Reviews: Victory Point

Victory Point,
Owen D. Pomery,
Avery Hill

During the seemingly endless, long, slow days of the main part of Lockdown, Avery Hill released a trailer for Owen D Pomery’s upcoming Victory Point, and sent me a link to view it, along with a few preview pages. It’s fair to say I was smitten right away, and it brightened a Lockdown day; I’ve been waiting since then to get a proper read at the full graphic novel. I was not disappointed. I’ve long had what I refer to as my “bookseller’s Spidey-sense” (caused by a paper cut from a mildly radioactive book) that gives me a vibe on certain new books, before I have even read them, and I know I am going to like them a lot. I don’t know how that vibe works, but it’s never steered me to a bad read yet, and I got it in spades looking a the previews and trailer for Victory Point.

Owen’s educational and professional background is in architecture and illustration, and that shows very much in Victory Point. A small coastal village, it is unusual – not to mention extremely pretty – for having been designed entirely by one architect as part of a socio-architectural experiment in the inter-war years, to create a small town that would not only be a home to families but be a base for artistic and scientific colonies (perhaps inspired by some of the artist colonies that for many years drew creators to places like Saint Ives). In true British tradition, this vision was never fully realised, with only part of the town constructed, and it soon turned into a regular, quiet little seaside town, save for the unusual architecture that visually unites the area.

And what a style it is, all beautiful, clean lines of 30s Modernist architecture, elegant without being fussy, the buildings and streets carefully situated into the descending slope of the coastal landscape as it reaches down from cliffs above to the beaches and sea below, all drawn in Owen’s handsome, clear-line style. We first see Victory Point on a bright, summer’s day, as Ellen, a bookseller in the (unnamed) big city is returning by train; this is her home-town, and she is coming back to visit her dad.

The fact that it is a summer’s day makes it ideal for luxuriating in the views of these gorgeous Modernist buildings that festoon the slopes of the hills, the elegant curves, the whitewashed walls catching the light beautifully. I’ve always loved the architecture of this period, and there is something particularly nice about this style when on the coast. I still have childhood holiday memories of Morecambe in the summer, and the beautiful Midland Hotel (fortunately now refurbished and restored), with its Modernist and Art Deco grace right by the sea, catching the light and making me think of the great ocean liners from the golden age of travel – long before I was old enough to understand what those art and architectural styles were, I knew they were beautiful.

The pace of the story is leisurely, and this allows Owen to indulge himself and the reader in the luxury of just wallowing in a pool of beautiful illustrations, as the returning Ellen walks through her old home-town to her parent’s house, and we are treated to so many simply wonderful, beautiful panels, with many of the panels being large, or even entire pages, the better to drink in the art. The pictures also do a magnificent job of conveying something of that glorious light quality of a clear, summer day by the coast, especially on that handsome, whitewashed architecture.

Not that this is a book just about a beautiful architectural experiment turned delightful anomaly – students come out from the city to behold “what might have been” if the experiment had been completed and expanded to others, but they see only the myth of the genius of the designer, not the fact that it is a real place, with real people living real lives (I must confess, despite vastly different architecture – though just as striking – I experience the same often in Edinburgh where I live, where it feels many visitors see it almost as a set and forget it is a living, working place and home). No, there is a story here, about belonging, about home and leaving, about growing up, about being part of your family but also needing to be yourself, and that bittersweet mixture of hope and joy and regret and sadness that entails.

Victory Point perfectly captures that slightly surreal feeling of coming home when it isn’t really your home anymore, something most of us will have experienced. Going back to the home town, to the parental mansion, still home and yet, not really home, because now we are grown up and moved away somewhere else that is now home. But this is still somehow home too, but we feel a weird mix of being a visitor as well as belonging now. Likewise Ellen’s reunion with her dad expresses those feelings many of us will have had on going back home to a beloved parent, of realising they are getting older, that while you are all now adults and living your own lives, they are still forever interlinked, and that no matter how old you are, that feeling that in your parent’s heart of hearts, you are still their little child and they worry about you, want to help you, see you be happy, are planning, even now, to try and make sure you will be okay when they are no longer there (and how our minds rebel against the thought when they bring such plans up).

