pulped for re-use. The Americans had imported tons of comics and pulp magazines that had been spread around the area, and UK publishers had got in on the act with a blossoming of comic and pulp publications of their own. These are all now very collectable, but then were little more than piles of wastepaper, and it was not uncommon for almost any small shop to suddenly bring out a great pile of these to be sold off for pennies. Our local shop was Lenny Grint,  on the corner of West End and Waddington Street, and among his usual stock of household necessities, would often appear a pile of comics beside his counter.  I was also informed by my mother on one occasion that our local chip shop just over Dereham Road in ….. street, had just brought out a pile of comics, which were piled  on the floor of the shop. I immediately checked them out of course, as did others, and they were quickly dispersed among the local children, as soon as they could get a few pence out of parents, and a thriving swapping mania took over the neighbourhood. Even in those very young days I prided myself upon my superior, and extensive knowledge of American comics, my particular passion even then.

This ad hoc arrangement eventually led to small shops in various parts of the city either opening specifically, or more likely, adapting their existing second hand stock to this new enterprise. These tiny, dark and dusty, establishments were a magnet for the inquisitive tyro collector such as myself, and were eagerly sought out as we ventured abroad. Lou Rogers opened in Heigham street opposite Pickfords with a generally tatty miscellany of china, low grade antiques, and that all important paper ephemera. He later moved to St Georges and then Waterloo Road, but without ever really making a great impression.  Others tried the same business, ……. In rosary Road being another, and a couple of market stalls sold books, comics and magazines, but the first shop that I really became involved with, was Barhams at No2 Rampant Horse Street, a small corner shop nestled at the back of the Haymarket cinema.

My embryonic collecting instincts were sharpened and developed by the sad fact of my father being unable to leave his bed. He had developed a taste, which he passed on to me, for the series of Edgar Rice Burroughs "Tarzan" books, which ran to a considerable number of titles, and which the local library had proved inadequate to supply. I had told him that I had seen lots of Tarzan paperbacks through the window of Barham’s shop, and he immediately formed a resolution to fill in the missing gaps in our collection. We compiled a list of missing titles from the listings in the books we already had, and for a number of Saturdays after that, I would go in the city to visit the shop.  The shop was small, with a long, low trestle table in the middle which was strewn with scores of colourful paperbacks, among them the desired Tarzan titles. I was never so happy as on those golden Saturday mornings, sorting through the books with my list in my hand, and the huge excitement I felt when I found a sought after title, made even more intense when I could get back home with my acquisition to show to Dad. We would spend the week reading and discussing the titles I had found, and then, come Saturday, I would be back to the city to look for more. I very much doubt that we got all the books we were looking for, but even then I knew that the hunt was as exciting as the kill, and I have always attributed the birth of my collecting obsession to those magical days on the corner of Rampant Horse Street, and those piles of colourful paperbacks.

This random collection of shops scattered over the city, and various local neighbourhoods, have to be distinguished of course from more established, secondhand and antiquarian bookshops, of which there were a number in the city, and which I will speak of later. These more respectable establishments would normally eschew the downmarket ephemera that I, and many like me, were becoming obsessed with, and the way was clear to run a reasonable, though maybe not respectable,  business dealing in working class remnants. The king of these establishments was Oldham's.

 

 

Oldham

 

O

ldham’s was a small shop, set in a row in Charing Cross, a few doors up from Duke Street and the public library. It was a genuinely seedy emporium; one window with a display rack, and the door on the right which led into the dingy interior, which was small and dull, the walls shelved for his books, magazines, and comics, and a small counter behind which stood the proprietor with his various, more exclusive items on the wall behind him. Arthur Oldham himself conformed perfectly to type: a rather large, middle aged man in the obligatory baggy suit, somewhat gloomy and taciturn, and not good at dealing with the young boys attracted by his wares. I suspect he had a more lucrative trade with other middle aged men, with whom he could talk and deal  more easily than with schoolboys like myself who were drawn to his shop. Because of his american comics he attracted us in, but he was always careful we didn't get too close to his adult material.

