Writing on Writing: Sounding out the Silent Craft

The pen is mightier than the sword!

Possibly one of the most famous phrases in history, referring to the fact that the written word has more influence over the vast majority of people, than does the sharpened edge of a length of folded steel!

…but…does it?

While this line has been repeated ad nausea, it still bears consideration. The written word is only powerful or influential if it captures the reader’s attention. If what is written means something to the reader, if it connects to the reader in some manner.

Not all writing can do this, and yet, all writing is certainly trying to do so. After all, despite what some of us might think – we never write anything for ourselves. Everything that has been written throughout history, has always been written for the consumption – willing or unwilling – of others.

That being the case – what makes good writing? What makes attractive, interesting, fun, fascinating, scary, comedic or educational writing? What makes good writing, good?

When I was in university, I learned two pieces of what I believed to be vital advice to becoming a good writer, and neither of them was more than a line or two in length. They were:

“There’s no such thing as a boring subject. Only boring writers”. 

“There’s no such thing as an original story”. 

And you know what? They’re both true. Any subject can be made interesting…or boring. All that is needed to tip the balance is the skill…or ineptitude…of the writer telling the story. Likewise, there is no such thing as an original story.

What’s that? You found an original story by some new author at your local bookshop?

No you didn’t. And neither did they write one. An original story does not exist. If you don’t believe me, keep reading and I’ll explain why, later.

Before we go any further down this rabbit-hole of pure imagination, I should probably preface everything that comes hereafter by saying that this is all based on my own experiences, gained from twenty-odd years of being incredibly bored, daydreaming, making crap up, twisting it around in my head, writing about it, and then thinking that other people might be bored enough, like I was, to actually read it.

So, where do we begin?

Why Does This Thing Exist?

It exists because I’m a big fan of roleplaying. For those of you who have never heard of roleplaying, it’s got nothing to do with you and your wife or husband pretending to be sexy farmhands and innocent milkmaids. It’s a pastime undertaken by writers (like me), who enjoy creating their own fictional characters and playing them against other fictional characters in scenarios which both players create. It’s an enjoyable, relaxing pastime which is part fantasy escapism, and part writing exercise, to keep my skills sharp. And it’s a lot of fun when everything goes right.

It’s when it goes wrong, that you realise what a finely balanced craft really good creative writing truly is, and how and why not everybody can do it. So, how do you do it? What makes it good? How do you know if it’s any good?

“What makes YOU qualified to write about good writing?”

I dunno. What makes anybody? There are no ‘official’ certifications about what is, or who can be, or isn’t, a good writer. There’s no magical fantastical scientifical mathematical formula. But, I have two university degrees in writing, and damn near thirty years’ writing experience under my belt. I think most people would consider that to be ‘qualifications’ enough. In case they aren’t – a good writer is determined by the number of people who enjoy reading what they’ve written. And I feel confident enough in saying that I’ve garnered enough of a satisfied audience – here, and elsewhere – to be considered a half-decent writer on my own merit.

Anyway. Enough horn-blowing. Let’s get down to writing about writing…

Good Fiction Writing: You Got It!…Right?

When it comes to writing, especially writing any kind of fiction, or creative work, what makes ‘good writing’ can be highly subjective. There’s no scientific way to say what makes ‘good writing’ or ‘bad writing’. But there are certain rules and guidelines that you can follow and remember, to improve your chances of producing good writing. But that said, all the rules and guidelines in the world will not help you, if you are not at least a moderately decent communicator. To be a good writer, you should first be a good communicator – because writing of any kind – is communication. And if you don’t have that skill, then you might struggle here.

Some people are amazing, funny, effective or informative communicators. Others…are not. If your ability to write funny, informative, enjoyable or engaging creative works is suffering, then perhaps this post will help you. Read on!

What Makes Good Writing?

A combination of factors. I will be covering each of these in turn throughout this posting. Some are more important than others, but a comprehension, if not a mastery, of all them, is best, if you intend to become a really good creative writer. This relates to everything from ‘voice’, ‘character development’, ‘descriptions’, ‘word-use’, and many other factors. If you really want to stand out as an accomplished or serious writer of fiction, or creative nonfiction of any kind, these are the things that you MUST be familiar with. So, let’s begin.

Show, don’t Tell

This is the most common thing that teachers of creative writing will tell you. ‘Show, don’t tell’.

OK.

Show, and don’t tell…what…exactly?

Show, and don’t tell – what is going on!

Nobody wants to be TOLD a story. They want to be SHOWN a story. They want to see, in their imagination, what is going on. Being told stuff isn’t very interesting. You don’t tell somebody a good time, you show them a good time. And you do that by how you write.

To show your story through words, rather than tell it, you need to approach it indirectly, or laterally. Instead of telling someone what happens, you need to describe and illustrate what happens. You do this by use of descriptive words and details. Say your story starts mundanely enough, by having your character going to work. Or school. Boring. Everyone does that.

What are they thinking about while they’re getting ready? What’s the weather like? What’s been going on in their lives up until this point? Details like this make what would otherwise be a mundane and routine task sound interesting. But here, we run into one of the first pitfalls of good writing.

Too Much Detail!

Most people will tell you that loads of detail in creative fiction writing is a good thing. And…I disagree. Certainly, a particular amount of detail, is important. But the trick is knowing how much of that detail to include. Let’s go back to the example mentioned above. We start off with a relatable experience – going to school or work. Everyone’s done it, everyone knows what it’s like. Good. We have started on a level playing field and have connected with our audience. They’re on board and they know what’s going on. To flesh it out and make it more interesting, we add in details.

These details are not there as pointless, decorative fripperies. A good writer should know, and should strive to achieve the goal, that details – all details – serve a purpose. This is where we reach what I like to call ‘necessary details’.

In creative writing, details should accomplish one of two goals. They should either:

1). Improve our understanding, or enjoyment of the piece.

OR

2). They should advance the plot.

If the details you have included accomplish neither of these goals – they’re superfluous, and should be removed AT ONCE.

Why?

People think that to be a good fiction writer, you need loads of fat, juicy, jiggling details.

No you don’t.

You need the RIGHT details. The ‘necessary details’. Adding in more than the necessary details – descriptive passages or phrases – pads out the story. It makes it longer, bulkier, more wordy – and boring. Writing with too many unnecessary details in it becomes a bore to read. You might think it’s great because it’s chock-full of details! But your reader will not thank you. This is because they have to trudge through all these details, trying to decide which ones are relevant to the plot, and which ones are not, losing sight of the story in the process.

A lot of people seem to think that the way to fantastic writing is through detail. Loads of detail! To this end, they will pump their stories full of every single descriptor and adjective or adverb that they can think of! But, there is a tipping-point here.

On one side of that tipping point – the writing is engaging, detailed, entertaining and colourful.

On the other side of that tipping point – the writing is overbearing, boring and confusing. Never make the mistake of pumping your story so full of detail and description that it reaches this point. You and your writing will come across as being insecure, insincere, and virginal – like you’ve just started writing, and haven’t found your feet yet. It screams ‘I don’t know how to write, so I’ll just add in more stuff. More stuff is good, right? So more stuff = better writing!

No. Don’t do that. Your readers will not thank you. If you do, the result is boring, unattractive, mundane writing.

How Much Detail?

Alright. So what is the right amount of detail?

The right amount of detail in your writing is the amount which tells the story and embellishes it, enriches it, without being repetitive or overbearing. Sometimes, excessive or repetitive detail is good. It emphasizes a point or brings attention to it – which you might want, possibly for comedic effect, among other reasons. And that’s fine. But if you do it all the time, it becomes boring, and ends up being a literary boat-anchor, dragging your writing down with it.

To determine whether or not you have too much detail in your writing, take a sample (say, a page), and read through it.

Now, read through it again, and remove everything which isn’t absolutely necessary for the telling of the story, of improvement of its readability.

Now, read it through a third time, and look at all the stuff you removed. All the things crossed out in red.

All that red-struck stuff is all the excess baggage and clutter that you didn’t need in your writing. It should now read much more clearly and concisely, more to-the-point. Your readers can now follow the story and understand what’s going on. Provided you’ve done a good job with the plot and characters, it’s now a much more enjoyable read.

Character Development: Personality, Voice, etc.

