It must've been sometime in the late 1970s, and a full page ad. in The Sunday Times Magazine. I'm ashamed I don't know which agency to credit, because this was an utterly original idea at the time. And still would be now really. It was part of a series that included Spike Milligan's Pentax with a face drawn on the silvered upper part of the body. Naturally. But being an uber fan of Ken Russell films I got particularly excited by this, and thought of all the shots it had taken and how it might've got that beautifully distressed look. Ken was a highly original photographer even before he started making films and his career took off with Monitor and Omnibus programmes at the BBC. I like to think that the absence of a strap was a personal choice rather than an art director's whim, because all the straps for cameras I've bought still lie unused in their cellophane packaging. I know it increases the possibility of a camera taking flight to possible destruction, but I feel hindered by them. I've only had one photography equipment disaster (he says, gripping a wooden desk), and that was whilst changing a lens on a Northumbrian beach. The 28mm winged its way out of my hand in a slow but graceful arc in order to land on wet sand that subsequently gave it a very disturbing grinding feel when changing f-stops. A man in an attic in Epsom sorted it all out.
One hundred years ago today one of England's finest poets died at the Battle of
Arras. Edward Thomas didn't write about the Great War per se, but about the
countryside he was fighting for. One hundred and nineteen poems between 1914 and
1917, and those who love poetry will continually go back to them. No computer,
no smartphone, no 'tablet', no Facebook and the only twitter the birds in the
trees outside as he simply put a pen to paper:
By the ford at the town's
edge Horse and carter rest: The carter smokes on the bridge Watching
the water press in swathes about his horse's chest.
From the inn one
watches, too, In the room for visitors That has no fire, but a view And
many cases of stuffed fish, vermin, and kingfishers.
If Unmitigated England had a gallery with unlimited space, then at least one room would be entirely devoted to the Shell County Paintings. Produced in the 1950s and 60s the originals were reproduced as advertisements, calendars, and, very memorably for me, as school wallcharts. Shell commissioned some of the very best artists of the day such as S.R.Badmin, John Nash, Rowland Hilder and David Gentleman. Each picture was accompanied by a brief description of the county and a key to what were the salient points in each image, a capriccio if you like of the many things that gave each county its particular character. Above is one of my favourites, Cornwall by Richard Eurich (1903-1992). Dated 1958, I still find things that I've missed in the plethora of detail. The wheel-headed wayside cross, the train on the viaduct, the deserted tin mine and what I wouldn't have known without the key: the basket of broccoli carried by the man walking up the hill. And Eurich hasn't ducked putting in the lunar landscape of waste from china-clay workings. Sadly Shell sold all the originals of these and the accompanying series of nature paintings in 2002, and Cornwall was used for the front and back covers of the catalogue. (Which reminds me Sotheby's, you still owe me a call from last year.) Anyway, we still have the reproductions. Some will remember the Shell BP Shilling Guides that used the whole image over the covers, and the Shell Guide to Britain which could only use half of it, but the wallcharts really are the thing. Superbly printed and complete with metal strips and hook to facilitate hanging, I first saw them put up around my school hall, stared at as I went across its parquet floor with Philip Barlow to fetch the milk crate from the yard. I learnt that there were places like Wiltshire (Keith Grant, 1960) that specialised in big stones and white horses and that Middlesex & Hertfordshire (S.R.Badmin, 1963) harboured George Bernard Shaw and royal palaces embowered in blossoming trees. I recently talked to David Gentleman about them all, and his Shell series on roads, and he recalls that he was pretty much given a free hand as to what to put in his paintings (Somerset, Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire). What a brief. What amazing things to put together.
'When they had finished all there was of both food and drink, he produced a packet of Gold Flake cigarettes, and they smoked for a while, contented and at rest.' A Glastonbury Romance John Cowper Powys, 1933. Some of you may remember this photograph and quote from my book The Cigarette Papers, published by Frances Lincoln in 2012. It was a eulogy for the cigarette packet, brought out as a reminder that a government directive was in the offing to dispense with any individual brand design whatever. With no proper proof that it was going to work in decreasing both smoking itself and its appeal to the kiddies. We all know that smoking is simply not very good for us at all, but no authoritarian dictates about how a pack should look will make the slightest bit of difference. I say all this again because it's about to happen for real and a totally legal product that still produces millions for the Exchequer will be reduced to taking ill thought-out orders from a grey government 'design' manual. But more than this I get very dismayed by the revisionist stance that makes anybody who talks on, say, a television antiques programme, has to make sure that any remarks about tobacco packaging and artefacts are bracketed with sanctimonious and hypocritical tut-tutting about the dreadful practices of the smoker and smoking. What would the Tommy, going over the top out of a muddy trench in 1917 with a Woodbine clamped in his mouth, have thought of us. Anyway, if you'd like more anecdotes and extracts from literature about the fabulous packets we were once able to see without the Tobacco Police fingering our collars, then you'll find the last fag ends of The Cigarette Papershere, very cheaply indeed.
Taking full advantage of the season I couldn't resist showing these snowdrops again. I'm always reminded of them everytime I see the sides of lanes and corners of gardens liberally carpeted. The photograph was sheer serendipity. Seven years ago we went into the quietness of Horninghold church in Leicestershire on a cold windy day when the sun was very intermittent. My two boys went off to have a fight with brooms they'd found in the cleaning cupboard and I walked up to the altar just as the wind parted the clouds to allow a few seconds of sunlight. Genuine genuflection took place.
Those who enjoy the idiosyncrasies of Unmitigated England will know of the trilogy of my handbooks that map out such things, and indeed I used this photograph in the third volume English Allsorts, in a chapter called Daffodils & Monsters that describes and pictures a very personal natural history. As incongruously as I could make it, it sits between Cakes & Ale (market towns) and Black & White (monochrome photographers). Elsewhere you will find amongst other Unmitigated subjects Hornby Trains, Brighton Rock and Jaguar XK120s. Still available in all good ironmongers and coalyards, or here. Or even, in complete over-selling, by clicking on it opposite.
