Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cookham

The other night a curious thing happened. While my wife was sitting in the front room, she suddenly heard the voice of a friend who died ten weeks ago. There was no mistaking the throaty, transatlantic drawl:

"Hi, I just wanted to say thanks. I hope you're all right and feeling better. Things are pretty quiet here..."

It seemed to be coming from the next room - not the one from Henry Scott Holland's overused poem, but our dining room. My wife got up and tentatively walked towards the hall. The friend was now saying something ominous about meeting up soon.

As she slowly pushed the door open, there was a sudden scramble and one of our two new kittens jumped off the answerphone and ran for cover. Our friend's message ended and a new one from my mother began.

My wife felt a mixture of relief and sadness.

The kittens arrived on Saturday, delievered by an interesting woman who once educated Meryl Streep's children. Unlike our last cat, which was like an angelic Victorian consumptive, dying after only two months, these two brothers are reassuringly energetic. Whether they'll help my older son or not remains to be seen.

Cats, dead friends and old jobs were on my mind today, while I drove to Henley-on-Thames to deliver some books to a client. I had plenty of time to think, as the traffic was appalling and what should have been a three-hour round trip was nearer five.

I decided to make the journey worthwhile by adding a brief diversion to the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, 10 miles east of Henley. The gallery claims to be the "only gallery in Britain devoted exclusively to an artist in the village where he was born and spent his working life." And it's only five quid to get in.

I'm not quite sure what I think of Spencer's paintings, which seem to cover a spectrum from William Blake to Beryl Cook, via John Nash, but some of them have grown on me.

This is Spencer in 1914, before he saw active service in the First World War. His experiences in the army had a profound effect on his art: "my ideas were beginning to unfold in fine order when along comes the war and smashes everything."

Traumatised by war and the loss of his older brother, Stanley Spencer sought solace in his beloved childhood home, Cookham - "a suburb of Heaven", which he used as the setting for his visionary art:

Spencer is known for his religious paintings, with their claustrophobic crowd scenes, so I was a little surprised by the number of conventional landscapes, like this one:

According to this excellent website, Spencer was long regarded as a "provincial joke", but has been recently cited by some as the greatest British artist of the 20th century. I suspect that he was neither.  

After visiting the gallery, I decided to have a stroll around Cookham. It was pleasant enough, with many quirky, interesting buildings, but like so many traditional English villages and towns, it has been ruined by a constant flow of heavy traffic. When I crossed the road, I took my life in my hands.

Cookham lies on the bank of the River Thames, roughly 30 miles west of London. This is the landscape of The Wind in the Willows, Three Men in a Boat and Alan Ayckbourne's Way Upstream (worth watching on YouTube, if you have the time), with leafy banks and small islands, not to mention Toad Hall.


The parish church has a small memorial plaque to Stanley Spencer, which I couldn't find. The grounds are generally well-kept, apart from a section which contains 17th and 18th century graves. Here, the stones are covered in ivy and blackberry bushes, with their names weathered beyond recogntion:

But inside, a memorial from 1713 looks almost as good as the day it was made. I must start saving up for a mausoleum.

 As I made my way back to the car, I passed this curious object:

This is the "Tarry Stone", which was the site of a local sporting event for centuries until 1507. I've no idea why things changed in 1508.

According to Wikipedia, "In 2002 Cookham was at the centre of a row over a description of the village's social profile as "somewhat spoiled by the gin and Jag brigade". Famous (i.e. minor celebrities in the UK) residents include Timmy Mallett, Ulrika Jonsson and jeweller Gerald Ratner.

Like a Ratner gold bracelet, Cookham looks like the real thing, but scratch beneath the olde worlde surface and Spencer's "suburb of heaven" is more like an extension of London. The number of BMWs speeding through the narrow streets suggest that it has become a dormitory town for the wealthy.

I wonder would what Stanley Spencer would make of it all.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seeing Stars

I found a photograph the other day, lying on the floor of my warehouse. I presume it fell out of a book. I must have trodden on it several times, as it was quite battered. The back of the photo said that it was printed in Worthing, Sussex.

Later, I scanned and cleaned the picture. As soon as I looked at the enlarged image, it became more interesting:

There is something remarkably modern about the man's face. Is he wearing some kind of lederhosen, and what is his relationship to the young women?

But the real revelation was the girls' uniforms:

Most of the girls are wearing a Star of David. If only I knew when this photograph was taken, it might be possible to begin to construct a narrative. Instead, all I have are questions.

Was this picture taken before the rise of Naziism? Were these girls refugees? Was this a boarding school for British Jewish girls?

And why Worthing?

I'm posting this is the vain hope that someone may know something of the background to this picture. There is a story to be told.

