Memories of Cats

As memories are separated from the actual events by an ever growing gap of time, some of them remain strong and clear, whilst others seem to disintegrate, little by little, until they threaten to disappear altogether.  This is one such memory, fairly intact, but missing several important elements – I can only share what remains of it and in doing so hope I continue to retain that much at least.

cat 1967

Many people recall their first pet, exactly when they were given it and the name they gave it.  I have even seen ‘the name of your first pet’ used as a suggestion for a security question for various online accounts.  Well that question is no good to me as I don’t remember it!  No one else who was there can help me either, as they are all gone now, except my sister, Suzy, and she is too young to have ever known the cat’s name.

I do remember that it was a beautiful tortoiseshell cat, but then we have had a couple of good photos of me with the cat to help prop that memory up!  I can’t tell you when she came to live with us or whether she was a kitten or full grown.  All those details have faded too, but I do remember that she was always around from as early as I can recall.

Playing games with her was a daily activity.  We made balls of wool tied on to a thin single strand and dragged them around the flat with her chasing and pouncing, perfecting her hunting skills.  We also played games with all kinds of plastic and rubber balls and we even had a small grey wind up mouse, with a flicking tail, that we used to place on the lino of the kitchen floor for her to chase around.  These games were as much fun for me as they seemed to be for the cat.  I love the way a cat moves when they are stalking, pouncing and even moving sideways as they seem to play with their ‘prey’, whether it is a ball, a hand or a light from a torch!

Feeding the cat was one of my first responsibilities around the home – putting down a old saucer with tinned cat food or small dried food pieces shaken from a foul smelling card box.  I also remember that she liked a little milk in a saucer and water too.  She was very inquisitive and adventurous, always prowling the flat and the garden, checking out her domain.  Sometimes her adventures were a bit too much for her and she got into a tricky situation.  One evening she didn’t appear at the usual time for an early evening meal.  I was sent outside to look for her in the garden or the street, just before dusk.  Other children in the street told me that she was stuck up a tree, calling out for help.  I rushed back in to tell Dad and together we went to look for her.  A short walk down the road there she was, high up in the branches of what seemed to me to be a very large tree.  She was plaintively calling as if saying “Help! Help! Get me down from here!”

After the first attempt to coax her down, my Dad started to climb the tree only for her to climb higher as if she was trying to get away from the help that was arriving.  This made no sense at all to me, but I am sure now that it was simply her anxiety about being rescued causing her to panic.  Dad asked the growing crowd at the base of the tree, which now included a few other parents too – did anyone have a ladder?  “Yes” said one man, and he went home to fetch it.  The man soon returned and propping the ladder firmly against the tree my Dad made another attempt to climb and recover the cat.  Within a few minutes, my Dad was high in the branches of the tree – worryingly high as far as I was concerned.  The cat was even higher, still occasionally calling for help, with only a couple of very thin branches remaining to walk around on.  Several neighbours were suggesting that the Fire Brigade be called, but my Dad was determined to manage on his own, with stubborn independence!

Frustrated and feeling he needed additional pieces of equipment, my Dad sent me home for the string shopping bag and a length of rope.  Now not all of you will remember string shopping bags, but in the 1960s they were very common.  Supermarkets had only just been invented and were not commonplace, and thin plastic carrier bags were unknown.  Local shops only provided expensive paper bags or expected shoppers to bring their own bag, and a string bag was often used for fruit and vegetables.

String Bag - applesThe photo is of a modern string bag on ebay.com(not the UK site), but it has the same leather handles and overall design as our original – with more and more people seeking alternatives to the free plastic carrier bags in supermarkets the string bag is making a comeback!

When I retuned to the tree with the string bag, my Dad quickly managed to use the rope to climb even higher and secure himself well enough to make a lunge and get a firm hold on the cat.  He placed it safely in the string bag, which he hooked over one shoulder before carefully climbing back down.  Once back on the ground I was handed the bag and carefully carried the cat home as Dad thanked the neighbours for their help and we finally had late meal.  The cat stayed indoors till the next day, sleeping soundly after her adventure in the tall tree!

