Category Archives: Wells-next-the-Sea

Sixty-seven years

Very few dates stick in my ever decaying memory. But I know where I spent much of the day on 2nd June, 1953.

The story starts much further back. By my calculation in the late 1920s.

Two young demoiselles — let’s call them Betha and Mollie —  took the train each morning to Fakenham Grammar School. They looked forward to Monday mornings when a certain Harold Davidson would travel on that early morning train, and do their Maths homework for them. Harold Davidson? Ought to ring a church bell as the infamous (and arguably unfairly so) Rector of Stiffkey.

Betha and Mollie grew up, but remained friends. One became a midwife in London, and later my mother.

The other, once a Miss Fickling, later Mrs Marshall, continued to live at the family pub, the Carpenter’s Arms in Wighton.

So, on Coronation Day, 1953, I was with the Marshalls at the Carpenters Arms, where they had one of these new-fangled television receivers. Black-and-White, of course, very grainy and distinctly iffy — the East Anglian transmitter at Talcolneston (phonetically ‘Tacklestun’) didn’t come into service until the following year.

And that’s how I come to remember Coronation Day, 1953, Tuesday 2nd June, 1953.

The Carpenters Arms still survives and — despite rapacious brewers — prospers, more of a gastro-pub (but that reflects the change of population). For many years it was closed. Then it reopened under an assumed name, The Sandpipers, or something similarly fanciful. I’ll remember it when the choctaw bars, recently ‘off ration’, stood beside the till.


Filed under History, Norfolk, Wells-next-the-Sea

British Railways

I now realise I lived through the entire existence of British Railways, and its privatised after-life.

At the end of the Second World War the railway network was 17,500 miles of routes. My small natal town (Wells, on the top arch of the Norfolk coast) had two lines: one south to Norwich, the other west to Heacham to join the King’s Lynn line. Both were antiques.

The Heacham line went early: June 1952 (even before the devastating floods the following year). When I went to grammar school, we were pulled by a 4-4-0 Claud Hamilton. There’s one, pulling past the signal box: a real man reduced to the job of a snivelling apprentice. Soon the Clauds were replaced by Derby-built DMUs, which we thought modernity indeed.

Then, of course, came Dr Beeching:

After which thirty-odd lost years. By then I was a regular commuter along the north London line from Gospel Oak to Barking. There were any number of days without any service at all: the message was the Thatcher government wanted nothing more than the railways to go away. Instead we got privatisation: subsidies were lavished on private operators, who gave way to foreign nationalised companies milking the tax-payer. Conditions improved. Fares went stratospheric.

Yesterday I caught a BBC Yorkshire TV news-item. It was the state of services from Sheffield to London. Trains, it seems, are running — even on a reduced service — with an average of eight passengers. Most of the time East Midland trains are shuttling fresh air from St Pancras to Sheffield, and back again. Government pays the operator, and collects the minuscule income.

We have a transport system operating entirely as a social service.

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Filed under History, Norfolk, railways, Wells-next-the-Sea

Monkey business

… and so, from man’s inhumanity to man, I mused on the curious story of the Hartlepool monkey. If only to escape from the more immediate topics of recent days (as in the re-phrasing of the traditional Chinese curse, “Mrs May, you live in exciting times”).

Legend has it that, during the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was caught in a storm and wrecked off the Tees estuary. A monkey, dressed in a mock military uniform, was washed ashore. The locals (allegedly “fishermen”, but as likely shore-watchers or — crudely — wreckers) had never seen a Frenchman, held an impromptu court, declared the monkey a French spy, and hanged the creature from a convenient ship’s mast.

In my more-athletic, less-gouty youth, when we played one of the Hartlepool rugby teams, we referred to them derisively as “monkey-hangers”. Like all the best insults, it was adopted by the insulted: H’Angus the Monkey (as right) became the mascot of the soccer team — and Stuart Drummond, the occupant of the money-costume, was elected as the town’s mayor in 2002. It was H’Angus/Drummond’s other intrusion into the public consciousness: he had twice been escorted from the pitch for simulating sex with a blow-up doll.

All this appears on wikipedia, but the legend of the Hartlepool monkey has too many loose-ends (no dark humour intended) to be left there.

Ned Corvan was a mid-19th century music-hall artist and impresario in the North-East. He produced a series of song-books before his early death from TB. One of his songs was The Fishermen Hung the Monkey, O!  This is adduced as the first public outing of the legend. There are doubts about Corvan’s claim to originality, though.

Nominal confusions

Corvan learned his trade as an entertainer with Billy Purvis’s Victoria Theatre. Purvis was born near Penicuik, just south of Edinburgh, and migrated to Newcastle — so the east coast of Scotland may be a significant connection. Then there is the earlier Blind Willie Purvis.

