Saturday, 10 March 2018

picturing an exhibition

And it's cold and damp in the transit camp, and the air is still and sullen
And the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when I'll be home again and the morning answers "Never"
And the evening sighs, and the steely Russian skies go on forever

In the summer of 1968 the Russians marched into both Czechoslovakia and London. Whilst there is plenty of documentation of the Soviet leadership's response to the Prague Spring, there is much less about the August invasion of London.

Okay, that was a provocative opening paragraph but at the time much was made of the second Soviet 'Industrial Exhibition' at Earl's Court that August. The first had been held in 1961 and was quite a success and a third one held in 1979 which seems to have completely passed me by. But the second one was the one I had experience of.

With the amount of news currently being devoted to Russian antics and influence in the West it is probably understandable why this occasion has popped back into my head over recent months.

I was twelve that year and had been at secondary school for a year. After summer I would be going back to a school that was preparing to change from a grammar school that seemed to think it was Eton into a comprehensive school. All sorts of revolutions were taking place that year. I had been at Fairlands Junior School and my best friend Simon had gone to a different secondary school. Somehow I had managed to pass the Eleven Plus and fool the powers-that-be into believing I had the 'Right Stuff' for a Grammar education. Maybe I did but it soon beaten out of me by the bullies and barbarians (some of the kids were quite bad too). Anyhow, I kept up my friendship with Simon and our Saturdays were filled with reading Marvel comics, teaching ourselves how to draw by copying  superheroes and beginning to listen to music. This would continue for a couple of years. Simon was one of the few people I knew whose parents were divorced. I think in my year group there was a kid whose mother had remarried and another one who live only with his mother. So Simon and his brother and sister were a little unusual to me. His dad was some sort of artist - possibly a designer - and he had a live-in partner, a much younger woman, Sally. On top of this, they lived in a flat which was kind of cool too.

One day in the Summer of '68 Simon's dad invited me to go up to the Soviet Industrial Exhibition along with Simon, his brother and sister and Sally. This was all very exciting as it meant I got to go on a train which I loved. If we ever went to London my father would drive although I have a suspicion that we went on a train to see The Black And White Minstrel Show On Ice which, for some reason is less documented than the Soviet Exhibition. I can't think why. So, off to London we went.

There is a short Pathé News piece about it which suggests that it was all very exciting. Although the 1961 Exhibition had Yuri Gagarin turn up the 1968 one still enthralled the crowds. I knew nothing about Russia, Airfix never produced a packet of tiny soldiers to use to attack my Hornby railway* and I had yet to start reading the James Bond series. That would come the next year during a dreary holiday listening to rain pattering on a caravan roof probably in deepest, dampest Norfolk. The exhibition had, evidently, been met with some protest as were most things in that seismic year. Again, to all of this, I was oblivious. The idea of it seemed to be to introduce cultural propaganda to Britain on a huge scale. The reciprocal British Exhibitions to Moscow in 1961 and 1966 eschewed such an obvious line and the attempt to promote a greater understanding between Britain and the USSR was, perhaps, more problematic than many of us realised. With the Soviet response to the Prague Spring in full swing creating further tension in the Cold War, it would seem an obvious step to attempt to create a better understanding. However, what was on show has been seen as demonstrating a 'dreamworld' of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain.

On show were all sorts of artefacts from culture and science including clothing, art and - most exciting of all - a collection of flying dustbins that had been the Soviet contribution to the Space Race. The soviets had managed to land one-such, Luna 2, on the moon. In fact it was the first man-made object to land on another celestial body. The criticism of the exhibition seems mostly to be that the whole thing showed Russia how it wanted to be seen, in other words a complete myth. Evidently on show were such wonderful machines such as the one that could bring life back to the dead. Possibly something was lost in translation there. The hall that exhibited the space junk hardware was described by no less an authority than The Sun as a schoolboy's fantasy. This suggests that the whole presentation, or dreamworld, was nothing but a child's fantasy. To be honest, at the age of twelve even in those far-off days I'm sure that The Sun was already producing schoolboy's fantasies on page 3 every morning but we'll let that pass.

