Tuesday 15 December 2009

East Coast and Adnams

Suffolk is surely up there amongst my favourites of the English Counties. I've been living (on and off), and visiting there for the best part of thirty years and it still has the power to seduce. A recent weekend stay in Southwold had, on paper, nothing going for it all; almost continuous rain and the sort of hoorays in the pubs of the type who turn up the collars of their rugby shirts whilst guffawing over-noisily with their chums. And yet I can't dislike a place which still boasts proper greengrocers, butchers and great pubs riven through with a tangible atmosphere of 50's Britain. The WiFi in The Swan gives the game away but the Sailors' Reading Room maintains its inner calm as a sanctuary for the inquisitive visitor as well as being a reminder of the total commitment this town had to its maritime industry. Faded photographs of moustachioed cork-belted lifeboatmen modestly hint at the stories of immense bravery enacted in Sole Bay. Who couldn't fall for a town with a lighthouse at its centre? And the place is benignly overseen by that remarkable firm of brewers messrs. Adnams. A favourable sort of paternalism seems to run throughout the town, for the company owns much that is good and great about Southwold. I visited their small off-licence and was served by a charming local girl. On the following day I bought more goodies at their stunning new 'Cellar and Kitchen' store and was served by the same person. She seemed so happy in her work (as do most Adnams staff) that I was prompted to ask if this were true. She said that they were the most wonderful company to work for and that the chairman knew everyones name...indeed his office was always open if you wanted a chat. Now how many companies do you know that are run like that? Of course I may be wrong and it's all a front - but somehow I think not. They have a knack for doing things right; the pubs are well run and serve good beer and food, the new store has had immense thought put into its design utilising the most modern sustainable techniques in its construction, and the distribution centre just outside Southwold at Reydon is a triumph of modern architecture and practicality. Blimey! even the advertising is great, featuring as it does the inspired illustrations of the highly talented Chris Wormell which are so scrumptious they make you wish you were in Southwold on a permanent basis. What a talented young man he is...he's even produced out-of-register prints to be affixed to the Gents' lavatory doors to remind you of the dangers of over imbibing - sadly the only feature of an otherwise exemplary campaign that failed to work on me.

The pier too is worth a visit. Open every day apart from Christmas day it contains some beautifully comedic 'amusements' for the tripper to enjoy. Needless to say Punch and Judy too 'in season'. Incidentally the only pier to have been totally rebuilt in 21st century Britain.

Sorry about picture quality...operator error and near darkness.

Southwold, I can't wait to come back.

Monday 7 December 2009

I must go down to the sea again

A powerfully dramatic sea doing its best to broach the coastal defences. Nothing quite like a bracing walk along the prom on a gale-lashed sunday afternoon. There's an undercliff walk from Saltdean all the way to Brighton thanks to its remarkable accessibilty. The original 'Dover' road along the cliff tops has long since vanished and to prevent further encroachment during the recession-hit nineteen thirties Brighton Corporation embarked upon a programme of sea defences. Huge government grants provided work for ex miners and workers from some of the most distressed areas of Wales which is why there's still a preponderence of Evans' and Jones' in Brighton's eastern Kemptown area. My wife's father and grandfather as locals found employment there after a lifetime of farm work. The labour was hard and governed by the tides and with virtually no mechanical assistance, extremely dangerous. My father-in-law's job was initially as tea boy in charge of producing industrial quantities of the thirst quenching fluid, ready mixed with condensed milk and sugar, served up in scrubbed galvanised buckets. Later he progressed to being a labourer where the combination of freezing water and piece-work eventually drove him to sign up with the Lifeguards (military version) for an equally colourful and character-forming career. The undercliff work was completed and still stands today as testament to those hardy souls who built it.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Log cabin in the sky

Approximately this time last year we made one of our regular trips to the USA. Guided by good friends we visited hither and yon but were much taken with Beech Mountain North Carolina. This is as far from the America of the tourist books you can get. The cabin is home to some of the most hospitable folks you could wish to meet. No mains water or electricity - just a well and a 'sometime' generator and the glow of oil lamps. Theirs is a tough life of farming, factory work and making do in conditions most of us would find intolerable. We met the family around the kitchen table on a dark rainy day; the cabin was warm and we could have been back in the nineteenth century. The mother, a diminutive woman up in her eighties with sharp attractive features and her nephew in his fifties, skinny, tall and wearing dungarees. Our friend led the conversation around to the telling of stories, for we were with one of several families from whom his parents had collected traditional songs and tales throughout the 30s. 40s and 50s...amongst which was the song 'Tom Dooley' (Frank Proffitt) made world famous by The Kingston Trio. The conversation about kith and kin ranged back and forth when eventually the nephew asked if we'd like to hear one of his 'Jack Tales' - would we! He commenced the story in a most dignified manner with an accent that at times was almost impenetrable; the story is of 'Jack' of Jack and the Beanstalk fame and the different tales are of his many adventures. For a quarter of an our we were transfixed and transported back to a time when this sort of thing was the norm, where the only entertainment was that which you made yourself and the skill of the singer or storyteller was your only theatre. As the story progressed the teller became more and more animated, gesturing to better describe the antics of Jack and the talking animals and laughing at the jokes he had heard a thousand times before. We were helpless with the infectious laughter and felt at one with the tale, the teller and the homespun magic. It was as natural as could be. We had been given a short glimpse back into the time of our ancestors. Even the accent...it was familiar, it was a kind of East Anglian! overlaid with a mountain drawl and added 'thee's' and 'thou's' which were pure Elizabethan English, but it was unmistakable. After the tale was finished the teller was at pains to let us know that the stories "come from England you know, come over with our kin long times ago, even afore they settled on th' mountain". And all those Hicks' and Proffitts' and all, they have something really precious. Something we've lost in our relentless search for the new, the gaudy and the temporary. Something everlasting, an anchor in their own culture that still works just like it always did.

