Friday 21 December 2012

The Feast of St.Custard's

We've talked a lot over the years of this blog about ordinary objects suddenly taking on human characteristics. You know the sort of thing: Adolf Hitler in your half eaten toast, Sarah Smart on the bloom of a peach, Andrew Mitchell out of a hastily discarded bicycle chain. Regular visitors to Unmitigated England will also recall that I can never remember the name for it. 'Para' something I think. Anyway, anyway (as Harry & Paul have it) I settled down to paint this year's Christmas Card, having not attempted one for six years or so. I carefully mixed my Designer's Gouache to a suitably custard-like consistency and applied my brush to the paper. All of a sudden my fingers twitched and this apparition appeared before me. Someone looking over my shoulder said "That's you that is". Merry Christmas Everybody!

PS If you want to see a Christmas pudding by a master, take a look at the 'currant' posting on James Russell's blog.

Monday 17 December 2012

Down The Cut

On Saturday evening My Neighbour Who Knows What I Like rang. "Get yourself down to Foxton Locks tomorrow. They've drained them and you can go down to the bottom". Youngest Boy and I didn't need any further encouragement, even though it was on our local news. So having breakfasted on smoked mackerels and espressos (well, I did) we set off into the bright cold morning. I'm so glad we made the effort. Superb presentation, the people of the Canal & River Trust, scaffolding and ladders, meant that we were able to stand where no members of the general public have ever stood before. These awe-inspiring brick chambers were constructed between 1810 and 1814, completing the famous staircase of locks at Foxton that lowered traffic down onto the Midland Plain and into the River Trent, or upwards and southwards to Watford. We leant against dripping walls, splashed on the orange brick floor and peered into a deep hole in the lock wall where the water would normally rush in to fill the chamber. I explained how it worked to YB, but I'm afraid the high point for him was discovering a drenched and long lost sock just visible in the gloom.

Friday 14 December 2012

Package Tour

In many ways it was the high spot of the day. After all, it could only go down hill after this lot. We have this annual beano in London that actually takes place in everything but every year, and after being summarily ejected from the Walmer Castle in Ledbury Road because it didn't open until midday (well keep the door locked then) we ended up in Colville Mews at this museum. I'd seen it before, many years ago when it graced an old canal warehouse in Gloucester Docks, but was still totally unprepared for just how utterly brilliant it is. As the Daily Telegraph quite rightly said, this is 'a place of worship'. I had to be restrained from continually dropping to my knees in front of the most superb examples of commercial art to be seen anywhere. If you call yourself a graphic designer (or whatever) and haven't been in, or made a promise to visit the mews as soon as you can, I shall send the Violent Brothers round to your studios in their big black Maybach limo. If you're as old as I am, you may simply enjoy it just for the nostalgia kick, (my pal said he remembered standing on two Watney's Party Seven cans to watch a stripper in a pub), but if you care about the craft of illustration, hand drawn lettering and classic typography, come down here and see just how good it got. All credit to Robert Opie for starting it off with a Munchies wrapper, and credit to the Gold pub in Portobello Road for being there for us at 11.15 with a warm welcome and excellent pints of Harvey's Bitter.  

Monday 26 November 2012

Christmas Is Coming

A few weeks ago I promised I'd tell you when the signed and numbered special edition of Preposterous Erections was available. Well, an emptying stack of boxes now sits at the Goldmark Gallery, and you can order a copy here. Or better still ring the gallery on 01572 821424. I'm very pleased with the production of it, everything from the Horton Tower label placed in its recess on the front cover cloth to the contents of the red pocket at the back. This has a sheet of pretend stamps tucked in it showing nine of the towers (Royal Mail Stamps please take note) and a limited edition signed print of my cappriccio painting of seventeen of the towers. Enigmatically complete with a giraffe and an elephant. This particular edition is limited to only 100 copies, and is a non-preposterous £50.