After an adventure of an altogether different kind, Mum noticed that the cat was putting on a lot of weight around the belly and a few weeks later seven kittens were born in the early hours of one morning.  Our cat was a fairly good attentive mother, but one kitten didn’t survive the first day – Dad buried it in the back garden.  The rest we had a lot of fun naming, according to their characteristics.

The one with the weepy eyes and the fluffy grey tabby colouring we called Smoky Joe.  There was a ginger tabby, always bright, energetic and adventurous that I think we called Tiger (Winnie The Pooh wasn’t a book I knew then or it would have been Tigger!)  I don’t recall the names of all the others, all different colours, but I remember the chubby black and white one was definitely food focused.  He would barge his way to the saucer of milk, occasionally flipping the saucer and spilling the milk all over him.  When he didn’t flip the saucer, he still wasn’t content to just lap milk from the edge, he would wade into the middle of the saucer and stand there in the milk as if he was saying “This is all mine!” We called him Fatso – political correctness was another thing that we didn’t have back in the 1960s!

After a few weeks Mum and Dad said that they all had to find new homes and we took them to a pet shop.  Smokey Joe stayed for an extra week or so, due to his small size and weakness, and he was much improved before he went to a new home.  After that excitement life returned to normal, until the events I recounted in A Tale of Two Sisters turned our lives upside down and back again.  A few months after my sister Suzy was born my Dad came to a fairly sudden decision that he couldn’t stay in the flat with all the memories of my first sister Mleen and so we prepared to move out of London!

That proved to be a mixture of adventure and disaster, that only lasted for about six months, before we returned to London for most of 1969 – there are sufficient stories of that time for at least two or three posts in the future.  The one big loss of the move though was the cat!  A day or so before we were due to move she disappeared completely.  My Mum said it was either all the packing disturbed her or she was off on another adventure that would lead to another litter of kittens!  Well our Mum kept in touch with a neighbour by letter for several months after we moved.  The cat reappeared just a few days later and the neighbour took her in.  A number of weeks later she had another six kittens!

It was a year or so before we took on another cat, well just a kitten, a fluffy tabby.  He was mainly given a home to try to deal with the serious mouse problem in the shared housing where we lived.  All I remember of him was that he was a bit wild, biting and scratching, seemingly at random, far from friendly or fun.  After just a few weeks he had an accident crossing the very busy main road and it was a couple of years before we took on another cat.  By the time we did we were established in the more suburban area near St Albans.

Whiskers was another tabby, the kitten of a feral cat that lived behind where our Dad worked.  She was a more typical friendly tabby, a good family pet, tolerant of being picked up by young children and capable of dealing with the odd mouse too.  She was with us for a couple of years and moved with us to a more remote village in Hertfordshire when Mum and Dad took up a care-taking role for a fair sized country house.  The photo was taken in the beautiful grounds of that house – you do have to look carefully though to see the tabby cat, just in front of me on the left, as it is fairly well camouflaged among the stalks of the daffodils.  As far as I know it is the only photo we have of her.

s-image004-aAfter a few months living in the wildness of the deeper countryside she disappeared for many weeks.  When she finally reappeared she looked like she must have survived an attack by a wild animal, as she had what appeared to be several bite wounds and was in a very poor state.  I found her in the courtyard of the big house, near the stables and garages and immediately fetched her some water, that she very gingerly accepted.

Worried about how ill she looked I went back to ask Mum for advice and when I came back outside a couple of minutes later she was gone – never to be seen again!  We often wondered what had attacked her, there were many suspects – a fox being fairly likely as there were many in the woods around us.  We also had stoats and weasels, which she may have been tempted to take on herself – which wouldn’t have been a good move.  A domestic cat is no match for such fast and ferocious wild animals, their pretty presentation in story books for children are not really accurate.

A year or so later, after a move to a more typical village house, we took in one last kitten, a little black and white bundle of fun.  Unfortunately, it escaped from the garden when it hadn’t developed a healthy fear of the busy road right outside.  After that I think we felt that we couldn’t face any more tragedy with cats and our next pet was a dog!  She was great fun, and was around for over 14 years, an adopted family member – more about her and dogs in general some time in the future.

