Past Stuff

A Thing About Little Museums

If you ever find yourself in Gloucestershire and close to Stroud – pronounced with an “ow” and not as someone out-of-town recently said, with an “oo” – go and visit the Museum in the Park.

I’ve been living within easy reach of it for almost thirty years and have just paid it my first visit. I found out it was there only very recently, and the reason I went is because the Gloucestershire Printmakers’ Co-operative, in which I’ve been a lowly student on two past occasions, is staging a small exhibition.

It’s a nice gallery space. It looks purpose built being an extension to the main building, the former Stratford House, one time home of a family of local brewers. The original house, now passed into public ownership along with the surrounding grounds known as Stratford Park, contains a permanent museum. In essence, it is a museum of local history, though quite recent history, from late 1800s, I’d say, to the mid twentieth century.

Part of it is dedicated to the author, Laurie Lee, of Cider With Rosie fame. He was from the village of Slad, which is just up the road. Every so often, a passage from that autobiography is read out from an audio book. It’s an old voice and could possibly be the author himself. You can listen to it, as I did, sitting on a convenient chair placed in front of a grim, black cast iron kitchen stove surrounded by old fashioned kitchen paraphernalia, ornaments and books, as Laurie Lee’s mum might have done on a Winter’s evening, or the two contentious, old-aged spinsters, in their cottage next door.

The best thing for me about local museums, tucked away on the fringes of small towns, is – no crowds! Go into any one of London’s famous museums – of in any City, I imagine – and you’ll get what I mean. It doesn’t really matter to me what they’re exhibiting, the fact that you find yourself alone, wandering around the exhibits, allows for an intimate, almost illicit, sense of experience, like being a nosey parker or an intruder. I can’t resist touching and opening things I probably shouldn’t, whereas, in busier museums, I’d have to be content with just staring at stuff and making do with reading the informative plaques.

It was pissing down with rain, as it has been all June, and this stopped me exploring the Park. I think it’s a pity: when it was a family residence, they planted an arboretum which is now a small plantation of very grand trees, dominated by imposingly huge cedars and tall firs, and a curving path which leads down to a lake, originally a fish pond, presumably for supplying the house kitchens with fresh trout or carp.

The grounds look very well kept and also contain public tennis courts, lawn bowling greens and an indoor sports complex. So, Stratford Park – remember it if you’re ever down that way.

Well done, Stroud.


images (click to enlarge):

1 & 2; opposite corners of the gallery space.

3; view of outside courtyard from inside the entrance hall.

Stratford Park (wikipedia)

Museum in the Park

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Going on a Safari, almost

Today’s google safari begins with the word,

Caudle

I discovered this word from an online article about historical birth rituals and customs for our queens and nobility. The article went through some rum goings on. Unbelievably, royal births were not considered private affairs. This apparent tradition lasted until our present Queen Elizabeth II gave birth to Charles. The Home Office minister’s presence was usually required but she put a stop to that nonsense. Earlier years saw a free-for-all when ‘The obstetrician yelled out,

‘The Queen is going to give birth!’ – at which point hundreds of courtiers poured into the room”.

Jaw dropping! However, Caudle, a spiced and alcoholic oatmeal gruel, was once prescribed post partum to queens as a restorative. The word caught my attention specifically because there is a village near here called Caudle Green, and I wonder if there’s a connection (could it be like Soylent Green or possibly drinking it made one feel queasy? But seriously, there may be a reasonable connection).

Royal Birth Traditions: from drinking caudle to audiences of 200

image: detail of a portrait by Franz Winterhalter of Victoria holding Arthur, and probably not being offered caudle, and probably not by the Home Secretary.


Miserden to Caudle Green and Brimpsfield round

Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far with finding the origin of the naming of Caudle Green and became fed up flicking through all the property sales and airbnb adverts in the village. Incidentally, there’s a quaint little Tudor cottage in the village, if you like that kind of thing, but it’s not for sale; I noticed it while out walking some years back.

So, I’m distracted by a google result which happens to be for a detailed 9.6 mile walk taking in Caudle Green. The website turns out to be a true labour of dedication to long walks around the British countryside; there appears to be hundreds of them, from Scotland to Cornwall. Each of the ones I viewed are accompanied by an informative and well-written introduction, then a detailed description of the walk itself, a little map and some useful information on OS maps, parking, refreshment stops etc. What more could you need?

Well, it goes further. Not only are the photos exceptionally well produced but some of the walks have associated videos (via youtube). I suppose if I were to be unnecessarily picky, I might suggest some link to GPS navigation but maybe the authors are old school, like me.