First thing, this is in Wales not England. But having re-discovered the original transparency I had to share it with you. In 2004 I was working on the book to go with the second BBC Restoration television series. I went everywhere from a salt works in Cheshire to a gaol in Armagh, and must be the only person who has ever been to the Orkneys by ship just for an afternoon. (Apart from the crew, obviously.) But that's another long-winded story. I had the immense privilege of seeing things few people will see, mainly because all the buildings shown would've benefitted greatly from the exposure and been 'restored'. I do hope this collage of film posters and star pictures is still on the wall of a back room in the Celynen Working Men's Institute and Memorial Hall in Newbridge, Caerphilly. Celynen had a large coal mine that employed over 1,700 men who produced around 10,000 tons of coal a week. This was the centre of their relaxation, opened in 1908, and by the early 1920s boasted a dance floor, cinema and theatre. So the films would have arrived with their posters, and I like to think of a movie buff snipping pictures from magazines and creating this collage over the years. Although I can't help wishing that the Casablanca poster, and one (out of shot) for The Ladykillers had been kept intact and hidden up in the projection room which I also photographed, complete with the spare bulbs for an immense projector.
I've been looking at the work of James Bateman (1893-1959) recently, spurred on by the cover of Clive Aslet's Villages of Britain which features Bateman's probably best known painting of a Cotswold farm (above), and of which the publishers sadly only give credit to the picture library. I first saw it when it was used for another cover, this time on Ian Jeffrey's absorbing The British Landscape 1920-1950 and fully credited as Haytime in the Cotswolds, oil on canvas 1939. Yesterday I came across another Bateman painting that stopped me in my wayward tracks. This was Lullington Church, another work from 1939. It's the kind of thing that makes me yearn for springtime, much as classic Underground posters do like James McIntosh Patrick's Harrow Weald and Clare Leighton's Lambing, both from 1938.
I was immediately transported by this image of a country church, imagining myself walking up to that open gate and hearing rooks arguing up in the bower of trees. In my head it's an early springtime Sunday morning, and just as I'm wondering if the gate's been left open by the verger who's just gone in to put the oil heaters on I hear the sound of a sweeping brush and see the lady by the door. Those of you who read my Sussex blog post before Christmas will know what's coming next. At first I got it confused with Lullingstone up in my old stamping ground of the North Downs (the building bears a slight resemblance) but soon realised that the immediate environs were very different. And on finding Lullington I discovered, yes, it's near the Cuckmere river but certainly right in the nexus of the Ouse Valley that has occupied my thoughts for so long.
I've been keeping scrapbooks for over forty years now. (Takes out onion and violin.) Seven large volumes where I've taken no account that they get even larger when you've thickened them to twice the size with paper and cardboard. Anyway, here's the collage I did for the cover of the first one, the first entries being glued-in on the kitchen table of a Rutland farmhouse in 1976. Everything that appealed to me went in. Dog food labels, pictures of girls from Nova and Sunday Times Magazines, quaint parking tickets, postcards, photographs that never got stuck in an album. They have become a vital resource in sparking ideas, inflaming inspiration, or simply as curious entertainments. So I thought I'd start an occasional series on the blog where I'll choose an item that I can go on about.
Here's the first, probably found in a pocket two years after its expiry. Remarkable for the fact that it's handwritten in ballpoint and, of course, for that wondrous price for a month's travel. It brings to mind dusty carriage compartments, (either unheated or tropically hot), blokes doing The Times crossword, (getting cross because I'd sit there pretending to do it in two minutes so that I could throw the paper up onto the luggage rack seemingly completed. When in fact I'd written any old thing down just to wind them up), and girls who'd gently wake me up at St.Pancras. One morning I was late for the train and I had to drive to Market Harborough like an idiot in a borrowed Morris Minor. At one point my country road ran alongside the railway embankment, and I looked up to see my train approaching the station. I repeatedly sounded the horn, which was answered by a 'bar-bop' from the locomotive. I slewed onto the car park and ran up to the station, probably leaving the engine running. The train driver shouted down from his cab "Hurry up!" and racing up the platform stairs I found the guard holding a door open for me. Phew. Now you really won't see that anymore.
A treasured photograph from our family archive. This is a Buckinghamshire County Council road gang with their steam roller, out on a Chilterns road sometime in the 1930s (I should think). All in hats and caps, two with ties. The gentleman standing third from the right is my Uncle Joe, in fact my great uncle, being the chap who married my mother's Aunty Dora and lived in Lee Common. Readers of English Allsorts will remember my story about the faux Player's Digger packet, featuring Joe in the fifties.
I've always found the photograph curious for three reasons. Firstly it must have been unusual for a road gang to have been interrupted in their labours repairing road surfaces in order to pose for a group photograph. It makes me think that perhaps it was a picture taken by a press snapper, probably from the Bucks Examiner. Maybe accompanying a story about the gang finding treasure in a ditch at Ballinger Bottom, items of silver church plate wrapped in a hessian sack. But I digress, except to say that I checked on the Bucks Examiner and it now appears to be called 'getbucks' and has stories like 'Flasher exposes himself to woman walking in Marlow'.
Then I think that the diminutive chap second from the right must be an ancestor of Robbie Williams, but more disturbing is the third curiosity that I only noticed quite recently. Whilst the men are posing proudly in front of their steaming roller, a hooded M.R.Jamesian figure appears to have climbed up behind them in order to surreptitiously take the controls of what I see is an Aveling & Porter Invicta with its beautifully embossed prancing horse motif.
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)