Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Fear and Loathing on the King Harry Ferry

The King Harry is a chain-ferry that crosses the River Fal in Cornwall every 15 minutes linking Falmouth and Truro and Trelissick in the west with the Roseland Peninsula and St. Mawes. At this point the river is deep enough to anchor ocean-going vessels at times of recession in world shipping. Both shores are heavily wooded and for the visitor crossing the wide, flat waters with only the rumble of the chains to disturb the peace, can be a rather special experience.

For the local traveller, the ferry passage is both a convenience, because it can reduce your journey by up to 15 miles, and a nuisance, because of the need to queue to get on board plus the 5 minutes the crossing takes. The photographs I took were intended to record the experience of perfect calm. On closer examination they seem to have recorded an unhealthy quantity of silent desperation. Embedded in the details are tiny images of boredom, frustration, misery and despair that rather undercut the picture of enchantment. Familiarity and routine quickly dispel any lingering pleasure and give way to alienation and dislocation.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Building Bridges

It’s interesting to note how often images of bridges under construction graced the covers of Machine Age magazines for boys of all ages. The 1930’s must have been exciting times for lovers of bridges as increasingly ambitious projects were designed and realised. Somehow in the age of budget air travel, the idea of spanning the void by means of something as banal as a bridge has very limited appeal. The excitement of being poised in mid-air on a thin ribbon of tarmac supported by a network of cabling has all but evaporated. I have to assume that most air travellers are immune to the sense of incarceration and the pervading climate of anxiety and silent terror that air travel induces. Otherwise the great bridges of the world would rapidly be overwhelmed as vast human populations crossed back and forth on their endless global migrations. If there were a bridge over the North Atlantic, I for one would be happy to spend 3 months crossing on foot. I might then be, in the words of Fats Domino, “Walking to New Orleans”.

Today’s images exploit the visual drama inherent in conquering space and distance with massive aggregations of welded and bolted metal. Delicate manoeuvring of heavy objects, precision calibration and a vulnerable workforce exposed to extreme danger without even basic safety procedures all contribute to the spectacle. The sculptural qualities of half completed structures and prefabricated sections hoisted aloft by cranes and jibs create emphatic marks upon the landscape. For engineers, the genius is all in the design and build but for artists, bridges exist as vehicles for the imagination and a rich source of metaphors. The late Michael Andrews painted a haunting image of New York’s Triborough Bridge (Lights VI: The Spa, 1974) spanning the sea front at Scarborough in a memorable geo-political fantasy.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Big Joe Turner (1911 – 1985)

He had all the confidence, all the style and all the panache that one man could need. He commanded the stage with effortless ease and his rich baritone had the power and lift to simply soar above the loudest of bands. His movements were minimal but his presence was massive. The voice flowed on and snapped to the beat delivering some of the most lascivious lyrics ever recorded. Gritty but fluent arrangements, superb musicianship and perfectly drilled horn and rhythm sections drove the music along like a freight train. For that we must also thank Doc Pomus, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Jesse Stone (under the name, Charles E Calhoun) for writing them, and Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun for recording them on the great and wonderful Atlantic record label.

It’s impossible to improve on what Nick Tosches wrote (in “The Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll”): His voice, oceanic and commanding, resonant with that rumbling deep down in the ground which is the sound of the Devil chaining his third wife down, is a voice of power. Not in all of rock ’n’ roll has there been another singer quite like him.

For me his greatest recordings were the ones he made in his forties for Atlantic. The 1950’s was a golden decade for Atlantic Rhythm ’n’ Blues with classic recordings from Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and Lavern Baker but for sheer energy and drive even these giants were surpassed by Big Joe Turner. Perhaps his finest hour in the studio came on November 3rd. 1955 when he recorded “Boogie Woogie Country Girl”, one of the most irresistibly rhythmic recordings ever made. Superb piano playing from Vann “Piano Man” Walls and drumming by Connie Kay, the latter to achieve fame in a very different musical genre with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Other musical greats who played alongside him included King Curtis and Elmore James (“TV Mama”). He had a deceptively casual approach to the whole business of performing that somehow made his work especially memorable and I never tire of listening.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Anti-Heroes of Labour

