Licensed to… print?

“The name’s Bond, Basildon Bond. I’ve got letters after my name,” was the quip Russ Abbot used to introduce his 007-parodying character on TV in the 1980s.  But the real reason for this brand’s choice of name involves opposite ends of the Chilterns.

The story begins, indirectly, with the creation of John Dickinson Stationery in Apsley, near Hemel Hempstead, in 1804.  The firm was to enjoy over 200 years in business before its acquisition in 2005. Along the way it bought Millington and Sons, a London firm.  In the summer of 1911, Millington’s had been considering the introduction of a new rag writing paper, and some of the directors of the company were staying at Basildon Park. One of the matters arising was a name for this new paper brand. The directors took the name from the house, liking the alliterative effect.  The Basildon Bond brand survives to this day.

The house from which the brand got its name also embodies classic style as a Palladian villa with Adam-style interiors, built between 1776 and 1783 on the fortune which Sir Francis Sykes had amassed working for the East India Company in Bengal.  Its current healthy condition is largely due to Lord and Lady Iliffe who restored it, furnished it with appropriate Old Masters paintings and gave the house and park to the National Trust in 1978.  The Bath stone within the portico of the principal entrance has kept the warmth of its colour. The most surprising element inside is probably the Sutherland Room, which contains studies by artist Graham Sutherland for the tapestry for Coventry Cathedral as part of its post-war restoration; Sutherland was a friend of Lord Iliffe, a newspaper proprietor whose empire included the Coventry Evening Telegraph.  The tearoom in the old Servants’ Hall displays murals evoking Angkor Wat and other Eastern scenes, as a reminder of Sir Francis Sykes’ career and a trip by Lord and Lady Iliffe around the world.

Poetry… it’s the word on the street

Reality TV regularly shows us the results when competitions challenge people to be creative against the clock, whether that means implementing a business plan or baking a cake.  Along West Street at the top end of Marlow, heading towards Henley-on-Thames, is a reminder of a time, 200 years ago, when literature used to do something similar.

For this is where Percy and Mary Shelley once lived.  The house has since split into several flats but, in 1817, the Shelleys were completing or creating two significant literary works.  The story of how they stayed with Lord Byron at his villa on Lake Geneva the previous summer, reading each other ghost stories because of the inclement weather until Byron challenged each to write his or her own story, is well known.  By April-May 1817, Mary was completing work on what had started out as a short story, but became a novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.  Publication followed on 1 January 1818, albeit anonymously.

What is perhaps less well known is that Shelley’s poem Ozymandias may also have had a competitive origin.  According to Stephen Hebron, Curator of Special Projects at Oxford’s Bodleian Library,

“It was written sometime between December 1817 and January 1818, and was probably the result of a sonnet competition between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, who stayed with the Shelleys at their home in Marlow between 26 and 28 December. In such competitions two or more poets would each write a sonnet on an agreed subject against the clock.”

Shelley’s Ozymandias beat Smith’s version to publication by three weeks, being printed on 11 January 1818, and is much-quoted two centuries on.  Across the road, at 47 West Street, is a plaque to Thomas Love Peacock, novelist, poet and satirist – and close friend of Percy Shelley.  Peacock outlived Shelley by more than 40 years, but his writings now lie in an Ozymandias-like state of obscurity. Peacock’s old home is a showroom for a firm supplying natural stone and porcelain for the discerning home owner.

Remarkably, another plaque at number 31 reminds us that TS Eliot came to live in this street a century after the Shelleys, in a house which Aldous Huxley lent him.  By 1917, Eliot was beginning to come to the wider world’s attention for his poetry, including The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock which had been published two years earlier.  31 West Street now houses an excellent fine dining restaurant.

Given its length, perhaps it’s just as well that Eliot didn’t have to write Prufrock against the clock.

Careless writing and an Eton mess – UPDATE

A few years ago, in a book which wasn’t really about Sherlock Holmes, I read an assertion that (to paraphrase slightly) The Hound of the Baskervilles was commonly believed to be set in the 1870s. As there are clear indications in the book’s first few pages that the year is 1889 (or 1890 at a pinch), this belief can only have been common among people who had never read it.  The author compounded their error by asserting that Arthur Conan Doyle was sometimes careless with facts. Oh, dear. Author, heal thyself.

