Sunday, July 28, 2013

Wildlife Rediscovered

In the long-running British sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010), there was an amusing subplot in which an elderly junk shop proprietor called Auntie Wainwright would find ingenious ways of selling unwanted merchandise to customers who were nowhere near as sharp as she was. If some unsuspecting sap crossed her threshold in search of, say, a kettle, his arm would be up his back in a split second, and he would exit the place, somewhat shaken, clutching a garden rake or a couple of rickety dining chairs. Consequently, I have always been wary of entering any small store in which the only other person is the shopkeeper. Could I retain the willpower to keep my wallet in my pocket, if push came to a hard-sell shove? It is perhaps similar to submitting to hypnosis while mistrusting one’s own ability to resist an absurd suggestion.

Yesterday, my partner and I visited a sprawling crafts-and-antiques centre in the middle of the English countryside. Each ‘unit’ – there were about ten in all – was a converted farm building, manned by an Auntie Wainwright clone, and crammed so full with weird junk that if either of us had sneezed, the entire contents might well have come crashing down on top of us. We were on the lookout for a small wooden platform for a potted plant and some antique silver kitchen knives – her obsession, not mine.

A large proportion of the displays consisted of items which had survived from ‘the decade that taste forgot’ – a.k.a. the 1970s. Every couple of minutes, one or both of us would point at some tasteless contrivance and confess: ‘Urgh, we used to have one of those.’ There were faded postcards, impractical coffee pots, long-forgotten Christmas annuals, manual typewriters and a ghastly, whitewashed wrought iron-and-glass telephone table which we both swore to have seen somewhere before.

For the first hour, my wallet remained strapped to my leg. Despite having not bought anything – yet – it was a captivating place, the closest we could have come to time-travel, and we wandered around in a sort of silent 1970s haze. Whenever I commented on some insignificant detail, she would poke fun at my elephantine memory for useless information, and I would reciprocate about hers resembling a (1970s) colander. (There again, some of life is just as well forgotten.)

After we had scanned innumerable objetos de la nostalgia, one item stopped us both in our tracks. Semi-discarded in a small wicker basket, almost at ground level, was The World Wildlife Collection Card (Figure 64.1), published in 1971, a copy of which we had both owned as children. It was a promotional item, courtesy of Shell Oil and The World Wildlife Fund. The album, a single, folded piece of card, had cost 25 pence (£3 in today’s money), and with each purchase of Shell petrol (Figure 64.2), a 7 x 5 cm lenticular print of an exotic animal would be handed over with the receipt.

Figure 64.1: ‘The World Wildlife Fund exists to back the planning, research and education necessary to conserve for the benefit and enjoyment of mankind, each of the thousand endangered species of wild animals and enough of the wild places they live in to ensure their survival. Many of these species, some of which are featured in the Shell series of 3-D prints, are in immediate danger of extinction. We desperately need to stop this tragedy. This is why Shell and the WWF have worked together to produce a magnificent album. The more people understand the problems we face the more we can do. I think it is really up to us all, in our duty as citizens of the world, to help. If only for the sake of our grandchildren.’ – Sir Peter Markham Scott (1909-89), in 1971

Copyright © 1971 Shell UK

Figure 64.2: Petrol pumps, in the UK, as they were in 1971

Copyright © 2012 Daily Telegraph

I remembered there were sixteen prints in total (Figure 64.3), four to a page, although neither of us had managed to collect them all. Each could be pasted into its own space, underneath which was a paragraph of information about where and how the animal lived. The picture surfaces were, at the time, revolutionary, and made an indescribably cool sound when scraped with a five-year-old’s fingernail.

Figure 64.3: Almost all sixteen species remain endangered, some critically so.

Copyright © 1971 Shell UK

I picked up the album and opened it out carefully. All sixteen prints were present, each pristine and glued precisely in its rightful place. As we looked at each ‘3D’ image, some of our oldest memory cells were switched on for the first time in forty years. It could almost have been the very album one of us had once owned. I handed it over the counter to Auntie Wainwright without even asking the price.

We had gone there looking for a retro plant stand and some kitchen knives ... and come out in a nostalgic trance, proudly holding a small part of our childhood (Figure 64.4).

Cheers, Auntie.

Figure 64.4: Please send me an email if this article has rekindled memories.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

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