When my father died at the age of seventy-nine, the list of his worldly goods barely filled a single sheet from a yellow five-by-eight legal pad. This was not because he was impecunious; he had enough saved up to maintain a comfortable standard of living in New York City until he was at least the age his own father had been when he departed this world aged ninety-four. Neither was it because he was miserly. He had been helping to keep his girlfriend and her family for a dozen years, and had unflinchingly served as the principal provider for his third wife for about three times as long. During that period he also paid with pride for the best education money could buy for my younger half-sister, already a pricey proposition in New York City at the turn of the last century. On the infrequent occasions that he visited me and my family, or we him, he insisted on it being his treat at every meal out, and always slipped me an envelope containing a thousand or two in cash to “help out with raising the grandchildren”. No, my father owned almost nothing because he was philosophically opposed to owning anything he did not need on a daily, or in some cases weekly (e.g. nail-clippers, a washing machine and dryer) or monthly (e.g. a nose/ear hair trimmer, a car) basis. This abstemious attitude to life he imbued in me as I grew up, not only by example, but also by instruction.
When I left home for college I had not quite arrived at a mature state of anti-materialism and brought along with me a stereo– that bulky ensemble of radio-receiver/amplifier, turntable and cassette-tape deck– along with a couple of crates of records and tapes. I was also a keen black and white photographer and owned a couple of single-lense-reflex cameras, in addition to having my own darkroom in a walk-in closet at my grandmother’s apartment, with all of the now nearly extinct appurtenances pertaining thereto: enlarger, focus finder, glow-in-the dark timer, mixing bottles and trays for developer, stop-bath and fixer, tanks and reels for processing film, even a print-washer I would hook up in my patient grandma’s bathtub. By the time I graduated though, I had, sad to say, forced myself to reject my prior artistic indulgences and, throughout the rest of my twenties, became a near mendicant wanderer. For most of that period, everything I owned I was able to fit into a large backpack, at times with the addition of a daypack I could carry, like a portent of a pot belly, at my front. I can clearly recall when, the month after I turned thirty, and five after becoming a parent, my future wife and I were able to pack up nearly all our possessions beneath her sturdy Parker-Knoll deal table, which was– aside from a handmade, disassemblable crib her elder sister had recently passed down to us– the sole piece of furniture we owned at that time. As that table has since become collectable, I have been able to look it up on eBay to find that it was three feet by three and a tad over three feet high, meaning that the bulk of our joint belongings fit into a volume of twenty-seven cubic feet, ergo a single cubic yard. I say the bulk because the crib was leant against the cube and we were carrying what we would need during the move, from West Yorkshire in the north of England to Devon in the southwest, in our respective backpacks, plus a few smaller bags slung over our old bicycle and our daughter’s stroller, or push-chair as it is called in Britain.
It stands as ideal evidence of how rapidly a family in a consumer society will accumulate ‘stuff’ that when we found ourselves moving again, ten years later almost to the day, the volume, if not the quantity, of our chattels had increased nearly twenty fold, even though the number of our family had grown by only one in the person of our son who was then seven years old. I am able to state the figure above with confidence because I did the move myself. Thinking that we could do with keeping the better part of the moving allowance offered by the German boarding school where we had been living for the previous three years, I bought a clapped out 3.5 tonne truck-van with wooden slat sides and top, covered by an elasticated orange tarpaulin that was being sold off by a local carpentry company for 900 Euros. The internal dimensions of such vehicles are a standard four meters long by two and a quarter wide and the same again high, so roughly twenty cubic meters. I filled it roughly three quarters of the way, laying our mattresses across the top of the rest so that the kids could play and sleep on it when we stopped for the evenings on the long, slow, scenic drive through France I had planned. The trip was meant to be an experience to remember, one reminiscent of my own childhood journeys with my father and his second wife in their short-lived house-truck. Alas, when I asked our son about it recently, around the twentieth anniversary of the event, he could recall nothing more than the orange truck itself, although a few years ago my daughter did ask me, “Remember when you made us move house from Germany to England in that broken down, old truck, and the morning before we took the ferry you got us to swim in the sea with you, even though it was windy and rainy and there were huge, scary waves?”
