Thursday, 16 May 2019

Flat View


Looking SE at 19:20 on 3/5/19
(the red is the reflected glow of sunset in the west)

A few years ago my partner got a new job in Bristol University. As our Southampton house was not in a sellable state – and also, if I'm honest, because I wasn't quite ready to uproot myself from 30 years of residence, even to a considerably more attractive city – she found a flat in which to spend the working week, while I stayed in Southampton, on the assumption I would be attempting to clear, repair, and decorate the house, in anticipation of a relocation in a year or two. But, as it turned out, she didn't enjoy the new post, and moved on after a couple of years.

Looking S at 17:58 on 3/5/19

However, we'd become attached to the flat, and have kept it as a useful weekend bolt-hole. Not least because it has a truly spectacular view over the Avon Gorge. You can spend entire mornings just watching the light change on the wooded slopes and the tidal ebb and flow of the river, and the window over the kitchen sink has a westward view onto some preposterously gaudy sunsets as you do the washing up. Naturally, whenever I'm there I end up leaning out of the window and photographing the view. These three pictures, taken over a couple of days earlier this month, give you some sense of the full panorama as you look from left (south-east) to right (south-west).

Looking SW at 09:50 on 5/3/19

Perhaps because I spent my adolescent years in a fourth floor flat, I have a liking for this kind of elevated view. In fact, it's sufficiently high up that, when someone living lower down the Gorge celebrated some event by letting off fireworks, the rockets were exploding outside our living-room window which, while pretty, was also rather too like being under attack by anti-aircraft fire.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Photo Voices


Dead White Men in Black
in National Portrait Gallery
So, Congratulations
Then
Simon Armitage.
It seems
You are Poet Laureate
Now.
A little unfair, perhaps, to invoke E.J. Thribb (17½), but Armitage is endowed with a very fine example of what a friend, a retired teacher who used to teach literature in secondary school, calls "the poetry voice", something he finds deeply irritating. I expect you know the one he means: that hushed sing-song that so many poetry-readers adopt, as if the full understanding of poetry required the use of a special, reverend tone, pitched somewhere between a prayer and the incantation of a spell. Such irritations are catchy: I find I'm annoyed by the Poetry Voice, too, now.

Once you think about it, there are a lot of such specialised, off-the-peg "voices" out there. I am particularly annoyed by the Enthusiasm Voice, the one adopted by most expert popularisers when acting as TV and radio presenters, that involves periodically scrunching the voice into little constipated gurgles of delight, the way you might try to persuade a toddler that cabbage is yummy. Then there's the languid, heavy-breathing Mystery Voice, used on nearly every BBC trailer for a drama, as if the continuity reader had just emerged from a lengthy session in an opium den. Oh, and there's the Hysterical Sports Voice, the Nature Documentary Voice, and the Wacky Comedy Voice, and ... I'm sure you can think of plenty of others. Their common denominator is that the speaker always seems to feel that something extra needs adding to the bare facts of what is being said or described, like more salt or a good sprinkling of glitter, in order to bring out some quality which they fear the hearer may otherwise miss. Goal! GOOOOOAAAAAL!!! Wait, what, I missed that, did someone just score?

Behind these stock voices there are quite often original and unmistakable voices, of course: in Britain one immediately thinks of David Attenborough, Judi Dench, David Coleman, Alice Roberts, or Roger McGough. Such folk tend to become ubiquitous (never a problem, I feel, where professor Roberts is concerned), and so synonymous with their usual subject matter that their way of speaking becomes the way of speaking about it. Which must be both annoying and flattering. Of course, some voices are both distinctive and irritating in equal measure: how on earth did Bernard Hill's gruff monotone ever get him a regular gig as a nature documentary voiceover, or – my current bête noire – TLS editor Stig Abell's infuriatingly repetitive sing-song a slot as a BBC Radio 4 arts presenter?

