Wednesday 30 September 2020

For he's still a brolly good fellow

For part two of my umbrella-themed post we pick up from where we left off in part one with a further fictional proponent of umbrella self-defence, something of a 21st century John Steed in many respects and another welcome practitioner of Bartitsu-inspired moves in film.

This is the character of Harry Hart (Codename: Galahad) from the Kingsman series of films.  A slightly more updated take on the gentleman spy genre it nevertheless successfully (in my view) mixes the traditional and modern elements and nowhere is that better illustrated than in the Kingsmen's (and Harry Hart's in particular) dapper style, tailor's shop base of operations and - yes, you've guessed it - wielding of a tightly-furled umbrella.  Although quite adept at belabouring gobby villains and megalomaniacs' henchmen with his trusty gamp Galahad's example also has a few more novel tricks up its shaft compared to Steed's hidden rapier, including an electric-shock chain built into the ferrule, the ability to fire both live or rubber bullets and - the pièce de résistance - a bullet-proof canopy. 

While the cartoon violence and strong language of the Kingsman films may not appeal to everyone's taste I think it is more than offset by the style and panache displayed in both films (although I do prefer the first one over The Golden Circle) and the successfull homage to the '60s spy films and TV series (including The Avengers) that director Matthew Vaughn has gone on record as having been his intention.  Fellow fans of the films - and especially of the well-dressed "gentleman spy" æsthetic and "manners maketh man" ethos - will be pleased to know that a third and final sequel featuring Colin Firth's and Taron Egerton's characters is in the works.  Even more exciting, though, is the forthcoming prequel The King's Man, set around the First World War and showing the origins of the Kingsman Secret Service.  Originally due for release back in February, covid-19 put the kybosh on that and it is now scheduled to be in cinemas early next year (provided things improve, of course).  You'll remember when I apologised for raking up the 1998 Avengers film in my previous post by saying that if you still liked the idea of Ralph Fiennes in three-piece suit, bowler hat and topped off with an umbrella then to hold that thought?  Well here he is again, nearly 25 years later (and looking quite at home in a variety of dashing ensembles) taking over the Colin Firth role as one of the founding Kingsmen in what is a very exciting-looking trailer (complete with a couple of umbrella action sequences).  Personally this is one I can hardly wait for and if it makes it to the cinema (it's already been postponed twice, so I'm not holding my breath) I'll be going, coronavirus or not.

Quite obviously an electrocuting, bullet-proof ballistic brolly would be even more frowned upon by the authorities than a swordstick one (even if it would be equally desirable); of course in this day and age of tie -in movie merchandise it is possible to get an "official" Kingsman umbrella from the likes of Mr Porter and even Briggs themselves, although for the price one would expect them to have all of the aforementioned functionality (sadly they don't).  Stick to your standard gamp and keep practising your Bartitsu, is all I can suggest.

Major Digby Tatham-Warter (left) and his umbrella-based exploits immortalised
(as Major Harry Carlyle) in A Bridge Too Far.

One extraordinary chap who clearly thought he had a bullet-proof umbrella was the distinguished Second World War British Army officer Major Digby Tatham-Warter, whose wartime service saw him first taking part in the Western Desert campaign before volunteering for the Parachute Regiment, a decision that would lead him to take part in one of the most famous engagements of the war - Operation Market Garden, or the Battle of Arnhem.  Clearly a top fellow and splendidly eccentric, Tatham-Warter would brandish a hunting bugle during the battle and trained his troops to recognise its various calls (as had been common military practice during the Napoleonic Wars) since he was - rightly as it turned out - worried about the unreliability of the battalion's field radios.  More pertinently to this article, however, he also carried an umbrella with him as he frequently had difficulty remembering the various passwords he was supposed to use and reasoned that any Allied unit would recognise that "only a bloody fool of an Englishman" would bring a brolly into an active war zone.  In the event it did also turn out to have a practical military application - during one engagement Tatham-Warter was able to take out a German armoured car with his parapluie by the simple expedient of shoving it through the vehicle's viewing slit and incapacitating the driver!

As the Battle of Arnhem raged on, Tatham-Warter could continually be seen moving nonchalantly among his men - sometimes in the face of fierce mortar and sniper fire - while still holding his trusty umbrella.  At one point he led his men in a bayonet charge across Arnhem Bridge against advancing German infantry - brolly in one hand, pistol in the other and wearing a bowler hat that he had contrived to obtain from somewhere.  Steed in battle, more or less!   Still later, he observed the company chaplain trapped by enemy mortar fire while trying to get to some injured soldiers.  Managing to make it to the chaplain's position, Tatham-Warter uttered the immortal line "Don't worry, I've got an umbrella" and proceeded to successfully escort the chaplain back across the street under the protection of its canopy.  Upon returning to the front line while holding the still open gamp, the remark from fellow officer Lieutenant Pat Barnett that "that thing won't do you much good" drew from Tatham-Warter the equally brilliant response - "Oh my goodness Pat, but what if it rains?".

Tatham-Warter's exploits served as the inspiration for the fictional character of Major Harry Carlyle in A Bridge Too Far, Richard Attenborough's famous 1977 retelling of the Battle of Arnhem.  In the film Carlyle dies but, perhaps [un]surprisingly, Tatham-Warter survived to be taken prisoner.  He promptly escaped (naturally!) and for a time worked with the Dutch Resistance before eventually returning to England.  He is certainly fully deserving of - and will one day get - a blog post in his own right but for now we can simply marvel at his brolly-based shenanigans in the face of incredible odds.

Another great bumbershoot-brandishing military eccentric who will also one day get the full Eclectic Ephemera treatment is Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Daniel Wintle MC (left), whose service covered both world wars (and the period in between - which, to give you some idea of the man, he described as "intensely boring") with some quite amazing - and amusing - incidents occurring throughout his life.  A staunch believer in "England and the English way of life" Wintle felt that the umbrella was one of the cornerstones of an English gentleman, a conviction that was established at the tender age of seven when an aunt bought him his first brolly - as he relates in his autobiography The Last Englishman:

"my Aunt Carrie... gave me my first umbrella, purchased at the Army and Navy Stores.  This was to be, for many years, the apple of my eye.  It made me feel I was well on my way to becoming a complete English gentleman.
I could hardly bear to be parted from my umbrella.  I would go off at odd intervals of the day to admire it in the hall-stand and I used to take it to bed with me every night for years.  The feel of the leather handle beside me as I fell asleep gave me the comforting sensation that I was already one of the... breed of Englishmen"

If you can find a copy, GET IT - it is one of the best
autobiographies I have ever read but sadly also one
of the rarest, only published once in 1968.
Although Wintle never went so far as to take an umbrella into battle his firm attachment and strong opinion never left him.  He would go on to say:

"The Englishman... always takes his umbrella with him, anyway, for the good and simple reason that no gentleman ever leaves the house without it."