It’s called Walking with the Taxi Driver which I think is intentionally funny-ironic. It looks a great site and I’ll be back.


Walk to Caudle Green

Look at this painting by artist, Janet James, which came up in the search under “images”. It makes me want to put my boots on and walk. I love James’ style with paint: uncomplicated yet evocative. I feel as if I know the subject.

There are many more wonderful paintings at Janet James.co.uk

Google safaris don’t usually end after three items but blog posts do. Well, mine do anyway. Maybe more safari another day.

Useless Eustace

I don’t know if it’s another thing with my age but I’m seriously becoming jaded with this internet thing, or world wide web (strictly not the same but de facto synonymous). Once when it seemed the whole depth of the universe was simply a few clicks away, now all seems like wading through a swamp of irrelevance and superficiality. I guess popularity has won the day again.

I still try the odd safari: thinking of something I’d like to know, googling it and following whatever hyperlink looks interesting. Sometimes something unexpected turns up, other times, not a lot.

I was reading with dismay the comments of followers on some amateur leftwing political blog – it isn’t the politics that dismayed but the tone used in their rhetoric, if I can call it that – when one of them referred to the Tory MP for Camborne, Redruth & Hayle, George Eustace, as “useless Eustace”.

Useless Eustace!

This is the kind of thing I like. Not the unnecessary, vile and puerile name calling but a call from the past. Cultural history.

My Dad used to take the Daily Mirror (he also took The Sun, and the Sunday Mirror, Sunday People and the News of the World – we never discussed politics much and I haven’t any idea why he bought papers from both sides of the spectrum. Maybe, like a lot of working men, he liked to follow the sports pages. Good old Dad). Of course, these were the papers I would read too as a small boy, although flipping through would be more accurate.

I would be seeking out the cartoons and strips. I love drawing and I love cartoons and strips. Now, the microsecond after I read “useless Eustace” it came back to me that Useless Eustace was a regular cartoon character from the Mirror. I could picture it precisely in my mind’s eye. Here’s an example I found by googling.

I find it was drawn by John “Jack” Greenall who submitted the single cell cartoons regularly from 1935 until his retirement in 1975. I can appreciate the style more now than I probably did, the art of the cartoonist in conveying a mood with a few marks: the simple way a cigarette is suspended in front of a character’s mouth to express surprise, as well as the feet off the ground, implied by the shadow. It’s quite a geometric style too, as if he used a straight edge.

I don’t know how it never occurred to me to become a cartoonist. Perhaps I was too lazy or complacent, thinking it was too hard and not rewarding enough. I knew a boy at school who towards the final year, told me he might become a cartoonist. It surprised me – in caricature, I would have adopted the same position as the guy on the right, minus the fag. For starters, it was the first I’d heard that this boy even drew cartoons – I never saw any – and secondly, it was the first time anyone had connected cartooning, something I dabbled in, with a viable career option.

What ifs, eh? Utterly useless.


Here’s a link to some other cartoonists and their cartoons I’ve admired (Pinterest)

A Personal History of Time in Four Objects

Early on, I had a bedside alarm clock: a round, wind-up thing with hands of luminous pale green painted on by poor factory workers, and who might have succumbed to disease and died before their time for their efforts. It seems a high cost to allow strangers to see the time without needing to turn on a light.

Someone then gave me a travel alarm clock. I had yet to travel and had no prior thoughts of doing so being, as I was, not quite ten years old. It seemed an odd contraption: the square body of a wind-up clock attached to the lid of a hinged box by another hinge, so that the three hinged parts could fold in and enclose the clock part. Opened out, it formed a triangle with the base of the box being the base of the clock. The alarm, I remember, wasn’t that loud. Perhaps it’s quieter where people with travel clocks go.

I bought myself a radio alarm clock. Some mornings it would wake me with the sounds of the show before the Breakfast Show; other times I’d be woken by static. The tuning was unreliable and the threat of it malfunctioning on important days kept me awake at night. Then the cat took it upon himself to chew the aerial off. It was just a length of wire hanging down and it must have aroused the cat’s curiosity and so he bit it off gradually by degrees. He never touched the mains cable which also hung down with it. Curiosity didn’t kill that cat, not that time anyway.

