Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Imberbus 2017

Last Saturday (August 26th.) the military training ground on Salisbury Plain was invaded by a fleet of London buses, old and new in what has become an annual event to operate a service from the Wiltshire garrison town of Warminster deep into what is normally forbidden territory. Buses venture to the village of Imber – depopulated by the army in 1943 for use as target practice. From Imber buses run on to a quartet of Wiltshire villages that lie on the perimeter of the military land – Market Lavington, West Lavington, Tilshead and Chitterne.

Two Routemasters are manoeuvring after picking up passengers in the village of Imber.
Among the places passed en route are New Zealand Farm Camp and the splendidly named Brazen Bottom. The latter, no more than a rural crossroads, I suspect is included for its comedic value. Along the way there’s a distant view of Copehill Down where a Bavarian styled village was constructed in the 1980s to replicate the topography that might be contested in the event of a Soviet land invasion. In Imber, the 14th. and 15th. century church of St. Giles is the only significant building or structure that remains intact – prudently Grade I listed. Elsewhere in Imber the army has constructed a couple of residential cul-de-sacs that superficially resemble the sort of development that the likes of Bovis Homes might throw up. Tin roofs and empty spaces where doors and windows should be give the game away. Allegedly the aim was to prepare troops for street fighting in Belfast.

St, Giles's church at Imber - almost the last surviving structure in the village - the rest being destroyed by the army in training exercises. Imber has been unpopulated since 1943 when the residents were ordered out, never to return.
In the 15 years or so that I lived in London, the Routemaster bus dominated the services although a dwindling number of earlier models still hung around. Routes 14, 19, 22, 31 and 49 had most of my custom and while bus travel had its compensations in terms of people-watching and observing the city from above, I learned to resent the hours of wasted time that would accumulate each and every week at bus stops. The extended gaps between buses that could often to stretch to 30 minutes or more despite an advertised frequency of 4 – 8 minutes were bad enough but there were additional cruelties to endure. When a bus pulls up and the destination is some way short of the full journey, a wager must be struck. Logic might persuade you to take the bus as far as it goes and catch another one, even though in those days you could easily end up paying more for taking your journey in instalments. The drawback here is that your bus may well be overtaken en route by one that’s going the full distance leaving you watching its diminishing form with mounting fury as you face the prospect of yet another spell of waiting at an interim stop. Another great frustration was the tendency for convoys to form. What often happened then was the arrival of an almost full bus causing a mighty scramble to get aboard while an almost empty one would sail past without pausing, leaving in its wake a group of disgruntled passengers for whom there was no space on the first bus and the pleasure of another long wait stretching ahead of them. This is by no means an exhaustive account of potential frustrations and it must be said, many buses arrived in reasonable time and many journeys were untroubled, though never swift, other than very late at night or before 7am.

Growing up surrounded by the bucolic delights of Metroland in the Sixties, the sight of these short wheelbase London Country buses pootering through the lanes around Heronsgate, Loudwater, Chenies and Chorleywood was familiar and comforting - offering a modest connection to the world outside. Known as Guy Specials (GS) they were introduced in 1953 for use on low density routes. This example on display at Imber is from the collection of London Transport Museum. 
Riding on a Routemaster after so many years was an evocative experience – the roof contours on the upper deck, the relationship of seats to windows, the preference for an uninterrupted view and the distinctive engine note all recovered buried recollections of crawling along Putney High Street, racing south on Redcliffe Gardens when the lights were green, dog legging through Notting Hill Gate from Westbourne Grove into Kensington Church Street and others too many to mention. I’ve always admired London Transport as a pioneer in corporate identity and a committed supporter of excellence in design. The Frank Pick tradition is one that even outsourcing and privatisation has failed to obliterate and it was a pleasure to note how the Imberbus organisers followed the LT house style in their publicity. The map especially so – a perfect pastiche of the folded maps that used to be available to all.

Imber War Memorial.
It’s unusual to find an event that caters to two specialist audiences but here was one that offered public transport enthusiasts the chance to travel on much loved vintage vehicles plus providing access to forbidden places for the inquisitive and curious. The organisers coped with a high level of demand with commendable cheerfulness and the only occasional sour note came from a minority of the more fanatical photographers and their vocal intolerance of members of the public with the temerity to be visible in their viewfinders as they compose the perfect shot.

