Friday, 17 February 2017

wood s lot

I was sad, but not surprised, to read of Mark Woods' death this week. As I posted some while ago, it was clear something was up, when such a diligent blogger fell abruptly silent.

I didn't know Mark, though we did exchange a few emails, and he was kind enough to feature a few of my pictures over the years on his amazing and long-lived blog, wood s lot. But, on the basis of his judicious daily samplings from and links to the data-hose that is the online world, it was impossible not to form a strong impression of his personality. I felt I knew him – as, I am sure, did thousands of other regular readers – and yet, he never wrote a word of his own.

Above all, I learned from him. Artists and writers I would never have discovered for myself appeared on wood s lot every day. Every day! Debates and discussions I would never have had the engagement or patience to follow for myself were presented in thoughtfully filleted extracts, taken from online journals and forums I had never encountered. I cannot imagine how he found the time or kept up the enthusiasm, but he did. Every day.

He will be missed, and he will be remembered by those who followed his tireless curatorial work. Which is an extraordinary achievement in this churning world of ever-shortening attention spans.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

I'll Never Forget Old Wotsisname

Peartree Spring Junior School, Stevenage, 1961 (detail)

I don't really "do" Facebook, although I do have a minimal presence on it; if nothing else, it's an effective way to be reminded of certain birthdays. Which is admittedly a bit like using your smartphone primarily as a watch (which, now I come to think of it, I do). It seems to me that Facebook has a way of bringing out the worst in even the nicest people. That is, if you consider greetings-card sentimentality, say, or me-too groupthink as bad things. If you don't, well, go for it. We can't all be pretentious elitist snobs, can we? But nothing exposes the Dark Side of your friends more tragically than an unsuspected fondness for videos of kittens.

Very occasionally, though – generally when someone I lost touch with long ago comes to mind for some reason – I take a deep breath, dive in, and have a look around to see if they happen to be hanging out on Facebook. Happily, they very rarely are; it seems most of my old friends, colleagues and acquaintances are stand-offish killjoys, too, with no interest in cute cats or sharing photographs of their meals. Which is good. Although becoming a grandparent does seem to have a corrosive effect on even the most unyielding of moral fibres. Which is understandable.

If someone does show up in there, however, Facebook is set up so that the only way to get in touch is to send a "friend" request, an act that combines cheery inconsequence with needy self-abasement in such a uniquely strange way that I find it impossible to do, not least with someone I haven't met for 30, 40 or even 50 years. But then I hate having my name written on a cup in Starbucks, too ("Tall Americano for, uh, Mistry Mann!"). That presumption of the sanctity of privacy which is so important to the old is a cause of amusement to the young, I know. But then we seniors have invested a lot more time and effort into becoming who we are (as well as into concealing our mistakes), and don't feel like being quite so careless with our data or our dignity ("That's mister Mistry-Mann to you, sonny!").

But identity is a mutable thing, it goes without saying (what isn't?), and it's so easy not to notice the gradual, cumulative changes to our constructed "selves" as they are happening. But little and often adds up to an awful lot of change over a few decades. So it should have been no surprise when, the other day, I was idly following a series of Facebook links – friends of friends of friends who might be friends of a very old friend who didn't immediately turn up in a search – and it quickly became clear that I no longer had anything much in common with childhood friends with whom I once had everything in common.

Junior School trip, 1965

Life is all about those ch-ch-changes, of course. We continually make choices (some trivial, some not, it can be hard to tell the difference), we seize or fail to seize opportunities and, one way or another, leave the past far, far behind us, as we stumble through our unique, personal, labyrinthine flowchart, a series of crossed thresholds and chosen paths we can never retrace. There is no magic thread which will lead us back through the maze, although social media can sometimes give us glimpses into a maze-like hall of mirrors, offering up broken, refracted answers to the question, "Whatever became of old So-and-So?"

Now, this has to be a "no names, no pack drill" exercise. Let's just say I had been looking on Facebook for someone who was one of my best friends up until the age of eleven. We lived in the same street, went to the same primary school, played together with the same group of friends in the same woods, recreation grounds, back-gardens and bedrooms. His family were East Enders, mine were local yokels, but we all had in common the New Town spirit of the 1950s and 60s. Make yerself at 'ome, son! Fancy a bite to eat? Pull up a chair, boy, lovely grub! Those were good times with good people in a good place in some very good years.

But that friendship came to an abrupt end when the secondary school selection process* sent us on separate paths. My friend went through the door marked "secondary modern", and I went through the one marked "grammar" (or "snob school", as it was more generally known). When that door shut behind me I looked back, and all but a couple of my closest playmates had gone; the door might as well have had "EDEN – NO RETURN" written on it in letters of fire. It was the first instalment on the price of seizing certain opportunities (or having them thrust upon you), and in particular of choosing to walk the steep and poorly-signposted path of "social mobility".

Ah, grammar schools. There is a huge, unexamined nostalgia in this country for grammar schools, and not only, it seems, among ex-grammar pupils. They are held out as the route to social mobility for the "academically-able poor", if we can use such a label, one which was supposedly closed off when comprehensive schools were introduced, leaving potential little swots like me to be bullied and demotivated by peer pressure. What nonsense! A quarter-truth at best. Others know the arguments better: for example here or here, and I can't improve on them. Let's just say a return to grammar schools for a few also implies a return to secondary moderns for the many, and leave it at that.