It was Soviet artists who created the visual formula for the depiction of the Hero of Labour in the Machine Age. The template was adapted in the US a decade later in the era of the WPA but it never really caught on in Britain as these examples show. Perhaps this is indicative of the employer/employee relationship in Britain but for the most part the British worker presents a decidedly modest profile by comparison with his international counterparts. Rather than being engaged in strenuous manual activity, battling with intractable materials in dangerous situations, the British worker loafs around the factory floor, shoulders slumped, hands in pockets, and stares with indifference at the products of his labour. British employers have always favoured an adversarial relationship with their workforce. The worker is regarded as intrinsically idle and incapable of effort unless motivated by fear. Flattering the workforce with celebrations of labour heroism is no part of their plan. So little valued was the British worker that he often appears, as in these examples, as the Zombie of the Machine Age. Remarkably many of these attitudes persist into the present in UK labour relations.

Monday, 21 July 2008

What the Papers Say

We were chatting with some visitors from Holland and they happened to mention that they were astonished by the sensational tone of the press reports on knife crime, the Max Mosley court case and the trial of Anne Darwin. They had been following these stories in the pages of The Times! With heavy hearts we had to point out that The Times was but a pale shadow of some of the nation’s more illustrious tabloids when it comes to sensationalism.

Just as a civilised society has need of the services of those brave enough to descend into the darkness of the foulest sewers and do battle with human waste at its worst so we depend on people of the calibre of Anton Vowl prepared to descend into the foulest depths of British journalism and report back on the atrocities they have been witness to. When it comes to depths, there are none deeper than the level at which the current incarnation of the Daily Express has chosen to operate. Partiality, distortion, bias and bigotry are nothing new but the editor and proprietor of the Express have discovered new depths to sink to. There is a dark, dark core, deep in the human spirit where all conscience dies, where honour, generosity, reason and fellowship are extinguished, where raw, unmoderated brutal self interest prevails. This is the region that the Daily Express inhabits and brews and spreads its poison. It’s a publication that Goebbels would be proud of in the sense that it is calculated to appeal exclusively to what is most base in the human spirit. It’s a far cry from a decade ago when Rosie Boycott remodelled the Express into an unlikely supporter of New Labour.

Dedicated observers of tabloid culture have a vast layer of hypocrisy in which to excavate. A special pleasure at present is to read the apparently endless and impassioned accounts of the death of good manners and civility in “Broken Britain”. There is no group anywhere on Earth less suited than journalists to lecture the populace on this subject. Their rude and boorish, bullying behaviour can be witnessed on almost any TV news bulletin as they vent their aggression on some hapless tabloid victim. Accounts of their vanity, treachery and deceit fill the front pages of every issue of Private Eye. The unbelievably crass and offensive behaviour of the pornographer and proprietor of the Daily Express has been extensively reported in Private Eye. And yet these very people, in their impudence write repeatedly on examples of unmannerly behaviour as if we had just emerged from a golden age of politesse in which you could scarcely move without encountering extravagant demonstrations of elaborate courtesy.

So, let us pay tribute to the efforts of Anton Vowl at The Enemies of Reason. Not only does he read and monitor these repellent publications but he also goes online to monitor the backwash on the message boards and ‘Have Your Say’ pages. He has exposed the way in which the fearless defenders of freedom censor all dissenting views on their message boards. He’s also demonstrated how extremist groups on the right mobilise their members to monopolise reader feedback. In return, the tabloids seem to go out of their way to provide a platform for right wing extremism. Yet again, the most shameless in this respect are the propagandists at the Express. The twin obsessions with immigration and a certain missing child seem to have driven this newspaper out of its collective mind as reason and decency have been utterly discarded. This has to be the most astonishing sequence of front pages in tabloid history. The multiplicity of mutually contradictory headlines must have left the readership in a state of permanent bafflement and it has cost them a lot of money to compensate the McCann family and Robert Murat for all the damaging fiction they printed. It’s a shame that each and every one of the decent and hard working visitors from overseas cannot sue for similar payments to compensate them for the sustained and relentless campaign of lies and defamation to which they have been subjected. It’s exceedingly depressing that there are good people who are kind to animals and love their families who still fork out 40p a day for this filth but it is reassuring to know there are still some people around who are not prepared to take it. So, hats off to Mr. Vowl and long may he prosper and retain his sanity.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Transporter Bridges

