Russian Friends

Whatever Presidents Trump and Putin are up to, relations between Britain and Russia are poor.  But that’s hardly a surprise: it’s been the historical norm for most of the past 200 years.   The two nations confronted each other in ‘The Great Game’ over Afghanistan and neighbouring territories in Central and Southern Asia for most of the nineteenth century.  Of the major powers, Britain put the most effort into the wars of intervention against the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution in 1917; and distrust and contention marked Anglo-Soviet relations for much of the 1920s and 30s.  The Cold War preoccupied two generations from 1945 to 1990.  But the climate was not always one of antagonism.  Britain allied with Russia and others in the War of the Sixth Coalition (1813-14) which finally defeated Napoleon; both nations fought Germany (until March 1918) in World War 1; and Russia was a key Allied Power in World War 2.  Why does it take a common enemy to bring us together?

Photo: Gibraltar Farm Barn, Tempsford, July 2017

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Gibraltar Farm Barn

Gibraltar Farm Barn, Tempsford, is a Grade II Listed Building.  The official citation is as follows.

‘Barn, later adapted to store flight equipment for Special Operations Executive agents, and now a memorial. Early-C19 with mid-C20 modifications. Concrete plinth, weather-boarded and brick-lined walls under a pitched old tile roof. 5-bay barn with central threshing entrance, that to west blocked and with Crittall windows that are also in the gable ends.’

‘INTERIOR: Concrete racks with brick partitions around perimeter formerly stored the flight equipment. To west wall, a memorial: ‘Tempsford Airfield Gibraltar Farm I Erected to commemorate the brave deeds of the men and women of every nationality who flew from this wartime airfield to the forces of the resistance in France, Norway, Holland, and other countries during the years 1942 to 1945 I The equipment for their dangerous missions was issued to them from this barn’. Roof structure comprises 4 trusses of tie beams with slightly curved braces to walls and raking struts clasped to single rows of purlins with collars. Rafters joined by ridge piece.’

‘Listed for its historic interest and as a memorial to the Special Operations Executive agents who were kitted out from this barn before flying from the adjacent runway to missions in occupied Europe.’

Photo: Gibraltar Farm Barn, Tempsford, July 2017

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I’ve just received my copy of Sparks – Adventures in Street Photography by Stephen Leslie – I subscribed to its publication through Unbound.  This can be a slightly risky way of buying books as you rely on the final publication being as good as the synopsis suggests it will be.  In this case the trust was fully justified.  Leslie accompanies each of his photographs with stories, speculations and imaginings blending fact and fiction.  He quotes Joel Meyerowitz: ‘Photography is too often about the pictures only.  To me, it’s always been about ideas and the ideas that pictures generate.’  The result is an enthralling visual and verbal cocktail that complements Teju Cole’s intriguing Blind Spot.  Leslie concludes an essay on a photograph of three dressing gown clad women outside a health club with: ‘It’s a photo that works but it is not the truth.  If anything it’s better, if slightly harsher, for being a lie.  Photography often works this way.’


Photo: Sparks – Adventures in Street Photography cover

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The Medieval port town of Dunwich has long since been washed away by storms and spring tides – the tower of All Saints’, the last of the ancient churches, toppled over the friable cliffs in 1922.  A local legend says that, at certain tides, church bells can still be heard from beneath the waves.  Today the shingle sings in the surf at high tide, competing with the cackling and clatter of cutlery and crockery as parties of pensioners demolish plates of fish and chips at the Flora Cafe.

