Friday 31 October 2008

Sping Spong

My Neighbour Who Knows What I Like ran past my kitchen window in the rain the other day with this box clutched in her hand. I rushed out, delving in my pocket for a fiver. "You can keep your hands off" she said, "This is the Communal Mincer". Apparently it's shared between my neighbours for the odd sheep's head they need to render down, but kept safe in a central location. Memories of course came flooding back of my mother attaching one to the kitchen table, where I would watch in awe as bright pink worms sprouted out the end. If you look under any similar table of this particular vintage the chances are you will see a succession of circular indentations made by the screwing-up of the clamp. One mystery remains. The body of the mincer is blind-embossed with the word 'National'. I have a Price's Household Candles box of similar age, with 'National Wax' on the front. Rationing and short supply during the Second World War gave us National Starch, Milk and Margerine; so I can only suppose that this is a left-over, like a cold Sunday joint, from the same era. An economy issue, or simply a post war buzz word, like 'National Service'. I think I'll get a big bit of cow or similar tomorrow, just so that I can join the Monday morning queue in order to start mincing about.

Thursday 30 October 2008

Mr.Evans' Poppies

As my poppy was pinned to my overcoat this week, I thought of this book. Arriving in W.H.Smith's in 1979 I think it was the fastest book purchase I ever made, sweeping it up and carrying it to the till without breaking step. The best £1.25 I ever spent, it introduced me to the poems of Wilfred Owen, but, especially for me, to the poetry of Edward Thomas, killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917. Thomas wrote not so much about the soldiers' experience, but more of the England (particularly the countryside) they had left behind. And it was this cover that did it. The photograph is by the late Tony Evans, who, over and above any other photographer, influenced the way I look at things. I met him briefly in the 70s, and it was his attention to detail and the obsessiveness of his fabulous images that had me scrabbling for my first Pentax. At first glance this is just a picture of poppies, but can you imagine how difficult they were to photograph in a studio? Anyone who has ever picked the flower knows that it dies virtually instantly in your hand, so, from what I remember, Tony dug a whole clump up, roots and all, and transported them back to his studio with his assistant watering them in the back of the van. And that black is the studio background. Penguin Books still use it, albeit not nearly as well printed, but it's still one of the best shots of poppies I know. More superb Evans' poppies, on location this time, can be seen in The Flowering of Britain and Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Beer & Bibles

Knowing my predilictions, a friend lends me his copy of this postcard. The original owner is the last man in Leicestershire making proper old-fashioned mattresses, and as a boy helped dig the tank pit for the new-fangled petrol pump on the left. Apparently the landlord of The Crown in Theddingworth, George Smith, was told by a regular that he ought to be selling fuel "As there's no pump between Market Harborough and Husbands Bosworth" and paid for its installation, presumably for a cut of the ensuing profits. We reckon the safest, albeit vague, bet for a date is pre-war. But what a host of detail is in here. The petrol is Regent Super (with an added 'British'), the car is an early Leicestershire registration, and the beer is NBC. That's the Northampton Brewery Company, who took over the other firm on the sign, Market Harborough brewers Edey & Dulley. In an attempt to ensure their rightful place in heaven, Dulley's also provided the wherewithal to build the Wellingborough Strict Baptist Tabernacle where my grandfather was inducted as pastor in 1909. The local jibe that the chapel was built on beer barrels was ignored and never spoken about by his congregation or offspring. Except by my mother who thought it was very funny, considering everyone she knew as a child was not only teetotal but got very excited by the thought of a comforting bedtime Bournvita.

Monday 27 October 2008

Early Communion

After the last two cough-inducing posts I have been advised to get out in the fresh air. So how about a ruined church in Norfolk at nine o'clock in the morning? Norfolk specialises in redundant churches, many falling to pieces in the middle of fields with just the odd crow or owl for company. This treasure is to be found down a cul-de-sac below the famous Appleton Water Tower on the Sandringham Estate, a drive down through a farmyard to where sheep graze around the iron fencing. Appleton church has a 12th century round tower, now covered in ivy and built in local pebbles, flint, brick and the carrstone that runs in a narrow band next to the coast of this part of West Norfolk. There are 179 standing round towers in England, of which about 140 are in Norfolk. They are assumed to be easier to build than square towers, but they're not. It's just a style thing. So here is Appleton, forgotten, but not lonely. You open a gate in the iron railings and wade chest-high through vegetation to where this porch is ablaze with colour in the autumn light. The next time you're here, turn off the coastal runs and get the Ordnance map out of the glove box. Within a very short distance of just this one ruin are two more locations marked in Old English black letter: 'Church (rems of)'.

