Saturday, 25 February 2017

Of Devils and Darkness: Kaunas, Lithuania


[This is an anecdote from a trip I made with my son Keith in 2008 which took in Lithuania, Belarus and Poland.  I wrote it for a travel competition in 2014.  Keith described the experience in his 2016 book Baltic Lenin: A Journey into Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania's Soviet Past.  Unfortunately I didn’t think to photograph the church so have included a snap of Keith surveying the rooftops of Kaunas.]

We were headed to Belarus and only stopped in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, because the cheapest route involved going via Lithuania and that’s where the plane landed.  Potentially a drawback, but Kaunas turned out to be full of surprises.  We started with the Devil Museum, showcasing images of the horned one from around the world in their infinite variety; you wouldn’t want to fall foul of this little lot and have them poke you with their pitchforks.  The museum devoted to folk music and instruments seemed tame in comparison, welcoming as it was, and sadly time was too short to permit a visit to the museum of Lithuanian medicine and pharmacy.

Yet even devils could not compare with our oddest experience in Lithuania.  That wasn’t the lettuce accompanying our fried breakfast, or the loose-leaf tea without a strainer at the Devil Museum (diabolical!) but the crypt of the Garrison Church, dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel.  We had strolled in to look at the architecture and splendid decoration, but after a while our attention was attracted by an elderly chap standing near a door in the corner who gestured us over.  He pointed down a spiral staircase and urged us to descend into the darkness below.

His English was as bad as our Lithuanian so he was unable to explain the attraction of going into the bowels of the church with the lights off.  Having seen some of those horror films in which tourists find themselves minus vital organs in out-of-the-way places I hesitated.  Just for a moment though: ‘hell’ I thought (clearly the influence of those wicked devils), ‘Lithuania’s in the EU, what’s likely to happen in a city you can get to by budget airline?’  Two ladies had gone ahead of us and it seemed only right that we should show some of the old bulldog spirit and do the same.

So we descended, expecting to find some light, but instead remained plunged in musty-smelling pitch darkness.  We bumped into something, then something else.  There were all these things hanging down, and wherever you turned they were in your way.  I started thinking about those horror films again, the fear of the unknown.  What were they, what were they made of, and why were they here?  We became disoriented and claustrophobic.  With no idea where we were going, bemusement turned to mild irritation as we wondered how long it would take to find our way out.

Then my companion had a burst of inspiration and took out his mobile phone.  By its illumination we could see that the place was full of white dangling obstacles, like thin punch bags, foam-covered pillars and rubber kitchen gloves sticking out from the walls.  It was surreal, and grubby, but not threatening.  Attracted by the glow, we were shortly joined by the two ladies who had preceded us, equally glad to be able to see what was going on.  Together we found some stairs in the opposite corner to those by which we had entered, and were soon back in the welcome daylight, to the obvious annoyance of the custodian who knew we had cheated.

We were relieved to be out of the stygian gloom, but were left feeling baffled.  Only later did we realise we had been in the Museum of the Blind, an environment designed to show what it is like to be without sight and have to rely on the other senses (stretching the concept of the museum somewhat, we thought).  We had failed the challenge, though had we been aware of what the purpose was we might have met it with more confidence, rather than thinking we were having a trick played on us; in its eccentric fashion it certainly made us aware of the difficulties the blind face every day.  Belarus presented its own variety of strangeness, but nothing to compare with that peculiar crypt.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

‘A Century of Photography, 1840-1940’ at the National Portrait Gallery

Adelaide Passingham, by Eveleen Myers

This one-room exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery presents a small selection of images from its quarter-of-a-million strong collection, supplemented by loans from New York-based dealer and collector Stephan Loewentheil.  The explanatory panel states that they were ‘chosen to illustrate photography’s expressive power’, a rather vague remit which allowed the curators plenty of latitude.

There are photographers famous and not so famous, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Hill and Adamson, Frederick Evans, Alvin Langdon Coburn, George Washington Wilson, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Cecil Beaton and Lucia Moholy.  In a display case is the recently acquired album, containing 70 prints, compiled by Oscar Rejlander.  He is best known for his composites made from multiple negatives but he was an accomplished portraitist and an influence on Cameron and Dodgson.

