Swedish Design in the ’30s

Sleeve 1 small

Sleeve 1b small

In 1932, Erik Ljungberg established a record label, AB Sonora, produced entirely in Sweden. Sonoras were sold originally at 2 krone but the price was reduced to 1.65 krone during 1933. Ljungberg sold the label to Philips in 1958. The company also produced a portable gramophone.

Although all that’s interesting, what really grabs my attention about this record sleeve is the fabulous design. There are two fonts in classic black and red. I particularly love the uppercase E & S and lower case f & r of the script font. The contrasting blocky font has just a few subtle serifs and is mainly used in uppercase. One text block reads “Giv arbete åt svenska arbetare” which translates as “Give work to Swedish workers”.

And just look at that great little logo at the foot of the sleeve. Feet like musical notes and a disc-shaped body – but what’s with the little flag apparently flying from the bridge of his nose? Who cares when it’s designed with such flair?

[More information on Sonora can be found here.]

Tags: , , , , , ,


The Quack – Molly Mallard Speaks

Mrs Molly Mallard small

“Is it OK to take your picture?”

“Why yes dear, that’s fine.”

“Your mate seems a little disturbed by my interviewing you – he’s got his head stuck under his feathers.”

“Oh don’t mind him. I said to him not half an hour ago, I said ‘Maurice, it’s very nice being up high on this wall, but we’re only going to draw attention to ourselves.’ I mean, it’s not exactly natural is it? Ducks on walls?”

“Actually, retro plaster ducks are very – no, never mind – you’re right, it’s not very – usual.”

“I said ‘On the river, Maurice – that’s where we belong – high living isn’t for the likes of us’ but he’s got it into his head that he has to make a – what does he call it – a statement – I ask you. Anyway, here we are on this blessed wall and I don’t mind telling you, I’m starting to get a little dizzy.”

“You do look great up there though. Not many ducks have your natural composure.”

“Thank you dear. [Ruffles feathers proudly] Well, if we’re here for everyone to see, the least we can do is smile is what I say.”

“I do appreciate it.”

“Not at all dear – now would you like my other side? Maurice always says it’s my best.”

“I think I’ve got all I need now, thanks.”

Photo © Rachel Cowan

Photos, Stories

Tags: , , ,

My Linlithgow Burgesses


In 1840, two unlikely branches of my family met. The Bensons from Midlothian were powdermakers, miners and labourers. This group of families lived for many years in and around Glencorse. The local cemetery is stuffed with their remains, if you’ll pardon the expression.

It’s easy to go sideways in the family (Robert, whose brother was Francis and who had young Francis and so on and so on) but not as simple to go backwards. The earliest person I have is the wife, Isabella, of a Benson who would have been born around 1770.

But it’s the very first Robert Benson who married a Spence. Or to be accurate, a Thom. And Margaret, the bride, was from a long line of burgesses in the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow.

When I began researching this family line, I discovered that I wasn’t alone – contacts flooded in with stacks of information. Sadly, a lot of it turned out to be contradictory – and who to believe and why? Overwhelmed by the task, I set ‘the Linlithgow lot’ aside for a good while and only returned to it fairly recently. This time, I’ve done the research myself using (hopefully) ironclad sources.

The first surprise was one that’s all too common. This girl had the surname Thom but there was no marriage. I thought of a commonlaw marriage but the truth was that an already married man – Mr Thom, the exciseman – fathered two children on Helen Stanners. That wife and six children I’d been following? Somebody else’s.

Having overcome that hurdle, I began to find the families of Stanners and Spence. And they’re infinitely more interesting than an unfaithful exciseman.

Linlithgow is a town full of history. Mary of Guise, wife of James V of Scotland, was delivered of a daughter here in 1542, who was to become the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots. Linlithgow Palace, which royal princes altered and improved through the years, was considered an architectural gem of the Renaissance. Prince Charles Edward Stewart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) stayed there in 1745, but after fires started by the Duke of Cumberland in 1746, the palace burned to the ground. The ruins of it have lain unroofed and uninhabited since then.

