Richard White

explorations in place and time


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Tyntesfield recuperated, a purchase betrayed.

Disconcerting visit to the National Trust property at Tyntesfield yesterday. Where once this was a fascinating time capsule slowly being catalogued and, I thought, somehow carefully resealed in viewable form it has been given an old school National Trust make-over. A house once alive and vibrant with histories becomes a stage set again.

Where once there were rooms abandoned by  wealthy owners who could no longer be bothered to maintain, them there are themed static exhibits about a Victorian era patriarch.

Where once there was a cluttered library and workroom stacked with books of all ages from battered paperbacks to leather bound volumes, displaying a revealing interest in empire and military history. Now, its tidy with the old books ordered and not a paperback or glossy cover in sight. What was once full of life is now static and life less.

Another study, now locked shut, once mixed late twentieth century entertainment and communication with the Victorian, a television and VHS player, modern cabling running along the paneling totally appropriate witnessed change in a house that once sported the latest in late nineteenth century technology. A more complicated heritage closed off.
Tyntesfield kitchen shelves
As was the kitchen that to me always witnessed the slow decline of the property, as the money was wasted away, capital taken elsewhere. Here alongside huge old cookers that once prepared the feasts for the room with the hand painted wall paper, I always imagined the last wizened old gent in his battered wheel chair wrapped in a blanket and being served toast by an even older family retainer who whispered Somerset in his ear “the ceiling in the west wing has gone sir”. Here it seemed to me the money ran out, rows of old toasters and toast wracks on badly painted kitchen shelves, a rusty old Hotpoint cooker and one of those new fangled microwaves , perhaps bought by the grandchildren for the old boy.

My construction perhaps, but all those things represented layer upon layer of history, rooms full of linen, jars and porcelain including the old mans bedpans. Objects that I recognised from our lives in the late twentieth century..the cooker, the toasters, the books, the up market hifi. Here we engaged with history and spun our stories of this family that made its fortune on Peruvian bird shit dug out by chinese slave labourers.

All tidied away to tell the story of the Victorian patriarch who took the family into respectability, with  a few footnotes of critical information for those who bother to read to the end of the portable panels. The talking posts in the park where we heard the voice ghosts of former servants, all swept away. Even in this year of first world war commemoration, the make up box of a son  who rouged his cheeks so he would not appear to show fear as he urged his fellows to their deaths…… all, all safely locked away.
Tynres
The whole point of the purchase of Tyntesfield was that the National Trust was buying literally the lot, not the cherry picked remains of a country house handed over as  tax dodge, The Lot. …and we all bought into that….And it was so exciting on our first visits when they were still unpacking, cataloguing and fixing the roof. This was a family who had the space to hoard everything from old wall paper samples to carpet off-cuts and rooms full of furniture and relics. A record in ‘stuff’ that went back before living memory but came well within the lives of many visitors and a few surviving estate employees. These riches of Tyntesfield enabled us all to construct our own stories, the layers of history were clearly apparent some more obscured than others, some more decayed than others. What should have been a living time capsule seem to have been stripped out in favour of the old authorised country house story.

I was so disappointed that I even began to think that the cobwebbed chairs in the stable were constructed as nods towards the memories of previous visitors like me, with an old  home brew glass demijohn strategically turned to view, so that the label from September 1989 could be seen. I even overheard that the magnificent dahlias are brought in as mini plants and not lifted and overwintered as my grandmother used to do….and thus began to suspect that even the much loved kitchen garden was a stage set.

It is all a stage set, I know. And I do understand the tensions between restoration and preservation. But where once other stories poked through haphazard and untidy now the stage appears set for a single and decontextalised story safely confined to a dreamy Victorian/Edwardian past. Sadly Tyntesfield has been recuperated in the National Trust spectacle, a potential for showing a new and bold way of exploring  if not even challenging the enchantment of the English Country House, betrayed.

