Friday, December 28, 2018

End of the Year, Start of the New...

Old graveyards are fascinating with the tombstones and statues, generally swathed in ivy and plants of the undergrowth. I had been wanting to return to this particular church for some time as I remember drifting around here as teenagesr - totally drawn into the atmosphere, and mystery of lives and loves past. Well, times may change, the years past, we grow up and away, although not that much, it would seem...

This particular churchyard draws in many visitors, not only for the beauty and tranquility of the grounds, but for a unique feature that I did not even recall from all those years ago. Social media play a key role in the unearthing of personnages and places from the most remote spaces and this is a case in point. I had always thought this one specific grave was set in St Uny's church in Lelant, but in fact, it was on my old parish doorstep all along - here in Gulval, just outside Penzance.

It must have a certain succès de scandale today, though this is surely a notoreity based on folklore and a Poldark-nurtured curiosity meeting reality. Stone slabs wend a protective path towards the plot, preserving it from the trampling feet of tourists, ready to pay their respects.

Yet with or without the presence of the earthly remains of the supposed pirate, John ‘Eyebrows’ Thomas, the church grounds of Gulval seem timeless, open to the elements and nature.

Primroses are already nestling in crevices, whilst the bold, bright green of ferns is set off by the lichen that shrouds branches and stonework alike. Meanwhile, the church door itself is generally padlocked shut, presumably due to the unwanted attentions of visitors who respect nothing but the draw of money and material means.

Which perhaps brings us back to the notorious 'pirate and smuggler', John Thomas, baptised in Gulval church in 1692 and returned to the soil of his birth in December 1753. The name John Thomas sounds very unassuming - in fact, as teenagers we were more familiar with its usage to refer to male genitalia... However, the nickname 'Eyebrows' lends a certain distinction, further higlighted by the addition of notable facial adornment on the skull-and-crossbones carved on the tombstone itself!

For all the fame now associated with his intriguing grave, the figure of John Thomas seems to hide more questions than offering concrete answers, but it would appear that he died a wealthy man. At a time when a man's worldly fortune would amount to  two or possibly three digit figures, JT left a sizeable estate of several proporties and a bequest of over £2000. The provenance of that wealth was linked to smuggling, although the exact definition of this term is subject to discussion, since certain protectionist sea-farers were permitted by Royal certificate to attack and plunder any foreign vessel in local waters - in and around Mount's Bay.

Furthermore, the inscription on the tomb seems to be an elogy of the deceased, rather than a warning to the living.

                                                 Study to imitate, you won’t excell,

                                                            If you would live beloved and die so well.

John Thomas is but one individual, here in Gulval, who left this world for 'a better' centuries ago. Around his resting place, lie many others, whose solid Cornish names leave little doubt to their origins, and whose mortal years are often long, contrary to the idea that lives were typically short and brutish in bygone times. There are others, of course, whose inscriptions still convey the overwhelming sadness of loss and suffering - pain beyond the grave. But the message to take away from this, I suppose, is the beauty we can take from life and nature. That also seemed to be appropriate end to this year, looking forward to the new...

Monday, December 24, 2018

Happy Christmas...

Was hoping to see an early-morning Mount's Bay, in all its glory, for Christmas Eve but it had been entirely hidden by the mist and drizzle! So I walked along through the streets of the town instead and made the most of the raindrops....

Here is Penzance, represented on Christmas Eve in 1897, painted by Stanhope Forbes - the 'Father of the Newlyn School'.

                                                And here it is in 2018! So, wishing a Merry Christmas all round!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Bagpuss and Co. at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge...

Bagpuss at the Beaney
On a fleeting trip to Canterbury last month, I was looking forward to returning to the Canterbury Heritage Museum, formerly the Museum of Canterbury, set in the 14th-century Poor Priests' Hospital, next to the river Stour, just off the main street in the city. Sadly this wasn’t to be, as it had been closed earlier in the year. I presume this is put down to lack of visitors, much in the same way that public libraries are being shut due to dwindling demand. It would seem that traditional museums and libraries that have not been 'sexed-up', fail to offer services that can compete with digital wizardry.
What child, or indeed adult, would want to tire themselves on dry visual displays – in the form of mere physical books or exhibits, that do not ‘do’ much, other than be what they are?