Friday 2 October 2009

All things must pass

My old Dad died last month. I wondered if I should even blog this and upon sober reflection decided that it wouldn't be a bad idea if only to record the passing of another from that wartime generation. So no mawkishness, just a brief remembrance. If there was such a thing as a 'good' war my old man had one. As an RAF aircraft mechanic his task was to follow the advancing forces through North Africa and Italy repairing, rebuilding or destroying (if necessary) any disabled aircraft that came his way. Whilst still in Egypt the combined forces thought it would be a jolly wheeze to let the chaps blow off a bit of steam by forming an inter-services speedway league. There was no shortage of workshops, mechanical skills and materials so to the likes of Dad who'd been a grass track racer before the war this was Nirvana. By the time they got to Brindisi things were properly organised with cinder tracks being laid down and specialist motorcycles in full production. Of course everything was make do and mend and engineering ingenuity knew no bounds...from robbing ex-Wermacht BMWs for their prized overhead valve top ends to stripping despatch riders' bikes to virtually nothing, the lads were away. Here's a picture of Dad on his particular mount which followed as closely as could be the design of pre-war speedway machines. Competition was fast and furious and it wasn't unknown to recruit professional riders like Split Waterman as 'ringers'.

Post-war came peacetime flying in Dakotas, Viking, York, Hermes, Britannia, VC10 and 707. The logbook is one of three which covered his career. Remarkable entries in the late 40s carry such matter-of-fact comments as 'coal into Templehof' (airport during The Berlin Airlift) or 'emergency landing, port engine failure' or 'return to Blackbushe twin engine failure'. But I know of dozens of other situations that he was expected to remedy as a flight engineer far from home - I mean even allowing for the fact that most passenger aircraft are now jets, can you imagine persuading the passengers to disembark and yank on a rope attached to a propellor in order to start the engines? He did...the fact that the passengers were all squaddies on a trooping flight home and were marshalled by a barking Sergeant Major doesn't lessen the achievement in my eyes.

A quiet accomplished man, he had more intuitive engineering talent in his little finger than I could ever hope for. Never boastful, always ready to disembowel and put right my mates cars and 'bikes, he was extraordinarily free with his time and knowledge. I appreciated him, I loved him...but did I really know him? I don't think I really did. Should I have made more effort? - you bet. Happy landings.

