It seems hard to believe that an entirely natural “optical and meteorological phenomenon caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky” (thank you Wikipedia) could carry with it such enduring and significant cultural significance.
To quote Wikipedia again:
In Norse mythology, the rainbow bridge Bifröst connects the world of men (Midgard) and the realm of the gods (Asgard). The Irish leprechaun’s secret hiding place for his pot of gold is usually said to be at the end of the rainbow. … Rainbow flags have been used as a symbol of hope or social change for centuries, featuring as a symbol of the Cooperative movement in the German Peasants’ War in the 16th century, as a symbol of peace in Italy, and as a symbol of gay pride and LGBT social movements since the 1970s. In 1994, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela described newly democratic post-apartheid South Africa as the rainbow nation.
Right now, it feels as though the world desperately needs rainbows.
My news feed is full of stories about misery and hatred; about racial, gender and religious intolerance, ignorance, selfishness and greed (1), (2), (3). As the impoverished and displaced of the world take ever more desperate measures to find a better life, the governments of countries grown rich on exploitation find ever-more brutal ways to keep them out. While we can celebrate the recent Irish referendum that made it the 19th country to legalise same-sex marriage (4), LGBTI persecution continues unabated in many other parts of the world.
Even in my little South Pacific paradise (a place we used to call “Godzone”), there is little reason to rejoice. Too many children go to school hungry each day (5) and die of preventable diseases in cold, damp houses (6). New Zealand is not a poor country; but we are in danger of becoming an emotionally and socially impoverished one. A country where the function of government becomes to help the rich get richer and to hell with the poor. Where compassion and social awareness are replaced by consumerism and escapist entertainment.
But sometimes there are rainbows. When same-sex marriage legislation was being debated in the New Zealand in 2013, one of the MPs from our ruling, neo-liberal National Party made a speech in support of the legislation. Funny and passionate, Maurice Williamson’s “Big Gay Rainbow” speech became briefly famous in New Zealand and around the world. A small rebuttal of prejudice and a plea for tolerance; a little rainbow.
It’s 175 years since the city of Auckland was established, and so our Anniversary Day celebration back in January was pretty special. One of the things I really enjoyed was a display of large-scale photos from the Council archive showing how the city used to look. I have posted a couple of these images before, but I thought they were so appropriate for this week’s travel theme, Old Fashioned, at Where’s my Backpack that I’ve re-edited and re-used them.
We live in a world that subtly (and not so subtly) demands “perfection”. From the Photoshop’d bodies of celebrities to the fruit and vegetables on display in supermarkets, advertising tells us we can have rounder tomatoes, straighter carrots, glossier hair, slimmer thighs, whiter teeth — if only we’ll part with our money. It’s an insidious, dangerous, repugnant ideology that leads to mountains of wasted food and irrevocably damaged lives.
Not quick enough with the remote control last night I watched — in utter horror — the first couple of minutes of a television programme about people who willingly and repeatedly undergo expensive surgical procedures that modify their bodies to conform to some idea of beauty. Really, about two minutes was all I could take before I had to turn the set off. I looked at the Big T; he looked at me. We both wondered what sort of world we’ve found ourselves in.
What does this have to do with photos of decaying roses you ask?
These are the flowers given to me recently by a friend. They were a rare treat; beautiful to look at, and as a gesture of our friendship. I’ve been loathe to throw them out.
Since last night’s brief encounter with the TV, I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty. The flowers in my bouquet were exquisite; soft, plump roses and snowy chrysanthemums amidst purple kale and glossy greenery. With age, they’ve become limp, and are browning around the edges. But the thing is, I still find them beautiful. I still appreciate the folds and contours, and am fascinated with the appearance of new textures in the rose petals.
I’m not sure if notions and standards of beauty in nature are universal to all human societies, but beauty in people is definitely a variable, culturally determined construct. By the standards of the culture I live in, I have never been considered beautiful in the way a bouquet of roses is. I’m “too short”, “too fat”, have a “big nose”, “dumpy legs” and “thin hair” (all phrases I’ve heard about myself). And at times I’ve anguished over my “failings”, but mainly –like so many other people — I’ve reached for another chocolate biscuit and got on with the business of living. I’ve found friends and lovers who are either blind to my faults, or find other things to like about me. And despite a whole bunch of new, age-related flaws that make it even less likely I’ll make it to the cover of Vogue, I’m comfortable in my (ample) skin. Even in the worst depths of my recent depression, when I was beating myself up over all sorts of things, I still managed to feel ok about my appearance.
