A Tiger in Your Tank

Cars have always played a positive role in my life so the inevitable news that petrol and diesel cars are to be banned in the UK from 2040 fills me with nostalgia.  Of course it’s an essential step towards decreasing air pollution and global warming but the internal combustion engine will be missed by many of us.  Technology keeps moving on with the advent of electric and self-drive vehicles (the latter being a terrifying prospect when I think how often my laptop crashes).  The traditional petrol car has been a cool cultural icon for nearly a century, a symbol of personal freedom, style and aspiration.  It has featured in many wonderful movies:- Rebel Without A Cause, The French Connection, The Italian Job, The Driver, Thelma and Louise, the list is endless.  Can you really imagine an exciting car chase in an automated electric car?  Would Thelma and Louise make their heroic stance against conformity and authority while sitting passively in a car with no steering wheel? Is this new technology a sinister portent of a future where citizens lose control over their lives?

I grew up in the sixties when petrol was cheap and motoring was a carefree, guilt-free experience.  Cars were affordable even to many working class families and it allowed them to escape industrial towns to explore the countryside and the coast.  Our first family car was a second-hand black Ford Consul.  I remember the smooth, comforting contours.  It felt safe and reassuring long before the compulsory seat belts, inflatable air bags and zero tolerance of drinking and driving that we take for granted today.  We lived with a certain amount of risk and people didn’t stress about all the horrible possibilities of what might happen.  That said, there were far fewer cars on the road and people were more respectful of each other.  No-one had ever heard of road-rage.

 

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This photograph was taken by my maternal grandfather on my third birthday.  I am standing by our first family car, a Ford Consul. The dolls were called Nina and Nadia.

 

Nearly every summer weekend we would pack up provisions and our little orange tent and head for the seaside together with numerous friends. In the cooler months we would go for long drives around the countryside and have picnics in the back seat or bravely shivering in a lay-by.  We couldn’t afford garage repairs so my father maintained the car himself and took great pride in his immaculate standards.  It was typical for many working class men to repair their own cars.  Before the digital era and the concept of built-in obsolescence it was relatively easy to replace parts.  Our Ford Consul lived to a great age and was eventually sold on.  We replaced it with a two tone, blue and cream Humber Sceptre with curvaceous chrome trims and sculpted wings.  My father was devastated when the bodywork  was damaged in a minor scrape with a dry-stone wall.  He took to his bed for a week and didn’t speak or eat.  The car had to be scrapped because he couldn’t find a replacement panel.

Now I live in a remote rural area where once upon a time there was a petrol station in every village.  Like the village shops,  the petrol station was a focal point for the community, enabling human contact and the exchange of information.  Buying petrol used to be fun.  There were free gifts such as drinking glasses,  (I still have one chunky tumbler at the back of my cupboard!), coasters, sunglasses, sweets, posters.  As a little girl I remember being thrilled with a free kite.  In the UK there were Green Shield stamps, paper tokens you were given with petrol purchases that you collected and glued into a book.  The books were exchanged for gifts at a Green Shield Centre.  Petroleum companies had jolly slogans such as ‘Put a Tiger in Your Tank’  by Esso.   All that has gone.  In the eleven years since I moved to this area the few surviving petrol stations have closed.  The only remaining one is part of a large supermarket chain.  We now have to drive over fifty miles to obtain fuel and you need to plan ahead.  Life is becoming more difficult and more isolated.  There are no local jobs selling petrol, work that suited many women and students as it was part-time.

It’s sad to see the derelict petrol stations at the side of the road.  In recent years I’ve photographed the decaying buildings, old signs and rusting pumps.  Grass and weeds are reclaiming the former concrete forecourts.  I find them bleakly beautiful.  Many of the old designs had an Art Deco influence.  Will the new electric charging points of the future have the same sense of design? I fear not. The future is less concerned with aesthetics and humanity. There will be no-one to chat to about the weather when you plug your car in to an impersonal machine.

So I hope you enjoy my photographs of the bye-gone petroleum era entitled Ignition Switch.  There are more to come.

And if you are a bit of a petrol-head or have any memories to share of motoring experiences in the past I would love to hear them.  Please leave a comment.  Times must change but sometimes you can’t help wishing they would stay the same!