A little more on the subject of these fascinating structures that transport their passengers through a Pullman-esque nether region; not quite flying, certainly not sailing but suspended over water, courtesy of 19th. century engineering excellence. The ancient part-work, Wonders of World Engineering featured this colour cover of the Pont Transbordeur crossing the Vieux Port in the great city of Marseille. Inside was a six page feature packed with facts and figures about the development of transporter bridges. For a spectacular image of a ship passing under the bridge near Bilbao please click here. A dedicated pool of photos on Flickr can be seen by clicking here.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Newport Transporter Bridge

One day last week I made a journey to view one of the last two working Transporter Bridges in the UK at Newport Casnewydd in South Wales. It’s a remarkable structure and a survivor from the Golden Age of heavy engineering. It was constructed to a design by a French engineer, Ferdinand Arnodin and brought into use in 1906. Arnodin was a specialist in the design of this type of bridge and there were four other examples of his work in France, in Brest, Nantes, Rouen and Marseille, none of which have survived.

Structures like this formed the basis of the Constructivist approach to the visual arts in the days of the Great Soviet Experiment in the 1920’s. A decade later the American Precisionists would form their own response. For photographers the opportunities for exploring the visual dynamics are limitless. Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy and Germaine Krull all aimed their lenses at these wonders of engineering with brilliant results. I allowed myself the luxury of following these illustrious forebears and these are a few of the results.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Soda Fountain Nightmare

If it were possible to compile an Atlas of Human Happiness there is no doubt in my mind that its very epicentre would be at the soda counter in an American drugstore as portrayed in Coca Cola publicity between the 30’s and 50’s. Such a concentration of ecstatic smiling faces, unblemished complexions and perfect teeth is a wonder to behold. The talk is all of proms, math tests, barbecues, football games, Saturday night dances and the innocent pleasures of the wholesome Christian life. I like to imagine the intrusion of a long dark shadow into this idyllic scene, as the door swings open to admit the figure of Robert Mitchum in his role of Max Cady or the Reverend Harry Powell. Smiles freeze and all colour drains from the picture as Mitchum slowly crosses the store, takes a seat at the counter and tips his hat to his fellow customers with affable insolence.

Artists of the calibre of Andrew Loomis and Haddon Sundblom were employed to create these radiant visions of the triumph of commerce over human isolation and misery. Week after week they graced the pages of ‘Saturday Evening Post’ and ‘Life’ gradually accumulating into a vast aggregation of happiness unlimited until the default position of the American consumer would be that the soda fountain is the undisputed and exclusive territory of the Coca Cola corporation. The text makes much of the democratic virtues of soda fountain culture, open to all in the spirit of companionship and good humour. The imagery possesses an intensity that promises a quasi-religious transfiguration into an elevated condition of exhilaration – no mean achievement for a blend of sugar, water and colouring agents.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Metroland on the Water

The Grand Union Canal follows the Colne Valley and passes through Rickmansworth, pearl in the oyster of Metroland, on its journey to Birmingham. The area around Rickmansworth is unusually watery, a legacy of 19th. century gravel extraction that gives the town one of its few notes of distinction. The arrival of railways rapidly diminished the revenue potential of the canal and its survival is almost exclusively as a leisure facility.

