Stupafy

Milton Keynes is one of those places that I suspect generates a lot of preconceptions. Hardly surprising since the place was once synonymous with half a dozen concrete cows (which in all my visits I’ve never seen).

I was under the mistaken impression until recently that the town was named after the economists with conflicting philosophies; Milton Friedman and Lord Keynes, but as the name goes back a few centuries I’ve had to scrap that theory.

What is beyond doubt is that the straight line is king. They might be tree-lined and further softened by being called “boulevards” but the fact is that the roads run straight and parallel, the buildings are square and even green spaces have rectilinear tendencies.

With time to explore I might have embraced those angles, but with a tight schedule and the ever-present parking challenges that are also part of this town’s character I grabbed a few examples in the vicinity of my workplace but nothing of real value or impact.

Disappointing, but there was a surprise still to come. Just before joining the motorway that would lead my back to my northern homeland I spotted an alien structure standing in an area of parkland. It was a pagoda.

Now I’ve seen pagodas before (and photographed one earlier this year) but this one was different. No tiers of oriental canopies here, just one. What’s more there was a large white dome beneath it that reminded me of a different religious structure altogether, or rather two.

Temple de swayambunath-nepal
Temple de swayambunath-nepal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was lucky enough to celebrate my 40th year by cycling across Nepal, and in my time in Kathmandu visited two of the Buddhist faith’s oldest religious sites; Swayambunath (The Monkey Temple) and Bodnath where refugee monks from Tibet continue to worship. Sadly in those days my interest in two wheels exceeded my interest in developing photographic skills so I returned without images of these great monuments so forgive me for resorting to wiki at this point.

Bodnath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Bodnath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These white hemispherical structures house holy relics and are known as Stupa, and this was what I recognised at the MK pagoda.

Was this some sort of hybrid?  No, not really.  Look at the structures above the dome and you will see a series of tapering circles or steps (which in Buddhist symbolism represent fire).  Now that’s more pagoda like.

The truth is that the Stupa was the original Buddhist religious structure in India and Nepal where the religion first took hold, but as it spread further east to China and Japan, the dome (which represented water) became less prominent and disappeared whist the structure above became more developed and ornate.  The Milton Keynes Peace Pagoda provided me with the missing link that enabled me to see this architectural evolution.

It made for some interesting pictures too.

Peace Pagoda, Milton Keynes
Peace Pagoda, Milton Keynes

Silence

I’ve spent a lot of timing musing on silence recently, and began thinking about how I would try to convey silence in a photograph.  Most of us would define it as the absence of sound, so logically the photographic equivalent would be an absence of light.  silenceNot really what I wanted to achieve because it’s obvious, lacks any degree of skill or decision-making, and besides which as far as art is concerned Mark Rothko‘s chapel has pretty much cornered the market in large blocks of darkness.

I talked to my friend Jane about silence and its effects and we agreed that whilst a desolate landscape might be silent of human input you wouldn’t be able to prevent nature’s voice from being heard through wind noise, birdsong, water movement etc, and this is interesting because we when we talk about silence it’s something that many of us will never truly achieve.

A recent discussion on the subject that I heard gave truth to this.  The participants were John Francis (the Planetwalker), an environmentalist who gave up speaking for several years, Galya Morrell, a Russian artist who grew up in the harshness of the arctic circle, and Diarmaid MacCulloch who has written a book on the role of silence in Christianity.  As the discussion progressed it was clear that none had experienced absolute silence, a fact demonstrated by the story told by Morrell in which she described an encounter with a polar bear when she was pregnant.  The predator was easily close enough to attack but did not and both parties stood silently watching one another.  Well actually although she described the encounter as silent, she then went on to describe how in that moment she was able to hear her own heartbeat, her baby’s and more remarkably the bear’s!  Whilst I’m dubious about the last of these I’m sure she would have heard it breathing at least.  So even in that moment there wasn’t really absolute silence.

Jane’s other input was more morbid.  The silence of the tomb.  We didn’t pursue that any further as I had no intention of forcing my way into some mausoleum in search of my answer, and yet that idea must have taken hold in my subconscious, because today I set off for Durham’s Oriental Museum confident that I would find my solution there, though I had no idea what form it would take.

