Saturday, 31 July 2021

Where a wedding has been

Towards the end of my recent week in North Devon I made a tour of the country churches to the south of Great Torrington. It was a Saturday, and a fine, dry, warm afternoon. I planned to visit Little Torrington, Buckland Filleigh, Black Torrington and Huish - marvellous country place names! - which would not take me far, but would involve many a narrow country road. 

Despite Fiona being a large car, I'm always up for exploring narrow, winding country lanes and usually find it rewarding. You might think that large cars and narrow lanes don't mix. Not so: a large car has the power and general capability to handle any kind of road, and will get you out of almost any rough-road situation. You may, it's true, have to back up before advancing tractors, combine harvesters, milk tankers, livestock lorries, or school buses, but they can't bully you as they might if you were in a small car. 

So you can proceed with confidence, only making sure that your side-mirrors are retracted in case they get clonked by the high hedgerows on either side, or any of the aforementioned vehicles as they squeeze past at a passing-place. You must also remember the last passing place you drove by, in case you need to reverse back to it. Often you don't have to: many country locals are amazingly considerate to strangers, especially to women drivers. I love that kind of cheerful, old-fashioned courtesy. I will wind my window down as we pass and give them heartfelt thanks, because they deserve it. 

But sometimes I encounter unchivalrous high-and-mighty men in spotless Range Rovers, who seem to think they own the road, and that women drivers are less than the roadkill beneath their wheels. For some reason, they all remind me of Jeremy Clarkson. So I play them, and make them look boorish and discourteous by going into reverse before they do. I will kow-tow to their greatness! But they'll have to endure my slow, nerve-fraying manoeuvres. It serves them right for not instantly making way for a woman on her own. Let them feel embarrassed at the heavy weather I make of it. The further I have to reverse, the longer it goes on for, the more they become red-faced with discomfiture. They know they have broken the code of a true gentleman. 

If I can, I deliberately veer into the hedge, and then run forward again - at least twice - signalling a dreadful 'lack of skill', exactly the kind of thing they'd expect from a 'mere woman'. Which of course winds them up. What fun! To be fair, they often mumble thanks as they finally get past. Well, there is at least some mouth-movement, possibly suggesting words of acknowledgement, though I could be mistaken about that. They never look me in the eye. 

But back to my tour.     

I was of course using the churches mentioned in the opening paragraph as a means to an end. Driving between them would reveal beautiful countryside at every turn, and tucked-away villages not visited by holidaymakers who prefer beaches to farmland and woods inland. Not that this area is entirely off the tourist trail. My mini-tour would take me around what is termed 'the Ruby Country'. The name derives from the distinctive red cattle that were bred here. It's marketed as a secret and enchanting part of rural Devon, quiet and unspoilt, perfect for a hideaway holiday or weekend break, with great pubs, good food, plenty of history, and a host of activity pursuits. 

The easternmost part of the Ruby Country (but in particular the land between the Rivers Torridge and Taw) was the haunt of renowned photographer James Ravilious, who died in 1999, and whose widow I met at Appledore in 2015. James Ravilious was the younger son of famous painter Eric Ravilious. He settled in this very rural part of north-west Devon in the 1970s and set about recording it in photographs. These now form an important and treasured collection of partly-vanished country life. Only 'partly' - it hasn't all gone. On this and previous forays, I have felt very much as if I've been following in James Ravilous' footsteps, even if I haven't the same eye for perceptive camera-work, and only now and then shoot in black and white, a medium he exploited to wonderful effect.

How did I get on? 

Well, Little Torrington village, just off the main A386 road, was pleasant, but the church was locked. So on to Buckland Filleigh, which was a scattered place, a former estate centred on grand Buckland House, now a sequestered posh wedding venue, with apartments. The church was in its grounds. There was nowhere nearby to park, so I left Fiona in a wide part of the road two or three hundred yards away, and walked along the narrow lane towards the House entrance, which was also the way to the church. I'd covered most of that distance when a giant combine harvester suddenly loomed into view. I honestly don't know how it managed to negotiate these lanes. It entirely filled the one I was walking on. At the spot I'd reached, there was no possibility of tucking myself in on one side, and letting it run past. I'd have to retreat until the lane widened out again. 

