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People say of a good book "Ooh I just can't put it down". Well you will this one: a) to laugh out loud, b) to cry (possibly) or c) to look up words in the dictionary. This is one of those books I know I will go back to every two or three years or so, like, in my case, Three Men in a Boat and Rogue Male. Unlike these two stalwarts this is an account of a 1950s childhood spent amongst the bonkers demobbed majors and pike haunted chalk steams in and around post war Salisbury. But don't be fooled into thinking that this is just another nostalgic autobiography staring misty eyed at Golden Syrup tins and Hornby signal boxes. This is Meades Country, and I'm saying no more except it's essential reading. And I'm only half way through it. Delayed gratification you see, don't want it to end.
In my last post you will have seen the front cover for the new Shires Library book 'British Family Cars of the 1950s & 60s'. The photograph was a last minute choice after I'd seen an immaculate 1959 Morris Oxford Traveller at the 38th Nottinghamshire Classic Car, Motorcycle & Mini Show at Thoresby Hall. I fell in love with it, and on returning home quickly found myself looking for the original brochure. On receipt I was very pleased to see on the inside two gentleman loading cut flowers into the back of a model in the same colours, which I now know to be Dark Green and Island Green. What was it that appealed so much? Partly I think it was because this was the All Steel Traveller, rare I would imagine against the once numerous ash framed version that looked like an enlarged elder sister of the ubiquitous Morris Minor Traveller. But mainly I think it stirred my imagination into picturing it drawn up outside a Southern Region railway station on the Sussex / Kent borders. Early evening light reflecting off the chrome as the signal arm elevates to welcome the 5.15 from Victoria, a red setter getting excited in the back as a lady in a pink gingham blouse drums red painted nails against the steering wheel... [alright, enough of that. Ed.]
Back in the real world at Thoresby Hall my pleasure was further enhanced by my seeing a perfect contemporary picnic basket open on the back seat, cream crockery neatly strapped in against the wicker lid. As the brochure says: This new Oxford All-Steel Traveller is not only robust, colourful, and handsome, but also has line and design to make it the most accommodating and versatile multi-purpose car ever. I love that blatant and confident 'ever'.
In Unmitigated England, there are certain essential books that must appear on bookshelves, both in the home and at the local library. An assortment of Everyman Classics, a row of dog-eared Penguins, everything by Jonathan Meades and a set of Shell Guides. And quite recently a byelaw was introduced that states that everyone coming of age will receive a representative set of twenty one Shire Books. What an institution they have become. "...such gems" as Joanna Lumley has it; "...in every way delightful", Lucinda Lambton. And that's just the girls. "You won't be disappointed" joins in Jonathan Dimbleby. And they're right. Perhaps, to begin with, we remember them as quirkily typographic booklets with monotone text and illustrations, telling us about things like Whitby Jet and Roman Coins. And then, seven years or so ago they came under the direction of Nick Wright at Osprey Publishing and the Shire brand was extended, pummelled into shape and made to stand upright in a smart new livery on the Shire Spinners in countrywide bookshops. And now in glorious colour too!
And here, I suppose, I must declare a particular interest. Mr.Wright and I were taking luncheon somewhere in the Bermudan triangle that is pinned down by Daventry, Banbury and Brackley, and he suddenly said "I think I might have a job for you". The brand now having been very successfully established (and I had started to shuffle books along the Ashley Towers library shelves to make room for them) the next stage needed to be looked at, and this year will see new covers starting to spin in the bookshops. The premise is simple. Shire Books are packed with brilliant information on very particular interests, centreing around our heritage and of course quite rightly unashamed nostalgia for the past. Now was the time that the subjects of the books should be the heros. Or heroines, of course. So for the last year I have been immersed in the Shires, with new challenges set before me every day. I have stood waiting for ten seconds of sun amongst caravans in Shropshire, polished up Corgi Toys in Leicestershire, recreated the Blitz on my kitchen table and frightened myself with a garden gnome in an old radar station in Kent. Here's just a handful to be going on with, I hope you like them, I hope you will make room for them on your shelves.