Thursday, 19 January 2017

Scrapbook Scrap No 1

I've been keeping scrapbooks for over forty years now. (Takes out onion and violin.) Seven large volumes where I've taken no account that they get even larger when you've thickened them to twice the size with paper and cardboard. Anyway, here's the collage I did for the cover of the first one, the first entries being glued-in on the kitchen table of a Rutland farmhouse in 1976. Everything that appealed to me went in. Dog food labels, pictures of girls from Nova and Sunday Times Magazines, quaint parking tickets, postcards, photographs that never got stuck in an album. They have become a vital resource in sparking ideas, inflaming inspiration, or simply as curious entertainments. So I thought I'd start an occasional series on the blog where I'll choose an item that I can go on about.
Here's the first, probably found in a pocket two years after its expiry. Remarkable for the fact that it's handwritten in ballpoint and, of course, for that wondrous price for a month's travel. It brings to mind dusty carriage compartments, (either unheated or tropically hot), blokes doing The Times crossword, (getting cross because I'd sit there pretending to do it in two minutes so that I could throw the paper up onto the luggage rack seemingly completed. When in fact I'd written any old thing down just to wind them up), and girls who'd gently wake me up at St.Pancras.
    One morning I was late for the train and I had to drive to Market Harborough like an idiot in a borrowed Morris Minor. At one point my country road ran alongside the railway embankment, and I looked up to see my train approaching the station. I repeatedly sounded the horn, which was answered by a 'bar-bop' from the locomotive. I slewed onto the car park and ran up to the station, probably leaving the engine running. The train driver shouted down from his cab "Hurry up!" and racing up the platform stairs I found the guard holding a door open for me. Phew. Now you really won't see that anymore.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Bucks Phizogs

A treasured photograph from our family archive. This is a Buckinghamshire County Council road gang with their steam roller, out on a Chilterns road sometime in the 1930s (I should think). All in hats and caps, two with ties. The gentleman standing third from the right is my Uncle Joe, in fact my great uncle, being the chap who married my mother's Aunty Dora and lived in Lee Common. Readers of English Allsorts will remember my story about the faux Player's Digger packet, featuring Joe in the fifties. 
    I've always found the photograph curious for three reasons. Firstly it must have been unusual for a road gang to have been interrupted in their labours repairing road surfaces in order to pose for a group photograph. It makes me think that perhaps it was a picture taken by a press snapper, probably from the Bucks Examiner. Maybe accompanying a story about the gang finding treasure in a ditch at Ballinger Bottom, items of silver church plate wrapped in a hessian sack. But I digress, except to say that I checked on the Bucks Examiner and it now appears to be called 'getbucks' and has stories like 'Flasher exposes himself to woman walking in Marlow'.
   Then I think that the diminutive chap second from the right must be an ancestor of Robbie Williams, but more disturbing is the third curiosity that I only noticed quite recently. Whilst the men are posing proudly in front of their steaming roller, a hooded M.R.Jamesian figure appears to have climbed up behind them in order to surreptitiously take the controls of what I see is an Aveling & Porter Invicta with its beautifully embossed prancing horse motif.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Pillars of Local Society

A Very Merry Christmas to all my friends in Unmitigated England

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Lost in The Fens

Youngest Boy started a new school this morning, and he now resides at Ashley Towers. Whilst he is quite content to sleep under a table in the scullery, I do feel obliged to shove everything up a bit so that he can stretch out a little. This means sorting through a stack of boxes to make his straw paillasse easier to access. One contained an enormous pile of photographs unseen for many years, the above being a prime example. The thing is, where is it? Not a quiz question, I've totally forgotten.
    The date would be sometime in the late 80s, the very approximate location Somewhere on The Fens in either Cambridgeshire or, more likely, Norfolk. That's it really; all I can add is that Bullards is a now defunct Norwich brewer, and Eric De MarĂ©’s photograph of the Coslany Street brewery can be found on page 102 of English Allsorts. And that it was almost certainly shot on my little Minox 35ML which fitted as neatly into my shirt pocket as a packet of Gold Flake.

    Of course there are even more questions when you come to think about it. Who drank here? Is the absence of a roadside window an indication of the covert drinking practices of the past? What was kept in the rickety lean-to? Whose are those cars peeping out from the back? (I certainly saw no one else near.) 

    Right, back to moving, rummaging, and dividing the bathroom in half.

Everyone can now relax. Thanks to the exceedingly thoughtful Roger Porter the location is no longer lost. It's the Butchers' Arms at Terrington St.Clement near to Walpole Cross Keys in Norfolk. Apparently it could look much the same and folk still live at one end. Thank you Roger!