Grammar Boys v. Grammar Girls 1971

Mobility is always relative, of course. Grammar schools – but also subsequently comprehensives – have been good at providing a steady stream of the kind of conscientious conformists who keep the public services running, freeing up the more glamorous professions for the privately-educated, for whom a steady job with a final-salary, index-linked pension is not the lure it is to the rest of us. Back in the 1960s, although a fair few of my grammar-school classmates were already children of the middle-classes (bussed in from surrounding commuter-dormitory villages), most came from New Town families like mine, working- or lower-middle-class families where aspiration and education were highly prized by our parents, not least because these valuable things had been denied to them.** For mobility even to be an option was a new and exciting thing. But in any school system, bright kids with motivated parents, however financially poor, are never a problem; it's the rest you have to worry about. Like my long-lost primary school friends, for example.

They weren't without ability, those other boys and girls, they just didn't like school, often despised those that did like school, and generally had parents who hadn't thought much of it, either. Quite likely – at age eleven! – they had also lacked that essential qualification: a capacity for deferred gratification. You could leave school at 15 back then, and start earning proper money; a very tempting prospect. People also forget that a majority of state grammar pupils did not go on to higher education, anyway. In those days of full employment, a lack of paper qualifications was no obstacle to anyone with a degree of ambition and determination. So, I was curious. Perhaps I thought that, in the process of triangulating one lost friend, Facebook might give me a glimpse of what had become of some of my old playmates in the subsequent fifty years. Or, more precisely, of how they (and their friends, relatives and business associates) choose to portray themselves now: where they live, what they do for a living, who they married and who they divorced, what their kids do, where they go on holiday, even (inevitably) what they eat. All the circumstantial stuff a person might choose to share with their Facebook "friends" and the wider world.

Old skool (Alleyne's Grammar, Stevenage, ca. 1965)

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, but what I often found – with fewer exceptions than I would have anticipated or liked – was that I was looking into the face of The Enemy: the Daily Mail and Sun readers, the UKIP supporters, the self-satisfied and the downright ignorant, with their racist jokes and toe-curling sentimentality, living in sterile, neat-as-a-pin homes with no books and no evidence of an inner life or cultural engagement beyond a TV the size of a dining table taking pride of place in the living room.*** Ironically, I imagine they would mostly be supporting the return of grammar schools, now. It's UKIP policy, after all.

In the main they seemed happy enough, though. Several developed and ran their own businesses, have clearly made rather more money than me, and live in considerable comfort, a few even living abroad. Others seem just about to have kept their heads above water, bobbing along with the economic tides, and are still living within a few streets of where we used to play. Obviously, I have no way of knowing what happened to the ones whose names I can't quite recall, or who didn't show up on the internet: some may have sunk (or risen) without trace, but most likely they are sensible citizens with moderate opinions and no appetite for self-advertisement or time to waste on Facebook.

But what was clear was that education, work, family life and fifty years of choices and chances had placed an uncrossable gulf between us, with our very different ambitions, achievements, pleasures, and disappointments. We started out from the same place, but live in such different worlds now that we would be entirely mutually incomprehensible on, say, some imaginary long, late summer's afternoon, standing around awkwardly on some complete stranger's immaculate suburban lawn, attempting to catch up over a barbecue and a beer.

So, no "friend" requests on Facebook, then? No reminiscing about long-ago playground larks? No getting the gang together for one last wild charge through the woods for old times' sake? No, of course not, there was never a ghost of a chance of that happening. Not least because I'm pretty sure they wouldn't now have a clue who I am, or any curiosity about what happened to me. Just as the bussed-in village kids at grammar school knew nothing of our townie weekends of underage drinking, music and partying, so those of us who ventured out to universities and a new life cut ourselves off from all those important small-town rites of passage around work, play, marriage, and family that create and strengthen the bonds of shared origins, year by year by year. Nobody ever warns you that to choose "social mobility" is also to choose a form of exile.

There are other kinds of exile you can choose, of course. For example, that sometime best friend I started out looking for? I did find him, in the end. To my amazement it seems he went out to apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and became a big noise in the packaging industry out there. There's an unmistakable photo of him awarding a long-service pin to a nervous-looking black employee. Oh, and look, nice house! But what a very big fence...

Peartree Spring Junior School, Stevenage, 1961 (detail)

* I don't recall sitting the dreaded "Eleven Plus" exam in 1965, but there must have been some kind of formal assessment, as Hertfordshire schools continued to be selective until around 1969.

** Aspiration is also relative, of course. The two most spectacularly academically-gifted pupils I was aware of in the years above me at school (both middle-class blow-ins, as it happens) ended up, after Oxbridge double firsts, as a less-than-eminent academic and a middle-ranking editor on a national newspaper.

*** It's some kind of marker of my new class identity that I do not call this room "the lounge", though that's certainly what we used to call it. Oh, well. What was that about pretentious, elitist snobs?

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Philosophical Investigations

Southampton Sports Centre

If you've ever felt bothered by not knowing much about Derrida and deconstruction – and I know I have – you could do worse than read this article from the New Humanist. If nothing else, you will find Nietzsche quoted as saying, "I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar". Now there's a little something to drop into your conversation sometime, perhaps as an alternative to my favourite dinner-party ice-breaker, "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest" (Diderot). Ah, such flashes of merriment, guaranteed to set the table on a roar!

But if that leaves you feeling a little impatient with the philosophical project, you may enjoy this amusing addition to Wittgenstein, by the inimitable Michael Frayn (the thinking man's Tom Stoppard), which I came across via the previously-mentioned Language Hat blog. You're welcome!

