Sunday, 29 May 2016

Unseen City, Strange & Familiar

This week has been mercifully quiet so I treated myself to two photographic exhibitions in London. The first was the highly-rated Strange & Familiar at the Barbican Art gallery, the work of 23 international photographers, working in the UK from the 1930s to date, who each give a fascinating insight into Britishness. This exhibition was curated by Martin Parr, a well-known documentary photographer. Some of his own work is on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery in an exhibition called Unseen City and that was the second one that I visited.

London was its usual heaving self, the underground system was fairly busy…

 …but there were some classy buskers!

First, a word about the Barbican. The Barbican Estate is an unlovely desert of bleak high-rise housing blocks built during the 1960s and 1970s in the area north of St Paul’s Cathedral, an area that was devastated by Luftwaffe bombs during World War 2. The architecture is (fittingly) classified as ‘brutalist.’ It has few redeeming features but does contain, on the periphery, the Barbican Arts Centre, where the exhibition was held, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, oases of culture in a wasteland of concrete cells.

It is virtually impossible to avoid getting lost in the Barbican. While signposting has improved considerably, the authorities continue to throw up concrete battery cages for humans and close off whole sections at will.
I had to take directions from the dancing couple…

 …and the jolly golden giant who pointed the way towards the Barbican Arts Centre.

Rant over.

The Barbican Arts Centre is at the edge of Barbican Estate and has a plaza in front of it, fountains and even a small lake. Oasis indeed.

The Strange & Familiar exhibition is on two floors and comprises several hundred prints by 23 overseas photographers, most of them in monochrome. The usual clich├ęd images are there; top hats and bowlers, posed postmen and grimy miners, street waifs and elderly sun worshippers, Swinging 60s etc. There’s nothing wrong with that when it’s well done, but there is much more to enjoy, to contemplate, to worry over, to be amazed at, to be bemused by or to be appalled at. The whole of life is there, much of it unfamiliar – the past is indeed another country – and quite a lot that stirs up memories and resonates, some that you will happily pass by, but all of it reflects some aspect of Britishness momentarily captured and preserved by foreigners with cameras.     

Here’s a few of my favourites (photograph-taking was banned and there were alert monitors in each room to prevent any surreptitious attempts!):

Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of candid photography, was invited to photograph the coronation of George VI in the mid-1930s but mostly turned his camera on the crowd instead. I love his candid portraits of the British determined to enjoy themselves despite adverse conditions; there is a tremendous downpour at Ascot, most of the spectators have gone but one determined elderly man sits on, a sodden newspaper plastered to his head, at peace with himself.

Another French photographer, Raymond Depardon, photojournalist and filmmaker, was asked to photograph Glasgow, one of the major European cities that had fallen on hard times. This was in the 1980s before Glasgow’s slogan was ‘smiles better’ and before it was renowned as a city of culture. This is a dark, brooding city of tenement blocks, leaden skies, waif-like children and booze-sodden denizens. Some of Depardon’s images are marvellously artful in the subtle use of touches of colour as counterpoint – the subdued pink of a girl’s dress for example. This is the Glasgow that I knew well and had almost banished from memory.  

A very different perspective is provided by Dutch photographer Hand van der Meer’s photographs of amateur football matches. The huge swathes of sky and lush green fields remind one of early Dutch painting, while also being current and very English.

Japanese war photographer Akihiko Okamura spent much time in Ulster in the 1980s during the ‘Troubles,’ even taking his family to live there so that he could concentrate on his work of documenting the province. It’s all there; the marches and the reaction to them, religion and violence, ugly tribalism and shallow posturing. If nothing else, it reminds us what we’ve hopefully left behind.  

Finally, at the exit, there are some huge-size portraits by Bruce Gilden, the American street photographer, made in 2011 and 2014. The style can be summarised as ‘up close and personal.’ Here are sitters’ faces with stubble, warts, broken capillaries, poor teeth, blotches, mascara and foundation applied by trowel, rheumy-eyed…as Robbie once put it ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!

Highly recommended.

