Did you watch the ‘Blitz Spirit’ show on the BBC earlier this week? It is not the sort of thing I would have watched normally but admit I was intrigued due to having recently read ‘A Chelsea Concerto’. For those in the dark, ‘A Chelsea Concerto’ is a memoir of the London Blitz by artist and author Frances Faviell, and it was used as one of the ‘voices’ in Lucy Worsley’s BBC show. Now I understand that some people have difficulty with Lucy Worsley but in these times it seems like everyone has difficulties with someone and with numerous platforms from which to express themselves it all gets rather tedious (yes, this sentence is heavy in irony). Heaven help future historians attempting to make any sense of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, picking through the innumerable source streams in attempts to piece together some sort of objective truth. Perhaps by then all notions of objective truth will be laughably archaic in themselves, and digital decay will mean that the problem will be a dearth of evidence rather than a glut, but who knows what the future holds? Perhaps they, like us looking back at The Blitz, will discover a fragment of unused propaganda and mutate it into a contemporary myth. Stranger things have happened.
So full disclosure: I like Lucy Worsley. She does the difficult job of condensing complex historical webs into something accessible and entertaining very successfully. Not being a History scholar I’m not best positioned to make a judgement on this, but I suspect this question of Information As Entertainment is something that all Historians struggle with, both in terms of trusting sources and making their own work. Does Worsley herself battle with the demons that say when to twist objective facts into subjective ones? I expect she must. Certainly she does this in ‘Blitz Spirit’ with the suggestion that Faviell and her husband Richard are already married when the Blitz begins. In ‘Chelsea Concerto’ it is clear this is not the case, and indeed the marriage (Faviell’s second) takes place in the midst of the bombing. It’s a tiny detail, and one I completely understand Worlsey making in order to make the script tighter, but still, it does make one wonder about what other details may have been flexed in order to fit the preferred narrative. The suspicion is that there may be many, but that’s part of the deal. The action of editing is an integral part of how we tell and record stories after all, which in turn is how we shape and understand History. Indeed, that’s a big part of what Worsley tells us in the show. She makes this explicit in exploding the modern myth about the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster, and in unpacking the untruths within the famous photograph of the milkman in the rubble, but it’s also implicit in the texts she accesses in order to move her narrative along. ‘A Chelsea Concerto’ itself is a memoir written after the fact. Published in 1959 it was Faviell’s final book before her early death from cancer and one can only assume she used a modicum of artistic license in its creation. It’s not a work of fiction of course, but it is well structured and finely nuanced. It will have been revised and tweaked in various drafts, pulled apart and pieced together again. That’s how most good writers work, after all.
Faviell’s attention to detail is one of her strengths, and her artists’ eye picks out the visual beauty in the often brutal environment. I particularly like her description of the barrage balloons in the phoney war “going up slowly and awkwardly like drunken fish”. She makes reference to other contemporary artists in the book too, notably Elliot Hodgkin who survived the war and and former Bright Young Thing Rex Whistler who did not. Elsewhere she suggests that the war torn skies are as something from Blake, or, in a description of the sky over The City during the infamous December 29th 1940 raid as being “awful – although beautiful, a brilliant blood-red – the kind of sky in which Turner would have delighted.” Worsley picks up this line too, although sadly neglects the Turner reference, before going on to analyse the famous photograph of St Pauls. She shows how the image is edited to omit the broken buildings in the foreground, another example of how what we choose to leave out says as much, if not more, that what we choose to include.
Now I’ve never been much of a one for drawing parallels between The Blitz and the COVID pandemic. It has always seemed to me that the difference in context is just too immense, so that any similarities are at best coincidental and ultimately demeaning to those involved in both eras. I suspect Worsley feels much the same, although with the timing of ‘Blitz Spirit’ in celebrating the 80th anniversary falling as it does, the programme cannot help but suggest that experiences of communal support and togetherness (as well as division, anger and frustration) may be similar. Faviell perceptively notes that “when a thing has to be endured continuously it becomes an accepted everyday fact, whereas when there are gaps it reappears with redoubled horror.” Or, at least in the case of the pandemic, repeated surge waves of infection lead to redoubled frustration and anger with Government, perhaps.
