Monday, February 27, 2012

A few images from the Lewis & Skinner stuff

A few of the images found in the Vacuum Oil Company job sheets for Lewis & Skinner: mockups, photos, letters and guides...

Monday, February 20, 2012

111 Munro Street, Coburg

Passed by here this morning, and remembered that this was where one of the Lewis & Skinner paint jobs took place. My first bit of targeted urban archaeology. Looks like Craven ciggies took pride of place, and wonder if the blue writing is anything Cadbury-related:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Vantown is gone

...and so are the rest of the company records, buried under rubble, carted off to landfill. (Vantown was the name of the Vietnamese car repair business that was last there at the end of Whitehall Street.)

The spot will soon  be a hole, dug out to make a new train track.

Here ends the story of the 50-year resting place of the Lewis & Skinner, ARP and Frank Mason company archives.

This is the sight that greeted me this morning as I arrived at work. The pile of Frank Mason company papers was where the pile of bricks are today. I'm glad I went back last week to scavenge what I could:

Friday, February 17, 2012

More ghost signs, and radio doco possibility

This blog is turning into a dual one - exploring both the signwriter/ghost sign side and the ARP/Morris West one.

Been doing some reading on ghost signs, aka Brickads (mainly UK) or Fading Ads (mainly NYC it seems). Quite a movement on Flickr, Twitter, and with some figureheads such as Frank Jump from the UK, a teacher who was diagnosed with AIDS a couple of decades ago and now is the Fadings Ads guy...some interesting commentary out there about survival, forgetting, memory etc. Plus now there's “Characters: Cultural Stories Revealed through Typography” by Stephen Banham (Port Melbourne: Thames & Hudson Australia Pty. Ltd., 2011) which is all about Melbourne's history through signs.

Anyway, here are the next couple: a remnant of a Robur sign on Gaffney St plus another opposite where we live on Gilbert Rd, then one in Spotswood. OK, the latter two aren't Robur signs, but I'm getting into this:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Last night I went back in

Couldn't help myself and went back to the pile of papers last night. Picked up a lot more stuff, whatever I could fit into the assortment of boxes, milk crates and cases strewn around the site. Lucky, because this morning bulldozers started to scoop up the site detritus into skip bins.

Here they are back at home:

I think I may follow up on the art project idea using the piles of stuff found. Currently am thinking of:
  • sorting out the job sheets and invoices by address and area
  • going out on missions, or getting others to, or both. This will involve photographing the job sheet, putting it in an envelope (maybe with 'with compliments' written on old blank Lewis and Skinner sheets in fountain pen), going to the location, photographing it, dropping the envelope under the door or in the letterbox
  • Upload the photos to a project blog site (perhaps the envelopes or blank sheets can have the blog site web address on them, done with a 1940s style ink stamp)
Kind of anonymously troubling the present with the past, at a time of rapid change in our city (as represented by all the demolition commotion going on next door as I write this). Hauntology I guess, a call to remember all the forgetting going on right now. Retrostalgia? Possibly too. The Robur/Cadbury/White Crow signs were the mass marketing of their time, nothing too romantic about that. But now people take photos of them, like me. They do however hint at layers, literally, in a city where the layers are either being subsumed or destroyed outright.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

An aside: Robur tea

Along with the ARP books, I also took home a bunch of documents from the Lewis & Skinner signwriting company, including a big pile of job sheets from 1950-51, many of which involved painting 'Cadbury's' or 'Robur Tea' or 'Mobil' on service stations, milk bars and cafes.

I sorted through them on Thursday, throwing dozens out, giving them a dignified burial by poring over them before chucking them in the recycling, and keeping ones that looked interesting or related to places I know (mainly in the northern suburbs, Footscray or the city). History keeping is a chancy and arbitrary business sometimes.

One job was to paint 'Cadbury's' on the front of a milk bar in Regent. That milk bar is now the office of the real estate agents from whom we bought our house:

So yesterday I took the yellowed job sheet, folded it in two, and slipped it under their door, with no explanation. I think I might do this for the rest: stick them in envelopes and leave them there, an anonymous present from the past. There could well be an art project in it, I'm thinking.

And tonight, riding home from the bookshop with the West bio in my hand, I encountered another Regent milk bar, this one still a milk bar, with a once-bold  'Robur Tea' taking up most of its side wall. Would have probably been a Lewis & Skinner job, given they had the contract for years:

Morris West biography

Went down a couple of hours ago and bought the Morris West biography. They had it in stock at Readings. Read the section about starting ARP in December 1945 until things fell apart, in a number of ways, in the early 1950s for West.

