Today I was reading Robert Walser, The Walk and other stories, and I went for a walk in east London. I took my camera – last week I started taking photos of words fading, breaking up, which is what they do if they’re not constantly written and read afresh. The ones here, a small selection, are of company names and shop fascia boards.
People spent their working lives in these places; many probably spent more time in these places than they did with their families. The disappearing words on the walls and fascia boards are like eroded names on gravestones. I thought of my father, who worked from the age of fourteen for Sloan & Davidson, ‘architectural ironfounders’. His father, or perhaps grandfather – I’m groping about in the mist here – founded the company. My father became a director; there’s a photo of him on page 34 of Recessional (out of print, but you can download a pdf of the whole book from this page of the CBe website) presenting a clock to a foundry worker for 25 years’ loyal service, clocking in, clocking out. (The man in the driving mirror on the home page of the website is also my father, by the way.) He died at the age of 51 of lung cancer, probably brought on by the stuff in the air that he breathed every day in the foundry.
I finished my walk at Old Street and got on the tube and carried on reading Walser (‘What kind of people am I thinking of, as I say this? Of me, of you, of all our theatrical little dominations, of the freedoms that are none, of the unfreedoms that are not taken seriously, of these destroyers who never pass up a chance for a joke, of the people who are desolate?’). Walser spent the last two decades of his life in a mental hospital; he died in 1956, the same year as my father.
When I got home I googled Sloan & Davidson. They made, among other things, cast iron drainpipes; then plastic arrived, and the company eventually vanished. But not quite: it is still an an active but ‘non-trading’ company; its last reported accounts, submitted to Companies House on 31/3/2012, report ‘assets’ and ‘net worth’ of £2. Below is a photo of a Sloan & Davidson pavement grating, followed by a a photo taken in 1968 that shows the foundry in the background. For sale on Amazon is a 1925 hardback Sloan & Davidson catalogue – ‘237 pages of detailed line drawings of sanitaryware of the time (cast iron pipes, gutters, rain-water heads, manhole covers); enclosed price-list pamphlets dated 1937 with enclosed letters dated 1949’ – and I am sorely tempted.