Life is too short to unscramble which, but one or other Purvis had a song from Aberdeenshire, which is a clear analogue of the The Fishermen Hung the Monkey, O! —

Eence a ship sailed round the coast
And a’ the men in her was lost,
Burrin’ a monkey up a post —
So the Boddamers hanged the monkey-O

Pauline Cordiner’s blog credibly claims the Hartlepool monkey story was transplanted from Boddam, near Peterhead. And makes the connections.


All the attempts to “explain” the story I find questionable. One sinister “explanation” (and there’s more here than meets the eye) is that ship’s boys were the “powder-monkeys”, and it was one of them who was the victim. And, we may see, for good reason.

Even this far, we already have pegs on which to hang any number of hats, and any odd theory. Bella Bathurst (page 262 in my paperback copy) makes a calculation:

… it is not Cornwall or the Pentland Firth which has the dubious honour of the highest number of shipwrecks per mile of coast. It is Durham, a tiny county with a tiny sliver of coastline, with 43.8 losses per mile. Further south, Norfolk has 25.6 and Suffolk 25, both of which make south Cornwall’s twenty wrecks per mile seem almost modest.

A law with unintended consequences

Add in the basis of “salvage”.

What immediately follows is from Bella Bathurst, but I see remarkable, even uncanny coincidences with Donald G. Shomette’s Shipwrecks, Sea Raiders, and Maritime Disasters Along the Delmarva Coast (see especially page 125).

In 1236 Henry III of England decreed that an owner of wrecked goods could claim them, within three months of a wreck. However, the same rule added that, as long as any man or beast escaped alive, the ship was not truly a wreck. This was repeated by Edward I’s First Statute of Westminster. The intent of the law, presumably as proposed by ship-owners, was to prevent the seizure and destruction of vessels that could be re-floated. The paradoxical result was to create a motive for murder. As long as the odd survivor was around, wreckers could not claim their expected dues. That Bella Bathurst  book (page 11) has:

The ‘man or beast’ ruling persisted for many centuries in different forms, and it was not until 1771 that it was finally and explicitly repealed. Even then, its effects lingered on in the common lore of the land. In more remote parts of the country, nineteenth- and even early-twentieth-century  wreckers were supposedly drowning their victims according to the old rule.

A local link

I was very young, probably still at junior school, when I came across a tattered book about East Anglia and its curiosities. It included a bit of doggerel:

Cromer crabs,
Runton dabs.
Beeston babies, 
Sheringham ladies,
Weybourne witches, 
Salthouse ditches, 
and the Blakeney people
stand on the steeple,
and crack hazelnuts
with a five-farthing beetle. 
Blakeney bulldogs, 
Morston dodmen, 
Binham bulls,
Stiffkey trolls.
And Wells bite-fingers.

From east-to-west, that’s a recital of the North Norfolk coast.

Even in the earlier period, before those small harbours silted up, there were no havens for larger vessels between Lynn on the Wash and Yarmouth at the mouth of the Yare. And certainly none one might wish to tackle in a pounding nor’easter.

So, two explanations there:

  • a “beetle” is Old English bíetel, an implement for beating: the kind of thing still used for levelling paving stones. Or used as a weapon — as John Lydgate (a Suffolk man, from … err … Lidgate) noted in The Pylgremage of the Sowle:

Somme were brayned with betels and somme beten with staues.

  • If a ship-wrecked corpse needed rings removed, the people of Wells are here alleged to resort to amputation by mouth. As one native-born, I’d demonstrate.

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Filed under Britain, East Anglia, History, Norfolk, Wells-next-the-Sea

Another op’nin

The 2001 London revival: It was superb. I had already been treated to the production on Broadway. It was already transferring to London, even before 9/11 had devastated New York theatre-attendances. So I paid real money to revisit it at the Victoria Palace

Few musicals beat that opening. But there are only half-a-dozen musicals worthy to start alongside Kiss Me, Kate —and at least one more has Cole Porter’s name over the title.

I can get something of the same thrill opening a new book for the first time.

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend…

… Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. Thank you, Groucho: don’t call us. We’ll call you.

Buying, on spec, a new book by a  previously-untried, even unknown writer is itself a venture.

I pluck the book from the pile or the shelf — perhaps because the cover or the title means something to me. I flick a few pages. I either return the book whence it came, rejected, or reach for the wallet and the plastic.

I did that last Friday.

iuMy two acquisitions were Ian Sansom’s Westmorland Alone and Tom Blass, The Naked Shore.

There is a tangential connection between those two.

The first in Sansom’s series was The Norfolk Mystery. Obviously a Norfolk-born, Norfolk-bred type would be weak in the head not to snap at that. So I did, and found it wholesome — but not really much more — enough to go for the second in the series, Death in Devon.  Which I found harder going: the arch references to Arthur Mee and all those 1930s “cosy” teccies seemed to be wearing, and wearing a bit thin. Still, I went for this third one; and it went down quite nicely. If nothing else, it overcame the imminent reading-block that was sub-symptom of a winter chill.

So that was a re-visit. The “new” one was —


The connexion with the Tom Blass is also Norfolk (which features very slightly) and East Anglia more generally.