Hollybrook Cemetery

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Cadbury Camp

On Saturday afternoon we were up on a large hillfort near the Somerset coast known as Cadbury Camp, with wide vistas in all directions, including – this being a fine day – the Severn Bridge and the distant hills of Wales across the Bristol Channel. I love these high places, with their ditches, ramparts, and brooding sense of vestigial ancient presences.

However, it was a matter of dispute – my partner and I are much given to dispute – whether we had ever been here before, or whether this was the place she and her sisters had been brought by their parents in her Bristol childhood. I couldn't settle the question of her family visit, but I was pretty convinced I had never set foot in the place before, even allowing for the fact that all hillforts do share a strong family resemblance, and we have been visiting them for forty years.

Later, looking the place up on Wikipedia, I discovered that there are, in fact, three hillforts in Somerset with the name "Cadbury", one of which – Cadbury Castle – is significantly bigger and has a strong association with the Arthurian legends, to the extent of having once been known as Camalet. I strongly suspect this may be where we thought we were revisiting. There's only one way to find out...

To Brits, of course, the name "Cadbury" has an inescapable association with the manufacture of chocolate. Or in euro-terms – the EU rules having understandably inflexible requirements on the amount of cocoa solids actually used in "chocolate" – "chocolate-flavoured waxy substance, marginally suitable for human consumption". Regrettably, although I saw no evidence of chocolate production, ancient or modern, on Cadbury Camp, quite a few Crunchie and Flake wrappers were blowing around the place, adding their little local notes of non-biodegradable colour.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Go Van Go!

The other day I was reading this post on the Language Hat blog (no relation) concerning the pronunciation of the word "loess". Ah, loess! It's not exactly an everyday term, unless you happen to have studied geomorphology at some point in your life, which I do happen to have done, as I had the luck and/or wisdom to study A-Level Geography, having rejected the more obvious third subjects to combine with English and German. My teachers consistently pronounced the word as "lois", which also happened to be the name of a girlfriend at the time, so I quietly let them persist and – to the best of my memory – made no smarty-pants interventions in class to point out that, as loess was a German word, it should therefore more properly be pronounced in the German way.

This was unusually restrained of me. I was an uppity little devil in those days, and enjoyed nothing more than tormenting a class by diverting our teacher down some long and winding rabbit-hole of pedantry; so easy to do, given that any sign of life from the rows of semi-somnolent teens was a rarity. I recall the pleasure of arguing, at exasperating length, that to put a constant figure on a "random distribution" was absurd, sir, because "random" meant it could be anything, didn't it, sir?  I was also reminded recently by an old classmate of how I once embarrassed a hapless trainee teacher in a 6th-form English class by scornfully correcting his pronunciation of "Goethe". Well, the ignorant bugger was asking for it. I mean, Go-eth, really...

But it's a risk we all run, isn't it, when we venture into unknown linguistic territory? It's shaming to be called out on something so basic, and I'm ashamed to have been so arrogant about it in the past. It is not helped, either, by the tendency of those who do not wear their cultivation lightly to over-pronounce any juicy French or German word borrowed into English, like rapprochement or Zeitgeist, or even, in cases of terminal pedantry, questionnaire. I think I may already have shared my bemusement when my partner's father asked for a bourbon biscuit, giving "bourbon" the full-on French treatment. A what? I was doubly baffled, as in our family these biscuits were homophonous with American bourbon whiskey, which I suspect may have been one of my own father's many mischievous jeux d'esprit, absorbed and adopted by us kids as gospel. I'm pretty sure I must also have shared the story of our German teacher holding forth on the philosophy of Kant – or Kunt, as he meticulously pronounced it – which nearly killed an entire 6th form class with agonisingly-suppressed fits of the giggles (hey, we were just 17).

I suppose the simplest "rule" to apply would be a variant of that pertaining to plurals: if it's become an English word, it gets an English plural. It's so much easier simply to add an "s" in the ordinary way. To intone "octopi" or "agendae" may clothe one's bloviations with a satisfying air of learning, but most such are linguistically non-U and, besides, who knows or cares that, by analogy, the "correct" plural of, say, "igloo" would be "igluit"?  Any alternative "rule" requiring foreign-language plurals would come down to a consensus on which languages count, and which don't. And that would come down to which languages a cultivated person (benchmark: a privately-educated middle-class European) might be expected to know. French and German, yes; Latin or Greek, maybe, but increasingly less likely; Hungarian, Chinese, or Yoruba, certainly not.

On the other hand – getting back to pronunciation – it's true that few things sound as oafish as a completely Anglicised version of a borrowed foreign word, so that's not such a safe "rule", either. But, whereas only a self-declared language-snob like me enunciates Volkswagen or Bratwurst in the fully Germanic manner, many things – foreign food-stuffs, for example – do already have an established and generally-accepted halfway-house version. Spaghetti, pizza, and even ciabatta pose no problem to the native English speaker, and only an idiot stumbles over coq au vin, pain au chocolat, or pommes frites. Though tagliatelle and gnocchi are still problematic, and I think it's probably too early (possibly even too late?) to get judgmental about quinoa, chipotle, or even bruschetta.

Where this all does become a bit of a car-crash is in the pronunciation of foreign names. Particularly in these days when so much information is digested in printed form or on screens, and rarely heard said out loud. Even then, it seems that even the BBC's Pronunciation Unit has lost its once-powerful grip on correspondents. It's very annoying to hear, say, Münster (Germany) turned into Munster (Ireland) by some overpaid monolingual reporter, and coverage of football's Premier League is an anarchic feast of exotic names declaimed in half a dozen different ways by excitable commentators, but very rarely in any version the player's mother would recognise.

