Always prohibitively expensive to buy, vitreous enamel signs are the brilliantly colourful 'Street Jewellery' of the English scene. Most of my collection was levered off walls in the seventies from the top of precipitously-leaning ladders. With the express permission of shopkeepers, of course. All very well and typical of long-haired designer fads of the age, but these days I somehow prefer to see them still up on the wall where everyone can enjoy them. How untypically egalatarian is that of me? So I was very pleased to see these signs still in their original position on a shop wall in Bluntisham, Cambridgeshire. The Brooke Bond tea sign was once one of the most ubiquitous, but what I like here are the two sizes of Sunlight signs. It's as if the soap rep turned up, got out the sign catalogue and the shopkeeper said 'I'll have one of each'. They all bring back a painful memory. A little shop in the Highfields district of Leicester was closing, and outside was a Player's Cigarettes enamel sign, complete with the Hero sailor in glorious colour. I asked the little old lady if there was any chance I could have it when the shop finally shut. It was promised, I was over-joyed. Returning a couple of months later I saw that the sign was gone, just the empty frame staring blankly at me. On asking for it the lady said 'But you've already been in and had it'. Not me I said, gripping the counter. 'But he had a beard' was the only reply I heard as I went out.
An unmitigated disaster of a day out on the Fens. I should have believed the BBC forecast for once and stayed at home, instead of disconsolately driving around hoping that the milky haze would shift itself from in front of the sun. But then, you can imagine the length of my tyre marks as I braked in Somersham for this. Two very old pumps like this one, two sixties varieties (one with a Cleveland globe) an oil dispenser cabinet, an AA box peeping over a hedge. Not in the confines of a motoring museum, but at the side of the road as if business was not only as usual, but booming. It's called the West End Garage, with a little kiosky place with things like the Michelin man in the window driving a red pedal car. I expected at any minute for an overalled man to appear and start polishing my headlamps with a yellow duster. It all cheered me up no end, and I had to go to Ely for a cup of Rooibosh Vanilla tea and a toasted Norfolk ham and brie sandwich by the river. Oh! Look Janet, look John. That Castrol open and closed sign. Didn't the big green metal disc revolve in the wind?
Staring at my Len Deighton collection this evening, as one does, I looked again at this superb Raymond Hawkey cover for the first Penguin edition (1965) of Horse Under Water. This was the second volume Deighton wrote after his debut The Ipcress File, and his Royal College of Art chum Hawkey was involved with the covers right from the start. The early hardbacks are now much sort after classics, with monochrome photography on white backgrounds and minimal typography, but Hawkey was presented with a particular problem here. The first novel had been made into what is now, quite rightly, a cult film, and Penguin wanted this cover, albeit for a different book, to be an all-singing, all-dancing reference to the movie. Frustrated at having his more discreet ideas turned down, Hawkey produced this in desparation. Yes, here's Michael Caine in big dot newsprint, with those thick-framed spectacles ensuring a passing resemblance to Deighton himself. But then the designer crossly caught the attention of the book-buying public with those big shouting stripes, just to make a point it seems. The first print run of 60,000 copies was sold out in 48 hours. To me, this is an essential item in the iconography of the sixties, the stripes immediately bringing to mind the security barriers at Cold War checkpoints. Hawkey continued the bold graphic theme with the original Penguin covers for Funeral in Berlin (orange and white) and Billion Dollar Brain (silver and black). Somehow you can't imagine tie-in covers ever being this good again. Horse Under Water, although optioned for production, was never made into a film.
I went on about this anachronistic shop in the Unmitigated England book, and illustrated my recollections with a selection of pictures taken in the late seventies in Billesdon, Leicestershire.This is one that escaped the net, turned-up today as I was rummaging for a photograph of a Fenland drainage pumping station. The shop was extraordinary, with contemporary brands jostling for position on the shelves with once memorable but now extinct household names. I think this photograph is of the front-of-shop 'display', not so much an example of the window dresser's art as a repository for tins and packets put there a year or so before and then forgotten. So much of this was once so familiar. I miss the Norfolk stuffing box (top shelf, right) with the smiley pig on it and the legend 'Highly Recommended' underneath, and that Nestle Ideal milk tin with the white stripes. Can you still get Mary Had mint sauce? I bet I go to the shops tomorrow and see if they do, depositing yet another unopened jar in the Ashley Archive, alongside all seven of those very clever variants of the Lyle's Golden Syrup cans they're doing to celebrate 125 sticky years.
