And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 17 September 2016


Fourteen photographs of the English Landscape
“The ordinary can be absolutely miraculous.”
Simon Armitage

The fourteen photos here, each measuring twelve by eight centimetres, were found at Spitalfields Market. Some of them look like they are of the moorlands in Derbyshire at the edge of the Pennines. Others look like they come from the east coast of Yorkshire, near Scarborough or Whitby.

 They lay among small stacks of old hardbacks and ephemera spread across the table. The dealer couldn’t say much about them except he had had them for some time, they’d be cheaper the more I bought and they had come with ‘a lot of stuff to do with the Festival of Britain’. 

That made sense. The photos looked to be from around that time – 1951 – and they look to be the work of a professional; someone sent out to take a set of photos for a magazine article on the splendours of the north. Certainly we can see why someone thought there was a landscape worth promoting.

The Pennines and the Derbyshire moors, which is where we are now decided we are, can invoke many associations, from Pride and Prejudice to Myra Hindley and everything in between, but these days Simon Armitage, in particular his translation or interpretation of Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl. Although the identity original author is unknown, scholars agree that he wrote both poems in the late 14th century and linguistic clues indicate he came from this area.

 A brief synopsis of the first: One New Year’s Day the Green Knight turns up at King Arthur’s court and asks to have his head cut off. Sir Gawain obliges but must fulfil a promise to meet the beheaded one at the Green Chapel in a year’s time. Gawain sets out and somewhere in the damp landscape he finds a castle. The master welcomes him then heads off the next morning on a hunt while Gawain keeps his beautiful wife company, and you just have to read it yourself. The landscape, as Armitage describes it anyway, is more rugged than these images of moorland suggest, more like parts of Staffordshire to the west.

 Pearl however takes place on open land, where a man grieving for his young daughter Pearl, follows a river and meets a woman walking on the other side. They talk across the water and she reveals she is his daughter, now grown up and a Queen of Christ. They debate various issues this raises until, desperate to reach out to her, the man jumps into the river and tries to cross it. 

Not that either Gawain or Pearl are dependent upon the landscape to tell their story although in Gawain there is the sense that up here it is wild and rugged, especially compared to the more gentle lands in the south where Arthur has his court. Also, in both there is an idea that the landscape is mutable, which is important in moorland where the weather can shift by the hour.


Even though they are found across Britain, the dry stone wall is something of an icon on the Yorkshire dales, the way black windmills belong to Norfolk. What gives walls like this one their timelessness isn’t the stonework so much as the feeling this was built with some purpose in mind but that has been forgotten for centuries. It meanders across the land.

 Speaking of Norfolk, this looks so much like the coast around Cromer and Happisburgh that we could put all doubt aside. That exposed reef can be thought of as the edge of Doggerland, the now submerged plain that once linked Britain to Europe and was home to mammoths, lions, rhinos and Neanderthals. Our photographer wouldn’t have known that, or that the oldest relic of any human in Europe would be found near here. But then, in 1951 a lot of people thought anything from the time before the war was old.

Even if I had bought these in another country, we’d still know it was England. The patchwork fields and hedgerows tell us it can’t be anywhere else. This was no doubt our photographer’s intention: to get an impression of the land that wasn’t just idealized but emblematic and one that visitors as well as citizens would recognize.


Thursday, 30 June 2016


Dated Snapshots
“We would like to live as we once lived, but history will not permit it.”
John F. Kennedy 

The act of writing the date on snapshots has the effect of preserving the image not just in its immediate surroundings but globally. Knowing what we do about the past we can wonder (pointlessly) how people can appear so blasé with what’s unfolding in other parts of the world. We don’t know the exact day this photo was taken but in Saskatchewan at the very beginning of June 1936 the snow had melted from the prairies, the sun was out and this young foal born weeks earlier was still finding its feet. The boy, not a great deal older than the foal, certainly with more time to learn life’s valuable lessons, had a long summer vacation to look forward to. In Iraq, Princess Azza, sister of the King, was not so relaxed. She had recently married a hotel porter from Rhodes so was stripped of her royal privileges. Meanwhile, the Chinese Government in Nanking was pushing for an immediate declaration of war against Japan. Rumours were circulating that a British officer had killed a Japanese soldier. The British delegation denied reports and ascribed them to Chinese paranoia. In eighteen months time an estimated 40 000 Chinese civilians would be killed in the Nanking Massacre.

 The earliest photo in this collection comes from Quebec and was taken on April 18, 1927. Over in Europe the weather was mostly fine with reports that air traffic over the English Channel was exceptionally busy. In Bath, Thomas Hampshire, a 48 year old chauffeur, was so terrified of an upcoming operation than he jumped out the hospital window, so saving the surgeon from another messy job but upsetting his wife greatly. In Antrim, Northern Ireland, Mr R. J. Anderson, president of the National Association of Headmasters let it be known what he thought of feminists and their male supporters. “No woman can train a boy in the habits of manliness. (Such a woman) might be an admirable proprietress of a Wild West saloon but we have no room for her in our boys’ schools.” 

