Monday, 19 October 2015

Bucket List

Mine was not an ordinary childhood.

At the age of ten I refused to comply with the school dress code and opted for a tie with the Taj Mahal on it and a deerstalker hat ( I was going through my Sherlock Holmes phase). When the school    insisted I comply I did, but wore my mum's false teeth to class as a protest.
I was threatened with 'consequences' when they found me singing rude songs in a cemetery and I  nearly drowned my friend Derek when I entered us both in a lifesaving competition even though neither of us could swim.

In fairness though, it has to be said that I did not come from a normal family.

My father ( a respectable white collar engineer with a romantic, nostalgic nature and a very selective approach to the law) was an unpredictable mixture of traditional values and bat shit crazy revolutionary tendencies.

When they shut the local railway station he decided that it was our civic duty to rescue as many historical artefacts from it as possible for the Nation, for future generations, but mostly for us.

Our first acquisition was a large red fire bucket which made it out in broad daylight under his coat.

After that, it sort of snowballed.

Lamps, signals, twiddly Victorian iron things with knobs on and even on one occasion part of a locomotive which he somehow wrestled into the boot of the car and couldn't lift out when we got home and the adrenalin had receded.

We became Ninja-like, stealthy and expert at scuttling about in the dark with large amounts of things that nobody else wanted stuffed up our jumpers.
There were a lot of redundant  railways, and a lot of 'liberating' to be done.
In fairness to him, all of this stuff would have been bulldozed into a ball and dumped in a landfill site, but that wouldn't have formed much of a defence if we'd come within the boney grasp of a local magistrate.

We covered a lot of ground and amassed a considerable collection of toilet door signs, bits of railing  and other fabulous examples of railway related tat but there was one site that eluded us:
On his way to work each day he passed an almost forgotten station that, although technically closed, lay within the grounds of the local racecourse with all its attendant security.
It was just too risky, but it bugged him that all those Great Western toilet roll holders and monogrammed boot scrapers were so close and yet so terribly far away.

I loved, and hated these midnight walks on the wild side, with the risk of capture and the thrill of getting away on our toes with yet another rusty prize.
Most of all, though, it was about me and my dad getting up to stuff together.
We walked for miles along abandoned tracks, the cuttings thick with Rosebay Willow Herb that grew wherever ash and cinders from long gone steam trains lay.
When we spotted the constabulary waiting by our parked car, we hid our loot in the bushes and wandered back as if it was the most natural thing in the world for a father and son to take a stroll at two o'clock in the morning dressed entirely in black.

Looking back, I can see now how much it has influenced me today, and I'm grateful for it.
"Show me the bug eyed weird ten year old and I'll show you the man" etc.

My dad, like all those old stations and pilfered plunder, has gone now.

He loved the romance of old railways, and I loved that he shared that with me.
I buried his ashes by a track leading to the cottage he and my mum rented when they were first married.
Escaping from war torn Glasgow, and a selection of dragon-like mothers, they hid themselves away in rural Hampshire.
He worked away all week, but Friday would find him on the last train home.
The image was one that lived with him to the end and when he captured it in a poem, he inadvertently gave me the clues as to where his last call should be.

I'd planned to keep some of him back though, but for that I'd need a fire bucket...

I found the very thing at my first attempt, on ebay.
An original railway fire bucket in need of a lick of paint - "it's in the garden, put the money through the letterbox".
The house I collected it from was, unbelievably, in sight of the racecourse station.
A little part of him is in there now, and the Rosebay Willow Herb I planted seems to appreciate him too.
Cheers dad, it was a blast.

Yet in my heart those ancient trains
Will run while memory remains,
For when I worked in Gloucestershire,
On Friday nights (in their last year)
To lamp-lit Wickham, down the line,
Would come a train, entirely mine,
And Northbound, into growing night
Would spangle Hampshire fields with light.

The whistle yelped, the chimney spoke,
And owls and drowsy duck ponds woke:
A dry ditch sloped up from the lane,
And through a cornfield, trodden plain,
A path led to my week-long dream
Of high red roof and window-gleam:
"Infuse the tea-he's home again!"
And she would bless its sound and fly
To fetch a hero's apple pie.

