Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Images of North Korea

Man fishing in North Korea, 2012

Another lunch with the globe trotting Grimshaws. I wonder how many people can have visited both Pitcairn and North Korea, let alone in the space of less than one year? That honour belongs to our friends the Grimshaws, who have posted the photos they took of their recent trip on Flickr.

I particularly liked the image of the man fishing. A superb photo taken by a gifted but very modest photographer, capturing a slice of life in North Korea which few are able to see.

Another that caught my eye was the photo of the Pyongyang Metro, modern, clean and uncrowded, claimed to be the deepest in the world, and designed to provide shelter from a nuclear attack that the Korean authorities apparently regard as inevitable.

Pyongyang Metro

The image of people cycling to work in front of nondescript apartments chimes better with western views of this inscrutable country, albeit with a touch of Lowry about it.

Hamhung, DPRK, Going to Work

Finally I have added a view of which the authorities would approve, a huge monument to the Korean Workers Party, consisting of three 50 metre towers depicting the hammer and sickle, and in the middle a rather phallic writing brush.

Pyongyang, Party Foundation Monument, 1995

We were fascinated to hear about their travels to the Demilitarised Zone, the empty roads and their two visits to the amazing Arirang Mass Games. Surprising was the revelation that visitors may spend a short time staying in the homes of ordinary families, a privilege not extended to those American citizens who find their way to North Korea.

I was also surprised to hear that the UK has an embassy in Pyongyang. I imagine that it is not a highly sought after posting!

Perhaps most surprising of all was the account of the young Norwegian in the Grimshaws' party, fascinated by North Korea and making his third trip. One wonders how far he has managed to delve below the surface of this most impenetrable of countries. Unlike the young Norwegian the Grimshaws do not intend to make a return visit, but they had no regrets about going. I wonder where they will go next?

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Munch without The Scream

Edvard Munch,The Yellow Log 1911-1912

The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is one of the best known images in art. Munch often repeated his works and painted four versions of The Scream between 1893 and 1910. One version sold in May this year for 119.9 million dollars, a record for an open auction.

There is though far more to Munch than this iconic late nineteenth century painting. Arguably it is not his best work, and it is certainly not representative of his total artistic endeavour, which continued until his death in Nazi occupied Norway in 1944.

For some reason I have never visited the Munch Museum in Oslo, and having read a review by Laura Cummings in the Observer on 1st July, I was determined to visit the exhibition Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye at the Tate Modern, now nearing its end.

The exhibition focuses on Munch's twentieth century development, and on the impact which photography and cinema had on him. I was particularly attracted by the Yellow Log, which creates an almost kinetic effect. A similar effect is apparent in The Workers Returning Home, which reflected his engagement with the trends of the early

Edvard Munch,Workers Returning Home 1913-15

twentieth century,and his belief that the time of the workers had come. The middle class pedestrians are sidelined, mere observers of history.

The painting which has probably attracted the most attention was the last

Edvard Munch: Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed 1940–3

of a number of self portraits, showing the subject standing between a grandfather clock,its face obscured, and the bed, on which presumably he expects to die, surrounded by some of his life's work. The painting was completed in 1942 or 1943. Munch died in January 1944, refusing to the end any association with the collaborationist Quisling regime in Norway which tried to convey a different impression at his funeral.

I found this a fascinating exhibition, and hope before too long to visit the Munch Museum in Oslo, to learn more about him, and yes, to look at The Scream.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Turing's Manchester

The purpose built, post war utilitarian brick building in which Turing worked

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, whose theoretical work before the war provided much of the conceptual framework for computation and the yet unheard of discipline of computer science. Perhaps the most distinguished achievement of a short but glittering career was his secret war time work on cryptography at Bletchley Park, which saved countless lives in the battle of the Atlantic and some believe considerably shortened the war.