One of the most striking photographs, from the early 1890s, is of Adelaide Passingham by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), wife of psychical researcher Frederic Myers.  It is done in a style similar to Cameron’s but Passingham looks very modern with her blouse half-unbuttoned and hair loose.  Olive Edis, who recently had a major exhibition at Norwich Castle devoted to her, is represented by one of her delicate autochromes.  In a room that is mostly mono it stands out, but not as much as Madame Yevonde’s remarkable 1932 portrait, employing the Vivex colour process, of redhead Joan Maude wearing a red blouse and red lipstick, photographed against a red backdrop.

Some of those depicted are famous: D H Lawrence, Edward Carpenter, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his outsize chains (perhaps a slightly obvious inclusion), Hallam Tennyson (Rejlander also photographed him but the one on display is by Dodgson), Aubrey Beardsley, Aldous Huxley, Sir Leslie Stephen and his 20-year old daughter Virginia, later Woolf (Cameron’s great-niece), Walter de la Mare, Margot Asquith; while others are less eminent, such as Wilson’s 1854 ‘The Old Gardener Simpson … and his wife’, a title suggesting the wife was a bit of an afterthought and old Simpson did not require a first name.

The exhibition’s introductory panel asserts:

‘The photographs in this room have been chosen to illustrate photography's expressive power. The best photographs show us not just what a person looked like, but also provide a window on their character, giving us a sense of what it might have been like to be in their presence. This is one of the great paradoxes of photographic portraiture – that something of a person's spirit, thought, and feeling might be glimpsed in one, carefully chosen moment in time.’

I doubt they provide a window on character, unless we already have an idea of it from other sources, because the persona an individual projects might be a misleading one and is influenced by the degree of artfulness employed by the photographer.  But even if we cannot gauge their personalities we can imagine what it would have been like to be in the subjects’ presence.  Further, the artefacts themselves possess an aura not available with reproductions, making these photographs worth a visit to the NPG.  I just wish it had been a larger selection.

The free exhibition, in room 29, runs from 17 October 2016 to 1 October 2017.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

ABC Cinemas - gone but not forgotten


News reaches me that the very last ABC cinema in existence, in Bournemouth, has screened its final film before the usherette of time escorts the brand to the hard seat of oblivion.  Where once its likely fate would have been conversion into a bingo hall, the site is going to be redeveloped into flats.

When I was growing up in south London in the 1960s and ‘70s two cinema chains dominated: ABC – Associated British Cinemas – and Odeon, but the ABC had a distinct attraction: my brother-in-law Lionel was employed by them as a manager and then a zone manager.  For some years at the start of his career he managed the Camberwell cinema which was not too far from where we lived, and we were frequent patrons.  Sadly the venue became a bingo hall in 1973.

As well as outings to the flicks I used to be given promotional freebies as a child, notably in 1965 a Man from Uncle promotional set which included a shirt with a ‘secret’ breast pocket and a triangular badge, and later on T-shirts arrived on a regular basis – I particularly remember those for Jaws (1975) and Logan’s Run (1976).  One of my prize possessions is a heavy plastic 3D 2001 poster from the original 1968 release which had originally graced a lobby.  But the best gift Lionel gave me was an ABC pass allowing me to get in free.

Armed with this precious document I used to go to the ABC in High Road, Streatham.  It was the heyday of disaster flicks so I saw them at their best, on the big screen, a highlight being Earthquake (1974) with Sensurround.  In 1977 the cinema was converted to three screens, giving a greater choice.  Sometimes though the free list was suspended for a popular film, which is how I came to sit through the Mary Millington double bill of Come Play with Me (1977) and The Playbirds (1978) instead of whatever it was I had turned up to see.  I was given a Playbirds badge, though I doubt I ever wore it.

I was not exclusively devoted to the ABC cinemas – as a youngster I occasionally visited the Odeon at Goose Green, East Dulwich, near to where I lived, for the Saturday morning picture club.  Later I ventured further afield to see specific films wherever they were being shown, such as Tooting with school friends for A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs (both 1971), Catford to catch the double bill of Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974).  Eventually the Brixton Classic, renamed the Ritzy in 1976, became a firm favourite, and I recall naively trying to persuade Lionel of the potential in devoting a screen in multi-screen ABCs to art-house films.  The University of Kent provided intensive exposure to a wide range of cinema, and in 1976 I participated in an early film studies course run by Ben Brewster and John Ellis.

The ABC chain went through a number of takeovers and mergers, not to mention a pummelling from the new multiplexes, and the distinctive triangular logo was gradually phased out.   Now it is gone completely.  I have such fond memories of ABC cinemas that the closure of the last of them brings sadness, though at the same time it reawakens memories of cinema-going that laid the foundations of a lifetime interest in film, for which I can in part thank my brother-in-law.