One of the big exhibits was their attempt at building Concorde (aka 'The Supersonic Jetliner of Tomorrow' according to the Eagle), the Tuperlev-144 or Concordski as it was commonly called. Whilst Concord was fairly successful (as in it could fly from London to New York but not Frankfurt to NY). The problem with the Tuperlev was that its engines were twice as heavy as and it burned fuel twice as fast as Concorde's and it only had a range of halfway across the Atlantic. Still, this didn't stop it from being a centre exhibit, all this was yet to happen. We were still in dreamworld.

 We walked the halls of the exhibition wide-eyed and full of awe, it all seemed so modern with its promises of a New World. Contemporary reports suggested that many of the 8000 exhibits were not that modern or exciting but to kids like us it all seemed stunning. At the end of such exhibitions, as with museums and galleries, there is always the opportunity to buy some tat memorabilia. Obviously in those far-off days we didn't have a lot of money to waste on fripperies but Simon and his brother Guy wanted to take something back with them. As we wandered around the books, postcards and toys - mostly Russian dolls I believe - I paid little attention to what the others were up to. Soon, their dad called us all together and off we went to get the train home.

During the journey, Simon's dad and his partner disappeared for a while, perhaps to the loo or for a cup of tea. Whilst they were away Simon and Guy brought out a selection of postage stamp presentation packs. These were cellophaned packs designed for stamp collecting. I expressed surprise and wondered how much they must have cost. To my horror they explained that they had nicked them. I had visions of what may have happened had they been caught stealing from the shop. From what we know now about the KGB who were no doubt mingling with the crowds, they would have made examples of us. We'd have ended up in Siberia down a salt mine. I'm sure an international incident of the scale we are witnessing in Salisbury was only just narrowly avoided. Being a such an innocent naïf must seem quite amusing nowadays but I was genuinely shocked at the time of their temerity. Within a few years we had gone our separate ways, different schools and different friends (and, if I'm honest, different mores) played their part no doubt.

We never really saw each other much after that. In our early twenties I heard that Simon had been to prison, something to do with a mail-order** scam. I don't think I demonstrated any real surprise at that news, to be honest. Still, I am grateful for the opportunity I was afforded by his family to get a chance to go to such an unusual major exhibition. It almost seems to have been erased from public memory as there's little enough information on it available. Perhaps subsequent Russian aggression put it firmly in the past.

Fifty years seems such a long time ago. It certainly seems like it was a dreamworld.

Luna 2 - the first craft to land on the moon
* We made our own amusement in those days. The tiny Airfix soldiers were of the same gauge as their model aircraft and tanks and my train set. It was an early type of war gaming, I suppose.
**  The precursor to Amazon was mail ordering. Argos on the high streets is probably the last vestiges of it. Evidently it was quite easy to scam them but the companies and courts looked down on such activities. 

Saturday, 3 March 2018

bonny birds (slight return)

Farewell, farewell to you who'd hear
You lonely travellers all
The cold north wind will blow again
The winding road does call

That Viking of the avian world hung around until mid-morning today. After behaving like Billy Bunter guarding the tuck shop for all of yesterday and aggressively asserting himself around our, and neighbouring, gardens he seems to have finally given up and moved on. By acting in true Scandinavian fashion he terrorised the neighbourhood and pillaged the place. However, it seems no rape took place although it may have been too cold even for the pigeons to perform. Either that or the female had a headache. Anyway the Robin Askwith of the bird world didn't get his way.

I made the decision not to put any more mealworms out for a while to encourage him to seek another meal-ticket elsewhere. By 10:30 he seemed to have disappeared and almost instantly his cousin the song thrush, the pair of blackbirds, Mrs Blackcap and a blue tit appeared as if by magic and life has now continued as it had for the past week. However, there are still no starlings to be seen at the moment. He was a lovely and surprising visitor but perhaps now there is a warmer feel in the atmosphere he decided to seek out his other raiding party mates and return to the fields. Interestingly, there was an article on Today on R4 this morning about fieldfares and redwings suddenly turning up in gardens.

