Thursday, 27 November 2008

Four Finger Exercises

Parking the car in Wisbech, Capital of The Fens, we notice this shop window. It's one of a number in a side street attached to a large rambling shop that still announces on its fascia board that they are drapers, outfitters and purveyors of trunks- which we assumed were the cabin variety rather than lido wear. Around the corner was the main entrance to Evison's, whose paper bag tells of their stock of Ladies' Wear, Knitting Wool, Gent's Clothing, Gent's Outfitting, Bed Linen, Suit Cases and Camping Equipment. And much, much more. We went in because in another window that displayed more gloves than could ever be put to use by an acid bath murderer, I spotted the back of a particularly nice-looking green tin alarm clock. "That's £5.99" I was told by the friendly girl assistant, "But it's so slow a customer brought it back". So you get the idea. Upstairs a friendly 'gent' who looked like he'd come straight from one of my grandfather's Wisbech Zion Baptist sermons, guided me to a huge stack of flat caps in an alcove. As he wrote out a written receipt to give to the girl downstairs (pin number keypad attached to a phone socket nowhere near a counter) he says "We had Ken Dodd in here. Couldn't get rid of 'im". I asked if he was looking for tickling sticks, which will assuredly be in here somewhere.

Monday, 24 November 2008

The Mighty Fallen

There is something elegiac about a fallen tree. The end of all those years of growth, of providing nesting places for birds and homes to colonies of various tiny insects who relied on its thousands of crevices for shelter and nutrition. The end of shading foliage in summer, the loss of a gaunt winter silhouette; and no longer pirate ship, hideaway or just a place to think for a child. This ash was recently felled on the Rutland / Leicestershire border at Stockerston (you can see the county sign just up the road), and I hope and suppose it was beyond help, rather than a hindrance at the entrance to the field. I took the photograph because we usually see trees, dead or alive, as they should be, standing proud against the sky, and I wanted to capture it before the chainsaw whirred into action in order to feed local woodburners. The scene also reminded me of Monster Field, the last publication of Paul Nash before his death in 1946. His wife Margaret had bought him a pocket Kodak camera for his trip to the States in 1931, and as his asthma took hold and he could no longer spend long periods out of doors sketching, he relied increasingly on the little camera to provide references for his paintings. You can see two of his fallen tree photographs in this book, looking like giant stick insects grazing in fields.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Monochrome Breakfast

Please forgive the black and white tone of this week's blogs, but I couldn't resist showing you this little gem. If nothing else it proves that photographing breakfasts isn't an entirely modern preoccupation (blogs passim). This is of 1936 vintage, taken in a brick and flint country cottage. I know this because the photograph is from a little album (entitled 'Snapshots' and sold by C.B.Keene of Derby) that has turned up in yet another box of oddments. I've no idea if the people in it are relations, or whether I just idly picked it up in a shop, but the photographs show what looks like a couple on holiday in the Peak District. This breakfast scene is printed on 'Velox' paper, which I thought was a Vauxhall, and is rich in detail. High spot on the high table is the half empty jar of what the Unmitigated Laboratory has ascertained to be Wm.P.Hartley's Marmalade. Either the host or, if the lensman is the bloke, his wife, is seen as a ghostly apparition outside the front door (which incidentally is eerily identical to my own). I can look at this scene for a long time, a very rare insight into the 1930's breakfast table amongst the more usual coy snapshots of anonymous people relaxing on a week off. It brings to mind those lines from John Betjeman's Summoned by Bells, remembering just such a scene from his Cornish holidays: Nose! Smell again the early morning smells: Congealing bacon and my father's pipe...

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Standard Practice

You know how it is. You go rummaging about in old cardboard boxes looking for one thing and end up finding fifteen things you weren't. This Saturday's foray into a cold garage (Albion lorry badge hanging up on a rusty nail) resurrected an early 1950's Leicester Official Handbook. I can't even start to tell you the joys suddenly released from the ever-so-slightly damp pages, but here's one. I was born half way up a cul-de-sac in Wigston Fields, and there are those who say I've spent all my time since crawling up the other half. My elder brothers were much older, so I took my pleasures on my own in exploring, inch by inch, my neighbourhood. A red letter day came when I reached the pub at the bottom of the road and I watched the Holes Newark Ales yellow brewery dray unloading wooden barrels at the Royal Oak. But next door to the pub was something much more exciting. This was Browett's service depot, where they maintained the ranks of newly-bought little grey Ferguson tractors and red and yellow Massey-Harris combines and muck spreaders. Such was the post-war demand, Browetts signed-up a fleet of Standard Vanguard vans with the evocative tractor silhouette. I just stared and stared at them over a fence that has been air-brushed from this picture. You can hear the manager can't you, the evening before this picture was taken: "I want all mobile engineers to be here with their vans (washed) at eight in the morning".

