Monday, 26 January 2015

Red telephone boxes

What could be more British than the red telephone box? And yet they have been disappearing for years. The mobile phone has been killing them off. BT has a yearning wish to be rid of nearly all of them. They may earn their keep in central London, or at city stations and important airports, but elsewhere they are generally so little used that they have fallen into decay, costing more to maintain than the money they bring in. You can see why BT would like to take them away.

In remote spots, far from a decent mobile phone signal, there remains a vital public service need. In an emergency, it really wouldn't do to have no reliable means of calling for help. So those telephone boxes are safe from removal - for now. But in a county like Sussex, where there is countryside aplenty but none of it desperately far from a mobile phone signal of some sort, the fate of its remaining public telephone boxes must be in the balance. It's becoming rare to see one.

On my way back from little Frensham Pond, I went by way of Gospel Green. This is a green with a cottage on it, and a farm and a few other buildings just up the road, but really nothing else. You could hardly call it a hamlet. But it has a red telephone box. It stands in splendid isolation, set back from the road along a short path. In the summer the foliage of the nearby trees must make it hard to spot, unless you already know it's there. I don't think it is lit at night. I stopped, and took some photos of what it presently looks like:

There are clear signs that somebody is keeping that path well-tended, and is wiping the red paintwork - otherwise one would scarcely expect this box to look so near-immaculate. Inside were the torn-away remains of a Closure Notice. A little research on the Internet established that in January 1999 the parish council made an application to get Listed Building status for this phone box. It was clearly an issue that rumbled on for a long time. You can imagine the box being a cherished local landmark, and a campaign being launched to save it - in the same spirit that local people once tried to save little-used rural railway branch lines.

But by May 2006, the application had been refused. Perhaps it was then that BT pasted up its Closure Notice.

Well, the phone box had survived. How, one wonders? Maybe the cottage-owner close by had made it a nightly duty to phone someone, anyone at all, to bump up the usage statistics. Maybe The Ramblers Association were roped in to encourage their members to make a call whenever walking past. Maybe ET phoned home from here. At any rate, there has been a stay of execution.

A payphone needs some way of paying, and this was a phone that took both cards and coins - 60p minimum. How the charge has gone up! I picked up the receiver - a big, rather heavy affair by modern standards, very twentieth century - and was almost shocked to hear a healthy dialling tone.

I didn't call anybody. It was enough to establish that this telephone box was still alive and kicking. A contender, defying BT for another year.

How old was it? If you know anything at all about phone box design, you will see that this is a 'K6 kiosk', the most ubiquitous type, found all over the British Isles, although not invariably painted red. But most are red. Once home, I consulted my impressive collection of old Ordnance Survey maps, and established from the survey dates that this box had been installed some time between 1932 and 1960. My guess would be during the war, when local soldiers in local pill boxes, guarding woods and fields and ditches against The Enemy, might need to ring up the local HQ to say that 'Private Timpson was sneezin' awful bad, an' could 'e cycle off to the village an' buy some aspirins?'

But the box could equally well date from the 1950s. The K6s were such a timeless, classic design that they were made, and installed, from the mid-1930s to the late-1960s. They were everywhere, over 70,000 of them eventually adorning towns and the countryside through the land - and on every Scottish island.

When I first became acquainted with them, as a user, I was only twelve. It was in 1965 on a Cornish holiday, at Treyarnon Bay near Padstow. In those days the call charge was 4d. You required four old pennies, those big copper coins with Britannia and a little lighthouse on them. If I remember this correctly, you picked up the receiver, fed the coins into a slot, pressed Button A (which was a large chromed button), and then dialled the number (assuming it was possible to dial direct, and not via an operator). Once connected - if you were connected - you pressed Button B (confusingly identical to Button A), the coins would make a loud dropping noise, and you could speak. 'Hello! Hello! Is that you?'