I was fully aware of the irony of posting a piece last week about celebrating the more mundane and ordinary about the nature around us. However, that's what makes it more exciting when something out of the ordinary happens, hence my excitement at seeing our guest yesterday. He didn't really outstay his welcome but I will keep an eye out in case he comes back.

Friday, 2 March 2018

now all the bonny birds have wheeled away

Ragged robin is see-sawing 
In one half of a coconut shell
He can't find the bacon rind 
Hunger makes his red breast swell.

As I sit and write I find myself distracted because a fieldfare is sitting on the fence in our garden aggressively guarding the tray of mealworms against the the blackbirds and song thrush that are its usual diners. This is a first.

Sitting a few hundred yards away from the sea in town house with a tiny garden, this has been very exciting. I have never seen a fieldfare in our garden, or this close to the sea. In fact, I've only ever rarely seen any at all. As it happens, Mrs Dave and I saw a whole flock of them - a hermitage I believe is the collective noun - on Sunday in a field (funny enough) near Bury St Edmunds. We'd been walking with some friends in a part of Suffolk we don't know very well despite having lived here for about half our lives. We wanted to get a few miles in before the snow came - yes, the beast from the east indeed. Whilst watching a mini-murmuration of starlings over a stud farm, I was taken by a big group of larger birds that appeared lighter in colour, and most definitely weren't lapwings. Luckily I had a pair of binoculars that were just about good enough to see them clearly in a field. Mind you, they were better than the plastic toy ones I had as a child which could barely give a clear view of my feet, let alone a field of identifiable birds.

Due to the two weather fronts that we are currently experiencing and the fact that our house-guest Keats has relocated to Manchester, we have been able to start feeding birds again. It seemed unfair to lure them into the garden with a large, albeit fairly laid-back, cat watching them and licking his lips at the same time (probably as much multitasking he could manage). Anyway, so a seed feeder, peanut feeder, several coconut halves with suet and mealworms in and a tray of dried mealworms have all been placed around the garden. As the weather has worsened the robin, wren and all the tits - great, blue and coal - seem to have disappeared. Well, they seem to have stopped coming in to our garden anyway. Meanwhile, there are so many starlings around that yesterday our garden resembled a scene from The Birds.

A song thrush and a pair of blackbirds have been enjoying the mealworms, at least until our friend the
fieldfare came along today. Another first this week has been the regular visits by a female blackcap but sadly she has yet to appear today. I hope she's survived the cold snap. This has been really exciting and interesting as it is obviously the same one but there is no Mr Blackcap as of yet. As with the fieldfare, in the thirty years we have lived in this house, I have never seen a blackcap in the garden before. As Mrs Dave is now a keen photographer she has had ample opportunity to get a few candid shots of our visitors. The photos here are hers.

Last week I had to take the car to Ipswich for its MOT at a ridiculously early time. This gave me an opportunity to visit the Ipswich Museum which I have been meaning to for some time. The first thing that greets you is a life-sized replica of a woolly mammoth and the natural history of  the area. Various bits of mammoths have regularly been found around this area evidently. Now, the Ipswich Museum which is no longer in Museum Street, was started by various Victorians to allow the hoi polloi to learn about the huge world around them that they would never see. Consequently this meant that the only way to do it was to go out and kill as many animals, birds and insects as possible and stuff them. The heydays of taxidermy. Nowadays, of course, we watch David Attenborough programmes to see most creatures other than cats which we need Facebook for. Still, the reason I brought this up (stay awake at the back there) is because of the museum's vast collection of stuffed birds.

