Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Second Oldest Building in England

Travelling around Britain, it's sometimes hard to avoid the feeling that you're in a heritage theme park, full of brown tourist attraction signs, pointing the way to dubious sites like the Honiton Lace Musuem, or disappointing ruins like Tintagel Castle.

Once, I naïvely assumed that these signs were an official endorsement, awarded by nameless, incorruptible officials -a guarantee of quality. But that's not how it works. A run-of-the-mill farm shop (with the obligatory soft-play area for children) can become a major tourist attraction, whilst a Neolithic burial chamber is unknown to all but a few.

But perhaps that's a good thing. Today, I was able to have the second oldest building in mainland Britain all to myself.

Built in the year 654, using bricks and stones from the ruined Roman fort of Othona, the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall was established for the East Saxons. Its founder, St Cedd, had travelled down from Lindisfarne at the request of the local king, Sigebehrt the Good. Like the oldest building in Britain - the Roman "Pharos" lighthouse at Dover - it is largely unknown.

It seems inexplicable that Britain's oldest church only receives a trickle of visitors. Where are the coach parks and gift shops selling Anglo-Saxon shortbread and St Cedd tea towels? But perhaps the reason why St Peter's is so neglected is also the key to why it has survived for 1,356 years.

I can almost see St Peter's from my mother-in-law's bedroom window. Bradwell-on-Sea is only two miles away, on the other side of the Blackwater estuary. But getting there involves a tortuous hour-long journey along minor roads that pass through flat, empty fields and peopleless villages. My journey was only 30 miles, but by the time I arrived I had listened to a whole Vaughan Williams symphony (the 9th) and was halfway through another CD.

I didn't like Bradwell-on-Sea. On the surface, it wasn't that different from other villages: a Norman church and a single street of charming, traditional cottages, augmented by a mixture of cheap, badly designed modern houses. But I didn't like the way the people stopped and stared, pointing at me as I drove past. I had visions of some Wicker Man-style ceremony awaiting me.

Fortunately, St Peter's Chapel isn't actually in Bradwell, but can be found at the end of a long track. I don't know why the car park is so far from the church, but the ten minute walk between the two is like a decompression chamber between the 21st century and the 7th. With each step I became more attuned to my surroundings.

I thought of all the people across fourteen centuries who had walked along this path, listening to the distant roar of sea and shingle, longing for some respite from the biting cold wind.

Architecturally, St Peter's seems primitive and crude, but in an age in which homes were built out of wood and thatch, this church must have seemed miraculous:

When I entered the church, I was immediately struck by the smell of the damp stones and the eerie silence - so quiet that I could hear the ringing in my ears. But as I sat still and listened, I became aware of the sound of the wind, buffeting against the outside walls.

The desolate landscape, the cold wind and the roaring sea reminded me of the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Seafarer . For much of the year, life must have been cold and hard for the people here. St Peter's church offered meaning in a world that, for many, must have been a relentless struggle against nature and ill fortune.

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum, Si þin nama gehalgod, to becume þin rice, gewurþe ðin willa...

The church appears to have changed very little since the 7th century and although the crucifix, pews, alter and pulpit are all 20th century, they seem to complement rather than detract from the atmosphere of the place.

Outside, nettles sway in the wind and the grass gradually turns into marshland:

In East Sussex, there is a dramatic demarcation between land and sea, with towering chalk cliffs and steep shingle ridges. But in this part of Essex, the land just seems to fizzle out, as if someone has lost interest.

I don't know how long I was in the church, but when I left I felt different. It wasn't a religious experience, but I think that being alone in an ancient building can have a profound effect, briefly freeing us from the tyranny of the present. It was either that, or I was feeling weak from having nothing but Special K that morning.

Why is St Peter's chapel generally ignored by the guide books? It may not be the most architecturally stunning building, even by Dark Ages standards, but this is the second oldest complete building in England. Surely it's more exciting than the Honiton Lace Museum?