So, flip-flopping in my summer sandals, I ran before it. I couldn't go very fast, but even so I thought I was making a good (if undignified) effort for a lady who was obviously not in the first flush of youth. I had to cover most of the distance back to my car. The thing was, the combine harvester didn't follow me at a slow, easy pace. The more I ran, the faster it followed! So that I was quite puffed out when I came to a spot where I could at last stop and let it get by. A wave of the hand from the driver. Huh. And I now saw that a car had been impatiently following the combine harvester. They couldn't have seen me running for safety. Eyes stared at me disdainfully as the car passed, as if I'd held everyone up on purpose.

I was now close enough to Fiona to give up on visiting the church. But I didn't. I went back down the lane, this time without being forced into another ignominious retreat, and had a look. The public had a right of way through the grounds of Buckland House to the church, which turned out to be attractive and well cared-for, an on-the-spot facility for marrying couples and their guests, as the House was adjacent. So was a swimming pool, a boating and fishing lake, and acres of woodland walks. 

Recovered from my exertions, my next stop was Black Torrington. It was a proper village, not just a hamlet, with a church, pub, school, modern village hall and some shops. I ended up walking around it,  but headed first for the church. Approaching closely, I saw pink fabric tied to the railings that led to the porch. 

Ah, a wedding. Was I about to walk in on it? The time was just after 2.30pm. Not impossible! I advanced carefully, but could hear no sounds from inside the church. It was all right. It was all over; everyone had departed and were now at the reception, wherever that might be. 

Inside the church, all was as it had been when the newly-married couple left together, followed by the the family members of both sides and their guests. Nobody had yet started to clear up for the next church service. I'd never seen this before: it was a sort of Marie Celeste moment, except that there was no mystery about what had just taken place, and no concern about the present whereabouts of the participants. The wedding ceremony had been scheduled for 1.00pm, and had surely finished not long before I arrived. I'd missed it by perhaps no more than thirty minutes. 

I'd interrupted nothing, and had the place to myself, but was I still intruding? And yet the church was a public space, not a private house. And I was only an interested, respectful and well-disposed visitor. I decided that provided I disturbed nothing, and merely captured the atmosphere of the church with my Leica, I would do no harm. 

Obviously, I did look to see who the bride and groom had been. There were at least two discarded Orders of Service left behind. I was pleased (and curiously touched) that the bride was also named Lucy. That gave us a tenuous connection. There was a picture of her, and her man. But I don't want to say more. I didn't know them, and wasn't one of their guests. They deserved privacy. 

It was however fascinating to look around, and get pictures of what there was to see after a church wedding. I hadn't been to a 'proper' church wedding (as opposed to a 'blessing') for decades, not since the 1970s. I recalled that after the ceremony one filed out, and there was no going back inside. So viewing all this now felt like a rare privilege.

Gosh, the aisle that the bride and groom would have to walk down! A fateful, life-changing, perhaps panicky experience that each would remember forever. But I hoped that they had walked down that aisle, and back, with joy in their young hearts.

The words said, the ring or rings positioned on fingers, and the deed done, the couple would have made their way together back down the aisle through a barrage of party-poppers. What fun! (And much easier to clear up than confetti)

I liked the simplicity of the decorations. Wicker hearts painted white. Pink bows on the church columns. 

The flowers were very well done. I liked them very much.

All the signs of a happy and successful ceremony, the start of a new era in the couple's relationship. I knew from my own experience that things are different after marriage. The bond is tighter, the relationship more purposeful, more significant, and one acquires a new status. 

I got married in 1983 - on St Valentine's Day as it happens (my idea). A register office affair in suburban London, with frost on the ground, so that we all shivered. Not a White Wedding in a country church in sunny July. The register office, because I wasn't religious and hadn't wanted a great fuss. I wanted something simple and direct. Actually, in my dreams, I really wanted to be romantically married by a ship's captain, like two penniless people picked up at sea, thrown together by fate. 

Well, we weren't penniless, but there was no money for an elaborate celebration. Mum's brother, my Uncle Des, over from Australia, generously put up at least £1,000, and that was enough to cover nearly all the costs. I was most grateful. But this gesture also took a lot of control out of our hands. Mum could now have a big say in who the guests were. In the end, there were twice as many as on our original list. But Mum insisted. I had to accept. 

