Monday, 28 September 2009

Watching the Ships Go By

Writing the last part of 'Discovering Harbourside' was an odd experience. The closure of the Bristol City Docks seemed to represent the End of an Era: the ships are gone and all we can look forward to is another museum. The business of moving things from one place to another has become so efficient that we can no longer see it. Huge ships travel between ports that are almost empty of people and to which the public at large has no access.

Looking out to sea from Southwold in Suffolk one might see a dozen such vessels, shadowy forms that seem to belong to a different order of things. They carry the goods we will buy and use but these products are kept hidden until they appear, as if conjured out of nothing, on the supermarket shelf.

If Jim Hawkins rode into modern Bristol he wouldn't find too many old sailors, with rings in their ears, and whiskers curled in ringlets, and tarry pigtails, and their swaggering, clumsy sea-walk.

So where might a new 'Treasure Island' come from? Is there any romance left in the business of trading in ships? It's tempting to think not, but perhaps we need to look in a different way at this new world. The container was a dull metal box until the wreck of the MSC Napoli; now, every time I see one, I wonder what's inside.

Modern life gave us the container ship, but it also gave us a new way of looking at ships. Go to the website ShipAIS, and you'll see what I mean.

Look out though, time tends to slip away as you watch the ships go by.

Thanks to Ian Marchant for opening this window.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Photographing Cider

I met Somerset photographer Bill Bradshaw when we were selling our wares at the Bath and West Show last year and particularly liked the picture shown here. Bill's been taking pictures of orchards and cider-making for five years or so, and has now put a travelling exhibition together. IAMCIDER has already shown at the Cider Museum in Hereford and in October 17 it will open at the Somerset Museum of Rural Life in Glastonbury. You'll find well-known faces like Roger Wilkins alongside some unsung heroes, plus some wonderful landscape photos.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Forthcoming Book: Eric Ravilious and the Downs

Exciting news: later this autumn the Mainstone Press will be publishing 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs'. I'll post an image of the cover as soon as its available. This is the first in a series of affordable, stylish books in which a selection of the artist's finest watercolours will be reproduced; 'Sussex and the Downs' features twenty seminal paintings of the South Downs and chalk figures like the Cerne Abbas Giant.

I've written a short essay to accompany each painting, telling stories about place, artist and time. Rather than dwelling on artistic influences and techniques, these essays explore the stories hidden within the paintings, about Ravilious and his circle, about English culture in the 1930s and about the constantly evolving landscape in which he chose to work.

The aim isn't to explain the paintings - far from it. Rather, I hope to make the viewer's experience of painting and place a little richer. In spirit, my approach is like that adopted by John Betjeman as editor of the Shell Guides in the 1930s, which Candida Lycett Green, speaking in 2006, summarised as "human reactions to places, rather than academic reactions."

Further details will be available from the Mainstone Press soon.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Rainy Day Book

Guardian Books has just published this collection of short pieces from the newspaper's entertaining 'If I had the time...' column. Here's one of mine:

Go trainspotting

Most young children like playing with trains, but my two-year-old enjoys watching them too. We live a few minutes' walk from a suburban station, and when he's grumpy we go down there and sit on the platform.

Admittedly, it isn't much of a station. Once there was a splendid footbridge but that is long gone. A metal shelter offers passengers protection from the elements, but we sit bundled up on an exposed bench and wait. Nothing happens. We chat about the trains we are going to see, count crows and look for planes. My son is patience personified. Half an hour passes and he is still perfectly happy. Suddenly a signal turns from red to green. The rails start to hum. We hold our breath. Will the train have trucks or coaches? Will it be a huge one or a tiny one? The local bus-on-rails trundles into view and stops. We say hello to the people getting off and then wave as the train departs. A minute later a woman comes breathlessly up the ramp. "I thought I'd missed it," she says. "Then I saw you."

"I'm afraid you have missed it," I tell her, embarrassed. "We're not waiting for a train."

She looks confused.

"We watching trains," my son says importantly. He peers down the track, looking out for the next one.

Discovering Bristol's Harbourside: A Guide Book for Time-Travellers

The transformation of Bristol’s ancient harbour into the modern Harbourside - the latest chapter in a long and eventful story – is almost complete.

'Discovering Harbourside' tells this story, more a guide book for time-travellers than a conventional history. Starting with a re-enactment of John Cabot’s return to Bristol from Newfoundland in 1497, it brings Bristol’s port to life in new and entertaining ways, encouraging readers to look at the city around them and imagine moments, scenes and characters from the city’s past.

