Saturday, 10 August 2013

Bletchley Park’s Vintage Toys

Bletchley Park is a wonderful place, the home of the code breakers and now rightly being given the funding it deserves to renovate and improve. On the same site, the National Museum of Computing, full of nostalgia and vintage functioning computers and equipment, including a magnificent rebuild of Colossus.

But, one potentially overlooked exhibit is the wonderfully nostalgic Toy museum. There are an abundance of toys and games (e.g. original meccano), clothing and ornaments, wartime propaganda and toys, austerely made - “Make and Mend”.

What really caught my eye was the dolls.

There was something haunted about them, sometimes they were sinister. Maybe the decades without the love of a child has slowly emptied them. Perhaps a hug will make them glow again.

Decide for yourself, a selection of photos I took with my iphone. (all photos © Mel Melis – all exhibits hosted at Bletchley Park – reproduced without seeking financial gain)

This poor doll sat staring from her pram, looking up into space. She never cries.

Mamma bear’s gonna mess you up.

They’re waiting, they’re watching in the cabinet.

Strange, none of them seemed to be smiling.

And when they do smile, it’s hiding some terrible tragedy. I imagined this clown was visiting the grave of his wife.

Did she chew those bear ears off? Is she still hungry? The bears have been injected with a paralysis venom. She can take her time to consume them.

Scary. Atomic Kitten 1940.

This little lad has seen terrible things. I hope that’s not a garrotte.

An angry gnome (or an Amish farmer forced to wear tartan). Something simmers behind those eyes.

Devil soup

Just faces. Peeled off faces. No biggie.

This embryo terrified me.

Needle toothed golly, hung out to dry.

She made me want to cry!

The furious death stare.

A fragile girl. Fractured.

This made me laugh, he’s a bloody lipped vampire yokel

Flaking away


* – In all seriousness this is a lovingly preserved collection, the slow bite of time adds to the poignancy of any visit. Go! I implore you! Go to Bletchley Park! You wont regret it.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Blackbirds and Dragonflies

All photos © Mel Melis

We moved house in May, we’ve got an old converted barn on the edge of the old moor. Beyond our hedge, a river runs behind the overgrown field. We’re very lucky. Summer took its time to arrive, but now it has we’ve had some amazingly beautiful days. We get the full glory of the setting sun from our back porch, the rays scattered by patchy cloud.

Somewhere in the river Kingfishers’ and Otters’ fish. I haven’t seen either yet, but I’m hopeful. I’m impressed with the birdlife in the garden though. Jays, finches of all sorts, swifts, tits and mammals too, most notably moles unfortunately causing mini subsidence patches where you tread and inadvertently collapse their tunnels. As well as that, in the dusk, bats, super manoeuvrable and quick, not much bigger than a bumblebee, chasing and catching moths in flight. Our most regular visitor though, is this bizarrely tailless and bold blackbird. We think she’s young. Skips right up to you.

Here she is gathering bugs from the lawn. I just happened to be lying down in the grass with my camera at the time. She posed several times.

Isn’t she pretty? Is she a blackbird?

And less than 100 yards away is a pond. On the day when it was over 30 degrees, I finished work about six and wandered down, dangled my legs over the wooden platform which overlooks the pond and watched the dragonflies duelling and mating. The pond was green with algae, partially evaporated in the heat, needing a top up in the dry spell. A pea soup.

The dragonfly behaviour was interesting. Some would position themselves on twigs or reeds and charge out to combat any intruders. Their flight seems to defy gravity, deftly forward, back and from side to side, occasional hovering, then with a speed that almost looks like a dematerialisation and teleport they appear hovering in another spot a split second later.

Needless to say I didn’t get any photos of them in flight, just when they stood sentry.

Not sure what species these are, there are several UK varieties. These were big (perhaps 3 inches long) but there were bigger blue / purple ones, who actually crackled when they accelerated, the power in their wing beat audible over the torpid silence of the murky green. Those big ones didn’t settle, they kept patrolling and harassing.

One thing I did notice is that this species mated in flight, after disengaging, the female (I assume) would then dip her abdomen into the water at various points, whilst still flying of course. Having researched it, she was actually laying her fertilised eggs. Should the larva hatch and survive, they’d turn into quite the pond predator. The larva can live for a few years under water, when they emerge, the dragonflies only live for a couple of months, their purpose seemingly to mate, lay their eggs and die.

Finally a picture of a bright little damselfly. The intensity of the blue is beautiful.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Pasty vs Japan

Here’s a bit of flash fiction (less than 100 words), based on a real event at work on Thursday, with only a teensy bit of embellishment… © Mel Melis


The Japanese visitors threaded into our canteen. Besuited and formal, I watched fascinated as one of them selected a pasty as his lunch choice. After paying, they found a bench table. They huddled round it, like they were conducting an alien autopsy. Hushed tones. The knife pierced the bready carbohydrate thick skin, a hiss of steam emanated, the pasty gasped in pain, dying and deflating. Surgeon-san then sliced it open, only to reveal… even more carbohydrate, this time in the form of potatoey cubes. They all looked very disappointed.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas)

I went to the Courtauld Gallery a few weeks ago, a few days prior to the Becoming Picasso exhibition closing.

