Saturday, 12 November 2011

Endurance and Artists

Next to the James Caird. Really and truly, there it is.

Dulwich College is a very surprising place. First of all, its motto is "God's Gift". You HAVE to love that. And not only did P G Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler both attend, (ooh think! The man who invented hard-boiled American 40s slang and the man who invented upper-class 30s twit slang; friends and students in Dulwich) but this is also where you can goggle at the James Caird, the life-boat from the Endurance, the ship that was crushed in pack-ice in October, 1915, in Antarctica. If you want to read a great adventure story that would still be gripping even it were all made up, find a copy of Alfred Lansing's book "Endurance". It was written in 1959, and so the author met and spoke with a number of the people who were on this expedition. When the lot of them realised there was nothing to do but wait, probably for months and months, with no way of communicating with the outside world, they performed minstrel shows, had dog-races - "the Antarctic Sweepstakes" -, put on mock-trials, performed plays, and wrote songs and poems.
There was an artist and a photographer on the expedition, and diaries written by these explorers show an appreciation of beauty, sitting as it does beside a keen understanding of science, that is staggering.
Well, the James Caird Society has two meetings a year at Dulwich College, and my good friend and devout fan Commander Charles Giles (commanded, for the RN, a Minesweeper, a Frigate, and a squadron of Buccaneers, and also flew formation and solo aerobatics) is a member, and took me along. There were drinks, loads of them. And some lovely Whisky, a replica of the Whisky found in Shackleton's hut where he and his men stayed during the 1907 "Nimrod" expedition. A rather grande dame leant over to look at the bottle and asked the two young people serving, "What year is it from?" The young fellow looked at the young woman next to him, and then they both looked at another woman, also in an apron, dispensing the booze. She came over, picked up the bottle and read the label. "1907," she said, matter-of-factly. "Oh," said the woman complacently, taking a glass of it with her. Well all I can say is that, if this is a replica of what Shackleton had down there, those men didn't do too badly in the whisky stakes.

It could be yours for a two-figure sum.
Earlier that day I met up with Ruth Solomons - see previous blog about Balfron Towers - who finds abstract shapes when she looks at figurative art, and whose own abstract artworks are a constant source of wonderment to viewers who see faces, flowers, landscapes and leaves that Ruth never intended. We were taking down some of her works that were in a cafe. Her exhibition slot had ended. The prices for these lovely unique silkscreen prints were extremely reasonable - 30 to 60 each - and I asked her how many had sold.
"Oh, none."
And what kind of people come to this cafe? Idiots? 
"Mostly artists."
Poor artists?
Her friend Ben Walker was there, helping her pack the framed silkscreens away in bubble-wrap and take them on the DLR back to her flat. I brought up the subject of Jack Vettriano for a laugh. All our objections were specific to what we did for a living.
You know The Singing Butler.I'm not going to reproduce this thing here, because Jack doesn't need the publicity, and Jack might sue me, and you'll all have seen it. 
Ben's very non-kitsch work...

I told Ruth and Ben that it's cringe-making to have a domestic servant stand huddled in the rain, holding an umbrella so that his Lord-Master and his LM's floozie can have a waltz on a beach, and it's even more cringe-making to force him to sing, with no accompaniment, with the damp wind whipping about. Whatever he's singing (a waltz, so let's pretend it's "Always", see my CD, in shops and online on Monday, step right up folks!) it's going to sound pretty thin and awful in that situation. Nobody would be happy. So it doesn't ring true, and is like a joke that isn't funny and wouldn't happen in real life anyway.

Ruth said "It's trying to be a photograph. It's denying the medium. It's as if he wishes it weren't a painting." She said it would be best used in a colouring book.

We waited for Ben's opinion. Ben's artworks are worth a look. They're like memories seen through a mist. Sharp outlines mixed with yellow, rose, earthy haze. Often, the memories are painful ones.
"It's Vettriano's kitsch interiors, trying to be atmospheric and mysterious when they're not." Ben is soft-spoken and we nearly didn't hear his next comment: "It's offensive."

That evening, I wished Ruth and Ben could have seen the paintings and sketches from the Shackleton Antarctic expedition, shown in slide-show to a packed audience. They are atmospheric, and combine a need for record with a sense of poetry.

I sat next to an elderly but very fit gentleman who asked me what my Antarctic connection was, and I feebly told of my love of the book "Endurance", the fact that I'd been to the exhibition at the Liverpool Maritime Museum last year, and that I was Cmdr Charles Giles's guest. "And what's yours?"

"I've been there a few times."
Dr. Charles Swithinback tells an excellent yarn.

Ha! Dr. Charles Swithinbank has had six geographic features named after him in Antarctica, and has seen more of Antarctica than any other living person.

He has written "An Alien in Antarctica", "Forty Years On Ice", "Foothold in Antarctica" and "Vodka on Ice". He was fabulous company, and this photo shows him mid-yarn. Note the hands. This is a man who can tell a story. Please believe me that I'm listening to him. I only looked briefly at the camera. He loved to speak of his Pianola in Cambridge, where he lives. He took the train back after the banquet, and sent me a copy of "Forty Years On Ice" the next morning. I sent him a copy of "Our Lovely Day", and he wrote a letter immediately, saying "Our Lovely Day gives me great joy. At my age (almost 85) and partially deafened by gunfire in the WW2, I find your instrumental accompaniment too loud, tending to drown your lovely voice. Nobody's fault, just a fact of old age." His book is quite riveting. Informative, economical, full of joy. I had asked him during the dinner if it wasn't a shame that there were so few frontiers left on our earth.
"Absolutely not! There are oodles of things we haven't discovered yet! Many, many things to find out, many places to go..."

His favourite piece of vocal music is Schubert's Shepherd on the Rock, and has said so on the Russian version of Desert Island Discs.  

I didn't say to anyone that evening that the room where we were eating was where they filmed the graduation scene in Legally Blonde. So Dulwich College has effectively been a stand-in for Harvard. With "God's Gift" carved into the rafters, over and over again.


  1. What a fascinating outing! Thank you so much for sharing your travels with us, Patricia.

    Even though I didn't recognize JV's name as the artist, I knew exactly what you were talking about when you described the painting. You'll cringe when I tell you, but that painting is in all of our big box stores here in the US. I hate how it appears everywhere. Your perspective of the scene really opened my eyes to a completely new idea. I hadn't ever considered all the points you raised. They are all extremely valid.

    Dr. Swithinbank looks like such a dear man. I wish I could meet him! I'm very happy you sent him your CD and he enjoyed it. :D

    And may I say, I adore the way you write!

  2. Thank you!! Well I adore the way YOU write, and it's your blog that encouraged me to do the same! JV is all over the box stores in the UK, too. No difference there! I love the term 'box stores'. It's useful and expresses what they are, so well.