Monday 20 April 2020

Postcards From My Hometown - 1, The Beach, Redcar

When I travel I still like to send postcards. I know this is considered terribly old fashioned especially when Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and a host of other platforms offer the opportunity to immediately send a virtual postcard to scores of people. I also enjoy sharing news and pictures online but still think there's something special about receiving a hand written postcard addressed to me personally.

However sending postcards from abroad can sometimes be a challenge. A few years ago I bought some beautiful cards in Guatemala but then found that the country had suspended its postal service so I couldn't send them. I eventually posted them from Costa Rica where I had a short stopover on the way home. It felt a bit like cheating. On my first visit to the Philippines in 2016 I purchased some postcards in Vigan, a beautiful historic city and a World Heritage Site. I took them to the post office where I was greeted with a smile and the confusion as the staff explained that it was so long since anyone had sent postcards that they no longer had details of what to charge me. They very politely  told me that "everyone sends pictures home on their phone these days sir," before a nominal charge was decided and the cards handed over. 

I should explain that I don't send hundreds of cards but always try to find one for my elderly relatives, my grand daughters and one or two friends in different countries who I think will appreciate receiving them. I know my aunt has a collection of every card I have ever sent her and when my dad was alive he carefully steamed off the stamps so that he could add them to his collection. Speaking of collections I must admit that I have hundreds of postcards that I've bought at exhibitions, markets and even online. They cover a wide range of subjects - vintage advertising, Art Deco and art nouveau architecture, souvenirs from places I visited years ago and lots of those cards that art galleries sell to generate a little income. What do I do with them? They are useful research tools and sometimes come in useful for blogging but for the most part I keep them in boxes under my sofa and look at them perhaps once in a few years. Still,  I am loathe to be parted from them.

I recently bought some vintage cards from the Saltburn Frame Company, a great little gallery and framing shop inside Saltburn Station. All of them are historical views of my home town, Redcar. The first, at the top of this post is a beautiful image of fishing boats on the beach during low tide and of very stylish people strolling along the promenade or standing on the beach. The women wear long heavy skirts, the men are sporting boaters and even the boys wear caps. The woman with the white parasol standing on the beach and looking out to sea is especially elegant. Today the sea front is   quite run down but the image here shows that this was not always the case. The Royal Hotel, on the left hand side of the picture was once owned by the parents of actress June Laverick closed several years ago and has been converted into flats.

The rear of the card identifies this image as one of the famous Frith's series. Francis Frith was a pioneering photographer, born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire in 1822. He was a man of many talents. He became a founding member of the Liverpool Photography Society in 1853 (established just 14 years after the invention of the art), ran a major publishing business and was also the owner of a successful grocery store. Frith was prolific, producing not only a photographic record of Britain but also travelling extensively, practising his art in Egypt, Ethiopia, Lebanon and Syria. He died in 1898 and his photographic publishing company was taken over by his son and later by his grandson.  According to online data the picture at the top of this post, number 47993 was taken in 1901 so can't have been his own work. The postmark shows the card to have been sent at 5.30pm on July 20th but the year is not legible. The stamp bears an image of King George V whose reign ran from 1910 to 1936 but of course these stamps would have remained in circulation for some time after his death.

The card was sent to a woman called Hilda who lived not very far from Redcar in Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough. The writing is difficult to read, even with the help of a magnifying glass, but the sender reports that it is a lovely day, very hot albeit a little cloudy and that they had been outside from 10 am until 12.45. Unfortunately his or her name is illegible but the message reminds me of the things my relatives wrote on cards sent from Torquay and Bournemouth whilst I was growing up.

Look out for more postcards from Redcar coming soon!

Monday 6 April 2020

Picture post 73 - Purim in Mea Shearim

On March 11th I was walking the streets of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, camera in hand, witnessing its Ultra Orthodox community celebrating Purim. A lot has happened since then and life has changed so much that rather than a few short weeks it seems like months ago. Two days later as the situation rapidly deteriorated with more and more cases of the coronavirus being reported and restrictions on movement and travel beginning to be implemented, I cut my trip short and came home. I had planned to write about my time in Mea Shearim soon after my return but I fell ill with the virus and was unable to do anything much for a couple of weeks. I am much better now and bit by bit am able to resume my normal activities.

Mea Shearim is one of the oldest Jewish neighbourhoods outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. The name literally translates as one hundred gates but can also be understood as one hundred fold. Founded in 1874 it was funded through a partnership of 100 share holders who purchased land outside the old city in order to escape the poor sanitation and to live in a healthier environment. The contractors for the project were Yosef Rivlin a prominent member of the Jewish community who worked with a Christian Arab to construct a courtyard neighbourhood surrounded by a wall, the gates of which were locked every evening. 

Today the area is populated almost exclusively by different groups of Haredi, ultra-Orthodox Jews who strictly maintain religious laws, wear modest clothing and generally live separately from the the rest of society. This separation includes rejecting many aspects of modernity, including as a rule, photography. However on certain occasions it is possible to enter the neighbourhood to respectfully and discretely take pictures. However to is not acceptable to take portraits without permission and if people signal that they do not wish to be photographed it is my strong advice to respect that.

Purim is one of Judaism's happier festivals, celebrating the survival of the Jews in ancient Persia and the foiling of a plan to exterminate them. It is celebrated rigorously, almost riotously in  Mea Shearim. Many people take part in the tradition of wearing a disguise or costume, the many yeshivas (schools focusing on the study of religious texts) hold mass celebratory events in the presence of important rabbis and some of the men of this normally sober community indulge heavily in the consumption of alcohol.

As I walked the streets of the neighbourhood with a photographer friend we met with a variety of responses. Some people hurried away or covered their faces when they saw the cameras. One or two called al tetzalem b'mea Shearim - do not take pictures in Mea Shearim, whilst others were curious, wanted to talk a little and in some cases were happy for a portrait to be taken. Most interesting were some of the children who having seen us, would approach, not speaking but inviting us to admire their costumes and to photograph them by standing and posing in front of us, such as the boy in the clown suit pictured above. 

Perhaps the highlight of my time in Mea Shearim was spending an hour in a particular yeshiva where hundreds of Haredi men stood swaying, chanting and singing in the open air on bleacher style seating whilst the rabbis sat at an elevated table observing the proceedings. The singing could be heard several streets away, strong, loud and beautiful. Arriving in the grounds of the yeshiva I first entered a refectory where food and copious amounts of wine were laid out on a series of tables. Several of the men looked the worse for wear including boys perhaps as young as ten or eleven, some of them collapsed on the floor whilst others had over indulged so much that they were physically ill in the courtyard. One or two became very loud from the alcohol, dancing, falling and in some cases collapsing. In the midst of this I noticed a young man wearing an immaculate kaftan (coat) and cap who had perhaps the saddest eyes I have ever seen. Standing alone he seemed preoccupied and apart from the others. He is pictured at the top of this post.

Back in the streets we came across family groups on their way to visit relatives, the children all wearing costumes. Looking up we noticed many small children playing on balconies and watching the activity below with much interest. We also met Shmuel aged 12 who was looking after a bakery but was happy to pose for us. I asked him if the bakery belonged to his father. He said it didn't and that he didn't want to say who owned it. The residents of Mea Shearim are often suspicious of outsiders which probably explains his answer.

Back home and in lockdown, I have no idea when my next expedition will take place. In the meantime readers are welcome to follow my instagram account  or Flickr page.