The River Avon flowed through the town and was vital to the success of the leather industry which sprang up in the 1600s and continued for two centuries. My ancestors tanned the leather and made shoes from it for export. This brought them some reward, and there are several generations of both Stanners and Spences who were made burgesses of the town.

I’m still deep in the labrynth that is Scots history, but so far I’ve discovered that to be a burgess could mean several things. It could simply be a man who owned some land (and that could be a very small amount of land, say enough to build a house on). Or it could mean a man who was a member of a prestigious crafts guild, and there were certainly Guilds of Tanners and Cordiners. I think that at least some of my people will appear on Burgess Rolls, although the privilege of being a Burgess was also granted to those outside the burgh. A case of profiting by who you know.

It was a thing to be proud of, being a burgess, and this is illustrated by a rather grand tombstone in the kirkyard which was erected by one William Law in honour of his grandparents, George Stanners and Margaret Spence. William was himself a ‘feur of Glasgow & burgess here’.

I’m beginning to look at extracts from the commisary courts whose records are kept in the National Archives of Scotland and I found Charles Inglis vs George Stanners in January of 1769. The commisary courts were often concerned with moral matters as well as matters of money, and I will have to look at the full record to find out why Mr Inglis and Mr Stanners were facing each other in court. I’m also going to look into the system of apprenticeships – there were two George Stanners, father and son – could George Jnr have been apprenticed to his father?

These families probably owned little pockets of land on Linlithgow’s High Street and there is a record of a William Law in his shoe shop in the 1820s. I think it’s a fair bet that he was a descendant of the man who erected a monument to his grandparents.

Finally, looking into these families has also been an exploration into random spelling. Elizabeth Dow, whose father was James Dove. And Christian Cochran who was variously Christian or Christean and Cochran or Chochren or even Chochran. The Georges get off lightly, only once being spelled, rather Germanically, Georg.

Photo of Linlithgow by Daniel Morrison

Family History

Tags: , , , , , , , ,


The bucketmen and the cafe

binman tech small

I was taking a cut-through from St Stephen Street and blocking my view (it was stopped at traffic lights) was this rubbish lorry. We used to call them the bucketmen and I’m not sure when buckets became bins. Perhaps around the same time that the word lorry was replaced with the Americanised truck?

It’s not what one would call a beautiful view, but just look at the design that’s gone into it. The colour scheme on the buttons, the shapes and spacing – so much detail on what is, after all, a completely utilitarian vehicle. I got just one shot before the lights changed and the truck moved off.

glace noir small

It was one of those blustery, chilly days and I was at the front at Silverknowes. I went into the little cafe which is one of the most uninspiring places I know to have a cup of coffee. Approaching the counter, I heard two voices yelling, a man and a woman. The argument was conducted in Russian and the man was definitely getting the worst of it. My genteel cough to draw attention to myself went unheard, and eventually I joined in the yelling HELLO CAN I HAVE A COFFEE PLEASE?

Hugging my insipid coffee (nuked in the microwave) I gazed out at the bleak beach, the tide a mere dribble. The mobile ice cream ad seemed completely incongruous – a gloriously grim landscape. Once I’d thawed out, I took some pictures. As I was doing this, the woman from the cafe came past me and sniffed contemptuously.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


Tags: , , , , ,

After The Show

after the show small

Street theatre’s a hard gig, take it from me. The excited screams of children, photographers snapping away from every angle and traffic noise that can overwhelm the sound system. And the weather’s always a worry – will the gear stand up to a sudden gust of wind or downpour of rain?

Thank goodness the audience doesn’t realise all this. Of course, when you’re on, all of that vanishes. The body’s aches and pains, the worries of everyday life simply cease to exist. But now — after — the energy that you needed for the show slowly uncoils.

That aching shoulder makes presence known again and your costume feels itchy and heavy. Your make up runs streaky with sweat. And tired. God, you hadn’t realised how tired you were. That first ciggie feels blissful, even though you know it’s bad for you. You can finally let your face sink into repose. You don’t want to talk to anyone yet, just grab a moment for yourself to recover from all that intensity. Relief and resignation are washing over you. It’s done, over, nothing you can do about it now. Tomorrow’s another show, another day, another place. The doubts will come later: was it ok, was I ok? How was the audience, will we be asked back next year?

