Not getting out much at the moment, as you can see. My shirts have been out on the washing line for two days now, stiff with ice like cardboard cut-outs. I might as well stack them up in the shed to thaw out. However, My Neighbour Who Knows What I Like has lifted my spirits by waving this box at me through the kitchen window. It was the answer to her Christmas quiz question, "What's the earliest sell-by-date you've seen a package?". Well, I've never seen anything better than this: 11th January 1913. Anybody out there seen one earlier? Closer inspection of this large thick cardboard box revealed it to be the container for a single automobile tyre inner tube. Dunlop recommended that you immediately take the tube out of the box and keep it in one of their Waterproof Bags, to prevent friction of the rubber against the cardboard. And if the garage hadn't sold it by the prescribed date it was to be returned to the factory in Aston Cross. Dunlop first appeared in Birmingham in 1891, and at the time of this sell-by-date were just four years away from their relocation to the simply gargantuan Fort Dunlop in Erdington. Blimey, all this from an old cardboard box now used to keep Christmas decorations in. I wonder if that intrepid pioneer motorist J.J.Hissey had a handy supply stashed away on the back of his Daimler, ready for his chauffeur/groom/wife to struggle with on the grass verges of England? Almost certainly.
This is Bird's back cover advertisement from the Britannia and Eve magazine, Christmas 1946 issue. It makes its appearance to wish all my readers and commentators the seasons greetings. And as a digital substitute for a real Christmas card to all those whose address has slipped down the back of the Unmitigated Archive.
This book was a favourite of myself and my two brothers. We continually passed it around like a naughty magazine, serial reading of what was our first science fiction book. I'm not really a fan of this genre, unless it happens to be the earth-bound stories of Ray Bradbury- lightning conductor salesmen running ahead of thunder storms, that sort of thing. But this tale of three friends on a motorbiking holiday (two bikes are named- a Brough and a BSA) was utterly absorbing. The anonymous bike breaks down, and thinking that a roadside shed may provide repair tools they instead discover an aluminium spaceship. Of course they get in it, mess about with the controls and the whole thing unexpectedly roars off into space. It was written by Prof.A.M.Low, who served in the First World War in the Royal Flying Corps Experimental Works, and at the time of writing the book was President of the Interplanetary Society. Why have I been reminded of this? Well, yesterday we were in the much less arcane local Milanese-style coffee shop, and the boys had milk shakes. The impossibly pink liquid came in curious clear plastic containers that are designed to retain the contents when they take-off across the room. "What could we make of these?". Hmmm, I thought.
It's that time of year when we drop the children off at school early, leaving them aeroplaning round the playground with arms outstretched and hooded coats flying behind only attached by the head. A few parents then make their way across the road to sit for an hour in the Perpendicular St. Peter's church, awaiting the end-of-term carol service. A couple of bathroom heaters on the pillars and some bottled gas slowly warms the cold air. I'm first in, and make for a cosy back pew, but get moved by the headmaster- "You at the back there!". I'm eventually allowed to sit in the south aisle, and park my trilby on the head of Sir Richard Roberts' recumbent 1644 effigy. The vicar comes in, nods, and lifts up his cassock and holds it dangerously out over a flaming gas heater. "Air balloon principle, hot air rising. Keep me going for a bit". I like him. The children troop in in twos, but I can't see Youngest Boy anywhere. Alarmed, I imagine him on his own in the crypt, doing something to the electrics, but, no, there he is. Half way through Away in A Manger I get a sneezing fit. Anyone who's heard me sneeze knows that people two miles away take in their washing, and now teachers clasp alarmed infants to their bosoms and parents dive under altar cloths. The vicar then tells us all a story about Maximus Mouse, with a long-nosed green glove puppet on his hand that stares fiendishly out at the children on the edge of their pews. I really like him. At last it's Oh Come All Ye Faithful, but just as we're getting to the first "Oh come let us adore him" I feel another gigantic sneeze gathering. I reach out and steady myself on Sir Richard's armoured arm.
Comments and requests from adjoining bloggers gets out the unopened packet of ten Guards. Introduced by Carreras in 1960, this was the pack that started all those headlong rushes into clinical stripes and bland geometrics. But this was a classic. My intact version has the guard (apparently promoted to an officer just after the initial launch) in gold outline, but I seem to remember he was also rendered in blind-embossing. That may have denoted filter tips, more probably this was the guard's new uniform when he first went on parade at the tobacconists. Now of course he'd have to hide under the counter like a commando on a covert mission, planned, we hope, with the help of the indefatigable Player's sailor from HMS Hero. Guards, I recall, were sold to sixties cinema audiences with a superb widescreen commercial that pounced on the ceremonial possibilties. A multiscreen of vertical frames of civilians flipped on a horizontal axis (still with me?) turning them into images of marching guardsmen. All cut, of course, to a rousing drum-beating score of something like The British Grenadier. A caption came up at the end that said "People are changing to Guards". Imagine that. Show it now, in some subversive underground club and it'd be enough to give the Tobacco Police their so longed-for collective heart attack.
Driving down towards the Eye Brook Reservoir the other night my headlights caught these improvised reflectors on a series of fence posts. Obviously recycled from something, today I stopped and took a closer look. Not the least because some were useful candidates in the Country Alphabet I started with that Quenby gate fastening back in February. It took me a while to figure out what they were from. You will, I know, be much quicker to spot the donor. This is a very narrow lane, and I expect the farmer got fed up with local traffic ramming into the posts in attempts to avoid each other. It may be the same resourceful chap who some years ago put an Atlas Carriers truck body to use as a hay store, and once, unless I was seeing things, had chickens standing about on a First World War armoured car. Anyway, aren't these warning signs so much better than just about anything the so-called Highways Agency or local councils come up with. More signs made from perished white rubber bicycle reflectors please.
