It’s a treasurehouse of the unexpected, and I recommend it heartily if you don’t mind losing yourself for hours in what seems an alternative world – or a selection of alternative worlds.
Much of what’s there does indeed have an element of flashback, such as pages of 1970s adverts that seem as bizarre now as they were normal then. Or bygone science fiction magazines that foretell a future entertainingly different from what we now know. There’s also much enjoyment to be had from old photos of London, Paris and other cities.
And there’s much history to be learned along the way, too. In some cases, history that throws a stark light on more recent events. For example, there’s a page (if you can call it that – I’ve seen shorter books) on Palestine from 1920 to 1948.
Those were the years of British rule before the Jewish state of Israel was granted its independence. The photos are great. Lots of British Tommies in baggy shorts and pith helmets, Arabs in kaftans and turbans, Jewish volunteers in fezes. But it’s the captions, from the British and American press when the pictures first appeared, that are the real eye-opener.
One picture shows a shipload of British soldiers disembarking at Haifa during what’s referred to elsewhere as “the Palestine Trouble”. The caption explains: “After months of terrorism, loss of lives in the hundreds and loss of trade in the millions, Britain apparently is determined to halt the terror and is dispatching thousands of additional troops.”
That worked, then. That was in October 1938. British forces heading to the Middle East to “stop terrorism”. Remind you of anything?
What it doesn’t say is that the kiddies are almost certainly refugees from Nazi Germany, probably sent to “the Holy Land” by their parents. And we know what became of them.
Nine years later comes another disembarcation at Haifa. This one is of “young happy Jewish orphans… the majority of whom lost their parents during World War II”. Which seems a rather carefree, offhand way of describing the devastation of what has become known as the Holocaust.
The 500 orphans, it adds, “were interned in Cyprus and brought to Palestine as part of the monthly immigration quota”. Does that ring any bells? Bells with a slightly cracked, uncomfortable sound, perhaps. Immigration quotas; refugees from unimaginable horror interned in camps.
Earlier, from 1935, we had this: “The tired groups on the ship King Carol were homeless Jews barred from entering Palestine by the Quota system restricting immigration. For two months they wandered vainly seeking a country where they would be permitted to land. Finally the Polish government consented to receive them.”
Which, not many years later, would put them in just the worst place they could be in the world.
I could easily fill the paper this column first appeared in with commentary on this one page from history. History that’s shown in black and white, with quaint costumes, and which almost makes you read aloud in a strange, outdated accent you’ve heard only on old newsreels.
It’s another world, another time. But it’s also, in quite a chilling way, a commentary on our own world, our own time. Almost like a premonition.