Which is not to say that getting it right is easy. My most humbling experiences in this regard have been recent trips to the Netherlands and to Portugal. Both of these countries have languages that, on the page, closely resemble those of their bigger neighbours: it's not hard to make sense of a Dutch or Portuguese document, armed with a basic knowledge of German or Spanish. But hearing them spoken out loud, or attempting to conduct even the simplest dialogue from a phrase-book, are on a very different plane of difficulty. With the exception of Danish and, I suppose, English, few other European languages have developed such a gulf between orthography and orthoepy*. Frankly, I gave up trying to grapple with it: that part of my brain went offline years ago. So, given the footballing prowess of Portugal, Brazil, and the Netherlands (not to mention Senegal or Serbia or the other 60-odd nationalities represented in the Premier League), it's not surprising those commentators are struggling.

Where this gets truly problematic is in the fields of literature and art. Here, high social status and downright wilful ignorance achieve a bizarre union. Basically, throw a brush at a list of painters' names and you will likely hit some mispronunciation venerated by tradition, one which you will have heard said a hundred times in that unchallengeable posh register that says, Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. Velazquez? Degas? Renoir? Breugel? Munch? All "wrong" but rendered "right" in the mouth of a connoisseur like Kenneth Clark. And what about poor old Vincent van Gogh? I have no idea why the American cultivated classes have convinced themselves this fellow's name must be "Van Go". It's not as if Dutch sailors and merchants didn't make it across the Atlantic. The British "Van Goff" isn't a whole lot better. For a good discussion of this conundrum, see the BBC Pronunciation Unit's effort here. Basically, there's a lot to be said for abandoning the shibboleths of class and cultivation and accepting, as a matter of principle, that other ways exist, and are (in the main) simply different and not "wrong". It's enlightening to hear how "wrong" a German scholar's reading out loud of Latin sounds, for example. However, if you insist on sticking with "Go-eth" this will irretrievably mark you out as an ignorant bastard.**

I suppose, looked at one way, it could all be seen as just another form of imperialism: to take something difficult and "foreign" and turn it into a palatable travesty, something the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish have had to put up with for a long time. Though it has to be said that whoever came up with the complex orthographic system for the Gaelic languages must also shoulder some of the blame. Your name is ... Let's see ... Caoimhín Seanchán? No?  Oh, Kevin Shanahan ... Sorry! From, uh, Tír Eoghain? Ah, Tyrone! Of course... Obvious, once you know.

But, looked at another way, it's just what people do. You say Firenze, I say Florence; you say Londres, I say London; you say Osutoraria, I say Australia. You also say Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad ibn ʾAḥmad ibn Rushd‎, whereas I say Averroes; and I see it says here Drake, el pirata de la Reina Isabel I, which I interpret as Sir Francis Drake, hero of the Spanish Armada. You get the picture. We all accommodate each others' differing sound systems and frames of reference into our own, but with an inevitable twist, which is the only sensible thing to do and the most genial form of inclusivity, and surely far better than continually calling each other out as the dreaded and eternally-wrong "other". Though the "pirate" thing is a bit near the knuckle, if I may say so, señor.

* No, I'd never come across that word before, either. Ironically, it is given five acceptable variant pronunciations by OED...
** Hungarian names are an interesting test case. How many culture-snob points does one lose, I wonder, for not knowing photographer Moholy-Nagy is pronounced something like "Mahoy Nodge"?

Friday, 27 January 2017

Bike Tyre in a Tree

Life can get very surreal at times. I was up at 6:00 this morning, to help get my partner up and out the front door, where a taxi awaited to ferry her down to BBC Southampton, en route to the railway station. Then, 90 minutes later and back in bed, I heard her voice on the radio, being interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme about some academic work for which she had no responsibility and which, in the customary fashion, the Today presenter was trying to misrepresent into something a little more newsworthy than the balanced but nuanced presentation of the bleedin' obvious that most worthy academic work turns out to be. It was all a bit unusual, to say the least.

Although I suppose this is pretty much a regular experience for those in that notorious metropolitan liberal elite, the ones who operate the media and who provide 80% of its content. "Saw you on Newsnight, darling... I thought Evan was being jolly unfair, and I shall tell him so on Friday at Kirsty's. Will you be there?" Which may explain how they (don't think I need to start saying "we" just yet...) end up stuck in a feedback loop / echo chamber / Westminster bubble (choose your favourite metaphor) and, as a consequence, have become so radically out of touch with the populace at large that the idea that Brexit / Trump could ever actually happen was unthinkable. Unthinkable? They should have read my blog! Read it and believed my non-metropolitan words of wisdom! Yeah, right...

Meanwhile, back here in the real world, I hear my desktop has been fixed, and is ready to collect. Yes! It's been a bit of a trial, trying to edit raw files on an uncalibrated laptop, without most of the little plugins and other such helpful stuff I've installed over the years. As someone once said, don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til Windows 10 refuses to boot, and you discover your RAM board has totally failed?

Tuesday, 24 January 2017


[N.B. my desktop is in for repair at the moment, so I'm using an uncalibrated laptop. If the photographs look like they have a colour cast, that's because they probably do. I'll revisit them if necessary when the desktop comes back.]

At this time of year a meteorological phenomenon known as an "inversion" can happen, when cold air is trapped by high pressure at ground level by a layer of warmer air above: typically, this leads to fog and, in suitable locations, interesting phenomena such as hoarfrost. We've had such conditions this week, and it's been worth getting out of bed early for.

