diamond geezer

 Monday, August 15, 2011

In a parallel universe, today's post is about a quirky slice of London life based on somewhere interesting I went at the weekend. In reality, today's post is about a provincial event which ended yesterday, 50 miles away in Eastbourne, and an art gallery you will never visit. In a parallel universe, better things happen.

Seaside postcard: Airbourne
Well, what else would you call an air show in Eastbourne? Airbourne is an established part of the UK's recreational aeronautical scene, and takes place over a long four-day weekend every August. Indeed if you're local, and dedicated, you can attend more than once and watch the same participants swooping, rolling or looping the loop from a variety of coastal locations. Most people sit on the beach, in deckchairs or on towels, and treat the entire day as an excuse to picnic. The biggest crowds are near (but outside) the bandstand, because going inside to spectate from the sun terrace costs money. A lot of the crowd are families, sprawled or perched on the pebbles with one eye on their nibbles and the other on the sky. In amongst, as you might expect in Eastbourne, are several groups of more senior citizens. Wrapped up tight against the breeze, broad smiles beneath greying locks, this is one of the great days out their retirement town provides. [2 promenade photos]

The public address system announces each aerial event. You might never notice the plane or helicopter otherwise, not until its engines were buzzing the coastline or its cargo deployed. First on the programme on Saturday was a parachute descent, with various brave boys from the army, navy or whatever dropping kersplosh into the waves. The final pair formed a stack, for added thrills, plus a large Union Jack beneath to the stir the soul. There's a distinctly militaristic feeling to the entire event, with most of the displays being performed by some section of Her Majesty's armed services. The military theme continues on the Wish Tower Slopes where a large tented village has been established, staffed mainly by serving officers and benevolent fund volunteers. Your impressionable youngster might like to ride the aircraft simulator, or handle a Marine commando's weapon, or consider a disciplined future in the RAF. There were no riots in Eastbourne last week. Just saying.

Airbourne 2011, Eastbourne

With barely a break, the next entertainment appears above. It's Group Captain Somebody flying a plane-beginning with-T (they're all much the same to my eyes), which pitches and dives in the airspace offshore. The commentator seems especially proud of the aircraft's paint job, mentioning it several times throughout the performance, though it turns out this is merely a ruse to double-namecheck the sponsors. Prince William did his training in one of these beauties, apparently, although he's not available today to pop down to Eastbourne and show us how. By the time I've nipped off for a bacon roll The Blades have arrived. They're a display team crewed by former Red Arrows, but the four of them fly blue jets to avoid any hint of similarity. It's exhilarating stuff, especially at close quarters - enough to make you wonder why people ever sit on beaches when the skies are clear.

For an alternative viewpoint I wander west, up lovingly-cultivated slopes above a string of beach huts. There are spectators all the way - on benches, in floral gardens, and on the grassy slopes above the town's farthest outskirts. I'm heading for Beachy Head, where the planes may be more distant but the overall view of aerial acrobatics is far better. And I'm just in time for the afternoon's highlight, the actual Red Arrows, zooming coastward in diamond formation. They perform all of this year's special manoeuvres, including that corkscrewy sequence and the one where they form a big red heart in the sky. It's very impressive, although my lateral view confirms that the planes aren't always quite so nailbitingly close to one another as they appear from the front. Everybody else up here on the headland merely watches, but I'm enjoying a full half-hour commentary from Radio Airbourne (87.7 FM) so I know the display's finished while they're still staring heavenward for an encore.

I could have watched acrobatics all afternoon, but the call of the cliffs is too strong. I head off for a long trek along the coast, above miles of undulating chalk, on my way to the Seven Sisters and beyond. I love this walk, and it's made even better by the occasional vintage plane heading back to base at Shoreham. A Spitfire passes below me, a Lancaster bomber circles above, and eventually two wingwalker biplanes fly by direct from the Airbourne finale. It's not what I usually do at the weekend, but some days getting out of town so beats staying in.

Seaside postcard: Towner Gallery, Eastbourne
In my continuing quest to visit provincial art galleries, I also dropped in on Eastbourne's lively two-year-old. The Towner is a semi-curved concrete shell, built to rehouse the civic collection's previous Georgian mansion, and then some. It looks a bit dull from certain angles, more whizzy from others, but the interior is a spacious surprise. A central slot aligns with views across the Lawn Tennis Club nextdoor, while the panorama from the second floor cafe takes in a sweep of the South Downs. More importantly, the art is great. That may be due solely to the current combination of exhibitions, but the Towner delivered the highest hit:miss ratio I've enjoyed in years. In the ground floor gallery, a series of artworks under the title Compulsive, Obsessive, Repetitive. My favourite was Jill Townsley's 100×100 square of till rolls, their centres tugged upwards to create a landscape of pink-tipped stalagmites. Here too is the world's largest sugarcube sculpture, half a ton of cubes in the shape of a castle turret, although spoilt somewhat by the pretentious drivel pasted up in the description alongside. Upstairs a collection of work gifted to the gallery over the decades, including some ace modern artists with a local connection. And in the paying gallery on the top floor, an absorbing exhibition of John Piper's finest Kent and Sussex landscapes, from semi-abstract harboursides via a suite of Romney Marsh churches to his Chichester Cathedral tapestries. Full marks all round.

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