Sunday, 9 September 2012

Assignment 5 pre-amble



Curious weather conditions, I thought might be a visual analogy for the text
Mono version might offer an extra level of menace
It always appears curious to me when things start to come together almost as a set of random circumstances. I don’t really believe in coincidences in the normal run of things, but I do believe that we can all make connections to apparently random things and then start to make sense from them. The following is how I came upon deciding the brief for Assignment five – People and Place.
I brought Mark into my team around a decade ago, he’s a naturalized Australian having been born and raised in New Zealand, his wife Jen has a similar heritage. We became friends, that friendship was behind the visit to us albeit they were in the UK visiting their daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters. Randomly we decided to take them to a few places one of which was “Broadway Tower – the highest little castle in the Cotswolds”, which while interesting in itself was not what held my interest. The Tower property also came with it’s own “Nuclear bunker”! During the 1950’s some 1500 and more bunkers were created, usually at sites operated by the Royal Observer Corps, to monitor occurrences in the event of a nuclear episode. These sites were only bunkers in the sense that they were underground – about 20 feet or so – and had radiation protection, support systems for a couple of weeks and (potentially) communication systems to a "cluster" of other “bunkers” in the network feeding vital information to the Ministry of Defence.
The initial visit, purely by chance, held my interest for a lot longer than normal tourist opportunities – Broughton Castle, where Lord Saye personally invited us to have a squint at the upper rooms where a “squint” was incorporated in one of the rooms, the pottery where we saw how they hand painted china, these left me very quickly, but the human story inside these “bunkers” started to grow in me. I found the email address of the Tower and requested permission to take some photographs for my final assignment in the module I was working on; I would of course offer them any images I took at Hi Res’ and they could do what they wanted with them. They seemed delighted with the request and I had a few email exchanges and we agreed that I would turn up, relatively early on Saturday 8th September where they were planning an “Open-Day”.
I had thought a lot about what the original visit had meant to me, listening to the ex-ROC volunteer (they only use ex ROC volunteer’s, probably because they have a habit of volunteering and therefore don’t cost a lot), what he had to say about the facility, the conditions they worked under and more specifically, the sub-text I discerned about their expectations in the event there was an event. I reflected on what I thought about their sacrifices, the duty of service these men offered – “free-of-charge”, how dispensable they appeared to be in the great game of war, how futile their efforts would have been at the end of the world as we knew it then. I wanted to somehow weave that narrative into my set of pictures. Essentially I wanted the brief to be about how this bunker appeared to the general public today – the owner wants to have a display board of my pictures to entice the public to pay for a visit to the site a hundred yards or more from the Tower – but I wanted it to also be able to portray the futility of their contribution to the “war-effort”. How that their sole purpose was to detect, record and inform on the detonation of a nuclear explosion in order that our government could ensure a retaliatory action designed to obliterate as many Russians as possible – WW1 trench warfare mindset to it’s limit – whilst the politicians, safe in one or more of their subterranean domiciles could live in sublime isolation for the duration of the half life of Strontium 90 before reappearing to breakfast in a Nuclear wasteland some 30 years or more in a post apocalyptic future.
I was met by the owner on the morning of the 8th September, he wanted to ask what I had planned, I said that I wanted to try and capture the place as best I could, he seemed less interested in my motives and suggested that what he wanted was a set of pictures that enticed people into the bunker i.e. pay for the privilege. He was concerned that I didn’t provide too much detail, so that the potential visitors couldn’t say “well I’ve seen that now, no need to bother”. I found myself thinking at the time he was talking how that resonated with how I felt these ROC volunteers were treated in the past. How the Government never provided training above and beyond the use of the three instruments vital to the role of the bunker. The Government saw fit to provide enough rations for up to two weeks, whereupon they were informed that the radiation levels would be 1/1000th of what it was when the bomb was detonated, but they still had to go outside to fuel the generators, charge the batteries and for other duties. A one thousandth was still ample enough to ensure a slow lingering death or genetic problems should they ever have the chance for reproduction again (with whom would be a more pertinent question). They knew that they were doomed, the speakers on the day had that awareness and it was talked about during their talks when I visited. And anyway, it might have been 1/1000th of one explosion, but the nature of the military mind at the time was to annihilate the enemy and there would have been multiple explosions, 1/1000th of what level?
So the analogy of what the Government had provided these volunteers and the way in which the owner today wanted to provide less than the whole picture played on my mind as I went about the project of collecting images. It was a special day, some original journals had come to light that were written by one of the volunteers and they were being returned. Hand written in MoD log books, these entries showed the banality of everyday life for these ROC volunteers, about maintenance of the equipment, about meetings to decide rosters, about fund raising activities, about social events. This "special day" made it possible to view more than would normally be on view, at least above ground but it also made it much busier than I had hoped for. The owner though was concerned that there weren’t enough people coming through the gate – and rightly so from his perspective.
I listened to the various hosts on the day, how they not only told their stories, but how they had reflected both contemporaneously and now, after all those years after the MoD told them, usually by a telephone call to the cluster leader that their services were no longer required – which is how those journals came to be thrown away in disgust at their treatment – and that the bunkers are now either derelict or buried, as is "Cold War" theory today. We now have another international body corporate enemy to deal with - and we understand them even less that we did the Russians.
The bunker in Broadway isn’t as it was, the owner has turned it into a museum of contemporary paraphernalia loosely associated with the function and era of these bunkers. The instruments are real, the uniforms are real and the volunteers, what remain of them, are very real reminders of a past where the sense of duty outweighed their more parochial responsibilities. The bunker is a fine example of what they were like, it has stood the test of time due to a lack of moisture ingression and the local farmer herding his long-horn cattle in the field adjacent to the site, keeping would be interested parties at bay. I hope it doesn’t become a trivial memento of these volunteers past, as I feel it will mock the trivial value that our Government at the time vested in their efforts.

25 comments:

  1. I began to feel so angry when I was reading your excellent 'pre-amble' John. From my perspective it's hard to understand the psychological process which allows people to enter so willingly into what is, more or less, a futile endeavour. At least your own project won't be a trivial memento.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Catherine, it is difficult to appreciate what went through these men's minds when they signed up to be volunteers. I think the Government would probably have expected a significant number not to turn up to the "last call" if the balloon ever went up and who can blame them with what we know now?

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  2. You hear so little of these bunkers...1,500 that is loads...I wonder how many other government secrets there are out there. It'll also be interesting to see how different the set you submit for your assignment is from the series you provide the owner. Look forward to seeing the full set.

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  3. Thanks Penny, I had planned to make a photo video of this assignment - really as an accompaniment to the images; however my tutor thought, independently that the project might make a good AV project. So I might switch it to have the pictures as subsidiary to the video!!! Steep learning curve with 10 minutes of video with sound of two ex ROC observers discussing their roles and the function of the Corps.. I've posted some images for the Owner of the Tower on the Reflections blog site here http://jsu-reflections.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/broadway-tower-nuclear-bunker.html. I haven't had a response yet (not sure if that's a good sign or not!

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