Something I've wanted to do for a while was to visit the Allen Jones retrospective at the Royal Academy. I've always loved the unashamed colourful eroticism of his work, particularly Table and other sensually posed mannequins. So after breakfast in The Wolseley (bacon sandwich on the back seat of a Hornet) we drifted slowly down Piccadilly in the bright morning light to the RA. One distinct advantage of getting up at five o'clock for this kind of visit to London is that you can drive down the motorway relatively unimpeded by traffic, drive through Regent's Park at dawn with giraffes and penguins waking up and then as it's Sunday park virtually where you like all day for nothing.
After I'd had inappropriate thoughts looking at the girl with the glass table on her back we wandered into the first of the main galleries to be confronted by the above. I'd never seen it before, and it knocked me sideways. This is Male Female Diptych, 1965, and I could've stared at its immense size for a long time. Until it occurred to me just how badly lit it was. As indeed, apart from a room filled with mannequins, was everythingelse. I understand that paintings should be kept out of sunlight, but surely galleries must have lighting rigs that fully illuminate pictures properly? I brought the subject up with what I supposed was an 'attendant' (when due to her immobility I'd first mistook her for an exhibit). She a) appeared to have no view whatever and b) also appeared not to understand anything I said. So I moved down a flight of stairs to another room where an older woman looked as though she was openly seething at having to circulate amongst so many fetishistic fantasies. Either that or she'd taken exception to my Routemaster bus seat patterned scarf. I said nothing. My third attempt was with a chap who said "This stuff really isn't my thing" and nodded us towards the exit. The girl in the mini shop was more forthcoming, but still couldn't help us. So we're still in the dark.
Far more welcoming was our pit stop in Limehouse. I hadn't been in The Grapes in Narrow Street for a long time, but thankfully so little has changed. The Thames at high tide (and low come to that) is right outside, there's the good natured hubbub of a Sunday lunchtime and the beer's good. It's part-owned by Sir Ian McKellen, who must surely find the wooden stairs to the upper floor a bit narrow for his wizard's hat.
This is that stray card that falls on your doormat two days late, but even the maelstrom that is the pre-Christmas rush should not have prevented it's being sent. So here we are, wishing you seasonal greetings, and now, in particular, my wishes for a Happy and Prosperous New Year!
Sorry to have been off air for so long, but this will, I hope, be the start of a return that heralds more over Christmas. My lodge keeper at Ashley Towers couldn't wait to get on her Rudge bicycle in order to bring this message up from the gatehouse. Oh how we laughed over our slices of Colston Bassett Stilton and tumblers of vintage port. Me even more so as I watched her unsteady retreat back down the drive in the glowing afternoon light.
We take them so much for granted really don't we? No, not the signpost, (increasing numbers of which are disappearing, at least in this traditional form) but miles themselves. I always knew that there would be creeping metrication that would eventually see them banished, and it's started. I was going to go on about this before I heard on the news that height and width restrictions are soon to be in centimetres or whatever, after all newsreaders and journalists continually use metric, temporary roadworks are signed using it, and it's all now horribly and unnecessarily ubiquitous. And then I started reading the delightful and thought-provoking Claxton by natural history writer Mark Cocker, and was brought to a halt by this, talking about barn owls, where: "...within eight kilometres of this spot I know three churches that have housed them..." I double-checked whether Mark was writing this in the Carmargue, but no, he was still in the nexus of the River Yare in south Norfolk.
Well, I've had this problem with editors before, who have insisted I use metric for measurements, probably so that they don't upset the one person who kindly buys my books in Belgium or the curiously huge numbers of Chinese who I think use something else anyway. But we've always been able to compromise, where miles are left alone but heights of bridges, say, are awkwardly noted in both systems. But the Forth Bridge for me will be always held together by 6,500,000 rivets weighing 4,200 tons. Perhaps Mark had someone breathing down his neck at Jonathan Cape's. I do hope this is the reason.
The Highways Agency, or whichever darkened room recommends these things for roads, have said that information in both systems will improve road safety. Yes, that old rock cake. No it won't, it will only confuse. They will doubtless cite the poor old truck driver from Uzbekistan who has thundered across Europe with just one tyre with a decent tread who is suddenly confronted by a low bridge in the fog.
Unmitigated England is going to have to be mobilised soon in the cause of saving our miles. After all, it's not "How many kilometres is it to Babylon" is it? Robert Frost didn't say The woods are lovely, dark, and deep / But I have promises to keep, / And kilometres to go before I sleep, / And kilometres to go before I sleep....
Just north of Osbournby on the Bourne to Sleaford road, the A15 makes a sudden swerve to the left in order to circumnavigate Aswarby Park. But if you take the lane into the tiny hamlet you will be confronted by the church of St.Denis, and if you see it in bright autumn sunlight as I did last week then it will appear like the ghost of a Lincolnshire church. Which in turn has its own ghost story attached. M.R.James stayed at the now demolished hall and used it as the backdrop to one of his most chilling tales Lost Hearts. All that remains in the park opposite to mark the building's passing are two columns out amongst the sheep and fallen trees, both surmounted by boar's heads, the Whichcote family crest.
