Anybody who has been within
five miles of me in the last year will have heard of the progress of this
latest addition to the Unmitigated Stable. It’s taken a while to fine tune,
which involved immense research and drinking in London, Leicestershire and Oxfordshire. (In fact
it involved drinking just about everywhere really.) So at last, thanks to those
marvellous people at Unbound, here is an opportunity to go even deeper into the
hidden recesses of Unmitigated England.
The Unmitigated Postcards Box is my first go at a crowd-funded project. Which basically means that
subscribers elect to support an author, usually for a book, at different levels
from signed collectors’ editions right up to something really special at the
top end. It’s all so exciting. You’ll see from the Unbound site that the yellow
carton (a pastiche of a well-loved Kodak photo paper box) contains 100 ‘eccentrically
eccentric’ postcards. A few you may have seen; most you won’t. All are my
favourites, and it would be brilliant if you thought that you could support the
cause. Thank you all very much.
This morning the last Land Rover ran
off the production line at the Solihull works. So we’re regaled by journos
talking about the Land Rover Defender being born in 1948. No it wasn't. As you all know I was
born in 1948 along with the Land Rover. (Are you really sure? Ed.)The Defender came much later after the
Series 2. Anyway, farewell. And thanks again to Toby Savage who is amongst a
very elite group that knows everything about the wonderful original, and
indeed allowed me to photograph his 1948 model for the Shire book cover above. He is probably sitting at his kitchen table now, with head in his hands and fist closing round a starting handle.
Researching nursery rhyme
illustrations I came across this gem by Charles Folkard (1878-1963) and
couldn’t wait to share it with you. I bought it as a single sheet, but have no
idea as to the title of the book it’s from. Paramount amongst childrens’ book illustrators,
Folkard started out as a conjuror, (no wonder his pictures are so magical), but
turning to illustration he created the Teddy Tail character for the Daily Mail
and is famous for The Arabian Nights, Grimms’ Fairy Tales and Pinocchio.
I first came across his work
when many years ago I bought Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes, edited by
L.Edna Walter. Apart from his four coloured pictures, this 1924 edition has
Folkard drawings liberally spotting the text, including some exquisite
silhouettes. I’ll always remember where and when I bought it, on a hot summer’s
afternoon in Great Malvern in that bookshop that’s at the top of the steps leading up from the gardens in front of the Priory. I looked down on
them from a hot stuffy little room and saw Edward Elgar slowly walking towards
the Priory with his dogs. For only a second or two, but that’s another story.
Amazing how a
simple image from a 1950 copy of the Illustrated London News can act as a
touchstone to an event that, if not entirely forgotten, was at least tucked
away amongst the deeper recesses of my memory files. As I dust this one off,
all I ask of you is that you imagine this Wolseley Six-Eighty is painted
in glossy black.
I was between schools, aged I suppose around thirteen, and this was the
geography master's car. When the summer holidays came, and before the new term
started elsewhere, I joined a school camping trip to Symond's Yat in the Wye
Valley for a week. A host of teachers were in attendance, all now calling
us pupils by our first names. It was so surprising to be called 'Peter' by
the PE master instead of 'Ashley you cretin', and having him talk to me nicely
instead of blowing a whistle in my face. We gathered at the school on the
Saturday, and were divided up between the cars, one of which was towing a
trailer with all the tents. Including the geography master there were six
of us squeezed into the big Wolseley. I was in the front on a bench seat, with
a GIRL in-between me and the driver. Having two brothers I'd never been this
close to one ever. So we drove off with me staring ahead, bright red and
clasping my hands between my knees. After a couple of miles our driver said
"Peter, wouldn't you be more comfortable if you sat with your arm around
Diane? You don't mind do you Diane?". I can't remember what she said but
she smiled at me and I smiled at her and thought to myself "Oh
God you're so pretty". And with delicately pink cheeks and black
curly hair she certainly was.
Three or four hours later we got to a muddy field near Symond's Yat and we fell
out of the car. Diane ran off to join her girlfriends and I was left gazing
fondly after her. For the rest of the holiday I could be seen lurking in
the distance, tripping over guy ropes and behaving suspiciously in the environs
of the dining tent. Quite rightly she completely ignored me, and I
was grateful for an overnight canoe trip downriver with three mates, just
so that I didn't have to worry about it all for a while.
I can't remember ever seeing this Wondrous Beauty again, but Wolseleys will
always have a special place in my heart. Even the one my dad drove into the
side of a Midland Red bus. Another awakening. But it does make me think. My
Youngest Boy will be thirteen very soon. But somehow I don't think for one
minute he'll have to be encouraged to put his arm round a girl.
On Radio 4's Saturday Live last week I learnt of Dr.Irving Finkel's Great Diary Project which has so far accumulated 6,000 unpublished diaries. He rightly maintains that journals kept as a personal record, and not intended for publication, can be far more interesting than, say, Simon Cowell's. (My example.) The Rev.Kilvert's diaries are amongst the best of these unintended treasures, a searchlight reaching deep into the past of 1870's Welsh Borders and Wiltshire.
All this made me return to a diary I picked up from an antique stall last year. Firstly because it's such a delightful object in its own right ,(leather cover, beautiful gilt script and marbled endpapers),secondly because there are full entries in blue fountain pen ink on virtually every page, written in a very neat if occasionally illegible hand, and lastly because it's for the year I was born. (Surely not? Ed.)
I have to admit I got totally absorbed in the everyday life of a young female nurse living and working in London. Nothing earth shattering, but another searchlight into the minutiae of an anonymous life. The rigours of working in a London hospital in post war London, her worries and desires, the occasional cocktail party. Interspersed with mad dashes by Southern electric train to go sailing on The Solent.
Naturally the first page I turned to was my birthday; so I learnt that as my mother was bringing me into an unsuspecting world in the back bedroom of a Victorian house near Leicester, Nurse X (her address in the back is under 'Myself') was getting her hair done and wondering how she would get one with the new 'moderately attractive' Ward Sister. One thing she wouldn't have thought of was that a baby being born as she did her duties would read her diary 67 years later.
All very thought provoking. The next thing to do is to get it transcribed and then to try and piece together all the clues that must be hidden within as to who she might have been.
So. Happy New Year Everyone! After all the pies, Stilton and moshing over our cake to Metallica's Enter The Sandman, we go through the first gate into the first Unmitigated field of 2016. Above is a delight discovered on our Cheese Run. This entails getting lost (everytime, it's a Christmas Custom) in the quiet pastures of the Nottinghamshire / Leicestershire borders trying to find Colston Bassett. SatNav not allowed, we always seem to find ourselves facing the wrong way as Noddy Holder belts out Merry Christmas Everybody. (Noddy won't be drawn on what he makes every year, just says it's his winter fuel allowance.) But once the best Stilton in the world was stowed away we progressed to the tiny market town of Bingham. A town suffering somewhat from inappropriate out-of-scale development but still retaining good buildings around its market square. Except, as usual, for a Co-Op that pays no respect to anything around it.
But in a little side street were these gems on the frontage of J.Butler's butchers. It was, I think, still operational as a shop, but maybe not one with cows' and sheeps' heads knocking about. What I found amazing was that the two animals are on individual whole tiles, with a decorative border that's worthy of Walter Crane. (You can gauge their size by comparing them with the normal tiles surrounding them, which of course are square.) I think they're fabulous, and a reminder that there was once a time when the link between animals in the fields and the joints in our ovens wasn't so blurred.
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), Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012) and English Allsorts (Adelphi 2015)