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On neoliberalism and the arts: thoughts walking in four gardens

(thoughts and notes from July 2016 visit to Los Angeles exploring Heritage Management with Bath Spa University and Claremont Graduate University post grad students)

LA station4The PepsiCo Foundation garden for healthy eating:

In the heart of restored down town Los Angeles, where the authorities reach out for legitimacy in the City’s Spanish/Mexican heritage, obese citizens waddle to lunch. In the square above the city’s vast cathedral train station built as part of the great interwar public works programme, the homeless gather. A bandstand shades ragged sad old men, bearded, dead eyed. A stall sells Mexican trinkets, skull candles, stuffed donkeys, florescent days of the dead. This square, once the only permitted space for free speech in the city, is silent, the old men don’t even ask for small change.

We meet at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a repurposed commercial building restored with city support, where John Echeveste, President and CEO of La Plaza, informs us, with no trace of irony, that Pepsico funds its kitchen garden as part of its healthy eating programme. Laura Zucker, Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, describes a funding regime that forces Echeveste and colleagues into the arms of the corporates.

La Plaza offer a solidarity and community building story of the Latino presence all the way through to C20th sporting heroes. A story told with a sensibility to the different working class ethnic and cultural communities of LA, but extraordinarily thin on indigenous peoples and muted on the ruling white elite.

Zucker extolls the virtues of individual ‘giving’, building on audience/visitor altruism beyond ticket sales, and corporate and individual tax avoidance by ‘giving’ to the heritage sector. This, she argues, is a powerful incentive to build and consolidate the core audience. In the US, according to Zucker, lean, hungry artists and curators have their eyes on generating income and don’t get bloated on state aid.

Freeway driveThe Getty Villa (oil) Garden:

Under a yellow haze across the sprawling city where the public transport network was ripped up for oil and automobiles. Getty oil. We move slowly in the traffic. More roadside homeless, people made zombie in the heat and our air-conditioned view. Under the freeway bridges and in the dry river plain others make their homes in shanty constructions I last saw in Khartoum.

 

Getty Villa gardenWe arrive to a full scale replica of a Roman villa in a ravine overlooking the sea. Just as the city centre restoration reaches into Latino heritage, here the elite make claims on European classicism, to the slave societies of Greece and Rome, for their legitimacy. The contents on display better reflect the English aristocracy’s Grand Tour looting of Europe.

The fountains are dry and the reflecting pools empty: climate change and oil is not on the agenda. Claire Lyons, Senior Curator of Antiquities informs us that Getty funds helped village people in the south of France save the remains of an ancient Roman villa. No irony in the display, on a wall, in the Getty Villa, of the huge mozaics found there. 10,000 miles away.

Getty Villa walls 2Walking out into the Californian heat, I was angry and felt robbed. Objects ripped out of context, displayed in a context more imagined than real, itself decontextualized, only brand Getty provides coherence. Even the LA students were testing the K word, kitsch. Objects so revered that even the replica walls containing them had warnings not to touch.

 

 

 

St Monica tsunami sign

Out past the silent parched pools, no longer blue sky reflecting, we head for the beach rejoicing in our shared garbled heritage: movies, rock and roll and resistance. At the western end of Route 66 we swim in the strong, weighty swell of the Pacific and on the pier a muscle man and woman preen and selfie.

A tsunami escape route is, at least, signed.

 

 

 

 

The Watts Towers community garden:

Watts Towers insta
A journey deep into the city. For me it began long ago with soul, funk and rnb I was teenage imprinted with the WattStaxx LP cover, later the film and its opening sequence: Watts Towers. Uprisings, gangland wars in the distant big city but always I could locate it in the music and the towers. Discovering that we were to meet Rosie Lee Hooks, Director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, a singer with Sweet Honey in the Rock connected it all up. A pilgrimage for me.

Again travelling in the slow flow concrete maze, the unredeemed promise of individualism, speed and the motorcar, where the threat of climate change hides in plain view. Trams once ran right past the Watts Towers, a glorious construction built to be seen by commuters.  Neighbour disputes, art wars, gangland wars and the fires of uprisings have raged all around, but still the towers stand. Even in their origin myth, breaking the cables and crane sent to test them, the towers stand firm. A cultural magnetism attracts stories to the towers, from the story that one day Simon Rodia, just stopped, gave the keys to his neighbour and walked away from his life’s work, to the story that here the legendary Crips and Bloods gangs of LA made peace brokered by a Muslim imam.

