A recent discovery in the Archive, my beloved Mini Moke. Photographed in 1972 at the remote farm we were living in on the Essex / Suffolk border, (telephone exchange Steeple Bumpstead), it was as much fun as it was infuriating. There were no side screens, just the roof, and certainly no heater. There was a fuel gauge, but a more reliable indicator was to get your passenger to unscrew the big cap off the tank, which sat sloshing about next to their left knee. It started life as a track vehicle on Newmarket Racecourse, and was the perfect vehicle to go with Cream LPs and very short skirts. (Mrs. Ashley's I hasten to add. She learnt the rudiments of driving in it, furiously speeding up and down the farm tracks with a big straw hat on.) Alec Issigonis designed it at the same time as its stable mate the Mini saloon, with a steel monocoque body and the 'A' Series engine. They made 15,000 of them at Longbridge from January 1964 to October 1968, and then production moved to BMC's plant in Sydney until early 1982. It was still being made by Italian firm Cagiva in Portugal until 1993. But this was an original, complete with Dunlop Town & Country tyres, rubber clips to hold the bonnet in place, removable seat cushions so you could hose it down, and, the most remarkable thing of all, a current tax disc.
"Have you finished doing the artwork for that Dainty Series yet?", came the shout down the corridor. A barely audible sigh and then: "Nearly. Just doing the last two". A double-header this week, for a double-headed reason. One is that Unmitigated England goes on holiday next week- to Unmitigated England- and, well, neither of these are going to tax the brain so I thought I'd bung them together. The good news is that Only Daughter has sourced another box of puzzle cards. All round I think you'll like them. For one thing the artist appears to be a bit more on the ball, although I still hope they will be riven with controversy. And they are a sheer delight to look at. So that's Tuesday 4th August for the Great Unveiling; I must now get on with levering the travelling trunks down from the attic and supervising the polishing of the headlights on the Bentley Nash-Napier.
Trying to hide in a Northamptonshire field at Wakerley, the final resting place of an Atlas Express Carriers articulated wagon. 'Atlas', 'Express', two words turned by bucolic retirement into oxymorons; when once they were a familiar message on 'trunk' roads and in station yards. I have seen these fading green truck bodies elsewhere in the neighbourhood, obviously a job lot in the same way as old railway wagons, shorn of their wheels and distributed over the countryside in order to live again as hay stores and pony stables. I particularly like the way that inclement weather is slowly revealing the previous livery underneath. But what do we know about them? I've got a feeling they were one of the first hauliers to take to the roads after the deregulation of the business- the demise of BRS with their beautiful red or green lorries crested with the British Railways lion badge. Or I might be talking out of my roped-down tarpaulin.
Is it just me (yes- Ed.) or has cycling changed beyond all recognition? I know we've progressed from velocipedes and Dursley-Pedersens, but the whole thing now seems to revolve around either eight mountain bikes strapped to the back of a Touareg or extremely skinny men in obscenely tight Lycra pedalling furiously with their heads down. And having arguments with motorists and pedestrians alike whilst they teeter on the pedals at traffic lights so they don't have to stop like everyone else. What happened to the Elswicks and Hoppers with bottles of Vimto and bananas in saddle bags, Sturmey Archer gears, Ever Ready lamps with screw tops, John Bull repair outfits, yellow oilskin capes and sou'westers, Fibrax brake blocks? There are still outposts that would be recognised by Miss Marple; indeed only recently I shared the back of a black cab with not only my publisher but also his punctured bicycle that comes with (sticking in my ear) a wicker basket on the front. I know this is the Unmitigated view of things, and I recognise we don't live in a Heartbeat / Foyle's War England anymore, but it would be very gratifying to look out of the window now and then and instead of seeing a streak of pink and mauve nylon see a vicar in a Panama applying rod brakes at the crossroads. Perhaps with a butterfly net over his shoulder. And a killing jar in the saddle bag. And maybe a...(That's enough obscure out-dated references- Ed.)