The Whisperers

In Medieval times gossip was considered a serious crime in Britain.  Perpetrators were physically punished and humiliated, forced to wear a mask of shame called a scold’s bridle and paraded through the town on a leash.  The scold’s bridle was an iron muzzle enclosed in a framework that surrounded the head of the accused. The device prevented the person from talking by a bridle-bit which was put in the woman’s mouth and pressed upon the tongue.  Sometimes a spike was attached to the bridle-bit, so that the movement of the tongue would cause wounds.  Christianity viewed gossip as a sin.  Islam, Judaism and the Bahai faith took a similar stance.

I believe it is natural and healthy to take an interest in other people but there is a big difference between negative, malicious gossip and neutral gossip.  Passing on factual information is one thing, but twisting the facts and inventing sordid tales to create a frisson of excitement is another.

For example, neutral gossip – Mrs Smith says to her neighbour:- “I saw Susan in the Post Office this morning. She’d just had her hair done and was wearing a new coat.”

Negative gossip:- “I saw Susan in the Post Office this morning.  She’d just had her hair done.  Pink hair and a leopard print coat at her age – talk about mutton dressed as lamb!” Followed by mutual laughter.

Unfortunately, most gossip tends to be malicious and is carried out by ignorant people with low self-esteem to make themselves seem more interesting.  Gossip is akin to an act of violence.  It can cause huge damage to the lives of others.  Very often the victims of gossip are marked out as different or vulnerable in some way, eg single women, people with mental health problems  or those from ethnic minorities.

The old English proverb states, “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you”. Not true.  Words are powerful.  Physical wounds will heal over time whereas emotional damage may last forever.  In my local village there have been cases of marriages breaking up, people losing jobs or forced to move away and even suicide due to malicious gossip.  It seems small rural communities enjoy gossip and relish the stigmatisation of minorities.  However, gossip happens in all types of enclosed communities including schools and workplaces where it is particularly dangerous.  Gossip is a form of bullying and with the advent of social media it is a growing problem throughout the world.

Our attitudes to gossip have been moulded by language.  Many metaphors used to describe gossip have associations with food or drink, eg spilling the beans, tempting, scuttlebutt, a water cooler moment, grapevine, juicy, delicious, delectable, tidbits, morsels.  It’s as if gossip is something to be devoured, digested, a form of nourishment. The writer, David Rakoff complained about the negativity of these expressions as they imply that the pleasures of gossip are those of schadenfreude: that is, one person’s enjoyment at the expense of someone else’s pain.  The word ‘gossip’ originated in the Old English ‘godsibb’; god sibling, the godparent of one’s child and usually a close friend.  Shakespeare’s uses of the noun were derogatory: “Shall she live to betray this guilt of ours—A long-tongued babbling gossip?”

If you become the victim of malicious gossip you may feel upset, violated and helpless as rumours and untruths circulate.  Challenging or arguing with the instigator is not to be recommended.  It is demeaning and only adds fuel to the fire.  The best policy, although it can be difficult, is to ignore the whisperers, raise your head up high and pretend you don’t care.  When you are forced to meet your accusers be polite but indifferent.  Build up your confidence and nurture your self-esteem by treating yourself kindly.  Remember your achievements and that you are a strong person.  Surround yourself with friends and supporters as much as possible.  Do activities that you enjoy.  Show the gossips that you don’t need their approval or validation to survive and be happy.  Remind yourself that the people who gossip are sad individuals with empty lives.  Defamation is the only way they can get their kicks.  They are not the type of people you would choose as friends.  But do not indulge in gossip yourself.  Let others find out for themselves where the truth lies.

I recently bought the small ornament pictured below as a reminder that gossips are insignificant.  It is only what you think about yourself that matters.

 

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Example of a Victorian fairing, porcelain ornaments once given away freely as prizes at fairground stalls. Now collected as antiques.

Remain Strong

Frida Kahlo is my third choice for The Purple Hermit Hall of Fame, my regular feature on disability and resilience.  I first discovered her paintings when I was a mature student at Art School.  I was drawn to the surrealist images, folk art style and vibrant colours.  It was rare to see such powerful images of pain and disability.  Frida’s work was autobiographical.  She was fearless in her honesty, exposing vulnerabilities, her emotional and physical suffering. But at the same time there was a joyousness in her painting.  Frida Kahlo was a passionate woman.  She loved people and animals, she loved the world.

