Monday, 30 June 2014

Iron men - Antony Gormley's Another Place


Of course I could not resist spending an hour or two of my day in Liverpool on a visit to Blundellsands, to see Antony Gormley's beach and sea installation, Another Place. Wikipedia has an article on the artist at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antony_Gormley. And one on Another Place at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Another_Place. This notice I saw on the beach itself may also be useful:


In the end, though, it's up to each and every person who comes to view the installation to make up their own mind what they think about it - whether it is the kind of sculpture they can relate to, whether it means anything at all to them, and whether it adds anything worthwhile to an otherwise empty seascape.

Mr Gormley has created one hundred identical lifesized iron figures, and has planted them on the seafront. They are not concentrated in one place, but are spread out at three hundred yard intervals over a long stretch of beach. So there is no impression at all of a dense forest of figures. Only a dozen or so will be clearly in sight at any one time. More distant figures will probably be mistaken for ordinary people on the sand, or wading out at sea. Some are high and dry; others are in the shallow water; still others are so far out that the advancing tide must surely cover them up to the chest, or wash over them completely. All have numbered wrist tags. All are upright and immobile. All face out to sea. They all face the sunset too. At the right time, in the right light, they clearly do make an intriguing sight that the onlooker will find thought-provoking and possibly moving, and can interpret in several ways.

Close up, it is very obvious that these nude figures are male: each has a limp but very noticeable penis. You can't shy away from it. Whether it's the genuine Gormley, or a toned-down version, I am quite unable to say.


These figures are apparently cast from the artist's own body, and are not an invention. The artist's choice to use his own body, replicated one hundred times, raises questions about his intentions - and self-image. And yet, having seen some of these figures together at Blundellsands, I haven't personally come away with the conviction that he has a massive ego, or that self-promotion was his chief aim. I think in fact that he has been rather courageous: for although there is nothing odd about his build, he is clearly no Tarzan. Nobody is going to compliment him on his physique, assuming that these figures are a good approximation to his real appearance when unclothed - or were in 1997, when the figures were first created.

An installation like this also risks mockery from 'ordinary people' who reject with a whine or a snigger whatever they can't instantly understand, whatever seems to be a waste of money and effort. So far as I could see, though, no figure had been vandalised. The first figure I examined had in fact been adorned with a rather pretty necklace, signifying I do not know what; but one couldn't count that as the wanton desecration of an artwork. It was easily removable, but I left it in place, as had everyone else; and I wondered whether Mr Gormley knew and approved.

Here's a selection from the shots I took, to give you a flavour of what struck me about these figures, and how I quickly got fond enough of them to mess around in a mildly jocular (but I assure you, not disrespectful) way:


A couple of young women came along and were willing to take a couple of shots of me with my ever-ready little Leica. ('Just press the silver button, it's all set up.') They were sisters, and looked remarkably alike. One lived in Australia (Perth, I think she said), and was all smiles, up for anything; the other was local and much more reserved, unwilling to be photographed. So I couldn't take a picture of them both, posing against Mr Gormley's iron simulacrum. Never mind. 

Time was ticking on - it was amazing how a short trip away from the city centre had used up the day - and so I walked back to Blundellsands and Crosby station, glad that I'd seen Another Place in the sunshine.


In 1984 I stayed at the Blundellsands Hotel, opposite the station, when attending a course on trusts at The Triad building at nearby Bootle. It looked like this then:


Now, thirty years on, it was converted into apartments:


The fate of many a hotel nowadays, I'm afraid. At least they kept the magnificent red brickwork, including the crenelated tower.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Hilbre Island - the cruel sea cheated

On to my next personal challenge. To walk over the sands to an offshore island, and return.

The island in question was Hilbre Island, a small lump of sandstone (one of three lumps, actually, strung in a line) off the west coast of the Wirral. Wikipedia has an useful description of it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilbre_Island.

