There was one thing we knew as boys. And that was that the illustration on the front of Hornby catalogues and train set boxes would usually bear no relation to the contents. But it didn't matter. It was the whole idea of steam trains that attracted us, and the fact that they were inaccurately rendered in colourfully printed tinplate meant not a jot. Back in the day we were an 'O' Gauge family, forced by circumstance to watch richer neighbours' or friends' Hornby Dublo electric trains careen around specially constructed baseboards in front parlours. No, we were strictly clockwork, and our battered cheapo 'M' series trains ran amok through hallway and kitchen, and very memorably around the garden. My brother came back from Leicester market with a huge box full of track, staggering up our cul-de-sac lane shouting "Give me a hand someone". We couldn't believe how far it stretched, right from the bottom of the garden by the empty pond, past the sentinel lupins, across the yard, round the side and front of the house until finally running out of steam at the top of the drive. Almost literally, because one winding would do the lot. I was posted by the front gate, and I can still remember the rush of pleasure as the train approached, my brother having put an apple or biscuit in a truck for me. Alone and out of sight, I would put my ear to the silvered track to hear the approaching clattering of wheels. We were so into all this we parcelled an abbreviated version with a string handle to take on our holidays to Anderby Creek on the Lincolnshire coast. Rainy days found the trains whirring around the attic of our bungalow.
You know what's coming don't you? Readers may remember the purchase of an 0 gauge level crossing three years ago. It started a slow ball rolling. Signals, bits of stations, then wagons followed by the odd carriage. But no locomotive. Until this Tuesday! The coupling took place with due ceremony, and we're almost ready to roll. Just need a 100 yard stretch of track. You see, apart from my youngest chaps, there appears to be a growing cache of grandchildren in my family, and the idea is to start services running around Ashley Towers in a similar fashion to those of, err, a long time ago. Trucks with Ribena beakers spilling over them, trucks with Lego cargos. And the inevitable, as everyone watches in fascination as a rose petal drifts gently down onto the track and the whole thing spectacularly derails and crashes into the dustbins. Beware of trains.
* 'Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!' For years I thought this line of poetry was someone remembering his train set. I couldn't figure out 'Barlow' because the only one I knew was my fellow milk monitor at school. Eventually I read the whole thing and it's about cricket: At Lord's by Francis Thompson.
Yesterday saw our annual village show, named after the next village for some still unexplained reason. I've gone on about it in blog posts passim, and you've only got to change the title of Philip Larkin's poem Show Saturday to Show Sunday and you'll know exactly what it's like: ...horse-boxes move; each crawls / Towards the stock entrance, tilting and swaying, bound / For far-off farms.
This year was no different, except that I took more notice of what was going on in the main ring from my straw bale seat, rather than over-indulging myself in the hospitality tent of the show sponsors. So I know a bit more about ladies riding side-saddle, which was nice, but am still nonplussed by JCB digger formation dancing. I had a lovely chat with a bloke who had brought old tools for sale from near Bawdsey in Suffolk and who told me about playing inside Martello Towers when he was a child, but inevitably got drawn to the ranks of restored, partly restored and still wrecked old tractors. Towering over them was a vehicle used to haul timber, also from Suffolk, and I stared for a long time at the hand wrought lettering 'ticked-in' on the door. I wondered at which point the artist realised he wasn't going to get all of 'Suffolk' in before the door edge was reached. Of course he or she knew. If you draw lettering you know instinctively.
And just as inevitably I got drawn into the secondhand book tent where I nearly got into a scuffle with a pal who had, I confess, seen a C.Henry Warren book illustrated by John Aldridge before I did. But I did alight successfully on the 1920 Dairy Farming book. I had to have it just for the cover, which pleased me immensely. Although I don't doubt that I shall benefit at some time by knowing that cows calving between October and January give the highest yields. It says on page 80. I've just made it into a big A3 print and it looks even better. Perhaps I'll do the same for Mr.Cooper's red door.
