Thursday, May 14, 2015

Flatford to Clacton (or From Hay Wain to Hey Wayne)

Why is 'The Hay Wain' so popular in Britain? There are better and more interesting paintings, but, for some reason, Constable's famous scene used to be more common in suburban homes than dry rot.

I once went to a house that had two 'Hay Wains' - a large one in the living room and a smaller one in the hall (but not a single book, sadly).

They were owned by a plumber called Frank, who lived in a grim, terraced council house on one of England's roughest estates. Whether Frank particularly liked the scene or had simply bought a job lot, I don't know, but I suspect that many people responded to the depiction of a lost rural idyll.

Until today, I'd always assumed that the scene in 'The Hay Wain' was now consigned to oblivion, replaced by a housing estate or supermarket car park, but I was wrong. The lost rural idyll still exists in a place called Flatford.

This is the house that Constable painted, almost 200 years ago:

It's probably less idyllic in the height of the tourist season, when crowds of people in garish leisurewear amble round the grounds, but yesterday I barely saw a soul:

After taking a wrong turn, I went for an unintentionally long walk and found myself in a sort of paradise, with butterflies flittering in and out of the cow parsley and nettles.

Away from the sounds of traffic and other human activities, I became aware of just how loud nature is: 


It was particularly noisy, as I had inadvertently stumbled onto a private bird sanctuary and was probably ruining things for anyone who was sitting in the 'hide' that I could see, 100 yards away. I didn't want to be angrily pursued by someone called Colin, so I decided to make a break for it.

On the way back, I found something rather disturbing - the remains of a dead rabbit, hanging from the branch of a tree. Suddenly, I could almost hear the banjos.

By the time I returned to Flatford Mill, the coach parties were arriving. One man in his 60s was dressed like a Californian surfer, with a pyschedelic t-shirt that said Venice Beach. I thought he might a Hunter S Thompson figure, but then he opened his mouth and said "I'm just popping in the gift shop, Val, to see if they do that nice fudge."

I should have driven home, but, like a moth to the flame, I couldn't resist the temptation to make a diversion to Clacton-on-Sea - the only place in Britain to elect a UKIP member of Parliament (if you live in the USA, UKIP are similar to the 'Tea Party').

But first, I began with Jaywick which, in addition to sounding like an air freshener, is the poorest place in England:

With housing that is only marginally better than the favelas of Rio de Janiero, Jaywick feels as if it has been abandoned and disowned by the rest of the UK. It began promisingly enough in the 1930s as a holiday resort for working-class Londoners, with plots of reclaimed salt marshes being sold for as little as £25.

The cheap, jerry-built houses were never designed for year-round use, but a postwar housing shortage saw many people make Jaywick their permanent home, even though the developer had failed to put in some of the most basic infrastuctures. Today, you can buy a one-bedroom bungalow in Jaywick for £25,000.

On average, 15% of the UK population receive social benefits. According to the Guardian, the figure in Jaywick is 62%.

I certainly don't think I've been anywhere in England where the residents look so visibly poor or unwell - a tragic irony, given the original conception of Jaywick as a place where people could enjoy the healthy, outdoor life.

Apparently, the local council has tied to bulldoze the worst parts of Jaywick on more than one occasion, but the residents have always resisted. Beyond the poor housing and conspicuous poverty, there is a community spirit and fierce sense of independence. Jaywick will not be moved.

Unfortunately, in addition to being the poorest place in England, it is also one of the most flood-prone, so the North Sea will probably succeed where the authorities have failed.

Two miles along the coast, Clacton-on-Sea holds the accolade of being the second most deprived seaside resort in Britain, but compared to Jaywick it is the Côte d’Azur:

Like Margate, it was a popular resort for working-class Londoners. Today, you'll probably find more Cockneys living in Clacton than within the sound of Bow Bells and the souvenirs, like the rhyming-slang tea towel below, cater for a local clientele as much as the daytrippers:

My Cockney grandfather once worked as a labourer on the London Underground and, during a careless moment, fell onto a live rail and received serious burns. Paid sick leave wasn't an option in those days, so he decided to take his two weeks' annual leave and get treatment at Clacton-on-Sea, so that his wife and children could at least have a holiday.

It seems a poor way to treat a man who was gassed in the trenches.

The resort was packed in those days, as trainloads of people from London's East End filled the beaches:

Today, Clacton has been largely usurped by sunnier climes and the holidaymakers have been replaced by the retired and unemployed. The popularity of UKIP probably reflects the feelings of those who feel that they have been left behind.

On the pier, the funfair attractions were all mothballed and the only people I saw were a woman of 70, dolled-up like Olivia Newton John in Grease, with tight leather trousers and heavy make-up, clinging on to the arm of a man with faded tattoos.