After the war he worked at the National Physical Laboratory where he produced a design for what he conceived of as an artificial "brain". Frustrated by bureaucratic politics in which he never excelled, Turing abandoned this work and in 1948 accepted a readership at the Victoria University in Manchester, where Professor Williams and his team of electrical engineers had already constructed the world's first stored program electronic computer, the Manchester Baby.

Plaque recently unveiled by Gary Kasparov, former world chess champion, who regards Turing as the founder of computer chess

In Manchester, he worked with the engineers on the development of the new Manchester Mark 1 computer, although his only contribution to the hardware design was a random number generator on whose inclusion he insisted. Unusually for a theoretical Mathematician, a gentlemanly profession, Turing had always been willing to get his hands dirty, and had his own laboratory at his semi-detached house in a leafy road on the outskirts of Wilmslow, where he often preferred to work rather than in the smokey industrial city of Manchester which still very much bore the scars of war time bombing, and must have seemed very unappealing after previous academic posts at Cambridge and Princeton. In March 1949 he wrote to a friend,

I am getting used to this part of the world but still find Manchester rather mucky. I avoid going there more than I can avoid. (1)

Turing's house in Wlmslow (on left), now marked by a blue plaque

The Victoria University, described not totally accurately by Turing's biographer as "the technical University of the North, producing doctors and engineers, rather than abstract ideas", was certainly a step down socially from Cambridge. (2) It was precisely that of course which enabled it to produce the world's first stored program computer, which was patently beyond the capabilities of the gentlemanly world from which Turing had sprung.

Nevertheless, as well as the engineers interested only in the practicalities of developing their machine, in Manchester Turing found a number of academics with whom he was able to discuss his ideas on artificial intelligence, among them the Hungarian born polymath Michael Polanyi (1891-1976),the Professor of Chemistry.

Polyani, a critic of positivism and British empiricism, whose writings on the limitations of scientific knowledge were to influence Thomas Kuhn, firmly opposed Turing's view of the human mind as a discrete state machine. For Polanyi the human mind was unspecificable, certainly by human beings. For Turing the fact that it was not yet specified did not mean that it should be considered as unspecifiable. Despite their profound intellectual disagreement the two remained friends.

It is an irony that Turing is probably at least as well known for the circumstances surrounding his death as for his scientific achievements. Eschewing contact with the small homosexual community centred on the University, the Manchester Guardian and the BBC, Turing had little social life in Manchester, but made regular visits to Cambridge and his friends in the south of England. (3)

The once dark arch under the railway, Oxford Road Station

In December 1951 though he made a foray into the then rather sleazy area of Oxford Road close to the arches under the railway line, where, pretending to look at the posters outside the Regal Cinema, he made contact with a young working class man, Arnold Murray.

The former Regal Cinema, now the home of the Northern Ballet

Entrance to the former Regal Cinema, outside which Turing met Arnold Murray

Their relationship, across the class divide, was to lead to Turing's conviction in 1952 for gross indecency and, as an alternative to prison negotiated by his legal representative, hormonal treatment to reduce his libido.

The arch covered in graphiti, which the City Council threatens to remove.

Turing kept his job, continued his scientific work, and particularly after his probationary period continued his life much as before, but he lost his Government security clearance and was clearly put under scrutiny by the security services. In mid May 1954 Turing went with friends to Blackpool and, as he had done many years before in Hertfordshire, went in to consult a gypsy fortune teller. After half an hour he emerged, white as a sheet, would not discuss what she had said and did not speak for the duration of the bus journey back to Manchester. In June 1954 he was found dead in his bed at home, beside him a partially eaten apple that may have been contaminated by cyanide.

His mother refused to believe it was suicide, arguing that it was an accident, the result of typical carelessness in his laboratory. A recent paper by Professor Copeland lends some support to this view: the coroner's verdict was based on insufficient evidence; it could have been an accident or even murder. Certainly the apple was never tested for traces of cyanide, and Turing's cheerfulness and plans for the coming days certainly indicate that if it was suicide it was not premeditated. One troubling detail is the fact that his shoes were placed outside his bedroom door as if waiting cleaning, an Oxbridge custom which according to his housekeeper Turing had never previously observed.