Mind you, he was also resolute on another point - "no true gentleman ever unfurls his umbrella".  To Wintle, the brolly was a status symbol - the mark of a real English gent - and if it meant getting thoroughly soaked to prove it then so be it.  So convinced was he of this theory that, in later years, before tightly furling it up he would insert a note into the canopy of his gamp that read "This umbrella was stolen from Colonel A. D. Wintle" presumably on the basis that any un-English malefactor who dared to pinch his brolly would be instantly undone upon opening it and so promptly nabbed by the constabulary.

While I wouldn't go so far as to never unfurl my umbrella (and therefore, sadly, in the eyes of Colonel Wintle am not a true Englishman) I would at least extol his instruction to take one with you wherever you go, the weather in this country being so unpredictable (especially at this time of year) and the forecasts generally useless (I find looking out of the window of a morn far more instructive).  Nor would I recommend it as your sole form of armament should you ever find yourself facing off against a hostile tank, although as Major Tatham-Warter proved it couldn't hurt.  If you can take anything away from these posts, be inspired by these chaps both fictional and - however unbelievably - genuine and carry your umbrella with pride whatever the weather.

Finally, to finish on a still lighter note - at the end of the previous post I described Steed's actions with the brolly as "umbrella jousting".  I knew I had heard the term somewhere before and it afterwards came back to me.  It is of course the sport invented by those sterling coves over at The Chap magazine as part of their annual Chap Olympiad and the perfect way to end this post.  Surely it will only be a matter of time before the International Olympic Committee see sense and include umbrella jousting in future Games.  Could we see well-dressed participants with tightly-furled brollies and reinforced newspapers charging each other on bicycles in time for Tokyo, perhaps?  The Japanese would love it!  I leave you with footage of last year's event and let you make up your own mind...

Tuesday 29 September 2020

For he's a brolly good fellow

With the arrival of some seriously autumnal weather (finally - this is my favourite time of year, after all!) in the form of lower temperatures, strong winds and much-refreshing rain I thought I would take the opportunity to do an article about that most important wet weather accessory, the umbrella.  Rather than do a long-winded blog about the history of the brolly, though, I intend over a couple of posts to take a somewhat sideways (but still probably long-winded) look at this humble accoutrement and in particular its use by some great British eccentrics as well as a device for protecting you from more than just cloudbursts.

My own preference for the good old bumbershoot is of course the traditional full-size, crook-handled type so often associated with the archetypal English gent.  Telescopic umbrellas are all very well if you're pushed for space (and ladies in particular may be forgiven for having to carry one around in their handbags, although with the wonderful array of different [parasol] designs you're afforded I struggle to see why you would...) but they are rightly considered somewhat infra dig in the face of the time-honoured gent's brolly.  And don't even get me started on the monstrosity that is the golfing umbrella - talk about going from one extreme to the other.  The number of times I've been forced into the road and nearly had my eye poked out by someone wielding one of those tents-on-a-stick - plus how those cylindrical "handles" are supposed to be comfortable I don't know!

source - Farlows
No, give me a crook-handled job any old time and a bamboo or whangee one at that.  My own example is a a splendid bamboo-handled example from Classic Canes, which can be had for a very reasonable price from the likes of  I'm actually on my third one of these - the first being left on a bus, the second having withstood a day's worth of heavy rain and strong wind in Rochester before being laid low by a freak gust barely 200 yards from home.  I've been very happy with mine - lightweight but sturdy it feels perfect to hold in the hand, with a wonderfully smooth mechanism.  Of course if money is no object then the nonpareil of umbrellas are generally regarded as coming from either Fox or Briggs - awfully good they may be; I'll leave you to judge whether they're worth the price or not (personally as much as I'd love one I'd hesitate to take a £500 umbrella outside never mind put it up in a rainstorm).  At the other end of the spectrum an honourable mention must go to the second of my full-size brollies, a solid wood-handled number I got from budget supermarket Aldi a few years ago for the bargaineous sum of £9.  Even sturdier than the bamboo one (I have no qualms about putting my full weight on it) it is very much a proper walking umbrella in the mould of solid-shaft types many times the price - I can even forgive it its automated mechanism.  Alas it was one of their Special Buys (from 4 years ago to boot) so is no longer available but who knows, it may return again one day so keep your eyes peeled.


Someone else we associate with the bamboo-handled umbrella is of course everyone's favourite fictional (alas!) English gentleman spy - John Steed of The Avengers (no, not the Marvel lot - although he could certainly add to the team!).  Every inch the dapper chap with his glorious [three-piece] suits and bowler hat, his ensemble is always topped off with his trusty whangee umbrella.  Exceptionally tightly furled (to this day I've never managed to get mine to that level of perfection) and often wonderfully matching the colour of his suits (one presumes the same in the early b&w episodes) at least one of them contains a hidden swordstick (viz. the opening credits, above) should some miscreant attempt to perform any physical violence on our hero - or if Steed just wants a carnation for his buttonhole.  While the idea of a swordstick umbrella may be appealing one in this day and age - and examples can be found online, mainly in America - it should be remembered that in the UK at least they are regarded as a [concealed] offensive weapon and so cannot be bought, sold (unless they're antique, i.e. over 100 years old) or carried in public.  Doing so is punishable by a fine of £5,000 and up to four years in quod, so I wouldn't recommend it.

Of course Steed doesn't always need a hidden blade to overcome any ne-er-do-well - in fact his umbrella on its own is usually more than equal to incapacitating violent ruffians as we see on many occasions throughout the series.  (Serious Avengers fans will I hope forgive me for including a clip from that film - it was the only one I could find and is at least one of the few good bits of the whole movie.  Plus if you still like the idea of a besuited and bowler-hatted Ralph Fiennes wielding a handy brolly then hold that thought for part two of this post...)  This use of an umbrella as an impromptu weapon is very much a based in fact and can actually be traced back to the turn of the last century and a fascinating martial art that emerged in London at that time.

