Friday, 29 December 2017

Bridge Postcards of 2017

There are lifting bridges, cantilever bridges, box girder bridges, suspension bridges and swing-bridges in our 2017 selection as we journey from Bremen to Waterford via Cairo and St Louis. Some are simple and utilitarian, others are grandiose and ornamented at great expense. Major rivers are crossed – including the Nile, the Mississippi, the Rhine and the Forth. Waterford and Rotterdam have lifting bridges. Newcastle and Brest can boast a two-level bridge while in St Nazaire the bridge trundles back and forward over the entrance to the docks.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Bridges of 2017

After last year’s bridge bonanza, 2017 was a very modest year. Just 3 to display – one from Mizen Head in County Cork, one from the Dortmund-Ems Canal and lastly from Berlin, the Oberbaumbrücke. Mizen Head Footbridge is a concrete through-arch structure that links the Mizen Peninsula with the island of Cloghán, at the south westerly tip of County Cork. It replaced a life-expired original with a visually identical new bridge in 2011.

The Lucasbrücke road bridge crosses the Dortmund Ems Canal at Datteln, near Waltrop. An earlier bridge, built in 1899 was destroyed in the war in 1945. It was replaced by this structure that had been built for use in the Russian Campaign and had been left unused in a factory in Duisburg.

The Oberbaumbrücke crosses the River Spree, connecting Kreuzberg to Friedrichshain. It’s a two-level bridge with an elevated railway on the upper deck, built in 1894-96 to a design by Otto Stahn (1859-1930). Architecturally, it’s a mediaevalist fantasy every bit as silly as Tower Bridge in London with two defensive towers, cousins to London’s absurd Gothic grandeur. Inspiration for the towers came from the Mitteltorturm in Prenzlau. The Wehrmacht blew up the central section in 1945 to obstruct the advance of the Red Army. When Berlin was divided between the allies it became a crossing point between the Soviet and American sectors. The bridge itself came under the control of the DDR and following construction of the Wall in 1961 it was reduced to a pedestrian crossing. After German reunification the bridge was substantially rebuilt after decades of neglect. U-Bahn trains resumed running over the bridge in 1995.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

A Victorian Christmas in Somerset

Deep in the folds of the Mendip Hills, yet only a few miles from the cosmopolitan liberal elite stronghold of Bristol stands a Grade II* listed country house. On a chill winter evening the red sandstone glows in the moonlight – a Special Edition Gothic Revival Range Rover is parked on the gravel drive. To step inside is to travel back in time to the 1850s when Victorian Britain’s economic and military power was the envy of the world. In the world that the rest of us inhabit the Victorian ascendancy unravelled over the next 150 years but inside the clock was stopped and nothing had changed since the Crystal Palace stood in Hyde Park. In the inner hall, wooden panelling and Pugin wallpaper echo to the distant sounds of jaunty choral music. Approaching the inner sanctum the music becomes identifiable as the Act 1 Finale to Iolanthe. A fastidiously pin-striped seated figure taps an elegantly shod foot to the stirring rhythms of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Eton Trinity Oxford Parliament! 
Into Parliament he shall go! 
Backed by their supreme authority, 
He'll command a large majority! 
Into Parliament, into Parliament, 
Parliament, Parliament, he shall go! 
Into Parliament he shall go! 
Into Parliament, into Parliament, 
Parliament, Parliament, he shall go! 
Into Parliament he shall go! 
Eton Trinity Oxford Parliament!

For this is no ordinary person of the sort his colleagues refer to as the inspiration for their mission in politics. We are in the presence of the much esteemed Member of Parliament for North East Somerset – the nation’s favourite undertaker and a man for whom the Twentieth Century still lies in the future. In front of him is a list of Christmas shopping on which he attempts to focus. But the mind keeps wandering back to the year just ending. Moggmentum had struck a chord with the great British public. It was not inconceivable that in 2018 a troubled nation might turn to him in its hour of need. The only cloud on the horizon was garrulous Pope Francis and his irritating obsession with social justice. Compassion (good) can so easily mutate into sentimental egalitarianism (bad) and misguided philanthropy (worse). Perhaps the next Pontiff could be recruited from Goldman Sachs or the Legatum Institute. Back to the matter in hand – as well as the staff and old chums like Gilbert & George, there are 6 amusingly named children and the Lawful Wedded Spouse to shop for. Most importantly, there is Nanny whose 50 years of service demands the utmost in personal attention. With the assistance of the Christmas gift recommendations from the Catholic Herald and the Daily Telegraph, ideas begin to form: 