I wish I could think of a cheerful, upbeat way to finish this post, but in truth I don’t feel upbeat. I feel fortunate to have grown up at a time when body modification meant getting your ears pierced or having a new hair-do –“perfection” wasn’t attainable so it was easier to accept ourselves. Now I worry about my son’s generation; increasingly aware of friends’ children who struggle constantly with negative body image, and quietly terrified for my own child.
So instead I’m offering Nick Cave’s Into My Arms; not upbeat, but one of the most beautiful songs about love and loving that I know.
Vivid is a quality I associate as much with memory as image. Perhaps vivid images invoke stronger, clearer memories.
Looking at the photo of my son’s half-eaten sandwich, I am transported to a railway carriage in Munich. It’s mid morning, cold but sunny, and we’re headed for Schloss Neuschwanstein. Unsure if there will be food available on the train, we’ve been to the station Rischart for sandwiches and coffee. I can still taste the crisp bread and salty, cheesy filling, and feel the sense of joyful anticipation. Visiting Schloss Neuschwanstein was the Big T’s number one chosen activity for this holiday and we all wanted the day to be fun. It was.
It perhaps says a lot about me that some of my most vivid memories are invoked by pictures of food. The last of the season’s grapefruit from our tree were eaten while sitting on the back steps, juice trickling down my hands.
When the Big T came home with a bumper catch of fish, we spent the day scaling, fileting, smoking, making stock, and finally enjoying delicious sashimi of raw snapper with homemade sushi.
And like most parents, images of my child trigger strong, vivid memories.
A young boy, arms outstretched to catch a soft toy being thrown by an unseen hand. The vivid, acid greens of his clothing almost blend into the summer landscape behind him. This photo was taken on a family trip to England in 2006. We had spent a week around London and were finally heading north; a slow trip punctuated by stops in places the Big T and I had lived 10 years earlier. A lunch-time picnic by the canal in Berkhamsted was followed by a drive through Ashridge Forest and –inevitably given our love for elevated vistas — a walk on Ivinghoe Beacon. My memories of this day are still vivid, helped by images such as this which remind me of my exuberant, joy-filled son and his capacity to take pleasure in everything life has to offer.
The modernity of yesterday is the tradition of today, and the modernity of today will be tradition tomorrow.
Jose Andres Puerta
When The Queen’s House (1) was built for the wife of King James I in 1619, it would have been considered radical, unusual, and modern in the extreme.
Designed by Inigo Jones — regarded as Britain’s first modern architect — it is the first building constructed in the UK that consciously followed the principles of classical architecture, inspired by the temples and other buildings of ancient Rome and Greece. The Queen’s House now sits alongside Christopher Wren’s Greenwich Hospital (2) (better known now as the Old Royal Naval College) with its baroque Painted Hall, and both co-exist with the modernist glass towers of London’s Docklands.
The interplay of the modern and the traditional-which-once-was-modern is all around us.
I love the giant ship-in-a-bottle created by artist Yinka Shonibare. Using a traditional craft form developed by nineteenth century sailors (3), Shonibare created a very modern work of art in his replica of HMS Victory. This was the naval ship from which the British hero Admiral Lord Nelson fought the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and on which he died during that battle. The ship’s sails are made from fabric bearing colourful batik designs commonly found in West Africa. By using this fabric, Shonibare acknowledges Britain’s complex colonial past and contemporary issues of immigration, ethnic identity, and cultural appropriation.
Bronze is a traditional sculptural medium, and horses a very traditional subject in art, but Nic Fiddian-Green‘s monumental, 10 metre high horse’s head at London’ Marble arch, is a thoroughly modern take on both form and subject.
The British Library opened in 1998 on Euston Road, London. Designed by British architect Colin St John Wilson, it is the largest public building constructed in the UK in the 20th century. The project took 37 years to complete and was highly controversial, with frequent changes to the design, specification, budget — even a total change of location (4).
The building’s design has been described as minimalist, brutalist, Scandanavian modernist. The Prince of Wales — famous for his loathing of modern architecture — apparently described it as resembling an academy for secret police (4).
The British Library has, as a neighbour on Euston Road, the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel (formerly the Midland Grand Hotel). Designed by English Gothic revival architect George Gilbert Scott, the original hotel opened in 1873. It closed in 1935, but was extensively renovated and re-opened in 2011. (6)
The irony of Gothic Revival architecture is of course, that even when it was new, it was never modern.