Part of the answer lies in St Peter's remoteness. Situated at the end of the Dengie peninsula - a landscape of bleak, empty fields, with a coastline of marshland and mudflats - Bradwell feels like a long way from anywhere (this is probably why a nuclear power station was built there in the 1950s). The nearest large town is only 15 miles away, but it might as well be 50.

As I drove out of the car park, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a large wooden structure. It looked familiar, but I didn't know why. Then I remembered:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Every schoolchild in the London Borough of Havering, apparently:

I ended up describing this copy as "ex-library, but clearly unread."

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Adventures of Blackshirt

I've just found this thriller from the 1920s, which contains one of the most wonderfully absurd, cliché-ridden pieces of prose that I've ever read:

Episode I - The Voice on the 'Phone

"WELL, that's that! Now the devil himself couldn't get those diamonds," exclaimed Sir Allen Dunn emphatically.

"Except, perhaps - Blackshirt!" replied Marshall with a grin.

"Blackshirt?" There was a rising inflection in Sir Allen's voice. "Sounds to me like a Fascist!"

Marshall smiled. "You are on the wrong track, I am afraid , sir, for whereas the Fascisti stand for law and order, Blackshirt is responsible for many mysterious affairs which are decidedly against the law."

"A criminal-eh?"

"Say rather a super-criminal."

"A super-criminal - bah! It is all tommy-rot, this 'super' business. Beside, no criminal can stand up long against the long and very strong arm of the law. I am surprised that you, a detective, should spin me such a tale.No one can be 'super' Marshall, no one. A fairy story! The only 'supers' are in the theatrical profession, and they are the very antithesis of the meaning, otherwise they would be leading men and women instead of in the chorus." Sir Allen laughed at his own humour.

"Let me assure you, once and for all, Sir Allen, that I was not exaggerating in the slightest degree; I may have even been too modest.

Sir Allen's forehead wrinkled in a puzzled frown, whilst his lips puckered at the corners of his mouth, a mute testimony of his incredulity. "What, and who, then, is this - er - Blackshirt?"

Marshall abstractedly pulled his pipe and pouch from his pocket. Unconsciously he filled up and applied a match to the tobacco, meanwhile settling himself more comfortably in his chair.

"Your first question, Sir Allen, has already been answered. Blackshirt is a criminal, a man who, it is believed, moves in Society circles and is the intimate of Society people. It is assumed that by day he lives the life of a well-to-do gentleman. When night falls, however, the tale is different. He becomes a nighthawk, a crook, an audacious burglar."


I particularly like the line "no criminal can stand up long against the long and very strong arm of the law".

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Clarke Hutton

Yesterday I discovered this children's history book, published in 1945 by Oxford University Press. It has some stunning colour illustrations that remind me of Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden:

I'd never heard of the author. Clarke Hutton sounds like the name of a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. I can see him now: tall and athlectic, with brilliantined hair, baggy trousers and spats. He probably went to Yale and his family can trace their ancestry back to 17th century New England.

I Googled Hutton's name and found next to nothing: no Wikipedia entry, no fan site and just one mention on the Tate Galleries' website, which was a masterpiece of brevity: "Clarke Hutton. Born 1898."

Further research revealed that Hutton died in 1988. Then another site claimed that it was 1966. Like David Karp and, to some extent, Sir Philip Gibbs, here was yet another example of a talented person from the mid-20th century languishing in undeserved obscurity.

Clarke Hutton's book is a whistlestop tour of British history, from prehistoric times to the 1940s All of the illustrations are impressive, but I particularly like his depictions of the 20th century:

Someone at Oxford University Press evidently also likes Hutton's illustrations, as the book was recently reissued. I would have expected this to have generated some reviews in the press or blogosphere, but apart from a brief mention in the Times, the response has been underwhelming.

Fortunately, a little more Googling has enabled me to come up with the briefest of biographical sketches.

Clark Hutton was born in London in 1898. He studied at the Central School for Arts and Crafts under A. S. Pitcher, replacing him in 1930 as the instructor in lithography. As soon as he took up his post, Hutton began to experiment with using the autolitho technique for book illustration. His aim was to develop a process that would make it possible to produce affordable, colour illustrated books for children.