We've been here before I fear. Still, it is No.18, so the artist must be getting tired. But I do like the picture, with that alien creature worming its way down the chimney pot. And the close proximity of the houses to the church (what do we reckon- Early English? Those pinnacles look a bit Perpendicular). I'm running out of things to say aren't I? I've kept some spuds from Sunday that I'm going to fry up for breakfast, and the lawns need cutting. Might make a corn beef hash tonight. Oh, a swallow's just landed on the phone wire.
Is this the Unmitigated England Garden Flower? Or should it be old roses round bargeboarded porches, foxgloves towering against tarred sheds or dandelions cheekily poking up out of greenhouse brick floors? Mmm, tough call. But I must admit I do look out with expectancy for the first sproutings of hollyhocks in the garden, much as I do the first swallows preening on the phone wires outside the upstairs windows. Alcea rosea, as the Latin has it, is the staple of cottage gardens. As much at home in domesticity as on railway embankments, these are the English chocolate box cliche flower, the essential leitmotif of a Helen Allingham watercolour. But Richard Mabey in his Flora Britannica also quotes an observer in Pulborough who saw hollyhocks growing out of an old grounded boat in a local creek that rose and sank with the tide, the flowers disappearing under water to reappear later. I wish I'd seen that.
Two more favourites from 'Less Tar', as many of the locals say. First up is the Pork Pie Chapel. Any building in Leicester that's even vaguely circular is nicknamed after the ubiquitous local pie - see Southfields Library- and the 1845 Belvoir Street Baptist Chapel is no exception. Accept for as long as anyone can remember it's been the Leicester College of Adult Education. I should know, I inexplicably got turned down for a life drawing class here. Another odd thing is that the architect was Joseph Hansom, who not only designed this, Leicester's New Walk Museum and Lutterworth Town Hall in the same county, but also found time to knock out the Hansom Cab which was road tested down the road in Hinckley. Virtually next door is this 1930 manifestation of neo-Tudor at the corner of Wellington Street and King Street. In her revision of Pevsner's Leicestershire & Rutland, Elizabeth Williamson quotes somebody (she doesn't say who) as saying it was a 'vile impertinent lump', which seems a little harsh. Now inevitably a night club or similar, it was designed by GPK Young & Son in 1930 as the General Accident Building. I think it no general accident that the Family Young had been and taken a good look at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire. Perhaps it would've been more authentic if they'd made it lean perilously and got insurance workers to throw the contents of chamber pots out into King Street.
I couldn't resist sharing this little bit of found art with you. As many of you know, my computer was recently converted from steam to diesel, and as a result hundreds of photographs I'd thought were consigned to the dustbin of history have miraculously re-appeared. I don't know why I stuck the camera into a little Rowney ceramic paint pallette, but something about it appealed. I usually use big dinner plates for squeezing out my gouache, which then get forgotten under a pile of old Radio Times and torn Penguin books. "Where have all your plates gone" is often heard in the Ashley Towers kitchen. What I like about this image, and one that I know anybody who does similar things will recognise, is that it tells a story of impatience. This is the back of the pallette, which means the front was chocker with dried-up paint already when I reached out for it. As were all the other pieces of crockery hurriedly pressed into service. Once a year they get gathered up and taken to the scullery where they lie in soak for a day, the water turning to an indeterminate grey blue. That's it really, I'll get on the blower to Nick Serota and ask if he wants it blown up to fifty feet across and nailed up at the end of the Turbine Hall at Bankside.
Semper Eadem. It's the City of Leicester's motto to go with its cinquefoil and wyvern badge, and means 'Always The Same'. I was born a catapult throw from the city's border, and I was glad that it did appear to be constant in its appearance. Interesting brick and stone Victorian buildings that I now know were by the Goddards, brown and cream Corporation buses, cheese and chutney sandwiches in Brucciani's. Good buildings are still there, (although now bars and coffee houses rather than banks and libraries), as are the sandwiches, but sadly the buses are a vile blue together with the meaningless word 'Arriva'. Deep sigh. Quite apart from the wanton destruction wrought by the council for decades, now it's certainly 'always the same' culprit around the western borders of the city centre. The De Montfort 'University' (or DMU as they like to call themselves, which I thought meant Diesel Multiple Unit) still wades in and trashes everything in its nexus. The Art Deco tiled Kirby & West Dairy blitzed, the Great Central Railway's bowstring viaduct smashed to pieces to make way for a bigger sports hall, the 13th century Magazine Gateway dwarfed by what appears to be more of their Ceausescu-style works.
