Picture Perfect Memories

24. October, 2011 Opinion No comments

There is something wonderful and romantic about old postcards. They are windows into a different world, or rather, a world before our time. The energy associated with the process of choosing, writing and sending these evocative snapshots of a frozen moment is entirely positive.

Each card has been picked out and paid for with the intention of using it to carry caring thoughts to friends or family. In that sense, postcards might have fallen from favour, but they still embody feelings far more than sending an email.

Recently, the human power of a postcard was brought home to me with the unearthing of a card bearing a simple message from a foreign soldier to the wife he missed faraway. This chance discovery of an unsent postcard has prompted me to look further into their from a century ago.

It all started when I was browsing the markets and small traders in my seaside hometown, Brighton. While flicking quite aimlessly through a small stack of postcards, one image caught my eye. It was an old tinted card of the Clock Tower, a monument well known to anyone in the city.  Nothing too spectacular in that, you might think, but it was the reverse of the card that struck my fancy more.

A solder stationed in Brighton in 1919 had written this card to his ‘darling wife’ back home in Hamilton, Canada. In the flowing handwriting more common in the early 20th century, the soldier writes a brief but moving New Year’s message, telling her that he walked passed the Clock Tower ‘several times on Jan 1st 1919′. For some reason, this card was never posted and the soldier’s wife did not read the message written to her almost a century ago.

This postcard is probably one of thousands that remained unsent. Myself, I have written cards on holiday and then brought them home again in my bag because I forgot to buy stamps, so why should there be any mystery behind this particular card with its rather ordinary message?

Whatever the reason, my curiosity got the better of me and I bought the postcard. In the months since then I have thought about this young soldier and what happened to him. I have considered trying to track the whereabouts of his descendants, to finally deliver the card, as he never could. I can imagine all kinds of fanciful stories about what happened to him and why the card remained unsent. Did he go off to war, leaving the card behind with some belongings, and never return? Did he expire from his injuries among the many war-wounded brought back to Brighton, and the postcard was thrown out as junk? Maybe he just forgot to post it. Whatever the reason, I want to find out more. As I write this, I am making a commitment to myself to trace this story further. I do not know where this search will take me, but I look forward to finding out about the people behind this postcard. I will let you know what I find.

This particular postcard had been tinted. Old black and white or sepia cards are good and give a clear image, but I prefer tinted cards, where the artist has tried to add an extra dimension of reality to the monochrome image. In our high tech world of three dimensional images and holograms, the application of the pink, blue and brown tints implies care and thought. It is also quite quaint and something about it makes me smile. Another thing I enjoy about old postcards is being able to pick out the buildings or monuments that are still around, or identifying dramatic changes that have been made to the street scene. Often these can be quite revealing, and can open a new world to explore when you walk those streets again.

I have picked up a few nice old postcards of Belgrade recently. The tinted images of Terrazije, government buildings and views over the river conjure thoughts of a different world, not just a different time. They show quiet streets with little or now traffic of any kind, and the bright-stoned buildings are allowed their own space rather than being crammed together in a fume-blackened mass, as it often the case today.

During my many visits to Banja Luka, I have also found a number of these early 20thcentury postcards showing. As well as shots of the river and civic buildings, they present a town that was very different to the business centre being created there today. Back then Banja Luka’s streets were full of Muslim men and women in long knitted socks and traditional headgear. They can be seen outside the mosques and in the busy market streets. Many of the old buildings can still be seen today, although the great mosque was destroyed in the war and is in the process of being rebuilt.

I would like to recommend two fabulous books (Atelje Vicić)that tell the story of a city through tinted photographs: Greetings From Belgrade (two volumes); and its companion Greetings From Banja Luka. I would love to own either of these books but, as they are both rather pricey, I will have to be content with flicking their pages in bookshops. I suggest that you look for them when you are next in a bookshop.

Marcus Agar has been commissioned by Wannabe Magazine to write a series of reports. Click to read in Serbian or for an interview in English or Serbian.

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