How good to see a village chapel still in use for its original purpose, instead of converted into a conversation-piece residence or filled with giant multi-coloured plastic vehicles for a playgroup. This is the 1846 Great Dalby Methodist chapel in Leicestershire, with some kind of service most Sundays including one for 'All Ages' followed by an afternoon tea at four o'clock. I was brought up in and around non-conformist places of worship like this, gaslit Evangelical mausolea in terraced city backstreets, bare-boarded Strict Baptism in hidden Chiltern villages. And whatever my father could inflict on us on holiday, which once included a Salvation Army Citadel in Hythe and an isolated Primitive Methodist in cornfields near the Norfolk coast. Here we doubled the congregation on the two back rows, staring at fifty or so children gleaned from all over the countryside turning round in their seats and singing their Sunday School Anniversary hymns at us. As a twelve year old I remember squirming with embarrassment until it belatedly dawned on me that the girl immediately in front of me was in fact quite pretty and wearing pale blue gingham. A welcome distraction from Wide, Wide as the Ocean and a tedious sermon.
One of my all-time favourite directors of photography, David Watkin, has recently and sadly passed to that big film set in the sky. Hopefully he will bring even more heavenly illumination to paradise with his unique Wendy Light, his high overhead lamps on a cherry-picker that made night shots far more natural. Watkin shot for Ken Russell (on arguably Russell's best film The Devils) and Dick Lester (Help!, The Knack). But in my book Watkin's work will be best remembered for his breathtaking photography on the vastly underrated Charge of the Light Brigade and Joseph Andrews. Both were directed by Tony Richardson, not an easy director for cinematographers to work with because of his frequent habit of grabbing control of the camera himself. Watkin's superb efforts were such that if I saw his name in opening credits I would exclaim to myself, or to the long-suffering company I was with, "Oh good", or if put into end credits "Of course".
Well, alright, just one more. This Riley was a cut-above the average, the sort of car that could only be driven with Dents driving gloves and a Dunhill pipe emphatically-packed with Player's Medium Navy Cut. It was for the man who liked a little, but not too much, sportiness in his life. Something to impress the twin-set off a secretary down at the works office, but still striking the right note after Sunday service with church elders and Miss Primrose in the choir. This stunning air-brushed image is from a 1960 brochure, at the time when the Riley One-and-a-Half litre was being superceded by the Pathfinder so beloved of Scotland Yard police (we're gaining on them sir!). I find the choice of a trio of Kent oast houses in the background interesting; this was a time when these vernacular buildings in the landscape would have typified the country life being sort after by the post war newly well-off. Particularly out in the southern countryside, within easy reach of London Bridge or Charing Cross by train. The Riley getting admiring glances from Standard or Triumph drivers parking-up at Eridge and Paddock Wood. I had one of these beautiful cars in the 70s, all black, red leather seats, and after the original valve radio had warmed-up out came Educating Archie.
I'm sorry to be continuing this motor show fugue, but don't worry we'll soon be back with rusty Castrol jugs and phone boxes falling over. It's just that an eagle-eyed commentator has noticed a Bedford van in the background of my Husky photograph, and I just had to ferret-out this 1956 sales brochure to share with you. I have said elsewhere that I thought the illustrations made the van twice the size, which I can now see is untrue, but it is still a remarkable coincidence that the street scene contains nothing but other Bedford vans and a token Vauxhall Cresta from the same Luton stable. This is the first vehicle I ever drove, an uncertain and under-age passage down a Northamptonshire lane with my Uncle John leaning over and wrestling with the steering wheel and column change gears in tandem with my own nervous efforts. Gripping an untipped Player's in his teeth.This was a wholesale paint delivery van, but the brochure tells of many variants including personnel carrier, canopy pick-up, milk float, gown van and of course the ubiquitous Dormobile. Many colour variants are shown, my favourite being a duotone mid-blue and cream. The picture shows a uniformed man delivering red tulips to a lady standing in the porch of a posh house. Heavy wistful sigh.
We've all been there. Those moments in our lives when we stop and think "Actually, what have I done to deserve this?". This Hillman Husky (rare estate version of the Imp that has a walk-on part on page 176 of More from Unmitigated England) was my second company car after a trouser-destroying Viva SL. The keys were handed over to me whilst my colleagues turned away and guffawed silently into their cupped hands. The time is 1970-ish, and the setting is Dunwich beach in Suffolk. The other slides in the yellow plastic Kodak box are of the last piece of masonry from the last church to fall into the sea from the clifftops. I'm also pretty certain that this is the only record of the car without big booted dent marks in the door. This must be the only vehicle on earth that filled up with carbon monoxide everytime you stopped at traffic lights, a kind of Hillman Russian Roulette where every journey was spiced-up with the odds of getting home without your eyes glazed over. I include it after the generous response to the Grazing Hunter, and as a warning to the curious. Don't even think of driving one, if indeed you could ever find an example, unless you're deeply depressed or have just finished listening to Alastair Darling's Collected Speeches.
