Sunday, 16 August 2015

Strife in Squares

I show this picture because it's the only thing I've got to illustrate the Bloomsbury Group. (Apart from something that I'll leave until last.) This is the garden of Monk's House in Rodmell, East Sussex, home to Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. It didn't appear in Life in Squares, the recent BBC drama about the Group, as didn't Virginia loading her mac up with stones and wandering into the nearby River Ouse. Lots of actors walked about as if they were going to, most of them being replaced by other actors at some time or other. In the first episode Henrik Hanssen off Holby City popped up in the garden of Charleston (another BG hang-out in Sussex) and it took me ages to realise he was supposed to be Leonard Woolf, but later in life. All this was very disconcerting owing to the use of flash forwards, and totally unnecessary. What possessed the producers to replace James Norton playing the younger Duncan Grant with Rupert Penry-Jones pretending to be the older? RP-H is only 15 years older than James N, but actually contrived to look even younger. 

I was looking forward very much to seeing this, owing to an odd (well, not that odd) connection with it all. There were in fact some superb moments over the three episodes, not least for me when Clive Bell kept going on about his mistress Mrs.Raven-Hill. We didn't see her (worse luck), but this was 'The Luxurious Mrs.Raven-Hill', wife to Leonard (when she found time) who was a very well-known Punch cartoonist and a big mate and illustrator of Rudyard Kipling. And on top of all this she is the great-grandmother of the mother of my two youngest children. I'm feel sure she will be mentioning it here soon.

Monday, 3 August 2015

The Drooling Class

It's taken me the best part of forty years to get in here. Staring from afar and the occasional trespass until yesterday I saw marked in my diary 'Harlaxton Manor Open'. For one day only, which I think they do once a year. This is one of my top ten of English houses, a giant confection (a 'cream cake with icing' a friend said) sitting against a Lincolnshire hillside not far from Grantham off the Melton road. There are many 'perhaps', 'probablys' and 'maybes' in finding out who did what, but essentially this is the vision of landowner Gregory Gregory brought to trumpeting life in Ancaster stone by Anthony Salvin, commissioned in 1831, followed by William Burn in 1838. It can best be described as Jacobethan Baroque I suppose, and every over-blown adjective applied to it is true, 'sensational' being the most apt.

My top picture would have been impossible to photograph yesterday due to parked cars on the lawn, so this is from a transparency of June 2000. Apart from my first sight of this fanfare of an elevation, my interest was further aroused when in 1965 a friend of my uncle moved the Jesuit priests ensconced here to a new home down south, a removal feat that had to be completed in-between the morning and evening prayers of a single day. And then Harlaxton Manor was used by Peter Medak for his equally sensational film The Ruling Class (1972) with Peter O'Toole, mainly for exteriors.The Jesuits leased it to Stanford University of California, it subsequently being sold to the current owners the University of Evansville, Indiana, as their English campus.

So we all stood in and around this truly magnificent pile, trying our best not to drool over the heavenly ceiling of The Gold Room, guarded by countless putti, the greenly hothouse atmosphere of the conservatory or the Cedar staircase with its apparently stone-like roped tassels moving at a delicate finger touch. And then, round the back away from the drooling crowds I discovered what I most wanted to see. A covered-in brick viaduct where once a little train was filled with coal that was delivered into the house, bringing fuel to gravity-fed scuttles in the principle rooms.If this wasn't enough, one of my boys tapped The Ruling Class into his phone to discover that this very day was Peter O'Toole's birthday.

Thursday, 16 July 2015


Sorry, but I've had my nose in a book. A new Unmitigated book that should be out in the autumn. A lame excuse for the non-appearance of my blog I know, but anyway. Here's one of the photographs for what will be English Allsorts; in fact the last picture in the book. That's Bobby the Dog posing beautifully with a very nearly fully restored 1952 Jaguar XK120 Fixed-Head Coupe in Old English White. Found in a field in Zimbabwe in 1999. Bobby and her owner live very remotely in the Wye Valley in Herefordshire, and this photo shoot was just at the very start of a typically blokeish weekend that involved homemade cappacinos, glugging beer and red wine (in different glasses), cooking mutton in a fire pit and more Jaguars. More soon on the Allsorts front.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Silent Spectator

Last week I paid my respects to my friend the artist Rigby Graham . The funeral was in the suitably gothic St.John's church in Clarendon Park Leicester, and as we filed out afterwards I couldn't help noticing this surreal juxtaposition. The figure is one of a series positioned on the pavements outside the junior school opposite to slow down motorists, much like those arm-waving plastic policeman they use so effectively in France. I share it with you not out of any ghoulish intention, but simply because I know that Rigby would've loved it.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Blimey, Twenty Years...