The artwork for the characters is reminiscent of the Herge style – no bad thing, of course – with the little dots for eyes and simple yet effectively expressive faces that still convey so much emotion despite their economy (a single panel of her dad hugging her when she arrives home is just beautifully done and radiates emotion), and characters, architecture and landscape are all integrated so well in Victory Point, not just from the visual, aesthetic point of view, but also in terms of the story and the competing emotions underlying it.

It felt to me that this elegant, beautiful, quirky failed socio-architectural experiment was in many ways a metaphor not only for Ellen’s life, but for any of our lives, how something can seem, from the outside, to look perfect, enviable even, be it another’s home or their life, compared to our own, but of course beneath those facades are the same complex problems everyone has. The use of matching architecture to make an almost uniform town, except real towns don’t exist that way, they’re a mixture of styles and periods, a melange, much like the lives of those who live in them. Or Ellen visiting the secretive little cove where she first learned to swim as a child, floating naked in the clear water, the perspective from above, showing the geology of the coastal hills meeting the sea, Ellen, wondering where her life will go next, floating, suspended between the sea and sky and land.

Yes, this is a visually stunning, beautiful piece of comics work, filled with elegant artwork and vistas designed to show those structures off, but it is also a quiet, gentle tale of life and growing up and our competing goals and emotional attachments to people and places that all go to make us who we are and form what we do, all the hopes and desire, all the fears and regrets. This is a book I will come back to again and again to just drink in.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

The Clyde Coast

Wemyss Bay Station 018

Dad and I went off down the Clyde coast over the holiday weekend, with glorious spring sunshine sparkling on the Firth of Clyde as we drove alongside. We visited the beautiful old station at Wemyss Bay, often counted as one of the ten most beautiful railway station in the British Isles. The old steel and glass canopy let the light flood into the station:

Wemyss Bay Station 01

The canopies above the platforms have a gentle curve to them, which coupled with perspective and the natural light coming in makes them a popular subject for many Scottish photographers:

Wemyss Bay Station 09

Wemyss Bay Station 014

The station was built to connect a railway spur to the Glasgow line to the coast and the steam ships plying the waters of the Firth of Forth, and the station still has a working dock for ferries to the islands, with this handsome wooden and glass sloping (and again slightly curved) walkway to take pedestrians from the station down to the berthed ferries:

Wemyss Bay Station 06

And talking of which, here’s one of the ferries, the Bute, coming into dock:

Wemyss Bay Station 019

Wemyss Bay Station 022

Wemyss Bay Station 024

Wemyss Bay Station 025

And on the way back up the coast we passed the beautiful Cloch Point Lighthouse, built in 1797 by Thomas Smith and his son in law Robert Stevenson, part of that great generational family of engineers, the Lighthouse Stevensons, whose line would also one day produce one of Scotland’s greatest writers, Robert Louis Stevenson, and whose remarkable feats of engineering still mark our coastline today and still protect mariners.

Cloch Point Lighthouse 01

Cloch Point Lighthouse 04

Cloch Point Lighthouse 05

Reaching to heaven

Horrified at the destruction of centuries of history, culture and art in the fire of Notre Dame. The last time I was there it was early spring, the sun had come out and shone on the centuries-old limestone. Walking around one side of the vast cathedral I looked up from the shadows it cast over the streets of the Ile de la Cite, to see the spire reaching up out of the shadows into a clear, blue heaven above:

Notre Dame from Ile de la Cite side street

In front of the iconic twin bell towers the first blossoms of spring were appearing on the trees in front of the cathedral. I was in Paris in the spring light, walking by the Seine and happy and drinking it all in. It’s ironic that mastering fire was part of what set early humans on the course to develop the level of civilisation that could create wonders like those cathedrals that took generations to build, and yet fire has devoured so much of our history and buildings, from the library of Alexandria to the Glasgow School of Art to Notre Dame last night.