Ir reads very well, rather disconnectedly — but this isn’t a straight narrative. Blass shifts, idiosyncratically, from space to place, topic to topic, encounter to encounter. And then will return whence he came, a hundred pages of more later. The book tends, obviously, to the gossipy. I find little wrong or objectionable about that.

Above all, The Naked Shore is delightfully filled with small and informative detail. Here’s a very early one:

In Whitby once, among the stones of the ‘Dracula’ abbey, I was struck by the starkness of the difference between the accents of a visiting family from Newcastle and those of the natives. Geordie’s origins lies with the Teutonic Angles, hence ‘gan’ — as in ‘gan down toon’, from the German gehen for ‘go’, while their Yorkshire hosts’ linguistic ancestry lay further north (arse, bairn, dollop and flit all have Norse heritage). Some fifteen hundred years after their arrival, fifty miles of English coast still reflect ancient ethnic differences, the origins of which lie on the far side of the North Sea.

Blass returns another half-dozen times to Whitby, at one stage as part of the strange  class-divides between seaside resorts, even (as page 108):

Today the middle classes that seek out the evocative beaches of North Norfolk at Holkham and Blakeney studiously avoid not-dissimilar shorelines close by.

I’ll go with that: Wells is neatly sandwiched between those two “evocative beaches” — indeed, I challenge any in-comer to know where Holkham beach ends and Wells begins. I’d put it around where the old Coastguard look-out was. By the time, heading east, one reaches the beach-huts, one definitively is in Wells. And the reason for the “social” difference (consider, too house prices)? Wells had — before blasted Beaching — a train line. And a bit further back, GER/LNER ‘tripper’ specials all the way from London’s Liverpool Street. That, and the whiff of whelks being loaded into the guard’s van lowered the tone.

Note from the above, that although may dot from topic to topic, the book comes with a useful index for playing dot-to-dot.

A comparator

61ieuy24gfl-_uy250_Yes, we’ve been in these parts quite recently.

Only a couple of years ago, Michael Pye did nicely by, and nicely out of The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We AreThat’s an equally subjective account, but organised on more orthodox — even “historical” lines. It’s a “deeper” book, in many respects a “better” book; but one more concerned with — as the title suggests — the anthropology, even sociology, of the North Sea coasts and peoples. So it is more rooted in what we used to be able to term, without apology or explanation, “the Dark Ages”.

I shall be keeping both on my shelves: not as rivals, but as complements.


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Filed under Britain, Detective fiction, East Anglia, fiction, History, Norfolk, reading, Wells-next-the-Sea

Don’t look back

Remember The Go-Between:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

My past has a positive gazetteer of “foreign countries”:

  • In the beginning there was post-War London, with its winter smogs, watching the conductors with their bull’s-eye lamps leading — yes, leading —  trams through the filth of a London particular. And being totally embarrassed by the word “nun” in my father’s The Star crossword. But Londoners had the choice of three evening papers then.
  • There is Wells, Norfolk (see previous posts ad nauseam), where tumbledown flint cottages (yours for hundred quid a throw, or less) became the second-homes for Islingtonians (starting print £350,000 plus).
  • Schull, West Cork, which has suffered a similar fate to north Norfolk, and where I spent a series of mixed-miserable schoolboy-vacations, translating Euripides, swimming among the sea-wrack, and catching a huge pollack (which left the house-cat bloated). And where I was accosted by the Parish Priest and reminded I had not been in church that Sunday. When I protested I was not of his congregation, I was further told that was not the point: I should have been in my church.
  • The light-hearted, golden-age, early-’60s Dublin, where one could eye-ball the likes of Paddy Kavanagh, in the flesh, in his cups, in McDaid’s, for the price of a pint. Now he has a seat by the canal; and the pub has a website.
  • And one particular parenthood (after the other two). This the one we hadn’t expected. Carrying a toddler off the rocking ferry onto Staffa, and across the machair to Fingal’s Cave. Years passing, and having her near-pass out climbing a 13,000 foot peak in the Rockies (she would go on to camp at 18,000 feet in the Himalayas). Then having her escort her ageing Pa past the Spanish Steps, across the Piazza di Spagna, to acknowledge the Keats-Shelley House.

And so on. And so on.

Which brings me to this, in the New York Times. So tell it like it is, Angel Daphne:


I, too, am Eugene Gant. But I can’t look back: my old neck’s too stiff. But I, like Thomas Wolfe, recall my Lycidas:

Ay me! Whilst thee the shores, and sounding Seas
Wash far away, where ere thy bones are hurled,
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit’st the bottom of the monstrous world;
Or whether thou to our moist vows deny’d,
Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded Mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold;
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth.
And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth.