 On April 27 1931 the prospect of war troubled Reverend James as he spoke at the Fellowship of Reconciliation at Bury St Edmunds. “If Christianity does not destroy war,” he warned, “then war will destroy Christianity”. Meanwhile in Belfast Edward Cullen’s murder trial opened. He had arrived in England four months earlier in the company of Ahmet Musa and Zara Agha, reputedly the World’s oldest man. A manhunt began when Musa’s naked body was discovered in a field outside of Carrickfergus. Across the water the World’s largest airship, the Akron, began her maiden voyage from Akron, Ohio.

 On October 5, 1935 the Dundee Courier was full of praise for Montreal, a city with an abundance of sunshine to appeal to sports lovers. In Blackburn Lancashire Robert Cotton took a slug of whisky to cure his cold. It helped so he took another, which also helped. An hour and two bottles later he was arrested after assaulting a fellow passenger on a bus.  In Tokyo Colonel Yamada went home and committed ritual suicide after he shot dead General Negata of the War Office. In Melbourne Mr W. Smith showed off his giant marrow measuring over three feet long and swore beer was the best fertilizer he knew of.

 On February 15, 1936 newspapers reported that across Turkey twelve people had frozen to death during blizzards that also killed thousands of cattle and destroyed hundreds of ships and boats. Meanwhile, in response to accusations its oil was fuelling the Italian war machine The U.S was considering an oil embargo. Spanish elections scheduled for the 16th had the rest of Europe on edge. The contest was essentially between communist and fascist parties and whoever won the result was a warning of an insecure future for the continent. In South Africa a bill was before the Government that would effectively disenfranchise black voters.

 Members of the Twelfth Annual Congress for the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship were welcomed by President Ataturk in Ankara today. In Glasgow meanwhile a group of men from Barra Island in the Outer Hebrides made their first ever visit to the mainland. They were reportedly terrified by the sight of a tram. Paul Wharton, dress designer to Hollywood stars, was shot dead while his bed-bound mother could do nothing. The killer also shot dead William Howard while law professor Henry Bolte remains in a critical condition.

 As war drags on the Allied press report that in the Jewish ghettoes across Axis controlled Europe starvation rations are in place. Other citizens have to accept 44 ounces or just over a kilo of bread a week while only children are given milk. At the Oswald Sat Zoo in Glasgow the performing lion walks a tightrope then plays a round of darts. Two million Japanese soldiers are reported to be occupying the islands just north of Australia. Chinese actor Kim Wong has been signed to play a Japanese soldier in a new MGM film.

 Twenty days after Germany signed the Instrument of Surrender, the Canadian Government has announced it will lift bans on Atlantic travel. In Birmingham meanwhile, Canadian soldier George C. Cummings had been caught breaking into a house and attempting to get away with over one thousand pounds worth of jewellery. Seventeen year old Robert Allsop has been charged with the attempted murder of an Italian prisoner of war. His boast that he killed Italians was not taken seriously by the magistrate, who did not think Allsop’s frustration that he had been too young to serve during the war was justification. 

 An American ship docked in Melbourne has a cargo of almost 500 000 bottles of beer. It had transported the bottles to the American base in Manila but arrived after peace had been signed and the Americans had moved out. No one knows what to do with the cargo. At Eaglesham in Scotland a fifteen year old boy has been charged with the murder of 29 year old Mrs Smith and her two children. Forty five women prisoners are on the third day of their strike at Portage la Prairie, west of Winnipeg. 

 On the first day of August 1948 China and Turkey play off against each other in football at the London Olympics. Meanwhile in Glasgow a golfer has been reported for playing a round with his shirt outside his trousers. In Australia the Country Party has submitted a plan to see Communism curbed, if not actually extinguished.

 No one is too sure how many were buried in the infirmary graveyard in Johnny Ball Lane in Bristol but there may be as many as two thousand in the relatively small plot of land. Demonstrations for independence by African nationalists have continued in Kampala. The International Committee will most likely decide that the time has come to readmit Japan to international sports federations.

 Turkey has welcomed the new Republic of Indonesia while in Malaya two British patrols opened fire on each other. In Greece Queen Frederika has made an international appeal for the 28 000 children taken during the recent civil war. Meanwhile, the coalition government in France looks set for defeat only two months since it was formed. Meanwhile, poison, fences and traps failed but the recent heatwave in Australia may have killed most of the rabbit population.


A recently published report indicates that the crime rate has dropped in Britain, which is news to chaplain G. H. Fawell, who says there is a noticeable lapse in morals and rejection of traditional religion. Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies has launched the Jindivik Mark 1 pilotless aircraft. The Australian cricket team has suffered another early collapse against an English team. Meanwhile President Eisenhower, or “Ike” to most Americans, is warning the USSR, or “the Reds” to most Americans, to leave Pakistan well alone, or else. 