Why Dad had given me the money to make that call, I can't remember. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to phone anyone myself. Not at twelve, not even years later. The whole telephone business was intimidating. I was frightened of the phone. And I remained frightened of it for a long time. I did of course have to use it once I started work, but I never learned to regard it as a handy device that was the very first resort if you wanted to consult anybody. I always found - and I still do to this day - that speaking to a disembodied voice was odd and disturbing. So I have used the phone only with great reluctance. It has played very little part in my private life, and scarcely any part at all in my early attempts to make a connection with someone I thought I loved. I looked instead for face-to-face alternatives, so much easier to handle.

And nothing has ever changed. I still dislike 'chatting over the phone'. I vastly prefer to be in the actual presence of the other person, when expressions and body language can be seen and read, when the contact seems truly meaningful.

I digress. The Gospel Green phone is a good example of a locally-loved phone box that won't be lost without a fight. You can be sure of it. But there are some boxes around that are not much loved. They will be found gone one day, and nobody will mourn them. For example, this overgrown and subsiding box near Sampford Courtenay station in central Devon, with its door that won't shut, that I saw last year:

Oh dear! Peeling paint. Ivy taking hold. The glass all greenish with mildew. And an offputting 'Coins not accepted here' notice. Cards only, then. The station - not the original, which has been mostly demolished - is but a platform on a singled line that nowadays gets only a few trains on summer Sundays.

It cannot possibly provide business for this phone box. The adjacent letterbox gets more use. It will outlive the phone box for sure. Inside, the phone apparatus itself was clean enough, and working, but otherwise it was dirty and cobwebby.

Who, except hardened lorry-drivers, would want to spend any time in this? BT are letting it rot. It's doomed.

Back to Sussex. Some years ago, in 2004, I found a good-condition K6 at Ebernoe. Ebernoe is hard to find. It's vaguely halfway between Northchapel and Kirdford, on a narrow road deep in the well-wooded and remote-seeming West Sussex countryside.

That was my old car - the blue Honda CR-V - in the middle picture. Nothing else passed by. There were houses near this phone box, but they were hidden in the woods, and were for the well-heeled who didn't need a public phone box at all. This phone box was much sprucer than the one at Sampford Courtenay, but its lack of constant use was obvious. It was being encroached upon by the ferns and roadside weeds. Inside, it was still OK:

Ah, but that was 2004. What is it like now, in 2015? I feel very inclined to go back and see for myself. But I expect to find it either gone, or reduced to a sorry state of disreputableness. Sigh.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Little Frensham Pond

Surrey - next door to Sussex - is an odd county. Its north-eastern quarter is essentially an urban sprawl - just part of London. Its north-western and south-eastern quarters have a more rural feel, but it's not 'real' country really, just leafy commuter towns surrounded by golf courses and pony pastures, with the odd enclave for the seriously well-heeled.

But in the south-western quarter things are quite different. Here Surrey is astonishingly hilly and beautiful, and although it is too well-visited to feel 'remote', and you can never quite get away from people, it is spacious and 'wild' in places, in a managed, National-Trusty sort of way. I know this area quite well. My parents moved to close-by Liphook in early 1981. Dad had just retired, aged sixty - gosh, he was younger then than I am now! - and besides the amenities of pleasant local towns like Haslemere, Petersfield, and of course Liphook itself, there were picturesque country villages all around, full of decent pubs for decent lunches. Watching Mum and Dad live there gave me a taste of the sweetness of retired life when you have an adequate income, and illness is under control.

Their lifestyle, and the way they made it come about, told me that a successful retirement was like a successful business - you constantly looked about for new ideas, you made plans, you built up your capital, and you organised your schedule so that you could enjoy a succession of good times, one event after another. You diary was a vital tool. Days were full of meetups, people to contact, and places to be. Mum and Dad were active: they both bowled at the local club; a social life came with that club, including bowling holidays in sunny places; there were household projects galore; and plenty of holidays, including cruises. Sunny days indeed.

