Sunday, 30 August 2020

Postcard of the Day No. 101 - Aquatic Frolics in the Wannsee

The normal relationships of scale we would expect to see in a spatially coherent composition are not to be found here in this postcard image of the Wannsee in Berlin. It’s more of a collage than an integrated image in which incongruities of size and disposition undermine our ability to fully conceptualise the visual (mis)information. It’s a paradox that German postcard producers famous for exacting high standards of printing should produce clumsy, slapdash assemblages of clip art in such numbers.  That apart, it must be conceded they are not without a certain naive charm.

The Wannsee is a recreational and bathing centre located in the south western suburbs of the Berlin,  popular with city residents. The distinguished artist Max Liebermann built himself a lakeside country home in 1909.  In 1930 the influential silent film People on Sunday was filmed there. Later, in 1942 the Wannsee Villa hosted a gruesome gathering of Nazi bureaucrats, presided over by Heydrich and Eichmann with the aim of finalising arrangements for the Final Solution.

In Malo-les-Bains the photographer has captured a remarkable instant of documentary realism. The eye is drawn to the right where a Burt Lancaster lookalike embraces a pair of athletic bathing belles. In the centre a group of mostly moustachioed males try with varying degrees of success to join in the celebratory mood. On the left is a living caricature of rotundity, his ample contours amplified by the unflattering horizontal stripes that protect his modesty.  A few more examples of immersion or part-immersion follow.  None are from the UK - Brits were reluctant swimmers in this era, preferring to congregate, bare foot but fully dressed, on the tideline, with sullen and disconsolate stares directed at the cold grey sea that surrounds their sceptred isle.


Thursday, 27 August 2020

Hard Labour under Caribbean Skies

It may be a holiday paradise but not so long ago, tourists were just as likely to choose a postcard image of ceaseless toil to send to the folk back home as an image of palm fringed beaches washed by a deep blue sun-flecked sea.  These are the children and grandchildren of an enslaved population and their hard won freedom has done little to raise living standards.  Key industries - coffee, sugar, tobacco and banana growing remain in the hands of colonial masters for whom an abundance of cheap manual labour sustains generous profit margins.  All of those activities are shown in this selection together with another popular and related subject - carrying the produce to market. Clumsy, patronising captions add to the sense of unease these images arouse.  The prosperous European (mostly British) visitors would be confined to their beach resorts and luxury hotels and no more than glimpse the lives lead by the average citizen of African heritage.  Walk-on parts as servants, waiters or cleaners were the only roles available to them.  

Any fleeting impression that existence was hard and unrewarding could be quickly dispelled by a glance at these images of a contented workforce taking pleasure in the outdoor life.  The rich and well to do have always eased their consciences with the thought that subject peoples are simple folk, only too happy to serve their masters in cheerful acceptance of their diminished social status.  It will never cross their minds that they are seeing the descendants of a displaced people, forcibly abducted from their homelands and trafficked into slavery and indenture with all the attendant trauma of recollected endemic violence, murder and callous exploitation.

From the perspective of the present, there’s always another way to see these images as a picturesque window into a long lost past.  A place we can scarcely recognise now the colonial masters have departed and the donkeys have been replaced by the Hilux and the Land Cruiser.  That might hold true if independent Jamaica had transformed itself into an economic powerhouse but even then to resort to nostalgia would be to overlook the historic dark legacy of disruptive trauma and subsistence economics that has so profoundly shaped the collective national experience.

When we learn, courtesy of David Olusoga’s efforts, that the British government went massively into debt to generously compensate former slave-owners for the loss of their property it’s a reminder that property rights will always outrank human rights in the eyes of the British political establishment.  There was no compensation for forcible abduction, deprivation of liberty and systemic brutality experienced by the victims of slavery.  Left to their own devices, most freed slaves carried on working for their former owners on terms that were scarcely less onerous than the ones they had escaped from.  We must conclude that the pride we are encouraged to take in Britain’s abolition of slavery is much misplaced - despite the ferocity with which it was resisted, it was a very modest step on the road to social justice.  All these years later, Britain has a Prime Minister whose language quite readily slides into casual racism.  Incensed by the BBC’s decision to play instrumental versions of Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory on the last night of the Proms he had this to say, “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions and about our culture, and we stopped this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness”. In other words - let’s sidestep the uncomfortable legacy of Empire, stand to attention and serenade the wider world with the anachronistic lyrics of the anthems of English Exceptionalism.


