Bible of British Taste
  • Culture and Folk
  • December31st

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    The Eynsham Morris, boy novices at the first stop on their local Boxing Day four-pub fixture. NB Green Man.

    Photo credit my sister Lizzie who was standing next to me.

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  • September6th

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    A dozen times a year I drive down the A303 to Cornwall. Just before Launceston, when I am thinking of stopping for a cup of tea, I flash past a brown tourist sign that reads ‘Dingles Fairground Attractions’  but I had never turned off. Then one day I wandered into Malcolm Glickstein’s junk shop in the diaspora around St Pancras Station. Minutes later, I was handing over the first down payment on a battered double-seater Victorian ‘galloper,’ My merry-go-round horse was made in Burton on Trent by the chief carver of the firm of Orton and Spooner, the veritable C.J. Spooner, and had been painted and repainted dozens of times during its working life. Michael specialised in these wonderful things, and it was from him that I first heard of Dingles Fairgound Heritage Centre (as it is now more tastefully called).

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    Next time I headed west, I turned off for Dingles and drove down a mile of minor country roads to find it, a cluster of former agricultural buildings and one modern industrial hangar . My first visit was on a bleak wintry day and I had the place entirely to myself. Nothing had prepared me for the bliss that followed. Were you ever taken to the fair for a special treat? Did you long to win a goldfish, were you allowed candyfloss, did you prefer the dodgems or the octopus, were you too scared for the ghost train and did you end up feeling terribly sick? I was always lucky with goldfish but rides on the merry-go-round were my personal ecstasy.

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    At Dingles there are two collections, this one of older fairground attractions in the museum shed  and a much larger hangar full of working fairground rides. My first pictures are taken in the museum, where the spinning crocodile-fish will tell your fortune. The noble horses under tarpaulins are from a huge merry go round known as Edwards Golden Gallopers built by Savages of Kings Lynn, a firm that was world famous for their galloping horse roundabouts. No less an artist than Barbara Jones made a point of drawing their workshop for the Second World War propaganda commission, ‘Recording Britain,’ and you will find an honourable mention of  her endeavours here.

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    The racing car drivers were painted by Edwin Hall for the fascia boards of a dodgem ride commissioned by Sam Crow in 1938. The ride passed from father to son and was traveled around the north-east of England until the 1970s.

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    The first fairground ride-upon that I coveted was a life-sized goat that hung for almost two years against the window in Malcolm Glickstein’s junk shop. Although I had left no deposit on it, I thought of it as already mine, until suddenly one day it was gone. The next time that I saw it was in Primrose Hill. It had joined the collection of that interesting artist Peter Blake and was on show with other toys, taxidermy and gee-gaws in the show that he had curated, the Museum of Eveything’s exhibition no. 3.

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    Entrance to the Hall of Mirrors, me.

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    This children’s roundabout dates from before the First World War. It was built in Sowerby Bridge In Yorkshire, and traveled by Arthur Swift who probably built the space rocket and the liner (named Queen Elizabeth) himself. Arthur and his ride retired in the 1970s.

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    The blissful thing about these dodgems built by Orton Sons and Spooner, is that they are still running. For  a modest fee you can go on all the rides in the big hangar. Each one plays a different hurdy-gurdy tune and the sweet throbbing cacophony of organ and wurlitzer when you arrive inside makes the hairs stand up beautifully on the back of your neck.

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    This is Edwards’ Supersonic Lightening Skid, one of the last ‘thrill’ rides built in the 1930s.

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    Sultry Material Girl, already consigned to the museum shed.

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    On my second visit a party of nostalgia-and-fun loving senior citizens were thrilling to the Super Chariot Racer, a white knuckle ride built over seventy years ago.

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    Dingles is almost entirely run by a knowledgeable band of volunteers, enthusiasts and trustees. The President of the Showmans Guild of Great Britain describes it as ‘ our life and our heritage,’ for the rides here were used and operated by ‘our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers.’ Together they spent years fundraising at rallies to buy, rebuild and restore everything here and to set up the educational trust that runs Dingles now.