Wandering around the exhibitions became overwhelming and quite sad really. At one point I came across a case with a whole family of great crested grebes within. Two adults with two hatchlings. I actually found this profoundly sad. A whole family wiped out. In the museum there are several rooms absolutely crammed with glass cases of birds from all around the world. The best thing about this, I guess, is that I realised that it is one of the only opportunities we have of being able to compare hundreds of species of birds and, in particular, their sizes. So, for instance, a group of cases featured various British birds of prey so it was possible to be able to see how different a hobby is to a sparrowhawk (and, incidentally, a male and female sparrowhawk - the female being larger than the more colourful male). This all became useful to help with being able to identify birds. I was able to make a decision on what birds we were seeing on Sunday before I got a decent look at them. I guessed they were a type of thrush due to size in comparison with the starlings. I also spent a day trying to decide what our other visitor was. Until we got a photo of her to positively identify it I wasn't really 100% sure of what it was. I knew from the size in comparison to the great tits and look it was most likely a warbler of some sort. If it had been the male I would have known straight away but the chestnut cap of the female took a little longer to be sure.

All in all, I suppose that the Victorians that took to collective mass slaughter in aid of furthering our knowledge of the natural world did do us a great service but I must admit that can be a bit sickening wandering through the rooms full of dead creatures.

One last point. In buying the various types of wild bird food that is now obviously big business, my mind did hark back to my childhood. Growing up as a child in the 1960s without all the distractions available nowadays did mean we had to make our own amusement. For many gentle souls like myself, bird-watching was a lovely quiet hobby that nobody seemed to mind. I-Spy and Observer's books of birds were not expensive and didn't seem to cause any harm. I am glossing over the collection of bird's eggs that was definitely a craze then spurred on by The Observer's Book Of Bird's Eggs no doubt. Maybe I'll write about that another time. Often in the winter months I would sit and watch the birds feeding in our garden in Haycroft Road. In those days the only bird food that seemed available was called Swoop! which came in a small blue box much like Trill which was budgie food that made your budgie bounce with health, I believe. Funny enough, I have not been able to find a picture of Swoop! at all on the internet. We had to buy it in pet shops and I seem to remember the one in Stevenage was called Cramphorns.

The fieldfare is still sitting in our garden fending off all-comers. Still no sighting of Mrs Blackcap.

Friday, 16 February 2018

the vultures are coming down from the tree

The February man still wipes the snow
 From off his hair and blows his hand

The vultures were looking really woebegone.

We were sitting on a bus from the small French town we were staying with friends in and heading up towards La Mongie to get a last bit of skiing in. The clouds were low in the sullen sky. The fields were covered in a white sheet, the snow had been falling all night in what in Suffolk is called a “blunt”, and it didn’t look like it was planning on stopping for a while yet. Mostly the snow was newly lain and undisturbed by any feetings as yet. Later, at the top of the mountain, the sun will shine brightly and the snowflakes will take on a psychedelic hue - like a glitterstorm during a frantic tango on Strictly Come Dancing. Whilst the skis and boots rattled and rolled in the hold, I took a look around at the winter scene unfolding in front of me. The landscape here in this part of the Pyrenees is familiar from our visit last year. 

Last year our friends drove up the mountain in their hire car but this year in their own car, they can’t put snow chains on, so we are using the bus. Buses in France are cheap and, although only one or two a day, regular as clockwork. It’s nice to sit on a bus for an hour or so to take in the landscape. A fast-flowing river of clear water - in Gaelic a sgor-shruth - runs parallel with the road for much of the journey so Dippers flitting from rock to rock before diving in and running and swimming downstream hunting for insects, larvae and small crustaceans are a common sight. Often herons slowly launch themselves up from the riverbank with their haughty demeanour almost with a disdainful tut at being disturbed. Last year egrets sat quietly meditating in the damp fields ignoring the rest of the world but this year, there were none. 

We approaching the village where we bought live trout from a farm and watched three griffon vultures circle quite low overhead whilst on a trudge through a fine drenching in the woods and hills. They never come low enough to get a good look at them without really good binoculars (which I didn’t have, needless to say).