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Filed under County Cork, Dublin., History, Literature, New York Times, travel, Wells-next-the-Sea

Hell upon earth

Two ways into this:

  • I’ve not a regular with The Guardian‘s Long Read. It’s there. I’m glad it’s there. I’m delighted that at least one British quality daily has a commitment to serving its readers with more than pap. It’s just that — well, err — there’s only so much worthy fretting one can do in one short day. But today is the exception …

My grandfather, my great-grandparents, and even their parents originated from Wisbech, deep in the Fens. For two generations they are “AgLabs”, the staple agricultural labourers in many family trees. Then Great Grandad Matthew, who was an apprentice blacksmith, lost an arm, became a “letter-carrier”, and rose to Post Master.

  • Furthermore, I grew up in North Norfolk — the contrived town motto (even Latinised) was “between land and sea”. That was a statement of fact: the economy of Wells came from whelking and farming, with a bit of bunce from a few short weeks of summer visitors. In the 1950s the farm workers’ strikes of the previous generation were still painfully remembered.

So I’ve just spent the length of three cups of tea, reading with fascinated horror Felicity Lawrence’s dissection of The gangsters on England’s doorstep, a recital of how Wisbech (and other small towns in the profound depths, well away from the metropolitan consciousness) have become infested with crookery and thuggery imported from eastern Europe:

A web of several competing eastern European gangmaster operations hiring out migrant labourers seemed to be connected to an increase in crime — although it was politically charged to say so. There had been a spate of apparent suicides among young eastern European men who had come in search of work — five within a year between 2012 and 2013. Three of the dead had been found hanging in public places around the town; one of them had been recovered from a small park near the BP garage next to graffiti that translated as: “The dead can’t testify”.

These were not the only disturbing deaths: a 17-year-old Latvian girl had disappeared from Wisbech in the summer of 2011, and her partially clothed, decomposed body was only discovered five months later, on the Queen’s Sandringham estate. A Lithuanian courier was killed in an arson attack on the van in which he was sleeping. There had also been reports of knife attacks by migrants on migrants but victims would disappear or turn out to have been using false identities.

The “locals” have felt their only way to fight back was to make grumbling noises and vote UKIP:

Most of us do not see the brutal parallel universe at the heart of the mainstream economy. But in the Fens, it has been highly visible – along with the transnational organised crime running a part of it. This has made people very angry. Now they want out of Europe – more than two–thirds of voters in Wisbech’s parliamentary constituency said in a 2014 survey that they would favour the UK leaving the EU.

Lawrence, though, sees beyond the cleavage in Fenland society, to look to fundamental causes:

From the late 1980s on, new technology allowed employers to eliminate much of the financial risk from their end of the chain. Supermarkets, for example, only reorder stock when a customer buys an item and its barcode is scanned, generating an instruction to their suppliers to replace it by the next day. Orders can double or halve within 24 hours, so workers to process and pack the goods are called in at short notice. This reduces costs and increases profits, since businesses no longer have to keep inventory or pay for full employment. Instead they have outsourced labour provision to agents or gangmasters. Agriculture and food processing pioneered this lean approach to business, but its zero-hours practices have spread to other sectors – to care homes, catering and food service, hotel work, cleaning, construction, and personal services such as nail bars and car washes.

Earlier waves of migration brought foreign workers to other East Anglian towns, but the availability of cheap housing has drawn gangmasters more recently to the Wisbech area. The last census of Wisbech in 2011 put the population at around 25,000 but officials accept that it is now probably nearer 30,000, with about 10,000 of those people recently arrived foreigners. The size of the private rental market doubled in a decade to more than 2,000 properties in 2015. Houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs) – the gang-run houses where new migrants mostly live – now account for a substantial percentage of housing stock. Government agencies trying to reach vulnerable migrant groups visited around 500 homes in the year from January 2014. By then, three of Wisbech’s wards had become some of the most deprived areas of the country.

Her article painstakingly traces the central villains’ progress from running labour gangs, to slum-landlording, to money-laundering, to exploitation, to theft, to prostitution and fake marriages, to … what else? When the nasties came to court:

The trials conjured up a nightmare of Fenland life, where there were no rules where you expected them to be, and when rules did exist, there was no one to enforce them.

Note that: no one to enforce them:

There were also only three housing officers for the whole Fenland district council to carry out inspections at the time – the council had suffered a 37% cut in its budget since 2010. […]

HMRC had just 142 national minimum wage inspectors for the whole country. According to the government’s migration advisory committee, this means that the average business, statistically, should expect a visit from an inspector once every 250 years. Unions that might have overseen conditions in fields and factories in the past are in decline. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has lost staff, having had its budget slashed over the course of the last parliament by 20%.

I’ve written about the causes of all this before. It’s not just the “cuts” (though they are bad enough). It is more, much more to do with the savage assault on workers’ protection over the years. I was making these points eight years ago, and tracing the causes back to a root. Allow me to dig up that oldie (slightly updated):

Norfolk-born, Norfolk-bred ..

Malcolm’s alter ego originated in Wells-next-the-Sea, which in those distant days enjoyed the privilege of a Labour MP.
In 1945 Eddie Gooch, of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, displaced the squirarchical Tommy Cook, though the radical tradition had been there even before Noel Buxton took the seat for Labour back in 1929.

