Multi-cultural Part 1

_PW_2448This may seem like a completely innocuous piece of railing and yet on encountering it recently it stirred a flood of memories from almost 35 years ago.  Here I stood for hours on a hot summer’s day, while parents and other relatives operated in shifts to keep me company and supply me with food and drink as those hours passed by.

The railings are in Bloomsbury, a part of central London that is known for the greenery of its garden squares, its cultural and educational establishments, and of course the literati of the Bloomsbury Group.  No surprise to find me here today then, but what was the draw for a young schoolboy?

The clues are still there in the buildings that surround my objective; The British Museum.  On the day of my 13th birthday they opened an exhibition that produced an overwhelming demand from the public, so much so that even though the Museum opened extended its opening hours into the evenings the closing date was put back by three months.  Nearly 1.7 million visitors came to see Tutankhamen, or more accurately his burial treasures.

Whether it was the impact of that visit or not, I went on to study Latin and Ancient History, so the British Museum was an essential element of any trip to the capital during my teenage years.  Naturally I was interested in the Greek and Roman artefacts as well as those of the tribes who inhabited these isles before and after the Romans, but of course I revisited the Egyptian displays too.  What schoolboy could resist the macabre draw of ancient corpses and canopic jars designed to hold human viscera.

Since I last visited a more modern piece of culture has added to the appeal.  Norman Foster’s reworking of the Great Courtyard creates an absolutely stunning interior where people can get their bearings before delving into the collection of their choice or simply relax with some refreshments before doing battle with the Assyrians.

Having satisfied my architectural objective I did a quick tour of the greatest hits, but with one notable exception.  I gave the Elgin Marbles a miss.  Not because I don’t rate the quality of the sculpture, or because I am politically opposed to their presence here, but simply down to a perverse desire to avoid the obvious.  There will be many who walk past these masterpieces from the Sutton Hoo burial simply because they’re small or dismiss them as the work of barbarians.  They should remember that we refer to this period as the dark ages because we’re in the dark about them, not because the people were not enlightened


However I must return to the Elgin Marbles.  There are many who describe Britain’s possession of the marbles as theft; the sculptures were part of the Parthenon and should be returned to Greece, but for me if you pursue that argument to its logical conclusion we all become poorer for it.  If every item in a museum around the world were returned to its homeland we become focused on only ourselves and have no understanding of other views of the world, views that may be alien to us but worthy of our understanding.  Furthermore, the dissemination of this art and the knowledge that it embodies, is a form of protection.  The eggs in one basket argument may have seemed far-fetched a few years ago, but what if all the treasures of the middle eastern cultures were returned home?  How much greater would have been the destruction wrought by Islamic State?  Dissemination of historical artefacts is spread betting for the priceless and irreplaceable.

When I was a teenager the British Museum shop signified the end of a visit; almost invariably to buy a scarab beetle for handful of change.  The products on sale now are more commercially sourced and aimed at the higher end of the market; expensive jewellery and other luxury items prevail.  Amongst them I spotted a scarf designed by Grayson Perry retailing for just £80.  The graphic represented a map of the museum, labelled in Perry’s irreverent yet perceptive style.  The entrance is therefore marked thus

Where the world meets the world.

I’m glad they do.



Ironically for a photographer, I’ve lacked focus this week.  Nothing inspired me to go and point a lens at it.

This may have been because I’ve been working in a location that I’m very familiar with, and where I’ve been out to shoot the things that interest me already, but I have to question my motivation.

This isn't my bike btw!
This isn’t my bike btw!

I did take some pictures while out cycling last weekend, as I further explored my new home in Durham, but I managed to time this with the only few hours in days where the skies were overcast.  Perhaps that contributed to my torpor.

Shincliffe was my destination.  I’d been there the previous day to drop my friend Elaine off at the garden centre.  It is a village that consists largely of two perpendicular roads that both join a more major route that forms the hypotenuse of a small triangle.  Consequently, with no through traffic other than the green-fingered and its own residents, Shincliffe is a quiet spot that seems almost timeless.  This sense was compounded by the fact that due to the spending restrictions that local authorities are imposing the verges of the village high street have not been cut, leading to an almost meadow-like quality.

Shincliffe High Street
Shincliffe High Street

The effect is noticeable in many locations around the county, but here in Shincliffe it seems almost appropriate and creates a scene that may go back to when this chapel was built and earlier.

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Shincliffe
Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Shincliffe

The village certainly has a history – the bridge over the Wear here may be built on Roman origins, though it was properly established in the middle ages, flourished briefly following the industrial revolution due the nearby collieries and then declined one again as they closed.