National Portrait Gallery

Which made me wonder, does photography have voices? On the face of it, this is ridiculous: what could be more mute than a photograph? But I suppose what I mean is: do the most influential photographers have a distinctive voice, which becomes The Voice of their particular genre? I don't mean metaphorically, and I don't mean "voice" as a synonym for "style". I mean, do you usually hear a particular kind of voice when you look at particular genres of photographs?

Call me strange, but I think I do. I certainly hear a version of the Poetry Voice when looking at much self-consciously rhapsodic landscape work, merging into the Enthusiasm Voice when repetitive thematic subject matter becomes prominent (Look! Lighthouses!! Aren't they great!?). I hear a hipsterish anomie when looking at so much affectless contemporary portraiture; I hear a louche drawl when looking at nude models deployed in bizarre circumstances. And so on: there's a Concerned Journalist Voice, a Constipated Perfectionist Voice, a Distrait Artist Voice... I'm sure we could put names to the many ventriloquists and imitators of these voices, too, although it might be harder to identify their originators. I confess that whenever I see the work of Ansel Adams (whom I do not revere) I hear the voice I imagine belonging to Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural. They do have a certain family resemblance, don't they?

But maybe that's one way we know good, original work when we see it? It has acquired no voice yet, telling us what we already know, and forces us to see it – really see it, or even listen to it, rather than dismiss it as old news – as if for the first time. A little synaesthesia is often a good sign that magic is about.  I think of some favourite words given by Shakespeare to Bottom the Weaver, which I was delighted to see, hear, and taste in Westminster Cathedral last week:
I have had a dream – past the wit of man to say what dream it was ... The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom.
 Politicians
in National Portrait Gallery

But, to return to poetry: perhaps the most outstanding contemporary poet (certainly so in my estimation), Alice Oswald, allegedly turned down the opportunity to be considered for the Laureateship because she wanted to be in the running when Simon Armitage's five-year stint as Oxford Professor of Poetry comes to an end this year: a far more prestigious gig, in my view. Unusually, this fixed-term post is elected, and all graduates of the university may register to vote. I have shamelessly canvassed every Oxford graduate I know to register now and vote for Alice Oswald when the time comes (23rd May - 20th June), but if any reader of this blog also qualifies, then you know what to do (you'll need to know when your degree was conferred, and go to the registration site here). A world which contains professors Alice Roberts and Alice Oswald cannot be all bad, can it?

Alice Oswald
(photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian)

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

One Of Those Days In England



We have just had what we call a "bank holiday weekend" in Britain. That is, a weekend followed by a Monday on which banks (and, traditionally, most other things) are shut, and all but essential workers get a day off. Nowadays, however, "essential" seems to include "people who work in shops", as shopping seems to have become the outer limit of what the general populace can conceive of as "leisure".

Also traditional is the miserable accompanying weather. In fact, we were promised rain – and many did get rain – but we spent the long weekend in Bristol, and the West Country was bathed in chilly sunshine. Perfect walking weather, and we headed for Dyrham Park, a National Trust property in the Cotswolds with hundreds of acres of land, gardens, and deer park to wander in as if it were your own. Certainly, there were few enough other visitors to spoil the illusion, despite the dispiriting traffic queues encountered along the way there (another traditional bank holiday feature). I expect the shops in Bath and Bristol were very busy, or maybe there was some bloody festival on somewhere.


Talking of Roy Harper ("One Of Those Days In England"), have I already mentioned that he has now taken control of his own back catalogue, and sells remastered vinyl and CD albums from his own website? If not, I have now [1]. Roy may have figured less prominently in your own back catalogue than he did in mine, but he's one of the Great Originals, along with the likes of John Martyn, Nick Drake, and even Richard Thompson, crafting fine songs in a highly individual style that somehow never quite elevated them into the Premier League of popular music, despite creating the template for the platinum-plated careers of later imitators.