It's not an island at low tide - only when the sea has turned and is coming in. The challenge was to visit the place while the tide was out, and get away before it began to creep around the island - which would mean, if caught, an uncomfortable few hours in the dark until I could splash my way off. I came equipped with a torch, to help me locate somewhere to huddle out of the wind - the porch of one of the unoccupied houses on the island, for instance - and I was wearing my anorak, and there were wellies on my feet. I'd also brought a bottle of water, but rather daftly no emergency chocolate.

The island is a nature reserve, and there is a bird observatory on it, and it once had a lifeboat station. There are also several well-maintained houses which are occasionally occupied as holiday homes; but there are no permanent residents now. As I approached, someone on a mountain bike freewheeled off in the direction of one of the smaller islands in the trio. I didn't see him again. By the time reached Hilbre, I had the entire place to myself. It wasn't creepy, but it was an odd sensation, being there alone.

But I'm not telling this tale in proper sequence.

I should set the scene. When in New Zealand in 2007, M--- and I had a disturbing experience in connection with a tidal island like this one. It was a place called Manganui Bluff, on Ninety Mile Beach, just off the neck of land that thrusts northwards towards Cape Reinga, the cliffy John O'Groats of the North Island. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninety_Mile_Beach,_New_Zealand for a description of the Beach. And here is a view of the Bluff that I've posted before (see my post The New Zealand legacy on 29 January 2014), which shows the Beach stretching away to the south, and how this low-lying rocky outcrop faces the Tasman Sea breakers that roll in, and dash themselves on it:


As you can see, there is sand at low tide between the Bluff and the shore proper. You can also easily imagine how a series of especially big waves might surge across that sand, and, even at low tide, cut off anyone who happened to be on the Bluff. This actually happened while M--- was on the Bluff, and I was on the sand, taking photographs. M--- was scared of the crashing waves, but clearly daring herself to set foot on the Bluff. She was encouraged by the sight of a car somehow driven onto the beach on the landward side of the Bluff. There were people fishing on the rocks, as giant waves crashed nearby. We thought they must be mad, and taking a big risk with getting their car off again, because as you can see, the sand was wet all around the Bluff, even at low tide. And we thought the tide might have turned, and was starting to come in.


I was very dubious about joining her, and for a space contented myself with taking shots of the surf, the birds, and the strange clouds hovering over the sea.


Then I decided that I should be with her, show some solidarity, and take some shots of those thundering breakers close up. So I walked back towards the Bluff. Hmmm...there was a lot less dry sand than a short while ago! And the car and fishermen seemed to have gone. It was time to quit. But M--- was still on the Bluff, apparently oblivious to being cut off. I could see her standing on the highest part, seemingly fascinated by the immense waves. (She later told me that every wave seemed to shake the Bluff, as if it were on the point of disintegration)

Just then, big waves came in on either side, and spread rapidly across the sand. I had to retreat. Those waves had become a knee-high tsunami, and as they reached me I felt their power to knock me over. By the time their force was spent, I was soaked to the waist and a long way back from the Bluff. Disturbingly, there was no sand now: it was all covered in water at least a foot in depth, which meant it must be two or three feet deep closer to the Bluff, where M---'s escape route lay.

We called to each other, but the noise of the surf was too much. I walked forward as close as possible, trying to find a shallow patch that she could use to get off the Bluff. I saw one, but couldn't at first direct M---'s attention to it. Then she understood. But more big waves came in. It began to look at if she would get marooned. Then for a few minutes the waves were smaller, and she had a brief chance to wade across the shallow bit and make her escape. I thought she would not make it. She seemed so slow. I could see a fresh batch of big waves approaching. But then suddenly she was with me, and we splashed our way towards the dunes and safety. One of those huge-sigh-of-relief moments!

The memory of that near-disaster was in my mind as I considered the wisdom of walking over to Hilbre Island. Of course, there was no frenzied surf in the Dee Estuary. On the other hand, there were plenty of places in the North West where the sands were treacherous and the tide, once in flood, could overwhelm (and had overwhelmed) unwary people caught in it. And there was mud or quicksand to think about - for which Morecambe Bay (not a million miles away) was notorious.