Monday 14 September 2009

Methanol and Magners

One event I look forward to each year is The Brighton Speed Trials. First run in 1903 this makes it one of the oldest motor 'sport' events in Britain. But it's the location that absolutely confirms it. Madeira Drive runs from Brighton's Palace Pier to Black Rock, parallel to the sea and is owned by Brighton Corporation - indeed it was originally surfaced specifically to allow straight line racing there. On this particular Saturday in September the road is closed from early morning until 6.00pm in the evening when it must, upon pain of mayoral discipline, be re-opened for normal traffic. By 8.00am people are already crowding the railings high above the track for a free days' spectating. It's not there you want to be though. Pay up and look big! a ticket will take you wherever you want to go within reason but it's the only way to really soak up the atmosphere. An unlikely assortment of vehicles attempt their fastest times over a standing start quarter mile - it used to be over a kilometre but that got too fast and what with its being an ordinary road, it's now 440 yards in old money. There are modern cars, racing cars, sports cars and vintage cars - then there are the motorcycles, both new and of great antiquity, which for my money provide the highpoint of the day with their ludicrously fast times, spectacular burnouts and gorgeous aroma of Castrol 'R' vegetable oil. Within the pit area vehicles are lined up either side of the road and the drivers and crews are as interesting and varied as the machinery. The immensely wealthy with their exotic cars chat easily with the craggy old rockers and their antedeluvian motorcycles. Indeed with the latter it is difficult to gauge the cross-over between man and machine...oil, petrol, grease, baggy old racing leathers and whispy grey hair combine to produce a kind of all-in-one effect of rider and 'bike. A push start from a smartly dressed young man produces a bark and calico-tearing noise from a 1930's Rudge whilst the elderly pilot acknowledges the assistance with a cheery wave. Meanwhile further up the paddock, retired art teacher, James Augustus Tiller (his parents named him for Augustus John) fires up his tatty orange 1950's Allard sports car - this one's different though and stuffed full of the finest American speed parts you can shake a spangled stick at - the earth shakes as the rev counter rises and falls to the rhythm of his right foot. Soon he'll be attacking the tarmac for his umpteenth Speed Trials and probably winning his class yet again. Rumour has it that the car is already willed to an animal charity to be sold after his death - who knows? the whole thing is an enigma. He's a charming man and willing to answer any questions the young petrol heads queue up to put to him. The white banner proclaiming Start line is stretched above Madeira Drive as I walk towards the 'launch site'. The cars are forming an orderly queue awaiting their 15 seconds or so of glory...as a competitor you'll be lucky to see much more than a total of one and a half minutes of track time throughout the long day! So why on earth is this event always over-subscribed? - quite simply, there's nothing else remotely like it; virtually nowhere else in England do they allow the once-common practice of closing the highway for such a race...that and its unique position. Raffish, naughty old Brighton, the tart with a heart, seems ideal. The smell of fish and chips and vinegar pervade the atmosphere vying for your olfactory attention with the smell of burning methanol and hot oil. Fairground music comes tumbling across the sea from the Palace Pier and a child loses his helium balloon whilst mother chomps into an unfeasibly large hot dog; and everywhere urgent scurrying, scratching of heads and barked knuckles whilst performing a hasty plug change, pouring of petrol, wiping of googles, bravado chat about past runs and every, every year I say the same thing - 'I must have a go before I die'. Of course I never do and probably never will, but as the Magners begins to take hold I see myself crouched over the tank of my motorcycle gunning the throttle, my eyes fixed steadily on Black Rock, I bring the engine to a crescendo, drop the clutch and I'm gone. Unlike TE Lawrence who also loved such things I will never write 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom'.

Monday 24 August 2009

Doorway conundrum

Here's an intriguing doorway. Can anyone tell me why it is this small and where it is located? We spent a pleasant couple of hours at the location in question where I indulged my rather chavvie (and new-found) taste for Magners and ice. Cider is what I started on and I suppose it's some sort of regression. Yes, yes, yes, I know it's not 'real' cider, but that Kingston Black my uncle introduced me to years ago was, and probably still is proper wheelbarrow mixture and not at all suitable for a lunchtime session.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Father of Chapel

Wandering around Lewes in the early evening I looked again at a building with which I was once very familiar. WE Baxter Ltd, printers and bookbinders, a company with its roots right back in the early nineteenth century. Its founder George Baxter was a pioneer in the craft of colour printing and the prints he made are now highly collectable. Utilising a laborious method of separate engravings for each oil-based hue, the image was built up with many layers of individual colours all needing to 'register' perfectly one upon the other. None of your 4 colour process or CMYK here, then. Enormous numbers of these prints were produced, some estimates exceeding 100,000 which is nothing short of remarkable when you consider the primitive hand production methods. I worked at Baxters back in the early nineteen seventies and even then it was a business somewhat lagging behind the times. Theirs was a letterpress shop rather than having adopted the soon-to-be-universal photo-lithography. A world of hot metal type individually cast at great speed by Monotype casting machines. There was the clatter of the compressed air keyboards with anything up to a dozen men tapping away on what looked like vast typewriters producing spools of perforated paper making up the coded copy which, when fed into the casting machines on the floor below told them which fonts, upper or lower case letters, punctuation marks and numerals to use. If the keyboard room was loud, then the casting room below was like Dantes Inferno - everyone who worked there was practically deaf and wore no ear protection. The stifling heat radiated by the individual cauldrons of molten type (hot) metal was almost unbearable. Great shiny ingots of lead alloy embossed with the name 'Fry' were automatically lowered into the melting pots to replenish the quantities required to make all the letters needed to set a book, or a magazine or any of the printed ephemera we produced. The caster operators selected the correct Monotype matrices for whichever font was specified and the machine cast the words letter by letter in a continuing stream of fresh, hot type. The trays of type would then be rushed to the composing room where the overseer would select which compositor would be suitable for a particular task. Everything now was made up into paragraphs, have illustrative blocks added and the whole locked up in a 'chase'. Laid on a proofing press, the virginity of the type was deflowered by the application of a roller full of black ink. The resulting 'pull' usually on newsprint was then looked at by the compositor who rectified any defective characters, rising spaces or obvious spelling errors before passing a fair copy to 'the readers'. If all else was racket and mayhem, then the proof readers room was perfect quietude. Here, ancient men sat in Dickensian splendour on high stools with writing slopes before them. It was their job to read and correct all copy set by the company. Referring to original manuscripts or text supplied by customers they were tasked with reading every word and numeral to check for spelling, punctuation, style and even sense. They used hard blue long-leaded pencils to make their marks and when their work was complete, the copy was returned to the 'comp room' for correction. Then the whole process was gone through again. Finally, passed for press, the chase with its locked up type went into the machine room and was delivered to a machine minder whose task it was to print the job. As I sit at my Mac, the whole damned thing seems unbelievable now.