Notre Dame and spring tree

Notre Dame 2

One of the great rose windows, this one at the front, between the bell towers, welcoming the curious visitor and the faithful alike, spring sun on old limestone:

Notre Dame detail

Tollcross by night

Tollcross at Night 05

Walking home the other evening, taking some night shots as I did, this batch were around Tollcross, like the lovely old Cameo Cinema (seen above), with people waiting at the bus stop in front of it, standing under the marquee, or this cafe and neighbouring shop, still busy with people (had to take quick shot between the traffic flowing by this busy area):

Tollcross at Night 02

And here’s the distinctive red sandstone facade of the King’s Theatre at night, the green building on the lower right of the theatre is Bennett’s Bar, one of my favourite watering holes for many years (good real ales, has cool old tables decorated with OS maps, and it’s dog-friendly):

Tollcross at Night 07

Moonrise

Gorgeously bright winter moonrise this evening. I was coming home from an afternoon walk so didn’t have the tripod, but had to try with the low light mode for a freehand shot. The result isn’t as sharp as with a proper long exposure on the tripod, but I had to try and grab this glorious, deep blue dusk sky and the Moon rising, just as it was about to go behind the tower of Saint John’s Church on Princes Street:

Moonrise and Tower 01

And a quick, rough freehand close-up:

Moonrise and Tower 02

Night-time at the Museum

Normally I like visiting the main hall of the original part of the National Museum of Scotland during the day, as the Victorian glass and steel roof means this large space is flooded with natural light, even on an overcast, cloudy day (several galleries along the railings are well served by this light, especially a row of sculptures). Still, it has a certain charm after nightfall too:

National Museum of Scotland at Night 01

I was zooming in on this handsome old wrought-iron drinking fountain with its elaborate surround. I had the camera on a tripod and used a (fairly short!) long exposure, the result was this very clear image of the fountain while the visitors around it were all motion blurred ghosts. It wasn’t a deliberate plan but I quite like the sort of quality it brought to this pic:

National Museum of Scotland at Night 02

Looking straight cross the main hall to the stairs ascending and descending at the opposite end:

National Museum of Scotland at Night 04

Meanwhile, a little earlier I had been on the roof terrace of the modern part of the museum, a free to visit spot that many seem to miss, but which offers splendid views out across Edinburgh’s Old Town in all directions, including eastwards to Athur’s Seat, the huge extinct volcano which sits in the Royal Park of Holyrood (by the palace) and gives us a chance for a country hill walk without leaving the town. Here is Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags catching the final half hour of golden light on a winter’s afternoon:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 01

Flocks of birds swooping around in tight formation over the rooftops of the Old Town as dusk falls on the short winter day:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 03

Spires and minarets of Heriot’s School silhoutted by the setting winter sun:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 05

Looking north from the roof terrace across the Old Town:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 06

And of course you get a terrific view of the Castle:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 07

And Outlook Tower, part of the Camera Obscura, which has been a visitor attraction in the city since the 19th century and still draws them in, sitting right in front of the entrance to the Castle Esplanade, again catching the last few minutes of winter daylight:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 08

And this one was an impulse shot – the east side of the roof terrace has a white wall, with a large section cut out. As the sun was rapidly reclining in the west it cast a gorgeous golden light, throwing shadows onto the white wall and that lovely, warm colour. Along with the cut-put viewing space in the wall acting like a picture frame with the dome of Old College (a distinctive landmark on the Old Town’s skyline) I thought I’d try a pic, quite pleased with how it came out, given it was a spur of the moment thing when I noticed how the light was hitting the wall:

Sunset framed and shadowed

Moonrise Kingdom

Watched the Moon rising over McEwan Hall the other evening, from the roof terrace of the National Museum of Scotland (one of the best spots for looking out over the roofs, spires and domes of Edinburgh – and like the museum it’s free):