The North Norfolk seat later, in 1964, was inherited by Bert Hazell, then President of the NUAW.  Bertie survived into his 102nd year, to die in 2009 the longest-living former MP of recent times.

It was always, sneeringly, implied that Eddie Gooch’s and Bert Hazell’s tenures of the constituency were helped by the local farmers who voted to keep them at Westminster, rather than causing them problems through the NUAW. That canard ignores the local tradition of radicalism.

The years the locust ate

Après Bertie, le déluge.

The complexion of the constituency changed. Employment on the land fell rapidly. That also drained much of the bitterness that had persisted since the agricultural depression of inter-war years, and the farm-workers’ strikes of 1923 and 1926. Moreover, the second-homers started to arrive. Added to which, North Norfolk is now home to the largest “retired” percentage of the national population.

All conspired so that for the next two decades, the ’70s and the ’80s, the North Norfolk constituency was the fiefdom of Ralph Howell.

Howell, like Peter Mandelson, was one to whom taking an instant dislike saved a deal of time.

He was xenophobic, rabid, a Thatcherite before the Lady, an apologist for white racist régimes in Africa, and a supporter of the Turks in Cyprus.

He was instigator of the “Right to Work”, which sounds well but (in his terms) amounted to a curious, even Stalinist notion that the unemployed should be conscripted, either into national service or be otherwise deployed by the state. Howell had come close to defining “Workfare”.

Yet, he had saving graces: a good war-record, served his constituents conscientiously, was afraid of nobody (even his own Whips): a self-made (and proudly so) agri-businessman.

Reaping what the Thatcherities sowed

Wisbech didn’t get into this situation willingly. But this situation has been willed.

As Lawrence reminds us:

The Agricultural Wages Board, which set out employment terms for field workers, was abolished in 2013. The EU working time directive aims to prevent workers doing dangerously long hours, but the UK allows an opt-out, seeing it as a burden on business. The pressure on large producers to cut costs – one of the key drivers of labour exploitation – is often blamed on supermarkets squeezing their margins. A recommendation by the competition authorities in 2000 that this excessive buying power be countered by a groceries adjudicator took 13 years to be implemented. The adjudicator only acquired the power to impose penalties in 2015, and has yet to do so.

Liberalising trade rules and financial flows has enabled the free movement of goods and capital across Europe – and, with them, people. But while World Trade Organisation rules prescribe global hygiene standards in minute detail, they are largely silent on the social and labour conditions in which the goods are produced.

A complex web of small rules widely obeyed – from paying your tax to insuring your car, to giving workers proper breaks – are the threads that weave a democratic social contract and a protective state. Many people in Wisbech have become more rightwing, in protest at what they see. The collapse of totalitarian structures of state control in former-Soviet eastern Europe has combined with a shrinking of state in the west. This shrinking of the state has created the vacuum into which organised crime has rushed.

I’m sure “Sir” Ralph Howell would approve of much of all that. So, ironically for the folk of Wisbech, would UKIP (but can’t and won’t say so locally).

There are remedies, and obvious ones:

  • ensure that agencies are properly resourced. In the Fenlands the “cuts” are not just financial: they are also human lives, and deaths. Lest we forget:

    A police force that handed over the bulk of its back-office functions to the private sector now spends the lowest amount per head of population on policing in England and Wales, a report has said.
    Lincolnshire Police has slashed its spending by nearly a fifth or £5 million per year, equal to the cost of 125 police officers. 
    The police force cut their budget through a deal with security firm G4S, transferring several administrative departments over to the private firm.

  • with those resources, beef up the enforcements of housing conditions, “fair rents”, over-crowding and minimum wage.
  • The “light-touch” regulation of gangmasters has clearly failed. In the light of what Lawrence’s article shows, read between the lines of this self-exculpation by (oh, the irony!):

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime (Karen Bradley)

The GLA [Gangmasters Licensing Authority] is an organisation which regulates the supply of labour to the farming, food processing and shellfish gathering sectors and protects workers in those sectors from exploitation. The GLA works to embed a framework through which workers are treated fairly and labour providers and labour users operate on a level playing field. The GLA also plays a significant role in enforcing the protection of workers and directly tackling those who choose to abuse the system.

  • eliminate, make illegal, the gang-master system. We used to have efficient employment exchanges, through which workers [were] treated fairly and labour providers and labour users operate[d] on a level playing field. Would it be a gross affront to liberty to have all short-term agricultural employment channelled through them, rather than factored clandestinely, in the early hours, on the forecourt of a petrol station? And, if not, might wage-payment be made through the same channel — that proper amounts paid and deductions made?
  • ensure that migrant workers have “champions”. These used to be called “trade unions”.
  • make the “social market” work for decent people.

