Even when 300 miles from home, the column finds that there’s always a dull moment

ON a wooden shelf in the Bakelite Museum – “world’s greatest collection of vintage plastics” – a book called Dull Men of Great Britain is proudly opened at the entry for Mr Patrick Cook.

He is Baron Bakelite, the founder, the curator, the phenol freak – as one newspaper rather unkindly put it – for whom if the question is “Plastic?” the answer, per Mr Alan Whicker, is “That’ll do nicely.”

When the book was published in 2011, he counted 19,786 Bakelite bits and bobs piled high in the 18th century Grade II-listed former water mill which houses his mind-your-head museum. They range from Bakelite telephones to Bakelite teeth, from Bakelite building bricks to Bakelite breast implants. There’s a Bakelite caravan and even a Bakelite coffin, produced by the Ultralite Casket Company and available in models like the Presence, the Harmonious and the Noble.

It is, of course, where Patrick Cook wishes finally to be laid to rest, though given the stuff’s heat resistant qualities, burial may be better than the other thing.

In North-East England, Bakelite was long associated with the company’s plant on the Aycliffe industrial estate, said when it opened in 1948 to be the most modern factory in the world, ultimately employing more than 1,000 and scene in 1955 of a major explosion that left six people seriously hurt in hospital and shattered windows several miles away.

There was also a thriving sports club – “Bakelite were a very philanthropic company” says Mr Cook. Wasn’t it for Bakelite SC that Bulldog Billy Teesdale was sent off after just ten seconds? Or was that ENV Rovers?

Bakelite became BXL, subsequently changing name and lineage in the manner of an Old Testament opening chapter which begat nothing but confusion.

As recently as September 15, the museum was described as “wonderful” in the Western Daily Press – and there’s a pointer.

It’s not on the column’s usual beat, but in the middle of a field at Williton, Somerset. On holiday just six miles away, we headed there at once – and were too late. After 25 years, the museum had closed the day previously.

“Local people just haven’t supported us,” said Mr Cook. “They don’t seem to want to go to a museum in the middle of a cow field.”

They hope to move to a site near Bristol, and must in the meantime pack up about 20 tons of Bakelite. We paid a fiver and they let us in, anyway. “It’s another sheet of bubble wrap,” they said.

BAKELITE was patented in 1908 by cobbler’s son Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-American inventor now described as the father of the plastics industry. In the museum, however, an information sheet admits that it went through “a long period of being despised” after World War I, perhaps plastic portent of how things are today.

The lady supposes that the grey-moustached owner bears a resemblance to Sir Roy Strong, former curator of the Victoria and Albert, a perhaps more mainstream museum. To me he looks more like Mr Pastry (as seen on Bakelite TV.)

His collection began in 1974 with just one piece. “It’s the most wonderful, the most versatile material,” says Mr Cook, also the author of the “highly successful” book on the subject.

Dull Men calls to mind the famous conversation in the 1967 film The Graduate between Duston Hoffman and a friend of his parents. “I have just one word to say to you,” says the guy, “and that word is plastics.”

IT’S the second successive week, after Jim’s Pies, that the column has been reminiscing about businesses on the Aycliffe industrial estate.

Former Football League referee Terry Farley was reminded of his 1960s days in the finance department of Aycliffe Development Corporation.

“Each morning at 10am, Monday to Friday, the office junior would pop round to Geoff Batchelor’s local shop to collect for me a Jim’s Pie and a packet of crisps. With a cup of tea, it set me up for the day.”

Memories of Bakelite similarly welcomed – and if any had a Jim’s Pie in their bait box, well that would be ambrosia.

PROMOTED with slogans like “Born to be mild”, the Dull Men’s Club – there appear not to be any dull women – embraces everyone from a traffic cone collector to the guy who runs a milk bottle museum, from the founder of the Roundabout Appreciation Society to, of course, a drain spotter.

The book’s foreword is by the club’s assistant vice-president, the asterisk after his title ingeniously indicating that that is the highest office.

Immortalised, too, is Paul Rabbitts, a Darlington lad whose fascination for bandstands began as a kid in North Lodge Park and is now conducted nationwide. At the time of the book’s publication he now only collected bandstands but – “somewhat to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Julie” – had set out to count them all.

“I still get so excited about visiting a new bandstand, especially if it’s a Walter Macfarlane 279 or 249 model,” he said.

The passion strengthened when, as a senior officer with Middlesbrough council, he was instrumental (as it were) in the £4.4m restoration of Albert Park in 2006. He’s now written 14 books, not all about bandstands, is in demand as a speaker and on his website lists the bandstands of Britain. That in Shildon Rec is alphabetically No 1,004, between Sherborne and Shipley.

Mr Rabbitts has now moved from Middlesbrough to be parks manager at Watford, where no doubt he enlivens things no end.

…and finally, it may be recalled that we reported three or four weeks ago on an afternoon in Paradise, that ecstatic area of Witton Park, near Bishop Auckland.

The royal train and its occupants are said on several occasions to have spent the night in Paradise sidings. Photographs, or other memories, would be wonderful.

At any rate, it prompted Roger Jennings in Stockton to loan a slim volume called The Road to Paradise, with an American steam locomotive on the cover.

This particular paradise is a terminus of the Strasburg Rail Road in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, one of 46 places worldwide to be so blessedly named. Twenty-seven are in the US, four in Jamaica and one, perhaps less probably, in Albania.

In The Times, meanwhile, Ann Treneman observes a “snaking conga of hoardings” in Birmingham city centre, each proclaiming “Paradise” – the name apparently, of a “new destination in the heart of the city.” Whether the middle of Birmingham is paradise lost or regained is for others to decide.

Holiday reading, Roger’s book proved greatly diverting – though whether more or less so than Dull Men of Great Britain it would be unwise, and impossible, to conclude.