With one eye on the present and the other on the past, we walk and cycle around the Floating Harbour and down the Avon, looking for clues and retelling stories – some familiar and others new. Did Bristol fishermen discover America before Columbus? What was life at sea like in the age of exploration? How did Llandoger Trow get its name?

Pirates loom large, with an account of Blackbeard’s startling career and violent last battle, and so do more respectable sea captains, from Sir Woodes Rogers to Captain SG Smith, hero of the Atlantic convoys of World War II. There are disasters and triumphs, from the wreck of the Demerara to the return of the ss Great Britain.

'Discovering Harbourside' is both action-packed and thought-provoking. Bristol will never seem quite the same again. Due for publication, January 2010, by Redcliffe Press. Photographs by Stephen Morris.

Discovering Harbourside: Excerpt

John Cabot must have returned to Bristol on an August day much like this one, following a similar route, with a similar caution; though the topography of the Avon’s mouth has changed out of all recognition, the tide and the wind remain the same. Admittedly he had come from further afield than Portishead, but we’re only after a taste, a frisson of the Caboto experience.

Where the rivers meet, tidal currents compete to drag us north up the Severn and east towards Bristol, and skipper Rob Salvidge goes about his business of getting the Matthew home with the same sharp eyes and feel for the vessel’s motion, the same gestures even as the generations of sailors who have navigated this particular corner of the world’s oceans for a thousand years and more.

As we motor safely into the Avon we are passed by a pilot’s boat – a gleaming vessel bristling with antennae and businesslike intent - which reminds Salvidge of a modern nautical experience. In training for his Boat Master’s Licence he spent time with the pilots, and vividly recalls going out late at night to meet a container ship.

As the pilot’s boat approached, he said, the giant ship turned so that it formed a barricade against the wind, then a hatch opened twenty feet above in the steel cliff of its hull and a rope ladder came rattling down. He and the pilot climbed up this ladder, to be welcomed by the Asian crew – a crew, it has to be said, far smaller than the seventeen sailors Cabot took to find America. Up on the bridge a steward served them tiny Malaysian cakes as the ship made its way up the Bristol Channel.

In 1500 there were no containers bigger than a barrel, no Avonmouth, no motorway bridge, just farmland and woods crowding down to the water’s edge, while the river itself twisted and turned, taking the anxious mariner deeper and deeper into the unfamiliar land.

Even now it’s rather exciting. Beyond the motorway bridge buildings cluster round a tiny harbour at the mouth of a muddy creek. This is the village of Pill, famous – according to John Wesley – for its ‘stupid, brutal, abandoned wickedness’, but for centuries the guardian of the Avon and its shipping. It was Pill that provided umpteen generations of pilots, not to mention the towboat men and hobblers who pulled craft, either from rowboats or from the bank, up the river.

Between stories Salvidge is keeping a keen ear on the radio, which tells us that another vessel familiar to Bristolians is heading downstream towards us. As we approach the ancient anchorage of Hung Road, the Balmoral comes racing round the bend and flies past; the passengers lining the rail respond enthusiastically to a call over the tannoy for ‘Three cheers for the Matthew!’, and then we’re alone again on the river, bobbing in the pleasure boat’s wake.

Now we’re approaching Horseshoe Bend, a delightful stretch if you’re cycling along the path, but for mariners an age-old hazard. The shape of the bend and the sheer volume of water can turn the slightest miscalculation into a fatal error. How many captains have watched in horror as the deep water is sucked away, leaving only a narrow channel between steep, glistening banks of mud, on which their craft lies broken or rudely upended?

Constructed in the Bristol shipyards of William Patterson, builder of the Great Western and the Great Britain, the Demerara was launched with great ceremony on 10 November 1851. But an anxious tug captain, his eye on the clock and the state of the tide, approached Horseshoe Bend too fast and the Demerara ran aground. She was successfully refloated, but by now the tide was going out fast and the newly launched ship was dragged sideways across the river. As the water receded, the famous shipbuilder watched his ship and his career slowly break apart, with the sound of thousands of shiny new bolts snapping one by one.

Thankfully, we’re cruising gently around Horseshoe Bend on the most mild-mannered of neap tides. As Avon Gorge rises on either side I’m again trying to imagine what a sailor of Cabot’s time must have made of this singular passage upriver. The gorge then was wilder, the rock face on the Clifton side much closer to the water, but you can still sense the grandeur of the setting in the crags and steep forested valleys of the Somerset bank.