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Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., crime, economy, Europe, Guardian, Tories., UKIP, Wells-next-the-Sea

The map empties

Charles Greenhough, for, may have scooped the pool for the the most boring Ordnance Survey Grid Square with TG0645:


His comment:

If my map reading is correct this square has a triangle of land at low tide with side approx 50 metres. The only features were two orange buoys a few yards off shore and they do not count because they are on the water. So I believe I have photographed all the land in the grid square in this photo. There is a grid square in the Midlands with one contour line and an HT electricity line crossing one corner which people have claimed is the most boring, but TQ0645 only has a few hundred thousand pieces of gravel, no contours and no electricity, and should take the prize.

The location is Salthouse, on the North Norfolk coast, none too far from my own natal origin. Add a mid-January grey sky to the leaden North Sea, and you have normal for that part of Norfolk.

Another feature of the maps of East Anglia are the expanses marked “disused airfield”. I remember RAF Bircham Newton (last heard of as used by the Construction Industry Training Board), RAF Coltishall and RAF Watton (both used as detention centres), RAF North Creake (where the control tower is a B&B), RAF Langham (like so many, returned to farming), RAF West Raynham, which was where — as a Sea Scout —I first swam in fresh water (and is now housing) …

One that survived for a while was RAF Sculthorpe, in the late-1950s the largest USAAF  facility in Europe, operating RB-45 nuclear bombers.

Now we hear the Americans are pulling out of Mildenhall, Alconbury and Molesworth, all further south and west.

The Yankee occupation of East Anglia (1942-2015) is coming to its logical conclusion. No more “Overpaid, over-sexed, over here”.

The map will show more disused airfields, each filling — no doubt — with red-brick speculative housing, lorry parks and warehousing. Very boring, especially compared to the whiff of  aviation fuel, the accents of Georgia and the Mid-West complaining of warm English beer, produce escaped from the commissary into a country recovering from post-war rationing, the flashing fishtails of Chevrolets, the noise of tactical nukes passing overhead, or the glimpse of a U-2 spy-plane.

And there is that persistent myth, which Prestwick will always deny, that Elvis Presley did a flying visit through Mildenhall.

That would be worthy of a marker on the map.

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Filed under History, Norfolk, United States, Wells-next-the-Sea

Another season, no complaining

Having knocked off that previous post, on the festive magazine covers for Christmas 1939, it occurred to me to look at two years later.

December 1941 must have been frenetic for anyone in US magazine publication (not to say, horrendous for Americans and the World).

At 7.55 a.m, local time, the Japanese navy launched its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Within minutes nineteen U.S. warships were sunk or out-of-action, 140 aircraft destroyed, 2,300 servicemen dead, another 1,200 wounded.

The following day Roosevelt made his “day which will live in infamy” address to Congress. War on Japan was declared with a single dissenter. How that resolution came abouSenate 8 Dect is a story in itself (see right).

On December 11th Germany and Italy obliged by declaring war on the United States. By then American was in the European War for the long haul.

In the next couple of weeks the Philippines were invaded, Guam and Wake Island were occupied. The draft was extended to all in the ages of 20 to 44.

Willie Gillis and beyond

I apologise to nobody for liking Norman Rockwell. Deploring a commercial artist as “populist” must be one of the great sine-quibus-non of art criticism. Rockwell wasn’t illustrating America — though some of the stuff he did in his final phase —The problem we all live with — is searing social criticism. He gave his clients what they wanted: he was illustrating the America that middle-class Americans aspired to and thought they remembered.

I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s 2011 import of the National Museum of American Illustration’s Rockwell exhibition. The tour concluded with all his Saturday Evening Post covers, from 20 May 1916 to 14 December 1963. That last was a black border around the Kennedy image used for 29 October 1960.

Out of that display I took two instructive points:

  • Taking the Kennedy image first: the assassination (22 November) imposed production problems to produce a striking cover for a publication date so near in the future. Re-employing the portrait from the 1960 Election campaign solved the problem. It also made me look again at the Rockwell Christmas cover for 1941 — which would have gone into the mail and on sale barely a fortnight after Pearl Harbor. I’ll come to that in a moment.
  • The other is Rockwell was anticipating war well before Pearl Harbor. He had already begun the series, eventually amounting to eleven, which took Willie Gillis from raw recruit (Saturday Evening Post Cover, 4 October 1941) to GI-Bill college (5 October 1946):


Every time I come across those Rockwell war-time images, I repeat the (anonymous?) comment about Micky Mouse and Donald Duck patriotic one-reelers: thank heaven they were on our side! And the greatest of those was Rockwell’s working of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (the 1941 State of the Union Address):


The post-war world, and our concepts of “human rights” start here, folks. St Paul, though, got the whole idea into three words: see 1 Corinthians, 13.

The News kiosk in the snow

Anyway, the point I have been working toward (and there is one) is the Saturday Evening Post Christmas cover for 1941.

How could Rockwell’s painstaking approach — studies leading to a meticulously completed oil — be accommodated into the frenzy of the first few days of a declared World War? Here it is:

Cover 1941

Unless my eyes deceive me, the clue is the difference between the main image and the reduced near-facsimiles around the window: Buy Defense Bonds.