I keep making the point that I’m an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to appreciating art, but from what I’ve seen, Picasso’s blue period is intensely interesting.

The paintings inspired by his friend, the poet Casagemas, who’d committed suicide in Paris in 1901 are sad and poignant.

The painting I found the most beautiful was Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas) painted that same year.

Blue is always an appealing colour to the eye, we are naturally drawn to it and a gallery space hanging with some of the most magnificent “blue” Picassos was a special privilege.

The picture in this blog post doesn’t do justice to this painting, it’s big and subtle, full of depth and sensitivity. Picasso was making sense of the death of a loved one. The corpse of the poet lies in the bottom left, mourners cry and bid him goodbye, but Casagemas is ascending to heaven, death rides a white horse. And his companions, his angelic host, are naked prostitutes, standing on clouds. One of them drapes herself round his shoulders, a last kiss before he leaves this world.

What a wonderful painting.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Manchester Art Gallery, Melancholy

I haven’t blogged in weeks, so I thought I’d make myself write a post, to get back into the discipline of it. I’m getting lazy, although I have been busy of late.

So, Manchester Art Gallery.. although my favourite painting, Hylas and the Nymphs by Waterhouse is exhibited there, I’ll not dwell on it, but what I will say is that the nymphs are all so pretty I want to shove the burly Argonaut out of the way, perhaps into a thorny topiary, be beguiled myself and jump in the water with them. So, moving on..

The three paintings I wanted to focus on all have an air of melancholy about them, when visiting galleries on my own, I am immersed in my own thoughts, I have a different appreciation to that which I get when I visit with others. An experience which is more focused and perhaps drawn more to the dark.

The three paintings are, An Island by LS Lowry (1942), Mamma Mia Poveretta by Walter Sickert (1901-1906) and Under Windsor Bridge on the Irwell, Manchester (Adolphe Valette 1912).

The minimal grey-dark colours and compositions of all of these paintings, pull and drag at you. I was attracted to them. It was a mid-April evening, Thursday was late opening night, outside was cold and oppressive, the clouds heavy with threatening rain which fell intermittently. The scene was set.

Lowry’s “An Island” is so sad. A building, seemingly intact, amongst a wasteland. In the midst of the second world war, it isn’t clear to me (although I’m sure a bit of research will reveal the answer) whether the devastation around the mill in the centre of the painting was caused by bombs or social decay. Either way, the building is abandoned, everything around it is shattered. Lowry, a painter I never really paid much heed to before, because I’d never spent enough time to appreciate him, has captured something so lonely. He painted this at a time when he was suffering from depression, you can sense something of this.

(pic from bbc “your paintings”)

I’ve always admired Walter Sickert, he painted social scenes, dark themes, even in his paintings of music halls, beyond the colour, the light captures the haggard hard life on the faces of performers and in the crowd. This painting, one I’d never seen before is called Mamma Mia Poveretta (“my poor old mother” I believe is a fairly accurate translation). One of his models or acquaintances brought in her mother for him to paint and you can see the world weary beauty of this old Italian lady. The lines in her face, the quiet dignity in her eyes. Although dark, I think this is a delightful painting. She’s been asked to sit, to pose quietly and this captures something of her essence.

Finally, a work by another painter I haven’t really appreciated to date, Alphonse Valette, his impressionism took in scenes of industrial Manachester. The gloom and ghostly transience of his paintings are incredible. This painting, “Under Windsor Bridge on the Irwell, Manchester” is fabulously rich despite it’s minimal use of colour. You can taste the fog, feel the cold in the hunched shoulders of the man with his back to us.

There is so much to see in Manchester Art Gallery, the pre-Raphaelite collection is inspiring of course, but there’s more.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The North Sea

We’re in Aldeburgh in Suffolk. We are having an unfeasibly long winter, snow at the end of March. I went for a run in the painful cold. My body, my crow food carcass helped me write a poem when I got back. A couple of photos from the relative warmth of our apartment window follow.

Gulls and terns

take turns

to shriek and giggle

the sullen crows

watching, will he fall?

red in the grey of the storm

carrion, he’s carrion, meat

they whisper,

shadows gathered in the shingle pits

safe from the ice daggers

charging over the battered bluff

the empty head of a fish

already finished, rolling away.

Run, keep running

one side’s done, numb

turn around, let the sea

bite your other side

flaying symmetry.

Think, old Northmen

their dragon boats.

