Archive for Recollection

July 20th 1975

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on July 28, 2017 by cliffdean

Photo: Tim Waters

“I spent yesterday morning at the Laxfield Fruit & Flower Show (judging the Children’s Art) where I got into the Wonderful World of Village crafts.

I was very intrigued by the behind-the-scenes businesses of growing-for-showing and the criteria by which such things at marrows or custard tarts are judged. What does one look for in a Chelsea Bun, for instance, or a jar of Gooseberry Jam? (Scandal threatened, for one such jar was so very green that colouring was suspected!!)

All that produce seemed to belong to a previous generation – people like my granddad who I remember cycling home from one of his (three) allotments on his old black bike, fork strapped to the cross-bar while from one handlebar dangled a string bag of earthy, sprouting carrots wrapped in the Daily Mirror (scanned for horses only).

The vegetables looked wonderful, only tangentially related to the miserable, scabby roots and midge-plagued leaves for which I’m obliged to pay so much in the shops.  They had plainly been cosseted throughout their short lives by the green and loving fingers of black-waistcoated gentlemen, thus representing the culmination of years of skill and sensibility. (In some ways like the Aztec sacrificial victims who, after a year of unparalleled delights and pampering were offered up to Huitzilopochtli, their hearts uprooted like prize King Edwards.) Ah, the potatoes – they were unbelievable: white, translucent and lustrous, more like polished stones than the encrusted tubers I boil. The runner beans were so tender, so slim and perfectly green, the carrots bright and pellucid and the lettuces still dewy from an early digging on the Great Day.

The trick, it seems, with larger veg such as marrows, is to produce a matching pair, thus outwitting the vagaries of nature. One poor entrant had overlooked the fact that a runner had overlain one of his marrows, shadowing a conspicuous pale streak. This could make all the difference in a close-run contest. And the redcurrants! – were transparent! – you could clearly see the pips suspended within their pulpy red flesh set off brilliantly against the bright green stalks. Whitecurrants too (I’d never seen them before) like pearls or strange rocks from a Bosch landscape.

Photo: Alan Parker

As payment I was treated to a free meal with the other judges in a little back room of the King’s Head by the stream at the end of the churchyard. For the rest, I discovered, this was regular task for which they travelled round different shows consulting little Royal Horticultural Society handbooks  for guidelines on the Judging of Onions etc. (I recall a Brian Rix farce in which a “near-the-knuckle” joke was “My husband used to show ‘is onions each year at the fete”, at which the audience wet themselves.)

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There was a “granny” who’d judged the Succulent Fruit Cakes and Sparkling Wines (and seemed all the better for it though she deemed the Peapod wine “putrid”), a well-mannered, well-spoken, thin, elderly gentleman and a young, thickset man from “Akenfield” wearing an “Anglian fuchsia Growers” badge. The elderly gent told me of a show where he’d had to disqualify some cauliflowers because it was completely the wrong time of year. They’d obviously been bought in a shop and “the exhibitor made no complaint so I think we’d hit the nail on the head”. Then there were the pot plants with the nursery label still attached to the base and the shameful practice of unscrupulous villagers buying prize exhibits after the show at inflated prices with the aim of entering them at another show the following week. There’s quite a black-market in the pubs where one might encounter the same cucumber three Saturdays running (oh yes, cucumbers should, ideally, retain their “bloom”; I’d wiped it off one, asking, “Is this dust?”)

The younger man explained to me how he prepared his potatoes for showing: “You wash them with a soft cloth under cold water, dry them, bathe them in milk to give the sheen then set them out, covered with a damp cloth till judging”. Shallots are rotated to display their best side, the tops folded behind and tied neatly round with string before they are arranged on a saucer of sand, heaped in the middle so that each is shown off to its best advantage. All exhibits should, of course, be lain on black velvet (“It’s worth it, just to catch the judge’s eye”).

I wondered how they could, after all that, bear to eat their stuff. It must have a distinctly sacramental feeling: “These are my evenings. Take them, eat, all of you. These are my weekends. Drink.”

Miss Tett, the local Biology Mistress who judged the knitting, enthused at length over a pair of buff socks. When I asked her to open my eyes to their marvels she pointed out the trim yet stretching top, the shaped calf, the perfectly joined toe and the strong double heel, all executed with needles of great fineness. No 13 was it? She also considered sublime a slipover embellished with flecks of gold Lurex which I didn’t much care for but seems to attract old ladies as surely as jackdaws.

