Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Cinquecento in a corner

In Dublin for just two days last week and among the modern buildings and re-development was a phenomena which I thought had all but dissappeared. The city centre garage. High rates and property prices have driven away many lock-ups and 'maintenance' sheds that were once a feature of railway arches and the less than salubrious parts of our cities. But here in a side road not far from Pearce Street is one such place. Gleaming at the back is a Fiat 500 surrounded by the detritus of the motor trade. The shot is not brilliant because as I was busy 'Litchfielding', a surly son of Erin arrived back after a test drive and I beat a hasty retreat lest I should feel the power of his mighty knuckles which definitely looked on the cards. I remember working late into the night in such dens trying to coax old bangers back to life or through a final MOT. There's something about the heady aroma of oil, petrol and residual carbon monoxide all bathed in stark neon lighting, that makes me think '"I'm glad I haven't got that corroded Ford Anglia anymore".

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Bauhaus in Bexhill

The shabby gentility that is Bexhill-on-Sea boasts the wonderful De La Warr Pavilion. This 1935 Modernist masterpiece was the work of Erich Medelsohn who won the RIBA competition for its design. Mendelsohn, a contemporary of Bauhaus stalwarts, Walter Gropius, Breuer and Moholy Nagy came to Britain following the rise of German Nazism. The Earl De La Warr was socialist mayor of Bexhill and it was he who persauded the local council to develop this prime site for their own social purposes. Mendlesohn, in partnership with British architect Serge Chermayeff presented a radical design involving ferro-concrete over a steel frame. The building was to comprise a hall seating 1500 and also included a 200 seater restaurant and other areas which would probably be described as ‘break-out zones’ in ghastly modern parlance, which now serve as shop, galleries and public spaces. The result remains a triumph - the perfect seaside building, so light and airy and where you are always aware of the outside weather conditions. To the South there’s a fabulous spiral staircase which takes you to the restaurant and which contains this extraordinary lamp of polished aluminium and neon tubes. Set in the floor is the circular plaque reminding us of the designer and of the opening date. On a sunny day this stark white building is incredibly dramatic and still has the power to inspire. Do visit if you get the chance - the restaurant and bar serve good food and there’s usually an interesting exhibition in progress...which is why I was there. There's a Ben Nicholson exhibition until January and it's a real stunner! A well curated show of works made throughout his life, from figurative to abstract and back again. I’d always admired his father William’s work as illustrator, lithographer and creator of that beautiful graphic alphabet - his son is very different, but equally fascinating. Ben was married to Barbara Hepworth, the second of his three wives and clearly the two fed off each others prodigious talents. The Pavilion somehow seems the perfect space in which to view these paintings.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Winged Wheel

This sign is to be found on the wall of 'The Smugglers Inn' Alfriston, East Sussex and is kept in good repair. When first erected, you can imagine the Edwardian scene as intrepid bicyclists rode out from Lewes or Eastbourne to descend upon this picturesque Downland village - daring 'gels' and dashing blades speeding along on their single speed Rudges and Sunbeams with probably an enforced break or two to mend a puncture caused by the horseshoe nails that would have littered the lanes. The reward of a refreshing glass of Fryco lemonade and a plate of scones at the end of the ride would have spurred them on to greater feats of derring-do.  Long beloved of tourists, the 'tea Shoppe' trade still flourishes here and yet the pubs too have their place. The ancient 'Star' with its George and Dragon carvings over the door and its ferocious carved lion ships' figurehead is simply beautiful in its gloomy 'shaft of sunlight' saloon bar way. An early 'Trust House' Inn, it has been 'got at' over the years but still maintains a majesty that would be difficult to subdue. People like EV Lucas and the early guide book pioneers never failed to list its charms. Alfriston also supports the admirable 'Much ado about books' bookshop; run by a charming Bostonian (that's Mass. rather than Lincs) they specialise in the sort of titles that might find favour and stimulate the interest of the readers of Peter Ashley's 'Unmitigated' books for instance. It's a pleasant village probably best visited in the Autumn, Winter and Spring, for the tourist hoards can be oppressive. Not to be confused with Alciston, which Sussex in her perverse way places about four miles westward...nice and much loved by author and film maker Peter James.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