 I looked out over the fields and saw half a dozen dark shapes, short and slightly hunched over. I looked with more intensity and I could make out their shapes more clearly. The shadowy feathers, slightly ragged at the ends, and the white serpentine necks that suggest a more wyrmish ancestry were more visible. Six Griffon Vultures sitting in a field looking decidedly fed up with their lot. To be used to soaring high above mountains, seeking the corpses of large dead animals, if lucky, with those precision-honed eyes. If you’ve never seen one, they are quite large birds, about three foot high weighing in at about ten kilos. Pretty impressive in flight but morose and snarky on the ground. They reminded me of the vultures in The Jungle Book* but less like the Beatles and more like the Fall. They have large pale sandy wings, broad plank-like wings and a bare goose-like neck. Real vultures. 

These ones I was seeing looked much darker so they could have been younger but the weather was fairly atrocious in its Christmas card way out in the near distance of a pightle** and Everything looked darker. Ahead of us arose the possibility of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called a wolfsnow, a dangerously heavy and wind-driven snowfall on the mountains. We didn’t really know whether we’d be actually skiing or not. As it happened, the sun came out later and we had a pleasant afternoon skiing but at this point, the jury was still out. As the bus climbed higher over the verglass*** the mood in the bus seemed a little gloomy but nobody looked as dejected as the griffons.

Seeing vultures in the wild would normally be considered an experience available to those who travel to exotic locations like Africa but there are three types in Europe. Lammergeiers andEgyptian vultures are resident too but only griffons have the classic look. Still, the point here is that seeing something this, yes, exotic is out of the ordinary.

As pleased and surprised as I was in being able to observe these chaps so near to the bus perhaps we should be taking more pleasure in the familiar too. Given how much devastation we have created in nature, some more familiar species we are used to seeing everyday are actually disappearing. As an example, take the greenfinch. As a child I must have seen thousands of them and, up until recently, we have had many sitting on the aerials of neighbouring houses offering their fairly boring “zhou” call. The greenfinch is the Lorraine Chase of the avian world: they look like they’ve wafted in from paradise but when they open their gobs, oh dear . . . However, the poor old greenfinch is in decline. The avian disease Trichomonosis has leapt from species to species and is fairly quickly wiping them out. This disease was prevalent in pigeons but now affects chaffinches and house sparrows too. The sheer ubiquity of chaffinches in their tremblings (or, indeed, charms) may make them seem over-populous but they seemingly are dying out too.

In his book A Patch Made In Heaven, Dominic Couzens makes the case for taking pride in our own patches - “somewhere near to where we sleep at night”. I’ve probably been doing that since I was a kid. I’m not an avid birder, I won’t shoot off to other parts of the country to tick a rare visitor off on a list. I do regularly walk the same few areas nearby: the Grove, the seashore and the marshes. Often I see familiar birds. Cormorants and egrets are commonplace but I still get excited seeing them. Recently on a walk I heard a buzzard and recognised its call a few minutes before spotting it.

In the garden of the house we were staying is a bird feeding area set up as Neal is an avid birder and photographer. He feeds birds to bring them into the garden to photograph and is very successful at it. Regular callers at the feeding station include great, blue, crested, coal and marsh tits, nuthatches, tree creepers and, of course, chaffinches. Goldcrests and firecrests are fairly regular callers too. Whilst on walks Neal was trying to photograph an elusive black woodpecker (we tried last year too) and a middle spotted woodpecker. These to a regular birder are rare finds. I would love to have seen them but I am very pleased with the birds I did see. The crested tit we saw was a first as were the six alpine accentors we saw on a Chateau (a Joy of accentors, I believe). I came away feeling that I had seen some unusual birds - the accentors had to be pointed out to me!

Back home now I am aware that I have to keep any bird-feeding equipment clean and disinfected to try to keep the risk of infection down. I am going to be pleased next time Lorrai a greenfinch makes its silly noise and I am aiming to get up to the marshes to see some common (or garden) ducks and waders next to the more unusual shovellers and wigeon. In short, taking pleasure in the more mundane, I guess.