In 1987 or so, my parents took part in a BBC television documentary about retirement. I think it was called O'Donnell investigates...Age. Dad was approached and asked whether a camera crew could shadow my parents (and other couples) on one of those bowling holidays to the West Country. It would have been somewhere like Exmouth, Teignmouth or Sidmouth. So for a week they were filmed doing whatever they did, from breakfast to bedtime. Everyone was encouraged to do 'noddies', apparently a term meaning 'just talk to your friends, but exaggerate things slightly, so that your nods and smiles and lip movements and gestures are obvious, and will show up nicely in the camera lens'. A few club members, and Dad was one, were properly interviewed. Dad looked the epitome of a comfortably-off Retired Civil Servant: clearly in great health, bronzed, relaxed, thoroughly enjoying life. And Dad was a good talker, making clear and concise points with his quite posh voice, encapsulating the essence of what was so nice about a sunny retirement on a decent, index-linked pension.

Of course, when we eventually saw the programme, it became obvious that the BBC had had a secret agenda! Yes, there was Dad, and the rest of the bowling club, having a fantastic time. Dad's footage was not messed around with, and he came across very well indeed. Then cut to...some other pensioners, the ones trying to live on a meagre company pension...or poor souls on the poverty-line, surviving on the Old Age Pension provided by the State. Oops! The contrast was painful. The morals: by hook or by crook, get some money together for retirement; and don't trust TV production companies.

I took on board two big things from that episode:

1. A golden retirement was precious, and worth bringing about. I began to regard my Revenue job not as a career, but as an investment for the future, worth taking very seriously, so that I built up salary and years of service, the keys to a pension worth having.

2. There were plenty of people around who - through bad choices, or sheer lack of choice - would be stuck with a substandard pension. They deserved my understanding. It wouldn't do to feel in any way smug.

This said, I continued to admire Mum and Dad's lifestyle, especially when you considered that they'd built it up from almost nothing. Both came from ordinary families. Dad, for instance, had had a moneyless upbringing in rural Devon (see what I said about that in the eulogy I composed and read out at his funeral in the post My address at Dad's Funeral on Wednesday 3rd June 2009, dated 2 June 2009). Mum and Dad struggled financially until Dad got his promotion to Inspector of Taxes in 1963. Then things took off. New houses followed, first in Southampton (1963), then South London (1979), then Liphook (1981), with a final move in 2000 to the house I now live in.

While they lived at Liphook - a long period of about twenty years - I visited them often. Nearly always, it seemed, on sunny days. If I came over on a Sunday, Mum would cook a delicious lunch, and then we'd go for an afternoon walk. One favourite place would be Little Frensham Pond.

Actually the official name is 'Frensham Little Pond', and there is a 'Frensham Great Pond' nearby. Both are on Frensham Common. This is an area of undulating sandy heathland north-west of Hindhead, west of the A3, and in the furthest south-west corner of Surrey. It's very beautiful. Both 'ponds' are in fact lakes. They have sandy shores and are partly surrounded by woodland, some of it deciduous, some of it pine. The air is clear, and from the higher parts (such as near the Devil's Jumps to the south) there are wide views to be had. Photographically it is superb, at least in bits.

The other day it was bright and cheerful, and I decided to pay Little Frensham Pond another visit. I hadn't been there since 2009 (see my post Heavy metal on 28 September 2009).

I set off in late morning and stopped first at Haslemere, where there is a Waitrose, to buy a sandwich and a smoothie. I devoured these in Fiona, but it wasn't exactly a hassle-free experience. Waitrose itself was fine. It was the later arrivals at the car park.

I'd been very lucky: I'd seen an empty space straight off, and had slid into it without hesitation. It was a Saturday, and the car park was otherwise completely full. People arriving after me had to circle round, like sharks, waiting for a space to become free. If there was any sign that somebody might be on the verge of departure, these cars would top dead and wait to see what they did. It seemed at bit selfish, that: because nobody behind them could get past, and if one circulating car stopped, then they all had to.

And some seemed to think they had a divine right to hold up the rest. These were invariably owners of newish posh vehicles, whose drivers sat in a high-and-mighty position. Typically Range Rover drivers, and there are plenty of that breed in this well-off part of Surrey! They'd stop, and then glare intently at you in an impatient manner that said 'I'm Very Important and Well-Off and My Time Is More Valuable Than Anyone Else's. Hurry up and let me have your space, damn you!' I had one or two of such folk stopping just behind me, while I ate my sandwich and drank my smoothie, and listened to BBC4's Money Box on the radio. They clearly thought 'Aha! There's somebody in the driver's seat! Let's hustle them along.'

