Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The London Bankside and the Millennium Bridge

The stone stairway, whose footing slid into the brown and ancient Thames River, provided seating for the early and the jolly.  The Globe Theater shouldered the bank above the stairs. Behind the Globe’s closed doors, Macbeth applied his makeup, the staging crew fingered the bags of fakery blood and checked the trap doors.  Having arrived well before the play’s ticket-takers, prepped for drama, I looked out to the scene of the London bankside on that September eve, searching for some memorable and fortuitous entertainment.

The Cheese Grater, the Gherkin, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and a multitude of other lesser known rooflines postured boldly in the bright slantwise light at the end of the rare sunny English day.  The pub quayside filled-up with plastic-cupped ale drinkers, the sidewalk traffic moved slowly past the huckster magicians and the performers - men with hoops, whose languid and majestic bubbles swept sideways followed by cascades of little iridescent globes - jettisoning children into bubble popping ecstasy.

There was already a rarity of rail side seats, but as I nudged between two gawkers and looked over the edge down to the bankside of the Thames River, I spied that stairway to the river below me.  There was a seat or two remaining on them; that is, if I cared to insist that the two lovers scoop up their banquet spread on a napkin between them and balance their edibles in their laps, leaving me a seat.  Or if I requested of an elderly couple - sitting a chilly foot apart grouching at each other – if they couldn’t share their animosity at a closer range.  I erred towards hovering patiently until the elders, still grousing, left.  I took their fifth-row seat up, safely above the occasional lapping wakes produced by the river traffic.  Snub-nosed tugboats, barges emitting microphone squawks over the heads of tourists and two lone rowers.  I unclipped the lens cap on my camera and surveyed the glorious expanse of the tidal river, the juxtaposition of old and new buildings all overarched by the Millennium Bridge.

I focused my camera on the bridge’s passengers, snapping photos of the characters walking in and out of my camera’s zoomed lens.  An assortment of humanity.  The father with his two children on leashes, leaping like monkeys pulling in opposite directions.  The hunched financiers, heads down appearing exhausted and distracted, clutching briefcases.  The selfie takers, heads up, stalling traffic into bunches.  A continuum of walkers crossing the sky.

And then, that girl with the bike crossing the bridge. 

Unbeknownst to her, with her frock highlighted by the last rays of the day, the roundness of her wheels contrasting to an upsweep of stark and gripping lines, her head turned in curiosity, she pushed her bike directly and perfectly into a killer photo shot.  And then, she disappeared anonymous into the streets of London.

I capped the lens.  Shut off the camera.  Turned my head and there above me rail side was a photographer with a huge lens.  As I joined my sister, my daughter and her beloved in the crowd entering the Globe Theater, my sister said that the photographer had been taking photos of me taking photos.  Swept through the doors hidden, I too became anonymous, memorable and fortuitous entertainment in the drama of the London bankside on a September eve.


Friday, September 23, 2016

Building with Stones, Images and Words

Writing, photography and constructing stone walls require similar skills.  Traveling for the last few weeks in the birthing land of the English language and then wandering about the streets of Paris, I found myself pulling meaning from my surroundings, as if selecting stones to build a ubiquitous British field fence.  Each stone dovetailing into the others, dry stacked, connected by air and gravity.  The finesse of the work built upon repetition, judgment and the meaning of the work.  Stones were everywhere in the British landscape.  And images and linguistic gems.  I kept the muscles of my eyes and my ears strong and my brain alert for the right "stones".

Taking photos in an unfamiliar setting required a roving eye framing and re-framing bits of the landscape - calculating the light, the distance and the angle, the passage of characters or the juxtaposition of elements.

As I walked down a hill in Edinburgh, I noticed from a great distance these chimney pots looking as if they were being carried on the backs of the huge sculptures that were mounted atop a building.  The relationship was only visible for a few seconds from one angle.  The two elements dovetailed like stones, except instead making a wall, mine made an odd and interesting photo.

My camera didn't have a wide enough angle to capture the full breadth of a Monet mural in the Musée de l'Orangerie, but the moment that this Asian gentleman stepped into the room and twirled to pose for a photo with his dapper hat and cane, I knew that that was the photo that I wanted.  Within a fraction of a second other people entered into the frame of the camera's lens and the photo would have been spoiled.  Picking a precise moment with assurance is like selecting a rock without wasting time considering which of dozens might fit.

