Saturday, May 24, 2008

Still Frying Tonight

I found myself in Bethnal Green a couple of days ago. We lived there for many years, and I've still got a real fondness for the place. Lots of independent shops, a good street market and tatty pubs full of old men with bent noses. I was delighted to find that the Victoria Fish Bar is still there, unchanged except for the addition of an ugly roller shutter. The folk who ran it were ancient back in 1994, and I was amazed to see the owner tapping angrily on the glass door as I snapped away at his lovely, hand-written menu. He must be 150 years old. I went over and he opened it up a crack, giving a tantalising glimpse of the vinyl and formica landscape inside. Once I'd told him "what the bladdy 'ell I thought I was bladdy doing" he relaxed a bit and said in Anglo-Italian "Ah yes, we're of the old style here". I must go back when they're open.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ode To Joy

It's the Eurovision Song Contest this weekend. We've got boring coverversion-droid Andy Abraham flying our flag. Not that the country that produced The Smiths, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or even McFly have anything to prove.

The French, however, are fielding beardy hipster Sebastien Tellier. He made one of my favourite songs a couple of years back, this chunk of Gallic gorgeousness, La Ritournelle. Every time I hear it I want to buy a Eurostar ticket.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


So, it's Bella's turn for the MOT. Compared to "Dino", my adored 1973 Sprint feels tiny and even more agricultural. The P-range of Vespas, the so-called "New Line" are a distinctly different ride from their ancestors like Bella. Although hardly Goldwing-like, the P-range of Vespa are much more comfortable . Riding earlier models demands a bit more "investment" - every pothole needs to be avoided. No indicators, so hand signals need to be decisive and obvious. Acceleration from traffic lights is glacial, so it can be inadvisable to filter to the front of a queue of traffic. Bella is a Sprint Veloce - a sports model (!) - and to be fair, she can shift a bit even with a tub of lard like me in the cockpit.
You do need a bit of a run to get up to her maximum punt of 50-odd Mph, but once there she'll lope along all day. There are few things I like to do more than to ride this scooter, especially on a soft sunny morning, with Bella's motor burbling happily as we zip over Tower Bridge.

Bella passed the MOT, but with an advisory note. This told me that there was some "play" at the front hub that needs attention as soon as I can organise it. Annoying but understandable. It's a 50 quid job, but it'll have to wait a fortnight or so. In the meantime I can't ride Bella, though I could ride her home.

"The wheel won't fall off or anything", said Craig, reassuringly.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Shock 'n' Roll

When you ride an older vehicle, it pays to have a decent relationship with the folks that fix 'em. In London we're lucky that there are five or six places that you can get a classic scoot fettled. One of these is Scooterworks, run by a laid-back Kiwi called Craig. Nowadays, Scooterworks is a hip cafe on Lower Marsh behind Waterloo station and a workshop in Bermondsey. When I first encountered him, Craig was trading from a (let's be honest) filthy lean-to under the railway at Crucifix Lane near Tower Bridge. Back then, getting anything done was a bit of a game of chance - you knew he'd do it, but not exactly when. The blind bend the shop was on made leaving it a bit hair-raising, too. He's much more organised these days - got a website and everything. There's always a couple of dozen scoots outside Scooterworks, from increasingly rare barn finds that Craig's brought back from Italy, to pristine restorations and all examples in between. They even do MOTs - something of a rarity for two wheelers, and a good thing for the classic scooterists. You need an examiner to know that the reason the throttle doesn't snap back on a pre-indicator model Vespa isn't because "It's Knackered" (as one bike shop told me). It's because that when you give a hand signal for a right-hander, you want to keep moving.

I took in 'Dino' - the PX - for an MOT today. It failed, needing a new front shock. To replace It, I thought I might as well get a posh gas-loaded shock. However, Scooterworks is the sort of place where they'll talk you out of something they know you don't need - even if they miss out on some extra cash.