Thursday 23 October 2008

Ten Weights Please

Just a quick postscript to yesterday's Park Drive post, after receiving a request from Ron Combo asking what the Weights packet looked like. This is quite an early version, when brand names were often put in inverted commas for emphasis. Or emphysema. The design owes much to the first Weights packaging which was an envelope containing cigarettes sold by weight. Hence the name. The classic design pictured here was superceded by a pale beige pack with no excess decoration, and was the worse for it. A brand now forgotten, but immortalised in John Betjeman's Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden: "Coco-nut smell of the broom, and a packet of Weights / Press'd in the sand."

Wednesday 22 October 2008

A Stroll Down Park Drive

Park Drive cigarettes were Ulster manufacturer Thomas Gallaher's response in 1897 to the popularity of Woodbines. Cigarette Land had quirky regional preferences, and cheapo Park Drives were taken up as the fag-of-choice by the men of the Midlands. This was the cigarette I saw covertly cupped in the hands of road roller drivers, clamped in the mouths of hod carriers as they ascended ladders and, in my case, seen left burning on the edges of studio lightboxes and wash basins alike. In Cigarette Pack Art, Chris Mullen talks of the pack design as the most anarchic of the three snout contenders vying for the popular vote (the other two being Woodbines and Player's Weights). "...the swellings of the letters too extrovert in behaviour...". Will packaging archivists of the future talk in such terms of the Francis Bacon style photographs of diseased offal that now grace cigarette packs? "Sovereign upped the stakes with a graphic disembowelling". I love this little blank club card, and the thought of it being used to save for Christmas fripperies down at the newsagent. On the back there's an ad. for Manikin Cigars and a space for writing 'Goods Laid Aside'. Inside, above the columns for cash entries and signatures, it just says 'Park Drive For Pleasure'. Exactly.

Saturday 18 October 2008

The Antidote for Strictly Come Dancing

I make no apology for indulging in a shameless plug for Mr. Meades' first DVD collection. He was very generous to me in both words and spirit by taking time (and a case of claret I think) to write a highly original preface to More from Unmitigated England, so I owe him one. Any of you out there who is kind enough to read this blog and its associated branch lines will appreciate these eleven beautifully eccentric films. As A.A.Gill wrote in The Sunday Times "Brilliant- even at his worst he's funnier, cleverer and sharper than anyone else on TV". I won't laboriously take you through every film, but if by some extraordinary quirk of fate you can only watch one, then my fervent recommendation would be for you to sit down with a metaphorical crate of Strongs of Romsey ale and glue yourself to Father to The Man (2007). Fifty minutes of corrugated iron, biscuits, Shell Guides (only Meades can get away with saying they were edited by "John Betjeman- the topographer not the poet") a Morris Minor Traveller in the obligatory bucolic green and a black stick standing-in for an eel. And always the buildings being given the Meades once-over, including the Great Disappearing Trick of the Netley Hospital outside Southampton. So sharpen your pencils and get that Christmas Wants List up the chimney.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

A Spoonful of Sugar

On the way back from Norfolk, my attention was caught by this hugely atmospheric sight, dominating the flat fenland horizon. Even by fen standards this is remote country, a back road dog-legging across from the Thetford road in order to suddenly veer-off for Southery. Virtually the only thing on it is this glowering and steaming industrial plant. This is British Sugar's Wissington Factory to the south east of Downham Market, and I only went for a closer look so that you don't have to. In fact I've mentioned it before when I showed the level crossing gate in the hedge at Fordham, on a line once kept open just for this factory. (I checked it out and it's now just about completely grown over.) But back to Wissington. British Sugar reckon to process around 2.4 million tonnes of UK grown sugar beet here every year, the most impressive sugar production in the world, and in 2005 broke all records by dealing with 18,503 tonnes in just one 24 hour period. One can only guess at how many teaspoons that is. This is odd, surreal country. Virtually the only traffic is either bulging tankers or giant tractors and trailers thundering one after the other across the landscape. And for miles around the air is permanently flavoured with the all-invasive smell of cooking beet. Er, just milk please, no sugar.