Of course the printing works has long since gone becoming a development of bijou residences called, unremarkably, the Printworks. The facade you see here is of the only remaining part of the original building and fronts onto School Hill. Thankfully it was a requirement that the gilded lettering and signwriting be restored and it is well maintained. I spent five happy years at Baxters with a workforce mainly of 'Rooks' (Lewes born residents). I like to think that the ghosts of printers and compositors stalk the trendy Ikea-bedecked rooms of the new flats and tut-tut at the slipshod grammar and typos (just like mine) in virtually every publication they might pick up. No 'spill-chok' for them, just ghostly blue pencilled proof readers marks in the margin of Wallpaper magazine.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Misspent youth

One of my earliest memories is of being taken into a pub. A country pub, where such niceties as 'no children admitted' were sensibly ignored. Of course, as well as expanding my horizons it instilled in me a lifelong fascination with the places and a taste for alcoholic refreshment in its manifold forms. Pubs were wonderful back then. Well, not all of them, some were real dumps and had reputations for being the sort of places you could go for a good fight or to find female (or male) company of the kind which necessitated money changing hands. I suppose those places still exist but they are no longer thick with the fug of cigarettes and pipes, the lamps no longer glow hazily and the back of bar displays no longer hold packets of the numerous brands of cigarettes and tobacco. Neither do they dispense Mars Bars, Biscuits or Smiths potato crisps...all of which, apart from the nicotine-based items seemed to be purchased as placatory take-home items in a vain attempt to restore domestic bliss after an evening's indulgence. Quite how that worked when wives were being presented with a pickled egg wrapped in greaseproof paper, and the old man whispering booze-fumed entreaties I'm not sure - the promise of cupid's intentions was rarely matched by any sort of action. But back to pubs. My favourite aunt was involved for many years with a gentleman whose business was photography and his main client was Watney's brewery, both pre and post Red Barrel. Consequently I was the grateful recipient of numerous Watneys trinkets which had been left over from photo shoots - those little red barrels which seemed to adorn every keyring of the string-backed motoring glove class, and the collar of every dog of breeding. My bedroom was corrupt with virgin beer bottle labels, uncut and fresh from the press - Watney's Pale, Watney's Brown, Cream Label Stout - all highly collectable today, but mere trivia to me then. My night time reading was illuminated by a Watney's beer barrel shaped lamp and suruptitious Players cigarettes were extinguished in a Watney's barrel shaped ashtray, I'm surprised that they didn't produce a branded potty for the loose bladdered drinker. Needless to say all this breweriana has vanished and I don't even have a red barrel for my keyring...today I suppose it would be a symbol of what havoc the great brewing giants wrought on the small regional brewers.

The country pubs I knew were a very different pint of mild. From the unbelievably rustic and sparse to the 'Your hosts Den and Gwen welcome you' variety boasting extreme middle class comforts in the form of electric log fires and all the above breweriana strewn around the place for want of any other decoration. But they were cosy - a warm glow exuded from the moustachioed landlord as he dispensed the beer to the merry accompaniment of a saucy jest with a "don't mind if I do squire - just a shilling's worth" as the whisky tumbler was aimed precisely at the optic of the White Horse brand. Saloon and Public...everyone knew their place. My aunt aspired to the saloon bar class although she spent most of her time working with cowmen and farm labourers...that's what the Land Army does for you. My rose tinted spectacles take me back to The Greyhound in Hever, Kent where, courtesy of the sainted aunt who'd leave a few quid behind the bar, my cousin and I learned the delicate art of getting intoxicated whilst being of little trouble - behaviour which has stood me in good stead ever since.

The technically appalling shot is of a bar tray promoting soft drinks and mixers by Messrs. Hooper Struve and which neatly sums up the late 50s pubby atmosphere as the retailers would have had it. No leggy lovelies like her in The Greyhound alas. But maybe in the Coach and Horses, Danehill, where the tray is in the back bar.