And it all went off well enough. But I felt that my role, my personal influence on the event, the personal touches that could have made it something to cherish in the future, had all been compromised and diminished. It made my wedding something I wouldn't look back on with much sense of possession or pride. I'd been reduced to a stage player reciting a few lines from a script. I was glad when the pub reception was done with, and we could get in the car, and finally head off to Cornwall in the cold late afternoon light of February. We were going to honeymoon at Padstow. The first night was to be at The Grosvenor Hotel in Shaftesbury. Our love-nest in Padstow was called The Nook Hotel. Snow was forecast, and I recall flurries of it in the lamplit streets of Shaftesbury, as we strolled arm in arm after dinner that first night. There were snow-drifts crossing Dartmoor next day. The central heating at the Padstow hotel was barely adequate, and the rivulets crossing the beaches nearby had turned to ice.  

It was my partner's second marriage, my first. I rather relied on my partner possessing some hard-earned knowledge of what not to do, how to make a marriage come alive with a shining brilliance. Me, I knew nothing. I was thirty, coming up thirty-one, but still no good judge of people, nor how to get along in constant intimacy. I certainly didn't know myself as well as I needed to. 

Our married life began in apparent harmony, but it ran out of steam after a few years. I inherited a step-daughter, but there were no new children. I always say that we had four good years, then it slowly died. Neither of us could give it the right kind of nourishment. We separated early in 1991, and divorced in mid-1996. I have never remarried. Aversion to making another mistake has turned into a rock-hard determination not to surrender my independence, whatever the inducement offered.

To this day, I ponder my sole effort at nuptial bliss. I still can't see any clear and obvious reason why it fizzled out, except that perhaps we had different agendas, different notions of what we wanted, and that our natures were too dissimilar to be good for the long haul. 

I don't feel ashamed about having clocked up a failure. I don't feel inadequate. Certainly not defeated. But I wish I had not wasted my time and my partner's on a doomed adventure. I wish I could have had my present-day perspective (I almost said 'wisdom') before committing myself. But then, I wouldn't have agreed to marry, neither then nor later. 

I couldn't help thinking about all this while still in the church. Why did I function best on my own, instead of in a partnership with somebody? Why did I prefer to face the world without somebody by my side? Which way was best? It seemed inappropriate to have these questions in my mind amid the aftermath of a happy wedding, but I couldn't easily dismiss them. 

However, as with so many subjects, it wasn't profitable to do too much analysis. Whatever the reasons and explanations - or lack of them - things were as they were. One's actual life and outlook were the truth, the reality. Not some imaginary life and outlook one might wish for. 

I firmly believed that one's character and personal attributes were fixed and never changed: they could only be kept hidden, or drawn out. This was unpalatable but had to be accepted. One couldn't assume an entirely different nature, nor transform into a totally new person. It was only possible to develop a more honest, more revealed, more reasonable, and perhaps more mature version of the same old self. 

I simply wasn't good wedding material. I was no idealist. I had no faith to steer by. No creed to rely on. No desire to start a dynasty, nor to perpetuate one. I'd never wanted to belong to anyone. I recoiled against being owned - and the converse, claiming somebody as 'mine'. As if we were property to tote around or throw away. Nor to sink my soul and identity into a joint existence, with the aim of creating little replicas to pass the family baton on to. That loss of individuality, that conventional buying-in to the future of the human species, was very unappealing. So I had refused to be part of it.

This ruled out all but a solitary life. If such a position was offensive, immoral or a threat to society in general, then I was defiantly unrepentant. I always came back to my personal motto: stay alive, stay free. As if already a survivor of some overwhelming upset or disaster. In a sense, that was indeed so. Over the previous dozen or so years I'd adapted to many fundamentally new situations, and had made a good fist of it.

As for love, what was that? I didn't know. I'd confused it with fondness and infatuation and occasional desire. It was an exalted emotional state that I couldn't grasp. Couldn't, or dared not? Right now, in 2021, aged sixty-nine, I was well beyond worrying about it. 

I thought instead about the persons who had exchanged promises in this church, shortly before I came by. They had years ahead in which to explore what their marriage had given them. I wanted them to enjoy all of it, and make their marriage work well. 