The personal tablet is the Swiss Army Knife of the age: if you need something doing, someone has probably devised an app to do it. For it, the alarm clock is a cinch. You can be woken by any number of pleasant or hideous ringtones, or you can choose your favourite song, but be mindful that this can become like Bill Murray’s morning in Groundhog Day; it’s probably better to select “random” from a given playlist. Or you can have the radio. You can have the radio broadcast out of Toronto, Timor or Timbuktu. Be aware that it’s likely not to be first thing in the morning there.


inspired by the brilliant History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (BBC)

History, Prehistory and Everything Before and After

Ours is not as bad as H.E. Bates’ Larkin’s house where there was always a TV on in every room, but the one telly we have does seem to be on a lot. Mostly, I tune it out but sometimes it worms its way past my unconscious defence.

As it did yesterday. It was showing a medieval drama, a jousting event where armoured blokes upon armoured horses charged at each other, aiming poles at the other’s delicate body parts. And at other times on foot, hacking at each other with huge broad swords. Apart from the jousting scene, you could tell it was a medieval setting because all the poor people were dressed in sackcloth and rags. A funny thing though, a lot of them were exceptionally clean shaven and had nice haircuts, and all of them had really clean faces and hands, as if they’d just taken a hot bath or shower.

To be fair, I guessed it was a semi-comedy drama. What gave it away, and what drew my attention to the telly in the first place, was during the jousting tournament the crowd were all chanting Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, and in a subsequent scene there was an incongruous electric guitar solo – not acted out in the scene, thank god, but on the soundtrack.


During the above faux historical drama, I had begun listening to another podcast about the planet Venus. Early on in our history, Venus was considered to be Earth’s twin, it being close to Earth’s size as well as being our neighbour (Mars is much smaller). It’s also most noticeable in the sky having a highly reflective atmosphere; it appears as a star. Early on, people imagined it contained life and, as it was closer to the sun, its life would be consistent with that of hot, tropical jungles.

That idea was binned once scientific evidence established how hostile its atmosphere actually is: mostly carbon dioxide and so thick, the pressure at ground level would crush a human being, and so hot it would melt lead. Mars seemed a better bet for life after that.

One of the three scientists giving account of the planet gave a short description of how planets formed around the sun, beginning with a swirling of space dust, eventually sticking together by electromagnetism and then gravity, the sun then reaching ignition point, and the residual turning forces of swirling matter making everything revolve and orbit. For Venus and Earth, the period from adhering and coagulating dust particles to a proper orbiting sphere would be around 100 million years. At that would just be the beginning.


I was thinking about my primary school and how I remembered a lot of lessons about prehistoric life. We began with fossils of trilobites and ammonites, those funny looking segmented and spirally sea creatures, then the fishes and amphibians, and eventually the rise and decline of the reptiles – dinosaurs! – and ending with a few early mammals.

It seems to me now how each of these periods in Earth’s past is a distinct portion of the Earth’s life simply because of the huge passage of time each had taken. The Earth has had many lives, so to speak. It may have many more ahead, possibly without us.

And there I was, marvelling at those significant names from England’s “Dark Ages”, and how they seem to dabble in politics and culture as much as we do, and write books about it all. And, well, yes, but it’s only 1400 years ago. Nothing in time. When we’ve barely 100 years each in which to experience existence, how inconceivable is a passing of a million years!


It’s extraordinary to me to think how Earth has sustained some form of higher life for so long, and mostly, if not all, by chance. What are the odds? Do you think we’ll come face to face with aliens from another planet? Across time and space, as vast and hostile as it appears, and to coincide with our time here?

I don’t.

In Future This Blog Will Be Closed On Wednesday Afternoons

In preparation for our house move, I loaded up the car with accumulated garage rubbish and we headed off to the dump (aka “the tip” – official name: Civic Recycling Centre). Damn us if the thing weren’t open.

Lots of other people were caught out too, enough to alert us something was up before we even reached the gates. To be fair to the dump, they’ve always been closed on Tuesdays and there’s a dirty great sign by the gate which says so. The thing is, these days, in England, we’re just used to everything being open whenever we need it.

I’m old enough to remember when shops and stores were closed all day on Sundays and shops would close for Wednesday afternoons, and banks, bless ’em, would shut their doors mid-afternoon, Monday to Friday. Weekend banking? Not a chance.

The thing was that this wasn’t really a problem for most of us as the situation was quite clear. Shoppers had a responsibility to mind the time and, if they missed the shop, they only had themselves to blame. It usually meant opening a tin of something, like it or lump it.

I have noticed whenever holidaying in Wales and Spain – in certain parts, at least – you can’t find a restaurant or gastropub (or whatever the Spanish equivalent of that is) open on a Monday. Sundays is normally dead being the Sabbath, so avoid going on a short break anywhere over a Sunday and a Monday, unless you want to eat McDonald’s.