"They look good, but the speed bumps knacker 'em within six months"

So, bog standard it is then. Eighty quid all in, including MOT. Sorted. It's the Sprint Veloce's turn tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Singer Not The Song

More from Nouvelle Vague - this time a cover of the Specials' Friday Night And Saturday Morning. The song's protagonist talks of being 'Out with mates and dates and friends', although you get the impression that he's lonely, wishing that he had lipstick stains on his shirt when waiting in the taxi queue at the end of the night. That loneliness is reinforced by the haunting, super-8 style vid. I loved the original, which is a bit of an overlooked classic - but I must admit I prefer this version.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tea And Sympathy

A few years ago I walked from Settle to Clapham via Feizor, Austwick and Norber. That’s Clapham, Yorkshire – not the South London one where BBC governors live. It rained and rained and rained. By the time I got to Clapham, I looked like the runner-up in a bog snorkelling contest. Chilled to the bone, all I wanted was a cup of tea and a slice of cake. The pub was shut, and neither of the dainty little tearooms would let me in to drip on their parquet flooring and doilies. Narked, I decided to get the bus back to Settle. It was just then that I noticed Café Anne, with its chalk-written sign inviting muddy walkers in out of the rain, whether they wanted to eat or not. I didn’t need asking twice. Anne, barefoot and squinting through her mass of black bushy hair, emerged with plates piled with cakes and ill-matched mugs of scalding tea for me and a trio of posh lads from Giggleswick school. I sat there steaming for an hour in her whitewashed little caff listening to radio four and looking at the dozens of art postcards on the walls. We visited Clapham again last weekend and I was sad to find that although Café Anne was still there, it was closed. It seems Anne herself has retired through ill health, but she outlasted the cafés that wouldn’t serve me - they've changed to an outdoor shop and a craft centre.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Dean's Machines

Dean Smith and Grace, Keighley
Dean Smith and Grace, Keighley
Dean Smith and Grace, Keighley
Dean Smith and Grace, Keighley
These photographs were rescued from the archive of Dean, Smith And Grace of Keighley. "Deans" was founded in 1865 and made the "Rolls Royce Of Lathes" . My dad worked there as a patternmaker from 1964 until the company closed in 1992, and my brother served his engineering apprenticeship here in the late 80s. At one time, Dean's was such a large employer that Keighley's town holidays were based around those of the factory. The lathes were exported to all points of the world - there are factories in Adelaide and Marseille, workshops in Montevideo, Delhi, and Rabat, blokes in sheds in Kuala Lumpur and ships at sea all still using DSG machine tools. There are some in the bowels of HMS Belfast and at the National Railway Museum in York. Restored vintage examples are being polished by chaps with beards and oily fingernails at shows and steam fairs up and down the country. Best of all, the company's undergoing a revival. In 1992 a consortium bought the rights to refurbish and repair DSG lathes - and is now making new machines in a unit opposite the old Deans HQ, where a uniformed commissionaire once used to salute visitors.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Small World



Who doesn’t love a model village? Perfect miniature towns with no sink estate, no inconsiderate parking, a high street full of butchers, bakers and very probably candlestick makers. The Post Office hasn’t been closed to improve efficiency. The pub doesn’t do karaoke or Bacardi Breezers. It’s the place where we all want to live, except that the full size versions– the Ludlows and the Leyburns - are too expensive and choked with BMW X5s, loud men in red trousers and their alice banded wives.

This one is Bondville in Bridlington, a happy acre of billard-table lawns, bull-chased campers, slumbering cottages, bustling quaysides and parping brass bands. It’s just a couple of quid get in. You can wander around for an hour pointing and chuckling. And pretending to be a giant - or is that just me?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Story In Stone

Further along the B1252 at Sledmere is this memorial to the Wolds Waggoners Special Reserve. The Waggoners were the idea of Sir Mark Sykes (whose descendents still live nearby at the lovely Sledmere House) who as early as 1905 recognised that the local farm labourers skills with horse-drawn wagons could be useful in a war that he felt must be coming soon. The Waggoners – all volunteers – were drawn mainly from the farming communities of the immediate region, but some later members came from as far away as Norfolk. In a sort of latter-day feudalism they signed on for Sir Mark, accepted a bounty of a golden guinea and with that promised to go to war if needed. Of course, war did come – right in the middle of harvest time. The Waggoners left their fields and were among the first sent to the Western Front. Despite being support troops they were often in range of enemy guns and at least 35 of their total strength of 1200 were dead by 1918.

