Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Hometown Brexit Blues

I normally avoid writing in the first person in this space. Politics rarely intrudes – I have no interest in offending readers. But when we are overwhelmed by a political catastrophe, it’s time to make an exception. I was born in the North East of England, 3 months after the war ended – a middle-class child and grammar school boy. Something about the region got into my bloodstream and the North East (rather than England) always felt like my spiritual home even though I was relocated to Metro-Land with my family from the age of 13. There’s a place in my heart for Metro-Land (an amorphous entity of surpassing strangeness when closely examined) but the North East (especially Sunderland and Hartlepool) has by far the greater claim on my affections. Perhaps the determining factor was a boyhood fascination with the hard-core industrial character of the place – a thrilling spectacle to an impressionable child of blast furnaces, coalmines, petrochemicals and shipyards.

Outside the urban areas was a pleasing variety of countryside to enjoy – majestic Pennine uplands to surprisingly verdant valleys. Plus the City of Durham – a special place with one of the most spectacular cathedrals in all Europe. Locals were neighbourly and affable in a North Country way and humour (often sharp and quick) was never far from the surface. Many had Scottish or Irish ancestry whose forebears had moved there in search of employment. From a North East perspective almost all of England lay in the South, a city like Sheffield might as well have been a land of palm trees and cocoanut groves. When I got to Metro-Land I learned that Sheffield was a dark and distant industrial dystopia.

It wasn’t a great surprise, but no less shocking for that, to discover on Friday morning that the voters of Sunderland and Hartlepool had voted in greater numbers for Brexit than almost anywhere else in England. A great white working-class electorate sent up a howl of protest against the ruinous effects of half a century of de-industrialisation where the dignity of labour for a majority has evaporated. The solidarity of the workplace has vanished in an atomised, insecure low-wage job market and social provision has been systematically and ruthlessly decimated in an ideological crusade to maintain a low-tax regime for the wealthy and tyrannise the unemployed into a world of zero-hours and short term contracts. Lifelong Labour voters finally responded to the question, “What’s Labour ever done for us?” by deserting the party in tens of thousands.

Just how did the last residual loyalty to the Labour tribe finally fray away? Perhaps the beginning of the end was Peter Mandelson’s term as MP for Hartlepool (“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”) during which New Labour did very little to tackle the desperation and deprivation of the nation’s former industrial heartlands. Was it accelerated by the coalition’s austerity-driven assault on social and welfare provision? Almost certainly. Did a 20 year tabloid (and broadsheet) campaign against the mostly fictional deficiencies of the EU play a part? Definitely. And did the utterly unscrupulous and venomous 12 year blitz of xenophobic propaganda by the same newspapers have an effect? Absolutely – otherwise how can the hostility to immigrants in a region that is one of the last destinations for migrants in search of employment be explained? This is a population, cynically groomed by masters of misinformation, opinion formers who would have served the Third Reich with distinction, given the opportunity. Easily persuaded to place the blame for all their discontents on outsiders and remote Brussels bureaucrats.

This is all deeply depressing but what is even more astounding is that these voters have placed their trust in Johnson and Gove, a Gilbert and George tribute act in which two slightly weird looking performers attempt to outdo one another with the scale and audacity of their lies. The fight-back against an oppressive establishment elite is to be lead by a pair of former journalists whose careers were built on their ability to distort the truth to fit the prejudices of their masters and readers. Their elitist credentials are impeccable – private income, public school, Oxford. Despite that they are essentially puppets of megalomaniac media proprietors. In the case of Johnson, the strings are pulled by the weirdo Barclay Brothers whose Daily Telegraph pages are besmirched by regular windy diatribes from the pen of Johnson – for which dubious services they pay him £250K per year. The Gove strings are pulled by Rupert Murdoch (CEO, News Corporation) by whom he was employed as a Times columnist for almost a decade. Gove is a regular around Murdoch’s dinner table – who knows what they talk about but I can say with total confidence that addressing social and income inequality has never been a topic for discussion. Johnson and Gove are two of the loudest cheerleaders for the callous neoliberalism that drove their new-found followers to despair. 

What next? Can the Labour party find the language to reconnect with its lost voters? Unlikely at present. Is there a Labour leader in waiting with the skills and personality to make a difference? Maybe – but I couldn’t name one. Can Johnson and Gove deliver the White Supremacist State that the worst of their followers believe they have been promised? If they lack the stomach for a programme of repatriation there are others with no such scruples. The recent ugly scenes in Newcastle may be just the start of something very much worse. Johnson and Gove are postmodern politicians – clever and shallow, puny in stature, devoid of conscience, no grace or gravitas. Will they persuade the Scots to remain in the Union? Do they command the necessary public trust to deal with the unravelling of the Good Friday Agreement? Watch them choke as they attempt the simultaneous ownership and consumption of cake. Their false promises and falsehoods exposed will be their undoing. And they will turn to us, hold out their hands and say – it was only ever a piece of performance art. Get over it.