Photo: Dunwich, Suffolk, July 2018

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Shingle Street 8

‘At Shingle Street we strolled towards the sea, our feet setting up a slow rhythmic, percussive rattle in the shingle. Valerian, sea kale and horned sea poppy bent in the wind, their muted red, green and yellow blending with colours of the beach.  Then, above the susurrus of the waves and the occasional cry of a gull, we heard footsteps on the shingle moving to a faster beat: a tracksuited figure carrying a bicycle trotted across the ridges ahead of us.  He stopped at the water’s edge, dropped his bicycle, stripped off his outer clothes and plunged in.  His head bobbed across the calm water of the lagoon to the spit on the other side, turned round and headed back.  Feet slipping on the mobile shingle, he struggled out of the water, stuffed his tracksuit in a haversack, hefted his bike onto his shoulder and hurried away across the ridges.  Jumping on the bike at the road, he pedalled off towards Hollesley.  Hollesley is the home of a Category D men’s prison known locally as the Hollesley Bay Colony.’  Shingle Street 10th July 2018

Photo: Shingle Street, July 2018

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Shingle Street 7

There have been buildings and people living at Shingle Street since the early 1800s.  The Martello towers, the coastguard cottages and the massive shingle bank give it an air of permanence, yet this is the most mobile of coasts.  When I last visited the shoreline was a gentle uninterrupted curve, see Shingle Street 5, 13 July 2012.  Then storms and tides created off-shore spits and in August 2016 the Indy recommended having ‘a swim in the sheltered, lagoon-like waters’.  In March 2017 a blog reported, ‘The spit that forms the lagoon has been flattened and has extended towards the shore. At high tide parts of it are now submerged.’  Part of the lagoon remained when we visited this week.

Photo: Shingle Street, Suffolk, July 2018

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A Surfeit of Blue

Holy Trinity, Blythburgh, has 15th century poppy heads representing the seven deadly sins – Gluttony holds up his ample pot belly.  The architect Morris Lapidus called his autobiography Too Much is Never Enough in honour of his monuments to excess.  I’m intrigued by blue rope, its ubiquity and seeming indestructability, but a glutton for it, a seeker after excess?  Probably not.  I had reckoned without suffering a surfeit of blue when snooping through the windows of the German Ocean Mansion in Shingle Street.

Photo: German Ocean Mansion, Shinglestreet, Suffolk, July 2018

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Entomophobia is an excessive or irrational fear of insects, more specifically, apiphobia (bees), myrmecophobia (ants), lepidopterophobia (moths and butterflies) and spheksophobia (wasps).  A traumatic experience with an insect may trigger the phobia.   In addition to bites and stings and the association with pests, plagues and infestations, it is possible that insects are terrifying because they are so unlike ourselves – skeletons outside their bodies, strange ways of moving, too many legs and multiple or enormous eyes.  The Metamorphosis, entomophobia writ large; The Fly, entomophobia on film.

Photo: North Fen, Cottenham, July 2018

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Fen Landscape 34 – Flaming June

“Thermometers crept as high as 33C last week, with the mercury rising highest in Porthmadog in north Wales on June 28 … Scotland also recorded its highest EVER temperature last month – 33.2C in Motherwell, also on June 28 … unusually dry weather across the south east and central southern England, with just six percent of the expected rainfall … In Essex, just 1.7mm or rain fell during the entire month.”  “With no sign of a cool-down for at least the next four weeks forecasters expect this to be one of, if not the, hottest summers on record.  High pressure wedged over the UK refuses to budge as Britain bakes in one of the longest heatwaves for more than 40 years.”  On Tuesday the fenland fields were fringed with bleached blonde grasses in the evening sun.


Photo: North Fen, Cottenham, July 2018

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Still more I that E!

Unwisely took part in the Royal Academy quiz, ‘Which great British artwork are you?’  Depressingly predicable results!

“You are: John Constable’s A Boat Passing a Lock!  People might see you as a lovely and peaceful person, but that doesn’t mean you’re a pushover. Like John Constable, the painter behind A Boat Passing a Lock, you’ve got strong principles and a firm belief in your own sense of what’s right and what’s beautiful. The landscape painting that Constable is beloved for today didn’t make him much money in his lifetime, but he stuck with it regardless. Like him, you’re not one for attention-seeking dramatics or social climbing – we’re more likely to find you out and about, enjoying fresh air, good company and bucolic scenery.”