Your stomach starts to rumble. The set-up tonight took longer than expected, so you missed dinner. Now you’re longing for fast, greasy food. You could murder a long, cool beer too.

Then a couple of hours spent laughing and joking with your fellow performers, congratulating each other on your collective brilliance. Trying your best as always to ignore the producer who’s hell-bent on giving you notes on what “wasn’t quite as good as usual” in today’s show.

But for now, it’s just the moment. The moment that is after.

Photo © Rachel Cowan


Tags: , , ,

Murder on the Hampden Savannah


Graham Gnu v Senga Leo
Scene I: Background to the case

Graham Gnu’s real name was Wullie – Wullie Wildebeest – but he hated it. Wullie sounded so old-fashioned, so uncool. When he was a calf, the others would ask if he sat on a bucket and wore tackity boots. So when he was old enough, he picked the name Graham to fit his identity as a gnu – not as a wildebeest. His younger brother, who hero worshipped Wullie Graham, followed his lead and took the name George.

Graham and George were close, very close. They watched each others’ backs. Graham was fast on the gallop, but George’s sense of smell was so superior even for a gnu that he could raise the alarm when the South Side pride was half a mile away. Only George, it was said, could identify each lion by its individual smell.

The South Side pride was led by Big Jimmy. Sporting a magnificent black mane, he had a reputation to maintain. They all knew that roaring ‘Heh Jimmy’ at him even in jest wasn’t a good move unless they wanted a limp that would last a fortnight.

The girls were Phemie, Tracy and Senga. Phemie was getting a bit long in the tooth (when she breathed on you, the smell was enough to turn your stomach) but she was still the leader. She was Jimmy’s first choice for mating too but, as she’d told the other girls one day while

relaxing under a tree, this was a mixed blessing as Jimmy was a’ mane an’ nae bollocks. Tracy was Phemie’s daughter and her mother despaired of her ever making a kill on her own. Kids, you bring them up, you think that’s the job done and still they cannae kill a defenceless calf! Senga was the youngest and the most ambitious – she’d been known to stalk a full grown elephant until someone put her right.There were always half-grown cubs kicking around too – not totally up to the job yet but certainly quite enough to put a gnu off his grass.

Graham never wanted to be one of the herd. He was born into it, of course, streaming across the savannah at Hampden with ten thousand others, but his heart just wasn’t in it. He knew there could be more to life. The day he trimmed his straggly whiskers and slipped on a leather jacket was the day he knew there was no turning back.

He told George he was leaving the herd. He spoke of the family members they’d lost to rushing rivers (nobody in the family but him had bothered to learn to swim) and to predation by the South Side pride. He said there was a better life out there, beyond the Byres Road crossing. He didn’t expect that his brother would try to argue him out of it. It’s just how it is, Graham – we’re gnus – don’t fight it! Graham was gutted but he knew that a gnu had to do what a gnu has to do.

He turned and walked away from George. He stopped watching George’s back. And that’s when it happened.

Gnu v Leo
Scene II: The Court
Learned Counsel for the Defence: Peter Pardus Esq (QC)
Learned Counsel for the Prosecution: Quentin Quagga Esq (QC)
Presiding magistrate: The Honourable Lord Aquila

The morning’s hot and the court is packed. Bovine, equine and feline scent glands are working overtime. At 10am precisely, The Honourable Lord Aquila leaves his chambers and enters the courtoom. Settling his ruffled feathers back into place, he fixes the room with a yellow-eyed glare. Quentin Quagga QC shifts uneasily under the beak’s gaze.

Good lord, it’s that idiot Quagga – thought he’d been disbarred. They say he’s doing this pro bono – friend of the deceased or some such nonsense thinks his Lordship. Ah, we’ve got Pardus, have we? He’ll give us some fireworks. Stout fellow – wouldn’t like to get in his way though.

