shewhomust: (dandelion)
Driving in to Sunderland last night to dine with cousins who were in town for the match, we passed road signs about road closures for the building of the "New Wear Crossing". There's to be a new Wear crossing? Yes, apparently so - and [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler, whose grip on the local news is better than mine, knew somrthing of it. Then, as we were discussing this, we looked across to our right, and there indeed was something new, a tall spike pointing up into the night sky, the single pylon which will support the bridge. I was embarrassed that I had been so unaware of something whose construction was so far advanced.

I felt a little better this morning when [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler told me that the pylon had been in position since just three o' clock that afternoon. And look - Flickr has photos!
shewhomust: (watchmen)
We spent Saturday at the Wonderlands Graphic Novels Expo in Sunderland. I had a great time, and [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler enjoyed it too: having retained the option of leaving when he'd had enough, he stayed until the end, when they were closing the venue around us. There was a full - maybe even overfull! - programme of talks: I didn't want to miss any of them, but I did also want to visit all the exhibitors, and simply take a breather. I had some great conversations - as I'd suspected, wearing my very old Swamp Thing t-shirt was a good icebreaker (my excuse is that it was our first day home from holiday, and I'd barely started on the laundry, but yes, there may have been a touch of showing off, too).

I was very restrained about buying things, and came away with just three purchases: Bryan Talbot's Grandville Noël, which I had been waiting to buy where Bryan could sign it for me; Darryl Cunningham's Supercrash, because I asked [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler which of the graphic novels recommended by Paul Gravett he would be most likely to read (thinking there was a good chance he'd choose something that I already had, and if I didn't have it, [livejournal.com profile] samarcand probably would) and this is what he chose, without hestitating; and an animal print by Jenn Begley just because.

I didn't take a notebook: I didn't expect to need one. Instead, I scribbled all over the back of the page on which I had printed out instructions for finding the event:
  • Paul Gravett, having trouble timing his talk: "Is someone going to stop me? I am the Ken Dodd of comics..."

  • and on the first graphic novel, Rodolphe Töpffer's Histoire de M. Vieux Bois published, as a book, in 1837 (meaning that the very first comic was actually a graphic novel): "We should celebrate Comics Day on his birthday" (it's January 31st). Goethe wrote him a fan letter, which makes him the first fanboy.

  • Dylan Horrocks: "Comics is always a collaboration, even when you're doing it by yourself."

  • SHE LIVES: Woodrow Phoenix and his impossible giant book.

  • Posy Simmonds on the joys of overheard dialogue: "I love queues - In fact, I often join queues..." (which reminds me of Ann Cleeves talking about what she overhears on trains).

  • on receiving letters pointing out errors: "I am never going to draw a train again."

  • and "What I like about comics is, they're so democratic."

  • Al Davison on an unexpected connection with Sally Heathcote Suffragette: "Emily Wilding Davison was my great-aunt."

  • on the meaning of the title Spiral Cage, a phrase he had used to describe the way society limits the disabled person with shifting restrictions: you overcome one aspect, and the cage changes, so that you are still trapped. But once Alan Moore pointed out, in his introduction, that DNA is a spiral cage, how could this not be the true meaning?

  • and on the difficulties of explainig to bookshops that although this was a comic, it was also an autobiography. Turning up to a signing in Waterstones, he found himself directed to the SF section.

  • The last event of the schedule, a panel of publishers discussing the current state of graphic novels - and the future! - was the most cheerful view of publishing I have seen in a long time. Then again, it didn't have too much to say about the future...

  • The best selling graphic novel in Japan which is not manga: Möbius and Jodorovsky's L'Incal.

Wonderlands was part of the 'Alice is 150' celebrations - but I hope they do it again next year, when Alice is 151!