Sunday, 29 May 2016


Panoramic postcards of Egypt by Lehnert & Landrock
“Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.”
Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra

 When Rudolph Lehnert and Ernest Landrock moved their photographic studio from Tunis to Cairo in 1924 they were announcing to anyone listening that Egypt’s capital was also the cultural capital of the Middle East. Not that they decided this: the year before, Howard Carter and his team had broken into Tutankhamen’s tomb and Ancient Egypt had once again become the most exciting idea on the planet. In far off Hastings, builders excavating a basement discovered some odd glyphs in a dingy tunnel and for a moment the theory that ancient Egyptians or Phoenicians had visited the place was kicked around. The place called Ancient Egypt, or at least the idea of it, had seldom been out of fashion’s eye in the last fifty years but now it was back centre stage. There were at least half a dozen other companies in Cairo producing real photo postcards for the European market but Lehnert & Landrock would become the best known.

 Lehnert, the photographer, had certainly worked in Egypt before the company opened shop there but once it did, business flourished. We can think of its halcyon years as coming between 1924 and the beginning of the war. Although a great enthusiasm among the British for German product seems unpatriotic, even love of country has its limits. There was a booming international market for shots of L&L’s most renowned genre: nude Bedouin women, and the British were driving demand as much as anyone else. But anyway, we’re not here to talk about that, or even more dubious genres the company marketed but rather the flip side; Egypt as a phenomenon of cultural sophistication.  

 From the beginning, postcards were the familiar size by which we know them, approximately 3½ x 6 inches, because they fitted the standard envelopes for informal correspondence. In some countries the laws sounded specific; the post card had to be ‘no more than’ or ‘less than’ or ‘at least’, but this only meant that anything that fitted within the required dimensions was legitimate. Publishers produced midget size and giant size postcards but the most common irregular format was the bookmark size, and though bookmarks of stage stars were popular, landscapes and street views have become the most enduring, especially the bookmark postcards from Cairo that Lehnert and Landrock produced.

 One of the company’s achievements was that it managed to make Egypt look how everyone imagined it to be; a land still touched by its ancient past, with oases of palm trees providing shade from which to contemplate the pyramids, maze-like souks, the stalls piled high with ornate rugs and silverware, and watched over by hawk-eyed Muslims. One hundred years ago, the abiding image of Muslims was of devout, silent and impassive people. Of course, not long before in the Sudan and southern parts of Egypt Muslims were fanatics who needed to be suppressed with violence if necessary, but that was now the past. In popular culture the siege of Khartoum was just another heroic chapter in the history of the British Empire.  

 From 1882 until 1922 Egypt was officially a British protectorate (and less officially into the 1950s). This explains why Cairo, a city inhabited by Egyptians since 969 CE would have a ‘native quarter’.  This was both a ghetto and a slum – neither being necessarily the same thing – separate from areas occupied by Europeans, Armenians, Alexandrine Greeks, Jews and Ottoman Turks. Egypt at this time, well, until 1914, was also a khedivate of the Ottoman Empire. The condition for Egyptians was something like being the child of two parents whose contempt for each other was outmatched by that for their offspring. Said children are usually destined for a miserable adulthood.

Cleopatra, Khartoum, The Greatest Story Ever Told: in the 1960s Egypt became the canvas for epic visions, though ‘bombastic’ might be a better adjective. There’s a suspicion, and maybe nothing more, that one influence was these panoramic views; well they share the same format and there is something about the panorama, no matter how small, that speaks of the vast – in time as well as space. To create this image the studio simply took a standard format negative and cropped what wasn’t needed. There isn’t the distortion a genuine panoramic camera would produce. Still, removing whatever was extraneous and leaving the palms, the camel, the cart and the porter suggests a scene that could take place anytime in the last 200 years. Interestingly this is titled Kasr el Nil Bridge but it may be the one it replaced in 1931, the Kobri el Gezira. Photos of that one have the palms but they are absent in views of the later bridge. 

 The Orientalist argument says that these views tell us more about the consumers than the place, which should be beyond dispute by now, but what after all do they tell us about Cairo? Where, for one thing, are the crowds? Today the city is so densely packed that a view like this one seems impossible even at unlikely hours. Was it really so magically empty in the 1920s? No. As far back at the 1500s, when Europeans began arguing over the biggest, the richest and the most powerful cities in the world, three were inevitably ignored: Peking, Bombay and Cairo. As engines of civilization they were derided, despite the monumental evidence opposing that, and despite the popularity of Ancient Egypt stemming from the great desire of London, Paris, Rome etc to be seen as the inevitable heir to its culture. So no; this is not the vast, hectic and noisy city tourists encountered but somewhere ancient and austere: the place they came to find.