Yet only a decimal fraction of the load I hauled in that truck could have been my personal clobber because when I returned alone to teach at that same school nine years later, everything I brought with me fitted into two outsized, pull-along suitcases, although admittedly I was moving into a studio apartment that came fully furnished, and had recently scanned my half-dozen phonebook-thick ring-binders of teaching materials so that they fit onto a low-capacity thumb-drive. It was during this period, as I embarked upon my sixth decade, “full of wise saws and modern instances”, my paternal model for austere living having lately left the stage, and my awareness that my own days were numbered duly heightened, that I gradually began to sublimate more of my being into having. I kept my father’s prize possession, his top of the line laptop, although it was so heavy as not to be portable. Nine years on from his death, I’m still using it. I kept his black wire-rimmed aviator glasses, even though I cannot see a thing through any part of their trifocal lenses, simply because he had worn them for years. I kept his antique postcards and blue airmail letters home to his mother from military school and the navy, which he must’ve reclaimed when she died, despite their being formulaic and mundane.
Within three years, my mother was also dead. As her only child, it fell to me to clear the apartment where she had spent my entire life and the greater part of hers, sublimating being into having without qualm. Then did the bulwarks of my anti-materialism take to falling one after another. I packed up the memorabilia of her life to ship to my old house in Spain: the fading black and white photos of her childhood in the Bronx before and during the War and the vivid Kodacolor ones of her teens and early twenties in the late Forties through the Fifties; her collection of first editions and signed copies of offbeat illustrated children’s classics by the likes of Maurice Sendak, William Steig and Tomi Ungerer, which she had read to me and then her grandchildren; her complete works of Shakespeare, each volume in a different typeface and graphic design style, sent annually at Christmas over the course of a quarter century by a business competitor of my stepfather’s; her diplomas, high yearbook, and elementary school report cards. And yet what she, herself, had treasured most I handed over to my stepsister, or sent off for sale at auction, or gave away to thrift shops, namely her mid-century modern china and her crystal and her silver and table linen. Since my teens, I had held such fancy, fussy, feminine impractical things in contempt. Insofar as this frippery had a use, it was for formal social occasions for which I had no use at all...Hence away with the lot of it.
Then, half a dozen years later, totally out of the blue for no apparent reason, I completely changed my mind. At a weekly antiques auction my wife and I were frequenting in order to furnish a Regency house we were renovating to turn into an AirBnB, she bought up several banana boxes full of mid-twentieth century Staffordshire china tea and coffee sets. Ostensibly, she took this impulsive course of action in order to try out reselling her purchases from a rented display case at the local antique center for several times the pittance she paid for them. In an ulterior sense though, I am convinced that it was really because, as a child, she never had any such girlish toys as a china tea set to play with, nor, as she matured, did she ever get an opportunity to participate in the prevailing middle class and upper crust female social ritual of the day– the taking of tea and biscuits, or for that matter, coffee (or cocoa) and cakes. I, on the other hand, had sat through a plethora of such occasions as a boy, with my mother and her friends, or my grandmother and her friends, or the two of them and both their friends (or relatives). Indeed, I had done so until I was sick and tired of it, whether in well appointed living rooms on the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan, or at various public venues specializing in the ceremony, where the requisite beverages and confections were served by resentful young European women in black dresses with frilled aprons, or resigned older black waiters in white jackets with brass buttons.
Yet somehow– now that all who had been present then, myself excluded, were dead or ancient– the equipment attached to such occasions made me turn wistful. Consequently, when my wife asked me to research the china sets she had bought in order to pitch and price them persuasively, I approached the world wide web with gusto. What I found was that the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies were for the Staffordshire Potteries, akin to what those same decades were for British sports cars or the British theater; that is a sort of last hurrah or final flowering before a precipitous and irreversible decline. The two preeminent collectable marques were called Midwinter and Meakin. By 1968, they had merged due to financial troubles at the former, despite its being the leader on the design front. Within two years both ceased to exist as independent companies after the merged firm was itself bought out by Wedgewood, of which Midwinter and Meakin became mere subsidiary brands. I found it ironically apposite that among the most collectable patterns used to decorate these tea and coffee sets were the ones that looked to me like radio-telescopic photographs of the death throes of stars that were just becoming technologically possible toward the end of the period during which they were manufactured. The most celebrated English china designer of the day, Jessie Tait, created a number of starburst patterns such as Madrid, Palma, Inca and Aztec, which resembled supernovae, while her abstract floral designs, like Spanish Garden, Lotus, Alpine, or the fittingly named Nova, are reminiscent of the swirling nebulae left over over after the same.