Perhaps rashly, at the end of the book the author invited readers to contact him to advise of any errors they had found in his book. So I did.  The evasive, patronising response told me, in effect, not to worry my ugly little head about it as I would only get confused.

A few years later I received a standard email on behalf of the same writer, encouraging me to buy his latest book.  I didn’t. But, today in a branch of Waterstones, I came across the book – and found that a large part of the chapter on Buckinghamshire was devoted to Eton College and also mentioned Slough. The trouble with this is that Eton and Slough are in Berkshire, and have been for some time.  True, they used to be in Buckinghamshire; Slough was the location of South Bucks District Council (whose customer service levels extended to leaving an answerphone on during lunchtime, but that’s another story). But this wasn’t a book about historic Buckinghamshire.  And in a book which sells in the travel section, putting a town in the wrong county is a bit of a howler.

Perhaps chastened – even if not admitting it – by his Baskervilles blooper, the author has not asked readers to let him know of any errors in his latest book.  The shame is that, before my email correspondence with him, I admired his writing. But then it wouldn’t be the first time that a writer in real life didn’t live up to the writer on the page.  I can’t promise that our Slow Guide won’t have any howlers in it – though, knowing the Bradt team, I’d bet against it! – but I hope we might be a bit more gracious if someone pointed one out.

Update: the author apparently believes that border changes in 1974 (which include Buckinghamshire/Berkshire) were “almost all terrible” and so he has based his book on an AA Handbook from 1955.  At a minimum the publicity does not point this out and hence is misleading; and a book published in the past five years would be expected, by most readers and people with any sense, to observe the current borders.  Unless, of course, the author is happier living in 1955…

Image of Eton College courtesy of Elliott Brown via Flickr.

Behind the green(e) door…

Before we go any further… if you’re a Shakin’ Stevens fan who has stumbled on this post by chance, I’m sorry it isn’t meant for you. If you want to find out what was behind the green door Shaky sang about, try this theory.

This door is in a quiet corner of Hertfordshire, in the town of Berkhamsted. Specifically it’s in Berkhamsted School, which is not too far off its 500th anniversary.  Today, it links the School’s impressive archival display with the Old Hall.  But around a century ago, it loomed large in the schooldays of one Graham Greene, whose father was the headmaster and who spent his schooldays on either side of the door: firstly while living with his family in the headmaster’s lodgings, and secondly as a boarder.  These were miserable times for the young Graham, especially when he became a boarder.  The green baize door separated the school from the headmaster’s lodgings.  It symbolised two sides and Graham never knew which side he was on.

“I was on both sides,” he said years later. “I could never choose between the saint and the sinner.”

This duality and doubt informed much of Greene’s later writing. Even today, while it’s easy to be impressed by the School’s trappings (in both senses), its impressive Chapel and cloisters as well as the Old Hall and the sense of history, it is also easy to sympathise with the young Graham.  He was, as his biographer Norman Sherry puts it, “isolated, disliked and distrusted since he was the headmaster’s son”.  Graham’s natural sensitivity and the circumstances conspired to produce a toxic combination, which led him to attempt suicide several times.  Anyone who has ever heard a nostalgic older person describing school as “the happiest days of [their] lives” will be on the young Graham’s side; that is to say, on both sides.

 

Wallingford: why they didn’t ask Agatha

Some years ago, in a little market town on the cusp of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, a lady used to go shopping. Her house was set back from a road just outside the town, and she used to take that road into the town centre. She might stop at the Nag’s Head for a cup of tea, before visiting the department store and possibly the chemist.  In the evenings, she might go to the Masonic Hall for a play or a pantomime; she had been persuaded to become the President of the local amateur dramatic society, as long as she didn’t have to make any speeches.

If this doesn’t sound like the best-selling novelist of all time, you might be surprised. The lady in question was known in Wallingford as Mrs Mallowan; to the rest of the world, she was Agatha Christie.  In a pre-internet, pre-email, pre-Twitter world, Agatha found her perfect space a few miles from Oxford and some way west of London, with relatively poor transport connections meaning she was unlikely to receive many visitors. Here, where she bought Winterbrook House in 1934, she could write on her latest murder mystery or romantic novel, and relax with her second husband Max Mallowan. Max was already a well-known archaeologist and Agatha loved accompanying him to digs in the Near East for several months each year.  But Wallingford was something else and, as Max acknowledged many years later, fellow residents helped Agatha to enjoy her new home by treating her as Mrs Mallowan, respecting her privacy and enabling her to get on with writing.  It’s hard to imagine, in our era when JK Rowling tweets her thoughts most days to millions of followers, that a famous writer could crave privacy, but Agatha did, and it’s to the great credit of Wallingford that she found it here.  Agatha and Max lived at Winterbrook for 42 years and now share a gravestone in the church in nearby Cholsey.

