Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

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The best of times…

At the beginning of the year, we went to see Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. I loved the film immediately. After all, so much of it spoke of things I like – steam trains, railway stations, clocks, mechanical toys, classic film, Paris; and it was the work of a master film-maker with a stunning cast (even if Sacha Baron Cohen seemed to be channeling ‘Allo! ‘Allo!‘s Arthur Bostrom.) (“Good moaning.”) True, I had a few issues with it – I do get slightly peeved when film makers use the wrong trains or aircraft when these things are wholly CGI constructs and therefore just as easy to get right, and Hugo erred in this respect as nearly all the French engines shown appeared to be German class 44s, cosmetically altered to look Swiss, of all things (and Switzerland was one of the few mainland European countries not to have had access to German locomotives in the post-war era); and I found it a bit improbable that all the trains in and out of the Gare du Montparnasse would be Wagons-Lits. But that’s just me, and it didn’t detract from my delight in the film, with its very steampunk aesthetic and utterly believable 1930s scene setting. I was even more intrigued when I found out that the film’s depiction of the later life of Georges Méliès was actually based very much on reality: he did lose everything (though not due to the First World War, but the film’s version was easier to explain to a film audience), he did end up running a toy shop concession on a Paris railway station, and he was rediscovered (by an investigative journalist), his story told, his reputation rehabilitated and proper recognition given him by the French artistic establishment. And let us be clear; whatever you may or may not think about the French (or Parisians, depending on your viewpoint), they do love and honour film-makers, and rightly so.

So when Hugo was trounced at the Oscars by The Artist – which at that time, we hadn’t seen – I was a bit miffed. Certainly, Hugo deserved the Oscars it did get, but these were mainly in the technical categories. Still, I could see the attraction of The Artist for a Hollywood audience; and it also spoke of a transitional period in film, the coming of the talkies.

We finally got to see The Artist at the weekend, and now everything is clear to me. The Artist is an excellent film. It is so very true to its period, it is excellently acted, the cinematography is authentic to the period, and it was a brilliant move to make a film about the movie industry in the late 1920s in the style of a film made in the late 1920s. The soundtrack is remarkable, too; there is a sequence where the main character, George Valentin, has attended a private screening of a talkie screen test, and he later has a nightmare where he is assaulted on all sides by sound, from the clink of a glass and the ringing of a phone to the barking of the dog and the babble of all the voices in a great city.

The film is packed with cinema references, though the only one I can specifically remember is that they appear to use the same hospital corridor towards the end of the film that was used in Terminator 2, of all things! (T’Internet can’t throw any light on this, though the set decorator, Robert Gould, did work on Verhoeven’s Total recall and Starship Troopers…) There is also a musical quote, in that the music over the film’s climax is Bernard Herrman’s love theme from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The film opens with the premiere of Valentin’s last film, A Russian affair, and that is pure Hollywood melodrama with Buck Rogers-esque super-science baddies and a dashing masked hero. (And a dog.) (“You can never go wrong with a bit with a dog.”)

So: I am now entranced equally by Hugo and The Artist. Both pay homage to the industry that gave birth to them, both are lovingly and well made, and both deserve all the success they’ve had.

We went to see The Artist at Berrington Hall, a National Trust property near Leominster in Herefordshire. It was an outdoor showing, arranged as part of the Borderlands Festival, a film festival designed to bring cinema – both mainstream and more unusual films – to rural areas of England. Berrington is a fine house which we have visited before, but it was worth going to experience the setting as the sun set, and then sit out under the stars watching a film. We were treated to a couple of meteors during the performance (and a visitor’s dog who joined in at one point at exactly the right place!), and it was a delight to have a proper projector and delightful surroundings.

The worst of times…

Still no joy on the work front; I apply for between 15 and 20 jobs per week, and rarely get a response on any of them. I’m particularly irritated by an IT publishing company in Birmingham who advertised a job that was a 99.5% match to the job I used to do in Ofwat, but which has shown no interest in my application whatsoever, even when I pointed this fact out at the top of my covering letter. I can only assume that they are ageist. What is the point in raising the retirement age to 68, when employers lose interest in you once you’re over 50? It makes a total mockery of any politician who pontificates on the prospects for pensions and employment and shows that they know nothing about real life.

Still, there are times when events put this into proper perspective; and this is one of them. A very good friend of mine, Jim Bell, has passed away and I want to write about his life and his passing, and his influence on me.

Sutton Modellers at Manchester Museum of Science & Industry, 2005. L to R: Andy Lawson, Jim Bell, Doug Burchell

A Merseysider by birth (with all the dry humour that goes with that origin), Jim was a marine engineer by profession, and spent a number of years at sea with the merchant marine in the 1950s. When he returned to shore, he became a boiler inspector for insurance companies. His life was spent in an engineering environment, mainly connected to steam power, and he had a fund of stories from workshops, factories and ships.

But it was as an enthusiast for German railways that I knew Jim. As a man of steam, he had developed an attraction for locomotives, first relating to the London and North-Eastern Railway, but later that interest transferred itself to Germany, in part because of his travels. In German railways, he said, you could have infinite variety; the latest diesel and electric trains would rub shoulders with steam locomotives and coaches of the previous century, and this contrast was most appealing to him. In due course, his interest settled on the inter-war and wartime years of the Deutsche Reichsbahn, when the pace of technological development was possibly at its height. Whilst recognising that the German railway system played a full part in the German war effort, with all the darkness that entailed, he nonetheless delighted in the technological inventiveness and energy of the German railway industry of the period; inventiveness that Britain barely matched then and has not achieved since.

Although my interests in the railway sphere were broader, and I had already gone down the route of my interest in Austria and its railways, Jim was my mentor when it came to Germany and was the cause of my joining the German Railway Society.

Jim was also a fine modeller, and his exhibition engine shed layout was notable for its authentic atmosphere, especially when matched with its extension depicting a railway workshop. So much of this model was drawn from first-hand observation; and when Jim decided that he had to give up exhibition attendances, it was my pleasure to take this layout over and keep it on the exhibition circuit, as a tribute to a fine modeller and great gentleman.

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Written by robertday154

May 14, 2012 at 5:39 pm

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