To their fans, of course, this Revered Outsider status has always been part of the attraction, an endorsement of our own refined tastes, but I don't suppose they themselves – those that have survived, that is – would have minded a bit more worldly success. On their own terms, of course, and certainly not the sort of ephemeral mega-success that headlines at glamping festivals and creates traffic queues on a May bank holiday weekend.


1. Actually, it seems I did, but nine years ago (Hats off to Christopher)! Hey, I can't be expected to remember everything I write here...

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Leonardo



Leonardo? He's the one with the two ninja swords, right? Five hundred years! Whoah... I had no idea he was meant to be that old, but chelonians are famous for their longevity, it's true. What's that, the 500th anniversary of his death, you say? What, so not a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, then? Oh, that Leonardo...

Sorry. The subject of the Man from Vinci always seems to make me frisky (see my "Last Supper" post, Bun Fight). I think it's because of the blighted nature of his career. It's as if one of those "win some, lose some" divine curses had been laid on him. "Thou shalt be a totally awesome genius, but thine every artistic effort shall break, fade, slide off the wall like jelly at a children's party, or remain forever unfinished; war and stuff shall drive thee restlessly from place to place like a plastic bag in the wind; oh, and put not thy trust in princes, they never pay their bills". Was ever such a mighty reputation built on such a slender material legacy? So many half-finished projects, so many ideas, but so little to show for it. It makes Vermeer look like bloody Picasso.

But, boy, could he play guitar draw [1]. Earlier in the year we went to the showings of two of the twelve different touring selections of Leonardo drawings from the Royal Collection – one at Bristol City Museum, the other at Southampton City Art Gallery – and they are incredible: smaller than you expect, and yet far crisper than they ever appear in reproduction, even when squinted at in a dimly-lit gallery. Luckily, I keep an illuminated magnifier in a pocket (not as a connoisseur of Renaissance manuscripts, but as a substitute for reading glasses when scanning ingredient lists in the supermarket or interpreting menus by candlelight) so was able to give them the detailed scrutiny they deserve. Wow. Look at that. Really quite amazing.

Not a Leonardo...
(one of my "sketchbook" collages)

As a left-hander, though, I couldn't help but admire the creative chutzpah of his backwards writing. He wouldn't have got away with that at my school. As a persecuted minority, we lefties have been far too complaisant, compared with certain others, I think. I mean, members of the LGBTC++ community have my sympathy, but I don't suppose they have a daily problem with pens, scissors, tin-openers, pencil-sharpeners, doors, or pretty much anything else you care to name in this right-normative world. My own handwriting, after years of persecution by various leftie-intolerant teachers, is not so much back-to-front as inside-out, illegible even to me. But I can draw, too, if not to Leonardo standard.

So can David Hockney. I was in Hatchard's bookshop recently [2], and fell upon a beautiful new edition of his Six Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm, published by the Royal Academy. Those etchings had a major impact on me when I first saw them reproduced in a Sunday colour supplement in 1970, aged 16. I'd never seen anything like them before, and in a very direct way they gave permission to draw "badly" but expressively, using a mix of thin, exploratory lines, bold but awkward shapes, blank areas, and blocks of semi-mechanical shading and cross-hatching; something which freed me, and I'm sure many others, from the prison of "good drawing". For years after I became a devotee of the Rotring technical drawing pen, with its swappable nibs of different widths, each producing an even, fine line of indian ink.

Eventually, a few years ago, I managed to get hold of a copy of the original Six Fairy Tales edition (Petersburg Press, 1970) which turned out to be tiny – 3 inches by 4.5 inches, practically a miniature book – and does no justice at all to Hockney's etched illustrations, which are far larger. This new edition is bigger and more substantial, so I will be revisiting those illustrations intensively and fully expect to be "influenced" all over again. 1970? Seems like just yesterday.

