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Monday, 14 October 2013

The Cutty Sark, Bob Dylan and a Ghostly Apparition



The Royal Maritime Museum and the London skyline, from the grounds of the Greenwich Observatory 
 
As we walked along the road that leads to Greenwich Park and the Observatory, with the rigging of the Cutty Sark visible against the skyline, I realised (a) that the scene was familiar – I’d been here before – but (b) that it was over fifty years ago. I think it was in 1959 that my father took my brother and me for a day out in London. I remember feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, eating banana sandwiches (yes, banana sandwiches!) on the Thames Embankment, not far from the recently opened Festival Hall – and then going along to Greenwich to see the Cutty Sark, in its hey-day a record-breaking clipper bringing cargoes of tea from China, later carrying wool from the Antipodes.

Now that I’ve had time to think about it - fifty-four years in fact – I think I can understand why he took us there. It was a kind of pilgrimage.

 
Some of the rigging on the Cutty Sark
 
My father, I suspect, wanted us to gain some idea of the life his grandfather lived – and his great-uncle. Both were ship’s captains, and both, in the early 1880s, knew that their future lay in steam-powered vessels. However, both brothers were strongly attached to the sailing ships on which they had learned their trade. They decided that they would each do one last voyage under sail before accepting the new order and signing up with a steamship company. It was my great-grandfather’s fate to go down with all hands off the coast of New Zealand in 1882. He never saw his only child – my grandmother – although he did, allegedly, appear to his wife as she pushed the pram down the road in Norwood, south-east London. According to her account he appeared from behind a hedge, looked at the baby, smiled, and disappeared. Some weeks later she received the fateful telegram. My father often spoke of a letter she  received from the mother of the cabin-boy, also drowned, in which she spoke with gratitude and affection for the kind treatment he had at the hands of her husband. I don’t think that letter survived my father’s later clear-outs of memorabilia and souvenirs, and that’s a pity. I would like to be able to see it.

We also visited – I’m talking about the past weekend now, not the 1959 trip – the Observatory, where foreign visitors line up to have their photos taken as they straddle the Greenwich Meridian, the line that separates the eastern half of the world from the west. We headed for the exhibit which outlines the story of man’s search for an accurate navigational system and details the work of John Harrison (1693-1776), in particular his development of a chronometer which would work, accurately and reliably, at sea. It’s a marvellous story, told in some detail, with examples of his several attempts, including the fourth and final version which netted him a £20,000 prize, on display.

If Saturday was a scientific day, Sunday was all about art. In the morning we visited my daughter’s studio down in Bermondsey happened upon an exhibit entitled Nigeria Monarchs. It appears that there are over 500 local princes or kings in Nigeria, and photographer George Osodi has been visiting and photographing them. I think he’s done the lot, but I’m not sure. The exhibit, being a succession of portraits, wasn’t making much sense until we found a room in which was showing a short documentary film about his project. Here he explained how Nigeria – particularly the Niger Delta area - has suffered at the hands of the oil industry, and how he hopes that projects such as his will portray a positive side of his country, educate people as to its history and perhaps alter our attitudes.

From Bermondsey we went to central London to visit a couple of more mainstream shows at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) and the National Portrait Gallery. Both were free to enter, and for that I am very grateful. Most of what I know of art history I acquired through being able, as a youngster, to pop into the National and Tate Galleries whenever I was in London – sometimes on my way to and from football matches, sometimes on my way to meet friends - and absorb a little more knowledge about the old masters. Let’s hope this government doesn’t decide – as others have tried – to bring back charges.

The ICA exhibit – a collection of installations under the title Black Beauty, by the artist Lutz Bacher, left me quite unmoved. Am I blind to the significance of her floor buried under three inches of black grit, the broken mirror on the wall, the half heard sound track of a mumbling voice? Am I missing something, or is this simply  another exhibitor who has managed to get away with it? I’m afraid that I can’t be bothered to interrogate these pieces. I am more intrigued at times by the flow of well heeled cosmopolitans who inspect the shards of glass, work their expensive heels into the grit and nod thoughtfully. I feel impelled to stick a fork in their hands, take them to the allotment and show them how to double-dig a vegetable plot. I think it might do them a lot of good.

As to the twelve framed items at the National Portrait Gallery… they seemed chunky, clunky, drab, sombre, uninteresting. If they hadn’t been drawn by Bob Dylan we wouldn’t be looking at them, surely?

We arrived home at midnight last night. As ever after a stimulating weekend, I am finding it painfully hard to re-enter the world I inhabited on Friday. I think I left my characters hiding out in a cabin up the Sandia mountains in New Mexico, having destroyed the laboratory where the fiendish scientists had devised a gadget whereby they could hack into people’s individual digital memory banks and thence into their actual brains. I’d better go and see how they’re getting on. After a spot of lunch.