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got 
'Til it's gone

*   cheers for the correction Mike
** a word from Essex meaning a field next to a house
** black ice in French but to mountaineers, thin blue water-ice formed on rocks

Sunday, 14 January 2018


red sun go down way over dirty town
starlings are sweeping around crazy shoals

Walking up the road to get the paper a few days ago I was struck by the appearance of an unusual looking bird. It was black with brownish markings around its neck. As it hopped across someone's garden and disappeared under a hedge I tried to work out what it was. It was a similar size to a blackbird but its beak was sharper. It then became obvious that it was a starling and the light had caught its feathers strangely. The usual iridescence had reflected it back much duller than if it had not been half-hidden by a bush.

Starlings are beautiful birds but tend to be overshadowed by their gaudier cousins Jays who, although not commonly seen, are the British Bird of Paradise. However, starlings were once so common that in the 1980s they were chased out of Leicester Square because of the noise and droppings. When a large Christmas tree was put up in Trafalgar Square the starlings thought it was for them. The good burghers of London weren't so charitable. Also, they must have been deemed too common to be included in the Brooke Bond picture card book Wild Birds in Britain in 1965. Even back in 1932 the Players Transfer (sic) book Wild Birds missed them out. This latter book was a collection of photos that look more like very beautiful paintings taken by one Oliver G. Pike as opposed to the lovely paintings by C. F. Tunnicliffe in the Brooke Bond ones. My dad must have smoked a lot of Player's Medium Navy Cut to collect the amount of old 1930's cigarette cards I inherited from  him!

Over the past few years - probably due to the popularity of BBC nature programmes like Autumn Watch - the phenomenon of murmurations have become a spectator sport. As a fairly air-headed (gormless?) child in the 1960s I don't remember ever having seen such a spectacle much like I didn't see a cormorant until I was about 17. Now they are everywhere - no joke, I spotted two sitting on top of streetlights over the M56 over Christmas. It's alright, don't fret, I wasn't driving. My son-in-law was taking me to my second ever football match*. But murmurations really are an amazing sight.

As mentioned above,the ubiquity of starlings, like sparrows, made them invisible from such tomes although they were included in the Ladybird book of garden birds (illustrated). Evidently the skies could often have been filled with with upwards of 100,000 starlings performing an aerial ballet that when witnessed takes the breath away. Starlings travel up to twenty miles to feed in dispersed groups where they prod the earth looking for leather-jackets in grassy fields and eating ticks off of the backs of sheep. They then gather in 'moots' before flying back to join the main flock. By 2002 they had been added to the Red List of conservation concern as their numbers had declined by 70% since 1979. Fewer leather-jackets and insects in the fields, less acreage of permanent pasture, decreased nesting places and modern houses being much less bird-friendly are all to blame for the massive decline. Not just in starlings either. Local authorities have been discouraging them in town and city centres too, much like the removal of them from Leicester Square in the eighties.

A few years ago on leaving the local Morrison's supermarket I was surprised by the crowds standing around in the car park all looking to the skies in awe. I thought an alien invasion had started but it was the sight of a huge murmuration just above us that had stopped people in their tracks. The beautiful swooping, swiping and circling dance took people's breath away. Many, obviously, filmed the phenomenon on their phones, as did I. It appears that whilst the flocks that make up the murmuration are not of those 100,000 plus of earlier last century but still large enough to be awe-inspiring. Something many had only witnessed on their tvs was being performed in front of them. We watched like Tom Cruise and his neighbours as the aliens began their invasion in War of the Worlds. On the edgelands between Felixstowe docks and the housing estate, these amazing sky-dancers roost after exhausting themselves with an ancient dance that nobody really knows why they do it. Here by the docks on the coast where the sea brabbles and hob-gobs** where I've witnessed partridges, of all things, and noticed the rise in cormorants and egrets, the starlings have settled for the late Autumn and early Winter. They've been here for a good few years now and it's now become something that happens at four o'clock every evening just as Dusk begins to descend. Here's my not very good record of it.