Monday 13 October 2008

Morning Prayer

An expedition into Norfolk, getting my trousers filthy in Sandringham photographing early morning fungi in oak woods. And so on to the accidental but thrilling discovery of the Perpendicular church of St.John the Evangelist in Oxborough. It was so quiet you could hear a leaf drop onto the grass that now covers the roofless nave. The north aisle remains, as does the Bedingfield Chapel (locked), but a flint wall now provides an entrance to a space for services in the old chancel. As I went through the open door I was suddenly aware of a loud viscious droning that could only be a huge wasps' nest up in the roof spaces. Craning my neck upwards I couldn't see it, but not wanting to be suddenly chased down the road by airborne attackers I tiptoed about taking quick nervous pictures of the exquisite harvest festival decorations on the window sills. I prayed that the noisy congregation wouldn't become aware of the shutter going off and wondered if I should tell a verger or passing churchwarden. I decided just to leave a cowardly note in the visitors' book, and took my leave with long purposeful strides in order to slink away in my car to Stoke Ferry.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Old Street No 2

You can still see it behind the trees, on the left once you've gone by the Stilton turn, southbound on the A1(M). The old road still passes right in front of this water tower, and my attention has always been drawn to it because somebody in the car would inevitably say "That's where Catweazle lives". A lone survivor, it once served a wartime airfield, a landmark doubtless watched out for by the anxious crews of crippled B17 Flying Fortresses swaying down to the runway. The 1943 aerodrome would have been called Conington, after the village it completely engulfed, but to avoid confusion with Coningsby in Lincolnshire the neighbouring village name was pressed into service by the USAAF. Their 457th Bomb Group arrived at Glatton in January 1944, and you can read all about their incredible missions here. One eerie postscript to Glatton, (part of which is now Peterborough Airport), is that the Second-in-Command, Lt.Col. William F.Smith, was the pilot who accidentally flew his B25 into the Empire State Building on a foggy July morning in 1945. It's worth taking the old road if you're ever near Conington, just so that you can stare up at this rusting tower and take a few minutes to remember the acts of sheer bravery and heroism that once started and finished at this aerodrome. There's a memorial on the grass just in front of the rapidly enveloping wood.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Hard Hats, Soft Heads

Talk about covering your backside. Believe it or not there are four of these comprehensive signs at each location where a new water main construction crosses a road in Rutland. There are even signs for a hundred yards in each direction warning you that there are going to be other signs. The fact that I've never seen anyone working anywhere near them is neither here nor there, and I expect you would wait a considerable length of time before you saw a hard-hatted construction worker get down from his Volvo Earthmover in order to study them. As with the mindless plastic signs that appeared down the road (see Round the Bend posting), all this nonsense is just to save somebody's hide if they end up in court. Still, I suppose it's better that all the safety notions are at least grouped on one board. They could be individual signs hung up all over the trees and hedges. Right, I now await one of the JCBs to come and scoop me up out of Ashley Towers to use as hardcore.

Monday 6 October 2008

Kitchen Confidential 2

You know how we're always fascinated by other people's pantries? Well, I am. The covert look to see if there's any old brands knocking about, whether or not the owner is still hanging on to any Crosse & Blackwell's Mushroom Ketchup, whether they've got any guilty tins of All Day Breakfasts. If this looks like the contents of kitchen cupboards have just been thrown in a heap in the corner, you'd be right. This is the result of half the walls of Only Daughter's old kitchen being knocked down by a sledgehammer yesterday lunchtime so that two Men Who Know What They're Doing could put in an RSJ to hold the bathroom up. (One of them doing it with a fag on, excellent.) And so this jumble of general kitchen paraphernalia naturally caught my eye. The randomness of it all. The camcorder in the cutlery drawer, the hurried spent teabags (she'll kill me). That's it really. Just glad to see the staples of Colmans and Oxo are in there.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Round the Bend

'Ere we go again' as the earwig said as he fell off the shelf. These crass, cheap plastic arrows recently appeared overnight like sprouting fungi at a junction near Ashley Towers. Phew, I'm so glad they've put them up, now I can stop driving straight off the road and into the field every time I come down here. The yellow jackets have so obviously been out with clipboards and biros to see where they can spend some money before a budgetary review. Any excuse that Leicestershire County Council gives about signs being put up as a result of what they call 'accidents and near misses' must be taken with a big pinch of road salt. Ever since motoring began they've never deemed this particular bend sufficiently nerve-racking to warrant even an ordinary sign on the approaches. I thought I'd ring the council's Freephone 'Roadline' to find out more. Apparently they only put new signs up if the police give them records of mishaps, real or imaginary, or we the public lobby for them. I won't bore you with all that passed between us, (I got the impression they were keeping me talking whilst they traced the call, like in The Bill), but one quote from them is worth repeating. "We don't care if we completely wreck the countryside if it saves lives". Oh. Right. That's OK then.