The memorial was designed by Mark Sykes himself, carved by one Carlo Magnoni and unveiled in 1920. It’s exceptionally moving. It reminds me of Trajan’s Column in Rome - reading almost like a comic book or a film director’s storyboard. Nikolaus Pevsner described it as ‘curiously homely’ and there is certainly a naïve quality to the carvings, perhaps deliberately. Another touching aspect is that the verses inscribed on the monument are written in the local Yorkshire dialect.

Good lads and game, our Riding's pride,
These steans are set by this roadside
This tale your children's bairns to tell
Of what ye did when war befell,
To help to save the world fra wrong,
To shield the weak and bind the strong

The highly detailed panels read in sequence, with the men working the land, signing on, training and going off to war. The ‘at war’ panels are chilling – some with pickelhaube-d Germans torching churches and dragging women along by their hair. By 1938 the German Ambassador was calling these particular panels “Wicked English Horror Propaganda” and called for them to be removed. In appeasement Britain there was a lot of official hand-wringing but in the end, they remained. A year or so later the lads of Sledmere and the Wolds would be off to war again.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Out Standing In Its Field

Driving from Bridlington along the gentle B1252, you’ll pass through the hamlet of Rudstone with its handsome Norman church, All Saints. But - hang on – what’s that in the churchyard?

“That” is Rudstone Monolith – reputedly the tallest standing stone in the British Isles. It really is massive. 26ft high, with another 20-odd feet of it buried in the ground. When it was the tallest object in the landscape and visible for miles, it would have been literally awesome.

The name of the village is a derivative of Roodstan – “rood” being the old English word for “cross” and “stan” meaning “stone”. It seems likely that the early Anglo-Saxon missionaries Christianised this already sacred object by fixing a cross head to it, perhaps as a temporary measure until they built their first wooden church.

One of the remarkable things about the stone is that it has survived more or less untouched. Those missionaries didn’t carve the stone into a cross, as happened elsewhere. Was it just too big, or was the monolith held in such affection locally that they didn’t dare? Later in its history, an All Saints incumbent didn’t feel the need destroy this blatantly un-Christian (and phallic) symbol right outside his front door. Is it luck or an ancestral duty that the locals never decided to smash it up to build a barn or repair a wall? For 2,000 years it seems the worst that’s happened to it was a lightning strike that removed 4 or so feet from the top, and some fellow carving his now weathered name at eye level.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

There Is Hope

Between unspoiled, much-loved gems like The Harp and the generic blandery of the likes of All Bar One lies that most endangered of species - the Old Man's Boozer. Nice to find a website in the mode of Classic Cafes that is celebrating them: Save The Boozer. (Link found on I Like)

I always thought I was more or less alone in loving the pubs where the carpet might be swirly and a bit sticky. The places where there's a 1980s portable showing the racing results on ceefax and the only food available is a pork scratching. WIth hairs on it. They're not my first choice of places to drink, but like your kidneys it's good to know they are there.

Blue Posts, Soho

The picture above was taken in Soho's Blue Posts. Not to be confused with the seemingly dozens of other Blue Posts nearby, this is the one on the corner of Berwick Street and Broadwick Street. Unchanged since the 60s (except for the odd bit of paint) It's run by a tie-wearing, elderly Irishman and a lady of a certain age who always mistakes me for somebody else. It's popular with both the local meeja types, lushes and old geezers from the market. It's about the last of it's type in Soho, if not the whole of central London. Get there before it becomes a Pizza Express.