These seem to be perceived as old carcasses of a past world that are simply too demanding – requiring just too much investment on every level. Today, an experience can only be deemed valid if it involves interactive screen activity, to intensify a moment of instant gratification, preferably with the capacity to take shots of the ‘user’ who can then share their seconds of pleasure so that it can be ‘liked’.

A Clanger!
With a sensory overload that curiously seems to dullen the very senses it is supposed to heighten, optimal experiences provide an excited buzz of consumption, yet one that must be followed by others, as with any addictive process. Processing a book or glass cabinet display is just too intellectually and physically cumbersome, a slow and solitary affair that refuses to be validated by the instantaneous sharing on some social media. Suffice it to say that I really am saddened by the closure of this musem...

Gabriel Croaker 
The medieval building itself was/is impressive with its ceilings of exposed beams, under which were displayed artefacts of the history of the city of Canterbury through the ages. Exhibits spanned the millenia, from pre-historic and Roman times, covering the early pilgrimages as Canterbury became the site of the first cathedral in England, right up to the blitz of the Second World War.The city of Canterbury, and the surrounding region has a rich spiritual, political and cultural past, and has produced or harboured several famous ‘sons’, not least the venerated saint and martyr Thomas Becket. Indeed, the great Geoffrey Chaucer – the father of English literature, joins ranks with a motley crew that includes Rupert Bear, Bagpuss, the Clangers and Ivor the Engine.

Madeleine Remnant
Adult visitors were able to inspect the study of the Polish-British writer, Joseph Conrad, looking for indicators to his heart of darkness. Visitors of any age could witness the light and warmth liberally radiating out from the display case of Bagpuss - the old saggy cloth cat and his friends – that drew in appreciative gazes all round. I cannot believe that this entire heritage collection – the cultural and social roots of the people of Canterbury – has been dismantled as the building is presumably readapted. But to become what? Another ‘eaterie’, bank, or estate agent?

Professor Yaffle
Nevertheless, as chance would have it, when I visited The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, I came across Bagpuss and many of the other characters who were so central to a pre-80s childhood in the U.K. Collectively, these were the brainchildren of the creative duo, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin and were the half-siblings of the mischievious glove puppet, Basil Brush, whom Firmin had designed in the 1960s.

Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ
Setting up their company Smallfilms in a converted barn in rural Kent, Postgate and Firmin, filmed the activities of their characters. These generally relied on stop motion animation, interspersed with illustrations, accompanied by song and more importantly the ‘vocals’ of the characters themselves, with Postgate narrating. No one could forget the unique communication of the strange mouse-like creatures, the Clangers and the Soup Dragon, carefully reproducing actual dialogue through a Swanee whistle. Nor could they fail to be marked by the wistful, solemn yet reassuring speech of Postgate who opened each episode of the programmes.

Noggin the Nog
His reflections on a world opening up to exploration and experimentation that had previously been inconceivable, led a generation of children into the Space age…and colour television! With a rich language that finds no comparison in the dumbed-down, hyped-up ravings of many children’s programmes today, youngsters were encouraged to muse over the meaning of Outer Space and that of our own planet, Earth."Of all the stars and moons and planets that shine in the sky, by far the most troublesome is surely this one?”.
Noggin manuscript
In fact, Clangers was born in the late 60s as an off-shoot from the Noggin the Nog stories, where a Moon Mouse made its debut. Asked by the BBC to produce a storyline set in Space, Firmin came up with the collection of pink knitted mice, made by his wife. Seeing them ‘in the flesh’ at the Beaney in Canterbury was a strange experience as they seem so humble and down-to-earth, in every sense of the term!. But then, that was the true magic of Smallfilms ; small steps in material creativity – a collection of home-made antrophomorphic props - to encourage giant leaps in the collective imagination and curiosity of a whole generation of children. To combat lives that had become "complex and convenient" in the words of the opening to Clangers, Postgate and Firmin proposed a creative world that was both simple yet demanding, since it inspired thought and wonder. Not surprisingly, children were initially dumbstruck as they listened intently to the mesmerizing tones of the narration, but were never rendered dumb and passive in the process.The same distinctive aspects pervade all the Smallfilm productions, and yet all the characters were unique and wholly original, whether they inhabited Space, the Lands of the North, the Welsh valleys or simply the woods, like The Pogles.

