Monday, December 6, 2021


 I’ve been reading an essay by Alan Bennett on A.E. Housman, an author who is not an 

open book to me, though I know he wrote 'A Shropshire Lad,' and that he looked 

somewhat like this.


Bennett writes in the essay, ‘At Cambridge, where he was professor of Latin, he took a daily walk and after it would change all his underwear – a habit he shared with Swinburne.’  Swinburne is not an open book either, though I believe he looked somewhat like this:


But I have a few questions, The first of course is how does anybody know the details of Housman and Swinburne’s walking and underwear habits?   The answer may be that literary biography has reached such a state of perfection that we know just about everything about everybody.


A further question – why does Bennett say ‘all his underwear’ – as though Housman might be expected him to change some of his underwear while keeping other bits on.  Which leads to the question of just how many pieces of underwear Housman and Swinburne wore. It must be more than two because otherwise Bennett would have said ‘both’ rather than ‘all.’


An online search for ‘Victorian Underwear’ brings up the images below: (And yes I know that both Swinburne and Housman outlived Victoria – the latter didn’t die until 1936).


I suspect Housman and Swinburne didn’t do their own laundry.

This is Alan Bennett: one day we may know all about his underwear arrangements.

Friday, December 3, 2021


Note the legs.

 I’ve been thinking about Music to Watch Girls By, the 1966 tune composed by Sidney ‘Sid’ Ramin and recorded as an instrumental by The Bob Crewe Generation. The trumpet on it sounds like a faux Herb Alpert.


Then in 1967 there was a version with lyrics by Tony Velona, recorded by Andy Williams. Some of the lyrics run

‘The boys watch the girls while the girls watch the boys who watch the girls go by
Eye to eye, they solemnly convene to make the scene’ 


Words from a different age obviously – how rarely anybody ‘makes the scene’ these days - And we all know that the male gaze is bad and wrong, but here I guess there’s a certain gender equality – the male gaze encounters the returning female gaze.  Cool.


Music to Watch Girls By  was, in some sense, a kind of update of the song

Standing on the Corner 

by Frank Loesser from the 1956 musical The Most Happy Fella, originally recorded by a group called the Four Lads.  The girls were no doubt walking, the men just mooching.


The lyrics here run

Standing on the corner watching all the girls go by
Standing on the corner watching all the girls go by
Brother you don't know a nicer occupation
Matter of fact, neither do I


Sounds innocent enough, it even sounds ‘nice,’ but is it?  Later lyrics in the song run:

Brother, you can't go to jail
For what you're thinking
Or for the woo look in your eye

But it seems possible that you can.  Here’s a sign that was up in the tube station at Walthamstow. I assume it must be in other places too:


‘Intrusive staring of a sexual nature is sexual harassment and is not tolerated.’  I’m sure our courts will make some clear and prudent definitions of when a look becomes a stare, and when a stare becomes an ‘intrusive stare.’ 


Friday, November 26, 2021


 It’s good to see art when you’re walking.


At least I think it is.


Recently in Essex we had one of those art trails, you know the kind of thing.   In this case people (possibly artists) decorated octopus models, and placed them around the county. The scheme was called Octopus Ahoy and it had some connection with the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s sailing from Harwich.


The octopi were were all over the place.  The ones I saw were at Colchester Station, in Liverpool Street in London, and this one by the Walls in Manningtree. Mondrian would be thrilled, right?


And then later the octopi were auctioned off for charity, generally bought by businesses, and I gather they raised a substantial amount of money, which can't be bad.


I was walking in Harwich the other day and I saw this pair that currently live outside a pub called The Pier. (Google Maps photo).


But walking further around the sea wall I found this bad boy octopus made out of rubbish.  Somehow it was more telling and appealing and (and I always hesitate to use the word) ‘authentic’ than any of the fancier, artier ones. 


Walking further around Harwich revealed other examples of marine art.  This one possibly by Banksy (seems we're not really sure, but at least it's safe under Perspex).


And there was also this fishy mural. Not too arty.  Not aiming too high.  I liked it.



Tuesday, November 23, 2021


As the sharp-eyed may have noticed, I have a new book out The Suburbanist, subtitled ‘A Personal Account and Ambivalent Celebration of Life in the Suburbs with Field Notes,’ which tells you a good deal of what you need to know about the book.


It’s not a walking book per se, but the research (aka field trips) have involved a fair amount of slogging through suburban streets, crescents, avenues, closes and so on.


And at this point, some two weeks after publication, an author is beset by all sorts of ideas for what he might, and probably should, have included in the book.

And the one I currently keep thinking about is the Frinton Park Estate in Frinton on Sea, in Essex.  I left it out because so much has already been written about it already, but now I think not mentioning it was probably an omission.


Frinton Park Estate is widely described as the largest group of individually designed Modernist houses in England, which isn’t saying a great deal, and the group there is not large. The original idea was there’d be 1000 or so houses, all flat roofs, streamlined curves, and white walls, spread over a 200 acre site.  But in fact there are only 50 or so, maybe fewer, depending on how you count.