Another thing that Worsley makes clear in ‘Blitz Spirit’ which I suspect may not go down too well with traditionalists wedded to the modern myth of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is the notion that The Blitz Spirit was one dimensional in its unyielding positivity. Worsley is hardly being revisionist in suggesting that the reality was much more complex and nuanced, but I dare say there will be those who will revile her for daring to suggest that there may have been cracks in the armour of Public Spirit. Even Faviell, who throughout the majority of ‘A Chelsea Concerto’ is fundamentally positive and full of what has become the stereotype of Blitz Spirit, occasionally descends into bouts of despair and doubt. It’s only natural.
Looking back from 80 years in the future, one of the things that feels most poignant is how Faviell reports on the attitudes of many Londoners to anyone not falling into some blinkered classification of ‘English’. She suggests that “many of the people [had] complained at having foreigners in the shelter” whilst “the host of foreigners, many of whom had lived all their lives in Britain, now found themselves regarded as ‘aliens’, and treated with wary guardedness by those who had known them all their lives.”
Faviell, herself well travelled and educated, proved herself of tremendous value to a community of Flemish refugees, and her tales of these characters are amongst the most entertaining and touching in the book. Yet as she points out, “language is no barrier to friendship, nor is knowledge of other countries necessary in helping foreigners.” Everything changes. Everything stays the same.
‘A Chelsea Concerto’ is certainly a tremendous page-turner, by turns exceptionally harrowing and touchingly perceptive and poetic. Reading it now, some 80 years on from the events Faviell recounts, we may sometimes be tempted to slip into the comfortable pleasure of Knowing How It Ends even before we reach the final chapters, but even here there are deep caverns to navigate, each one eloquently picked out in powerfully spare prose.
One of the must brutal aspects of the work that Faviell volunteered for must surely have been the assemblage of assorted body parts and flesh into something resembling a complete body for burial. Typically, Faviell refuses to shy away from describing the process in a way that manages to convey the necessary emotional detachment and a sensitivity that is palpable. Intriguingly, she also tells us that “this task dispelled for me the idea that human life is valuable – it could be blown to pieces by blast – just as dust was blown by wind.” That’s an enormously powerful admission to make, perhaps particularly for a nurse (volunteer or not). It’s also perhaps a particularly late 20th Century response, anticipating the growing existential crisis building through the 1950s into the ’60s and beyond.
It is clear, however, that even if for Faviell the value of human life had been exposed as an illusion, there remains still a deeply experienced emotional response. “The feeling uppermost in my mind after every big raid was anger” she says. “Anger at the lengths to which humans could go to inflict injury on one another.” Everything changes. Everything stays the same.
Does the world really need another book of photographs of London? Perhaps not. Yet when the book in question is the recent Thames and Hudson publication of Sergio Larrain’s ‘London 1959’ the answer is certainly, yes. Made in the wake of his extraordinarily gritty yet compassionate photographs of Santiago Street Children of 1957, these London photographs were shot thanks to a British Council grant, Larrain taking advantage of the opportunity to also visit Paris, meet with Cartier-Bresson and become a member of the then-fledgling Magnum organisation.
It could easily be argued that any photographs of cities will capture to a greater or lesser extent a state of flux, for what are cities if not endlessly shifting canvases of change? Yet much like Robert Frank’s London work of ’51 to ’53, or Gerard Depardon’s photographs of Glasgow in 1980, Larrain’s pictures capture London at a particularly poignant moment, where old ways shift into new on the fulcrum of generational shifts. From a personal perspective Larrain’s pictures have a special resonance too, for 1959 is the year my parents met in London and I wonder if they might be captured in any of these shots. Perhaps a blurred face on the Underground escalator or a distant figure walking in the park? Perhaps not.
These pictures remind me that one of the essential paradoxes of photography is that it presents the illusion of freezing moments, yet simultaneously spans time. Photographs shift meaning and purpose according to context. We read them differently each time they are unearthed and perused. Even family albums packed with memory and fading recollection are subject to this state of flux. Stories are re-told with a subtly different slant each time, meaning forgotten and reinvented with the passing of lives until eventually they become lost entirely to house clearings or, if fortunate, the contents of charity shops to perhaps become inspirations of flimsy historical fiction for art students at a loose end.