Thursday 25 June 2009

It's a Nash, Frazer

The pensive looking chap looking into the engine compartment is my 'beau frere'. He has just acquired this extremely purposeful 1929 Frazer Nash Super Sports. To be honest it rather suits his devil-may-care attitude and he will soon be terrorising the roads of East Sussex with it. For those of you who are interested in such matters, despite the car's relatively late date, it is driven by chains - several of them, in what is a theoretically highly efficient method of transmission. However, these chains break every so often necessitating much struggling at the roadside with the oily objects, re-connecting them, shortening them or throwing the worn out ones over the nearest hedge. The Frazer Nash has a marque following with an entusiasm bordering on the clinically insane. Huge journeys are undertaken in them, and due to their favourable power to weight ratio and fast acting transmissions they often win vintage races against much more esoteric machinery. Personally I like the unpolished Brillo-padded aluminium finish and the general touch of the smithy that characterises many of its fittings. As you can see it won't be long before it requires new tyres which, driven in the manner intended have a half-life of about 25 miles. Behind the wheel there are several items to amuse the conductor such as an object which looks like the handle from a garden syringe - this you pump furiously in order to build up enough pressure in the fuel tank to propel the motor spirit from tank to engine. The dinner plate size revolution counter would look more at home in the treadmill room of a Victorian house of correction and the other gauges, such as they are, have an air of The Great western Railway about them. All in all this is my type of car. Quite fast enough to frighten yourself, yet not so hot rod that it doesn't draw admiring looks from tweed-capped old gentlemen who nod sagely and talk animatedly of the late 1930's and tales of how you 'could buy a good one for fifteen quid in those days', etc., etc. It's nice to see this old iron being used for as long as possible before the powers that be declare how dangerous and antisocial it all is and that we should jack them all in for 2000 quid each and buy electric cars instead.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Still earning its keep.

Here's a recent glimpse into a French shed. A wobbly and out of focus shot due to a half-starved Alsatian straining at its chain intent on grabbing what little virility I have left, I'm relying on more knowledgeable blogistas to identify the vehicle therein. From the little to be seen, it is utilised on a very occasional basis to gather the winter log supplies and has sacks thrown over it after its spells of duty. The registration number '89' gives its location as The Yonne and this is The Puisaye area. It looks to be American and I suppose was either abandoned there after the War or became one of the many French governmental vehicles which were drafted into the likes of Les Pompiers. This one's still in Olive Drab so maybe it was 'liberated' after all? The region of The Puisaye, whilst only about an hour and three quarters from Paris remains largely 'undiscovered', particularly by Brits although the Dutch have caught on in a bigger way. It is an area of blissfully beautiful countryside peppered with quiet villages and hamlets. If you are a night owl - forget it - everything closes down at around 7.00pm. On the bright side you can get a nice drop of Pastis 51 at 6.30am! Should the mood take you, they do a fine line in scythes and effective hand tools at the local agricultural merchant, all designed to help you tackle the wilderness you'll have to cut through to gain access to the 85,000 euro farmhouse, barn, seven hectares of woodland and a sizeable lake you've just purchased (having spent an expensive morning in the bar with the friendly local estate agent - see earlier reference to Pastis)

Friday 5 June 2009

Ploughs and pasties

St Winnow, Cornwall near Fowey. Where else, at the end of a gorgeously remote lane would you find a roadside caravan dispensing exquisite food and providing a diversion in the form of a farming bygones and miscellany museum? The weather was kind as we sat and munched our way through homemade pasties, farm-reared pork and South Devon beef rolls of such ample proportions that we were fair tuckered by the end. The museum (or large shed as it should better be described) is educational in its diversity, covering such miscellany as wheelwrights tools, primus stoves, gas masks and what can only be described as a devotional to David Brown tractors. These red prime-movers are scattered throughout the place, poking out from under sacks, standing in dusty formation and in one unlikely pairing, hitched to an old fashioned threshing drum. I say 'unlikely' for the tractor concerned is one of those airfield jobs which used to tow bombs and aircraft around the bases of Britain - all nicely faired-in and streamlined,surely only to satisfy the designers eye, as no possible aero-dynamic advantage could be gained. The building in which this lot is housed has a familiar construct about it; telegraph poles with their id. numbers still attached and clad in that perennial favourite, corrugated iron. The smell is delicious and well known to those of us who enjoy visiting such places...oil, grease, paraffin, diesel fuel and grain, with a mixture of old sacking and hay. A short walk down to the river brings you to St Winnow Church where episodes of Poldark were filmed...which applies to most of Cornwall...but it is a fabulous building with a barrel vaulted roof and wonderful carved pew ends. The day for us was rounded off nicely with a few pints at the admirable New Inn at Tywardreath - no food, just 'salt and vinegar' or 'plain' - and a great bunch of regulars.

Friday 15 May 2009

Thomas, titfers and tobacco

Lewes - although but a short distance from the questionable beauties of New Anzac is culturally, architecturally and socially on another planet. The beautiful county town of East Sussex has, since the founding of nearby Sussex University, become home to a sort of intellectual upper middle class. Despite this it has an underpinning of anarchy in the form of the famous bonfire celebrations and their associated societies and also a deep-rooted radicalism. Arguably Britain's greatest radical, Tom Paine was an exciseman here and debated his influential politics in the historic White Hart Inn - a plaque outside commemorates his influence and records the part he played in the establishment of American independence. 