Tried the quiz again answering as I would like to be, rather than as I think I am.  Well, it’s a more interesting picture!

“You are: Angelica Kauffman’s Design!  No-one looking at you should underestimate just how much creativity and determination it took to get you where you are, and we could say the same for Design, painted by one of our only two female founding members between 1778-80. Like Angelica Kauffman, who became a successful artist despite the 18th-century art world’s persistent erasure of women’s contributions, you know the value of hard work and are prepared to dedicate hours to perfecting your craft. Naturally talented and popular, you attract many admirers, but anyone who crosses you will soon realise they’ve made a serious mistake. Just ask Nathaniel Hone, who submitted a painting featuring a naked dancing female figure thought to depict Kauffman to the RA’s Summer Exhibition. Kauffman promptly announced that either Hone’s artwork would be removed from the show, or she’d withdraw all her own paintings. The Council went with the first option.”

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I’m reading In Montparnasse – ‘The Emergence of Surrealism in Paris, from Duchamp to Dali’ – by Sue Roe.  It has been read on BBC Radio 4 as book of the week, somehow appropriate given how frustratingly short of illustrations it is. ‘The lure of the decadent, the uncensored expression of chaotic, disruptive, erotic drives and the power of the unconscious to direct the artist’s work (a subtler encounter for the artist than simply making paintings of dreams) – all these things together added up to what the artists in this book understood by surrealism.’ (p.4)

Photo: Bath, September 2011

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One Hundred

J gave me copy of Seamus Heaney – 100 Poems today.  Synchrony.  I have been imagining my next photo book:  100 Photographs, all untitled, enigmatic.  It might have sub-title, 1000 Stories.

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Classical Archaeology 5

Ariadne, daughter of Pasiphae and Minos, fell in love with the Athenian hero Theseus and, with a thread, helped him escape the Labyrinth after he slew the Minotaur. Here the legends diverge, as they so often do: she was abandoned by Theseus and hanged herself (bad); or, Theseus carried her to Naxos and left her there to die, but she was rescued by and married the Dionysus (not so bad).  The statue shows her in restless sleep – maybe she is wrestling with Ariadne’s Thread, trying to decide what to do next.

Photo: Sleeping Ariadne, Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge, June 2018

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Fen Landscape 33 – Great North Fen, Cottenham

Friday 22nd June 2018.  Midsummer evening walk into the geometric, point perspective, fen landscape.  Cultivator tracks meet a distant hedge separating land and sky, ordered, unvarying green from random blue and white.  The wheat looks healthy and full of promise, underneath the ground is parched and cracked.  Water flows slowly down Cottenham Lode to meet the Great Ouse.

Photo:  Great North Fen, Cottenham. June 2018

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Joan Leigh Fermor 2

In the past year two things have happened to add some details to the story of Joan Leigh Fermor, photographer, described in my blog of 22nd November 2017.  First, the publication of Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Journey Continues.  Second the exhibition and associated publication ‘Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor – Charmed Lives in Greece’.

Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Journey Continues

Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Journey Continues (9th Supplement, Benaki Museum, Athens, 2017) presents a series of essays on the life and legacy of Patrick Leigh Fermor (Paddy, PLF).  Joan is mentioned, insofar as she is part of that life and legacy, in two contributions: ‘Paddy and Joan’ by Cressida Connolly; and ‘Curating the Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive’ by David McClay. Six photographs are credited to her, four of them being of Paddy and their house at Kardamyli.


Connolly describes Joan as quiet, shy even, measured, clear sighted, interested in unconventional people and with an excellent mind and sound judgement.  ‘She was an observer, but she was always very present’, says Connolly.  A line can be drawn between these qualities and Joan’s career as a photographer: ‘Naturally watchful, she began to take photographs’, suggests Connolly.  Joan ‘delighted in ghoulish things’, which brings to mind immediately her photography of Pere Lachaise Cemetery, London’s Victorian cemeteries and cemeteries in Genoa, Guadeloupe and Haiti.