Except it isn't a Hillman Hunter is it, not really? This model is the downbeat version Rootes badged as a Minx, but whatever it is it sits in a field on the edge of my village. Somehow these cars have popped-up into my consciousness at various times of my life; first seen on the front cover of my 1967 Observer's Book of Automobiles with a very curvaceous blonde in a pink polka-dotted frock sitting seductively on the bonnet of which I now see is the Singer Vogue manifestation. Then in 1970 I borrowed one off a work colleague in order to deliver what seemed like six million Goddard's Silver Polish leaflets to Johnsons in Frimley, Surrey. It was the first time I'd managed to coax any car up to 80mph on the M1, not bad considering the boxes of print weighed the back end down to the rear tyres. My father owned a spectacularly dull Hunter in chocolate brown, and then they seemed to disappear, although I believe the tooling was sent from Ryton-on-Dunsmore to Iran to make taxis; much the same story as the Hindustan Morris Cowley in India. I expect this grazing Hunter is the plaything of an under-aged driver, but round here it could just as easily be awaiting conversion into a chicken coop.
Early to Borough Market in Southwark, freezing cold but filled with intense low winter sunlight highlighting the stalls through the glass and iron canopies. The Cathedral presiding over the busy scene below like a Cotswold church on market day, pale yellow stone up against a deep blue sky. After coffee in Monmouth's, (watching those who'd got seats sitting round the big artisan's table eating bread and jam), I was left to my own devices whilst cheeses and pies were bought from stallholders who stamped their feet and blew into their hands to keep warm. My attention was of course immediately distracted by this red cow. La Vache Qui Non Rit (to show off my appalling French) perhaps, except for the emetic legend 'Love Me' on its flank. There's another one on the same parapet painted black with another message I couldn't see- probably 'Hate Me'. When everyone's gone home, and after the last brown rice Sunday joint has been hoiked off to Tufnell Park, the two cows probably lock horns and fight like Robert Mitchum's tattoed fingers in The Night of the Hunter. The other odd thing is that the exposure time has rendered the gas jets in the lamp into a neon (funnily enough) J and L. What can it mean? Is it an omen? Sci-Fi title: The Neon Omen.
There's something about neon signs. I snapped this one on Friday night inside the Soho Pizzeria in Beak Street, where you can eat American Hots whilst listening to hot Americans or a silky girl leaning-up against a grand piano. Or the silky girl sitting opposite you. Just the right medium for the legend 'Live Music'. The sign reminded me of the neon we saw all over London at one time; the imaginative use of it on Piccadilly Circus instead of the current blanket coverage that makes it look like Tokyo. I remember standing by Eros and staring up at the Guinness clock with a moving pendulum, signs for Wrigley's, Bovril and Schweppes Tonic Water. And further out from the nightlife dazzle, the gable ends of London telling us repeatedly to 'Take Courage', a message that I once liberally took to heart. By the look of the London skyline at night, say from a railway carriage, there's still a few old but bright words out in the dark, maybe with a dead letter here and there. Still flickering to life whenever the lights are put on, but completely forgotten by current occupants and bill-payers. Do they use much electricity, or is it negligible like fridges, or my outside lightbulb I keep forgetting to switch off? Cue eco warriors.
I am beginning to think that I need to be treated, or counselled, over my O.B.E. Not the gong in its velvet box that Her Majesty is doubtless buffing-up as I write, but Old Brand Excess. This morning the post lady knocked on the door and handed me my latest e-bay purchase. Although wrapped in an old bin bag held together with parcel tape, it was unmistakably jug shaped. 'Guess what this is then?' I said, holding it up. 'Looks like a jug to me' she replied, 'But then I don't suppose it's that simple'. How right she was. I had bid for, and obviously won because who else would want it, a big green metal oil pourer with 'Agricastrol Tractor Oil' on it. It's rusty, and the logo's virtually worn off on one side. I think it's beautiful, but as I'm too embarrassed to show it here I demonstrate the point I'm struggling to make by showing you my Sunday lunch table. There's the Hook Norton jug, full of gravy, and my Colman's Mustard jar with the lid broken when I sent it flying across the kitchen when I burnt my hand on the Le Creuset griddle. There I go again. Couldn't just say 'frying pan'. Anyway, there we are. Tomorrow I'm going to buy a big bunch of yellow flowers to stick in the Castrol jug, so that to the casual observer there appears to be at least some vestige of reason to it all.