Am awakening to a few things. Firstly, here was a man with a family - real people, not just a story. And including those who are still here.

Secondly, this is a particular slice of life, preceded by others and followed by others still. Actually, 'slice' is a good word. It's only ever one thin representation of the whole, as detailed as it is thin. Thinking here of the human body in the Melbourne Museum, sliced through and on display.

And this particular slice, as I've been reading in the bio, is not one West was particularly keen on displaying, or revisiting at all. They were troubled times, especially towards the end when his marriage fell apart, he had a breakdown and he reinvented himself as a poor writer after having been a successful Toorak-dwelling media entrepreneur.

In some ways my find might be more of a Return from the Dead than a gift from the heavens.

I recognise some of the people, and references to trips and incidents. Wow.

But what now is my responsibility to those people, their people, and West's others?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Last night it rained

...which means that that's probably it for going back to the exposed pile of papers (see previous post) and trying to dig up more about Australasian Radio Productions. Every day now they will deteriorate until they're carted off to the dump, including page one of the two page letter from 1954 that outlines the process of shutting down the Frank Mason companies (I found page two - one paragraph that explains a lot).

Friday, February 10, 2012

The find

Two days ago I noticed a piece of paper flapping in the bushes outside my workplace in an old industrial area of Melbourne. I work in a new concrete and glass building, built on the spot where a row of workers' cottages used to be, and surrounded by factories and warehouses - but not for much longer, as they're all in the process of being knocked down.

The piece of paper was a blank invoice from the 1940s, with a beautiful letterhead:

I looked and saw other pieces of paper: job sheets, quotations, sketches. All from the same era, and the same signwriting company. As I picked them up I saw they were blowing in from the fenced-off end of the street, where demolition was underway, next to a railway line that will soon have a track added.

The gate was unlocked so I went in and collected more pieces of paper until the site manager drove in, saw me and told me to leave. I waited until he left, then went back (the gate was still unlocked). In the bushes on the pavement next to the railway line, I found a tattered, bound book labelled 'Incoming Correspondence' that contained letters, telegrams, statements and other documents:

The book contains the 1947 and 1948 correspondence of a company called Australasian Radio Productions, producers of radio serials during the 'golden era' of radio in Australia (before the advent of television, I found out later, Melbourne was a centre of radio production). The co-owner and director of ARP was Morris West. West would later become Australia's most internationally successful author with 70 million book sold. The book contains a wealth of material including correspondence with writers about serial plots, negotiations with radio stations and the Australian Performing Rights Association, memos to other ARP staff and royalty statements from West's first book, Moon in my Pocket.

Now excited, I noticed that these scattered papers seemed to originate from the fenced-off demolition site next to the street, which until recently had been a Vietnamese-owned mechanic business that I  passed every morning after parking my car. So after work, and after the blokes in hard hats had left, I went back, jumped over the fence and found a large pile of damp, musty papers unceremoniously dumped on the concrete and exposed to the elements:

For the next two hours I rummaged through the pile. It mainly contained the records of the Lewis and Skinner signwriting company back to the 1920s, but also contained other ARP records, in various states of decay.

By the time I sneaked out in the dusk (and was seen leaving by the security guard on patrol) I'd found the outgoing ARP correspondence book, invoices and a pile of other loose correspondence that spanned from 1946 until 1954, when, I've found out, West sold the company.

So the last few nights I've been reading and sorting, trying to dry out the damp and grubby archive, and in one case moving papers to new folders, for obvious reasons:

The more I delve, the more I find. And the web is filling in some missing bits. So far I've read about things like:
It's an amazing treasure trove that has turned up unannounced, and curiously on the back of me finishing a PhD about the role of the internet and narrative in people restablishing a sense of belonging, in an age where everything is subject to change and being thrown to the winds. I'm still trying to work out what to do with all this. Do a feature article? Documentary? Draw it into the orbit of my uni work? Take the books to the State Library or the Aust Film and TV Archives? Get in touch with West's biographer? All or some of these? As a first step, I'll need to read some of West's work, and more about him in his biography. A friend and publisher has described the find as a gift, or a sign. He says it points to a theme:  the supposed death of the book in these digital times (I had been talking to him about doing a book based on the PhD).

I'm still figuring it all out.