Friday, 21 April 2017

A little bit of Canada in Devon

For a long time I was intrigued by a sign to Wolford Chapel when joining or leaving the A30 at Honiton, especially as next to the name on the sign was a small Canadian flag. 'Ah,' I'd think, 'this must be where Canadian aircrew worshipped in the Second World War, when based at one of the airfields in the hills to the north. It'll now be a place of pilgrimage for a dwindling number of old-timers, and the younger generations who might come.' Apparently nothing to do with me. But all kinds of things arouse my curiosity, and I made a mental note to go and see the chapel one day. Service life during the War has always had a strange hold on my imagination. Besides, all of us in Britain owe so much to the efforts (and sacrifices) of the men who came over to this country, and ensured that the Allies would win. I saw no issue in seeking out the Chapel, even if I wasn't a Canadian, and respectfully having a look.

That day came on 23rd March, four weeks ago. The weather was dull, but at least it was dry. A good day for exploring country lanes.

The Chapel was off the Honiton-Dunkeswell road, a bit short of Dunkeswell itself, as can be seen from this location map. The Chapel is the small cross in the loop road for the Wolford Lodge residences:


It's a very peaceful spot. There is space for two or three parked cars, and space to turn round. But you couldn't take a coach down the track that leads to the Chapel. So it never has to cope with a crowd. The site is well looked after, and there must be an active local custodian who sees to it that all is kept neat and tidy, and that the Canadian flag outside flutters freely and proudly.


The notice board referred to John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Canada, a name I instantly recalled, for less than one year previously I had seen and photographed a marble memorial to him in Exeter Cathedral:


So the Chapel was on the former Simcoe Estate. And all around the outside base of the building were headstones for various members of the Simcoe family. This is where they had all once worshipped. What lay within? The door was unlocked.


An intimate space, somewhat sombre on this overcast day, but not damp or musty-smelling. Clearly one was meant to look around and study the memorials and pictures on the walls. There was a strong Canadian flavour to it all.


Here was The Man, with hair distinctly more dishevelled than in the marble memorial in the cathedral:


Even so, I'd say the marble memorial was based on this portrait. There were several things to read about his life, and the Chapel itself.


There was a 1966 photo of the Canadian Prime Minister accepting the gift of the Chapel to Canada, so that its site in Devon would forever be a part of Ontario.


All of them, naturally, men in suits and ties - with handkerchiefs in each breast pocket! (Well, it was fifty-one years ago)

The Visitors' Book revealed that there was, even in March, a steady stream of people coming to see the Chapel. I added myself.


I couldn't help feeling that the place deserved great solemnity, and the selfie above shows that I gave it. This was, after all, Canadian national territory. I was representing Britain, practically on a solo diplomatic mission by just standing there. I didn't want the local custodian catching me doing frivolous things.

So much, however, for my earlier notion that this was the place where former aircrew came back to, to remember their wartime comrades in arms! But the next post will deal with just such a place, a mile up the road at Dunkeswell.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Tattoo You


Until very recently, tattoos were no part of my life. Well, in strictness, they still aren't - I haven't had one put on while on holiday recently! But I am now much more aware of what tattoos are all about, and of their artistic appeal. This is thanks to an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall at Falmouth, which I went to on 30th March, soon after it opened. It will run until January 2018, so, if you are in Cornwall for any reason between now and then, do make a point of seeing it.

I will confess that I saw the exhibition entirely by accident. I was in Falmouth for a few hours, planning only to walk around the town. I'd parked near Falmouth Town station - where you can find a free space in the street quite easily -  and had walked the short distance to Falmouth Docks station before turning towards the town centre, which took me past the redeveloped part of the waterfront. I hadn't even been aware that the Museum was there, but I spotted it, and it was advertising two concurrent exhibitions:


The one dealing with Captain Bligh of  'Mutiny on the Bounty' infamy especially caught my eye, and it made me venture inside. It even made me stump up £12.95 for admission. That's a lot. And there was no age concession available. But it was explained to me that my ticket lasted for a year, and I could return as often as I pleased for the next twelve months. Hmph - fat chance of taking advantage of that! But I like maritime museums, and did want to learn more about Captain Bligh, and my holiday budget was in great shape: I could easily afford it. So I got my ticket and went in.