Tuesday, 18 August 2020

A Bridge in Time

Cannington Viaduct bridged the only significant valley on the deeply rural route of the Axminster to Lyme Regis railway that opened in 1903 and closed in 1965 - it has been out of use for 55 years. It needs major remedial work to make it safe and in the 1980s British Rail offered it for sale at a price of £1 to anyone prepared to pay the cost of repairs. No buyers came forward and a plan was made to demolish the structure.  This plan was abandoned when Historic England designated the viaduct as a Grade II listed building in 1984 since when it has lingered on - valued for its contribution to the landscape but bereft of an economically viable future.

During construction, part of the viaduct slumped due to subsidence and had to be reinforced with the insertion of brick infill.  As a result there’s an unusual but minor switchback on top of the bridge.  Most of the trackbed of the railway was sold soon after closure which makes it difficult to include the bridge as part of a public footpath and given the delicate condition, public access is not allowed.  An unauthorised incursion via the tall (unlocked) metal gate revealed a clear path through much dense, aggressive undergrowth of gorse and bracken. Surprisingly, there’s clear evidence that livestock have meandered on to the bridge.  Only the most determined explorer, equipped with serious cutting gear would have any chance of breaking through the wall to wall undergrowth that forms at the halfway point and reach the other side.  There are fine views across East Devon, north towards Uplyme and south towards Shapwick, although the tall concrete walls make them difficult to obtain.

The black and white photograph above is scanned from an original print made by Devon-based railway photographer, Peter W Gray, who was exceptionally good at recording the passage of trains in the landscape.  The train, made up of a single carriage, has just crossed the viaduct on its return journey to Axminster on February 27th. 1965. This branch line was always a lost cause, only holiday traffic kept it going. Out of season it served a vanishingly small population - the only interim station, Combpyne, was over a mile down a narrow lane from the modest village of Rousdon.  Freight traffic was limited to the occasional cattle or fertiliser wagon. In other parts of the country, lost railway lines with much less to offer have been reborn as heritage railways but the circumstances were just not right for this scenic but resolutely unviable railway. 


Wednesday, 12 August 2020

More Tea From Lipton’s

Following up a post from July 2007 - more examples of postcards publicising the availability of Lipton’s Tea.  Lipton made full use of traditional iconography of imperialism - a team of Indian elephants advancing to market escorted by exotic turbaned outriders. Lipton’s plantations in India and Ceylon formed an empire within an empire with a workforce of tens of thousands toiling in the fields and factories to ensure the British public was supplied with all the consolations of a nice cup of tea.  Tea drinking became embedded in the soul of Victorian Britain and to meet the ever increasing consumer demand the industry mechanised the processing and packaging to cut costs while promoting a branded product with forceful advertising campaigns.  Picking the tea was done by hand and Lipton’s took pride in offering visual proof of the scale of their operations.  Enormous crowds of anonymous labourers were rounded up in front of the camera - some were deployed in formation to spell out the hallowed name of Lipton. The British obsession with tea came at a heavy cost to the environment as vast areas of forest in the Nigiris and Assam were scoured to make space for tea cultivation, destroying the indigenous wildlife in the process.  The human cost could be seen in the deplorable working conditions and starvation wages paid to the native workforce. Throughout the Victorian era and into the 1930s, virtually all the tea production  was exported to Britain. Only when the price of tea slumped on international markets did it occur to British producers that there was an Indian market ready and waiting on the doorstep.  Which explains how tea drinking became an Indian obsession every bit as compulsive as that of the British. (Inglorious Empire: Shashi Tharoor)