Well, almost. The fog was actually rather too dense to get the best out of the hoarfrost, which needs a bit more sparkle from sunlight. In places visibility was down to 25 yards or so, and it was like looking through one of those fine sheets of tissue that used to be bound into a book in order to protect the illustrative plates.

Saturday, 21 January 2017


[N.B. my desktop is in for repair at the moment, so I'm using an uncalibrated laptop. If the photographs look like they have a colour cast, that's because they probably do. I'll revisit them if necessary when the desktop comes back.]

I was in London this week, primarily to deliver a birthday present to my partner in the form of a visit to the Edward Ardizzone exhibition at the House of Illustration. Ardizzone's distinctive work will be familiar to many older British readers, even if they have forgotten his name, as he was a prolific illustrator of books, particularly children's books, in the second half of the 20th century. His book covers and characteristic line illustrations were part of the flavour of many a post-war childhood.

Assuming, of course, that your childhood was richly-saturated with contemporary children's books, which mine was not. Not through any neglect or deprivation – I'm sure if I had asked to read, say, Stig of the Dump, such books would have found their way into my Christmas stocking – but simply because my parents had no means or reason to know about such books and pass them my way, unasked, and I had no particular inclination to read them. Like so many boys, I preferred my reading matter to be either fact-based (natural history was my thing), heavily-illustrated (comics), or tales of adventure channeled serially through reassuringly familiar figures like Biggles. It would have taken an unusual determination to be different to have joined the girls huddled around the fiction in the primary school library. My favourite books in that library, which I recall reading and rereading many times, were W. Ben Hunt's Indian Crafts and Lore and Simple Heraldry, Cheerfully Illustrated by Iain Moncreiffe and Don Pottinger, both very nicely illustrated.

If I'm honest, I probably thought back then that Ardizzone's pictures were poor, scribbly stuff, though I have to say nowhere near as bad as those of that later go-to kids' book illustrator, Quentin Blake. How he has attained National Treasure status as an illustrator is a mystery to me. However, what I did find interesting at the House of Illustration was Ardizzone's "adult" work, especially his depictions of British low-life in the period between the 1930s and late 1950s. Whether vignettes of punters in pubs, prostitutes, or simple street vistas, he captures something essential of the atmosphere of an older, rackety Britain that was rapidly disappearing in the 1960s and 70s. When I was living in London in the late 1970s, you could still turn a corner and find yourself in an environment that belonged in earlier decades; even, if you ventured into the grimy, industrial backstreets clustered around the docks and central railway stations, in a previous century. If you know the photographs made by Marketa Luskacova in and around Brick Lane, you'll know what I'm talking about. Ardizzone's work is deeply rooted in this world, with its seedy glamour, smoky, coal-fired fug, and secret vices. In the layered shadows of our great cities, bohemia, poverty and criminality made common cause against the respectable world.

But, it seems quite a transformation has been taking place. The House of Illustration is situated north of King's Cross, in a region around the Regent's Canal once notorious for its prostitutes, crime and dereliction. Back in the 1970s the place was so enclosed and overshadowed by crumbling industrial architecture that you could be forgiven for not even knowing the canal was there. A friend used to live in a squat off the Caledonian Road, and I must have walked there from King's Cross a hundred times without ever really noticing the canal as I passed over it. But now... Now the waterway is the centrepiece of some extensive and ongoing urban rejuvenation, which has turned it into a mini-Amsterdam, all houseboats and canal-side apartments and shops and restaurants and galleries, thronging with young tourists and teams of construction workers in hi-vis jackets. Never mind the sturdy 19th century warehouses and rail-sheds, even the gasometers are being transformed into incredibly expensive studio apartments for Chinese and Russian billionaires to buy as investment assets. And where are the previous residents meant to live? You may well ask. London's council tenants are being shipped out of town as far afield as Wales and Manchester.

Royal birds we may be, but this is all we can afford round here...

While I was in the area, I was determined to make a little pilgrimage to what is said to be one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in Europe. If you're on Euston Road, and head north between the British Library and the newly renovated and expanded St. Pancras International station, you will eventually find St. Pancras Old Church sitting on a little hill opposite some blocks of flats (and I mean "flats" rather than "apartments"), surrounded by a large, walled churchyard.The longevity of the site is fascinating, but was not the reason for my pilgrimage. I wanted to see the so-called "Hardy Tree". Read the signs below if you're curious. Now I've seen it, though, I doubt I'll feel the need ever to see it again. I'm not even much of a fan of Thomas Hardy.

Let the pictures do the talking...

Monday, 16 January 2017

One Wellington

If you want to feel like you have the world all to yourself, you can't beat a wet walk through some marshy ground down by the river on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Even the dog-walkers are giving it a miss – go on, shit in the garden, see if I care.

There has clearly been some flooding higher up the Itchen; the slower parts of the river are clogged with torn up weed, which has trapped various bottles and balls, presumably washed out of riverside banks and gardens. Some banks have been seriously eroded, too. I know some of you have been missing the signature safety netting, so I was pleased to find this little installation. The abandoned wellington is a nice touch.

Incredibly, a favourite pollarded willow is still standing in the water-meadows, despite the continual loss of limbs and everything the laws of nature can throw at it. Gravity? Hah!

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Mirror Man

There are very few mirrors in our house, and the ones we do have are small, bathroom cabinet-style affairs, I did buy a full length mirror for our daughter, with every intention of hanging it on the back of her bedroom door, but there it is, still lurking in the entrance hall, still swathed in its protective wrap. I'm just not a great one for the DIY. Occasionally my partner will prop it against something to check her ensemble before leaving the house, but through the clear plastic it returns a rather misty, rippled reflection, more like polished steel than a mirror. I suppose on the positive side you could say we're not particularly vain.