Prosecuting Counsel Peter Pardus QC has casually draped his body along the back of the bench, only inches from a row of gazelle, who shrink back in their seats with terror-stricken eyes. Hmm pity I had breakfast at chambers – I quite fancy one of those right now he thinks.


Graham Gnu, the plaintiff, wears a zoot suit with very wide lapels and a check so loud the Court Reporter has to don sunglasses when looking his way. He’s wearing a Tagheuer watch on his left front hock. As it has no sunrise/sunset setting, it’s largely for show.

In front of him is a thick sheaf of papers which forms the basis for his case against Senga Leo, the youngest lioness of the South Side pride. He’s trying in vain to stop his lawyer, Quagga, from nervously snacking on the paperwork. I wish Quentin hadn’t worn that wig – it’s so small it must have been made for a Shetland pony he thinks.

Graham is here to see justice done for the murder of his brother George. He’ll never forgive himself for letting his attention wander that fateful day. But this time the lions have to pay, he vows.

He’s already lodged an objection to the appointment of Peter Pardus for the Defence. He’ll terrorise the prosecution witnesses into saying anything he wants them to say – everyone knows a leopard never changes its spots. Graham knows too that Aquila likes Pardus – there’s even been talk of them lunching together on breast of dik-dik.

The defendant, Senga, has dressed demurely for her time in court, eyes lowered, paws together. She looks like such a nice pussycat comes the whisper from the public gallery, where groups of ladies in summer frocks have spread the contents of their picnic hampers. They’re making a day of it and, although they wouldn’t dare admit it to each other, they’re hoping for some blood before teatime.

Senga is surrounded by the members of her pride (a visiting auntie is babysitting the cubs). Even Big Jimmy’s here, although he looks bored already. She’s more nervous than she cares to admit and however hard she tries to control it, her tail is twitching furiously.

Aquila makes a final adjustment to his second-best wig. His wigs are all custom made from the fur of small mammals, as befits a beak at the height of his profession, but this one’s making him itch. He really must speak to his wigmaker, he thinks. And if there isn’t live rabbit for luncheon, he’s not going to be happy.

As a final surge of skittish equine teenagers rush in, noisily packing themselves into the public benches, the call is given to close the courtroom doors. GNU v LEO is underway.

Illustrations by Alan Lennon

Tags: , , ,

The Portugese Art of Fado


The Portugese music known as fado is intense, heartfelt and inextricably linked to a deep sense of loss as depicted here in a romantic painting by José Malhoa. It has echoes of African slave rhythms and a distinct Arabic influence.

The most popular form of fado emerged in Lisbon’s working-class districts such as Alfama. Maria Severa Onofriana (1820-1846), widely acknowledged as the greatest fadista of the 19th century, is said to have been a tall and gracious prostitute who would sing the fado and play the Portuguese guitar in taverns. To this day, female performers wear a black shawl in memory of her. Her almost mythical status was largely due to a novel by Júlio Dantas entitled A Severa. Later made into a play, it became the first Portugese talking movie, directed by Leitão de Barros.

I first found fado through the singing of Amália Rodrigues, who performed to huge acclaim worldwide. When this legendary singer died in 1999, she was given a state funeral and three days of national mourning were declared in her honour. Her CD ‘The Art of Amalia’ is a great introduction to fado and there’s also a documentary from 2000 directed by Bruno de Almeida. Here’s a modern street art stencil of her photographed by Môsieur J in Lisbon.


Contemporary fado is very much alive with the singer Mariza dubbed the new Queen of Fado (Amalia Rodrigues having held the original title). Below is a video of her on electrifying form on Jools Holland’s show.

My 78rpm record is of a performer who predates both Mariza and Amália Rodrigues. Edmundo de Bettencourt (1899-1973) was a renowned poet and singer born in Funchal, Madeira. My record is from the first series (of two) that Bettencourt made for the Columbia Graphophone Company in February 1928.


The recording took place in a former royal palace in Oporto and he was accompanied on the traditional Portugese 12 string guitar by Artur Paredes and Albano de Noronha and on viola by Mário Faria ad Fonseca, who was also the song’s composer. Teamed with ‘Mar Alto’ is Fado de Santa Cruz, composed by Fortunato Roma Da Fonseca.

