Tonight, miraculously, I had got my three children into a church for the first time in I don’t know when. Normally it would be easier to get them into a cold shower. Their mother was singing in a choir at a Christmas Carol concert in St Andrew’s central church in Plymouth; foregoing the Xbox and the Facebook they came out to support her.
The church stands on a spot in the city, where there has been a house of worship in one form or another since the 8th century.
In March 1941, the Church was bombed and badly damaged. Amid the smoking ruins a local headmistress nailed over the door a wooden sign saying simply Resurgam (Latin for I shall rise again), indicating the wartime spirit, a gesture repeated at other devastated European churches. That entrance to St Andrew’s is still referred to as the “Resurgam” door and a carved granite plaque is now permanently fixed there.
The repairs took a long time to complete and St Andrews was re-consecrated on the 30th November 1957, St Andrew’s Day.
The Carol Concert was in aid of the RNLI – the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. For those who do not know, the RNLI is the organisation that co-ordinates a network of over 340 coastal rescue lifeboats manned by unpaid volunteers who risk their lives at anytime of the day or night to rescue people and vessels that are in distress around our coastline. These extraordinary men and women have day jobs, but when that blare of the coxswains’ horn blows (or their mobile phones ring in modern day) they drop whatever they are doing, rush to the lifeboat station and jump into a moving boat as it shoots down the slipway into rhe angry sea. They go wherever they are sent, regardless of the conditions, whatever the hour, however the distance to reach those who are in peril on the sea. On rare tragic occasions; they do not return.
In their 150 years the RNLI crews have saved nearly 140,000 souls. This year the Plymouth Lifeboat station has launched a crew 93 times. They all returned safely, usually with a tethered boat in tow or rescued seamen on board. Just like the New York Firemen; when that bell goes they don’t know if it’s a rubbish bin on fire or the World Trade Centre. The commitment and dedication is just as great.
Man’s contribution to fellow man doesn’t get much better than this.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose thinking of these brave people as we sang “While Shepherds watched their flocks by night”
The Choir did “oh, Hand me down my silver trumpet, Gabriel” The room was rocking!
Then there was a prayer.
The mature and deep sounds of the huge pipe Organ softly ushered us into Silent Night. Standing next to my children and us all singing that most familiar and comforting of carols. I was their age again. I never can be sure where that Christmas hymn will take me, but tonight I suddenly remembered the legendary photographer O.Winston Link.
Link was a commercial photographer between the 1930’and the late 1980s. He had a very particular style he self-consciously set out to present an idealized America, and although the true worth of these images wouldn’t be fully appreciated for many years. In most of his advertising and corporate assignments he was photographing in his unique and distinctive way the end of a prosperous Appalachia — the end of small-town America.
He trained as an engineer but you know how life is, he took up photography instead. He was always in awe of the great Steam Railways of America. In 1955 on an assignment to Roanoke, Virginia he came across the Norfolk and Western Railway, one of the last lines in America to change from steam to Diesel. That was it! He was hooked and he dedicated all his spare time to photographing the men and machines of a railway system that was in the last throws before extinction. . The Norfolk and Western board of directors, who realised the importance this; granted him unfettered access to their entire Railway to document its passing.
What made link’s railway pictures so special was that he shot them at night. He once said “I can’t move the sun — and it’s always in the wrong place” He preferred to bring his own dash of light.
This presented enormous technical difficulties, not least of which; he couldn’t see the image the moment he was photographing it – because he was using flash so all he could spy in the camera was mostly darkness. Shooting most of his images on a 4×5 plate camera, which is a box with a lens on bellows and the sheet film had to be slipped into the back of the camera, A protective slide would then be removed, revealing the sheet film to the lens.
He would press the shutter and with the aid of the dozens and dozens of one-time use flash bulbs, he would illuminate a vast area and create the picture. He never knew what the image would look like until a day or two later. He would only ever get one chance. Having taken most of the day to erect his elaborate lighting set-up, doing a retake was impossible.
Besides taking his pictures, Link would sometimes make audio recordings of the trains; which he later released on disc with extensive sleeve notes about the locations and the engines.
Three weeks after St Andrew’s church in Plymouth was re-consecrated, O.Winston Link was scouting out a picture opportunity for another night shot and a sound recording, in the small prairie town of Rural Retreat, Virginia.
As he was watching Train 17 – “The Birmingham Special” roll through Rural Retreat, having planned do the picture of this service the next night, Christmas Eve, he heard the sound of “Silent Night” coming from a nearby Church. Whoever was practicing the organ, Link felt ought to be on the planned recording of the train. Next morning he found the person playing; it was Mrs Katherine Dodson who was the organist at the Grace Lutheran church. She agreed to play for him that evening.
At 11.37 on Christmas Eve night 1957, station agent Mr J L Akers waved through the last train of the night; for almost nine minutes after taking this iconic picture, Link’s reel to reel tape machine recorded every click and rattle and blast of steam as the powerful J Class steam locomotive hauled its 17 cars through the town and out across the prairie until it became almost inaudible; and all the while, Mrs Dodson was playing Silent Night on the Church Chimes.
A week later the last steam service ran through Rural Retreat and the age of steam had come to an end in America.
That’s what ran through my mind tonight as we sang …”Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright….”
The rcording can be heard here: – http://tinyurl.com/chuurkr