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Old Street No 3

An afternoon stroll down the old Wardley Hill in Rutland. I reckon this stretch of road, now by-passed by a streamlined version a field away, hasn't seen holiday Austins desparately trying to overtake grumbling Albions for at least twenty five years. I was surprised that the double white lines were still visible, punctuated by intermittent cat's eyes in their perished white rubber holders. Except the glass lenses had been levered-out long ago with local schoolboy penknives. The undergrowth at the sides had not encroached across the road nearly as much I would have expected, and on one stretch the precipitous drop on the north side is still guarded by a crash barrier entwined with hawthorn. What's so fascinating about all this? I think it's because this was once a thundering highway, one of the very few west-east routes between the heart of the Midlands and East Anglia, and as a child I remember sitting next to the driver of a fully-laden Midland Red coach as he skillfully sorted the gears out for the long climb. The coach was one of a red and black convoy making for Norfolk, and the white-jacketed driver heaved a visible sigh of relief when the summit was reached at Uppingham. I tried explaining all this to a lady taking her dog for a walk, but she smiled wanly and hurried off over the horizon.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


This is the eleventh day of the eleventh month, and the nation's focus is here in Whitehall, both today and on the nearest November Sunday morning. Distant hum of traffic, scurrying leaves. Black coats, red poppies, chill breezes teasing flags and white hair alike. The Cenotaph is the physical core of a nation's remembrances, commissioned from Edwin Lutyens in July 1919. The architect won his own battle, against those who wanted a giant cross, with spectacularly complex geometry. There isn't a straight line in it- the verticals meeting at an imaginary point 1,000 feet above the memorial. The horizontals are all arcs of a circle whose centre is 900 feet underground, and author H.V.Morton saw the empty recess in the Portland stone quarry not long after its removal. 'Cenotaph' is Greek for 'empty tomb', a sepulchral monument for bodies elsewhere, and is a word Lutyens learnt from his great gardening friend Gertrude Jekyll. I took this photograph for my little book Lest We Forget, and had a very odd experience. Waiting for the coincidence of sunlight and buses, I looked down to see that the batteries, and indeed battery cover, from my camera were missing. I found them in a neat row on the steps of the monument, and I shall talk more of my encounters with war memorials here in June next year.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Precious Baines

I love my local baker's shop. In fact I'm glad when there's a queue, (except when it's out on the pavement in the rain), just so that I can take in the Unmitigated England atmosphere. I always think the floor slopes down to the counter, but that might say more about me than the shop. On the right as you go in there's a glass cabinet with sliding doors, filled with the jars of the Unmitigated Preserve of Choice- Wilkins of Tiptree in Essex. The classic white labels line-up on everything from Medlar Jelly to Orange & Tangerine Marmalade, the jar I inevitably carefully extract. The glass-topped counter doubles up as a display cabinet for fancy cakes and cake decorations, and the wall behind is a mural of Twinings Tea packets. The staff are all, without exception, very pretty girls, but of course you will understand this has nothing whatever to do with my twice-weekly patronage. Oh yes, the bread I go in for. Some of the freshly-baked loaves stacked on the angled wooden shelves are a very tight fit in the cream paper bags, so there's always a brief interlude whilst the girl carefully slides the paper over the crust. My usual purchase is for a Scotch Tin, so of course I never tire of marching in and demanding "A large Scotch please".

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Putting You Through Now Caller

Not getting out much this week, so please forgive yet another rummage in my drawers. At least it gives me an opportunity to go on about telephone service vans. Except they're not now, are they? Now they're appallingly signed white vans with mediocre graphics and that utterly meaningless marketing-speak word 'Openreach'. You can see the account team presenting it at BT Towers can't you, doing that irritating thing where they say the word whilst making quotation marks with their fingers. So, is this yet another thing where we're treated as just the next item to put its hand up in a call centre, (anyone who's had to sort out an internet problem with BT will know what I mean), or symptomatic of a much more general malaise? We see this 'Sod the Public' attitude (copyright Kingsley Amis) expressed in so much we have to just look at these days- let alone deal with- in what are supposed to be public services. Train and bus liveries, road signing, local council aberrations. Like so much else in our lives these days, as exhibited by those two unfunny arrogant idiots on Radio 2, it comes down to nobody thinking that courtesy is important anymore. Except the Unmitigated Reader of course. We know that we'd sooner have a deep bronze green telephone van with Her Majesty's crown on the side, wooden ladders and the tyre pressures marked above each wheel. It's not nostalgia, it's good order. And good manners of course.