The Ballet of Anne and Michel Members’ Post

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I’ve hit a wee hiatus this afternoon because I’ve run out of varnish! I’d expected fresh supplies to have arrived by today but apparently it’ll be here tomorrow.

That’s probably a good thing. Although varnishing is enjoyable and really quite cathartic, I do need to stop myself from toiling away every now and then.

The truth is, there’s never a hiatus in this project. There’s always a mammoth task or two to keep me busy.

So, rather than moving straight to the next job on my list ahead of next week’s departure for the south coast, I thought I’d make myself a cuppa, sit down and share a little story from my last mission — a happy memory from Day 1 at Redbay on the Northern Irish coast. 

I’ve just finished varnishing those plates, so it’s popped back into my head.

The beautiful glass photographs have a funny knack of doing that — they’re like movie clips that teleport me right back to the sights, the sounds, the banter and even what the weather felt like.


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Tom, Gary, Joe and Paddy, Redbay RNLI Coxswains, Northern Ireland, 12×10 inch Clear Glass Ambrotype

With Neena parked and level on her ramps, I gently set about the familiar tasks, just as I will be in a week’s time: organising my workspace, pouring the chemicals into their respective vessels and making sure that everything was just so.

Those tasks are a comfort to me, helping to calm any early mission nerves. They gently ease me back into things, as I move from studio to coastal life.

The weather was feeling our collar, that’s for sure. The combination of gusts and horizontal rain sounded like small ball bearings being hurled right above my head onto Neena’s aluminium roof.

I rolled my eyes each time, thinking about how it might affect the day’s work ahead.

All the while, though, I was aware of a man scurrying back and forth hunched under the hood of his soaked raincoat.

I’d catch a quick glimpse here and there. He struck me as a yachting type, his damp leather deck shoes slapping along the wet tarmac, his coral pink trousers catching my eye like a kingfisher darting along a river.

Gradually, some interaction with the exchange of quick nods and glances here and there.

Then, while filtering my silver, he appeared at the door.

“Hello! What are you up to?”

The kingfisher yachting man had a very kind and open face, a ray of sunshine amid the squalls.

He stepped into Neena and, as is my way, I told him all about the project. He hadn’t even realised we were parked next to a lifeboat station and — as he was indeed a yachtsman — seemed genuinely fascinated to hear about the RNLI and what I was up to.

Reading the back of the leaflet I’d handed him, he said, “So, you’re Jack?”

“I am! And you are…?”

“Michel!”

We shook hands and Michel explained that he’s from Switzerland, travelling with his wife in their camper van.

Peering out of Neena’s side door, he pointed to it across the car park through the sheeting rain. It looked like a smart camper, understandably battened shut. Chuckling, I said that I’d have to take his word for it that his wife was in there.


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Neena outside Redbay lifeboat station with Michel’s camper van to the left

Michel joyously went on to tell me more about the context of their travels (you’ll have to imagine his wonderful Swiss French accent here):

“Suddenly, we realised we were both retired. Our kids had grown up and left home. We looked at each other one day and our eyes lit up with the same thought: we could reclaim our lives and do whatever we wanted…so we bought this beautiful camper and now we are like kids again!”

The joy in his eyes was wonderful to see and, indeed, kid-like.

Michel continued, conveying so much expression with his smile and flowing hand gestures (remember to apply the accent as you read):

“And we have such fun in the camper, Jack. When it is time for us to take turns in the shower, it is the most wonderful sight to behold…there is so little space, that as we move around to get to where we need to be, it is like a ballet!”

I was captivated by Michel’s rekindled joy. It really was something to behold.

He seemed like such a kind, warm man and we both knew that we’d made an unexpected friend in each other.

“Anyway, Jack, I must let you get on with your work. If you don’t mind, I will watch from the sidelines and maybe take some pictures. And right now, I am going to head back to my camper and tell my wife all about who I have just met.”

We shook hands and I got on with my day. It turned out to be very full too, making glass plates almost seamlessly with the lifeboat volunteers whilst dodging the squalls.


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Liam O’Brien, Redbay RNLI Mechanic, Northern Ireland, 12×10 inch Clear Glass Ambrotype

Sure, enough, the now familiar darting of Michel with his camera regularly caught my eye. I’d look over my shoulder every now and then to see his big beaming smile of encouragement. 

Now that he could see what was going on, my project was clearly beginning to make sense to him.

In the evening, we had a huge turn out for the crew portrait. The scene looked so impressive, a sight that was matched by the magnitude of the ensuing downpour.

I powered through in high concentration mode, the lifeboat volunteers exemplary in their patience and willingness to help. With the stage set, I dashed back to Neena to prepare a glass plate, dripping wet from head to toe.

Before long, I was back at the camera exposing the plate. Some of the lifeboat crew diligently followed me back to Neena for the magical experience of seeing it develop. The others scurried inside the lifeboat station for shelter.

Suddenly, it was done. We’d made the photographs — a complete set of six gorgeous plates, despite the weather!


The Lifeboat Station Project by Jack Lowe
Redbay RNLI, Northern Ireland, 12×10 inch Clear Glass Ambrotype

Once things had died down, Michel came to find me:

“My goodness, what a sight, what an endeavour! That was amazing to watch and my wife thought it was incredible too!”

“Thank you, Michel. But, do you know, I’ve never seen your wife and I’m starting to wonder if she really exists!”

Michel was briefly taken aback before spotting the glint in my eye.

“Come now. I will introduce you to my wife!”

We headed for the camper and, sliding the door open, Michel made the gesture of a grand reveal.

“Anne meet Jack, Jack meet Anne.”

The Lifeboat Station Project Society by Jack Lowe

Anne and I courteously shook hands. The three of us chatted for a little while, the perfect end to another intense day on the coast.

But that’s not all…!

We went our separate ways. Anne and Michel headed for Belfast to catch a ferry, gradually wending their way back to Switzerland. I continued my journey to the other Northern Irish lifeboat stations.

A couple of weeks later, I received an email from Michel. He wanted to send me a film that he thought I’d enjoy, so could I let him know my address?

Fast forward a few weeks to the depths of October, long since back from my travels, ensconced in my studio scanning the plates.

I trundled down to reception for a breath of fresh air and to collect my post.

PRIORITAIRE! A parcel was waiting for me from Michel, the contents of which are at the very top of this post.

He wrote about the film:

“I hope you will get along with the French as there are no subtitles!! If not I’ll come over to see it with you!!”

In those moments, the happy memories of that stormy first day in Northern Ireland were rekindled, just as they have been by writing these words for you today.

Right, back to those pre-mission tasks…I hope I’ve managed to impart some of Michel’s sunshine warmth to you.

Cheerio for now,

Jack

Newcastle upon Tyne, Wednesday 26th February 2020


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