Cats are still very appealing to me, I often stop in the street and talk to them, stroke them and love to hear them purr and ‘speak’.  I seem to have inherited that from my Dad, he rarely passed a cat in the street without greeting it.  As you will have noticed my gravatar is an cat character, loosely based on the legendary character Growl Tiger from the musical Cats, which in turn is based on the works of T S Elliott.  One of my favourite eccentric characters in a film is the old man discovered near the end of Logan’s Run, he is played by Peter Ustinov.  He introduces the futuristic humans to a creature they have never seen before – cats, quoting T S Elliot as he speaks.  See the previous post for that clip and one of my favourite musical songs, Memory, sung by the incomparable Elaine Paige, from Cats.

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Ilford Sporti Camera

Several of my previous posts have featured photos taken by my Dad or myself, back in the 1960s.  All those photos were taken with the family camera, an Ilford Sporti, bought by my Dad in 1959, around the time that my Mum and Dad married.  They took the camera on honeymoon with them and many other trips before I was born.  They also used it to take the first family photos of my sisters and me, when we were just babies.  By the time I was shown how to use it, and borrowed it for day trips of my own, it was already 10 years old.

The trusty Sporti was used as the only family camera until the early 1980s, when my Dad replaced it with a small light plastic camera and I bought my first camera, an Agfa Silette LK. (More about that another time.)  In over 21 years of use it survived many day trips to the seaside, holidays around the UK and Ireland, walks in the country and numerous house moves.  The inside of the brown leather case has the various home addresses inscribed in the heavy biro style of my Dad – so that we would get it back if it was ever lost, but it never was.  So this is my tribute to the Ilford Sporti – a camera that captured so many family moments that now help us to recall those times.

Ilford Sporti a

This photo of our actual Ilford Sporti was taken with my current digital camera.

It looks very plain and simple now, but in 1959 it was quite a new and trendy piece of kit.  It has several features that at the time were not available on most cameras aimed at the family user.

There was a setting for sunny and cloudy (f11 and f9), a mount point for a flash on top. The flash was synchronised by a cord that plugged in under the lens.  The lens could be adjusted, with guide points labelled in feet, as well as close-up, group and views, so that the camera could be correctly focused by any user.  The shutter speed was fixed though at 1/50th sec.  The shutter release button had a centre whole with a screw thread for a cable release to be connected.  There was also a tripod bush in the base –  with our camera it served as the anchor point for the leather case, a large thumb screw holding the two connected.

In truth it wasn’t really an Ilford camera.  It was built for Ilford by Dacora, in West Germany, and was a modified version of their own Digna 1 camera.  For more information on the Dacora camera range and further background information see The Camera Site and in particular this page.  The Dacora origin wasn’t really hidden as you can see in my photo above, the Dacora name is prominent on the surround of the lens.

It was featured in early TV adverts and also on Radio Luxemborg!  One advert was mid-show in The Cliff Richard Show, called ‘Me And My Shadows’, which was sponsored by Ilford.  The advert claimed it was “the most smartest little camera you have ever seen”.   The advert also recommended the use of Ilford black & white film, which shows that colour film was not in common use in 1960.  All our family photos in colour are from around 1965 onwards and at first only about 12 pictures in a year!

The Photographic Memorabilia website deserve the credit for the radio advert details, they even have a link to a recording of it!  I also want to thank them for technical details on the Sporti.  They have an extensive history section covering several aspects of film and photo processing from that era too.  I recommend the site to any camera and film enthusiast.

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This magazine advert for the Ilford Sporti kit, from 1961, shows the whole kit that could be purchased for the camera.  A large dish style flash reflector and a row of flash bulbs can be seen, as well as two rolls of Ilford film.  My Dad never purchased a flash gun so we never used the camera with a flash.  (Advert image from Photographic Memorabilia – Sporti.)

It is also interesting to note that the price is shown as £5 13 shillings and 9 pence – that’s old money!  The decimal version of that is £5.69 (decimal money didn’t arrive until 15th February 1971 – see here for convertor.)  To give that figure more meaning, it was around two weeks wages for my Dad at the time, and he earned reasonably good money as a carpenter on building sites.  When he bought the camera in 1959 he may have only paid around £4 for the camera and leather case.  My Mum also worked full time before us kids came along, so with two incomes an investment like that wasn’t too difficult.  It proved to be a very good investment as the camera never broke and was still working well over 20 years later.  It had taken hundreds of lovely memorable photos that are still treasured now.