Winter Moonrise 01

And while I had that elevated vantage point and dusk was falling, I thought I would try to zoom in a bit and see if I could get a Moon shot too:

Winter Moonrise 02

Then as night fell properly I went for a stroll with camera and tripod, over to Bristo Square and Edinburgh University to take a pic of the Teviot, which is the oldest purpose-built student union in the world (and resembles what Hogwart’s student union would look like if they served booze). Used to enjoy the regular CeilidhPartyDisco nights there when I was an undergrad (live band Ceilidh for first half of night, then late night disco, we had fun), still a hugely popular venue:

Bristo Square at night 02

And then the recently refurbished and enhanced McEwan Hall at night – this is just half an hour or so after the shot at the top of the dome with the Moon rising above it, already full darkness fallen. This is where my graduation ceremony took place, we all stood in this square afterwards taking photos with our families, feels like a lifetime ago now:

Bristo Square at night 04

After Dark

As we move deep into autumn and winter knocks at the door, that means it is getting darker earlier and earlier each evening. This isn’t all bad, of course, because that means I get to take night shots just by walking home from work of an evening. This was the world’s largest memorial to a writer, the great Gothic rocket of the Scott Monument, last night, at “Blue Hour”, that brief, magical twilight moment when the sun has set, the eastern sky is dark but the western sky still has a pale, blue light to it from the vanished sun below the horizon, one of my favourite times of day during autumn and winter, especially as that light quality in the sky silhouettes Edinburgh’s old buildings:

Scott Monument at dusk 02

This is looking west from Waverley Bridge, across the now-dark Princes Street Gardens towards the Mound, where the National Gallery of Scotland (on the left) and the Royal Scottish Academy (on the right) can be seen, with the western sky just fading into darkness, the last burst of colours before full nightfall:

The Mound - Blue Hour

Zooming in a bit more from the previous picture, the large, plate-glass, brightly-lit windows you can see below the Royal Academy are part of the Playfair extension which lies under the plaza on the Mound between the two galleries. It was completed a few years ago and connects both structures underground with more exhibition and work spaces, plus a cafe and restaurant by these windows, looking out into Princes Street Gardens:

darkening skies, bright windows

Last night on my way home from work, the iconic old Bank of Scotland building which stands at the top of the Mound by the road which curves up from the Georgian-era New Town to the medieval Old Town above on its volcanic ridge. There was a large crescent Moon rising in the early evening sky, and from this perspective it looked as it it were right above the dome on the bank building, so I had to get a shot of it. These are the sorts of things you just get to see walking home from work when you live in Edinburgh. Not a bad commute, is it?

Edinburgh Moonrise

Doo’cot

This charming old doo’cot is part of the estate around Elcho Castle in Fife, just a few miles from the River Tay:

Elcho Castle Doo'cot 02

The inside is slowly being colonised by nature, ferns and creeping plants growing out of the stone nest ledges of this hive-shaped old dovecot, which gave it a particular beauty, I think:

Elcho Castle Doo'cot 07

And looking up through the open roof to the sky beyond I liked the effect it made, and it just seemed like a scene that would work better in monochrome, so I switched to B&W mode on the camera and positioned myself looking straight up to get this:

Elcho Castle Doo'cot 06

Cloisters

I’ve been meaning to take some photos around the gorgeous old cloisters that divide the two main quadrangles in Glasgow University for ages, and as I was visiting nearby Kelvingrove then walking past the Uni with chums on the way to Ashton Lane (a regular haunt from the old days, lovely wee cobbled back street with indy cinema, bars, restaurants and cafes), we paused at the uni so I could get a few shots.