Ian Stuart Alexander

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The House of Dog

How many times have you walked past an abandoned church and thought " I wonder what they did with the vicar?".

No?, maybe it's just me then...

They have sanctuaries for donkeys, greyhounds and woodlice (probably) so why not one for abandoned clergymen?

Perhaps there is a farm somewhere out in the country where retired vicars are free to frolic, running in slow motion through cornfields, the wind blowing through their cassocks as they taste freedom for the first time.

It can't be easy for them.

A lifetime of ministering to wizened old coffin dodgers who smell of peppermint and dust and baptising babies that look like Gollum's elbow takes a special type of parson, and being shunted into the ecclesiastical sidings at the end of it all must be difficult.

I have a mental picture of them lined up in their hundreds like redundant penguins, hoping someone will adopt them and offer them a new life where it's ok to say 'bum' and wear an egg stained tracksuit without people writing to the Telegraph.

In the meantime, some daft bugger has put a little tribute to our brothers of the cloth in the cages outside the old St Nicholas church in Bristol.

Nice to know someone shares my view.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Shadows Part 2

"The action of saving or being saved from sin, error or evil"  (OED)

When a story finds me, I follow it .
Sometimes, however, it leads to places I would rather not go.

On  June 10th, 1944 at Salon la Tour, near Limoges, an SS Panzer Division set up a temporary base.
Halted in their rush to Normandy to engage the Allied invasion by the activities of the local resistance, they set up roadblocks and began a search of the surrounding villages.

This was the web that Violette Szabo was caught in, but she was not the focus of their attention.

 Helmut Kampfe, a battalion commander, had been captured by the local Maquis, and executed.
On discovering his fate, his friend and fellow commander ordered a reprisal of staggering brutality designed to stun the local population into obedient complicity.

Even by the standards of the day it was a horrific reaction and had he not become a casualty of the war shortly after, he would have faced a court martial for his actions.

 Entering the village of Oradour sur Glane his troops gathered the entire population of 642 people, separated them into manageable groups and murdered them.
The women and children were herded into the church and killed, and the whole area looted and burned.

The village has been preserved intact as a memorial and a shrine to these, and other victims of a systematic destruction that we struggle to comprehend.

Visiting it now is a strange experience.

Tourists in summer clothes walk round its frozen tableau in respectful silence, amazed at the sewing machines still left on decaying tables, bicycles propped in sheds and ancient cars slowly collapsing into rusting heaps.

People entering the church take care to soften the sound of their shoes on the flagstones for fear of disturbing the silence, as if the air itself was charged with the horror of what took place here.
A small boy is reprimanded for asking what happened in a normal tone, as if the enquiry is insensitive and disrespectful.

But there is another aspect to this place, which nothing can prevent.
Despite all their efforts to freeze this place, time and nature have conspired to reclaim it.
Birds do sing here, and flowers grow in the corners not cleared of new growth by the site's curators.

There is something uncomfortable about the need to promote the pain and suffering that took place here with no respite, as if only by provoking us into imagining children dying in fear and pain can we learn from history.
Everywhere are signs encouraging us to remember, but remember what?
It is too huge, to vile and too far from my experience to comprehend, and the site itself has a life of its own now, like an abandoned film set.
A survivor of Auschwitz, on returning decades later was heard to say "It looks so lovely now."
What she saw was ordered tidiness and lawns where before there had only been frozen filth, and she struggled to connect it with her recollections of her time there.

Maybe those who follow have an obligation to keep faith with these times and places but in a way that allows redemption and offers a place in our world now.

I returned the following morning to pay my respects and offer an alternative.
I wanted to celebrate what had been here before this happened, and take a moment to try to imagine what things were like when this was just a place where children were daft, and made a noise, and ran about and laughed.

It only took a few seconds to float some childish bubbles through the burnt out shell of the church.
A few seconds that was about hope, and fun, and life.

Security did not agree.

I left, stung by their disapproval, and made my way out through the visitor centre where, for 10 euros you can buy an account of the massacre at Oradour, complete with photographs of charred children's corpses and pornographic descriptions of their suffering.

