Sunday, January 01, 2012

A TIME computer - an "object" biography

Biographies usually focus on the lives of individuals, or sometimes groups, but the best of these usually reflect the context for those lives, in public and private events. A factual list of dates, like births, marriages and deaths, is really the territory of the genealogist, leaving much for interpretation.

My brief “object biography” of an old computer reflects this need for “a life and times”. The bare facts are unexciting – manufactured and purchased in 2000, superseded from 2004, still alive but in a coma that may be permanent. Even if every detailed event could be recounted – when specific software was loaded and deleted, when peripherals were added and removed, when it was sent for repair (and finally condemned), this would only provide minor background. Such details would be like a medical history of a patient, telling us much about very limited aspects of a life. Not that such details would be irrelevant – the first diagnosis of dementia, for instance, or another major medical condition, would explain much about our subject’s life around that time. But, like an elderly hospital patient nearing the end of their life, their state would reveal little about their experience, the significance of their life.

This is even more the case for my TIME computer. A metal box full of electronics, it is its part in my life that is important. That part reflects major events in my life, and also in my use of technology.

I recall the birth of my involvement with TIME Computers. I had access to a computer at work, and a very old, battered one at home for word-processing, and so I ruminated for a long time before buying a new machine. A glossy brochure featured Leonard Nimoy (the 1960s Mr Spock from Star Trek) on every page, and it all seemed very futuristic. One of the computer technicians at work encouraged me to buy a TIME machine: they were cheap and easily repaired, she had one herself, and would be happy to repair mine. I found TIME machines to be among the cheapest, cheaper than competitors like Dan, Tiny, Evesham and Dell (all but Dell now finished) and so purchased a package which included software and peripherals for about £1,100. It had a limited warranty, but I avoided the blandishments to acquire an extended warranty.

It all duly arrived, in a series of boxes, with assembly instructions. I laid it all out on the floor of the living room, the same one in which I am writing this on TIME’s successor. I still have the delivery note, from September 2000, and an instructions booklet. The same included a large number of address labels to return the machine to the Burnley factory at which it had been made. The number of labels was ominous, as was the insistence that the whole machine had to be returned in its original packaging if anything went wrong. On the one occasion that I did telephone the TIME helpline, paying £1 per minute, I was told that the machine would have to be picked up by courier, at a cost of £75, and that there would be a minimum labour charge of £35 even if the repairs could be completed in a minute. Needless to say, I did not return the machine, and my technician at work soon fixed the problem for a bottle of wine.

I had used emails at work, but with little interest, and had bought the TIME machine for word-processing and storage – a whole 20GB hard drive seemed a huge amount then, and one that would never be filled. I moved much of the contents of my boxes and boxes of floppy disks – some with files composed in Wordstar and WordPerfect, and still had a great deal of space.

I discovered that my new machine had a modem, and decided that I might as well see what dial-up would involve. I threaded an extension telephone cable from downstairs into my upstairs study, and connected up. It would prove expensive and erratic, but I suddenly found myself with a Supanet account, and able to surf the Net.

I soon found a practical need for that Internet connection. About six months after I acquired my TIME machine, my first wife Brenda fell ill, and cancer was diagnosed. We looked for advice in various leaflets, but I became aware that I could find more help on the Internet; an American medical university website proved especially helpful. After surgery to remove the tumour, I reassured myself with online information. The cost, and inconvenience, of dial-up deterred wider investigations. I mostly used TIME for the word-processing facility, spending many hours on the preparation of materials for work, and churning out short articles for local magazines. Although Brenda had worked for many years as an audio-typist (a job that hardly exists now), she did not use the computer at all, preferring to write by hand.

All this changed just after the beginning of 2002. Tests had suggested that my wife’s cancer had been successfully removed and that no secondaries had developed, and she had effectively been discharged. On holiday in Spain, however, she suddenly found it difficult to walk, and later collapsed. The Spanish hospital had no idea what was wrong, and she came home in a wheelchair. About a week followed, while I was trying to prepare a semester’s work on the TIME upstairs, while ministering to her needs downstairs. Then, on a Sunday, we were about to go out for lunch when she had a seizure. The next few days were a nightmare; rapid tests;, a terminal diagnosis of secondary brain tumours, with a vague suggestion that she might have six months to live; being told to wait in hospital for a Macmillan nurse, who was pleasant but had little practical to offer; and finally back home to deal with floods of well-wishers and await our fate.

At this point my TIME machine became less a means of working from home (I was granted compassionate leave) and more a means of finding anything that might help me and her. I read much about cancer and brain tumours, and found the addresses of support organizations. Contact was still then in the era of leaflets and meetings, but we only got to one meeting in Wirral, before her condition worsened further. She went into hospital as an emergency, and then to a hospice, where she died on 30th March – much earlier than expected.

That left me a widower, receiving counselling, living alone, with a full-time job, dwindling numbers of friends, and my TIME computer. “Throwing myself into my work” was a clichéd male solution that did not appeal (or work), and it was my TIME that proved a friend over the next year. If ever I write fully about my experiences in widowhood, it will be two parallel stories – one about my attempts to deal with bereavement, and the other about my early experiences of the Internet. Some of the latter now seems quite comically primitive.

I had never heard of message boards, but used a new searching device called Google to try to find websites that addressed the concerns of widowers. After many references to a film called The Widower, the searches eventually turned up a site called Widownet. This was a message board, mostly based in North America, and after reading many contributions I soon adopted a pseudonym and began to post myself. One early encounter was with “Puzzling Pete”, who was near to suicide, and, as I recall, I sent him a message saying that life could get better, and just to hang in there. Pete replied, with thanks, and the board would later record that he had remarried, then that he had lost his second wife, and then finally, four years ago, that he had married for a third time. Maybe my message helped. After this, I found myself posting less about my own situation, and much more attempting to help fellow-sufferers, most of them female. One of these Americans contacted me, and a very long and detailed correspondence by email resulted. Somehow the characteristics of two couples – she and her late husband, and myself and my late wife – seemed to overlap. There was no question of any romance or “dating”, but this correspondence stopped suddenly when I told her that I had met my new partner Sara.

I found online references to a British organisation for younger widowed people called the WAY Foundation, and joined this in the summer of 2002. My TIME computer helped me meet people here, through an email forum and through a chatroom attached to a message board. By October I had met widowed people, mostly female, face to face, in a local group which is still in existence in 2010. Through contacts on the email forum, I ended up on television, in a programme about widowers. But I also learned that the Internet, even in private areas, can harbour a darker side. I contributed to the email forum, providing help to as many people as possible, and this attracted the attention of a longstanding widower, who started to spread rumours that I was not whom I seemed. The story is a long one, but I sat at my screen horrified at the antics of this and other cyber-bullies and their followers (what we would now called “mobbing”).

This drove me into a deeper sense of despair than even at the time when my wife died. But then a young widower from Manchester contacted me and told me about a site in America known as GROWW (Grief Recovery Organised by Widows and Widowers). This included chat sites that were monitored and hosted, so that the personal invective and bad language that sometimes infest chatrooms could be prevented. I found that the “talk” was all supportive, but participants often appeared and then disappeared without further trace. One contributor went by the nickname “sarar”, and I got to know her electronically – she was younger than the others and lived only in Leeds, 85 miles away. In case she or I disappeared and wanted to trace the other, I requested her email, and suddenly we were in email contact. We moved to Instant Messaging, and eventually it seemed a good idea to meet face to face…..and we did.

However, while I have much for which to thank my TIME computer, by 2004, when I met Sara, it had been supplemented by a laptop. I had decided to scrap dial-up and acquired a broadband connection, but the TIME proved unable to handle this, so I plugged this into the laptop. After this, TIME reverted to use for word-processing and scanning – much time was spent scanning photographs of Brenda. The laptop often sat alongside the TIME, using the Net whilst I typed on its desktop companion.

And then, time began to run out for the TIME. The firm Time Computers itself went into insolvency in 2005, and not too long afterwards the power unit suddenly stopped working. £40 provided a replacement, but the computer repair shop said that the whole machine was outdated and would stop working altogether one day, as indeed it did. Not long afterwards, I bought a new desktop, and the TIME was disconnected and put to one side. The bulky monitor was given away on Freecycle, but I had kept the keyboard in use with the new desktop. Later last year this began to jam, so it was removed. The TIME found its way into my attic. I did not have the heart to destroy an old friend, and also, somewhere on its hard drive, there are email files that I could not remove easily. I have kept it in case easily usable technology is developed to clear hard drives from old computers. Primitive technology though it seems today, I will not forget the part that my TIME machine played in a very dark and sad period in my life.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Nostalgia and imagination: early memories of a seaside resort - 8 January 2011

In the early 1960s, when I was an infant, I spent several short holidays in Rhyl and Llandudno on the North Wales coast. After a gap, family holidays in Llandudno and Rhos-on-Sea resumed, and, later still I visited these places on numerous occasions from Wallasey. I could write much about my later experiences, in which many people close to me have been involved. It is, however, those earliest visits, about which memories are hazy, that form the foundation for a kind of imagined nostalgia. To revisit Llandudno today is to experience the re-framing of a wish for a home that I know never existed. This essay attempts to consider the nature of this nostalgia and its virtues.

“Nostalgia” has become a literary trope, an opportunity for irony, of ridicule, even self-ridicule. To discuss an element of private history need not involve public ridicule, even though it might seem to invite it. “Private history” seems an appropriate term to define a time for which memories are minimal, evidence limited and inference predominant. Unlike much public history, the need for verification is also minimal; if what seems to be remembered never happened, it hardly matters, since I am (and can be) the only real audience.

Imagination is essential to fill the voids between the shards of memory and the inferences. This is not the same, however, as “imagined nostalgia”, whereby we may be induced to feel connections with objects, people and places that we could never have experienced. Seaside resorts may try to trade on such emotions, so that their fading and decline may be seen as a lighter form of “dark tourism” inducing regret at loss, but this must have limited purchase.

Mine was probably the last generation in the British middle class where holidays were taken in places that previous generations had enjoyed. Thus one of the last photographs of my great grandfather was taken on Llandudno Pier in 1953, and his children all shared holidays with my father and his family in the same town. They certainly knew the heyday of places like Llandudno and Rhyl, whose declining attraction reminds me of worlds that my ancestors too, would have lost had they survived. Yet my imagination induces a different kind of nostalgia, one not remotely public or marketable.