Working with Noel Carrington at Penguin, Hutton eventually realised his vision and the Picture Puffin imprint was born.

That's as much as I know. I have no idea when Hutton died, where he lived or whether he had children. I'd love to know more and hope that someone out there will be able to add some more information about this unjustly forgotten artist.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"I'm fine at landscapes. I'm not bad at bodies. But I have a problem doing faces..."

"Don't worry. We'll sort something out..."

Published in Liverpool, printed in Romania, this is one of the most striking book covers I've come across.

Why didn't the photo-watercolour combination catch on?

Monday, October 18, 2010

1860s Update

The response to this post about a Victorian photograph album that was almost destroyed has been overwhelming. It probably helped that one of the images featured this rather terrifying looking gentleman:

Align LeftWithin hours, bloggers all over the world were arguing about how many of the photos featured dead people. Apparently, it wasn't unusual for Victorians to dress the recently departed in their Sunday best for one last family portrait and, with the requirement to stand still for long periods of time, the deceased had a clear advantage. It's a spooky thought.

However, I'm not particularly good at determining whether people are alive or dead. I got it wrong with my wife's grandmother and I'm not making that mistake again, so I shall stick to the more earthly matter of where these photos were taken.

The general consensus has been that the photos from this album are from the Lake District, but after extensive research (i.e. a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon), I can now confirm that they come from a village a few miles south of Lancaster called Cockerham.

Here is the evidence:

The two photos of St Michael's church are pretty conclusive, but I was less convinced by this match:

Even allowing for alterations, the two incarnations of the Manor Inn seemed very different.

But then I found this:

According to this webpage, when the original Manor Inn closed, its owner bought the Plough Inn and renamed it after his old pub.

The album also featured several photographs of this church:

This proved to be the greatest challenge. I scoured Google images for Lake District churches, then Lancashire, followed by Yorkshire; but nothing matched. I began to wonder if the church had been demolished or destroyed - surely somewhere with such a distinctive spire would appear on Google?

Fortunately, once I'd confirmed Cockerham as the location for many of the photos, I was able to narrow my search to the neighbouring villages and within minutes, I found this:

It's in a nearby village called Ellel, which has inspired one of the shortest Wikipedia entries I've ever come across.

The questions I really want an answer to will, of course, remain a tantalising mystery. But I like the fact that 150 years on, these places are still recognisable and that if I want to, I can still enjoy a pint at the Manor Inn.

STOP PRESS - In a slightly spooky twist of fate, it has emerged that Cockerham is very well known to the writer Sam Jordison, who kindly mentioned this blog in a Guardian post in August.

He had one of his first pints in the Manor Inn!

Visit the comments secition to learn more.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Derek in 1980

If you're new to this blog, you will be unaware of the growing cult of Derek. Click here, here, here, here, here, here and here to understand the background to this post. If you don't have time to do that, the short answer is that these are extracts from the diaries of a civil servant called Derek.

Here he is in the 1950s:

The end of the 1970s was a turning point in Derek's life. He had been a devout Mormon since his 20s and now, in his middle years, an opportunity had arisen to become a bishop within the church. It would mean moving almost 200 miles away to a town in the West Country, but neither Derek nor Brenda seemed to have had any reservations. Their three daughters were now adults and were busy making their way in the world. Derek and Brenda's teenage son was a different story. He would never leave.

'And so our son reaches his birthday. Each year is a bonus. And what of his birthday? Well, it started with gifts, including a set of sound-affected lights so that he can have blinking lights while playing his records and thus be a real disco fanatic. Unfortuntately two of the bulbs were broken. He had also received an Abba tape and a case for his favourite cassette tapes. And as a bonus, I gave him 200 sheets of his favourite paper for copying what he refers to as "details" - items from the Radio Times. He has a marvellous memory for details concerning radio and television programmes. One only has to ask him who is reading the news for the week and out comes the answer.'

Derek's paternal pride is particularly touching, because his son is mentally handicapped.

Like every other journal of Derek's, he complains of mysterious aches and pains that blight his daily life. They are clearly largely psychosomatic, but Derek seems oblivious to this. It never occurs to him that the strain of caring for a handicapped son and a belligerent mother-in-law should have any impact on Derek's health.