As well as taking into considering how, and how much you write, you also need to consider the creation and interaction of your characters. The best characters, whether they’re humans, anthropomorphic characters, talking clocks or elves, are ones that people can relate to, and understand. If you can’t understand a character, can’t relate to it, can’t ‘see things from its point of view’, then you can’t engage with it throughout the story. Instead of seeing things from the point of view of the character, you become a bored member of an audience at the theatre, watching something detached and bland, happening up there on the stage, without engaging in what’s really going on.

So what do you need to do with your characters?

Building Believable Characters

In any good work of fiction, one part of the winning formula is its characters. The players who make the plot possible!

The most important aspect of any character is – is he, she, or it, believable?

By that, I mean, could we imagine that such a being might exist in real life? Are his or her actions and reactions what we might expect us, or a person like what’s being portrayed, to be like in real life? If various aspects of a character’s mannerisms, mentality, personality or other aspects (such as physical appearance, etc) aren’t believable, then the chances that the readers will be interested in him or her, connect with, or sympathise with the character in question, are unlikely. And if they’re not likely, then your story is likely to suffer, as a result of this.

Purpose and Personality

The important thing with any character-building is that each character needs to stand out as an individual. This isn’t strictly necessary with background characters, but with secondary and primary characters, it is vital. You must be able to differentiate every character. Each one must have their own way of talking, acting, reacting, interacting and engaging. They must have their own ways of doing things, or not doing things, their own morals, motivations, habits, and other things which make them human! If they’re not human, or human-relatable, then your readers aren’t likely to enjoy them.

Now, you might well ask – How important is this stuff, really? Who cares? Why does it matter? Do we HAVE to do it?

Well…Yeah. If you want your writing to work. Every character must have traits, issues, attributes, qualities, foibles and voices, which make them stand out as individuals. I’ve known writers who could have a whole cast of characters – anywhere from three to six to a dozen or more – and all their characters – regardless of age, gender, nationality, or any other form of individual marker – all sound alike. They all speak alike. They all talk alike. They all act alike.

Starting to see the problem here? If you can’t identify, or give individualism, to each of your characters – your writing suffers. And what’s even worse – your reader suffers, because they can’t tell apart your characters, their voices, and what the hell is going on! Oh my god…they’re gonna put down your book and find something else more interesting to read. Possibly Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.

Every character should have a purpose and a personality. They should have a background and traits that make them stand out as an individual. They should act, and react in ways which are specific or unique to them. This is what makes them believable and relatable to your readers.

Victorian author-extraordinaire, Charles Dickens, at his famous writing desk. The same desk is on permanent display in the Charles Dickens Museum in London.

The Voice of the People!

Another aspect of character-building in good fiction-writing, is the creation of what I like to call a character’s ‘voice’. That is, his or her way of speaking. This means their accent, their diction, their delivery, the tone and pitch of their voice, the slang or inflections, words and phrases that they use, and so-on. This should be as individual to each character as their fingerprints, DNA, and colour of their eyes. Having two characters or more, which sound exactly the same, is very boring, and confusing.

How your character speaks lends interest, individuality and persona to it, and people will enjoy reading about his or her exploits. It will also make it easier to identify the character and build up a fuller picture of who the character is in the reader’s mind, as well as what they’re like.

How your character expresses things like joy, anger, romance, happiness, and sadness, the turns-of-phrase they use, how much they swear, how they speak to different kinds of people – these are all aspects of their ‘voice’. If you don’t have this, your character sounds flat, stale, unrealistic, and boring.

A 4-year-old toddler should not speak or sound the same way that a 45-year-old private detective does, and neither should a bitter, 90-year-old war-veteran sound like a fresh-faced, 21-year-old gaming-nerd. If your readers cannot tell the difference between these characters simply by how they speak – then you have failed to give each one of them a distinctive ‘voice’.

Flawed Fantasies

Every good character should have a few flaws, character deficiencies, or bad habits. Not many, just a few. They might be forgetful, easily angered, claustrophobic, mentally or physically scarred, have a broken relationship in their past, or even their present. Flaws and imperfections make your characters sound realistic.

Now, I do understand that some people – myself included – have this thing where they want to try and create the PERFECT character – whatever that may be, varies from person to person – and sometimes that’s fun to do, and fun to write about. But it’s not always fun to read. A character which is TOO perfect can become boring.

One way around this is to make what appears to be an impressive asset, actually a hindrance or personal issue to your character. A war veteran with loads of combat-experience might struggle from shell-shock. A person who’s really tall, muscular and good-looking might have to deal with issues like how the world just isn’t sized for someone of his height.

On the other hand, unexpected or contrasting flaws or failings can make a character more interesting or human. An intelligent, bookish and adventurous character, such as perhaps Prof. Robert Langdon of the ‘Da Vinci Code‘ fame, suffers from claustrophobia, while Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, and so-forth. A ‘Mary Poppins’ character, which is practically perfect in every way is unrealistic, and uninteresting.

Producing Plot and Purpose

Once you’ve understood the rudiments of good writing, and the surprising complexity that can go into producing a good character, you now need to decide what type of story you’re going to write, and how that’s going to happen. Here, there’s good news, and there’s bad news.

The good news is that there’s loads of different plots and ideas and scenes and scenarios to pick from! Everyone – give me your best Homer-Simpsonesque ‘Whoo-hoo!’ fist-pump right now!

Great, huh?

Eah…hm…nah.

Here’s the bad news: Every single one of those ideas – yes, even that one you had as a child about a kingdom of bunnies made of candy-floss who harvest chocolate baubles that grow off trees made of cinnamon – has been done before.

There’s No Such Thing as an Original Story

Remember how I said – there’s no such thing as an original story?

Well…guess what? It’s true.

Now I’m sure there are people who will read this, who might dispute this assertion, but it is, in essence – true. There are only so many story-ideas and plot points and twists which can exist in the world, and after thousands of years of making stuff up – mankind has pretty much exhausted all of them.

Well crap!“, you think. “I might as well give up being a writer now, then!

Why? Because you can’t think of an original idea? Big deal. Why should that stop you? Nobody’s thought of an original idea for centuries. Even Harry Potter, where the protagonist discovers a secret world which he’s never realised ever existed, isn’t a new idea – Alice in Wonderland, anybody? There is a reason why writers are always suing other writers for stealing their ideas – it’s because they probably did! After all, there’s only so many ideas to go around, right?

The skill of a good writer is NOT to try and create an original story. That’s already been done. Don’t bother wasting your time trying to do the impossible.

The skill of a good writer – a REALLY good writer – is to take what has already been done – and CONVINCE PEOPLE that what they’re reading – that thing you’ve written – is actually something completely new and original!…even if it isn’t. Not only is it much more impressive, but it also keeps other writers from suspecting that you’ve just pinched their ideas and are claiming them as your own. And not getting sued for plagiarism is always a bonus.

And that, my friends – is a MUCH harder job. If you want to test yourself as a writer of skill and creativity – try doing that. Not many people can. And that is why really, really GOOD writers, are few and far between.

Ask most people to tell you the same story ten different times, and make it sound like a different story every single time, indistinguishable from the last one – and most people would struggle. And yet, that is what a good writer must be able to do. This is why to be a really skilled, effective and successful writer, is not something that just any Joe Schmoe from Cocomo, can do, right off the street. I doubt even I could do that, and I’ve been writing for over twenty years.

Building your Story from the ground up!

Because this task of dressing mutton as lamb, of making something old or bland look new and fresh again, is so difficult, great care and planning must be undertaken in any serious literary endeavour which you undertake. You must consider absolutely everything about your characters, your plot, what drives it forward, what holds it back, what makes it what it is, and what doesn’t. You should therefore plan and write down as many of these details as possible.

Decide things like how the story starts, why it starts where it does, and what happens to your protagonists to drive them forward, make them stagnate, retreat, or reach some sort of resolution. It’s best to write these things down in a notebook, where you can scribble, cross out, re-mark and change things as you go along. I still have notebooks which are crammed with hundreds of pages of notes, ideas, characters, and even entire chapters, all written by hand. At last count, I had about half a dozen of them.