A good historian gathers evidence from available sources, analyses it, and presents a coherent account that is verifiable (unless further research proves it invalid or limited). In my case, I have consulted enough sources to present, if one was required, a passable historical portrait of Llandudno and district in the early 1960s. Some of those sources are recent, as enthusiasts (they have their own website, to which I contribute occasionally) have brought forward their own scattered memories and copies of photographs and other artefacts. For personal memories from survivors, I have consulted my sisters and my mother, now 85. Mum recalls why we went there, but her memories have become mixed up with many other visits, including one during which she nearly died. Her most insistent memory, which provides an uncomfortable challenge to nostalgia, is that I always suffered from digestive disorders. The connection between these and sources of stress in my life provoke a different set of traumatic memories, but I do not recall how I felt, only that, in a factual sense, storms did accompany the sunlight. Maybe these were unhappy times, but that evidence provides me with no secure basis for any reconstruction of my life on these visits. I could, in fact, write an account that would probably accurately describe what a middle-class infant from Wallasey did on holiday. But none of that would come close to the past that I imagine.

My only positive impression from these visits is of places, like the Promenade and the roads round and up the Great Orme. Perhaps my lifelong interest in geography began there, and in history from realising that so much would change. The rest is best described as cloudy, surrounding the droplets of memory, amorphous and unclear but very positively present. I can imagine the small boy sitting behind Dad in the car, on steep hills and round the tight bends of the road leading down from the Great Orme; eating in the hotel restaurant in which my parents were at home but I uncertain; and playing on the beach framed by the semi-circular bay. It is my later self that has coated these fragments with a sense of place akin to home, so that later visits have felt like a return to the familiar. The sense of loss is imaginary, literally, in that I do not know what experience it is that I miss.

The word “nostalgia” was coined to characterise a pathological yearning for home, but there is nothing traumatic about my own sense of nostalgia. It is not melancholic or laden with grief; instead imagination is a root of creativity. I turn over every possible piece of evidence merely to make an opaque vision slightly clearer. The rest essentially provides a pleasure of place – illusory, no doubt, but a private pleasure borne by the intimacy of contact with a past that cannot be contested. The historian in me is irritated and perplexed by the lack of clarity and verifiability, but in this case the rest of me is content to let imagination dominate.

I know one reason for this. In that world so dimly glimpsed, many traumas had not been experienced, and I did not know that they would. With part of an historian’s sensitivity, I can imagine a life of literal naivety, in which nothing threatening had yet happened. I can reach back to a world from which I have grown, but from which many other possibilities could have developed. I feel no wish, however, to return to a childhood that I know was unhappy. It is the desire to revisit, as an adult, to know the lives of people who now provoke limited recall, and places that seemed to matter to them. Imagination can help to allow the intimacy of place to draw closer to lives, long extinguished, of people who also felt some of that intimacy, albeit in very different ways.

This very early past is glimpsed from a hinterland of much more solid memories from many subsequent visits. There is no real way back, I now perceive, to a greater level of recollection of the early 1960s, and reconstructions, even using the dry evidence of visual and oral witness, might produce only false memories, although harmless ones. Such nostalgia, reflecting temporal dislocation more than spatial dislocation (from an area in which much remains recognisable), can be harnessed as a creative force. The gap between an imagined past and the probable “real” history need not prompt contempt or disdain. If we often live as though façades represent reality, that does not negate the value of discovering the influence of the imaginary, and the role of imagination in producing a richer sense of the past than that founded solely on factual evidence.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Lewis’ of Liverpool – some reflections on closure and loss 2007-2010

I have lived in Merseyside for all but one year of my life, and in Wallasey for most of that time. In boyhood, I first lived near Wallasey Grove Road station and later, although further away, in Grove Road itself. Until 1977 the underground railway to Liverpool then terminated at Liverpool Central Station. Walking up the wide steps from the station platform, the left side led out into the open air. Turning right took me to a passage and along to stairs and an escalator that led directly into Lewis’ store. I do not know when this passage was dug out, but the wall finishes would suggest around the later 1960s. It made it possible to visit the store from the Wirral without ever emerging onto the streets of Liverpool, which seemed in my childhood to be novel.

Lewis’ store was like part of the furniture in the lives of many people on Merseyside. A shop had been founded there in 1856, and it became a major department store in the later Victorian era. The building in Ranelagh Street had been reduced to a shell by wartime bombing; later, I encountered the architect involved, who asserted that its restoration was the largest war damage project in the region, if not the whole UK. Lewis’ was somehow always there, and it was a shock when its then owners, the transnational Sears, announced in 1991 that it was to close. After Owen Owen rescued it, many departments closed down, reducing the rabbit warren of floors to four. In the process, the store became more like a bazaar, with various concessions taking up what had been a single retail operation. In the churning of assets now familiar in High Street retailing, the ownership of Owen Owen itself changed, reducing its chain of stores to the solitary one trading under the name of Lewis’ of Liverpool.

I had had no idea that Lewis’ was in any difficulties until I drove past and saw “Closing down” posters in its windows. I learned that it was to close in early May 2007, and so visited, with Sara, partly to see what bargains might be left, but also to look round a building that I had always known. We visited the basement first, the escalator leading to this having been long boarded over. The Food Hall, long well-known for various exotic products (many of which were probably end-of-line remnants) was reduced in size; the tea-room next to it looking sad, with old photographs and prints of Lewis’ advertisements on the wall. Even the coffee machine had broken down, and the person in charge glumly said that there were orders not to mend it.

I photographed parts of the interior, especially the exits, with the handrails and wall finishes of what had been an ornate entrance before it was obscured by the installation of fire protection screens. The place was clearly in its last days, with whole areas cleared. Sara bought a perfume bottle that turned out to have no price – it was a tester, but even that was for sale – and upstairs was a whole area in which counters and display cabinets were on sale. I rarely shop for clothes, and was surprised to reach the top two remaining floors, and to realize that I had never ventured up to these for many years. At the far end of the top floor was a restaurant area, where I saw something that now appeared anomalous. An older man was there smoking a cigarette – something banned in Wales since April 2007, and banned in England shortly afterwards.

It was a sad occasion, but I wondered why I felt this way, as I do viewing empty buildings and photographs of vacant hospitals and other buildings unearthed by urban explorers. Partly, I think, because I had always known the place. I had been a student and later a member of staff in the same building in Clarence Street, less than half a mile away, and had often dropped in to Lewis’, sometimes to buy birthday cards or odd food items, more often to avoid the rain, on the way to Liverpool Central Station and home through the underground railway. I am aware of the contradiction in such feelings. I find younger people much more consumerist and retail-conscious than my own generation, so that buying clothes with odd names like Diesel from stores with odder names like River Island (What River? What Island?) seems to be a major part of their lives. It is easy to invalidate such feelings, to point out that clothes are mostly made by children elsewhere in appalling conditions, that “fashion” is a cynical means of creating planned obsolescence, and that shops are just big boxes to store and sell goods. Indeed, this is something that I tell students, to deconstruct their feelings about the pleasures of shopping and instead substitute a view of retail properties as investments. Accounts by staff, in retail as well as leisure and other customer-encountering occupations, make it clear how little they buy the dream when it is sold on the basis of poor pay and conditions.

And yet, despite the ease with which the curtain of illusion can be lifted, there is something of substance in feelings for a place so well known. For any place which so many have known, its function as retail, as a source of profit (or, as press reports revealed, major financial losses in recent years) is not the only supplier of meaning. When I told my mother that the store was to close, she was shocked, as she had never know a time when it was not there, and she was then 82 years old. She related fondly one of her father’s memories about Lewis’. In his childhood he was fascinated to find that the basement had been flooded and a Santa’s grotto constructed on an island reached by boats. Since her father was born around 1884, this memory must have derived from the 1890s, illustrating the deep roots of the place in memories of those long gone. As does the Jacob Epstein statue of a huge naked man, known as Liverpool Resurgent, which has amused many people and shocked some of the prudish since it was completed 50 years ago. So much is talked about “heritage” in terms of architectural structures that need to be conserved, but in the case of Lewis’ and other places it is, perhaps, the heritage of memory and meaning that needs to be considered.

I write now on the day that Borders bookstores opens for the final time; another big box, at Cheshire Oaks near Ellesmere Port, which has been a familiar place for Sara and I since we met. A cynic would point out that this was a US operation taken over by private equity interests with the sole aim of increasing profitability, an aim that has failed. But I know others that feel that a landmark, part of their lives, has been removed.

As for Lewis’, it reopened on the brink of closure, when a previous owner acquired it. I walked round it today, but experienced different feelings from those of 2007. It has reverted to its earlier form of a big box ripe for further conversion – a hotel is mooted for the upper floors. Perhaps it is only when spaces and places can no longer be accessed, it seems, can other values, of care and grief at impending loss, be experienced and expressed. The rest, for now, belongs to memory.

Postscript February 2010
It has been announced that Lewis’ will close finally in June 2010, with the redevelopment of the area behind. Parts of the façade will be retained. I plan to write about my further thoughts on this.

Postscript April 2010
The Conservation Centre in Liverpool has an exhibition about the "lost" fifth floor, abandoned since the first closure. The website is interesting, and I hope to visit this and perhaps take a tour of the fifth floor before the whole place finally closes. More to write about here.

J 22-12-2009 slight editing 8-4-10

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Leaving a decade - written 31 December 2009

When many of us look back to the twentieth century, it is often portrayed in terms of decades – especially the 1960s. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, and feel that much that is attributed to the 1960s – the student revolt, for instance – is characteristic of the early 1970s. The making of that assertion, in itself, reproduces the tendency to associate memories and records with a specific decade.

Yet calendar-making, and even the precision of clock timing, are comparatively recent; and there are other cultures which have their own dates and times. Our precision seems to relate partly to taxation (on an annual basis) and the abolition of local time essential to run railways. I suspect that the fetishism of decades (to over-state it) is at least partly a creation of the media – primarily newspapers and television, but also books and magazines. The attraction of grouping disparate events into neat chronologies has perhaps proved too great, even though those chronologies may have been used to over-generalise and devalue the uniqueness of individual experience.