ETA the final two points, discovered on a separate piece of paper!
shewhomust: (dandelion)
I didn't see Grayson Perry's series In the Best Possible Taste - I wish I had, but I missed it. An interesting article in yesterday's Guardian offers a taste of what I missed. Perry is interviewing a man from Sunderland about what's so great about the place:
"We've got the beautiful beaches, a beautiful football team," said the Mackem bloke, who was in his 20s and gave the impression of both believing what he said and laughing at himself for saying it. "Everything about Sunderland you just love! The history as well! Our mining history, the shipyards history which is all gone now, but we're still living the tradition. I mean my dad's still a coal miner to this day."
"What else?" asked Perry.
"Well … the heritage."
"But that's the past."
"Well, we're proud that we're still here. We're still together aren't we? We might have nothing now but we still have the … generosity."
"Is that the industry now, generosity?"
"Yes!" replied the man victoriously. "Generosity – and call centres!"
As Richard Benson, the author of the article, remarks, "Only a Newcastle United supporter could have failed to sympathise..."

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch VERA.
shewhomust: (dandelion)
We dined last night in Sunderland with a group of my cousins who come north once a year to see the lads play at home. We were a party of ten: three brothers, two wives, three grandchildren, [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler and me. We talked about plans, and absent siblings, and our various work / life balances, and at half time I changed ends and talked books, music and films.

We didn't talk much about the match. Sunderland had had a player sent off four minutes into the game, and had not distinguished themselves thereafter. "To think," said my cousin R., "that I got up at five o' clock and drove 300 miles for that!"

"I," said the lady at the next table, "flew in from Switzerland for that!"
shewhomust: (dandelion)
I know better than to make resolutions about the coming year. Even so, things that fall around the turn of the year seem loaded with significance: the last this, the first that... With the help of [livejournal.com profile] valydiarosada and D., who have as usual been helping us see in the New Year, we managed some suitably agreeable firsts and lasts.

The last outing of 2013 was to the seaside... )

Back home, I pot-roasted a joint of venison for a special New Year's Eve dinner - not something I've done before, but a success, at least from the cook's point of view: simple, carved beautifully, tasted good. And we stayed up and saw the New Year in - not a first, but certainly the first in some years, more often I slope off to bed early.

... and so was the first outing of 2014 )

So that's one year ended pleasantly, and the next well begun.
shewhomust: (dandelion)
A schoolfriend, who was also a Durham student, has been visiting for a long Bank Holiday weekend. We've been promising ourselves a visit for quite a while, but the thing that finally made it happen was her desire to see the Lindisfarne Gospels during their time in Durham "where they belong."

I don't actually buy this: the Gospels are important enough to belong in a national collection (and if I were going to get sentimental about it, I'd like to see them on Lindisfarne, which is not going to happen). But I'm very happy that it gave me a few days with a friend I don't see often enough; and once I had got over being grumpy about the way it was organised, the exhibition was worth seeing, as much for the supporting material as for the Gospels themselves, which came almost as an anticlimax at the end.

Admission is by timed ticket, and you are asked to arrive fifteen minutes ahead of the time on your ticket - and then kept waiting outside until your admission time. We were then kept for another ten minutes in a queue in the library foyer, from where we could see tantalising glimpses of an introductory video; then when we were allowed into the video room, the attendants tried to encourage us straight into the exhibition proper. I'm glad we resisted, because the exhibition had a thesis, and the video explained it: the Gospels were an attempt to weave together the Roman and Celtic strands of Christianity and so regain some of the ground lost by the Celtic church after the synod of Whitby. I had not realised the extent to which the Irish monastic settlements had retreated after that defeat, so that the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels took place in a community which was already a reclamation, a revival (as the ruins of the priory we now see were a reclamation of territory abandoned to the Viking invasions). The exhibition brings together manuscripts, jewels and stonework, and attempts to explain the differences between the two traditions - I say 'attempts' because I couldn't always see it, certainly not in the low light and press of people (despite the timed tickets, it was busier than I found comfortable, though that may have something to do with our timing). But there were wonderful things, manuscripts which were beautiful not just in their decoration but in their actual text (I was sorry that the Gospels were open at the portrait of Saint John, which I found less appealing than his words). How can you not be amazed by a book which was read by Bede himself?

