Denmark Street 

A place to make a mistake

I’m not sure why I take the turning, which adds minutes to my walk, furthering the possibility of missing the bus. But my senses need refreshing, a change of scene to knock me out of my homeward routine. So I take a wander down Denmark Street.

They call it the ‘West End’ in the tourism leaflets but you wouldn’t know it. When I reach the junction with Unity street, there’s nothing but apartments housed in an imposing red brick buidling. Then, out of the darkness emerge the great temple-like doors of the Wah Yan Hong Chinese supermarket. The smell wafting out of the door is familiar, the same one that always seems to surround far eastern food stores. Is it the freezers full of seafood or some ubiquitous spice?

Next door is an extravagant Chinese restaurant, decked to the rafters in lanterns and dragon statues. The overall colour scheme is black, however, giving it the kind of air where you might expect a local Triad meet to take place.

Across the road the stage doors of the Hippodrome are open. I glean a look inside as an usher welcomes a group into a  red-curtained room. Articulated lorries block up the kerb, and there’s a stage hand sucking on a rollup in an unlit doorway.

Blink and I’d miss the steps that lead down to Harvey’s Cellars opposite, blue fairy lights illuminating the old wine racks. It’s the oldest establishment on this stretch by at least a century and still sells the Sherry for which it was founded on in 1895. 

I think about wandering in and feigning a party booking just so I can explore, but instead I decide to take a look in the magic bar next door. It’s a fairly unremarkable boozer decked out in traditional fashion, but with a secret theatre in the back just big enough for 50. It’s empty when I look in but the bartender assures me that it comes alive when the table candles are lit and a show is underway.

A downtown sidestreet such as this wouldnt be right without a seedy side and Shadows massage parlour is there to provide. ‘Shadows in the night’ as far the clientele are concerned or is it the girls who are ‘shadows’ of their former selves?

The whole facade is mirrored and there’s a handwritten note about a daytime offer stuck to the wall of the entranceway. It’s also right next door to a tattoo removal clinic, which would appear to compliment each other well; a place to make a mistake and another to rectify one.

Up on the wall is a red neon sign advertising Bombay Boulevard, a plain looking Indian restaurant. The red glow reflects in the empty windows above making me wonder if there’s any less conspicuous parlours along this stretch.

The thick scent of pure, unadulterated grease, fills the air from a chip shop. Two middle eastern men are behind the counter, their oily faces bantering with customers. 

A sickly-lit alleyway adjacent offers the ideal spot for a late-night urinal or something a little more tawdry. 

Under the bridge

Down by the river, beneath the motorway is a place where the sun burrows deep. Concrete pillars are its pen, and the banks the paper, on which the light draws ever-shifting shadows.

Every so often, I venture down there, and try to capture what’s been sketched on the walls. Its particularly  interesting visiting at different times of the day, with mornings casting a bright white light across the Easton side, while sundown brings a warm, yellow glow that dies out over the western end of the river.

There’s not many places like it, especially in an age where any unkempt space is quickly pounced upon by rabid developers. Closed in by the motorway in an area still overlooked by estate agents means it continues to exist for now; an obscure and gritty canvas for graffiti artists and sunlight, alike.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Adela Breton: the life and work of an artist and explorer

It would have taken days, weeks even, to reach South America. Then followed a journey on horseback into the Mexican jungle to work in searing heat, all the while battling fever and bites from numerous insects.

This is something of what Adela Breton, the Victorian artist and explorer, describes about her travels to ancient Mexico in two exhibitions currently on show. The first, at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute (BRLSI) looks at Breton’s personal life and her experiences working at the Mayan ruins.

Growing up in Bath, Breton began donating objects and works to the institute following her trips to Central America. Some of these are on display along with a timeline of her working life displayed on panels in the foyer of the institute.

One of the most interesting things are copies of her sketchbooks, which feature watercolours of the surrounding landscapes and people of Mexico as well as photos that give a real flavour of  life in some of the towns and villages during that period.

The second exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery looks at Breton’s artistic practice. It’s on a somewhat grander scale, showcasing some of the huge tracings and paintings she produced while visiting the ruins.

The exhibition is the culmination of a much larger project to conserve, store and digitise the collection of her works. Breton began passing on her findings and works to the museum after the BRLSI could no longer provide the space to look after them. Bristol’s collection stands at over 1400 items and prior to the exhibition, the conservation team spent four years restoring and preserving the huge range of artworks.

Harry Metcalf, Paper Conservator at the museum, was involved in the project and says how the process gave them an insight into Breton – the artist.

“What’s interesting is that she used a variety of methods to record the decoration and carvings, including prints, watercolours, sketches and notes. This has enabled us to understand how she went about working at the sites and the techniques that she used.”

Many clues are visible in the works such as various cuts she made in the paper, which Harry believes were done to create a ‘flap’ that she could lift up to view the wall beneath her drawings. The cuts were then sealed with brown paper tape which discoloured over time. The conservators left it in place however, as it gives a valuable indication to how Breton worked.

