The bench is ‘on the bench: sidelined, condemned to spectate, peripheral’ (Dyer, 2005: 174). This is an artefact that is marginal in more ways than one. Ignored and overlooked, it shyly retires to the shadows — only registering when we desire rest or solitude. Cloaked in its, well, ‘benchness, it hides in plain sight. Modest, undemanding and comfortable in its insignificance.
In our village, the bench is marginal in other ways. Here, four benches overlook the parish boundaries, a role of delineation diffidently shared with river and road. These are edgeland objects, consigned to the tracks and headlands where territories merge. And, in a spirit of admirable neutrality, they turn away from their own village, blessed (or condemned) to gaze on foreign meadows and lanes.
But such liminality is not only spatial but temporal. An empty bench (and, you may not be surprised to learn, these benches are often empty) invites us to slip through time. We remember the occasions when they were occupied — maybe a passing driver escaping a cramped vehicle to eat their secluded lunch in the open air. Or we imagine the figure who might be seated when next we pass. Here, we are anchored by memory and liberated by possibility. The shades of past and future occupants flit around us. And nowhere are such hauntings more keenly sensed than by the memorial bench.
As we read the brass plaque, recording perhaps how this location was where the memorialised felt most at peace, the place where they could ‘truly be themselves’, we too take in the view, breathe the air and, maybe, lower ourselves onto the bench, imagining what it would be like to be tied to this prospect for eternity. Indeed, what it would be like (material wear and tear aside) to be this bench forever and a day. And as we sit, the soft touch of a hand on a shoulder or the gentlest of whispers in our ear, alerts us to the presence of another. For the spirits evoked by the plaque are always there, the spectres who transgress time to remind us that ‘Such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be’.
Of course, this memorial also declares a spatial victory. This space, among the innumerable spaces experienced in a life, is the chosen one. And, perhaps the confidence acquired through such validation is common to all benches. For are they not all indifferent to their occupation? Even when transformed into Dyer’s ‘busy street in which people are sitting rather than walking’, their role is one of forbearance rather than facilitation (Dyer, 2005: 176). In Tony Ray-Jones’ photograph of elderly holidaymakers seated by, what we presume to be, the promenade (unknown circa late 1960s), the caliginous wood of the bench has faded almost to invisibility. It blurs into the murk of the shrubbery behind and the blackness of the shadows in front to leave its occupants seemingly perched in mid-air. So confident is it in its own presence, the bench can afford to slip from view, to dematerialise with its existence intimated rather than apparent. Like the bench suggested, but never named, in Bob Dylan’s Simple twist of fate (‘They sat together in the park/As the evening sky grew dark/She looked at him and he felt a spark/Tingle to his bones’), its very absence is a sign of its enduring being. The bench is — and always will be.
Dyer, G. (2005) The ongoing moment: a book about photography. Canongate.
Dylan, B. (1975) Simple twist of fate.
Parr, M., Thoemmes, R. and Groves, T. (eds.) (2019) Tony Ray-Jones. Martin Parr Foundation & RBB Photobooks.
Rosen, M. (2019) ‘A street photographer’s take on 1960s Britain: style meets tradition’, Huck, October 30. Available at: https://www.huckmag.com/art-and-culture/photography-2/a-street-photographers-take-on-1960s-britain/ (Accessed, 8 May, 2021).