Monday, 12 May 2014

Smoke and Learn

The local charity shops seem to be conspiring to return to me the natural history (as we called it then) books of my childhood. A few weeks ago, it was the Ladybird book of British Birds and Their Nests; this weekend, in the window of the Oxfam shop, it was An Album of Animals of the Countryside, a cigarette card album issued by John Player & Sons ('Price one penny'). Naturally I bought it on the spot (price £4.99). My father had this album, kept from his younger days, and I enjoyed browsing in it from time to time. I imagine it was eventually thrown out in one of my parents' house moves...
 A relic of the days when smoking was regarded as not only healthy and wholesome but potentially educational - smoke the ciggies, collect the cards and learn more about the world - the Album of Animals of the Countryside is, within its small compass, wonderfully informative, as well as pleasing to the eye. The sepia and pale green cover, with its lovely image of Harvest Mice, has a deft line drawing of a Red Squirrel on its verso - the first of several dotted through the album, culminating in a charming vignette of a Fox crossing a field under a full moon. The graphic style might be described as post-Edwardian, and this album seems to have been first issued around 1918 and stayed available until the 1940s.
 The images on the cards are in colour, well designed to present the animal as clearly and completely as possible, in characteristic pose and habitat, and they appear to have been adapted from photographic images. There are 50 of them, all present and correct, showing a good range of mammals, reptiles and amphibians - a selection of 50 species made today would probably look much the same, though the terrain has changed: we now have 18 species of bats to choose from, for example, and successful introductions and escapes like the Muntjac and Sika deer and the pernicious Mink. The Red Squirrel, at the time of the Album, was 'found over the greater part of Great Britain and Ireland, but is getting rarer in many of its former haunts' (and is now long absent from them). By contrast, deer are very much more abundant now than then, as are Foxes and (of course) Grey 'Squirrels'.
 As for rats, I was intrigued to read that the Black Rat is 'once again the dominant species' in London. Not any more it isn't, and the Black Rat (or Ship Rat) hangs on only in a few small colonies in our port (or former port) cities. From the card caption in the Album I learned that the now ubiquitous and thriving Brown Rat was 'first recorded in England about 1728'. Indeed, until the time of the Crusades, these islands were free of rats, black or brown. The things you could learn by smoking your way through pack after pack of John Player's instructive cigarettes...


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