This photo opportunity at New Zealand Farm Camp to the north of Imber was too good to miss. An even better photo was available to the RM driver of the assembled multitude of bus fanatics. 

MoD Brutalism.

Tanks for target practice.

Two more Routemasters at Gore Cross - the Imberbus hub deep into the military land. Almost all journeys intersect here.

Preparations for the evacuation of Chitterne - a busy scene outside Chitterne Church as the 16.05 departures for Warminster are marshalled.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Too Big To Fail

Britain can take pride in its contribution to the Global Financial Crisis. The first signs of contagion were detected here when Northern Rock subsided under the weight of unsecured debt. British bankers introduced us to such new concepts as Libor Rate Manipulation, Coercive Insolvency, Quantitative Easing and Too Big To Fail while the UK taxpayer saved them from total collapse with funds amounting to £19,900 for every child, woman and man. Banks are the best friends we could possibly have – one look at their aspirational life-affirming TV advertising is enough to convince. Images of happy healthy children, active and sporty adolescents, high achieving students, fun-loving mums and dads sharing chores while doting grandparents busy themselves setting up trust funds for the little ones roll endlessly across our screens, numbing the senses as they do so. Positioning themselves as agents of human happiness and gateways to all the pleasures of a consumer society serves to conceal their desperation to turn a profit on every transaction. Money laundering for drug lords and totalitarian regimes is yet to feature in any publicity.

Today’s postcards are views of the Bank of England from the early decades of the last century – a popular landmark for postcard photographers, in part due to the endemic traffic chaos that expressed the excitement of new technology. It was the Bank that brought us Quantitative Easing (QE) – priming the economy with money conjured up out of a vacuum, a form of fiscal alchemy. Freshly created cash was handed over to banks in return for financial assets such as bonds – all the online guides to this process omit to explain just how the parties to these deals agree a price. If somebody approached you offering ‘free’ cash for unspecified assets it would only be natural to give up as little as possible for the maximum amount of that cash. The plan was that the additional money in the system would enable banks to lend more to business which in turn would expand their activities and hire more staff whose wages and salaries would boost consumer spending and before you know it our problems are over. There is no agreement among economists on whether QE has done any good for the wider economy beyond a generally stabilising effect. The only known beneficiaries are the banks for whom it presented an opportunity to rebuild their balance sheets and strengthen their depleted reserves.

Monday, 21 August 2017

The Banks are Made of Marble

The tenth anniversary of the first signs of the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08 is being marked, rather than celebrated, by much media commentary – platitudinous hindsight for the most part. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Messrs. Osborne, Cameron and Clegg (aided and abetted by a supine opposition) we now know that that the world economy crashed due to the incompetence of Gordon Brown and the profligacy of the Labour government’s reckless public spending. Anyway, enough of fake narratives – we pay homage here to the spiritual home of casino banking, the USA. Birthplace of the Collateralised Debt Obligation, Credit Default Swaps and the Subprime Mortgage. After 30 years of assiduous creation of their legendary status as brutal and callous deal-makers, the banking community had finally over-reached.

The Los Angeles bank vault is a tribute in gleaming metal to the efforts of the rich to defend their property and the corresponding efforts of the criminal class to get their hands on them without the inconvenience of earning them. All cool reflective surfaces and empty spaces. Most of these cards pre-date the crash of 1929 and include some small town retail banks of the type that failed in the thousands as well as large faceless operations concealed within skyscraper towers and lesser buildings of varying degrees of architectural pomposity.

A New York State farmer named Les Rice wrote the song, The Banks are made of Marble in the late 1940s and Pete Seeger, who was a near neighbour and acquaintance, included it in his repertoire for the rest of his career. In the 2012 clip below, Pete’s accompanied by the Rivertown Kids, a notorious bunch of brain-washed, alt-left, merchants of hate. Watch and shudder. The most stirring version is the one performed by Leo Kottke and Iris DeMent on Prairie Home Companion. Sadly, only the corpse remains visible on YouTube.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Santa Fe Railroad Advertising

