Saturday 28 February 2015

Travels in East Anglia

Yesterday I jumped on a train to visit a friend I haven't seen in ages.  The first part of the journey is on one with just two carriages. The second station it goes through is home to the East Anglian Railway Museum, so you never know what you're going to see on the track next to you when it stops there. I was very chuffed one time to see 'Captain Sensible' (in locomotive form...)

Nothing quite so memorable this trip but I take the opportunity to point my camera through three sets of windows as we pull up next to one of the exhibits.

And I like this logo.  You can't go wrong with a dragon red lion! (thanks, mondoagogo)

The view from the viaduct always thrills me; it's the height, you see – don't get many of them round here. It's about 80ft up and I love the way the houses below look like little models.

The train continues through the flat fields... the clouds give a real sense of distance. Gorgeous day, isn't it?

A few minutes later I'm on another train - four carriages this time.  We pass through Colchester.

What can I tell you about Colchester?  It's meant to be the oldest town in Britain, and in Roman times it was their capital here. It has a medieval castle, a zoo and a garrison and was also once home to Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon. Many many years ago I saw Joe Orton's play 'Loot' in Colchester - very good it was, too.

I take a few snaps as we make our way through more flat fields...

... and abandoned industrial areas.

My train journey finishes at Ipswich, where I walk across the bridge over the River Orwell towards the centre. I don't know this city at all and find its simple unfamiliarity oddly exciting.

What can I tell you about Ipswich? It's another one of England's oldest towns, home to the Tractor Boys (not a band but Ipswich Town Football Club).  Nik Kershaw once lived in Ipswich... as did a band I recall hearing on John Peel back in around 1980 I think, the Adicts:

Do you remember them and their Clockwork Orange look?

Anyway... I find my way to an old street and into a sweetly-scented gift shop, above which is a small art gallery, where my friend greets me. There's a sign at the bottom of the stairs warning that some of the work on show is not suitable for children...

I really enjoy looking at my friend's creationsand I'm so pleased to see them on display:

Then we walk down to the waterfront. It's a somewhat schizophrenic place; perhaps the same could be said about every city. The bright white yachts on the sparkling water are photogenic enough but other sights catch my eye more.

We have lunch in a quayside bar, watched over by this chap; I've no idea why he's there...

...and enjoy catching up on life over chips and a pint of Black Horse Stout from the local brewery, which the barmaid tempted us to try, because we'd asked for Guinness.  It tastes just like Guinness.

As the afternoon draws to  a close I decide to catch the bus home so I can enjoy a different journey and views from the top deck.  Parts of Ipswich's outskirts are grim.  In the distance I notice an end of terrace house with large words spray-painted across its grey wall 'KEEP AHHT! GUARD DOG'. The phonetic spelling makes me laugh but the thought of living next door has me shuddering. Then the bus swings out into open countryside again and I spend the next hour hanging onto the yellow rail as it lurches around the tight bends. I try to take some photos but not very successfully - this old barn looked more interesting from the other side.

I wish I could have captured the rotting exoskeleton of the old coach I noticed in someone's back garden, and the llamas too - we have lots of llama farms round here - but I wasn't quick enough, or steady enough, with my camera.  Never mind, I just love looking through the windows.

* for more info on the artist whose work I've shared here please email me

Sunday 22 February 2015

Going South

I thoroughly enjoyed 'Reginald D Hunter's Songs Of The South' on BBC2 last night.  For a start, I really like our host

so I was happy to accompany him through the scenically stunning if slightly unnerving landscapes of Tennessee and Kentucky in his open-top car. We learned about moonshine in Gatlinburg, square dancing in Paducah and murder ballads in Knoxville...

The Wilburn Brothers perform 'Knoxville Girl' well as bluegrass, banjos, mountain dwellers, minstrels, and... oh, loads of stuff.  There's still time to catch up on iPlayer if you missed it.

It suddenly struck me too that I have an unerring soft spot for Glen Miller & His Orchestra's 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' from the 1941 film 'Sun Valley Serenade'.  Seems to me it's one of those songs we all just know from an early age but don't know quite why/how.   I'm now also a little bit hooked on the lovely Dorothy Dandridge's performance in the film alongside the Nicholas Brothers.

Next week Reginald takes us through Alabama and Georgia, and I'm looking forward to the final episode in Mississippi and Louisiana. (I thought of you, Erik.)

Friday 13 February 2015

In the deserts of Sudan and the gardens of Japan...

I'm not quite sure how it started, but from the age of about nine or ten I had this real 'thing' about people from other countries. I was fascinated – obsessed, even. I loved the way everyone could look so different, with their unusual sounding names and exotic clothes and customs. On my bedroom wall, amid the cut-out sellotaped pictures of kittens and seahorses, was a huge world map I'd been given as a present. I wanted to visit all those faraway lands, see feather head-dresses and funny shaped buildings, and meet people with names like Olayemi and Natsuki.

