This is probably the most inconsequential blog post I've ever written (no, there's plenty of those: Ed.). It's just that two things happened yesterday that confirmed that we do now live in two parallel retail universes. One is how we'd actually like it to be: shops on a high street where we hope we'll get anything we want (within reason), and cyberspace where although we won't be able to touch anything we'll still get our hearts' desires and won't have to wait long to get them. But I do like to give local traders first dibs. So, wanting black Pentel Sign pens for a set of drawings I'm doing, I enquired at Ryman's in my local town. They were very helpful as always but not only didn't they stock them they hadn't heard of them either. This was the fibre tip pen that once rivalled the Biro in its ubiquity. On Saturday Youngest Boy discovered the one I had got and after a weekend of drawing and emptying it said it was the best pen he'd ever drawn with. A quick tap-tap on the keyboard yesterday means a pack of twelve are now winging their way to Ashley Towers.
From Ryman's I went to the local cookshop, specifically for sherry schooners. "Sherry what?" asked Bloke A. "Schooner" I said, staring out into the street. "Shooner?". " No, look," but then Bloke B (a manager I supposed) said "No, haven't seen one of those for years. Sort of thing you would've seen in 1970's pubs." I said thank you and left. Tappity-tap. Six schooners were dispatched to me this morning.
General ignorance aside, in both cases I wouldn't have minded waiting if both shops had said they could get them for the next day. After all, I know all about Click 'n' Collect now, after having had my first go at it with John Lewis and Waitrose on Saturday. (All went very well until I had to show the girl my driving licence which has a picture of myself sans spectacles that looks like a Photofit of a serial killer.) I know, I know. I've just got to accept how it is, and leave Ryman's for the coloured plastic folders I like and the cookshop for bright red teapots.
I must thank Nick Wright for unearthing this little gem. It's well worth the 27 minutes it takes to tell its story. Amazingly, I have often thought about it since I first saw it back in 1963, a filler that you'd watch before the main feature. I wonder if it was in anticipation of seeing Tom Jones again. The reason I remembered it was because of something that always caught my attention in certain films made around this period. Many country lane locations were in Buckinghamshire, owing to the close proximity of studios such as Pinewood and Denham, and the highways department favoured a particular yellow gravel as the final top coat. So different from the roads of my home county of Leicestershire that, as now, used the far more common grey chippings.So you'll see it here at the end when the 'homemade' car gets its first run out, as yellow gravel is spun to the sides of lanes in the Chilterns.
The film was made very professionally by BP, from the time when they used a green and yellow shield and the initials stood for 'British Petroleum' instead of the yawn-inducing 'Beyond Petroleum'. Everything is a joy here, the houses with proper windows, the garage pumps, the other traffic. And a lead character who looks like a younger brother of Stanley Baxter. Now there was a frequenter of Buckinghamshire lanes. Essential Unmitigated viewing are his The Fast Lady and Father Came Too. Daddy in both films was James Robertson Justice, always good value of course.
The studio they were made at appeared on a visit to Beaconsfield in the early sixties when I managed to escape from my parents in order to wander about on my own. On a leafy lane I saw a big pair of gates open with the legend 'Independent Artists' above it. A film company made up of actors like Robertson Justice escaping the studio system (ie: Rank) to make their own films. In front of me was a complete street with a chemist, a bank, a greengrocer etc. I wandered in, expecting to be yelled at any minute, but all was eerily silent. Then I discovered the 'High Street' was just two sets of dummy shop fronts, supported by a maze of scaffolding poles at the back. I just stood there astonished, expecting any minute to see Leslie Philips pop out of a door and jump into an open top XK120. Yes, a very defining moment, one to add to my other star filled stories like the fact that a Chiltern cousin serviced Rupert (Maigret) Davies's lawnmower. Anyway, do put your feet up and enjoy this over the weekend.
Note that Ron Grainer's score includes a pastiche of his Steptoe & Son theme. Come to that, he wrote the Maigret theme too. Full circle.
Last week I tipped up at one of my favourite railway stations, Cromford in Derbyshire. It simply reeks with atmosphere, reached up a quiet lane and positioned immediately before a tunnel entrance.The only sound was an approaching East Midland train making its way up to Matlock from Derby, and once its diesel throb had been lost in the maw of the tunnel silence descended once again. Built around 1860 for the Midland Railway, there is more than a splash of elegance about it. Quite possibly it was designed by G.H.Stokes, an assistant to Joseph Paxton who transformed Chatsworth's gardens and designed the 1851 Crystal Palace.
The main building is the usual Midland staple with stone walls and painted valances, but over the classic latticed footbridge is a remarkable waiting room with diamond paned windows, a steeply pitched roof and a gabled steeple of a turret. Probably the result of a French building Stokes had seen on the Continent. Certainly the house up above is like a mini chateau, and even more amazingly this was the station master's house. Oh how times have changed; the Acme Thunderer whistle blew long ago for such things, even on station masters. But perhaps we may occasionally see a steam locomotive rumble loudly into view from the tunnel, as in the 1910 photograph above.