The fin-de-siecle perspective popularised by the earliest large-scale newspapers in the 1890s was hardly a match for the hysteria of ten years ago, around the Millennium. I heard, anecdotally, of a hotel near Wrexham that was offering the “Millennium experience” (one half board overnight stay, with entertainment) for around £3,500. My own Millennium experience was somewhat more parochial – my wife lay in bed through the evening, whilst I recall going out into the garden, with fireworks going off in houses around ours, wondering whether I was doing too little to mark the occasion. A week later, she was in hospital with suspected pneumonia, while the rest of us discovered that, fear of computer failures apart, the world was little different with a new digit in front of the year.

There seems to be far less hysteria around the ending of the first decade of the 21st century, although lists of main events, and attempts to characterise the “noughties”, have appeared on internet sites. One of these has revealed that one of the best selling albums (as they are still called) is an anthology of The Beatles. It would be astonishing to imagine a band from the 1920s proving the best-seller in the 1960s, but less surprising, given that much popular music seems to be viewed as the product of a past Golden Age; as I ceased to listen to pop music, or watch television, eight years ago, I am not qualified to comment. When such music is deemed to be the ephemeral preserve of the young, it is somehow heartening, if puzzling, to consider that four men who would now all be pensioners, and one of whom died 29 years ago, should still find their work popular today. Much the same applies to Michael Jackson, who was about to begin a comeback/farewell tour at the age of 50, had he not died. I recall him as a somewhat screechy young boy, who, 40 years ago, fronted the Jackson 5.

On the eve of a new decade, there is much media speculation as to how the last ten years will be viewed. One common feature that I would highlight is the development of information technology. I am writing this piece on a laptop, may well place it on a personal weblog, could inform people in newsgroups of which I am a member, and could highlight it to some of my “friends” in Facebook. That sentence uses terms that would be unintelligible 10 years ago. Yesterday I carried out an oral history interview of a man who commented that 10 years ago emails were merely used for internal communications, whereas his successors must now receive many emails from members of the public. He showed me a document that his former employers will send to members of the public in printed form, but which, I found, can be downloaded directly from its website. I photographed this man and am able to email the photograph and the recording of the interview to him. Today I drove past a series of derelict wooden huts in the Yorkshire Dales, and found an history of this place – Linton Residential School - on the Net, with links to many digital photographs. My use of IT has become routine and low-tech, using inexpensive equipment. All of this technology has been an advance – as an avid taker of photographs for 30 years, digital photography, with its minimal cost and reproducibility, feels like one of the most important inventions ever. The abuses of IT, and the dangers to everything we value individually and collectively, are another matter.

Politics in Britain, and the rest of the world, have developed in the 2000s in ways that have moved from disappointment to despair in some quarters. This was the only decade when Labour was in office for the whole period, but for many it was not one on which the Thatcherite legacy was firmly repudiated, destroyed and the foundations of a new politics laid in permanent fashion. Instead, Thatcherism was consolidated and enlarged by the Blair governments, which provided the coup de grace for social democratic politics, starting at leadership level and working down to ordinary supporters. Despite the huge global financial crisis, the dominance of free enterprise in mainstream political movements has become absolute. The noughties proved to be the decade in which I distanced myself more and more from political involvement. I seem to be in good company. My experience has reflected the impact of systems that replace democratic decision-making by management. This has been the decade of a particular kind of “management” thinking, characterised by targets, benchmarks, indicators, and the ticking of boxes, assuring quality on paper but often producing anything but quality of experience for participants.

The noughties proved to be the decade in which my encounters with grief and loss proved to be intensive, and far removed from the abstractions produced by professionals and academics. In 2000 my first wife was diagnosed with cancer, and, despite treatment that was apparently successful, died early in 2002. I underwent a rapid education in the nature of grief, mostly self-taught, as I struggled to understand feelings that few writings, many purportedly scientific, seemed able to ameliorate. What I learned was that grief is not an unpleasant place to which a road takes you, and from which you need to find another road, so that the unpleasant place becomes a memory. Grief is the territory over which roads traverse, and you need to find another road, often a stony one, that will take you through this life without miring yourself in grief. The irony is that, ten years later, I am in many ways happier than I was in 2000, more reconciled to the pervading sense of loss, and in happier circumstances. Much of that is due to my second wife, whose love has provided a sense of purpose for the future. We are travelling very different roads together from those which would have been followed with our first partners, but there is hope. I remain keen to understand grief and loss, now from a more objective, less painful, position. One legacy I might leave could lie in attempts to publish some account of the insights from my journey.

If there is hope for the future, it is rooted, ironically, in the threats that climate change and other environmental problems pose to the future of humanity. Noone would wish these threats to be there, but they need to be taken seriously, and there have been advances here in knowledge and interpretation, The 1950s saw small numbers of people who expressed concern about the environment, but it was in the 1960s that the threats began to be expounded. The 1970s saw environmentalists ridiculed, but steady advances in science, but in the 1980s, the era of Brundtland, the first ideas of sustainability began to be taken seriously by governments. In the 1990s, I began to teach environmental management to professional students who took this seriously, and began to appreciate the challenges that solutions might bring. By the 2000s, concern about the environment had become mainstream, with only small number of sceptics. The rhetoric is in place, but the real solutions, the new approaches to politics, including common responsibilities over the globe, have been slow to develop. Despite the very limited steps agreed at Copenhagen in the last month of this decade, there is hope that the coming decade will involve real change to respond to real threats. We end on hope but with the fear that if reality lacks so far behind rhetoric, the next decade will feature long-term, irreversible damage to the global environment.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Corris and Dinas Mawddwy – musings 28th June 2009

Today we visited the Corris Railway and Museum and the Merrion Mill at Dinas Mawddwy. This led to reflections on the nature of the past and its presentation, and also on continuities.

The line of the Corris Railway after closure was not at all obvious. A wide shelf, often below the road level, alongside the main road between Corris, Pantperthog and below, roughly fenced in slate, provided the main sign, and between 1982 and 2009 much of this was altered, with the provision of skid rails and the widening of the road over parts of the site. My first recollection, on my visits in the 1980s, was of the building at what is now called Maesporth Junction, with the eventual appearance of a short length of rail. Compared with the Talyllyn nearby, this seemed both a forlorn hope and a token attempt at preserving some sort of remains. After final closure in 1948, and subsequent demolition, two locomotives and some rails had been salvaged by the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, and it seemed unlikely that revival would ever happen.

We began at the only station, with its accompanying museum, visiting the latter before and after the rail journey. This was in exceptional heat, and we sat in one of two carriages, on wooden bench seats, talking to a lady from London who owned two separate weeks of a timeshare at Plas Talgarth, and was enjoying the second one. She said that the timeshare grounds were well-maintained, but that the timeshares themselves were almost impossible to sell. She had not considered buying the rights to the intervening week, as she barely had time to get away from her other commitments. Like many retired people, she had become so involved with voluntary work that she could not get away for long, and she had had to find someone to over her for the two separate weeks when she was away. She said that she was planning to downsize and that if she moved she could get away from her voluntary commitments. It made me wonder about the "voluntary" nature of "voluntary commitments".

The journey along the line was disappointingly short – two straight sections and a bend, with no overbridges or underbridges – indeed, the Corris had few, if any, of these. There were views across the valley of a large modern house and a well-screened caravan park. It was not long before the train arrived at Maesporth. This, historically, was the point where there was an engine shed, and there was now the preserved version and a new shed which had just been completed with some Objective One and WAG money. We were shown round by a volunteer, a younger middle-aged man in a waistcoat and bowler hat. The chequered and complex history of the Corris lines, from horse-drawn to locomotives, was sketched, and the modern locomotives, for which all the money had been raised by volunteers with some wealthy benefactors. It was stressed that money and volunteers were sought, and this was one of the few preserved lines that did not have departments, so that volunteers could work on track or locomotives as they wished, and the driving of the latter could be carried out at a much earlier stage than on other lines. There were plans to extend the line south to the Forestry Commission site at Tynycoed, at which visitors could park to take the line up to the museum.

One feature mentioned by our guide was the concerns about the Talyllyn; pressed, he pointed out that it had experienced financial problems and had had to sack the general manager and appoint a previous one on a voluntary basis. Considering that the first general manager, Tom Rolt, was paid on a limited basis in 1951-2, as were presumably his successors, this seems to be a step backwards. I wonder if this is a consequence of the recession and the reduction in tourism, or because the Talyllyn is static as an attraction (bar the rebuilt museum at Tywyn) and the new Welsh Highland seemed about to open fully [actually, not until 2011].

Our guide stressed that the employee who used to fire the engines in the shed at Maesporth worked a 14.5 hour day, with leave only on part of Sunday! I have read about the very low pay to those at the Centre for Alternative Technology, and that this is one of the few operations that actually pays anyone. Maybe these tourist attractions – for that is what they are – are based on minimal or no pay, at levels that may not prove sustainable.

We returned slowly to drink coffee and buy two books at the Museum. This was an oddly old-fashioned building and exhibits, one a carriage that had been used as a henhouse for many years, and some excellent models that showed, for instance, the way the working line had looked at Pantperthog. It was all somewhat miscellaneous, and did not tell the story in any structured way, but was nevertheless interesting, as an example of a museum inspired by amateurs.

We talked to the very vocal and affable man behind the counter, who had come there with his wife, from Rhyl, about 1.5 hours drive away. He revealed that he had been out of work for about 12 months, and I wonder how he affords the journey to Corris – maybe his expenses are paid, and I hope so. He proved to have interests that crossed with mine – he was President of the sailing club at Foryd, which Denbighshire Council was hoping to improve. He had a love of non-fiction books, and a large collection. And he was trying to find out about his father, who had died 30 years ago, having been in the Great War. He had tried to find out his war record, had been to a regimental museum, and had seen a book there, which he wanted to read again, but could not find through the internet. He was surprised when I pointed out that any book could usually be obtained through inter-library loans. I suggested that he should contact my sister about genealogy, since he wanted to find descendants, if any, of his father. As we were talking, an older man came and showed him a photograph in a railway magazine of himself on the locomotive Katie, which is used by the Duke of Westminster at Eaton Hall. The track there is just used for pleasure, but he said that it used to run parallel to the main drive at Eaton Hall and across the fields to Balderton, over land that has been partly sold. What was strange is that we had seen Katie at Whit, and that an earlier Katie had inspired Tom Rolt, who visited other narrow lines and co-founded the TRPS, on a line less than 10 miles away…… Coincidence has a long arm. In different ways, all three of us were engaging with very different pasts, as was, indeed the railway and the enthusiasts who backed it.