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    A story printed in yesterdays Financial Times’ How to Spend It magazine describes fairground art as folk art that is now highly collectable. Baby bankers, hedge funders and their dealers are scrabbling to buy up the jolliest pieces to install in their drawing rooms as talking pieces; battered condition and flaky paintwork is ‘not a problem.’  Visit’ Dingles Fairground Attractions ! and give thanks for all those un-monied, non-mercenary enthusiasts who built and run this wonderful place. All images copyright bibleofbritishtaste.

    Thanks to everyone at Dingles and especially Roger Alford. Dingles is off the A30 in Devon, 35 miles west of Exeter, open 7 days a week, February to November. http://fairground-heritage.org.uk/

    Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to bibleofbritishtaste, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

  • July15th

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    John Betjeman hated experts, antiquarianism, art historians and research fellowships. As his daughter Candida Lycett Green has pointed out, he never set out to champion conservation in the academic sense of that word, but rather to work in the cause of what he called ‘indeterminate beauty,’ a quality invariably left out of official lists and heritage campaigns because it is impossible to define.

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    John Betjeman and his daughter Candida in 1962.

    Betjeman’s  poetry is full of myriad contradictions, and coloured by the preoccupations that made up his character, lust mingled with piety, topography, architecture, churches and communal hymn singing, hilarity, knowledge and high seriousness. After a youthful dalliance with snobbery he went on to develop a gift for finding beauty in the mundane and ordinary, and by 1940 he was professing his deep love of  suburbs and Gothic revival churches, provincial towns and garden cities and all kinds of things unchampioned and derided by the taste-makers of the day. As he pointed out, ‘they are part of my background.’

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    It was this appreciation for the legacies of his middle class upbringing that went to make  him such a sympathetic figure, someone whose imagery, humour and understanding chimed with thousands of others, the eager audience for his books and journalism and television broadcasting after the war which was to destroy so much of what they were used to.

    An Oxford University Chest, John Betjeman, (London, 1938), illustrated with photographs by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and caricatures by Betjeman’s friend, Osbert Sitwell.

    An Oxford University Chest, John Betjeman, (London, 1938), illustrated with photographs by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and caricatures by Betjeman’s friend, Osbert Sitwell. These pages are captioned  ‘Bullingdon’ and ‘After Hall.’

    It was written a decade after Betjeman had been sacked from Magdalene College, Oxford, a victim of his bullying tutor C.S. Lewis, who despised JB as  budding aesthete with a lack of seriousness. Betjeman described Moholy Nagy as, ‘ a huge man with a constant smile and shaped like a large, oval water beetle which suddenly comes to the surface and dives out of sight. Moholy had a Leica and rushed about frenziedly photographing everything he saw.’

    Although his poetry was and is still widely read, he is now probably even more famous for his stance as a conservationist, campaigning for a range of buildings that many then considered to be unimportant or ordinary or even hideous. As Timothy Mowl has written, his achievement was to go ‘at least half way to converting a philistine nation to something which it then christened ‘heritage’ and half destroyed.’

    His efforts in the 1930s and after the war, and those of others like him, are celebrated in English Heritage’s new free exhibition in the Quadriga Gallery of the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner, Pride and Prejudice: The Battle for Betjeman’s Britain, from 17 July – 15 September.

    Betjeman’s love of the Church of England percolates through his poetry and writing, showing modern Englishmen and women how to love their churches and their Church. The relics and objects that he collected throughout his life were emblems of these deeply held tastes and beliefs.

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    JB’s prie-dieu ebonised and embellished with mother of pearl.

     

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    St. Mary’s Church Penzance, model encrusted with shells by an unknown maker, later furnished by Osbert Lancaster, with a gothic organ loft and a painted glass window at the west end.

     

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    The church was bequeathed by JB to the Cornish historian A.L. Rowse.

