Archive for April, 2013

Frink’s men

14 April 2013

The works I know of by the British sculptor and printmaker Elisabeth Frink were her birds and animals, which always seems tough and scrawny, like the battered animal that eventually triumphs in Edwin Muir’s poem The Combat. Her horses, as well. But Woking’s Lightbox Gallery has a retrospective of her work (it runs through to Sunday 21st April) that marks the 20th anniversary of her death, and I realised that I’d pretty much missed the second half of her career.

The most striking sculptures in the exhibition are her large male figures (the ones pictured are in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park); one of the rooms has four of them walking abreast across the gallery floor, which certainly catches the eye. a fifth figure is seated at the side, looking on.

Why so striking? Partly just their scale, for they are larger than humans, perhaps seven-and-a-half feet tall rather than six, and also their mass; they are recognisably human but somehow more than human as well. Frink said she preferred sculpting the bodies of men to women because she found women’s bodies to be somehow formless – although she used this lack of form to her advantage in her commission for Salisbury Cathedral (Click on the image to enlarge).

Frink was a supporter of the charity Amnesty International, which works on behalf of prisoners of conscience, and her head and shoulders bust Goggle Head (below) uses mass in a more sinister way, concealing the face of a man behind goggles in a way that reminds me why aviator glasses are often used by people who wish to intimidate. The contrast with the quizzical and slightly vulnerable faces of the Walking sculptures at the top of this post is striking.

And the Lightbox – also the home to the Ingram Collection of modern British art – is free to enter, a welcome feature in these austere times.

Images from top to bottom: Top, from Martin Goodman’s blog So You Want To Be.A Writer; the Walking Madonna is from the blog Healing This Wounded Earth; Goggle Head is from the Tate. All are used with thanks.

Desert rats

5 April 2013

I’ve found myself watching not one but two different programmes about the Desert War, being shown to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein. As a result, I realised that when I was young I was sold a complete pup about the military skills of the British commander at El Alamein, Bernard Montgomery. Watching Jonathan Dimbleby’s endless documentary, it was clear that after Churchill had removed both Wavell and Auchinleck from the command in Cairo, Montgomery just happened to be the general standing in the right place by the time the British had weakened sufficiently the supply lines of the Afrika Korps and had mustered enough men and tanks to attack the German desert army. Either of his predecessors would have won comfortably as well – and Auchinleck was probably a better general.

The programmes helped me understand a few other things as well. Hitler, obviously, was notorious for over-ruling his generals (so much so that at Bletchley Park they sometimes thought messages they’d cracked were wrong because they made no apparent strategic sense) but Churchill had form here as well, insisting that his generals attack when the attacks were doomed. Wavell departed because he reluctantly followed Churchill’s order and lost disastrously; Auchinleck because he declined to do so because he knew the consequences would not be good.

Rommel, on the other hand, won Hitler’s trust through some outrageous tank attacks; he was a gambler who usually had a shrewd grasp of the odds. His letters to his wife, Lu, which were included in the programme, seemed surprisingly candid. But he lost his last gamble when he was implicated in the 20th July Plot. Even then his military record saved him from the humiliation of a Nazi trial, since Hitler allowed him to commit suicide instead.

A world war

I’d believed before that Britain’s commitment in North Africa was a sop to Stalin, to pin down some German divisions a long way from the Eastern Front. I’ve also had it argued that it was a way into the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Axis, through Italy, at a time when Britain knew an invasion across the Channel was impossible. (Though as a German commander said later, and the Allies learnt the hard way, if you’re going to invade Italy, don’t start at the bottom). But both the programmes I watched suggested that the British understood that it was a world war before other countries, perhaps because of the Empire. Churchill was obsessed with Egypt and the North African desert because he could see the link between the war effort, the Suez Canal, the resources of India, and the oil resources that Britain controlled in the Middle East. The oil in particular, was critical: the German army never quite had enough of it, and it did for them in the end. But it took a while for Churchill to persuade Roosevelt of this. (Eventually the Americans had to insist that the Allies pressed ahead with invading France.)

As an aside, the Dimbleby documentary seemed to have blown the entire budget on travel – he popped up in more locations than were needed to tell the story – which left the graphics to be done in Photoshop, or so it seemed. It made me realise how much the Snows, Peter and Dan, have done to improve the quality of military graphics on television. There were frequent occasions when my understanding of events and tactics would have been improved by a bit of Peter Snow’s electronic tabletop.

Finally, even if Montgomery happened to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, one can see how his name became so important. By the time of the second battle of El Alamein, Britain had been losing the war for two years. But El Alamein marked the turning of the tide, something more than “the end of the beginning”. Three months later the Germans were beaten at Stalingrad, and by then American equipment was pouring into Europe. The autumn of 1942 represented the point at which – largely thanks to the determination of the Soviet army – the Germans became overstretched. Although the Japanese had further successes, the Germans barely won again. But it’s a lot easier to say that in hindsight, now we know how things turned out. In late 1942 the relief of a victory well-won would have been overwhelming.

The image at the top of this post is from World War II Today, and is used with thanks.

Limestone country

5 April 2013
I was following a guidebook on a short walk in the Brecons, and came across this description:

“The bustle of the valley is left behind. In front lies a a lunar terrain of limestone crags, pockmarked by quarries and loose rocks.”

It’s by Alastair Ross, whose walking guides in the Kittiwake series are ideal for a casual walker like me. The village still has a  (just about) working quarry, and the station building is still standing, even if the remaining quarrymen’s houses are now home to the South Wales Caving Club and the railway line is long gone.
There’s a hidden history here, of the 19th century opera singer Adelina Patti, who paid for much of the station. Patti, who commanded at the height of her career fees of £1,000 a night (then a colossal sum) was rumoured to have been a mistress of Edward VII, and was for a time the flamboyant owner of the nearby Craig-y-nos Castle, which she equipped with a private theatre and a billiards room, and invited musicians and billiards players alike to come and stay.
But I digress. The phrase in the guidebook, and the sudden change to the bleaker limestone landscape, reminded me of Auden’s early poems, strongly inflluenced by the former lead-mining area he would walk in in the Pennines. This is the first part of The Watershed, written in 1927, when Auden was 20, and the earliest poem to make the cut in the Selected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson:

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed

On the wet road between the chafing grass

Below him sees dismantled washing floors,

Snatches of tramline running to a wood.

An industry already comatose,

Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine 

At Cashwell raises water; for ten years

It lay in flooded workings until this,

Its latter office, grudgingly performed. […]

The photos in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are posted here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.