What’s my (serious) take on this?

Well, for a long while I’ve kind of missed the spirit of the quite Sunday (early closing Wednesday was sometimes a pain in the arse). There was something ineffably calming and peaceful and ordered about Sundays. I mean, it wasn’t ever a religious thing for us but if that’s what it takes, so be it. A sabbath made for man; I quite like it.

Advent Calendar

I have not touched base with my artistic blogging buddy, Johnnynorms, for some time. His WP blog seemed to have ceased in 2014. It’s a shame not least because around this time, he would post a selection of worthy advent calendars.

While there are a number of ways to make your own online advent calendar, and I’ve been tempted to try it, all at once the month is upon us and I fail to make the deadline. Ironically, in a similar way to being adverse to keeping a diary until blogging, I’ve always held the physical calendar, with its cardboardiness and little fiddly numbered doors, in contempt, I really like the concept of online ones.

So, what to do?

I could delve back into my historical presence online and offer a daily morsel from the past. Turn over the soil, so to speak. Or old light through new windows, to paraphrase someone who didn’t quite say that.

Here’s a door.


One hello and two goodbyes

I have written before how I could become in time one of the last sons of Middlesex. I mention this because recently I have seen photographs of this once agrarian county of England being consumed by the creeping tide of a London expansion. Suburbia was to be its new crop, perennial and unyielding, though eventually showing signs of going to seed. Looking over these photos of precise grids of similar houses, of clean, barren streets between orderly rows of little shops, I feel sadness even though I never knew its countryside. I imagine the farms and the people working the fields, and the villagers, self-contained and neighbourly, and their children playing in the streams and brooks, under a broad, open sky.

Samuel Johnson once said, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life“. But I bet he never lived or worked in its suburbs.

They say that the entire human population can be housed in average sized family homes, with a small garden, in a suburb not much larger than Texas. I think this would be a good idea. And we could all go to work in Oklahoma, leaving the rest of the planet to be “rewilded”. Or at least managed in a sustainable, close to natural way.

I, myself, had a desire to leave as early as ten years old but had to endure it a further fifteen years. Yet, after a further quarter of a century in my adopted home, I can see the invasiveness of urban culture around me. Expansion seems inevitable, grace, peacefulness and beauty is discounted and up for grabs. Our government has promised 300,000 new build homes each year to solve a “crisis”; it’s not clear for how many years.

Idealist, or fantasists, I’m not quite sure, talk of going to Mars. It may come to that and I feel as sad for that generation to come as I do for the generation I imagined in the old photos, losing their lifestyle, their future and their culture. For progress.


Written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge #65.

Middlesex was an English county, known as a “Home County” for being close to London, the capital and traditional seat and home of the monarchy. In 1965, it was divided between Greater London and neighbouring counties; it ceased to be although addresses containing Middlesex were valid until the introduction of national alpha-numerical “post codes” made this inclusion unnecessary.

The name derives historically from the domain of the Middle-Saxons, the collective immigrant/ invaders/raiders (along with the Angles and other Germanic peoples) who came to rule some time after the Romans, around the 5th Century and up until the Norman conquest in the 11th Century.

The radical north-west suburban expansion into what was coined “Metroland” on account of the above ground extensions of the London Underground rail networks, began in the early twentieth century. Further sprawl was partly contained by the “Green Belt”, a narrow ring of permanent countryside, though this is continually under threat.

In Samuel Johnson’s day, London more or less finished at about Hyde Park.

Put this in your pipe and smoke it

(Phew, it’s been so warm, and for so long, it’s getting beyond a joke, isn’t it? This is England!)

Along with such peculiarities as hearing early morning whistling, milkmen, whistling milkmen, chimney sweeps and the rattle of manual lawnmowers on a Sunday, pipe smoking has all but disappeared from English society (and dare I assume most others too?)

I see, whilst searching for a good picture of Bertrand Russell last night that he was a pipe smoker; there were few photos in which he wasn’t either sucking on or holding aloft, as if proudly, a pipe. And, I don’t think, it was because he was old. I remember at school many of the younger teachers would choose to puff on a pipe rather than a cigarette. It may have been something to do with intellectualism; the thinker’s token?

But then, didn’t Popeye have a pipe, permanently sticking out to one side, the one with the inflated cheek? In odd situations, he would opt to ingest his potent canned spinach via its bowl so we must assume it wasn’t always lit.