One imagines Odysseus and his crew approaching some magical isle, and yet this was Bristol, the country’s second or third most important port after London. No wonder the city and its waterways have attracted so many artists, with this fabulous contrast of mythic landscape and mercantile bustle. Today the artists are in the ascendant, but what would John Cabot make of it all, I wonder, as we cruise under the Suspension Bridge? Would he recognise anything?

This excerpt was first published in the 'Bristol Review of Books'. Photography by Stephen Morris.

The apples are here!

Apple season again and, while the newspapers lament the decline of British varieties, I'm looking forward to tasting some favourites, in particular Ashmead's Kernel and Blenheim Orange, though we'll have to wait a while for those. You can eat locally-grown apples pretty much from August to May, but the finest fruits are those that mature the longest on the tree. I'm sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere...

Some lovely books out there on apples and cider, among them the fabulous and original 'Man-made Eden'.

OK, I"m biased, but this is the first ever history of orchards and it passed muster with Joan Morgan, apple expert extraordinaire and author of 'The New Book of Apples'. She described it as "a thought provoking, engaging and informative book that everyone interested in the countryside will enjoy."

For an introduction to the book, why not have a look at 'Orchard Country', the feature I wrote for Geographical magazine.

In the spirit of fairness I should mention James Crowden's wonderful book 'Ciderland', follow-up to 'Cider - the Forgotten Miracle'. In some ways I like the earlier book better, perhaps because it's a bit looser and more spontaneous.

'The Common Ground Book of Orchards' is also a must-read, more focused than 'England in Particular' and illustrated with exquisitely earthy photos by the late James Ravilious. If you haven't come across Common Ground before you should check them out. Sue and Angela's writing about landscape and culture is hard to beat.

The subject of orchards and apples can get rather depressing, given the continuing decline of small-scale fruit growing. But there is a simple way to support the growing of old varieties: BUY APPLES, JUICE AND CIDER! Farmers' markets, car boot sales and farm shops are your best bet.

Cover pic by Stephen Morris. Published by Redcliffe Press.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Man-Made Eden: Excerpt

At the western edge of Kingsbury Episcopi, overlooking the surrounding Somerset Levels, Burrow Hill stands like a Neolithic monument – a miniature Solsbury topped by a single sycamore. You can see it from miles away, across the flat land of central Somerset, and from its summit the view is a delight. Around the base of the hill curve rows of standard apple trees, and the landscape beyond them resembles an image from a seventeenth century book on orcharding. It’s an ordered landscape of geometric shapes, with rows of trees in different shades of green, and almost uniquely in the West Country, this landscape hasn’t changed much in a hundred years.

Around Burrow Hill orchards proliferate, great and small, young and old, but mostly of standard trees, and just below the summit of the hill, across the lane, is the main reason. This is Pass Vale Farm, formerly owned by Mr Charles Duck, whose cider was well known, but for perhaps forty years now the domain of Julian Temperley and, since 1992, the home of Somerset Royal Cider Brandy.

This is a business that knows its public. The entrance is pure rustic, with an antique wooden door inviting visitors into the cider house and an ancient mobile still standing like a sentinel under a walnut tree in the yard. Beyond it, the land falls away, with row after row of apple trees covering the hillside, and when I visited in October each tree was laden with yellow or red fruit, as they have no doubt been for many many years.

I had just read Cider – The Forgotten Miracle, which is based on James Crowden’s twelve or so seasons making cider at Burrow Hill, and I walked around with a ghostly sense of déjà vu. Things had changed, however, particularly in the matter of pressing the apples, a process Crowden describes with his characteristic admiration for toil and community. In his day the apples were still pressed in the old way, with the apple pulp wrapped and layered as it still is at Wilkins, but more recently a little of the silvery steel of the Thatcher’s factory has infiltrated the rural idyll, in the form of a new automated press.

I was mulling over the possible significance of this shiny piece of kit – heir, some might say, to the machines of Hardy’s day – when Mr Temperley himself appeared, the imposing, rumpled figure familiar from press photos going back thirty years. Once he’d established that I wasn’t a complete idiot, or in any way connected with certain government-sponsored schemes to boost the rural economy, he launched into an extraordinary monologue that lasted, with interruptions, for the rest of the morning, wandering with the freedom of an earlier century from the derivation of ‘chesil’ to the position of gypsies in modern Somerset, with a ready-made quotation every so often.