Back in 1995 the location was used for the cover of the Oasis single 'Some Might Say', the first of their output to be top of the Hit Parade for them. They were booked to shoot the video for it here but Liam didn't turn up so it never happened. (That's him on the footbridge.) Both 'chateau' and waiting room (actually two rooms, one for women, one for men) have been very sensitively restored and the latter is available as a self-catering holiday let. Do guests wake in the night and look out through a diamond pane to see an indistinct figure waving a lantern on the footbridge and crying out sepulchrally "Look out below!".
First, a very heartfelt thank you to all those who flew in on Friday night to help me bring English Allsorts out to an unsuspecting public. It was so good to see old friends and indeed make new ones. Thank you all, particularly to Beverley and Chris at Quinns who made it happen and who so uncomplainingly tidied up after us.
And so to Sunday night, and The Secret History of the British Garden. What a relief to see a beautifully put together programme presented by someone who actually knew what they were talking about. Not a Stephen Fry or Sue Perkins to be seen, just the calming and knowledgeable presence of Monty Don and other real experts. Concentrating this week on the seventeenth century, Monty very soon turned his Land Rover into the lane leading up to the remarkable Lyveden New Bield in East Northamptonshire. This garden pavilion isn't a ruin, but a building that was never completed. Recusant Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham intended it to be an expression of his faith with mathematical codes and devices, but on his death in 1605, and after his son was well and truly implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, the workmen downed tools and melted away into the surrounding woodland.
Lyveden was virtually our neighbour when we lived down the road, and we continually came up here for family birthday parties or just to sit and contemplate. Very memorably I drove the venerated old school gamekeeper Harry Churchill around the surrounding acres in a Land Rover to watch a pheasant shoot in cold snowy weather. A rare treat. So it all came back to me last night as Monty talked to Mark 'Chopper' Bradshaw, a property manager for the National Trust who in our time was the custodian. He recalled a Luftwaffe photograph of the area coming to light that, with the right light and time of the year, revealed the circles of a lost labyrinth.
Of course Lyveden New Bield had to feature on one of our Christmas cards from that time (top), and the aerial view was perfect for a record card I did for the local shoot (above). It's worth a visit at any time, and if you do, remember this: In the Civil War a Major Butler was here and told his men to cut off the wooden floor beams that were still extant, and take them down to Oundle where he was building a house. Copthorne House on the High Street is a very rare example of Commonwealth architecture, but more remarkable is the fact that the time and weather shrunken remains of the original timbers can still be seen in their holes in the walls of the New Bield. (The Old Bield is the house down on the lane below that runs from near Oundle to Brigstock.)
On my way to my junior school I would pass a pub (don't do that now) where a black glass plaque on the wall by the door had gilt letters on it that said Mitchells & Butlers. And an evocatively coloured painting of a stag leaping over a chasm. I stood there and wondered. Did the stag make it? Or was it just a crucial couple of feet short? Somehow I found it a slightly disturbing image, one that I put into a mental box that included the chimney sweep's brush popping-up out of a pot and shaking itself free of soot against a very early morning sky.
Yet another rummage produced this label a few days ago. Mitchells & Butlers appear now to be a pub business that manages places like All Bar One, but back in the day they were a frequent presence in Leicester and its environs. Indeed in the late sixties and seventies we were continually regaled with the fact that M&B's Brew XI was brewed for the Men of The Midlands. I never drank it, mainly because, like Watney's Red, it was said to be of such low strength it could legally be sold to children. (I wait to be disabused of this notion.) My researchs tell me that a park called Deer's Leap two and a half miles from Birmingham city centre gave its name in support of the brewery not far away.
I find this puzzling. Even a hundred years ago I can't imagine a deer leaping anywhere near the centre of Brum, and I'd always thought that it was part of some Exmoor legend concerning a stag leaping over a ravine during a pursuit by hounds. I have heard of stags escaping into the sea along the rugged coastline here, so it makes it all the more difficult to imagine the scene depicted on this fabulous label being in Birmingham. Or perhaps it's all just fancy anyway.
Perhaps we could argue about it in Quinn's bookshop in Market Harborough this Friday night over a glass of wine as we toast the arrival of English Allsorts (6-8pm)
This is extraordinary. Colour film of London shot by the amazingly prescient Claude Friese-Greene in 1927. CF-G struggled to get his Biocolour system adopted, but produced over 60 films including The Open Road, a trip from Land's End to John O'Groats, and this superb example here, restored by the British Film Institute in 2005. More can be learnt from The Magic Box, (1951), a film made for the Festival of Britain, a biopic of Friese-Greene starring Robert Donat.
Five years ago I found myself in The Bull's Head in Craswall, on the Welsh Borders in Herefordshire. I was very taken by these two pictures on the wall of one of the rooms, snapping them in passing. Two years ago I found myself there again, but the pub had changed hands and the pictures had gone. On asking about them I was met by blank stares, but that happens increasingly these days.
Today they suddenly came to my attention again as I searched for something else. And I find I like them even more. Both were in beautiful black frames that looked late Victorian, but the paintings I imagine are later. Closer inspection revealed them to have been very neatly signed in red paint by an NWJ Smith. But I can find out nothing about the artist, not even if it's a woman or man. Can anybody out there help?