 I was always reluctant to go in, although fascinated by his window, as he regarded young people with some suspicion and was never very civil in his dealings with us. I remember in the early sixties he was approached by two young men who explained they had just arrived in town for a music gig, and had had their guitars stolen; could he let them have the guitars in his window for the evening, and they would come back later and pay for them when they had got their money from the Theatre. They must have been persuasive, because he agreed, let them take the guitars, and never saw them again. It got him a good piece in the Evening News that week, but I don’t think improved his tolerance of young people. The thought that the redoubtable Oldham had been taken for a ride was a source of some rejoicing among those of us who had suffered his brusque put downs in the past.

As schoolboys, we always stopped at Oldham's window when we were in the city; he had a fascinating line in pin up magazines, and erotic books and publications, as well as comics, and we were always tempted to go in for a closer look, but rarely dared to. It was in his window that I first saw copies of "Diana Dors in 3D", "Leslie Carol in 3D", with its tantalizing glimpse of nipple, and various other pocket sized glamour magazines, including the ubiquitous nudist magazine "Health and Efficiency" which was smuggled furtitvly into many a bedroom. He also had a great range of detective and science fiction pulp magazines, which we could examine, and so I spent a number of happy, albeit uneasy, hours ,in that slightly dangerous place. By the early sixties I was old enough to happily browse his stock, and deal with him on equal terms, although still liable to provoke him , as in the case of "Fanny Hill". "Fanny Hill" is the most celebrated erotic book in English literature, and in the spirit of the times it was published in paperback form by Mayflower Books in an unexpurgated version in 1963 at the price of 3/6. It was immediately seized by the police, also in the spirit of the times, and subsequently banned. The next year it was re-issued in a censored version by Mayflower, this time at 5/-. This was too much for my libertarian, thrill-seeking spirit to bear, and I made it my ambition to secure a copy of the rare 3/6 edition. In Oldham's one day, I saw a copy of "Fanny Hill" on the wall behind him, but couldn't determine which edition it was. I asked him how much it was and he told me 10/6, which seemed fair. I then said, innocently enough, "Is that the edition originally published at 3/6?" He immediately bristled with outrage, thinking I was accusing him of overcharging, and ripped the book from the wall, and flourished it in front of me. "This" he said with ill-concealed contempt, "is cheap at that price",  "This" he leered, "is filthy - the filthiest book you'll ever find". I realised that bibliographical niceties were not his forte, and rejected the book as soon as I saw it was the common 5/- edition, leaving him convinced that I was a cheapskate philistine who had no appreciation of literature. Later in the mid-sixties when Charing Cross was pulled down, he took up brief residence in St Benedict's Street, but the business was never the same in an even smaller shop, and he soon left the scene. He had thrived though for a number of years, despite his deficiencies in customer relations, and is very fondly remembered by a generation of 50's schoolboys - not perhaps the epitaph he would have chosen however.