Durham is attempting to maximise tourist revenue during the visit, and everything is gospel themed: flower shows, buses in illuminated livery, the burger van on Palace Green renamed Gospels Gourmet for the duration (oh, I was so tempted to try to order five buns and two fishes). Mostly I try to ignore this, and we certainly weren't looking for gospel-themed art when we stepped inside the World Heritage Visitor Centre, just a chance to show S. a space which had been carved into the old streets since she was last in Durham. But I liked Stephen Livingstone's 'Moths and Moons', 30 pieces painted using natural pigments applied to discarded library books - scroll down the page for pictures, made for the British Library and only loosely gospel-themed.

The specification for Saturday was: it may rain, but S. would like to go to the seaside. So we started out at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, now reopened after extensive renovations. The upstairs galleries seem lighter and airier, and the historical material more extensive, but the visiting exhibition was just ugly (A retrospective of the work of Erwin Eisch). The smaller displays in the gallery showcases were better: Richard Slee's torches, each supported by its own beam of light, and his shrimping net whose net was made of glass; James Maskrey's shelf of brown jars, containing an assortment of real and imagined dietary curiosities which Captain Cook might have acquired on his travels - a jar of pickled lyrebird eggs, the eggs, like the jar, made of glass, or sauerkraut, the jar containing red (glass) cabbage. The chandeliers were good, too.

After lunch we watched a demonstration of glassblowing, then walked along the river past the sculptures, as far as the sea. Mission accomplished.

And on Sunday we went up the dale for a short walk around Harehope Quarry before lunch at the Black Bull in Frosterley.
shewhomust: (dandelion)
What I was saying about the late-flowering of the summer held true to the very end of our stay on Lindisfarne: the poppies which usually line the roadside from the causeway towards the village, and which had been absent this year, appeared as we drove off the island at the end of the week. But the fun wasn't quite over, because while D. and [livejournal.com profile] valydiarosada went off to visit family, [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler and I made a detour to Souter on our way home for the Foghorn Requiem - a piece of music performed on - and off - a clifftop by three brass bands, ships at sea and the Souter Lighthouse Foghorn.

We gathered in the meadows between the lighthouse and the cliff edge, lush with grass, golden with bird's foot trefoil and spiked with purple orchids (this late flowering is bringing about some unusual combinations) and waited - and waited - and eventually noticed two small figures appear on the gallery of the lighthouse itself (inevitably, the more noticeable of the two was the photographer; the soprano cornet, back to the light, silver disc of the cornet facing straight towards the audience, hid behind a sheet of music). The music didn't begin here, but gradually. almost imperceptibly, with the bands marching towards their rostrum. Too subtly for many of those present who carried on with their conversations - I am an ill-tempered person who gets grouchy in crowds, and I wished that the music had opened with the foghorn, to get their attention. I wished it even more, when the horn did sound, and everyone jumped at the sheer bone-shaking volume of it (and then giggled).

So perhaps they were right to make very sparing use of the foghorn: it sounded in all three times, and the third time was the last note of the entire piece, fading gradually from that first shattering blast to a mournful rattle. A larger contribution to the music came from a flotilla of vessels - from the big DFDS ferry to the lifeboat, and all the yachts and cobles and the university reseach vessel too, all coordinated to sound their horns when required in a call and response of the brass band on shore and the ships at sea, a real piece of technical and atmospheric magic.

