Things I search high and low for

Monday 26 October 2015, 11.00pm HKT

L O R D   O F  T H E   T H I N G S

FOR a good part of my life, I’ve been looking around all over the world for things that hold meaning for me. But they’re pretty hard to nail down or get hold of.

By ‘things’ I mean actual physical objects, not the philosophical or inspirational stuff of life, which means jack to me because I’m not educated enough to read big words.




Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov, a.k.a. Robert ‘Iron Man’ Downey Jr to the rest of us
(via A Word A Day

Pronounced “pesnay” (/pɛ̃sˈne/) in French — or “pance-nay” or “pince-nay” (/ˈpans-ˌnā/, /ˈpins-nā/) in English — this style of eyeglasses first appeared in the 15th century and reached their peak popularity around late 1880s to 1900s.

pince-nez hoopspring spectacles

The rimless type favoured by Teddy Roosevelt
(via Spectacles Blog

The pince-nez works by a noseclip pinching the nosebridge. It is different from the lorgnette, which is handheld and a bit pretentious and I’m not interested in that.

Still the best places for these beauties are flea markets and village fairs. Prices can be horrendously high — up to £100 for a vintage pair from the 1900s to 1930s.

Back in 1981 or ’82, I bought a pair in Covent Garden, London, for just £5. It turned out to be 22-karat gold. And then somebody stole them in Hong Kong.

gold-rimmed pince-nez via Lil'Paisley

Oxford folding-frame pince-nez, gold-rimmed and gold-filled

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not angling to look like Anton-baby or Teddy-bear (though that would be nice). I’m shortsighted already, and ever since I had to wear reading glasses AS WELL, it’s a goddamn chore switching between eyeglasses.

I quickly switched to good ole’ Benjamin Franklin’s invention — bifocals. Even so, I’ve nearly poked my eyeballs out because of the bloody earpieces (the ‘temples’). You get the general idea why I want a pair of pesbloodynay.

Here’s the thing I don’t understand. Most people by a certain age need reading glasses, but often have to take them on and off all the time. The pince-nez is really the most comfortable solution, rather than get poked in the eyeballs with the regular frames. They see Morpheus in The Matrix wearing them, yet the eyewear makers don’t promote pinces-nez at all. Why?

Hard rubber and metal pince-nez types

Hard rubber and metal pince-nez group, one with blue lenses
American Optometrist Association

The proper Chinese name is 夾鼻眼鏡 (jiā-bí yǎn-jìng), a direct translation of ‘pinch-nose eyeglasses.’ Most Hongkongers have come to call it 老夫子眼鏡 (Lo Fu Tzi ngaan geng) — “Old Master Q eyeglasses” — because the main character wore them.

Old Master Q is a Hong Kong Chinese comic serial published since 1962 and a huge cultural icon among the Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities. I would describe it as a cross between Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, and any of the classical Chinese philosophical works. The official English website is HERE and the Chinese HERE (requires Flash).


British NHS ‘pantos’

British NHS eyewear

Standard free frames from the UK government, 1977–85
These frames continued right up to 1999 and then everything went pear-shaped
(via Robert Roppe)

I made the monumental newbie mistake with this one.

The optician asked if I wanted paddle sides (earpieces or temples) or hook-ons. I chose paddles. I must have been possessed at the time.

In the late 1970s just around Thatcher coming to power, I got my first pair of state-sanctioned prescription eyeglasses from the National Health Service (NHS).

The Orwellian VAT socialist state of the United Kingdom decided to assign the models 423CJ and 423HJ to my face — the metal jobs at the top left. That was a stroke of luck. As you can see, all the rest were “birth-control spectacles” like the retarded glasses the U.S. military still issues to servicemen.

What I didn’t know then (but deeply regret knowing now) was the hook-ons were valuable. You see, the NHS metal frames in my day were made entirely of 12-karat gold. The hook-ons were craftsmen items, spring-loaded and made of the same 12K gold. More gold for free…

What I should’ve done was to get the 423 with the hook-ons, and then ask for a pair of replacement paddles. The paddles are worthless generally, and opticians don’t mind giving them away.

Quite a number of people at the time gamed the NHS system by reporting their new glasses lost, and then get a replacement set made. They do this one a year, just for the gold.


The 423 models are now known by the snazzier name “Retro ’50s M38 Marilyn Monroe Panto,” which would have had a helluva difference in my choice of paddles vs. hook-ons. The shape of the lens was pure ’50s and ’60s era. The ‘panto’ is short for pantoscopic,’ meaning “seeing everything” (wide view).

NHS pantos today

(via Robert Roppe)

The NHS pantos (or at least their replicas) are going through a fashion revival. Right now, a pair of NHS pantos cost a cool £117 plus VAT.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong hipsters with cultural lisps usually call them “Harry Potter eyeglasses.”

Harry Potter never wore pantos. What he wore were actually a shrunken version of the “cryosphere.”