Occasionally, Dereks maladies affect his performance at work:

'I was much troubled by hypertension last night, and in fact most of yesterday. I spent my lunch break in the gallery at the Registrar Office, lying on a roll of corrugated brown cardboard and a borrowed cushion, trying to relax away the stress that causes my system to creak and groan like an ancient motor engine. If the weather had been better I would have lain on the roof - an excellent place for catching the sun and avoiding the wind (external). However, this luxuriating can get me into difficulty, for on Thursday I was on the roof, ensconced between two gables, and dropped off to sleep. Since I was assinged to two marriages there was considerable panic. At last, David Hooker decided to search the roof and found me. Jeers and laughter arose from the staff as I made my humble way down the stairs; it was counted as the funiest event in some time.'

Another theme that recurs in each journal is Derek's conviction that his diaries will be an invaluable legacy for his children and grandchildren:

'I mentioned my idea to Brenda to type up my journals and give a copy to each of the girls, and she does not think it is a good idea at all! She sees it as something rather egoistical that they are not likely to thank me for at all. Actually, the passing of something of myself to future descendants had not entered my head; my chief thought was to provide a history of our life as a family. After conversing with Brenda, I am resolved to continue this undertaking, for it is something I feel deep in my bones: a compelling urge that cannot be dispelled even by the most compelling arguments.'

Derek appears to be enjoying his new role as a bishop, although he is dismayed to find that he is required to intervene in rather complicated domestic matters involving divorcees and adulterers. When a lost sheep returns to the flock, Derek's relief is palpable:

'Jennifer Griffin is very much an improved lady since she gave up receiving false revelations. She is now actively pursuing a course in hotel management.'

In the evenings, Derek loves to take his son to a wrestling match or old-time music hall show:

'On Monday evening we took Richard to the Winter Gardens to an old tyme music hall, and O! how he enjoyed singing along with the choruses, for he is an expert on pub and music hall songs. The hall was packed with senior citizens. In fact, we were the youngest people there! During the course of the evening, the call went out "Is there a doctor in the house?" and everyone laughed. But it was a serious request and eventually a lady was taken away by ambulance.

Afterwards we bought three bags of chips and walked home, chobbling as we went. This was the first time Richard has ever had the sweet joy of passing through the streets at night with a bag of chips in his hand. His delight was almost palpable.'

At Derek's workplace there is talk of taking industrial action against the policies of the new Tory government. Derek would have none of this. In a passage that could have been written today, he writes:

'No one likes the policies the Government has brought in to put the country back on its feet, and there is a suspicion that the rich are being better cared for than the poor. At the same time the alternative can only be eventual ruin for the country as a civilised society - rather like Rome as it plunged into the dark night of the closing of empire.

But as a Crown servant, I am precluded by law from embarking on industrial action; but never have I had the inclination to take such.'

1980 seems to be a good year for Derek's family. One daughter is engaged to a policeman that both Derek and Brenda thoroughly approve of. Another has just enjoyed a holiday abroad, although Derek has mixed feelings about that:

'She and Kerry went to a disco, getting back at 12.30am. I wish she would not attend such places; they are dens of iniquity and the atmosphere cannot be conducive in any way to spirituality. The local male inhabitants have this thing about breasts. But she is of age; she must do as she will do.'

Derek and Brenda appear to have successfully carved out a new life for themselves in the West Country and they enjoy exploring the local area and socialising with old and new friends. One day they receive an invitation to have dinner at a friend's new house in Taunton:

'They put on a most excellent spread - prawn cocktail, side salad, fondes of chicken, prime steak, and pork, with chips and sausage meat, and such a variety of sauces as to be inclusive of everything in any possible catalogue.

We left their home at five to eleven and had an uneventful trip until we got to Oldmixon. And then the devil tried to destroy us. As we drove along the main road, a yellow car came speeding across a junction. There was no pause in the pace of the vehicle; he must have been travelling at all of 60-miles per hour. There was no chance that he could miss us or that we could take any avoiding action. He rushed into the side of the van with a nightmare sound that I can hear even now.