As you plan, don’t be afraid to chop and change things. In fact, the more you do that, chances are, the better things will be. As with the act of writing, itself, the act of building up the plot and the details that hang off it or propel it forward works best when it’s uncluttered. Less is more. When you can’t see the forest for the trees, then you’ve got too many things going on, which will result in your reader getting confused, bored, or both. And if they do become confused, or bored, they won’t bother reading what you’ve spent weeks or months or even years, trying to produce. As the Comte de Exupery once said:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. 

And this applies just as much to writing, as it does to anything else.

Addressing your Audience

I have said that the way to good writing, is to have clear writing. Writing which is uncluttered by too many plot-points, twists, descriptors or details. Clear, concise, inventive and entertaining writing is the best kind – where people can be both engaged and entertained, or engaged and educated. But they can only do this – if you know what you’re doing!

I have met people who take the sparsity of detail in their writing to absolute extremes, and this makes the writing difficult to follow. As I said earlier – the right amount of detail is the amount at which the story is easy to read, enjoyable, but not overbearing.

If you want to succeed as a writer – be it of fiction, or non-fiction – then it is vital to always keep in mind who you are writing things for – your audience.

I’m sorry to say this, but many people write without considering who their audience is; and their writing suffers greatly, as a result.

Unless it’s a diary, you never write something for your own consumption. Everything that anybody has ever written, has always been for the consumption or use by another party, whether that’s a kids’ story, a teen-fiction novel, a crime drama, the script of a blockbuster movie, a computer-game strategy guide, a repair manual, or anything else that’s meant to entertain, or inform. So when writing anything of substance, be it informative or entertaining, remember the following:

Never assume that your reader knows what you’re talking about. Never assume that they can guess something. Never assume that they will draw the correct conclusion from hints and tidbits of information. Never assume that they understand what particular types of jargon mean, unless you’re writing to an audience which uses said jargon regularly, and you wish to connect to them and ‘write on their level’.

These are the things you need to consider when you write. At all times, you must consider who your audience is, what they might, or might not know, and how to tailor your speech in what you write, accordingly. If you do not, then you run the real risk of boring, insulting or otherwise alienating your readers.

How to be a Good Writer: Ten Commandmants

Here’s a few final tips on those aspiring to be really good writers. Things to always remember, if you intend to be as fantastic as you possibly can. These should be used as guidelines, to ensure that you’re always at the top of your game, and constantly finding things to raise that game, at all times.

1). Thou Shalt Remember Thine Audience, and keep them holy. Those who do not risk alienation and loneliness.

2). Thou Shalt be Humble in the eyes of thine Readers. No writer ever got anywhere by thinking that they were incredible and without the need of self-improvement. If you think you’re fantastic, you’re going to get a NASTY shock when people think otherwise. Especially if your delusions of grandeur result in your writing falling in quality.

3). Thou Shalt Strive towards Perfection. Just like the Soviets and True Communism, a writer should always strive to attain perfection in writing, even if perfection, like true communism, is actually unattainable. The closer you get to that ever-escaping pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel, the better you’ll be as a writer. The key is to never stop chasing it.

4). Thou Shalt Be Pedantic and Methodical. Always write things down. Always take notes. Always keep writing-aids (be it a dictionary, reference books, plot-notes, notepad, etc) near-to-hand. Never settle for second-best in your writing.

5). Thou Shalt Always Write. The true writer, the writer who wishes to constantly improve, and maintain their craft, is the one who never, ever stops writing. This is one reason why I took up roleplaying as a hobby. It forces me to think fast, and write all the time, and that is what improves you. Sometimes pressure is good. Also, nobody will believe that you’re a serious writer if you’re not always at least thinking about something to write about!

6). Thou Shalt Keep Thine References Close. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you need to have a good command of the language in which you write. Know the difference between words, know proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. Don’t make the mistake of, for example, confusing a depository of information with a suppository of information. A dictionary is your friend. If you don’t like physical dictionaries, then try something like www.dictionary.com

7). Thou Shalt Read Constantly! You won’t become a good writer if you do not read, and read voraciously, preferably about subjects which you are at least a little bit interested in. History, geography, science, literature, technology…the list goes on. But if you expect to be a good writer, you must first study the craft itself and observe the styles, techniques, word-choices and sentence structures of other writers. These will show you what is possible, and how it may be achieved.

8). Thou Shalt Ask for Feedback. You’ll never know if you’re doing any good as a writer, of anything, if people don’t actually read what you’ve written. Only impartial, unbiased opinions are worth anything when it comes to finding out how creative, imaginative, interesting, or easily understood, your writing is.

9). Thou Shalt Be Thine own Critic. It’s often said that the creator of a work is usually its most scathing critic. And this is good. A writer should always view his or her own work with the most critical and dispassionate eyes possible. Detach yourself from what you’ve written, and look at it objectively (or as objectively as you can). This will enable you to ruthlessly make the changes which are necessary to improve your work, regardless of how much effort you might’ve put into it.

10). Thou Shalt Use Thy Details Wisely. This bears repeating, since it’s a huge problem with aspiring writers. Be careful with how much, how often, and what kinds of details, descriptions and adjectives you use, to add spice, colour, flavour and texture to your writing. Too much, and it becomes overbearing. Too little, and it becomes incomprehensible. The best way to do this, I find, is to go back and remove as much as you can, without sacrificing readability, and not to add so much, that the essence of what you’re trying to say, gets lost in all the fancy words you’ve gone and scattered everywhere.

I call bulky, over-descriptive, over-compensatory writing ‘sawdust‘. In the old days, flour was expensive. To stretch out flour, and to make it last in hard times, bakers used to add ground-up sawdust into the dough to thicken it up, to make the resultant loaves of bread seem bigger and more substantial than they really were.

It didn’t DO anything to the bread. It didn’t make it taste better, or bake faster, or last longer…all it did was fatten it up and make it look more impressive. But in terms of actual benefit – there was none to be had. The bread was not more nutritious, or easier to eat, or anything. It was purely a superficial result.

This is the exact same result that comes from using an overabundance of detail and description. Avoid it like the plague!

Anyway, that ends this rather lengthy posting about the craft of writing. I hope that it has in some way helped any aspiring writers of creative fiction or creative non-fiction out there, who have been hopelessly groping around in the darkness, trying to find writing advice that they can actually understand, follow, and apply to their own work.

 

 

Clang-Clang-Clang Went the Trolley: A Rattling Good Time at the Melbourne Tram Museum!

If you know anything about Australia beyond the fact that we have weird animals, dangerous snakes, venomous spiders and an abundance of tanned, bleached surfer-dudes populating the ‘top-end’, then you might also be aware of the fact that the city of Melbourne has the largest tram network in the world (or at least the southern hemisphere!).

Melbourne’s tram network is world-famous. Anyone who’s ever been to Melbourne, heard about Melbourne, or seen photographs of Melbourne on the internet, will know that Melbourne has trams.

A Brief History of Melbourne’s Tram Network

Following hot on the heels of San Francisco, Melbourne installed its first tram-route, operating a grip-cable streetcar, in 1885. Built on the floodplain of a river, Melbourne is a relatively flat city, but there are places where hills are found in abundance, and to traverse them, something other than your stoutest pair of wingtips is probably ideal.

The Hawthorn Tram Depot, the location of the Melbourne Tram Museum. The streetcar barn (building with big grey doors) is where the main exhibits are housed!

Cable-cars ran in Melbourne from 1885 until 1940, and featured a dummy car trailing behind a grip-car, with the grip-car being open to the elements, and the dummy-car being closed off with windows and doors.

Tales from the Grip

Cable-cars were operated by a two-man team — emphasis on MAN — very few women ever did this job — and you’ll find out why in a minute!…these two men were the gripman, and the conductor.

The conductor helped people on and off the tram, operated the brakes, collected fares, issued tickets, answered questions from commuters, and oversaw the general welfare of the passengers. To be a conductor required a fair bit of acrobatic expertise – swinging between the benches and in and out of the rails, jumping up and down between the carriages and helping people up and down was an exhausting job!

His counterpart was the gripman. The gripman got his name because he operated the two ‘grip-levers’ at the front of the cable-car. One lever was the brake – which does what a brake has always done – and the other lever was the grip-lever.

An old Melbourne cable-car from the 1880s, rattling past Spring Street in the CBD. The building on the right is Parliament House. The building on the left is the venerable Hotel Windsor, commonly called the Duchess of Spring Street!