Label details:
Columbia Graphophone Co. Ltd., London EC1
Brown label with ‘Magic Notes’ logo
Mar Alto (Fádo Cançáo)
Composiçăo de Mario Faria Fonséca
Dr. Edmundo de Bettencourt – Tenõr
Acompanhamento de guitarra e viola

❦ To listen, click the audio player below ❦


Tags: , , ,




Down an alley, through a gate, in the bowels of a tenement block, a car park. Above it a garden shed painted white: clotheslines and bars on windows. But now it’s night. No sheets flapping in the wind. Nobody pottering in the shed with next year’s dahlias. The darkness is navy blue. And it’s quiet. Very quiet.The car, centred in a pool of light at the bottom of the ramp, is ready. Any moment those headlamps could snap on, the engine roar into life. It’s waiting, that’s all, just waiting. For now.

the curves

I was roaming around the Colonies and parked there was this car. Don’t ask me what make it was, I’m a complete duffer on cars. I can only tell you it was of that era (the 1950s perhaps?) that is now known as a classic car. Big and handsome and glossily virile it was. But then I saw the front lights and those sinuous curves – a sexily feminine touch on a very masculine car.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


Tags: , , , , ,

Aunt Effie’s Wedding

Aunt Effie’s wedding photo. The guests, their ages ranging from age 73 to 2 months, are posing dutifully for the photographer on a fine June day in Hamilton, Lanarkshire. Close family members of the bride and groom are packed together on benches in the front row and the rest of the guests are ranged behind, groom’s folk to the photographer’s left, bride’s to his right. A solemn looking young minister stands directly behind the happy couple. There’s almost a complete set of three generations of Bensons present, although the second wife of the bride’s grandfather is not in the photo. There are at least four individuals named Robert Benson. And the bride’s sister, Retta, married five years before, has a two month old baby on her knee – my mother. The men, wearing heather in their buttonholes, are almost all employed in the coal mines, excepting my grandfather Somerville, who is a butcher. Aunt Effie, by marrying Tom Wilson, is marrying up. He is at the time of his marriage a bank clerk and will later rise to the position of bank manager. Five of the men, including the groom, sport stiffened wing collars and seven of the women have furs draped around their necks, notwithstanding the season.

Family History

Tags: , , , , , , ,


A Village City

‘A Village City’ was giclee printed at A0 size onto specially treated canvas and it looked pretty good. In fact, almost all the digital art looks a thousand times better when seen big.

‘A Village City’ © Rachel Cowan



A maniac is a madman, right? And not just any madman, but an escaped-from-the-asylum, Hammer-horror, axe-wielding madman. Tell me that’s not what you imagine when you read the word. The early Greeks, who gave us the term, believed that madness was a divine punishment for former sins.

Many psychiatric and psychological conditions include the word mania. And one of them is manic depression. Nowadays, it goes by a more politically correct name – bipolar disorder.

Clinically speaking:

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depressive disorder or bipolar affective disorder, is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes a category of mood disorders defined by the presence of one or more episodes of abnormally elevated mood clinically referred to as mania or, if milder, hypomania. Individuals who experience manic episodes also commonly experience depressive episodes or symptoms, or mixed episodes in which features of both mania and depression are present at the same time. These episodes are usually separated by periods of “normal” mood, but in some individuals, depression and mania may rapidly alternate, known as rapid cycling. Extreme manic episodes can sometimes lead to psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations. The disorder has been subdivided into bipolar I, bipolar II, cyclothymia and other types, based on the nature and severity of mood episodes experienced; the range is often described as the bipolar spectrum.

You can take that definition and run with it if you like. You can tell yourself that such familiar names as Einstein, Van Gogh and Beethoven were all bipolar, that you’re in good company. But how bipolar disorder works in the life of an ordinary human being is something else.

You may be called over-dramatic from an early age. Over-emotional, too prone to wearing your heart on your sleeve. Over-sensitive and cursed/blessed with an over-vivid imagination.