    In A Passion for Churches, filmed for the BBC in 1974, Betjeman says in his commentary, ‘A church should pray of itself with its architecture,’/… But there’s another way./ At his ordination/ Every Anglican priest promises to say/ Morning and Evening Prayer, daily./ The Vicar of Florden/ Has rung the bell for Matins/ Each day for the past eleven years./ It doesn’t matter that there’s no one there/ It doesn’t matter when they do not come/ The villagers know the parson is praying for them in their church.’

    But earlier in his life, after he parted from Nonconfomism, he invested his childhood teddy bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore with an almost fundamentalist passion for Nonconformist worship of the lowest and plainest kind.

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    The bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore and his dimmer friend Jumbo, seen here back at home in the Vale of Uffington, propped against a painting of St. Enodoc’s, the Cornish church-next-the-sea where Betjeman lies buried.
    Archie’s fervour is evidenced in the story book, Archie and the Strict Baptists, that JB drew and wrote for his children, republished in 2006 by Long Barn Books.

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    Archie eventually cut a pair of wings out of brown paper to fly, Icarus-like, over the fields to a chapel where his preferred creed of Strict Baptist was on offer.

    The rest of the time, Archie was an amateur archaeologist who set out on hedgehog back to excavate the mole hills around the Vale of the White Horse in Uffington, which he believed to be the funeral mounds of ‘baby druids.’

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    Betjeman’s antiquarianism and huge knowledge of architecture and topography were shared by his kindred spirit and friend John Piper. Together they collaborated on the Shell County Guides, and post-war, three  more architectural  guides for Murray’s publishing house, a series that was discontinued as the Shell Guides were revived.

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    Betjeman was the author of the Shell Guide to Cornwall, ( 1934), revised in 1964,  the surrealist collage for the cover of Wiltshire (1935), is by Lord Berners.

    His daughter Candida Lycett Green has followed the same paths and shares many of her father’s strongest tastes. She is the guardian of the bear Archie and his friend Jumbo; JB died with these two childhood toys resting in the crooks of his arms. She is the editor of her father’s letters and prose and the author of Unwrecked England, a column which she has written for The Oldie magazine since 1992; her latest book is Seaside Resorts (2011), and you can follow her on twitter.

    She is also a skilled horsewoman, novelist, stylist and contributing editor to Vogue. Nicky Haslam described her as the living person he most admired  – ‘beautiful, brave, strong, clever, loving and loved.’

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    Here she is with with her husband Rupert Lycett Green, co-hosting one of their famously good parties on a boiling Sunday in May .

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    There was terrier racing and a  dog show judged ( with bias) by Maggie Hambling and Tory Lawrence,

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    the Eynsham Morris ( seen here resting after their labours) and the Wantage Silver Band.

    Candida and her family run a poetry competition for 10 to 13 year olds (‘Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights,/ before the dark hour of reason grows.’ John Betjeman, Summoned by Bells’)   www.betjemanpoetrycompetition.com

    Each year it awards a generous prize of £1,000.

    This copy of Betjeman’s first volume of poems Mount Zion (1931) was presented to his future wife Penelope Chetwode soon after they had met. In it he wrote :

    ‘Penelope Chetwode I always think is not only tastefully dressed despite the hours she wears out her clothes in the Reading Rooms of the British Museum, but is also the possessor of unique social charm that has made her the cynosure of all eyes… So compelling is her character that I am obliged to write for her this facetious dedication. I am that clever chap John Betjeman.’

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    The same facetious tone often colours his poetry, but Betjeman had the bardic power of enchantment. There, as here, his tone is a foil, lightly disguising a protestation of love, of beauty, tragedy or sympathy, the strong feelings and affections that made everything he wrote or said so eloquently real and true.

     

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    Mount Zion, or In Touch with the Infinite,  published for JB in 1931 by Edward James, of who Salvador Dali is supposed to have said ,’ Of course, he is the most surrealist of us all.’

    Further reading :     Betjeman by A.N. Wilson

    [All images copyright bibleofbritishtaste/ the estate of John Betjeman]