The grip-lever was what grasped the moving steel cable underneath the streetcar, which ran along in a groove between the two running-tracks. Once the claw at the end of the lever had grasped the cable, it would pull the car and it’s trailer along.

If this doesn’t sound hard – remember that you’d be doing this in freezing cold, pouring rain, boiling heat and raging storms. Remember that you’d be doing this going uphill, and downhill, going across intersections and around corners. Remember that these streetcars were entirely mechanical…and weigh about five tons each!

The oldest tram in the Melbourne Tram Museum. The two levers in the middle of the tram (between the benches) are the ‘grips’ which operate the cable-clamp, and the brake, giving the ‘gripman’ his name.

There were no engines or motors to operate them – only human muscle. They were pushed out of the stables by muscle, they were spun around on turntables by muscle, and they were started, stopped and operated by muscle. The upper-body strength to operate these things for HOURS EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK was why gripmen remained MEN – the sheer physical exertion meant that no woman wearing a full-length Victorian dress and corset could ever operate something like this.

The Hotel Windsor, or the ‘Duchess of Spring Street’, as she appears today – Melbourne’s last great Victorian-era luxury hotel. The cable-car in the previous photograph would’ve been rattling along across the street, from left to right in this photograph, heading into the Melbourne Central Business District (the CBD to locals!).

The last cable tram in Melbourne ran in October, 1940 whereafter the system was ripped up and replaced entirely by electric trams.

The other end of the cable-tram. When the sliding door is shut, it has a warning on it for passengers to hold on tight. For those who couldn’t read, conductors (‘connies’) would shout the words ‘Mind the curve!’ to alert passengers to expect a sudden change in direction which would make the entire vehicle shake as it crossed the tracks.

Power from Above!

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, Melbourne had both cable-driven and electrical trams, as well as older horse-drawn tram technology, and for quite a while, all three ran together. By the 1920s, most of the city’s main tram-routes had been laid out, extending to St Kilda, Hawthorn, Camberwell, across the Central Business District, north to suburbs like Macaulay, North Melbourne, Kew, and even Far Kew….which, for the sake of taste and decency, was later changed to the more polite-sounding “Kew East” (say it five times fast, and you’ll soon figure out why…).

Melbourne’s W-class electric trams operated continuously from the 1920s onwards. A few are still in regular service, but most of them are either in storage, or serve as tourist attractions, like the Tramcar Restaurant, or the classic City Circle tourist tram which rattles around the CBD offering people a free lift.

Trams continue to be a major part of the Melbourne public transport network, and in the 50s and 60s, when a lot of cities around the world, from London to New York, Los Angeles to Shanghai, Singapore, Ballarat and countless others, were ripping up their streetcar networks, the Melbourne network remained, saved by public sentiment and probably, the cost of replacing it with something else. The result is that in the 21st century, the Melbourne tram network is the largest and most complete in the Southern hemisphere.

The Melbourne Tram Museum

Housed in the old Hawthorn Tram Depot, the tram museum is open two Saturdays a month. I’d been meaning to go for years and years and years, but I never got around to it. You know how it is – when you live there, you can see it anytime you want…which means you never bother to actually go!

Anyway, I found out from a friend’s Facebook post that the museum was having another open-day, so I hurried on over as fast as Routes 48 and 75 could take me there, and shuffled on in.

The museum featured twenty trams, ranging from 1886 to 1977. The trams were all lined up on their tracks, and open for inspection. You could jump on, jump off, and check out every single part of every single tram, hopping into the driver’s seat, or behind the grip-levers, turning cranks and pulling levers. Like many of the people there, I couldn’t resist ringing the bells on every single tram I came across!…Come on, we’ve all wanted to it! It’s like that kid in The Polar Express:

“I’ve wanted to do that my whole life!”

I went around taking photographs of all the information boards, all the trams and some of the pieces behind glass cases. In all honesty there wasn’t that much to see, and I was done in about 90 minutes, but what there was to look at, was certainly worthwhile. The majority of the trams dated to the 1920s and 30s, but I think most people agreed that the oldest tram was the one which held their interest the longest!

I bought a reprint of a 1908 tram network map while I was at the museum, as well as a book on the history of cable cars. As interesting as the place was, I felt it suffered badly from a lack of volunteers to run the museum – which is why it’s only opened a few times a year. That said, the trams in the museum do get occasional use! The last time one of them was rolled out of the stables was ten years ago, back in 2007…when they required period Melbourne streetcars to roll past Flinders Street Station during filming scenes in the HBO miniseries “The Pacific“!

All in all it was an enjoyable visit and a fun distraction for an hour or two. Anyone visiting Melbourne when the museum is open (2nd and 4th Saturday of every month except December) should certainly check it out. I just feel rather saddened that a museum dedicated to one of the city’s most famous moving landmarks is so inaccessible to the public.

 

The Tale of the S.S. Antinoe – The Most Famous Shipping Disaster of the 1920s!

The Tale of the Antinoe

These days, technologies such as sonar, radar and satellites warn us of dangerous weather and shipping hazards in our paths when we head out beyond sight of land. Helicopters, rigid-shell lifeboats with inbuilt motors, and clear and easy radio communications make rescue at sea easier and safer. But imagine what high seas rescue was like before these machines and technologies were invented. Imagine trying to affect a rescue in a roaring hurricane not with a helicopter, but with a wooden, oared lifeboat. Imagine life-or-death communications where you didn’t have radio or walkie-talkies – just the flashing pulses of a manually-operated Morse-lamp. No GPS. No satellite tracking – just maps, charts, maritime chronometers and a pair of compasses to find your way.

Imagine all these challenges and more, which were faced by the men who carried out one of the most famous ocean rescues of the early 20th century.

The S.S. Antinoe is completely forgotten today. If you stopped most people in the street and asked, they would have absolutely no idea what it is. And yet, this was an event which made international headlines when the news broke. It turned ordinary sailors into celebrities and heroes before they’d even set their feet back on dry land! A tale of endurance, bravery and sheer ballsiness not yet coming to a motion-picture theatre near you! Forget “The Perfect Storm”, the events surrounding the S.S. Antinoe are far more spectacular!

Wednesday, 20th of January, 1926 – The Roosevelt Departs

The year is 1926. American ocean liner, the S.S. President Roosevelt, is steaming out of New York Harbor. In charge of this vessel is Captain George Fried. The Roosevelt’s ultimate destination is the port of Bremerhaven, Germany, but it will make various stop-offs along the south coast of England along the way.

The voyage to Europe will be long. A week at sea at least. The weather was bad before the ship had even left American waters, but it couldn’t stop just because it was wet and cloudy – the Roosevelt had 200 passengers on board who had paid for safe passage, along with several thousand bags of U.S. Mail.

Before the days of satellite weather-tracking, the main way for ships to attain accurate weather forecasts was in the form of the telegraph. Ships out at sea sent Morse Code radio-messages between each other, warning of things as storms, icebergs, and other ships in distress. The President Roosevelt didn’t know it yet, but it was sailing into a storm of unimaginable ferocity.

A postcard of the S.S. President Roosevelt from the 1920s.

The Roosevelt was not just steaming into a storm. It was steaming into one of the fiercest hurricanes ever witnessed in the north Atlantic. Over the coming days, the situation on board ship deteriorated significantly and a number of measures had to be taken to ensure the safety of the passengers and of the ship. Roosevelt passengers were kept below-deck, forbidden from going outside, for their own safety. Lifelines were thrown up outside and inside the ship, to catch people who stumbled or fell when the ship rolled.

When it was safe to cook, stewards would soak table-cloths in water and wring them out before laying the tables. The wet fabric would prevent place-settings and dishes from sliding off the tables in the dining saloon when the ship rolled or plunged through another wave. And things only got worse as the voyage continued. By the third day, Capt. Fried ordered the ship’s engines to be run at reduced speed. It would be pointless to operate them at full-tilt and burn precious coal in a futile attempt to get anywhere in this storm. And so the Roosevelt laboured onwards.

Sunday, 24th of January, 1926 – The Antinoe Calls for Help

Despite the raging storm, Capt. Fried of the Roosevelt was determined that nothing more than the most essential precautions be taken, to prevent causing a panic among the passengers. As a result, regular crew-shifts went on as normal. There were no double watches or any other abnormal crew activity. Everyone was just expected to do their regular duties. If the situation got significantly worse, then extra measures would be taken.