So it was with great trepidation that we walked around the Newarkes (New Works indeed) area on Sunday. But thankfully little enclaves are still hanging on in there. The Castle Yard (top) is a very gratifying mix of eclectic buildings around a space where John Wesley preached and they hung criminals. Although one old house left derelict by 'DMU' still sports their obligatory crass notice on the outside wall: 'No Smoking Within 10m of this sign'. 'Miles' I assume. The blue sign on the railings of St.Mary de Castro church says it's open everyday except Sunday. And then to the 1934 bus shelter on Western Boulevard by the canalised River Soar. What a treat. Mercifully almost free from the graffito endemic in this learned area, and equally free of its glazing, it was presented by Robert Rowley JP. I remember when it had the city's bright red badge in the central portion. Still, better to have a blank space than 'Arriva For U' scribbled over it. Although come to think about it, I don't think buses come down here anymore. Semper Eadem.
Ah, this is more like it. But thank goodness Commentator Diplo is swanning around in Dorset, because I couldn't see him letting this one go without some fairly pointed comments about the poor artist's interpretation of the puzzle. A proper train, a slightly pale GWR loco and rake of carriages drawing into Paddington maybe, hot from the beach at Dawlish and the lush Thames Valley. Or perhaps it's pulling out, looking at all that steam. Anyway, only three more of these to go. What are we going to do on Tuesday mornings?
Imagine the excitement at finding this little box. I mean, it had to be a old-fashioned, badly-shot blue film didn't it? It even had 'blue' stamped on it for goodness sake. And '1943' somewhere. The fantasy continued- would it be WAAFs being introduced to the finer points of timber barn construction by moustachio-ed parachutists, or girls in control towers being distracted from Lancasters landing with a wheel missing? With their headphones still on? But no. Oh, it's a blue film alright. A reel from Lindsay & Williams of Manchester that looks like it would be on the top shelf. Of the ironmongers. The end flap says: 'Parafilm is an amalgam of highly refined paraffin wax and pure rubber with the addition of colouring matter. Parafilm is thermo plastic non-hygroscopic, an excellent insulator and can be used with advantage in place of ordinary insulating tape, particularly in wet situations'. I don't think we need to dwell on any of that, do we? Thoughts on the aeroplane? An Avro perhaps?
Unmitigated England fully supports the right of Paul McCartney to eat lettuce burgers instead of a big sizzling joint of roast cow. But what gets Ashley Towers hot under the grill is him appearing in my Telegraph magazine last Saturday with his pale daughters (they look like they could both do with a good haunch of venison each) telling me that I should give up eating meat every Monday. Well, Macca, as much as I like Eleanor Rigby and that thing you did with Dave Gilmour a few years ago, I just wanted you to know that as a result of your campaign I'm going to designate one day a week (Full On Friday perhaps) to eat twice as many butchery products as normal. I don't eat that much meat anyway, a good old bit of cow or pig on a Sunday, bacon and bangers for breakfasts, that sort of thing. So it'll do me good to bulk out a little, and at least I'll be doing my bit to keep scenes like the above (a few Sunday dinners there) intact. I think I'll also try to make a variant of the pork pie, perhaps with some slices of badger in it or something, and call it McCartney Pie. But I think what annoyed me most was the reason he gave for going veggie in the 70s. "We were on the farm and we saw lambs gambolling and we were eating a leg of lamb. So it was a compassionate thing". I think he's realised just how fatuous that was, so now of course he and his wan offspring are saying it's to Save The Planet. Very laudable Macca, but not half as good as Back In The USSR.
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)