The Turner scenario?

Mr TurnerI haven’t yet seen Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, an omission caused by a week in Italy and a busy life before the bathroom fitters arrive. The reviews tell me it includes the incident at the Royal Academy in 1832. Constable had spent a decade-and-half perfecting his The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, and was still titivating it on varnishing day. Turner arrived, saw his Helvoetsluys was hung alongside the Constable, and might, just might, appear a trifle dowdy by comparison. With a dab of red paint Helvoetsluys gained a new buoy, and a focal attraction.

I can imagine the art-department of the Post considering the draft Rockwell cover, perhaps in panic and despair. And with a small detailed addition the situation was remedied.

In this context, with that image, my inner Wells-next-the-Sea choirboy hears George Herbert:

A man that looks on glass, 
         On it may stay his eye; 
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, 
         And then the heav’n espy.

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The Widow’s Mite

St NicholasI don’t recall when I first engaged with Economics 101, but it may have been in the choir stalls of St Nicholas, Wells-next-the-Sea, in the mid-1950s. So probably it was during the season of Trinity, and I was tuned in (as a boy soprano might) to the prescribed New Testament reading:

And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.
And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.
And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:
for all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

22.4.2010: Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Not “termites”: two mites!

Ok, let’s resort to the ultimate authority, the OED:

Any small coin of low value; originally applied to a Flemish copper coin, but in English used mainly as a proverbial expression for an extremely small unit of monetary value (see also sense 1b). Occas. used to denote a more specific unit, as a farthing, a half farthing, or (esp. in accounting) some smaller fraction of a farthing. Now hist.

Yes: I’ve had to explicate that further, in another context, by bating a stiver. That was in connection with Robert Browning (stanza ten) and Der Rattenfänger von Hameln:

The Piper’s face fell, and he cried,
“No trifling! I can’t wait! Beside,
I’ve promised to visit by dinnertime
Bagdad, and accept the prime
Of the Head-Cook’s pottage, all he’s rich in,
For having left, in the Caliph’s kitchen,
Of a nest of scorpions no survivor–
With him I proved no bargain-driver,
With you, don’t think I’ll bate a stiver!
And folks who put me in a passion
May find me pipe to another fashion.”

A stiver?

Indeed: as defined — again – by the Oxford English Dictionary:

A small coin (originally silver) of the Low Countries; applied to the nickel piece of 5 cents of the Netherlands (one-twentieth of a florin or gulden, or about a penny English).

In other words: the smallest coin of the realm.

Not quite an episode of the madeleine, then

More one of post-prandial ginger cake and a relaxed second bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

For, it was then the Lady in my Life drew my attention to Polly Toynbee:

… last week Ed Miliband bet the bank – plus bankers’ bonuses – that ballooning inequality was the great issue of our time. He’s not alone, as the International Monetary Fund, the World Economic Forum and even Mark Carney of the Bank of England identify it as the root cause of long-term economic woe: if too many are paid too little, who buys the goods and pays the taxes?

In his “zero-zero economy” speech Miliband threw off inhibition to hammer out his long-term theme – how inequality, insecurity and low pay cause a standard of living crisis that looks dangerously like the new normal. This is Labour’s authentic message, not political calculation or a left lurch, but what the party’s for. The pretence that Labour is anything else always reeked of the Westminster dissembling and inauthenticity that drives voters away. For both main parties, the middle ground begins to look more like a death zone than the winning turf.

Or to put a few numbers in there:

 Those earning over £2.7m contribute 4.2% of all income tax, while the lowest-paid third contribute 4%.

Polly is citing from the Telegraph‘s despairing How top 3,000 earners pay more tax than bottom 9m.

The difference is those top earners do it out of shed-loads of “disposable” income — monies which are available to deploy after all living costs,  including the Bentley,  the au-pairs, and the Swiss chalet,  have been settled.

The poor pay their whack, like it or not, in constrained deductions, such as VAT on essential living, and the new taxes, beloved by “conservative” Tories, such as the Bedroom Tax and ever-ramped transport costs.

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MMDuo millia.

Yesterday morning I was confronted, according to the WordPress counter, with this being my two thousandth post. I am assuming that includes the earlier efforts imported from Blogspot; but excludes that pathetic effort to maintain a parallel reading blog.

It has taken about eight years to reach this point. I never expected the mood and motivation to last this long, even intermittently. I doubt, one way and another, I shall be around for another thousand. After that the unloved semi-colon can die its inevitable death.

So this one ought to be a bit special. However, on past experience, that is too much to hope for.

I’d reached that point of musing, whereupon, from above and as some meteorological hypertext, there came a rumble of thunder. Thrice in the day we had torrential downpours. There was one moment the whole back of the house was running with overflow from the gutters. The roadway was awash for kerb-to-kerb — and across the sidewalks. It was not a good day to live at the bottom of the hill. And the last snap of thunder, in the gloaming, was the loudest and closest.

