My old college friend Dave e-mails me overnight from Melbourne:
“30 degrees, blue skies,” he basks, “Across the bay for lunch .. 15 knot southerly in the pm to take us home in 90 minutes .. perfect.”
I squint at his attachment. He’s leaning on the rail of some sort of yacht or ketch (if only I knew what a ketch was). An athletic ex-judo champ in shades, rod in hand and a Cheshire cat grin beneath a peaked cap. For me, approaching the 48th Summer, a very small hint of jealousy creeps in although I neither like boats, nor the dark Jules Verne abysses they sail over. A few years ago, Dave upped and left these ragged shores and shipped his family down to the land of red dust and Great Whites, where La Dolce Vita (or whatever the Oz equivalent might be) obviously appeals to his Glaswegian DNA, judging from the contented look on his face.
By lunchtime, I unexpectedly found myself in the presence of two rather extreme but exceedingly polite Muslim gentlemen whose families also left their roots to forge new lives in a strange land some years back. One is from a Pakistani family, he studied law and is now a (somewhat muted) mouthpiece on the government’s anti-Islamic policies – both domestic and foreign. For the best part of two hours my writer-colleague and I listened to their rants on Islamic Britain: How random stop and search was unfair based on racial profiling (beards and Islamic dress = shoe bomber); what the possibilities were of a future British (Bosnian-style) civil war triggered by another 7/7; and why they ought not conform to Blair’s laws in favour of God’s Sharia (“Why should we do as the Romans do?”). It was all pretty hairy stuff and depressing too, seeing as they also thought we were both snooping Special Branch officers. That’s quite understandable I suppose: I’m white, with close-cropped hair and I’m clean-shaven. I even wore black shoes for the occasion. So there you are, a copper I shall always be in their eyes.
Years ago I had also been subjected to the opposition in both the religious and political sense. I’ve endured a Hellish weekend with Born-Again Christians at a Butlins Bible Week where every happy pilgrim saw me as their personal mission to have a heretic dunked in the Holy holiday pool. Then there were week-long Tory party conferences at the height of greedy Thatcherism which were brain-washingly intimidating. It happens a lot to photographers – but remember, agitator-to-be, a photograph can have more crack than the lash.
After leaving the ‘tête-a-tête, I walked down Piccadilly with ‘a sense of insufferable gloom’ as Poe once said (Edgar Allan that is, not Master). Since leaving the two mens’ presence an awful thought crossed my mind: that I wasn’t the tolerant multi-culturalist I thought I was. I wouldn’t think that a man with a beard might be about to detonate his rucksack on a 33 bus, than he could be related to Rolf Harris. I felt a like a naif who had just been told there really was a God, but that he didn’t like me.
The two Muslims (predictably) had spoken of Richard the Lionheart inventing mass-slaughter during the Crusades. King Henry practised his own versions of religious persecution within our and other’s shores but it didn’t seem appropriate to bring up British concentration camps in the Boar war. My colleague is German.
And then a weird picture happened. A sad but intense stare from a Tudor girl’s painting caught me as I crossed a junction near Berkeley Square and after approaching the portrait I stood entranced watching this young Elizabethan for a few moments, taking in her exquisite dress and chalky Holbein-like skin. Then, like going cross-eyed in front of a Magic Eye poster, I spied the back-lit figures of Jane Seymour and Henry further in the gallery, seemingly elevated, inches off the window-reflected road like floating apparitions in a Peter Cushing B-movie. It also seemed to me they were appearing before me as ghosts of the English monarchy, at a time of exploration, colonialism and immigration. And here we were 500 years later arguing about new-comers to Britain’s beaches.
I didn’t think of Dave nibbling on fresh shrimp on the quayside at that moment of course. His new-found culture is probably as alien to me as an asylum-seeker in front of a scowling immigration officer at Heathrow. But I wish Dave well, it’s a great thing he’s done.
Who was the Tudor child and who was the painter? No-one seems to know – including the gallery, although they did put me right about one thing: The picture is of a boy.
Filed under: England, history, Photographer, Photography, Religion, Windows | 8 Comments