Lewes abounds with pubs, the best of which are fed by the town's brewery and lynchpin, Harveys. It also has some interesting shops...avoid the usual 'one candle and a bolt of bleached linen' designer-homes variety of which the town has its share and instead head for Messrs Hugh Rae, Gentlemens Outfitters where you may purchase regimental or squadron blazer buttons to complete the caddish look. Why not buy a cravat? there's a range of paisley and military designs from which to choose. Or a very nice line in Tattersall check shirts. Trilby hats, Panamas, and Deer Stalkers are the favourites here along with those camel coats with velvet collars so beloved of the racing fraternity. Should clothing not be on your agenda, there's Catlin's just along the road  - a proper tobacconist selling the substance in all its infinite variety from cigars, to cigarettes, to loose pipe tobacco to snuff.  For all I know 'RedMan' chewing tobacco may be offered illicitly but I doubt it, the pavements give no evidence. Choose a pipe, or a cigarette holder, a tobacco pouch or a cigar cutter, indeed all the impedimenta of smoking, all the stuff that makes it so satisfying, and it's there just for you. However, if like me you are a lapsed smoker you cannot help but be seduced by the smells and packaging and remember the days. I no longer smoke but I still find the scent from a freshly opened jar of pipe tobacco absolutely heavenly. One glimpse of an old packet of 'Paffing Cloud', 'Gold Flake' (my favourite) or even 'Nelson' gets me coughing with excitement. She's a cruel mistress, tobacco, but to assuage your guilt you could pretend you were nipping into Catlin's for a bar of chocolate...

Thursday 30 April 2009

On yer bike

They don't produce catalogues like this any more. A seductive drawing by Sydney R.Jones sets the scene for life in BSA land. No rain here, just a blustery day, and the countryside of England and Arthur Rackham woods within easy reach. The 1920's when a working man could buy (on easy terms) a motorcycle to liberate him and his family - should he attach a sidecar - to explore the open road. Cap reversed, a pair of Gamages shatterproof goggles a pair of stout boots and waders, and father was ready for whatever the elements could throw at him. A seaside trip to Dungeness or Camber Sands maybe, or a run over to Ashdown Forest for a picnic, the missus on the pillion (or 'tart tray' as it was unkindly known), accompanied by a couple of kids safely swathed in tartan rugs in 'the chair' - what fun! what an adventure! A stop for petroleum at the wayside garage where the kindly attendant, quite often a superannuated blacksmith, would hand crank the pump up and down its ratchet, delivering half a gallon a time of R.O.P. or 'the cheapest'. Top up with Castrol served in a thick glass bottle, maybe buy half an ounce of St.Julien and a packet of green papers and we're off again. The trusty BSA thumping away until the destination is finally reached. Buckets and spades are distributed and the kids charge over the Camber sand whilst father pricks the jet of his brass Primus stove and sets the kettle to boil for the ritual mug of tea. Mother, her Marcel Wave seemingly set in stone elegantly stretches out her legs as she reclines on fathers mackintosh. By lunchtime the kids are starving and the Shipham's paste sandwiches are dispensed from their greaseproof paper wrapping washed down with Fryco lemonade, the meal concluding with a giant Arrowroot biscuit. A post prandial nap for mother and father and a contemplative cigarette heralds an all-too-soon departure. The nights are drawing in and they've stolen a beautiful Autumn day. It's only wise to prepare for the final few miles home in the dark so dad tops up the carbide container on the acetylene lighting generator. This time he's remembered to bring a bottle of water from home but many's the time, 'in extremis' he's had to use his own, and a pretty precarious and difficult operation it's been. All aboard!, and one long swinging kick brings the BSA back to life, settling down to a steady rhythmic beat, push the hand change gear lever through the gate to first and we're homeward bound. Just another great day in Beeza - land.