We made our farewells and drove up a long and remote road before Aberfelleni, with many dramatic slate workings, one apparently in use, and then through the forest to Aberangell and north to Dinas Mawddwy. Our destination was Merrion Mill, in the remains of the terminal station of the branch line to Dinas. Just before it began to pour with rain, we got into the mill, and there I found an odd booklet, Arriving at Dinas Mawddwy, that in fact dealt with the railway and the mill building.

Like the Corris, the GWR had taken over the branch to Dinas and removed passenger traffic in 1930, in the face of bus competition, while damage caused by the Dovey floods had led to total closure in 1951 (against 1948 in the case of the Corris. The Dinas line had been built to exploit the same veins of slate as the Corris, and it too had been the subject of plans for ambitious extensions northwards, to Bala in its case as against Dolgellau for the Corris. The Corris Railway Society had been formed in 1970, and has steadily revived elements of its line, but the Dinas line was the subject of quite different approaches.

Even before final closure, a group of farmers had taken over a terminal quarry building, now the Merrion Mill. From 1946 they began to weave wool there, the produce of their own sheep, with the control and guarantee of prices in mind. This lasted, on a limited and reducing scale, until 1963, after which a Yorkshire firm took over, modernised the building and machinery, until it became insolvent in 1965. Another firm took over in 1966 and restored the mill and many of the station buildings; from 1974 this planned to run a short preserved line from the Mill. This operated in 1975 but not for long afterwards, due to increasing costs and limited viability. It seems that this was run as a commercial operation, and it is interesting that this started and ended before the Corris had laid a single rail over its line. The booklet makes it clear that weaving continued at Merrion Mill, but not when it ended (although its last edition was in 2004, little seems to have been updated since the first in 1974). The Mill is now a large shop, with a tea-room, selling woollens, other clothes and memorabilia.

Both the Corris and Dinas quarries began as part of speculative efforts to exploit slate an other resources (part of the “improvement” of the area, explicit in the case of Dinas), and in a way they have ended as part of late 20th century tourist development. They have now also become enmeshed with a past, in ways that remain indeterminate and ambiguous.

Old Novelists Interred Once More - September 20 2009

Yet more musings, as I begin to rid myself of some old books…

Some time in the early 1970s, while I was still at school, my mother told me about novelists that she had read in the 1930s and 1940s. She had very few examples of their work now, and the libraries, even then, had removed many of these from their shelves. Charity shops were just about beginning – the Oxfam Shop was always the one that people cited – but there were more shops that simply sold old books, rather than antiquarian or first editions at vast prices. As an aside, it is only recently that one of the last shops that I can recall to be billed as selling “Old Books” – Stothert’s of Chester - closed, citing Internet sales and rates as a reason. Their shop on Nicholas Street is now occupied by a hairdresser.

So my Mother suggested various authors whom, she said, had been popular in her youth, but seemed to be no longer so. Jeffrey Farnol’s The Broad Highway (1910) was one; this has lately been reissued and its text fully available on Gutenberg. The author that has remained fairly popular, J B Priestley, could still be found on the library shelves – I read Angel Pavement (1929) and The Good Companions (1930) at her suggestion. Priestley (1894-1984) was still then alive, and I recall reading The Magicians (1954) and The Image Men (1968) as fairly recent novels rather than as old books in need of discovery. There is now a J B Priestley Society, formed by his son in 1997. There is also a Society for Francis Brett Young, whose regional novels, many set in the West Midlands, were popular in the 1930s. I read one or two of these, with well-evoked settings but unmemorable narratives.

There are no such societies for some of the other authors, almost forgotten, to whom she introduced me. I think that I had already come across Dennis Wheatley, with his Black Magic books, like The Devil Rides Out, and tall tales like The Eunuch of Stamboul. But I had not heard of authors like Hugh Walpole and L A G Strong. Strong’s Dewer Rides seemed impressive, and a favourite, about Ireland, was The Bay. I acquired books by Strong in the closing months of 1974, when I was at university, and also in Wallasey and West Kirby. I read some of these, but did not get too far with Walpole, whose writing style was stodgy.

This stodginess did not prevent me from seeking to acquire all of Walpole’s novels; the collector’s instinct had taken over, the hunt more important than the “bag”. I recall arriving at University, in a strange town, and finding a rather dusty charity bookshop in the town. The old man who ran it, who must by now be long gone, told me that he read old novels every day, and introduced me to Mrs Henry Wood, author of the best-selling East Lynne (1861), and others. One time whilst I was there I mentioned Walpole, and a youngish man in the shop said that he, too, was seeking books by Hugh Walpole. His name was Terry, and he proved to be a university lecturer; he and his wife invited me to dinner at their home, where they talked about Hugh Walpole. I think I visited one or twice more, with a spare copy of a Walpole novel, and then I lost contact.

I had also espied, on my parents shelf, a book named And Berry Came Too (1936), by Dornford Yates. Yates’ novels and short stories were fantasies of two kind: light romantic comedies set in country houses, and the desperado adventures (“ripping yarns”, one writer has commented) in Ruritania of upper-class clubland heroes akin to those of Buchan and Sapper, or even as forerunners of the later James Bond. I collected these for many years, and even bought the biography after it appeared in 1982. The biography confirmed the nature of the author – ineffably snobbish and racist – but readable.

I am not now entirely sure exactly why I collected these books. Partly it was the wish to fill shelves, to have something that expressed something of me. And partly, I had some sort of notion that I could study these books and find some continuing value in them. Perhaps also it was a way of connecting with the world of my mother, although talking to her tonight she has few memories of these authors or even recommending them.

It became clear to me long ago that I would never have time to read most of these books, let alone write a critical study. I have many other books on my shelves, and in boxes in the loft, that represent projects that I will never complete. So, it is time that these found another collector, although I suspect that the relevant collector will be the one who empties the skip. It is, even now, a wrench, disposing of these books, a discarding of something that had meaning once. But, with the meaning gone, it is wasteful to keep the evidence for what I already know.

I will retain a small representative sample, notably Strong’s The Bay, and Angel Pavement. Most of the rest will probably disappear from public view, as well they might. It is likely that only curiosity, or students of the history of reading, as against literature, will inspire interest in these sorts of books in future.

Heritage and Sligo – some musings on 2 July 2008

This was partly a diary entry, partly an opportunity to reflect upon my views of conservation, on what was the fourth full day in Ireland.

The weather forecast had indicated a day of torrential rain today, and when it turned out not to be raining, we had decided to go to Enniskillen. When I accidentally turned into the wrong road, past Knockvicar, and there seemed to be the first signs of sun, we decided to take the smaller road to Sligo, through the hills, and then decide where to go. Bordering County Leitrim, which itself borders Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, our decision would have been made for us 20 years ago. To cross the border would have been difficult, entailing queues and perhaps searches. Instead, I spent the day with our UK passports in my shirt pocket. Noone has asked to see these; on my third visit to Ireland I had travelled on an out-of-date passport, and risked being sent back to my own country, presumably to the North. No such problems today; but I wonder how many of the holiday homes so much in evidence in Sligo and Leitrim are patronised by UK citizens from the North rather than by people from the much more distant cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick. We will be visiting the Erne on the North, which before the Troubles was a growing holiday area. I recall a somewhat quirky TV programme in which someone from tourism in the North was extolling the virtues of the Erne – apparently filmed from a boat in which he was on his own.

Sligo was soon reached; with a population one-third of that of Wallasey, and yet crowded and congested, so that we did not park. Instead we drove along the coast to Strandhill, a small seaside resort that reminded Sara somewhat of beach resorts in Anglesey. A very wide and steep slipway led down to a stony beach, beyond which there were wide if poorly-accessed sands. Prominent signs erected by Sligo County Council warned visitors against swimming, and stated that “There is no lifeguard on duty”. A young woman sitting cross-legged on the sea wall gave the lie to the latter, while there were numerous people in the water, sea-canoeing, surfing and swimming. This is a country in which there are dire penalties for breaking laws that seem rarely to be enforced, like those fining gum-chewers 150 euros for not depositing their gum in a bin. At Mullaghmore we followed the dog round with a plastic bag, and a young woman commended us, but said that the law on dog mess was rarely adhered to. Perhaps the direct flouting of planning principles, in the provision of suburban housing in unserviced locations, reflects this disdain for inconvenient laws.

We had coffee outside a pub, which, like many in Ireland, proved to be much bigger than it looked from the outside, and watched a group in black ties leaving a wake that had evidently taken place there. Families seem more together here, and people friendlier – perhaps one result is less evidence of abusive children. It is an irony that a country that regularly elects a conservative government (albeit sometimes with leftish-nationalist leanings) and is so dominated by the Catholic church, both anathema to me, should feature such friendly, polite and generous people.

A reminder of a different kind of conservatism awaited us at Lissadell House, which we visited on impulse. It was described in our out-of-date guide as being in a forest, belonging to the Gore-Booth family, and having teas served in the basement kitchen. Only the former remains true, and since the house and 200 acres were sold by the surviving Gore-Booths in 2003, for 3.7 million euros, much has changed. It has been acquired by two barristers and is being developed as a much more modern heritage attraction.

One less attractive feature was the need to park (anywhere outside the official car park was strictly subject to wheel-clamping) and then to the far end of the “Coach House” to find out the charges for visiting the house (and indeed the separate charges for the exhibition and gardens). 6 euros each, for a guided tour of the house, seemed not so bad, although it was a rushed tour of about 45 minutes, and Sara, walking with a stick, had to walk a fair distance to get to the front of the house. A small party assembled there, and we were conducted quickly round by a female guide who told us that she took tours round every day from 1030 onwards. Sara commented about one feature, and was surprised when the guide told her, warmly enough, that many people never asked anything or commented at all.