Today is safe, they’re

clustered in fjord harbours

but their howling ghosts

rail impotent

with the wind

barging at the closing door

© Poem and Photos. Mel Melis, March 23rd 2013

Friday, 8 February 2013

Kraftwerk–Autobahn at the Tate Modern. 6th February 2013

Hello 2013.

When the Tate announced they were going to be hosting a series of gigs by Kraftwerk I was of course excited, they were to play a classic album over 8 nights, covering a large chunk of their back catalogue from Autobahn (1974) to Tour De France (2003). Much sampled, Kraftwerk are engineers, pioneers, but the most part they are musical geniuses, I had to try and get tickets. I’ve been a big fan for years, they’re a band who deliver songs about computers, radioactivity, roads, trains, vitamins and robots with a deadpan credibility, combining soaring emotive melodies with the starkness of industrial synths. They were technological pioneers with their home made instruments / drum kits. In many fields, it’s when science combines with arts that the most intriguing work is generated and Kraftwerk uniquely sit awkwardly and majestically apart in the musical space. Their fans range from socially awkward computer geeks, punks, hippies to dance/techno heads.

Little did I, or anyone else know, that the Tate, in homage to the computer technology of the 70s, would be using a ticketing system which had the total capacity of 16k.

Within seconds of the tickets going on the market, their website fell to pieces, leaving the many thousands of fans no alternative but to telephone, how retro.

After possibly three-hundred (perhaps more) redials, using two phones, over three hours, I finally got through, to speak to a sore throat suffering croaky young man, brow beaten by the sheer battering of phone calls he and his colleagues had suffered that morning. He timidly offered “sorry for the long wait”, knowing that for some people this was a invitation to savage him. I was fairly sanguine though, I’d got through, this young man was my ticket to tickets, there was no way I was going to upset him!

I managed to get four tickets for the opening night, Autobahn. It was a cold evening on the South Bank, the dim blue glow on millennium bridge drawing us towards the imposing beast that was the Tate Modern. The gig was to be held in the huge space of the turbine hall. It seemed apt that the former power station be host to the band whose name means “power plant” in German.

As far as gigs go, this was one of the most polite I’d ever been to, we were issued with 3D glasses and cushions going in. Me, Neil, John and John then strode down to the front and got a good pew. Once the beeps and whizzes of “Robots” started to jangle behind the curtain… people inevitably stood up, so with cushions discarded, the curtain dropped and we were given a memorable show. Somehow, these elderly German gentlemen managed to pull off the outfits, one piece cat suits with no dubious bulges, hernias or Camel-toes on show (I’ve looked it up, it’s kamelzeh in German – heh!).

Photo from the opening track “Robots”.

With the sublime Robots out of the way, they then played through the Autobahn album. The title track is a 22 minute beast, although it seemed to have been cut down to around 15 minutes. It was a brilliantly fun advert for classic German motoring of the 60s/70s, with the 3D imagery thrusting VW Beetles and old Mercedes cars towards us rubbing our fallen Britisher faces in the wreckage of our once proud manufacturing industry. (I’m sure this wasn’t their intention)

The album itself is perhaps one when Kraftwerk were finding their modern sound, really exploiting the new technology. It isn’t their best in my opinion, but it’s certainly groundbreaking. And being less than 40 minutes long, they were soon through the more ambient “B side”. It was a lovely starter.

Then they rolled through their back catalogue. The crackle of Gieger Counter rolled into Radioactivity (it’s in the air for you and me) and we were off on a whistle stop tour of their albums!

Some songs were faithful to the original, some were given a modern, dancy twist. Kraftwerk have been playing a number of art galleries around the world and it’s quite apt they seemed to give a slot to each album covered chronologically. It was like walking through an exhibition, as much a historical retrospective as a gig.

(another pic from Radioactivity)

The turbine hall, that immense space was perfect for their sound, there was no distortion, the synth bass really punched you in the chest and of course, they were musically perfect. Trans Europe Express was much better live than the studio version, you could feel the train powering down the tracks (and see it hurtling towards you on the 3D backdrop).

Here’s Ralf Hutter (the only original member left) during it. Couldn’t fit the train in, sorry. I love the fact Afrika Bambaataa sampled this for his pioneering hip-hop track Planet Rock.

Tracks from Man Machine (every song played other than Metropolis) and Computer World were well represented (they didn’t play Pocket Calculator to my disappointment though) and when Numbers came on it felt like an insane techno German sesame street learn to count song. Superbly mental. The visuals were overwhelming, numbers throwing themselves at you, in multiple languages, a total savant meltdown.

Vitamin is a fun pop-dance song too, about a ridiculous subject. The 3D tablets cascaded towards us, I resisted the urge to snatch at them. I’d have only got a handful of virtual laxatives probably.

It was a real privilege to be there, I was lucky to get tickets. One of the best gigs I’ve been to. We were all a bit lost for words afterwards. And I leave you with Neon Lights, one of the most beautiful songs ever written, quite apt for the South Bank and London.

Cheers Kraftwerk!