Then again, I heard somewhere that outdoors workers would invert their pipes in the rain, so the tobacco wouldn’t extinguish. You’d think some bright thing would have invented a cowl to go over the bowl, like you sometimes see atop chimney pots.

But again again, the English comedian, Bill Bailey, on occasion uses a pipe as a comic prop. I believe, as a visual clue to parody or feign an intellectual moment.

My friend’s dad had a rack of pipes which seems an extra odd thing to have, unless each pipe offers a different characteristic to a smoke. He offered us a smoke once, which we did out of curiosity, neither of us being smokers though we had tried cigarettes. It was a full on smoking experience, a bit like inhaling a small bonfire, which I suppose it was in a way.

The process of making up a pipe was akin to making a proper pot of tea; an art of stages, something allowing thoughtfulness in intent and purpose. Unlike lighting a cigarette, or fag as they were called; a mindless activity.

Someone said the other day that you could still buy pipe cleaners – those short, thin, bendy things covered with little bristles, in essence a brush – though they’re more likely to be found in art and hobby shops, bought by art teachers and kids to make models with. They’re still called pipe cleaners though this relevancy is probably lost to all.


Images: “La Trahison des images“, 1928-9, by René Magritte

“Popeye” drawn by Bud Sagendorf

Bill Bailey, comedian

Spirals

I have been liked by Utsav Raj whose blog is called, My Spirals. Thanks, Utsav.

Let me talk about Spirals,

#1 Drawing Helices

Did you know the plural of a helix is helices? Don’t ask me why. A helix is, essentially, a three-dimensional spiral – like a spring – and it was by far my favourite exercise in Technical Drawing. Many moons have come and gone since my schooldays but I reckon I can still draw one if you’ll find me a drawing board, a T-square, an adjustable set square, a ruler and a sharp pencil.

I imagine Tech. Drawing is one of those subjects made obsolete by technology now. There’s probably an app or software command to which you put in a few numbers and it’ll construct one for you. It’s clear why but it’s also a shame how tech. is making so many beautiful old things redundant. Navigating with maps and compass is another, as well as hand-printing by numerous methods: intaglio, lithograph, etching and screen printing, to mention a few. Even photography, a technology which went some ways to undermine traditional art, has been revolutionised in a way which makes the original skills unnecessary. Nevertheless, I think where there’s still beauty in an act, there’s still meaning.

#2 The Windmills Of My Mind

The theme tune to the original film, The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen, is a French song with English lyrics added. The words begin something like,

Round like a circle in a spiral,
like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
on an ever-spinning reel.

It had been commissioned specifically to play over the scene where Thomas Crown is flying his glider over an airfield, attempting to unwind (yeah!) from the stresses of planning the art heist. See, a glider climbs on thermals, in an upward spiral, while the protagonist unwinds his coiled tension. A composite metaphor?

#3 Spiral Scratch

I love this expression for a record. More than vinyl anyway. There are many recordings of The Windmills song, one of which is included on the brilliant Dusty In Memphis album, though Dusty didn’t like the song a lot, she didn’t feel for the lyrics.

Who knows who came up with “Spiral Scratch” but it gave British punk band, The Buzzcocks, the title of their first release. At the time, they were unsigned and had to raised the money for recording and pressing themselves, establishing their own label in the process, and having to do their own distribution. Later inspiring other artists to follow suit, they probably began the whole Indie pop business as a result. So we know who to blame.

Of course, the Indie pop movement gave rise to the Alternative rock movement, and what that means is anybody’s guess, but The Wonder Stuff was such a band given this label. They once backed Vic Reeves for a cover recording of the song, Dizzy – originally a 60s hit for singer Tommy Roe. It is the only other song I could think of evoking spirals, in this case a whirlpool referenced in the lyrics.

#4 Whirlpools, Vortices and Maelströms

God, these are horrifying contemplations, aren’t they? We once cycled up to the city reservoirs near Heathrow way; it may have been King George V – funny name for a reservoir – or one close by over which rim we climbed, simply to have a look out of curiosity. There isn’t much to see, mostly flat water, which makes the great, stark hole where the water goes down even more alarming. You wouldn’t want to fall in at that point.

Of course, this could be all in my imagination; a false memory. I had a book of short stories by the writer, Edgar Allen Poe. A contemporary of Charles Dickens, he had a penchant for horror tales and one I vaguely remember is A Descent into the Maelström. I can remember it was accompanied by an illustration not dissimilar to what I imagine would happen when they opened the hole on King George V.
I think I may have developed a phobia.