Friday 10 January 2014

Notes from the Small Press 16: Sky in Stereo #2 by Mardou (Yam Books, 2013)

I'm briefly reviving my Notes from the Small Press series (the last instalment was over a year ago; whether the series will continue beyond this point remains to be seen) because this popped through my letterbox on New Year's Eve:

The second issue of Mardou's semi-autobiographical comic Sky in Stereo, kindly sent by Mardou herself. I reviewed the first issue, which Mardou self-published, in 2012, but since then the series has been picked up by a US small press publisher, Yam Books, who issued #2 mid-last year. It received positive reviews from Chris Mautner at Robot 6 and Andy Oliver at Broken Frontier and others, so there's little point in my reviewing it as well, especially since I'm so late to the party; but I like Mardou's work a lot – I've been following it (and her) for getting on for ten years now – and Sky in Stereo is developing into the best thing she's done, and so here, for what they're worth, are a few notes and thoughts on this second issue.

I was struck by individual panels this time round, and found myself dwelling on some of them – partly because of the confidence of the line and how they work as lovely little pieces of art and text, but also the truth of them, or what seemed to me to be the truth of them.

These small moments, almost narrative asides, are, I think, a big part of why Sky in Stereo is so good. In a formal or structural sense they're not intrinsic to the story, and yet they make the story. They add depth to the character of Iris – Mardou's fictional stand-in – but not in a conscious or overly considered way; they simply speak to the truth of being seventeen and awkward and uncertain in Manchester in 1993.

I did wonder if that specific milieu was why the comic worked for me; I'm older than Mardou – or should I say Iris – but only by about five years or so, and I was at college in Manchester close to when Sky in Stereo is set. But there were jolts of recognition for me even beyond those similarities of background: watching telly during an acid trip and seeing actors "leave holes in the scenery behind them"; a mention of the rotating lands atop Enid Blyton's Magic Faraway Tree and how you could get stuck in them if you weren't careful; a glimpse of a Teenage Fanclub Bandwagonesque poster on a bedroom wall. Those points of reference and scenes, plus positive response from American reviewers (and publishers), suggests to me a resonance far beyond those of us who happened to be in Manchester in the early 1990s.

Something I was chuffed to see was that my review of #1 has been excerpted on the back cover of #2, although that particular bit of my review does make me sound insufferably pompous.

(Then again, you could probably pick numerous other parts of numerous other reviews of mine and reach the same conclusion.)

Lastly, in a meeting of minds between two of my favourite comics creators (and people), my friend Martin Eden – he of Spandex and The O Men fame – did a nice piece of Sky in Stereo fan art, which Mardou posted on her LiveJournal at the end of last year, and which I'm reposting above.

Previous Notes from the Small Press:

Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise

Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets

Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 5: The Curiously Parochial Comics of John Bagnall

Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time

Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1

Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery

Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist

Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch

Notes from the Small Press 11: a Review of Illegal Batman in the Moon

Notes from the Small Press 12: The Sky in Stereo by Mardou

Notes from the Small Press 13: First by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia

Notes from the Small Press 14: Planet 4, a Monitor Story by Chris Reynolds

Notes from the Small Press 15: Spandex #7 by Martin Eden

Thursday 9 January 2014

My Journo Mum: Dr. Finlay's Casebook at the BBC, and Morecambe & Wise, in Woman's Mirror, Mid-1960s

Having spotlighted my bob-a-dance dad's starring role in a Picture Post feature, it would, I feel, be remiss of me not to make at least passing mention of my mum's magazine adventures too – in her case behind the scenes, as a writer for Woman's Mirror magazine from 1963 to 1967 (before me and my sister came along and ruined her life). Mum did a sterling job scanning the Picture Post piece, so I got her to scan a couple of her old article as well, both of which she thinks date from 1964/65, before she married Dad – hence the byline of Jill Bury rather than Jones. Here's one about a visit to the BBC to witness the filming of Dr. Finlay's Casebook:

Click on the images to enlarge. And here's an interview with comedy legends Morecambe and Wise:

