Friday 27 June 2014

Chocks away at the South Essex Armed Forces Day

Since 2009 there has been a special Armed Forces Day in Britain, with events held around the country to honour the men and women of the British armed forces past and present.  While not an official national holiday it certainly seems to have become an annual event, observed nationwide usually in the last week of June (to coincide with the anniversary of the first ever Victoria Cross).

Chances are there's an event or three near you (if you're UK-based), be it a simple town centre march-past or a weekend of packed commemorations.  Both of the above are occurring locally to me this weekend (28th/29th) but it is an earlier experience that will form the basis for this post today.

One of the biggest events - THE biggest, in fact, according the promotional material - in Essex took place last weekend at my local showground, Barleylands in Billericay.  I first became aware of the event as long ago as February, when the tickets began going on sale, and bought my entry there and then.  (This didn't stop TicketWeb and/or the Royal Mail trying to thwart me by losing my ticket - cue much frantic 'phone-calling in the week leading up to it and the last-minute sending of a replacement e-Ticket... only to find they were being sold on the gate after all!).  One thing in particular had ensured my attendance - the Great War Display Team would be making an appearance (OK, so the Spitfire and Hurricane attracted me too, of course)!

Three fields to the east of the car park were nothing to write
home about.  The field to the south and the green marker were
the places to be.
Come the day itself I availed myself of the free bus service and found myself at the Barleylands ground shortly after 11'o'clock.  I really had no idea what to expect from the day, having never been to an Armed Forces Day event before, but I kept my hopes suppressed following my previous less-than-positive experience a couple of years ago.  As it turned out it was probably for the best, for the overall layout could best be described as your standard funfair with a bit of militaria tacked on.  In one corner of a field there was a very interesting display of military vehicles - of which more momentarily.  But then one had to walk through three fields of the usual merry-go-rounds, shooting galleries and ice cream vans, past a music stage empty and audience-less save for a fat man in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt who was belting out (admittedly in good voice) 1950s Rock'n'Roll numbers, just to get to the display area - which was encircled by innumerable burger vans (which at £4 for the cheapest burger-in-a-bun were a prime example of playing to a captive audience) and sunglasses sales tents.

I did a couple of circuits just to make sure I didn't miss anything, stopped for a cup of tea and my own lunch and then headed back to the first field where I - very happily as it turned out - spent the rest of the day.  Why happily?  Well, that one field was worth the £10 price of admission in my book.

To start with, there was a Spitfire sitting bang in the middle of it!  Although only a static replica (built over 20 years by a father and son team, using an old airframe and various parts) it was still beautiful to behold.  It was possible to get quite close to it (for £2 one could look - but not sit - inside the cockpit) and having not been so near a Spit for quite some time I'd forgotten just how big an aircraft it is.

Around the perimeter of this field (and the small adjacent one) were the majority of the military vehicles (and armed forces', associations' and charities' stands).  Two of the more interesting vehicles were a 1942 Cadillac staff car and 1950s Austin Champ jeep.

At one end was a group of Second World War re-enactors, representing the 2nd Battalion Essex Regiment and complete with Jeep and tents, while at the other end was the fascinating display of the Great War Society.  Despite having only enough room for two pitches their re-enactment was striking in its simplicity and gave a good idea of conditions for, in this case, an RFC officer and a cavalry veterinarian.  The RFC johnnie was done up to the nines splendidly - complete with swagger stick, a beautiful pipe (with equally lovely-smelling tobacco) wind-up gramophone playing music hall numbers and a framed photo of Lady Edith!

Who parked that German staff car there?!
He recognised in me a fellow Chap (I think it might have been my cravat!) and we had a good long chat (he both in and out of character!) about the re-enactment scene, the centenary and my particular interest in the period and late 19th/early 20th century socio-cultural history in general.  If you're reading this, Trevor, good show!

The cavalry vet also had a few handsome displays on show in the form of three pack mules, representing the equine aspect of the First World War.  These three imposing beasts happily stood for being stroked and petted and were really quite beautiful animals.  When you think of mules you might think of little donkeys and suchlike, but these three fellows were proper American-bred - such as the type that was used in the Great War to carry and pull all manner of things from provisions to artillery pieces - and stood an impressive 15-16 hands high!  Very docile they were, though, and one in particular was only too pleased to pose.

