Sunday, August 05, 2007

No direction home

We rouse ourselves from our heat-induced torpor (what greater pleasure is there than a hot sunny Sunday morning, drinking coffee and languidly contemplating the crossword?) and go to an exhibition, How We Are at Tate Britain. It's a collection of photographs showing how this island has documented itself through the camera, and it's fascinating and well worth a visit. It begins with the dawn of photography, and the excitement of this new medium is vivid, pictures of the construction of Nelson's Column that turn my perceptions all over (I mean, hasn't Nelson's Column always been there? Certainly too long to be photographed half-finished?). Pictures of Pit Girls in the 1890s that give the lie to the idea that women at work is a post-war phenomenon (that's only true if you're middle class), and women at work during the war, true pioneers of female equality. Images of folk traditions you thought were a distant memory, being played out as living and vital within the memory of my grandparents.

Images vivid and startling in their feeling of contemporaneity, some great pictures, some not, bu all with a palpable sense of an era. As I look at the pictures from the Second World War, I am jolted by the realisation that I am seeing things that are within the experience of my parents. From then on there is paradoxically a growing sense of distance, and as we reach the 1970s and 1980s I feel a melancholy as I look at these scenes that resonate with personal memories, but which suddenly seem as ancient and lost as the 1950s. The time is passing and falling behind us rapidly, as we scramble vainly to grasp and keep moments. By the final gallery we are in our own century, but the scenes and portraits from within a few years of now seem as self-conscious, stiff and formal as anything from the Victorians, who now seem almost more real than the contemporary faces before us. Time runs on and on, indifferent to us, slipping through our hands like water as I sit here, clumsily trying to capture memories already fading, unable to return.

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