If you don’t know what cryospheres are, then you’re too young and lisping too much, baby…

A school buddy of mine had something incredible like 10 pairs of NHS pantos. I only have ONE.

The good news is that I have two pairs of genuine 1940s Ray-Ban limited edition semi-octagons. Heh.

(Show you pictures of those one of these days.)



old rolodex

‘Where Low Tech Trumps High Tech’
(via Shane Burnett)

It’s one of the best productivity tools the world had ever seen.

Other than the typewriter, it’s the second commonest office equipment in nearly all workplaces worldwide and indispensable in the home and office for more than 40 years. It even gave us a verb that pre-dates our use of ‘social networking.’

But it’s practically impossible to get hold of one today — even on eBay, the mother of all landfills.

You can read all about this industrial icon in my portfolio essay “The Rolodex.”

Rolodex rotary card system

The Classic Rolodex (via author’s collection)

My big problem is I can’t get organised properly without this Post-Industrial Brutalist Deconstructionist contraption that looks like something straight out of Nineteen Eighty Four.

The classic Rolodex uses full-sized 3 × 5 inch (76 × 127 mm) index cards, not the current ones with smaller cards.

Super flexible for organising all sorts of data. Super quick data retrieval. I’ve even come up with a tagline for it — “Rolodex: Where Low Tech Trumps High Tech.”

Bought several of them yonks ago. Not manufactured anymore, unfortunately. I even have the rare Rolodex card punch too.

The Rolodex in action

(via c4c)


Leather violin case

weapon thompson 1928

Just the leather case, ma’am (via 4chan)

I’ve been looking for a very long time for a leather violin case — preferably minus the 1928 Thompson submachine gun or any other kind of weaponised sex toy.

Crocodile skin violin cases

Crocodile skin violin cases via Andrew Hooker Violins, Somerset, UK

The perfect case is one that shows wear and tear, preferably scratched and scrawled, a dent here and a dent there. You get the idea. Just calfskin would be fine. The crocodile set above is just to give you an idea.

What size? — Doesn’t matter. I don’t own a violin anyway.


Biggles leather flying helmet

Psycho Biggles

Psycho Biggles tally-ho! via Printerest

A.k.a. flier’s hat or bomber hat.

The Biggles style from the days of World War I or II is great for that sportscar look and fancy dress.

I’m looking for something a bit more normal than the hopped-up steampunk version above:—

  1. Size 7 (head circumference 57–58 cm, 10¼ in.)
  2. Outershell of brown goatskin or any supple leather
  3. Inner fabric lining (not fur)
  4. Chinstrap with buckle fastener
  5. Press-stud earflaps
  6. Backstrap for snugger fit
  7. Goggles (of course!)

Biggles flier's leather flying helmet

Classic Biggles-style leather flying helmet via Surplus & Outdoors

Here’s the anomaly I discovered about the Biggles flying helmet.

Strange as it may seem, a real flier’s leather hat (not necessarily vintage, which might be a bit unhygienic) is very hard to come by.

Now, you would’ve thought a chappie like me coiuld just scrounge one off eBay or some online militaria store for a few bucks.

I would’ve thought it’s easy-peasy to buy one from any pilot supplies vendor, seeing there are so many private pilots around the world (but especially in the USA) flying biplanes and other low-performance aircraft for crop dusting or short-hop flights. But no, they’re near impossible to get even from those companies.

Normally, I would just wait my chance and trundle off to Laurence Corner in London — possibly the world’s most iconic military surplus store — and be done with it. But the store closed down in 2008, so that’s torn it.

All that means leather flying helmets (whether vintage or replica) are ridiculously expensive. Most European outlets are charging €74, exclusive of shipping. A China-based vendor sells them for US$25, but the shipping is a blood-curdling US$53 via FedEx.

bomber hat with fur lining

Bomber hat with fur lining via Do Re Mi Fa So at Aliexpress

Here’s the main problem with most Biggles helmets. They’re often made of thicker sheepskin and lined with thick fur. That’s dynamite for high-altitude air combat and bombing runs. And living in Nordic countries.

But the ones I’m interested in are of thinner leather and fabric-lined — the type more usual for summertime or non-combat flying.

I don’t want to keep warm. I want to keep in character, bonkers as that may seem.

Other than that, I’d kill to have this:—

leather pilot's helmet with cat or goat ears

Pilot’s flying helmet with cat or goat ears
Imagine that with a chopper-style motorbike…

(via 4chan)


Lava lamp

lava-lamp-wallpaper hdwallpapersfit-com

Lava lamps via HD Wallpapers Fit

Oh, terribly psychedelic Sixties and Seventies, innit?

The lava lamp (or Astrolamp when we were living in the USA) was invented in 1963 by a British accountant (of all people). The original company is still Mathmos based in the UK, plus Lava Lite in the USA.

Interestingly, the British accountant was also a naturist and directed the first naturist film to receive public release in the UK (“Travelling Light,” 1959).