One industrious person (must be a man) had submitted a 2ft model of Saxtead Mill, all made of matchsticks. Why do they do it?”

Photo: Tim Waters

A dark day in Downland

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 23, 2016 by cliffdean

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Via Cacciatori del Sile is on the one-way system not far from Treviso station. In the mid-70s it was, by day, an ordinary residential street but by night busy with cars cruising for rent-boys, many of whom were underpaid soldiers from the city’s barracks. Two girls from the Oxford School of English invited me for lunch at their flat there one day, having made an expedition to the Pescheria, armed with a useful book which would help them to both identify and prepare the seafood on sale there.

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It emphasises the cultural distance between then and now that I was only just encountering for the first time items such as radicchio & pesto or dishes now commonplace such as Spaghetti alla Carbonara & Tiramisu. I was all too aware of how reverently my Italian friends approached their food but this was the first English book I’d seen which dealt with the subject at the same level of seriousness. What’s more, it was written in a style at once elegant, unpretentious and informative.

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That lunch was the first occasion I’d eaten cape sante & cape lunghe but, more influentially, the first time I’d heard of Elizabeth David. The forceful ink cover illustration by Renato Guttoso looked a bit crude and old-fashioned but was so much part of the package that, when the book was re-issued a few years ago with a plain cover it just didn’t seem right.

Over the years since, I’ve returned to these yellowing pages for a few recipes or to dip into commentaries on certain themes. I like the modesty of its scale and personality compared with more recent celebrity offerings.

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It was only a few months ago that I learnt David was buried at Folkington, just yards from the woodland clearing where we’d parked for Downland walks and determined to pay my respects on the next occasion I passed that way. In the meantime, I discovered she’d had an interesting life so ordered the book by Artemis Cooper, whose biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor I’d previously enjoyed.

The walk, planned for the Solstice, was advanced by a day in view of a dire weather forecast for Wednesday and got off to a good start when I blithely misread the map & set off on a route which added a couple of miles to the expected itinerary. No matter – we skirted through Friston Forest down to Litlington and along the river up to Alfriston before heading off across the fields towards Wilmington, where we planned to eat. We visit that area with sufficient infrequency to render memorable historic walks with family & friends. Since the grey midwinter day had never really got light, a tasty lunch and extended conversation at The Giant’s Rest projected the latter part of our circuit into failing light as we followed hollow lanes incised by a million feet and hooves towards Folkington.

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Cooper’s fluent, conversational style makes for easy reading but my memory is so bad that by the time we arrived at sunset in the churchyard I struggled to recall the familial relationships of various Gwynnes commemorated on the slabs

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Elizabeth David’s freestanding headstone is distinctive however, for the lively and affectionate carving of those ingredients which typify her love of Mediterranean Food (her first book), surrounding a capacious marmite.

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More recent reading: everyone’s heard of Lawrence of Arabia but what about Gertrude Bell? Her life was so exotic, adventurous and influential, yet unfulfilled, that it would make a fantastic film. Then I discovered that Werner Herzog had just made it!! My misgivings when I saw that Bell is played by Nicole Kidman are borne out by some reviews, but it might be worth a watch.

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“This artwork splashes. Please take care.”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 10, 2016 by cliffdean

The labels in art galleries customarily include brief reference to the materials employed in the artwork in question: Oil on canvas, Mixed media – that sort of thing.

At the current Robert Rauschenberg exhibition, they’re a bit more specific, in fact some go on for several lines. Like this:

“Silkscreened ink & oil on Plexiglas, with metal coat hanger, wire, string, sound transmitter, circuit board and battery powered motor on metal folding camp stool.”

Or: “Oil paint, graphite, toothpaste and red fingernail polish on pillow, quilt and sheet on wood supports.”

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Or: “Oil paint on taxidermied Angora goat and rubber tyre, on oil paint on paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber, shoe heel, and tennis ball on canvas on wood platform mounted on four casters.”

(I don’t think there’s such a a word as “taxidermied”; I don’t know why they didn’t say “stuffed” except for the need for disambiguation: the goat could have been “stuffed” with rice…or prunes…or telephones)

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But anyway that gives you a pretty good idea of what’s involved in “Monogram”…except that – have you noticed how newspapers always include a young gel in their photos of artworks? Here’s one:

Robert Rauschenberg Exhibition, Press Images, Tate Modern, 29/11/2016

…and another…

Robert Rauschenberg Exhibition, Press Images, Tate Modern, 29/11/2016

If you’ve got goats & stuffed eagles attached to your collages, why not young gels? This habit was recently picked up in a letter to The Times, where I think the excuse was that it provided a human link. But if that’s the case, why always a young gel rather than an old bloke like me? Or slithy Michael Gove, pointing in denunciation like a photo in the Angry People In Local Newspapers group on Facebook, which has given me so much pleasure over the last few months.