The exact circumstances of Turing's death may always remain unclear. It should not be stated that he committed suicide—because we simply do not know. Perhaps we should just shrug our shoulders, agree that the jury is out, and focus on Turing's life and extraordinary work.(4)

Whatever the true cause of his death, it does not excuse the appalling treatment which Turing received at the hands of the authorities, for which, in 2009, after a petition, the British Government formally apologised.

The Turing Centenary Exhibition: Manchester Museum

To celebrate Turing's centenary Manchester University has recently hosted a conference, and has mounted an exhibition at the Manchester Museum.

Board advertising the Exhibition

Board in the Turing Exhibition

Honesty compels me to say that the exhibition, which primarily focuses on the chemical basis of morphogenesis, on which Turing was engaged at the time of his death, is more than a little disappointing. Other than a single machine showing very slow mysterious graphics presumably illustrating Turing's work on morphogenesis followed by a videoed interview with an aged academic who was Turing's postgraduate student at the time of his death and describes the difficulties of using the what now seems archaic Mark I computer, no use whatsoever is made of modern technology. The entries in the visitors' book sadly and rather dramatically indicate that it has failed to stimulate the school children who have been brought to see it. Manchester could and should have done better.

Postscript: The Apple Logo

Apparently Stephen Fry once asked the late Steve Jobs if it were true that the Apple logo was in memory of the death of Alan Turing. Jobs replied, It isn't true, but God we wish it were!

It is perhaps no bad thing to remember Turing whenever we see the logo.


1. Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma,(Vintage Books 1992),p.395
2. Hodges p. 394
3. Hodges p. 396
4. TURING SUICIDE VERDICT IN DOUBT, Jack Copeland, 23 June 2012

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Schooldays, the Gongman and the Search for Gold

J. Arthur Rank's Gongman
Blancmange, sago and other stomach turning puddings, shirts with starched detachable collars, chapel every day, rugby, hockey and running (football was not a suitable game for gentlemen) nearly every afternoon, lessons on Saturday mornings as well as early evenings on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, cadets on Wednesday afternoons, polishing boots, blancoing belts, learning to use First World War rifles and field telephones("if it doesn't work urinate over its earth" we were told), "prep" in classrooms every weekday night after dinner, beatings administered by prefects, early lights out, sleeping under heavy army great coats in freezing dormitories, and all too soon awakened by a bell summoning us to another day of unmitigated pleasure.

Such are my memories of boarding school half a century ago.

Few of us ever questioned the efficacy of such an adolescence. On such foundations were English gentlemen made and the British Empire built.

In such a regime there was no place for watching television, but we were allowed to play pop music, and every other Saturday night in the autumn and spring terms we excitedly gathered in the hall to watch a film.

More than what we actually watched, my main memory is of the reaction of the audience whenever a J. Arthur Rank film was shown, which seems to me to have been every time, although memory may be playing tricks on me. On such occasions the appearance of the Gongman would always be greeted with raucous calling out of the name of one of our fellow pupils, accompanied by much laughter. I never understood why this particular boy was singled out in this way, and still don't, but I fear that that may not have prevented me from joining in. I did not know the boy at all well, and had no idea how he felt about it, not that feelings were things that any of us would ever have admitted that we had.

Some time after I left I was told that the boy in question had gone to London University to study Mining Engineering, to the apparent amusement of my informant, who clearly assumed that even I realised that that was not a suitable career for a gentleman.

On leaving University the young Mining Engineer moved to Australia, where, after a time, he discovered gold, lots of it.

He is now among the richest men in Australia. I think he has had the last laugh.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Pitcairn: Uklun tull un Dem tull

"Burning the Bounty", Pitcairn Islanders with quad bikes, January 20th 2012

This week my wife and I had lunch with fellow blogger John Grimshaw, an inveterate traveller to remote places who lives not far from me and whom I would never have met but for the internet. Earlier in the year he had sent me an email from Pitcairn, and we were eager to hear about the Island and to look at the excellent photographs,now on Flickr, taken by him and his wife Pauline.