Yesterday was like early summer rather than a week or so into February. I took my boys out into the surrounding countryside (much mud-slinging and fighting with lengths of discarded wood) but then thought I'd quieten them down a bit with some church crawling. First stop was Horninghold, a tiny village of two streets with some of the most though-provoking houses in Leicestershire. Peeping from behind laurels and yews, it is an enclave of differing architectural styles built between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for prosperous owners. The church of St. Peter presides over them all on a slight eminence, with an unrestored thirteenth century interior. Spotlighted by the sun on the altar table was this arrangement of snowdrops, those hopeful little flowers that were spreading amongst the headstones outside. I was about to tell the chaps to come and look at it in order to give a little gentle lecture about the perpetual progression of the seasons, when I heard excited yells from a corner vestry that was shielded from the rest of the church by two six foot high wood-panelled walls. I turned to see two brooms being waved about in the hitherto undisturbed air, locked in mortal combat. Hopefulness of a different kind, I suppose, that of knowing that whatever happens, life will never be dull.
I love how a detail of a perhaps long-forgotten past can still hang on in there, regardless of everything else that's going on around it. This off licence sign is still firmly up on the wall of a gingerbread coloured house in Hempton, Oxfordshire. All evidence of a shop has disappeared; no tantalising glimpses through the window of dark polished bottles on shelves, no single light bulb reflecting in the glasses on the shopkeeper. Actually, it probably wasn't like that at all. But the sign does appear to pre-date the appalling Watneys Red Barrel, (folklore has it that it was so weak it could be legally sold to children), and the lettering suggests this was not long after Watneys take over of the Northampton Brewery Company (NBC). The road through Hempton is very narrow, and it took several run-throughs to find a gap in the traffic so that I could jump out onto the pavement. Drive-by blogging.
Here's a treat for railway buffs. Aynho is in Northants, its station in Oxfordshire, built in 1850 for the Oxford & Rugby Railway. It left Oxford, made it to Aynho but then veered off westwards towards Warwick and Birmingham. Rugby never saw it, but considering its importance as a railway town probably didn't notice. The building is a classic, very likely designed by Brunel, certainly drawn-up by an assistant under the master's supervision. It has the trademark canopy extending around all elevations, although at some time this was severely cut back from its original extensive overhang. Just one storey, the station is built in local stone and, like other stations on this route, has a waiting room bay window on the Oxford side. Imagine sitting here with morning sunlight streaming in, folding up your Times when you hear the shrill whistle of the Birmingham train approaching, white billows of steam drifting out over the Oxford Canal that runs at its side. The station was closed in 1964, but continued as the local Charringtons coal office until let as a private dwelling. There is still a working line at its side, the atmosphere of a coalyard intact. The big house on the hill, Aynho Park, had a platform of its own on the Bicester branch. Now I really fancy that, my own platform. Trouble is, no train would ever stop.
A whole day out in High Leicestershire, rummaging about in wet muddy lanes. I've known about these red gates with the top rail painted white since I was I boy, when I cycled out into the countryside around Hungarton just to annoy my brother whilst he was hedge laying, or chucking manure about the fields with the aid of a little grey Ferguson. But today I noticed this curious fastening on the double gates, and on closer inspection realised that instead of it being some convoluted addition to secure the gates to each other, it was in fact a letter 'Q'. The red and white gates have always been associated with the Quenby Hall estate, pastoral acres surrounding what is one of the finest Jacobean houses in the county. What a brilliant but subtle way to announce ownership, rather than the usual mindless corporate image for some agro-industrial complex that often has the adjunct 'keep out' next to it. I fear yet another collection coming on- A Country ABC. Well, at least I've got one of the hardest, although I expect 'Z' is going to prove somewhat elusive.
Not much to say about this really, except that it's yet another reminder of an alternative London that still clings on in odd corners of the capital. I came across it as I traversed Smithfield Market to a lunch in Clerkenwell, and it's as much about the tricks that low winter sunshine plays as it seeks its way to highlight forgotten corners as it is about the beautiful art nouveau tiling. Probably made by Doulton's down in Lambeth, the richness of colour and design still appears as fresh as the day the pub furnishers carefully fitted them into place. Worth a look the next time you're walking eastwards up on the north side of the market, the Fox and Anchor is in Charterhouse Street before it opens out into the square. It's worth a look inside too.
Yesterday I astonished the known world by both taxing my car and getting my tax return in on time. As I sat outside the post office tearing round those irritating perforations that still surround tax discs, I remembered finding the above. I discovered it in 1972 in a old barn at the back of a (then) derelict house in Cranoe in south east Leicestershire, a distraction from a friend and I busily photographing a very pretty girl sitting up on straw bales, as one did. I remember it was very hot, and was thrilled to find the paper disc in the dust behind a pile of bricks. Next to it was a big rusty yellow oil can with the legend 'Golden Film' on it, which somehow suited the afternoon. How had it survived for thirty years? The fountain pen inscriptions tell of a black Austin 13hp car being parked up here in 1942, the war raging on outside. I wonder if it's still out there. Anyway, as I prepared the image to show you, I realised that the owner had had precisely the same trouble tearing the disc into a circle.
I am a 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)