Nowadays Wallingford has another connection with the world of fictional crime, appearing regularly on TV as Causton, capital of the county where all those Midsomer Murders take place.  But, with the help of occasional organised walks between Wallingford and Cholsey and a sympathetic display in the town museum on the High Street, you can still find traces here of the lady who became known as the Queen of Crime.

Image courtesy of cyclonebill via Flickr.

When life gives you damsons…

“Would you like any damsons?”

It wasn’t what I was expecting to hear as we walked through a water meadow at Streatley on a typical November day in August.

Our plan had been to do a circular walk from Goring, taking in part of the Chiltern Way and the Thames Path, as recommended by our wildflower book, but the grey drizzle was discouraging and my feet hurt.  A re-think over coffee in The Chocolate Café and we decided to take things more slowly.

We strolled over the bridge towards Streatley, pausing to visit the church. The current church mainly dates from 1864, though the tower is fifteenth-century, but there has probably been a church on the site since Saxon times. The churchyard contains the remains of a Saxon warrior, perhaps one who fought with Alfred at the Battle of Ashdown in 871. His remains were found together with an iron spearhead and knife, bronze buckle and blood-stained tooth in 1932 by a local resident whilst working on the site of the old Bowling Green, and later re-interred in the churchyard. I’m sure Jerome K Jerome would have had a good story to tell about him, had the remains only been discovered fifty years earlier.

Following a sign from the church to the Thames Path we found ourselves in a water meadow where we had no difficulty in spotting the purple-loosestrife and common fleabane the book had told us to expect.  We also saw some non-native but very pretty orange balsam.

As I watched a barge slowly make its way down the river, my husband drew my attention to a little fruit stand with an honesty box, intended to raise funds for the conservation of the area.  Would I like any damsons? Of course I would.  The only problem was that the fruit was a pound a bag and I didn’t have change for a five pound note.  So that is how we ended up carrying two bags of damsons, two of pears and one of apples on our walk.

Returning, we decided to emulate the Three Men in a Boat and lunch at the Bull.  I don’t know what J, Harris and George (to say nothing of Montmorency the dog) would have made of jalfrezi pie, but I enjoyed it.

That’s the thing about Slow Travel.  You never know quite what to expect, but must take things (and damsons) as you find them. Now, where was that recipe for spiced damson chutney?

HM

1984 Live: a doubleplusgood production

One of the themes which runs through the Chilterns and Thames Valley is that of power and dissent.  You can find Chequers, Dorneywood and Windsor Castle on one hand; the Amersham Martyrs, the Jordans Quakers and John Hampden on the other.  The region was also home for a time to one of Britain’s greatest 20th century writers. The young George Orwell (or Eric Blair, to give him his real name) grew up in Henley-on-Thames and nearby Shiplake, and studied at Eton.

Today saw a special event centred on Orwell’s most famous work.  Senate House in London hosted a special reading/performance of 1984 – appropriately, as Orwell’s wife Eileen worked there for the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information, experiences which informed Orwell’s depiction of the Ministry of Truth in the book.  (Senate House also inspired The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene, who lived in Berkhamsted.)

Today’s performance – on the anniversary of the D-Day landings, a significant day for freedom if ever there was one, and in the week of a General Election – was part of the UCL Festival of Culture.  A company of players recreated the scenes from the book as various actors, politicians and others read from it.  The performance started at 9am and concluded at 10pm; the extracts I saw involved readings by Alan Johnson, perhaps Labour’s best leader who never was of recent years, and actors Harriet Walter and Guy Paul.  The production excelled in bringing out the power of Orwell’s words:

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

“Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else.”

“We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them.”

In the light not only of today’s anniversary and this week’s election, but recent events, Orwell’s words could scarcely be more relevant.