There was the noise and the rain and the screaming and the helplessness of uncontrolled movement. And then there was pain as well, and Brenda sitting there in the driving seat, terribly bruised about the head, her hands dripping with blood, and crying out over and over again, "It wasn't my fault, was it? It wasn't my fault, was it?" And myself assuring her that it was not, and a terrible tightness around my stomach where the seat-belt had wedged; and our daughter thrown from the back seat amid a jumble of goods. And the screeching of cars and the shouting of men and the absence of the windscreen, and friendly hands reaching in trying to undo the seat belt. Eventually they cut it with a knife and the police came and the ambulance; and Brenda was placed bruised and bleeding on a stretcher and reached out to hold my hand. And the rain still came down, a curtain to hide the hideous wreckage of the vehicles; and it all seemed like some Goyan nightmare.'

Hours later, Derek is lying on a stretcher in the local hospital. Suddenly he hears a familiar voice.

'Frank Beaston, just admitted for a check-up, having swooned at the wheel of his omnibus again. I called and he came and he grasped my hand and the tears started to his eyes.'

Fortunately, Derek and his daughter only have superficial wounds. They are discharged in the small hours of the morning.

'Before we left the hospital, we crept into the ward where Brenda lay, and I spoke to her and laid my hands upon her head and gave her a whispered blessing. She was confused and had taken a most terrible knock to the head, but she knew me and clung to my hand.'

Later, the police describe Derek and his family's survival as nothing short of miraculous. Derek thanks God, convinced that 'had his hand not been upon us we would surely have died.'

It is a difficult time for Derek and his family. In addition to recovering from their injuries, they have to co-operate in a police investigation to establish who the guilty party is. Derek's morale is at a low ebb and at one point he writes:

'Non-day suceeds non-day; and we sit and nurse our bruises and count our losses; and still the worst part is wondering whether any good can happen to this family. When each disaster succeeds the next almost without interruption, it becomes most difficult to exercise faith; not in the sense of increasing disbelief, for that God lives and the gospel is true is a fact like breathing as far as we are concerned, but whether we as a family shall ever have a little peace and prosperity in this life is the big question.'

Luckily, Derek enjoys a brief respite from his existential gloom when he and his daughter go to see The Empire Strikes Back:

'Marvellous stuff! The complete science fiction adventure for boys young and old. We sat enthralled for over two hours at the sights and wonders on the screen and the continuous action. The effects were - in more ways than one - out of this world. The vast landscapes and monstrous machines, the curious animals all were incredible and yet believeable; but they never overshadowed the characters - Darth Vader continued to dominate the villainy like a sort of galactic Hitler; Luke Skywalker had perceptibly grown in character. Given the opportunity I shall see this sequel at least once more.

I understand from the tabloids the films planned run to nine in number. That worries me somewhat; I ponder whether it will be possible to sustain the action and the wonder and the growth of the characters for nine films. I would hate there to be a falling off.'

In December, Derek looks back at the past year comes to this conclusion:

And what of my past year? Well, certainly it has been full of curious things. My first year as a bishop, one of the greatest honours that can come to any man in this church. My eldest daughter's marriage to a fine young man. The accident, plus the loss of the van. Our first year in our new home. The opportunity of doing more reading than has been possible in a long time, one of the great blessings of commuting to and fro on the train. A room where for the first time in my life I can see almost the full extent of my library instead of having to hide books in cupboards and boxes.'

But there is one serious threat to Derek's optimism: Brenda's mother:

'A curious lethargy lay upon myself and Brenda. I put it down to a return to the eating of white bread rather than the wheatmeal we have been having. The problem is, Brenda's mother will not eat brown bread, so Brenda reverted to getting white again. Anyway, I got a loaf of granuary bread for for dinner sandwich and felt better almost immediately. The simple solution is for Nanna to have her own little loaf.'

