In Time of the Breaking of Nations

It is still less than a week since the British referendum result. And yet it feels much longer. So much has happened since then that I can’t a recall a time in British history so tumultuous. I feel that we will look back asking not “What were you doing when Brexit occurred?” but rather “Which way did you vote?” For I cannot think of anything that has divided our nation so much – not only geographically; even within the Conservative and Labour parties there have been divisions so great that staunch Labour supporters have found themselves on the same side as the leader of the Conservative party. And now both of our main parties are at war, as the nation itself is, with themselves.

To get some sense of inner peace amongst the chaos and drama I went on a couple of walks – first on the day that the results came out and again yesterday. Both were typical British summer days – not particularly hot, but not unpleasant either. There was a break from the usual rainy days that we have been subjected to recently (as if the weather itself had echoed the bitter tears of half the population) and I was at least able to benefit from the lush, verdant beauty of early summer.

I walked through some of the greenest areas of London, and also in some pretty affluent streets (which I couldn’t help thinking up new names for – “Lucky Bastards Avenue” and “Fat Cat Alley” sprang to mind). As I ambled the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ kept playing in my mind, particularly the line “England’s Green and Pleasant Land”. I remembered how I had not been allowed to include this hymn at my wedding ceremony because the priest considered it too jingoistic. I was a bit annoyed at the time, but now I was starting to wonder if he had a point. After all it is based on a Blake poem suggesting that our land was so magnificent that Jesus must have walked on it.

Maybe Brexit is just about us getting a bit ahead of ourselves with our collective opinion of how great this country actually is. How we conveniently forget minor reality checks like the fact that our national football team this week could not even beat a country with a population smaller than most of our cities when called upon to do so. Maybe if we took ‘Great’ out of our name, banned Jerusalem from ever being sung again, and had a slightly less trumped up flag, then it would help us to have a more balanced view?

Because the problem is that even I, who felt physically sick when I heard the referendum result and cried angry tears that this could have happened, couldn’t help feeling a little bit comforted when I walked my city’s historic streets and parks and took in their beauty. And I knew that, however much the aggrieved 48% have threatened to revolt, in reality we will probably gradually accept the change and comfort ourselves by grumbling about it and telling everyone “Don’t say we didn’t warn you!”

Something else that came to my mind during my ambles was the Thomas Hardy poem ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, written at the start of World War I. Hardy’s poem depicts how life goes on the same in England, in spite of the carnage taking place across the channel. The land is still farmed; people still fall in love. The poem was written in response to a request from the government to Hardy to comfort and reassure people. Conjuring it up now doesn’t comfort me; it reinforces my gut fear that we will not take a stance against tumultuous changes like Brexit when we have newspapers to misinform and mould us; and football tournaments and Facebook posts to distract us from the bigger picture.

I did not mourn our departure from the European Cup. I was glad. Because I wanted some of those who voted for England’s much bigger exit to share some of my pain, if only for a fleeting moment. And I wanted them to be reminded that we are not that great a nation anymore, just like we have not won a major football tournament in fifty years.  We haven’t found a winning team and we haven’t been fixed. We’re just a confused, deflated and divided country, wondering who our next leader will be and what our next ill-conceived tactic will be to try to restore those glory days we misguidedly think we deserve.

Here is Hardy’s poem:

In Time of the Breaking of Nations

Only a man harrowing clods

In a slow silent walk

With an old horse that stumbles and nods

Half asleep as they stalk.

II

Only thin smoke without flame

From the heaps of couch-grass;

Yet this will go onward the same

Though Dynasties pass.

III

Yonder a maid and her wight

Come whispering by:

War’s annals will cloud into night

Ere their story die.

A lazy afternoon in India

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After a bit of a hiatus I’m back! I’ve had a few distractions since being back in London, but here’s hoping that I’ll get into the rhythm of posting again, as I have a vast archive of pictures still to get through that should really see the light of day, otherwise what’s the point of taking them?

I’m honoured that people have still been visiting my blog over the past few months, in spite of the absence of new posts. According to my stats I had nearly 500 viewings yesterday alone. So I figured that if people could be bothered to visit the site even when there wasn’t anything new to see, well then I should really start re-earning this attention by posting some fresh material!

So, I’m starting with an Indian picture. There is a nice serenity to this scene, shot in Madhya Pradesh I think. I feel at peace whenever I look at it. I remember it was late-afternoon at the time and still very hot. So everyone’s pace, including the dog’s, was very relaxed. I’m not sure why it seems to work in black and white – maybe because the cow was white, but it just does, for me anyhow.

My deer

One of the many things, in my totally biased opinion, that makes London special is its wonderful parks. And some of these are wilder than you can imagine – such as Richmond and Bushey Park, both of which have some rather special Royal residents – the Queen’s deer.

