Monday 30 June 2014

Unexpected Alphabets No 23

Yesterday saw our annual village show, named after the next village for some still unexplained reason. I've gone on about it in blog posts passim, and you've only got to change the title of Philip Larkin's poem Show Saturday to Show Sunday and you'll know exactly what it's like: move; each crawls / Towards the stock entrance, tilting and swaying, bound / For far-off farms. 

This year was no different, except that I took more notice of what was going on in the main ring from my straw bale seat, rather than over-indulging myself in the hospitality tent of the show sponsors. So I know a bit more about ladies riding side-saddle, which was nice, but am still nonplussed by JCB digger formation dancing. I had a lovely chat with a bloke who had brought old tools for sale from near Bawdsey in Suffolk and who told me about playing inside Martello Towers when he was a child, but inevitably got drawn to the ranks of restored, partly restored and still wrecked old tractors. Towering over them was a vehicle used to haul timber, also from Suffolk, and I stared for a long time at the hand wrought lettering 'ticked-in' on the door. I wondered at which point the artist realised he wasn't going to get all of 'Suffolk' in before the door edge was reached. Of course he or she knew. If you draw lettering you know instinctively.

And just as inevitably I got drawn into the secondhand book tent where I nearly got into a scuffle with a pal who had, I confess, seen a C.Henry Warren book illustrated by John Aldridge before I did. But I did alight successfully on the 1920 Dairy Farming book. I had to have it just for the cover, which pleased me immensely. Although I don't doubt that I shall benefit at some time by knowing that cows calving between October and January give the highest yields. It says on page 80. I've just made it into a big A3 print and it looks even better. Perhaps I'll do the same for Mr.Cooper's red door.

Monday 23 June 2014

Time Lapse

Last week I had one of those moments when something occurred that hurled me back through time and space. The brass wheels and clocks finally stopped whirring at the spring of 1964. I was sixteen, and half way through my lunch one Saturday the printer father of my ex-girlfriend (my first girlfriend as it happens) pulled up outside our house in his new dark blue Humber Hawk. Diving under the stairs I was finally brought out to be asked if I'd like a trip to London. Yes please, and a couple of hours later packages of print were being off loaded from the cavernous boot somewhere in Blackheath. A short while later I was being treated to a meal in a Quality Inn near Piccadilly Circus, and on walking out into the exhaust fumes and haze of the early evening I noticed the queues growing outside the London Pavilion cinema for Tom Jones, a film that had just won four Oscars. We stopped and stared at the huge gaudy blow-ups that adorned the entrance, and my kindly 'driver' said "I've seen that. It's wonderful". I also noticed that it had an 'X' certificate (oh how we were protected!), but a week or so later I crept into the Picture House in Leicester and saw it. It was like a gun going off in my head as doors flung open. My love of buildings, the English countryside, film and photography, and much more, started in this dingy cinema late on a Saturday afternoon. It was cup final day at Wembley, and during the fight scene in the churchyard (location: Nettlecombe in Somerset) they flashed up a sign on the screen to say that West Ham had won against Preston North End, 3-2. 

Last week the past collided with me. I was sent an e-mail newsletter from the London Transport Museum, and in order to advertise Sunday's cavalcade of buses down Regent Street yesterday they used a period photograph of Piccadilly Circus. It looked so much like a gaudily printed postcard I went onto ebay and much to my amazement found that it was. I'm holding the postcard in my hand now, and the reason for my excitement (doesn't take much these days) was that the London Pavilion is clearly showing Tom Jones. And on further research I discovered that it was taken by Franz Lazi and printed by the Kardorama company which had just started in Hertfordshire. The year is 1964, it's 11.30, it's a sunny day and who knows, in a couple of hours I might just be watching the speedometer on the walnut dashboard of the Humber edge up to 80 on the M1.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Let's Call Them 'Garden Cities'

Now, I have a theory. I don't have them very often these days, wish I did. It's about modern housing development. We're currently hearing a lot about 'Garden Cities' (a term coined, one suspects, to make us feel better about massive development). Today some proposals may rise up challengingly before us, and it would be remarkable if they followed the same ideas and visual principles of places like Letchworth (above) and Welwyn Garden City (read about them all here) but I'm filled with foreboding. Particularly when you see the scrubby pyloned landscape around candidate Ebbsfleet in Kent, the infrastructure for a new city put in years ago with the high speed rail link. Two people discussed the idea of 'Garden Cities' on the Today programme this morning, a National Trust boss and a bloke who runs Next, and it was all about where the new 'Garden Cities' should be located. Somebody vaguely mentioned high standards and quality, but as in all these discussions nobody talks about the quality of house design itself.

Hence my theory: We'd all feel a whole lot better about housing development if the houses and the spaces in between were designed with some proper thought and care. Yes, it needs architects who can draw, but you never know.

Everybody runs about waving their arms in the air when the bulldozers start revving-up to clear the countryside for new homes, whether they're needed or not (developers and house builders will always tell you 10 million homes are needed by Christmas). And that's because of the paucity of quality in design. We all have concerns about acres of greenery being built over, but why can't the end result be something other than mediocre pastiches of past styles with eighteen inches between them and a few token shrubs? Even adding a decent height to chimney stacks and putting  proper terracotta pots on them would help enormously. And I don't mean building toytowns like the one tacked on to Dorchester.

Great examples are out there to provide inspiration. The first garden suburb, Bedford Park in Chiswick, was planned around keeping as many existing trees as possible and employing people like architect Norman Shaw. And then there's the remarkable New Ash Green in Kent. Yes, that one would've looked a bit raw when it was first built, but the quality of house design, the planning of roads and cul-de-sacs and the keeping of essential trees and greenery means it has now matured into something almost unique in England. I do hope something similar starts to happen now, and not just in the new 'Garden Cities'.