And indeed, I was glad I'd paid for admission, because the Captain Bligh story was eye-opening, and filled me with unexpected admiration for his clear view of duty, his leadership qualities, and his amazing seamanship. Forget the film portrayals. I don't say he came across as a man you'd personally like, and anyone who found him prim or frustrating or stubborn might have ample grounds for that judgement; but he was not a mere bully, nor a spiteful martinet. He had a later career full of achievement. Surprisingly, he died aged only sixty-three: I'd already outlived him by two years, and without much special effort. Perhaps the epic open-boat voyage he had to make with his loyal crew members following the mutiny had fatally undermined his long-term health. A replica of that boat was on display, and it was very small for a long slow voyage on starvation rations.


Enthralling though the Bligh exhibition was, I couldn't help noticing the adjoining entrance to the tattoo exhibition. Initially I'd decided to ignore it entirely, as I just wasn't interested. But it sort of drew me in. I wasn't sure what I'd see.


Gosh...!

Well. A tattoo for every forearm. In fact, an almost overwhelming display of forearm tattoos. And a creepy one, too, because those silicone rubber arms and hands looked so lifelike, as if taken from casts of real flesh. Indeed, at a quick glance, it looked like a collection of severed limbs, with groping fingers. Brrrr.

The creepiness was most acute in the case of two entire arms that looked, even close up, exactly like two real arms neatly and freshly sliced off, and stuck up for display. (Why was no blood dripping?)


The quality of the art was however beyond dispute. These were surely at the very top end of what you might get if seeking a tattoo. And for the most part, the designs and their very skillful execution compelled admiration. My little camera grew hot from snapping this clearly major exhibition.

There was plenty of information and explanation about the origins of tattooing in various parts of the world, its cultural significance, and the innovative things that had been happening to tattooing in modern times.


By the time one had studied all of this, there was a definite notion implanted that wearing a tattoo, a modern-style one at any rate, might be a very cool thing. Anyone susceptible to suggestion would surely look for a tattoo shop afterwards without delay, and make serious enquiries. I didn't. But I'm sure that a dozen or more visitors every week must be inspired by what they see, and end up with a tattoo of their own, men and women both - for clearly this is now something for both sexes to consider. And it need not be on open display. The photo at the top of this post shows a take on a 'traditional' naval tattoo, and it's on the upper thigh of a young woman called Derryth Ridge, who helped to put the exhibition together. Here it is again: 


She says she loves it. But it's normally hidden under her jeans or skirt, and therefore remains discreet. 

It strikes me that if you had a birth mark, or a skin blemish, you could hide it with a tattoo. So the thing could be useful, as well as making a statement.

So why haven't I whizzed down to Brighton - a wonderful place to find a tattoo shop, incidentally - and arranged to have a personal tattoo? Well, there are several reasons. One: I don't come from a background in which tattoos are usual. I'm predisposed to thinking that tattoos are not for me. Two: if everyone is having them, then I want to be different and not have one. I don't follow the herd. Three: it would hurt. Four: a really nice one would cost a lot. Five: what in any case would I want tattooed on me, and where? An arrow, with THIS SIDE UP next to it? A heart, with I LOVE FIONA on it? A skull, with I'M AN OLD AGE PENSIONER over it? It's so very difficult to decide.

But don't let me stop you. If you want to have a tattoo, go to it.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

A puzzling painting

Ric Hyde is a long-established living British artist. He lives in the West Country, and is presently one of the guest artists currently being exhibited in the Willoughby Gallery at The Castle in Bude. The exhibition opened on 1st April. I was there on 4th and 7th. On the 4th, this picture of his was on the wall:


As you can see, it's quite eye-catching. And clearly has a deep meaning, to which we'll return in a moment. I found it both admirable and puzzling. I took a careful photo of it (reproduced above). I neglected to shoot any information card stuck on the wall next to it, so I came away not knowing the title of the painting. Driving away from Bude, I thought little of the omission. I was pretty sure I'd seen this painting before, possibly on TV, possibly in something I'd read. The expression on the young girl's face in the right half of the painting - the girl with pony-tails - seemed familiar. Anyway, I thought I'd have no problem identifying the name of the painting and learning more about it from a well-informed art source, if not in something published by the artist himself.