Well, sod you. I wasn't having it. I lazily listened, and lazily ate and drank. I fiddled with my hair and lipstick. I consulted my phone and may have yawned a bit. I didn't actually give them the finger, but it was a close thing. If any of these drivers had got out and tapped on my window, I had searing words ready for them. None did: a pity.

I will not be cajoled or bullied into doing anything I don't want to do. I owed them nothing. I was not a member of their club or caste. They could huff and puff as much as they pleased, I had half an hour and more left on my ticket, and they could swivel. I wasn't quite goaded into bloodymindedness, but my peace had been disturbed by arrogant people who needed a damned good thrashing! Only joking.

I was soon on my way in any case. The sun was still shining. The Pond drew me.

My goodness, it was cold and frosty there! And the sun was low already, brilliant but quite unable to warm things up. Everyone was well clad. The air was wonderfully crisp. I had my Alt-Berg walking boots on. I intended to walk up to a ridge, then descend, circumnavigate the Pond, and so back to Fiona.

The pictures will give you a flavour of the place. It always strikes me as odd that the Pond really has a sandy shoreline, like a beach. The paths hereabouts are sandy too. It was gorgeous being out on such a sunny day! You can see how bright it was, because I had to screw up my eyes:

Well, I got up onto the ridge. It separates the Little Pond from the Great Pond. Then I worked my way down and around the Little Pond. It was very much like it had been, not only in 2009, but all those years before, in the 1980s and 1990s. Slightly more manicured now, perhaps. Modern fencing. Pathways made a little more suitable for scooters and wheelchairs and buggies. New seats. One seat (on the eastern shore) had STRENGTH AND COURAGE carved on it:

Strength and courage. The chief things very old people wish for.

Then it was back along the edge of the Pond, stopping frequently to shoot the lowering sun and the darkening lake view.

A very special place. And what a feeling of continuity. This had been the haunt of my parents thirty years ago. Now it was my turn. I hoped that somehow I would still be able to come here, thirty years hence, and reflect on what it was to be young, then middle-aged, then old. Everything else about me would be completely insignificant.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Dentures, dolly mixtures, and white, white Ultrabrite

Gene Kelly's whiter-than-white smile in the final photo of my last post reminds me that back in the early 1950s a gloriously complete, even, unchipped, and brilliantly white set of teeth, set in healthy pink gums, was the sole preserve of those who could afford expensive dental treatment. Which meant Hollywood stars, royalty and the rich - and hardly anyone else.

The rest of the population made do. And without a lifetime of NHS dental care behind them - not in the 1950s, when the NHS was less than ten years old - it showed.

Many adults, particularly if they came from what were once known as the 'working classes', had never had any kind of preservative or cosmetic dentistry, and when teeth decayed, pulling them out was the standard remedy. After that, they lived with the gaps. When I was young, nearly everyone I saw around Barry, young or old, had gaps between their teeth where an extraction had taken place. Some had more gaps than teeth! it was a sign that you probably weren't well off. But it was so usual, there wasn't any particular stigma attached to it, not so far as I recall.

The better-off, if they thought it important to take care of their teeth - and not everyone did think it very important - could avoid extractions, and have instead fillings and all kinds of other treatments, though not of course the range available today. People like my parents could aspire to a mouth full of usable but no doubt yellowish teeth (smoking was universal, of course), many of them crooked, and one or two definitely prone to giving constant trouble.

Really good dental care (and that Hollywood Smile) wasn't within common reach. Extractions, and the fitting of dentures, were still standard once teeth got beyond straightforward rescue. Dentures were an uncomfortable nuisance. I remember my Mum complaining how badly-fitting hers were. A lot of people didn't bother with them.