The canal banks are home to a linear community of a marginal character completely unlike the rest of the town which is commuter belt par excellence. The residents of the converted narrow boats and floating homes belong to a very different world from their near neighbours occupying sprawling residential estates of 4-5 bedroom detached homes. They have no space to park 4 by 4’s or executive cars and no large gardens to mow and weed and strim into submission. What they do instead is to colonise small pockets of land adjacent to the towpath and create modest flower gardens with outdoor seating areas. They use bicycles for overland travel and to the casual observer their environmental footprints are a fraction of that of their neighbours.

This is a territory where improvisation and eccentricity prevails. Some boat owners succeed in maintaining an uncluttered appearance and a high standard of decoration and trim. At the other extreme, some vessels are an agglomeration of miscellaneous shapes and forms haphazardly attached to something close in spirit to a floating contractor’s shed with patio doors. All this variety provides the visual pleasure to be enjoyed by the towpath flâneur.

The M25 is only 2 miles away and crosses the canal a few miles to the north at King’s Langley. In terms of environmental impact, it’s difficult to conceive of a greater contrast. The motorway is a raucous, convulsive, snarling corridor of road rage and particulates. The canal is an unfrequented, insulated ribbon of serenity and its continuing existence is certainly something to celebrate.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Greetings from the Back Garden

This is one of a series of postcards issued by Guinness in 1977 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee. It is a fine celebration of the banal, composed in the uninspired style of conventional multi-view postcards and executed with a studied absence of flair. The finished artwork would not look out of place in a Ladybird book – high praise indeed. The idea that summer holiday travel could be restricted to a circuit comprising fridge, TV, front and back garden is not without a certain appeal to those of us with highly developed sedentary instincts.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Through the Window

This is the third in a short series of trackside guides. ‘Through the Window’ was published in 1924 by the Great Western Railway (GWR) to encourage passengers to take an interest in the wonderful things to be seen from the train on a journey from Paddington to Penzance. Apologies for the less than pristine cover, a view of St. Michael’s Mount, but the conservative character of GWR graphics and publicity can be clearly seen. Inside the book the text is accompanied by reproductions of etchings by a number of different artists of which this view of Paddington Station is the best. Compared with the LNER (and to a lesser extent, the SR), the GWR was unadventurous in terms of design and not so successful in developing a house style. It would be unfair to be over critical of their efforts since they did employ the services of Edward McKnight Kauffer on a regular basis. Please click here to see a well known example.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Atlantic Coast Express

This book was published in 1937 and like yesterday’s subject was designed to serve as a guide to the route followed by a train, in this case, the Atlantic Coast Express. The cover is the best part with a sharp contemporary graphic quality that, sadly, is not maintained inside the book. The landscape outside the train is viewed through a slot cut into the cover. Inside, the linear illustrations are by Anna Zinkeisen and these examples give a flavour of their whimsical quality. The subject matter is conventionally romantic, smugglers, pirates and Spanish galleons at the seaside and churches, castles and packs of hounds in the country. The text is by the ever-dependable S P B Mais in a rich rhetorical style typical of the times. The Southern Railway had a much less co-ordinated approach to publicity by comparison with the LNER and it is common to see a wide variety of graphic styles, not all of which sit well together. There is an excellent selection of SR publicity to be seen by following this link.

Every summer weekday morning between 10.00 and 11.00 am from 1926 until 1964 the Atlantic Coast Express would charge out of Waterloo Station with singular determination in the direction of Salisbury and Exeter. Even before reaching Exeter it would begin to fragment, dispatching portions to Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton in East Devon and many hours later it could still be found, much reduced in length, meandering the rural byways of West Devon (for Ilfracombe and Bideford) and North Cornwall en route to its final destination overlooking the fishing harbour at Padstow. None of its multiple destinations are still served by railways but the track from Waterloo to Exeter survives to this day as a rather sorry affair operated by South West Trains with a tangible lack of enthusiasm. West of Salisbury it has been reduced to a single track with the occasional passing place with the result that the best frequency on offer is a train every 2 hours with a strong possibility that your train will be held up while it waits for an oncoming train to clear a section of single track before it can proceed. The stations have been stripped to their bare essentials and every inch of track or siding unable to justify its continuing financial viability has been ruthlessly eliminated.