It was while I was learning about the economic implosion of the British china industry that I discovered the contemporaneous renascence in handcrafted ceramics that started up in Britain in the wake of the Second World War and, during the next quarter century, was exported to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Potter’s wheels and raku kilns and pugging machines were always cropping up in the course of my American hippy-kid peregrinations (c.1968-73) with my father and his groovy second wife. Looking back, it seems “only natural, man” that hippies should have taken to pottery as it’s basically fooling around with very thick, pure mud and then baking it into objects of delight; kind of like hash brownies only a lot longer lasting. Given that the studio pottery boom reached its height half a century ago when I was a boy, there’s presently a ‘helluva-lotta’ art-ceramics up for grabs on eBay at remarkably low prices since so many of the people who originally bought the stuff are currently dying off, or else downsizing to smaller housing and care homes. It was this economic circumstance that, much to my wife and grown up children’s bemusement, led me– the great anti-materialist who’d always railed against the accumulation of pointless objects, and especially collecting of any kind– to start, and then not stop, buying up mid-century British handmade ceramic tea and coffee sets. Like Thomas Mann’s Gustave von Aschenbach, possessed in old age by Dionysiac ardor after a lifetime’s devotion to Apollonian restraint, my long-suppressed materialist daemon has been having a field day with me this past summer. During the past couple of months, I have purchased on eBay UK some three dozen antique handmade tea and coffee pots, approximately half of which are the centerpieces of full or part tea and coffee sets, comprising various combinations of cups and saucers, milk jugs and sugar bowls.
Sniggering Freudian overtones of the last two classes of object aside, why have I felt compelled to do this? I believe it is connected to a wish to be able to take up fragments of the (of my!) evermore receding past and hold them in my hand. I have, for several years already, been drawn to all sorts of obsolete popular technology from my youth: portable typewriters, steel racing bicycles, rotary telephones, analogue cameras, modular stereos, super-8 cine-cameras and projectors, rolodexes, microfilm machines and so forth. These tea and coffee sets combine that nostalgia with the allure of ‘objets d’art’. Better still, the material from which they are made was the first one from which our species moulded objects from scratch, as opposed to liberating new shapes from matter already formed, as with stone, wood or shells. Best of all, clay was the substance into which human memories were first impressed into a permanent form that could and would outlast the very civilizations to which those memories belonged. Tea, coffee and cocoa are being consumed with yet greater voracity than they have been for the past few hundred years but nowadays they are mostly taken on the fly from oversized corrugated paper cups ‘grabbed’ at Starbucks, Costa, Nero, or their smaller and hipper local equivalents. How many, or rather how few, western people are now left who serve loose tea or homemade coffee from an ornamental pot and sip it leisurely with their intimates from diminutive cups resting on matching saucers to the music of lively conversation? I suspect my generation has turned out to be the last that will see hosts, or maybe I should say “hostesses”, brewing up the three sacred beverages at home to serve with homemade baked goods, by way of a popular social ritual. I suspect that my sudden compulsion to create my little collection is born of a wish to bear terminal witness to that.
It is only thanks to newer technology, however, that I have also been able to exhume something of the history of the mute objects I have gathered, most of which carry a so-called potter’s mark; this being either a signature in indelible ink painted on their unglazed bases or a telltale stamp, usually where the handle joins the body of the piece. These marks are catalogued, along with whatever contextual information is available, in an online index, the BISPM, or British and Irish Internet Survey of Potters’ Marks, of which there also exist North American and Anglo-Antipodean cognates. Thanks to the BISPM and similar sources, I was, for example, able to discover that a delicately tapered, pale-green-glazed coffee pot I bought, which bears the name and date “F. Sokolov, ‘59” is likely the work of Vi Subversa who, before she remade herself as the godmother of British punk in the early 1970s, led a lower key life as the potter, Frances Sokolov. Similarly, a matching pair of coffee pots, one in bright red, stippled glaze evocative of the comb of a cockerel, and the other glazed in dappled frogskin-like greens, are imprinted with a little triangular face that was the symbol of the Mask Pottery after it relocated to Penzance, Cornwall during its last years in operation from 1967 to 1969. For a score of years before that Mask was based in the Inter and Post War British artists’ colony of St. Ives, Cornwall. The best primary source we have about that vanished ‘scene of boheme’ is a series of twenty-seven memoirs by a writer named Denys Val Baker, whose earth-mother wife, Jess, was the proprietor-potter of Mask, as well as the principal character of the series.
