Saturday, 10 January 2009

Gainsborough vs Constable

I visited the National Gallery again to take a good look at the sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian works there. Once I'd done with these - I'll be writing a podtour up in due course - I decided to move along and try to overcome one of my long-term, irrational loathings - Constable.

Now you have to understand that I really ought to like Constable. I'm a Norfolk girl, and I keep being told that Constable is the great artist of the East Anglian landscape.

So: The Hay Wain. (Yes, I know Flatford is on the Essex/Suffolk border and not in Norfolk.)  I looked at it for a good fifteen minutes. And I still hate it.

I just can't get on with Constable's use of paint. He seems to think it's some kind of chocolate sauce or treacle, daubing it all over the canvas. You could read the painting like braille. The heavy white highlights on the water, to me, look like knobs of white paint or putty, not like light on a stream. It just looks muddy. I actually feel less well disposed to the painting now that I've seen it in the flesh than I did before; the churned up surface prevents me actually looking at the subject.

Dispirited, I wandered round the corner and found myself amazed by the luminous poise of Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews. What a gorgeous painting this is! There's a real sense of space; the sitters are on the left, and to the right we see their fields extending into the distance. In the first field, sheaves are neatly stacked; there's a white gate at the end of the field, and beyond this, sheep grazing. This is a working landscape, just like Constable's.

But what I love is the play of light. On Mrs Andrews's satin dress - which is plain, compared to the dresses of many of Gainsborough's other sitters, but on which the play of light makes up for the plainness of the cut. On the tree trunks. On Mr Andrews's rumpled jacket.

And Gainsborough doesn't beautify this remarkably plain couple, with their sulky faces and almost insolently relaxed posture.  There's a storm coming over, too, giving a strangely ruthless edge to the light. But it's not a menacing painting; the slight sense of menace just offsets the poise and elegance.

I've always been told Constable is the greater painter (that may reflect an out of date appreciation, but that's what my art teachers always said). Yet out of these two paintings, the Gainsborough is the one that does it for me.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Les belles Eoliennes - wind turbine tourism

I adore wind turbines.

I know, that's an odd thing to say. Lots of people hate them. Perhaps I'm different because I come from Norfolk, where the people of Swaffham seem to have adopted their turbine as a mascot (and now have a second one).

One of my favourite sights on the motorway up from Rouen to Boulogne is the little turbine farm above the cliffs at Wimereux.  I stopped one night there for a quick stroll to loosen my legs before I drove the final few kilometres to Boulogne for the late ferry, and heard the weird whining of the blades high above.

I'm glad to report that someone else feels the attraction - Patrick Barkham hitched a ride with Centrica, which owns a huge windfarm off the Lincolnshire coast.

Not everyone can get a lift with Centrica, but if you take a boat trip from Yarmouth to see the seals on Scroby sands, you can also visit the windfarm there. There's a small onshore farm not far from Yarmouth, too, at Winterton - an intriguing place with towering sand dunes, England's biggest desert according to some.

And rather nicely, my friends Lesley and Carlos at Norfolk Square brewery have named one of their beers Scroby and given it a highly appropriate pump clip.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

How gentrification destroys the past

In some ways I have nothing against gentrification. I suppose you could have seen me as one of the gentrifiers of Stoke Newington when I moved in, during the 1990s - wealthy enough to buy a house and do it up, which I suppose counted as 'gentry'.

And I have nothing against regeneration, either. But when it's implemented in such a way that it resembles Stalin's forced migrations, rather than trying to improve the existing life of an area, I worry. I worry, for instance, that we're losing a lot of real history and local culture in the East End to the London Olympics - and that those things can never be replaced. The allotments, the mixed housing estates, the refuseniks of the old council flats, are never going to be renewed.

So I was sad to see what is happening to Sulukule, a district of Istanbul by the Theodosian walls. First of all, it's one of those rather downbeat areas where little wooden houses shelter under Byzantine ruins; part of the continuing history of Constantinople, Byzantium, Istanbul.

Secondly, it's where the Roma of Istanbul now live. (Apparently they've already been chased out of Beyoglu and Fener by high rents. Fener isn't exactly swish.) And they are being forcibly evicted, and sent to live in (expensive) flats 40 km out of the city. Presumbly with the rather cynical expectation that they won't be able to pay the rent.

We saw this kind of thing happening in the UK in the 1960s - the destruction of working class communities in favour of idealistic modern housing. Governments find their working class and Romany citizens embarrassing, and the places they live demeaning - so they want to build utopian projects. Not in order to help their citizens, but so the city looks modern. So it impresses the middle classes, the investors, and (perhaps) foreigners who will invest here.