What’s really fascinating about that goat (over & above the symbolic associations which have been attributed to it) is its provenance for, according to the label, Rauschenberg obtained it from a “second-hand office supplies store.” “Office supplies” I usually associate with paper, staples & shredders rather than stuffed goats, but perhaps they’re listed along with potted palms and I just haven’t looked hard enough.

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I knew I’d seen his work quite early on – when I was still at school – and have just tracked it down thanks to The Wonders of the Internet. Early 1964, at the Whitechapel Gallery. I was 17. I used to take the train from Darkest Albany Park, tube up to Aldgate East for Petticoat Lane then onto the gallery when it opened after lunch. It’s difficult from these little reproductions and from this distance to appreciate how exciting, how audacious this work seemed at the time: the big silkscreened slabs of eclectic imagery combined with abstract-expressionist paintwork (the show is still on at the RA – you have to see these things in the flesh); the American iconography that then seemed so romantic (and is now so contaminated by a sense of cultural imperialism). And, as so often seems to be the case, practices which were once radical have been absorbed into the everyday visual lexicon to the extent that it’s hard now to see them clearly.

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But beyond those works from the 60s I had lost track of what Rauschenberg had been up to – I knew of his dance collaborations, for example, but had never seen the films, and had no idea of his continuing inventiveness.

A work which lives in Stockholm but has been transported for this event is the thousand-gallon mudbath which gloops like a Yellowstone geyser in response to sounds on a tape translated into a bubbling air supply. The video below is too small, too short and too quiet to give a sense of the work’s presence (odorless too, though one critic repeatedly describes it as “pungent”). It had initially been trained to respond to sounds within the gallery but, as much as the artist cultivated audience participation, that may have been just too inviting as this article from art orbit explains:

Together they designed and built the aluminum tank filled with 8,000 pounds of driller’s mud made of bentonite, a volcanic ash with grains smaller than .001 millimeter. The material can absorb great quantities of water which turns it into a gel-like substance whose consistency, not unlike thick pea soup or chocolate-cake batter, has an undeniably scatalogical texture. It is hardly coincidental, perhaps, that the first visitors to see Mud Muse enthusiastically smeared and splattered mud on the tank and in the space, which then had to be closed down, cleaned, and later monitored by a guard”

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Aha! Old blokes discussing art! (Actually they’re compiling a list of their Top Ten Favourite Tyres.)

Beside the Stour & in the Crypt

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 9, 2016 by cliffdean

You can park in Chartham and walk right into Canterbury along the river on an all-weather track. It takes an hour and a quarter. You’re walking parallel to two roads and a railway, all following the valley through a gap in the Downs but although you can hear traffic and the rumble of trains, trees screen you from most of the world beyond. It’s a route that has been trodden, ridden and rowed for thousands of years.

The chalk-stream is fast and clear; below its crowfoot-starred surface emerald weeds ripple. Grey Wagtails are all along, right into the city centre, while thrushes and warblers – even a Turtle Dove – sing from the overhanging branches. On the adjacent lakes, scoured out for stones for the post-war world of concrete, there are Coots, Tufted Ducks, G G Grebes, Mallards – no doubt more if you look harder – and as you near the city you pass beneath graffitied viaducts live & dead, past rough, wet meadows, an imaginative play-park then across into the bright flower beds of Westgate Gardens.

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And into the world of shops, pubs, restaurants and loads of foreign students. My destination this week, not for the first time, was into the Cathedral, through the soaring folk-memory forest of the Nave, down past a party of Chinese tourists crowding the very murder spot to hear of  Becket’s ghastly martyrdom and down the steps into the dark silence of the round-arched Crypt. This is the attraction:

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There are several interestingly carved capitals depicting curious scenes. In a side chapel are strange but jolly hares playing fiddles etc. There are a few friendly-looking lions and some acrobats but the ones I really like are the menacing and horrible creations of a mediaeval sculptor clearly the worse for wear on account of magic mushrooms or ergot poisoning.