The public rooms in the house proved, frankly, ugly and cold, with the exception of a central room used as a music room, which was breath-taking. Much more interesting was the story of the family, very much an English family, but, unlike many whose houses were burnt down (one reason why there are so many fewer country houses in Ireland than in the UK), the English estates were used to support the Lissadell estate and some of the excesses of absentee landlordism were avoided. Quite what “heritage” this now represents for visitors from the Irish Republic or Northern Ireland, is unclear. In England, most country house owners were English, as were their tenants. That the English owners of Lissadell were concerned about possible rebellion is shown by the bars across some of the basement windows.

Yet concerns about Irish rebellion were much closer to home. Two Gore-Booth sisters brought up at Lissadell during the Victorian era were to prove rebellious. Eve, the younger sister, was to become a suffragette, but her older sister Constance, was to become a revolutionary. Having been trained by her father in shooting, she turned this into support for the Easter Rising of 1916, for which she was condemned to death, her sentence only commuted because she was female. After release, and married to a Polish aristocrat named Markewicz (the family had had him investigated, and discovered that he had the right to the title but no land or wealth went with it) she became successively the first female M.P. in the Westminster parliament and then the first female TD in the new Dail. Representing Sinn Fein, she did not take up the first seat and was part of the Anti-Treaty forces, but when she died in 1927 (aged 59) around 400,000 people lined the streets of Dublin before her funeral. Countess Markewicz had been disowned by her family, but he story is part of the “heritage” of Lissadell, commemorated in an exhibition there. Why she joined nationalist forces for a nation that was not hers is uncertain, as, indeed are the reasons why she went against the interests of her class. Over 80 years after her death, one wonders at the meaning of her life at this house, and indeed, with Irish politics still nominally divided along neo-nationalist lines, what Irish visitors make of her is unclear. Probably the barristers who own the place now see her as a quaint if misguided figure, as many revolutionary figures from 1968 and after are now viewed (although not by figures like Sarkozy).

A further “heritage” is one whose details are contained in a folder of press cuttings on the billiard table in the room where the tour is assembled. The “Lissadell affair” indicates the strange nature of ownership and the legal fictions that surround it. What seems to have happened is that the Gore-Booths owned the estate into the 1939 war, in which two of the heirs were killed. This left an heir, Michael, who had been declared insane in 1944, and, it seems, spent most of the rest of his life (he died in 1987) in a mental hospital in England. Other family members lived at Lissadell, at least in summer, but Michael was declared a ward of court, and upon inheritance on 1952, the Court Solicitor was deemed to manage his affairs. This was challenged by a family member, living at the house, who alleged mismanagement at the estate, including the sale of timber without proper accounting or re-planting.

In 1961 this was the subject of inquiry, but with no opinion issued until 1965. When it appeared, this opinion accused the family member of interfering, claiming that she had no right to live in the house or interfere with the affairs of the estate. It was suggested that she was only allowed to live there because it was assumed that these would be Michael’s wishes; but it was also suggested in the press in 1971 that, had Ireland had an Ombudsman, the “Lissadell affair” would prove a classic case of maladministration for it to investigate. To me, it demonstrates some of the falsities and fictions around the notion of “ownership”. Who, ultimately, owns our environment- if not all of us? When mental incapacity meant that the legal owner could not be entrusted with ownership, a strange branch of the state, with strict trusteeship duties, was forced to intervene and consider, or determine, what that owner would have done had his mental capacity been adequate. What appears to have resulted is the rundown of the Lissadell estate – although how far that would have happened anyway, and how legitimate were the “interests” of that “estate”, are different matters.

There were some connections with Lissadell and W B Yeats, and indeed the area around there has been dubbed “Yeats country”, as though his spirit still animated the place. Sara commented, when we passed a signpost for his grave, that often the burial place, or places where an author had lived, provides no clues, or even produces false clues, about that person’s art or inspiration. Indeed, the area must have changed so much in the almost 70 years since the poet died, that it is hard to envisage what it must have been like. What Yeats would think of modern Irish society is also unclear.

He would probably not approve of the European Union, although our visit to Murraghmore, off the main road, brought a reminder of this. Murraghmore’s remote location, as a headland overlooking a bay, has been much compromised by the erection of numerous modern bungalows, some apparently as holiday homes. We decided to visit the beach, which has a surviving dune system behind it, but our attention was caught by a bin from which crows, no respecter of waste management policies, had pulled out various items of rubbish, which lay strewn around. A noticeboard stated that a substantial part of Murraghmore Head is a Special Area of Conservation; it stressed the inadvertent damage caused to the dunes by dogs, by trampling and by the casual and agricultural removal of sand. Despite the "traditional" nature of the latter, it is now discouraged. We had a reminder the following day of a similar EU policy protecting habitats, with bans on the hand-digging of small quantities of turf. This indicates a clash between two approaches to conservation, one stressing cultural links with environmental practices, the other overriding such practices in the interests of a largely inanimate nature.

A final point of discussion was presented by our final stop of a long day’s journey. After eating in a largely deserted pub in Bundoran, we followed a scenic route through the hills towards Lough Allen. We drove past a Waterways Ireland sign to Spencer Harbour, and turned round to follow a driveway to one of only two harbours on Lough Allen. Lough Allen is the highest of several lakes on the Shannon and has played a part in the hydropower scheme that was one of the Irish Free State’s first major infrastructure investments, involving its earliest parastatal, the Electricity Supply Board. The adjustment of levels on the Shannon was critical after this scheme was completed in the late 1920s, and one consequence was the cessation of navigation through the Lough Allen Canal, through which the last boat passed to the Shannon in 1932. The levels of Lough Allen and of the small Acres Lake, downstream, were kept much lower preventing the use of the Canal, which became derelict. The ambiguities in hydropower, its effect on nature conservation and on water transport should be stressed.

The use of Lough Allen for freight transport has long ceased; one curiosity is the derelict brickworks next to Spencer Harbour, which has the remains of timber landings next to it, but which were probably never used after the nineteenth century. Its use for leisure transport has returned, at considerable expense. Gentle campaigning by the IWAI led to restoration of the first section to Acres Lake in 1994, and the new lock, with variable rise, into Lough Allen ten years later. I had already visited Acres Lake and met an angler there, who confirmed that the lake level had been greatly raised to permit restoration, while extensive new jetties had been provided. Despite this, there was one boat moored there and one hire boat that arrived whilst I was there.

Spencer Harbour also featured a solitary moored boat, and there seemed to be one boat at the harbour distant on the far side of the lake. Shannon harbours are very different from installations on British waterways; they usually feature access roads and car parking, w.c. and shower blocks, and extensive staging. The environmental impact of this engineering is unclear, and it is noteworthy that WI now plan to extend navigation up from Lough Allen towards Annagh, with the need for dredging and some rock removal. To “restore” navigation is thus to change the environment and perhaps damage tranquillity and modify landscapes, with some impact on wildlife. Ironically, this is to try to increase patronage by visiting boats, whose numbers seem to be declining. Like much “development” in Ireland, this does not always serve to assure greater sustainability.

Reflections on folklife - from 6 July 2008

Further musings, from a holiday in Ireland.

Today I visited the National Museum of Ireland’s Country Life museum at Turlough. The setting for this is odd – parkland next to a major road, with a Victorian house, Turlough Park House (from 1865) in restored parkland. Next to this is a modern building set into a hillside, designed by the Architectural Services of the Office of Public Works, and a credit to them. This, and the museum, opened in 2001, many years after the first collecting of artefacts began; a large building, not accessible to the public, houses much of the collections. We attended a guided tour, and our guide stressed that only a small part of the collection was on display.

Before the tour, Sara and I watched a video made in 2001. The commentary was thoughtful and careful, and stressed the hard conditions that used crafts and processes that may be described as “folk”. The worst example was that of men working to convert mud to turf for burning. There was, however, a comment that viewing the artefacts left by these processes link us to the people and their way of life. Sara was sceptical about this; it did seem to suggest some sort of spiritual or sentimental connection.

This link did reflect a distinction made about the NMI’s work. Collecting had accelerated after 1949, with a stress on the disappearance of traditional methods of work, but less upon the preservation of historic artefacts. One display demonstrated this, in that new items were made to order, by established craftsmen, rather than the donation or procurement of items that had been in regular everyday use. Another made a careful distinction between the artefacts and the collecting of evidence about the ways of life. It is stressed that most of these ways of life have disappeared, outside areas, like Muckross House Traditional Farms, in which these are conserved. Another is the continuation of practices like thatching, using reeds harvested alongside the Suir, partly encouraged by the conservation of listed buildings that are thatched.

I drew several conclusions from the Museum. One is the idea of “folk” and the small-scale, rural-based, work that it involves. This excludes industrial and transport work – thus millers, brewers and canal and rail transport, significant to Irish rural development, are not included. It refers to “the popular traditional way of life”, but this does not, it seems, include politics and class (and indeed religion). There are references to the conflicts during the period in which rural life in Ireland is considered (1850-1950), but this is not related to people’s lives, techniques and developments. We were conducted around two rooms in the “Big House”, with some reference to land reform and the declining support for the estates which supported Turlough Park, but again this was not reflected in the changes in agriculture, power development and techniques that form the subject of an small exhibition on the lowest level. It seems that the poverty depicted and the techniques used grew out of the land and the hardships that working it brought. And, apparently, it was technical change, rather than developments within capitalism, that brought about the decline of some practices. One might assume from this that the end of some quaint practices indicate a loss of connections with the land, a loss of collective and co-operative support, and even a loss of some essential Irishness. This could articulate ideologies similar to that of the English rural idyll (and its Scottish and Welsh variants), with some of the contradictions that such perspectives embody.

An excellent exhibition demonstrated the gap between the idyllic depiction of rural life in such films as The Quiet Man, and the harsh realities, shown mostly in photographs. Yet it is recording, through photography and tape, has perhaps reinforced some of the nostalgic view. It is easy to forget that photographs were posed, showing people proud of heir appearance or of techniques that they developed, or bemused, unaware that their appearance was being recorded and would be displayed on the walls of a museum in 2001. Taping, sometimes video recording, also involves selectivity, in the subject’s account (and their practice of story-telling) and the editing of that account. Elderly people may well be proud of memory, keen to reminisce, pleased that their memories and opinions count in a world that has changed so much and passed them by.