LENNY

Oldham’s began life as a conventional second hand bookshop, and was one of the first of the orthodox dealers who recognized the importance of the new sub-culture that had arisen since the war, and which would, for a time, virtually swamp mainstream culture. He dealt in comics, film magazines and music, but I suspect his heart was never really in it; he was of a generation that had its roots in pre-war society, and was never really easy with the youngsters and their new enthusiasms. The man who first really sniffed the zeitgeist was the much loved, and much missed, Lenny Brooker, and to a lesser extent, his brother Wesley. Lenny was much closer to the right age to appreciate what was happening, and he took full advantage of it. He was in his 30’s when he opened his first shop “Jus’ Dandy” in Duke Street in the mid-60’s, and at first he carried on where Oldham had left off. He sold men’s magazines and glamour booklets, comics, Detective, Science Fiction and Western pulps, film magazines and paperbacks. His tiny little shop on the corner of Duke Street and Muspole Street  had a dingy, seedy atmosphere which was endlessly fascinating, but slightly intimidating, as you stepped down into the gloomy,  chaotic interior where Lenny would be sorting his wares wreathed in cigarette smoke. Lenny was a thin, dishevelled man, with yellowed tombstone teeth, and a mane of unruly hair falling over his face, still red in those days, (his wife always called him “Ginge”),  but later mainly grey, although still thick, with ginger streaks. This first foray into business was a throwback to the fifties ephemera shops and he was still looking for a proper identity. He changed the name to “Revue Books” with no more success,  but by the early 70’s he had moved to St Benedicts to dabble in women’s lingery, again unsuccessfully. His final move was to a small shop in St Giles, close to Crowes bookshop, and where he at last found his niche. He called himself “Mr Tomorrow” and began to indulge his passion for comics. His was the first specialist comic shop in Norwich and exploited the booming market for American imports. He sold all the new titles and built up an enthusiastic  cliental, attracting collectors from the surrounding area, as he established a thriving business. He never abandoned his other interests though, and stocked second hand comics and magazines, and his ever present glamour material. He had at times in Duke Street, and here, utilised his back room for a little amateur photography, and always had an interesting array of material for the discerning customer.  His most prized possession was a signed photo of Linda Lusardi which he had pinned up behind his counter, and this was the type of material he would stock; pornography was never to his taste, he dealt in the infinitely more desirable B/W glamour publications from the fifties and sixties, as did Oldham before him. In his first days in the St Giles shop he filled his walls with a multitude of desirable items, including an original Marilyn Monroe calendar from a Texas garage, and he was always the shop to visit for those rare collectables, that no other shop had an eye for. As the main dealer in this material he was offered the items that established bookshops were at that time still turning down, and so was able to exploit a virtually virgin field, now that the other second hand and corner shops had died away.  He amassed a wonderful stock of posters, postcards, magazines and vintage comics, and these were always the backdrop to his burgeoning comic dealership. He even branched into a modest publishing venture by getting some of his sixth form and art college customers to draw their own comics, which he then had printed. His last name change was to “Comics and Comix” and his shop was a must-visit on the collectors circuit, which he graced for over 30 years. He was a good, if unlikely looking businessman, and remained successful despite the encroachment onto his new comic line by some of the main bookshops. He finally gave up the business he loved due to ill health, but his interest in his subject never died, and he will be remembered for a long time by generations of schoolboys who discovered the joys of comic collecting in Lenny’s tiny shop.

Records

 

Although recorded music was issued from the twenties in the form of 78 records, it never became a real collector’s field until the advent of the 45 single, EP and LP in the fifties. Even then it took the advent of the first real teenager’s music – Rock’n’Roll – before a market could begin to develop. In the early fifties the market in second hand recorded music must have been very small, but for the discerning jazz and blues collector it must also have been a gold mine, as most of this music only existed on the original, fragile 78s, and these early collections now often give us the only remaining example of some historic recordings. Most of these have now all been re-mastered and re-released on LPs, although many obscure tracks still only exist on the original vinyl. The generation that grew up just after the war was the first to have a music dedicated entirely to teenage tastes, and once established, teenage buying power never let it die. Although the musical idiom may change, the music has ever since been aimed at a young audience, and what was once a sub-culture in music became mainstream and all pervasive. As so much of collecting is a recreation and reclamation of childhood passions, music , which infects adolescence on such a visceral level, was always bound to become fertile ground for collectors.

Up until the mid fifties, record shops existed for the second hand collector, but these were exclusively for the jazz and blues enthusiasts, and most of the remembered shops were in London, especially Charing Cross Road, and consisted usually of small basements, or occasionally lofts, leased from main street shops. All the second hand and collectors shops in Norwich would have handled odd records, but the only full time establishment was Ives; and it was not until the explosion of production of EPs and LPs, and the less fragile singles, with their evocative coloured covers and multi tracks, that a real second hand market was born. The first wave of genuinely collectable music arrived in the late fifties, but those first collectors, of which I was one, were too busy buying the latest records to worry about the previous batch, which we already had, if we had wanted them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Customers, Characters and Collectors

1

I

n one extreme case, I had a customer who visited the shop a number of times over a couple of years, and was always prepared to spend. He had a large farm in the county, no shortage of money and was an avid collector of films and projectors.  I was the only shop in the area dealing in these, and so he could always find something of interest.  His problem was that he would never pay the asking price, but had to have a deal. It took me a few visits to realise the extent of his problem, but once I had, I was able to price an item high enough initially to give him a discount; a silly charade and one that I found increasingly irksome. On this occasion I had a particularly rare projector screen, of an unusually large size, and almost impossible to find. I knew he had been looking for one for ages, and when he came in the shop I prepared for battle. I showed it to him with some reluctance because I knew it could cause a problem, and , sure enough, he immediately wanted it.