Have a totally unsatisfactory photograph: if I'd been nine feet tall, and above the crowd (or even up the lighthouse), I'd still have been trying to photograph many small objects spread over a large area. But this one captures some of how it felt:

All the little boats
shewhomust: (dandelion)
After the storm


Living up a hill on a street which is not officially a through road, it's easy to feel snowed in: but on Sunday we decided that we could not only get the car down the hill, we'd be able to get it back up again. So we went for a walk on the beach. It seems a waste, when we've had such thick and inviting snowfalls, not to go crunching through the blankets of untrodden snow - but I know my limitations, so we went to Roker. The row of stumps lined up along the edge of the pavement suggests that there had been a storm, but we had sunshine and a brisk wind, and even walked out to the end of the pier (though I wasn't tempted to linger there). A short walk there and back, with fish and chips for lunch at the midpoint, but a welcome outing.

Driving home, we crossed a distinct boundary, just where the sign marked the county border. In Sunderland we saw literally no snow: in County Durham the fields were still white, though green was showing through. The snow was thawing rapidly, and water streamed off the fields and across the road. A couple of times, at the bottom of a dip, we had to ford a substantial pool of water.

Back in the city, the river was high, still within its banks and with visible changes of level at the weirs, a swift moving torrent of iced coffee.
shewhomust: (Default)
I remember my uncle Ralph, my father's second-eldest brother, as a quiet, reflective man, passionate about his garden, always ready to talk about books (with a particular enthusiasm for the novels of Anthony Powell). I had no idea that he was a football fan, or that he continued all his life to support Sunderland, where he never lived as an adult.

Not only that, but he passed on sufficient of that attachment to his children that his family - his children, my cousins, and now their children (and indeed, their children) - make the pilgrimage once a year to see Sunderland play at home. After which [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler and I, as members of the family still living locally, join them for dinner.

This year fourteen of us gathered round the table, including three brothers and three generations of family. The Italian restaurant was large, full of cheerful noise and of large parties (while we were there, the big table down the middle of the room was vacated by a thirtieth birthday party and promptly reoccupied by a fiftieth). The food was OK, but the service was brilliant, good-humoured and attentive despite being overstretched. Having brought the main course for one side of our table, our waitress reappeared to confess with apologies that half our order had been overlooked, and was now being prepared - and then, moments later, brought us two more bottles of wine with the words: "Chef says, if he can't feed yez, then he's going to get yez drunk."

Conversation among that many people and with that level of background noise is always going to be a bit fragmentary, but it was a great pleasure to be part of the flow of random talk: how was your trip up, how was the match, a future school trip, the rest of the family...

Curve


We had a good enough evening that there was no way we were going to be up early enough to join the family for their morning walk along the beach. But once they'd put the idea into my head, it wouldn't be dislodged, so we went back to Seaburn on Sunday morning and walked along the beach as far as the mouth of the Wear, including a walk along the pier to Roker Lighthouse. The wind was still lively, though not as strong as it had been, the light was rich and warm, there are hellebores blooming in Roker park, and if this still wasn't long enough to be a "real" walk, it was longer than last week, and long enough especially given that much of it is on pavements - that my knees are still quite sore today.

Firsts

Jan. 22nd, 2011 10:15 pm
shewhomust: (Default)
First walk of the year: park at Fulwell Mill in Sunderland, climb up onto the Cleadon Hills, with views south to the mouth of the Wear and north to Tynemouth (though if there's any point from which you can see both at once, I didn't find it), down to Marsden and back along the coast. I think of this as a short walk, because it's a walk we do in winter, when the days are short - but [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler has sent me a link to a map he made in January 2008, which gives a distance of 9.8 miles. Perhaps that's why we decided against walking it in January 2008; and perhaps it's why I feel so worn out by it now.

On the Linnet Way


First photos of the year: this one isn't the very first, but it's the one I like best of the first batch, up on the Cleadon Hills.

First fish and chips of the year, at the Marsden grotto. And from there, first walk along the coast, and first walk on the beach: if it's the first walk of the year, I suppose it goes without saying that it's also the first walk on whatever sort of terrain we chose - but starting with a walk along the cliffs suits me just fine.

