Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Life Enhancing Things, Part 1



I'm a fervent believer that spending time in a good pub, drinking good beer makes you live longer. The top picture was taken in the Boltmaker's Arms, Keighley. I'm sat waiting for my uncle to get back from the bar and my dad to get back from the loo. It's a tiny, town centre pub that serves the best beer in the world. I'm not exaggerating. The last 30 or so years have been hard to Keighley economically. Most of the mills are now derelict, and many of the engineering firms are rusting away. But, halfway up the Worth Valley is something the town is justifiably proud - the Timothy Taylor brewery. Founded in 1858, it's still family owned and fiercely independent. Until the restrained modernisation of the last few years visitors to the brewery always described it as "Dickensian" - they famously didn't even have a fax machine until about 1990. Also pictured above is Taylor's most popular drink locally, Golden Best. It's a good choice if you want decent conversation to be possible after five or so pints. Another of their beers, Landlord, has won so many industry awards that it is rumoured to have a year off now and then to let another company win.

I've been coming to the Bolts since I was old enough to be served. Back then it was run by a chap named Eric and the interior was highly reminiscent of a village function room, circa 1952. Red vinyl benches, low formica tables, bakelite light switches. In fact, similar to the Lorelei. I suspect I was the only one who liked it that way - there wasn't a murmur from anyone else when Taylor's refit their pub estate about 15 years ago. However, the new interior has weathered nicely and feels as comfortable as my living room, as all good pubs do. Quiet conversation, a roaring fire and a guv'nor who's one of three generations of Keighley publicans. If you're buying, mine's a Landlord, and a packet of Seabrook's Canadian Ham while you're up there. Cheers.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Can The Can



Les Enfandines


These fish tins were part of a collection that I've just thrown away. I'd picked them up over the years from various European countries. They're all long past their use-by date and I was worried that if one should split, the resulting stink might render our house uninhabitable for days, possibly weeks. Idiosyncratic packaging and fish seem to go together. I'm especially fond of the Tenorio one - just have a look at those sideburns. Who this singer was, I've never been able to find out, but at some point in the distant past this Portuguese canning company sought to celebrate him like this. L'Espadon is just plain surreal, but gets to the point - it's all about fish and ships. I wonder why the artist who drew the kids on Les Enfandines chose to show them looking so alarmed? Then finally, we've got the three Rizzoli dwarves urging you to 'eat good' - I picked this up in Rome.

Actually - I like the Tenorio one so much, I think i'm going to retrieve it from the bin.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My Blanket Covers Me, Yes

While shopping today at John Lewis - the retail equivalent of visiting a much-loved auntie - I noticed that tucked away in a far corner of the bedding department was a whole area devoted to traditional, woollen, blankets. Expensive, heavy and difficult to wash, you might assume that everyone these days slept under a duvet. Well, almost everyone. My wife's parent's house is perched on an escarpment on the Devon coast. In any weather it's beautiful, but when a heavy storm blasts in from the Atlantic, I'm always glad of the 50 year old, heavy blankets on our beds. If the wind is blowing hard enough to make the floorboards vibrate sufficiently to move the dressing table into the centre of our room, a duvet just won't do.

One of the many likeable things about John Lewis is that they tell you where stuff is made. I grew up in the heavy woollen district of West Yorkshire and it always makes me happy to find a product made in one the the remaining local mills. The handsome label above is from Atkinson's Of Pudsey, near Leeds. They've been in business since 1828. I suspect this label was designed in-house, probably many years ago. It has a delightful economy to it - everything you need to know, and not much more. The coat of arms is a nice touch - for the Atkinson family that golden fleece would be a literal symbol of their success.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Twist and Go

How joyful is this advert from the early 60s? And wouldn't it have been great if Innocenti's Milan factory really was making Lambrettas like that? They might never have gone out of business.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sumer is Icumen In

North Weald

The DVLA have just sent my road tax reminder for Bella, my 1973 Vespa Sprint. This annual letter is my cue that summer really is on the way. Soon, I'll be removing Bella's two waterproof covers, washing off the protective film of WD40, pumping up the tyres and cleaning the carb. A few prods on the kickstart to get some petrol into her system and she will wake from hibernation in a cloud of white and then blue smoke. I'll let the little engine warm up for 10 or so minutes, then I'll be off round the block. I look forward all year to this ritual.