Edward Barton-Wright and
the variety of skills that
make up Bartitsu.
source - Wikipædia
Called "Bartitsu" (a portmanteau of its progenitor's name and jujitsu) it was the creation of railway engineer Edward Barton-Wright, who had been working in Japan in the mid-1890s and who became one of the first Westerners to learn the art of jujitsu.  Already a keen student of self defence, upon his return to London in 1898 he set about combining this mysterious Eastern martial art with the better-known fighting styles of boxing, wrestling, and fencing with a view to teaching these skills to the gentlemen of London who might otherwise be helpless in the face of the many thieves and footpads who prowled the streets of the city at that time.

For a short while, between 1898 and 1902, the Bartitsu craze took off in London with a well-equipped club on Shaftesbury Avenue proving popular and several similar techniques - aimed for use by both men and women - appearing around the same time.  Some of these variations made allowance for the use of an umbrella (or, especially for women, a parasol) in place of a cane, as can be seen in the series of images on the right.  In all respects the idea behind Bartitsu and its imitators was to provide the average man (or woman) on the street with the skills and knowledge to use whatever they had at their disposal to keep themselves safe and repel any surprise mugging, as well as being an efficacious form of exercise.  It was advertised as "the gentlemanly art of self-defence", not because it was in and of itself "gentlemanly" but rather that it was designed for the gentleman who might otherwise find himself at a disadvantage when faced with a gang of street-toughs.

However for various [largely unknown] reasons interest in Bartitsu declined rapidly after about 1903 and it would likely have been entirely forgotten had it not been obliquely referenced in the Sherlock Holmes story The Empty House as "baritsu" (whether deliberately or accidentally mis-spelt is still a subject of discussion among Sherlockians and Bartitsu historians) - the "Japanese system of wrestling" that Holmes uses to overpower Professor Moriarty atop the Reichenbach Falls.  This brief immortalisation in one of fiction's greatest stories and the mystery surrounding its inclusion saved Baritsu from oblivion and since the early 2000s it has enjoyed something of a minor renaissance as one of the earliest examples of mixed martial arts (MMA), with clubs popping up all over the world and a society dedicated to propagating its memory and furthering its practise.  Fans of the Great Detective will recognise its inclusion in both Sherlock Holmes (2009) and its 2011 sequel A Game of Shadows (with both director Guy Ritchie and star Robert Downey Jr. being keen MMA practitioners) - prominent appearances that have rightly delighted Bartitsu aficionados.

More on the subject of umbrella self-defence (umbrellajitsu perhaps?) in film (and two real-life arch-chaps who wielded their brollies in remarkable circumstances) will appear in part two of this article but in the meantime I think I've gone on quite long enough.  For now the rainclouds are gathering here at Partington-Plans Towers so I may take the opportunity to use one of my brollies in anger - or at least practise some Steed-like umbrella jousting.

Friday 25 September 2020

Vintage bus is helping passengers with social distancing

Vintage bus is helping passengers with social distancing

Over the years I have been delighted to feature on this blog several incidences of classic machines - in this case vintage buses - being successfully pressed back into everyday use in varying capacities.  From a Christmas Day Routemaster service in Keighley, West Yorkshire, through tours of the Yorkshire Dales in an AEC Regent, to timetabled ex-London Transport AEC R/Ts serving towns on my local heritage railway's route, these numerous occurrences are proof that these vehicles are not just museum pieces and can still provide a useful service alongside more modern means of transport.

The service in this instance is a twice-daily run from Gateshead in Tyne & Wear to Chester-le-Street in County Durham, North Yorkshire, as part of a regular scheduled route operated by local bus company Go North East.  With the social distancing rules currently in place giving public transport operators major headaches (most bus companies at the moment being forced to run at barely 25% of their normal capacity) Go North East have hit on a wizard wheeze to try and maximise capacity and minimise passenger contact on its busy Number 21 route by wheeling out a 1960s Routemaster from its local heritage fleet in order to help take some of the pressure off the rest of its buses.

source - The Northern Echo

The result looks to be a wonderful trip back in time married to a [hopefully] safer method of public travel for the people of Tyneside, who I hope will be able to enjoy and appreciate this little bit of vintage effort to combat the social effects of Covid-19.  Whether Go North East will be able to continue with it in light of the direction things seem to be taking again remains to be seen - we can only hope that another lock-down can be averted and that demand for the service continues to be high enough to warrant the ongoing use of this splendid old Routemaster.  In any event it is great to see yet another vintage bus being brought back to its original role, especially to aid people in these particularly difficult times, and I am sure it will not be the last time such a story features on here.  In the meantime a jolly well done to Go North East and the North-East Bus Preservation Trust and here's wishing many more happy miles for their service 21 Routemaster.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Salisbury Spitfire memorial to honour secret workforce

Salisbury Spitfire memorial to honour secret workforce

Another favourite subject of mine now; an aircraft from a different war, which has featured on these pages many times before - the Supermarine Spitfire.

In this case it is the fascinating and largely untold story of the secret production lines set up in and around the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire following the bombing of the Supermarine's main factory in Southampton at the height of the Battle of Britain.  While that facility recovered from the attentions of the Luftwaffe, nearly a dozen top secret production sites were being hurriedly established in such unlikely locations as motor garages, bus depots, sheds, back gardens - even hotels and bedrooms for a variety of smaller parts.  These small-scale assembly lines were nevertheless able take the pressure off the remaining factory in Castle Bromwich in the Midlands and went on to produce over 10,000 Spitfires, a frankly amazing achievement made all the more so by the fact that the majority of the workers were unskilled locals - young women, boys and older men overseen by just a few skilled engineers.