P.S. - Many thanks to Clare Quilty, for quickly finding the likely answer: http://www.sionschool.org.uk/

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Long Shadow

 
 
There must be very few families in Britain whose lives weren't touched by the First World War. The story of my great-uncle Fred isn't particularly remarkable, but it is no less tragic than any other.

Frederick Robert Brown was the second oldest of 12 siblings. His parents ran a corner shop in Isleworth, where the children were expected to help out from an early age. By all accounts, Fred was a remarkable young man who enjoyed rowing on the Thames, singing in the local church and being a surrogate parent to his younger brothers and sisters. My grandmother worshipped him.

He matriculated at the Isleworth County School and got his first job working as an office clerk at the Thames Lighterage Company, at Brentford Docks. In his spare time, he studied French in Hammersmith - a decision that may have been his undoing.

When Britain declared war on Germany, 100 years ago today, Fred was keen to do his bit. He went to the local recruiting office and was assigned to the Royal West Kent regiment. He was very proud of the "West Kents" and sent his sister this postcard:



Fred Brown trained at Shoreham, Sussex and his exemplary conduct and knowledge of French meant that he was promoted quickly and sent to the Front before many of his peers. On September 8th, 1915, he posted this card to his family:


Less than a fortnight after this postcard was sent, Fred was killed in the Battle of Loos. There was no body, so he was officially listed as missing. The family took the lack of a body as a sign of hope.

A letter from Fred's pal, Charlie Fowler, reinforced their belief that Fred was still alive:

"I made several enquiries from wounded fellows, that were with me at Boulogne. They went into action on Sept 25th. Fred was seen to be hit and fall while they were advancing over open ground.

Later wound
ed or killed they do not know, as when one of the sergeants helped to collect the casualties the next day, Fred was not among them, as the ground that they had been on at the time had been counter-attacked by the Germans and several of Fred's company had been taken prisoners.

I bel
ieved myself that he is a prisoner. He's been wounded, if he is."

Fred's family waited anxiously for news, but none came.

My grandmother was closer to Fred than anyone else in the family and she couldn't reconcile herself with the possibility that her brother was no longer alive. As the war progressed, she contracted a mysterious "disease of the blood" and had to be sent to a sanitorium in Lancing.

In hindsight, it is clear that my grandmother had a breakdown. By all accounts, this once carefree young girl was never the same again and I remember her as a bitter, disappointed woman, who refused any attempts to help her.

My grandmother married in 1925 and seemed to have a successful marrige, but was unable to show any real affection towards my father, who became a deeply insecure adult.

I often wonder what sort of person my father would have been if he'd been shown more love as a child. He was a good man, but very highly strung and desperate for approval from others. His mother never showed any interest or pride in his achievements.

My father's anxious temperament grew worse with age. High blood pressure was a constant problem and it was no surprise when my father had a succession of heart attacks, spending the last 10 years of his life virtually housebound. Perhaps it's fanciful of me to trace it all back to the death of Uncle Fred, but I can't help seeing a cause and effect.

The First World War has cast a long shadow on many families' lives. I am planning on going to Loos in September 2015, for the 100th anniversary of the battle. I presume there'll be some sort of commemoration,

I will be there to honour Fred, but also the people he left behind and the lives they never lived.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Think Before I Write

When I first started blogging, I used to write all sorts of nonsense. After all, I thought, nobody reads this blog. On one particular day, I wrote about a mundane visit to a bookshop and decided to spice it up by replacing a real person with a slightly villainous Dickensian character, adding grotesque details for comic effect.

In those days, it wouldn't have occured to me that people could confuse my fiction with the real person.

But today, I received an email from the owner's distraught wife, appalled by my portrayal of her husband. My first reaction was to think, "But I wasn't writing about your husband", then I reread the blog post and realised how naive I had been to think that the fiction was self-evident.

Needless to say, I was mortified and have apologised, along with removing the offending post. This blog is supposed to be mildly entertaining, so the knowledge that I have unwittingly hurt someone is deeply upsetting.

Over the years, I've grown to realise that a simple blog post can make waves. In my case, those waves are the very minor ripples that one would find in the boating pond of a municipal park, but it still calls for a degree of responsibility and self-awareness.

Perhaps I should have listened to Vladimir Putin, who takes blogging far more seriously than me. Today, the Russian parliament have just passed a law, requiring any blogger with more than 3000 hits a day to register with a state regulator. Opponents of Putin, like Gary Kasparov, have been effectively silenced.



I used to think that blogging was just a space to present ideas - an artificial universe that was only tenuously connected to the world we live in. But, today, I have realised that once the words are out there, anything can happen.