John Turner looked more carefully at the signature than I did, and saw that it is indeed 'Smyth' not 'Smith'. So that helped enormously, and he found Norman Smyth on the intraweb, an Irish painter who, it seems, is still at it. Thankyou John for your diligence.
Sometimes I think I'm living in a parallel universe. (Distant chorus: "You are!") About forty years ago the designer John Gorham was commissioned by the Sunday Times Magazine to illustrate an article in their 'Sacred Cows' series. I've no idea what it was about now (something to do with butchers or meat I expect) but I cut it out and stuck it in my scrapbook. A little while later I was drinking in a Covent Garden pub with John and I asked him how long it took him to paint the bucolic scene of cattle and sheep. "I'm a designer Pete" he said "I found a stock carrier bag, took the lettering off it and put in generic 'Family Butcher' typography". You can see the superb result on page 151 of that book English Allsorts. And for all that time I wondered if I'd ever find an original bag.
You know what's coming next don't you? The book has just come out and yesterday, for the first time in months, I go to the market in Market Harborough. As I say to the boys after I haven't been for a while "Something's calling me". So I present myself at my favourite stall and just as I look up from a 1938 Bartholomew's map of Wharfedale I see the owner sifting through a pile of things he'd just been given for sale. In a fraction of a second I saw the above. "Hang on" I heard myself saying hoarsely.
Not only is it the same stock butcher's bag (with slightly different folds on the cows and sheep) it's from a place I've only quite recently discovered, also mentioned in the book. Wimbleton's isn't there any more, but if it's food you're after in Porthleven's Fore Street then there's The Corner Deli, Top Chippy and Twisted Currant.
It all seems so long ago now. A cold lunchtime in late January, with us coming out of a very French wine bar just off the Charing Cross Road and me blinking at the light as I watched my publisher cycle quickly off into the traffic. Leaving me wondering "What have I done?". You see, it was January this year and somewhere between one libation and the next I'd said "Of course I can do it by the end of July". But I did, and I have to say that amongst all my books this is the one I've enjoyed putting together the most. And it's out today.
Everything became a pleasure. Pouring over Ordnance maps to find ruined Norfolk churches, talking to a very attractive driver of a new Heatherwick Routemaster in Victoria, having deep meaningful conversations with the Tiptree Jam people, polishing-up a Hornby O Gauge Fyffes Banana truck, turning up in a back street of Abingdon at a couldn't-be-bettered moment, remembering unprovoked attacks made on me by a chicken, attempting to whittle a list down to just three James Ravilious photographs, lying on a shingle beach in Aldeburgh thinking about my first pint of Adnams.
And the kindness of people. Edward Milward Oliver for sending me fantastic stills of Raymond Hawkey film titles, Tony Meeuwissen for sending me gorgeous examples of his outstanding work, Tom Harris for letting me crawl all over his newly-restored 1952 Jaguar XK120. Clive Aslet for writing such an insightful preface, Richard Gregory for meticulously and patiently making sure the whole thing got printed satisfactorily- which it was, by the exceptional Conti Tipocolor in Florence. And the inimitable David Campbell (the Charing Cross Road peddler) for well, another brilliant lunch, making it all happen and then just letting me get on with it. So many incredible people helped, I do hope I remembered you all in my 'thanks' bit at the back.
Your local bookshop will of course at this very minute be putting shed loads in their windows, but in any case you can read more here.
Some time in 1987 I walked past the Penguin Bookshop in Camden. (Imagine that, a bookshop just for penguins.) I looked in the window and saw a man in his seventies with glasses talking to two or three people round a table. A bottle of golden liquid appeared to take centre stage. So this is how I came to drink cider with Laurie Lee and he signed two copies of the Jubilee Penguin edition of his classic Cider with Rosie for me.The second copy he dedicated to my girlfriend, and if I remember rightly wrote something typically flirtatious next to his fountain pen signature.
So once again I looked through my fingers last night at the last of the BBC English Classic series that have played out over the last four weeks.Gradually I settled down to enjoy it, until during a scene quite early on the camera tracked across a row of schoolchildren reciting the Lord's prayer in the classroom, and they morphed into their older selves. And not just older, but in most cases almost mature adults, still in the same junior school room, still with the same teacher. I almost expected to see the buttons popping off their coarse jackets and smocks as they expanded.This was made even stranger when they gambolled and frolicked like their previous six year olds down to a designer icy pond. But I needn't have worried, they quickly found their short trousers and little frocks again and shrunk back to their small selves.
Was it all bad? Certainly not, mostly because of Samantha Morton as the mother, Archie Cox as a very passable Laurie Lee becoming the pipe smoking violin playing author and Timothy Spall as a superb narrator. When the director bothered to use him that is. Again, I don't want to make unfair comparisons, but I couldn't help thinking all the while about watching Claude Whatham's Cider with Rosie on Christmas Day 1971. With a screenplay by Hugh Whitemore and Laurie Lee himself.
Anyway we don't have to worry now in Unmitigated England about such things and we can get back to grubby 1939 railway tickets and tins of cocoa. And the landmark milestone of this coming Thursday, as you will see.