It really is quite dark in there, flickering candles and soft lighting, so your eyes adjust only slowly to pick out the details. Through drawing the rhythms emerge, far more subtle and complex than you expect. The sculptor’s skull may have housed dark visions but his hands were masterful.

But what is it? It seems to be a big bird ridden by some mad, snarling, long-fanged, two-headed hound. So far, so nightmarish. The bird’s long and curving tail – actually more like a lizard’s….has another head at the end….another bird? (ah, they’ve both got ears)…which is biting one of those….well, I first took them to be stylized Peacock’s feathers (they seem to end in eyes) but they could be tassels of some sort, attached to the saddle upon which that hound-creature (oh my God, it’s got breasts) is riding, guiding with reins and stirrup. Though facing in the wrong direction.

So that’s all clear then. Apart from the meaning. It could be some distant foretelling of post-referendum Britain.

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It reminds me of, many years ago, struggling up a small hill to the temple in Leh, Ladakh with heart thumping and a sharp high-altitude headache. Leaving the brilliant, pure Himalayan sunlight for the dark interior I could for some time see nothing till, slowly slowly, the light of the butter-lamps began to reflect from amorphous pale muslin-shrouded forms. As my eyes adjusted, the wavering illumination clarified the figures within the thin covers, albeit dimly. Tibetan Buddhist deities. And that’s where my understanding ran out; who or what was represented I had no idea.

I should have done more homework perhaps but what I was mostly thinking was, “I don’t understand any of this; what am I doing here?”

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Mostly black

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 23, 2016 by cliffdean

Black birds in TQ81W yesterday:

  1. A Blackcap singing. The first of the “traditional” summer migrants and would be punctual enough in a normal spring which this is not, for the first wave – Chiffchaff, Sand Martin – are long overdue. The chances are that this Blackcap actually wintered in this area.
  2. A new Rookery, so far comprising 9 nests, has been founded in a little wooded garden on Chick Hill. Over recent years Rooks have moved away from the colonies towards which they were previously confined (Two Sawyers, Winchelsea) to become regular visitors to the western end of Pett Level. Satellite colonies (maybe not long-lived) have been established in Market Wood and at Gatehurst but this is the easternmost.
  3. There were a lot of Blackbirds around, the majority males. 8 flew out of one rotund ivy-covered tree alone. 42 altogether though when I checked earlier counts (amazingly 111 of them) for this tetrad I found that such a number is quite routine and several times exceeded. Up to 62 in fact.
  4. (Only bits of it would be black, so I’m forcing the theme a bit): a Brambling was calling from migrant flock of Chaffinches over Stream Lane.
  5. Dark equinoctial lines of Brent geese marking the moving up channel recall for me, as always, March 21st 1985 when I watched and identified with them from an office overlooking a windswept, rainy Hastings seafront. We had spent the previous year in Australia but had been called home 2 weeks before our year’s contract expired to be with my father who had been suddenly given just those two weeks to live. Since we had failed to remain abroad for the full year we no longer enjoyed tax exemption so were required to pay £3000. Letters and phone calls had suggested that no exception could be made on compassionate grounds so I had requested an interview at the then tax office below the castle and as I made my case, death certificate on the table, flock after flock of Brents battled past, driven to the very shoreline by a mighty headwind. But while they made progress I was beaten back by the implacable power of HMRC.

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An Ideal World

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 26, 2015 by cliffdean

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If you haven’t seen it, no need to rush because it’s on till May but the exhibition of Ladybird books currently showing at the DLWP is full of interest and memories for anyone who, over the last 65 years, has been a child, had children and/or worked with them. Perhaps you don’t even need to fall into those categories to enjoy the view of a recent yet  irretrievably past world presented in such detail through their pocket-size pages.

It’s an optimistic, modern world in which families are healthy and secure, prosperous but not opulent, looking towards a future in which the world will improve, thanks to exciting developments in science. It’s a society in which people of different trades and professions are working together, their relationships benevolent.

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“Look, Jane, look!” says Peter, “Look at the cook! Look how he writes in his book. He writes with the wrong hand!”

Conflict is relegated to fairy tales and history books.

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It’s a vision that was already the subject of ridicule when I was at college in the late 60s, on account of its sharply defined gender roles, acceptance of social stratification and colonialist world outlook. And now, in the DLWP bookshop you can buy cards (which have been around for c15 years) in which the innocence of Ladybird illustrations is subverted by ironic captions deriving from jaded and cynical present-day preoccupations. (That sounds solemn and disapproving, but it’s the way they work – I actually find them very funny.) (Picture: a jolly children’s birthday party. Caption: “The sugar was beginning to kick in.”)