Leaving the church, I heard a man's voice nearby, over the hedge. It was an impatient voice, apparently directed at his wife. A voice that didn't care how harsh the words or tone might be. A marriage gone wrong? I felt grateful not to be in such a thing. But also irritated that the man made no effort to encourage his wife with softer, more understanding words. It seemed to spoil the afternoon. 

But my resentment didn't last. I walked it off, looking around the entire village. The pub was busy - was it full of wedding guests? I wasn't sure. Should I go in and make enquiries? Mention that I'd been in the church? Toast the bride and groom, if they were there? But really it was none of my business. I walked past, eventually coming back to Fiona, and drove thoughtfully on to Huish.

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Menacing murals

Last night - well, from sunset to the tail end of dusk - I visited Brighton again. I had a sudden urge to walk the streets and capture the latest murals and posters, and maybe some other sights, with my trusty Leica. I was going to concentrate on the area around Preston Circus, which is well away from the sea front and the Lanes. Preston Circus is the junction of roads where it says 'F Sta' on this map (upper centre on it):

The district immediately north of Preston Circus is dominated by a railway viaduct that comes out of Brighton station and heads north-east through London Road station and on to the university at Falmer, and beyond that, Lewes, Seaford and Eastbourne. The viaduct is sometimes lit up with coloured lights, but wasn't last night. It still makes an impressive sight. Here it is, at the start of my walkabout.

I was parked at the top left-hand corner of the map, in Dyke Road Drive. A fairly safe residential road with free parking after 8.00pm. 'Fairly safe', that is, if you kept to the side lit up best by the street lamps. It wouldn't do to walk on the other side, which was heavily shaded by trees, and an almost continuous pool of darkness even with the street lights blazing. A mugger, stalker or rapist behind every tree, I'd say. 

Why was I concerned with safety? Was I paranoid?

Well, I live six miles away from the city, in a countryside village. To me, Brighton is that orange glow on the horizon, out of sight beyond the smooth line of the South Downs. The glow is a warning, not a lure. 

Brighton is another world, the big bad city - superficial, glitzy, tatty, dirty, sleazy, and full of strange people, some of whom are most definitely half-crazy. Brighton has money - plenty of posh roads full of big houses and smart, expensive cars. Brighton also has poverty - third-rate estates aplenty. Central Brighton draws in all kinds of people. During the day, the centre is edgy but not dangerous. At night it's rather different. Anybody wandering around on their own after dark runs the risk of being targeted by addicts needing cash, homeless itinerants down on their luck, cocky misbehaving students, and alcohol-fuelled low-life of all kinds. This is quite apart from ordinary street thieves, con artists, and sex-seekers on the prowl. 

All cities and large towns have such people, but Brighton seems to attract more than its due share of them. They thrive because the city is a seaside resort, a business centre, and has two universities. Lots of people come and go, some of them streetwise, many of them unwary. The city is a smaller version of London, and like London is a 24/7 place. If you can stay awake, there is always somewhere to go. And if you have sunk low, there is plenty of likeminded company to find there, provided you don't mind roughing it on the fringe of crime, with cheap and nasty companions. It's a life underneath the railway arches, or under the pier; a life slouching down narrow streets, or in reeking alleyways; a life lurking in loos, dossing in piles of cardboard, or shivering on a bench.   

None of this comes to mind while eating a fine meal in a nice restaurant with good friends. But once out in the night air, and away from the cheerful hub-bub of party-goers, the murky downbeat dinginess of Brighton envelops you, and follows you all the way to the sanctuary of your car. I still hate that last walk alone back to Fiona, if ever I find myself in Brighton at night. Even when inside my car, and locked in, a lump of concrete can still be heaved at the windscreen or side window. The best solution is to park in a bright place not too far off - sometimes easier said than done in this car-hating city. 

Brighton was the scene of Graham Greene's classic 1938 crime novel Brighton Rock, recently serialised on BBC Radio 4. It was about pre-war rackets, gang rivalry and callous murder. Rather a period-piece now; but surely only the type of crime in Brighton has changed, and the modern city is just as sordid under the surface, just as full of petty criminals, and just as dangerous for those who don't have a safe and secure home to retreat into at night. I would hate to be homeless in Brighton. If I were stuck on the streets with only a backpack, no friends, no money, and only dark doorways to find shelter in, I would be full of fear.