Children's teeth were in no better state. The wartime sweet ration ended in 1953 and after that kids glutted themselves on all kinds of confectionery, with predictable consequences. I was no different, when I had pocket money to spend. If it hadn't been for sweets, I would now have far less in the way of fillings. And fewer crowns.

But at least my teeth are all still there, which is an achievement when you consider the abuse they suffered when I was young. One thing I remember about my dentist in Barry was that after every visit, which invariably entailed a filling, I was given a handful of little sweets called 'dolly mixtures'. The ideal thing! Was it well-intentioned, to console a child with a sore mouth? Or an act of cynicism, to make a return visit all that more likely? Who knows.

I did at least stay out of the hands of any practitioners from the Sweeney Todd School of Dentistry - the butchers who ruined many a mouth.

All the above is of course leading up to a hot update on my own teeth.

If you cast your mind back, I was going to have a crown fitted to a top-row tooth just before Christmas. I did. It has been excellent. Not the slightest problem. And of course, it instantly transforms a heavily-filled molar (with silver fillings) into a perfect, gloriously white molar. Allowing me to open my mouth, and positively bray with shrieking laughter, like a horse who has got the joke. A £405 joke, that is.

Then, just last week, it was the turn of another tooth on the other side of my mouth. Same kind of heavily-filled molar, one with a crack in it that was getting sensitive. Not a crown this time. A big white filling. That's now done and dusted too. All discomfort gone. I can chew with confidence again on both sides of my mouth. Wonderful! It too is gloriously dazzling to the eye, and worth another open-mouthed hoot of mirth. £85 worth, in fact.

Here I am, gaping in the sun on Frensham Common a few days ago. The rearmost teeth visible, and facing each other, are my new crown (nearest, behind the last two old-style fillings) and the new white filling (furthest away):

Unfortunately, this is not exactly a dazzling, oh-my-poor-eyes-where's-my-sunglasses 'Hollywood Smile'. It isn't even a Hollywood face. But hey ho, it's a face and mouth that are gradually getting better, and they're not bad for sixty-two. In my humble opinion, that is.

And who remembers the ads for Ultrabrite toothpaste on 1970s TV? The Ultrabrite Smile That Got You Noticed? Ads that pushed at you the notion that amazingly white teeth were very, very sexy, and got you the attention of a Dream Man?

I don't mean these ads for the American market, although they are very funny, and well worth a look:

I mean another ad that appeared on British TV screens in the mid-70s. It features beach-loving, disco-loving young people flashing winning smiles at each other and pairing off. It was sung in a British voice by a trendy-sounding band, and was altogether much zippier. I can't find a video for it, but it had the line:

Extra Strength Taste in a zingy toothpaste
That's white, white Ultrabrite!

And ended:

White, white Ultrabrite... [fades out]

Ah! Those were the days.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Singin' In The Rain

Gosh, it's astonishing. The famous film musical Singin' In The Rain - in my reckoning Gene Kelly's finest performance - was released sixty-three years ago, in 1952, the year I was born. And yet it's up there still as one of the finest films ever made - it you like singing and dancing and slapstick and Hollywood-style music, that is. I accept that it won't be for sci-fi freaks, and anyone whose outlook is so dark that violence and thuggery and death define their area of enjoyment. This film is for free spirits, open hearts, those with a sense of fun, and anyone who thrills to something done supremely well. It was jolly hard work for the cast.

I watched it on DVD the other night. I'd just dipped into a programme about George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess - the only thing on telly that had any appeal - and this had somehow got me into the mood for a classic Hollywood musical. I immediately dug out Singin' In The Rain, and wasn't disappointed.