Peter Maxwell Davies & Harrison Birtwistle
David Hockney, pen & ink on paper, 1970
(National Portrait Gallery)


Under the Influence, Somewhere in Greece
pen & ink on paper, 1973
(in a drawer somewhere)

1. Allusion to Ziggy Stardust aside, apparently Leonardo's initial talent was as a musician, playing the lira da braccio, a large, bowed instrument, like a violin with five strings and a pair of drone strings. No doubt there is a Leonardo drawing somewhere, showing a lira plugged into an amplifier.
2. Hatchard's is among the very best independent bookshops I know. It's on Piccadilly, pretty much opposite the Royal Academy, and well worth a visit if you're ever in London. Don't get it confused with the Waterstone's just down the road...

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

How The Light Gets In


View from Hay-on-Wye car park

When we were in Hay-on-Wye recently, I picked up the prospectus for an upcoming festival. Now, despite its relative remoteness, Hay is famous for two things: it was long ago established as a centre for the second-hand book trade by Richard Booth, self-styled King of Hay, and for several decades has also been the venue for a high-profile annual literary festival. I was curious to see what this other festival in Hay had to offer, not least because it had the deeply annoying title of HowTheLightGetsIn [1]. It slowly dawned on me, however, as I thumbed through the glossy pages of the brochure listing the events and attractions of "the world's largest philosophy and music festival" (not much competition there, surely) that this was the brainchild of an ambitious and highly-successful university acquaintance of mine, Hilary Lawson, and I experienced a familiar but unwelcome sensation.

In a moment of clarity – I think we may have been discussing the possibility of upgrading my payscale – I once said to my boss that although I might not be very ambitious, I am very competitive. He probably thought I was just being my usual contrarian self, but for me it was a genuine insight into my own personality. For one thing, it explained to me why I have always been uncomfortable in the company of the truly ambitious. Obviously, most of us would agree that the personality traits that attend that unfortunate condition do make such people poor company. If you want to have a laugh, enjoy life, and keep your stress levels low, my advice is: avoid the ambitious, and mix exclusively with the brilliant losers. But – and this may just be me – I realised that, despite a lack of ambition, I can nonetheless never help comparing myself with any ambitious types who happen to be in the same room. I am competitive. Which is stupid; there's no point in wondering how far or how fast you might have run, if you hadn't pointedly ignored the starting gun. Strategy: leave the room as soon as possible.

I think I've always been like this. I like to approach excellence as nearly as possible, but only with a minimum expenditure of effort; I suspect I have an aristocratic soul trapped within my plebeian body. My school reports are full of comments that may be summarised as, "Could go far, but probably won't; too bloody lazy". All true, sadly. Getting into higher education is one thing; leaving it having achieved escape velocity from Planet Ordinary is quite another. In retrospect, those university days are an unreal time when the ambitious, the clever plodders, the brilliant bluffers, and all the other personality types associated with intelligence are brought into a proximity they will never again share in life. Indeed, the crucial differences between them, at that stage, are still emerging and consolidating, like freshly-developing personality Polaroids. You probably don't even realise what it is you are becoming, until all the pictures are complete, and comparisons are possible. Nope, it seems you weren't ambitious, after all; just competitive.

One of the curses of finding yourself in one of  your country's elite educational establishments – even if more or less by accident [2] –  is that some of the highly ambitious types you once rubbed shoulders with will go on to be ubiquitous as politicians and media types. Every time you turn on the TV or radio, or pick up a newspaper, the chances are that one or more of them is bound to show up. I have a peculiar, one-way relationship with a prominent British journalist called David Aaronovitch, for example. For our first two terms at university we had rooms on the same college staircase, and became friends. He was Communist Party aristocracy (see his family memoir), but that struck me as a Good Thing: I was still naive enough to think of the CP as the ne plus ultra of left politics, never so much as having heard the word "Trotskyist" before. He also liked British folk-rock, as I did, had a similar sense of humour, and it seemed we were embarking on a long-term friendship.