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The Wounded Deer by Frida Kahlo

When I learned more about her life-story I was struck by the many similarities with my own and she became one of my artistic and personal influences.  Frida was born in Mexico in 1907, just three years before the start of the revolution.  Her father was a German immigrant who ran a photography business and her mother was Mexican.   Frida contracted polio at the age of six.  She missed time at school and was bullied by other children.  She was set apart from siblings by her illness which left her with a wasted limb, one leg shorter than the other.  Her father began to take a special interest in her and taught her photography, philosophy and literature.

At the age of eighteen Frida was involved in a horrific street-car accident which left her with severe, permanent injuries and a life-long legacy of health problems and chronic pain.  Surgical interventions by doctors were disasterously unsuccessful.  She had to abandon her education and her ambition to become a doctor.  She spent months in recovery and in isolation, confined to a bed where she began to paint using a specially made easel with a mirror.  Her work explored identity and included many self-portraits.

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Self-portrait with the portrait of Doctor Farill by Frida Kahlo

In 1927 Frida joined the Mexican Communist Party where she met her future husband, the famous muralist Diego Rivera.  Throughout her life she was politically active campaigning for peace, equality and the promotion of Mexico.  She chose to dress in traditional Mexican clothes as a gesture of  support for her native culture and a rejection of U.S. ideological dominance.  However, later in her career she travelled and work in the U.S. where her art was enthusiastically received.

Diego and Frida had a turbulent relationship punctuated by extra marital affairs on both sides.  At one point they divorced and later remarried.  Frida was a sexually liberated woman having affairs with both men and women.  One of her lovers was the revolutionary Leon Trotsky.  She defied many social expectations of how women, let alone a disabled woman, were supposed to behave.  Even today, disability and sex is a taboo subject.  But Frida let nothing stand in the way of her passion and being true to herself. She used her experiences as a disabled woman in a positive way, channelling her pain into amazing art.  Towards the end of her life her health problems became more debilitating and she suffered greatly both physically and mentally.

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Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo

Kahlo pre-empted Tracey Emin’s controversial unmade bed installation by about fifty years.  In 1953 doctors had advised her not to attend the opening of her first solo exhibition saying she needed bed rest.  So Frida arranged for her four poster bed to be taken to the gallery and she arrived there by ambulance on a stretcher.  She stayed in bed while the party unravelled around her.

Since her death in 1954, possibly by suicide, she has been adopted as an icon by various political and feminist groups.  It’s strange that her disability is often minimised in biographies even though it was plainly part of her identity as evidenced by her own paintings.  Her art grew directly out of her experience of disability.  But perhaps it’s too much of a challenge for many people to reconcile negative stereotypes regarding disabled women and the vivid truth of Frida Kahlo’s life as a beautiful, charismatic and talented artist.

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Tree of Hope, Remain Strong by Frida Kahlo, 1946.

 

Removing the Blindfold

“Everything looks more beautiful in retrospect”.  So says Michelle Monaghan’s character in the 2011 science fiction thriller Source Code.  The film, directed by Duncan Jones, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a US army captain who is repeatedly sent back into a virtual parallel universe in an effort to prevent an explosion on a Chicago commuter train. He tries to change history and many of us would love to do that when looking back on our own lives.

Alas, time travel and parallel universes are still the stuff of fantasy.  The relationship between the present and the past is complex.  Looking back can feel like being lost in a mist where the edges of reality become blurred.  Memory is unreliable.  Research has shown that after a while we do not remember the actual past event but more a previous memory of it.   Our perception of the past changes over time, shape-shifting and misleading.  The Czech-born French writer Milan Kundera described it thus; ” We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded.  We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing.  Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.”

The process of writing can help our recollection and understanding of our personal histories.  Time unravels like a piece of knitting.  But there are still blind spots.  I’ve realized that memories of some painful events from my past have been erased or diluted.  Perhaps this is a defense mechanism.  I have to work really hard at remembering them, removing the blindfold.  As I grow older I’m periodically overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia.  Its tempting to believe that life was more real, more authentic, more fun in the past.  Perhaps the younger we are, the more intensely we experience events but the fact is life was never perfect.  Each day we are confronted with problems and difficulties.  Satisfaction and happiness are derived from how well we rise to the challenges of life.