I’ve always associated the history of this area with the majesty of the Norman buildings on Durham’s Palace Green, but there is so much more scattered around here.  The remains of the most northerly villa in all of the Roman Empire were found nearby.

On my way home I passed through Sherburn House, a tiny cluster of houses on one side of the road and an imposing gatehouse on the other.  These old stones now form part of a residential home for the elderly, but in their time they were part of a medieval hospital established in the 12th century providing care to a large group of lepers.APW_3910

And yet for all of this opportunity to shoot something historic, it was a more modern image that provided my favourite.  This was regatta weekend in Durham, the Wear thronged with racing rowers and their supporters.  It might have been a great place to take pictures, but the cycle path I would have needed to get there has been swept away by heavy rain in recent months.  Nevertheless the boat houses, which populate the river banks face no such restrictions.  The picture I got isn’t high quality, because I needed to crop away most of it to get to the detail that caught my eye.  A simple study in straight lines.  The purple blades just give it a little oomph!APW_3884





At the moment it feels like that whenever it snows, it follows that I have a journey to make across the Pennines, and this usually means the A66, a road which has snow gates to prevent traffic from using it when the weather really deteriorates.  I recall a journey nearly 20 years ago before the gates were in regular use when a lorry jacknifing in front of me resulted in the road being closed and the police turning me back the way I had come to take a detour which added another 90 minutes to my journey.

Luckily this year, despite the white stuff being a regular companion on the moors, I’ve not had any problems in getting to or from my destination in the west.

I’ve travelled the A66 more times than I can count over the years, visiting former in-laws on the Cumbrian Coast, attending meetings or delivering training in Lancashire or beyond, but most frequently to visit the beautiful Lake District, but whatever the reason for my visit, one of the landmarks that bring interest to the journey has been the jagged remnants of Brough Castle.  Perched on a small hill the remaining walls are often silhouetted against mist or sunset, and so today I set off in hope that they would provide some good images if I stopped there today.

In all my travels along the route, I’ve never visited the castle before, so I was unsure how accessible it would be, but once parked among the charming cottages in the centre of the village that neighbours the structure it was just a short walk to find the castle open to visitors with free access.  This wasn’t enough to attract the crowds however.  I had the place entirely to myself.

To begin with I wasn’t sure how I was going to come up with anything dramatic.  I would love to have shot with a wide-angle lens and polarising filter to bring drama to the skies, but I’m still waiting for my insurers to replace the lens recently damaged during one of my beach shoots.  I was restricted therefore to a 50mm prime, which for the non photographers means it is neither wide-angle nor telephoto and lacks any zoom option so often useful in framing an image.

The castle is surrounded by a ditch and earth ramparts, and as I skirted around these I initially suspected that I would fail to find anything with impact.  Even the keep, riven open not by Scots gunpowder but by subsidence during years of neglect was difficult to frame in an interesting way with the equipment at hand.  I gave it my best shot (excuse the pun) and then climbed the banks to enter the bailey, at which point the sun decided to make its presence felt.

It was not yet the “Golden Hour” but the solar light was seasonally low in the sky so I was presented with deep shadows contrasting strongly with beautiful warm tones from the reddish colour of the masonry.  That was the only warmth on offer, for despite the sunshine the temperature guage was sitting firmly on the fence between freezing and thawing.  The wind chill however left the outcome of that contest in no doubt.  It was lip-splittingly cold.

Those who manned this fortification have my admiration for this exposed setting must rarely feel welcoming.  Although the castle was established by the Normans, it occupies a site where a much larger Roman fort (Verteris) was located, probably from the time of Agricola.  It’s location makes perfect sense strategically, overseeing a critical cross-country route, but on a day like to day you might have wondered if that was enough!  The original Roman troops garrisoned here were Thracian.  I wonder how much of a contrast to their native Turkey they found Brough.

As the cold continued to bite I understood why I was so fortunate to have sole occupancy of the castle, though not quite as luxurious as Lumley.  No chance of a portrait today, unless you count a cheesy selfie using timed shutter release.

Loading the wagon

The Roman Empire was a magpie; borrowing foods (lentils from Egypt), religion (Mithra from Persia) and language from those they subsumed into their boundaries.  A word that they borrowed from the Gauls, karros, meaning a wagon or cart was Latinised into carrus to refer to a Gallic wagon.  Words like car, carriage, cargo and carry have clear origins here, but what about caricature?  Strangely enough this also originates from carrus, and it’s original meaning was to “load the cart”, in other words to exaggerate or over-emphasise.