But as an adult, when the switch in your brain (set permanently on a random fluctuating pattern) is on Up, people will describe you as charming, vivacious and charismatic. They applaud your talent. You are a high functioning member of society with great communication skills. You possess a brain that’s sharp as a tack and that’s simply stuffed with creative ideas. You’re a risk taker, courageous and bold. Although some will find you a little intimidating or fast-paced, you’re generally well-liked and people see nothing abnormal in your behaviour.

Perceptive people, however, may notice that you have an edge of desperation. And they’d be right, for underneath, there is indeed a desperation to hang onto the Up, to keep the creativity, the sharpness. A desperation to finish projects that you started with such immense enthusiasm before the switch moves to Down. A desperation not to let people down who you care about. And a desperation not to let people see how your inner life really is.

Being Up is, quite literally, an intoxicating experience. Passions and ideas flood into your brain and you live in a brightly coloured world where every new idea is the one. Sometimes you can’t keep up with what your brain’s throwing at you and even your speech centre becomes garbled. It’s a runaway train but it’s damned exhilarating. Up’s darker side though is Signore Agitato, when the train’s come off the tracks and you’re trying to control those racing thoughts by sheer willpower.

In an effort to become more balanced, you try every medical treatment the world of psychiatry knows. None makes a significant difference, although the side effects increasingly debilitate you. You undergo long periods of therapeutic counselling and find a deeper understanding of your condition. Applied to your everyday life, that understanding changes nothing much. Eventually, you give up and go it alone.

You wrestle with the question of disclosure. You know deep down it’s a lose lose situation. If you tell people about your condition, chances are they’ll be sceptical ‘everyone has mood swings, what’s so different about you?’ or downright judgemental (see the opening paragraph). They may argue that you’re not bipolar, you just suffer from ‘a little depression now and then.’ Most of all, they’ll be damned uncomfortable with your disclosure and many may decide to give you a wide berth from now on. Accordingly, you spend your life alternating between telling people and keeping it a dark, deadly secret.

The largely hidden world of Down is a bleak one. Your previously sharp brain has grown a fleece of ewe’s wool and the world of colours has turned to a blurry grey. You’re physically exhausted and your motivation to even get out of bed is minimal. You sometimes remember that you do have meaningful talents and skills but as these completely vanish in Down, you can’t believe in the veracity of this and downgrade them to meaningless.

In an attempt to escape this blackness, you indulge in self-destructive behaviour. Anything all-consuming will do – booze, drugs, compulsive eating, gambling, sex. These incapacitate you in various ways so that you are at least distracted from the black hell of depression. But they will also drive away even more people in your life.

You make excuses for missed deadlines and meetings. Then eventually you simply cut off the phone and don’t reply to your emails. No lie would be convincing enough. And even if you could convince people, there’s no way of telling when you’re going to be Up again and functioning.

Over time, the Ups will be more and more shortlived and perhaps more extreme and the Downs more sustained. The Ups become a desperate race to accomplish things before the Down hits. It’s at this stage that disappointed friends will begin to drift away, unable to cope with the unremitting rollercoaster ride. They’ll go in search of more normal company. Who can blame them?

Now you find it hard to plan a life, because the pattern is so random. If you promise to be somewhere on a certain day three months hence, where will your mood be by then? Your confidence plummets and you stop trusting your own instincts. Was this or that decision made when you were overly manic? Severely depressed?

Anxiety starts to tag alongside Signore Agitato. The normal filters that allow you to function begin to rust up and your world grows smaller and smaller. You fear that you have become less and less socially acceptable and that perhaps it’s best not to inflict yourself on others.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have around you at this stage loving, understanding and supportive family and friends who are in it for the long haul. This can be crucial to how the life of someone with bipolar disorder pans out.

But from everything I’ve told you, you can see just how corrosive a condition it is. It’s hardly surprising then that people who are bipolar will more likely than not lead a solitary life. That they will often be hospitalised at least once. And that they will have a high suicide rate. It doesn’t seem like such a good payoff for a few fleeting moments of high creativity and charisma.


All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


Tags: , , , , , , ,