My tide-prediction app confirmed that I would find the tide out, but slightly on the turn, early in the evening. I made up my mind to face the challenge. But the phrase coming in faster than a galloping horse, meaning the sea once the tide was in flood, and the mental image of myself floundering about in ever-deepening water, wasn't pleasant.

I got to West Kirby in broad daylight, parking Fiona in a residential road off the sea front, where she would be quickly discovered should I go missing:


At this time (half past eight in the evening, with an hour and a half to go before sunset) I felt that I had ample time to walk briskly over to Hilbre and return before the light failed. It was roughly four miles there and back. Perfectly feasible. For goodness sake, a stroll over to the island was recommended in the official Wirral tourist booklet. No possible danger.

And I had a proper 1:50,000 scale Ordnance Survey map up on Demelza's screen, with GPS switched on, and my position marked in red:


Even so, it looked a good way off:


However, there were vehicle tracks to follow. I'd be able to keep to the firmer sand, and avoid mud, if I used them as my Best Approach:


Well, this plan worked fine for a while, and I made good progress, although I soon saw that wellies, especially pale blue wellies with hens on them, were not ideal for keeping up a cracking pace. And yet knee-high waterproof footwear was necessary. The sand became progressively more saturated the further I was from the shore. The vehicle tracks disappeared, and I had to guess where to best walk. And, close to the the island, a water channel loomed:


Wary of mud - I hate mud - I found a way across, and then suddenly I was under the sandstone cliff. It had recesses. Cue for a pee. (I hoped the mountain biker had long gone) Then I found an easy way up onto the turf, and explored the place. By now it was quarter past nine, later than I'd intended, and the light wasn't what it had been. It felt odd, having the place to myself. I felt as if somehow I was trespassing, although I wasn't. The houses - some of them shacks really - looked as if they might be occupied, even though it was quite clear that they were shut up and contained nobody who might come out and ask what I was doing there:


I found the old telegraph station, and took a shot of myself in front of it, to prove that I'd made it to Hilbre.


If I don't look too cheerful, it was because I felt under some pressure to get off the island asap, and begin my return journey. The open sea seemed closer to the island than I had thought:


But I felt I ought to inspect the old lifeboat station at the northern tip of Hilbre, even if it added ten minutes to my stay. It must once have been manned all the time. There was the remains of a fireplace. But otherwise it seemed cheerless and lonely, set among the rocks. I suppose it was last used during the Second World War, by then perhaps just a place to put a few men with rifles, or to make signals to shipping:


Time to go. Very much so. I found another way down off the island, through the older houses, pausing briefly for a last triumphant shot:


Now, which way? The light was getting tricky. I got across the water at the foot of the sandstone cliff, but immediately felt myself sinking into mud. Ugh! Did I mention that I hated mud? That being swallowed up in mud was one of my nightmare scenarios? Worse still if it happened in the dark? I trod carefully this way and that, seeking firmer ground. But I just sank deeper. It was horrible. Supposing the disgusting mud came over the tops of my wellies, and filled them, and I sunk so deep into the slime that I couldn't pull my feet out?

Don't panic! Be calm. I managed a rather fuzzy photo:


Then, having taken a good look round, I extricated my boots from the suction with a slurping noise and, without falling over, made it to a firmer surface. But I was hemmed in by a dodgy-looking mixture of mud and sand. The best plan seemed to be to follow the water channel, which had little pebbles in it, suggesting a non-sinking route; although this took me off a straight line back to West Kirby. Minutes passed, and it got suddenly much darker. Then I was onto proper sand, and could get out Demelza without fear of dropping her into a grey slimy morass. I consulted the map for my best direction:


By now West Kirby was almost lost in the dark! So I simply made a beeline for the orange lights in the far distance. It was slow going for tired feet in clumsy wellies, but twenty past ten saw me limping gratefully up to Fiona.

