The Aertex Years

Minor Civil Disobedience

Minor Civil Disobedience

Caught a glimpse of the Olympic Torch as it passed by earlier today – only by dint of some minor civil disobedience.  When did people start simply ignoring policemen?

Tim Lovejoy

The Olympic Torch – Tim Lovejoy

The Torch rests tonight on Tooting Common – which is just at the end of our road.  Nothing simpler then, than to wander down and pay our respects.  Except for one thing – the functionaries of the local council, who have decreed that a swathe of this common land – not theirs, ours – should be screened off to prevent anyone without a ticket seeing anything.  What?  Why?  The entire population of Tooting would fit very comfortably on the Common without it becoming particularly crowded.  There’s no need for this.  No need at all – the area could be securely cordoned without rendering it invisible.  No need, that is, except for the functionaries to make themselves seem busy and important.

Screened Off

Screened Off

No need at all – except for the functionaries to reward themselves with an extra little perk and privilege.  The tickets were free – they haven’t paid for them – but they only told themselves when and where they could be found.  Not advertised to the rest of us at all.  They could be picked up at various local libraries – but not during the regular day when an ordinary resident might come across them – no, no, no – just for one single hour on one single evening a week ago, while we were all having our supper.  By the time the word got out, the functionaries (allowing themselves four each) had scooped them all up for themselves and their cronies.  Here’s the smug announcement on the website: “Only ticket holders will be admitted. There are no more tickets available”.  Quite contemptible.


Croquet – not featured at the Olympics since 1900

The last time the Olympic Games came to London was 1948 – the year Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four – he knew a thing or two about bureaucrats and their privileges – shame it’s all come to pass.  I’ll leave that thought there.

Olympics 1948

The London Olympics 1948

The Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime experience they say, although not always and not quite.  I was born in London just days before the 1948 Games – the Austerity Olympics, the Shoestring Games, the Make-Do-And-Mend Games, the Ration-Book Olympics, they were called, put on zero cost to the taxpayer, the entire budget well under a million pounds (nowhere near that actually), nothing freshly built, athletes housed in barracks and schools,

London in 1948

London in 1948

London still peppered with bombsites and debris.  But a London bright and shining with post-war optimism – the National Health Service was launched the same month – a London that still made things.  Here’s the official souvenir book.

The Aertex Years

The Aertex Years

What a different world it was – bright and breezy advertisements for proper products.  These were the Aertex Years – healthy and wholesome family life.  Proper light-bulbs which did what they were meant to do, our usage of electricity sustainably limited by the natural order of things – the meter running out, a fuse going, or a random blackout.  Proper toothpaste with peroxide in it.  Proper cigarettes “specially made” to prevent sore throats.  Proper manly things like catarrh pastilles in case they didn’t.

Proper Light Bulbs

Proper Light Bulbs

In 1948 the Olympic torch arrived at Dover only the night before the Games began – 50,000 turned out to greet it (without having to acquire tickets) – a proper relay of proper runners reached Maidstone by midnight, hastening it the 140 miles to Wembley by teatime the next day.  Carried into the stadium by “a Cambridge Blue” – we were still a reticent people with a proper and dignified disregard of ‘celebrity’.

Craven A

Craven A

A proper opening ceremony – boy-scouts as stewards – national anthem – parade of nations – Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the massed bands of the Brigade of Guards – the King – fanfare of trumpets – pigeons of peace – twenty-one gun salute – arrival of torch – lighting the flame – the Olympic Hymn (words from Kipling) as the flag is raised – Hallelujah Chorus – Olympic Oath delivered by “an athlete” – Recessional – National Anthem.  Cost virtually nothing – and what the hell else do you need?

Opening Ceremony 1948

Opening Ceremony 1948

OK – it didn’t go entirely without a hitch.  Sir Malcolm had to be contacted by field-telephone to be told he’d missed his cue.  It was a scorching hot day and the brass instruments were half-melted out of tune – “a bit like taking a jellyfish for a walk”, remarked Sir Malcolm.  And maybe a few of the pigeons didn’t make it.  But, by and large, no-one really noticed or cared (watch the video).  This was London rising proudly and inexorably from the rubble of the London Can Take It  years.

Fannie Blankers Koen

Fanny Blankers-Koen

The star of the Games was the remarkable Francina “Fanny” Elsje Blankers-Koen – “the flying housewife” – thirty-year-old mother of two, winner of four gold medals, and absolute heroine to an entire generation who had lost the best years of the physical prime to the war.  My mother, who saw her run, could never speak of her without a tear in her eye.  The very same Fanny Blankers-Koen whom the numpties at Transport for London missed off the first version of their souvenir Olympic Legends Tube Map – as well as doing their best to deter everyone from enjoying the Games.

Proper Toothpaste

Proper Toothpaste

Listen TfL – if London can cope with 80,000 going to Twickenham, 60,000 going to the Emirates, and 40,000 going to Stamford Bridge – all on the same day – as well as everything else that might happen on a regular Saturday – then 80,000 going to Stratford during the school holidays when no-one much is around and there’s not much else on shouldn’t be an issue.  It shouldn’t require dire warnings and emergency planning.  Simply running enough trains should handle it.  Can you manage that?  If any of your senior management ever actually travelled on the tube, you probably could.

The Essential Thing

The Essential Thing

And another thing – despite Wembley Stadium holding 20,000 more people than its modern counterpart, there weren’t any privileged Olympic Lanes for functionaries in 1948.  This was also the London of the anarchic Passport to Pimlico (released the following year) – we still knew perfectly well what the proper attitude was towards bureaucrats, apparatchiks and jacks-in-office.

Potter's Catarrh

Potter’s Catarrh Pastilles

But don’t get me wrong.  London can still take it – quick chorus of Noel Coward’s “London Pride” (Video Links to the right) – here’s to the best Olympics yet.


About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice introduced in 1997, served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute and at Gresham College. He teaches annually at the London Rare Books School and also organises the monthly Book Collecting Seminars at Senate House, University of London. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. A major essay on the same subject also appeared in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011”. More recently, he contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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7 Responses to The Aertex Years

  1. John Windle says:

    Well said Laurence. I blame the Americans. Oh, wait…

  2. Janet Clarke says:

    Laurence – don’t forget that we were still in the grip of The Ration Book and competitors were encouraged to take their own food and drink with them.

  3. ashrarebooks says:

    Quite so – and couldn’t have taken place at all without food-parcels from all over the world. The Americans won all the medals because they brought their own steaks. I still have my ration-book (just in case) – I produced it when asked for ID by a functionary recently.

  4. John Windle says:

    Another example of overpaid, oversexed, and over here — except in this case it’s overfed…

  5. Roger says:

    I hope you’re right about them coping. But just to do my bit to prevent the ensuing chaos. I’m staying well away.

  6. frank says:

    The ‘lanes’ are an Olympic requirement apparently, since athletes missed their events in Atlanta. To have to arrive at your event two and a half hour before it starts might be more of an issue (security checks). With the additional time needed to get into London (two hours plus), my anger at the ticketing shambles, which meant I got no tickets, has turned to relief. TV will have the best, if distant view. ‘Come on the British Road Race team, on Saturday’

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