Even for casual visitors, there is a need to take care day or night, but especially after dark. Brighton does not have a good-hearted atmosphere. It may be buzzy and full of life in the centre, in the Lanes, on the Pier, in St James's Street, or in the North Laine, but this commercial froth cannot veil the darker details: the overflowing bins, the peeling posters, the lurching figures in the shadows, some of whom are shouting drunkenly and need to be avoided. It's not actually dystopian, and it's not the epitome of cultural decay. But it's not the best place for a woman on her own, once the light starts to fade. 

All this said, Brighton is a very fruitful source for pictures of urban life, for 'street photography'. If you want shots of lurid murals, graffiti, all the wind-blown ephemera of a city-based subculture, all the discarded detritus of a throwaway generation, then it's a great place to go. 

Readers may recall several earlier posts of mine devoted, or substantially devoted, to Brighton. There was Brighton by Night on 31st August 2017; One last glimpse for now on 24th March 2020; Street photography on 7th May 2020; and A long-awaited walkabout in the streets and alleyways of Brighton on 5th April 2021. Well, here's another. The Brighton scene changes all the time. It pays to make occasional forays into its recesses, and discover what's new and what's now broken. So every now and then I drive into Brighton for a discreet walkabout, camera in hand. 

But an expedition like that needs some planning. Before I set forth, I think carefully about how to dress, where to park, what to beware of, and how long I dare stay before the light fades entirely.  

Yesterday evening I wore my new navy blue Barbour waxed jacket. I've lately found that it's a very good garment for being outdoors on summer evenings, when the warmth of the day has ebbed away, and perhaps a breeze has sprung up. But it's also the perfect jacket for urban photography. It makes me unobtrusive in the dusk light; and the black-bodied little Leica won't be noticed if held against the Barbour jacket, or if I take a shot when camera and jacket are in the same line of sight. 

Navy blue is a very dark blue, a no-nonsense colour, and makes me look (dare I say it?) 'professional' - and not in the way of a bouncer. This is important. I want to convey the impression that I'm collecting material for a serious study purpose, and not just acting the silly tourist. I want to be taken for an art college student (in the half-light, nobody is going to realise that I'm rather too old to be truly credible). Or perhaps somebody who is preparing a book on Urban Street Art. I reckon I look the part in that jacket; and that gives me the confidence to quietly get on with taking the shots I want. Yes, the camera itself is on the small side, but it's clearly no toy. Obviously, I'm looking for grab shots from positions that rule out using a bulky camera on a tripod. 

And I think passers by are genuinely taken in by my appearance and demeanour, and, if they notice me at all, accept that I'm engaged in a job of work, using equipment that won't catch the eye. I'm alert and nimble and deliberate - I clearly have certain pictures in mind, and know how to secure them. All this helps to keep weirdos and busybodies away, and allows me to operate without attracting unwelcome attention. In any case, most ordinary passers-by are intent on their own business, and just as aware as I am that in Brighton, after dark, you keep moving and do not loiter or dilly-dally. 

So what did I shoot?

I began with a small mural on a railway arch pier that I'd spotted months ago.

It was a photo of a mod on his scooter in the 1960s, partly overpainted with bright colours, and signed by 'The Postman'. I'd found some other works by 'The Postman' in the Lanes, a mile to the south. These were semi-official productions which presumably somebody paid to have painted on whatever surface they appear. There is a proper website. See

What about the rest? Are they also 'official' - or the work of clandestine gangs? It's hard to say. Some of them are clearly commissioned by pubs or shops. Others seem to mock or lampoon the trader, and I can't imagine they were asked for. Some others are messages from outcasts, suggestive of a culture in terminal crisis. Apparently cries of pain from the underprivileged and downtrodden.  

So, I'm imagining a small gang of street artists who work at night, plus their essential lookouts, as they must have timely warning of people who might be approaching. Some of these murals are so large that several artists must work on them simultaneously, in order to get them completed before dawn. The execution clearly needs careful planning and teamwork. 