 "How Much?"

I hesitated, because I guessed whatever I said would be rejected, but I was in no mood that day to play tiresome games. I could have asked an outrageous price and then come down, but I gave him a chance to break the habit of a lifetime and be sensible. I offered it to him for the lowest possible price I could , consistent with its rarity and desirability:

"£40"

He shook his head pityingly

"Oh No, No, No, that's far too much, I couldn't pay that"

"This is really rare - you know that, £40 is cheap"

"It's not worth it, I'd rather wait for another one to turn up"

"You'll wait a long time then, I've never seen one before, and I don't expect to see one again"

"I'll have it if you drop the price, but I wouldn't pay £40"

"I'm afraid it's no deal then , I can't go any lower"

With that I walked away to talk to another customer, and left him to consider his position. He wandered around the shop awhile, pretending to look at other things, but actually trying to find a way out of his self constructed dilemma. He finally said he had to go, and would I change my mind and lower the price; I repeated that the price was fair and I couldn't go any lower. He rather plaintively said " This will be the first time we haven't done a deal, I thought we could always come to some arrangement".  "Maybe another time" I said, effectively dismissing him.  He went to the door, opened it, then hovered in the doorway, unwilling to leave the screen he so badly wanted, but unable to pay an asking price, even when he knew it was fair. He looked desperately around the shop one last time, and his eye alighted on a pile of scratched laser discs sitting forlornly on a box. "What're they?"  he asked "Laser discs, but you need a special machine to play them". He walked over to them with a lighter step, and picked up his lifeline. There were only 3 or 4, and completely unsellable, but he was saved. "Would you include these in the £40?" he asked eagerly. I sighed inwardly, knowing I was beaten, and agreed. He was immensely cheered, and obviously relieved, and as he handed over the £40 he picked up his trophies saying "We always manage a deal in the end don't we? If I ever pick up a machine these could be really useful",

(or more likely straight in the nearest bin), I thought, but said nothing, and allowed him his little victory, which meant so much to him.

2

O

ne dull, February afternoon, the door opened, and in walked another of those odd characters who are so irresistibly drawn to shops like mine. He was a middle aged man, well dressed in a mohair overcoat, with velvet collar, striped shirt and tie.  He was pleasant looking, pale fine features, with blue eyes,  a neat moustache and fair longish hair. I would normally have marked  him down as a potential customer, and he did take some general interest in the stock, but then he began to talk, and so I was drawn into a fantasy world of the kind that many of my customers and acquaintances inhabit, but rarely so fleshed out and accomplished as this was.

 "Do you have anything on Douglas Fairbanks" he asked in a quiet, educated voice, " I've got some interesting silent cinema ephemera" I started, but he cut me off, " I was actually talking about Douglas Fairbanks Junior" he said, "He's my Father you know". I was a bit taken aback at that, but I never stand in the way of a good story, and so asked him which of Fairbank's children  he was. "Oh you won't find me in the reference books" he said " I'm his unofficial son". It seemed an unlikely story, but I resolved to do some research as soon as he had left, and in the meantime I gave him the floor, and he launched into his fantastical history. He explained that Fairbanks' wife wouldn't accept him, which is why he had never been officially recognised, a source of deep hurt to him,  but Fairbanks himself had always treated him well, and allowed him to be part of the family.