Then it was on to the Guildhall, London’s Town Hall, built in the 15th century.

Attached to it is the Guildhall Art Gallery, built in 1999 to replace a building destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941. When they were digging the foundations for it they came across medieval pottery - and the remains of a Roman amphitheatre almost 2,000 years old.

The Gallery houses Martin Parr’s Unseen City. Martin is a member of the Magnum collective and, since 2013, has been the City of London’s photographer-in-residence and is uniquely placed to capture the pomp and ceremony, the centuries-old traditions, banquets, processions and so on.  

At the entrance to the exhibition is a sign ‘Photography Allowed.’ Well done!

Let some of the photos speak for themselves…

On the way back I popped in to St Mary-le-Bow Church, famous for the Bow Bells. (According to tradition, a true Cockney must be born within earshot of the Bow Bells).

The church on this site has been destroyed and re-built several times, most famously after the London Tornado of 1091, the Great Fire of 1666 and the Luftwaffe in 1941.

It is quite sumptuous inside and one of the unusual features was the presence of two pulpits. Do they have vicars in each of them? One proposing a view, the other opposing it - or is it a form  of clerical stereo?

The church and Guildhall are only a few minutes from St Paul’s Cathedral, the late 17th century creation of Sir Christopher Wren. I did contemplate going in but the £16 entry fee was excessive for the 40 minutes I had available. Another time.  


Friday, 29 April 2016

Worth Abbey and the Induction Mass of A&B's Director of Education

I was at Worth Abbey yesterday for the Induction Mass of Marie Ryan as Director of the Education Service of Arundel & Brighton Diocese. The Abbey is home to a community of Benedictine monks and is adjacent to the beautiful Worth School, a premier boarding and day school of almost 600 students set in several hundred green acres. Lucky students!

The Abbey Church, a wigwam-like structure, was opened in the early 1970s and I remember it for two things: because of the design, it is tricky for photography, with some gloomy areas and others pierced by sudden bursts of brilliant sunshine; the uncomfortable kneelers are wooden, in sympathy with the design of the seats which are curved to reflect the geometry of the church and made of black walnut and ash...impressive but not built for comfort. 

Outside, it was a chilly day with bright blue skies. Inside, it was warm and cheery, the monks, priests and deacons were gathering to process in, Bishop Richard Moth was on top form and there was an excited buzz from the congregation, mainly teaching staff, parents, governors, supporters and DABCEC education staff.

No more words, here's a few of my favourite photos of the day.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Wellspring Community

Today, on the Annunciation of the Lord, I was privileged to attend Mass at St Joseph’s Church in Brighton, where the Wellspring Community received a decree recognising it as a Private Lay Association of the Faithful within Arundel & Brighton Diocese.

St Joseph’s is a lofty Victorian Gothic building near the city centre. It is situated in Elm Grove - one of the few remaining areas of uncontrolled (free) parking in the city centre, consequently parking can be extremely hard to find – but not today, deo gratias.


As I entered the small choir was rehearsing – and they were outstandingly good. Chief celebrant was our Bishop, Richard Moth, with the Abbot of Worth Abbey, Dom Luke Jolly,  Canon Kieron O’Brien, Parish Priest, and several other priests and brothers in attendance.

In his homily Bishop Richard linked today’s liturgical celebration of the Annunciation, when the BV Mary said ‘yes’ not knowing where it would lead but trusting in the Lord’s goodness, with the similar commitment made by the lay members of the Wellspring Community, under the guidance of God’s Spirit.

He paid tribute to the work of Worth Abbey in forming the Wellspring Community, which operates under the Rule of St Benedict. Living a common life of prayer and service, the members witness to the Kingdom of God in the city of Brighton, rooting their daily life in prayer, Scripture and the sacraments.

Practically, they are involved in teaching and preaching the Faith, youth work, school chaplaincy, retreat work, prisoner befriending, running a weekly prayer group for students and young adults, as well as hosting a Sunday lunch. They certainly have lots of energy!