Friday 27 March 2009

Elephant Bug

The Bugatti family were certainly a talented bunch. Carlo, the patriach was a designer of extraordinary furniture and jewellery whilst sons Rembrandt and Ettore were sculptor and automobile designer/manufacturer respectively. The picture taken at the HQ of the Bugatti Trust at Prescott near Cheltenham shows the radiator of one of the world's largest and rarest cars, the Bugatti Royale. Truly a leviathan, the 12.7 litre cars of which only six were built were a bit of a white elephant for Bugatti and he found them difficult to sell, even to the super rich of the day. Powered by an exquisitely sculpted and engineered motor it had but three speeds in its rear-axle gearbox of which top was only really necessary. Despite the size it looks perfectly proportioned in the metal with wonderful detail touches such as hand scraped finishes to the engine castings and sublime (and enormous) cast aluminium wheels. This example is now owned by the current Bugatti manufacturers, Volkswagen and is maintained by English specialists. The nice touch of using an elephant as a radiator mascot was, I like to think a touching memorial to Ettore's brother Rembrandt whose work it is - poor Rembrandt took his own life in 1916 at the age of 31. Ettore Bugatti was quite an extraordinary man and ran his factory from a chateau at Molsheim where he could also indulge his love of fine horses and carriage driving. His automobiles, among them the beautiful Type35 racing car were known as 'Pur Sang' or 'pure blood' just like his nags. The adoption of the eliptical logo with a capital 'E' reversed and conjoined with a 'B' over the name Bugatti on a red ground is iconic, and to carry the equine theme through, most Bugatti radiators were horseshoe-shaped; simple, distinctive and beautifully made of German silver. If ever an automobile designer got it right, it was Bugatti. The smallest details like bolts manufactured with their own distinctive built-in washers, were his trademark. Ever resourceful and pragmatic, the manufacturing capability was there for The Royale, so he built more engines and created innovative railcars for the French government. These were in use up until the war setting speed records along the way and utilised four of the mighty Royale engines...what I would have given to have stood next to a fast stretch of line to hear one go by on its open exhausts. After the death of his beloved son Jean, Bugatti carried on with many projects, working on new designs throughout the second world war and indeed created the exact opposite of the Royale in the Type 72, a 12.6cc supercharged cyclemotor designed for use in post-war austerity France...like it's big brother it never caught on. No detail was too small to escape 'Le Patron's' eye from the hinges on the doors at Molsheim to the design of carriage harness, to his clothes. I give you Ettore Bugatti - a jolly clever man.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Lido Land

This gem of a lido lies adjacent to the busy A259 South Coast Road at Saltdean near Brighton. Built in either 1935, '37 or '38, depending upon who you believe, it was designed by RWH Jones and owes a little to the De La Warre Pavilion some miles East. It's now designated a grade 2 listed building which unfortunately doesn't guarantee its future (but helps) and seems to fall in and out of favour with the local authorities. It was grandly overhauled in the '90s but is beginning to look a little neglected again and could do with a lick of paint. Jones also designed the Ocean Hotel further up the hill which must have seemed opulent indeed back in the '30s...it became Butlins Ocean Hotel in 1952 having served its country throughout the war as The Auxiliary Fire Service College. Billy Butlin paid a quarter of a million for its 350 rooms and it remained a hotel until 2005...it's now a halting development project. Back to the Lido - it's a confection of concrete, crittalls, curves and ship-like structures with a terrace and sun deck. It has a proper childrens pool next to the adults one and now sports a sort of sail that is unfurled in the unlikely event of anyone being in danger of burning by the sun - a bit like they used to do in ancient Rome at The Colloseum, except in Saltdean they don't need half the sailors in the Roman Navy to unfurl it. It's not such a leap of imagination to visualise lying out on the grass in woolen bathing trunks, with a plate of dressed crab and a Thermos of tea, News Chronicle at the ready to swat the flies, whilst watching the gay young things in their bathing caps disporting themselves in the icy waters. On fine summer days the place is as popular as ever and the ghosts vanish. Why, isn't that Henry Hall I can hear wafting out of the Tannoy speakers?

Monday 16 February 2009

The human G-nome project

English front gardens 'peopled' with gnomes and ornaments are getting more scarce as gardens become parking places. Here's a choice example from our Cornish trip, which county incidentally, seems to sport some real exotica. This was in an urban location not far from the excellent art gallery and museum in Penlee House, Penzance. What a cornucopia of plaster people, animals and plaques, upon which are writ sincere thoughts of the 'arrive a stranger, leave a friend' variety. There's something about this wish to 'improve' upon nature that I find rather charming in a perverse sort of way. Are garden gnomes merely the natural external extension of plaster flying ducks across the sitting room wall or have they a more subtle meaning? That's the burning question of the day.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Toys were us

Having re-met a friend with whom I was at primary school more than fifty years ago, it was remarkable how much we still had in common and how little in so many ways he had changed. I suppose neither of has grown up if the truth be known. On a recent visit to his home the conversation (rather naturally for boys of a certain age) turned to Dinky Toys, and without ado he rushed upstairs returning with a small pile of yellow, and blue and white striped cardboard boxes. At this point I realised that I had disremembered his penchant for tidiness, keeping symetry in all things...even his fighting in the playground would be addressed with an almost Victorian pugilistic stance. I then realised that 50s boys were divided into two camps...those who returned their Dinky Toys to their boxes after play and those who merely chucked them in a box. I fell into the latter category, which also meant that mine were played with al fresco. An orange Field Marshall tractor pulled its blue plough through soft sand and made very passable furrows. A Leyland Octopus pulled its mighty load of pebbles up impossible inclines whilst the Capstan Full Strength badged J-type Morris van delivered soil to the building site. Quite what the Centurion Tank and Mighty Antar Transporter were doing there is a bit of a mystery but was perfectly logical back then - who wouldn't want a tracked vehicle leaving its imprint all over wet cement outside our Prefab's front door? The cheeky Commer drop-sided wagon hove into sight with another load of soil to be dumped ready for Green Field Marshall number two to harrow satisfactorily into the surrounding field. All this was accompanied by much raspberrying and gutteral roaring as we emulated these leviathans climbing a nearby stretch of the A11. Thus passed just one pleasant morning of our 1950's childhood idyll. An apple pie cooled on the window sill and the unmistakable aroma of seived tomatoes on toast wafted out into the garden when the sound of Dad's pre-war Light Fifteen Citroen approaching alerted us to 'dinner', which was years before lunchtime had been invented. My friends all disappeared back to their prefabs for their 'dinner' only to return in the afternoon and commence play from where we had stopped...with MY batterend, scratched but much-loved Dinky Toys, obviously. Theirs were safely stowed away to be produced years later with barely a mark of use upon them. I wish I'd had just a tiny part of that self control, because I love, absolutely love, the fragile evocative well designed packaging. Sadly the photograph is of the mobile phone variety which I handle badly, but you get the idea.