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Sussex Signposts

Have you ever gone to a place for the first time, and then, for inexplicable and unconnected reasons, kept being drawn back to it? Three years ago I had time on my hands before meeting a 'plane at Gatwick, and decided to try and find a church that I had espied the year before in the failing light somewhere in the Ouse Valley between Newhaven and Lewes in East Sussex. The first person I described the church to was looking after the National Trust counter that sits in Leonard Woolf's garage at Monks House in Rodmell, half way down on the opposite bank of the River Ouse where his wife Virginia loaded up the pockets of her coat with stones and walked into its waters. I described how the church sat to the left of the road, seemingly alone but towered over by a group of Scotch firs. He thought for some time until telling me he had absolutely no idea. Monks House gripped my imagination, as did the next village down the road, Southease. And then, returning up from Newhaven on the A26 I rounded a bend in the chalk hills and there it was. Beddingham. Complete with firs and backed by a round-topped section of the South Downs I now know to be Mount Caburn. Here it is in the photograph above and something that day happened very deep within me, something I still haven't fathomed out. But the signposts keep on rising up into my consciousness.
    At home I poured over the maps, noticing with pleasure that Southease was served by a little station from where a field path led via a bridge over the Ouse to the village, and looking in a Southern Railway timetable for 1947, as one does, I noticed that a train took just four minutes to get to Newhaven Harbour or six to Lewes. So of course I started to imagine myself here, four minutes to Eric Ravilious's harbour lighthouse, six minutes to Harvey's Brewery Shop in Lewes, a few minutes more to Brighton Rock.
    Not long afterwards I picked up Eleanor Farjeon's Book and read about Elsie Piddock's constant skipping taking place on, of course, Mount Caburn. That's it in the background of Ardizzone's lovely cover for the Puffin:
    The signposts continued, a map reference here, a paragraph in a book there. All now accidental, uncalled for but very pleasurably received. I started to see myself as an even more eccentric Other Man, the alter ego that dogged Edward Thomas on his travels throughout In Pursuit of Spring and who told him "There is no weathercock" at Kilve. Well there is at Southease, or at least a vane:
I saw myself walking across the Ouse floodplain to catch trains up to London, returning in the dusk and on the path home turning to see the carriage lights receding down to Newhaven.
    Other things then took up my time. Until a couple of weeks ago when I quickly scoured my bookshelves for something light but good to take down into Essex for three days. Ripple dissolve, as they say, to a school class room in 1959 on a Friday afternoon. We'd filled in our diaries for the week (like the passing of Buddy Holly) and settled down to hear the first chapter of a book read to us by Pop Widdowson. I was so entranced by The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett that I ran excitedly home to tell my mum all about it. At the weekend she went out and bought me a copy of the Puffin book for myself and I devoured it over a couple of evenings; almost certainly the first time I had read a book from cover to cover. So of course the next Friday afternoon I sat there smugly whilst Pop read the next chapter as I grinned and nodded at my fellow pupils.
The light faded over Colchester and I found myself immersed in the adventures of the Ruggles family in Otwell-on-the-Ouse. Oh no. Wait a minute. But yes, as the pages unfolded after all those years, it became clear that Otwell was Lewes (almost), Seahaven was Newhaven and Brightwell, of course, Brighton. Further delving found that Eve Garnett was indeed from Lewes. I felt as though someone had come up behind me and pointed to another signpost. Naturally I have to return, but what will I find? My hopelessly erratic imagination puts forward all sorts of possibilities, some of which I'm sure you're making up for me now. But, I have to say, it's with a certain amount of trepidation. I must just make sure nobody quietly ladens my coat pockets with pebbles.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Painted Christmas

Now then. I know it's ridiculously early, and I'm usually the first to be shouting at decorations appearing in John Lewis in September, but I wanted to share a pertinent thought with you all. A few of you will remember the Christmas cards I painted between 1998 and 2006, generally featuring buildings around Oundle in Northamptonshire, but always featuring a Royal Mail van of one vintage or another. More of you will perhaps have seen them in the Christmas chapter in More From Unmitigated England. Later, in discussion with the Royal Mail over a book on post boxes, I accidentally found myself showing them off. They were leapt upon, and I found three of them being proposed as Christmas stamps to the august body that is the Stamp Advisory Committee.They were the RM's stamps of choice, but the Committee decided on photographs of leaves floating on water by Andy Goldsworthy.
So, to get to the point (yes please, Ed.) I have decided to sell the original paintings.They are all a uniform size, 155mm x 155mm, and are executed in Designers Gouache. If you are seriously interested, then contact me through this blog and I'll send a pdf poster of all nine to you. The usual copyright stuff applies, but we'll talk about all that off piste as it were. The three paintings here feature, from the top, Oundle Post Office, the bridge over the River Nene at Fotheringhay and one of the two gate lodges to Lilford Hall. Obviously much artistic licence has been liberally applied along with the paint.

"...very impressive" Chris Beetles

Monday, 17 October 2016

Electric Hedge

This little building is obscure even by Unmitigated England standards. It's halfway down the very bucolic Commissioners Lane (which tells of it being an enclosure road) that leads only to a farm just outside Slawston in Leicestershire. You won't find it in a Pevsner or a Shell Guide; this is a prime example of a utility building built, I would think, between the wars. Despite all the warnings of death by electric shock, I somehow think that there is no sub station equipment therein. There's no sinister sounding hum emitting out into the lane, and I would guess it's now currently (no pun intended) a store for Western Power Distribution's excess tree-loppers and hedge cutters that are being put to increasing use locally to cut back foliage from electricity wires, and any other bits of tree pruning they can be persuaded to do. ("While you're up there...")
    But my main reason for sharing this riveting discovery is that it's worthwhile spending half-a-minute to look at how much care actually went into its simple design. Built in neat brickwork, a concrete lintel extends over both door and windows, the roof parapet is in different coloured brick with an intermediate course of tiles and care was taken with the iron gate. The tree loppers haven't been snipped into action on the surroundings, and the whole thing is gradually disappearing from view. Soon WPD's white Land Rovers will come down here and the abseiling woodcutters will scratch their heads saying "Well it was around here somewhere".