I’m sure there are art students in Larrain’s photographs of London in 1959. Certainly there are beatniks populating the later pages of the book as we delve into the black of night, down in the bars with jazz and sex swirling around us in grainy deep and seductive shadows. In a series of shots we see wire-frame figures floating ghostlike above the smoke-shrouded floor of a haunted dancehall. It could be a scene from Absolute Beginners. There’s Blitz Baby and The Fabulous Hoplite. Maybe even Crepe Suzette escaping into the light. And is that Big Jill with with her shirt knotted around her mid-riff and an unlit cigarette between her lips, staring us down with a look of ‘who the fuck are you?’ In another shot we are lost in the thrumming crowd, hands up high, reaching the stars (or at least the festoon lights). Close your eyes, lock the time circuits for 1988 and this could be Shoom. Specifics may root us to years but spirit transcends time.
There are echoes of course of the aforementioned Robert Frank photographs, and back, back, further back to Bill Brandt’s documentation of London in the nineteen thirties. Now I admit that I have never explored Brandt’s work in much detail, perhaps because some of this images have always felt so familiar. This may be time playing tricks of the light on memory of course, but I seem to recall seeing his images reproduced in stark, rudimentary black and white in so many school poetry anthologies in the 1970s and early 1980s. Did they appeal? They must have done on some level for the memory, real or not, to have formed. I’m sure it must have been something to do with the harsh contrast of positive and negative space, the almost abstract composition of black and white. The same ingredients, in short, that led me later to be enthralled by Robert Motherwell’s paintings.
Brandt captured the London bus. Of course he did. There it goes, peeking above the strong black arch of the bridge, Heinz advertising resplendent on its flanks as the towers of Battersea power station loom ghostly in the distance. It’s not a photograph about a bus at all of course. Nor is it a photograph about the bridge, the river or the power station. All are just compositional elements as Brandt enjoys the interplay of the deep shadowed forms of the arch and the Thames mud. No more, and certainly no less. Or rather, that’s certainly my feeling on reading the photograph from my faded 1983 edition of ‘London In The Thirties’. However, on recently seeing a sharply printed reproduction of his 1933 ‘Parlourmaid and underparlourmaid’ photograph in David Campany’s wonderful ‘On Photographs’, my interest in Brandt’s work has been refreshed. The print in Campany’s book brings out so much more subtlety in tone and detail and I’m left wondering what more depths of pleasure I might find in looking at better quality reproductions of his other work, including the bus on the bridge.
Frank photographs buses too. In one picture we see a Routemaster’s backside in the middle distance as the black form of a city gent strides purposefully forward, looking for all the world as if he owns the street (he probably does), newspaper and walking stick clutched firmly behind his back. Then there are the blurred phantoms bookending Eros with what for all the world looks like a bloke pissing in the fountain. Or an upper deck with hats and overcoats illuminated by the blast of interior lighting, framed by an advert for the Co-operative Wholesale Society below and the brooding black of a soot stained building above. Frank would revisit the bus a few years later for The Americans, this time with the more starkly confrontational gazes of passengers meeting the camera’s eye. A reflection of the difference between the national psyches, or of Frank’s growing strength as photographer. Both, perhaps.
Frank also has buses on a bridge, but unlike Brandt he positions himself looking across the bridge that diagonals to the centre line of the picture. The buses and the lines of composition all lead us away to the hazy distant shore, in contrast to the direction of the stream of pedestrians crossing towards us. Intriguingly, Larrain makes almost the exact same photograph of London Bridge in 1959, choosing instead to shoot in portrait orientation and thereby omitting the dark presence of buildings to his left. This directional opposition in both photographs lends a dynamic to the picture, but Larrain takes this to a whole different level with his closely cropped shot showing the side of a Routemaster. Here, the form of two windows are positioned as a blurred diagonal bookended by bowler-hatted fellows, the dual thin light lines of the wheel arch and the edges of letters completing the composition. It is a daring and modern photograph. Elsewhere, Larrain again utilises the diagonal, this time with the interior of a bus as a stark framing device and perspective platform as the artist looks down on milling shoppers. The bus turns the corner, literally and metaphorically. The 1960s are coming. Swinging, and Swingeing, London are just over the horizon, and intriguingly Larrain will have a hand too in the defining cinematic moment of those times. For whilst ‘Blow Up’ is inspired by a Julio Cortázar short story, this story itself was inspired by a story told by Sergio Larrain. Antonioni, Cortázar, Larrain: Outsiders all.
