Saturday, 28 February 2009

Don't Panic!

Blimey there's so much to worry about isn't there? Getting skewered on the way to the pub (or more likely coming back), getting so incredibly obese we'll all explode like Mr.Creosote, fat cat bank bosses running off through the overheated traffic with all our money. Well, help is at hand in the soothing- well, most of the time- words of Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams (you have to trust someone with a name like that) in their Panicology, just out in paperback. And so I don't have to panic about a neat quote, The Observer puts it very well - 'Gloriously deft in their rebuttal of some of the more egregious cases of media-fuelled herd idiocy'. That's the thing isn't it? We only ever hear or read of all these terrible things that are going to happen to us by tuning in to the wireless or, God forbid, picking up the Independent someone's left in a Little Chef. I don't go out into my back garden on a hot summer's day and think 'I wonder if the ice caps are melting today, those poor polar bears', (or penguins, arctic foxes, Michael Palins), and I certainly didn't when I stepped out into six feet of snow. Briscoe and Aldersley-Williams are the much-needed voices of reason. Not that we don't need to worry a little bit. Earlier this month I ended-up in the cottage hospital having stitches put into my hand from a broken glass, and only this morning a screen flew at me from the cooker ventilator thingy and sent my bacon spinning to a secret place I've yet to find. Both accidents were in my kitchen. Didn't tell me not to worry about that did you Simon, Hugh. Eh?

Friday, 27 February 2009

John Raven-Hill's Coronation

Later on I may be recruiting images for a possible book on motor cars. So, keep it to yourselves for the moment, but in the meantime I feel moved to share this fabulous photograph with you. The father of The Mother of My Youngest Children (doesn't it get complicated), the late John Raven-Hill, took his camera to the Coronation in 1953. Judging by his pictures we don't think he was there on the actual day (he'd have been at home in Middlesex pointing with a large briar pipe at an Ekco television or similar), but he appears to have gone round either earlier or later snapping buildings decorated with celebratory flags and heraldry. Marble Arch, the Dorchester, Hawksmoor's frontage on Westminster Abbey. Except what he really did, quite accidentally, was photograph the traffic in front of them. Incredible, never-to-be-repeated, random selections of vehicles. Unconscious, brilliant. So I come to the photograph, and the reason for this post. The background's easy- that's The Sanctuary, just to the side of the western end of the Abbey. Together with a Ministry of Works van, a Ford Prefect and a Bedford Duple coach. But what's the car speeding across the foreground? I'm here to be shot down in flames, but my money's on a Humber Imperial.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Find The Fault No 1

A recent birthday saw The Youngest Boys give me a box of reproduction puzzle cards from the 1940's called What's Wrong? They know, don't they? Lovely innocent pictures- a house where there's no drainage grate for the down-pipe, a Wolseley with a green 'Police' sign. You know the sort of thing. But they rang a bell, and that bell sent me scurrying to the archive, and lo! I found I had a different, original set, called Find the Fault. That's it really, I just thought they'd make an occasional series. And elicit the inevitable cry of "Oh for goodness sake" when I reveal the answer.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Checkpoints & Gauloises

Len Deighton, (blogs passim) is eighty this week. Read an interview here. I discovered his books in 1965, three years after The Ipcress File was published, and I immediately went in search of Horse Under Water and Funeral in Berlin. First I just ogled the brilliant dust jackets by Deighton's RCA mate Raymond Hawkey (two of his best shown here, look closely inside the bag) but soon I was absorbed in Deighton's terse text and the seedy world of War Office canteen crockery, rubber-stamped manila files, Smith & Wesson revolvers and stubbed-out Gauloises. Two of my earliest and greatest influences: Hawkey design, Deighton copy. Still with teenage spots I started to make covert trips down to London, lurking suspiciously in train corridors and sitting smoking Disque Bleu in Soho cafes, staring out at black cabs in the rain with narrowed eyes whilst mini-skirted girls sniggered at me from adjacent tables. Later we cooked from his Action Cookbook (the compilation of the unique Observer Cookstrips that you can see pinned to Michael Caine's kitchen wall in The Ipcress File), gazing in wonder at his drawings of cook's knives and Bialetti coffee makers and learning to always light a cigar with a match held away from the end. I had the immense pleasure (can you imagine it) of meeting him in 1993, foregoing the opening hours of a Test Match at Lords. Merv Hughes or Len Deighton? Tough call. Thank God he was as friendly and pleasant as I'd hoped. We talked for two hours about design and on joining my pals for the Test I don't think I spoke until the champagne and samosas came out. Happy Birthday Mr. Deighton.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Unexpected Alphabets No 8