I remember Mum showing me this one before – and recalling how, true to form, Eric Morecambe never stopped cracking jokes when she met him – but I don't think I've seen the BBC one previously, nor many others of her articles – which, given that I myself was at one time a magazine writer (and editor), is astonishingly incurious of me. (What was that I said in the Picture Post, er, post about being an ungrateful bastard...?) Indeed the BBC one reminds me of a piece I wrote about Orbital appearing on Later... with Jools Holland at BBC Television Centre. As penance, perhaps I should dig that article out, and some others too, scan them (barely any of my magazine work is available online, dating, as it does, mostly from the 1990s), and present them for the soon-come Existential Ennui thousandth post. That should be a suitably deflating and embarrassing way in which to celebrate my millennial.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

My Bob-a-Dance Dad: Ballroom Dancing for Hire in the Picture Post, 30 June, 1951

Here's something I nabbed on eBay over the festive period:

The 30 June 1951 edition of Picture Post. Not the sort of thing I normally buy on eBay, I must admit – after all, as the subtitle, not to mention the substance, of Existential Ennui attests, I tend to collect old books, not old photojournal magazines – but I had a particular reason for picking this issue up, to do with the article on pages 20–23:

"Bob-a-Dance Men Wait to Be Asked". The feature spotlights an intriguing innovation in Britain's dance halls at the time, the male hired dance partner. Hired dance partners – taxi dancers in American parlance – had been around since the early twentieth century, but by and large they tended to be female; the male variety was much more uncommon. So when the newly opened Lyceum Ballroom in London introduced them in the early 1950s, they exerted a certain fascination, as evidenced by this Picture Post piece. These "bob-a-dance men" – so named because they charged a shilling, or a bob, a turn round the dancefloor – were obliged to remain in "the Pen" at the Lyceum – a closed off area guarded by a lady with a cash box – until their services were required. They weren't allowed to leave the Pen, or ask anyone to dance themselves – they could only be asked – but they could read if they wished, or drink coffee, or just sit and wait.

Unfortunately, sitting and waiting was precisely what they did most of the time. The bob-a-dance men had been attracted to this new career by the prospect of a commission of half a shilling per dance on top of a £7-a-week wage. But as they quickly learned, the commission only kicked in once they'd "sold £7 worth of dances in a week" – and none of them managed to get anywhere near that. Instead, as the page above demonstrates (click on the image to enlarge), they spent the majority of their time cooped up in the Pen. The bottom left photo shows a packed Lyceum, but in the top left photo, there the bob-a-dance men sit, clearly bored out of their skulls, chatting amongst themselves or to their female counterparts, or sneakily fraternising through the railings with a prospective partner.

Indeed, it's the fellow doing the illicit fraternising who was my reason for purchasing this copy of the Picture Post. Here he is again on the next page:

On the far left of the top photo, gazing gloomily into the distance. He's named in the caption as Fred, a former "warehouseman", although his surname is never given. In point of fact it's the same as mine: Jones. And I know this because he's my dad.

You see, over Christmas, while Rachel and Edie and I were staying at my parents' house, Dad showed us his treasured copy of this edition of the Picture Post. It was in a dreadful state: worn, torn – literally falling apart in his hands. At one time he'd owned a second copy in much better condition, but it had been lent to someone and, to Dad's lasting regret, never returned. Accordingly he'd figured he'd just have to make do with his battered copy... Except of course in this day and age, for someone like me, tracking down old magazines (or, more ordinarily, books) is often as simple a matter as picking up a smartphone and hitting a few keys. Within minutes I'd found a nice-looking copy of the Picture Post in question on eBay, and snapped it up for a tenner. A couple of days later it arrived at my folks' house, and now my dad has a splendid new copy (kindly scanned for me by Mum... who, now I come to think of it, herself has a notable background in magazines...) of one of his most prized possessions.

Dad wasn't a bob-a-dance man for very long, but he did go on to become a ballroom dance instructor. Though my sister, Alison, made good use of these skills (for a while, anyway), I, in typically contrary and obstinate fashion – traits, ironically enough, I think I've inherited from Dad – elected not to. Which, given the renewed rise to prominence of ballroom dance in the wake of Strictly Come Dancing, was decidedly shortsighted of me. Later, Dad changed his career and became a driving instructor. Once again, while my sister took full advantage of this, learning to drive as soon as she possibly could, I declined any and all offers of assistance and only passed my driving test last year, at the age of forty-three, having paid a small fortune for the privilege.

Basically, I've always been an ungrateful bastard, and while buying my father an old magazine hardly makes up for decades of taking him for granted, I suppose it's something.

Or at least it would have been, if, unbeknownst to me until later, he hadn't slipped Rachel twenty quid to cover the cost.