I took this photograph at Wick harbour.  Wick is a small fishing town about thirty miles from my home in northern Scotland.  In the 1800s it was one of the busiest and most prosperous herring ports in Europe.  The bay was filled with hundreds of boats, the quayside lined with thousands of barrels of herring.  The shouts of fish wives mingled with the cries of sea gulls and the howling wind.  Today it holds the silence of abandonment.  But decay can be beautiful.  The old paint, fading colors and streaks of rust in the photograph are evocative of some strange interior landscape, peeling back the layers of time.

 

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A Poem for Remembrance Day

The Fallen Oak                                                                                   

I’m dreaming of swimming to a sandy beach
where mother holds my cake with nineteen candles.
          Try harder, blow them out, she says as I fade.
I wake up when the eels hit.
A pulse beats through the ship.
She splinters like a tree in a hurricane.
The old girl begins to tilt
falling and turning upwards, arse over tit.
I’m hanging tight to my bunk when lights flicker out.
Jimmy whimpers and Bertie yells shit!
Hammocks tip, we smack the deck.
The darkness bristles, fear and amber
edging the door.
The stench of burning oil and silence
descend as engines die.
Then the screams begin.

The screams begin,
descend as engines die.
The stench of burning oil and silence
edges the door,
darkness bristling fear and amber.
Hammocks tip, we smack the deck.
Jimmy whimpers and Bertie yells shit!
I’m hanging tight to my bunk when lights flicker out,
falling and turning upwards, arse over tit.
The old girl begins to tilt.
She splinters like a tree in a hurricane.
A pulse beats through the ship
and I wake up when the eels hit.
                    Try harder, blow them out, mother says as I fade.
She’s holding my cake with nineteen candles
and I’m swimming.

 
Note 1– The battleship H.M.S. Royal Oak was sunk by torpedoes from  German Submarine, U-47 in the harbour of Scapa Flow, Britain’s naval base near the islands of Orkney on 14th October, 1939.  More than 800 men died. The wreck is now a designated war grave and a site of remembrance.

Note 2 – The Fallen Oak is an example of a specular poem, where the second stanza mirrors the first.  They are a challenge but fun to write.

 

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Note 3:-  The Italian Chapel was built during World War II by Italian prisoners of war, who were housed on the previously uninhabited island while they constructed the Churchill Barriers to the east of Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands.  Only the concrete foundations of the other buildings of the prisoner-of-war camp survive.

(Ref:- Wikipedia, photo taken by the author)

Note 4:- if you ever visit the beautiful island of Orkney, the Italian Chapel is a must see…a very emotional experience.

Remember

we gather at the edge
white feathers falling
in the dark
staring into the void
we are alone
the children wave purple lightsabers
kitted out in knitted hats
adorned with pom-poms
there’s a sense of urgency
mother and child move quickly
the wrong direction
teenagers pace and stiffen into poses
words fade with the wind
the burning of wood
the Ivory Tower
the crackling of flames
taking hold the awe
exploding the shock
we gasp smoke
sparks rise shimmering bat-wings
it is beautiful
the stars weep green roses
silver snakes carved
in the perfect dark
a father thin and tired
carries his daughter
to the edge
holds tiny pink hands
in huge gloved fists
nuclear dots burn
in the emptiness
we hold the fire
and only the wind

 

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I wrote this poem as a response to a local Firework Display.  On the 5th November British people celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. They hold bonfire parties, burn effigies and set off fireworks.  Although this is an enjoyable community event it’s also a strange thing to celebrate.  Guy Fawkes was one of thirteen Catholics rebels who tried to overturn the government of James 1 and restore religious tolerance.  Fawkes was not the main instigator of the plot.  Robert Catesby was the charismatic leader of the group. He took up arms after suffering persecution and murder of his own family.  The terrorists were fighting against the brutal oppression of the minority Catholic population which began during the reign of the previous monarch Elizabeth 1.  Catholics were not allowed to freely practice their religion.  They were persecuted, tortured and murdered by the State.  The Guy Fawkes story is a tragic one.  He was caught, tortured and hanged as were most of his co-conspirators.  Catholics in Britain continued to be oppressed until the late twentieth century.

How much have things changed? Although British Catholics are now free and equal, religious intolerance is still the root cause of wars and violence all over the world.  When will the human race understand that the persecution of any group inevitably leads to them fighting back?  The persecuted will become the persecutors.  And so the cycle of violence never ends.

But in the meantime, we have fun with fire and observe as our current British government disintegrates in the shame of corruption allegations,  sex scandals and incompetence.