When it came to using the camera it was all fairly simple and I learned how to load film before I was 10.  We probably had the little Ilford instruction booklet, but if so it was lost a very long time ago.  But again Photographic Memorabilia had a link to a PDF of the booklet.  For a fun read of it click the picture.  tn_Sporti_frnt_cvr

Ilford Sporti b

The photo of the back of the camera shows the location of the viewfinder and the red window on the rear of the camera which allowed the user to see the arrows and numbers on the back of the film as you advanced the film by turning the wheel on the top right.

There was no automatic film movement or preset stop points, so you had to pay careful attention that you remembered to move the film forward after a picture was taken or you would loose both shots with a double exposure.  Also if you moved the film forward too far there was no way of moving it back, you just had to take the shot and hope it still came out when developed.

Ilford Sporti c

The last photo shows the Sporti with the back open and the film spool to collect the film as it was moved on.  At the end of taking 12 pictures you just kept winding till it went loose and then carefully opened the camera in a dimly lit room or in the shadow of a blanket as I was shown to do.  More recently I have discovered that it just needed to be out of direct sunlight or bright lights.  The film wasn’t enclosed in a cassette or case so if handled carelessly could unspool and expose the whole film to light and you would loose the pictures or ruin the film if you were loading it.  To help illustrate what loading a camera using 120 film looks like I have included a video in the previous post, as well as another in which a young photographer explains why he still chooses film photography in the digital age.

I hope you enjoyed this reflection on an old-fashioned film camera.  Things have really moved on in the last 50 years. Now many people take and share pictures without ever using a camera, just the camera functions built-in to their smartphone and often the results are very good.  Many people still enjoy the old school methods of producing photographs with film and all the other processes that are involved.  Much as I appreciate the memories saved with this Ilford Sporti, I am happy to have moved into the digital age.  I enjoy being free to take hundreds of high resolution photos in a day and no longer be limited to a roll of film with just 12 photographic opportunities and waiting days or weeks for the prints to come back from a processing shop.

My first photographs

Some time in 1969, when I was only a little over 7 years old, my Dad allowed me to borrow the family camera for the day. I took it with me on a school trip to London Zoo.  These pictures below are the only surviving photos from my first solo use of a camera.

Emperor Penguins (1968)

Emperor Penguins at London Zoo in 1969 – they look so colourful!

Penguins (1968)a

I believe this is another photo from that visit to London Zoo, this time of the African Penguins.

Both photos were taken with an Ilford Sporti camera on Kodak 120 roll film, that only allowed 12 pictures to be taken per roll.  The original photos had the usual white border, but after scanning them I removed the border by cropping the picture.  I also sharpened the picture and reduced the back-light a little, using the free software Photoscape.  Not exactly enhanced, just cleaned up a little for the modern digital age.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what happened to any other photos of other animals I took that day.  I seem to remember seeing giraffes, elephants, camels, chimps, kangaroos and a whole range of birds.  Maybe they didn’t come out for some reason, or perhaps I just liked the penguins more than the other animals!

My view of zoos has changed much over the years.  Whilst I am in no way an animal rights campaigner, I am now opposed to  housing wild animals in restricted environments far from their natural homes.

I am persuaded that there may be some limited and specific good reasons for keeping some endangered species safe from harm.  So long as the aim is to breed a small group to establish a wild population again.  Otherwise I cannot now support the keeping of animals in zoos or even wildlife parks, although I am sure many people do find some educational value and enjoyment visiting those sorts of places.  To me they seem more like animal prisons or detention camps, with a commercial reason for continuing, so I cannot go there any more.

To show Emperor Penguins in their natural environment and to illustrate how much more can be learned by intrepid camera men observing them in the wild I posted two two videos from YouTube in the previous post.  They are only short but I hope they are enjoyable to see.

My next post will be an article about the camera I used and how cameras, film and photography for the amateur has changed for everyone in the last 40 years.

Richmond Park – learning to take photos

On a beautiful sunny day, late in the summer of 1969, we took a family trip to Richmond Park.  By that time we had moved twice since 1968 and lived in a small flat in West Hampstead.  It wasn’t too far to travel to Richmond, but I have no memory of the journey, or if we went by bus, train or both.