First musical gig of the year was Thursday, at the Sage, when we heard Louisa Killen as part of the 'One Night in Gateshead' series. There's a whole post I could write about that, but briefly: I enjoyed it, but wondered about the extent to which Louisa Killen relied on her guests, Johnny Handle and Emily Portman. Does she no longer have the voice or the stamina to carry an evening alone? Even if that were the case (and it may just be that she had a cold that particular evening), why not use the interview format that they'd used with Bob Davenport? She had enough anecdotes about the folk revival of the late 50s, starting a folk club and collecting songs, that I'd have loved to hear more... This is no criticism of Johnny Handle, who I was glad to hear will be doing his own 'One Night in Gateshead' show, nor yet of Emily Portman, who was tutored by Louisa Killen and sang - magnificently - some of the traditional songs she'd learned then. Her own compositions on her MySpace page are quite different but identifiably rooted in the traditional stories, twisted fairy tales well worth a listen.
shewhomust: (Default)
The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 provides for a path all around the coast of England (more information on the Ramblers' web site) - but first a route has to be defined, and [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler is involved in a pilot scheme to look at where the path might go along part of the Sunderland and Durham coastline. This will inevitably involve meetings and training and proper survey forms - but since the weather forecast for Saturday was unsettled, Sunderland seemed like a good place to go walking, and we thought we'd construct a circular walk which would include a stretch where we anticipated problems.

In fact the hardest part was finding the marked car park which we had indentified on the map as a good point to start: surely it would be signposted from the through road, surely it couldn't involve plunging into that sinister-looking gap under the railway in this waste of derelict industry? But no it wasn't, and yes it could, and once we realised that however unlikely, that had to be our route, we found ourselves on a stretch of promenade hard up against Hendon Docks. Fences and razor wire and huge containers of who knows what indicate that here, for once, industry is not derelict, and runs right down to the sea. I don't know how the Coastal Path will get round this one.

We didn't even try, but turned inland, and walked a wide loop through the streets and parks of the city to bring us back to the coast. This was more road work than is ideal, but more fun than it sounds. Quite apart from the tattoo parlours of Hendon, it was autumn in Backhouse Park:

Backhouse Park in autumn


From here it was a steep climb up through suburban streets, round Sainsbury's, where we picked up a cycle route onto the recreation grounds at Silksworth, skirting ponds full of waterfowl and passing the Ski slope (it's amazing what you can do with an unwanted coal mine). At the far end we joined the disused railway which brought us past the Tunstall Hills nature reserve (to visit another day) all the way to Ryhope.

Since our last visit. a new road has been built here parallel to the coast, and we were initially a bit deterred by the many colourful signs saying 'keep out - no access to the beach - go away'. But we worked out that 'no access to beach' did not mean that we couldn't turn short of the beach and walk the footpath along the cliffs, so that's what we did, and came back to Hendon as the sun was setting:

Sunset teasels
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Considering that much of Saturday's walk was through urban Sunderland, it's surprising how many pictures I took, and I still haven't finished sorting through them. There ought to be a post about the walk, with a pretty picture - autumn in Backhouse Park, perhaps, or the cliffs at sunset - but I'm not ready to write that one yet.

Instead, here's a shot that I snatched because that errant apostrophe appealed to me:

Rogue apostrophe


It wasn't until I looked at it on the large screen that I realised that I had caught both [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler and myself in the picture: his shadow falls across the road on the right, while I am reflected in the window, caught in the act.

The shop is in Hendon, a few strets away from the house where my father grew up.
shewhomust: (Default)
We had weekend visitors, and had a splendid time sitting around chatting, and showing them the sights, and more sitting around. The sights were mainly in Sunderland, and started out at the Winter Gardens, which I had not previously visited in the spring - there were flowers among the foliage, and the bananas were in bloom. We wandered through the glass and ceramic collections at the museum, where a photograph sent us off in search of the Elephant Tea Rooms:

Hindu Gothic


all of a block and a half away, decorated with elephants (because tea was sold there. Well, obviously) and I don't think I'd ever seen it before... Then on to the coast, Saint Peter's church (where, as last time we were visited, we were pounced on by volunteers and shown round in a helpful but slightly overwhelming way) and a tea break at the Glass Centre. Then home, to dinner and Doctor Who.