 The time of which he spoke seemed to be the forties and fifties, and he had a cornucopia of memories of the Hollywood homes, the parties and yachts, and the fabulous names he had mixed with. He had a wealth of stories of Mary Pickford, who had apparently treated him very well, and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford among many others. He had gone on the town as a teenager with Errol Flynn, and been great friends with Tyrone Power. Although there were sometimes a slightly wistful undertone to the stories, as he spoke of magical times now lost to him, and the rejection he had apparently suffered in later years, for most of the time he was immensely animated as he related his tales with great gusto. He delighted in telling me the scabrous stories of things he had heard and seen, and the scandalous  activities of the various Queens of Hollywood in their private moments. As he got into his stride he began to give me the often obscene dialogue in the voices of the stars themselves, and the voices of Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Bogart and others brought the racy tales to life as he strode around the shop totally absorbed in his world of Fantasy or memory, or something in between. I was captivated by the spectacle and allowed him all the space he needed to develop his obsessive narrative,  wishing to believe, and half inclined to do so, but increasingly aware of some odd points of interest.

 As the afternoon wore on, luckily with no other customers, I noticed that his overcoat, although of good quality, was slightly frayed at the cuffs, and his expensive shirt, although clean, was likewise beginning to fray at the collar. His stories, always fascinating, and theatrically delivered, were also a bit frayed; as it occurred to me that they were all stories with which I was already familiar, and had read before in various film books and biographies. They required a deep knowledge of Hollywood history, and wide reading and study of the subject, which he obviously had, but which I had in equal measure, and on reflection later, I realised that he had told me nothing new, although his bravura performance disguised that at the time. At the end of his remarkable narrative he seemed to inadvertently stray into more genuinely personal territory,  as he told me of a trip to Paris with Cary Grant that had not gone well: he spoke of "an encounter", as far as I could make out, in the washroom, but here he hesitated, and became less clear "that wasn't good" he murmured, "but that's in the past now". At this point he stopped, possibly triggering an unwelcome, deeper reality that his more fluent stories were meant to keep at bay.

He came back a number of times over the next few weeks, and we talked generally of Fairbanks, and I supplied him with a couple of books gratis, as he obviously had no money.  He persevered with the illusion of the Fairbanks love-child, but never again spoke of it with the same depth or intensity; it seemed that he had perhaps unburdened too much of himself that first extraordinary afternoon, due to the nostalgic nature of the shop, and my readiness to listen uncritically and sympathetically, and had now locked it back inside himself.

I didn't see him after that for a few years, until I passed him in the street a hundred yards from my house, a neighbourhood he was now living in. We spoke a few words, generalities, and then parted. What was extraordinary however,  was his appearance: gone the shabby gentility, and in its place a figure of cheerful good health. He was dressed in white slacks, a checked  open necked shirt, with sleeves rolled up, and looked tanned and fit. I have seen him quite often since, and we often chat, but no mention is ever made of Fairbanks or that bizarre afternoon in the shop. He is sometimes with his wife, an attractive, smart woman, and I would doubt that the day in the shop had ever happened, if it were not for the times I see him alone: he is always amiable, and we always speak, but sometimes he has a detached quality, as he stands alone, looking over the neighbourhood at ten in the morning, with a can of lager in his hand, and who knows what memories, behind those curiously blank eyes.

PHILOSOPHY

T

he collector is a secretive, self-absorbed creature who pursues his life's work in the most ordinary places and gives no outward clue to his obsession. He exists in every walk of life, in every community and country; he presides over wondrous collections of objects of sometimes great beauty; great historical or sociological interest; and every collection they have lovingly fashioned, sometimes over a lifetime,  is different from anything that has existed before. These collections tell a story about history and culture, often in unexpected and illuminating ways, that can provoke  revelations, and a way of seeing things that enriches our understanding  of the way we live. These are often incidental to the original purpose of the collection, and not all collections are capable of such a burden; but real collectors are artists who should be respected and treasured, which is what I have tried to do. Behind many a suburban door lurks a world of imagination and wonder, that passers-by could never guess at. In the wilds of North Norfolk,  where beneath the windy, limitless skies that Nelson knew, now resides a shrine to Audie Murphy, the baby-faced war hero, and western star who still lives in spirit in a small, unremarkable cottage - to the badlands of Sprowston, where a neat suburban bungalow hides within its anonymous facade a cornucopia of film and western memorabilia: comics, films, posters, autographs, books, objects and ephemera that tell the story of a century of culture, all piled high in shelves, and on tables; boxes and racks, and displayed on walls and in cabinets in a colourful extravaganza that bewilders the eye and stimulates the imagination. And in the middle of this stands the collector; ordinary in many ways perhaps, easily overlooked by those who do not understand his ways, but a repository of knowledge and memory and often, wisdom,  that  could be the gift of all, if they only had his instincts. They are scholars and philosophers, but without the ability to communicate what they know, except to fellow enthusiasts. And so they pass anonymously in the crowd - the unsung and unrecognized dreamers.