This was my first visit to the museum, which in consideration of the preservation of its artefacts is cool and dimly lit, and being largely subterranean had a sepulchral resonance that suggested Jane might be on the right track.  The light forced me into ISO settings on my camera that I wouldn’t dare consider in normal use and after taking the first shot or two another change came to mind.  The ability to shoot more silently.  The museum was virtually deserted and as I paused between shots I had near silence, only the soft hum of dehumidifiers rendering the adjective inadmissible.

There was plenty to photograph, though clearly some objects like this temple bell were clearly off topic!

APW_8188
Oriental Museum, Durham

  A range of Chinese grave goods were more promising; objects that had endured centuries of silence before being removed for our education and their preservation.  Yet these didn’t really do it for me; for one thing, the tiny bells clearly symbolised anything but silence, the cockerel on the funeral tile was far too garish, the terracotta horse too active.  Only the tiny figurine showed promise, until you consider the history of these sculptures.  They were substitutes for the human sacrifice that had preceded their introduction, a practice that must have been anything but silent.

Moving on from the associations of death I considered religious observance, inspired perhaps by MacCulloch.  Would worship at this shrine have been conducted in silence? I can’t be sure, but of course when it comes to silent meditation there is one religion that springs to mind.  Buddhism.  Actually this might also be slightly misleading.  The buddhist temple I visited

APW_8139

 in Kathmandu was positively discordant with the sounds of trumpets, cymbals and conch shells, the sound of which apparently dispels evil spirits.  Nevertheless the Buddha himself is indeed a peaceful figure.

APW_8172

It was however in the Egyptian rooms that I found my image.  Lots more grave goods including a pair of intact sarcophagi.  I might have missed it due to the attack on silence being conducted by a philistine loudly declaiming his expertise on Japanese seppuku.  Loudly and inaccurately.  I remained silent rather than correct his use of “hari-kari” to “hara-kiri”  I found him so irritating that I was in a hurry to leave the room, but not before I found my goal.  An object that being a sarcophagus mask had endured the centuries of silence, it’s face displaying a peace that could mirror the Buddha, and whose damage ensured the completeness of its silence.APW_8189-2


Solent Running (Soton Part I)

If I’m completely honest I wasn’t thrilled when my employer told me I was off to Southampton this week. The distance played a part; the 300 mile drive was going to consume a big part of my Sunday, but aside from that the place itself didn’t have any positive associations. I’ve only been on two prior occasions; once flying in before then driving onto a different location, and the other, driving in before sailing onto a different location. You get the picture; I’d never felt the need to linger. Consequently, when I had no choice but to spend some time here as a result of my work, I had my eyes opened. Given the port’s location as an ideal embarkation point for Normandy and the success of the invasion that took place in 1066 it was bound to prosper at least in the short-term, so no surprises that Southampton achieved significance then. In fact, that prosperity continued long after the Normans had blended into our multi-cultural cocktail, the strange tidal patterns of the Solent giving the town a competitive edge for those trading by sea. What is more surprising is how much of the history remains, and what’s more, remains largely intact. You don’t have to walk far to encounter Medieval, Tudor, Regency and Victorian buildings, liberally peppered amongst the more modern constructions.

Like any other city, Southampton has seen its fair share of 21st Century carpetbaggers; the property developers building block after block of modern apartments, which here doubtless provide temporary accommodation for those needing a base of operations for their sailing exploits.

The affluence hasn’t percolated however, I was approached by more beggars on my stay than I can recall since I visited Nairobi or Kathmandu. The pubs are invariably out of the ordinary, with fascinating stories to tell. The Duke of Wellington goes back some 800 years, the Red Lion likewise, but with the added interest that Henry V held the trial of three conspirators in the building before sailing to Agincourt. The conspirators were not so lucky and were executed at the Bargate, an entrance to the old town which is also intact.

There there is the Juniper Berry, standing in the spot where Jane Austen lived, and the Grapes, a pub notorious for the fact that a handful of guests became so drunk there that they missed the departure of their ship. Nothing very remarkable there, but for the fact that the ship was The Titanic. Never has a hangover been so welcome. The Mayflower and the QEII are other maritime celebrities with strong associations. Even the hotel in which I find myself has played host to both Benjamin Franklin and Queen Victoria in its day. I just wish they’d decorated since.APW_5771_2_3 It seems then that I was wrong to underestimate Southampton. There’s more to the place than a football team that witnessed the golden years of Mick Channon.

