Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Postcard of the Night No. 12 – Barbary Coast by Night, San Francisco

Barbary Coast was the red light district of San Francisco. It sprang into existence in 1849 with the California Gold Rush and for 60 years or more its nightclubs and brothels, bars and gambling dens catered to the needs of an itinerant population of workingmen in search of distraction. Our postcard from the first decade of the 20th. century shows a pilgrimage of lost souls, their haunted faces turned toward the camera – an unwanted intrusion into the pursuit of pleasure. Some furtive, some remorseful and some defiant, they shuffle through the gloom to be separated from their hard-earned dollar bills in return for copious quantities of intoxicants and sexual favours. The agencies of law and order had minimal traction in the district and organised criminal gangs threatened the security of the entire city. Conflict raged with regular arson assaults on the city leading to vigilante justice and public lynchings. It couldn’t last forever – the 1906 earthquake provided the opportunity to rebuild and gentrify the district. The guardians of public morals kept up the pressure on the civic authorities and a few years later a new hostility emerged with a ban on dancing and illuminated signs, restrictions on the sale of alcohol and the expulsion of brothels.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Jolly Coppers on Parade

Until recently it was a British thing to sentimentalise our police force and shower them with uncritical affection. Their legendary courtesy, willingness to redirect those who lost their way and their anachronistic uniforms made them seem less threatening than their swaggering overseas counterparts in paramilitary dress equipped with firearms, tear gas and water cannon. In recent decades the police have had to adapt to rising levels of crime and social disorder and now project a much less comforting presence on our streets, clad in battle-dress with Tasers, bodycams and automatic weapons at the ready. In reality the cosy world conjured up in these postcards never really existed and many aspects of police work were carried out in a summary fashion with little regard for the finer points of justice. The days when police cars came fitted with warning bells and minor offences could be dealt with by means of a sharp smack to the head are never going to return.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Past and Present No. 11: Berlin Elektrische Hochbahn

The waterway is the Landwehrkanal and the lower bridge carries rail traffic to and from the Anhalter Bahnhof some 400 metres to the left. The higher bridge carries the Hochbahn (now U-Bahn 1) between the stations of Gleisdreieck and Möckernbrücke. The vintage postcard shows a distant pitched roof building with an arch. These were the offices of the Berlin Railway Administration and the Hochbahn was routed directly through the archway. The contemporary buildings on the same site are occupied by today’s equivalent – the BVG. On the left of the old card are the offices of the Anhalter Goods Station – this is now the site of the Deutsches Technikmuseum, distinguished by the plane that rests on top of it. The U-Bahn bridge has been stripped of its decorative elements and the Anhalter rail bridge has been replaced by a modern approximation reduced to the status of a footbridge. To see a post from 2011 about the Anhalter Bahnhof, please follow this link.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Gelsenkirchen 1914

Abraham Auty, the writer of these postcards, arrived in Gelsenkirchen from Yorkshire only 2 days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo – in just over a month Germany would be enemy territory. His first postcard, addressed to his son in Wakefield was written and postmarked June 30th. 1914. Assuming he is the Abraham Auty whose birth in 1860 was registered in the West Yorkshire village of Emley, he would have been 54 years old at the time he was dispatched by his employer to the Ruhrgebiet to demonstrate an automatic coal cutting machine to prospective customers. In the 1911 census Auty was described as a coal miner resident in Morley, Yorkshire. To have been entrusted with this task suggests he was well regarded by his employer. It represents one small episode in the immensely important trading relationship between Britain and Germany that in the previous decade had developed to the point where each nation was the other’s major trading partner. Britain at that time still retained a formidable manufacturing capacity but it had been comfortably overtaken by that of Germany – the difference, just as today, was made up by financial services where London held the advantage.

On the first postcard of a colliery in Gelsenkirchen, Abraham assures his family of his safe arrival, explains that there are 27 collieries in the town, and says he expects to stay between 2 and 3 weeks. The following Saturday Abraham writes home again, spreading his pencilled message across a handful of postcards consigned to the mail in an envelope. He is missing the comforts of home and the absence of tea occupies his mind (“But, But, But, No Tea, Tea, Tea”). On Sunday he observes the local population at leisure with a disapproving eye. “Sunday I am sorry to say is a day of amusements – acrobats, wrestling, racing and parade(s). Church and state militarism all round.” Abraham places a high value on religious observance and writes, “Last Sunday I went to Protestant and Catholic (worship), singing Latin hymns and Litany. Burning incense till we could not breath.” He finds the hot and thundery weather unsettling and even the familiar presence of the Salvation Army brings no comfort – “They are as bad as the rest for talk – you cannot tell what they say any more than interpreting thunder.”

When he gets to work, Abraham sends a full account to his family as follows. “I have cut for the first time today. We are at an inclination of 25 degrees. Machine would shatter to face bottom if not prevented by timber, etc. Our difficulty here was getting oil to the crank pin. I think we have overcome it as I have cut 20 metres German (over 20 yards English) without oiling machine. So if it cuts downhill and keeps its oil we are then very likely to sell 4 machines to go to Silesia, 400 miles away from here.” With the Great War about to break out we can safely assume the Silesia deal never came to pass. Abraham’s impressions of life in Germany are never less than fascinating and expressed in lively prose tinged with humour. As paterfamilias and a man of strong religious principles he remained concerned that his absence from home might lead to backsliding on the part of his offspring – witness the scribbled instruction on the face of a postcard “Eliz. H. Auty go to Chapel in Market St. Sunday”.