He has also kindly given me permission to reproduce a few of them on here.

Pitcairn Islanders setting off on a fishing trip in a Longboat

Between February 1983 and August 1992 The Royal New Zealand Air Force made several 6,600 mile round-trip flights to Pitcairn to airdrop mail and cargo.

Dilapidated Bulldozer, parachuted on Pitcairn by the Royal New Zealand Air Force almost 30 years ago

The bulldozer was dropped from a C130 Hercules on 18th May 1983.

The island generates some of its income by selling commemorative stamps. A number were issued to commemorate the New Zealand Air Force flights. The cover below is from the last airdrop which took place in 1992 .

In my search for information about Pitcairn I came across the nearest thing to a newspaper that an island of 40-50 inhabitants can support, The Pitcairn News, bearing the banner UCKLUN TULL UN DEM TULL.

On reading further I was surprised to find that Pitkern, the language shared with Norfolk Island where the Pitcairn islanders moved for a time in the nineteenth century and where the majority remained is, despite the geographical location of both islands, considered an Atlantic rather than a Pacific Creole. (1)

I was fascinated to read the following account in Pitkern of the celebrations of Bounty Day in Wellingon, New Zealand in January 2009.
Wen we wake up Sunday morning rainen like a brute. We sort des day gwen be es hairy putty and gwen lucky ef eny bordy tun up. Den wen mussa time fer go har sun come out un shine like a goodun but mite be putt some sulluns orf cos nor get mussa as much ucklun es hem tadda time. But still gut plenty ucklun compared to Pitcairn. Fer me, mussa es sad un fer see how much ucklun out ya tekken part knowen orn Pitcairn we car play da kinds of games we bin el lorng ago, cos we nor gut nuff folks levven home now. But es goodun ucklun out ya involven dems sulluns un dems sulluns sulluns in our celebration un culture.

So remote and with such a small population, Pitcairn is obviously a very vulnerable community keen to improve its image and to promote itself: in August 2012 a number of Pitcairners will be attending the 2nd International Bounty-Pitcairn Conference at Pacific Union College in the Napa Valley, California.

Pitcairn honey, "with all the natural sweetness of tropical fruits and flowers", has reputedly become a favourite of the Queen and the Prince of Wales. So if I get an invitation to the Palace I will know what to take along as a gift!

1. On 3 May 1856, the whole Pitcairn community then nearly 200 people set sail for Norfolk Island, almost 4000 miles away. The journey took 5 weeks. Eighteen months later 17 returned to Pitcairn, followed five years later by another 27. The language spoken on Norfolk island is usually referred to as "Norfuk".

Monday, 13 February 2012

Lili Márkus: From Eszék to Glossop via Budapest

Before the storm broke, Lili Márkus on holiday in Kanzelhöhe, Austria 1934

With Max Sebald and issues of memory and loss currently never far from my mind, I have been rather fixated recently on a story embedded in a guide to an exhibition of Hungarian Craft, Design and Architecture that took place at the University of Strathclyde's Collins Gallery in 2008 .(1)

An exhibition showing many of the same works is I understand about to take place at the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest (2).

Tree Relief c. 1939 Victoria and Albert Museum

Lili Márkus, around whose life and work the exhibition centred, came rather late to ceramics, but within a remarkably short space of time was exhibiting her work at exhibitions in Milan, Tallinn, Riga, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Oslo and Paris.

Lili's life falls neatly into three phases and three locations: Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Budapest and finally Greater Manchester.

Born in 1900 in Gyurgyenovác near Eszék, in what is now Croatia, to a family of German Jewish origin (Engels/Elek), Lili was exposed to a range of traditional crafts which were to influence her for the rest of her life. (3)

A peaceful childhood among the woods which her father managed was brought to a close by the shots fired at Sarajevo on June 28th 1914, which were to spell the end of the multi ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, and to unleash forces that would shatter the lives of millions of its inhabitants for generations to come.