This advert from 1971 may have had something to do with it.

Originally recorded by the Hillside Singers for the 'Buy The World A Coke' campaign, the New Seekers took their adaptation of it to No 1 in the UK charts later that year...

I had a bit of a crush on Marty Kristian, of course.

...not to be confused with this:

The verse was originally so similar that it led to Oasis being
successfully sued by the New Seekers, reportedly for $500,000

I found national costumes especially interesting and had a favourite book which I loved to look through

and which frequently inspired ideas and drawings of my own

When my Dad came back from European work trips he sometimes gave my sister and me a traditional doll from his travels like this one (although more often than not we just got bars of fancily-wrapped foreign chocolate. I'm not complaining).

I kept them - the dolls, that is, not bars of chocolate - lined up on my window-sill where the bright colours of their dresses quickly faded in the sunlight.

And in true geek style, my interest in the wider world outside my window also extended to stamp-collecting.  Most of the stamps I enthusiastically saved and stuck down on those pages came from the 1970s. Some of these British ones might be familiar, if you remember that far back.

 I rather like these stark looking German ones with their stern Health & Safety warnings.

You may have read elsewhere on this blog that the first album I ever bought was the Clash... but actually, now I come to think of it, it was this one:

Monday 9 February 2015

Grée days

'Killing time'. It's a strange concept really, isn't it? - when every second, minute and hour dies of its own accord without our help. Usually it flies, and we take great pains to save it. But anyway, in spite of being a life-long pacifist, I was fortunate to find myself in the fairly unusual position of having a little time to kill the other day. I chose a popular weapon – an internet connection. The minutes soon expired as I searched for something and then happily lost myself in it; I was looking for the work of an illustrator I hadn't thought about in a while and whose name I'd forgotten. All I could recall was that he was French, or was it Belgian? and that his children's book illustrations were popular in the '60s and '70s. It didn't take long for me to find him – Alain Grée. (He is French.)

For me, Alain Grée's illustrations provide a perfect tonic at this time of year. Winter's dragging on and we've hit that point when it's just thoroughly boring now and the hopeful journey towards Spring seems to be taking forever.  Art always gives me a boost. This kind of art may look 'simple' but the ability to pare back so effectively takes a huge amount of skill; the bold colours and shapes are just right and with no need for outlines or overly fussy detail. Distilling the complexities of reality into blocks of colour and naïve form whilst retaining real interest and character is something I'm forever trying to master.  And his compositions are so aesthetically pleasing - gorgeous examples of the graphic style of their era which work for me on a nostalgic level as well as an artistic one.

A number of Alain Grée's educational children's books with their original '60s and '70s illustrations have been reprinted in recent years and their popularity continues. 

I could happily kill time with him any day.

Friday 6 February 2015


A random conversation yesterday prompted an unexpectedly fond memory of something I haven't thought about in decades: my school rough book.

Ooh, I loved the rough book!  It was special because it was deeply personal: the one place the teachers could not go (and presumably still can't?)  At my school the standard rough book was really thick, far fatter than all the formal exercise books and unlike them it was bursting with promise; it felt nicer and I'm sure its paper even smelt nicer. Its pale blue cover was there to be adorned, uncensored... an exciting blank canvas waiting to be transformed into a work of art.  Like everyone else, on this I could make my declarations, for boys and for bands, carefully drawn in decorative lettering, bold characters with fancy serifs and blocked in shadows, or logos copied off record sleeves. Doodles of stars... eyes with exaggerated lashes... spider webs in corners... speech balloons...The Clash... hearts and arrows and safety-pins... secret initials... objects of love (and sometimes of hate)...

Inside were those jotted notes, not just from lessons but to friends, clandestine messages - 'I'm so bored!' - and in-jokes, games of noughts and crosses, scribbled alongside the algebra and French verbs. It was the place to explore different hand-writing, as if trying on clothes – does it look better leaning to the left or the right, with closed or open loops?  So uninhibited and unchecked.  No teacher would read it, mark it or judge it, and that gave it power. It went with me everywhere like a faithful friend; a reference book, diary and sketch pad all in one. Maybe I should start one up now and I could use it to jot down ideas for future blog posts and recommended music to investigate (plus it would help to practise the hand-writing, which I'm convinced is getting more difficult than typing).

I also wish I'd kept just a few rough books from schooldays, out of curiosity. I'm sure they'd trigger further long-buried memories. Like, who the hell was JD? And why did I hate Mrs Benson so much?! And what exactly is Igneous Rock? Answers on a crib-sheet, please.

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