Turn, aaand... smile for the camera!

At around 1:30pm the Hurricane suddenly appeared, announcing its arrival by roaring overhead.  Here I found myself in a fortunate position, quite literally, away from the crowds and main display area on the perimeter of the public area - and right next to the field over which the Hurri was flying!  I was one of maybe only half a dozen people who found this sweet spot and it was like having your own personal airshow!  Even with my ancient, worse-than-a-smartphone digital camera I was able to get some half-decent shots, although they don't show the wonderful proximity of this and later displays.

Suitably buoyed I hung around the same patch of grass sitting and enjoying the glorious June weather (and ruing not having brought a fold-up chair - the lack of seating except around the main display area being another nuisance) until 2:30, when looking to the eastern horizon this stirring sight met my gaze:

What happened for the next twenty minutes I won't forget in a hurry.  The last time I saw First World War 'planes (replicas) in the air was nearly 20 years ago, at the nearby North Weald Aerodrome with my dad, when there were only two or three airworthy examples.  Back then they flew so high and far away that it was really impossible to make them out clearly, let alone get a sense of speed and immediacy.  Added to that they did a mock bombing raid that meant they were hundreds of yards the other side of the 'drome.  Well, there were no such problems this time!

British and American SE5as
Sopwith Triplane
Junkers CL.1
Fokker and Sopwith Triplanes
BE2c and Sopwith Triplane

I literally didn't know where to look next.  The Great War Display Team (for 'twas they) put on one hell of a show.  They must have choreographed it with military precision but it all looked so "natural" that my heart was in my mouth more than once.  It was likely the closest I'll ever get to seeing a proper dogfight.  I must have taken over 100 photos in those twenty minutes and it was a struggle to pick out which ones to feature in this post.  Considering I was just pointing and shooting with a fifteen year old 5x zoom camera I'm delighted how few of them I had to delete (I must admit to being a trifle embarrassed when I noticed nearby two young teenage girls both with proper professional-looking zoom lens cameras - oh for the day when I can afford a new box brownie!).

What with them and the GWS my existing passion for the Great War - and particularly the air war - was enhanced even more and I've now made it my mission to get to the original Stow Maries WWI aerodrome in mid-Essex, the restoration of which I wrote about in an earlier blog post and at which the Great War Display Team sometimes appears.  Perhaps an August birthday treat...?

The afternoon was topped off in style at 4'o'clock when the Spitfire turned up and proceeded to wheel and bank over our heads for the next 15 minutes.  By that time I was aching, suntanned and a bit hungry so as the Spit disappeared to the west I hopped back on the bus and was home in time for tea, feeling well satisfied with the day and with renewed appreciation of the armed forces from all eras.

**Are you going to an Armed Forces Day event this weekend?  Let me know in the comments below and I'll look forward to reading any subsequent posts!**

Wednesday 18 June 2014

On the road with Bertie Wooster and Captain Hastings

I rather fancy it's time for another Captain Hastings/Style Icon post, but this time with a twist!  I think that, by way of a change, I might focus less on the chaps and more on their cars.   Two chaps and their chariots of choice in fact!  Not just Captain Hastings and his voiture but also the equally arch-Chap Bertie Wooster, as portrayed by Hugh Laurie in Granada TV’s 1990-93 adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, Jeeves & Wooster (with Stephen Fry as Jeeves, of course!). Both these fine fellows happen to share the same taste in motors, driving cars that perfectly complement their personalities and which share a striking commonality with themselves and the characters who drive them.  The cars in question: the comparable Aston Martin and Lagonda.