Salisbury’s best kept secret comes to light

This astounding feat has only really come to light in the last four years - having remained mostly forgotten in the intervening eight decades - thanks to the hard work of a local charity and historians, following the creation of a documentary by a Salisbury-based filmmaker.  Featuring interviews with surviving members of the workforce (whose admirably stoic reticence in respecting the secrecy surrounding the work - much like the Bletchley Park codebreakers - meant that even their own family members were unaware of their involvement until the documentary came out) the Secret Spitfires film was a welcome and long-overdue acknowledgement of the incredible efforts and sacrifices made by the people of Salisbury during some of the darkest days of the Second World War.

source - Salisbury Journal

Inspired by this documentary local residents set up a charity in June 2019 with the aim of creating a lasting memorial to these sterling workers and their hidden accomplishments in the form of a replica Spitfire to be placed at one of the shadow factory's sites, now part of Salisbury Rugby Club.  I'm delighted to see that in the intervening year enough money was raised to make it a reality and last month the full-scale fibreglass Spit was completed at the specialist manufacturers in Norfolk.  It now awaits its final erection on the site in Castle Street, Salisbury, (when Covid permits) which will also serve as the terminus of a splendid-sounding tourist trail complete with blue plaques at other known locations of the factories in the city area.

source - Secret Spitfires Memorial

Once again this is a welcome example of civic pride and recognition of an important aspect of local [WW2] history and one I am very pleased has come to fruition.  It certainly sounds as though it will prove of great interest to both the people of Salisbury, for whom this stirring story of their townsfolks' role in the war effort will be a new and exciting one to them, as well as students of Second World War history (myself included) and I congratulate everyone involved in seeing it through successfully.

Friday 18 September 2020

My heroes: Leutnant Werner Voss (German Air Service) 1897-1917

For this post I thought I would do something a bit different and publish a little essay I first wrote nearly 17 years ago, on the 23rd November 2003.  Done purely for my own personal enjoyment (long before I became aware of such a thing as blogging) and to keep my writing - and handwriting, it originally having been handwritten - skills from college honed, it was one of two pieces I composed for a planned series based on people I considered my heroes and which features as its subject one of my abiding interests - aerial warfare in the First World War.  I'm on a particular kick in that direction at the moment and as it happens to be close to the 103rd anniversary of this chap's death on the 23rd September 1917 I thought it would be quite apposite to give it the light of day here (and possibly continue the series in future).  So without further ado I give you:

Leutnant Werner Voss (German Air Service),
13th April 1897 - 23rd September 1917

source - Wikipædia

To some people, my choosing as a hero a man responsible for shooting down so many aircraft and sending many gallant Allied pilots to their deaths during the First World War may be seen as odd and unpatriotic.  However I hold many Allied fighter pilots in equally high regard; [Lanoe] Hawker, [Louis] Strange, [James] McCudden, [Arthur] Rhys-Davids and [Albert] Ball to name but a few.  In fact, I have the greatest respect and admiration for all the pilots of both air services, British and German, who took part in those early aerial combats.  Voss’s story in particular, though, is the stuff of legend.

I do not intend to go into great detail regarding Voss's military career, but merely give a brief résumé of his war service up until the awe-inspiring dogfight in which he died.

Voss was only sixteen when the war began in 1914, but he managed to join the German cavalry (Uhlans) and saw action against the Russians on the Eastern Front (later earning him the nickname "The Krefeld Hussar").  The Eastern Front was a notoriously tough battlefield (though not nearly as hellish as the Western Front) being a snow-covered frozen wasteland, with no trench system to speak of; attack and counter-attack alike being constantly made by either side's cavalry.  For a 16-year-old to be mixed up in this kind of warfare is quite impressive.

In 1915 Voss transferred to the German air service, no doubt attracted by the newness and excitement surrounding this emerging type of warfare.  Like many of his peers he began by flying in two-seat reconnaissance aircraft, before becoming a scout pilot and joining [Oswald] Boelcke's Jasta 2 in November 1916.  This squadron was a breeding ground for hero aces; aside from Boelcke, Manfred von Richthofen was also present, and soon befriended the young Voss.

By April 1917 Voss had shot down 28 Allied aircraft, a feat that earned him the coveted Pour le Merité (also known as the Blue Max), an award also gained by Richthofen.  At the latter's personal request, Voss was given command of his own squadron, Jasta 10, in July; Jasta 10 being part of Richthofen's much larger Jagdgeschwader, or "Flying Circus".   All of this while he was still only 19.

source - Tumblr
His rate of scoring slowed at this point as the pressures of command were felt by him, but he soon received a boost in the form of the latest type of fighter aircraft, the Fokker D.R.1 triplane, which began to replace the ageing Albatros and Pfalz machines.  Voss's, in fact, was one of only two pre-production models, delivered to him in August.  Richthofen, who now also flew the new Fokker, found it slow and difficult to fly, but Voss revelled in its amazing manoeuvrability and fantastic rate of climb.

This differing opinion regarding the Triplane helps to show the different personalities and temperaments of von Richthofen and Voss, despite their friendship.  Von Richthofen's dislike of the new aircraft probably stems from his tactics, that of the hunter – cunning and analytical; hit and run, don't take on what you can't handle and make the enemy fight on your terms, not theirs.  Voss's methods were markedly different.  Like the British aces Albert Ball and Arthur Rhys-Davids, Voss would attack regardless of the odds.  He was a great believer in breaking up formations of enemy aircraft; fighting at close quarters so that the pilots would be more concerned about the risk of colliding with, or shooting down, one of their own rather than the silver-grey Triplane of Voss.  His style of fighting played to the strengths of his aircraft, that of manoeuvrability and climb rate.  Voss's attitude was gung-ho, atypical and the opposite of von Richthofen's.  Who is the better fighter pilot is a matter of opinion; each had their strengths and weaknesses.  Voss's tactics, however, stir the imagination more.

It was these tactics that enabled him to pile on another 20 kills by the end of September 1917, bringing his total score to forty-eight, a mere 13 less than von Richthofen.  Indeed, von Richthofen called him "my most redoubtable competitor" – high praise from Germany’s top-scoring ace of World War One.

source - Twitter / Ron Eisele
Voss was due to go on leave on the 23rd of September, but was desperate to reach the half-century before he did so.  He flew a patrol in the morning, when he shot down his 48th victim.  Some pilots were fearful of flying when they had leave imminent, believing it to be tempting Fate and therefore bad luck.  Voss evidently did not believe this, for he took off again that evening, a little after 6 o'clock, in his Fokker Triplane with two Pfalz DIII scouts for company.  There was a great deal of aerial activity that evening, with several British squadrons flying.  It was the rearmost flight of one of these, 60 Squadron flying the fearsome SE5a, which first spotted Voss's formation.  This flight included two up-and-coming aces, Captain Robert Chidlaw-Roberts and Lieutenant Harold Hamersley.  Avoiding the two Pfalz they dived in to attack Voss, whose amazing aerobatic skills now became apparent.  Manoeuvring free of the attack, Voss turned the tables, firing on the two SEs and scoring hits.  As he drove the enemy back towards the lines, Voss's antics attracted two flights of the well-documented 56 Squadron, also flying SE5as.  With Captain James McCudden leading and Lieutenant Arthur Rhys-Davids also in attendance they tore down after Voss at close to 200mph.