This autumn I boarded a ridiculously early train from Waterloo and braved the first of the chilly mornings in order to venture into Richmond park. I was there during the rutting season when the deer are more visible and, dare I add without upset my readers too much, it also helped that it was just before culling season, so they were at their most plentiful!)

It was a fascinating experience being so close to these wild and yet seemingly tame animals. Having joined another photographer and driven into the park as soon as the gates opened pre-dawn, within minutes we saw a huge stag staring into the car headlights seemingly unfazed by our vehicle – as if to remind us that we were merely tolerated visitors in his territory.  As dawn lifted we saw more and more of his clan and were able to get very close without them being the slightest bit fazed by us. It made me laugh to see how some tourists went stupidly close, as if they hadn’t noticed those huge antlers and stopped to pontificate on what damage they could do if their owner got slightly fed up by their intrusion; while at the same time regular visitors to the park cycled, ran or rode past chattering away to each other seemingly oblivious to these magnificent animals inches away from them.

I don’t know which response perplexed me the most, because I felt like I was on a safari and my heart beat that little bit faster every time I saw a deer peering through the grass . Maybe if I had this park on my doorstep I too would take them for granted and the camouflage would work on me as well.

But I like to think that I won’t, because I still catch my breath whenever I see St. Paul’s cathedral illuminated at night, or London’s new corporate cathedral – the Shard – shimmering under the sun’s rays, even though I see them practically every day. And I still marvel at what a wonderful place London is – to have white Portland stone and glistening steel on my doorstep, and majestic wild animals just a short train ride away.

That sea of blood

 

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There has been a bit of a poppy frenzy going on in London, by virtue of the “sea of blood” filling the moat at the Tower of London to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. The ‘blood’ was made up of thousands of ceramic poppies – one for each Commonwealth soldier who lost his life during that great war. The installation process began in the summer and slowly grew each day to mark the soldiers who fell until the last poppy was planted on Armistice Day by a young army cadet.

With the addition of each flower it seemingly captured more and more of the public’s hearts until it became London’s biggest tourist attraction. People flocked to do ‘selfies’ of themselves with the poppies; they marvelled on how beautiful they looked on-mass and many rushed to buy them, post-installation, at £25 a pop. No doubt they will make a good investment and some wily people, fully aware of this, were already trying to cash in by selling them on Facebook before the display had even been dismantled. I had mixed feelings about it all.

I wondered if the soldiers would have approved of their barbaric, needless deaths being remembered as something to ooh and aah about and a backdrop for selfies. And more worryingly, I wondered if the act of creating a thing of such intense beauty was glorifying and romanticising war or, at the very least, accepting it as an inevitability. By turning those tragic deaths into a glorious work of art it was almost as if their deaths had formed some kind of artist’s palette; albeit a selective one. Why should we just sigh and shed a tear over those poor ‘Tommies’ while forgetting that war continues and that hundreds and thousands more lives have been lost then, right up to the present day with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Armistice Day ceremony also unsettled my mind. By inviting both Chelsea war veterans in their splendid red jackets and a young army cadet to the ceremony is it not suggesting that war is an inevitability for every generation; and by placing them against that beautiful backdrop where they are made to look so stunning in their uniforms are we not glorifying war just as much now as our forefathers did a century ago when young men were sent to their slaughter with such glorious fanfare?

I am glad of my camera sometimes because the mere act of trying to take photos stops my brain from chattering too much with their nagging doubts. Though I’m aware now that by posting my photographs I am helping to perpetuate that notion of a “good and glorious” war. It makes me wonder about the conscience of photographers, as artists, and where we draw the line. I remember an interview with a conflict photographer, Robert King I think, in which he was asked how he could photograph the atrocities that he has seen in conflict zones such as citizens with freshly amputated limbs. He replied that your mind becomes that of an artist and you try to capture the pools of blood and the decimated body in the most aesthetic way possible. It isn’t that you don’t care, but just like a doctor doesn’t spend time wondering about the life of his patient while you try to save that life, you concentrate on the job on hand and think about it later.

In a remote sense that is what I am doing too. I photographed those “pools of blood” in the most beautiful way according to my capability, then shared the photos. My conscience is slightly troubled by the fact that I am helping to perpetrate war as a thing of beauty by doing so, but at the same time I am recognising another artist’s stunning creation and wanting to share it. Maybe I would feel happier if the actress Shelia Hancock’s suggestion of bringing a tank onto the moat to crush the lot of them had been taken up. That would have been a more fitting finale, rather than letting people own a poppy as a piece of artwork or, dare I say it, an art investment. I would have been there to photograph that for sure.

One thing that comforts me while I pontificate over all this is a wonderful act of nature that I was fortunate to observe. The local birds around the Tower of London had accepted and adapted to the presence of these artificial flowers by quite happily perching on them. I found this very comforting when I thought of what each poppy represented. The birds weren’t using the poppies for PR purposes or political gains – they just enjoyed being amongst them. I can’t help but think that this, probably unexpected, sideshow of the whole installation, was the truest and most moving. It brings to mind a poem by Thomas Hardy written during that ‘Great War’, entitled ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’.