Collecting as an art form is an idea that has finally been absorbed by society at large: previously collecting was the preserve of the wealthy and well connected, and for centuries the major collections of books, paintings, furniture and antiques have been kept within the great families. In the 19th century the fortunes made out of the industrial revolution led to more collections being compiled by the mega rich industrialists and eccentrics, who continued the process of ransacking the world of fine art and antiquity. Although many of these collections have since become museums, they were essentially the creation of the elite for the elite, and so hidden from the majority of the population.

The last few decades however, have seen a huge change in the kind of people who collect, and what they collect. The entertainment industry and the consumer society has fuelled a huge interest in the artifacts that surround us, and make up the world we live in; the ability of TV and the movies to preserve what was previously ephemeral has led to an obsession, based on nostalgia for the world we used to know, and the world our parents knew: the 20th century has become the antiquity that we now ransack, and every one of us  has the ability to travel the world courtesy of the internet and bring back those elusive prizes that form the new 21st century collections.


These collections are very different from the great collections of the past, and formed by very different collectors; but what hasn't changed is the ability to see what is important and culturally valuable; the ability to make connections between what seem to be disparate objects and to form them into a pattern that can make sense out of the bewildering array of information and objects that make up the society we live in. A real collection is more than just an accumulation of objects, and quantity is no guide to its value and purpose. Many people have lots of items in their possession, but these are no more a collection than a supermarket shelf is a meal: it takes a collector to sort and chose and combine in such a way that something is revealed, created even, that was not there before: a collection is more than the sum of its individual parts.

 

 
A collector is born, not made (I won't elaborate on Freud's theory on this - most collectors are familiar with the "anal" jibe that comes our way), and formed by an initial interest, experience, and  curiosity about why we feel the way we do about certain things that have coloured our lives since childhood, and which we are reluctant to abandon. A collector works at his passion: we spend years scouring junk
shops, jumble sales, auctions and antique shops; sometimes we buy cheap, sometimes we dig deep (no collection is formed on the cheap, there are times we all pay more than we should, but money is transient, the pleasure of owning that special item is forever); collectors learn all the time - our research takes us into unexpected areas, and we are always adding more to the jig saw that makes up our own unique version of the world. Collectors add to the sum of human knowledge, informing the rest of society about the patterns and trends that lie behind the otherwise fragmented memories and feelings they have about their lives - the past is a living, palpable entity that lurks just out of sight to most people, but which still affects everything they feel about their lives - collectors bring it into the light and reveal what had been long forgotten by the conscious mind but still stirs in the darkness of the sub-conscious.



Collectors have one further important function that adds immeasurably to the wealth of the nation: we are the modern alchemists, we have discovered the secret of turning base metal into gold. We take an unregarded, unremarked item that would  otherwise be discarded, and reveal it as a valuable, often revered, treasure that makes money (sometimes a great deal of money) for the original owner, and thereafter becomes part of the fabric of the country for future generations to admire and learn from. Collectors nurture their collections and guard them until the time comes for them to pass into other hands; but however many times over the years they are broken and re-formed in different ways, however much they increase or decrease in value, each individual item  will still in some way bear the imprint of the collector who first recognised its true worth and saved it  from oblivion: we are important - we are immortal.

One final thought:

Consider "Citizen Kane" as the story of a collector manqué: he is haunted by the demons of his childhood and seeks an answer in accumulating a mountain of collectable artefacts; but he is not a collector, he sees no meaning or pattern in the things he acquires, (an accumulation is not a collection remember ); the meaning was there -  but only a born collector could have found it.