We took Sunday more gently, spent the morning wrangling with the crossword and went out in the afternoon to the Botanic Gardens - where all sorts of things were breaking into flower (many but not all of them daffodils) and all had to be admired, and almost all photographed (by all four of us, from a variety of angles).

Our weekend guests left on Monday morning, and we spent the rest of the day working. On Tuesday, since we were expecting D. for an overnight, we needed to do a little emergency shopping (D. food - oranges and white ice cream). [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler made the inspired suggestion that we go to Lidl in Langley Moor, and visit the nearby antique shop in search of kitchen chairs. By a fluke, the shop was open, and had a set of four rush-seated chairs which I think will suit us very well.

And Lidl lived up to all the descriptions, and provided us with a random selection of foodstuffs: oranges and white ice cream, but also unwaxed lemons and speck and a couple of bottles of wine. The wine department was just odd: premier cru Chablis sat next to Dornfelder (German red wine from the Moselle) above the ice cream cabinets where the heat from the refrigeration units met the warmth of the lighting ("I don't suppose it stays there long enough to take much harm," says D.) My mother would have loved it.

And D. arrived, and we opened a couple of bottles (not from our Lidl haul), including a St Emilion which we actually decanted (was this necessary? I don't know. It was lovely, velvety smooth without being rich, but how do I know what it would have been like without decanting?) and had a very pleasant evening.
shewhomust: (Default)
The Coastal Footpath is an 11 mile walking route down the coast of County Durham, north to south. I was initially surprised that the coast of a reasonable sized county should yield so short a path, and then rationalised it: the historic county lost large chunks of its coastline to the metropolitan areas, Sunderland to the north and Teesside to the south. After yesterday's explorations I can add that the path does not start at the county boundary, in the north at least.

We, however, did. We parked on Ryhope Green, just into Sunderland, by a plaque informing us that the history of Ryhope Village could be traced back to 930AD, when it was recaptured from the Scots, and that it was "once popular with the Bishops of Durham for sea bathing." I picture a row of bishops, their purple robes kilted up out of the foam, holding hands and treading carefully so as not to lose their mitres... You wouldn't want to paddle there now, though. That word "heritage" in the name of the path? Durham's coastal heritage is the residue of its industrial past, unnatural and spectacular, and that was what we found when we made our way down to the coast: rusting railings, crumbling concrete and a sign warning us off the unstable cliff edges. So we retraced our steps to a path set well back from danger, which took us as far as the first of a series of denes, steep river valleys which punctuate the coast. Back to the main road, then, until we were within sight of Seaham, and a track led towards the sea, skirting a large and bustling car boot sale. At the far end of the track, we reached the next dene, and backtracked again, taking the road into the car park where the walk officially begins.

Riders on the beach


The first official part of the walk ran through Seaham, technically along the Promenade all the way, though we diverted onto the lower walk along the beach. The old part of the town was interesting, but we were soon back on the main road, at first diverted by views down to the harbour then just grimly along, wondering why the pavement ran between the crash barrier and the highway.

We came at length to Dawdon, where the path leaves the road, at a further car park with interpretative boards, art works and interpretative art works. As usual, the high profile artwork (Alec Finlay's Sky-field, a cluster of windsocks in shades of blue and white) appealed to me less than the nameless arrangement of dry stone wall and timber, half sculpture, half something to which to attach plates bearing - poems? descriptions? acrostics? well, words, certainly. (There will, as usual, be more of my pictures in due course; in the interim, here are some rather better ones) Beyond Dawdon, the path runs above Blast Beach, with its discoloured stones resting in strange dark sands the colour of coffee that's stewed too long, pounded by cappuccino breakers. Up above, the path is bordered by a riot of wild flowers (distinctive flora of the Magnesian limestone, apparently): meadowsweet, bloody cranesbill, scabious, lousewort... A kestrels - and then another - hovered briefly over the cliff edge, silhouetted against the dark sea, barely higher than our heads, before disappearing.

