I am in a tunnel, a hundred feet beneath the Euston Road.is used to be part of the London Underground before it was closed o and abandoned sixty years ago. Now it is used for storage and the occasional TV production whenever an eerie version of the Tube is required. As in any Underground station, the walls are lined with posters. ese ones terminate abruptly in 1962. ere are adverts for West Side Story, a steamship to Ceylon, ‘Tuition in Modern English Ballroom Dancing’.

Some have been gratied. e model in a Brushwave poster (‘Today’s nest permanent wave’) has had thick-framed glasses and a moustache added with a black felt pen. Others have fared distinctly worse. It puts me in mind of Larkin’s ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, where the laughing girl in a tourism poster is subjected to this type of defacement: ‘A couple of weeks, and her face/Was snag-gle-toothed and boss-eyed’. Before long, the vandals have set her astride ‘a tuberous cock and balls’. We are sometimes inclined to imagine that obscenity is an invention of our own times. ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, like the Brushwave poster, is from 1962.

e poem ends with the poster being pulled down and replaced: ‘a great transverse tear/Left only a hand and some blue.’ Down in the tunnel everything is torn – a half-hearted attempt, perhaps, to clean up when this section was closed o. Like the tunnel itself, the job was abandoned. What is left is a crust of papier-mâché dozens of layers thick. rough the tears in the paper we can look back in time, poster by poster, from the 1960s to the 1920s – from the Chatterley ban, if you like, to the age in which Lady Chatterley’s Lover was written and set. Back we go, through scraps of ripped, gummy paper, catching glimpses of the decades as we pass. Here is an advertisement for a new soap opera called Coronation Street and huge bold caps shrieking PSYCHO. Beneath these, adverts for Sterodyne ‘for coughs and colds’, the eosophical Society, homes in Metroland.

A week later,at the annual conference of the Ephemera Society of America, an auctioneer is running us through his wish list of rare posters. Here is one advertising the Titanic. A rarity for sure. But look closely at the dates. It’s for the return voyage: New York to Southampton. You can see why most of those were pulped. Not so with Toulouse-Lautrec’s wildly popular posters of the singer and nightclub owner Aristide Bruant in his red scarf and black cape. ‘You can’t go anywhere without nding yourself face to face with him,’grumbled the newspapers.e images had so many admirers that enterprising collectors would slip out at night with wet sponges to dissolve the paste that held the posters up. Even so, surviving originals are rare. Last summer, one turned up at Bonhams auction house, the catalogue noting its ‘skilfully repaired splits and losses and touched-in restorations in places, surface dirt, mainly to the margins, the colours slightly attenuated’. It went for £25,000.

e Ephemera Society conference has a good-natured atmosphere.e society was set up in 1980 and its meetings have been held in the same Connecticut hotel for years.Many members have been coming here to buy and sell from each other pretty much since the beginning. No one seems to be patrolling the boundary

dennis duncan

I Can See Clearly Now

line of what is or isn’t, strictly, ephemera. (Textual or pictorial? What about manuscripts? Sheet music?) e British historian Maurice Rickards once came up with a usefully catholic denition – ‘the minor, transient documents of everyday life’ – and the same generous fuzziness seems to be at work here.

e ephemerists are a fascinating crowd: dealers and academics, librarians with acquisitions budgets, here to ll gaps in their institutions’collections. Most interesting, however, are the private collectors. Some of their collections might seem fairly vanilla – postcards, handbills, stamps – but others are more eyebrow-raising. I learn the word ‘mapkin’ – a serviette, maybe from a roadside diner, printed with a map of the local area – and chat with a woman whose collection of paper rulers runs into the tens of thousands and goes back centuries.

In the early 1970s, Georges Perec complained that we had lost the ability to notice the world around us,‘the banal, the quotidian, the obvious,the common’.Too focused on the extraordinary,we had lost sight of the infra-ordinary.We ought,he urged,to rediscover the astonishment that the paraphernalia of everyday life once evoked. Among the ephemerists, I nd that I am continually astonished.

On my way home, I visit the Grolier Club in Manhattan to see their exhibition of marbled paper. Marbling is the art of creating patterns by oating inks on the surface of a water tank then delicately laying a sheet of paper on top to soak them up.e kinds of swirls and spatters that result will be familiar if you’ve seen the endleaves of an old book.Psychedelia,18th-century style.

Except here the psychedelia is 1960s style. e exhibition focuses on modern American work, beginning with the period when artists within the counterculture were seeking to reinvigorate traditional crafts. Marbling’s lava-lamp trippiness was not lost on some of them. John Coventry used the upturned roof of a VW camper van for his marbling tank and embellished his galactic swirls with spray-painted mandalas and collages of astronauts.

e exhibition also showcases the artists’ tools, and they are pleasingly unorthodox. Sure, there are the ne-arts materials we might expect, the pipettes and feather-ne brushes. But alongside these are chopsticks and hairclips,a crank-turned hairbrush stued inside a ketchup bottle with a window cut in the side (for large-scale spattering), half a dozen hair picks nailed to a shelf bracket (for striping) and a diecast Mini Cooper whose tiny wheels carve pale parallel lines through wet oil.One of the most extraordinary works, a topographic pattern that looks a little like an Ordnance Survey map of Mars, was made by adding Tabasco sauce to oating inks.

Some of the designs have been digitally reproduced on everyday objects, such as a Kleenex box and a Sambuca tin. For the most part, these decorated papers were intended to be used: for bookbindings, wallcoverings, furnishings. ere is something satisfying about seeing these sheets, many of which had been stued in drawers for the best part of fty years, hung in the state-of-the-art, temperature-controlled display cases of the Gro-lier Club’s silent, oak-lined exhibition hall. ‘Question your tea spoons,’ wrote Perec. ‘What is there under your wallpaper?’ But why not start by looking at the wallpaper itself?