But I was wrong. Searching Google did not turn up an image of this painting. So I couldn't follow anything up. Well, I could go back. I was minded to revisit Bude anyway. I could take another look, and this time note down the title of the painting.

So on the 7th I walked in, and...oh!


The Castle, the former home of Cornish inventor Goldsworthy Gurney - whose clever and efficient large-building heaters in cast iron were installed in many a cathedral around the country during the nineteenth century (and have been mentioned more than once in these annals) - is Bude's best local venue for exhibitions, and events like weddings. And since I'd  seen it three days before, the Willoughby Gallery had been prepared for a civil marriage ceremony. Where was the painting I'd come back to see? They'd put a mirror where it had been, over the fireplace.


The mirror facilitated a great shot of the room from the officiator's viewpoint - necessarily showing myself holding up the camera, of course!

So far as I could see, they had left all the other paintings in place, including one of teenage boys in bathing costumes frolicking about (the painting above my head in the photo). But a painting of nude women and girls had clearly been thought inappropriate for the ceremony. They'd taken it down, and put it away somewhere. Well, no doubt it might have distracted the onlookers somewhat. Nudity tends to. But then I saw this:


Ah! So it had been a same-sex wedding - two men. Oh well, a parade of nude female flesh definitely hadn't been the right backdrop then. The ceremony had taken place just two and half hours before. The guys had done the deed, and were now presumably enjoying their reception at another spot. They clearly couldn't have lingered, nor their guests, because the place was completely tidy. There was nothing to suggest that a boatload of people had come and gone. You could in fact have held another wedding there straight away.

But no painting, no card to say what it had been called. So it was hardly Mission Accomplished.

On the side walls of the gallery were two other Ric Hyde paintings, more typical perhaps of his work, showing slightly insalubrious scenes. Adjacent was a card with some information about him:


One of the paintings showed two lissom, nude girls sunning themselves at what seemed to be a sewerage farm. One was actually dipping her hand in the sludgy water:


I couldn't see a card next to this painting, to say what its title was (so maybe the tidied-away painting of nude women and girls hadn't been identified either...?).

This was the other painting:


It showed a lurid party scene inside industrial premises. Some of the participants were sick and green-faced with too much self-indulgence. People had paired off in ill-matched ways. Sexily-clad women abounded. Sex was happening here and there. There even seemed to be a hanged man. It could have been a weird and out-of-hand office party, and yet there were some children there too. I'm thinking it was all an allegory of the Human Condition, painted with a wry sense of humour.

This time there was a card next to the painting:


So! If you 'get' the painting, like it,  and have £3,500 to spare, it's yours. The exhibition is not yet over, and 'Factory Dance' may still be available. (I didn't buy it myself)

By the way, this wasn't a 'Ric Hyde exhibition'. They were showing selected examples of half a dozen North Cornwall artists, the main one being in fact Irene Jones. A similar exhibition, also with her work as the major component, was put on in 2016, entitled Not of our Time.  So this was Not of our Time II.


Irene Jones had been inspired by stylised medieval representations of women. The girl just above with her arms protectively around a red steam engine is in a painting titled 'A Train for Bude'. Here's the shot of it I took myself on the 4th April (sorry for the reflections):


The protective posture, as if the red engine were her baby, and the Cornish-flag pendant around her neck hint at a proud local enterprise much desired when first proposed. As indeed it was, although in real life the railway took a very long time to reach Bude - as late as 1898. It did not have a long existence. Dr Beeching closed it in 1966, and ever since Bude has been difficult to reach, if you do not drive. Perhaps this Cornish maid would have thwarted Dr Beeching if she could. She certainly has an air of defiance. The museum part of The Castle - which I recommend seeing - has a lot to show and say about the railway at Bude. Just as well: virtually nothing is left to see on the ground. I was rather fortunate to be at Bude with Mum one sunny day in 1974, when the old station was still there to see, looking neglected and overgrown with weeds, but largely undamaged:


So many stations, and certainly all terminus stations, once had a newspaper and tobacco kiosk, almost always run by W H Smith. I bet that behind that corrugated iron there were yellowing piles of unsold newspapers and magazines from 1966, tied up with jute string. All the station site has long since been built over: there is nothing left to reinstate. No wonder Irene Jones' maiden looks vaguely displeased, if not positively angry.