Down into Hawthorn Dene, and - after a few wrong turns - we found the path as it headed out the other side under the railway viaduct, through the fields and past Beacon Hill, not even tempted to divert up to the summit, thankfully into Easington Colliery.

The day was showers and sunshine mixed; the morning mild, grey and showery, the afternoon full of contrasts - the sun shining on the far end of blast beach was the sign that another shower was coming, then, as we grew weary towards the end of the walk, the sun beat down in true August fashion. The only really heavy shower came when we were on the bus back to our starting point, rattling off the windows then passing over, leaving a rainbow arched over the invisible sea.
shewhomust: (Default)
My brother and sister-in-law, otherwise known as the Bears, have been with us for a weekend visit. One of the many reasons why their visits are always fun is that they are good at excursions: GirlBear is full of ideas for places to go and things to see, and we all enjoy approaching the same kind of entertainments in the same kind of way: accompanied by plenty of walking around, and finding somewhere pleasant to lunch, and discussing what we've just seen.

On this occasion, GirlBear had brought with her a cutting from the Guardian describing an exhibition at Sunderland University's Reg Vardy Gallery called "If There Ever Was: An Exhibition Of Extinct And Impossible Smells". An exhibition of smells: we weren't even sure that the word 'exhibition' could be used of smells, let alone how the gallery might deliver on its promise of lost smells, extinct smells, the scents of extinct flowers and the perfume Cleopatra wore. But we were game to find out.

The gallery is quite small: a single T-shaped room, all painted white, with one arm of the T cut off by a sales desk, providing a space for the gallery attendant. Around the rest of the room, a panel at eye-level carries fourteen pieces of text, with a vent running along beneath (there are pictures on the Gallery's site at the moment, though the site design means I can't link to them directly, or guess whether they will be there permanently). You pause to read a passage, and your presence (presumably) triggers a mechanism which releases the corresponding scent.
"Scent is the essence of physical presence and lends proof to our surroundings. Contrastingly, the fourteen scents re-created for If There Ever Was are inspired by absence. Like a cabinet of intangible curiosities, their forms are drawn from disparate stories throughout history for which few, if any, objects remain. And although it would be easy to pass the exhibition off as a work of pure fantasy — the product of an over-active perfumer's imagination - beneath the olfactory theatricality lies a serious scientific basis, says James Wong, a botanist at Botanic Gardens Conservation International, UK."

"It would be easy to pass the exhibition off as a work of pure fantasy..." Well, yes, the presentation has a deadpan quality which made me wonder whether the whole operation was an elaborate spoof, a fine but invisible new suit for the emperor. An exhibition of smells is a sufficiently elusive undertaking in itself, without going a step further into an exhibition of extinct smells. James Wong assures us that it is scientifically impeccable, but then James Wong's job at Botanic Gardens Conservation International (according to their web site) is to create news stories highlighting the organisation's role in plant conservation. A list of artists are described as contributing, and several fragrance houses are credited; it's a sign of my ignorance in matters olfactory that none of these names meant anything to me.

The fourteen text passages - offered as contexts for the scents, rather than descriptions - varied in length, but shared the same apparently simple tone; at first this made me suspicious, especially as some of the stories were hard to believe: can the Stasi really have collected the scents of suspects on file? (Apparently yes; the BBC has a picture). But the story of Jesse Tafero (executed in the US, the scent of his last meal recreated for the exhibition) rang a bell. And the scents that went down with the Titanic are real too. (Thanks to Glass Petal Smoke blog for its helpful list of all fourteen items).