Once and awhile I see in black and white.  The black taxis lined-up by the Nottingham Train Station under the arch of the canal bridge looked like they might make a nice black and white photo.  Judith, my sister, noticed the taxis too and remarked on the image.  I felt like I was seeing a little slice of city life.  Rocks are mostly just gray, but the quality of the shadows of a stone wall creates texture and contrast, just like the elements in this photo.

Out on the Yorkshire dale in the first photo, the sweep of the hills with their scattered stones and green grass make the big picture, but the stone hut and the wall is what catches ones attention.  In this photo, the image that you see was a reflection in a fairly small rectangle of canal water.  Above it on the bank three men in orange safety vests worked repairing the equipment of a power station with yellow cranes arching over their heads.  There were buildings to either side, some sky beginning to darken and a length of water.  The little wavy image pulled all of the bright colors into its borders and like the stone fence, focused my attention.

Admittedly this photo could have been an ad for htc phone, but in reality, it was just my daughter avoiding having her picture taken.  This isn't the photo that I was aiming for, but I really liked the way it came out.  The gray sky was a perfect backdrop.  Sometimes the right "stone" is the one under your hand.  


Gathering words necessitated capturing snippets of conversation or watching for written communications that expressed odd, absurd or beautiful sentiments.  Sometimes I took photos of words, so as to not let them vanish from my memory.  I was particular, weighing each expression as to its heft, its worth.  

CHIP BUTTY?  Did you pick out CHIP BUTTY?  The sound of this menu item was hysterical, but then what is it?  I had to ask the waitress at Jayne's Place, a "transport cafe" in Nottinghamshire.  (Yes, I was driving on the wrong side of the road sitting on the wrong side of the car when we pulled into this truck stop for lunch.)  

CHIP BUTY is a dish with fried chips (potatoes cut like apple slices) in a hamburger bun.  I loved that I speak English, but that I couldn't translate English to English.           

UNIVERSALLY REGRETTED.  "...Died here on the 22, Feb 1811 in the 49th year of his age UNIVERSALLY REGRETTED."  Captain Thomas Gordon buried in a cemetery in Edinburgh has one of the most poignant inscriptions that I have seen.  Why, I wonder, is this lovely sentiment not used more often.  The inscription made me wish that I had known him, heard him speak, seen his personage.  The next time I have the opportunity to write an epitaph, I'm going to consider if the person might be worthy of such dear words.  UNIVERSALLY REGRETTED.   

Private Grounds.  WHAT?  Maybe these are the waters that Jesus walked across.  The absurdity of this sign made me laugh out loud.  We were waiting for a ferry to cross over a lake on our way to Hilltop, the home of Beatrix Potter.  I think that she too, would have thought the sign funny.  These  grounds would require hip boots, waders or, if the water were quite deep, a diving suit. Actually, if using a diving suit, the grounds likely would be private.  Who else would be down there with you?

And, lastly, a conversation overheard on the street outside Pancras Train Station in London:

"Are you afraid to come to my apartment?"  

I think that this line would be a good start to a short story.  While I was waiting at a light, a young women held the arm of an attractive guy.  She looked into his eyes with bright flirtation.  He carried her pack, having just picked her up at the station.  They had obviously met before and she was visiting him and trying to impress him with her delight in seeing him again.  Her hand caressed his butt.  Her eyes did not stray from his.  He led the way off the curb as he said, "Are you afraid of my apartment?"  

He looked so serious.  The question seemed worrisome.  Until he laughed and then she laughed.  And he said, "I did clean it up."  

(Ah, the drama of young love.)     

Building with stone.  Taking photos.  Gathering words.  Worthy work.  Pleasing results all.

Stone wall in Windermere, the Lake District of Scotland

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Wind Hole, Wind Ho, Window

A True Wind Hole on the Terrace of the Scottish National Museum Roof 
In Edinburgh in a shop, I read the origin of the word window.  Wind hole.  The wind on the night that we arrived in Edinburgh was so ferocious that pedestrians passing the window of our cafe were blown into each other's arms - their umbrellas all useless inside out.

The first abodes in this part of the world, hovels with only wind holes in the roof for light, must have been most unpleasant places.  When windows were first placed in walls they were covered with cloth, wood or hammered horn to block the gusty drafts.  The horn and for the wealthy very thin marble let in some light.  It was only in the 17th century that glass was finally invented.  

Wind eye.  A variation on the origin of  the word window is wind eye.  Traveling in the UK one becomes accurately aware of windows and the significance for early inhabitants.  Wind eyes were essential for spotting the enemy.  In castles and early homes the windows seem so tiny and strongly protected.