Insider Colin O’Brien also captures London around this time, and continues to do so for the rest of his lifetime, but unlike Brandt, Frank and Larrain, one gets the sense that O’Brien uses photography more as a means of exploring London, as opposed to using London to explore photography. As a London insider, O’Brien likely always considered the London bus as much too obvious subject matter for a photograph, and it is not until 2005 that we see one appear, and then only because it is an opportunity to record the final day of the iconic Routemaster running the 38 route from Clapton Pond to Victoria. It echoes the shot made in 1952 by the 12 year old O’Brien on the occasion of the last running of the Embankment trams. Both are essentially historical portraits, the driver of the tram posing for the youngster as the passengers queue tidily in the shadow of the trees. Fast forward 53 years and the Routemaster is also captured fully face on, but this time it is the passengers who pose for the camera, the youngsters all eager smiles and full of anticipation. It is a charming photograph, but it is clearly a photograph about the people as much as it is about the bus. Indeed, without the explanatory text explaining the historical context, what kind of photograph is it? One might see a similar kind of picture in any number of family albums, perhaps accompanied by a voice warmly explaining that “Here’s one that dad took of us and the family next door on a trip into the West End for a shopping trip.” And then the page will be quickly flipped.
I do enjoy flipping through the pages of ‘London Life’, the hefty retrospective of O’Brien’s photography, but admit that these days I’m drawn particularly to his early shots from the 1950s period. Certainly these photographs tell a compelling story of a young artist experimenting with their chosen medium. His pictures from this time of the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, documenting car smashes, processions and just occasionally not very much at all are tremendous. The birds-eye perspective may have been borne from the necessity of living four flights up, but they are captivating images precisely because of this unexpected viewpoint. If we might be disappointed that O’Brien’s later work rarely, if ever, utilises these kind of unusual visual perspectives, perhaps it is only because he has made those angles metaphorically in how he approaches his subject matter of the people of London. Still, from a purely aesthetic point of view I’d take Larrain’s shots from the top floor of the bus or from a camera placed on the Underground platform over pretty much anything else by anyone any day.
So as much as I enjoy the sensibilities of the insider that permeate O’Brien’s comprehensive, life-long exploration and documentation of London life, it is the work of outsiders Brandt, Frank and especially Larrain that continue to resonate most strongly with me. These photographers’ forays into London may have been brief (certainly compared to O’Brien’s) but the documents they left behind show artists’ eyes that are finely attuned and yet simultaneously detached. Intensely connected and yet fundamentally apart. A powerful combination.
The sun that bathes the Farringdon fields has just enough sparkle of warmth to it that one might almost believe Spring is arriving. However, two hours later as I ride into a biting headwind past the sweet scent of cowsheds up to Frogmore Cross, a fusillade of hailstones assaulting my face proves that Nature will always have a trick up its sleeve. The sound of the tiny white spheres striking the steel tubes of my bicycle sound like airgun pellets on tin cans.
The always ace Caught By The River kindly published a piece I wrote about rivers, and photographs of rivers. It’s ostensibly a review of Chloe Dewe Matthews’ newly published ‘Thames Log’ book, but I also wanted to weave something about Jem Southam’s photographs of the river Exe and recollect Sian Davey’s excellent ‘Martha’ photobook of a few years ago. The article went live today: www.caughtbytheriver.net/2021/02/tracing-the-infinite-river-photography/
The milder weather continues today and the earth seems to open itself gently in appreciation. Riding out of Marsh Green I pass clumps of snowdrops, tiny hooded sentinels of the approaching light. On a gate post a Buzzard lazily gathers up its wings and flies.
