You may remember last year's Blaston Show, held in a big tree-ringed field between the eponymous village and my own. More of the same this year, but with stifling heat thankfully coped with this time by very locally-produced bitter drawn out of racked-up barrels. A lot more cherished vehicles lined-up, including this export Triumph- shamefully I didn't check out the radiator grille to ascertain TR2 or 3. I got excited by the classic stencil lettering on the bar ("Stop photographing tables and just get the beer in"), and was particularly impressed by a local farmer tipping-up with a completely unrestored tractor. The book tent was there again, but I restricted myself to a 1951 Rupert Annual for two quid. Very tatty and biro'd outside, perfect within. Second Son got himself another Beano Annual for his vast collection, Youngest Son immediately spent all his money on an inflatable hammer shaped like a shark which promptly burst when he hit me over the head with it. But I was very pleased that he insisted his candy floss was wound onto a stick for him properly, rather than just stuck into a polythene bag. And at least he didn't shove his money into the workings of a fire engine like last year.
A day in London, filming a little movie to go with Built for Britain. Did the streets around the Post Office Tower hum with generating trucks and location catering buses, did cherry pickers rise into the cloudy skies above Tower Bridge, did security hold back screaming girls at St.Pancras? Not really, but what a simply wonderful time I had. Racing about in black cabs with me doubling up as grips with the big Manfrotto tripod (what a great little symbol), snatched coffees, everyone thinking "Who's that grisly git who keeps swearing every five seconds into a camera lens?". Before this I had been filmed in the comfort of quiet rooms, shut away from prying eyes and the disapproving mutters of people hearing my very vocal displeasure at getting my words wrong. Out on the streets I hadn't reckoned on an audience, which quickly gathered to see if I was Dan Cruikshank, and then turning away in disgust when they realised I wasn't. Heartfelt thanks to my crew: Sam, Lorna and Ali. And thanks to the lorry driver who frightened the wits out of me by blaring his horn right behind my head during a take on the Euston Road.
Bit of a rant coming up I'm afraid. With sincere apologies to my followers who drive on the wrong side of the road, but is anybody else out there getting sick of seeing and hearing 'kilometres' used instead of the statutory 'miles'. Who made the decision that our English distances should be annotated thus? I've seen it on signs warning of temporary roadworks, I see its use all the time in the press (even the Telegraph for God's sake) and I've lost count at how many times the BBC trot it out. But I threw coffee all over my freshly-laundered sheets this morning as a reporter on the Today programme talked about a 50 miles per hour speed limit being imposed on a 12 kilometre stretch of the 'dangerous' Buxton to Macclesfield road. Who said that it was perfectly acceptable to do this? I imagine it's part of yet another insidious government programme to remove every last shred of 'English Difference' with Orwellian Newspeak. What are they teaching in schools? If one of my boys says 'kilometres' to say how far he went on a Scouting expedition he knows he runs the risk of having to go and sit in his bedroom for an hour with a 1957 AA Handbook. Maybe it's a sore point with me because I was obliged to give metric equivalents for Built for Britain's international market, but here at home I don't want the signposts changed to read 'Steeple Bumpstead 3km'. 'But I have promises to keep, / And kilometres to go before I sleep...' as Robert Frost didn't say.
Regular readers will know of the situation regarding meat mincers in the village. Basically there's a Communal Mincer, still in its box (albeit held together with a rubber band) that is passed amongst us to deal with our Sunday lunch leftovers. But what's this? A usurper none less. It was like this: Saturday afternoon saw the annual village fete. Pimms on the lawn, cream teas in the village hall and me with my nose in the book box. Oh, and My Son successfully eating a jam donut without licking his lips. Towards the end, with both boys laden down with even more plastic kit to fill up the remaining spaces in their bedroom, I had another look at the bric-a-brac stall. Why hadn't I noticed the huge 12 cup Bialeti coffee maker before? And, why, oh why had I missed this. The Spong 100. Hand in pocket, job done. Then it started. My Neighbour Who Knows What I Like hissed as I went past her toy stall. She's the Official Keeper of the Communal Mincer. I'm sure somebody else sibilantly whispered "Traitor" close to my ear. Others gave sidelong glances, looking away whilst saying "You'll be in trouble". So I've had to promise to keep it as yet another Kitchen Display Item. Which I'm very glad to do. Just look at those trademarks, something you'd usually expect to see on an aero engine. Now, where's that bit of mutton...