It's an absurdly mundane anecdote, but somehow the quiet tragedy of Derek's life is more compelling than some of the greatest dramas. If you're also a fan of Derek, you'll be glad to know that there still a lot more to come.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Since I posted some images from an 1860s photograph album at the weekend, the number of daily hits has shot up, so I thought I'd spare the new visitors the effort of trawling through previous posts and give some of the highlights of this blog.

I am a bookseller. I have spent most of my working life managing bookshops for chains like Ottakar's and Waterstone's, but last year, I was given the opportunity to set up a project selling pre-ISBN titles that had failed to sell in charity shops. Every day, thousands of books pass through my department and I regularly find things that have no financial value, but give a fascinating glimpse into the lives of others.

Here are some of my favourite finds from the last year:

This slip of paper fell out of an obscure 1940s novel. What does it mean? Is it one of those "When the red swan flies over Moscow, there will be light snow" coded messages that spies used to send to each other? I can't think of any other explanation.

Someone commented that this picture looks as if it should be the cover image of a Smiths LP. I found it in an album of photographs of young British men doing their National Service in 1950s Hong Kong.

There is a wonderful book called Boring Postcards, but few of the entries can compete with the sublime dullness of this card of a Catholic church in Western Australia. What possessed the makers to include the kitchen and toilets?

This is the beginning of a letter from a woman to her doctor's surgery. I've no idea why it was used as a bookmark.

This appeared in a programme for a village fete. Roy must be a remarkable man, but who is he? Perhaps the answer is here:

An odd photo and a fairly ghastly sofa. Surely this isn't where where Roy employs his healing hands?

This is something terribly poignant about this photo, from the hideous soft furnishings to the open flap of the Dimplex heater, suggesting a lonely, out of season break, in a long-forgotten seaside resort. Is her enigmatic Mona Lisa smile there because she's leaving or just arrived?

This was written in the back of an Orwell novel. If the National Service photo could be the cover of an album, this could be the title.

During the last year I've developed a geeky interest in the 19th century colour printing processes, as I had no idea that the Victorians had the technology to produce things as beautiful as these plates. You can see more examples of Louis Hessem's art here.

And there are more examples of Victorian colour here and here:

I wonder if any of these books were read by this child:

This rather haunting photo is one of several dozen from an album that features an Edwardian children's home. It reminds me a little of one of my favourite films, The Amazing Mr Blunden.

On the subject of children:

They say that children are growing up too quickly these days, but this is ridiculous! Some commentators suggested that this is the length an adult will go to to win a competition.

This is another rather strange image. I've no idea what it was doing as a bookmark in a rather dull textbook.

I really like this photograph of a RAAF airman, particularly with the four girls in the background. It was taken in the Middle East in 1944. A blog reader later checked the airman's name and discovered that he survived the War and lived to a ripe old age.

This photo looks like the cover image for a Penguin 2oth Century Classic. So does the picture below:

I love even the most mundane images and during the last 18 months, have acquired a huge collection of photos.

But I still get excited by the books. Particularly when they're 420 years old:

It's a Bible, published only 120 years after William Caxton established his printing press. Like so many items, this also narrowly escaped being thrown in a skip. When I found it I began looking for key phrases from the King James version, completely oblivious to the fact that I'd found something even older.

I have a whole drawer full of things that I've rescued from oblivion. But as far as I am concerned, they're only truly saved if they can be seen by others and it has been great to see how well people have responded to these occasionally sublime, but usually ridiculous finds.

When I'm not blogging about random things that I find in books, I like to explore some of the more obscure corners of England - forgotten places like the Isle of Grain, or decommissioned nuclear bunkers. There are also posts about the darker side of Ladybird Books, the disturbing world of Candy and Andy and clips from some of the stranger films and television programmes of the 60s and 70s.

But the posts that seem to have moved more people than any others (the 1860s photos excepted) are those featuring a local government officer called Derek, whose diaries appeared in my office after a house clearance and this post about a modern photograph album that I found in a box of books.

I have no idea how long it will be until I find another item as interesting as last week's album of mid-Victorian photographs, but I'll continue to post anything I find that gives us tantalising glimpses into the forgotten lives of strangers.

Thank you for visiting.