Cloisters 04

Cloisters 01

Glasgow University 04

Edinburgh from above…

Recently on a day off the sun came out to play – a low-in-the-sky winter sun, soft and golden light and long shadows. So I decided instead of going off to the cinema I’d go for a photo-walk, originally planning to walk up Calton Hill (which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote was one of the finest spots to take in views over our city) to take some photos looking out over Edinburgh. But on the way there, on a sudden whim I diverted into Princes Street Gardens and did something I haven’t done for years – climbed the Scott Monument. Several hundred narrow, spiral stone steps winding their way up over two hundred feet. Pretty exhausting, and, especially in the final third, pretty claustrophobic – the final couple of twists of the topmost steps is so narrow I couldn’t fit unless I turned side on! Not for anyone who gets dizzy easily, or fears enclosed spaces (and obviously not for anyone with no head for heights). But worth all the effort and discomfort, because two hundred feet up you get tremendous views over the ancient, volcanic geology and cityscape of Auld Reekie:

Edinburgh from above

Edinburgh from above 01

Jenners old department store with its richly carved facade normally towers over me as I walk along the street, peculiar to be looking down on it, rather than up…. As ever, click on the pics to see the bigger versions available on my Flickr page to see more details.

Edinburgh from above 04

Looking towards Saint Andrew Square and the tall column of the Melville Monument – normally I have to look up at this, but from the top of the Scott Monument I could zoom in and take a pic of the statue at the top from a straight-on perspective rather than angled up from the ground. In the background in the distance you can see some of the modern apartments which have sprung up in parts of the old dockside areas down in Leith, by the mighty Forth.

Edinburgh from above 05

Edinburgh from above 08

Looking eastwards towards the huge Scots-Baronial architecture of the Balmoral Hotel, which started life as one of the great Victorian railway hotels. The clock tower, a landmark on the Edinburgh skyline, has a timepiece which is actually set a few moments fast, by tradition – to encourage travellers to hurry down the stairs in front of it in time to catch their train in the station below. As with the Melville Monument I normally have to take pics from an angle looking up from far below, but from this vantage point I could zoom in and take a photo looking pretty much straight on for a change.

Edinburgh from above 09

Edinburgh from above 014

The great bulk of Arthur’s Seat, the enormous extinct volcano which sits right at the heart of the city, with the palace and parliament nestled at its feet, the whole lying in a royal park – you can go not just for a “countryside” walk but a decent bit of hill-walking here without leaving the city centre! And the views from the top are pretty spectacular too. Part of the ancient volcanic topography which gave Edinburgh its unique cityscape, it is also one of the places which inspired the modern science of geology, with Hutton wandering around Arthur’s Seat as he began to form some of the first understandings of how our planet is shaped over vast eons of time. And it’s a pretty spectacular piece of scenery to have right in the middle of a capital city – I rather enjoy looking at it each day on my way to work.

Edinburgh from above 018

The low, now rapidly setting winter sun casts shadows and warm tones across the western side of the New Town, with the tall, triple spires of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, more landmarks on the city’s skyline, almost silhouetted in the declining sunlight.

Edinburgh from above 019

And the view looking downwards towards Princes Street below!

Edinburgh from above 020

looking up

And here’s what I had to clamber up to take those pics – over two hundred feet of a Gothic rocket, like a stone version of Thunderbird Three. I have always thought it exceptionally civilised that this enormous monument – the largest monument anywhere in the world to a writer – is not dedicated to some king or general, but an author, a teller of tales, of stories and books. Given that my Edinburgh is built as much of the printed pages as it is history and geology and architecture (look here, Robert Louis Stevenon’s home, there the Sherlock statue marking where Conan Doyle’s family house was, there the pub where Inspector Rebus drinks in Ian Rankin’s novels, there the spot where the early encyclopedias and dictionaries were published, there a cafe where a then impoverished single mother huddled for warmth and wrote her tales of a boy wizard, here the Writer’s Museum, there the Storytelling Centre, over there the largest literary festival on the planet). The Scott Monument itself boasts dozens of sculptures from top to bottom, characters taken from Sir Walter Scott’s many books. Literature in stone.