I hear that it was John Milton's birthday yesterday. There is a massive gap in my education over this seventeenth century poet, and I know practically nothing about him accept he was blind, thought it a good idea to take King Charles I head off and invented baby bottle sterilising liquid. Has anyone actually read Paradise Lost and finished it with a sigh and said "Ooh I could read that all over again". Sorry for my obviously philistine views, but as the history master says to Michael Travis, in the first lesson after the summer hols in Lindsay Anderson's film if...: " Ilost your essay somewhere in the Mont Blanc Tunnel, but I'm sure it was good". So why the Fremlins label? Well, all I could think about Milton when they were going on about him on the Today programme this morning was A.E.Housman's lines from A Shropshire Lad. In poem LXII he writes: Oh many a peer of England brews / Livelier liquor than the Muse/ And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God's ways to man. / Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink...etc. So I rifled through the draws and found this label that had miraculously failed to get itself stuck on a cask. Afficianados of this extinct Kent brewer and readers of Unmitigated England will find a contemporary Fremlins dray loaded up with the stuff on page 97. Cheers! And Happy Birthday Milton.
Gaulby (or Galby, depending on who you read) is a tiny east Leicestershire village 'on the summit of the Marlstone uplands in beautiful unspoilt country' as W.G.Hoskins has it in his Shell Guide. Less than a mile away from the probably more visited early gothic revival church in Kings Norton, Gaulby has the equally fascinating St. Peter. Overshadowed somewhat by its more illustrious neighbour rebuilt by John Wing, this church was restored by the architect's father for the same squire William Fortrey in 1741. Inside, the contemporary pews and pulpit were ripped out in a 1960 act of vandalism, but the exterior remains virtually untouched. A limestone and ironstone tower is topped-out with such extraordinary exuberance that even Pevsner was moved to called it 'a display of the craziest pinnacles' in his Buildings of England: Leicestershire and Rutland. The top photograph is Gaulby on a hot July early evening, the bottom was taken yesterday in uncompromising bright afternoon light and extreme cold. We had been in the Fox and Goose just over the fields, where every Sunday a dish of well-salted goose fat roasted spuds and black pudding is banged down on every table. We were therefore amused to find a 1701 gravestone under Gaulby's big churchyard tree that was dedicated to someone blessed with the name 'Goosey'. A good afternoon for a gander round a churchyard.
Sorting out receipts for petrol, books, firelighters, oatmeal stout etc. today, I thought about how terrifyingly bland and uninteresting these irritating pieces of thin paper are. Just digital print-outs reminding you of everything you don't want to know about transactions, other than how much an ink cartridge is (criminal). "Thankyou. Please Call Again" they say, or in the case of Sainsbury's "Try something new today". Hmm. Think I will, thanks. I'll put the gas on and not bother to light it. So I unearthed this for you, just to show how much better these items of print were, equally how much time there apparently was to do a job properly. B.C.Tipper & Sons were veterinary chemical manufacturers in Balsall Heath, and in March 1900 took four pounds four shillings and ten pence from Mr.E.H.Roberts for unspecified 'goods'. What could they have been? Once in November 1899 and again the following February. Flea powder? Artificial insemination lubricant? We shall never know, but we can see that Mr.Roberts got a receipt for it, and Tippers endorsed the slip with two Queen Victoria halfpenny stamps. Right, why have I got a receipt for £9.40 from Ely Cathedral?
In recognition of the agritechno element that runs through the band of commentators to my blog, I give you the diesel oil filler cap from a Field Marshall tractor. I seem to remember from my sojourn on Dartmoor that Field Marshalls were started by the alarming practice of shoving a flaming piece of oily rag into a hole in the side of the engine cover. But just look at the uncompromising casting of these letters and the unbelievably tactile nature of the finger grips. It's the sort of talisman that I would like to keep in a capacious trouser pocket, screwing it into the material when having to account for my actions (or lack of them) at the bank, or whilst queuing in the cattle pen down at the post office. I've loved Field Marshalls ever since I had Dinky Toy No 301 in bright orange with its brown overalled and capped driver that reminded me so much of my farming brother, and I think it was this tractor that also first gave me the notion that brand names could be remarkably clever. Much later the Dartmoor tractor was secretly renovated by the owner's son so that it could be the centre piece of his father's 80th birthday. He drove it across an impossibly steep field with a big pile of balloons soaring up from the back of his seat, both of them looking every inch the Field Marshall.
Never one to drive by an old railway wagon lying impotently in a field without its wheels, this one's at the side of the A1101 south of Outwell and only just in Norfolk. Almost certainly it was brought here from the Wisbech & Upwell Tramway, one of the most extraordinary little railways in the country. I say little, in fact it's gauge and rolling stock were full size, but it was restricted to tramway status. The fascination for me is that it ran (very slowly) alongside the road, every now and then lurching in front of the traffic. It opened in 1883, and in 1898 carried 114,307 passengers, in addition to cattle, root crops, vegetables, fruit, straw and corn. It also carried coal for the steam engines engaged in pumping water off the low-lying fens. Its progress was often impeded by window cleaners' ladders propped up against cottages, and cars left outside garages. The traction for most of it's time was a steam locomotive encased in cow catchers, the model for Toby in the Rev.Awdry's Thomas the Tank Engine books. In this 1963 picture a Drewry diesel shunter is already carrying additional safety stripes. The tramway closed in 1966, but you can still see the space in front of the houses where it ran, and the odd crumbling shed. There is a dinner table game where you proffer a time in history you would like to visit. After Doctor Feelgood doing Route 66 at the Kursaal in Southend around 1972, I think the hour's journey on this railway amongst the cabbages and sugar beet comes a close second.
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)