Among the many identifications I have managed to make though, one stands out. It is of a rounded, glossy brown teapot painted on one hemisphere with an image of an angry tiger-striped cat, seated with its ears back and its tail curled around itself, and on the other the same cat, crouched and looking over its shoulder, claws out and fangs bared. As soon as I spotted this teapot on eBay, it came back to me where and when I had seen its like before. Thirty-five years earlier, during my first few months living in Britain, I was hitch-hiking from rural south Wales– where I had been working as a waiter and general skivvy at a country inn called The Bear, to a better job fetching and carrying for wealthy guests at a fishing and shooting estate on the Isle of Lewis in highland Scotland– when I got stuck on the first day of my journey in a small town in the Marches, the Anglo-Welsh border country. It was raining, as usual, but a lot harder than usual and the sad fact is that the more drenched you get while waiting for a ride, the less likely anyone is to give you one because you and your backpack are going to make their car soaking wet. In this sorry condition, as I malingered outside the window of what I took to be some sort of craft and antique store, the shop door was opened and I was invited to come in out of the wet by a man in late middle age of a type I was then still getting to know as “a posh old chap”.
The store turned out to be a pottery workshop that was chock-a-block not only with the work of the two potters who ran it, but also all sorts of other antique ceramic and glassware, both domestic and industrial. The posh old chap was shortly joined by a seemingly even posher lady in late middle age bearing a tray with tea and biscuits, who enjoined me to sit down by a gas fire with her and her husband and chat while I dried off a bit. As this meeting occurred in the year 1988, I recall almost nothing that was said beyond her telling me, when I asked about the handful of cats lounging around us, that they were her inspiration, and that the ceramics decorated with images of them displayed everywhere in the studio-shop were her handiwork. I can remember though, how in response to her husband’s remarking self-consciously that perhaps they had collected rather more curios than they had room for, that I pompously declared that I was in favor of gathering experiences, not things. To this, the old lady wisely replied by introducing a notion I had never theretofore considered, but to which I have, so it seems, lately come round; namely that when one has reached an age at which one has very many experiences to keep track of, objects often serve as mementos by virtue of which one does not forget the past events, and still more so the persons, connected with them. How utterly improbable that thirty-five years later a tiger-cat-painted teapot made by the very person who laid this unwelcome truth upon my young head, should become just such a touchstone for me!
Incredibly, I was able, all these years later, to find out who she was from only her surname ‘Groves’ and the name of the town where she lived and worked ‘Upton’, inked on the base of her teapot. In the very first page of web search results, on a forum for collectors of British studio pottery, there were photographs of cups, bowls and a plate she had made, beneath an excerpt from her obituary in her local newspaper. She had died in her sleep in 2013, aged 80…meaning that when we met she was five years younger than I am now. Her first name, which she must once have told me, was Lavender, while Groves was her maiden name. Her married surname was Beard, and her kind husband, first name Mark, who predeceased her by several years, had joined her working in the pottery studio following a successful career as viola player. Six years after they sheltered me on that rainy afternoon, they bought a 16th century black and white half-timbered house in the middle of their town, where they set up a tearoom-museum. Having no children, and not wanting to have their own work or their collection scattered, they turned it into a charitable trust, which has since been expanded through the addition of other collections into The Old Tudor House Museum, the top tourist destination in their town of Upton on Severn. I think I will try to follow their lead and persuade some little local museum in one of the expat-friendly villages of western Andalusia to take on my own small but growing collection, so that when the time for my dissolution arrives, its will not follow shortly thereafter…“La collecion de ceramicas artesanales Britanicas del medio siglo vente de Don James Bloom”– it has a ring to it, does it not?
James Bloom grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan, which he left at the age of 22 in order to escape the inexorable fate of pursuing a career befitting his station. Following this, he worked his way around the world as a beekeeper, an extra in a karate film, a microfiche assistant, a water bailiff and, repeatedly, a waiter. Eventually he settled into a career teaching literature, history and philosophy, along with being a college admissions advisor. His memoir, In Search of the Blue Duck is about his round the world trip in his twenties, . He resides in an old house in the historic center of Jerez with his wife and two rescue dogs where he practices as a philosophical counselor. His website is https://www.jamesbloom.org/