I'm sorry if it's turning out to be a critics forum here, but whilst the BBC are showing English classics every Sunday it would seem rude not to comment from an Unmitigated England perspective. And it's raining again. The latest offering I was dreading, the main reason being that The Go-Between of 1971 is quite possibly my favourite film, and L.P.Hartley's book one that I continually go back to. But I think it's probably unwise to compare Joseph Losey's two hour film masterpiece with a once again cut-down comfortable Sunday evening view in front of the telly. As it went on though I did find a lot of merit in the new attempt, not the least because of its concentration on the hurt and confusion that can ruin lives and leave poor old Leo Colston (Jim Broadbent) with his 'ashes and cinders' expression looking brokenly into the distance. So I'm going to restrict myself to just one big gripe, and if you saw it you'll know what's coming.
The opening caption told us 'Norfolk, 1900'. In the convention of such things we obviously know it ain't 1900, but by any stretch of the imagination we couldn't be fooled into thinking this was Norfolk. Perhaps the BBC creamed-off a greedy slice of the budget so that cast and crew had to drive an hour down the M4 to Theale everyday to shoot at Englefield House rather than living in Norfolk for a couple of weeks. It's just such a cheat. And it's that thing of producers thinking "well, who's going to know anyway, and what does it matter?". I hope I'm wrong, and that a determined effort was made to find an empty Norfolk house, after all there's enough of 'em. Anybody who knows the book and Losey's film will also appreciate that a Norfolk house and its surrounding acres are as much a character as Marian or Ted. But as usual I guessed that somewhere along the line (sorry) the green Southern Railway station at Horsted Keynes station in Sussex would once again be pressed into service, this time as a highly unlikely Norwich. Just as it is for Downton Abbey's local station, which they pretend is in Yorkshire.
The past is a foreign country, they don't bother with any of this there.
Looking at this third class train ticket, as one does on a wet Monday morning, I fell to musing about exactly how old it was. 'Third class' tells me it was bought before 1956; 'Southern Railway' puts it between 1923 and 1947. The departure station name 'Boxhill & Burford Bridge' doesn't help at all. Can any station in England have had more names? Opened in 1867 as West Humble for Box Hill it changed in 1870 to Box Hill & Burford Bridge, in 1896 to just Box Hill, and then back to Box Hill & Burford Bridge in 1904. Then someone decided to change it again in 1958 to Boxhill and Westhumble, presumably to save space on a platform sign. Finally, phew, in 2006 local residents insisted it should be Box Hill & Westhumble.
Still with me? Well, I thought there has to be another clue as to when a passenger went to Ashtead for seven pence ha'penny from a station that appeared to have adopted a name on its tickets it never officially had. So I went and had a coffee, stared at the rain for five minutes and then for the first time turned the ticket over to see it stamped '8th April 1939'. Which was a Saturday.
Sorry about that, you could have watched some paint dry. (Drums fingers on desk.) But last night's BBC1 classic An Inspector Calls was simply superb. Everything an adaptation (in this case from a play by J.B.Priestley) from stage to screen should be. Anyway, no more obscure railway tickets for a bit, I promise.
PS: Even the hotel at the foot of Box Hill can't keep out of the game. It's now the Mercure Box Hill Burford Bridge Hotel.
I was wondering how D.H.Lawrence's classic would fare at the hands of the BBC on Sunday. Part of a season of films that will include Cider With Rosie and, heart in mouth, The Go-Between. And all I could think was: Everyone's a loser. We the audience in particular, because an hour and a half is simply just not long enough for this bucolic tale of pheasant rearing near coal mines. Ken Russell did a very creditable job back in 1993, but then he had nearly three and a half hours. This attempt should really have been called something different, like Coal 'n' Camisoles, based on an idea by D.H.Lawrence. Because the second loser was the author himself. The whole point of his novel is total honesty in sexual matters, but our two lovers lost out because from where I was they didn't even get a decent shag. And didn't say any earthy Nottinghamshire endearments to help it along either, which was the whole point of 12 days in the Old Bailey for Penguin Books in 1960.
I think that when you have limited time to tell a story as good as this you should try and stick to most of the 'facts' of the book you're adapting. As far as I remember, gamekeeper Mellors wasn't in the army under Clifford Chatterley, and having glossed over this after it was established at the outset it didn't rear its head again until the end. And then used just to make a cheap political point when Mellors came with Constance to the mine in order for her to ask for a divorce. (Oddly in a very expensive car driven by the pheasant rearer.)
However, there were at least two good things: Stirling performances from both James Norton as Clifford Chatterley and his eccentric invalid carriage made from an upturned bath. But what will happen in a low budget The Go-Between? Leo Colston just having to run back and forth across the lawn to a greenhouse? Cider With Rosie in a Gloucestershire pub yard with a bottle of Woodpecker? Let's see, I don't want to be hasty.
I do hope that as many of you as possible managed to get to the Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, superbly curated by James Russell. I had the good fortune to be taken there by Only Daughter as a Father's Day Treat, followed by lunch at one of my favourite watering holes, La Brasserie in South Kensington. O Lucky Man!