Friday 23 November 2012

Unexpected Alphabet No 20

I've been reading Ian Nairn's incomparable Nairn's London recently, and mused over his phrase, used a couple of times, of places being 'plugged into the big city'. Well yesterday I found the perfect example of what he meant. I was in conversation with the good folks at Daniel Lewis & Sons on Hackney Road. For 215 years they have supplied London with metals of all shapes and sizes, and much more besides. I was there discussing a pallet of thin aluminium sheets being printed on by the Goldmark Atelier for the inimitable Nelly Duff gallery, coincidentally just round the corner in another fascinating city enclave, Columbia Road. "They're doing what with them?" they said at Lewis's. "And who's the Goldmark 'otel anyway?". So it went on, until I noticed the afternoon sun highlighting this enormous wooden coat-of-arms on the wall. And then, as we ended up out on the pavement, I saw this beautifully lettered vitreous enamel sign, presumably denoting a previous encumbent. With that comma hinting at another sign now missing from the next bay down. And I just had this overwhelming feeling of London life going on for so long in this terrace of businesses, stretching back over the years. The shouts and arguments, the clanking of iron and steel and trains whistling and rumbling over the nearby railway bridge in and out of Cambridge Heath station. Somebody came in and asked for 24 big rubber wheeled castors- "With or without brakes?"- and a pretty girl poked her nose in through the door, thought about saying something and decided not to. All of us plugged into the big city.  

Monday 15 October 2012

Lamport in Diapers

Lamport is a small estate village roughly halfway between Market Harborough and Northampton. On the main road you can see a pair of magnificent swans rearing up on the gate posts to the mid seventeenth century Lamport Hall, and turning into the village one notices
the charming juxtaposition of the Hall to All Saints church. The village street runs inbetween them without visual hindrance from the Hall, and it's down here that we will find the polychrome brickwork of the 1854 estate cottages. We often seeing decorative brickwork like this, but on this scale? It's as though someone read the plan wrong, as in Spinal Tap's miniature Stonehenge. We call it  'diaper', meaning an ornamented pattern, a word also used by our friends across the Atlantic for nappy. Quite how that happened is a mystery, unless it's to do with criss-cross patterning being water and whatever-else-proof. My second photograph above (doesn't England look good at this time of year?) is of another Lamport estate house positioned deliberately, one imagines, a little bit away from the madding crowd. 

Wednesday 10 October 2012

A Bouquet for Cheltenham

Well. A very big thankyou to those of you who found me in Gloucestershire yesterday for The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed myself so much in a tent. It was quite extraordinary, and thankyou so much to my new friends who so generously looked after myself and Only Daughter. Even Frankie Dettori managed a smile over his crustless cucumber sandwich. Coming up soon: Diapers in Lamport.

Tuesday 18 September 2012


After ten years of gestation it has suddenly run up and tapped me on the shoulder. It seems so long ago now when I said to the person who was to become the Wartime Housewife "I want to do a book on English Towers". "Yes", she said, "And you could call it Preposterous Erections". Oh how we laughed, but lo and behold here it is. And what fun I've had. Climbing hills, spotting 'Twr' on Ordnance maps, being told of them in evening pub conversations. Once or twice I came across extraordinary erections that weren't towers exactly, but I couldn't resist including them. An immense pale green coal hoist in Goole, a white cloche-shaped folly high above a Cheshire town. And something new and utterly brilliant that appeared just in time to close the book with. Amazingly I've been asked to go on about them at this year's The Times Cheltenham Literary Festival. I'll be in a tent in Montpellier Gardens on October 9th at 4 o'clock, and in Quinns Bookshop in Market Harborough between 6 and 8 on Friday October 12th. You'll need tickets for Cheltenham, nothing for Quinns.

If all this wasn't enough, in a few weeks time the Goldmark Gallery are issuing a limited edition hardback. I'll be posting about it soon, but there'll be only 500 hardback copies, of which 100 will have a pocket containing a set of tower stamps and a signed Preposterous Erections cappricio print containing seventeen of the towers. After all this I shall need to go and lie down. Preferably on top of a tower somewhere with suitable company.