It came to refer to a drawing, painting, or silhouette which gave greater prominence to the features of an individual which were already notable; Prince Charles is forever portrayed with huge ears, for his sister Anne it is her teeth.  Like the word, the practice can be traced back to Roman times; amongst the proliferation of graffiti in Pompeii can be seen a local politician whose bald head and long drooping nose are clearly the object of ridicule.

Caricaturing continues to be popular – the centres of many tourist cities will have artists who offer to portray passers by in charcoal or chalks with either a measure of realism or a degree of exaggeration.  Their pitches are normally decorated with caricatures of celebrities that are demonstrations of their art.

As the art form that was initially believed to be truly representative (the camera never lies) it is perhaps not surprising that photo caricatures haven’t become commonplace.  That’s not to say that it can’t be done – any photographer with a little knowledge of the properties of a wide angle lens would see the possibilities this might have for exaggerating the nasal features in a portrait for example.

The ability to alter negatives goes back to the 19th Century, and in this digital age we are familiar with the abilities of photoshop and other digital editing software.  The same tools that notoriously made Kate Winslet‘s legs slimmer on the cover of GQ could be used to exaggerate other features.  I suspect many a magazine cover has resorted to a digital boob job from time to time.

So if it’s possible to create photographic caricatures, why don’t we see them?

For me the answer is that we are so used to the “truth” that a photographic represents that as soon as you distort it you lose that truth and enter the world of cartoon.  The caricaturist who draws is creating the whole, they can imagine the the image in its entirety and create something with a sense of proportion (however imbalanced).  If I were to take a photograph and elongate the the nose, I then potentially have to adjust all of the other features to make it look right.  Attempts to do this have concentrated on creating digital measurements of key features and playing with equations that keep the numbers in balance.  At that point though we’re no longer talking about an artistic talent.

My subject for today is another John, and I’m sure he’ll be pleased to know that I’m not going to give him enormous ears or a tiny head .  However before I met John another potential subject turned me down because “I’m not really even supposed to be in this town!”.  Perhaps if I’d offered a little digital manipulation…

Cultural osmosis

Last week when I met the reluctant Mrs Postlethwaite, I was inspired to do some research into this very English sounding name.  I already suspected it wasn’t as “home grown” as it might seem, since way back in the mists of time I had a primary school teacher (Bernard Thwaites) who told me that thwait was a viking word for a clearing or a farmstead.

It turns out that Postlethwaite means Possel’s Farm or Apostle’s Farm, and historically refers to the location where the name’s bearer originates.  In the latter case Apostle’s Farm would detail a farm owned by one who had played an apostle in some medieval entertainment, rather than indicating an immigrant from the holy land.  Possel however is an Old English name.  Sounds OK on the face of it, however the language that we refer to as Old English was largely in use on the other side of the North Sea as Old Frisian, and is Germanic in origin.

Those people who rail against multiculturalism talk about it diluting our way of life, but what is “our way” if not an amalgam of words, customs and behaviours that have come to these shores through invasion, immigration and imperial expansion?  Consequently defending a culture or way of life is as meaningless as trying to preserve a specific section of water in a flowing river.  We can guide and influence the flow, but little more than that.

I was interested to hear Mary Beard speaking about culture in her new television series about the Romans.  Mortality rates in the city were high (malaria was common) so a constant influx of immigrants to the city was needed or it would cease to function.  Consequently the citizenry of Rome was far more than Italian (by which I mean born in places that we now consider to be Italy since there was no country of that name), it was Greek, Egyptian, Spanish, Germanic for example.  They spoke predominantly Latin or Greek, worshipped Roman gods (that had been assimilated from other cultures) and resented newer immigrants who didn’t do things the way they did!

It seems there is nothing new in human nature.

the Globe theatre
the Globe theatre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There has been a lot of publicity in recent days about a project being run as part of the World Shakespeare Festival (itself part of the 2012 Olympic and Diamond Jubilee celebrations).  The project is called Globe to Globe, and naturally enough is being performed at the Globe Theatre where over 6 weeks, 37 Shakespearean plays are being performed in 37 different languages.

This isn’t just a stunt – each play is being performed by a theatre group who already perform that work, so for example Arpana are performing “All’s Well That Ends Well” in their native Gujerati, and there are other companies performing in Swahili, Mandarin, Italian and Turkish to name but a few.  There’s even a Maori group who have incorporated a Haka.

One of the organisers of the event said that in her view we don’t own Shakespeare any more, he belongs to the world.  Isn’t that how culture should be?

Li Nan is a student at Sunderland University, where along with thousands of other overseas visitors she shares her cultural influences and absorbs those of others.  I’m not sure where her eye-wear idea originated though.  There are no lenses in those frames!