Voss was not unaware of the danger, so he turned to face it.  Flying at McCudden, firing as he came, he scored several hits before he flashed past.  The British pilots, unable to understand what had just happened, swung round to get after him, only to find that Voss had also turned and was coming back at them.  Firing once more, he scored several good hits on Keith Muspratt’s machine, irreparably damaging the engine and forcing him to land.

By this time Voss was by himself, the Pfalz pilots having departed.  He too could have left at any time, the climb rate of his Fokker being superior to that of the SEs'.  He elected to stay and fight on, confident in his ability to out-manoeuvre his antagonists.  Whilst some people may put this down to typical German arrogance, I rather think it was an act of the greatest bravery and selflessness to take on such overwhelming odds.  Said Bowman after the fight, "that left him in the middle of six of us, which did not appear to deter him in the slightest."

source - Tumblr
Time and again the British pilots were forced onto the defensive by Voss's tactics; another SE5a was forced to retire, a write-off, thereby giving Voss a claim of 50 aircraft destroyed.  Slowly but surely, however, the fight was drifting westwards, towards the Allied lines.  At this point, a red-nosed Albatros joined the fight, and eleven more enemy scouts were seen at high altitude, but six Spads and four Sopwith Camels were keeping them otherwise engaged.  McCudden was afforded a brief chance for another attack, but as he did so Voss had already lined up and was firing in return.  Another SE attacked at the same moment as McCudden, yet Voss was able to manoeuvre free from both attacks.  Arthur Rhys-Davids persistently tried to dive into attack Voss, yet each time the Triplane dodged his bullets.  After one such occurrence Voss appeared at a broadside position to another SE pilot, Flight Commander G. H. Bowman.  Bowman tried to press home his attack, but in an outstanding move Voss applied full rudder, slewing sideways and firing on Bowman, much to his amazement.  This manoeuvre, however, took up much of Voss's concentration.  Enough, in fact, for him not to notice that Rhys-Davids had managed to get on to his tail.  For a distance of thirty yards Rhys-Davids emptied an entire drum of ammunition into the Triplane, fatally wounding its pilot.  "Oh", said Rhys-Davids after the event, "if only I could have brought him down alive!"

source - eBay
Every pilot who faced Voss that day held him in the highest esteem.  Bowman wrote, "It was not until later that we actually heard that it was Voss in the Triplane.  Our elation was not nearly so great as you would imagine."  McCudden's diary entry says it all, and is in many ways a fitting epitaph:

"As long as I live I shall never forget my admiration for that German pilot, who single-handed fought seven of us for 10 minutes.  His flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent, and in my opinion he was the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see fight."

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Scotland beat England in unique Penny Farthing bicycle polo match

Scotland beat England in unique Penny Farthing bicycle polo match

Back in 2010 I posted about The Great Race, a Penny Farthing bicycle race that takes place once every ten years in the Manchester suburb of Knutsford - and which therefore as it happens was due for a re-staging this year (this very month, in fact), but which has instead had to be put back to 2021 as a result of the ongoing Covid situation.  Something to look forward to next year, then, but in the meantime an equally quaint Victorian velocipedist sport recently took place in Richmond, London - Penny Farthing polo!

source - The Penny Farthing Club

An annual event, this, played this year at the Ham Polo Club's grounds in Richmond and known as the Penny Farthing Calcutta Cup it sees the traditional rivalry of Scotland versus England taken on to the polo field with a wonderfully eccentric twist.

Following much the same rules as equine-based polo, the two four-a-side teams play five chukkas of seven minutes' duration and the result of this particular match was an 8-7 victory for the Scots.  England are still in a strong position, though, leading the series 3-2, previous matches having been played this year in front of reduced crowds (usually in the thousands but currently restricted to 100 - suitably socially-distanced, of course) at Cowdray Park in West Sussex, Herne Hill in London and at the Guards Polo Club in Windsor.

It certainly looks like a lot of fun (the footage below is one chukka from last year's event), although I fancy one would have to be a particularly skilful Penny Farthing rider and polo player as indeed both teams' captains (and their teammates) are by the sound of things.  Even so it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a few tumbles and unseatings in the course of the matches!

source - Wikimedia Commons
It's splendid to see these charming Victorian machines continuing to be used and enjoyed today, especially in unusual circumstances such as these, thanks to the sterling efforts of enthusiasts like Neil Laughton (polo) and Glynn Stockdale (Great Race).  An instantly recognisable machine, the design of which is so closely associated with the 19th century, it is brilliant that they are still being produced today in various forms from traditional replicas to more modern interpretations for use by people from all ends of the cycling spectrum - be that vintagistas keen to master a more traditional cycle in keeping with their period of interest, up to competitive sportspeople such as the road racers and polo players mentioned here.  Long may that continue, and needless to say I will be rooting for England to wrap up the series and win the Penny Farthing Calcutta Cup for 2020 (with apologies to my Scottish readers!).

Thursday 10 September 2020

Living in the past: lifestyles from bygone eras - thoughts and views

Living in the past: lifestyles from bygone eras

This is another blog post I've been keeping back for a while with a view to publishing it when I would be incommunicado in hospital but with things on that front still uncertain and the subject in question of particular interest to the likes of us I feel that now is the time to share it with the rest of the vintage blogosphere.

The two articles featured in this post are equally gratifyingly in-depth studies of an area of our lives that we are all very familiar with - the vintage lifestyles that we all wholeheartedly embrace to one degree or another.  I use the word "gratifyingly" as so very often pieces such as these incline at best towards the gently mocking and tend to make my blood boil with their inherent misunderstandings - often implying that we're all a bunch of rabid right-wing leaning Conservatives longing after the return of an imperialist yoke, of women "knowing their place" in the home, of a strict social order and a world that was generally far more hidebound than the one we live in today.  It is for this reason that I rarely feature such critiques on here and why the one in the Guardian was an especially pleasant surprise to read, as in my experience they have a habit of scorning anything old-fashioned - with the traditional being an anathema to that particular organ, which is more often keen to try and point out - however tenuously - the negative aspects of the past (as in this recent, rather meandering and largely specious piece on men's suits in [spy] films).