First, he led me into a wooden building and up the stairs to a meeting room with a view over the orchards, and pointed out varieties one after another at high speed: Brown Snout; Chisel Jersey; Kingston Black; Yarlington Mill. Burrow Hill cider contains a blend of forty varieties, all grown locally to give a flavour it is impossible to replicate anywhere else.

As he put it, “A variety is married to the land.”

Picture of Julian Temperley by Stephen Morris.

Ravilious at the Towner

At Easter Alan and I gave a talk on the book to the Friends of the Towner Art Gallery, in Eastbourne. Frances Lloyd had this to say in the Towner Times, Aug 09 edition:

WITH TOWNER HOUSING the largest collection of his work in the world and the fact that he was an Eastbourne man, Eric Ravilious is always popular. He proved a big draw when the Friends recently welcomed writer and historian, James Russell to the Gold Room in the Winter Garden to share his knowledge about the shops featured in Ravilious’ seminal book, High Street.

The book, published 70 years ago, featured lithographs of 24 high street shops of the late 1930s and James Russell has been on a quest to identify and locate the shops – all real places but, in many cases, offering only tantalising clues as to their name or location. Only 2000 copies of the book were printed and what is left of remaining copies are much sought after, particularly as the lithographic plates were destroyed during the Blitz. Now, the Mainstone Press of Norwich has published a new limited edition entitled The Story of High Street, which reveals James Russell’s findings.

Lecturer and authority on Ravilious, Dr Alan Powers placed the book in historical context, sharing new and significant insights into its conception, production and publication. Two other experts, Christopher Whittick – the Ravilious archivist at East Sussex Record Office – and Tim Mainstone of Mainstone Press, also made contributions to this engrossing evening.

Eric Ravilious: The Story of High Street

Published by the Mainstone Press, 'The Story of High Street' contains a beautifully reproduced version of 'High Street', the seminal book of twenty-four shops illustrated by Eric Ravilious and originally published in 1938, together with two major essays.

First, Alan Powers explores the making of 'High Street'. He introduces the people behind this remarkable book and details the technical and artistic developments that allowed it to happen. This wide-ranging, absorbing essay offers experts a wealth of new material while providing newcomers an engaging introduction.

My contribution, meanwhile, is the fruit of a remarkable quest to find the shops chosen by Ravilious. A combination of detective work and serendipity led to the identification of almost every shop and revealed new insights into Ravilious and his work. At the same time, amid mounting concern over the future of the English high street, the essay investigates the fate of the twenty-four shops portrayed by Ravilious, an artist who would surely have appreciated the concept of ‘local distinctiveness’.

The book's been well-received by Ravilious fans and critics:

“Buy this book: you’ll think Christmas has come again.” Clive Aslet, Country Life

Perhaps most fascinating of all is the essay by James Russell, 'High Street at Seventy', which endeavours to locate the original stores so evocatively depicted by the artist. Given our modern obsession with authenticity … this quest is not only a nostalgic return to 'a nation of shopkeepers', but a chronicle of the shifting patterns of consumer demand... Mainstone’s revival is a welcome one…” Wallpaper

And, despite a £160 price tag, the limited edition of 750 copies is rapidly selling out. Check out The Mainstone Press website for further information.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Story of High Street - A Game of Shops

This is a passage from my essay 'High Street at 70':

The publication of 'High Street' in 1938 seems to set it at the end of a pre-war golden age, and one might expect to discover shops destroyed by bombing or put out of business by the more subtle effects of World War II. Yet change was already altering the appearance of the high street when the book was published, and this is confirmed by an observant chronicler of London life in the mid 1930s, Thomas Burke.

Contrasting the pre-war years to those of his youth at the turn of the century, he noted the transformation of small shops into large stores, with a corresponding loss of character and distinctiveness.

He writes of, “Provision-merchants selling sporting equipment; gramophone makers selling refrigerators; tobacconists selling cutlery; cutlers selling foreign stamps; greengrocers selling butter and eggs, and bookshops selling gramophone records.”

Looking back, Burke makes an unfavourable comparison between contemporary retailers and the shopkeepers of his youth:

“In the past, shopkeepers knew their own minds and minded their own business. They described themselves on their shop-fronts in terms of definition. The butcher was a ‘purveyor of meat.’ The greengrocer was a ‘pea and potato salesman.’ The man who sold hats was a hatter and it was useless to ask him for overcoats or skis.”