Friday 14 September 2012

Seeing Red

In 1979 I had the idea of creating a red poster, just for fun. It was simple; all I had to do was collect anything that was red of a convenient size, (pillar and telephone boxes were out), and arrange them on a photographer's studio floor. For weeks I rummaged through draws, trawled supermarkets, hung around waste bins. Friends used to my sudden and inexplicable passions either gave me things or lent them. Finally photographer Mike Brown let me into his vast studio in Leicester and I started laying mountains of stuff out on the floor. The camera had to be on a special rig above it all and I spent hours saying things like: "Just move that lightbulb one centimetre to the left of the child's shoe". This is the result, and very excitedly we thought of doing a yellow one, a green one- you get the idea. Well, it didn't happen, and the original print got lost. Until a couple of weeks ago when it resurfaced in a designer's plan chest in Gravesend and I'm thinking of doing a print of it. The plan chest went on e-bay, the print came to me. So thankyou Maggie, you're a star. A Red Star of course.

Monday 10 September 2012

Brighton Rocks

And so to Brighton. Well, Hove, actually. Although you never really go to one without the other. We turned up on Hove Lawns at 8.30 in the morning, for a reason that I'm sure will be expounded upon soon by the inestimable Wartime Housewife. For the first time in years I was able to just relax and take it all in. Being so early meant the light was just right for snapping Nash & Georgie's Holiday Pavilion. And oh what light. This time of the year means the sun's lower, perfect for photographing all those extravagant terraces and squares by father and son architects Amon and Amon Henry Wilds, and for picking out the details in shop windows in The Lanes. I chatted to a bloke who was doing the music for a film on Cezanne (only in Brighton), and he was revisiting the town after having lived here for ten years or so. "You have to watch it", he said, "It gets very seductive". I know what he means. It's any number of towns for me. The Brighton of Graham Greene's novel and the 1947 film Brighton Rock still showing through, the Brighton of the Len Deighton-scripted film of Oh! What a Lovely War that one uses to put back the vandalised West Pier. Piper aquatints, Southdown buses. The air, the light, the people. And that so pertinent quotation by Keith Waterhouse: "Brighton always looks like it's helping the police with their enquiries".

Wednesday 29 August 2012


This is especially for those of you still out there. (Distant chorus: "No we're not!) A good workman never blames his tools, as they say, but I do find the new way of having to do things on Blogger a real nuisance. It was all so simple and straightforward in the olden days. Anyway:

London never ceases to amaze me. I found myself yesterday in Wilton Row, which is basically the mews for Wilton Crescent in Belgravia. And found this, The Grenadier pub, complete with what looks like a genuine sentry box outside. Very useful for propping-up over subscribers I should think. By my reckoning this must be the nearest pub to Hyde Park Corner, but the usual London hub-hub seemed very distant. All was quiet, literally just the sound of my pint of London Pride being pulled. (Four quid- of course.) I could have stayed some considerable time had my business in an adjacent mews house not beckoned me. But it will still be here, as it has been since 1720 when it was built as the Officers Mess for the First Royal Regiment of Footguards. It became a pub proper in 1818, named The Guardsman. The roping off, reminiscent of the barriers at film premieres, is to corral customers onto the pub pavement, presumably to stop them straying into the very exclusive hinterland. And yes, it's every bit as good inside. 

Saturday 21 July 2012

On The Road Again

Back in the mists of time, well, 2009 to be precise, I drew attention to the paucity of design and marketing skills that had gone into the replacement Walls Ice Cream 'identity'. Never again, I thought, would we see the bountiful blue swirling letters on a cream background, still doing their job on a fine summer's day. Imagine my joy then, to come up behind this on the road between Caldecott and Uppingham in Rutland. Any minute now, I thought, a Foden petrol tanker will come the other way with 'Regent' on the side. 

Wednesday 4 July 2012


I've been on the road an awful lot recently. This is one of the signs they put up to warn you.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Fired Up

A truly unforgettable experience, as I'm sure it was for thousands who climbed their nearest high point to ignite Diamond Jubilee beacons. We had gathered in the gardens of a house in the village to eat, drink and be merry whilst Youngest Boy spent four hours somersaulting down a bouncy castle. And then, at ten o'clock we convened in the dark road outside (our village has no street lighting thank goodness) and followed an enormous English flag up to the top of whale-backed Slawston Hill. As we ascended we pointed out flaring lights on the surrounding high points to each other, and then our own blaze sent fire, smoke and flying embers up into the sky as if competing with the big full moon that came out of a wisp of cloud at exactly the right moment. I stared out into the black distances, thinking of those in neighbouring villages gathered around their beacons, looking over to ours. Youngest Boy was simply awestruck, running about with his mate trying to catch flying spots of fire in the air until we gradually drifted off down the hill and back into the village street, saying 'goodnight' to our fellows in the darkness like Thomas Hardy characters coming home.