With this mindset, the crew went about their duties. At four o’clock on Sunday morning, wireless-operator Kenneth Upton relieved his colleague and took up his position in the radio-room. He slipped on his headphones, sat down at the desk, and prepared himself for a long, boring shift of a whole lot of nothing. Considering the storm, there was probably nothing going on out there! How wrong he was!

Not two hours later, at 5:40am, a barely discernible message gurgled through the air. Because of the hurricane, radio reception was appallingly bad, and Mr. Upton could barely hear the frantically hammered-out Morse Code.

The cry for help came from the Antinoe, a British freighter-vessel which was fighting for life. It was severely damaged by the storm, unable to move, developing a heavy starboard list and had lost all her lifeboats, which had been ripped off her decks or smashed to pieces by the storm. She had no way of giving her position with great accuracy as the hurricane made it impossible for the crew to take a reading of their position by the sun or the stars.

Realising the gravity of the situation, Upton immediately informed Capt. Fried.

Using the Antinoe’s feeble radio-transmitter as a reference-point, Capt. Fried was able to determine through triangulation (using two known positions to find a third) the Antinoe’s location. Unfortunately, he also determined that it would take six hours just to get there!

The Tale of the Antinoe

The Antinoe was captained by Harry Tose. It had departed its port of embarkation on the 14th of January and had sailed without incident until the 23rd when it ran into the same hurricane battering the S.S. President Roosevelt. Heavy seas had damaged the ship severely. In all the heaving, rocking and rolling, an ice-chest had been knocked loose when the ship rolled from a wave. The heavy ice-chest had fallen and smashed against the ship’s steering-mechanism, rendering the vessel impossible to steer.

Despite throwing the damaged ice-chest and other broken parts overboard and trying to fix the broken steering mechanism, the ship was in sufficient enough danger that Capt. Tose ordered an S.O.S. signal to be sent out. Two ships responded: One was the S.S. President Roosevelt. The other was the famous Cunard ocean-liner, the R.M.S. Aquitania. In the end, it was the Roosevelt which dared to stay alongside the stricken Antinoe and attempt a rescue-mission in the midst of an Atlantic hurricane.

The Arrival of the S.S. President Roosevelt

Around midday, the two vessels found each other. Capt. Tose of the Antinoe wanted his ship taken in-tow and hauled back to safety…wherever that was! Capt. Fried agreed, but had no idea HOW to do it! Three attempts at bringing the Antinoe under tow failed.  The weather was too rough and either the towline never caught on, or it would snap once it had been fastened to the Antinoe.

By that evening, the situation was spinning further and further out of control. The nonstop pounding of the waves had smashed in the Antinoe’s decks. This flooded the engine-room, killing the generators and depriving the ship of all electrical power. Now, she had no lights, no heating and no radio! And to cap it off…it started snowing in the middle of the ocean! Capt. Fried knew that he if abandoned the Antinoe now, her crew were almost certainly going to die.

The raging storm was wreaking havoc on both ships. The wind, the crashing waves, the pitch blackness and the white-out blizzard conditions made keeping visual contact between both ships almost impossible! For a period of several hours on Sunday night, it was impossible for the Roosevelt to see the Antinoe – the blinding snow rendered the Roosevelt’s powerful searchlights impotent, and Capt. Fried feared the very real possibility of a single wave slamming both ships together and sending them to the bottom of the sea!

The Antinoe had no lifeboats of her own, so to try and carry out a rescue-mission, Capt. Fried ordered his officers to use their own lifeboats to row across to the Antinoe and bring back survivors. The Chief Officer, Mr. Miller called for volunteers. Positioning the ship to launch the lifeboat, Miller and eight men got into the boat and it was lowered away into the raging sea. It was a complete disaster! The ship rocked unexpectedly, slamming the lifeboat against the hull! Two men were thrown out and were drowned at once. The other seven were quickly hauled back on-deck. The lifeboat was considered a total loss.

Monday 25th of January, 1926 – Lifeboats Lost to the Sea

By the next day, things were getting desperate. In numerous failed attempts to maintain contact with the Antinoe, the Roosevelt lost another four of her own wooden lifeboats and was running out of patience and time…especially time! Because, gallant as Capt. Fried’s actions and intentions were, he could not stay alongside the struggling Antinoe indefinitely. His supplies of fuel and food were finite. On top of that, he had passengers who he was supposed to take to Europe. He had mail on board which he was supposed to deliver to Germany!

So what? That was the attitude that Fried took. And he told anyone who asked him, just so! He was not about to leave until the job was done. And that was final! And that was what he told his bosses, too! In fact, Fried sent telegrams back to his company offices in New York, informing his superiors of the situation, and stating quite firmly that come Hell or High Water, he would stay alongside the Antinoe until the ship either sank, until an effective rescue had been completed, or until he could no-longer render assistance.

These words of defiance which were flashed across the ocean went on to have an incredible effect which few, least of all, the people at the centre of this drama, could possibly have foreseen. Trapped at sea, nobody on either the S.S. President Roosevelt, or the Antinoe could possibly know that Capt. Fried’s telegrams back to New York were at that very moment making the rescue of the Antinoe an internationally-observed incident!

Tuesday, 26th of January, 1926 – Rescue At Last!

The next day, the weather finally started to let up. The Roosevelt was able to re-establish contact via searchlight with the Antinoe and rescue-attempts began anew. A lifeboat was successfully launched and rowed over to the Antinoe.

Upon sighting the boat, Capt. Tose insisted that all married men, with the exception of himself, should go first. As a result, the first dozen men to abandon the Antinoe were the ones with wives and families waiting at home. Rowing back and forth between both ships for several hours, the crew and captain of the Antinoe were successfully evacuated to the decks of the Roosevelt. The lifeboat, badly worn out by the rough seas, was cast adrift.

One last attempt was made on the 27th to rescue the badly-damaged Antinoe but when once again the towline snapped, all aboard agreed that to keep trying was a waste of time. They left the ship to founder, and then sailed for Plymouth, England.

Back on Dry Land!

The toll had been heavy. The Antinoe was lost. Two crew from the Roosevelt had drowned at sea and six of her lifeboats had been destroyed by the hurricane during a rescue that had lasted three and a half days! But all twenty-five members of the crew on board the Antinoe had been saved!

When the Roosevelt and her crew arrived in Plymouth, England at the end of the month, they were greeted like heroes! Wild applause followed them, and reporters jostled for interviews! Newsreel cameras rolled, flash-bulbs popped! Mrs. Tose ran up on board the Roosevelt to be with her husband. Later, she publicly thanked Captain George Fried in front of the newsreel cameras, for delivering her husband, Captain Harry Tose, and his crew, safely from the jaws of certain death.

News of the dramatic rescue flashed around the world as fast as telegraph could take it. Articles appeared in the Straits Times in Singapore, the Buffalo Evening News in the United States, the Argus in Melbourne, and The Queenslander in Brisbane. The arrival of the triumphant President Roosevelt and its exhausted passengers and crew was filmed for posterity by newsreel cameras when it docked in England.

The saga of the Antinoe, and the ship which rescued its crew became legend! When Captain Fried and his men returned to America, they were treated once again to a heroes’ welcome, and given a ticker-tape parade through the center of New York City! The Antinoe was probably one of the most famous sea-rescues in history since the Titanic, and would not be eclipsed in peacetime until the sinking of the Andrea Doria in the 1950s.

— — — —

This article was originally published in The Australia Times – HISTORY magazine in March, 2015. Permission for republishing on throughouthistory.com was granted by the original author and copyright holder…me! 
 

Selling Antiques Online – A Beginner’s Guide for Beginners

You’ve been collecting antiques for a number of years, and now, you have an impressive, extensive and amazing collection. It numbers dozens, maybe even hundreds of pieces, scattered across shelves, bookcases, display-cabinets, and tables all around your house, apartment, or particular room in your house. And you want to buy more stuff! But you don’t have the room. Or perhaps you want to make a hobby or a small business out of selling antiques?

Either way, you’ve decided that you want to start selling off your antiques online. How should you do this? What do you need to consider when you start? If this is you, then relax, and read on…

How to Sell?