This brings me to my final concern, one that is rarely discussed explicitly. What are we (and who are we?) to make of all this loss, the ending of techniques, the loss of meaning of objects, the disappearance of whole ways of life? Is it to be regretted, and, if so, why? Is it, like John Seymour’s book on Ireland that I am reading, over the loss of self-sufficiency, of simpler ways of life? Or is it that these lives now have no meaning, indeed had no part to play in the construction of modern Ireland? One thing that is certain is that at least some of the artefacts have survived, that some memories have been expounded and retained, that much of the infrastructure of story-telling has also been carefully collected and kept (although, perhaps, out of context), and that much is understood about techniques and their relation to artefacts.

Without the artefacts, and the histories that set them in context, much would be lost. Whether that would be the source of grief – with lives led but forgotten – if they had been allowed to vanish, is unclear. Maybe there is a need for judicious forgetting, for an end to the romanticisation that some elements in the built environment can now bring about. Maybe the realisation of what the lives of distant relatives (even, possibly, my own) involved, might lead today’s peoples of Ireland people to re-appraise themselves. And maybe, like the Famine, which was not the stuff of conscious memory 50-60 years later, it is best not to allow forgetting to take place. For what is not celebrated is the victimhood of the people depicted, trapped in a world of unremitting poverty. Did any fight back and seek to change some part of their world? There is much evidence of this, even if this was primitive rebellion. Beyond the man-trap, there is little to indicate much about opposition. Maybe that may lead the observer to consider their own world passively.

I could have written much more about Yeats, Joyce and other representations, but left it there.

Many Septembers - some musings

Sometimes I feel the need simply to set down some scattered musings, lightly edited, and this piece has been inspired by events and commemorations this September.
The beginning of September 1978 marked a very significant day, the first day that I began work, full-time and permanently. 31 years later, I still cannot fall in with the view that “work” is some sort of panacea for personal concerns. I have never revised my opinion of paid employment, despite the official enthusiasm for “work” as the cure for all ills. Bluntly, paid employment can be hell, with its only virtue being payment, which the Americans rightly call “compensation”. Compensation is for time lost, time wasted, a life taken away by others, and often damaged health. Despite its wondrous qualities, so many people are physically ground down by the wondrous work, which forms a critical factor in the stark differentials in life expectancy between manual workers and those more privileged. That said, I have always found work to be a great source of satisfaction, but it is not paid work directed by others, but work which I carry out for its own sake, for my satisfaction.

Well, it is now two years since I opted to work part-time, and have been able to pursue my own sort of work with much less reliance on paid work. And it has been a lesser period since paid work became a small part of my life. One morning this month, for the first time ever, I woke up and, half-asleep, wondering what to do tomorrow – and then realised that I was to attend my workplace! It is good to have cut down the job to the stage when it is containable, and when a visit to the office is like a series of reunions. But I retain no illusions about the real nature of paid work.

September 8th 1895 was my grandfather’s birthday; he actually lived to the age of 84. The last British survivors of the 1914 war, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, died very recently, and when I read this it felt odd that a man that I had known, into my own adulthood, would now be the oldest man in Britain if he was alive today. On the day I write, there are only 6 people who were born before Grandad, two from Japan and four from the US. All are women, the oldest man living being born after Grandad. Henry Allingham, born in June 1896, had been the oldest man in Britain until he died.

Grandad was always somewhat boyish about his birthday, and it was always a special celebration. I don’t recall specific birthdays, just his emotion, from an outwardly unemotional man. I often look back over what little I know of his life, separated by generations, and wonder what he really thought about the world. And what of the events in his life, and that of my grandmother – where have they gone? It is all now so inaccessible, and I have only the shadowy imprint of memory. And yet – I knew well a man, who linked to times that are irreversibly gone. There is an intimacy in that, but also a gulf. Maybe someone will say the same about me at some point.

September 1939 saw the outbreak of war, and it is again interesting to think that nobody under the age of 70 could possibly recall the interwar years, and really noone under the age of 75 could have much more than the vaguest memory. My father would now be 87, and he volunteered in 1940; it will not be too long before there are few left able to recall the 1939-45 war. And yet, I grew up with this as a background, with bombsites that remained locally until the early 1990s, and with stories from a mother who had been bombed out twice in the blitz. It is all getting further and further away, and with that a loss of immediacy, of everyday recall for so few people.

The start of September was always an unhappy time for me. School would have begun again in the first week, and the long summer, always so highly valued, had ended. I recall feeling depressed at the start of each school year, longing for the Christmas break, and this dread was transferred to the beginning of winter when I started paid work. It was good to see this pattern broken when I ended full-time work, and I organised a short break in a Travelodge – our first – because it was possible so to do. I shall always favour the Bangor Travelodge, where we spent a Sunday and Monday night, and the much lower price for those nights, reflecting the limited demand. In September 2007 I went there gingerly, wondering if we would get a much worse deal and treatment from those paying the full price, but was pleasantly surprised. It seemed like such a new start, an entry into a new world, but so much would be overshadowed within a year.

September 1986 marked another landmark in my life – I became temperance. Initially, I was spurred by the feeling that drinking was causing me to gain excessive weight, but I had also grown too used to seeing pleasure as residing in alcohol. On holiday in Greece that summer I had drunk too much retsina and ouzo. So I stopped, for a week, as an experiment. I went along to a party which I found frustrating at first, because I was not drinking. Eventually I acted as if I was consuming alcohol, and was then accused of being drunk by one angry older man (drunk himself) before he stormed out. I realised that it was better to be in control, and have never drunk alcohol since. But it took a long time to adjust to being able to socialize and enjoy events without the lubricant of drink, and I am not sure that this did not contribute to depression later on. One thing I am glad about is that I stopped alcohol just before my father died that October. He was extremely pleased abut this. A moderate drinker himself, he had seen the blight caused by alcohol in others.

Finally, September 1989 was a very significant time, as I was just about to begin teaching, at Birmingham Polytechnic. (And I had moved house, in a tearing hurry, a move greatly regretted). I had previously booked a holiday in Northern Italy, and so spent this with work books, preparing my first lectures on a hotel balcony overlooking Lake Garda. I had little idea what would happen once these lectures was delivered, in a large draughty hall in Birmingham.

My abiding memories of Garda were of the almost permanent shadow in which the mountains placed the west shore of the Lake, and the odd conjunction between the picturesque scenery and landscape, and the lack of interest, indeed lack of life, in these areas. But I was also struck by an older couple to whom we talked on one of the lake boats. The husband, who was perhaps then about 70, said that he would not be there in 10 years time. Naively, I asked him why not, only to be admonished by Brenda. I thought it was sad that someone would know that they were in their last decade, albeit that this was realistic. I can still see this man on the boat, wondering what he was thinking, how he seemed so reconciled to his eventual demise. No doubt he is now long gone, but my sense of sadness, something that I had not really thought about up to then, has persisted. Most of my career in teaching has involved brief encounters, with people who remain largely anonymous, and whose fate in unknown. It has been 20 years of meeting and forgetting.

Postscript 2-1-2010: as at 31-12-2009, only three people (one Japanese, two US) are alive who were born before Grandad.
Postscript 8-4-2010: Today, only one person (Japanese) born before Grandad is still alive
Postscript 10-7-2010: Checking, I realise that since May 2010, the oldest person in the world now, was born in 1896. Somehow Grandad seems to have taken a further step away.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ambient Love - poem 5 December 2008

I lie next to your warmth
One arm placed over you
In a silent, gentle communion.
And in those moments
The clock barely ticks
Time’s escalator runs slow
And this could be eternity
Or at least a glimpse.

A Landmark Closes: My final visit to St Peter & Pauls Church, Wallasey - September 2008

The green-domed church at the top of Atherton Street, in Wallasey, is a major landmark in Merseyside, a prominent sight for those approaching or leaving by ship. For me, it represented a different kind of landmark, in my childhood. When it was announced, following much rumour and a long campaign, that this would definitely close on August 17th 2008 (bar a wedding later in August), I determined to visit this for one last occasion.

Much ambivalence surrounded this visit. My Mother was (and is) a Roman Catholic, from a family that was so rigidly Catholic that her own mother was reluctant to talk to people who were Protestants. Marrying my father, who was CofE, she talked about this as a “mixed marriage”, and some of his family had opposed it for a time. It did matter more in the 1930s and 1940s, when separate education was a critical issue, and when the founding of the Irish Free State, explicitly Catholic, was a recent event. For my grandparents, it was important to identify themselves as Irish in some way. However, my grandmother was born in 1890 in Barnstaple in Devon, as her father was a customs officer), and my grandfather some years earlier in Liverpool. My sister, the family genealogist made one amusing discovery – that it was likely that one of them was descended from Irish Protestants…happily a long time after both had died. But the divisions, and the identity, were strong. My father collected rents in parts of Liverpool Walton in the 1950s, and recalled asking one tenant if she or he knew a tenant in the adjacent street. The reply was that they never went into that street, because its inhabitants were of the opposite religion. It was only slum clearance in the 1960s that scattered “communities” that were in fact extremely divided and exclusive; I recall reading in the 1960s about a Protestant Party that had council seats, and indeed this party won its last seat in 1973 before it was dissolved and absorbed into the Conservative Party.

As a boy, I was told that I was a Roman Catholic, and attended the relatively modern churches at English Martyrs (which my Mother still attends, and where she reads the lesson), and the later one in Leasowe Road. Sometimes, we went to St Peters & Pauls, partly so that we could visit my other (Protestant) grandparents, who lived in Wellington Road. This was much more ostentatious, built in 1935, and bigger than some cathedrals. Despite confirmation, I had given up my involvement with the Church by the age of 18, and have since moved into a different religious affiliation; both my weddings were conducted in register offices. My differences with the Catholic Church are many and continuing, but these are not for discussion here. My concern is my feelings over the loss of a personal landmark.

My sisters had been married in the Leasowe Road church in 1981 and 1982, and I had attended English Martyrs for my grandmothers funeral in 1974. I had returned in 2002, to attend a requiem Mass for my first wife – an odd occasion which again belongs in another essay. My previous visit to St Peters & Pauls had been to my cousin’s wedding there, about 1979. When in 2006 , it seemed to be under threat of closure, I photographed the exterior, but on 5th July 2008 it was announced that the church doors would close on Sunday August 17th (when I would be away), and this presented a final chance to photograph the interior.