Indeed this frequently pervading attitude that I'm sure we've all encountered - that we're wearing rose-tinted spectacles and desperately trying to live warts-and-all in a past that never truly existed - is something that I have blogged about a couple of times previously (once in 2010 and again in 2011); both of which obviously struck a chord with my readers judging by the number and type of comments I received.  I don't intend to repeat everything I said in those posts here again as they remain as valid today as they were ten years ago, although in light of these two recent commentaries I do think it worth revisiting some of the overarching views I expressed at the time.

source - The Observer / Guardian

Both editorials (but the Guardian's in particular), whilst being largely positive about the subject, do touch upon the idea that by engaging in nostalgia and living a vintage lifestyle we are somehow embracing every aspect of our preferred era both good and bad.  This is a view that for the life of me I have never been able to understand - a myopic, one-dimensional perspective that insults us by suggesting that we are unable to recognise the reprehensible aspects of our favoured time or are more than happy to include them in our lives.  Within this is also the view that we should be grateful for all the changes - both social and technological - that have occurred in the modern age and that by supposedly turning our backs on the present we are somehow denigrating the achievements we have made in the last century or so.  (Which we're not, as I've said before - many of us, myself included, just want to take the best of our chosen era and marry it to the best the 21st century has to offer.)  This belief has always struck me as a something of a double standard - to accuse us of liking all aspects of a previous era while at the same time insisting that it is in some way unnatural of us not to look forward and embrace all that the present has to offer is in many ways just as deprecating to the memory of the past.  I made the case in my 2011 post that in many respects we do appear to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater over the last fifty years or so - a view echoed by at least one of the Guardian interviewees and one that I still stand by.  To use a further analogy, how is it seen as "weird" for those of us with a penchant for a certain era to dress in the fashions of that time - fashions that can be æsthetically pleasing, sustainable and sympathetic to all body types - yet perfectly acceptable for middle-aged, overweight men (for example) to wear the artificial, ill-fitting football strip of their favourite team?  Where is the difference?  Why is one seen as "normal" and the other not? 

This attitude is also reflected in the somewhat negative terminology used by these commentators to describe us, both in the Guardian article and elsewhere.  "Retromania[cs]" is a particularly derogatory phrase in my book, once again tacitly ascribing the characteristics of a mental illness to our choice of lifestyle.  "Refuseniks" is another term that seems to be gaining currency, which continues to suggest that we are being actively obdurate and vehemently opposed to certain aspects of modern life.  Here again we see the use of injurious language to describe a group whose perfectly harmless way of living is in some way incomprehensible to those keen to pass judgement.  What's wrong with a more unbiased term like "vintagista" - or why not just use existing nonpartisan words such as "vintage enthusiast"?

source -
From my own perspective I am reminded of an ethos that is very appropriate in respect of the above; one I have always striven to live by, given to me by a most unlikely of sources but which has always stood me in good stead and should really be the credo of all right-thinking people:

"While men are decent to me I try to be decent to them, regardless of race, colour, politics, creed or anything else.  I've travelled a bit, and taking the world by and large, it's my experience that with a few exceptions there's nothing wrong with the people on it, if only they were left alone to live how they wanted to live."
Biggles, from "Biggles Delivers The Goods", 1946 

However I am pleased to see that - in line with my own encounters with fellow "living historians" - every single one of the interviewees in each column come across as intelligent, educated individuals who are as keen as we all are to put these misconceptions to bed.  I was particularly pleased to see more than one respondent explain - as I did back in 2010 - that many of us like to take the best facets from both worlds and how there is nothing wrong with that.

Vintage ladies breathing new life into auld claes

Indeed let's focus more now on the positive bits of these two news items - and they are many - from the pleasure of a dozen vintage enthusiasts happily discussing their lifestyles and fashion choices to the interesting and in some cases insightful socially scientific theories expounded by the scholars.  Although we may not entirely agree with all of the latter it is nevertheless thought-provoking to see them laid out in a largely unbiased fashion for a change and as hypotheses more than as accusations.

source - The Edinburgh Reporter

Then of course there is the pure enjoyment in seeing well-dressed individuals taking pride in their appearance and embracing the eras of their choice, one or more of which we can appreciate ourselves.  Unsurprisingly what especially comes across is the feeling of camaraderie and community that the entire vintage movement fosters - the support, encouragement and almost familial sense of togetherness that often results when a group of like-minded people share a common interest and which is thrown into even starker relief in the face of some of the more negative remarks we have to put up with.  It's good to see the benefits of modern technology also highlighted, particularly the positive aspects of social media which allow us to engage with other vintagistas maybe half a world away whom we might never actually meet - something that I have blogged about previously and which I'm sure we're all grateful for.  The irony in this is of course that it pours further cold water on the idea that we are all technophobes who use nothing more advanced than a Bakelite telephone (well, sometimes we do I suppose!).  And we haven't even touched upon the æsthetic and ecological properties of the clothing, accessories and furnishings that can be intrinsic to the vintage lifestyle, as mentioned in both papers.

To finish on that last point, as this is rapidly turning into another essay and I'm alive to the fact that it links to two other long-read stories, I will just add my own view to those espoused by several of the vintagistas on the subject of "mixing things up" and going for your own style over attempting a specific period-accurate look.

I consider myself to have been a vintage aficionado since my early twenties, so we're talking nearly 15 years now (yikes!), but my wardrobe actually contains precious few items that one would consider properly "vintage" (and in relation to clothing that is quite an elastic term, as we know - I mean some people are calling stuff from the 1990s "vintage" for goodness' sake! - but for the purposes of this discussion let's say anything that's over 50 years old, i.e. pre-1970).  Taking that as a basis I in fact have only one piece of clothing that I can definitively date to within that period and that is my 1940s Kaufmann wool overcoat (above) gifted to me by an aunt a few years ago.  I have a few jackets, such as a Harris Tweed job from Dunn & Co, that were picked up from vintage fairs over the years but of course that is no guarantee of age these days and I suspect they were probably made after my self-imposed 1970 cut-off.