Jazz hums in the decorated rungs and flying wire buttresses of the structures. Don Cherry. Charles Mingus.

This place is in the world, connected to contemporary issues; a formally recognised and City supported Historic Cultural Watts Towers signMonument. ‘We will not be privatised’ says Ms Hooks. A powerful and moving exhibition, Black Lives Matter, in the arts centre makes the psycho geographical connections. Here racial identity is asserted, an unassailable and absolute righteous confidence, African American pride from Black Power to Black Lives Matter… You got us here white European slavers, deal with it. Not so far from the historic international working class assertion that we produced the wealth and have a right to a fair share of it.

Out of the centre walking in blue bright dry heat, to a model drought resistant community kitchen garden. A passionate woman asks us to take her regards back to Kew Gardens. Rescued turtles splash in a mosaic lined enclosure and in a tarpaulin shaded workshop the mosaic work continues. The land had been squatted when the City wanted to build a skateboard park there.

 

Watts Towers suculents

Walking in the garden I wondered if this emphasis on racial identity was all about the insecurity of the immigrant communities of the US, a society founded on slavery and established on land taken from the indigenous peoples. Otherness defined by skin colour and racial appearance. Wounds so deep and reconciliation barely begun, the secular internationalism that could unite and heal still in post McCarthy tatters. When divisions are racialised and the colour of your skin means something about power and history then white silence is complicity. I had walked a long way from the PepsiCo Foundation Garden.

 

Japanese American National Museum

To the shiny towers and policed privatised spaces of the city. A powerful exhibition on the history of the Japanese American community. A story of pre WW2 hope and assimilation, then patriotism betrayed post Pearl Harbour by the internment in concentration camps of the entire Japanese community. Released in 1945 with 25$ and a bus ticket they returned to find homes and possession trashed. Visual echoes of the Holocaust and an attempt to attend to wider connections.  The glass walls of the building are etched with names not of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima dead, but the names of donors. Outreach activities recorded by the number of sponsored bus journeys.

From Bergamot Station to San Gabriel Mission garden

San Gab orange treesAt Bergamot alongside a long silenced railway depot returning to life, artists occupy abandoned industrial sheds, a repurposing entrepreneur inspires at first. At San Gabriel on the other side of town we are refreshed; working, howling, rattling, rumbling, trains from the port comes almost to the garden of the old mission house, ringing bells and blowing horns raising ancient spirits. A gloriously garbled, real oranges growing on real trees, multi-layered handwritten and mythical heritage yet to succumb to the spectacle. But wait, back at Bergamot was it artists working in those empty factory sheds or dealers in exhibition spaces selling stuff? We didn’t look like buyers so with a passing name drop we are ignored. Once again it is commodity speaking, art as commodity, history as commodity or at least set dressing, layers of heritage that don’t seem to be allowed to speak until it can be given a financial value.

 

Heritage, arts and funding, Ms Zucker reprised:

Of the museum/galleries visited the only one actively seeking to generate resonances on the key issues of our times: internationalism, human rights and climate change, was the Watts Towers Arts Centre. It was the only one to be fiercely defending its state funded status, independence and wider cultural value. Where is innovation, we challenged Zucker at the start of the week, what if you are poor and don’t have rich contacts and what about the collective needs of the nation and humanity? The all American crowdfunding myth was rolled out, the market will find a way. It seemed to me that the US charitable giving philanthropy so beloved of neo-liberal elements in the UK at best simply replicates existing inequalities. There is no real incentive to innovate or addresses bigger, wider issues as long as the core audience and corporate funders are satisfied. It is a system that has no real strategy other than the market and very limited democratic accountability.