So why can’t I just order from one of those companies then? I’m looking for the genuine article from the 1960s or ’70s. The ones made in China since the ’80s just don’t ‘lava’ the right way.

The real reason:— Lava lamps are impossible to find in my city, so that explains my quest for one.


Rent books

British rent books

Rent what???

You’ve gotta be off your rockers, mate! Rent books?! Can’t you get them in your city?!

No, we don’t use rent books in Hong Kong.

I have reasons for wanting them, and it isn’t because I have land and premises to let. I should be so lucky…

Rent books are available at major stationery stores such as W.H. Smith, Ryman’s, etc. Each is around 16 pages, and measures 160 mm by 103 mm. They’re priced £3 to £3.50 each.

There are several types:—

  • Green are for restricted contract lettings
  • Orange are for protected or statutory tenancies
  • Red are for assured tenancy and assured shorthold tenancy

Each book contains a variety of information in a compact size to ensure that you can easily and safely store and swiftly transport the books with minimal effort and maximum ease.

Image: Rent books via Mayfair Stationers


Camera lucida

camera lucida in use drawing small figurine

(via Wikipedia)

I don’t think I have to search too long for this one anymore.

Everyone I know wants to own a camera lucida, an optical device used by artists as a drawing aid to more realistic drawing. The main hurdle has always been the pricetag — usually running into several hundreds of U.S. dollars.

The good news is that lots of people have reinvented (and still redesigning) the traditional camera lucida and bringing the size and price down. Click on the links because I can’t show images of the modern redesigns for copyright reasons.

NeoLucida is by far the lowest-priced of the redesigns — US$55 for a portable model. It has its own Kickstarter funding project. Read this product review: “NeoLucida Arrived!” (cameralucidaforsale, 27 Nov 2013). offers an alternative reinvention of the camera lucida, this time in a heavier-set construction.

Lee Valley is another supplier.

Some boffin has come up with a kind of DIY solution: Andres Bburbano – Research for Comptics.

If you don’t know the difference between camera obscura, camera lucida, etc, then read this: “The Magic Mirror of Life” by Jack and Beverly Wilgus.

Meanwhile, I found this on 4chan:—

how to make a camera lucida

(via 4chan)



SOME things are not worth pursuing anymore, mainly because they have gone extinct in some way. Or I couldn’t afford them.

Exchange & Mart

exchange and mart

Exchange and Mart via

This very much loved and iconic publication is my generation’s craigslist. It contains nothing but display and classified ads, and published weekly nationwide in the UK.

I’m years too late with this one. The print edition ceased in February 2009. It’s now a totally online publication (

Having said that, I wouldn’t mind having a copy of it from anytime between 1975 to 1985.


Brass sextant

pocket sextant with prismatic compass

A reproduction 19th-century 5-inch brass pocket sextant together with a reproduction brass prismatic compass via Denhams Auctioneers

(Click image for full size)

I’ve been looking for a set like this since I was 17. It doesn’t have to be the genuine article. I’m fine with a replica set. Trouble is, these babies are criminally expensive anywhere — and criminally insane expensive in Hong Kong. Don’t think I’ll ever get one, not in this lifetime anyway.

Strange as this may sound, but most Hongkongers have NEVER seen any object that could be handheld that’s over 50 years old. Indeed, the average age of buildings here is just 20–25 years old.

About a year or two ago, I saw a more regular-sized brass sextant (reproduction, no compass) in a shop in the Central business district run by a nice expatriate gentleman. It was going for something like HK$2,800 (US$360). I can’t pay that kind of money, honestly.


Coin ring mount

full sovereign gold ring mount small

Ring mount, 9-karat yellow gold, patterned, for full sovereign, £149, via eBay

What makes my search for a coin ring mount long and fruitless over the years is I don’t want one in precious metal.

9K yellow gold patterned half sovereign ring mount GBP 149

Trouble is, a coin ring mount is definitionally for a expensive coin (usually one in gold, like the British gold Sovereign or Half Sovereign coin). The mount likewise has to be in a precious alloy, with prices to match — usually from £150 to £300, or US$230 to US$460.

It’s the principle of the thing; otherwise there’s no point having a gold sovereign mounted on a crap mount.

vintage solid 22k gold half sovereign ring 1914 GBP 285

I want one made of baser material — surgical stainless steel or some kind of non-allergenic alloy.

full queen victoria sovereign coin ring gbp 875

Full Queen Victoria 22-karat x 8 gramme gold sovereign coin set in 9-karat 16.2g gold ring shank, dated 1890, £895 (US$1,373) via eBay

(Click image for full size)


The search goes on … and on … and on…

sig tnl autograf


© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 2015. (B15338)

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One Response to “Things I search high and low for”

  1. Ed Hurst said

    Oh, yeah; I could see you in the model 824 from the NHS. Having never run a business, and working on staff only in the smallest churches, my answer to the Rolodex is a flat text file of contacts. It’s the most transportable file format. I never liked the software address books.


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