Fourth World

Travelling home from work today I was listening to Digital Human on the radio and in particular a piece about Chris Kirkley’s search for authentic music in West Africa, and his discovery that a fiercely independent music culture such as that in Mali had developed surprising ways with the advent of technology.  Using pirated software bands are recording songs in MP3 format and then sharing them actively using bluetooth file transfer on their mobile phones.

The music remains staunchly sub-Saharan, but the method of broadcast shows the intrusion of western technologies, but on the Malian’s own terms.  The bonus of the programme was that there was some great incidental music, the downside, that it didn’t come with a track listing!

I’m no expert on world music, but it has always exerted some hold on me.  Long before Paul Simon’s controversial Graceland, the music of other cultures enthralled me.  Milestones in this musical journey have included much of Peter Gabriel‘s output, the Burundi drums of Joni Mitchell’s The Jungle Line, an album of Himalayan Melodies by Sarangi that I recognised in the alleys of Kathmandu from a hearing at a restaurant the previous evening, and of course:

Jon Hassell/Brian Eno – Fourth World Vol 1 Possible Musics.

Cover of "Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible ...
Cover of Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics

This was an album bought by a school friend purely on the basis of having Brian Eno‘s name on the label.  His collaboration with trumpeter Hassell paved the way for the masterpiece that Eno would record with David Byrne; My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  Featuring all manner of electronic treatments on a trumpet that sounds nothing like the horn you might expect, my friend hated this album and it eventually found its way to my collection.  I too found it a bit of an oddity, but over the years it has grown in appeal, and other works by Hassell have come my way.

Whatever the method, our sharing of music helps define us wherever we are in the world.

Appropriately enough my portrait today is of a young West African man, Kenneth.  Another Nigerian, I asked him to teach me how to say goodbye in his dialect, which I’m ashamed to say I promptly forgot, and all attempts to find the phrase in Hausa or Yoruba have failed me, so I must resort to Kiswahili and wish him kwaheri and assante sana.

Air miles

As I write today’s thoughts I’m overseen at my left shoulder by a highly lacquered papier-mâché elephant; a present for my daughter Megan from Kathmandu.  Behind me three Masai women huddle together beneath the trees from a small batik that I bought for her in the Masai Market of Arusha in Tanzania.

Megan and her sister still enjoy the excitement of travel, though they are completely unfazed at the prospect.  They have grown up exposed to different cultures and languages, predominantly in Europe, and through contact with their cousins in Canada have clocked up a few hours over the Atlantic too.

Our generation have become used to globe trotting in ways that our parents never dreamt of, and the benefits of our exposure to other cultures are great (so long as we take the trouble to experience them, rather than sheltering in all inclusive hotel complexes with armed guards to keep the locals at arms length, so that the profit remains with the hotel chain).

Can this growth in travel be sustained?  The world economy and the price of oil are currently making the “staycation” a popular alternative, and then there is the question of how much air travel affects global warming.  With so many vested interests it seems impossible these days to get a straight answer on the effects of any hydrocarbon fuelled activity, but increased air travel can’t be doing the planet a lot of good, whatever the other benefits that it might bring.

Will our global adventures be a short blip, never to be experienced again at their current level or is the genie out of the bottle, never to be returned at any cost?

These are significant questions for my portrait subject today; Lateefa, a young student born in Nigeria and relocated to London, not because of her personal migration but because she is a student of Travel and Tourism here in Sunderland.

I was heading through the underpass on my way to the Wear Bridge once again, when her dazzling smile caught my eye, or was it her outrageous earrings?  She and her friend Nadja were on their way from college, and whilst Nadja, as an Azerbaijani would have been a great addition to the incidental “portraits of all nations” aspect of this blog, she was full of cold and insisted on revealing only her eyes between a woollen hat and a polo neck pulled up taut over her lower face.

Lateefa proved to have the vibrant personality to match her jewellery and as I ran off a handful of shots was so full of energy that everyone offered something different, so I decided to take a different approach today.  I combined some of my favourites into what might be called a quadtych, and here it is:

Trouble was I couldn’t help but feel that the second from the left was too beautiful a shot to be diluted in this way, so here’s that smile in all its glory. 

Definitely one of the benefits of travel.