There are also many sections that have been left blank, leading curators to believe that she wanted to remain true to what she was copying where detail had already been eroded or damaged. This highlights how crucial her work was in capturing the details of the remains before some of them were lost forever.

“One of the most important aspects of her work is that very little of the original colour exists so this collection is supposedly now the most comprehensive record of how they would have looked at the turn of the 20th century.”

Mounting the pieces proved quite a challenge as Breton worked exactly to scale. Harry used a technique called strip-lining, where pieces of a Japanese paper were used to attach the edges of the drawings to a rigid backing board.Using a conventional picture frame would have added too much weight for them to be moved and would also have caused problems in displaying matching sections of paintings.

One piece consists of four sections and there wasn’t enough space in the gallery to display them one on top of the other. But the team were still able to hang two pairs close enough so that visitors can see where the details join up.

“It’s not often that works of this size are put on display. It’s a great opportunity for people to come and view these extraordinary works and learn about the life of a remarkable person.”

Part of this article together with pictures of the conservation project can be seen on the website of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Today, the sky is ours

Their chanting beat against the morning stillness as Ahmed rolled the tyre along with a steady brush of his hand.

The youngsters grinned like it was a new game, but the older ones knew better. This was their duty.

Tarek looked back at the pillars of black smoke rising above the buildings. He was used to seeing the street burn when the government­­ jets came, but this was different. Today, they were the ones making the fires.

At a crossroads, Ahmed lay the tyre on the ground. The other children stood back while Tarek tipped the bottle of kerosene over it. When it was lit, another plume erupted, turning the air a dirty brown.

The children looked at each other, their stained faces fierce and proud while men and women cheered them on. Victory is ours, they cried. You’ve won back the sky.

This was inspired by a recent news story about children in Aleppo setting fire to tyres in order to try and stop bomber jets from attacking the city: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-war-aleppo-no-fly-zone-children-burn-tyres-a7167991.html

Muriel

The grandfather clock had long since stopped, but now I missed it’s ticking.

On summer visits it had kept a stern watch over us, while we stuffed toasted cheese and biscuits into our mouths. I wondered now if it had simply been counting down towards the inevitable, a faithful minion to the God of time.

I turned my head slowly, letting my eyes fall on the pictures. As sure as her familial stories, the faces stared back; Dad at Bunesson, Muriel as a girl guide and the fallen film-star sister, beauty preserved before her marriage to alcohol.

I waited for a trembling finger to rise and the breathless stories to come. But only silence pervaded.

In her chair, the cushion sagged with an invisible weight.

For my great-aunt who passed away last month, aged 95. 

Encountering the crest #3

I stopped at the edge of the water and looked across at the pathway snaking up the hill.

“I’m not up for it,” I said.

Jon was staring at something indiscriminate in the foreground while Simon lay across his pack, sunning his bare chest.

“I know everyone’s tired,” replied Rich, “but it was always going to be a long day.”

Only because you made it that way, I thought. What if we simply couldn’t carry on? We’d have to change the plan.

“When it gets like this,” Rich continued, “you just have to be in the moment. One foot infront of the other.”

A refute began to churn in my gutt, fuelled by my aching back and legs. Then, Simon got to his feet.

“If we’re going to do it then let’s get on with it,” he said, in a typically impatient manner. Rich nodded, looking satisfied and we set off round the lake.

The path soon reared up, great blocks rudely thrust in our way. I pushed up them, exhaling with every step and could barely contain my irritation when I heard Rich carrying a tune from the back.

“How can you whistle?” I said between breaths.

“Just trying to keep the mood up,” he replied.

Well it’s not working, I thought. Perhaps you should have considered that before you made us climb two mountains. Okay, so that wasn’t quite true, but it might as well have been. An ascent of Snowdon in the morning, followed by a 2-hour scramble across Crib Goch and then after we’d finally made it down to solid ground, another uphill climb over said ridge. All for an idyllic camping spot.

Midway up the path, my legs gave in and I collapsed against a mound of rocks. The others crumpled nearby.

“You’re not my friend anymore.”

I grinned at Rich, playing with a momentary half truth. He grinned too, but at the sky as he swallowed water. Suddenly, I was thrown back to our Australia trip, ten years earlier. Even then, our convictions butted heads. His steady and resolute. Mine, brooding and impulsive. Most of the time, his would win out, but only through a steadfast reasoning that was too exasperating to contend with.

We got back to our feet, keen not to let what little momentum we had fade away. After a quarter of an hour we finally surmounted the climb and soon found ourselves passing through green fields littered with the remains of abandoned slate mines. Our feet rolled down layers of spongy grass and bog, thighs barely taking the strain until we reached a level setting.

I threw my pack off and slumped to the ground while Rich was straight away busy with setting up the tents. The sound of water led me and Simon to a stream and we stripped off, dunking ourselves in a bath-like crater and instantly feeling rejuvenated.

By the time we got back to camp, sunset was casting its colours across the hillside. The first meal-in-a-bag was warming on the stove and Rich was cursing at a cloud of midges hovering around him. I smiled, my animosity washed away downriver. We were just old friends together again in the wilderness.