It's no good me making apologies, but my computer is playing extraordinary tricks and is so slow that I can walk faster with my legs tied together. And this new Blogger thing doesn't help. It's taken since Monday, my birthday, to bring you this. So, we were all in the pub celebrating the fact that I'd completed yet another year, and in comes a very lovely lady bearing the above. A big cake just for me! How is it that people know what I like? I must have gone on about post boxes somewhere, because here was a very Special Delivery. My monogram on the door, a bag full of letters, and more cut-out icing letters saying 'Happy Birthday' scattered on the stone path. I just don't want to eat it. What should I do? Anyway, it managed to get back to Ashley Towers without ending up on the pub car park, where it is displayed along with other gifts that include a Selfridges No Noise Marmite jar. I'll start blogging it now and perhaps it will appear in a year's time.
A New Year, new departures. Once that dead zone between Christmas and the end of the month was safely and agreeably negotiated, the first UE outing of 2013 swung into action. I sat with a chum in a cafe in Stamford, and we both had the same idea simultaneously. Let's drive out onto the fens and find a really dodgy pub where we'll be made most unwelcome and have to leave. Turning off the A47 at Guyhirne we travelled north east from the bank of the tidal Nene and very soon found exactly what we were looking for. Excellently kept Elgood's Cambridge beer, a taciturn landlord and a pair of 1950's photographs on the wall that showed two aspects of another fenland pub with a burnt-out annex and a hump-backed Standard Vanguard parked up against it. We sank the Elgoods, nodded at each other and made our way into the back-end of Wisbech, and onto the North Brink (above). This must be the one of the finest runs of Georgian buildings in England, if you ignore that tall gabled gothic extrusion halfway down. At the west end is Elgood's Brewery, outside of which we stood in silent appreciation for a few minutes, and then a walk down past the perfect Peckover House where as a child I was taken out onto the roof and shown a stork's nest next to a chimney pot. A little further and the low winter sun highlighted the front room of the Hare & Hounds Hotel, wherein we found more Elgoods and beef stew with dumplings. And an obliging and pretty girl to serve us. Happy New Year from Unmitigated England!
We've talked a lot over the years of this blog about ordinary objects suddenly taking on human characteristics. You know the sort of thing: Adolf Hitler in your half eaten toast, Sarah Smart on the bloom of a peach, Andrew Mitchell out of a hastily discarded bicycle chain. Regular visitors to Unmitigated England will also recall that I can never remember the name for it. 'Para' something I think. Anyway, anyway (as Harry & Paul have it) I settled down to paint this year's Christmas Card, having not attempted one for six years or so. I carefully mixed my Designer's Gouache to a suitably custard-like consistency and applied my brush to the paper. All of a sudden my fingers twitched and this apparition appeared before me. Someone looking over my shoulder said "That's you that is". Merry Christmas Everybody!
PS If you want to see a Christmas pudding by a master, take a look at the 'currant' posting on James Russell's blog.
On Saturday evening My Neighbour Who Knows What I Like rang. "Get yourself down to Foxton Locks tomorrow. They've drained them and you can go down to the bottom". Youngest Boy and I didn't need any further encouragement, even though it was on our local news. So having breakfasted on smoked mackerels and espressos (well, I did) we set off into the bright cold morning. I'm so glad we made the effort. Superb presentation, the people of the Canal & River Trust, scaffolding and ladders, meant that we were able to stand where no members of the general public have ever stood before. These awe-inspiring brick chambers were constructed between 1810 and 1814, completing the famous staircase of locks at Foxton that lowered traffic down onto the Midland Plain and into the River Trent, or upwards and southwards to Watford. We leant against dripping walls, splashed on the orange brick floor and peered into a deep hole in the lock wall where the water would normally rush in to fill the chamber. I explained how it worked to YB, but I'm afraid the high point for him was discovering a drenched and long lost sock just visible in the gloom.
In many ways it was the high spot of the day. After all, it could only go down hill after this lot. We have this annual beano in London that actually takes place in everything but every year, and after being summarily ejected from the Walmer Castle in Ledbury Road because it didn't open until midday (well keep the door locked then) we ended up in Colville Mews at this museum. I'd seen it before, many years ago when it graced an old canal warehouse in Gloucester Docks, but was still totally unprepared for just how utterly brilliant it is. As the Daily Telegraph quite rightly said, this is 'a place of worship'. I had to be restrained from continually dropping to my knees in front of the most superb examples of commercial art to be seen anywhere. If you call yourself a graphic designer (or whatever) and haven't been in, or made a promise to visit the mews as soon as you can, I shall send the Violent Brothers round to your studios in their big black Maybach limo. If you're as old as I am, you may simply enjoy it just for the nostalgia kick, (my pal said he remembered standing on two Watney's Party Seven cans to watch a stripper in a pub), but if you care about the craft of illustration, hand drawn lettering and classic typography, come down here and see just how good it got. All credit to Robert Opie for starting it off with a Munchies wrapper, and credit to the Gold pub in Portobello Road for being there for us at 11.15 with a warm welcome and excellent pints of Harvey's Bitter.
A few weeks ago I promised I'd tell you when the signed and numbered special edition of Preposterous Erections was available. Well, an emptying stack of boxes now sits at the Goldmark Gallery, and you can order a copy here. Or better still ring the gallery on 01572 821424. I'm very pleased with the production of it, everything from the Horton Tower label placed in its recess on the front cover cloth to the contents of the red pocket at the back. This has a sheet of pretend stamps tucked in it showing nine of the towers (Royal Mail Stamps please take note) and a limited edition signed print of my cappriccio painting of seventeen of the towers. Enigmatically complete with a giraffe and an elephant. This particular edition is limited to only 100 copies, and is a non-preposterous £50.
I've been reading Ian Nairn's incomparable Nairn's London recently, and mused over his phrase, used a couple of times, of places being 'plugged into the big city'. Well yesterday I found the perfect example of what he meant. I was in conversation with the good folks at Daniel Lewis & Sons on Hackney Road. For 215 years they have supplied London with metals of all shapes and sizes, and much more besides. I was there discussing a pallet of thin aluminium sheets being printed on by the Goldmark Atelier for the inimitable Nelly Duff gallery, coincidentally just round the corner in another fascinating city enclave, Columbia Road. "They're doing what with them?" they said at Lewis's. "And who's the Goldmark 'otel anyway?". So it went on, until I noticed the afternoon sun highlighting this enormous wooden coat-of-arms on the wall. And then, as we ended up out on the pavement, I saw this beautifully lettered vitreous enamel sign, presumably denoting a previous encumbent. With that comma hinting at another sign now missing from the next bay down. And I just had this overwhelming feeling of London life going on for so long in this terrace of businesses, stretching back over the years. The shouts and arguments, the clanking of iron and steel and trains whistling and rumbling over the nearby railway bridge in and out of Cambridge Heath station. Somebody came in and asked for 24 big rubber wheeled castors- "With or without brakes?"- and a pretty girl poked her nose in through the door, thought about saying something and decided not to. All of us plugged into the big city.
I am a 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) and Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012)