However, much as I enjoyed the rough and tumble of student activism, I was not as turned on as he was by tedious backroom politicking and, although he had a distinctly hedonistic streak, he was not as turned on as I was by, um, turning on. But his complete neglect of his studies led him to fail his first year exams, which was convenient for the university authorities [3], and he was "sent down" (chucked out). He went off to Manchester University, became President of the National Union of Students, and I never heard from him again [4]. Except that his ambition ultimately led him to become a prominent journalist and all-purpose current-affairs pundit, hosting panel shows and discussions, so his voice and opinions remain all-too familiar. Like most of my ex-comrades, dawdling or hopelessly lost on the Long March Through the Institutions, I alleviate any pang of competitive comparison by thinking: huh, Stalinist hack. Which is unfair: he's moved way to the right of "communism" (what was that, grandad?) these days... [5] Mi-aow!

So, will I be attending HowTheLightGetsIn? Um, no. Even though I notice Aaronovitch (not to mention Terry Eagleton or, crikey, Anna Soubry) will be participating in a number of what promise to be lively discussions there. The mystery to me is quite who the festival audience is, people who are willing to spend upwards of £158 for four days camping in a field, in order to sit in on discussions of "Metaphors of the Mind", "The Illusion of Now", or "The Mathematics of Thought", even if (especially if?) followed by nights of partying, live music, and "experiences". It's as if the planning of a Master's degree had somehow fallen into the hands of the organisers of an Oxbridge-style Commemoration Ball. I suppose, if I wanted to revive some shreds of ambition, the thing to do would be to blag a ticket and find out who they are for myself by actually interviewing some of them, and then write an amusing, insightful piece accompanied by my own excellent photographs, for submission to some national publication. Quite likely I'd learn something new by sitting in on some of the sessions, but mainly, naturally, I'd be "networking" and handing out flyers and business cards for this blog and my website left, right, and centre. Which, it goes without saying in this Brave New World of Ambition, would be considerably more focussed on promoting the Brand of Me than they are.

Perhaps I'd even go up to my old mate Dave, and re-introduce myself, and we'd have a memorable evening of catching up (as well as partying, live music, and "experiences"), opening up a whole new world of influential connections – for me, anyway. Heh... No, I think not. I know better, these days, than to enter any room where ambition is the currency, knowing that I no longer set any value on anything which is traded in there, and that nobody in the room will be interested in anything I have to offer. I'm not even that competitive, these days. Instead, my sympathies lie with Omar Khayyám, as voiced by Edward Fitzgerald:
But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
  And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee
.
Or, to adapt Rumi, Hendrix, Cohen, and doubtless a dozen others: Somewhere beyond right and wrong there is a pub with a garden by a river. I'll meet you there. And don't be late.

View from Hay-on-Wye car park

1. Strange, isn't it, how so many who used to sneer at Leonard Cohen are fans, now he's dead? The reference is to the song "Anthem": "There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in".
2. I think people don't believe me when I say this, but it's true. This old post gives a reasonable account.
3. One of the downsides of ambition is the desire to be identified prominently with a cause. The university had lost patience with the disruption caused by a wave of occupations and demonstrations in 1973, and took every opportunity to purge the student body of what I expect it identified as "ringleaders". Failing exams, of course, is asking for it.
4. Perfectly normal, of course, in those pre-internet, pre-mobile phone days.
5. But then, haven't we all? There are a few hold-outs for the Old Ways, like the proverbial Japanese soldiers in the jungle, some of whom have gone on to achieve a certain prominence, but most of us (the best of us?) lack all conviction: surely some revelation is at hand? (Come on, class! Keep up! Yeats?).

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Shakespeare Within The Abbey


King Edward III (1312-77)
(in the National Portrait Gallery)

As a birthday treat, an old university friend gave me two tickets to a special event, "Shakespeare within the Abbey", organised by actor/director Mark Rylance and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. I wasn't quite sure what to expect: if I'm honest, it had all the makings of a horribly embarrassing theatrical fiasco.
Mark Rylance and Shakespeare’s Globe are thrilled to bring a company of 22 actors to Westminster Abbey for a unique event to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday.