However, a while ago I was in Marks and Spencer, buying a shirt.  I thought I'd better try it on, as the fashion for close-fitting tops, whilst looking superb on whip-thin youngsters like my son, has made anything smaller than XXXXXXL impractical for the middle-aged man with a liking for food and largely sedentary habits (like, um, eating). So I went to the fitting room, took off my shirt and saw myself in the multiple mirrors. Oh dear. Not a pretty sight. Multiplied to infinity.

I resolved to lose weight. Lots of weight. I might not be vain, but there are limits.

Now, nutrition is one of those areas where the word "science" really has to be said with scornfully ironic, heavy quote marks, as in nutritional "science".  Every few years, it seems, nutritional "science" reverses its polarity and recommends the complete opposite of what was being urged on us shortly before. There's a nice scene in Woody Allen's Sleeper where he is woken from cryogenic storage, 200 years after the early 1970s, and his progress is being monitored by two doctors:
Dr. Agon: For breakfast he asked for something called wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger's milk!
Dr. Melik: Yes, those were the charmed substances that, some year ago, were felt to contain life-preserving properties...
Dr. Agon: You mean,,. There was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?
Dr. Melik: Those were thought to be unhealthy, the precise opposite of what we now know to be true!
But weight loss, unlike longevity, has an obvious, objective, short-term metric against which to be measured. Have you or have you not lost weight? As they say, it's not rocket science (although it seems rocket has recently fallen out of the superfood category); kale science, maybe?

I first tried giving up wheat, as there are various theories about "wheat belly" out there, and it seemed painless enough, especially compared to vigorous exercise. To my surprise, it worked! By switching to rye bread, oat-based muesli, and various other substitutes, I quickly lost about 5 kilos. This was largely, I suspect, because rye bread, though tasty enough, is never going to tempt you to pop another couple of slices in the toaster, or saw off another six inches of baguette, the way wheat bread does (might as well finish it, it'll be stale by tomorrow!). Rye is quite filling, less "more-ish", and I was simply eating less. But then it stopped working, and I was stuck at my new weight.

Now, I'd been keeping the "5:2" or "fast" diet in my (still over-tight) back-pocket as a next step. This is the one where you fast for two days a week, and eat normally for the other five. I'd heard good things about it, but the idea of fasting seemed a bit drastic. Still not as drastic as vigorous exercise, but nonetheless on the demanding side. But when I looked into it, I realised it would actually be far from painful. When they say "fasting", what they really mean is eating a quarter of the amount of carbohydrates needed by a person of a particular gender, age, height, weight, and activity level to sustain basic life processes, twice a week. Typically, you need around 2000-2400 calories to keep soul firmly attached to body, so a quarter is – fetch me a calculator! – around 500 to 600 calories. It doesn't sound much, but a two-egg omelette with mushrooms plus some green vegetables is only around 200 calories, and a bowl of soup even less. Forget breakfast (or have a couple of rice crackers with your morning tea) and a fast-day doesn't look so bad.

Suddenly, all that "nutrition information" printed on our food packaging made sense. Especially once I'd realised that "kilocalories" are the "calories" everyone is talking about, and not a thousand of them. Aha! I'd become ... a calorie-counter! Also, inevitably, I became a calorie bore, going on about the relative calorific merits of various foods. But: it works. After six months another ten kilos have gone, relatively painlessly, and assuming it continues to work I can see no reason to stop until I've actually disappeared or attained the weight I had when I was in my twenties, whichever is the sooner. Or more realistically, perhaps, my thirties, around the time I gave up smoking and took up biscuits.

Slim's Christmas visit home, ca. 1978

In the interests of full disclosure I should add that, although my aversion to any exercise more vigorous than running up the stairs continues, I also decided it was time to counteract 30 years of sedentary occupation, and start walking everywhere again. I've always walked a fair bit, but with the help of Google Maps I've worked out some handy circular routes – for example, 1.5 miles to Sainsbury's and back, 3.6 miles to the university campus and back, 5 to the university via the Sports Centre and back – and try to do one of these on as many afternoons in the week as I can. It's quite addictive, and the benefit of the loss of weight is very noticeable going up hills.

Now, in recent years I've been in and out of the consulting rooms and clinics of GPs, consultants, and physiotherapists with a series of complaints, as a result of which I have been X-rayed, had my circulation checked, made to lie rigidly immobile in MRI machines, given various samples, and submitted to a range of inconclusive tests and observations ("Hmm, you've got a bit of a funny walk..."), and so far not one medical practitioner has ever said to me: "Listen, porky, you could stand to lose a few pounds". Not one. And yet, for example, the agonizing "shin splints" that actually prevented me from cycling and eventually even walking to work have now simply gone away. Coincidence? Possibly, but I doubt it.

No, I suspect the latitude medics are allowing themselves before declaring a patient "obese" has become rather too generous; not surprising, I suppose, given the competition from the human mountains of adiposity that waddle into the surgery these days. But a short man – even one genetically built to carry weight, like me – who can afford to lose 20 kilos is surely a man who is a long way from a healthy weight.

Some men set themselves the challenge of attaining their "wedding suit weight". Never having married, never mind possessing a suit, that would be a problematic target. However, hanging deep in a wardrobe is a paint-spattered, brown corduroy jacket I bought when I was seventeen, and which accompanied me on many adventures over many years, and I would dearly love to be able to wear it again, even if only on ceremonial occasions. Intriguingly, when I had a rummage through its pockets, among various items of ancient curiosa to emerge, I found a slip of paper on which an attractive French girl I met at a party at a German exchange-partner's house in Easter 1971 had written her address. It seems the old slim me had something good going for him. Ah, well, too late now... I may not be married, but I am most definitely spoken for. C'est la vie!