Selling antiques online can be tricky, frustrating and boring, but also exciting, fun and enthralling. Which one it will turn out to be, for you, depends on how you go about selling stuff. There are probably loads of guides online telling you how to sell things successfully online; this guide is designed for the complete and total greenhorn, who hasn’t sold so much as a paperclip to a puffin before today. So, how do we get started?

What You Will Need… 

To sell antiques online, you will first need:

  • Antiques that you want to sell.
  • Knowledge about what they are and how much you can expect to sell them for.
  • A bank account which is accessible online.
  • An account or profile set up on an online sales website or group (Facebook, Gumtree, eBay, etc, etc. Pick the ones that work for you).
  • Knowledge of how much to charge for postage.
  • Knowledge of adequate packing procedures.
  • A decent camera, and knowledge of how to take good photographs.
  • Patience!

As you may have guessed from the list up above, a lot of the startup has less to do with what you have, and more to do with what you know, or what you will need to know, in order to begin. Get familiar with online funds transfers from bank-account to bank-account, familiarise yourself with your local post-office and what it will cost to post parcels of various weights to various locations around the country, or if you’re feeling bold enough – around the world!

Learn how to use your camera, and learn about the stuff that you’re going to be selling. If you want to make a successful go of it, then solid preparation is the key.

Keep Records

From the very start of selling, make sure you keep records. Postage-receipts, addresses, names, and a spreadsheet of every item you’ve sold. When, to whom, for how much, etc. If you become good at this stuff, you’ll be selling far more things than you’ll ever be able to remember. The last thing you need is for someone to pull a fast one on you, and you have no record of what happened previous to the sale. Keeping accurate records is essential to figuring out how things are going in the long-run.

Getting Started

Having decided on, researched, photographed, and priced what antiques you’re going to sell, it’s now time to start selling! Make sure that your bank account is one which people can deposit money into, and which you can transfer money out of, find a sales website that works for you, and start setting things up.

The first thing you need to do is to pick somewhere to sell stuff. Numerous free websites exist, such as Gumtree and Craigslist, etc. and this is a good place to start since it’s easy to understand and there are no hidden fees.

Another place to check out is Facebook. Facebook groups for the sale of antiques and collectibles are numerous and are scattered all over the internet. Just make sure that any groups you join are for your country! The people who run most of these groups are just ordinary folks like you and me, who like you and me, just want to sell stuff, make a bit of money, meet people, and see nice things. Most of them are friendly and casual places where people can make a quick dollar and have fun doing it.

Once you’ve sorted out your banking and payment details, your postage costs and the platform from which you’ll be launching your new commercial endeavour, the next step is to actually start listing things for sale! The fun part!

Listing Items for Sale

The first thing to do is to open a new listing or a new posting. A good listing should contain details such as what the item is, how old it is, important or special details, any flaws or damage, where the item is located (in case someone wants to pick it up personally), along with any serial numbers, model-numbers, or product-names.

Make sure that your listings have good-quality photographs which are clear, sharp and crisp. No blurriness, no lens-shake or anything like that. Make sure that people can tell clearly what an item is, and how big it is. Include measurements if you have to. And take photos of the item from as many angles as possible!

Last but not least, make sure you list the PRICE, whether this is negotiable or not, and how much the cost of postage is likely to be.

Then, you play the waiting game.

Patience

The most important attribute apart from honesty, that you can have as an online seller, is that of patience! Some items sell really, really fast, some can sit for months. My fastest selling item was a toy sewing machine that was sold in less than half an hour from the point of listing. My slowest item was a set of silver napkin-rings which languished online for half a year before they were finally snapped up.

Don’t lose heart. Refresh or bump up your listings from time to time, or offer discounts, and just WAIT. Sooner or later, the buyer for you will show up. Sometimes you’ll even get repeat-customers – and if you do – treat them like golden eggs – because they’re the ones who’ll give you the best testimonials!

Handling A Sale

Someone likes your stuff and they wanna buy it! Maybe it was that pocket watch, or the silver bowl, or the 1890 edition of Oliver Twist? Whatever it was, you’re about to make your first sale!

Alright, stay calm. Smile and do a little happy dance, and then get down to business.

After you’ve made sure that the person absolutely wants your stuff, you need to determine two things:

  1. How will payment be made? Paypal? Direct Deposit? Cash?
  2. How will he or she get the item that they want? Post? Delivery? Pick-up?

These are the things you need to discuss with your potential buyer. If delivery or pick-up is in order, then paying by cash is probably best. If you need to post the item, then you’ll need to decide whether they’ll be paying through paypal, or through a direct bank deposit. And you need to remind the buyer that there is also the cost of postage to consider (which is traditionally paid for by the buyer).

Make sure that you calculate the postage-costs correctly! What the item weighs is not what you’ll be paying in postage – You haven’t taken into consideration stuff like packing, wrapping, boxing and whatever else might be involved first! As a rule – always add 200-400g in weight to whatever the item weighs, when calculating the cost of postage.

An item which weighs 300g might cost $5 to post. But after padding, packing and boxing, it might weigh 550g. And packages over 500g might cost $8 to post instead of $5. That being the case, the price of postage should correctly be $8. If the item sold for $40, then the total price is $48.00.

These are the little nuances that you have to keep in mind! I got burned loads of times miscalculating the price of postage when I first started, and boy, does that ever eat into your profits! So remember to keep it in mind!

Also, if you’re accepting payment through paypal, remember that there are paypal fees to take into account (again, usually paid for by the buyer), or else you’ll find even MORE of your profit being eaten up in extra prices!

Take as long as you need to calculate the weight and therefore, the cost of postage, and any payment-fees, before tallying up the final result and giving the complete price to the buyer. If they agree, then arrange how you’ll get the item to them.

Will they pick it up or ask for it to be delivered? Where and when? How will you meet or stay in contact?

Will postage be necessary? If so, you’ll need the buyer’s full name and their postal address, and they need to send you proof of their payment online (usually in the form of a screenshot of the payment-completion page from their bank’s website).

Packing and Parcels

Once you’ve sorted out the price of the item, postage, and any extra fees, and the buyer has agreed to these, has paid, and has sent you their postal address, the next stage is to package the item.

If packaging the item for postage is necessary, there are a few ways to do this. You can either pack the item yourself in your own packaging, or you can use a box, bag or envelope supplied by your friendly neighbourhood post office. Which option you select is determined by the item in question, and the cost.

Post offices generally sell pre-priced boxes and envelopes or bags, whereby you’ll pay a fixed rate on a package, and can put into it whatever you want, so long as it’ll fit inside properly. Then you simply tape it shut, address it, and post it at the counter.

If you prefer a more individual and personal touch, there’s always the option of packaging your antiques yourself. Just keep in mind that if you do this, there are certain things you have to remember if you want the parcel to arrive safely at its destination.

Picking a Box

Once the sale is completed, the next step is to pack the item for postage. Start by wrapping it up with newspaper or bubble-wrap at least twice around the item, so give it some shock protection. Tape it shut and then find a box for it.

The box should be stiff cardboard, and should be slightly larger than the item you’re packing. You don’t want a box that’s too big, because the item will bounce and rattle around inside it, potentially damaging it, and you don’t want a box that’s too small – if something heavy lands on top of it, it might crush the box and the item inside!

Put the item into the box and pad it around with bubble-wrap or old, scrunched up paper. Then close the box and tape it shut.

Since most people will just use whatever cardboard boxes they have to hand (usually reused from something else), you might also want to wrap the parcel in plain paper before postage. This also keeps the exterior surface of the box underneath, clean, so that the recipient can reuse it for their own postage or packaging needs, should they want to. Wrapping the box also gives you a convenient place to write down the postal address, and your own return address.

Postage and Tracking Numbers

Once the item has been paid for and you’ve packed it safely, it’s time to post it. Take it to your local post-office and hand it in. It’ll be weighed and the price (based on weight) will be calculated. When you pay for the postage, you should get a receipt.

Make sure you keep this, as it’s not only proof of postage and price, but also, it should also have a tracking number. This is the serial-number of the receipt which is pasted onto your parcel when it is processed at the post-office. The tracking number (called ‘Item I.D.’ or similar) is also printed on the receipt given to you by the postal clerk.

Make sure you remember this, and pass the number onto the buyer, as this will allow you and them to keep an eye on the parcel as it is processed through various post offices during its journey. Every time the parcel is scanned at checkpoints, the tracking information is updated online. You’ll be able to see what progress has been made on the delivery, and your recipient will be able to check when the item will arrive at their home or business.