Photographs of St. Andrew’s, Roker

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Postcard of the Day No. 83 – Hôtel Normandie

The Thirties fashion for maritime themed architecture reached a kind of end point with this example from the Belgian coast at Oostduinkerke near De Panne, built in 1933 as a restaurant. Rather than borrow the sweeping curves and raking profiles associated with marine architecture this developer settled for a coarse and ill-proportioned parody of an ocean liner complete with replica funnels. There’s a long and honourable tradition of this attention seeking, novelty design in the United States where B 52s or diplodocus masquerade as gas stations and drive-ins take the form of donuts and frankfurters – sometimes known as Roadside Vernacular. Without the great American wide open spaces, European planners are wary of architecture that functions as self-promotion making this a rare exception. Ever the opportunist, the restaurateur adopted the name of the French liner Normandie when it entered service in 1937. It can still be seen through the windows of the passing Kusttram between De Panne and Oostende where we photographed it on a wet day last September.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Darmstadt Dioramas

The Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt houses a great and disparate variety of collections, bringing together areas of interest that are normally widely dispersed. It includes a large collection of paintings from the 13th. to the 20th. century, a comprehensive display of fossils from the Grube Messel, classical and Egyptian antiquities, Jugendstil arts and crafts, contemporary German art, Europe’s largest public collection of the work of Joseph Beuys (Block Beuys) and a natural history museum that includes one of Europe’s oldest and finest sequence of zoological dioramas.

The Darmstadt dioramas date from 1904 to 1910 and were the work of Gottlieb von Koch (curator of zoology) and Karl Küsthardt (taxidermist). Over a thousand specimens are displayed in ten dioramas, each populated by a specific region or continent. Generic local environments were simulated with landscape reconstructions, casts of trees and natural forms in front of painted scenes. Much hemp, plaster and chicken-wire was consumed in the process. Conservation has always been a challenge and by the time the museum closed in 2006 for an extended period of refurbishment, every single specimen exhibited evidence of pest infestation. Each item spent two periods of four weeks in a Thermo-King container at -35°C – the first to kill off the pests, the second to destroy any surviving cold-resistant clusters of eggs. In reassembling the displays a conservative restoration strategy was employed to ensure that as far as possible their value as historic records of categorisation and selection priorities remained unimpaired.

For the idle and uninformed observer such as myself the charm of these dioramas is the window they provide into past ways of thinking about the natural world. The sense of wonder they generated in the early decades of the last century has not been entirely diluted by contemporary familiarity with high-definition digital imagery. Indeed in a visual culture that has normalised the Surrealist appetite for the bizarre, the appeal is enhanced when we contemplate the strange and unfeasible combinations of life-forms arranged into unlikely co-existence in confined spaces. As my old friend Chris Mullen put it – where else does the ferret lie down with the Foo Foo bird?

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Past and Present No. 9: Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof

Two images of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof a century apart revealing a remarkably well preserved façade on a grandiose building completed in 1888 after nine years in construction. The mighty Atlas still struggles to support the globe even with the assistance of Iron and Steam. Two more photographs taken on the platform of this monumental terminus under the vast uninterrupted canopy of glass and cast-iron of which this is the second of three. The station largely escaped wartime bombing and its imperial grandeur survives unimpaired. A major operational inconvenience is the fact that through trains must reverse out of the station to resume their journeys, occupying track space that could be used more efficiently. An unintended consequence of the 19th. century civic leaders of Frankfurt believing their city to be everyone else’s ultimate destination. 

Monday, 25 April 2016

Behind the Curtain – Beamish

I approve of museums that take the trouble to offer public access to some of the treasures that would otherwise lie buried in their vaults. At Beamish there’s a building that holds a reserve store of accumulated items that have yet to be deployed on public display. It’s open to visitors and contains a fascinating miscellany of uncelebrated objects, for the most part arranged thematically but allowing for some strange and bizarre juxtapositions. These are the raw materials of future projects, destined for a set-dressing role but, for now at least, allowed to speak for themselves and available for singular contemplation. The totality of the Beamish experience – the colliery village, the North Country main street, and the period-costumed staff, is rather more problematic and raises all sorts of issues around conservation, authenticity and the dignity of labour. To be addressed in a future post.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Mustardman on the High Seas

Another in the long series of small books for children distributed free of charge by Colman’s of Norwich, Mustardman Ready. Our dapper seafarer sails to distant lands where his cargo of Colman’s products restores the health of the local despot, transforming King Krosspatch into King Kontent and fortuitously, opening up a new export market for British-made Mustard, Starch and Krusto. An inspiring tale of entrepreneurial economics. It turns out that Colman’s Krusto was a pastry-maker that with the addition of water produced a perfect pie crust and thanks to the East Anglian Film Archive (EAFA) we can all watch a 7 minute promotional film from 1928 where Krusto comes to the rescue of an uxorious husband and a desperate-to-please spouse. A dismal succession of granite-like baked offerings that even the dog rejects is brought to an end by the entry of a sophisticated friend who brings Krusto into the unhappy household. The resulting pie is a triumph and domestic harmony is restored. The EAFA is worth exploring for more treasures from the strange world of Colman’s publicity – the Mustard Club film is a riotous celebration of gluttony – Bunuel at the Bullingdon Club.