Mission accomplished! I had escaped from the clutches of the mud, and the sea had not claimed another victim. I did wonder how I would have fared, enduring if absolutely necessary an enforced overnight stay on the island. I'm not going to give it a go now. This was a single performance only, with no encore.

I've now discovered this amazing blog post, which is full of gorgeous daytime photos and lots of island history: http://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/hilbre-sandstone-a-memory-buried-in-time/.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct - vertigo faced and vanquished

If you have followed these chronicles for any time, you'll know that I occasionally set myself a personal challenge that involves visiting a place and overcoming a fear. For example, the mission to Blackchurch Rock in North Devon, described in my post Blackchurch Rock on 16 August 2011, in which I had to contend with fear of carnal or murderous attack on a solitary walk, fear of twisting an ankle on rocks, and a long creepy walk in near-darkness back to Fiona through whispering woods.

I set two fresh challenges of this sort on my recent holiday. The first was to walk across Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen in North Wales. (You pronounce it, very roughly, as 'pont-kuh-sulta') This carries a canal high across a river valley. It's narrow, and there's just an iron trough for the waterway, a slender footpath next to it, and open railings on one side of the path. Not both sides. Definitely a no-no for anyone who might suffer from vertigo!

I proposed to myself that I would walk boldly across.

Actually my neighbours J--- and K--- had twice in their voyages taken their narrow boat across and back again. But then K--- (at the tiller) had a good head for heights; and J--- (who, like me, hadn't) had been able to get down from the roof of their boat before she froze with fear, and then huddle aft with something solid to cling to. On a boat, you can't actually see one side of the trough that contains the water, and it can seem as if the boat is moving forward unsupported through the air. By the way, those railings are widely-spaced: a child or a small dog could easy slip through and fall to their death. Not an adult, of course: but it doesn't seem that way.


This was a psychological challenge, overcoming an irrational fear of heights and falling that really hadn't much substance to it, unless you were determined to do something silly. But scary enough for someone like me!

At least I didn't attempt it in gathering darkness. I arrived at the north end in cloudy but bright conditions which got sunnier. The first thing that happened was that I met a couple over from Adelaide in South Australia, called Ron and Ruth. Here they are:


We rather took to each other, and had a longish chat. Mutual photography occurred. Of course, deep inside, I was just playing for time. But the sun came out a bit; there was no excuse; no way out; and I had to ask myself whether (though I might be but a feeble woman) I had the heart and stomach of a lion - aye, and an English lion at that! (Even though Welsh) And not for instance the heart and stomach of a craven wimp. So I roared, to prove my fitness for the challenge ahead. And yet this shot of myself approaching the ordeal reveals a certain anxiety in my expression:


But a chappie in running gear came racing towards me along the footpath next to the canal, quite oblivious to any danger. And so I braced myself, and walked forward onto the aqueduct. Astonishingly, I didn't fall. I wasn't instantly hurtling through the air to my doom. All right, then. I can do it. One of those narrow boats that you can buy a place on, to cross the aqueduct afloat and in style, approached. I smiled and waved and said something daft, as you do when nervous. They all had encouraging words for me:


You can see what I mean about those on the boat not being able to see the side of the water trough, only the valley immeasurably far below. Supposing that lady in the orange jacket had leant back? Nothing to stop her falling. Perhaps it helped that she was facing inwards. I was halfway across by now, and starting to feel confident. Then I saw a metal repair that was clearly the only thing holding the two halves of the bridge together:


If that goes, it all goes. Gulp. But another boat passed, piloted by a man who was either too superior and aloof to acknowledge my greetings, or was concentrating fiendishly on keeping the boat those vital two or three inches away from the metal sides of the water trough. Crumple the metal, and it's a major, major disaster. Headline news. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct fell today, killing a man. A woman seen walking across the aqueduct is also missing, feared dead.