Just as the physical characters and sets were made of a jumble of recycled objects – the very principle of Emily’s shop in Bagpuss – the inspiration was gleaned from a variety of sources. Ivor the Engine drew partly on the melodic, melancholic tones of Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, whilst the characters of Noggin the Nog (late 50s), with their ‘telling of tales’, were based on the Lewis chessman at the British Museum. Of course, in comparison with the glossy, seamless, high-definition CGI work of today, the Smallfilms productions look rather thread-bare and "a bit loose at the seams", like Bagpuss himself. Nesting swallows would leave droppings on the Clangers’planet set located in the barn film studio, and marauding mice were known to nibble at the knitted characters such as the poor old Soup Dragon! But all this was a different, rather more innocent era, of invention and improvisation, yet a period that was oddly richer in many ways. Even Bagpuss, with its 13 episodes, voted the most popular BBC childrens’ programmes ever made in 1999, had an original start in the early 70s. When the marmalade-coloured tom came back from the manufacturer’s in a very unusual pink hue with cream stripes, Firmin declared that there were not enough pink cats on television screens!. Thus Bagpuss made his entry in a glorious strawberry ginger tone.

Oliver Postgate died in 2008, whilst Peter Firmin died earlier this year. The Clangers series were revived and updated in 2015, with Michael Palin taking on Postgate’s role as narrator. Firmin, acting as design consultant and co-executive producer collaborated on this latest work to ensure that the spirit of Clangers was not smoothed over and sanitised by CGI. A certain charm has therefore been retained, but the magical skill of this creative partnership, with its multi-talented artists – mavericks bringing together a range of disciplines – has perhaps been lost. Many of today’s multi-tasking talents are generally one-trick ponies, who are shackled by political correctness, standards agencies and a raft of psychologists, ready to pounce on any piece deemed unfit. I remember being slightly in awe of Postgate’s narrative, that refused to remove the wonder and fear of the unknown depths of Space, no matter how cuddly and amicable the Soup Dragon and Co may have been. I was terrified by the shadow of a witch in my 1971 Christmas Poggles Annual, so much so that I had to turn the page as fast as possible in order not to glimpse her talons projected onto the vaulted ceiling of the cellar. The slowing-down, and fade-to-grey endings of Bagpuss, never failed to make you feel a little sad, as the bright pink cloth cat yawned and settled down to sleep, signalling to his friends that it was time to return to inanimate black and white. Do young children still experience these feelings ? I hope so.

Oliver Postgate wrote his memoir Seeing Things in 2000 – I think this will be my Christmas present to myself.

Mouse Organ-inspired mice that I made some time ago...

Friday, November 30, 2018

Artistic fiction...

My daughter often expresses regret for the passing of her childhood, and misses above all those almost-magical periods of play during which would be mesmerised by her make-believe universes.

The loss of that power of play, which would transfix her, transporting her away from her surroundings yet readily using all the means at hand to do so is still keenly felt and mourned, to a degree.

I too miss hearing her little voice, engaged in busy, bossy discussions with her toys which would all duly express themselves through her, obediently following her every decision in line with a set of events that would unroll under her command.

The teenage years slowly but surely eroded that landscape, making it ever-harder to re-enter that odd, little country that eventually grew to seem flat and meaningless when faced with a new world of unchartered territory. Whilst the realm of childhood is definitively shut off to us once we set off on the trajectory of adolescence towards adulthood, you can surely get a visitor's pass if you play your cards right.

The trick of this, presumably, is to find some essence or quality of that childhood space that can be recreated and re-adapted to the 'grown-up' world, much as you would try to simulate a specific natural fragrance in a synthetic manner.

At least, that is what I try to explain to my daughter but then the teenage years are when you test and reject most of what formed your safe, familiar universe - starting with the family.

Literature is what comes to my mind as the obvious means to gain instant access to other realities - the process of reading and writing any work of fiction represents a perfect gateway or escape route, in Narnia fashion. But then, in fact any kind of creative endeavour must largely serve a similar purpose and satisfy the same needs. We are driven to lose ourselves, yet to remain firmly rooted physically and mentally in our practical lives so that this simultaneous experience does not disrupt the normal functioning of our supposedly ‘adult’, responsible existence.

Until a recent visit to an exhibition, here in Reims, Le Peuple des Femmes Nuages, I had never considered how far you could create a whole culture and community through visual art ‘fiction’. In fact, I was totally taken in by this troublingly life-like creation, which I simply took to be reality.
Having forgotten my glasses and failed to notice the term 'fiction artistique' used to describe to work on display, I entered a parallel world!