But, should I be able to get into that jacket without ripping the seams – and in my current optimism about and enthusiasm for weight-loss I see no reason why not – I will have myself formally photographed in it for your admiration and amusement. I might even get a decent mirror in the house. Now, what was that song I used to know when I was seventeen? Something about preferring to be a thin man?

Excuse me, though, today is a five-mile day, and the sun is shining.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Ways of Seeing

It seems John Berger, the contrarian's contrarian, evaded the curse of 2016 only to kick off the obituary round of 2017, aged 90. Or perhaps we should regard these early days of 2017 as part of a "long 2016"? No, please, I think we'll draw a firm, unbroken line under 2016.

Like so many British people of a certain age, Berger helped form my young mind in the way only the best teachers can. Actually, I may well have been one of the very first to be Bergerized. When Ways of Seeing was broadcast in 1972, I was perfectly placed both to see it and to have my mind blown by it. By rights, I should have been at university that year, and nobody was watching TV at university in 1972. But – due to the requirement in those days, following acceptable A-level results, to sit a further entrance exam and undergo a round of interviews for Oxbridge entrance – I was still living at home in Stevenage New Town, and working as an art technician at St. Michael's, a local Catholic boys' grammar school. Late one night, sitting alone in the living room of our flat after my parents had gone to bed, I caught the first episode, and underwent the aesthetic equivalent of satori. Other thinkers and artists would make an even greater impression on me – I immediately think of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Josef Koudelka – but the ground was prepared by John Berger and Ways of Seeing.

Late night TV was worth watching in those days. Programmes of an intellectual and cultural reach that would be unthinkable now were shown to tiny audiences, simply because it was seen as part of the mission of broadcasting. Shows like Late Night Line-Up or even The Old Grey Whistle Test made no concessions to attention span or popularity: TV programmes were expected to educate and inform as well as entertain and, by Reith, they were going to do it. The ne plus ultra of such broadcasting was probably Voices on Channel 4, in which earnestly suave Canadian academic, writer and politician Michael Ignatieff sat in a chair discussing heavy issues with heavyweight guests. It might as well have been radio. I think I may have been a significant proportion of the entire audience some weeks, but I found it made perfect post-pub viewing in the early 1980s.

Of course, what made Ways of Seeing so special was that it could never have been radio. In those days Berger looked like Mick Jagger's serious-minded but only slightly less flamboyant uncle, and he and director Michael Dibb made creative use of the visual medium for maximum impact, beginning with Berger apparently razoring an old master painting out of its frame. It was serious, hip, political, full of exciting new ideas, and completely overwhelming to an arty, would-be intellectual 18-year-old with a ticket to university safely in his back pocket, but no real idea of what the point of going there might be, beyond escaping the confines of a two-bedroom council flat, and the small-town life that went with it. Suddenly, it seemed that ideas and study might be fun, dangerous even, and not just another dreary rite of passage made up of homework, exams, and dull teaching.

It turned out I was wrong – university was just another dreary rite of passage made up of homework, exams, and dull teaching – but I will always be grateful to John Berger for showing me another way of seeing art and the life of the mind, at precisely the time when I needed it most.

Monday, 2 January 2017

New Year's Day

Clevedon Pier

I have a self-imposed tradition of venturing out on New Year's Day, whatever the weather, to take at least one photograph. This year, the weather was truly awful, so (being in Bristol) we decided to go down to the coat at Portishead and Clevedon, where the full awfulness of the weather could be experienced at its greatest intensity. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

However, when you can feel the camera thrumming in the wind in your hands, you know you may have a problem with the low shutter speeds demanded by the failing light. When you can no longer feel the camera in your hands, because your fingers have gone numb in the cold north-east wind and driving rain, you know it's time to retreat indoors for a seaside cup of tea.

Luckily, the very pretty Clevedon Pier has been restored to a very high standard indeed in recent times, and boasts a very upscale restaurant, as well as the original, wind-blasted cafe (little more than a  bus shelter) at the end of the pier. Even more fortunate, both were open.

I was intrigued to discover, in the nice little interpretive museum adjacent to the upscale restaurant, that in the the 1950s the presence of a juke box in a Nissen hut situated at the end of the pier had made Clevedon Pier a magnet for the emerging youth scene. Wild nights were had, reelin' and a-rockin' above the Bristol Channel waves surging below. I have a fascination for that period and the liminal places – coffee bars and cafes in the main, but also out-of-the-way huts and truck-stops – where jazz, skiffle and rock'n'roll broke through the post-War cracks in stiff British reserve. I have long intended to write something about it. Maybe this year...

Haiku by Buson (1716-1784)

Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016 Bonus Track: Dorset in December

The Cobb, Lyme Regis, on Christmas Day

We spent Christmas in Dorset, in a rented cottage on one of the hills above Charmouth and Lyme Regis. When the children were smaller, this area was a favourite holiday haunt: you can spend endless happy hours turning stones on the beach looking for fossils, and the unique Dorset geology has created a wonderful miniaturised landscape of steep hills and secret valleys that is ideal walking country, suitable even for little legs. And there's always somewhere for an ice-cream, a cup of tea, or a pint and a decent meal nearby.