Only a man harrowing clods

In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

A room with a view

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This was the view from the villa in Montisi where I was both photographing and staying (to be immense delight) for a client in Tuscany. Naturally the ancient villa was incredibly beautiful, so it wasn’t too difficult getting some lovely shots (I’m hoping the owner will let me share some here). And my job was made even easier, and even more pleasurable, with vistas like this from my window. It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it!

 

Little jewels

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Maybe I was slightly premature in predicting that winter would arrive this week. It certainly has turned colder, with frost at night, but the weather has been fine and we even experienced vivid blue skies a couple of days ago, which made a lovely contrast with these bright red berries.

 

Weekly photo challenge: unexpected

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When I arrived at my villa in Tuscany in early November (my home for the next couple of weeks during my two photo assignments in the area) I was expecting it to be too cold to sit in the garden. In fact the temperatures were in the late twenties and it was such a beautiful day that even the pool looked inviting. The warm days soon gave way to colder ones and the woolly hats and scarves came out. But those first couple of days were an unexpected treat!

Posted for the WordPress photo challenge

Tuscany – home of pecorino

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These sheep grazing on the rich, verdant Tuscan grass are most likely producers of the ubiquitous Tuscan Pecorino cheese. It’s a subtle variety – a world away from the robust Gorgonzola or Parmiggiano-Regiano cheeses that are more commonly associated with Italy.  But its delicate flavour grows on you and it keeps well. It also looks great with its lovely earthy external texture.

Walking Bowser

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I’m back in the UK, in lovely Oxfordshire (not quite Tuscany but beautiful in its way). I’m not sure that I’ve timed my return very well though as a severe winter is predicted to commence tomorrow – with intense snowfall and temperatures around -15 degrees. What’s more it’s scheduled to last for three to four months. Crikey!

I thought I had better sneak in an ‘autumnal England’ picture, seeing as though today unexpectedly appears to be the last day of the season here!

So, here’s my mother walking my sister’s dog, Bowser (or rather patiently waiting for me to stop lagging behind taking photos so that they can continue their walk).

Watch this space for England in the snow pictures, possibly coming soon…

Back in Italy!

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It was tough getting on a plane to leave India, but made easier knowing that I had a couple of photography jobs lined up that would take me back to Tuscany in Italy.

So here I am back again in my favourite European country after nearly a year’s absence, feeling thankful that nothing has changed. The Tuscan sun is still as glorious as ever; the olive trees, vineyards and wheat fields are still stunning; and the food and wine hasn’t lost any of its wonderful flavours.  With so much blissfulness I’ve a feeling there could be more airport tears coming up…

(Incidentally, returning to European soil doesn’t mean an end to my Indian posts – I will have the major task of cataloguing all the Indian and Nepalese photographs once my Italian jobs are completed, and no doubt posting my favourites along the way!)

Rising waters

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I left Varanasi two months ago and have come back to find things looking a whole lot different. For one thing, Onkar Giri’s hair and beard have re-grown to a respectable length (he dramatically shaved his five-year-old beard and dreadlocked hair off last time I was there). For another, the Ganga has risen more than I could have imagined. What has happened to the numerous steps leading up to the akhara? Only one is still visible. Where are the ghats where the laundry dried, the boys played cricket, the people did puja? Where is the little temple in front of which the young artist would sell his watercolours each day? All have been submerged within Ma Ganga’s ever-increasing depth.

And what is this fierce-flowing muddy brown mass of water? Is that really the gentle, caressing Ganga that I dipped my feet into before. She is both intimidating and awe-inspiring now. I have seen bodies (cows, buffaloes – even I’m sad to say a human form) amongst the debris caught up in her ruthless flow. (It makes me smile to think how the rain I experienced each day in the Himalayas has re-joined me here). I stood on a boat to take this picture – which two months ago was moored several feet away. But generally I just watch in wonder from the vantage point of the high akhara walls. There is still at least a month of the monsoon to go, so I’m sure the water will rise further – but how high can it possibly go? Will this beautiful ancient akhara too be flooded like the one next door? Its walls and more steps within have kept generations of holymen safe and dry for five centuries, so I think it will survive another year.

Submitted to the Daily Post photo challenge

Weekly photo challenge (theme of the week): Nostalgic

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This scene is one of my favourite pictures that I have taken on my regular treks while working as a photographer and trek leader at Banjara Camp in Himachal Pradessh, India, for the past month. Tomorrow I move on to pastures new, so naturally I am feeling nostalgic about the wonderful time that I have spent living and working here.

I think the solitary cow also represents how I feel right now too: I’m having a moment’s pause for reflection on what a wonderful few weeks it has been here, but also feeling a little bit alone in that gap before I make new friends at my next destination.

(Posted for the weekly photo challenge on wordpress)