I mentioned above that nobody really seems to be able to explain this behaviour which is also seen in other species. Starling's cousins rooks do it with jackdaws and sometimes starlings on the periphery of their colonies. In his book Crow Country, Mark Cocker suggests that there is a theory that birds use such massive meetings as a form of "information centres". So, for example, a well-fed attractive and healthy bird could be noticed and followed next day to its feeding grounds. Perhaps there's just safety in numbers. Certainly many species snuggle up to each other in their roosts to drive the cold winter away and generate some warmth.

In Norfolk, Robert Macfarlane notes in his masterful glossary of natural language, Landmarks, that starlings are called wheezers but not why. The noise of the birds whilst they perform this ballet is obviously loud but it's joyful and delightful to witness.

From my father's Player's cigarette card album.
I love the comment that they make good pets!
* The first match I went to was about 1966 possibly. My father took me to see Stevenage vs Merthyr Tydfil. I forget who won, probably Merthyr.
** Suffolk words from Landmarks - a wonderful book that attempts to hold on to words of the natural world from around the British Isles. It's worth having a copy to hand - and you can get one for a couple of quid from The Works.

Monday, 8 January 2018

new broom

Winter winds they do blow cold,
The time of year, it is chosen.
Now the frost and fire,
And now the sea is frozen.

He who sleeps he does not see
The coming of the seasons,
The filling of a dream
Without a time to reason.

A Happy New Year to one and all. I have decided to revamp the style of this blog so, if there's anyone left out there, it looks a bit different. New year, new broom and all that.

As I wrote back in July, I thought that when I retired that I would be writing much more than I seemed to have managed. Obviously this has probably cost me most of my small audience. Still, never mind, que será será and all that. Anyway, I have decided that I really do need to write more regularly for my own sake really. This blog was always supposed to be an outlet for whatever took my fancy but was always going to include musing about music and wandering/walking. It is my intention to continue and, hopefully, pick up a few readers on the way. I'll probably at times muse on retirement too.

Over the last couple of months I have been compiling a bit of a list about things I wanted to write about; most of these have been about music. I remember when I first started writing - back in 2010 - I would ramble on about classic (to me) albums or songs. There are a few interesting areas (again, to me) that I would like to explore. So, if anyone's still out there, then expect more regular posts.

Cheers for anyone still with me. Apologies for being so tardy. Must do better . . .

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

the opperman culture

Past the drunk woman reeling
with her bag of provisions
Down through the tunnel
with the stink-fuming bus
On to the bike path
where it's something like freedom
and the wind in my earring whispers
Trust what you must
It's my beat
In my new town

On the occasions Stevenage is mentioned in the media my heart usually sinks. Very often something untoward has happened, but the recent article in The Guardian about the town’s cycleways was certainly interesting.

For those who believe Stevenage to be a mythical place like some sort of East End overspill urban hell version of Brigadoon* may be surprised to know that as the first of the “New Towns” it was designed to separate cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. Obviously it wasn’t really as simple as that but it was the dream of urban planners as this rather wonderful video demonstrates. I love the fact that the whole issue of pubs was seen in a comical light with the husband slurring out that he needs plenty of pubs nearby whilst the Mrs is saying oh no we don't. Very George & Dragon. Still, cycleways were an important part of the development of the town. They even got a few pages dedicated to them in a Ladybird book.

In truth, growing up in the town through the 1960s allowed me the use of these Dutch-style cycleways. In his 1970's Richard's Bicycle Book, Richard Ballantine claimed that: "you can cycle or walk anywhere you wish in Stevenage and never encounter a motor vehicle," which is utter nonsense.  I must admit that, certainly in the New Town area (Grace Way for instance), there were so many rabbit-warren like cul-de-sacs that we definitely did encounter motor cars. There were posts to stop you from cycling straight out to cross to the opposite side which I regularly bumped into. At the time you could cycle out of town and off into the countryside for hours. I grew up as an Edgelander on the borders between the Old Town and the building sites of the New Town where they were encroaching on the farmlands and woods, creeping ever-onward towards the villages.  As it was pre-mobile phone (pre-landline for my family too!) we were often away most of the day with our parents giving us barely a thought, I'm sure. They were at work. On these jaunts the regular equipment was: cheap plastic binoculars (next to useless), cheap plastic army-style water bottle, iSpy book of birds, biro and a packet of (usually) jam sandwiches if you were lucky. You were less likely to encounter a motor vehicle around the countryside than you were in the town. In later life I used to cycle to work at various factories using the cycle lanes. Somewhere recently I read that some residents claimed there wasn't any parking space for bikes in the New Town. What? There was plenty; I remember padlocking my bike up in town on my youthful forays to The Hobby Shop!