The truth is most of my wardrobe is sourced from modern clothes shops - those found on the high street like Marks & Spencer and Debenhams as well as the various online emporia listed on the top left of this blog.  I realise I am fortunate, as a chap, that men's fashion has in essence changed little over the decades (and certainly since my specific era of interest, the interwar years of the 1920s & '30s) so I am able to approximate the period look I crave to my satisfaction without having to resort to purely vintage garments.  In other words, just like with so many vintagistas such as those in these articles, I mix and match modern - sometimes "vintage-style" - clothes with the few more valued retro items I own.  As an example (and at the risk of frightening the horses), this more recent photo (right) has me sporting what is perhaps my favourite look - a 1930s chappist vibe that is achieved using only one truly "vintage" item.  That is the jacket, which is a St Michael (M&S) job - an '80s-does-'30s type, I'd say - that I picked up in a charity shop in Canterbury a couple of years ago.  Everything else is modern - the trilby from Village Hats, the bow tie from Tieroom, the shirt from Charles Tyrwhitt, the trousers from BHS (sadly missed) and the shoes (brown Oxfords, unseen) from Clarks.  I hope this goes to show that one doesn't need deep pockets, nor have to spend hours trawling the likes of eBay (unless that's your sort of thing, of course, and I own it can be fun and rewarding sometimes), to get a look that will pass muster on the vintage scene.  This particular outfit has garnered many a positive comment at various events, if I do say so myself (as well as admiring glances from little old ladies, much to my fiancée's chagrin!) and I hope this positive reaction is encouraging to anyone just starting out on the path to vintage enlightenment; you don't have to go all-out for vintage items straightaway - everything is attainable if you know where to look and how to put various items together.  As the Auld Holyrood girls say - there are no rules and nothing wrong with throwing different things together to get a successful look as you work your way towards a fully vintage wardrobe, however long that might take.

source - Wikimedia Commons

The only difficulty in sourcing vintage-style clothing currently is the lamentable state of both high street clothes shops and some online stores - all of which are understandably struggling in these covid times but in the case of some like M&S and Debenhams are not helping themselves by making it unclear what market they're in, trying to go after the youth department in a misguided attempt to appear "relevant" only to alienate their existing [older] customer base and lose sales from both camps.  Interestingly there was an article in the Daily Telegraph recently that suggested M&S should reintroduce the St Michael label (defunct since the late '90s/ early 2000s ) in light of its popularity among the vintage set.  It is sadly rare now that I find anything suitable from either of these stores.  Unfortunately, as a result of covid hitting sales by encouraging people to work at home in their pyjamas (I mean why, for God's sake?!  If only more people would realise the [mental] health benefits of dressing smartly, especially in the middle of a pandemic - something that has also been highlighted in both stories and which has previously been commented on here and elsewhere) we are also seeing the demise or decline of several once-great men's outfitters.  Already T.M. Lewin have permanently closed all their physical stores and moved to online only, with Moss Bros. looking to follow suit (no pun intended!), while in America the likes of Brooks Brothers and Jos A. Bank have been teetering on the verge of bankruptcy for the last few months.  This kind of thing doesn't bode well for the future of more traditional menswear but I'm still optimistic that there will remain a decent selection of gentlemen's outfitters where one can find the sort of vintage-style clothes that we can employ in achieving the look we desire - it's just that many more of them will be online-only (which brings with it its own set of difficulties - getting the right fit, for example - none of which cannot be overcome however).

That's enough to be going on with for the moment, though, I think.  I'm not normally in the habit of doing that many massive posts but something about these articles has again clearly had an effect on me and I hope they have made an impression with you too.  If you've made it this far - well done! - and I'd be delighted to read your comments, whether you agree or disagree with what I've written or not, and what you think of both commentaries.

Monday 7 September 2020

Long-lost Universal Pictures film found after almost 100 years

The First Degree: Long-lost Universal Pictures film found after almost 100 years

Back in June I reported on the [re]discovery of a misattributed Spanish-language film that had been gathering dust on the shelves of Spain's national film archives for nearly half a century and which had only just been properly identified thanks in part to lock-down giving the archivists an opportunity to have a thorough look through their store of uncatalogued footage.  I ended that blog post expressing the hope that this would not be the only lost film to be unearthed as a result of the lock-down and I am delighted to say that that expectation has been fulfilled with this latest news of the finding of a previously-thought lost 1923 American drama called The First Degree.

source - IMDb

In what seems to be a recurring pattern in the rediscovery of lost films, this copy of The First Degree had originally been located several years previously (albeit "only" 14 years in this case) in a collection of largely unrelated factual films that came out of Peoria, Illinois.  Rescued from potential destruction by the Chicago Film Archives it then languished on their shelves in an unmarked box for over a decade before Covid-19 allowed curators the time to go back through their unclassified movie reels and successfully identify it as one of the Library of Congress's "Lost U.S. Silent Feature Films 1912-1929".

source - Wikipædia
Once again then we see the remarkable incidence of extremely fragile 35mm film stock surviving all sorts of prospective obliteration, to be eventually saved almost a century later - and partly as a result of a worldwide pandemic.  It is frankly incredible that any "lost" films from this period have survived at all (especially those from Universal, which shockingly destroyed all of its silent film negatives in 1948); particularly feature films such as this one with five or more reels - very often one or more are either missing or too far gone to save leading to sadly incomplete restorations.

I am glad to say that this is not the case with The First Degree, however, with all five reels remaining intact and salvageable (despite their near-incineration at the hands of a hot water cylinder).  Already they have all been transferred to digital format and judging by what little footage has been so far released it looks to have been a complete success with the images appearing clean, bright and crisp - a testament to the archivists' skills and a sobering reminder that only pure luck meant it was not a lot worse.

source - IMDb
The result is a valuable addition to the history of U.S. cinema and a fascinating snapshot of the American Midwest in the 1920s.  It is also interesting to note that this well-received courtroom drama had as its director someone who was more used to working with Buster Keaton (and would much later direct a couple of Laurel & Hardy features), but this seems not to have detrimentally affected the film - quite the opposite in fact as contemporary reviews were overwhelmingly positive.  In this respect this film's salvation is even more welcome given that it will allow silent movie buffs and commentators the rare chance to see an atypical example of the director Edward Sedgwick's work.