Finally, Bishop Richard read out the formal decree and presented it to Jo Gilbert, leader of the Community. The Liturgy of the Eucharist then followed.
After Mass ended, the Bishop, religious and clergy joined members of the Community for a group photograph, leader Jo Gilbert holding the formal decree signed by Bishop Moth and by Fr Jonathan Martin, Chancellor and Vicar General.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Saturday’s Easter Vigil for 2016 at Sacred Heart Church Hove

The Easter Vigil is probably my favourite liturgical celebration, combining the drama of fire, light and explosive sounds with anticipation of the imminent arrival of the holiest day of the year.

Normally the Vigil begins with the blessing and lighting of the paschal candle in the church car park. A new paschal candle is blessed and lit every year at Easter and then used throughout the year during special occasions such as baptisms and funerals.         

(Previously, passers-by who have seen the flaming brazier in the church's car park have innocently enquired whether we are ‘having a barbeque?’)

However Saturday’s weather forecast was for torrential rain and, sure enough, by 7pm it was bucketing down.  Fortunately, altar server Georges was prepared and had set up a fire in the church porch – with a bucket of water nearby and a fire extinguisher.


On schedule at 8pm all the lights in the church were extinguished and Fr Kevin and the other altar servers processed to the porch bearing the paschal candle. After blessing the fire, Fr Kevin cut the shape of a cross in the candle, then the Greek signs for Alpha and Omega, signifying God is the beginning and the end, and finally the numbers 2016. Five grains of incense were then inserted into the candle representing the five wounds of Christ - a tricky operation at the best of times but doubly difficult when the priest has to hold a small torch in his other hand!

Finally the large candle was lit from the fire and triumphantly borne into the dark church with the cry ‘The Light of Christ’ to which the response was ‘Thanks be to God.’ The refrain was said three times while the congregation lit their own small candles from the paschal one, passing the light to each other until a warm glow suffused the entire church, walls and all.

Fr Kevin then sang the Easter proclamation (Exsultet) which glories in the goodness of God who created all and His son who ‘broke the prison-bars of death.’   The congregation's candles were snuffed out so that the church was again in darkness, lit only by the faint glow of the paschal candle, now placed in a candlestand next to the altar.

There followed a series of readings from the Old and New Testaments, interspersed with prayers and psalms sung by the congregation – led by our magnificent choir (seemingly turbo-charged for the occasion) under Jane and our nimble-fingered organist.

After the last reading from the Old Testament there was a moment’s pause – before an explosion of noise and light as bells rang out, clappers sounded and all the lights were switched on. Servers scurried round ensuring that all the candles in the church were lit, even the ones ten feet up on the side walls that are only lit once a year.

Following the reading of the Gospel and the homily, we segued smoothly into the baptismal liturgy. Three individuals were to be baptised and four more were to be confirmed during the night’s celebrations. This part of the Vigil is particularly eagerly anticipated as the congregation seems to sense – and warmly welcomes - the catechumens’ desire to publicly acknowledge the faith that had led them on their journey to the altar at Sacred Heart.

Fortunately, our parish priest has a well-modulated singing voice and sufficient stamina, both of which are needed for the Vigil. After the Litany of the Saints was sung, the baptismal water was blessed, lowering the paschal candle into it several times as required by the Vigil rite.
Then the prescribed questions were put, the Oil of Catechumens was applied and, one by one, the individuals were baptised, a jug of –presumably warm or at least tepid – water was poured over the head three times while the words of baptism were pronounced.
Following this the three were clad in white garments and lit their own baptismal candles from the paschal one. Then, bearing their lit candles, they went into the body of the church, passing their light from person to person until the candles of the entire congregation were lit. The entire congregation was then invited to hold up their lit candles and renew their baptismal promises, renouncing Satan and all his works and promising to serve God in the holy Catholic church, following which the priest walked around the church sprinkling holy water on everyone – and, when he had returned to the altar, giving the altar servers and himself a good sprinkling.     