Bertie Wooster’s Aston Martin

Wodehouse in his AC 12hp Tourer, outside Hunstanton Hall,
Norfolk, in 1928
To my certain knowledge P.G. Wodehouse never specified the make and model of car preferred by Bertram Wilberforce Wooster. As narrator, Bertie refers to it only as the “old two-seater” or “sports model”. This at least gives the reader carte blanche to imagine any two-seat sports car from the 1920s - although the BBC rather missed the point in their 1965-67 adaptation The World of Wooster, Ian Carmichael’s Bertie Wooster driving a four-seat 1927 Bentley 3-litre. Wodehouse himself owned an early-‘20s AC 12hp two-seater and one can easily see Bertie and Jeeves pootling along to Totleigh Towers or Brinkley Court in just such a model - I wouldn't be surprised if Wodehouse had it (or one of the many sporting cars favoured by the young "drones" of 1920s London) in mind whilst sat at his typewriter tapping out the stories.

In the event, though, the Jeeves & Wooster series went for an Aston Martin instead.  A 1928 Aston Martin 1½-litre International, to be precise.  An inspired choice, since it suits his youthful and excitable character perfectly.

Long before Aston Martin became inextricably (and, some might say, tiresomely) linked to James Bond, the company had already built up a strong sporting pedigree pre- the Second World War.  Founded in 1913 (and therefore having recently celebrated its centenary) as Bamford & Martin after owners Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin, their first cars had early successes on the hillclimbing course at Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire - hence they were renamed Aston Martin (the story further has it that Mrs Martin encouraged the rebranding on the basis that the new name would be near the top of any business listings!).

Astons would go on to race at Brooklands and Le Mans throughout the '20s and '30s, setting many endurance records.  Even Bertie's 1½-litre International had a "Le Mans" variant, although one can't imagine him tearing round La Sarthe (then again... maybe there's a story there!  Bertie did in fact drive his car into the ground attempting to beat the train to Deverill Hall in the fourth episode of series three).

Indeed Bertie remains blissfully ignorant of the inner workings of the motor car, knowing only that it runs on something called petrol but not that it has something called an "engine".  These things are best left to Jeeves or the local mechanic, naturally!

The 1½-litre International was produced between 1928 and 1932, a very prosperous time for Aston Martin following some lean years and the departure of its founders in the early '20s.  A group of skilled engineers and investors (including the wonderfully Wodehousian-sounding Lady Charnwood) had taken over the ailing company in 1926 and went on to oversee production of some of the most quintessentially British cars of the inter-war era including the 1½-litre, the 1934 MkII "Ulster" and the 1936 2-litre "Speed" model.

Aston Martin 1½-litre MkII

You can just imagine Bertie hearing about this wonderful sporting car company from his chums at The Drones Club and then heading off to the dealer to place his order.  Today you'd still have to be a Bertie Wooster to be able to afford an Aston Martin old or new; 1½-litre cars from the Thirties regularly fetch in the region of £150,000 now - as much or more than most modern Astons!  Certainly Bertie wouldn't be seen dead in the modern equivalent suggested by the Telegraph - a Mini Roadster indeed!  Choh!

This 1934 1½-litre Sports model sold last year for £155,500 at a Bonhams auction.

Captain Hastings' Lagonda

Here's the car we all know and love - the incidental yet important player in many a Poirot mystery, whisking our heroes to and from the crime scene.  How many times have we seen it bring some light relief to the proceedings as our favourite chap Captain Hastings talks about it, works on it or just drives it?

As with P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie never mentions the type of car Hastings drives in the books - mainly because he only appeared in eight of the stories and Christie was no doubt more concerned with getting the plot and motive down properly.  It's thanks, as ever, to the expansion of the character in the TV series that we can really enjoy Hastings' hobbies and adventures, especially with his car.  Thus it was that the show's producers gave him one of the ultimate gentleman's cars of the 1930s - a 1931 Lagonda 2-litre Low Chassis Tourer.

Lagonda was founded in 1906 at a time when many companies were setting up to produce the new-fangled motor car, including the likes of Rolls-Royce.  As with so many of its peers it became favoured by the Edwardian aristocracy and increased its reputation through motorsport success, in particular in the 1910 Moscow-St. Petersburg race.  After the First World War it continued to do well; Captain Hastings' beloved 2-litre Speed selling for eight years from 1925 to 1933.  The company faltered in 1935, however and was nearly bought out by Rolls-Royce until another buyer - Alan Good - intervened.  By this time Rolls-Royce had also taken over Bentley and Good was able to poach the man himself - W.O - to work for Lagonda, who designed a new 2.6-litre straight-6-cylinder engine that would remain the backbone of the business well into the 1950s and end up having great ramifications for the future of the company. 