Then I was across! I'd reached the south end! Alive! It had been a stroll in the park really, a piece of cake. I frolicked in my personal triumph:


Yet another boat passed. What was this, Boat City? But I felt great. Proud of myself. There was only one snag, one blemish to my victory over naked fear. The return walk, which stretched ahead...


Oh come on, go for it. So I did. At one point I actually stood close to the railings and looked down. That's my foot:


The River Dee in spate: wild, insane. Churning white water far, far below. Jagged rocks that are instant death to anyone falling among them. I ignored this kind of thinking, and continued. The final few yards were a doddle, almost boring. In fact I yawned:


The aqueduct is a spectacular bit of engineering. It was built by the great Thomas Telford, from 1795 to 1805. The stonework and the ironwork are both first-class, and have lasted beautifully. Here is what the thing looks like from the valley. (After the euphoria had ebbed a little, I took Fiona downhill to get some shots)


Next post, a different kind of challenge - one against time and tide, in which I was nearly sucked into a muddy grave, while the relentless sea, surging in faster than a galloping horse, sought to drown me. (And you thought this was 'just another trans blog'!)

Friday, 27 June 2014

Let it go, let it go, let it go

I've just had a big purge of my wardrobe. All told, it took up three hours of this morning, including bagging up the discarded items, rearranging what was left in a more useful way, and filling some drawer space with an awful lot of temporarily-redundant hangers. Look at this:


And here are the pre-bagging piles of purged attire:


I have the satisfaction of having carried out a thorough-going sort-out. I feel very pleased with the result. Now I can see exactly what I have - and all of it is stuff that I really do wear.

The exercise was prompted by suggestions from my next-door neighbour J---. We had a Girls' Night Out together last night, beginning in a pub where many of the local tradesmen gather with their wives, sweethearts, sons, daughters and friends - you know, the sort of village venue where everyone knows everyone else, and the issues of the day are freely and heartily discussed over a good many drinks. This pub may be a spit-and-sawdust place in spirit, but no longer in appearance: they've recently put in a new floor, smart new tables and seats, and a fresh new decor. I'd say the result is successful, because despite the makeover, the place has retained its old atmosphere of a Proper Sussex Local. And yet the new look encourages the guys to wash, comb their hair, and put on a clean white T shirt and best trainers, before they come in for their usual.

Everyone knew J---, and she knew everyone. It was useful to me to put faces to names I'd heard mentioned, and to say hello. So, when I next need an electrician, I now know exactly who Ben is, just as I came to know who Dean was (Dean does fencing). J--- and her plumber husband K--- know all the best local tradespeople, and I'm very lucky to have this kind of access to them.

But it also means that all these people know about me, and have done so for years. It's not something I think much about, but according to J--- (we talked it over a bit, once we'd adjourned to the village curry house for a yummy meal) I was, for a while back in 2009, the Talk of the Village in each of the pubs.

You know, tradesmen coming in for a pint or two after the day's toil, and eagerly swapping the latest news in loud voices. It's what they do, every working day.

I was much discussed!

But my medical condition, and its feminising consequences, was a Nine Day Wonder. These are grown-up guys with plenty else to chew over. Not all of them felt comfortable about me in their midst at first, but I don't know of anyone who is still so hung-up that they have to avoid me, walking the other way in embarrassment. Indeed, the evidence of my own eyes at the pub last night was that I am regarded as an accepted part of the scene, someone it's OK to be seen with. One youngish guy at the next table, whom J--- didn't know, actually smiled at me. How about that? Of course, accreditation with J--- guaranteed civility from all the men. And I did represent a potential source of work in the future. So it wasn't acceptance pure and simple. But good enough.

Their wives, girlfriends and children don't care two hoots of course. I dare say all the kids in the village have heard about me, and have dwelt on the real or imagined visceral details of my surgery. Playground news must circulate even faster than pub news!