Anyway, the other day I was sifting through my archive looking at images for a forthcoming project and found the above photograph. Two or three years ago I went and looked at the Westbury White Horse, hoping to find the exact spot where Eric Ravilious had painted it (top). What I should've done of course was to have taken a reference print with me, but I didn't. So on my return home I was immensely gratified to discover that one of my pictures had the location pretty much nailed down, probably where that inquisitive sheep is standing. I waited for a train to be in the same position as in the painting, but when a diesel horn alerted me to one arriving I realised that Ravilious had exaggerated the size of the train for dramatic effect, although in exactly the same spot. There is a companion painting that shows the White Horse as seen from inside a railway carriage, the kind of double exposure that I sometimes get obsessed by. The thought that someone could look up from a newspaper in a train and see someone on the brow of the hill looking down and. '...how their lives would all contain this hour' as Philip Larkin had it in The Whitsun Weddings.
I show this picture because it's the only thing I've got to illustrate the Bloomsbury Group. (Apart from something that I'll leave until last.) This is the garden of Monk's House in Rodmell, East Sussex, home to Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. It didn't appear in Life in Squares, the recent BBC drama about the Group, as didn't Virginia loading her mac up with stones and wandering into the nearby River Ouse. Lots of actors walked about as if they were going to, most of them being replaced by other actors at some time or other. In the first episode Henrik Hanssen off Holby City popped up in the garden of Charleston (another BG hang-out in Sussex) and it took me ages to realise he was supposed to be Leonard Woolf, but later in life. All this was very disconcerting owing to the use of flash forwards, and totally unnecessary. What possessed the producers to replace James Norton playing the younger Duncan Grant with Rupert Penry-Jones pretending to be the older? RP-H is only 15 years older than James N, but actually contrived to look even younger.
I was looking forward very much to seeing this, owing to an odd (well, not that odd) connection with it all. There were in fact some superb moments over the three episodes, not least for me when Clive Bell kept going on about his mistress Mrs.Raven-Hill. We didn't see her (worse luck), but this was 'The Luxurious Mrs.Raven-Hill', wife to Leonard (when she found time) who was a very well-known Punch cartoonist and a big mate and illustrator of Rudyard Kipling. And on top of all this she is the great-grandmother of the mother of my two youngest children. I'm feel sure she will be mentioning it here soon.
It's taken me the best part of forty years to get in here. Staring from afar and the occasional trespass until yesterday I saw marked in my diary 'Harlaxton Manor Open'. For one day only, which I think they do once a year. This is one of my top ten of English houses, a giant confection (a 'cream cake with icing' a friend said) sitting against a Lincolnshire hillside not far from Grantham off the Melton road. There are many 'perhaps', 'probablys' and 'maybes' in finding out who did what, but essentially this is the vision of landowner Gregory Gregory brought to trumpeting life in Ancaster stone by Anthony Salvin, commissioned in 1831, followed by William Burn in 1838. It can best be described as Jacobethan Baroque I suppose, and every over-blown adjective applied to it is true, 'sensational' being the most apt.
My top picture would have been impossible to photograph yesterday due to parked cars on the lawn, so this is from a transparency of June 2000. Apart from my first sight of this fanfare of an elevation, my interest was further aroused when in 1965 a friend of my uncle moved the Jesuit priests ensconced here to a new home down south, a removal feat that had to be completed in-between the morning and evening prayers of a single day. And then Harlaxton Manor was used by Peter Medak for his equally sensational film The Ruling Class (1972) with Peter O'Toole, mainly for exteriors.The Jesuits leased it to Stanford University of California, it subsequently being sold to the current owners the University of Evansville, Indiana, as their English campus.
So we all stood in and around this truly magnificent pile, trying our best not to drool over the heavenly ceiling of The Gold Room, guarded by countless putti, the greenly hothouse atmosphere of the conservatory or the Cedar staircase with its apparently stone-like roped tassels moving at a delicate finger touch. And then, round the back away from the drooling crowds I discovered what I most wanted to see. A covered-in brick viaduct where once a little train was filled with coal that was delivered into the house, bringing fuel to gravity-fed scuttles in the principle rooms.If this wasn't enough, one of my boys tapped The Ruling Class into his phone to discover that this very day was Peter O'Toole's birthday.
Sorry, but I've had my nose in a book. A new Unmitigated book that should be out in the autumn. A lame excuse for the non-appearance of my blog I know, but anyway. Here's one of the photographs for what will be English Allsorts; in fact the last picture in the book. That's Bobby the Dog posing beautifully with a very nearly fully restored 1952 Jaguar XK120 Fixed-Head Coupe in Old English White. Found in a field in Zimbabwe in 1999. Bobby and her owner live very remotely in the Wye Valley in Herefordshire, and this photo shoot was just at the very start of a typically blokeish weekend that involved homemade cappacinos, glugging beer and red wine (in different glasses), cooking mutton in a fire pit and more Jaguars. More soon on the Allsorts front.
Last week I paid my respects to my friend the artist Rigby Graham . The funeral was in the suitably gothic St.John's church in Clarendon Park Leicester, and as we filed out afterwards I couldn't help noticing this surreal juxtaposition. The figure is one of a series positioned on the pavements outside the junior school opposite to slow down motorists, much like those arm-waving plastic policeman they use so effectively in France. I share it with you not out of any ghoulish intention, but simply because I know that Rigby would've loved it.