What I find most amusing about the article is the surprised tone and the sheer incredulity that the lead designer, Eric Claxton**, shows that people chose to use cars instead of bikes! Now, I must admit that I am not, and never have been a cycling enthusiast. But it doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to realise that if you make the roads easy to whizz around because there aren't any pesky cyclists or kids on them then motorists are going to love it!

As an aside here, I must admit that I went to school with Mr Claxton's son. In those days everyone had nicknames but poor Howard had to make do with simply being "Claxton" or occasionally "Clackers". Ideally he should have been "Plug" after the notorious Bash Street Kid from the Beano due to his impressive set of lugholes. However, at our secondary school we actually had a kid who bore the most remarkable resemblance to Plug that there was no competition. Anyway, I vaguely remember his father as bearing a resemblance to a much later comic character, Victorian Dad from Viz. Which suggests to me that he must have been somewhat of a stern gentleman and lacking in humour. I may be wrong.

Evidently, according to the article, despite the safe routes from homes to schools, less children cycle nowadays to school than ever. People preferring to take their little darlings to school by car. Much the same as any other town in Britain. The article claims that Eric was quite prophetic about the way things were moving back in 1992 and he himself was partly to blame for the townsfolk preferring the road to the cycle lane. Build a safer environment for cars and expect people to still choose to cycle. Hmm . . . I know loads of people now that would love to have a fairly safe environment for cyclists - especially around Ipswich. Mind you in our town the council have designated a fair few roads to have cycle lanes with white lines painted along long stretches of main roads. The problem is, people just ignore them and park their cars in them anyway. A fairly pointless exercise it seems.

I've noticed over recent years a move towards micro-cars: those little Bakelite Fiats and tiny faux Minis. Back in the days old Eric was designing Stevenage infrastructure, over in Elstree, another part of Hertfordshire, plans were afoot to design a British micro-car to try to "drive those bloody awful German bubble cars off the road with a proper miniature car". Of course, everyone is aware of the British Motor Corporation eventually designing the Mini and what a success it was to become, but less people are aware of the loser in the race. In Elstree in 1958, the Opperman Stirling was built. It was to be offered in two engine sizes, 424 or 493cc. A prototype was shown at the 1958 Motor Show but due, evidently, to the bullying Chairman Leonard Lord of the BMC, the hopes of the Elstree-based tractor manufacturer were dashed to the ground. At £400 they were the cheapest car on show but none were ever sold. Another 8-track cartridge vs cassette example.  Due to the Suez Crisis petrol prices were increasing, so smaller cars, then as now, made sense.

Just think, had they been manufactured maybe those bike-free roads in Stevenage could have been swamped with queues of little Opperman Stirlings chugging down from nearby Elstree and along to the factories and shops. Perhaps the proud owners of these little marvels would have chosen to take their little darlings to school in them.  Mind you, if they were really successful all those empty country lanes might have been full of them choking up the clean air and bumping into all us little townie oiks whizzing around.

The legend of Brigadoon is the story of a mythical village in the Scottish Highlands. The village became enchanted centuries ago remaining unchanged and invisible to the outside world except for one special day every hundred years when it could be seen and even visited by outsiders. This enchanted day is spent in joy and celebration. Those who happen upon Brigadoon may remain in this beguiling place only if they love another enough to give up the world outside. Not sure how beguiling Stevenage ever was. However, it usually crops up evry blue moon or so with a news story that isn't very complimentary.

** Now that's a name to conjure with.