So although my initial reaction was to see the entire exhibition as one big piece of conceptual art, it's possible to regard it as a showcase for fourteen works of the parfumier's art. In which case I'm afraid that the technology is not up to the task imposed on it: the scents were not delivered clearly, or in most cases strongly, enough. A scent composed by Christophe Laudamiel, in an attempt to recreate the scents believed to protect against plague, contained among other ingredients, vinegar, rose oil, raspberry leaves, beeswax, angelica, orange peel and clove: it was almost the only one I could identify at all, as the clove scent of the mouthwash my dentist used to use. All of the subtlety was lost in transmission. There's also a book of the show, a prettily bound little volume, but as soon as I opened it, the tipped in scent samples all mingled in one overwhelming smell.

Afterwards we discussed which lost scents we might nominate for a follow-up exhibition. "Anthracite," said [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler. "Steam engines." I'm tempted by any number of historic wines: Château Margaux 1848, perhaps? Or how about a madeleine dipped in linden tea?

P.S. This seems to be the definitive documentation (PDF).
shewhomust: (watchmen)
Like [livejournal.com profile] desperance (and [livejournal.com profile] samarcand and [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler, for that matter), I was in Sunderland yesterday for the first public appearance of Bryan Talbot's extraordinary book Alice in Sunderland. For as long as I've known Bryan - for five years, at least - Alice has been a work in progress, an exploration of his adopted city, and every meeting has brought a new titbit of information, a new page of dazzling artwork, in which huge amounts of detailed information are organised into a lucid argument (here's an example). Sunderland tends to be overshadowed by its neighbours on the Tyne, it never aspired to City of Culture status; for long centuries it was not a city at all but an industrial town ("the biggest shipbuilding town in the world," my father used to boast), but a town whose history goes back to the earliest days of English Christianity.

Part of that history is my own; my father was born in Sunderland, and until my grandmother died when I was seven or eight, we spent our summer holidays there. I remember being shown the stuffed walrus in the museum and told that this was the very walrus about which Lewis Carroll wrote in The Walrus and the Carpenter (it's gone now, although a walrus has appeared in nearby Mowbray Park). It has been a particular pleasure to share with Bryan some of the stories I know from that connection - the Victoria Hall disaster about which William McGonagall wrote so movingly, for example.

So last night's event - the opening of an exhibition of artwork from the book at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art - was very much a Long Awaited Party. It also had a slightly surreal quality: Alice in Sunderland plays a number of tricks with reality, illusion and the depiction of reality, and last night's gathering did much the same thing. The artwork on display was wonderful, but so much of the finished artwork was created in the computer that the framed drawings - the pure and often uncoloured line - could be misleading. I heard one visitor remark "I don't know why, I'd expected it to be in colour..." and had to reassure her that yes, most (though not all - this is a book that has some of everything) pages were fully coloured. Some of the fascination for me was seeing the skeleton beneath the finished pages. But if the art on display was like the bones without the flesh, many of the guests were characters from the book, escaped from its pages and walking around: Bryan himself, but also [livejournal.com profile] desperance who appears with Colin Wilbourn in the section about the sculpture project on which they collaborated and Michael Bute, on whose research into Lewis Carroll's north-eastern connections Alice draws heavily. Bryan Talbot has called his book "a dream documentary" but you could have wondered which dreamed it.

This isn't a review of Alice in Sunderland: apart from anything else, I was unable to buy a copy, as the gallery had seriously under-ordered (in fairness to them, they were clearly accustomed to exhibitions to which a catalogue is an optional extra, and hadn't grasped that in this case it was all about the book), and their stock of thirteen copies vanished away as softly and suddenly as you could wish. Which is fine, because there will be signings in bookshops, and I will have plenty more chances. So this is just a jubilation that something as ambitious and unexpected and magnificent as Alice in Sunderland can actually happen.

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