It's raining here in Leicestershire, and also a handful of miles away across the fields in Rutland. And then, staring out of the window at the rain I had my first tangible thought of the day. It's twenty years since I produced my first book. Rutland was going to be given its county status back, and my friend Anthony Unsworth and I decided to celebrate it with the smallest book on the smallest county. We were either sitting in our office overlooking Kensington High Street or sitting round the corner in the Scarsdale Arms in Edwardes Square (probably the latter) and we agreed that I should disappear up the A1 and take photographs. It was a dry summer, and the Rutland soil was parched, but I persevered and after days in the heat and nights in the pub I finally finished. At this time I'd only written advertising copy and excruciating love letters, so we decided to give Faber & Faber some money and use W.G.Hoskins' inimitable introduction from the Shell Guide to Rutland and, from the same rare volume, a piece called 'Time Off In Rutland' which said that Tixover churchyard was a good place for an afternoon doze. It was.
When it was printed we loaded up our cars and went around all the local bookshops flogging them in boxes of 10 that doubled-up as counter displays. This is where we both learnt the vicissitudes of the sharp end of bookselling, but, as far as I know we did sell all the copies one way or another. These were halcyon days, and I'll always be grateful for the break it gave me in being asked to do more books. It makes such a difference when pitching an idea to have something tangible to wave about in meetings. So enormous thanks to Val Horsler at English Heritage and David Campbell at Everyman, both of whom also believed I could write as well as take pictures. The latter and I are currently ensconced in producing another book together, more of which later. And it looks like it's going to stop raining soon.
We knew it was going to be a hard act to follow, but we didn't think the plot would be altered to be about people fleeing London to avoid the attentions of a particularly raucous corvidae corvus. But settled in our extraordinarily expensive seats in the local Odeon (shows how often I go) we soon realised that yes, it was another adaption of Thomas Hardy's classic novel set in 1870s Dorset. And of course John Schlesinger's 1967 film is indeed a very hard act to follow. So how did Thomas Vinterberg do? Well, very creditably considering he only had I hour 59 minutes in which to tell this sprawling majestic tale and Schlesinger had the luxury and money to reach 2 hours 50 minutes. Which meant that much of importance had to be left at the side of a bleak Dorset trackway. Poor Fanny Robin hardly had the time to become a Hardy victim of circumstance, but we still booed her beau Sergeant Troy, a first class Victorian villain played up to the sword hilt by Tom Sturridge. Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts abandoned trying to do a convincing Wessex accent (it didn't matter), and Michael Sheen's Boldwood had suitable if wingeing gravitas. But you'll have guessed it's Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene that now has a starring role in my Unmitigated Fantasy of sheep shearing, singing, harvesting and heartbreaking in Victorian Dorset. And I have another heroine in the line-up for Unmitigated Honours, and that's cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christiansen. This film is ravishing to look at, a very worthy companion to Nick Roeg's photography back in 1967.
So, apart from the obvious yawning gaps in the narrative, Boldwood's completely over-the-top 'farmhouse' (Claydon House in Buckinghamshire, oddly) and a farmyard well that looks like it's just been dusted-off from the prop store, this is a superbly watchable film. And as Deborah Ross quite rightly said in her Spectator review 'Crowd Pleaser' (2 May): "...can someone not have another go, even after nearly half a century? And why do they have to be in competition? Can't they co-exist?".
I was 19 when I first saw the original (the second actually, the first being a silent film of 1915), and afterwards I made a point of reading everything I could lay my hands on by Hardy, without any real disappointment except in what happened to Jude's children and Tess. So if any 19 year olds can unglue their smart phones from their faces for just under 2 hours and decide as a result that they'd like to read the book and its companions, then it would all be even more worthwhile. Bring me my heavy woollen coat and gaitered boots....
This chap spoke to me this morning at breakfast.He said "I'm one of those objects the obsession of which you can never remember the name of." He was found on Cley beach. I shall have to do a treatise on them, probably call it Face Book.
Can anyone out there help with this? We found it in the grounds of Bayfield Hall in Norfolk yesterday. It looks very much like it was specially forged and welded together for Unmitigated England, but when I enquired in the stables it was looked at in great mystification as if seen for the first time. Which may of course be the case; that opening could so easily have seen the recent evacuation of an alien crew.
And then we tipped-up at Cley-next-the-Sea down the road and lo! there was an exact copy perched up on the embanking between the salt marsh and beach. This is when the first inkling of their purpose came to me. Could they be fish smokeries? The Cley example was very conveniently placed by where the catches are landed, and this would be about as fresh as a smoked herring could possibly get. But this far from the comforts of the village? Maybe the pungent smoke was a problem, but I doubt it, particularly at the assumed time of its utility. Of course it would be now, the part time residents hastily switching on the Vent Axia's in Farrow & Balled kitchens.
So, any ideas? Before I reach for that bit about the space craft unscrewing itself on Horsell Common in War of the Worlds. And, do you know, just as I'm typing this Jeff Wayne's music for the same comes ominously out of my wireless set. Please help.