It had not really occurred to me that I would be re-visiting the church service as well as the church, until I was inside the building. It seemed inappropriate to walk in, camera in hand, at the end of the service, and so I walked in and sat on the one of the same wooden pews that I had sat as a child. On the way in, a group had handed out what I assumed to be an order of service, but which was in fact a letter of protest. It would be odd to watch the priest come in at the front of the church in the knowledge that protests were being made at the back.

I had read that the whole place was falling down, with estimates of over £1 million to repair it, yet, apart from signs of a leaking roof, it seemed in better order than it had been in the 1960s and 1970s. It was odd to sit there and see that the space itself, and its embellishment, had not changed. Somehow I had thought that the whole place could be in ruins.

I could recall services being in Latin, before this was set aside after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Sadly, the service in English held little meaning for me now, but it brought back memories of endless chanting and responses. I remembered an elderly priest droning on with sermons that I could not hear through the amplification. The present priest, however, made a short sermon that could be heard, in a familiar Merseyside accent – something that I did not recall from the rather prissy priests that I encountered in childhood. His sermon made sense, simply expressing the conclusion, from a short New Testament passage, that God is nearest when people are still rather than manifested in storms. This was closer to my current religious affiliation, and I would ponder this when I attended a very different service two hours later. I was not sure what the reaction would be if I was to relate what a Catholic priest had stressed, so I was to keep quiet.

Sadly, the service mostly raised memories of the sheer boredom of childhood, sitting hoping the whole thing would end. I did note the grilles in the floor of the centre aisle – still there, of course – and wondering whether anyone ever dropped money down them. Then, in a departure from my previous experience, almost the whole congregation queued up to go to the altar for communion. These included wafers and wine – the latter something I would have had to refuse, as I am strictly temperance. In my childhood, however, you could only attend communion if you had previously been to confession, which involved a small lone child telling a single man about all the sins that he had committed. I remain glad that this practice has been set aside.

After the service, I gingerly waited for most of the church to clear, and took a few digital photographs. I expected someone to object, but then noted that someone else was taking photographs, so took some more. And then I walked out, for the final time, with a gathering sense of loss. I have photographed many places that might disappear, or even when the bulldozers were already on site, but this represented more than just architecture. The inability to return to that building, to rekindle the contact enabled by that last visit, reminded me of the finality of much loss. More importantly than my sense of loss, my Mother later told me that, attending the nearby convent, she was there when the foundation stone was laid and when the church opened in 1935. And she was there, later on in the month, the night before it closed. It holds a very different meaning for me, but I can sympathize.

The affairs of the Roman Catholic Church should really be of no concern for me. It could also be said that the buildings with which it is encumbered do not represent the religious message and the pastoral care that a church should provide for its members. I have been involved in other churches in which the buildings seemed like expensive millstones, getting in the way of the religion that they supposedly housed, and a more radical view of the purpose of religion is more likely to attract my sympathy. With falling numbers of priests (one priest now services three churches), falling congregations, and shifts in personal and social morality, the Church has more to contend with than buildings that were developed for a different approach to church authority, involvement and liturgy. The lack of democracy has upset many local Catholics, although autocracy is the principle on which the Church operates. And yet – I cannot help feeling that for many people, another part of their past has been uprooted, another partial sense of homelessness has been evoked. I feel this visiting many churches – their congregations and buildings represent some kind of community that could and should exist, not for the reproduction of arcane religious principles, or for domination and repression, but for the benefits that community and belonging, at their best, can bring. Ironically, the Church facilities are to be shared with the nearby CofE church, All Saints. My father’s funeral was conducted there, with my Mother’s approval. This is, happily, a far cry from the kinds of division between Catholic and Protestant that characterized many parts of Merseyside.

My wife Sara said tonight that to stay in the same place, to walk through the same park, along the same streets, and indeed visit the same church (had my religious views not changed), might be seen as failing to progress. In many ways I agree. Both my parents, born in the 1920s, lived in Wallasey all their lives, as did my first wife. So many landmarks from my earlier years have disappeared – the cinemas, the Victoria and Grand Hotels, the Tower, both Piers, both open-air swimming pools and the theatres. My old primary school is round the corner from where I live, as is English Martyrs Church. The removal of landmarks has hardly taken away facilities or features for which I cared; indeed in some cases, these represented places that I despised. The loss is of places that might have held meaning, for the landmarks that could have existed and could have provided a sense of belonging. To leave Wallasey would be to make a new start, but to regret the loss of an obscure potential. Such, perhaps, is the ambivalence of space that we could inhabit but can no longer.

Machynlleth and me

Written more as a diary entry.

Today I began a break in Machynlleth, stopping in a holiday “cottage” that is in fact an end terraced house, one of four that have been recently constructed. It has been an interesting day, fraught at the start, because I had left my camera at home and had to turn round at Ewloe, 22 miles away. We began in sunshine and ended, below Cader Idris, in swirling rain.

Our eventual route went via Gledrid, where we filled up with petrol at what are now reducing prices, and Welshpool, where we turned to take the route up the valley served by the Welshpool & Llanfair Railway. Just before Welshpool, traffic was held up while a section of highway is raised to mitigate against flooding from the nearby Severn; given the forecast rain for most of the week, it may well be necessary.

The route through the Llanfair valley was not one with which we were familiar; I think I had travelled it perhaps once before. Sara commented that this was typical UK scenery, and did not agree with my view that it was “low key” or “quiet”. It was not long before we were driving into Machynlleth and finding our accommodation. We then walked into the high street looking for the Co-op store and for the two charity shops that we had found on our previous visit. Alas, not only did it start to rain as we approached the Spar shop, but both shops had gone – the Severn hospice one, that had specialised in books and videos, very carefully cleared. In torrential rain, I stood outside the Spar shop with the dog, and talked to a middle-aged lady from Birmingham who also had a dog to tend, She had lived there for one year, an it was very different from the city, very much less diversity, she said, but she thought it would be a good place o be if you were writing or retired – both of which I hope to be before too long.

It occurred to me that this was only the second occasion that I had stopped in Machynlleth for a holiday, and that brought me back to the very first time that I had seen the place, on a short holiday with my mother and father. I was, at the time, a student, and this must have been in the summer of 1975 – or so memory suggests. [I was able to drive the car, but had not passed my test, so this places it as before January 1976]

We had followed a different route down, via Llandegla (I think) and travelling, in the dark, through Dolgellau, what seemed to be very narrow streets, at a time before the whole place was bypassed. We stopped in the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, then a Trust House Forte place, which Dad liked to patronise. I do not especially recall where we went from there, but I do recall the main road north of Dolgellau, being newly widened, before a further section north was widened. And I do recall a long drive on narrow roads through the hills behind Machynlleth, when we came upon a reservoir; I was shocked that a reservoir should have been constructed to drown another Welsh valley, but Dad grew annoyed and gestured at an empty cottage that we passed – “that’s your Welshman”. He may have had a point.

My main memory was of the Wynnstay Arms, then not as scruffy as it became later, We talked to a middle-aged man from Birmingham, in a room with a roaring open fire. As I recall, he was commenting on an odd development when an entire group of people engaged in a car rally had turned up, seemingly unannounced, and had expected an evening meal to be laid on, much to the anger of the manager. Later that night, much the worse for drink, there was a lot of noise and disturbance with this group.

I don’t recall this being a particularly happy occasion, but it was in my mind when, with marriage to Brenda impending, we began to arrange our honeymoon. I was keen to go to this part of Wales, while Brenda wanted to go abroad; so we compromised, with two nights in a hotel near Machynlleth, and then a few days in Paris. Brenda was very dubious about West Wales, which she had never visited, but I recall setting off in my red Datsun in mid-afternoon, on 6 November 1982, in some trepidation. It was a journey we would repeat many times until 1988, and so I recall few details, but I think we followed the route over the Llandegla moors and past Bala and Dolgellau, the latter now by-passed. What I do distinctly recall is going past the bridge at Machynlleth, and slowly up the hill on the road to Pennal, finding a narrow lane to our left. We drove slowly down through trees, wondering where on earth the place was, until we went through two gateposts into a car park in front of a large stone house. The front door, large and built in heavy timber, was not open, and I remember trying it gingerly and stepping through into the welcoming space beyond. The new life that began beyond that door will be recounted separately.

It was through that door, however, that I stepped on one of the grimmest days of my life, in October 1986. I had been called, early in the morning, down to the reception desk, where my sister Hilarie told me that my father had had a fatal heart attack. I recall vividly the feelings I had on the 100-mile journey home that day, but less of the journey. The only distinct memory of the latter was travelling near Corris and commenting to Brenda, who was deeply upset, that Wales somehow, remained a beautiful place. And so it was, even on the worst of days. Maybe Machynlleth should have been associated with sadness and shunned after that day, but Dad had been to the same hotel at Christmas 1985 and enjoyed it so much that a booking was made for 1986. Mum soon decided to follow this through and so, 10 weeks later, we were back in the Machynlleth area, on a sadder occasion, but still one with some enjoyment.

After the hotel closed, Brenda and I visited Machynlleth less frequently, although the secondhand bookshops and the Centre for Alternative Technology drew us. After she herself passed away, I visited myself, sometimes passing the place by train, sometimes venturing into the town. After I met Sara in March 2005, and especially after she moved to Wallasey that November, we visited the place on several occasions, by road and rail. I am stopping in accommodation that is very near the White Lion, a pub that we spent a pleasant hour between changes of train at the station.

What draws us now is a different prospect. I cannot be too far from retirement, and Sara has been retired, effectively, for over 3 years. We have thought of moving to another area to start a different life. Shropshire seemed inviting, but house prices are way too high, and it is too far from the coast. Llandudno is a possibility – indeed, earlier in the week we met a youngish man in Port Sunlight who said he had moved from Llandudno to Egremont (Wallasey) and had really liked Llandudno. What attracts us to Machynlleth is something different. Low house prices, for quite extensive accommodation, has to be one draw – to a place we could spread ourselves out. But the real attraction is the impression that the place is a Welsh Hebden Bridge – with a lot of middle-aged hippy types moving to a place that seems to suit. The CAT seems to have quite an influence here. And that lady said that this was not a commercial town, by which I think she means that money does not count, and maybe other values prevail. The age and condition of parked cars suggests this. Sara and I are reluctant to move, but don’t want to dismiss it, so maybe the best approach is to investigate.