Funny things, watches. All that time on your hands. I've had a few, everything from a Bulova which wound itself up everytime I did a handstand to a Russian tank commander's timepiece. The days seemed to go very slowly with the latter until you realised the date was just one number painted on the face. Then there was the black Swatch I bought at East Midlands Airport and stood so long chatting up the assistant I very nearly missed my flight to Glasgow. Getting on the plane to see all the quite rightly irritated passengers meaningfully tapping their watches. The Unmitigated England watch shouldn't be a wrist watch of course, but a pocket chronometer that can be slowly drawn out of a waistcoat pocket on its chain to check the arrival of the 10.15am to Mugby Junction. Or to swing slowly in front of people to hypnotise them into giving you their mint 'n' boxed Dinky Toys. Oh. Crikey. Is that the time?
Keen observers will have noticed the new book to the right of my posts, and will also probably remember that for the last year I have made numerous references to a project I once called Classic Constructs. Patently that isn't the title now, but Built for Britain is still a mix of the very large- the cantilevered Forth Bridge, and the very small- a Fenland pill box. And just for good measure spreads on corrugated iron (of course) and rows ofbeach huts. Including these at Wells-next-the-Sea on the North Norfolk coast, built on stilts to give them a chance on the ever-shifting foreshore and a place underneath to hide from mummy and daddy. You too can live the dream, because if you go to the Built for Britain website you'll be able to enter a competition to spend a glorious weekend for you and your pal of choice at The Crown Hotel in Wells. Plus you'll get £100 of spendo which means you could go and get something made out of grey serge in Trouser Town. Good luck!
One of my favourite local buildings is also one of the least appreciated. At least I think so, because everyone in its nexus is scurrying about fetching or returning supermarket trolleys, this being the centrepiece of Sainsbury's car park in Market Harborough. No time for architectural musings here as everybody, including me, lives in fear that they might not get parking stickers onto windscreens in time before the Council Wehrmacht descend to barcode and photograph your car. And if you think that's over-the-top wait until you see their red ill-fitting uniforms. However, this delightful building was the crowning glory of the old Market Harborough cattle market. But it doesn't even get a mention in Pevsner. Reminding me of the curious tower to the Horniman Museum on London's South Circular, it was saved by a more enlightened council who insisted that Saino's restore it before trucking in the museli and yoghurt. They all deserve Nectar points for the job they did. Not so the current, thrusting council who should look towards serving their community better by getting shot of the peak-capped revenue raisers and stop being privy to pulling down good buildings and digging up all the roads every five minutes. With all this pointless aggravation perhaps they should open up the cattle market Settling Room again so that we've all got somewhere nice to calm down.
Good one this, I think. I won't go on about the slightly Hitler Youth-ish boy, or the fact that there appears to have been a nuclear explosion in the next village. Instead I'll tell you about kite flying at Anderby Creek in 1952. We bought a big red box kite for flying out over the North Sea, one of us being sent down to the shop every ten minutes to buy yet another ball of string. Being called in for lunch we didn't know how to keep the thing airborne without anybody tugging at the line, but my uncle went and got a spare rubber fanbelt from his pre-war Ford. He tied the kite string to it and attached the whole thing to the verandah railing of our bungalow. Round about apple crumble time the line snapped. The string by this time was so long we couldn't see the kite, but after lunch we scrambled down the wooden steps to the beach and followed the line of string virtually to Chapel St. Leonards. We never saw the kite again, imagining that by teatime it was descending in gentle looping circles into a garden in Antwerp.
Hallaton entertained Harborough Taverners yesterday.The home team won by ten wickets on what is without doubt one of the most beautifully situated grounds in Leicestershire. At the top end of the village, the surrounding fields and woods fall away to the north and east; Horninghold church spire catching the fluctuating light every few minutes amongst the dark trees, the cloud shadows scudding quickly over Fearn Hill and crowning hilltop spinneys. Is there a more perfect way to while away a Sunday afternoon? I was, of course, found staring meaningfully at the rusty roller and motioned towards the pavilion. There was a tea laid out the like of which I have never seen before. A plate was piled up for me with cakes, topped out with three meringues. I ran off with it to a remote part of the outfield. So you can see I absorbed all the finer points of the match. But I have to say I much prefer this bucolic scene complete with correct cricket whites, rather than those disgraceful exhibitions of vile coloured sponsored lycra that appears to be the way it's going in the professional game. Bring back Len Hutton I say.