Aircraft have been taking off all morning from the Unmitigated England Airship (nicknamed The Duchess by my ground crew) in order to take lucky fee-paying customers above the clouds to witness the moon impertinently blocking out the sun. On each return to the mother ship the brass goggle wearing passengers were treated to a full UE breakfast that included kedgeree warmed in a silver spirit burner kept at a safe distance from the gas bags.
Alas, alas. The real reason for this posting is that I'm obsessed by anything to do with airships. My interest was first kindled by seeing tiny snapshots in the family album taken by my father of either the R100 or R101 airships at Cardington. Subsequently the gargantuan hangars were pointed out to me from the train after Bedford, something I tediously do for my children now. Every time. So now a green tinplate airship hangs from my living room light shade and no minutiae is safe from my researches. So imagine my excitement when one of the Library Girls ran down the corridor yesterday, clutching the above that had been unearthed whilst they were looking for a Weetabix Vistascreen 3D Viewer. (I've told them about running in corridors, particularly with trays of gin and tonics.) The Meccano Magazine for February 1926 was published when the future was all airships, very gung-ho copy that talked of a failed experiment with an aeroplane attempting to hook up under the craft when "the releasing gear failing to act at the critical moment, the daring pilots were thrown out of their machine when some 3,000 ft. up, and were dashed to their death." As we now know, there was much more trauma to come, the dreams of big silent airships criss-crossing our skies coming to an end in a muddy field in Beauvais and in flames at Lakehurst New Jersey.
But all was not in vain. Next year sees the launch of a new airship, once again darkening the skies above Cardington. I'd post a picture of it, but fear it may cause concern amongst more sensitive readers. So here's a link to it. Meanwhile I've got to go and help the ground crew moor our airship to a convenient pylon a couple of fields away.
So, farewell then the car tax disc. Farewell to sitting outside the post office trying to make a neat job of tearing around the perforations. Farewell to know-alls tapping your windscreen and saying "Your tax runs out tomorrow" as if you hadn't realised. Funny thing, I shall miss these curious bits of paper, glancing at them every few months as I have done since I started having to buy them. Missing the feeling of relief at the post office counter when all my paperwork seems miraculously to be in order, missing the relief when a passing copper didn't realise there wasn't even one there.
Removing the plastic holder from the inside of my windscreen the other day I found the previous owner had kept every single disc from the car's first registration. A little piece of history of various post offices and various prices, and slight changes of design from year to year. I've made a double page spread out of them in my scrapbook. But oh how long will it be before I stop feeling guilty about the absence of this little piece of paper, no longer confirming me to be a proper person. Probably until I go and put a 1942 one for an Austin in the once official position, bottom left hand corner. In fact, I've gone on about this before, here.
The passing of actor Alan Howard brings to mind a rare film that most obituarists will struggle to recall. I never saw Howard on the stage, (I never see people on the stage much), where I believe him to have been magnificent, but John Madden's film for the BBC is something else. Filmed in the summer of 1984 Poppyland was transmitted only once to my knowledge, in January 1985. Howard played Clement Scott, the poet and Daily Telegraph drama critic who visited the Norfolk coast around Cromer in 1883. His subsequent pieces for the papers brought the crowds thronging to Cromer, the countryside being dubbed 'Poppyland' by the Great Eastern Railway Company.
At 90 minutes long, this is a proper film, one that transcends the medium it was made for. Apart from Howard, the narrative is helped along by Scott's friends turning up at the mill house that is the centrepiece of the film, played with much Victorian vigour by John Shrapnel, Jonathan Hyde, John McEnery and the delightful Phoebe Nicholls as the miller's daughter Louie Jermy. Films made by the BBC around this time tend to get forgotten (or worse) unless the archives are trawled through by the British Film Institute who have done a marvellous job in resurrecting the early work of Ken Russell and the Christmas M.R.James stories for DVD. I did in fact record Poppyland on a VHS tape, which although still in my possession is missing the opening couple of minutes. I sincerely hope the BFI will find something more substantial so that we can all enjoy the film again.
Yesterday morning I felt as though I'd come out of hibernation. I sat listening to The Archers (when is that Rob Tichener going to get his very just desserts?) as I got down to cleaning my cameras on the kitchen table and recharging numerous batteries. As I did so I noticed that the two bunches of daffodils that I'd bought last week were suddenly bursting out. I think I love the spring above all, and here was the perfect harbinger of both the season and the fact that this week I get back on the highways and byways of Unmitigated England. I just thought I'd share them with you.
Normally I don't take issue with pedants who criticise production values of films and television, possibly because it's usually me being annoying by shouting at the black box in the corner. But I'm going to make an exception with that renowned cinematographer Alastair Campbell. Yes that one, who presumably directs film photography when he's not Tippexing documents. Missing the point by the length of a focus puller's tape measure, he complains in a 'tweet' about BBC's Wolf Hall that he's: "Not entirely persuaded by the lighting strategy". By which we must take it to mean that he, and the other critics who live their lives in everlasting sunlight, can't see the night interiors properly because they're shot using just candles. Which funnily enough is how it was all those years ago Alastair. Stanley Kubrick did the same thing with NASA lenses to shoot Barry Lyndon interiors, and that probably hasn't been bettered until Peter Kosminsky's production. Wolf Hall is stunning television, one we will remember for years, long after the Broadchurches have been stacked in the remainder bin. Of course it's not faultless, (pity about propane gas fires instead of the real thing), but it very nearly is.