Last week I had one of those moments when something occurred that hurled me back through time and space. The brass wheels and clocks finally stopped whirring at the spring of 1964. I was sixteen, and half way through my lunch one Saturday the printer father of my ex-girlfriend (my first girlfriend as it happens) pulled up outside our house in his new dark blue Humber Hawk. Diving under the stairs I was finally brought out to be asked if I'd like a trip to London. Yes please, and a couple of hours later packages of print were being off loaded from the cavernous boot somewhere in Blackheath. A short while later I was being treated to a meal in a Quality Inn near Piccadilly Circus, and on walking out into the exhaust fumes and haze of the early evening I noticed the queues growing outside the London Pavilion cinema for Tom Jones, a film that had just won four Oscars. We stopped and stared at the huge gaudy blow-ups that adorned the entrance, and my kindly 'driver' said "I've seen that. It's wonderful". I also noticed that it had an 'X' certificate (oh how we were protected!), but a week or so later I crept into the Picture House in Leicester and saw it. It was like a gun going off in my head as doors flung open. My love of buildings, the English countryside, film and photography, and much more, started in this dingy cinema late on a Saturday afternoon. It was cup final day at Wembley, and during the fight scene in the churchyard (location: Nettlecombe in Somerset) they flashed up a sign on the screen to say that West Ham had won against Preston North End, 3-2.
Last week the past collided with me. I was sent an e-mail newsletter from the London Transport Museum, and in order to advertise Sunday's cavalcade of buses down Regent Street yesterday they used a period photograph of Piccadilly Circus. It looked so much like a gaudily printed postcard I went onto ebay and much to my amazement found that it was. I'm holding the postcard in my hand now, and the reason for my excitement (doesn't take much these days) was that the London Pavilion is clearly showing Tom Jones. And on further research I discovered that it was taken by Franz Lazi and printed by the Kardorama company which had just started in Hertfordshire. The year is 1964, it's 11.30, it's a sunny day and who knows, in a couple of hours I might just be watching the speedometer on the walnut dashboard of the Humber edge up to 80 on the M1.
Now, I have a theory. I don't have them very often these days, wish I did. It's about modern housing development. We're currently hearing a lot about 'Garden Cities' (a term coined, one suspects, to make us feel better about massive development). Today some proposals may rise up challengingly before us, and it would be remarkable if they followed the same ideas and visual principles of places like Letchworth (above) and Welwyn Garden City (read about them all here) but I'm filled with foreboding. Particularly when you see the scrubby pyloned landscape around candidate Ebbsfleet in Kent, the infrastructure for a new city put in years ago with the high speed rail link. Two people discussed the idea of 'Garden Cities' on the Today programme this morning, a National Trust boss and a bloke who runs Next, and it was all about where the new 'Garden Cities' should be located. Somebody vaguely mentioned high standards and quality, but as in all these discussions nobody talks about the quality of house design itself.
Hence my theory: We'd all feel a whole lot better about housing development if the houses and the spaces in between were designed with some proper thought and care.Yes, it needs architects who can draw, but you never know.
Everybody runs about waving their arms in the air when the bulldozers start revving-up to clear the countryside for new homes, whether they're needed or not (developers and house builders will always tell you 10 million homes are needed by Christmas). And that's because of the paucity of quality in design. We all have concerns about acres of greenery being built over, but why can't the end result be something other than mediocre pastiches of past styles with eighteen inches between them and a few token shrubs? Even adding a decent height to chimney stacks and putting proper terracotta pots on them would help enormously. And I don't mean building toytowns like the one tacked on to Dorchester.
Great examples are out there to provide inspiration. The first garden suburb, Bedford Park in Chiswick, was planned around keeping as many existing trees as possible and employing people like architect Norman Shaw. And then there's the remarkable New Ash Green in Kent. Yes, that one would've looked a bit raw when it was first built, but the quality of house design, the planning of roads and cul-de-sacs and the keeping of essential trees and greenery means it has now matured into something almost unique in England. I do hope something similar starts to happen now, and not just in the new 'Garden Cities'.