Friday, 30 December 2016

To Walk Invisible - brief thoughts

Charlotte, Emily and Anne

BBC’s prestige drama To Walk Invisible, written and directed by Sally Wainwright, was a pleasure to watch as it charted the evolution of the Brontë sisters from homebodies with no prospects, concerned about what will happen after their father dies as their house is tied (not a problem in the event as he outlived them all) to published authors.  Admittedly it suffered from the common BBC problem of poor sound quality at times, swelling music over-emphatically directing the viewer’s emotions to the detriment of being able to hear what was being said.  But there was much to admire, particularly in the scenery (cgi very well used), faithfully recreating Haworth and the surrounding moors, and reminding the viewer that the parsonage was not isolated but was part of a thriving, and grimy, industrial district.

Characterisation was plausible, displaying the mingled affection and irritation which comes from living in each other’s pockets.  Charlotte is the shrewd ambitious one who nags a reluctant Emily, seeing how brilliant her poetry is.  Emily though lacks confidence, hiding it behind a facade of prickliness and undertaking the bulk of the household chores while the other two write (there is a lot of the domestic stuff shown, countering the assumption that writers lead rarefied lives while tending to reinforce the grim-up-north stereotype).  Anne wants to keep up creatively yet is conscious, as is Charlotte, she is not quite in the same rank as Emily and Charlotte; perhaps an unfair depiction as Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall have been reassessed in recent years and found to be surprisingly tough-minded.  Useless alcoholic brother Branwell, with delusions of talent, lacks application and is resentful because of it, knowing he can get his own way if he is obnoxious enough.  And father Patrick is long suffering, always naively optimistic with no foundation that Branwell’s latest crisis will be a turning point leading to his recovery, and taking the girls for granted despite his affection for them.  That he is spectacularly unaware of their prodigious literary activities is brought home when Charlotte enters his study and to his astonishment diffidently mentions she is the author of Jane Eyre and it is doing rather well.

The surprisingly deep bond between Emily and Branwell is touching, evident when they sit on a five-bar gate with their heads resting together looking at the moon before baying companionably.  On a Sunday morning the sisters walking to church find Branwell in the lane clutching a wall in a terrible state.  They blank him and continue tight-lipped, suddenly Emily stops and turns round, not to give him a deserved punch in the kidney but to take him back.  The film is full of such touches: I especially liked the moment where Arthur Bell Nicholls has helped to bring an incapable Branwell inside, losing his hat in the passage, and he and Charlotte awkwardly stoop together to pick it up leaving Arthur on his knee, foreshadowing their marriage; by contrast the homage to Henry Wallis’s The Death of Chatterton with Branwell out of it was too studied and the effort to endow him with a tragic aspect unwarranted.  The suggestion Branwell accidentally caused Emily’s death from TB three months after his own by coughing blood into her face as she nursed him is horrifying.  He never gave anything of value to his family, instead bringing chaos and pain into it.

It struck me afterwards that it would be possible to map Wainwright’s depiction of the siblings onto Enid Blyton’s Famous Five (or at least four-fifths of the Famous Five, though the film’s large but mysteriously little-seen dog obviously intended to suggest the model for Pilot in Jane Eyre could stand in for Timmy).  So the go-getting and bossy Charlotte is Julian.  In-your-face Emily is George.  Branwell appropriately is Dick, even if Branwell never follows Charlotte’s orders as Dick does Julian’s.  And pretty Anne Brontë, dragged along in her sisters’ wake, doubles the feminine slightly drippy Blytonian Anne.  Where the Famous Five go adventuring on Kirrin Island the Brontë sisters mount expeditions into their imaginations.

However, the story is not about the novels themselves, though there are glimpses of what inspired them.  Primarily it is about the struggle of the three sisters to make something of their lives in a world which does not look favourably on independent female achievement, and attain on their own behalf the financial security their father’s death would remove and Branwell could never provide.  In true Yorkshire fashion creativity is allied to business sense, as the scene in which Charlotte, Anne in tow, descends on her publisher George Smith in London indicates.  If practical business also entails an element of invisibility, such as assuming the pseudonyms Acton, Ellis and Currer in order for their words to be judged rather than them, so be it.

