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Character Assassination

T here is a general feeling that the world has lost the lot of its characters and eccentrics.

I have a sneaking suspicion this is because of improved Health Service and state education.

More recently the cultural imperialism represented by the media has ensured at least in the Western world we are all heading in pretty much the same direction. I find no real problem with this process although clearly you could create an argument that the world is worse off the fewer people speak with a Brooklyn accent or such like. For my part I'll be content when I can understand a few words the chap at the local garage says. so alarmingly heavy is his accent it might well not be English at all.

In 1934 Lambert and Butler produced a set called the London Characters which very much borrows its inspiration from the Players, Cries of London series which were produced just before the First World War.

Jack the Ripper would have recognised many of his old slashing grounds

The idea was ready for a re-launch in my opinion and Lambert and Butler did not let us down. Whereas the Players series has a dark palette and much attention to background detail Lambert the Butler has a light palette and a literally sketchy approach to background detail.

Some of the trades depicted on cards are very much on their last legs. Card four shows the hansom cab driver feeding his horse. Still if he has literally gone, in spirit at least he remains.

Cabbies
Drivers of "growlers" and "hansom" cabs are still to be seen, and may be recognised by their wholehearted contempt for motors, there ready wit and preference for frequented places associated with horses, such as Tattersalls, Barnet Fair and Regent's Park on Whit Monday. In his day the London "cabbie" was an authority upon many subjects, as ready to discuss politics of suggest remedies for a variety of ailments, as to give a tip for the Derby. He disliked buses and the drivers thereof, and seemed to spend much of his leisure asleep in his cab, or restoring circulation by vigorously slapping his shoulders!

So although the horse might have disappeared from the streets of the Capital it is clear the cabbie has not.

I dislike certain flies with a passion. They only bother me when they fly repeatedly into my field of vision and are large enough, or noisy enough, to distract. There is a film reel of Communist China doing away with a plague of sparrows. The idea was simple, on a certain date the occupants of Peking went out into the streets ready to make a noise. Continual banging of pots and pans meant the birds never settled. The old black-and-white footage eventually revealed birds dropping dead from exhaustion in the streets.

I have never been one to have an original idea if I can develop one and card five of this series has allowed just such a thing to happen. It would seem that in Victorian England there was a street vendor with the cry "Catch 'em alive!" He was actually selling those old-fashioned fly papers that were sticky as blazes and you hung them from the ceiling attracting flies to a marvellously animated death.

The Fly catcher. Lots of flies on him
LAMBERT & BUTLER
LONDON
CHARACTERS [1934]

Now this is only so interesting but the real "stop and stare" factor was the fact the chap wore a large hat trimmed with these fly papers which was black with wriggling filth. I'm sure if a law was passed that said we all had to wear hats covered in fly paper the world would be a cleaner place and high streets just that little more interesting.

The text on the reverse of the cards has a peculiar quality. I could well be reading too much into this so I shall give you an example and let you decide.

I cannot really see a place in our modern Capital for the services of "The Knife Grinder". Imagine strolling down Oxford Street with a 10 inch carving knife and tried to explain to the police officer you were just off to get a nice sharp edge on to it. Perhaps there should be one in the lobby of the House of Parliament. It would either get a lot more violent or a lot more cordial there, either way probably more effective.

Card 7.
The coffee stall keeper.
Many a drama of London in the darkness is enacted at a coffee stall, which trundles its way each evening to the pitch where it remains until the city begins to awaken. Men and women of many types seek its hospitality during the hours of darkness, "down and outs" rubbing shoulders with revellers returning home in the early-morning. Many look hungrily at the mugs of steaming liquid and "doorsteps" of bread and butter, and not a few are gladdened by a copper or two of thrust into their hands by comrades are little better off themselves, with a muttered "Here y'are, Mate!"

I always have a sneaking suspicion there is a place for the rag and bone man. It might be that such types have just evolved into people that spend their time finding all manner of wonderful things in rubbish skips. Still he old fashioned sort with a cart and a bell is shown on the set. I wonder how many unwanted cigarette cards these chaps collected. Doesn't bear thinking about.

The Sandwich Man can still be seen in many black and white films but has largely been superseded by the relative cheapness of printing. Now a walk down the high street can mean any number of fliers thrust into your hands, most not worth the paper they are printed on (no you don't have to print this page out).

Many of the cards refer to the "mean streets" and it is easy to forget what London must have been like in the 1930s. For a start the bombing raids had not started clearing a lot of old housing stock something that continued with the slump clearance programmes. In the 1930s Jack the Ripper would have recognised many of his old slashing grounds, only a great many of them would have been even more run-down than in his day .

Some characters in the set still exist today, the flower seller, the Hyde Park orator, the pavement artists, the news boy and the street entertainers all exist to greater and lesser extent.

Hyde Parl Orator
LAMBERT & BUTLER
LONDON
CHARACTERS [1934]

The set has a very modern appearance with its artistic style and its almost cynical text. It is hard to believe it was produced in the mid-1930s when, although not as bad as the US, new poverty was never far away because of the world recession.

Today I rather like the set but I'm not sure I would have done 60 years ago when it came out.