I for one certainly look forward to seeing the finished article when conditions allow and am heartened at the news and manner of this discovery.  More importantly the optimism it engenders regarding the possibility of similar finds being unearthed in the future is increasingly palpable.  I certainly feel confident in ending this post with the thought that this will definitely not be the last time we read about a "lost" film being rediscovered - whether due to covid restrictions or not.

Friday 4 September 2020

Edinburgh animator brings vintage photographs to life

Edinburgh animator brings vintage photographs to life in incredible new videos

Digitising old photographs to include colourisation, 3D effects and even animation seems to be the "in" thing at the moment judging by this latest article - the second to feature on this blog in recent months following a similar project in Coventry as reported here.

John Knox House, Edinburgh, c.1865
source - Wikimedia Commons

This time we find ourselves in Edinburgh, where a local film and animation enthusiast has used his skills in 3D and visual effects to bring images of Auld Reekie from across the decades to life.  With support and encouragement from a local history Facebook page, and inspired by the same Youtube videographer I mentioned in the Coventry article who upscales century-old footage of New York, Paris and elsewhere, Scottish filmmaker Steven Jefferies has taken still photographs of his home city from the 1950s all the way back to the 1870s and turned them into moving pictures using modern digital techniques.

Leith Pier, Edinburgh, 1870
source - Monovisions

The result is quite remarkable, blurring the lines between static photography and moving images - in the case of the latter quite a valuable addition inasmuch as it provides quasi cine-footage of the 1870s, a time before such technology existed, thereby adding a new level of immediacy and familiarity to otherwise motionless images.

Edinburgh, c.1870s
source - Monovisions

The footage seems to have gone down well with the people of Edinburgh, as well it should, giving a new lease of life and fresh perspective to these old photos, preserving their memories in a new and exciting way - a way that might hopefully engage with the younger generation, perhaps even encourage some to take a further interest in their local history and - who knows? - maybe pursue a career in [digital] photographic conservation.

The Cowgate arch of George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, 1860
source - Monovisions

In the meantime I congratulate Mr Jefferies on his Living Pictures Project and - as with the Coventry Rebuilt initiative - add my voice to those who have expressed the hope that it is something that will continue to grow (with the assistance of the Lost Edinburgh Facebook page) into a valuable historical asset for the local community.

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Work begins on Victorian-era Crystal Palace Subway restoration

source - News Shopper

Work begins on Victorian-era Crystal Palace Subway restoration

The good news continues on the historic buildings preservation front now with this welcome article about the planned restoration of one of the last surviving sections of the original Crystal Palace site in Sydenham Hill, London.

(I previously covered the history of the Crystal Palace building in a blog post back in 2013, when plans for a Chinese-backed full-sized replica were mooted in the national press.  Alas the scheme seems to have come to naught - although these things do take time with our current relationship with China being what it is I can't see it happening any time soon, if at all.  However there is a consolation whereby The Royal Parks - the charity responsible for the upkeep of London's Royal Parks, which includes the original Crystal Palace site of Hyde Park - has created a fantastic virtual walk-around of the long-lost building complete with fascinating historical facts about the Exhibition.)

The New High-Level Station at the Crystal Palace.
Illustrated London News (30 September 1865)
source -

The Crystal Palace (High Level) railway station was the second of two stations opened in Sydenham after the Crystal Palace was moved there from its original location in Hyde Park following the Great Exhibition of 1851.  The first station, named Crystal Palace, was built in 1854 by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway and operated by the West End of London & Crystal Palace Railway (they liked their long names back then, clearly!).  This would be the sole station serving the Crystal Palace area until mid-1860s when the rival London, Chatham & Dover Railway muscled in (operating as the Crystal Palace & South London Junction Railway), extending its Beckenham line to include a station at the Crystal Palace site.  Built into the side of the hill on which the relocated Palace stood, the somewhat confusingly-named Crystal Palace (High Level) station was opened on the 1st August 1865, with the station building being designed by architect Edward Middleton Barry - best known for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden - and boasting a beautiful red brick and buff terracotta motif.

Crystal Palace High Level station in 1908
source - Wikimedia Commons

In the following decades the station, along with its older sibling (renamed Crystal Palace Low Level in 1898 to avoid(!) confusion) continued to develop - the High Level station being one of the first on the Southern Railway line to be electrified in 1925 - and to decant visitors to the Crystal Palace site until that building's tragic destruction in November 1936.  Both stations suffered following the loss of the Palace with passenger numbers unsurprisingly dropping substantially.  The Low Level station, being on a through line, survived the downturn in traffic and continues to exist today as Crystal Palace railway station.  The High Level station soldiered on, being used as an air raid shelter during World War Two and suffering bomb damage in May 1944, leading to its temporary closure.  Although it was repaired and reopened its status as a branch terminus, coupled with rising maintenance costs, meant the writing was on the wall and on the 20th September 1954 the line and station were closed.  Five years later, in 1961, the main station building was demolished.

source - / Robin Webster

By great good fortune the main entrance and subway vestibule escaped the wrecking ball and were accorded Grade II* listed status by English Heritage (now Historic England) in 1972, allowing the structure to survive to this day.  Although it remained sealed off and abandoned for much of the intervening years (save for occasional use as storage) the "Friends of Crystal Palace Subway" society was set up in 2013 with the aim of fully reopening it for public access (previously it had been reopened temporarily for local events organised by civic groups throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s) and bringing it back into use as a subway for the first time in over 60 years.

source - / Nick Catford

Now that aim looks to be a step closer with the news that survey work on the site has begun, following a grant of £2.34m from the City of London's Strategic Investment Pot and a donation from the FCPS to help restore what remains of this gorgeous and historically important structure that is the sole remaining link to the incredible building which stood nearby for over 80 years.  Everyone from the council to the architects clearly see the value in returning this forgotten gem to the community and all seem keen to pull in the right direction.  It heartens me to think that in a few years' time this wonderful piece of largely unseen Victorian architecture will have been given a new lease of life as a valuable civic amenity - in whatever form it takes - for the people of Bromley and visitors alike.  A hearty "well done" to everyone involved and I look forward to reading about - and hopefully featuring on here again - the outcome in 2022.


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