A summer of rain and dark skies here in Devon – and now, amongst the blustery rainstorms, and occasional bright sunny periods that send me rushing out into the landscape, there is a new crispness in the air, and leaves are falling.
Wednesday night, I went with my daughter for a meeting of North Devon Arts (NDA), at the Broomhill Art Hotel, Barnstaple, where we had a delicious and convivial dinner followed by a talk and presentation by photographer, Chris Chapman. Chris is renowned and highly-respected for his documentary photographs of Dartmoor and its farming community during times of crisis and change.
The audience was seated in a hushed semi-circle, in the hotel’s comfortable lounge/gallery, and we waited expectantly – shifted seats from the centre of the front row to further along the side – and I informed the young woman sitting next to me that one could tell people’s psychology from the positions they chose to sit in. She said “Yes, I know.” We waited a few more minutes, and I smiled around at my fellow NDA members, looking vaguely for the people I had been chatting to during dinner – or at least someone I knew – but with no success.
My eyes were drawn to the beautiful polished curves of a double bass, leaning against the wall in front of us. And I lingered over its sensuous surfaces and tight strings. And I began to wonder why the hotel should have left a bass and a drum kit lying about… and weren’t they just a little bit late in setting up the projection screen for Chris’s presentation… I fiddled in my bag, and drew out a notebook and pen. Time to get serious.
Then I realised I had left my glasses in the car, and went off into the night to fetch them … and (of course you will have guessed) through the windows of another building, I saw a packed NDA meeting in full swing, and the talk about to start.
Rushed back, fetched daughter, and explained to the young woman that not only were we in the wrong seats, but the wrong meeting. I was seriously tempted to stay put and listen to the jazz concert – but thank goodness we didn’t, because Chris Chapman’s talk had a huge impact that I won’t easily forget. We found it moving, educational and were riveted by his insights into farming life on Dartmoor.
The talk reminded me of the importance of recording and archiving. Things change so fast. We are all aware of this now, more than ever before. It is so easy to forget and lose traditional knowledge and life skills, unless the stories are told and the information cherished. We saw an image of a farmer, who had invited Chris along to photograph the cider-making. Shortly afterwards, the farmer died, the farm was sold, and the next photo Chris took was of the very same building that housed the cider press, now just a heap of broken rubble.
Of course, as an environmental artist, I am always harping on about getting closer to the land, and living a more integrated life – but to be honest, I could not begin to cope with the harsh realities and sheer hard work, day after day, of farming life on Dartmoor. Or anywhere else for that matter.
During the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic that swept the region, Chris’s sensitive approach, together with his technical and aesthetic expertise resulted in some powerful photographs (some of which can be seen on his site ), revealing the distress and heartbreak experienced as farmers watched their valued beasts and livelihoods go up in smoke.
(See also fand-m-restrictions-nfu2)
I was equally moved by the documentation of a family during the process of selling up their farm, which had been in the family for generations. And another particular photo that stuck in my mind was of a farmer, scratching his head and desperately trying to make sense of a load of paperwork he was expected to fill in. Not everyone is suited to becoming slaves to bureaucracy, and it shocks me that no allowance is made for those living sane and wholesome lives, maintaining a vital connection with the land.
What can I say about Chris’s superb b/w images, other than to say take a look at his site, and try to get hold of his books. And what can I say about his evening’s talk, except that it was a privilege to hear him bring the people and their stories to life – giving a sense of the mystery, hardship and beauty of everyday life on Dartmoor.
Out in the windy rainy night, daughter and I decided to catch the end of the jazz. We helped to finish up the buffet supper, bought ourselves a couple of hot chocolates and settled down once again in the lounge. There we were treated to an hour of knock-out music by Killer Shrimp ( Ed Jones, sax; Damon Brown, trumpet, two of Britain’s top performers – with Ben Hazleton, bass and Troy Miller, drums.) From aching lyricism to relentless hard bop, their performance was breathtaking. It sent me straight to i-tunes the next day, to check out their terrific album: ‘Sincerely Whatever’.
Driving home in blustery weather, I had to avoid branches strewn across the road that had definitely not been there when we’d come out.