I think they deserve better.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Shadows Part 1

Where do you begin with the past?
How do you bridge the gap between human experiences then and now and why should it matter?
But it does matter.
It matters a lot.

In October 1942 a little girl named Tania lost her father to the war.
Sometime around Jan/Feb of 1945 the same seismic convulsion claimed her mother too.
She has grown up with no memory of her father, and only two fleeting recollections of her mother, and yet her whole life has been accompanied by the legend of her mother's heroism.
Even if she wanted to, she can never escape the iconic status of her legacy.
For her, the past still defines the present.

There are books, a film, even a museum to Violette Szabo, and like Joan of Arc she has been passed into public ownership as a national heroine, a poster girl for the appalling conflict that shaped my parents generation.

Her story is almost unbelievable, and not helped by post war flag wavers who couldn't resist adding layers of sensational speculation and inaccuracy.
The truth is available now, 70 years on, and no less extraordinary.

Married to a French Legionnaire she had known for only 6 weeks, she was widowed at 21.
He died at El Alamein 4 months after the daughter he would never see was born.
Violette was inducted into the Special Operations Executive, trained like a commando and sent into occupied France to work with the Resistance.

Everything about her story is tinged with a terrible, tragic romance.
The coded poem she was given to memorise is both touching and hauntingly prophetic in the light
of events.
In photographs she looks so young, so beautiful and so resolute that it's hard to separate her from the image history has bequeathed her.
And yet she was just a girl who married, had a child, joined up with all the others who were eager to do their bit and tried her best to survive the nightmare.

On her second mission into France, in support of the Allied landings on D-Day, she was travelling as a courier between two resistance networks when the car she was in was stopped at a roadblock.
She and the driver, a local Maquis leader, made a run for it but it was already too late.
They escaped through a farm but a damaged ankle slowed her down and she was forced to stop.
She held them off for half an hour with a Sten gun which gave her companion time to get away but her capture was inevitable.
At that arbitrary spot on the map, and in that twist of circumstance, she was lost to the darkness.

After the war her daughter, now aged of 5, was taken to Buckingham Palace to collect her mother's posthumous George Cross from King George VI, and the world moved on.


It's just a junction on a country lane on the outskirts of a quaint but unremarkable French village.
It's hard to imagine roadblocks, the sounds of gunfire, and shouting, and running feet.
Most of the cottages are owned by Brits now, and since the best of summer has gone, so have they.
Little has changed here in seven decades, though.
The farm looks the same as it did then, as do all the other features that figure in the evidence of a drama that happened so, so long ago.
I've made images from old photographs of mother and daughter and try to catch their shadows in the afternoon sun but the clouds roll in, the rain falls and the light fades.
Did I really think I could make something happen here?
What on earth was I doing, trying to pull the past into the present, chasing ghosts down blind alleys and hoping for significance where it no longer existed.

And then the lights on the farm buildings come on, and there they are, together.
For a brief moment they are in the same place, at the same time, their shadows as real as yours and mine.
And in a moment, they are gone.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

We are not a muse

On November 16th, 1899 Queen Victoria arrived in Bristol to open the aptly named Queen Victoria Jubilee Convalescent Home, a place where Clifton folk of a delicate disposition could recuperate after the shock of seeing a poor person.

Her visit was a trigger for one of the greatest displays of patriotic excess ever seen in the city.
The profusion of Union Jack bunting was so extreme that one commentator was moved to express the view that "John Bull himself appears to have vomited over the entire conurbation in an outpouring of red white and blue appreciation".

The route from the station was lined with scarlet jacketed soldiers, the good citizens of Bristol cheered her every inch of the way, small orphans were thrown under the wheels of her carriage to muffle the sound as she passed over the cobbled streets and everywhere the crowds thronged in a joyfully throngy way.

The highlight was a carriage ride across the downs where a 300 yard stand had been constructed to accommodate 26,000 children singing the National Anthem at her. Amazingly, she survived although locals reported hundreds of squirrels dropping dead from the trees.