Bella is my pride and joy. She came to me via Scooter Emporium in Brick Lane, who in turn got her from Weston Scooter Parts in Somerset. Nothing is known about her previous Italian history, only what I've deduced. Her many scratches show that she was originally bottle green, and then repainted in her current beige. Given the patina, this colour must have been done when she was quite new. Maybe green wasn't a popular colour in 70s Italy? The toolbox sidepanel is 'crazed' leading me to believe that she was regularly parked with that side exposed to the sun. Across the legshield is the tell-tale scuff which shows that a windscreen with one of those peculiarly Italian 'skirts' was fitted for a long time. When I fitted a new seat I had to remove the rear wheel. In the cavity above it was an impacted mass of sandy soil and leaves. And that's it. All other recorded history starts with me in 2001. For some reason I get the impression that the previous custodian was an old chap who had her for a long time, possibly from new. He may have died or let the scooter go through ill health, any grandchildren being more interested in a twist-and-go 'ped than nonno's old shopping bike. I'll never know.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth


I snapped this telegram while on my visit to the RAF Museum in Hendon a couple of weeks back. Dated the sixth of january 1941, it's informing the parents of Amy Johnson that their daughter was missing, presumed killed. Amy was by then an international celebrity - in 1930 she had been the first woman to fly solo from the UK to Australia, in a single engine Gyspy Moth partly paid for by her dad. She set a solo record in 1932 for the London to Cape Town route, and in 1933 flew a De Havilland Dragon Rapide from Pendine Sands in Wales to the USA with her husband, Jim Mollison. This flight ended with the pair crash-landing in Connecticut. I've flown in a Dragon Rapide, on a short pleasure flight round Cambridgeshire. The way it creaked and groaned and shuddered on our circuit was faintly amusing in 2006. Over the middle of the Atlantic, with no weather radar, probably no radio and the entire history of powered aviation barely thirty years old, it was an exercise in bald courage and pure skill.

During the war Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary as a ferry pilot. On the 5th of January 1941, she was flying an Airspeed Oxford over the Thames Estuary, and was seen to bale out of the falling aircraft. Officially the 'plane had run out of fuel due to a navigation error caused by bad weather, although there has been speculation she was brought down by 'friendly fire'. She was not wearing a life vest, though air trapped in her parachute kept Amy afloat for a short time. Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher of HMS Haselmere died in the rescue attempt, having dived into the freezing waters to try and reach her. It is believed the aviatrix was in fact killed by the propeller of the rescue boat. Her body was never found, although some years later a man walking his dog reportedly found a human knee joint and part of a leg on a nearby shore. He reburied it, and didn't speak about it until quite recently.

At the height of her fame, Amy visited my home town of Keighley, Yorkshire, carving her name and a crude little aeroplane onto a flagstone off West Lane in Haworth. There it lay, unnoticed by the millions of feet that must have walked over it on the way to the tourist honeypot of the Bronte Parsonage. When I was about 18, I found the carving by accident and took a rubbing of it. I looked for it again last year - but it had gone. Original Yorkshire flagstones attract high prices in a nation obsessed with property development, an easy steal for a man with a wagon and a crowbar.

The telegram was delivered to the local police station and seems to have a charge of 10 shillings and 2 pence. I wonder who paid?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Continental Scooterists, Part 2


Delivery Vespa

There are loads of scooters in Paris, almost every one ridden by a Jean-Paul Belmondo or Audrey Tautou, swathed in an enormous scarf and with a Marlboro dangling from the corner of their mouths. Most these days are automatic maxi-scooters like the Piaggio X8, although you still see the odd (and odd-looking) Velosolex, and lots and lots of geared Vespas. The top one here is a restored GL (I think), the single saddles are typically French, and uncommon in the UK. In Paris you can park a scooter anywhere, seemingly. The pavements are full of them - as long as they don't obstruct pedestrians the traffic wardens don't seem to mind. What a luxury this would be in London, especially now that it's almost impossible to find a parking space on a workday. Below that is a slightly ratty PX model in use by a courier company. That enormous screen must give the rider a vastly increased sense of protection, because these delivery models are ridden at speeds that would make a police outrider wince. What a great job - getting paid to ride the streets of Paris, on a Piaggio Vespa PX125.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Life Is A Cabaret, Old Chum