Another Irene Jones painting caught my eye:


Again, the deep eyes and defensive face suggest vulnerability, violation, and keenly-felt loss.

But it's time to look closely at Ric Hyde's female lineup, and see what can be made of it.


Obvious things first. There are six figures standing on what might be a kitchen floor, or a chessboard. All are female, and all face the viewer - except the skeleton, who seems to to have a male pelvis and has his eyes on one of the naked women. Four of the six are very much alive. The grandmother-figure on the far right (who is carrying fruit that looks considerably more vibrant than herself) doesn't quite look as solid and three-dimensional as the others, as if she is not really there. The skeleton is of course not alive at all, but nevertheless is dancing, jigging about, projecting movement and an odd sense of ghoulish vitality.

Four of these figures are nude, or almost so, and two are showing their private parts. The grandmother is, by contrast, fully-clothed and covered up - though shabbily and unfashionably dressed.

The adult woman on the far left is carrying a baby in a blanket. The young girl next to her is holding a kitten. They might be mother and daughter. The other adult woman in the centre, and the girl with pony-tails next to her, might be a second mother-daughter pair: both have in common ribbons in their hair, and both have a flimsy, but effective, covering for their pubic area.

The skeleton has a skull adorned with flowers. He might be a dead father/grandfather, and those the fond protective hands of a close family member. But they look like groping hands to me. The adult woman in the centre is possibly the skeleton's daughter, but clearly does not like the skeleton's touch. Her pony-tailed daughter seems unconcerned at the skeleton's proximity. But she does look exasperated - why, I don't know. The adult woman on the far left is out of the skeleton's immediate reach, but nevertheless has a concerned expression on her face, as if worried about the future in general - or something off-picture that we can't see.

In the background is a fruit orchard (or is it the Garden of Eden?), presumably the source of the fruit being held by the grandmother. At ground level, there are garden flowers. A single, discarded red rose lies near the skeleton's feet, implying love rejected. Young pony-tails is holding up a little white flower. And there are two smug, sitting animals: a cat and a frog.

The painting seems full of symbolism, and might be interpreted in several ways. One would be that all families end up jigging the dance of death. But that's way too obvious! So is saying that it celebrates the confidence of youth.

The four unclothed females are clearly saying something strong and emphatic with their various degrees of nudity. Exposure of intimate flesh to this extent would in real life make them vulnerable to exploitation and harm. Perhaps the artist is saying that, whether clothed or unclothed, women are at risk. Children may not see the danger (the two kids are definitely not worrying) but their older and more experienced mums can. And grandmothers have learned that the best protection is to be fully covered up, almost invisible, and just resignedly fade into the background.

Surprisingly, the painting is not - at least not to my personal eyes - in any way erotic. I can of course easily imagine a lot of prudish people finding it provocative and (with the depiction of nude children being semi-taboo) almost obscene. It would surely have been considered decidedly risqué twenty or thirty years ago. My Mum would have thought so. But although arresting, I don't think the picture shocks. It does however make you want to look at it intently, searching for clues to tease out the artist's meaning.

Well, would I have it up on my lounge wall at home? Yes, definitely. I think it says something important about women and ageing. And I'm an ageing woman.

Would I pay, say, £3,500 for it, if I had the money? Yes. It's well-painted and interesting. It has some of the artist's mind in it, and isn't just a photograph.

Would I be happy for my friends to know that I owned it? Yes. I don't think any of them would find it disturbing, offensive, or in any way difficult to look at or live with. Unless, of course, their own experience of life had given them the ability - lacking in myself - of seeing whatever awful thing the painting might be saying.

Some hidden things are awful, and are really too hard to face. It's good to demand truth, and to understand what is real, and what is fake. But some knowledge can drive you to despair. I don't see despair in this painting, but I do think its message - whatever it is - is not a reassuring one.