Friday 30 January 2009

Phoney Pharoah

Excuse the Private Eyeism. This building is perfectly real. Being ignorant of The Egyptian House's very existence, imagine the surprise when I stumbled across this masterpiece on a recent visit to Penzance. It is simply magnificent and beautifully maintained by the look of it. Owned by The Landmark Trust, it's a mixture of shops and rentable appartments - what a fabulous place to stay! Designed by John Foulton of Plymouth, it was built around 1830 in the fashionable Egyptian style, originally serving a similar function to the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly which exhibited curiosities from all over the world. From memory I believe Gideon Mantell, the famous geologist and paleontologist (of Lewes) records visiting the London building and being much impressed. Having read some erudite architectural deconstructions of Penzance's pride and joy I find myself even more surprised that not only is it where it is but the fact that it got built there in the first place. The answer is of course that where there is money, just occasionally and deliciously, philanthropy sometimes follows. This is the product of a mind that clearly wished to create something absolutely unforgettable amongst the sturdy granite and brick fishing buildings of this West Country outpost...maybe something he'd seen on a rare trip to 'that London'. The Egyptian architectural and symbolic references apparently stand little scholarly scrutiny, but what do I know, its bloomin' marvellous and a real breath of (albeit 170 years old) fresh air

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Window shopping

When is a shop not a shop? Answer, when it's a cabinet of curiosities. This weird and wonderful collection of ephemera is subtly altered around (balloons are deflated sometimes) and objects changed/substituted on a random basis. You can't see the tinplate flying boat unfortunately but the sheet music to 'The Teddy Bears Picnic ' is clearly visible. Behind this old shop window lays a dwelling and a recording studio. It's owned by Patrick Berge(i)n the actor famous for playing Robin Hood and Julia Roberts' husband in 'Sleeping with the Enemy' amongst others. I rather like the surreal nature of a shop that sells nothing and displays all the goods it doesn't have for sale in the window which isn't a shop window anyway...if you see what I mean. Anyway it's in the village of Rottingdean, East Sussex and lies to the South of the Coast Road next door to possibly the finest Thai restaurant in the greater Brighton area, the 'Ros Thai' run by the unlikely sounding Gus himself a son of Siam. Not far away used to be the landing stage of the wonderful but ill-fated 'Daddy Longlegs' electric railway which once ran all the way to Black Rock, Brighton. Designed by Magnus Volk it was a crazy Victorian contrivance that actually worked but not well enough against prevailing South Westerly winds and died the night the old Chain Pier (see painting by JMWTurner et al) was destroyed. More of that another time when I can get a shot of the giant concrete sleepers which are still evident at low tide.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

In Kent he made his Marc

A winter jaunt took us along the coast eastward from New Anzac and beyond Hastings and its tarred netsheds, whence we struck up inland gradually moving towards western Kent. Our goal, under a grey sky was to seek illumination through the work of Marc Chagall. Not the most obvious place to look, yet in a small village near Tonbridge, the church at Tudely has a complete set of Chagall stained glass windows. Made in memory of Sarah d'Avigdor-Goldsmid they are a remarkable sight and somehow flood the church with a brightness not always associated with that medium. Chagall, often cited as the most important Jewish artist of the twentieth century seemed to struggle with his faith and sought ways of reconciling Judaism and Christianity - hence these and other pieces. He was a thorough Modernist and a contemporary of Miro, Picasso and Modigliani. Throughout his long life he worked in most mediums producing pieces for august bodies like the U.N. It is therefore a real surprise to find these windows in such an out-of-the-way place - although Tudely appears to be in the middle of nowhere it is cheek by jowel with busy Tonbridge and readily accessible. We were led to this place by a friend, herself a stained glass artist and it's fair to say we were all moved at such work being so natural and approachable. Funny stuff, stained glass, and very difficult to 'get right' if you know what I mean. From a stylised sailing boat against a setting sun in the fanlight of a 'twenties' front door to work like this, stained glass moves in mysterious ways its responses to elicit.