‘Aye ye’ve come.’ He laughed shortly and contemptuously. ‘Dozens of ye. Hundreds of ye. Like rats to a granary. Like field mice when there’s a harvest home. And what good will it do ye? [ ….] Nowt. Not the flicker of a whisper of a bit o’ good.’ He paused and drew a long breath, then suddenly leaped from his seat and thundered at the top of his voice: ‘Ye’re all damned!’
An expression of lively interest and satisfaction passed over the faces of the Brethren, and there was a general rearranging of arms and legs, as if they wanted to sit as comfortably as possible while listening to the bad news.
And if you haven’t read Stella Gibbons’ book ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ you should, because it’s painfully funny, and a bit of a go-to remedy for a melancholic day.
It started harmlessly enough with the diplodocus that normally lives at the Natural History Museum in London, but is now on tour across Great Britain in an attempt to make museums relevant and interesting to children. When I say it’s a diplodocus (known as Dippy to avaricious merchandisers everywhere),in fact I think it’s a resin cast of the long deceased animal, and it’s presently visiting the National Museum of Wales which, as a result, was crowded with coachloads of primary school children – and very sweet they were. Indeed they stood aside at doors and said ‘thank you’ with every appearance of meaning it.
However I don’t think they’d have made much of the three exhibitions of photography upstairs. We had a pair of obsessive photographers of old pithead works, cooling towers and post industrial ruins all of which proved that we’ve moved decisively into a new age. Whether it’s a better age is a moot point, although Martin Parr’s photo of coal miners washing one another’s backs in the pithead baths was enough to suggest that the romance of the collieries was not a million miles from the romance of L’Angleterre profonde pilloried by Stella Gibbons. There was a video of some ex miners at Deep Pit being interviewed and by chance I actually spoke to one of them when we were taking a primary school trip there some years ago. He told me he hated every minute of it, and then went on to say that the best bit about the job was the camaraderie, the clubs and competitions above ground. I was taught by a generation of teachers who were the children of Welsh miners, and whose parents were adamant that their sons should not go down the pits. My father was a railwayman and he had much the same idea.
As for the pit head works, it makes me feel ancient to say that I was brought up within the South Gloucestershire coalfield. Our neighbour Mr King, who was the best allotmenteer ever, lived just up the street and I was told that he walked about eight miles to work at Pucklechurch every day, and then walked halfway back home underground before he started work. The Shortwood pit was closed before I was born but the pit shaft was still there. Today our train passed Harry Stoke, an open cast mine that was still working during my childhood; and Speedwell (closed 1930’s) and Ashton Vale (closed 1920’s) on the other side of Bristol all left their mark on the culture of the area. When I was first ordained and working in South Bristol I was taken aback that often, when I took funerals in Ashton Vale, the women would not attend the funeral service – an old mining tradition apparently.
Martin Parr’s photos – so joyous usually, had a streak of melancholy for a lost way of life running through them, and the Becher photos laid it out in all its architectural glory. It’s no accident that I so love post industrial landscapes, but whether I’d love the life is another matter. I can’t get the Parr’s photo of a group of women on a night out at a working men’s club – out of my mind. Life affirming hardly begins to describe their fearsome independence. Truly you would not pick a fight with them.
The function of the railways, of course, was to join all these industrial sites up, and notwithstanding all the electrification that’s gone on, possibly the worst way to enter any city is by railway, not least on a grey and rainy day. Slate roofs and back to back houses dominate the landscape as you approach the centre of Cardiff where the derelict patches of ground give way to a city busily reconstructing itself in concrete. For me it’s an alienating place that seems to demand a different kind of human being, one that I can’t identify with and would never want to become.
And so to the last exhibition that left me at one with Amos Starkadder and his sermon to the Quivering Brethren. The only way I can describe August Sander’s eighty photographs, taken in Germany in the period straddling the second world war is mortifying. These restrained, formal portraits, whose avowed purpose was to document Sander’s home country are a million miles from propaganda – and that’s what makes them so powerful. They are forensic, but not in an unkindly way, and when I say they include portraits of the victims of nazi persecution alongside a soldier and a member of the SS as well as the death mask of his own son who died in a nazi prison you have to wonder how Sander managed not to lose his mind. I guess they achieve exactly what he intended; a portrait of a whole country in change – and we now know what that change would bring. Simply to look at the photographs of the artists, writers and musicians who would become the objects of murderous hatred, for their race or faith and beliefs; or even simply for being creative, is to feel the chill of the possibility of it all happening again.
Did the dinosaurs see it coming? Did the miners? the farmers and chefs and intellectuals of Germany see it coming? and do we see it coming?
Enough! There are other treasures in the galleries, not least a couple of paintings by John Dickson Innes – one of my favourite painters but incredibly difficult to find. In the summer we made a pilgrimage to Machynlleth to see some, but the gallery seemed not to know where they were being stored! Oh and a lovely Cezanne landscape that was rejected by the National Gallery and also by the Tate – until Roger Fry intervened. Experts eh? Enough! – you miserable so and so, you forgot to mention the three little egrets you saw from the train just outside Newport. Surely that’s a small victory?