McClay describes how the Joan Leigh Fermor Archive arrived at the National Library of Scotland .  There are around 6000 photographs in her achieve; and there are 3,000 in the PLF archive, some of which are by Joan.  He suggests, ‘That she had a keen eye and [the] ability to photograph architectural and archaeological subjects is clear from her pictures.’   ‘Whilst many of Joan’s photographs are in albums which give basic geographical and chronological details they would be immeasurably enhanced with fuller descriptions,’ writes McClay.  Overall, ‘the collection is of significant interest and importance, not just for Paddy enthusiasts but for those particularly interested in Greece.’

 Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor – Charmed Lives in Greece

This exhibition opened at the A. G. Leventis Gallery in Nicosia, Cyprus, in February 2017, moved on to the Benaki Museum, Athens, in June 2017, before a run at the British Museum, London, from 8th March to 15th July 2018.  The exhibition included paintings, drawings, photographs, text, a short film and artefacts.  It records what Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith in the film calls, ‘a time of renaissance of literary and artistic collaboration between Britain and Greece’.  The substantial, well-illustrated publication to accompany the show, edited by Evita Arapoglou, documents the lives in Greece of the creative trio.  My comments below are based on the 3rd revised edition, April 2018.

The exhibition included eight photographs credited to Joan.  The book has 16 photographs credited to her, six related to building their house at Kardamyli, five portraits of Paddy, two of Ghika and one of John Craxton, and two group pictures.  Joan’s Nikkormat, which she used to document the building of the house, was an exhibit.

The book focuses on the story of the three protagonists, with Joan portrayed as a continuing and reliable background presence.  She wrote newsy letters to Ghika; he, John Craxton and other friends seem to see her mainly as a confidante and friend.  In later life her focus at Kardamyli seems to have been gardening, cats and cookery. However, she is described as an ‘indispensable part of [Paddy’s] life, the lover, companion and support’, a quiet, calming force.  He aspired to be a writer, but: ‘Apart from his trans-European walk in the 1930s, which he did not yet see how to handle, he had no core experience to draw on.  His travels in Greece, with Joan [taking photographs] were the result.’


Both The Journey Continues and ‘Charmed Lives in Greece’ focus very deliberately on Patrick Leigh Fermor, not Joan, who is a supporting actor in the ‘renaissance’ drama that is recounted.  She emerges as reserved intelligent, thoughtful and organised, qualities that complemented Paddy’s very different character.  This was certainly not a purely passive role: she accompanied Paddy in his explorations of Greece; and her photographs informed his writing and graced his publications.  In the film show at ‘Charmed Lives’, John Craxton speaks of how he and Ghika were ‘working by memory and imagination’.  That would be a very good description of Paddy’s writing too and Joan’s photographs were important to him on both counts.

Connolly writes of Joan as ‘naturally watchful’ and an ‘observer’, both qualities essential for good photography.  They have shaped the significant, interest and importance that McClay accords her work.  But the limited number and range of photographs included in the exhibition and publications offer few new clues as to the quality of her work, other than as competent records.  A sense of personal and photographic competency emerges and it appears this how she was seen in the wider literary and artistic circle of which she was a part, not as creative artist in her own right.  How much this is really due to any limitations she had as a photographer or the cultural climate that still relegated photography to the lower ranks of the arts is an open question.

Photos: 1. Cover, Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Journey Continues; 2. Patrick & Joan Leigh Fermor’s House, Kardamyli, Greece, 2014; 3. ‘Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor – Charmed Lives in Greece’ exhibition, British Museum, June 2018; 4. Joan Leigh Fermor’s Nikkormat and sketch by PLF, ‘Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor – Charmed Lives in Greece’ British Museum, June 2018; 5. Cover, Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor – Charmed Lives in Greece; 6. Lunch at Kardamyli, March 1967 – Paddy with the master mason and family, photo Joan Leigh Fermor

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