Synchronised dreamscapes

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Tim Walker - Devon cream

Postcards from an exhibition of Tim Walker‘s photographs, which was held over the summer at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. All the images were displayed in light boxes, so the darkened room created a night-time setting to make the experience entirely dream-like. I like the above image particularly, because it must have been projecting quietly in my mind when I was transferring my parents’ slides from the 1950s here. It’s also called Devon Cream, which I didn’t know until I drew it out for this post. Synchronicity indeed…

Tim Walker - It rained outside

The above image is called It rained outside so we camped indoors.

Tim Walker - Snow in Summer

Snow in Summer (above).

Tim Walker - Flying saucer with members of hunt

And another hunting image – Flying Saucer with members of the West Percy Hunt. All these photographs are constructed, using props, and are not the product of digital manipulation… to quote the essay, “To reveal the ambition of photography as an integrated, collective undertaking where the pressing of the shutter on the camera is the closing moment in the creative process”.

I’m not sure how many exhibitions work so successfully, when small elements sit quietly in your mind and then crystallise a particular moment in your own history – my parents, Devon, and the 1950s – a time before I was born. I’ve looked at my parents’ slides many times over the years. They’re blueprints in my memory of a time I never knew, acting like gentle magnets, as I drift along.

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North Devon, 1950s

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In the 1950s my parents moved all the way from Yorkshire to North Devon and bought a new bungalow on the edge of Tiverton. Not long after they went to the railway station to collect a puppy, a cocker spaniel who had travelled by train, in a wicker basket, from a breeder somewhere up country. I can’t imagine if the basket was shut or closed on the journey, but assume the breeders knew what they were doing for the time.

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The puppy was called Sherry, after the drink which matched her fur, but her kennel club name was the grander Gatehampton Caroline (although no-one would have any interest in dog shows).

These slides were taken on a camera which never worked by the time I was born, but I loved the beautiful brown leather case (which led to me choosing my current camera over ones which were probably much better value…) Taking photographs was much harder in the 1950s, and I’ve found the guide to ‘successful photography’ which must have been bought in an attempt to make sense of it.

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Some of Sherry’s walks in these days look impossibly idyllic, and this picture of Bickleigh looks like a stage set. The blossom at the end of the road looks as artificial as Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson’s cottage in the 1940s film Random Harvest (I know this because it was my grandad’s favourite film so have watched it again). Here’s a hastily found Youtube clip, and the scene is around 8 minutes in…

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It looks a particularly lovely moment in time, but my father could never settle in one place and Hollywood films are artificial for a reason, though I can’t imagine Yorkshire stock being under any illusions about this.

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North Devon and Exmoor is still, and always has been, organised around hunting and shooting. I’m not sure what Sherry is making of this sign, but on Boxing Day she may have gone into Tiverton to see the spectacle of the hunt meet. I’m sort of ambivalent about hunting, despite a gut reaction of repulsion, because there’s something primeval and ancient about it: a dreadful fascination. These photos from 1958 look so vivid I can imagine every sight and sound in the town square, and the colour of the winter light is beautiful.

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And then perhaps another walk over Tarr Steps, washed away and replaced time and again over the centuries…

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Setting the graphic equalizer with Virginia Woolf and Stella Gibbons

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I hear you’ve been going out a great deal,” said Lady Waters, with that air with which lesser women prefix: ‘A little bird told me’ – but her confidante would have been an eagle.

From To the North by Elizabeth Bowen, 1932

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The wood engraving is by Joan Hassall (I think).

This is one of the touches that make Elizabeth Bowen really enjoyable. Although she experiments with form, it’s the natural result of efforts to capture nuance. She’s quite willing to dip swiftly down to earth with an honest quip like this… there’s no desire to set the gentle reader adrift in a pond of preciousness and self-regard.

Of writers with a heyday in the twenties and thirties, I put Virginia Woolf at one end and Stella Gibbons at the other. I imagine this as a little like the treble and bass dial on an old stereo, and with a little balancing at the centre you’ll get Elizabeth Bowen.

I don’t believe there’s a great deal of difference in the ability to observe in either Woolf or Gibbons, though of course the presentation differs, and perhaps Woolf was observing herself a little more. (Woolf famously dismissed Gibbons’ literary prize for Cold Comfort Farm with ‘Who is she? What is this book?’.) My enthusiasm for Stella Gibbons is not based on Cold Comfort Farm, good as it is, but the other novels such as Westwood, Nightingale Wood and The Bachelor. There’s a lightness and modernity, a spirit decades ahead of the 1930s. A cool intelligence wants to escape mundanity, but it will not countenance the smugness and complacency of those who might think that they’re not.

Westwood Gibbons

Vintage have reissued most of Stella Gibbons’ novels, and this illustration is by Pep Montserrat for the recent reissue of Westwood.

There’s a scene in Bowen’s To the North, where the office secretary finally turns on her employer, that could be one of Gibbons’ finer moments:

“She stared at the fatal letter from Malaga, her mind recording a quite superficial astonishment: one had not expected Tripp to go off like this. What had one expected? Little – punctuality, bridling diligence, the impassable patronage of the educated young female towards employers who had respectively failed at the wrong university and attended none. She had been cheap, she wrote the King’s English, absented herself at teatime, and did not sniff… But all this time in Miss Tripp the juices of an unduly prolonged adolescence had violently been fermenting: now with a pop they shot out the cork from the bottle. The effect on Tripp, certainly, did not appear catastrophic: the bottle remained intact. Tripp’s outline (at which Emmeline stole a look) was once more placid, as though some natural process had reached conclusion. Doubtless she felt much better.”

But these moments are the light sparkling on a dark river. Bowen’s skill is in never placing us at the heart of one perspective – she writes with a hand-held camera thrown from character to character, most of them adrift. We’re carried along in the chatter of familiar comforts but it’s a sly deception, for the destination is cold and distant: dislocation.