In 1920, by the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary was stripped of three quarters of its pre-war territory, and Lily's family found themselves living in a new country composed of ethnic Romanians, Slovaks and South Slavs.

Lili Márkus 1923

In January 1923 Lili married Győző Márkus and moved to Budapest, carrying with her anxiety about her parents and siblings left behind in what had become the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. (4)

In Budapest she moved into the upper middle class world of Hungary's assimilated Jewish community: her husband converted to Lutheranism in the 1920's, and she to Catholicism in the early 1930's. Through the contacts of her husband, an engineer in the family firm, Márkus Lajos, she entered a sophisticated world of architects, designers and manufacturers and was exposed to a modernist aesthetic. The change in her life from its beginnings in the woods of Croatia is symbolised by the remodelling of the family apartment in Budapest by the architect Kozma Lajos.

Living Room in the Márkus apartment

Library in the Márkus apartment

Her own space revealed her love of colour and traditional designs.

View towards Conservatory (The Studio) in the Márkus apartment

With the support of her husband, who had a kiln installed for her in the family firm, and in an environment in which women ceramicists were accepted and the decorative arts promoted by a Government keen to enhance the reputation of the new and much reduced Hungary, Lili's career flourished.

She completed her first formal training only in 1932, but exhibited in Milan the following year. An associate of Margit Kovács, who was to become very famous in post-war Hungary, she looked to be on the verge of a very successful career in ceramics.

Chess Set exhibited at Paris in 1937, Cranbrook Academy of Art

It is I think impossible to improve on Juliet Kinchin's overall judgement on Lili's work at the height of her career, "impressive both in range and quality" and a "confident assimilation of modern European styles, Hungarian folk culture and religious imagery into a sophisticated urban aesthetic" (5)

But all this came to a hurried end in the summer of 1939 when with her two sons, her sister in law and her fur coat she furtively left Hungary via Italy to join her husband and brother in law in the unlikely setting of Glossop in the Derbyshire hills.

A depressed town on the edge of Greater Manchester with high unemployment and a number of empty textile mills, Glossop was an ideal place to set up factories as Britain geared up for war, and the Markus brothers, who machined parts for Spitfire planes, were not alone in doing so. It was perhaps not so suitable for a Hungarian potter whose "colourful figurative tradition of ceramics" was at this time rather looked down on by the studio potters of England. Away from the intellectual and artistic circles in which she and her husband had moved in cosmopolitan Budapest, " how damp, depressed and provincial life in Glossop often must have seemed!" (6)

Her early years in England were overshadowed by the news leaking out of central Europe. Her elder brother went into hiding in Osijet, her younger brother disappeared, her mother was shot trying to escape and her father was sent to a death camp. (7)

Apart from a small exhibition at the Batsford Gallery in London in 1946, containing pieces of tapestry as well as ceramics, at which the V & A museum purchased the most expensive piece (The Tree Relief shown above), Lili never achieved anything remotely resembling the recognition and commercial success that she had achieved in such a short time in Hungary. She continued though to produce a range of pieces, some of which were sold through Heals' in London and Kendal Milne in Manchester,

Fireplace at "Ariel" , the home the family built in Glossop

but much of her energy went on creating things for the new house, "Ariel", which they built on a windy hill overlooking Glossop, which must have contrasted with the view of the Danube that could be seen from their apartment in Hungary.

Finding increased comfort in her religious faith from 1953, she died after an illness at "Ariel" in 1962.

Postscript : "forgetting is what keeps us going.." - Max Sebald

Lili's eldest son, in the library in the Budapest apartment

Born in October 1924, the eldest son, Robert, who was to become a distinguished medieval historian, must have been very aware of what was going on in his teen years in Hungary. Not surprisingly perhaps he blocked it out and, according to the writer of one of his obituaries, concentrated on becoming an "unmistakable English gentleman." Returning to Hungary many years later he was moved to tears at the sight of the places he knew from his childhood.

