Flares of memory

family1955-1.jpg

My grandmother to the left of me,  my brother and father, in 1955

I remember as a boy visiting my widowed grandmother, who lived nearby.  Sometimes she emerged from the smoke of a bonfire at the end of the garden. As a young woman, around 1905, she worked in a photographer’s shop in Ealing.

The bonfire this afternoon was higher than my waist.  I needed my raincoat, hat and boots in this chilly autumn weather.   I dropped the matches as I tried to bend into the centre of the laid branches.  I thought I might fall as I held onto the upper branches of the bonfire, scrabbling in the darkness.  Should I be doing this kind of thing at my age?

I follow Fred into the dark room, as he calls it.  I haven’t told my mother about my new work in the photographer’s shop.  Fred is only a few years older than me.  My father certainly wouldn’t approve of his daughter working alone with a man in the darkness.  My eyes slowly grow accustomed to the red glow of the safety light. I can see the outline of Fred on the other side of the table, pouring chemicals into a metal developing tray. I’m scared, but excited.  Should I be here?

Having located the matches, I reached down and struck the sandpaper edge of the box. Sodden with paraffin, the rolled pieces of newspaper soared orange, leaping into the dry stacked wood and beyond the green branches.  It reminded me of the magnesium flares we used in night photography – fifty years ago now, before my marriage, India, George’s death and the return to England.

Fred lays the photographic paper in the dark developing tray. In the dim red light, milky white patches appear.

I stood back. Already the fire was crackling and thick grey smoke was streaming upwards from the leaves and branches.  The heart of the fire was ravenous, all consuming, transforming green shoots to black char. Small pieces of burning paper arose and descended.

Fred picks up the paper and moves it into the fixing solution in the adjacent tray. I can see figures, on a beach perhaps, the sky in the negative image darker than the sea.  Will I be able to do this work, produce pictures out of pungent chemicals in a blackened room lit only by a safety light?

The fire was dying along with the sun as I gathered my tools and walked through the garden towards the glow of the living room.  Another day of my later life.

 

 

 

Anthropomorphic crabbing 2

I say: Shouldn’t we put the crabs back in the water? There are so many crammed together in the bucket.

Syd says: Don’t worry!

Bibi says: Crabs live together.

So we give them some bacon.

And let them out to ‘race’ to the quay edge …

One fell on its back on a ledge

But we got a stick

And knocked it into the water.

The meaning of the Passion is not just religious

Dali-Christ

On Good Friday, I was very moved by a fine performance of Bach’s St John Passion in the chapel of New College, Oxford.  This was not specifically because of the religious significance of the words and music.  I don’t believe in the Bible story as a literal account of events, but I do think that the story of Christ’s passion has the resonance of great literature because it is so much about everyday human life, today as twenty centuries ago. The word passion, of course, refers to suffering as something that both has to be endured and is fully felt in the body.  Christ’s suffering is evident, but many people endure great physical and emotional pain in their everyday lives that is hidden and private.  The passion of Jesus Christ, whether read in the pages of the New Testament or heard in the Bach oratorio, channels the feelings of many.

Is a story of betrayal – several betrayals – and of heroism; a story of the use and misuse of political power, of “false facts”, and the compromises required by circumstance.  Judas, one of Christ’s disciples, betrays him for ”thirty pieces of silver” to a detachment of troops and officers from the Jewish Chief Priests and Pharisees, who are jealous of Christ’s influence with the people.  Simon Peter, another disciple, enraged, attacks the High Priest’s servant; but he later denies three times his association with Jesus.  When the High Priest asks Jesus about his disciples and his doctrine, Jesus replies:

I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing … Ask those who heard me what I said to them. Indeed they know what I said.

One of the officers interprets Christ’s testament of openness and honesty as insolence, and strikes him with the palm of his hand: “Do you answer the High Priest like that?” They take Jesus to the Praetorium, where Pilate, the Roman governor, has ultimate legal power.  Pilate asks to know of what Jesus is accused, but is diverted by an answer that asserts authority without evidence: “If he were not an evildoer we would not have delivered him up to you.”  Pilate has the ambivalence of a sensitive colonial authority.  He finds no fault in Jesus, but doesn’t want to contravene the law and customs of a subject people.  Having interviewed Jesus again, he asserts strongly: “I find no fault in him at all,” and attempts to resolve the situation by following the custom that one prisoner should be released at the Jewish celebration of the Passover.  But the crowd cry for the release not of Jesus but of Barabbas, a robber.

I find it impossible to read or hear this story without being reminded of the everyday betrayals, small or large, that we commit and experience; of the recent spread of “fake news”, with its emphasis on the “fact” rather than the evidence; of attempts to avoid offence and displeasure that merely worsen a situation.  Pilate asks, in response to the Pharisees’ insistence that Jesus be crucified: ”Shall I crucify your King?”  With acute mendacity, they reply: “We have no king but Caesar!”  During the performance in Oxford, the near-shouting repetition of the chorus (representing the crowd) that they preferred Barabbas to Jesus was to me a sickening recollection of the populist preference of Trump over the previous president.

Pilate attempts to redress the situation by insisting, against the wishes of the Chief Priests, that the the crucified Jesus be labelled “The King of the Jews”.  He replies with dignity to their protests: “What I have written, I have written.”  But the fact remains that crucifixion was the supreme Roman punishment, used to humiliate and degrade as well as to execute.  The soldiers at the Cross think it normal to strip the body of clothing.  This, as Katie Edwards and David Tombs have recently pointed out, was done to humiliate the captive and expose him to mockery; it is sexual violence or abuse.  In this respect, too, the meaning of The Passion is not confined to the history of religion.