It must seem like one of the odder ideas for a book – page after page of old postcards, with just a sentence or two below each image as a caption. But I can explain.
About a year ago, on a quiet day at the office, I started posting postcards on Twitter. Not for their collectable beauty or even for their historic interest, but simply because I had one or two knocking about the house and the messages intrigued me. But as soon as I saw them pop up on my phone, I was hooked. I could see that, presented this way, the messages on the most ordinary old postcards were loaded with a humour and poignancy that, despite their age, is startlingly fresh. Something like gold glitters behind the faded ink and smudged postmarks.
And so began a strange, between-doing-proper-work mission to gather a horde of abandoned postcards and bring them to a new, digital audience as Postcard From The Past, a rolling anthology of micro-stories, misshapen one-liners and cries for help. Who wouldn’t be beguiled by messages as cryptic, as unwittingly Carry On, or as artlessly pure as these?
We have all observed how people don’t customarily send postcards any more. But we did, by the million. My role in this enterprise is to gather an Everest of old cards then chip away to leave just the telling message. I’m a fossil-hunter. I’m a ventriloquist. I’m a re-animator. I’m a bloke with his hand in a big box of slightly smelly old postcards.
All those hours earwigging on holiday-makers from half a century ago is informative, too. It is interesting to remember how hit-and-miss long car journeys used to be. (‘The exhaust on Dick’s Viva has collapsed.’) How we used to stay in ‘digs’. The time when window-shopping was ‘shop-gazing’, and tea-cosies mattered. To read these messages fifty years later is to stroll into a world that I hadn’t noticed had slipped away. Of course the cards, with their forget-me-not skies, take us back to our own holidays – sandwiches in the car in the rain, lost sandals and sunny days that lasted for weeks. But memories are slippery. Do I remember spotting Terry Scott at Paignton Zoo or did I read that on a postcard?
A lot of the cards are very funny but I’m not laughing at anyone but myself. It’s our own lives that are written on these cards and if, by isolating some words from their context, a cliché feels more raw or more real, or the everyday absurdities of life make you laugh out loud, then I’m at least half-way to doing my job. It strikes me that the past is funny and odd and serious and heart-breaking and packed full of people who feel a lot like us.
When I pull a card out of one of the stacks of boxes in the garage and a phrase leaps out at me, I laugh with delight: I’ve received a stupid gift from across the decades. What a treat for me to bring it to light on Twitter or – better yet – in a book.