I dare say you've seen it at least once. So I don't need to say much about the plot, which deals with a major film studio's rocky attempt to move away from silent movies into the new era of talkies. The transition poses difficulties! Gene Kelly is the handsome male lead Don Lockwood, and he possesses charisma and a fine voice, perfect for sound. But his on-screen leading lady (Jean Hagen, as Lina Lamont) has a weedy, nasal voice that didn't matter for silent films, but sounds farcical when you hear her in a talkie. She also behaves in a crass manner. The public reaction to her awful voice is a serious matter that threatens the survival of the studio. Matters come to a head, of course. Kelly is supported by his best friend (Donald O'Connor, as Cosmo Brown) and the studio boss (Millard Mitchell, as R F Simpson), and he falls in love with a young and feisty singer and dancer (Debbie Reynolds, as Kathy Selden). It all ends well, but just in case you've spent your life on the planet Zog, and have never actually seen the film, I'll say no more.

I want instead to examine a sequence towards the end of the film, called 'Broadway Melody', which despite the excellent earlier parts of the film, and catchy favourite numbers like Beautiful Girl, Moses Supposes, and (of course) Singin' In The Rain itself, is for me the very best part of the film. It's Kelly visualising a modern-dancing sequence for the studio boss. It will fit into their hastily-renamed and re-produced (and hitherto silent) historical film The Dancing Cavalier as a glitzy, all-singing, all-dancing and eyepopping spectacular, to wow the audience and make them forget the obvious defects of the much-adapted and hashed-around film.  

It opens with Kelly in immaculate evening wear, complete with hat and cane, in a spotlight, on a vast stylised film set. (These are my own photos throughout, by the way, taken off the TV screen)

Then pan out to impress the audience:

Now a hopeful Kelly - in small-town attire - arrives on Broadway in New York with his suitcase, trying to find work. He knocks on agents' doors, and gives them each a burst of 'Gotta dance!':

One hires him, and introduces him the the Broadway Crowd. They all energetically dance and sing 'Broadway Rhythm':

But watching the dancers at a table is the Big Underworld Boss and his two henchmen, all in evening dress; and an anonymous statuesque girl in green (the lovely-legged Cyd Charisse), who tranfixes Kelly with her cool, commanding presence:

There is no dialogue whatever: it's all gestures and glances and body movements. So much conveyed by physical means. I think that Kelly was a genius at choreographing all this.

With the Underworld Boss and his scarcely-restrained henchmen looking on, Kelly and Charisse dance together with power and sensuality. What a treat for the eyes. Kelly was in reality very strong and athletic. Charisse said later that she enjoyed all that strength and athleticism very much.

Kelly is extraordinarily attracted.

But then the Boss (flipping a coin, the sign of power) reins her in, with a new diamond necklace as the irresistible lure. Kelly looks on in dismay, as she turns away from him. The two henchmen then push him away.

The agent now puts Kelly to work. He starts in ordinary vaudeville, and quickly ends up as the top-hatted star of the Ziegfeld Follies. He comes off stage, joins a high-class society party at a Casino, and is surrounded by rich, beautiful and adoring New Yorkers - all wanting his attention.

Then he sees Her again, standing apart, dressed in white like a bride. The party, the champagne, and everyone else are instantly forgotten - he has eyes only for her:

Then begins a dream sequence, essentially a ballet with only two performers, assisted by Charisse's immensely long white train, some nice pink and mauve lighting, and multi-directional breezes. It's beautiful. They dance delicately, yet with yearning passion:

Fred Astaire, another dance genius, may have had better skill with his feet, but he couldn't hold a woman like Gene Kelly could!

Back down on earth, Kelly thinks that - surely - he must be in with a chance this time? He hopes...but no, it's not to be. She flips her own coin, gives it to him, and rejoins the Underworld Boss. Kelly gives the coin to a waitress as a tip, and leaves the Casino, despondent. It's still all being done by facial expression, gesture and body movement.

But then, another Broadway hopeful comes along, singing 'Gotta dance!' This changes Kelly's mood completely, and he launches into an upbeat 'Broadway Melody' finale:

Now some unusual camerawork and cutting-room magic (no computers in 1952!). The casino and its surroundings recede rapidly as the finale reaches its climax, but - simultaneously - we zoom in on Kelly, who ends with a cheerful and winning smile. That's the Broadway Melody!

Fantastic. I always find the whole thing thrilling. I know it's just one girl's view, but I hope you stayed with me, and enjoyed it too - and will see the film again for yourself.