By the side of the road

All over France, just as in Britain, there are memorials to the dead of both the previous world wars. Sometimes in the middle of nowhere you catch sight of a simple engraved stone at the roadside and I've made habit of stopping and looking at them when time permits. Mostly these 'hidden' memorials are to members of the Maquis, the partisans, who continued the fight for France after she fell into German hands. Sometimes they are placed at the site of a skirmish, at other times where there had been a pitched battle. On French Armistice Day, however remote these these locations may be, they are decorated with tricoleurs and flowers. There is something so enduringly moving about the fact that young men and women who died in such tragic circumstances are sought out and remembered in this way, that it makes an old cynic like me feel not only humble but thankful too. Forgetting the politics and the machinations of nations, I think instead of the individual human sacrifice; each has a story to tell, each had a life unfulfilled each left a terrible void in a family somewhere. Here too at this time of year I make a personal pilgrimage to a lonely churchyard carved into the side of the North Downs. The tombstone in the South East corner of the graveyard bears my name, the same as that of a Sergeant Air Gunner, killed at the age of just twenty, the uncle I never knew. I spend a few moments in quiet thought, remove the small wooden cross that's still there from last year and replace it with a new one. In the unlikely event that people pass this way, they will know that this young man is still remembered.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The last, I promise...

After all my fine words, I had to stay in and do my homework last night. The nearest I got to Lewes was to experience the aural sensations of the big societies' set-pieces exploding with a noise like thunder and clearly felt down here on the coast. Judging by the number of maroons going up, the Newhaven Lifeboat must have gone in and out at least fifty times. By all accounts it was a successful night with a fine construction of Messrs. Brown and Darling being exploded by the Commercial Square Society as their set piece. Numbers were down a little with normally difficult-to-get-at vantage points being (relatively) easy to secure. A combination of bad weather and it being mid-week were contributing factors to the smaller crowds but the atmosphere was reportedly as good as it ever is. The photograph taken by my mate Paul Lucas is not from this year but is pretty representative of the scene viewed from the bottom of School Hill. As I spoke to him in on his mobile in the town this morning I could hear Rook Scarers still going off...they don't let Bonfire go that easily.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Crash, bang, wallop!

It being that most sacred day in Lewes, November 5th this is all I have to offer at the moment. This morning at 6.30am down in New Anzac on Sea I heard an explosion which heralds the days' doings in our county town some five miles distant. The bonfire boys have greeted another anniversary in their long tradition of celebrating the disemboweling of Guido Fawkes and the remembrance of the burning of protestant martyrs outside what is now the town hall. The town supports several bonfire societies whose members spend all year preparing for their day of days. Torches are made by the thousand and 'Lewes Rousers' (a particularly violent and powerful type of Rook scarer) are stuffed into bags ready for chucking around the feet of the crowds tonight. The atmosphere has been building for weeks - collecting tins shaken in the streets, collectors dressed in their costumes, programmes being sold. Giant papier maché effigies are made in conditions of high secrecy in order that the 'enemies of bonfire' are not revealed until the last moment. We've been treated to all sorts over the years from George Bush to General Galtieri, to Maggie Thatcher, to local politicians. They're always superbly crafted, irreverent, often crude in subject matter and stuffed full of fireworks and explosives... at the end of the evening having been dragged through the streets (these things are huge) they are ignited to huge applause and joysome noise. Bonfire concludes with Bonfire Prayers said around the war memorial on School Hill after which rites of passage, lunacy or substance abuse cause some persons to run through the glowing embers of the spent torches. They feel no pain - until tomorrow.