Behind-the-scenes public dissection is an unnerving idea, but I have to say that there has never been the slightest hint of any bother coming my way, nor any finger-pointing. J--- herself has been trying to get me to join slimming and keep-fit groups in the village for a long time, on the basis that it simply doesn't matter if lots of people have heard about me. Nobody cares; I'm obviously a decent, friendly person, a responsible resident, and I would be welcome; therefore I shouldn't hesitate. Right. I will look into it. But in my own good time, naturally.

We also discussed clothes, once back at my house for more wine and some coffee. J--- has her particular ideas about what is suitable to wear, but we are close enough in age-group and taste for me to pay attention to what she recommends. And I had to admit I was still wearing certain items, or combinations of certain items, that did me no favours.

J--- in fact begged me to let her bin my older leggings, which had become rather threadbare. I acquiesced: they were comfortable to lounge around in, indoors, but a joke anywhere else. Encouraged, J--- next tackled my summer shorts, all of them deeply uncool. I handed these over too. Honestly, I didn't mind a bit. I knew she was right. All of them were comfortable garments, but that was the only thing to be said for them.

J--- thought I should generally avoid body-hugging stuff, at least while still on the tubby side. What about wearing instead nice, swishy summer skirts? Or dresses? I'd look so much more feminine.

Actually this was exactly what I had been thinking. While on holiday I'd worn long skirts much more than hitherto; I was in the mood to do so. I thought they somehow looked good on me, in a way they hadn't in previous years. And, come to think of it, I was wearing these very feminine garments when I had my best casual conversations with strangers, both male and female. Something to note in that. I already had in my wardrobes a decent collection of attractive dresses and skirts. And tops and short jackets that went particularly well with the skirts. It was just that they were 'lost' among the rest of the stuff.

So this morning I acted.

Out went the designer-brand dresses that I'd bought long ago and had never worn but once, if at all - my 'cruise collection' so to speak. When was I ever really going to be on a posh cruise ship again? How indeed was I going to fit into these dresses, without busting the zips? It was pointless hanging onto them. They represented a lot of money spent unwisely - they were a reproach. Junk them, I said to myself. Let them go, and move on.

Out went the several skirts that would never fit me again.

Out went a large number of tops that I never ever wore. Tops with straps that drove me mad, when they kept slipping off my shoulders. Tops that were the wrong colour, or the wrong shade, or had fabric or styling issues. Tops that were too thin, or too long, or too short, to look good with whatever I wanted to wear them with.

I kept most of my coats and jackets, but a couple bit the dust. These were now too small to button up against the chill breeze. What a lot of weight I had gradually put on! I might get some of it off, but I would never again be as svelte as I was in late 2008 and early 2009. Size 12 was out of reach. So, if I were realistic, was size 14.

I still possessed three pairs of shoes with heels. Only low heels, but I had never worn them. There was no reason to. And I was in any case averse to wearing any footwear that made me seem taller. Out they went.

After this slaughter, I rearranged my wardrobes. I grouped my garments logically, starting with everything blue, the colour most flattering to me. Coats, jackets, dresses, skirts, tops, slips, beachwear - in exactly that left-to-right sequence within the blue colour range. Then, the other colour ranges, everything graded in the same way as the blue items. I placed my remaining shoes and boots as near as possible to the colour they went best with.

With all the wardrobe doors wide open, it looked like an artist's palette: black, grey, white, brown, beige, green, blue, purple, red. But no yellow, orange, or pink.

It looked good. A proper job done. Once I'd had my hair done at noon at Trevor Sorbie in Brighton, I drove out to the huge Marks & Spencer at Holmbush and bought some new red shoes. The reward for getting rid of all the dross.

I don't now have much on my hangers that has survived successive purges like this one. But I still have the classy black velvet dress that I wore in December 2008, on Lucy's second public outing. It still fits, and it still looks fab. In fact it suits me better now than it did then. Classic black dresses never die.