After a bizarre episode on the moors with the three sisters backlit – godlike – by a triple sun, an almost transcendental experience presumably inserted to remind viewer that notwithstanding all the talk of business their legacy is greater than something merely produced for money, hackwork, the film more or less concludes with Branwell’s death, his sisters’ fates relegated to a brief postscript.  Unfortunately, by stopping when it does it makes their sad ends seem subordinate to that of their feckless and undeserving brother.  If he was the centre of attention in life, there is is no reason he should be in death.

We finish with shots of the parsonage as it is now, concentrating on the shop selling trinkets which would surely have made the Brontës’ toes curl.  The old place is certainly a lot cleaner than it was in the 1840s, and I was pleased to see a healthy ethnic mix looking at the key rings and mugs; as I recall, during my visit to Haworth the clientele was homogeneously white.  But why suddenly insert tacky commercialism into the moving story of this talented set of writers who have enriched our culture so profoundly, botching the last moments of a fine two hours of television?

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Harry Lockhart’s psychic dream


My great-grandfather, Henry James Lockhart, generally known as Harry (1861-1905), was an elephant trainer, as were his two brothers Samuel and George.  Sam and George were far better known than Harry, who has rather been forgotten, perhaps because more of his life was spent in the United States.  Research needs to be done to excavate his career, which may have been as illustrious as his brothers’.

An intriguing anecdote about Harry can be found in the El Paso Herald from 18 January 1904, p. 8, almost exactly a year before his death.  It is headed  ‘HARRY LOCKHART, ELEPHANT TRAINER, REACHES MOTHER’S BEDSIDE JUST IN TIME.’  He was in El Paso, Texas, for a few days en route to Mexico City where he was working for Orrin Brothers’ Circus, which had opened a Circus Teatro building in Mexico City in 1894 (Kanellos, p. 98).  El Paso seems to have been his usual stopping-point and he had good friends in the town.

From the article it can be seen that Harry was a popular man, described as ‘The famous elephant trainer and traveler, and prince of good fellows, genial Harry Lockhart’.  Harry was a larger-than-life character: ‘“Business is good" wherever Harry goes’ the journalist claimed, before noting that he had a great reputation as a joker.  On a more serious note, the journalist, who must have sat down with Harry over a few drinks, recounted a dream Harry said he had had:

‘Mr. Lockhart. while traveling through the west recently, dreamed that his mother was ill in Paris. He at once telegraphed to Mrs. Lockhart, who replied that she also had had a similar dream.’

Presumably at this point his mother was not unwell, or she would have said so.  But a dream was enough to set Harry off to Paris: the account concludes:

‘That settled it – Lockhart took the first train for New York, which left in ten minutes, and from there took the first steamer for Europe. arriving in Paris to find his mother seriously ill and praying for him to come. Mr. Lockhart has left a host of warm friends in this city behind him who will be always glad to welcome him back. He intended leaving yesterday, but his friends. Bloom and O'Brien, hid his baggage and he could not get away.’

His mother was Hannah Pinder, through whom the Lockharts are related to the illustrious Anglo-French Pinder circus family.  The dream was most likely precognitive, because when he had it Hannah was apparently not ill.  No more details are given, so the nature of the ailment is unknown.  We do not know how close in time her dream and Harry’s were, nor precisely how similar.

Hannah was born in 1826 so if the dream had occurred in 1903, she was 77, an age when a dutiful son might be worrying about her health.  But that would not explain him making a trip from the western United States to France to see her.  He may have made the entire incident up, but lying about your mother’s health is on a different level to pulling a journalist’s leg.  If he had been telling a yarn, surely it would have been a better one.

The article’s headline implies Harry arrived just in time to witness his mother’s demise, but Hannah outlived Harry.  She died in 1910, while Harry died of pneumonia in Mexico City on 31 January 1905 (family lore says that he had been out in the rain organising shelter for the elephants), and was buried in the city’s English Cemetery (Panteón Inglés, Real del Monte.).  It was almost exactly a year after the spectacular death of his brother George on 24 January 1904, when he was crushed by a runaway elephant at Walthamstow, London.

The El Paso Herald carried a story on 1 February 1905, p. 3: ‘Mrs. Harry Lockhart, wife of the well-known elephant trainer, passed through the city yesterday en route to the City of Mexico to join her husband, who is seriously ill there. “Harry” is well known here and his numerous friends hope that he may pull through and continue to delight the circus goers with his famous trained animals.’  Sadly by the time she arrived he was already dead, and there is a further family story of his wife and young son, also Harry, arriving at the cemetery as the mourners were leaving it.


Reference

Nicolás Kanellos. A History of Hispanic Theatre in the United States: Origins to 1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990).