It started this week in the pub with a whisper in the ear. "Tomorrow morning, early. I'll call you". My pal was doing a bit of house clearance in his village. "There are things in sheds". He nodded at me knowingly and quickly changed the subject. First it was the big red Hacks tin. These days we'd expect it to be full of timeworn journalists, but at 1/5 a quarter this was the somewhat expensive 1950's cough remedy from Southport. I've always thought it wonderful, this tin; that old bloke about to expectorate into one of his wife's doyleys. But then the key got put into the lock of a forgotten door- Derek Mahon's Disused Shed in County Wexford coming to fungaloid life, I thought. Or maybe a 1952 dusty Bentley with just the tyres needing inflating and a jump start. But no. Better than that. Many, many years ago two boys had lived here, and they'd made things in the time-honoured way out of dustbin content. Two pairs of tin stilts, identified to their respective owners by distinct markings like military vehicles. You stood on the tins and pulled up the string (in this case baler twine) and walked about a few inches taller. Later you could thread a long stretch of finer string through a pair and make a garden telephone. Oh Lyle's Golden Syrup cans. Where will it end? Stilts, telephones, string dispensers, brush holders, spider catching units, a sentence in a John Cowper Powys novel.....
Last Sunday we all tipped-up at the Fernie Country Fair in a Leicestershire field. 'Fun for All The Family' included Dog Shows, Terrier Racing, Falconry, Archery and Digger Driving. At one point some big men got out of an equally big van and started making little chairs for the kiddies out of logs with chainsaws. In thirty seconds flat. I averted my gaze and spotted this beautiful 1948 Morgan 4/4 with its spare Avon tyre on the back. Avon. How English is that? I don't know whether they're still made in Bradford-on-Avon or whether they're still fitted to new Rolls Royces, but I love that logo. My Morgan Specialist tells me the car looks a bit of a hybrid, judging by the filler cap and other pointers. I really couldn't say. Anyway, at the epicentre of all the hog roasting and people putting ferrets down their trousers, were the Fernie Hunt's kennels. I also love foxhounds. They regularly stream through my village, out for long distance exercise with kennel men on bicycles fore and aft. Such singularity of purpose, such friendly animals who all work with one accord. Their kennels looked as if Hugo Meynell had just finished an inspection, spruce and clean with wash-down floors and big straw beds. I went to find Youngest Boy (he loves hounds too) and discovered him winning at how much milk he could get out of a plywood cow. Much to my surprise I also managed, for the first time in my life, to knock a coconut off an iron pole with a cricket ball.
Back in the old Tuesday morning routine. I love this week's picture- the pre-war milk bottle, the soap just sitting there without a perforated tin dish to drip into, the tarnished LNER buffet car coffee pot, the knife poised for a kitchen accident, the badly boxed-in water pipes. But at least the draining board is sloping down towards the sink, unlike the one in the Ashley Towers scullery. And that white lavatory tiling, so reminiscent of Derek Jarman's brilliant set design for the convent in Ken Russell's The Devils. I told you it was going to be a good 'un, quite apart from the vast lawn with its isolated roundabout-style flower bed. And Houseman's 'blue remembered hills' in the distance.....
A cloudy Saturday afternoon in Lincolnshire. After trespassing at the formidable Harlaxton Manor we remembered we had National Trust membership and found ourselves at Belton House, north of Grantham. This is Restoration architecture in all its beautiful 'look at me' glory, built in 1685-88 for Sir John Brownlow. One of my favourite architectural styles, here are the customary rooms filled to the wainscots with sumptious furnishings, all watched over by those indefatigable NT custodians standing helpfully by. It's all well worth seeing, but I tend to get a little restless at having to cope with so much high art kept protected from the light, skipping things I should see because I start to wonder what the tearoom's got on. It isn't that I don't appreciate what I'm looking at- how could I not- but I get the same thing happening in awe-inspiring cathedrals. Somehow I get more out of a forgotten country church in the middle of a field. Yews gently moving through old distorted glass, not having educative literature thrust at me. Here at Belton we took a bracing walk round under the trees and I found myself falling to my knees in photographic supplication in front of the lawn roller. Just look at that peeling paintwork on the wheel, an abstract of rusty service that contrasts so effectively with yet another coat of lovingly applied green paint. All this, and a big slice of moist fruit cake in the stable block.
Just a quick post to say that the Unmitigated England computer has been successfully upgraded from coal-fired to diesel. I just ran out into next door's garden to snap these lupins, possibly my favourite flower. I remember them towering above me as I crawled down the garden path of the house I was born in. With their brilliantly-coloured spires, they're almost a comic flower in the same rich vein as Dame Edna Everage's gladioli. Anyway, thankyou again for hanging on in there, and thanks to Only Daughter for putting up the emergency notice that I should've done two weeks ago. I shall be back in the full unexpurgated Unmitigated groove soon, hopefully before it's Puzzle Picture time next Tuesday.
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)