Stamford didn't want the railway anywhere near it at first, but when they finally succumbed in 1848 its Tudor manor architecture became an heraldic trumpet for this outstanding stone-built Lincolnshire town. It's worth a detour through the old coalyards (now crowded with new houses) to see it, and, if you like this sort of thing, to visit Robert Humm's transport bookshop housed in the old stationmaster's quarters. Over on the 'Leicester' side there is what was once an island platform, now with the far side bay overgrown. On the embankment are these white letters slowly sinking into the earth. I think they've been there since I regularly arrived here on steam trains in my school holidays. And that the makeshift sign was planted out with crocii and snowdrops in the spring, dahlias and wallflowers in the summer. Of course not much of this goes on now. The station is remarkably untouched, thanks to the stern eye of English Heritage I suspect rather than the altruism of whatever garishly-striped franchise is stopping and starting here. And trains are remarkably frequent and very well used. But Mr.Humm and his delightful assistants appear to be the only occupants. Every station door was locked on our visit, including the waiting rooms, and the only remote human contact seemed to be a timetable and a poster telling you what will happen if you don't buy a ticket.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Old Git

Lot of talk this morning about what we should call elderly people. Apparently the pinko liberals are going around tut-tutting about the old folk in our midst being called 'old codgers', 'coffin-dodgers' etc. All Round Good Egg Sir Clement Freud (84) was interviewed on the Today programme and basically said he didn't give a toss what anybody called him, so long as wasn't 'young man' by patronising shop assistants who think they're being funny. As I am often called 'The Old Git' by my children, I don't give a monkey's either. After all I'm now officially infirm and probably incontinent as well since a Senior Rail Card was bestowed upon me. How to illustrate these thoughts. Well, in the seventies Penguin produced a beautifully designed trilogy of photographic books edited by Gordon Winter. On the front cover of A Country Camera 1844-1914 is a photograph taken of eighty-two years old Robert Morvinson in 1857. I've always been staggered by this image, as we are looking at a photograph of someone who was born in 1775. As it says underneath the picture, (but obviously if you're over forty you won't be able to read it) Mr.Morvinson came into the world 'when the United States was still a British colony, and Bonnie Prince Charlie was still alive'. Imagine that. I wonder what they called him? As he was a shoemaker probably 'Olde Cobbler'.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Going Potty

Last night was particularly cold in Ashley Towers. The giant cast iron radiators in the west wing need 'bleeding', which I think is the right term. Certainly it was the sort of word I used on finding them incapable of even warming-through the Unmitigated Winceyettes. So I dived under the covers with A Lust for Window Sills, a very jolly and enjoyable book about architecture by Harry Mount. In it he tells me that "Chimney pots first became popular under George III in the late eighteenth century. Not everyone liked them". Neither did Tennyson for some reason, but their ubiquity and popularity increased dramatically throughout the nineteenth century. I love 'em. Ranks of orange terracotta cylinders marking the skyline of a terraced street, tall cream clay pots contrasting with red brick on country houses, Mary Poppin's stepping stones. And it starting me thinking. The distinct lack of chimneys, and certainly their pots, is one of the many reasons why new housing estates look so dire. If they've got them at all they're just token squat stacks put there for the occasional token fire. Just a couple of feet more of masonry, and then a nice set of pots, and our skylines would be so much more interesting. And perhaps Dick Van Dyke would come back and dance on them in sooty silhouette. Perhaps not.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Nash Rambler

I just couldn't wait to share this with you. Back in November you may remember my post about the fallen ash tree on the Leicestershire / Rutland border. And my observation that it recalled Paul Nash's Monster Field, his photographs of felled trees taking on the attitude of crawling timber terrors. Every Saturday since I have driven over the bridge next to the leviathan, and on a number of occasions noticed a Landrover pulled up beside it and heard the hornet buzz of a chainsaw. So yesterday morning we parked on the snowy verge and I vaulted over the gate. (Well, alright then, climbed unsteadily.) I need say no more about my one-eyed friend, but equally remarkable are the colours and shapes, immediately redolent of a Paul Nash painting, or, for that matter, one by his brother John. My hand starts twitching to prise open the watercolour box.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