Online Sales – General Tips

If you’re selling antiques in an online social media setting, such as a Facebook group, always remember to be courteous and friendly. Word of bad experiences spread FAST on social media. All you need is one legitimately unhappy customer to screw over your entire reputation as a seller. So smile and be happy.

Be patient. Sales are seldom quick. Things can sit for weeks and months before they sell, but they will, eventually, sell. Just make sure you make a halfway-decent profit on them, that’s all!

You are the one who has to pack the item for postage. You are the one the seller will blame if the item is broken when it arrives, because YOU didn’t pack it properly, you numpty! So make sure you pack properly, and calculate the cost of postage correctly! If the buyer complains that postage is too much, then they’re not the buyer for you. Do not compromise on this – all it takes is one broken parcel to screw things over real good. Do not cut corners on postage!

Make sure you post clear pictures from varying distances and different angles, and be absolutely honest about the item and what you know about it. Remember also that a good sales pitch from a person who knows a lot about what they’re selling is more likely to succeed than a half-assed attempt by somebody who knows nothing!

You will occasionally meet people who for whatever reason, change their minds or can’t hold up their ends of the deal. Discretion and tact are vital in dealing with these people. Sometimes it is a real and honest mistake on the buyer’s part. They typed in your bank details incorrectly or something like that (it’s happened to me, so I know!).

On the flip-side of that – when you copy down their postal-addresses, make sure you do it properly and double check, and ASK the buyer if it’s correct. Never assume anything.

That said, sometimes you really can meet some people out there who insist on keeping sticks up their butts, and will tell everyone about it and let it affect everything. People who grumble and howl and bitch and complain are no fun to anybody. The less said about them, the better, and the less you deal with them – better still. If you have a particularly bad experience with a buyer, then if the power is within your grasp – you should report them to the relevant online sales authorities.

Last but not least – remember to have fun! Selling things online is a lot of fun! It’s thrilling being able to give people stuff they want at reasonable prices. It’s fun being able to play shopkeeper. It’s fun thinking that the stuff you don’t want anymore, will end up in the antiques collection of another person, and that it will be appreciated all over again with fresh eyes and new enthusiasm. So go forth and conquer!

 

Introducing My YouTube Channel

Hello everyone.

This post is here to introduce my new YouTube channel. I’m busy transferring all my old content to the new channel, and hope to upload new and better videos soon. To find this link in future, either add it to your bookmarks now, or check the EXTERNAL LINKS page on this blog!

My Channel 

 

 

 

Solid Brass Antique French Binoculars

Proof that it always pays to hunt around.

I’ve seen many pairs of antique binoculars at flea markets and antiques shops over the years, but while most were pretty reasonably priced, they were often in horrible condition. Covered in scratches, dents, cracked, scratched or chipped lenses, and jammed or faulty focusing mechanisms which left them impossible to operate.

But not these:

These are typical of binoculars produced in the late Victorian era, around 1870-1900. They were spectacular, and in fully functioning condition. I found them in a little antiques shop a few blocks from my house and I just had to have them. I know the shopkeeper fairly well and he let me have them for a discount to boot. I think they’re the most amazing and beautiful set of antique binoculars I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen quite a few! The brass body shines in the sun and the lenses are just amazingly perfect – not something that you often get with antique binoculars.

The sliding glare-shields had to be disassembled and cleaned and the felt linings inside had to be replaced (which was an easy fix), but other than that, they were in almost perfect condition.

They were made in Paris by Mohrson. That’s literally all I know about them. At one time they would’ve come with a strap, and most likely a case as well, but they’re long gone. Straps for binoculars like these are pretty simple, so getting a new one is unlikely to be a problem. I think they’re fantastic, and just had to share them.

They fold up pretty compact. Fully extended, they’re about six inches long, and they’re not so bulky that they’re difficult to operate, hold or use. All in all, a lovely pair of Victorian-era field glasses.

They also make a great photography prop! See?

 

Antique Magnifying Watch Stand

You certainly find the strangest things at flea-markets, and I think this is definitely one of the stranger things that I’ve ever found in all my years of searching!

I couldn’t figure this thing out when I first saw it. It’s chrome plated steel or some such thing, and it folds up, like you see there. It also pops open like this:

There’s a hook at the back, and at the front there’s a magnifying glass, and the whole frame is riveted together. But what is it? When I figured out what the missing link was, it all made sense!

Hey, hey!! It’s a pocketwatch stand!

The whole point of this whimsical little device is that it folds up for travel, and it’s something that you’d take along with you when you went on a long journey. When you reached your destination, you opened the stand up, popped it on your bedside table, and hung your watch on it. There’s a magnifying glass at the front so that in the middle of the night, you can roll over in bed, look through the lens and read the time with minimal fuss!

Was it expensive? Nope! Are they particularly common or rare? I have no idea. I’ve seen many watch-stands, both new and antique, made of everything from brass to wood to solid sterling silver, but this is the first that I’ve ever seen with a magnifying glass on it!

Brief research suggests that these aren’t uncommon, but I doubt that anybody ever did a roaring trade in these things – Travelling watch-stands with magnifying glasses certainly did exist, but they were rarely anything more than the little trinket that this one was. It was probably just a cheap, convenient travel-object, even when it was brand new, which was probably sometime between 1890-1920 or 1930. It’s quirky though, and that’s why I had to have it!

 

Welcome To My New Home!

Hello to all my friends and followers, and welcome to my new online home! After years of using WordPress.com, I’ve finally made the transition to a paid domain of my own.

This inaugural posting is here to assure you that all the contents from my old blog at ‘Not Yet Published’ have been successfully transferred across to their new home, and that you can expect more of the same in the days, weeks and months to come! So hang around and check things out, and all in good time, I’ll start posting more and more about the people, places, pieces and events that have shaped and influenced our lives…throughout history. 🙂

 

Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Pith Helmets – The Original Sun Hat!

One of the most popular postings I ever wrote for this blog was about hats. It continues to be searched, read, viewed and commented on, much to my disbelief and amazement.

Thanks to everyone who’s visited this blog and likes hats. I like hats too. Hats are neat.

I’m taking this opportunity to write about the fascinating and whimsical story behind one type of hat in particular. A hat which has generally fallen out of favour, ever since the late 20th century, and which has yet to undergo any sort of serious mainstream revival.

I am of course talking about the Pith Helmet.

Boaters, Panamas, Trilbies, Homburgs, Fedoras, flat-caps, panel-caps, Fez-caps, Greek fishing-caps, even the deerstalker hat made famous by Sherlock Holmes, and countless other items of headwear have all survived well into the 21st century. Most men and women would wear them anywhere and everywhere, and think absolutely nothing of it. And yet, the same freedom of movement has somehow never been afforded to the humble pith helmet, which I think is a shame, given its noble history and many excellent qualities.

This post aims to explain the wonders of the Pith Helmet. What makes it such an iconic and fascinating…well…hat…essentially, and why it lasted so long.

What Is a ‘Pith Helmet’?

The Pith Helmet is a hard-shell, high-crowned hat with a wide, sloping brim made of the ‘pith’ (soft heartwood) of the Sola plant. It’s for this reason they’re also called ‘Sola Topees’ or Sola hats. Other names include sun-hats or sun-helmets. Pith helmets are constructed thus: Soft pith from the Sola plant is placed on a mold and glued on, layer after layer, forming the shell of the helmet. The helmets are built up kind of like how you make papier-mache. Once the glue dries and a hard shell has been attained, the helmet is removed from the mold and is swathed in tight-fitting cotton to protect the shell.

Originally, this cotton covering was white, but over time, most pith helmets were stained an earthy sand colour called Khaki. This was originally a form of camouflage in the sandy regions of Africa, India and the Middle East, but soon it became standard on most pith helmets. These days, pith helmets are typically manufactured in two colours – white, and khaki. There is no real distinction between one or the other, except that white pith helmets are used largely for ceremonial roles, and khaki pith helmets are used for more practical roles.

The word ‘Khaki’ comes from the Persian word ‘Khak’, which literally means ‘soil’. Therefore – Khaki-coloured helmets were helmets which were the colour of soil, or dust. Some people in Britain still use the slang-word ‘khak’ to this day, meaning general filth, grit, grime and mess.