I left the funfair behind and walked towards the end of the pier. Two very elderly women hobbled past me and I heard a brief snatch of their converstion:

"She said she was becomin' a lesbian, but now she's decided not to..."

Next to the pier, a small building offered 'Tattoo's', but there was also a glass booth that offered temporary ones. I was very tempted to play a joke on my wife by coming home with something inappropriate on my arm, like Justin Bieber. But I've read too many stories of tattoos going horribly wrong, so I decided to play safe.

For some odd reason, I had to buy my parking ticket in a bookshop and the moment I opened the door, I was transformed back to the 1970s. 

What is it about the small, old-fashioned independents that give them such a distinctive aroma of sweet decay? A lack of fresh air and a surfeit of old stock, perhaps, but the smell evoked happy memories of choosing the latest Enid Blyton.

A woman slowly wrote out a chitty for me. I wanted to tell her that I used to be a bookseller too.

For those who can survive for more than a day without a contemporary art gallery or artisan bakery, Clacton has its charms. The seafront is pleasant and there is a sandy, sheltered beach where small children can bathe safely with being dragged out to sea by any riptides. If you prefer shingle beaches and campervan-driving hipsters, then head north to Suffolk.

I'll be sticking with Clacton. If it's good enough for my grandfather, it's good enough for me.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Monday, March 30, 2015

Victorian Colour Illustrations

People appear to have stopped buying books for Lent, so instead of packing orders I've been busy scanning book illustrations and photographs.

Today's images come from an 1890s children's book by Dr Barnado. In an age in which few people travelled abroad and most book illustrations were black and white, these colour plates must have seemed extraordinary - a window on the world.

I shall refrain from the usual commentary, but have left the original captions. The pictures speak for themselves:

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spring in Oxford

Today I went to Oxford on a whim, hoping that the city of dreaming spires would inspire my son to work a little harder. Sadly, I didn't realise that when the Welcome to Oxford sign appeared, we would be confronted with several miles of ring roads, light industry and shoddy housing estates. Brideshead Revisted was never like this.

But enventually we reached the real city and it more than lived up to our expectations. We began in this Saxon church tower, built in 1040:

As we climbed the steps, we could hear the hungry cries of baby pigeons, accompanied by the sublime singing of a young male student. The tower was reassuringly solid, with walls that were three feet thick. When we reached the top, we had a good view of the city:

I used all my guile to get my son enthused about Oxford:

"This is where they filmed some of the Harry Potter films...Do you remember that episode of Doctor Who when the young Amy was in that museum?"

He nodded politely. Then I casually remarked that the windows looked into the student bedrooms and my son suddenly lit up:

"Really? Oh my! I'd like to go here. Do you have to be very rich?"

The conversation continued. "Dad, why didn't you go to university here?"

I opted for the simple answer, deciding to leave out the possibility that I might not have been clever enough:

"I didn't work hard enough and I didn't love the subjects I studied. I wanted to do music, but I'd started too late to catch up. Whatever you do, do something you love and then it won't feel like hard work."

"Which famous people have been to Oxford?"

There were so many, I didn't know where to start. For some reason, Kris Kristofferson sprang to mind - he went to Merton - but that name would mean nothing to my son.

I had to think of someone that children liked: "You know the man who plays Mr Bean..."

The trouble with places like Oxford is that they offer a sensory overload. You wander around like an idiot, gawping with wonder, taking photographs of interesting bricks. It's not the linear square mileage that's the problem, but the temporal area - 900 years of history, compressed into a relatively small space, like the material inside a black hole.

I haven't even got to grips with Lewes yet. How long would I have to live in Oxford before I began to vaguely make sense of it?

I looked at the students and envied them, but then remembered that a friend's daughter studied here a few years ago. Naturally bright, she had sailed through every exam at school, but met her match at Oxford. After years of achieving top grades with very little effort, the punishing schedule of essays and reading lists came as a shock. She graduated, but seemed scarred by the experince.

However, it must be a very grounding experience to be part of a tradition that is almost a thousand years old, literally following in the footsteps of figures like Dr Johnson, John Donne and Erasmus.

In the photo below, the white house once belonged to Edmund Halley, of comet fame. I saw someone go in the front door and felt a momentary pang of envy.

I took this photo through the railings of a fence. It's a secret garden: Et in arcadia ego, which is the title of the first chapter of Brideshead Revisited. It looks like the perfect place for a picnic involving plovers eggs and a reading of The Waste Land.

This is the dining hall of Trinity College. Just in front of the mantlepiece, there is a large tomato ketchup dispenser. The seats have seen better days.

I watched a group of students sitting on a lawn, having an animated conversation and wondered what my son made of it all.

I hadn't brought him here to instill a burning desire to become an Oxbridge student. I simply wanted my son to be aware that he had choices, and that learning can become more interesting as you get older. 

I think he got the message.