So, having got that out, I may as well tell you two other things that have recently made me shout out intemperately. Over on the other side as it were, I have to look away everytime anyone gets on a train in Downton Abbey. For all the correct cutlery and meticulous positioning of butler's trays they would still like us to believe that they travel southwards from northern Yorkshire by the Southern Railway. Of course we in Unmitigated England know why. It's because the Bluebell Line's Horsted Keynes station is so much nearer to Downton's Highclere Castle location than anything up north. And then, nearly finished, there's that Routemaster bus that kept coming round the corners and passing at the end of streets of late forties 'London' in the otherwise excellent last episodes of Foyle's War. But then, they tried very hard to make us think that Dublin was London as well.
Photo of the mesmerising Mark Rylance: BBC / Company Productions Ltd
Today Unmitigated England takes a very tentative step into the past and over the border. The reason is that I read this weekend of the passing of one of my clients at 90, namely Ena Baxter of the eponymous Baxters of Speyside. With her husband Gordon, who died aged 95 in 2013, they ran one of the most successful family businesses in the kingdom. As Martin Vander Weyer wrote in the current Spectator: "Gordon was an irascible chap- 'independent as hell' as he said- who ran the business founded by his grocer grandfather in a frugal style, free of debt and scornful of modern management fripperies, that was very much the tradition of the region, shared by some of the great malt whisky distilleries and such homely enterprises as Walkers Shortbread and Aberlour'. (I also did a job for the latter's distillery. Which was fun.)
I met Gordon and Ena with my colleagues at the Baxter's Moray factory fastness in Fochabers, in order to present ideas for new chutney jars and labelling. My designs were stared at intently, and I received a very stern telling off from the indomitable Ena for daring to suggest a faux stone jar as one of the options. "You have to be able to see the product" she said, waving a metaphorical wooden spoon at me, probably the one she used to personally dip into vats. Ena was right, but the ones you see were adopted. They needed tweeking, so a couple of weeks later I found myself early in the morning in a private wood panelled room for breakfast in Brown's Hotel in Albemarle Street off Piccadilly. I think they were both in kilts, but that may be my fevered imaginings. I put the revised jars on the mantelpiece for them to view. They were both so welcoming and kind, and very positive about their new jars. It was one of the most pleasurable jobs I'd worked on; for the jars and labelling obviously, but also for that very rare thing. To be able to work directly with a pair of household names face-to-face, instead of staring at the fluorescent lights in a focus group meeting. I shall go and buy a tin of cock-a-leekie for my lunch.
Footnote: The illustrations of the fruit and veg were beautifully executed by Andrew Riley.
Something I've wanted to do for a while was to visit the Allen Jones retrospective at the Royal Academy. I've always loved the unashamed colourful eroticism of his work, particularly Table and other sensually posed mannequins. So after breakfast in The Wolseley (bacon sandwich on the back seat of a Hornet) we drifted slowly down Piccadilly in the bright morning light to the RA. One distinct advantage of getting up at five o'clock for this kind of visit to London is that you can drive down the motorway relatively unimpeded by traffic, drive through Regent's Park at dawn with giraffes and penguins waking up and then as it's Sunday park virtually where you like all day for nothing.
After I'd had inappropriate thoughts looking at the girl with the glass table on her back we wandered into the first of the main galleries to be confronted by the above. I'd never seen it before, and it knocked me sideways. This is Male Female Diptych, 1965, and I could've stared at its immense size for a long time. Until it occurred to me just how badly lit it was. As indeed, apart from a room filled with mannequins, was everythingelse. I understand that paintings should be kept out of sunlight, but surely galleries must have lighting rigs that fully illuminate pictures properly? I brought the subject up with what I supposed was an 'attendant' (when due to her immobility I'd first mistook her for an exhibit). She a) appeared to have no view whatever and b) also appeared not to understand anything I said. So I moved down a flight of stairs to another room where an older woman looked as though she was openly seething at having to circulate amongst so many fetishistic fantasies. Either that or she'd taken exception to my Routemaster bus seat patterned scarf. I said nothing. My third attempt was with a chap who said "This stuff really isn't my thing" and nodded us towards the exit. The girl in the mini shop was more forthcoming, but still couldn't help us. So we're still in the dark.
Far more welcoming was our pit stop in Limehouse. I hadn't been in The Grapes in Narrow Street for a long time, but thankfully so little has changed. The Thames at high tide (and low come to that) is right outside, there's the good natured hubbub of a Sunday lunchtime and the beer's good. It's part-owned by Sir Ian McKellen, who must surely find the wooden stairs to the upper floor a bit narrow for his wizard's hat.
I am a designer, writer and photographer who spends all his time looking at England, particularly buildings and the countryside. But I have a leaning towards the slightly odd and neglected, the unsung elements that make England such an interesting place to live in. I am the author and photographer of over 25 books, in particular Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2006), More from Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2007), Cross Country (Wiley 2011), The Cigarette Papers (Frances Lincoln 2012), Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012) and English Allsorts (Adelphi 2015)