You know the moment. You find a book you really like very cheap in an Oxfam bookshop, and for no very good reason, you buy it. You already have a copy - but it's too good to pass by.
That's how this morning, at the Oxfam bookshop in Crouch End, I forked out £2.50 for Clive Branson's British Soldier in India. Branson, a veteran of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (some of his poems are in the anthologies of civil war verse), served in India and Burma during the Second World War - and died there.
His letters are about India, communism, poverty, nationalism, war, famine - and the vivid colours and assault on all the senses that India brings with it to those from outside.
What tempted me above all, though, to make the purchase was a clipping loose inside the book - a review in the 'Daily Worker' of 21st October 1944 by, of all people, Sean O'Casey. Here it is:
In an introduction to the book - published in 1944, the year of Branson's death in Burma - the CP leader, Harry Pollitt, gives some details of his life history. Born in 1907 in India, where his father was an army officer (it seems his full name was Clive Ali Chimmo Branson though he was usually known as Frank - there must be a story behind that but I haven't yet found it), Branson moved to England as a baby. He attended the Slade School of Art, but once he joined the CP in his mid-twenties he forsook painting for a while: 'He used to say that to be able to paint you must first learn about life.'
British Soldier in india includes a few sketches that Branson made while in Maharashtra - this being a study for a much larger intended work:
I noticed in Pollitt's introduction an account of Branson's art work in the years just before he enlisted in the armed forces:
After the outbreak of the present war, while continuing his political work, he nevertheless spent a number of months painting very intensively, because, as he said, "it may be my last chance". He painted mainly the life in Battersea, where he lived, the workers in the streets, the events of the blitz.
And if you look on the web, you can see some of these very striking paintings. The one below dates from 1937 and is entitled 'Selling the Daily Worker outside the Projectile and Engineering Works' - it's held by the Tate, and I hope they will forgive me for posting the work here:
And here's another even more striking Branson painting which I found on the web - entitled 'Bombed Women and Searchlights', from the Blitz period. It's also at the Tate - one of five Branson paintings they hold (among the other is surely the only still life to feature books by Marx and Stalin):
If you are curious about how an out-of-the-way gaffe in Walthamstow was named Museum of the Year, get down there and see for yourself. The William Morris Gallery is balm for the soul. It's housed in a wonderful Georgian building in its own grounds - William Morris, who was born nearby, lived here through some of his teenage years.
The museum takes you through the main areas of endeavour of this remarkable man: tapestry and textile design; painting, not his great forte but he was part of the pre-Raphaelites scene and his wife, Jane, was a muse and model and later ran off with Rossetti; furniture and interior design; writing, much of it epic verse influenced by Icelandic sagas; book design, typesetting and binding; the preservation of the built environment ... and then there's his politics.
The displays give full weight to William Morris's political activism, From 1883 for about a decade, he was Britain's most engaged socialist intellectual - libertarian, somewhat utopian (he was the author of News from Nowhere), and very much an activist.
On show is the satchel that Morris took with him to political meetings and demonstrations - and a wonderful display of his pamphlets, many of them embellished by Walter Crane's designs, along with handbills, posters, a few marvellous photographs and a banner which has a touch of Morris about it.
Not the least of the delights is a cafe, airy and light, which sells excellent cakes - and has an open-air terrace overlooking the grounds. There's a good shop (see below) - and it's all free.
Just ten minutes walk away is Walthamstow's other museum, the Vestry House Museum - the displays are nothing like as memorable, but the building and its surroundings are enchanting. I have never come across such an arcadian idyll within the bounds of the M25. Opposite the Vestry House is a single storey 1830s school room now a spiritualist church, and an early Victorian fire station - nearby there's a wood-beamed fifteenth century house and opposite a red hexagonal Victorian pillar box (both below) - footpaths arched by apple-heavy boughs - alms houses - a row of charming country-style Victorian cottages ... and this is E17!
A wonderful ghost sign off St Mary's Road in E17 which I stumbled across this morning ... as you can see from the scaffolding, there's building work underway. I hope the sign survives!
A more assiduous researcher than me has discovered that this enterprise appears to have opened in 1895, was renamed as Walthamstow Business College between the wars and closed in 1957.
For a region with such a chequered history, Istria feels as if it has come out of its troubles rather well. It has at various times been ruled from Venice, Paris, Vienna Istanbul and - in more recent years - Rome, Belgrade and now Zagreb. The most cathartic change was not the 'homeland war' which accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia - this part of Tito's former territories wasn't gravely affected - but the changes which followed the Second World War. The Italians kept Trieste, but forfeited Istria - and a large number of ethnic Italians (the beautiful Venetian hill town of Motovun, above, was culturally Italian until after the war) left, their place being taken by Croatian speakers.
There's a lot of Italian still around. In much of Istria, street signs are in both languages. Trieste is (and feels) much nearer than Zagreb. Quite a few Istrians speak Italian as their first or second language, and the influx of Italian tourists reinforces the ties to the west.
Near Brtonigla - under an hour's drive from the Slovenian and Italian borders - I came across this moving war memorial. Mainly in Italian - with just a few words in Croatian. Commemorating those who fell victim to fascist (that is Mussolini's Italy) terror. And so many of the names are clearly Italian - every single first name, and a fair few of the surnames.
The ancient symbol of the Venetian republic, the winged lion, is evident in the hill towns, with their graceful churches and municipal buildings. Elesewhere even more ancient remnants of Italian rule are evident - Pula, on the soutern tip of Istria, has one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres, completed in 70 AD, and now doubling up as tourist attraction and concert venue. We just missed Leonard Cohen and - even more vexing - headed home before Joe Cocker came to town: "she came in through the lavacrum window"!
A handful of badges from my holiday - bought in the flea market at Pula, the onetime capital of Istria in Croatia. Lenin in the top row (and these Soviet badges were just a few pence each), Tito down below (only a shade more pricy). The one moderately costly badge was the hammer and sickle in a red star, which I think is an army cap badge.
I am not sure why the Soviet bloc, and Yugoslavia, were so abundant in their issuing of (usually fairly cheap and tacky) badges. I suppose it was about the Communist love of iconography, and probably disguised a profound sense of insecurity.
Anyway, these will look just mighty fine on my pinboard.
Hidden away in the heart of Marylebone, along the wonderfully named Grotto Passage (there's a really narrow entrance off Paddingon Street) is what was once a Ragged School. It survives among the spartan splendour of the Howard de Walden estate, an early exercise in social housing - and indeed Octavia Hill began her work on housing for the poor in an adjoining street.
The Grotto was - all this courtesy of Caroline's Miscellany - a landmark in eighteenth century London, a sea shell feature and pleasure ground on what was then the edges of the city.
Nothing survives of it but the name. But what a wonderful name!
The ragged school is the white building on the left here - with the passage on to Paddington Street just visible as that dark hole at the end.
It seems, and again this comes from Caroline's Miscellany, that the school - a reformatory really - made quite a habit of shipping out its young charges, particularly to Australia and Canada.
You get a wonderful view of the courtyard and signage from the Italian snack bar next door - that's how I spied it this afternoon. It's worth a visit.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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