Historian Dorothy Davis describes the role of this old-fashioned shopkeeper in more detail: “Grocers had to understand how to choose, blend and grind as well as weigh and package much of their stock. Even haberdashers bought cotton and thread by the pound and disentangled it and folded it into hanks for sale…

“Every trade,” she continues, “Needed its own knowledge and skill.”

This is the world Ravilious set out to explore in 'High Street', a world of defined spaces and roles that was already falling apart when the book was published. With the development of manufactured or semi-prepared goods, and with the spread of advertising, the modern shopkeeper found himself dealing in products that were not only made and packaged but also, in effect, sold beyond the walls of his shop. In this environment there was no reason for a retailer to specialise, hence the diversification noted by Burke, and the accompanying loss of distinctiveness. What he notices in particular is the disappearance of olfactory stimuli.

“The store has one large and nondescript smell,” he writes, “But when I think of shopping I think of each separate shop and its separate smell. There was the smell of the draper's shop; the smell of the chemist's; the smell of the grocer's; the smell of the pastrycook's - what a smell! - the smell of the oil-and-colourman's… You could range the gamut of the human nose from pungent to mawkish.”

We are now so unused to shops having a smell that it comes as shock when, walking into a shop like Paxton and Whitfield, our nostrils are assailed more powerfully than our eyes. The supermarket environment is visually stimulating but odourless, with smells suppressed by refrigeration and plastic packaging, and the same is true of the DIY store, with its pungent products sealed into branded containers. For a child, the experience of shopping must be far less intense than it was twenty years ago, let alone seventy. True, there are some shops that retain their atmosphere: the shoe shop still has a leathery aroma, and the secondhand bookshop its dust; the weary smell of the charity shop might even be new to Ravilious and Burke. However, the greater thrust is towards uniformity and ever-higher economies of scale.

In the Foreword to 'High Street' Jim Richards argues that, “It is no use regretting the coming of the multiple store and the standardization of shop fronts, as these… make better goods available to more people.”

The logic of this attitude, played out over the subsequent decades, has brought us to a crisis point. In 2004 2,157 independent shops either went out of business or became part of a larger company, compared to a previous average of around 300 per year. Our love of convenience and low prices has given us the great supermarket chains, but as the giants tighten their grip we begin to see that shopping is about more than price and efficiency. As we drive down the high street we despair that charity shops and fast food joints have taken the place of butcher’s and baker’s, greengrocer’s and boutiques selling ladies’ fashions.

Yet some independent retailers have survived. Look at the hardware store, which started out as the ironmonger’s, trading in raw materials like lamp black and brick dust, and which then evolved with changes in production and demand. Some traders transferred their allegiance to the new labour-saving devices, like washing-machines, while others responded to the explosion of interest in home decoration and gardening that accompanied interwar suburban expansion. The 1930s saw a huge increase in multiple stores specialising in decorating supplies – the ancestors of today’s DIY superstores – but on many high streets the general hardware store adapted and survived.

Meanwhile, concern over loss of distinctiveness in the retail world has given us several recent books, whose authors share Ravilious’s love of the idiosyncratic. In 'Still Open: the Guide to Traditional London Shops', Sally Venables highlights a selection of businesses that might have been included in 'High Street', suggesting that this vision of the English shop persists today. Indeed, the success of internet-based retail operations like eBay has encouraged the growth of a new generation of specialist shops funded by the proceeds of online businesses, niche outlets that double as storage facilities for the internet trade.

The specialist, whether selling cheese or stuffed animals, still has an important role to play, and in London particularly whole streets of independent businesses continue to prosper. Consider Jermyn Street, home of Paxton and Whitfield, which can claim among its famous shops Taylor of Old Bond Street (gentlemen’s hairdressers and purveyors of toiletries), Floris (a perfumery dating from 1730) and Bates the Hatters, the latter still overseen by Binks, the stray cat who wandered into the shop in 1921.

Jermyn Street is of course unusual. On most streets dramatic changes have occurred since 1938, and this tour of 'High Street' at seventy will show how a particular set of twenty-four shops, divided between London, Suffolk and Essex, has fared in the intervening years.

Each shop is a gateway that will lead us into a new realm of historical, biographical or artistic discovery. In part this process of exploration is a kind of game, a treasure hunt in which we follow the clues left by artist, writer and friends, to try and piece together not only a historical record but also a more private story that brings together places and characters that are otherwise unconnected. High Street is not just a book of shops, after all, but also a kind of autobiography: a portrait of one man’s geography of pleasure.