What are Pith Helmets Made Of?

Traditionally, pith helmets were constructed of sola pith, although when pith wasn’t available, they were also made of cork. Today, helmets tend to be made out of one or the other, depending on local resources. Pith helmets made in Vietnam (where a lot of pith helmets are made for export) are still made of traditional pith.

What is the Purpose of a Pith Helmet?

OK, they look cool…but…what the hell do they DO??

The Pith Helmet’s design was taken from the German Pickelhaube helmet (Those fancy Prussian ones with the brass spikes on top), and came into being around the mid-1800s. The Pith Helmet was designed for use in hot, dry and humid climates, such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East and India. It has a number of features which make it ideal for these kinds of conditions. Let’s see what they are…

My own pith helmet, made of cork, lined in dark khaki cotton fabric with a neatly folded puggaree around the crown. Leather chin-strap and six riveted ventilation holes. French colonial style.

The pith helmet has a high crown. This keeps the top of the helmet away from your hair and prevents sweat-buildup. The hard shell made of pith means that no matter what happens, it won’t cave in and cause sweat to build up in your hair. The helmet comes with steel-reinforced ventilation holes. The number of vent-holes varies depending on the style of helmet you have. My helmet up above is the French colonial style. These traditionally came with six vent-holes – three on each side, arranged in a triangle. Wind blowing through the vent-holes cool the head down and wick away sweat.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of the pith helmet is the wide, sloping brim. This is designed to keep the sun and rain off your face and neck. The leather belt across the front brim is actually meant to be a chin-strap, stored up there when not in use.

However, one of the most famous characteristics of the pith helmet is that it’s designed to get wet!

Soaking your Helmet

Pith helmets (Well-made ones, anyway), are designed to be soaking wet when they’re used. A good-quality cork, or pith helmet is designed to retain water. On a hot day, dunk the helmet in a bucket of water, or flip the crown upside down and fill it with water and let it soak in for a few hours. Drain off the excess water, shake the helmet to remove the runoff, and then put it on.

Out in the heat of the sun, the water evaporating from the helmet will keep you cool. The helmet’s rigid shape will stop the water getting all over you and the hard shell won’t collapse on top of your head. So long as the helmet is regularly re-hydrated, it’ll remain cool and comforting throughout the day. It was the pith helmet’s ability to act as your own personal cooling-device that made it so popular in hot and humid countries like India, Singapore, Vietnam and elsewhere.

The History of the Pith Helmet

Developed in the mid-1800s, the pith helmet was originally military-wear. It was modeled after the German Pickelhaube helmet and was issued to troops stationed in Africa, the Middle East and Asia from the 1850s up until after the Second World War. Apart from soldiers, they were also issued to police-officers in places like China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya and Australia.

Helmets were originally white, but the whiteness made the soldiers which wore them a target to the enemy. To make them less conspicuous, they covered them in dust and sand. This stained them a sandy yellow-brown hue which was named ‘Khaki’, after the Persian ‘Khak’ (‘Dirt’). This led to the helmets being manufactured in both white and khaki. The colours of the helmets issued to soldiers varied according to the uniforms they wore and the ranks they held. Badges of rank were placed on the fronts of the helmets.

The pith helmet soon became popular with Western civilians living in hot climates and it was worn by both men and women. Europeans going to South America, Panama, the Caribbean, Africa, or Asia would buy a pith helmet before going. In fact for a time it was believed that if you were going to these places, you NEEDED a pith helmet because the paler Caucasian complexion was too fragile to bear up under such strong, equatorial sunbeams. A large, broad-brimmed helmet to provide defense against the rays was essential!

Pith helmets continued to be popular, and continued to be military-issued, right up until the 1950s. Due to the wide range of locales where they saw service, pith helmets gradually developed into about half a dozen different distinct styles, each one associated with a specific country or organisation.

The Types of Pith Helmets

Over time, the pith helmet developed into about six different distinct styles, each one associated with a specific country or organisation. They were, in no particular order…

Foreign Service Helmet

The Foreign Service Helmet is the quintessential Victorian-era British pith-helmet! It conjures up images of the colonial wars of the 1800s, of Safaris in Africa, of the British Raj, of the film ‘Zulu’, and the big game hunters of old. The Foreign Service Helmet has the highest crown. It also has a protruding, beak-like rim and sloping back. These are designed to keep sun and rain off the face and neck. They were available in both white and Khaki.

French-Style Pith Helmet

To protect them from the heat in such places as French North Africa, French Guiana and French Indochina, the French Army adopted this pith helmet. It’s got a low crown, it’s oval-shaped with a wide, turned-down brim. It has six vent-holes (three on each side) for cooling the head.

USMC Pith Helmet

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) adopted the pith helmet as part of its uniform starting in the early 1900s. At first-glance, it looks just like the French one, but it’s got a much higher crown and more vent-holes. Twelve, instead of six.

Bombay Bowler

Winston Churchill wearing a Bombay Bowler

Named after the Indian city of Bombay, this type of pith helmet was more ‘hat-like’ than other helmets and was designed more for civilian wear than military use, despite this, it still had the same characteristics as all the other helmets – it was lightweight and retained water for use in hot climates. While other helmets were more rounded, the Bombay Bowler has a flatter crown and straighter edges.

Vietnamese Pith Helmet

Worn by the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, this pith helmet is one of the most distinctive styles ever made. It is the only commonly-accepted version of the pith-helmet which isn’t white or khaki – but green, to go with classic Military Green of army uniforms. It’s also the most ‘bowl-like’ of the helmets, having a uniform dome-like crown and rim.

The Safari Helmet

The more generic ‘safari’ helmet

 

The last style of pith-helmet is the safari helmet. This varied significantly in size, crown-shape and height, and the number of ventilation holes. It doesn’t conform to any particular style previously mentioned. It most closely resembles the French-style pith helmet, but the positioning and number of the vent-holes does not always match the traditional three on each side, set out in an upright triangle.

These various styles of pith helmets remained common up until the mid-20th century but are now usually worn only for costumes, parade/ceremonial uniforms, or historical reenactments. That said, a well-made pith helmet is still one which will fulfill its original functions and capabilities as orginally intended. The next time you head out into the wilderness with a break-open shotgun and a yen for some big game, perhaps bring one along. If you go camping in the bush, the desert or the outback, one of these might prove useful. If nothing else, it’ll help hold a small amount of water if you turn it upside-down! They’re whimsical, useful, classic, charming and practical.

 

The Gang’s All Here: A Full and Complete Puzzle-Box!

It has taken six months of searching, but I finally have a full set of FIVE BOBBINS for my Singer 128k puzzle-box! Huzzah! Here they are:

Five bobbins in their holder, all in a neat little row!

This is the full and complete puzzle-box!

From Left to Right:

1)
– Tucker-Foot
– Original green paper SINGER needle-packet. Filled with foil-paper, and complement of 12 needles in their little paper sleeves. (wrapped in tape to preserve it and prevent further deterioration. Needles are still accessible and usable, though).
– Clip with the original complement of five bobbins.

2)
– Braider-Foot.
– Hemmer-clamp Foot.
– Ruffler-foot.
– Quilting Foot (not part of the original box. But chucked it in anyway)

3)
– Rack of five hemmer-feet, ranging from 1/8th inch, to 1in.
– Binder-foot.

4)
– Shirring plate
– Underbraider
– Hole-puncher (extreme right)
– Screwdriver (next-right)
– Needle-threader
– Seam-guide + screw.
– Bias Gauge

This is more-or-less how the box would’ve appeared (there were variations on this throughout the roughly 30 years that these boxes were produced) when it was purchased, brand-new, ca. 1900. There were a total of fourteen different variations on Singer puzzle-boxes, and they were produced for Singer vibrating-shuttle machines (Singer VS2, 27-28 series) and for Singer 15 series machines. When and why they ceased production seems to be unknown.

Here’s the machine and all its other bits and pieces, along with the unfolded puzzle-box:

Other attachments include the buttonholer (big box in front of the case-lid), the blind-stitcher (left), zig-zagger (right, next to the machine-bed), and the unfolded puzzle-box! Now full and complete. And a traditional green “SINGER” attachments box stored inside the machine’s compartment under the crank-handle.