It's raining here in Leicestershire, and also a handful of miles away across the fields in Rutland. And then, staring out of the window at the rain I had my first tangible thought of the day. It's twenty years since I produced my first book. Rutland was going to be given its county status back, and my friend Anthony Unsworth and I decided to celebrate it with the smallest book on the smallest county. We were either sitting in our office overlooking Kensington High Street or sitting round the corner in the Scarsdale Arms in Edwardes Square (probably the latter) and we agreed that I should disappear up the A1 and take photographs. It was a dry summer, and the Rutland soil was parched, but I persevered and after days in the heat and nights in the pub I finally finished. At this time I'd only written advertising copy and excruciating love letters, so we decided to give Faber & Faber some money and use W.G.Hoskins' inimitable introduction from the Shell Guide to Rutland and, from the same rare volume, a piece called 'Time Off In Rutland' which said that Tixover churchyard was a good place for an afternoon doze. It was.

When it was printed we loaded up our cars and went around all the local bookshops flogging them in boxes of 10 that doubled-up as counter displays. This is where we both learnt the vicissitudes of the sharp end of bookselling, but, as far as I know we did sell all the copies one way or another. These were halcyon days, and I'll always be grateful for the break it gave me in being asked to do more books. It makes such a difference when pitching an idea to have something tangible to wave about in meetings. So enormous thanks to Val Horsler at English Heritage and David Campbell at Everyman, both of whom also believed I could write as well as take pictures. The latter and I are currently ensconced in producing another book together, more of which later. And it looks like it's going to stop raining soon.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Noble Strife

We knew it was going to be a hard act to follow, but we didn't think the plot would be altered to be about people fleeing London to avoid the attentions of a particularly raucous corvidae corvus. But settled in our extraordinarily expensive seats in the local Odeon (shows how often I go) we soon realised that yes, it was another adaption of Thomas Hardy's classic novel set in 1870s Dorset. And of course John Schlesinger's 1967 film is indeed a very hard act to follow. So how did Thomas Vinterberg do? Well, very creditably considering he only had I hour 59 minutes in which to tell this sprawling majestic tale and Schlesinger had the luxury and money to reach 2 hours 50 minutes. Which meant that much of importance had to be left at the side of a bleak Dorset trackway. Poor Fanny Robin hardly had the time to become a Hardy victim of circumstance, but we still booed her beau Sergeant Troy, a first class Victorian villain played up to the sword hilt by Tom Sturridge. Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts abandoned trying to do a convincing Wessex accent (it didn't matter), and Michael Sheen's Boldwood had suitable if wingeing gravitas. But you'll have guessed it's Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene that now has a starring role in my Unmitigated Fantasy of sheep shearing, singing, harvesting and heartbreaking in Victorian Dorset. And I have another heroine in the line-up for Unmitigated Honours, and that's cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christiansen. This film is ravishing to look at, a very worthy companion to Nick Roeg's photography back in 1967. 

So, apart from the obvious yawning gaps in the narrative, Boldwood's completely over-the-top 'farmhouse' (Claydon House in Buckinghamshire, oddly) and a farmyard well that looks like it's just been dusted-off from the prop store, this is a superbly watchable film. And as Deborah Ross quite rightly said in her Spectator review 'Crowd Pleaser' (2 May): "...can someone not have another go, even after nearly half a century? And why do they have to be in competition? Can't they co-exist?".

I was 19 when I first saw the original (the second actually, the first being a silent film of 1915), and afterwards I made a point of reading everything I could lay my hands on by Hardy, without any real disappointment except in what happened to Jude's children and Tess. So if any 19 year olds can unglue their smart phones from their faces for just under 2 hours and decide as a result that they'd like to read the book and its companions, then it would all be even more worthwhile. Bring me my heavy woollen coat and gaitered boots....

Friday, 24 April 2015

Beach Complexion

This chap spoke to me this morning at breakfast. He said "I'm one of those objects the obsession of which you can never remember the name of." He was found on Cley beach. I shall have to do a treatise on them, probably call it Face Book.