This unseated production invites you to roam the Abbey. As you explore, a beautiful and unexpected world unfolds in this sacred space. Consider the war-weary soldier or the hapless lover in the nave; behold a monarch in the transept or sit awhile in the pews and overhear a prayer or sonnet.

Audiences will experience fleeting, contemplative and intimate encounters with Shakespeare’s drama, poetry, dance and song beneath the soaring ribs of the magnificent Westminster Abbey.
I mean, it does sound a bit grim, doesn't it: an audience wandering freely about within Westminster Abbey, having random encounters with actors spouting bits of Shakespeare, completely out of context and without the comforting insulation of that "fourth wall". Hmm... I did seriously contemplate saying, thanks but, sorry, I was planning on having a bath that night. Nonetheless, my partner and I did meet up with that old university friend and his partner, yet another old university friend, and we boldly queued in the Cloisters, secure in the knowledge it would only last an hour and a bit, anyway.

As it turned out, it was brilliant. At least, it was once you had tuned in to the nature of the "experience". I was slightly thrown, at first, when approached by an actor in period costume, who grabbed my arm, gazed intently into my eyes, and began to recite Ophelia's words describing her recent encounter with the "mad" Hamlet. Yikes! I mean, I might have looked like Polonius, but I didn't have his half of the script. All I could do was nod sympathetically at her plight, and harumph in what I hoped was a suitably Elizabethan manner. It was a bizarrely trippy moment, like one of those dreams where you have lost all agency, and yet something unknown and undeclared is clearly expected of you. It was a relief when she drifted off, and I could joke that I hadn't realised we'd be expected to have done our homework.

Which, of course, we weren't. Part of the fun was working out what play we were encountering now, round the next corner. Isn't that Measure for Measure? No, Winter's Tale, I think... I was very impressed by the actors' ability to stay so intensely in character, despite directly addressing a bunch of folk in sensible outdoor clothes who were, in the main, determined not to be dragged through the fourth wall that was being so insistently broken down. Fourth wall? There weren't any walls! In a side chapel I found myself sitting next to yet another distraughtly soliloquising woman – I'm not entirely sure who, and this time dressed in a WW2 ATS uniform – but by then I had freed myself from any urge to say, "There, there, dear, don't go upsetting yourself: have you considered counselling?" Wisely, and despite the closeness of some of these encounters of the Bard kind, there was clearly no expectation of (or, I imagine, wish for) audience participation.

At the end of our session (the first of just two) we were all somehow shepherded into a cluster around a Capulet vs. Montague face-off, like a playground fight, which had been recast as a rap battle by the Intermission Youth Ensemble that pulled in all sorts of Shakespearean references, but which was eventually broken up by Rylance and the other grown-ups, and ended in a rather impressive group song of reconciliation. The Abbey doors opened, and out we trooped.

To be honest, though, the real star was the Abbey itself. I'd never been in there before, and it is simply incredible. I suspect we had greater access to every nook and cranny than everyday tourists do, and it was worth taking advantage of, despite a firm "no photography" rule. Royal tombs, elaborate memorials, Poets' Corner (which is way bigger than I'd imagined), amazing ecclesiastical architecture... The place is huge and, despite being stuffed end to end with these historical keepsakes and leftovers is still majestically cavernous, which does make it a good venue to hold a Big Do like a coronation every once in a while. I suppose it's intended to be a sort of national parish church and village hall, even if those of us with a Nonconformist heritage will never feel entirely at ease surrounded by such High Anglican grandeur. In fact, now I come to think of it, I have spent quite a lot of time nearby: in my role as a trades union activist at national meetings and rallies in the building just across the road, the Methodist Central Hall.