Richmond-Park-005

Richmond Park, so close to the tower blocks, yet full of rural beauty.  Photo nathan-harrison.com

My new little sister, Suzy, was about 18 few months old, so it was probably a bit of a hassle for our Mum & Dad, needing to take all the things a young child needs during the day.  We also took a large blanket to lay on the grass and a picnic lunch – there weren’t any McDonalds or Burger King take-away outlets until the mid 1970s – so it was sandwiches and a flash of tea, and Ribeana or something similar for me.  It turned into a very memorable day out, partly  because we have photos of the day that reinforce the memories, but for me I will always remember it as the day I learned to take photographs.

Richmond Park, the largest walled park in the UK, is one of the 8 Royal Parks of London, with its origins dating back to 1625, when the King, Charles I, brought the Royal Court to Richmond palace when plague was spreading through London.  The park grew out of an area set aside for hunting deer.  Charles I upset locals by enclosing the area with a wall, that is still standing today.  Public right of way was allowed and that has continued for most of its history, but was established by Act of Parliament in 1872.  It has been a popular recreational area for many years, a place to escape the city and enjoy a picnic, walking and cycling, with cycle ways around the park.  During the 2012 Olympics in London the road race cycle courses passed through the park.

It is remains home to over 600 deer, both Red Deer and Fallow Deer.  The deer are free to roam large parts of park and due to the high number of daily visitors they are fairly tame, although they still need to be treated with care and caution, and people are discouraged from feeding them or getting too close.  Sometime during that summer afternoon, back in 1969, when the sun was high in the sky, my Dad did a quick scout out of the area around where we had settled, leaving Mum, me and little Suzy laying on the blanket in the sun.  He came back all excited, saying that he had discovered we were fairly close to the lake at the centre of the park, where the deer came to cool down and drink.

He quickly rummaged in a bag for his trusty camera, an Ilford Sporti he had bought in 1959 and invited me to come with him and see the deer.  We walked a short distance through some fairly long grass and small bushes and trees, before we approached the lake.  Dad encouraged me to be quiet and we followed the edge of the lake for  a few more yards as he found some bushes to help hide us from the deer.  Not much happened for a while and I was soon bored of looking at the sun glinting off the water and became restless, wanting to run around and explore.  But Dad kept me calm for a little longer and we were suddenly rewarded with the approach of a group of around 20 Red Deer.

As they waded into the water Dad pointed out that we were downwind from them, so if we were quiet and moved slowly they wouldn’t be disturbed by our presence.  Then he took the first photograph of the group of deer.  Looking at the photos now I can’t be certain of the order in which they were taken but I know that the second two pictures I had a hand in taking.  Dad showed me how to use the viewfinder to aim the camera and how to press the shutter release button carefully so as not to shake the camera.  With that simple lesson I was introduced to the world of photography and have remained fascinated with it ever since.

The following three pictures are the photos from that encounter with the Red Deer of Richmond Park, on a summers day in 1969.  I scanned the originals some years ago and used the free software Photoscape to sharpen and very lightly enhance the tone.  Two of them also had small marks on the cloud and sky which I was able to remove with some careful restoration, again using Photoscape.  For more information on how to scan and restore old photos see my earlier ‘how to guides‘.

Deer - Richmond 1968 - 3

Deer - Richmond (1968) - 2a

Deer - Richmond (1968) - 1b

Whilst my encounter with the deer that day went very calmly and without incident, this was largely due to my Dad’s experience with the deer of Richmond Park.  Mum and Dad used to visit the park regularly and even photographed the odd deer close up, as can be seen in the black and white photo below, from around 1960.

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Not everyone has such a calm relaxing experience, especially if they take a disobedient dog with them.  I am of course referring to Fenton and his outraged owner who together became a huge internet sensation in late 2011.

I have shared two videos in the previous post, to keep the videos separate from this post.  The first one is a clip of the news reports about the web viral status that the second clip received.  The second clip is the full uncensored version by the original uploader.