Saturday 2 June 2012

A Wiltshire Summer Morning

What to do for the Jubilee I thought. Polish up the Coronation Oxo tin? Yet again scan the 'Our Queen' transfer book? Too obvious. Too Unmitigated perhaps. But then I remembered. I had my own personal portrait of Our Queen. In 2008 I was suddenly thrust into taking pictures at a garden party at the Royal Artillery's Larkhill barracks in Wiltshire. I expected just to get shots of Chelsea Pensioners tucking into cream cakes, or, if I was lucky enough, detailed close-ups of tanks in battle-ready positions. I got all of that, but beforehand I found myself almost alone behind the press pack barrier, right opposite the Guest of Honour as she was about to unveil a new stone sign for the barracks. Happy Diamond Jubilee Your Majesty.

Monday 28 May 2012

Cig Lit.

I've been away for so long Blogger have gone and changed the format for writing posts. Anyway, grovelling apologies for such a prolonged absence. Much is happening in Unmitigated England, but amongst many good things is that today a friend appeared clutching The Cigarette Papers in his hand. "Sign this" he said. It wasn't supposed to be out until early June, but here it is. If there's anyone still out there reading this, you'll remember that this book has been in gestation for at least five years. It's my eulogy for the cigarette packet, when they were beautifully executed pieces of design and without hectoring government notices and lurid photographs plastered all over them. It's full of still life photographs and galleries of packs and cigarette cards, accompanied by my stories, anecdotes and extracts from literature- Gauloises being lit up by Len Deighton's nameless hero, that sort of thing.

I've had such fun putting it together: having ideas, choosing locations, discovering sentences in odd places like a Gold Flake packet appearing in John Cowper Powys' A Glastonbury Romance. An evening at a workbench in an isolated Northamptonshire shed, an afternoon amongst roadside dandelions, and a memorable morning on a Cumbrian beach waiting for the sun, whilst my glamorous assistant impatiently stood by waiting to ripple a rock pool with a stick. A really big thankyou to all of you who helped. I enjoyed it all immensely, I hope you will too. 

Monday 2 April 2012

Off We Go

I couldn't resist this. It arrived in this morning's post and of course I had to share it with you. It still has the playing cards in it, but not a complete set. But what's really good is that I've had a complete set without a box for years. 'Tis but a small thing for a Monday morning, but at least it's put a smile on my face.

Monday 19 March 2012

Woolly Thoughts

Yesterday saw me wandering around the troubled Market Harborough Antiques Market. I won't go into the appalling way the local council are treating their electorate, because you can read about it here in a piece written by the admirable Wartime Housewife who now regularly exhibits in the Market Hall on Sundays. Finding I only had 50p in my pocket after the rest had been extorted from me by my Youngest Offspring, I was relieved to find this photograph in a box for exactly that amount. But where is it? This isn't a revival of the Where's That Then? posts that once graced this blog (at least you did something back then- Ed.) , as I haven't a clue. Except there may be one or two. The half-timbered wool shop has a distinct West Midlands look, and indeed the Hillman Minx number plate was issued in Dudley, certainly Warwickshire. The white car is a Ford Anglia or revamped Popular I think. It reminds me of one my brother had in pale blue. We went to Scotland in it around 1960, and we shared the crossing of the Clyde on the ferry from Gourock to Dunoon with a coffin-shaped box wrapped in sacking that was placed by the front bumper. I got out to look at the attached label, and it said 'To Dunoon: One Passenger'. A hearse stood waiting on the quayside. But all that doesn't really help does it? Sorry.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Boots On Parade