In 1934 the South Coast Investment Company Ltd, bought those 200 acres and employed Oliver Hill as consultant architect. The idea was that prospective Frintonians would buy a plot and then commission an architect to design a house, selecting from a list drawn up by Hill, a list that include Maxwell Fry and Welles Coates.  


Well, this worked about as well you’d imagine it.  There really weren’t 1000 people who wanted to live in a Modernist house in Frinton, in fact there were about 15, who went with the plan.  And so the speculators decided to build 50 show houses to impress prospective buyers. Only about 25 of these were built (I say ‘about’ because hard numbers are very hard to come by) with the result that the total number of houses built was somewhere between 40 and 50, but probably nearer 40. 


I first went there a few years back and almost got into a fight.  I was wandering around, taking pictures of the houses and I’d spoken to one or two home-owners who were happy enough to chat about the joys and occasional difficulties of living in a piece of history.


And then I came across what I thought was a particularly fine example.  There was a tall hedge around it, but I noticed there was a gap, so I peered through the gap, pointed my camera and stared taking pictures, at which point the proud, not to say hubristic, home-owner came running out and accused me of being a pedo.  ‘Supposing,’ he said, ‘my children had been sitting on the lawn, then you’d have been photographing them.’  But of course his children weren’tsitting on the lawn, and I pointed that out, and I thought, though I didn’t say, that if his children were as ugly as him them who the fuck would want to take their picture?


In the event I assured him I wasn’t a pedo, and that I liked his house, which seemed to calm him down and we did not come to blows.  Still, it’s the kind of thing that stays with you.  It might have been worth the agro if I’d got a decent picture but I didn’t. I got this: which is an interesting souvenir, and sort of arty, but not my best work.


Anyway I’ve been back to Frinton a few times since then, and I’ve not lost my amazement that this attempt at a Modernist architectural Utopia should be there at the Essex seaside, a town that’s famous for being staid, conservative with a very ‘mature’ population. Though, of course, like all Utopias, isn’t not a complete success.


And frankly the Frinton Park Estate still isn’t entirely welcoming.  A lot of the roads have private no parking signs on them, and although you can walk around easily enough, pedestrians aren’t really catered for, pavements aren’t all that common.  


I’ve never encountered another disgruntled home owner and my taking of photographs has, if anything, got less discreet over the years.  Last time I was there I did hear two builders having a verbal altercation.  One of them was storming away, carrying a ladder, and shouting at his co-worker, his boss  I suppose, ‘I’ve worked for 30 companies in my life, and you’re the only one who’s ever moaned at me like this.’


I don’t know if the current inhabitants of the Frinton Park Estate think of themselves as living in suburbia but I’d say they do, and the area’s suburban status is confirmed by all the non-Modernist homes that have been built in the large gaps between the show houses.  These are mostly conventional looking bungalows.  Nothing wrong with that, and I suppose the joy of living in one of those is that you look out your window and can see a Modernist masterpiece, whereas if you live in a Modernist Masterpiece you look out your window and see conventional suburban homes.  One thing's for you, you won't see many pedestrians.


Friday, November 19, 2021


 I was in Whitstable 


and I wanted to go for a walk and take a look at the house where Peter Cushing lived between 1959 and 1994 (the year of his death).  Somebody should write a song about it.

The house looked unlived in, possibly even abandoned, though I don’t suppose it was.  Houses this valuable don't get abandoned.


My hostess, Jacqueline, drew a map to help find the place.  It looked like this (the perforated edge represents the beach): 


I shall treasure that map.  I love maps of all kinds, and I was reminded of Stanley Brouwn a Dutch artist who between 1960 and 1964 created a series of art works titled ‘This Way Brouwn.’  He wandered the streets of Amsterdam and stopped strangers and asked them to draw maps directing him to other parts of the city.  These maps then became his art.


He also taped what the people said, and it appears somebody also took photographs – which must have disconcerted the people giving directions, I’d think.


And I was sent back to our old pal Michel De Certeau’s essay ‘Walking in the City’ which I always want to find more enjoyable and profound than I actually do.  Still, it contains the notion of a theoretical city – the one found in maps and official documents, as opposed to the practiced map that people actually produce and/or carry around in their heads from their own experience.


‘Escaping the imaginary totalizations produced by the eye, the everyday has a certain strangeness that does not surface, or whose surface is only its upper limit, outlining itself against the visible. Within this ensemble, I shall try to locate the practices that are foreign to the "geometrical" Or "geographical" space of visual, panoptic, or theoretical constructions. These practices of space refer to a specific form of operations ("ways of operating"), to "another spatiality” (an "anthropological," poetic and mythic experience of space), and to an opaque and blind mobility char­acteristic of the bustling city. A migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city.”


Well, you’ve said a mouthful there, Michel.  And is it just me, or does he look like John Shuttleworth in that picture?


And then by serendipity I came this fashion photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe: 


and that got me thinking about the connections between maps and fashion (and to some extent walking).  There are a surprising number of articles of clothing that feature maps.


But you wouldn’t want to use one to find your way in the readable city.