 

 

Zombie Love

Season 8 of the cult TV show, The Walking Dead exploded across our screens recently so I’ve been pondering on why zombies remain so popular in our culture.  What does our fascination with these fictional monsters say about us as individuals and as a society?

George Romero invented the contemporary zombie in his 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead.  Previously, zombies were sorcerer’s slaves in Haitian Voodoo culture.  Romero gave them a make-over, the new undead had a strict set of rules and became a metaphor for many of our fears about modern life:- technology, conformity, contagion, consumerism, Communism, nuclear war, social breakdown, killer viruses and even ISIS.  Romero’s excellent 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead was shot in a shopping mall.  A small group of survivors hide out on the top floor while hordes of zombies flock below.  The film’s critique of mass consumerism is made explicit:-

[Fran and Stephen are observing from the roof of the mall]
Francine Parker: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

Here is a YouTube clip:-

Compared to other mythical creatures such as vampires and werewolves, zombies are not sexy or glamorous.  They are not powerful or mysterious.  No-one would ever choose to be a zombie.  I think most of our enjoyment of zombie films derives from their exploration of the theme of survival.  In all these films we see society crumble.  Violence and anarchy become the new norm.  The institutions that are supposed to protect us, such as the government, the police, can do nothing.  I believe at a unconscious level many fans of this genre derive a peculiar pleasure from seeing this happen on screen.  Many of us feel trapped in our lives, by families, by finances, by class, by ill-health, by social stigma.  We learn to live with frustration and lack of meaning.  So perhaps there is some secret satisfaction to be had from watching the stifling world of rules and routines disintegrate on screen.  Everyone becomes equal in this imaginary future.  In all post-apocalyptic films we identify with a small group of survivors who must learn to cope without the comforts of civilisation, discover their inner strengths, fighting off not only the cannibalistic zombies but other surviving humans.   Safely ensconced in our own homes this can be a cathartic experience for viewers.

The British author J. G. Ballard explored many of these issues in his novels such as High Rise and Crash.  He wrote:- “Civilised life, you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us.”

In Danny Boyle’s 2002 film ‘28 Days Later’ we see London reduced to a ghost town.  A group of survivors flee to the northern countryside only to find more mayhem.

 

In the sequel, 28 Weeks Later, we see family bonds destroyed in the aftermath of the zombie invasion.  Robert Carlyle plays the spineless father who abandons his wife and then betrays his children. The authorities try but ultimately fail to restore order to a broken country.  It’s a hopeless scenario and makes me wonder if our attraction to such films shows that as a society we too have given up hope for a better future.  Perhaps we feel the old building blocks such as the family, religion and the state have little to offer us any more.  At the end of the day we are alone.  Whether we sink or swim depends on our personal resilience.

The world has always been an uncertain place but since 1945 when the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, supposedly to end World War 2, mass destruction of the human race has become a real possibility.  Historically, warfare used to be a localised affair, armies fighting in trenches or on battle fields.  Civilian deaths were incidental and on a comparatively small scale.  Nuclear weapons have changed everything.  We now live with the constant threat of annihilation over which we have no control.  Perhaps watching zombie films allows us to play out these fears.  They are like nightmares, exorcising the terror we keep tightly zipped up in our waking minds.

Its ironic that for the first time in human history we live with the real risk of sudden death from nuclear war while at the same time we know nothing of the reality of the death experience.  Death is something that happens unseen in hospital wards, in war or famine zones viewed remotely on the TV news.  How many of us have actually seen someone die?  How many of us have touched a dead body?  Death is a taboo subject.  Our ancestors did not share this distaste.  Deceased family members were on display in front parlours where everyone would say their goodbyes.  People died in the street from epidemics and poverty, witnessed by all.  Public executions were a big day out with hot pies for sale and old ladies knitting on the front row while heads rolled.  Death was not such a sanitised affair as today.

So perhaps another reason zombies are so popular in modern culture is that they symbolise the death experience.  We see lots of gore in these films:- the dead re-animated, rotting corpses, limbs torn apart, guts unravelled, zombies chomping into brains, zombies decapitated by survivors.  Zombie movies are not for the squeamish and therein lies their attraction.  We are allowed to view death in close-up on the screen.  We are allowed to confront our secret fears knowing that it’s not real and when the film is over we will sleep warm and safe in our beds.