Set under the vaulted 18th century ceilings in the Musée Saint-Remi de Reims, the site of the former royal abbey, the exhibition dazzles against the sober stonework with its bright colours and intricate detail. Suddenly, we are faced with the personal effects of late 19th century Westerners who had spent their lives trekking around the far-flung corners of the world, experiencing first hand the social codes in matriarchal societies.

Mexico, Bolivia, China, India, Morocco and Algeria are but a few of the sites visited by these two trail-blazing women, their paths often crossing those of renowned figures such as Frida Kahlo. The numerous notebooks, diaries, items of correspondance, photographs, sketches of flora, fauna and landscape, botanical samples accompany the heavily-decorated costumes, jewellery and accessories that entered into the two women’s possession during their travels.

According to the story, these precious items had all been discovered in dusty trunks, having laid long-forgotten for over a century in the attic of a wealthy Parisian family working in the textile industry.

The objects had all belonged to distant relatives - Mary Miller (1855-1943) and Adèle de Causse (1870-1950).

These two women were cousins, sharing the same interests in travel, anthropology, sociology, spirituality, botany and notably the position and representation of Woman in the societies that they encountered.

Legend would have it that many of the exhibits date back to a trip to Turkestan at the very end of the century, followed by voyages to India, the Yunnan province in China and the Himalayan foothills.

It was during this latter adventure that Mary and Adèle came across the gynaecocratic system of the Nam-Khas, living in a remote valley region, near the Tibetan frontier. They spent two years among the Peuple des Femmes Nuages, from 1907-1909, observing the life, customs and religion followed by these women who had assured the position of responsibility since the majority of the mensfolk had been lost in an accident during a caravan trade excursion in the mid 1800s.

This social arrangement was reminiscent of the ancient matrilinear societies that Mary learnt of during her honeymoon in Mexico. These notions were reinforced by the theories of the Swiss anthropologist, Johann Jakob Bachofen, with his image of the great Goddess - Mother Right. In turn, these influences were vital to the development of Mary’s own ideas, finally leading to the conferences on women and freedom that she gave at the end of her life during which, incidentally, she met Frida Kahlo.

 Amongst the belongings on show are garments and spiritual artifacts that played a vital role in the chamanic rituals of the community. Beautifully embroidered clothes are laid out, alongside bright, beaded jewellery, strange masks and embelished carved bones and amulets.

The enigmatic expressions of richly-dressed women and young girls in the tinted photos catch our attention whilst handsome males likewise stare out at us. These men were some of the passing foreigners, pilgrims, and individuals from neighbouring villages, welcomed to the community by the women which had renounced the constraints of patriarchy, with its basis in mariage, and set sexual codes and norms.

This glimpse of the serendipitous existence of Mary and Adèle, their incredible experience of such a wealth of beauty and culture around the world amazed me, in all my naivety.

The rich history of these women was such a perfect tale, with its amazing chance encounters and air of faded exoticism truly charmed me to believe it was more than a mere ‘story’. Having finally realised that this was ‘just’ an artistic fabrication, I wondered why it should matter that this was fiction rather than fact.

Myself in the background as an unintentional 'cloud woman'...
This universe certainly brightened and inspired mine on a dull Sunday afternoon, so the invention of these two characters was surely legitimate and above all, desirable. Ultimately, the artistic aims of the exhibition’s creator, Béatrice Meunier, are realised not just as we are drawn into this illusory world, weaving make-believe with threads of reality, but afterwards too, as we try to find the sense of the whole experience.
My princess who has long grown out of fairy tales, but still looking for a story...

Feline Felony...

End of the month and end of my tether with the regime of early morning wake-up call from the cats, which they have been applying since the clock-change a few weeks ago. Relentless prodding and pawing, accompanied by plaintive noises, may give way to more determined measures - as objects are deftly projected at great velocity from the bedside table. The action invariably triggers a back-up response from the rabbits, just to drive the point home that this human should actually be tending to all these beastly requirements, rather just being dormant. These needs roughly translate as feeding and fussing, but often just the fact that they have succeeded in getting me up-and-about will often suffice in itself and will send them all off, smugly and with renewed enthusiasm, for a sleeping session. Needless to say, this is usually at a hour which makes the very idea of my returning back to bed seem pointless.