The only thing that beats browsing book shops is browsing second hand book shops. Between the dust and decaying paper, a gem or two is usually waiting to be rediscovered. Last weekend I was busy exploring one of my favourite haunts when I stumbled upon Norwich: A Portrait in Old Picture Postcards Volume One by Philip Standley. I leafed through it, expecting the usual collection of touristy highlights. How pleased was I to be wrong.
This little book, a special publication by The Norfolk Postcard Club, was published in 1988. The postcards – apparently a valuable collector’s item for some – display many familiar Norwich places pictured during the first decades of the twentieth century. Lesser-known spots, including my own street and neighbourhood, are also extensively covered. Why anyone would want to send a postcard of my perfectly ordinary residential road is beyond me, but there you go.
Sometimes books about places I know make me sad. Their somewhat depressing message: so much has changed, and so much disappeared or changed beyond recognition. This book, on the other hand made me happy. Many of the buildings pictured still exist. The old hospital, though no longer in operation, still stands. I can see it from my bedroom window as I’m typing it. Seeing the people who once lived and worked on the site is like facing benevolent ghosts.
I’ve also learned some interesting facts. Who knew Norwich, like many other cities, once had a tram network? The footpath I used for interval sprints when just starting out as a runner started life as a railway, the site of its neat little station now occupied by the supermarket where I do my weekly shopping. And the market, though still busy, used to be a place where livestock was traded by men in heavy coats with fags dangling from the corners of their mouths.
Of course some things have changed. A couple of buildings have been demolished, cars are now blocking the streets, and it’s been decades since the last flock of sheep walked down Earlham Road. But my perception of those familiar roads – I cross most of them every single day – will never be quite the same again.
However valuable the study of the big political events that shape history may be – and as an aside, I wonder how today will go into the history books – I prefer the small and the everyday. I can’t stop looking at the people who used to walk where I walk, who lived in a world that looks so much like mine and is yet so different.
Image: Leicester Street circa 1912. Image from Philip Standley’s Norwich: A Portrait in Old Picture Postcards Volume One. For enjoyment only. Some copies of this book are still available, so do track one down if you’d like to see more.