I Should Cocoa

Where does that rejoinder "I should cocoa" (meaning "I should jolly well think so") come from? Anyway, after all the snow-capped topiary and frozen brussel sprout stalks I thought we could all do with a heart warming mug of hot cocoa. And what better than a big spoonful out of this splendid tin. Except of course we can't buy it like this now, mores the pity. I must admit I am tempted to buy some Bournville and decant it, (there's still some Rowntree's lurking at the bottom), but there are enough raised eyebrows surrounding me at the moment as it is. But just look at this 1950's design. The repeat patterns in cream and brown on a burnt orange, backing-up the characterful hand-drawn script. And the two exquisite line drawings of the cup and saucer and the very pretty girl glancing at us as she takes the cocoa pot (looking like one of those you once got in Boots' cafes) on its tray to a waiting table. How did I come by it? Well, a little boy of our aquaintance in the mid 1970's was always gazing up at the shelves of our cottage, and when he realised we weren't a grocer's shop he scooted off down the village street to his grandma's and lifted this from the back of her pantry shelf. "I thought you'd like this" he said. Oh yes.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Sprouting Lawrence

Out walking on the southern fringes of Market Harborough on Wednesday, I was suddenly taken with the desire to dodge behind the hedge that bordered an acre or so of allotments. Contemplating the view I espied these stalks sprouting up out of the snow. And it all came back to me- D.H.Lawrences's short story Daughters of the Vicar. One of the eponymous offspring, Louisa, escapes the stifling atmosphere of the vicarage on a snowy Christmas afternoon to visit her friend Mrs.Durant. "In the valley that was black with trees, the colliery breathed in stertorous pants, sending out high conical columns of steam that remained upright, whiter than the snow on the hills, yet shadowy, in the dead air." Louisa can't raise anyone at the cottage, and peeping in she sees "the scarlet glow of the kitchen, red firelight falling on the brick floor and on the bright chintz cushions". Going out into the cold snowy garden as "On the left, overhead, the little colliery train rumbled by", she finds Mrs.Durant collapsed amongst the cabbages, whimpering with pain. "I've - I've - I was pulling up a brussel-sprout stalk - and - oh-h! - something tore inside me.." The story is one of a dozen in The Prussian Officer, first published in 1914.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Snow Report

Unpredictable stuff, snow. Fancy it coming down in bucket loads when we were least expecting it. In the winter too. Doesn't it know we have rules and regulations for this sort of thing? "It's a national disgrace" says Kylie Binbag of Tamworth-on-Sea, filling three Tesco trolleys with Bovril. But at least the BBC are having a snowy field day (breaking news: jack-knifed lorry at Boat of Garten), sending that poor news girl out every night to stand freezing her cagoules off by a crash barrier in Gravesend. And sending a helicopter up so that they've got clever shots of white spaces to put those graphics on that say things like "Worst Snow Since 1066 (source: Domesday Boke)". Quick, lock those buses away in the garage, close that school, hide under the kitchen table until Ed Snowballs cycles through the slushy streets giving the all clear through a red megaphone. Anyway, we got out into it yesterday morning, roped together with the washing line and pockets stuffed with climbing croutons and whale blubber sandwiches. The village took on Pickwickian resonance, neighbours raising top hats to each other, the vicar tottering along saying "Isn't it lovely, God has so blessed us" and then going apse over font on the icy pavement. The photograph is of the Old Rectory, Hallaton, complete with a very recent molehill to the right of the drive. Must have poked his pink snout out and thought "Mmm. Could make a mountain out of this".

Monday, 2 February 2009

Unexpected Alphabets No 7

Spotted in Holt, Norfolk. If I hadn't been so keen to start making a damn nuisance of myself over a pair of high rise herringbone trousers at Old Town, I'd have taken time to rootle out an old bloke to tell me all about this legend scratched into a brick. It's next to the front door of a shop in a tiny courtyard near the main car park. What can it mean? And why was the information so crucial that it was incised so deeply and permanently for all to see? It may always have been, as it is now, next to a shop door, but perhaps it was originally next to a cottage or workshop. What I like about it is the care with which the serifs have been drawn on the letters. Was it something to do with marking a boundary? Was it in fact done the day before I arrived in town- 'ere, this'll get 'im going'. It certainly has. Answers on a brick postcard please, but not through the window.