Sunday 29 January 2012

An Eye for Fashion, Photography by Norman Parkinson 1954-1964

Last weekend I took a stroll into the past. I was delighted to receive an invitation from our friend Angela Williams to attend the launch of an exhibition of original vintage prints by fashion photography Norman Parkinson. Angela was Parkinson's assistant during the early sixties. When he left his Twickenham studio she asked if she could have his surplus vintage silver prints. And so, decades later, thanks to Angela's efforts to save and preserve them, we were standing looking at an exhibition of wonderful photographs exquisitely displayed at the M Shed in Bristol's redeveloped dockland. The exhibition runs until 15th April and is worth a visit especially if you are writing in the period, if you are interested in the history of fashion or you simply enjoy lovely photographs well displayed. After April the photographs will travel to the U.S.

Another opening, another (special) show....
Entrance to exhibition at M Shed, Bristol
Michael, Angela's partner

Models (mannequins) wearing clothes from the period set off the photographs. Period wallpapers are tastefully chosen as a background for the models.

21st century meets 20th
Price label reads £3.10 shillings
Sixties tweed
Art in photographs

Angela and her partner hosted the opening and it was busy. The guests were almost, but not quite, as superbly dressed as the models in the photographs. How could they compete? None the less, the guests all looked beautiful having made a salute to the era with their own dress style and with their own individual accents. Dancers and singers were hired for the occasion. Canapes and cocktails were served in the rooms adjacent to the gallery there was a continuous buzz of enthusiastic conversation.

Get down
Hipster family
Classic Parkinson model
Bristol Gothic
Angela is the focus of attention under Parkinson's gaze
See exhibition caption below
A contrast in fashions
Baby Doll, Carol Baker
"Vicky Strevens wearing Slimma skirt with a Netawear top"

Then, of course there is the after show party which took place in The Living Room, a modern building in the clubbing and partying section of the redeveloped Docks. The finishes look expensive, and inside, the upper level is spanned by an interior bridge which allows unusual perspectives for people-watching. Incongruously, a white Baby Grand piano has on its lid a laptop computer from which the resident DJ orchestrates the cacophonous beats which target every nook and cranny like eardrum seeking sonic missiles. They make impossible any conversation which is more nuanced or intelligent than simple pick-up lines.

We retreat outside to the patio and in the glow generated by the infra-red heaters and the strong cocktails we gather around a few tables to review and discuss what was a fabulous evening.

The visit to this show was just the tonic for a chill January evening. It made me reflect on post-war optimism and the innocent fun associated with London during the Sixties. There were no mobile phones, TV had for most of the era two channels, videos were unheard of, and DVDs and personal computers were for the future. Yet, when I look at these photographs I feel the positivity of the era emanating from the background to many of these shots. The exhibition was for me, a keyhole into a past decade and now I feel like hunting out photographs of my own mother and looking closely at those hats and shoes and the little 1940s/ 1950s Jaeger suits she once apon a time wore. And perhaps, it is because of her that I , too, have always loved 'style' her term for fashion.

An Eye For Fashion, Norman Parkinson Photographs, British Designers 1954 - 1964 runs until 15th April.

Sunday 22 January 2012

The Memsahib of Ooty, A Passage to Kerala, part 2.

E.M Foster's Passage to India is not simply about the domination of the Raj, it is, more importantly, about human relationships. When Foster writes in his other famous novel, Howard's End,the words, 'only connect', he emphasises that it is the connections between human beings that matter most in his writing. As I sat on the Nilgili mountain railway with our suitcases shoved under my seat I felt a connection, with India and with my fellow passengers. We were thrown together for the slow haul up the mountain on a train that could have carried Miss Quested into the hills decades earlier and after five hours of extremely slow travel, stunning scenery and various stops, we were laughing and talking to each other in the relaxed manner of happy travellers as if we had been in each other's company for longer than a few hours. Since the train needed to have frequent stops to replenish the water tank we tumbled off onto platforms to take photographs, side-step friendly monkeys and on one occasion to drink masala tea and eat samosas served in old issues of The Deccan Chronicle.

The Engine
One of the many water stops
The engine pushes rather than pulls the train

A well oiled machine

Getting ready to leave

 At Coonoor I shoved along my seat to allow an intrepid traveller called Cecilia to join us. She has come to India every year for twenty years and she knows regions that, to me, are still names on a map. Cecilia is an elegant, older, switched-on and delightful lady who was that week visiting her friends at an organic nursery near the race track in Ooty. Then, there were the Indian students in the next carriage who sang songs for us all as we climbed higher and higher up the mountain, their harmonising voices eventually disappearing into the steam that trailed behind the train. And finally in the front carriage sat a friendly Australian family whom we saw again in Mysore whizzing by, piled into an auto rickshaw.