Where would we be without Captain Hastings and his lovely Lagonda, eh?  Where would Poirot be?  Stuck in his flat, that's what - there's only so many taxis he can take after all. Who can forget it breaking down in The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly, or chasing after Mrs Daniels in The Adventure of The Missing Prime Minister?  We'd never get to see half of Hastings' smashing wardrove either, not least his superlative driving outfit.  I still can't believe he nearly chopped it in for an Alfa Romeo (all right, a fictional "Eliso Freccia") in The Adventure of The Italian Nobleman.

I've often wondered where Captain Hastings gets his income from to afford such a car as a Lagonda.  He was The Honourable Arthur Hastings, if I recall aright, so there's probably money and a family estate somewhere.  You'd need to be the son of a viscount or earl to afford one of Captain Hastings' Lagondas today, with good examples going for over £90,000.

Aston Martin plans to build Lagonda saloon, reports say

It may not be long before you can buy a brand new Lagonda again, though, if the latest rumours are anything to go by.  Aston Martin - who bought Lagonda in 1947 purely to get hold of the Bentley engine - have been toying with the idea of reviving the Lagonda brand for several years (its last appearance being on the futuristic Aston Martin Lagonda saloon in 1976).  Thankfully the initial idea to use it on a breezeblock of a 4x4 has been rejected and photos of the new saloon look very promising.  Definitely something I could see Captain Hastings driving around in!

Two top chaps, then, linked by their motors (although one can imagine them hitting it off quite well, too!).  While we may never be able to return to the heyday of pre-war British motoring, Bertie Wooster and Captain Hastings will forever be shining of examples of the Thirties gentleman driver.

**If you enjoyed this post keep your eyes peeled for more of the same in the next issue of In Retrospect, due for æthereal publication on the 1st July!**

Thursday 12 June 2014

Forties Fashion #8: Sports and Leisure Wear 1942

By Jove, where have the last two weeks gone, eh?!  Flashed by in a blur of work, play and sunshine, that's what.  Have I forgotten how to do this blogging business, then, or forgotten about you all?  Not bally likely!

With interesting news articles thin on ground again I've nevertheless got a few posts planned over the next week to 10 days and to start off with I thought we'd return to an old series that surprisingly hasn't seen the light of day in over a year - for shame!  It's instalment number 8 from my old 1940s Fashion Sourcebook.  With the sun beaming down on much of the country, Queen's in full swing, Wimbledon just around the corner and some sort of international footballing tournament (if that's your kind of thing) about to start in Brazil so I'm told, today's extract couldn't be better timed, either.  Yes, it's sports and leisurewear 1942-style!

The inconvenience of war was not about to put a stop Britain's enjoyment of sport and leisure, although it did of course curtail it somewhat.  I imagine it must have made it all the more special and enjoyable when day-to-day living was blighted by constraints of wartime and the constant threat of attack.  With the anticipation of maybe a small day-trip to the countryside, or a game of village cricket, your average chap and chapette would have made an extra effort to dress well, but casually and within the confines of clothes rationing, to make the most of their leisure time.  One imagines pre-war '30s fashions adapted for the new purposes and circumstances; we can see as much in the following illustrations.  Speaking of which, anyone for:

Tennis.  Top left wears: white linen dress with button fastening, small collar, buttoned belt, short inset sleeves with stitched cuffs.  Piped pockets; two decorative panels, one from padded shoulders and one from waist continuing to hip-level in flared skirt with concealed pockets in outer panels and wide unpressed box pleats.  White leather shoes.  A classic summer tennis ensemble, one could imagine it being rather a strikingly attractive outfit if the decorative panels contrasted to the white of the dress - perhaps a navy or light blue?