But I was here for a purpose, to try and solve a puzzle that has exercised me for some time. Dwellers in Unmitigated England may remember my oblique reference to a mound in a Lincolnshire park. This came about because of a revised note to Aswarby in The Buildings of England:Lincolnshire, made by John Harris to Pevsner's comment about a possible barrow in the park: "It has been reported...that it was raised in the c19 to cover an elephant which died in a travelling circus!" A number of times I have scanned the park for even the slightest eminence but to no avail. After chasing a woman I saw unlocking the church I discovered that there was "talk of an elephant" in the distant past, but nothing more. So the girls were put to work up and down the library ladders until finally I was presented with a map reference for a supposed barrow in the park. Right next to the A15 as it straightens up to continue northwards. Just past the equally ghostly and sadly defunct Tally Ho Inn that stands forlorn on the left hand side. Why hadn't I seen it?
Further burning of candles at the midnight hour then brought a startling discovery. Tayleur's Great American Circus toured the country during 1880 and the early years of the 1890s. The circus (once witnessed by Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll in Eastbourne), visited Grantham, some thirteen miles to the west, on a stormy night on the 24th September 1892. A further piece of the pachydermal jigsaw appeared when I discovered that Lord Whichcote granted permission for the interment of an elephant from a travelling circus in Aswarby Park in....1892. All of these snippets came with the get-out words "legend" or "myth" but I'm now convinced that there's too much detail for there not to be some truth in this curiosity.
So yesterday, an appropriately stormy day, I set out for Aswarby again, but this time accompanied by the eagle-eyed Mother-of-My-Youngest-Children. Who of course immediately spotted the pear-shaped mound exactly as the map reference had indicated. My excuses for not seeing it sooner, viz: "there's a tree at one end of it and it's behind a hedge", drew not one ounce of sympathy. "You just get impatient if there's not a sign saying 'Elephant Buried Here".
The A15 got closed further on because a straw stack the size of a town hall was on fire, so we took advantage of a quieter road and with the wind blowing with apocalyptic force I negotiated a steep-sided ditch to wait for the imminent break of sunlight in the dark rolling clouds. I staggered back to the car. "Any luck?" "You won't believe it. There's two tusks sticking up out of it!". "NO! You're joking!". "Yes." So, there we are. There's much more to do, and short of a proper excavation that could get very complicated it looks like there's a few hours to be put in trawling the archives of the contemporary press. Which, knowing this county of old, will throw up even more curiosities to chase after on stormy days.
Everyone knows about about my predilection for all things appertaining to Len Deighton. Be it novels (particularly those of the 1960s), cookbooks, non-fiction and the various books he edited. One, though, had escaped me for years until last week I finally got my hands on Drinks-man-ship at the right price and in excellent condition for it's age (1964). It's a superb piece of Deightoniana: large (235mm x 325mm), beautifully designed by Derek Birdsall and in it Deighton brings together writing by his pals on all manner of drinks and drinking. It's a magnum of good things- classic sixties photography, typography, and reminisces of drinking by the likes of George Melly and Anthony Haden-Guest (very funny). But do you know, I'd have bought it just for the dust jacket. That's Len himself in close proximation to the model Pattie Boyd (she of Smiths Crisps TV commercials and married to both George Harrison and Eric Clapton who wrote Layla about her). The caption reads 'Photograph of Len Deighton and friend by James Mortimer', and it's still got that 'wow' factor that hasn't dated. It all makes me want to knock back an Underberg and break into a blue packet of Gauloises before reading.
So here are the other five posters, in the order I executed them. Having decided on the first one that the legend 'Bread' should not be a piece of additional text but an integral part of the poster, I had to think of ideas where the same thing could happen. Which proved to be a lot of fun. The only thing that changed on the final prints was that badge on the Soda girl's t-shirt. I'm obviously so immersed in the codes of Unmitigated England that I'd always thought the phrase 'spooning' meant 'courting', mainly because my dad said it lot. When I showed the design to Only Daughter she expostulated "Daddy you can't possibly say that". We did in fact print it like this originally, but a few raised eyebrows prompted a rethink.
Fortuitously, just as I'm about to press the 'publish' button, I learn that Brucciani's have just been successful at the 2014 Tiptree World Bread Awards, winning the category 'Great British White', which I thought was a brand of whale.
If anyone's interested in a print, just get in touch via my e-mail
I am a designer, writer and photographer who spends all his time looking at England, particularly buildings and the countryside. But I have a leaning towards the slightly odd and neglected, the unsung elements that make England such an interesting place to live in. I am the author and photographer of over 25 books, in particular Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2006), More from Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2007), Cross Country (Wiley 2011), The Cigarette Papers (Frances Lincoln 2012) and Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012)