After what feels like weeks of an eternal cold that has blasted the ground to a bleak wasteland, some mildness arrives to cheer the spirit. In Rewe, I pass a young woman jogging along the footpath, pushing a pram filled with what I assume are twins and followed close behind by a small cocker spaniel, ears flapping wildly. All four appear to be enjoying the morning enormously.
The cold has kept me indoors for too long, so I venture out regardless and enjoy the harshness of the winter. Past the riding school at Crabhayes a poodle is getting some exercise, wrapped up tight in a bright pink onesie, its paws erupting like furry pompoms.
Drink good wine, make good coffee: Download disc 1
Thicket – Mark Tranmer (from ‘Vertical Features: Three’)
Winter Kills – Alter Later (feat. Mücha) (from ‘Drifts and Flurries’ LP)
The Rope – FLOWERTOWN (from ‘Flowertown’ LP)
Daily Double – Corvair (from ‘Corvair’ LP)
Orion From The Street – Field Music (digital single)
A Funeral In Banbridge – Frida Hyvönen (digital single)
Song Of Co Aklan – Cathal Coughlan (digital single)
GOLD LIFT – Martin Carr (limited 7″ single)
Boiling Point – Badwan/Coxon (12″ single)
Love Is Strange Remodelled – Ciaran Harte (from ‘Love Is Strange Remodelled’ LP)
L’enfer – Vacance (from ‘Nos Futurs‘ LP)
Hey Moon – Molly Nilsson (limited 7″ single)
Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Every Day – Advance Base (digital single)
Phish Pepsi (ft. Advance Base) – MJ Lenderman & Wednesday (from ‘Guttering’ LP)
Crying – Still Corners (from ‘The Last Exit’ LP)
Babe Got Plans (For Me) – Farmer Dave & The Wizards Of The West (from
‘Farmer Dave & The Wizards Of The West’ LP)
Marie – Lori McKenna (from The Balladeer LP)
Janice At the Hotel Bar – Hailey Whitters (from The Dream LP)
Slow Burn – Kacey Musgraves (from ‘Golden Hour‘ LP)
Twilight Voices – Widow’s Weeds (from ‘Revenant’ LP)
Long Was the Year – Broadcast (from ‘The Noise Made By People’ LP)
Deep Green – Beautify Junkyards (from ‘Cosmorama’ LP)
Desert Something – Aloa Input (digital single)
Cold Lake – Mirna Bogdanovic (from ‘Confrontation’ LP)
The Leanover – Life Without Buildings (from ‘Any Other City’ LP. Or on TikTok…)
Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan – Heavy Feelings (from ‘Last to be Picked for the Team’ LP
Every Week Is The Same – The Muldoons (from ‘Made For Each Other’ LP)
I SOLD MY SOUL ON EBAY – SWANSEA SOUND (digital single)
She Moved Thro’ The Fair – Trees (from ‘Trees’ LP 50th anniversary edition.)
Lord Won’t Come – Nero Kane (from ‘Tales of Faith and Lunacy’ LP)
Penguin New Writing – Landshipping (from ‘My Fleet’ LP)
30 – Love – The Blue Aeroplanes (from ‘Tolerance’ LP)
Man Alone (Can’t Stop The Fadin’) – Tindersticks (from ‘Distractions’ LP)
The Sum Of The Angles – Concretism (from ‘The Concretism Archive: Volume 1’ LP)
Winter, Remind Us (III) – Ghostwriter (from ‘Drifts and Flurries’ LP)
A hard frost has left a film of ice across the shaded parts of the lane out of the village and so I think perhaps I ought to stay on the gritted main road. However, by the time I reach Rewe, barely 2km into the ride, I am already tired of the traffic, still frustratingly plentiful, and turn up a never before ridden lane that climbs, eventually, to Bradninch. From here I turn into familiar back roads that nevertheless appear remarkable in their newness for being travelled in the opposite direction. Towards Langford the road skirts the forested copse at Paradise, and on the rolling lower slopes I see a wintering orchard, the trees no more than evenly spaced marks, like a Ravillious pattern in a landscape.