Televisions in the 1960s

Here is a little reminder of what televisions looked like around the mid-1960s.  For those who like me are old enough to remember those wood boxed televisions I hope this is a nostalgic treat, and helps to recall the few hours a week that we used to spend watching TV back then.  For younger readers I hope you enjoy discovering how much technology has moved on in the last 40 or so years.  TV shows of all kinds are now available on all sorts of devices, from flat thin LED TVs to portable devices like smartphones and laptops – life hasn’t always been that exciting or overwhelming!

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EKCO T434. 19″. Introduced  c.1963/4.  Photo found at 405 TV – Gallery 1

The photo of an EKCO 19 inch Black & White TV is of a very similar TV to one I watched around 1967.  I seem to recall my Dad bringing a TV home one evening, probably by getting a lift with a friend from work.  He set it up on top of a old cupboard or sideboard in the living room.  It wasn’t the instant switch on and watch I was expecting.  There was the small matter of tuning the TV to a station and catching the signal first.

In 1967 there were only 3 TV channels in the UK – BBC1, BBC2 and ITV – all only broadcast in black & white, with a gradual introduction of colour transmissions, region by region, from 1969 with a whole new network of transmitters being built into the early 70s.  Many TV sets, like the one pictured, had a dial that turned to find the channel.  Pre-set channel buttons were available on some models, but I mostly recall dial tuning on TVs that I saw.  Finding a station, even if the picture was snowy and faint was an achievement that could take many minutes, sometimes longer if the TV aerial wasn’t positioned correctly to begin with.

Like many homes of that era there was no TV aerial installed on the building, so an indoor antenna had to be used.  That was a very hit and miss game, with a lot of time spent holding the antenna and moving it up and down and around in every possible direction, like some sort of strange incantation of the TV picture in ritual dance, attempting to catch the signal.  The picture below shows a few examples of antenna similar to ones my Dad used.

50s rabbit ear antenna

A few ‘rabbits ear’ TV antenna from the USA in the 1950s, that were still commonplace in the 60s and very similar to those available in the UK.  Photo from the Vintage Television Antenna page of GodarUSA.

Once the signal of a station had been found, and the antenna contorted and positioned in just the right place, we would settle down to enjoy a favourite show, like Pinky & Perky or Tarzan.  However, the show was often interrupted by the need to correct the signal, either with the TV dial or by repositioning the antenna.  Interference from atmospheric disturbance and other electrical devices was common. Even moving around in the room, like dancing and singing along with a song tended to disturb the signal and spoil the show.  Changing channels was likely to mean starting the whole performance over again!

TV sets in the 1960s also had another painfully frustrating problem – valves!  The picture could suddenly be lost, with just the sound of the show continuing to come from the set, when the valve ‘blew’.  With the sort of set we had, a blown valve was a fairly common event, possibly due to another fault with the electrics in the back of the box, or poor quality replacement valves.  For an idea of what the inside of the TV looked like with the back off see the photo below.  All TV’s had a sticker on the cardboard back cover, warning that removing the screws and opening the back risked the danger of electrocution!  That wasn’t an empty threat just to deter DIY repairs, there really was a danger of a severe or even fatal electric shock – not that such warnings stopped my Dad, although he was wary of electrics and kept us kids well away from the TV when it was opened up.

MURPHY V849U 19

An example of the inside the back of a TV from the 1960s.  For the technology buffs this is an MURPHY V849U 19″, but most TVs from that era looked fairly similar to this.  Photo from 405 TV – Gallery 4.

typical valveAn example of a typical replacement valve common for the efficient working of various parts of the circuits in the back of all TVs in the 1950 and 60s.  Photo from The National Valve MuseumValves and their habits.

Although I can remember watching TV several times a week back in the mid-1960s, I can also recall disappointments of blown valves when favourite shows were due on.  We didn’t always have a TV until as late as 1980, as we simply couldn’t afford to buy a new one and second-hand TVs were not all that reliable.  We had a few fairly long lasting TVs in the 1970s, but there were also gaps of many months in my regular TV viewing too.  Now, with an overwhelming array of channels and ways to watch it, I find myself enjoying reading blogs and watching home made videos on YouTube, instead of viewing regular TV.  I do make an exception for Doctor Who, a show from 1963, that has been enjoying a popular revival in the last few years – I still enjoy watching it, as it is broadcast, on a standard TV.  See the video in the previous post for a sample of what Doctor Who is about!