It's rotten with archaeology, too. Probably nowhere else in the country has such a density and variety of barrows, hillforts, standing stones, ruined castles and abbeys, and all those other ingredients that add a certain "woo" factor to any walk. There's a heathy stretch of the A35 between Dorchester and Bridport that is signed "AREA PRONE TO FOG" and they are not kidding. It was swathed in low cloud as we passed through, and the glimpses of the roadside barrows were distinctly spooky. If you look at the coastline beyond the Cobb in the photo above, and compare with the one of Lyme Bay below, you'll see that the entire length of clifftop around Golden Cap is enveloped in a fat white icing of dense cloud.

Hardown Hill looking towards Charmouth 

On Hardown Hill at dusk

On Golden Cap 

Quite apart from tourists and the local population of farmers, fishers, and tea-shoppe folk, it's a spot that has long been popular with artists and other people trying to make a living from their wits and their skills. Like the areas around St. Ives or Brighton, some sort of critical mass has been achieved that attracts a steady stream of incoming talent. If you should happen to want to find a potter or an upscale joiner or even a TV chef, Dorset is not the worst place to start. So, inevitably, it has been the subject of much painting and photography over many generations. There was an exhibition of mainly Dorset landscape paintings from the early years of the last century at Bristol's Royal West of England Academy earlier this year (Inquisitive Eyes: Slade Painters in Edwardian Wessex), for example, and it seems like there is a little gallery selling art of every description around every corner in every small town. Actually, that's not entirely true: conceptual work, installations and video, say, despite their predominance in the metropolitan art scene, are very thin on the ground compared to more traditional media. But you can quickly tire of yet more views of Golden Cap, or Maiden Castle, or fishing boats, or decorative variations on the theme of the ammonite; if I thought mid-Wales was tough to portray in a meaningful way on a flying visit – even a series of flying visits extended over many years – Dorset raises the bar almost impossibly high. But, given the weather conditions in the first half of our stay, and the time dedicated to our more Christmassy activities, I was glad enough to come away with a few respectable exposures.

Talking of the challenges of contemporary landscape photography, if you saw my recent piece in On Landscape, keep an eye out for an upcoming friendly bout of arm-wrestling in the next issue between me and Joe Cornish – oh yes, the Joe Cornish! – over the views expressed therein. Should be fun.

Lyme Bay

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Best wishes for 2017!

Neutral expression? Mouth closed? Eyes open?
What? All at the same time?

I had to renew my passport this month, so had a session of self-portraiture, which is not something I do very often, not least because it involves finding a tripod. Passport photo requirements are quite specific:
Your photos must:
be a close-up of your full head and upper shoulders
contain no other objects or people
be in clear contrast to the background
Not a problem. Oh, and...
In your photo, you must:
be facing forward and looking straight at the camera
have a neutral expression and your mouth closed
have your eyes open, visible and free from reflection or glare from glasses
not have hair in front of your eyes
not have a head covering (unless it’s for religious or medical reasons)
not have anything covering your face
not have any ‘red eye’
not have any shadows on your face or behind you
You can’t wear sunglasses or tinted glasses. You can wear reading glasses but your eyes must show fully through clear lenses without glare or reflections.
Blimey: bang goes the idea of wearing a "V for Vendetta" mask, then. And red-eye is kind of my look. But, finally having got something suitable (or sort of suitable – it's not easy being neutral, especially not wearing my customary wraparound mirror shades), I decided to play around with the less suitable ones.

Thus, above we have my "Self-portrait in the fashionable tintype manner". Strange, how much older (and how much more skeptical) I look scowling for the camera than I do in the mirror... Either there's some psychological phenomenon at play here, or I must get a better camera. One that reflects my inner perception, rather than the stark reality. This is still much more like what I think I see in the mirror:

Your host, ca, 1961

Despite its defects, that school photo did get used in a passport, of sorts. Of course, passport photo requirements were less strict in those days, and the production values rather lower:

Oddly enough, I do still have exactly the same missing teeth, though I'm pretty sure they did turn up at some point between then and now. As did a lot of things that also seem to have vanished along the way: good friends, close family, even solidly familiar buildings, all have been disappearing into thin air, leaving not a wrack behind. And I can't find my bloody Kindle anywhere. This year does seem to have been particularly forgetful of some beloved public figures, though, doesn't it? I do hope David Attenborough is wrapping up warm, in these last days of 2016. If it hadn't become such a cliché, I would yet again invoke Walter Benjamin's Angel of History. But it's the right time of year to indulge in the bittersweet melancholy of remembrance, and to raise a time-honoured toast: absent friends!

Regretfully, however, I suppose I must accept that the scowly first photo is a truer reflection of reality than the smiley second. The years do pass, and our faces and demeanour change with them. Every ten years or so, this requires a new passport photo to be taken. But who knew that, 55 Christmasses later, this grizzled clown would emerge?

Ah, well. Another Christmas, another paper crown... Hey, I wonder if that counts as a head-covering worn for religious reasons? That would make for a much more interesting passport, wouldn't it? Profession? Oh, still King; on paper, anyway...

But, if you're prepared to accept 50% of my genetic material as a sort of self-portrait, then here I am looking my very best, on the beach at Lyme Regis on the afternoon of Christmas Day:

Oh, brave new world, that has such creatures in it! Though I suspect she'll never forgive me for the gift of the family nose, pretty as it is when worn by her.

So, no matter what you think of what looks back at you in the mirror each morning, or how many passports you've got through, or how many year's end celebrations you've witnessed, and despite any perfectly justified forebodings, may the coming year treat us all well!
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Nicely put, sir, nicely put. I think you still hold on to your narrow lead in the competition for "Best Opening Sentence EVER!"; and plus ça change, eh?