Thursday, 28 July 2016

BEYOND with Mirja Paljakka

As I packed the sand into the bucket, I thought of Madge. 


Madge is the woman playing with my son on that same beach in the cine film which features in "Into the Light", my video about my shoot with Mirja Paljakka. Madge was a cleaner from Mansfield who came down on her own to London in the 1950s when she was only a teenager to look for work and one day knocked on the door of our house in Templars Crescent in Finchley to find that chaos reigned within. My mother had advertised for a cleaner and that was the reason Madge came calling that day. She became a permanent fixture in the family from that day on. Apart from the cleaning, she joined us on outings, she looked after us when my mother was away and she took us to the cinema. She cycled everywhere and, when she came to the house, we were often in the kitchen the window of which faced the side passage. First, we would hear the click-click-click of her bicycle wheels and the clomp of her high heels alongside and, as the unmistakable silhouette of her figure moved past the frosted glass of the window pane, the shout went up around the kitchen table "MADGE!!!" we all yelled. 

I have been photographed on this beach before but this was different. Any photographs after "Over the Hill" will be different. They will be less of a shoot and more a case of time spent with another person and taking photographs and/or filming in the process.

This time I was with Mirja Paljakka and her daughter Iiris who is only 14 years old but exudes charm and humour even though she was quiet and thoughtful during our time together. Her presence was important as it enabled me to witness Mirja the mother as well Mirja my new friend and Mirja the photographer. It was interesting to see the change in Mirja's demeanour as she picked up her camera - she was suddenly professional, a woman at work, an expert. Then she put her camera away and another side of her nature again came to the fore or maybe it was only hiding behind the lens -yes, it must only have been hiding because there is a warmth in the pictures she took which allied to her undoubted expertise enables her to convey so much to the viewer. When she sent me her photographs, she pinpointed the sadness of this image and there is a poignancy - the 65 year old man building castles of sand, thinking of his childhood and the childhood of his children - but there is also a sense of contentment about bringing the past, and the people in it, to life. Mirja did not know Madge but she knew what strong memories this photograph would evoke.

What Mirja also knew about was my desire to go further, to go beyond everything I had done before, beyond the road leading down to the gravel path, beyond the pebbles, beyond the huge expanse of grey sand, beyond the sea throwing up puffs of white foam as the waves rose and fell and beyond the sky spitting out the last vestiges of rain into the salty air. We did go further. My past unravelled before us and became their present. I watched them move about the beach revelling in new thoughts and new smells and sounds and in the feel of the sand and sea on their hands as they bent down and picked up a shell, a small chunk of dried mud or a strand of seaweed. Mirja, all smiles behind her glasses and Iiris a small black figure standing alone at the edge of the water like a scene from an Ingmar Bergman film and thinking quietly to herself, working out the relevance of all this to her life as she took advantage of the physical and mental space provided that morning and which we all covet.   

After a long time spent on the beach, we went to the chuchyard where my darling sister is buried. She died 20 years ago and I led them both around the church building to her grave still marked by a simple cross with her name, "JANET", chiselled into the wood. Mirja said that we should have brought flowers but I replied that it did not matter and I placed a small stone on the cross to signify that we had been there. Mirja scooted off to photograph flowers and gravestones. Then Iiris bent down and plucked a daisy from the grass and placed it carefully next to the stone. I looked at the petals white and pure against the yellow centre which itself shone, like the sun which was slowly beginning to filter through the leaves of the overhanging trees, and I thanked her. We wandered back to the car past a nest of bees in a grill in the exterior wall of the church and one memory, then another and another brushed through my mind urgently but then faded leaving only vague traces hanging like cobwebs in a corner.

We had lunch in the pub on the green, The Old House at Home, and I described to them how the interior used to be laid out and in between conversation more recollections came back to me. 

....fading faces in a waking dream.....

I cried as I told them a story and then we drove to see my friends, Elizabeth and Richard, who live by the sea a few miles up the coast and who welcomed us with smiles, tea, sandwiches, more tea and interesting conversation. We decided to swim as, by then, the tide had come in. The waves were high but not too high and the water warm. Iiris was in her element as she and Mirja splashed about and I dived into the water luxuriating in their laughter - what a lovely day this had been. But we weren't quite finished yet. We said our goodbyes and drove back towards Chichester and as we passed the turning to the Yacht Basin, I pointed out the hills to the north in the distance. It was getting late and we were all tired (and satisfied) but I said that we would take a small detour and, after flitting past the ancient city walls, the Cathedral, the little houses on St Paul's Road and the Festival Theatre sunning itself in the green of Oaklands Park waiting for another performance to begin, we found ourselves on the open road leading to Singleton and Goodwood. The car climbed towards the Trundle and we turned off through a dark tunnel of trees which, after about a hundred yards, opened out into the parking area. We got out of the car and Mirja caught her breath again as we stood on a bank to feast our eyes on a the plain leading to Chichester and then beyond to the sea, the same sea in which we had swum only a short time before and before that, had walked beside. 


I delivered two very tired and salty Finns to their door and the next day, returned to collect them and take them to the station to continue the next part of their trip.

I thought initially that the photographs that I received afterwards from Mirja were wonderful but not as important as the feelings we had experienced together. I was wrong. It was her photography which brought her to me, which told me about her before we met and which recorded our day. Mirja is an intuitive, knowledgable artist. Her work is wonderfully clear and simple. It speaks of her experiences, her interests and her passions. It is not complete in that I feel, like me, she has a desire to go further in her search for the new as well the old. And where is that? Beyond? Beyond what? The sea, the sky, the secrets we hold in our hearts? Beyond all understanding? 

I haven't a fucking clue.....................but the search continues........


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