The minority ethnic community museums we visited showed strong and resilient communities recognising the need and value for community solidarity and the importance of telling the stories, especially the stories of origin, struggle and collective action. My concern is that the tax incentive driven funding regime was pushing those museums apart and reinforcing division. A US student expressed the view that these museums were addressing all of us, reaching out for advocates to take the information and share it. The museums had significant stories to tell, of value to us all, it needs more than visitor inspired advocacy, culture and heritage need the democratic and accountable support of the state.

Historic Space

“We don’t use the word heritage here”, Prof Goode told us, this term is now occupied by white racists in the south.
 

The referendum on the European Union has emboldened the racists and fascists, this US neo liberal tax dollars incentivised philanthropy model for the arts and culture has nothing to offer for the healing and reconciliation needed.


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River Crouch Festival Walk Day 1 Bradwell to Burnham

Bradwell children show flag

Our day began early in cool dawn: rabbits on the lawn and bird song from the bushes. Chris and Jo orchestrated a beautiful short pilgrimage with children from Bradwell Primary School. With the community flag flying we all walked up the old roman road to the chapel.  Here they wrapped the chapel in blue ribbon and they told us about pilgrimages and the Christian link with Canewdon. Old superstitions were revisited, the walk was blessed. Ali, Richard and Mike are now taking the ribbon with to Canewdon for an event on Monday, where we are promised church bells. Should be good, join us for the walk or be there.
Bradwell short pilgrimage
Ribbon wrap St Peter'sWe set off on the walk south with a young flag bearer, mum and sister. Two women, Tina and Karen joined us from around the bay.

Bradwell flag on the move2The boy done well and we hope to see him again, maybe tomorrow on Wallasea. Holding the flag high on the sea defence path flanked with blue flowers. The tide out so far that the sea was a distant silver strip. A hare leapt out in front of us. We startled an owl. I saw the dead seal. We were serenaded by skylarks again and the cries of seabirds and waders rang out. We heard about the older women of the Blackwater who at the right time of the tide walk to the sea in dressing gowns and swim. Later Mike told a ghost story he had heard of a slave ship that caught fire with the slaves still in chains on board, horrible and tragic visions. Did the ghost story originate in someone witnessing the pain and suffering?

flag at mouth of crouchA long walk, a hot day. On the sea defences the grass was long caressing my legs and leaving its dart seeds in my socks. Progressively the soft brush of grass became pointed irritants in my shoes. At the start of the day the sun was welcome and as it grew hot and high and bright it burned. We walked out into the bleak Dengue Marshes, no shade, no shelter. Hot and suffocating on the track below the dyke. We all found it hard and in the end the sight of yacht sails on the Crouch was a relief.

At last the five walkers arrived straggling in to Burnham on Crouch as the tide turned and the river slowly backed up to beaten pewter. Low sun. Long shadows. Packed out riverside bars spilling people and their drinks into the sun,they looked on curiously at these passing walkers. No one seems to know much about the project, no posters, no word of mouth, no one came out to greet us. But they ask and we tell them and as the week goes on we will build momentum towards the Feast Day at Hullbridge. Laura’s ‘blibber’ is already calling us.


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Bill Aitchison: Tour of Tours, Bath

History and heritage like rocks and sponge cakes comes in layers and Bill Aitchison’s Tour of Tours in Bath took us in and amongst those layers.

Layers of interpretation and layers of experience.

 We heard stories of cartoon cockneys on tour buses responding to each phrase of the tour guide with “thats what the doctor ordered” and of a young Chinese tourist obsessed with spotting Tescos. Bill had spent days taking all the tours Bath has to offer including experiencing a tired guide going onto auto pilot and describing everything he saw and relating that back to his own life experience. Before long we were indeed wondering where the official heritage discourse ended and a more personal one began.

Exploring a city as defined and described by tour guides, led by Bill, witnessed by the barker outside the Jane Austen Museum who heckled, by a man who might have been a freemason going into the old Theatre Royal, who said the commentary sounded reasonable, and in the tour party a guide who does tours of Bath, in Russian. A wonderful and surreal experience.