Opus Dei leather case for iPhone X 
Steve Bannon Devotional Rosary 
St Sebastian Gorka Tea Cosy 
Roger Scruton Book of Favourite Prayers 
Brexit Militant Combat Rosary 
The Appleby Atlas of Tax-favourable Jurisdictions 
William Morris Dartboard 
Somerset Capital Management 1851 Desk Diary 
St Ignatius Loyola Crystal Decanter 
I-Spy Book of Saboteurs 
Vatican Guide to Bitcoin Indulgences

The choices quickly made, the orders dispatched and the tracks of the Somerset & Dorset Railway will soon be humming beneath the wheels of the speeding parcel wagons destined for Midsomer Norton whence the horse-drawn conveyances of Hermes and DHL shall sally forth. In the kitchen, Cook loads the William Burges dishwasher while upstairs the children stand in line for a fingernail inspection. To be followed by a quick test on the Wall Street closing prices and a bedtime reading from the Ann Coulter audio-book, Atlas Shrugged. And finally to bed, to dream, to dream of the Sacred Chalice of Brexit, fashioned by the Lord to restore the nation to its rightful inheritance. A new dawn where men of wealth and status can exercise their entrepreneurial talents for self-enrichment without let, hindrance, taxation or regulation. Steam locomotives will again rule the rails and Brunel’s Broad Gauge will be reinstated. Ordnance Survey maps will be recalibrated to a scale of an inch per mile. Global Britain will lead the world in steam powered robots and driverless motorcycles. Opportunities will abound for disaster capitalists. Freedom and serfdom will become one and the same. Yeomen of England unite, you have nothing to lose but your supply chains.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Flying High with the Post

The Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin holds a fine collection of ships, boats, planes and trains but this exhibit, Große Post-Luft-Kugel possesses a special sense of wonder. It’s a model hot air balloon built from a speculative illustration by Balthasar Antoine Dunker (1746-1807) made in 1783, the year in which the Montgolfier Brothers made their first successful flight. Quick to seize on the commercial potential Dunker described a fantastical vision of a postal service balloon with all the facilities of a small town suspended beneath. Defended by massive cannon and equipped with all the necessities of life it was designed for intercontinental mail distribution. Impossible staircases connect the various pods that dangle in space and include a place of worship, a detention centre for offenders and a livestock unit for food production. A massive cask is also provided - whether for wine or ale is not specified. Observation decks enable privileged passengers to enjoy the exhilarating views. A small pilot balloon is attached for the purpose of forward reconnaissance and last-mile deliveries, enabling the mother-ship to continue its high-altitude cruise. All this and more is faithfully translated into an immaculately detailed scale model that recaptures the wonder of powered flight.

Within a year Dunker’s print had been co-opted by an anonymous British printmaker. The anglicised balloon bore an image of the Crown and a British Lion perched on the top, gripped an Admiral’s flag. There’s a copy in the British Museum online collection – the BM classifies it as a satirical print, poking fun at republicanism. To my eyes it looks more like a simple case of plagiarism.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Byrrh apéritif

It’s made by slinging copious quantities of tree bark extract (quinine) and part-fermented grape juice (mistelle) into enormous vats of sweet Muscat wine. Like many products designed to inebriate it was often marketed for its alleged health benefits. For many years Byrrh was one of France’s most ubiquitously promoted brands. The product name was hand-painted on gable ends at the entrance to a thousand small towns and villages all over La France profonde. Alcohol related paraphernalia took the name into bars and restaurants and the premium priced back page of L’Illustration magazine carried their advertising. The examples here commend it for both romance and family life. At its peak in the interwar years, it has steadily fallen out of favour although it remains in production at the distillery in Thuir. Since 1977 it has been owned by Pernod-Ricard who make only token efforts to publicise it. The photo of the hand-lettered sign on a chimney breast was taken in Vannes.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Tarantula Man – baby-faced assassin

Tory ministers are falling over themselves to demonstrate their complete disregard for the civilities of political discourse. Yesterday it was Brexit Bulldog revealing that the papers he fought so hard to keep secret never existed. Overnight we heard from Spreadsheet Phil that the disabled were responsible for Britain’s dismal productivity. And now Tarantula Man, who a month ago engineered his own promotion to Minister of Defence, is calling for all British former Isis fighters to be hunted down and killed. Thereby descending to the same level as Isis – ordering summary execution of his enemies without legal process. Mr Williamson may look like a mortuary technician or a double-entry bookkeeper but he’s not a man to be messed with – he keeps a tarantula as a pet and if pressed, could tear the wings off a butterfly. It would be pointless to remind him that after 6 years of total war, the victorious allies detained and investigated prominent Nazis and wherever possible brought them before a War Crimes Tribunal. Futile because today’s Conservatives are right-wing extremists for whom the rule of law is just another obstacle to be bypassed. With this wretched form of words - “A dead terrorist can't cause any harm to Britain.” – he seeks to insulate himself from all criticism by implying that any who question him are guilty of wishing their country harm. A cynical explanation of his conduct (and this is a man who reportedly takes pride in his reputation as a cynic) would be that he is fully aware his plan would intensify Islamist grievances and inspire more terrorist attacks on civilian targets. Which in turn would raise the level of public fear to exploit for political advantage and pave the way for ever more authoritarian measures. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg, “He’s a thoroughly good egg.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Marxism in Mosaics