Choices, choices

What’s left to be said, perhaps?

Reading has been off the agenda here this last while.

When the froth and kerfuffle of daily politicking — with which, I must admit, too many of these posts have been concerned — are left aside, that’s what really matters.

If there has been an achievement these years it is that I am now sit here, surrounded by seventy or eighty linear metres of white-painted marine ply, all full of the books I have acquired over a lifetime. They take me all the way from those Dent Classics, Purnell’s “Juvenile Publications” and “The Heirloom Library”, probably bought in Woolworths in Norwich — one I see here with the inscription from 1952 — to last week’s meander through the York Waterstone’s (so conveniently close to a number of decent boozers).

The centenary

I notice the desk in front of me is cluttered with the various new(ish) books on the outbreak of World War One. I’m coming to the view that Sean McMeekin and Margaret MacMillan are the pick of the litter. Similarly, I didn’t really take to Max Hastings. On the other hand, Allan Mallinson, the former professional soldier, is remarkably readable — and seems sound.

All terrible, and terribly worthy, of course. We are in for a whole mess of anniversaries: I doubt I’ll want to be in Belfast for the Orangemen and the Somme in two years time. Or in Dublin for the Rising. The Martin Luther 500th at Wittenberg might be worth a punt, though. Then it’s convenient that as soon as we have marked the Treaty of Versailles (28 June 2018) we can reboot on the 80th of the Second Unpleasantness.

Recent bookish delights

Much of that 1914 stuff was hard work: so too is Graham Robb’s The Ancient Paths.

After his The Discovery of France and Parisians this one had to be a must. So I am totally bewildered. If Robb’s thesis, that the Celts had well-worked out geomatics, and aligned their structures across continental Europe with a precise meridian and the winter solstice, this is literally earth-shattering. On the other hand, a quiet voice says we’ve been here before with fluff like Alfred Watkins and his The Old Straight Track. And look what the New-Agers did to that.

I see that some claim there is a York ley, linking a whole series of early local sites, through the Minster, via Clifford’s Tower to the point where the Foss discharges into the Ouse. Let’s be honest: almost any line drawn on the map of a tight, old city like York has to go through a quantum of prominent places. Out of cussedness I tried another axis: was I perchance living on a ley? Sure enough, the straight line from the West End of York Minster would come through a couple of pubs (goody, goody!), Redfellow Cott, and on to … well, the sewage works. Oh dear.

Robb unquestionably is fun, but fraught. When he gets to looking at Ireland, and the omphalos of the Hill of Uisneach (see pages 273ff), it all becomes a bit silly, or too close to home, or too profound for my little mind. I want these sites to be significant. I love the notion of  standing at the edge of Europe, to see the sun (Lugh) sinking into the realm of the dead, beyond the western ocean, but …

The most obviously Druidic feature is this: the omphalos of Uisneach is connected by a solstice line to the royal sites of Cruachan and Dún Ailinne. The bearings are close but not identical to the British standard (within 1.4˚ and 1.6˚ respectively). Two other royal sites — Cnoc Áine and Emain Macha — are also roughly aligned of the Uisneach omphalos, with a range of 2.2˚.

With great respect, Mr Robb, that’s more than a couple of degrees between friends, and allows a great deal of latitude.

One other book I have relished is Simon Winder’s Danubia. After what Winder did to German history with Germania, this was another no-brainer. By the nature of the beast, Danubia lacks the focus of that earlier book: the whole tale of the Hapsburgs is just too diffuse, all the way from Rudolph I, King of the Roman in 1272 to the “Blessed Charles of Hungary”,  who “renounced participation” in public affairs in 1918, but never actually abdicated. This book isn’t “history” (though there’s a stack of history in it), but it is a hoot and an education.


Since this is post 2000, let me end with a retread

To begin at the beginning

One or two readers have identified “Malcolm Redfellow” and recognised his origins in Wells(-next-the Sea), Norfolk. On Thursday Little Brother, the Professor (two more clues there), emailed a link to Jeremy Brettingham’s films on

That occupied me for too much of yesterday or should that be “yisty“. Two in particular brought back the past:

  • Alan Cooper relating the story of whelking — I cannot recall anyone using the term “whelk-fishing”. Proust had his madeleine: for me it’s the whiff of wet bags of whelks on a trolley at Wells (on-Sea) station.
  • Roger Cooper on Gully Grimes, Fred Hooker and the Shipwrights.


I don’t really miss Wells. I’ver tried going back, smelled the air, looked at the changes, and it doesn’t work for me. My Wells is sixty years gone, overladen with incomers and bereft of outgoes — many of my generation had to leave to find careers. That incredible class of Wells County Primary sent half of us to Fakenham Grammar; and most couldn’t go back.

What I do miss is the speech. It’s not just the authentic North Norfolk accent. It’s that stately, deliberate delivery. Even the jokes and anecdotes are delivered pontifically.

Unlike that which you meet here.


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