A Lost Photograph Discovered - December 27 2008

Often I ruminate for a long time and work on successive drafts of a piece. This one was written in part of an evening; reproduced as written.
Not so long ago, Sara found a photograph from her childhood. Looking for something else, she found, completely unexpectedly, that it fell out of a packet of papers. She was astonished and called me to see it. There had been one other childhood photograph, of Sara lying down on a beach with her sister, but this had gone missing; she found that abut a week ago. Sara had had no idea that there was any other photograph, and one reason for the contact that she had established with her sister was to seek images from her childhood. This contact had proved to be fruitless, and has ceased for the time being.

I have missed the whole first 53 years of Sara’s life, and there are only photographs and recollections to evoke her adult life. Her childhood, an unhappy one, has proved to be much more elusive. So any evidence of her earliest life has a special poignancy, assigning much to imagination. It remains uncertain, with no individual or cultural guidance, how far any of her past, as with anyone’s childhood, should now matter to me. Much of my own childhood seems irrelevant to my adult life, and to re-evoke its narrative could be to bring forward an account that neither explains my present life, nor provides a portal to an enjoyable or pleasant story. No doubt much of Sara’s distant past is of similar quality. But this photograph proved, literally, a snapshot that could take my imagination into an era long gone.

Sara did not recall the taking of the photograph, or the place in which it was taken. There is nothing unusual in that, as most photographs do not betray any provenance. But it is clearly not one that was passed round the family, celebrated, or discussed; it is simply a survivor, with no indication as to how it has survived.

There are four small children, looking, as Sara and I have agreed, like those tragic photographs of central European Jewish children that did not survive the Holocaust. What makes this so sad is the knowledge that there was tragedy ahead – Simcha, the boy on the left, was to die of cancer, and the two little girls would soon lose their mother, whom Sara regarded as her favourite adult. Judy and Annie’s mother would be succeeded by a stepmother who would isolate them from Sara and her family. The group is obviously Jewish – Simcha is wearing a skullcap and Sara a ribbon in her hair. The confidence displayed by Judy, the stocky girl at the back, and her little sister Annie, in front, suggest that this was a photograph taken by their father, and probably in an environment familiar to them.

Simcha, on the left, is holding Annie’s hand, and Annie, a very pretty child, has her head slightly on one side. Much more uncertain, and holding noone’s hand, is Sara, the figure on the right. Her face is partly in shade because of the light, but it seems to convey an element of wariness. It is almost as though she knows what would lie ahead, and it is certainly the case that she knew what lay behind her and what would probably be there in the near future.

She is a serious figure, displaying an isolation from the world that, I feel, underlies her present integrity. She lacks a smile, even for the camera. Her father had made it clear that the children of holocaust survivors should rarely laugh or smile, and should always be serious. The seriousness that Sara featured was not all derived from her father’s public view; much more derived from his private, dark self.

What is my reaction to this photograph, the only one that has survived from 50 years ago? At first I was curious, to finally see what Sara’s lost brother and cousins looked like, and I was delighted that Sara had, at last, an image of her childhood and especially her beloved brother. But, enlarging the image of her, and looking much more closely at it, I was struck by powerful emotional responses, even a sense of grief. Some part of me wishes that I could have known Sara then, been able to reassure her that the nightmares would not go on for ever, to hold that child and tell her that, one day, she would be safe. And indeed, that she would be more than just cared about, that she would be loved, deeply loved, and loved for herself. It might be possible to analyse and rationalise such feelings in an intellectual fashion, but I do not think that this would be appropriate here. Writing tonight, this is a time for emotion, not analysis.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Portmeirion Revisited – 6th November 2006

This piece records my journey to several favourite places that reflect my feelings for those with whom I visited, and for whom these too were significant.

I was married for the first time on 6th November 1982. Having lost my first wife Brenda, and later remarried, the question of how to celebrate or commemorate days that were special to us become difficult. This year, I decided not to dwell too much on the anniversary, but to award myself an enjoyable day out to one of my favourite places, with my new wife Sara. The day after my first wedding, heading north from the hotel in which we were staying (itself now closed), Brenda suggested that we call in and see if Portmeirion was open. She had visited it previously with her previous husband, and they had found it fascinating. Not that her first husband’s tastes or perspectives provided any recommendation!

Portmeirion proved to be a sensible choice 24 years later. It had not changed greatly, and so limited that particular sense of loss. On the day in 2006 we visited, and indeed on my first time, the place was quiet. On my very first visit in 1982, we had been waved past by a man at the entrance. There was noone stopping there then, and as I recall, almost nobody in the place. It was a Sunday, I suspect that the county was then “dry”, and of course Sunday retail opening was then rare.

On my 1982 visit, I took the conventional route down under the two gateways that framed the original entrance, round into Battery Square, where there was a small shop, firmly shut up, that advertised The Prisoner. This had been run on unconventional lines by a somewhat aged student type, whom I would later meet. He was later ousted because his rather scruffy shop and (or so I was told) his love of cats jarred with the image of Portmeirion as a place to be visited by wealthier holidaymakers (the United States was a significant target market) and day visitors. The shop had been replaced by one selling Prisoner merchandise in a much tidier fashion, with no eccentricity, very much the professionalised (and maybe somewhat soulless) retail operation.

On our later visit this shop was closed for the winter, but we did not visit it first. By now, I had become much more aware of the architecture of the place, and some of the tricks with perspective that Williams-Ellis had introduced. Thus, buildings which appeared from the front to have attic rooms or to be two-storey turned out, from the back, to be small single-storey units with flat roofs. In 1982 I took a few slides, in poor light, but the light was good on the 2006 visit, and by that time digital photography meant that any number of scenes could be recorded with no additional cost. So, we went in round the back of the buildings, in an area that seemed semi-private, and could see what had been more notable on my first visit, that the buildings were flimsy close-up, and not particularly well-constructed.

Many photographs later, we walked up towards Battery Square, and viewed aspects of this area, including accessible areas, that I had never noticed before. The limited number of visitors provided a very different feel to the place, and I have met people who have stopped there and relayed with some awe how different the whole place seems at night when the day visitors have gone. Although the shops were closed for winter, the buildings were in good order, whereas when I visited in 1982 many seemed crumbling. I recall looking through the windows of one unit and being shocked at how scruffy were its condition and fittings. I would discover one reason for this later.

From Battery Square, we walked down towards the Town Hall, one of Williams-Ellis’ rescued buildings, constructed at the outbreak of war from fragments of an older building. When I first visited in 1982 neither shops nor catering facilities were open. The previous year, though, a new restaurant building had been built – the Town Hall Restaurant. On our 2006 visit, we dined there, and found it a disappointment – as usual. The Restaurant has the feel, and the cuisine (and the prices), of one of those rather sad motorway places where a free lunch to the coach driver, and Burger King for the children, provides the main reason why anyone stops at all. On one visit my first wife Brenda complained that the tables needed to be cleaned. One of the waiting staff went up and carefully cleared and cleaned one solitary table, which failed to amuse her, or me. It smacked of contempt, somehow, for visitors who could or would not afford to dine at the posh Hotel further down the hill.

The main Hotel had been converted from a nineteenth-century house in 1926, but had burnt down in 1981. In 1982 I saw the charred ruins of this building, with most of the lawn in front roped off, and the entrance boarded up. It was fascinating then, but sad, because it didn’t seem certain that, with Williams-Ellis dead, a recession under way and the holiday industry in decline, it would necessarily be rebuilt. Happily, it was restored in 1986, but with an underpass to the promenade, ensuring that day visitors can be deterred from wandering in.

My abiding feeling about Portmeirion is that it is one large, kaleidoscopic, beautiful, puzzle, worth returning to again and again, like a friend who sometimes infuriates, often surprises, and yet always fascinates, so that life would be poorer without him or her. It reflects the uncertainty of friendship, in that there are changes which display errors of judgement, and yet changes that reveal new meanings and provide hope that new experiences may yet develop.

My journey to Portmeirion aimed not only to study the place or to photograph it in excellent winter light, but to reconcile happy memories of my first visit there with later visits with Sara. She made her first visit with her late husband Glyn in 1979 when she was heavily pregnant with her first child. They saw the place differently then, and were much closer to William-Ellis’ vision of it as a very large practical joke.

Our experiences clearly varied greatly, but had, I felt, begun to coalesce on this, our latest visit. Where should we go next, then? I decided on this only shortly before we left Portmeirion. I have taken my widowed mother out on many trips over the last 20 years, to places that we would associate with my father, and then, later, to places that he did not know. I followed this lead, driving north to Beddgelert and up the Gwynant Valley, places I do not associate with Brenda. Between Sygun and Nant Gwynant Sara and I stopped to photograph the roadside lake in fading light, a place that perhaps we will associate with each other in future. We went further north past Pen-y-Pass and down through Llanberis, to stop at Llandudno, where we walked the dog along the promenade and towards the pier, in the darkness of early evening.

I had not contrived this, but Llandudno is a place that was a favourite for Sara, Glyn, and their children (now my stepchildren), but also for myself, Brenda, and my father. It was important but felt delicate, as I contemplated how best to mark a joyful event that took place 24 years before but might now feel shrouded in sadness. Yet, if there has been an emotional journey towards my love and hope for Sara, much has been completed, as the day felt like one of reconciliation. It was not the sad day that I had imagined, but one that felt inviting, the past and present reconciled.

And perhaps this marked the end of a very personal journey, in that favourite places associated with Brenda no longer seem to threaten a reopening of grief, but present an opportunity to celebrate parts of her life, the legacy of her influence, and our present and future prospects for renewal. It is undoubtedly, what she wanted, what I want for myself, what I want for Sara, and what Glyn wanted for Sara and what she wants for herself and for me. The past not as barrier to the present and future, but as a gateway to the future. A little like the entrance at Portmeirion, it is not always obvious where this is, or what lies beyond. But maybe that is inevitable.