The freedom and adventure offered to children through those books was no illusion, as those of us who grew up in that period can confirm, but has in large part vanished thanks to constricting parental anxieties.

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“Oh my God!” cries Mummy,” Where are their life-jackets? Who the hell let them out with that fisherman unaccompanied? Is he CRB checked? Is he insured? Doesn’t he know Peter is allergic to fish? Has Jane got her inhaler?”

The books had their origin in a society emerging from yet another terrible war, looking forward towards a better life with the Welfare State, decent housing, improved work conditions, nationalised industries for the benefit of all, strong unions. For a taste of that optimism, watch Ken Loach’s “Spirit of ’45”. Of course the editors and illustrators were not ignorant of the dark side but these books were genuinely optimistic and encouraging.

(It’s worth counterpointing this show with “History is Now” at the Hayward, a series of meditations on British life since the war, and just next door in the Festival Hall, the small exhibition about the Festival of Britain.)

The illustrations are fantastically skilled. I wondered whether there still people (“commercial artists”) around who could depict such varied, convincing and informative scenes, or has this skill been usurped by photography? There are later books which do use photos – and they look so dull. There’s a complete set of admirable artwork for “Shopping with Mummy” – a treasure trove of period detail from the pre-supermarket era. (From the draper’s shop, Jane chooses (pink) socks. From the ironmonger’s, Peter buys a hammer, perhaps spurred by the card in the window which reads “That Hammer you want is HERE”.)

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With a shock, I realised that I had completely forgotten about the Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme – that which was ubiquitous when I began teaching but which relied on the Look & Say i.e. word recognition approach which has been forced out in favour of analytical Synthetic Phonics by the blinkered Michael Gove. Anyone who has taught children to read knows that their style and progress is varied, requiring a choice of method. The incremental structure of the Ladybird Scheme led some benighted teachers to mis-apply it, forcing readers to remain at one level, or even on one book until they could recite every single Key Word, stunting enthusiasm and focusing on failure.

The Ladybird titles I love the most are the four seasonal “What To Look For..” guides illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe. Each of his ingenious compositions brilliantly details the annual cycles of agriculture and nature. I think they were nostalgic even when published, for farming practices you see there were already on their way out, with wildlife to follow. The sterilization of British farmland with pesticides, the appearance of factory farms, the shift to monocultures and the eradication of ancient landscapes was just around the corner.

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Blog Tunnicliffe Ladybird

For me, the most poignant of these images is that of a mother and child peering out of their kitchen door one fine and blossom-filled spring morning to watch a Cuckoo calling from a post in their garden. It epitomises the transmission from one generation to the next of seasonal signs and harbingers, a tradition now largely truncated, with Cuckoos mostly vanished.

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NK (look it up)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on August 27, 2014 by cliffdean

When I’m working at RSPB Dungeness I don’t usually stick around to watch birds but I’d noted a good list of waders so arrived a bit early to look for them at ARC.

The bad news was that the last two days’ deluge had put many muddy islands underwater, leaving little wader-friendly habitat therefore few waders. The good news was that one of them was a juv Red-necked Phalarope, something I haven’t seen for a good few years (the last might have been 1981! -at Pett Pools, where there had also been one in 79, and I’d seen lots in Iceland in between…but apart from that….) (From the conversation in the hide it appeared that records have been very scarce over there too.)

Tiny, silvery, with a dark back, diagonal stance and jerky gait, it travelled back and forth just a few metres along a barely-flooded spur, fluttering into the easterly breeze as far as a sleeping Lapwing then working its way back to a patch of floating feathers. Good light, showing well, though those attempting to get a picture dismissed the results as “totally record”.

The first I ever saw was on Schiermonnnikoog in ?1972? I was walking past the end of Westerplas with some Dutch bird-watchers – I’ve got a funny idea this was after a day or so of heavy rain (always a possibility) – when one dropped down into the water quite close to us. Everyone froze. “Don’t worry, ” I said, “they’re usually very tame and can be approached closely.” To demonstrate this I took a step forward and it flew away – to the back of the lake, where it appeared only as a dot until it left the next day.

I must say my companions seemed to take this turn of events very well, though I was unable to understand the conversation that followed.