Saturday, March 28, 2009

Street View abecedary: J is for John, but which John?

Strange how, at least if you're as word-obsessed as me, a view can rearrange itself around a piece of lettering. This stretch of Stockwell Road is in many respects rather generically contemporary, for a long-timescale, fairly cynical value of contemporary: some boxy 60s or 70s flats, a boarded-up shop and a fried-chicken francise - which might be very good, for all I know; there's a branch of the same microchain in Sydenham, but I haven't tried it. And then there are the fading painted advertisements on the gable end, which suddenly anchor the picture in the 40s or 50s:

And in Googlecontext:

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The first product advertised is easy to identify: everyone knows Picture Post. Its photography was famous, and its publication dates place these advertisements somewhere between 1938 and 1957. The second, broken panel is trickier. John who? If it's another magazine, then the obvious answer is John Bull, a popular weekly that seems to have been known at different times for rabble-rousing patriotism and nice illustrations. (The two aren't mutually exclusive, of course.)

Wikipedia is entertainingly vague about John Bull, noting a scatter of dates when it definitely existed and concluding that it "may have closed in 1962". You can do much better with the British Library newspaper catalogue, which traces the main 20th-century carrier of the name - the magazine that was famously edited by Horatio Bottomley - from 1906 to 1958, then through a flurry of minor rebranding as it swallows a couple of other magazines, and then to a relaunch in February 1960 as something called Today, which itself comes to an end without any word of continuation in 1964. John Bull clocks up the best part of 2,800 issues in 54 years, which suggests more or less continuous weekly publication over that span. It's easy to imagine it being advertised alongside Picture Post.

That would have been a nice neat story, and I wish I could fully believe it. I had thought the two magazines shared an ownership, but it looks like that's wrong - Wiki does have Hulton, which owned Picture Post, selling out to Odhams, which owned John Bull, but only after Picture Post had closed. Another piece of evidence is a selection of John Bull covers on sale at the Advertising Archive. These have good, consistent branding, in a series of different serif styles that have little in common with the punchy, jauntily arranged sans on this wall. I suppose it could be a John Bull look from before the Advertising Archives' holdings - those seem to start in 1946 - but it could easily be another John altogether.

You'd need street directories and old photographs to get the full story, I suspect - Google, even with Street View, has its limits. This series will continue to explore them on Wednesday, when my alphabetical hopscotch will land on the letter B.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Match King and the fading of fraud

Frank Partnoy's The Match King - a biography of Ivar Krueger, by some accounts the greatest financial swindler who ever lived - has the appearance of a book born under a lucky star. The author's previous works include Infectious Greed, a warning about the dangers of modern Wall Street complexities. So this feels like his moment. My friend Robert Colvile has said so in print. There was even time, before publication, to put a reference to Bernard Madoff into the introduction.

It isn't that simple, I'm afraid. Despite that mention of Madoff, The Match King is not prepared to give its subject the treatment that the times might now demand. In its conclusion, he is praised for his "financial innovation". He was, we are told, the first man to evade tax and scrutiny using Lichtenstein; the inventor of many brilliant schemes for handing investors apparent ownership stakes in a company without surrendering any control. Many of his ideas are still in corporate use today! I'm sure all this seemed less equivocally good a few months ago. Partnoy reserves judgment on just how much of Krueger's fall was panic and the effects of the depression - he was Time's cover boy for October 28, 1929, and seemed at first to be surviving, but ran out of credit-lines in a now rather familiar way - and how much was an unravelling swindle. Perhaps judgment has to be reserved, although it makes for an unsatisfying book. Let me summarise.

Ivar Krueger was "the Match King" because he built a match monopoly in Sweden, and came to America in the early 1920s asking for investment on the prospectus that he would use it to buy match monopolies in other countries. Tobacco was everywhere; the Bic lighter was 50 years away; matches were a big deal. Krueger paid dividends upwards of 20 per cent over a sustained period, and Partnoy is careful to establish that he didn't just do this out of subsequent investors' money - the match factories and their profits were real, and he did succeed in buying several monopolies.

On the other hand, Partnoy lays out several sets of alarming facts without quite drawing conclusions. Krueger apparently had a habit, whenever a deal was signed, of commissioning a rubber stamp of the other party's signature. We get nothing about any practical use he may have made of these souvenirs. He died - a suicide or a suspicious death - with his empire under great strain, and his reputation was destroyed when his associates tried to rescue the business using a document they found in his office safe. It was a monopoly agreement with Mussolini's Italy; and, as they subsequently discovered, it was a crude forgery. But Krueger doesn't appear to have told anyone about it - he merely hinted that something big was in the offing - or tried to use it himself. What gives? Then there is his preference for entrusting his most essential business to underqualified people he could control completely, rather than to anyone who might challenge him; and the way that the most important details of his empire remained inside his head.

It is the reason given for his vagueness that seems most suspicious to me. The case was that he couldn't give details on what he was doing with investors' money, because the details of his negotiations with foreign governments could bring those governments down. This is a confidence-trickster pitch: you elicit trust by admitting that you are trying to get one over on somebody - somebody else. It also plays to American assumptions about the venality of all other countries. "You sound like a conman" is far from a conclusive case, however, and if Partnoy is right we lack the detail to ever know exactly what Krueger was up to.

JK Galbraith thought Kreuger's story could function as an immunising memory - a reminder that this is a kind of person to be cautious of, fully crooked or otherwise, with sincerity possibly more dangerous than cynicism. That clearly isn't working. His top Google results, which are probably what passes these days for the verdict of history, include several defences and celebrations, and a get-rich-quick site with his name as the brand. Will today's fraudsters slip into a similar soft focus? They are probably better documented - but that may merely mean we have too much, rather than too little, information to be certain.

A Street View abecedary: R is for Regen's

So I was fiddling with Google Street View, and it occurred to me that my long-in-abeyance London letters series, about the lovely vernacular lettering you can see on London's streets, would now be childishly easy to revive: Google has taken all the photographs. No more blurred shots! Or at least, no more blurred shots that are my fault. This could actually be good now.

I'm going to start the new, sinister-global-conglomerate-powered series on Rye Lane, Peckham, a classic slice of shabby south London full of shops and signs of wildly divergent age and type. This is a cropped screengrab of my favourite combination:

And here it is in Googlecontext:

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Now, the first thing I like about this is the hand-cut irregular charm of the sign, and the way it clashes with the intended art-deco sleekness. Look at the difference in emphasis between the upper-case 'R' and the lower-case letters next to it, the strangeness of the lower-case 'g', the extreme slope on 'for', the vestigial apostrophe.

But what makes it treasurable is that, to judge by the scuffing on some of the letters and the mess either side of the panel, this sign has been rescued from behind several erected by later retailers, because the owner of the lingerie shop it now advertises either (i) couldn't be bothered to put up their own sign, and instead just kept peeling back until they hit a nice one; or (ii) is impishly pleased by the description of their wares as "baby linen". Or it could be both. In any case, it's very south London.

Bonus Street View question: is it me, or has Google's privacy-protection bot blurred out the face of the shop dummy on the right?