She stayed just long enough for tea and buns, kissed a few dignitaries and shook hands with a baby and then it was back on the train to be home in time for a quick chapter of her favourite book; " How to run an Empire whilst looking like Alfred Hitchcock in a frock".

My, how times have changed.

These days the Royal Family has to smile at everyone and even stand quite near ordinary
people sometimes.
They have to appear both regal and in touch with the riff raff all at the same time for fear of being criticised as just another bunch of foreigners living off the state.
There is much debate over how much they cost, whether they should get proper jobs and why they don't buy their tiaras at Argos like the rest of us.

I have to say, it's not a job I'd want, but then I'm no good at dressing like my grandparents and I couldn't eat a whole corgi so I probably wouldn't qualify anyway.

Now, however, the world has turned full circle and Her Victorian Majesty, Empress of India, Mother of Nations and Upholder of the Stiff Upper Lip has returned to Clifton.

At least this time she's making an effort to offset her expenses and demonstrate that she can handle change.

If you can spare any...

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Rising Tide

It's 5.00 in the morning.
The sun is tinting the sky, the sea is bathwater warm.
It's a perfect Mediterranean morning, the coast of Sicily is Bond-film beautiful and the shoreline, devoid of basking tourists, is timeless, ethereal and all mine.

I wade out into the dark water with a handful of votive lights, a lighter and a benevolent attitude.
I was hoping to do something worthwhile, profound but aesthetically pleasing; somewhere between a protest and a postcard.

And then it all goes wrong.

This was supposed to be a modest, respectful moment to acknowledge the people who try to cross this great blue barrier to a better life. Robbed by the unscrupulous in their own countries and resented by the inhabitants of their destination, they risk their lives for a glimpse of all that we are fortunate enough to take for granted.

And sometimes the sea takes them.

From the comfort of a lucky birthplace, we look on and try to make sense of it.
Would I gamble my family's lives for a place at the wealthy man's table if I was in their situation?
All I know is they wash up near to here sometimes.

What I thought was seaweed turns out to be jellyfish.
Hundreds, maybe thousands of them, attracted by the pinpricks of light, each sting like the touch of a hot iron.
I scramble back to a tideline rimmed with their stranded hordes, pulsing like tiny aliens on the shingle.

The tea lights cluster in the swell, attracting plastic bottles, paper and nameless flotsam as they drift.
My image of a flotilla of carefully choreographed candles dancing on a pristine sea, lit by the rays of the dawn is disappearing fast.

Slowly they join the tidemark of rubbish that the sea coughs up each morning, the unsightly evidence of our disregard.

I photograph it anyway, and there it is; the metaphor has beached itself at my swollen, stinging feet.

Every morning, before the sun worshippers arrive, the beach is swept of all the ugliness and unpleasantness that no one wants to see.

No one need concern themselves with the sea's darker harvest, let alone the Evian bottles and plastic shoes that cluster at its fringes.

I come away sore, disconcerted and slightly ashamed.
Floating a few tea lights on the morning tide isn't going to change a damned thing, or begin to address the enormity of lives lost, but doing nothing at all seems worse.

The sea is a dangerous place, even if you're only in it up to your knees.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Tender is the night

It's got a lot to do with the time of the year.

Cold days and long dark evenings do tend to bring out the gloomy side, and it's
hard to skip through meadows extolling the joys of creation in a duffle coat and wellies.

The weather makes me introspective, and I find myself dwelling on the more serious side.

The passing of the seasons reminds us all that we too are mortal, and one day our time will be up.
It would be easy to get morbid about all this, but the sensible thing to do is treat it as a reminder to get on with things and not waste time.

Reviewing some of my escapades over the last year, it's apparent that quite a lot of it had more than a touch of the glums about it, so  the thing to do was lighten up a bit and get out there with something a bit more cheerful.

With that in mind, and conscious of the fact that I will one day look back on all this and ask myself some pretty searching questions about how I'd spent the years, I set about doing something creative with the bins.

The bin men refused to empty them as "they contain material not specified for that container"
i.e. teeth and eyeballs.

Oh well, you can only try.