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (routinely shortened to Santa Fe) was one of the three major railroads operating trans-continental passenger routes across the USA. The others were Union Pacific (Road of the Streamliners) and the Burlington Route (Vista-Domes and Zephyrs). The Santa Fe comfortably outperformed its competitors in terms of publicity – consistently more imaginative and eye-catching. Santa Fe played up its connection with the Native American traditions over whose lands its tracks passed. And when it came to named trains Santa Fe had by far the most extensive portfolio – including the Super Chief, El Capitan, California Ltd, the Grand Canyon, and San Francisco Chief. While the competition offered Domeliners, Astra Domes and Vista-Domes, Santa Fe tempted travellers with the louche delights of Pleasure Domes. The on-board catering was supplied by the Famous Fred Harvey and ranged from “beefsteak or brook trout to pheasant à la Périgueux”. From 1937 Santa Fe painted its fleet of streamline diesel locomotives in what became known as Warbonnet livery, as seen above. A Native American Circle and Cross motif was displayed on the loco front together with the name of the railroad on a bright yellow ground, itself surrounded by a bright red wrap that extended on to the loco sides in the form of a bonnet. A designer at General Motors (Leland A Knickerbocker) came up with the concept and it was eagerly adopted to great effect by Santa Fe. Competing railroads had trains that were every bit as visually spectacular as Santa Fe’s but their stodgy advertising and publicity was no match for Santa Fe’s bold and colourful offerings. An earlier post featuring Santa Fe advertising can be seen here.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Helgoland – Heligoland in Vintage Postcards

The small North Sea archipelago of Helgoland is a place of great fascination – it is remote, historically contested and serially despoiled. Forty miles from the German port of Cuxhaven, it has been successively Danish, British and German. The indigenous population is Frisian by language and tradition and for centuries subsisted on its local herring fishery while outsiders squabbled endlessly over its ownership.

Since these postcards were published in the early 1900s the islanders have twice been evacuated (1914 and 1945) while the topography has been irreversibly transformed by militarisation in two world wars and finally barely survived a series of RAF post-war bombing raids culminating in April 1947 when British bombs only just failed to utterly destroy the islands. Their role as a theatre for Anglo-German conflict is explored in Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea by the German academic, Jan Rüger and reviewed by Neal Ascherson in the current London Review of Books (17 August 2017).

Prior to 1714 when Denmark took possession, the island had switched control between the Danes and the Duchy of Schleswig. Danish rule ended in 1807 (formalised in 1814) when Britain swagged it for its strategic value. During the 19th. century the island developed as an upper-class spa-resort attracting visitors from all over Europe, especially Germany and England. In the era of German unification and nationalism, a view formed that the bracing climate, rugged geography and sturdy self-sufficiency of the islanders represented the essential Germanic virtues and a political campaign for the islands to be part of Germany floated on this wave of popular sentiment.

In the same casual manner that the British would separate territories by the action of drawing a line across a map of the Arabian desert it was decided there was no great advantage in retaining Heligoland and it was agreed to swap it for the German interest in the East African archipelago of Zanzibar. After Germany took charge in 1890 the tourist industry continued to flourish alongside a massive programme of public works designed to transform the island into a defensive structure for the protection of the German Bight and the Kiel Canal. This is the period during which these postcards were produced – they show nothing of the militarisation that was taking place. Instead they show some modest vernacular buildings, fishing boats drawn up on the beach, a church spire and lighthouse and an electric lift connecting the ‘high town’ with the ‘low town’. By the time that British bombing had rendered the island uninhabitable in April 1945, it’s safe to say that not a single one of these buildings would still be standing.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

What will they think of next? – a Guinness brochure

Here’s a phrase that perfectly encapsulates the exasperation of English conservatism with the onward march of progress. The 16 page illustrated booklet reproduced here was produced in 1954 by Guinness for distribution to the medical profession. Food rationing had finally ended and post-war reconstruction was being followed by ambitious slum clearance projects - the age of the tower block was at hand. Britain’s future was invested in nuclear energy and jet powered flight. Unfortunately this was the year that two Comet airliners crashed into the Mediterranean and with them went Britain’s hopes of becoming a world power in aviation. Easy access to credit in the form of Hire Purchase Agreements helped to boost a sense of prosperity but the age of austerity was giving way to an age of anxiety. The English appetite for verbal and visual whimsy was well catered to in this publication with the addition of a strong flavour of resentment at technological change and a comforting surrender to nostalgia. An unknown scribe at S H Benson (the Guinness advertising agency) wrote the verses and neatly parodied the English instinct to reject innovation in any shape or form – often before adopting it with disproportionate enthusiasm. The illustrations were the work of Antony Groves-Raines – a master of visual charm with a talent for combining his own magic realism and crisp contours with a jaunty amiability certain to please.