Edward (The Black Prince) 1330-76
(in the National Portrait Gallery)

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

The Questing Vole




The Prof and I have been visiting Mid-Wales at Easter, now, for over 40 years. Which is pretty much as long as we have known each other. Two children, several mortgages, and a lifetime of ups and downs later, this annual trip has been a constant, one which started simply because her parents owned a cottage up a lane just outside Presteigne in the Welsh Borders, which offered us a cheap break from our working lives in Bristol. I say "cheap": I can't imagine anyone would ever have paid to stay in the place. Tucked in a damp hollow next to a stream, it had slate floors set directly into the ground, and no heating other than a conventional fireplace and a couple of two-bar electric heaters. One of the first tasks on opening the place up, even in summer, was to prop up the mattress on the bed and steam off the worst of the damp with one of the heaters. It felt rather like camping in a poorly-chosen spot in a large, less than weatherproof tent, where the incessant babble of the stream through the night merely served to emphasise the clamminess of the bedding.

The whole area was seriously underdeveloped, then, and (rather like our visits to Northern Spain and the Basque Country in the years after Franco's death) it felt like going back in time, to the 1930s at least, and occasionally the 19th century. In the high streets of the larger towns you could still buy the sort of clothes worn by the extras in any period drama set between 1920 and 1950, and the junk shops were full of the wonderful Victorian and Edwardian bric-a-brac of farmhouse clearances.  Small accidents of geography have meant that, in the subsequent years, some valleys have thrived, while others have remained in the shadow of subsistence, abandonment, and dereliction. Naturally, the prospect of bargain-basement rural seclusion has attracted several waves of those seeking an alternative lifestyle, out of the censorious eye of "straight" society, and one constant over the years has been the reliable presence of wholefood shops and craft outlets for the makers of lumpy, crusty pots and improbable jewellery.

Anyway, the idea of constant return reminded me of a little story that happened in that Presteigne cottage some time around 1978. One Friday night we were sitting by the fire – just companionably reading, drinking, and smoking, as we both did in those days – when we noticed something odd. A very small creature, a vole of some kind, was making its way across the slate floor, presumably having entered the room beneath the door that led to the kitchen and the back door, and was headed, between our two chairs, towards the opposite door that led to the hallway and the front door. It seemed completely oblivious to our presence. Strange! Then, the next night, exactly the same thing happened: same time, same creature, same route, same indifference to our presence. We had to head back to Bristol the next day, but enjoyed the supposition that, that night and probably every night, the vole was making its round through the house in complete darkness, like a miniature security guard, gobbling up the odd beetle or slug on its way. The bold (or daft) little thing wasn't going to let unexpected changes of circumstance – like two enormous creatures, a blazing fire, or unaccustomed illumination by electric light – get in the way of its routine. A vole's gotta do what a vole's gotta do.

Which is a metaphor for something, I'm sure, but have never quite decided what.



Oh, and I nearly forgot:
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still: three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen;
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived:
  For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
  Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.
Sonnet 104
(Known to some as the "Carmen Miranda sonnet", because of that bizarre second line)
¡Feliz cumpleaños, señor Shakespeare!


Sunday, 21 April 2019

Invisible



One of the curious things about entering your senior years is the way you start to become invisible. To the young, in particular, you are now simply part of the oppressive grey mass from which they feel the need to differentiate themselves. No matter what tribal affiliations you may have, whatever your politics might be, however productive and active you remain, from the outside you're just another old geezer with thinning hair, a weight problem, and drab clothes from one chain-store beneath a sensible coat from another. Those who were once striking or beautiful probably feel this as a tragic loss; for the rest of us, well, in some ways it comes as a relief and a liberation. A few oldsters, of course, do find a late style that marks them out, or cling on to some of their youthful flamboyance, but the signs have become muddled and unreadable, as arcane and as dated as college scarves or regimental ties: so were you a teddy-punk or a heavy-metal hippie, grandad? And, frankly, as fashion accessories, that hearing aid and those bifocal specs dangling round your neck were never going to be a good look. Sure, you may have been deafened by Hawkwind and worn out your eyes reading Foucault late into the night, but nobody cares. I said NOBODY CARES, you deaf old git.