Tennis.  Top right wears: white cotton collar-attached shirt with pointed collar, short inset sleeves, stitched cuffs and a patch pocket.  White linen pleated shorts with turn ups and elasticated cotton belt with clasp fastening.  White cotton ankle socks.  White canvas sports shoes.  A very simple, Fred Perry-esque outfit for the girl's tennis-playing gentleman partner.  While not normally a fan of elasticated belts I can see its benefit here as providing ease of movement.  Pleated shorts with turn-ups are only right, of course, although I'd think twice about inflicting my legs on the general public (in fact I don't think I've worn shorts since my early twenties).  White canvas sports shoes are a sin qua non for the casual sporting look and I've long toyed with the idea of getting a pair, on the off-chance I might one day again try my hand at a few of the more gentler sports - cricket, tennis, badminton - to help improve my damaged health.  Needless to say, that day has still to arrive, but I still find myself glancing at the odd plimsoll now and again.  For those of you who, like me, would prefer that their training shoe does not resemble something out of Back To The Future II and comes without the maker's name splashed across every available surface, Converse is very often the name we will see mentioned and indeed they do a nice line in plain canvas shoes in the traditional style - such as their All Star range. 

Converse All Star Low White Mono Canvas - £44.99 from Office

However I also find myself drawn to the traditional training shoe offering from Charles Tyrwhitt.  Albeit in leather rather than canvas (one could argue the superiority of that) they have an equally timeless appeal about them.

Biscuit Marlow trainers - £79 from Charles Tyrwhitt

Returning to 1942 and (still on the first trio above) we're off on our travels in:

Holiday wear.  Bottom centre wears: dark blue cotton flared pinafore skirt, waistband extended to form shaped bib, wide shoulder straps, self-fabric buckled belt and hip-level patch pockets with mock-buttoned flaps.  Red and blue spotted cotton blouse with notched shawl collar, button fastening, elbow-length sleeves, padded shoulders.  Red straw hat.  Red canvas shoes, peep toes, wedge heels.  A very patriotic colour combination (even more so were it to have some white thrown in - say on the shoes or hat.  Evidence of clothes rationing in the mock-buttoned pocket flaps.  Every girl loves a high-waisted pinafore dress, if the vintage blogosphere is anything to go by, and this one's a pip!

On to the next three and staying with the holiday wear.  Top centre wears: pale blue cotton blouse with small collar, threaded ribbon fastening matching trim on cuffs of short puff sleeves and padded shoulders.  Sleeveless single-breasted checked cotton fitted waistcoat, low scooped neckline, pointed hemline.  Knee-length pale blue cotton gathered skirt, bias-cut band above hemline to match waistcoat.  White leather shoes, crossed straps, low wedge heels.  Something almost dirndl-like about this outfit, or perhaps just the more traditional rural/countrified lookCertainly a wonderfully co-ordinated ensemble with the matching bows and banding/waistcoat.

Quite the country wear outfit for our second dashing chap!  Bottom left wears: brown and tan wool-tweed single-breasted jacket with flap pockets and a single ticket pocket.  Light brown wool trousers, straight-cut, turn-ups.  Brown wool sweater.  Patterned silk scarf.  Brown trilby.  Brown leather shoes.  The perfect rural autumnal look here, with some welcome individual touches like the scarf (a cravat would also work just as well) beneath the wool sweater worn beneath the wool-tweed jacket (crikey, I'm sweating just thinking about it - definitely one for the colder months!).  The jacket (gad, the whole outfit) sounds lovely, with quite a modern-sounding cut.  Still surprised to see turn-ups this far into the war.

For the ladies' country wear, bottom left sports: brown and grey tweed dress, small collar, button fastening, padded shoulders, short inset sleeves, stitched cuffs, patch pockets, buttoned belt and flaps, flared skirt, centre-front box-pleat.  Brown felt hat.  Brown suede gloves and matching shoes.  An equally delightful matching seasonal ensemble for the lady.  I imagine a walk through a country estate awaits this perfectly turned-out girl!

Well, that's it for another selection.  Quite an interesting one again, I think, and in many ways adaptable and reproducible for today.  If only more people would dress in this kind of "sports wear", hmmn?!  We can only hope!


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