On the last day of our trip to Paris - a city where the deceptive distances we walk always make our ankles feel like bloody stumps - we visited the Pompidou Centre. This fine gallery is home to one of my favourite paintings by my favourite artist, Otto Dix. Portrait Of The Journalist Sylvia Von Harden was painted in Berlin in 1926, and shows the racily-monocled Harden sat in a cafe, fag in hand. It's a grotesque caricature, her fingers are like a squid's tentacles and her face is the colour of a vest that's been boil-washed a hundred times. Look closely, and one of stockings is rolled down below the hem of her dress. You sort of get the impression that writing didn't pay well. The first time I saw this was at a retrospective of Dix's work at the Tate in 1992 - it's an image that stays with you, and even makes a vignette appearance in the film Cabaret. Dix himself had a tough life - wounded umpteen times in WW1, he suffered recurring nightmares for the rest of his life. He was considered a degenerate artist by the Nazis and had several of his paintings burnt, was implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler and drafted into the volkssturm. Some of his works have the same capacity to shock as the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan - Take a look at Mealtime in the Trenches and Flanders - the latter a landscape that looks like clothing on a rotting corpse. Some of his stuff is lighter, however - The Dancer Anita Berber is another unflattering portrait, but there's more than a whiff of a shared joke between sitter and painter. Nice to know even Otto Dix could find something to laugh about.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

My cup runneth over

On my way to the superb Ye Olde Mitre for an evening of Adnam's Broadside and pork pies, I passed this old drinking fountain at the corner of Holborn Viaduct and Giltspur Street. I've noticed it before, but never really looked. I was astounded to find that its original cups are still fastened to it by chains. Apparently it was put there in 1859 by Samuel Gurney MP, although it was originally built into the wall of St Sepulchre's church. Drinking water in London was appalling in the mid 1880s - there had been cholera epidemics in 1849 (that one killed nearly 15,000 Londoners) and 1854, when John Snow proved that Cholera was a water-borne disease. Clearly, a source of clean drinking water was needed. This fountain was the first of many installed by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, of which Gurney was a founder. These cups have fared better than the ones attched to the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain - better known as Eros - in Piccadilly Circus. When that opened in 1893, all eight cups fitted to it by hand-wrought chains were stolen within days, 6 of them going in the first night.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Famous Last Words


You can't ridea scooter in snow and sleet. I look forward to riding in when I do my sunday shifts, but today I was thwarted. For the first time ever the weather was just too bad for my eponymous wheels. When the alarm buzzed at 6.30, I got up and looked out of the window - I was hoping the forecast would be wrong, but I could barely see to the other side of the street for diagonally-falling snow. The streets were muffled silent as I walked to the tube, every car covered by a couple of inches. After work I stopped off at the John Lewis food hall and picked up a couple of bottles of Orval. Many Belgian beers claim to be brewed by Trappist monks - or look as if they are (yes, Leffe, I'm talking to you)) - but Orval is the real thing. I first came across it at the Bar Garré in Bruges, a serious contender fot the world's best pub. It's an easily missed little boozer down an alley off the main square. A waiter recommended this brew as his personal favourite. Can't say I can argue much. Mrs Teninchwheels bought me the special glass above, a beautiful thing that rings like a bell when empty. Orval just bursts with character, a fragrant sweet toffee flavour - a beer that makes even the bleakest day a lot more cheerful. Hard to believe Stella comes from the same continent, let alone the same country.

Friday, April 4, 2008

A good day to ride


Riding in the rain is grim. More grim is riding in the rain at night, And grimmest of all, is riding through Whitechapel and Mile End in the rain at night. Never pretty, this route is transformed into a series of deep black canyons. All you can see are lights in your mirrors and streaked red lights on your visor. The roads are often slippy with spilled diesel – often one continuous slick as if a lorry drove ahead of you with it pouring from a tap.

But today was definitely a spring day. Warm, soft pink light and sudden blossom on the tree outside our house. For the first time in months I had to ask myself whether to wear an open-face or a full-face helmet. I folded my lap cover against the legshields – the air on my legs felt strange. The traffic’s always lighter on a Friday, and today was even quieter. Best of all, it was green lights almost all the way and I covered the five or so miles in 20 minutes.