People say of a good book "Ooh I just can't put it down". Well you will this one: a) to laugh out loud, b) to cry (possibly) or c) to look up words in the dictionary. This is one of those books I know I will go back to every two or three years or so, like, in my case, Three Men in a Boat and Rogue Male. Unlike these two stalwarts this is an account of a 1950s childhood spent amongst the bonkers demobbed majors and pike haunted chalk steams in and around post war Salisbury. But don't be fooled into thinking that this is just another nostalgic autobiography staring misty eyed at Golden Syrup tins and Hornby signal boxes. This is Meades Country, and I'm saying no more except it's essential reading. And I'm only half way through it. Delayed gratification you see, don't want it to end.
In my last post you will have seen the front cover for the new Shires Library book 'British Family Cars of the 1950s & 60s'. The photograph was a last minute choice after I'd seen an immaculate 1959 Morris Oxford Traveller at the 38th Nottinghamshire Classic Car, Motorcycle & MiniShow at Thoresby Hall. I fell in love with it, and on returning home quickly found myself looking for the original brochure. On receipt I was very pleased to see on the inside two gentleman loading cut flowers into the back of a model in the same colours, which I now know to be Dark Green and Island Green. What was it that appealed so much? Partly I think it was because this was the All Steel Traveller, rare I would imagine against the once numerous ash framed version that looked like an enlarged elder sister of the ubiquitous Morris Minor Traveller. But mainly I think it stirred my imagination into picturing it drawn up outside a Southern Region railway station on the Sussex / Kent borders. Early evening light reflecting off the chrome as the signal arm elevates to welcome the 5.15 from Victoria, a red setter getting excited in the back as a lady in a pink gingham blouse drums red painted nails against the steering wheel... [alright, enough of that. Ed.]
Back in the real world at Thoresby Hall my pleasure was further enhanced by my seeing a perfect contemporary picnic basket open on the back seat, cream crockery neatly strapped in against the wicker lid. As the brochure says: This new Oxford All-Steel Traveller is not only robust, colourful, and handsome, but also has line and design to make it the most accommodating and versatile multi-purpose car ever. I love that blatant and confident 'ever'.
In Unmitigated England, there are certain essential books that must appear on bookshelves, both in the home and at the local library. An assortment of Everyman Classics, a row of dog-eared Penguins, everything by Jonathan Meades and a set of Shell Guides. And quite recently a byelaw was introduced that states that everyone coming of age will receive a representative set of twenty one Shire Books. What an institution they have become. "...such gems" as Joanna Lumley has it; "...in every way delightful", Lucinda Lambton. And that's just the girls. "You won't be disappointed" joins in Jonathan Dimbleby.And they're right.Perhaps, to begin with,we remember them as quirkily typographic booklets with monotone text and illustrations, telling us about things like Whitby Jet and Roman Coins. And then, seven years or so ago they came under the direction of Nick Wright at Osprey Publishing and the Shire brand was extended, pummelled into shape and made to stand upright in a smart new livery on the Shire Spinners in countrywide bookshops. And now in glorious colour too!
And here, I suppose, I must declare a particular interest. Mr.Wright and I were taking luncheon somewhere in the Bermudan triangle that is pinned down by Daventry, Banbury and Brackley, and he suddenly said "I think I might have a job for you". The brand now having been very successfully established (and I had started to shuffle books along the Ashley Towers library shelves to make room for them) the next stage needed to be looked at, and this year will see new covers starting to spin in the bookshops. The premise is simple. Shire Books are packed with brilliant information on very particular interests, centreing around our heritage and of course quite rightly unashamed nostalgia for the past. Now was the time that the subjects of the books should be the heros. Or heroines, of course. So for the last year I have been immersed in the Shires, with new challenges set before me every day. I have stood waiting for ten seconds of sun amongst caravans in Shropshire, polished up Corgi Toys in Leicestershire, recreated the Blitz on my kitchen table and frightened myself with a garden gnome in an old radar station in Kent. Here's just a handful to be going on with, I hope you like them, I hope you will make room for them on your shelves.
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)