A young couple on the Coonoor platform

The Cameronian future
Tea plantation seen from the train

Udagamandalam or Ooty was once a Raj hill station and we stayed in a Taj hotel that had long ago been a private school. Its grounds boasted rhodadendrons and hydrangeas that are familiar in Irish gardens. The hotel menu included memsahib dishes such as Dak Bungalow Chicken which I hope never ever to experience again as it is over cooked chicken in luke-warm gravy, boiled vegetables accompanied by tasteless rice. Sticking with Indian food was seriously more successful. In the hills, the temperature drops at night but when the dining room wood fire is lit and the honky tonk piano player bangs out old songs, I feel myself transported into the past of cool lawns, tea gardens, clubs, evening dances and the entertainments of a bygone time. For a moment I become the memsahib of Ooty.

Main building Taj Savoy Hotel, Ooty
Sunset over the Savoy
Tea Shop
Mysore Palace

The Sunday night illuminations are a social event

Now returned to England from my third trip to India, I look at my photographs and remember all the train travel, the porters who carry suitcases on their heads, crossing tracks to reach the other platform, the friendly young of Kerala who want to talk and practise their English, the jovial manager of a silk factory in Mysore and the workers in a sandalwood factory where the expensive perfume was so subtle I wanted to trap its unique scent for ever in a sandalwood box. India is chaotic but there is order within the chaos. There is a spirituality, of course, too, that in EM Foster's novel is personified in the character of Professor Godbole. And so, as winter continues here and I return to my writing, I look out on a landscape of bare trees that scratch steel-grey skies, recharged by the colours and energies of India and dream of connecting with this wonderful continent another day.      

A crepuscular Cochin
The Chinese nets at Fort Cochin

Monday 16 January 2012

A Passage to Kerala- Episode One-Christmas to New Year

I have always been a fan of E.M Foster's novel A Passage To India. It encapsulates the tense atmosphere that can emerge from the meeting of two very different cultures when one culture conquers and as a consequence considers itself superior to the other.In Foster's novel this tension is presented in the central enigma of what happened in the caves at Marabar. It was a mysterious event owing much to a strange English woman's overactive imagination as she sought an authentic Indian experience. It almost destroyed the dashing Dr Assiz who misunderstood the Anglo-Indian. The novel preserves an intriguing atmosphere throughout. And, decades on, no matter how much India has been influenced by Western powers in the past, or how commercially and technically powerful this vast country is today, India retains a sense of mystery. This winter we visited India, beginning our trip in Bangalore, just before Christmas. Although A Passage to India is set near Calcutta, the movie was filmed close to the Nilgiri Hills.

Early morning in Bangalore

View in the Nilgiri Hills

The Busy Fruit and Veg Market in Mysore 

 On Christmas Eve we visited The Maharajah's Palace in Bangalore. This palace was built during the late eighteen hundreds when Queen Victoria was Empress of India and the architecture of the Raj influenced the building projects of wealthy Indian rulers who adapted an English vernacular in an Indian context. The palace in Bangalore imitates Windsor Castle and its state rooms are decorated in Gothic, Tudor and Art Nouveau styles. Within the English exterior the architecture accommodated Indian religious and social mores. For example, a screen allowed the Majarajah's wives to view proceedings in the state room whilst remaining hidden.

Bangalore Palace

Inside the Palace
Memories of a gilded past

In cities such as Bangalore bookshops are chaotic temples to literature and learning.These often straddle several floors where books are piled up in higglety piggelty fashion inviting relaxed exploration. There is a profound respect for education in India. I perused endless collections of European classics as well as many modern Indian writers, many of whom I had never known about, all for me, the lover of novels, a fascinating discovery. India's book palaces offer a beautiful mingling of cultures and, despite market place changes such as the e reader, book shops remain glorious glory holes of literature. Film, too, thrives here, both Indian and Western, Bollywood and Hollywood, and, at the moment, as in the West, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has opened to extravagant promotion.

Never one to refuse a free drink particularly if spiked with Hollywood hype

Inside Higginbotham's

Christmas Day in Bangalore was both an old fashioned and contemporary dining experience. As happens during Indian festivals, a complex flower pattern was created on the hallway floor leading to our hotel room. The hotel garden was exquisitely transformed for a very English Christmas brunch of turkey and trimmings accompanied by a live band. As we were meeting friends later that evening we opted to join them for Christmas dinner and dined out under the moon. Taj Hotels generally offer a sophisticated cuisine combining east and west in a pan-Indian experience, and The Taj West End in Bangalore is a calm haven in a busy and polluted city.

Dinner preparations underway,Tandoori ovens in background

And now we are in Kerala for New Year, right in the very south where warm breezes float in from the Indian Ocean and evenings promise magnificent sunsets. Around six o'clock in Varkala, Europeans and Indians flock onto the beach and amble along the cliff top walk where they watch an explosion of colour as the sun goes down. As we eat fresh fish barbecued with spices, there is a sense of magic. Where-ever we travel, whether the beach, cities such as Bangalore, Cochin or Mysore, the Nilgiri Railway to the hill station of Oooti or on Kumarakom Lake, an elusive quality haunts India, a mysterious essence that is as relevant today as it was in the bygone era of the Raj when E.M Foster wrote his enduring novel, A Passage To India.

Clifftop restaurant at Varkala

Sunset at Kumarakom