Yesterday’s world

I pondered in passing, when writing a year ago about the Beeching cuts, the subject of feeling nostalgia for something that existed before one’s birth. It’s a strange idea, albeit not an unnatural one, and perhaps I feel it more than most people because of being anachronistic myself, out of step with a lot of modern culture and so on. I just wasn’t made for these times, as one of those noisy beat combos young people seem to appreciate sang recently.

Last month I catalogued a book from 1951 catchily titled A Concise Guide to the Town and University of Cambridge in an Introduction and Four Walks. Here it is:

The book was published by Bowes & Bowes, a bookseller based at 1 Trinity Street, the current site of the Cambridge University Press Bookshop. It seems a world away, the independent bookshop selling its own publications and stationery, wrapping purchases up with brown paper and string, but of course that’s essentially what the CUP Bookshop is today, only without the brown paper. What this particular bookshop no longer possesses, though, is the sense of identity that comes from being named after its proprietor. Other Cambridge bookshops still retain this feature – Galloway & Porter (though as of last year this establishment is sadly no more, and it disposes of its old shelving next week), G. David, Brian Jordan, and Heffers – though even Heffers has lost something since the possessive apostrophe disappeared from its name, and as part of the Blackwell chain is more impersonal now than ever before – or at least seems that way until you meet its charming and helpful staff.

I wasn’t interested so much in the content of the guide – Cambridge, after all, has presumably changed less in the past 60 years than many other British cities – as I was in the advertisements at the front and back. I remember looking through old concert programmes as a child and being attracted by what we would now call the minimalism of the advertisements – black and white, print but few pictures, and all in Gill Sans, it seemed at the time. The adverts in the guide tend to follow this model (though with more serifs on show), and give a glimpse into a Cambridge that has disappeared, almost but not quite tangible.

I’d love to have visited this place, though one hopes they kept the chocolate and tobacco separate.

Wilson’s are still going, though they’ve moved out of the centre of Cambridge and now specialise in bookbinding. I shouldn’t think you’d be able to get a viewcard from them, whatever that is.

Interesting that the printer’s advert should be the least cluttered. It’s laid out like a book’s title page. Very effective.

Not only is there a branch of Miller’s still in existence today, but it even uses the same pianistic logo. A triumph in this age of rebranding.

Benskins! There’s a name of bygone days. It recalls Alan Bennett’s lovely Betjeman pastiche about the sewage system:

Lady typist — office party —
Golly! All that gassy beer!
Tripping home down Hendon Parkway
To her improved Windermere.

Chelsea buns and lounge bar pasties,
All swilled down with Benskins Pale,
Purified and cleansed by charcoal,
Fill the taps in Colindale.

Benskin is also the name of Donald Sinden’s character in Doctor in the House. Plenty of bookshops and brown paper in that film.

All Those Things You Would Expect To Find At “THE CHEMISTS”… Could it be any more suggestive? Perhaps Eric Idle was their copywriter. I can understand the pestle and mortar, but the presence of the owl holding a test tube baffles me slightly. I may be missing something.

A cruel reminder of the transience of things. There’s still that pointy bit in the Aviva logo, but nobody ever thinks of Norwich Cathedral nowadays.

Most poignantly of all, an advert for Fitzbillies, the Cambridge institution that fell victim to the recession last month. The stickiest Chelsea buns in the world, it was claimed. I refuse to believe they’ve gone for good.

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2 Responses to “Yesterday’s world”

  1. crosseyedpianist Says:

    As a resident of Cambridge, could you confirm whether The Copper Kettle tea room still exists? We always used to go there on visit to Cambridge when I was a child. As I recall, it was on the street opposite the entrance to King’s College….

  2. Gareth Says:

    It’s still there, but I’m not sure how it would compare to the tea room you used to know. The name and reputation have always communicated to me an impression of something genteel and refined like Bettys in Harrogate and York. Not that I would wish to denigrate the place, which I like, but I suspect it’s moved a little further in the direction of the greasy spoon than it used to be.

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