My thanks to Professor Thomas A. Markus for kind permission to reproduce photos and quotations from In the Eye of the Storm. The interpretation and the judgements made are of course entirely my own.

1. Juliet Kinchin, In the Eye of the Storm: Lili Márkus and Stories of Hungarian Craft, Design and Architecture 1930-1960 University of Strathclyde 2008 ISBN: 978-0-947649-24-1.
2. At the time of writing details are not published on the museum's web site, but the exhibition will I understand run from March 1st to 30th April. It will feature the work of Márkus Lili, Márkus Lajos ( Lili's father in law and founder of the family firm) and the modernist architect Kozma Lajos.
3. In the Eye of the Storm. p. 7
4. from 1929 it was renamed Yugoslavia. In the Eye of the Storm. p. 13
5. In the Eye of the Storm. p 5
6 In the Eye of the Storm. p. 51
7. In the Eye of the Storm. p. 44

Monday, 30 January 2012

Patience (After Sebald)

At long last a chance to see a screening of Grant Gee's film about one of my favourite books, The Rings of Saturn. Where better to view it than Manchester Cornerhouse, close to the centre of the once decaying industrial city where the young Max Sebald arrived in the 1960's and which had such an influence on him.

I am fascinated by Sebald, but came to him very late, and may never have discovered him had not one of my daughters given me the Rings of Saturn because of its setting in the bleak Suffolk coast where I grew up and where my family had lived for centuries before.

It was interesting therefore in the discussion after the screening to hear the film's director Grant Gee say that the location of the book was not of primary signifiance; Sebald's walk could just as easily have taken place elsewhere, in Manchester for example.

Likewise the film itself was not originally intended to take the form of a walk around Suffolk, but to feature a number of places across Europe with which Sebald's work is associated. The film's form and location was in the end dictated by its very small budget, around £50,000: back packing around East Anglia, as Grant Gee put it, was cheaper.

I found the film itself deeply moving. For me there was an additional layer, grainy black and white images and place names on sign posts evoked memories of my childhood: Orford, where I attended the school close to the castle, of which only a well preserved keep remains, and vague memories, among the mounds that surround it, of a mysterious decayed ghostly house overgrown with trees and shrubs; the main street of Saxmundham on the then main London road through which seemingly endless motor cycles with sidecars would pass in the 1950's on their way to Great Yarmouth; Southwold, "Chelsea by the sea" as it was described in the film, always had a rather better class of visitor!

Then there were places where my ancestors lived: Bungay where my great grandfather used to blend tea in the attic above his shop so that, according to family legend, it suited the taste of the local water; Ditchingham, actually in the county of Norfolk, associated with Rider Haggard, in whose churchyard my father took me a quarter century ago to find the grave of another great grandfather who had died in Flushing in Holland around 1887, on his way to or from visiting two daughters who for some unaccountable reason had left the quiet town of Bungay for the brighter lights of imperial Vienna. Ironically in the 1930's their relatives in Suffolk were I was told asked to supply evidence to prove that they were not Jewish.

I was interested to hear the reactions to the film of those who on my recommendation had gone to see it. Those who had never read any Sebald were not engaged by it and not inspired to read any of Sebald's books, but the only one who had read some Sebald says he would like to see the film again.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is the music. None of us were aware that it had any until the question and answer session revealed that there was some and that it was produced by the Stockport born electronic musician James Leyland Kirby.


Grant Gee spoke of the possibility in the future of having a screening of the film with the commentary turned off, accompanied only by the music.

Finally I was asked by my friends why the film had the title "Patience". Grant Gee supplied the answer: it refers to the passage in Austerlitz in which a pack of family postcards are rearranged as in a game of patience until they are finally put in the correct sequence.

I look forward to viewing the film again. Next time I am sure I shall hear the music.