Totalitarian regimes always have resources available for large scale public art as a way to reinforce the state ideology. These mosaics adorn the Haus des Lehrers (Teachers’ Building) at Alexanderplatz in what was then East Berlin and wrap the building in suitably uplifting educational messages. It was one of the DDR’s first modernist tower blocks and housed a large library of books on education and conference and meeting facilities for educators. Walter Womacka (1925-2010) designed the scheme, known as Unser Leben (Our Life ) to focus the public mind on the technological and economic achievements of Socialism and the one true path to world peace. Womacka was a regime favourite and had risen through the world of art education to become Rector of the Künsthochschule Berlin-Weissensee (DDR State Art College) from 1968-88. As Vice President of the VBK (compulsory state register of artists) it was his job to identify and expel the ideologically unreliable. He was rewarded with a series of major state commissions for giant murals on public buildings. State approved overseas travel was another regime perk – on a visit to Syria he was invited to paint a portrait of President Hafez al-Assad, father of the present incumbent, Bashar - ophthalmologist and mass-murderer.

The visual language was an embalmed version of the Mexican Muralists with their impeccable revolutionary credentials combined with Socialist Realism, by tradition and practice, an idiom from which all visual excitement was excluded. A gowned and masked surgeon poses in the operating theatre while satellite dishes and communication towers beam down a message of hope. Then a white coated chemist holds up a flask containing the distilled essence of Marxist-Leninist thought. To his right, an astronomer of Asian origin stands in front of a vast radio-telescope while a rocket is launched bearing fraternal greetings to the farthest reaches of space. Elsewhere doves of peace are released into the heavens to melt the stony hearts of the capitalist West. Contented proletarians enjoy the blessings of state-controlled consumption, proudly observing their dutiful offspring acquiring the scientific skills that will take the nation forward into its glorious future. Among all these uplifting messages, it’s difficult to select just one but the constant repetition of the language of pacifism is perhaps the most egregious element. Some guilty pleasures catch the eye – tilting planes and surfaces locking compositional elements, period mid-century infographics and the occasional echoes of Leger, another who never lost his faith in Marxism.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Postcard of the Night No. 12 – Barbary Coast by Night, San Francisco

Barbary Coast was the red light district of San Francisco. It sprang into existence in 1849 with the California Gold Rush and for 60 years or more its nightclubs and brothels, bars and gambling dens catered to the needs of an itinerant population of workingmen in search of distraction. Our postcard from the first decade of the 20th. century shows a pilgrimage of lost souls, their haunted faces turned toward the camera – an unwanted intrusion into the pursuit of pleasure. Some furtive, some remorseful and some defiant, they shuffle through the gloom to be separated from their hard-earned dollar bills in return for copious quantities of intoxicants and sexual favours. The agencies of law and order had minimal traction in the district and organised criminal gangs threatened the security of the entire city. Conflict raged with regular arson assaults on the city leading to vigilante justice and public lynchings. It couldn’t last forever – the 1906 earthquake provided the opportunity to rebuild and gentrify the district. The guardians of public morals kept up the pressure on the civic authorities and a few years later a new hostility emerged with a ban on dancing and illuminated signs, restrictions on the sale of alcohol and the expulsion of brothels.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Jolly Coppers on Parade

Until recently it was a British thing to sentimentalise our police force and shower them with uncritical affection. Their legendary courtesy, willingness to redirect those who lost their way and their anachronistic uniforms made them seem less threatening than their swaggering overseas counterparts in paramilitary dress equipped with firearms, tear gas and water cannon. In recent decades the police have had to adapt to rising levels of crime and social disorder and now project a much less comforting presence on our streets, clad in battle-dress with Tasers, bodycams and automatic weapons at the ready. In reality the cosy world conjured up in these postcards never really existed and many aspects of police work were carried out in a summary fashion with little regard for the finer points of justice. The days when police cars came fitted with warning bells and minor offences could be dealt with by means of a sharp smack to the head are never going to return.