I'm amazed that it's possible to achieve a high standard of drawing and colouring in dim light. Surely - if these are entirely unauthorised works - the wall they work on can't be floodlit? And yet, if not, then even bright head-torches wouldn't provide enough light for subtle shades and fine detail. Maybe there is, after all, connivance from the City Council or the Police. Or voluntary protection from locals, who feel honoured to have an example of modern street art spray-painted onto one of their walls. Who knows. 

Some of this street art is definitely run of the mill, and some of it is crudely done. But much is striking and arresting, skilfully executed with a polished technique, the effect remarkable and admirable. I'm not saying that it's beautiful, nor that its purpose or message is understandable, nor that I myself would be pleased if any of this stuff appeared overnight next to the posh city apartment I'd just paid megabucks for. But I do assert that it's a valid cultural addition to the cityscape. And definitely worth a photo expedition. 

As hinted above, there were several murals that had something to say about the particular shop premises they were painted on. For example, on the shutters of The Specky Wren, opticians:

And next door, on the shutters of a fresh fish shop:

On the opposite wall, a depiction of the typical market trader - this was the London Road Market - no doubt loosely based on TV's Arthur Daly in Minder. or Del Boy in Only Fools And Horses:

Those were benign examples. Less comfortable were these. Here's one on the shutters of Boots Opticians:

Superdrug came off even worse, with a fierce totemic head, repeated at nearby Richer Sounds, the Hi-Fi specialists:

On the side wall of Richer sounds was, however, this mural of a woman in a top hat with words coming our of her ears, which might have some connection with their area of business:

But off to the left in that shot, and still on the side of their premises, was this weird, sombre, but very well-executed picture, which I took to be a mad mastermind and his insane young assistant, abetted by huge floating eyeballs with tendrils:

Now that's most certainly dystopian - and, in its way, so is the glimpse of the real-life backyard scene in the top edge of my shot, made sinister in the half-light. Off to the left of this strange and enigmatic mural was a nightmare wall painting, possibly inspired by an historic episode of Dr Who:

So much for murals. There were also whole buildings that had been elaborately decorated, such as these pubs: 

And of course, there were some 'ordinary' murals and shutter-messages around, shouting out strangely-formed words - though what they really meant, and who they were really intended for, seemed as ever to be a mystery:

There were also posters everywhere, many of them advertising musical events - events, that is, on the planet Neptune so far as I am concerned.

Damn! I missed that last one on 16th July! Oh well, hey ho.

There were other sights to be recorded, some of them quirky, others just part of the passing scene. I really liked these pirate swords made of foam in a shop window. I'd happily give them first prize in a Most Useless Article contest.

The eternal but unmistakeable Mickey Mouse, clearly escaped from Disneyland in Florida, peeping out from a jacket in a second-hand shop.

Two ads at a bus stop (buses are heavily used in Brighton, so a lot of people will have seen these ads, though without necessarily reading them). One drawing attention to getting 5G on the beach - gosh, 5G! - one alerting bus users to their Covid-19 responsibilities.

A picture that perfectly captures the flavour of the area. A Domino's Pizza takeaway shop, with a BetFred betting shop next door. The last Domino's takeaway pizza I ate - some years ago - gave me indigestion. And you all know my views on betting: there are so many other, useful, and far more rewarding ways to spend money.

Finally, a charity shop that had a Tokyo Olympics display in its window. 

I'm old enough to find it odd to see the Japanese and British flags together like this. The Japanese did not behave well in the Second World War. A militaristic regime, using the revered Emperor as its figurehead, and exhorting a savage warrior code, held the country in thrall and encouraged a cruel and heartless approach to conquest in which captured British servicemen were victims. The ones that survived the Japanese camps came home changed forever, if not actually broken. 

The memory of such events has faded with time, and of course present-day Japanese people are not the ones who followed orders back in the 1930s and 1940s. But wartime atrocities towards prisoners were still a burning topic in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1965, I was reading all about it in library books. 

Well, it's long over, and one cannot live in the past. I'm quite sure most Japanese don't want to. What's done is done, and cannot be undone. It's best to record the facts, learn from them, move on sadder but wiser, and strive not to repeat the same errors.

It had become quite dark. It was time to get back to Fiona, and drive home. 

I successfully dodged lurking robbers and ill-doers, and no concrete blocks were hurled at my windscreen.