As we would walk to and from our flat in Edinburgh, we would pass a house that seemed to be guarding the Dean Bridge.  One ancient window with eyeballs in the panes would catch my attention.  Touring England and Scotland, I felt ridiculously obsessed with windows.     

With a countrywide stock of old structures - three, four or more centuries old, the variation of window styles and panes is impressive.  For instance, we visited the Traquair Castle near Peebles, Scotland.  It is the oldest continuously inhabited house in Scotland - 900 years worth.  From an upper floor, the window gave this very wavy view of the garden maze.  At one time most of the house must have had this glass.  

Think of the word shut-eye.  Closing the wind eye for the night meant closing the shutters.  Shut her.  I  am fascinated that words transform themselves - shove together until they have become a thing instead of an action.  In our Georgian flat there were eleven-foot tall shutters.  They folded into cupboards on either side of the windows.  At night my sister liked to shut-out the light.  I liked to keep them ajar to let-in morning light.  We compromised on shuttering, one side closed and one side cracked open.

In the old houses with the low ceilings and dark floors, any window drew me towards the light and as a writer I kept an eye out for good places to write or read.

When there weren't shutters, there were shades or drapes.  Houses were thought of as bodies, hence draping one's windows was like draping one's body - warding off unwanted glances.  I noticed a penchant for warm colored drapes making the cold rooms more inviting.

Shades.  When one pulls a shade, one gets shade.  The word made me think of houses with shady reputations. Were they the ones that shades were pulled down to avoid scrutiny?  Surely that is likely. The lovely shade below was not at such a house.  It is in the parlor of Beatrix Potter's house Hilltop in the Lake District.

I saw one window that needed no shades or drapery.  The dirt on it sufficed!

I shall miss spying interesting windows when I return from my trip.  Reason to come back to England and Scotland!

My sister just mentioned stained glass. One more variation!  A ship carrying souls to the other world in the Christ Church in Oxford.

Oops.  One more.  A display in a shop window in Oxford.  The word display was used to mean exhibition beginning in the 1500's.  Here is an exhibition of puppets.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Most Favorite Photos of England (So Far)

The Curious and Most Curious Sightings in London

London is a town for the curious.  Even the youngest engage intensely with this immense metropolis.  We have not actually seen many children - most gaze from prams or are heading to school in their shorts and sturdy shoes, but those who were out-and-about we observed playing with joyful and intent concentration.  The girl above seemed like she was in a glass case herself.  In the Victorian and Albert Museum she read quietly about the maker of that extraordinary piece of glass.

 The child below was sitting on the edge of the fountain in the same museum.  I've spotted others throwing leaves, sliding down banisters and chasing birds.  Or chattering away with excitement standing on the edge of curbs - buses and black taxis swishing by their toes.  

Mostly one wanders in crowds.  Even late at night, the little alleyways in Soho or Convent Garden are jammed with jostlers.  Rarely are the streets entirely empty.  Likewise the museums.  I caught this photo of my sister looking down into a gallery, where artifacts are examined, cleaned and repaired.  I had to wait between people ambling by to take this photo.  Imagine this space with only whispers and the quiet clack of heels.    

 I loved seeing the lady below.  She is my most curious of sightings.  I so admire her courage to wear these colors!

 And this man his chartreuse pants!

Most curious?  All of those tourists taking photos!  And shame on them.  Taking selfies here in the Shard's elegant restaurant.

Monday, September 5, 2016


I am visiting England for my daughter's graduation from Oxford Brookes Architectural Studies.  One morning we gathered in a tiny coffee shop on Cowley Road and on the wall was this little sign.  The author, Saul Leiter was an American photographer.  I think, that had he been wandering with me in England, he would have been taking photos of signs.  The British have a most unique manner of signage, which to me, indicates a different philosophy than that of Americans.

Take the sign "Way Out".  When I see it, I feel like I having been wandering a deep woods and through my own skill and capacity have finally found a path out.  I feel capable and excited.  The American version of this sign - Exit - feels more like a command and it doesn't make me feel the least bit competent.  Likewise, the British sign "Help Point" graciously acknowledges that I may be at a loss - a very human condition, whereas - Information - implies that there is data available.

 And then there is the humor.  British humor.  Can this be on purpose?  According to the sign below is the toilet really disabled?  And do the parents haul around baby changing facilities?  Only some parents or all parents?

"NO! At any time."  What does the sign below mean?  The British again seem to leave the interpretation up to me.  I feel in control.  I love it.

I shall be careful with my bills.

The British are watching to see what I think of their philosophy of gracious signage.