Then the newly-baptised three were joined on the sanctuary by the four persons to be confirmed in the faith, all seven standing facing the congregation, their sponsors standing behind them, one hand on the candidate's shoulder to indicate their support and sponsorship. Again, the prescribed questions were put and the candidates were anointed, this time with a different oil, the Oil of Chrism, the Holy Oil used to anoint prophets and kings. Several were visibly moved as Fr Kevin moved down the line, blessing and praying for each one.
The evening’s Vigil was concluded with Mass, more specifically the liturgy of the Eucharist, when the newly-baptised for the first time participated with the rest of the congregation.  

After Mass there were more than the usual amount of smiles, handshakes, hugs and arm squeezes as ‘Happy Easter’ greetings were exchanged.

One of the things that I find particularly moving about the Easter Vigil – apart from the drama of the occasion itself – was the way it attracts many people, visitors and locals, who do not regularly attend the church. Reaching across the pews to shake a stranger’s hand while wishing him or her a friendly ‘Peace’ or ‘Happy Easter’ often gets a fulsome response, particularly from the elderly. It’s a way of sharing the paschal candle’s light and warmth.   

As we left the church servers offered us a choice of wine gums or jelly babies from their baskets.

Eh…can we go back to chocolates next year, Fr Kevin?                

Friday, 25 March 2016

Hove’s Ecumenical Walk of Witness 2016

The annual ‘Walk of Witness’ was rather different this year.

 For a start, the weather was glorious with bright blue skies, nary a cloud in sight, with tropical – well for Hove - temperatures of 16 degrees Celsius (61 F). Not bad for the tail end of March and a lot better than last year’s cool and wet walk (see last year's Walk).

Walker numbers were up too; in 2014, I counted 150 walkers, last year 164 set off, and this year there was an increase to 182 (although that had fallen to 165 by the end of the walk). Part of the reason for the increase was the participation of the Chemin Neuf Community (a Roman Catholic ecumenical community founded in France 43 years ago).

The number of stops (‘Stations of the Cross’) was also reduced from seven to four. Instead of stopping outside several of the participating churches, as last year, the stops this year were at what may be loosely called ‘landmarks,’ ending as usual at St Andrew’s Church.

Finally, we walked a few hundred yards more this year as the procession started from the north side of Brunswick Square, rather than from the traditional start outside St John the Baptist’s Church.

The First Station - Jesus is Condemned to Death – was at the top of Brunswick Square, which is famed for its stunning Regency architecture. As the photo shows, there are renovations underway and quite a lot of scaffolding in the area.

After the reading and reflection we sang ‘Crown him with Many Crowns’ a composition by the prolific Victorian composer Matthew Bridges, written three years after he became a Roman Catholic as a result of the influence of John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement.

Then we formed a straggling crocodile and, following the cross-bearer, we strolled for a few hundred yards along the pavement beside busy Western Road until we came to Palmeira Square, best known for its floral clock built in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.

At this Second Station – Simon of Cyrene helps to carry the cross – we listened to the Gospel and a meditation and then sang (those of us that knew the tune!) the seventeenth-century hymn ‘My Song is Love Unknown.’ Among the 182 walkers was a dog that attempted its own version of the hymn but was dragged away by his unimpressed owner.

Then it was on to Hove Town Hall – and more scaffolding. By now a few of the elderly walkers had retired and the line of walkers itself stretched for more than 100 yards. Fr Kevin read the Gospel and gave a short reflection for the Third Station – Jesus speaks to his mother. Then we launched into one of my favourite hymns ‘Were You There when they Crucified my Lord?’ It was probably composed by African-American slaves in the 19th century, likely before the American Civil War. The lyrics are simple, moving and beautiful while the tune has a call-and-response structure and the pained ‘Oh’ that begins the third line is sometimes sung with such a hold and slur that it sends goose-bumps down my spine. Brrrr!

Finally, the home stretch, past the pavement cafes, past the gawping shoppers of George Street, the procession made its way to the Anglican Church of St Andrew, beside the busy Church Road. The church is of a striking Norman-influenced design and is surrounded by a lovely old churchyard, replete with impressive gravestones and memorials. It is the final resting place of many prominent Hove families as well as Sir George Everest, who gave his name to the world’s highest mountain, and George Westphal, the last surviving officer to serve on Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, at Trafalgar.