Both my parents worked for Boots the Chemists; in fact they met in the Wellingborough branch. Readers of More From Unmitigated England will remember that once the liason was discovered (or owned up to) my mother was summarily dispatched to the Matlock branch. In this volume's predecessor Unmitigated England I mentioned the sign above. It's on a corner of the High Street (Parade) and the narrow lane that leads down to the cathedral in Canterbury, and whenever I'm there (as on last Saturday) I check that it's still up on the wall. It's one of those rituals one does, quiet personal assurances that everything's as it should be. I first saw it on holiday in about 1957, my father doubtless in the shop either telling everybody he was from Leicester Boots or chatting up the girl on the photographic counter. And then, much to my amazement, I watched Powell & Pressburger's wonderful 1944 film A Canterbury Tale and, in a crane shot that follows a procession turning into the lane for the cathedral, this same sign appears in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. I noticed on Saturday that the shop sadly isn't a Boots anymore, (banished to a shopping centre or retail park I suppose), but I'm so glad the sign is still there, from an age when the integrity of the building and its environment was taken into account when signing. And another reward for always looking up.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Wooden Heart

This heart was captured in a wood two years ago. Seemed an appropriate image for today, but for a brilliant take on Valentine cards you could do no better than to go over to the warm embrace of the Wartime Housewife and her latest posting. Love to All.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Essential England

I rediscovered this detail from a map in the archive, and can't remember where it came from. Except it must have been from a 50s holiday brochure for someone like British Railways. I've always loved picture maps of England; their simplicity and naivety have a particular resonance in reducing the country to the barest essentials. This one of the south east keeps it very basic: An immense Canterbury Cathedral and a pair of oast houses cipher Kent, in Brighton the Prince Regent spies a Norman conqueror splashing into the English Channel and Chaucer resolutely approaches Penshurst wondering if it wouldn't be quicker by rail on the Pilgrim Express. And Morris Dancing seems to be the only thing going on in Essex, although I do worry about the swimsuited girl on her inflatable spotted duck being so far out to sea. Picture maps were (and sometimes still are) seen on posters and postcards, and Esso once did a whole, much more detailed, set of maps in a bound book. Which is also around here somewhere. Perhaps there should be one for Unmitigated England that's just our sort of pubs indicated on rusty signposts being looked at from Austin Somersets.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Wooden Top

This is the head of Admiral Lord Howe, and he stares imperiously out over a hedge as you approach The Lee, up in the land of my maternal ancestors in The Chilterns. It is course a ship's figurehead, taken from the navy's last wooden warship- HMS Impregnable. The rest of the ship, broken up in 1921, was used very visibly in the extension of Liberty's store in London, and the house he guards is 'Pipers', the then home of Ivor Stewart-Liberty. Many of my family members worked in various guises for the Liberty's (my Great Aunt Pattie was inducted as the local District Nurse by Lady Liberty) and a decade or so after the appearance of the figurehead my father bicycled up from Great Missenden station to visit my mother-to-be at her grandfather's house in Lee Common. Unaware of the figurehead, his gas-fired cycle lamp suddenly picked out the admiral looming over the hedge, (only comparatively recently was he encased in a wooden shelter), and he promptly fell off into the ditch in fright, the lamp being immediately extinguished.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Unexpected Alphabet No 19

After aquaplaning down the Great North Road to London yesterday morning, through the worst rain I've experienced whilst driving, the clouds later scudded away rapidly to reveal this in Hornchurch. Opened as the Towers cinema in August 1935, the first double bill was The Phantom Light and Vagabond Lady. The faience-clad front elevation was designed by Kemp & Tasker, the interiors by Clark & Fenn that included a cafe and ballroom. It still seats 1,800, and was taken over by the Odeon chain in 1943 who stuck their neon sign over these architectural letters for a re-opening in 1950. The last film to be shown here was the James Bond movie Live and Let Die in 1973. And so I suppose we have to thank Mecca Bingo for revealing the sign once again. Clickety-Click.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Numero Uno

The first day of January. Happy New Year everybody! I couldn't find a number one in the collection, so this is a cropped down photo of a fourteen on a Carter's Steam Fair wagon at Weston Super Mare.