The best riding to work is on Sunday shifts when I set off around 7am. The roads are empty, and if the conditions are just right the sky can be spectacular. This image was taken last November. The picture’s not doctored. Who ever thought an East End sky could be that colour?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

This Is The Age OF The Train


Heathrow Terminal Five. It's an embarrassment isn't it? Opened to passengers since the 27th of March, and still chaos. An international joke. The world is looking, pointing and laughing. Why hasn't Gordon Brown hauled the chairmen of BA and BAA up to Number 10, and given them a verbal (or indeed physical) good hiding? They could get to Whitehall via the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow. When Mrs Teninchwheeler and I got back from a holiday in China a couple of years ago - after literally thousands of miles of flawless train travel - we were marooned at Heathrow because the tubes were out of action. It cost us seventy quid to get home in a cab. Welcome to Britain.

In contrast, have a look at St Pancras International. It's a triumph. OK, it wasn't built from scratch exactly, but it's been one of the largest civil engineering projects undertaken in the UK. Service was shifted from Waterloo overnight with no obvious hassle. Trains came and went from the day it opened in November last year exactly on schedule. No bags lost, no journeys cancelled. No sleeping on an icy floor with a coat as a pillow. I mean - take a look at the Barlow train shed - 698ft long, 240ft wide, 100 feet high at its apex. It used to be the largest enclosed space in the world, and it's still awesome. Look at the frontage - St Pancras Chambers, and the former Midland Grand - about as Victorian gothic as it gets. Wherever you look, things of beauty, elegance and optimisim (apart from the predictable shops).

So what were they thinking of when they chose this bit of sculpture? It's 'The Meeting Place' by Paul Day. It's horrible, like something Jack Vettriano knocked up in an afternoon. Kitsch. Twee. If they wanted a focal point, (what's wrong with the clock above it, by the way? The Waterloo equivalent has been a meeting point for generations) they could put the the statue of John Betjeman there. It's a good, witty representation of the great man that brings to mind Paddington Bear. Betjeman, after all, was one of the first champions of St Pancras. Would he like the new incarnation of one of the world's great termini? I suspect he would. But I bet he'd hate 'The Meeting Place'.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

You never grow out of the Red Arrows


Yesterday was the 90th birthday of the Royal Air Force. Part of the celebrations was a flypast by the Red Arrows in their Hawks and four spanky-new Typhoons (the RAF's name for the Eurofighter). I stood on London Bridge with dozens of others, squinting in the direction of Tower Bridge. At a shade before 1pm (so they'd pass parliament and the RAF memorial on the hour) they shot overhead, releasing their trademark red white and blue smoke directly over Tower Bridge. They were two thousand feet up and moved together as one.

Here's a  film captured from youtube - it's a rare recording of a Lancaster over Hamburg (maybe in 1943). The voice recordings are especially haunting. Happy Birthday, RAF.

Goodbye Piccadilly

New Piccadilly Cafe, Soho


For the first time since it shut in September last year, I took a walk down Denman Street to see what had happened to the New Piccadilly. I was a bit of a latecomer to this ‘cathedral amongst caffs’, only being a regular visitor for about 3 years. I had been in before that – when I first came to London I popped in for a snack, and found the food neither cheap nor particularly tasty. But the décor stayed with me and so did the smiling, uniformed waiters. Even back in 1992 the New Piccadilly was an outstanding example of the ‘formica’ type of 50s-style caff, but there were dozens of similar places all over. Suddenly they were almost all gone – victims to rent-hikes, retirement, redevelopment and refitting.

Really, a visit to the New Piccadilly wasn’t about the food (although it wasn’t that bad if you knew what to pick – keeping it simple was the key) it was the time-travel effect of walking through the glass door into 1951. The colours, the light fittings, the curious horse-shoe shaped menu, the fifties menu cards, the tables, the chairs, the stools, the uneven wooden floor, and the ice-cream pink coffee machine, all overseen by Lorenzo, the cravate-wearing guv’nor. It really couldn’t have been further from the bland wipe-clean world of Starbucks. When it closed, Lorenzo reportedly said that he’d put everything in a crusher. Looks like he kept his word.

Click here for more pictures