And in this fittingly serene and weighty space we prayed the Fourth Station – Jesus dies on the Cross. After the meditation we sang another favourite, Isaac Watts’ timeless classic ‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross,’ still going strong after more than 300 years. They say that Isaac Watts was a sickly and unattractive child - but he was also something of a genius, studying Latin from age four, Greek at age nine, French from 11 and Hebrew from 13. He also had great skill at rhyming and – despite his father trying to thrash ‘this rhyming nonsense’ out of him, he went on to write more than 600 hymns.

For all of us, particularly the wilting elderly and the waning youngsters, it was time for refreshments in St Andrew’s Hall.

(A belated apology to some of my friends if I ignored you today: if you saw me behaving strangely, muttering to myself, I was just trying to count the number of genuine walkers. It’s not easy, you have to discount the ‘fellow travellers’ who walk alongside; in the end I restricted the numbers to those who carried the hymn sheet and their companions.)    

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Lee Miller at the IWM London

Last week I spent a pleasant afternoon at the ‘Lee Miller: A Woman’s War’ photo exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London.

The Imperial War Museum was a favourite haunt of the male members of our family for the past 20+ years, partly because of the ‘boys’ toys’ aspect of militaria, but also because of the displays’ ability to put flesh on the global conflicts of the 20th century, politics red in tooth and claw.

The very entrance to the museum is a display of shock and awe with its twin 15-inch naval guns, each of them weighing 100 tons and capable of firing a shell more than 16 miles. The guns were built almost exactly 100 years ago and one of them last saw action during the invasion of Normandy in June 1944.


Inside, the atrium - unsympathetically re-modelled a few years ago - is stuffed with warplanes, tanks, artillery, rockets and other machines designed solely to destroy and maim.

Thankfully, the permanent gallaries provide space to reflect on various aspects of war, such as the moving display on the history of the Holocaust, the Ashcroft medal gallery, the Secret War displays that illustrate the extreme heroism of spies and guerillas, and the make-do spirit of A Family in Wartime.

The Lee Williams exhibition is on the third floor.

Frankly, before I went I knew very little about her apart from the fact that she was one of the very few female photographers who gained access to the Second World War theatres of conflict. There are many iconic phots from WW2 but I can recall only a handful of photographers: Eisenstaedt, Robert Capa, Joe Rosenthal, Dickey Chapelle…I’m flagging already! Before attending the exhibition, the only photo linked to Lee Williams that I remember was the one taken of her in Hitler’s bath – on the same day that the Fuhrer took his life. 

Elizabeth ‘Lee’ Miller was a quite remarkable woman. Born in the US in 1907, in her early 20s she was one of the most famous fashion models in New York and, by her mid-20s, she was living in Paris, collaborating with the famous surrealist Man Ray. Her circle of friends included Picasso and Jean Cocteau. After establishing a portrait and commercial photography studio in New York, she married an Egyptian, moved to Cairo – but it did not work out and she was living in London with the surrealist painter Roland Penrose (whom she later married) when war broke out. Refusing to flee for refuge to the US, she instead became a war correspondent for Vogue and Conde Nast.

Her war work, particularly photographing the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, took a toll and she suffered from severe clinical depression after the war. Lee and Roland moved to Chiddingly, East Sussex where she transitioned into a successful gourmet cook before succumbing to cancer in 1977, aged 70.        

There are over 150 images (and Picasso’s portrait of her) in the exhibition, as well as uniforms, cameras, letters, videos and personal possessions.

Each visitor will take something memorable away from these black and white prints. For me, it was the variety of women’s work in the war years (including armed women in irregular Home Guard units), how fashion considerations impinged even on uniforms during wartime, and the memorable war-time portraits, such as the exhausted nurse at an evacuation hospital, the faces of refugees, collaborators, prisoners and unrepentant Germans.