It's sad. Sulukule isn't just any old community either - it's one of the world's oldest Romany communities, and it's the place where most of Istanbul's gypsy music scene happens.

Sign the petition for what it's worth. I was number 3026.

And on a slightly different subject, I was sad to see the demise of Woolworths in the UK. 'Woolies' didn't have a raison d'ĂȘtre any more, it's true - its variety store format was deeply outmoded. It sold CDs and pick'n'mix, and an assortment of other stuff that kept changing and never really included anything you needed.

But it was part of English life. And some of the stores were classics, Art Deco style 1930s buildings which were defiantly modernist in a still very Victorian-Edwardian style high street. There's one in Ilford that looks like something out of Flash Gordon.

I don't miss the smelly vinyl floor and flickering strip lighting of the most recent stores. But I wonder if somewhere, there isn't a Woolies that could be spot listed, or preserved as a sort of Museum-of-Woolies, so we don't entirely lose our heritage?

(Apropos of Woolies, why is it that every time I have a good idea for something to write about, Jonathan Glancey has it first. I'm getting quite fed up...)

Industrial heritage - breweries

Jonathan Glancey has written a nice little piece lamenting the closure of our ancient breweries in the Guardian today.

It certainly has resonance for me... I've seen Greene King close down Ridley's, I've seen Gales' Horndean Brewery, whose honest ugly bulk welcomed me off the motorway every time I drove down to Portsmouth, closed by Fullers, and I've seen old maltings and breweries destroyed all over East Anglia.

Breweries are a bit like railway stations. They're functional buildings that have some very special requirements to meet. The Victorian tower brewery  was a marvellous piece of architecture and engineering combined to make the brewing of huge amounts of beer streamlined and easy.

The 'beerage', immensely wealthy families owning breweries, dignified their industrial buildings with baronial style or Renaissance references. The Cliff Brewery at Ipswich was the home of Tolly Cobbold - apparently it's shortly to house brewing operations again as Earl Soham brewery moves in. (Ironically, it was Ridleys that put this brewery out of action when they acquired Tolly.)  Hook Norton still uses its fine tower brewery - so does Highgate Brewery in Walsall. (Both these breweries offer group tours.)

Nowadays, breweries are less romantic - but need equally specialised buildings. I visited Adnams' new brewery a while back (they don't offer tours to the general public, but local CAMRA organised a visit). While the street frontage is exactly the same as it always was, behind the cobbles and the cottages a sparkling new stainless steel brewery has been erected. It's like something out of James Bond; you open a little eighteenth century door and behind it is the Adnams plan for world domination. I wouldn't have been surprised if the production manager had a white Persian cat sitting on his desk...

Some breweries are still being demolished, which is a crying shame. Others, like the Anchor Brewery in Norwich and the old Trumans and Watneys breweries in the East End, are being refurbished for use as housing or commercial space. But there's nothing quite like a real brewery being used for real brewing...

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Geocaching - 'letterboxing' meets GPS

I always enjoyed orienteering - the mixed challenges of running over rugged terrain together with high speed mapreading and running a compass bearing.

And ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated by 'time capsules' and buried treasure. I remember hiding a Horlicks jar in the garden once, filling it with a couple of old penny pieces and a tea-stained bit of paper masquerading as parchment with a treasure map of Ipswich.

Letterboxing on Dartmoor is a pursuit that goes back at least a century, as far as I know - it's a sort of mixture of the two. You go off hiking among the peat bogs and granite tors, and aim to find one of the 'letterboxes', which has a stamp inside it - you stamp your card, or exercise book, to say you passed this way. I've no idea why there aren't letterboxes in the Lake District or on the Yorkshire moors... but there aren't. AFAIK.

Now I've just discovered geocaching, which is basically letterboxing plus technology. Youlook up a cache you want to find on the geocaching site, then you follow your own handheld GPS to find the cache - a hidden container with various goodies in it. The rules are; take anything out, it has to be replaced with another object of similar value. There are 'event caches' - parties or gigs you have to find via GPS; there are multi-stage caches, basically a sort of treasure hunt, where each cache contains a clue to the next. There are 'earth caches' - sites of geological significance.

While geocaching has taken off fastest in the US, there are geocaches all over... I'm going to enjoy looking for some in France. And come to think of it, what could be more fun on a holiday to another country than taking one day to do a bit of geocaching? It would give you an additional interest, show you some places you probably wouldn't see otherwise, and maybe introduce you to local geocachers. What fun!