I felt this strongly when I was in London last week. I was there to meet up with my partner at a John Ruskin exhibition at Two Temple Place, and both on the way from and back to Waterloo station I mingled with the Extinction Rebellion protesters on Waterloo Bridge. Two more different crowds it would be hard to imagine: the eco-warriors, self-consciously ragged and homespun, and excited to be at the leading edge and media focus of an important moment; and the grey-haired art tourists, silently moving from exhibit to exhibit in a billionaire's Palace of Art, bent over the relics of a former age's important moment. Two different tribes, and yet both mine; accepted and invisible in both. For a photographer, of course, this is a very welcome gift. Don't mind me, people, just carry on doing what you're doing...

The Ruskin show was rather dull, though, I thought. It merely served to emphasise that Ruskin himself, competent though he was, was not a great artist. What he was, of course, was a radical and important thinker and writer about art, society, industry and architecture, and the way aesthetics could or should link them all into a seamless polity of mutual respect and equal distribution, at a time when few could see the nature of the disastrous wrong turns and poor choices that were being made, the consequences of which we are living with now. Dipping into his writings since, I realise I'd forgotten how radical he was. Never mind his paintings of leaves and seaweed: you can more or less stick a pin in his encyclopaedic written work to come up with something that, disentangled from its Victorian locutions, still seems relevant today. For example:
Primarily, which is very notable and curious, I observe that men of business rarely know the meaning of the word 'rich'. At least, if they know, they do not in their reasoning allow for the fact, that it is a relative word, implying its opposite 'poor' as positively as the word 'north' implies its opposite 'south'. Men nearly always speak and write as if riches were absolute, and it were possible, by following certain scientific precepts, for everybody to be rich. Whereas riches are a power like that electricity, acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pockets depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbour's pocket. If he did not want it, it would be of no use to you; the degree of power it possesses depends accurately upon the need or desire he has for it,— and the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist's sense, is therefore equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor.
Unto This Last
But, whatever links there may be between the world of Ruskin the Victorian writer and that of the protesters just down the road, I didn't get any sense of that essential radicalism from the exhibition, and least of all from its visitors. They were the Usual Suspects, the same baffled souls you find at so many exhibitions, seemingly looking for something in a framed picture or a display case that has somehow eluded or been taken from them in the world outside. I may look like one of them, I thought, but I still want to feel like those kids on the bridge, psyched up enough to forget about food, awake enough to do without sleep, and certain enough in the justice of a cause to be willingly carted away by the police, only to return later the same day, and do it all over again. They will remember these days into their own grey age.

I may share the convictions, however, but in my new incarnation as the Invisible Geezer I find I need regular meals, a comfortable bed (my back!), and – crucially – somewhere to pee at least once an hour. Plus, if I'm honest, I can also see the fatal flaw in the defiant, youthful narcissism of their activism, if only for the simple reason that I've been there, done that, myself. Activism is exciting; politics is boring. Real progress towards ambitious goals, I'm sure, will require enough of those grey-haired Usual Suspects, too, to be persuaded that what has eluded or been taken from them is something that can still be recovered, still be achieved, not by gazing upon some coloured marks on a piece of paper, but by demanding political change. That the game is not over; that invisibility is a reversible condition. Ruskin again:
All true opinions are living, and show their life by being capable of nourishment; therefore of change. But their change is that of a tree — not of a cloud.
Modern Painters

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Extinction Rebellion





I was in London yesterday, so naturally gravitated to the Extinction Rebellion protest, which has closed Waterloo Bridge to traffic. It was a sensation situated somewhere between eery and exhilarating to stroll around on the tarmac amongst the encamped protesters, the temporarily installed trees and structures, and bemused-looking tourists. "Imagine a world without cars" was the clear message, underlined by the filthy air quality, which reduced that ever more unfamiliar and unlovely skyline to a blueish-grey sketch. I noticed most people were still keeping to the pavement, nonetheless, and I couldn't help but occasionally glance behind me to check for oncoming buses: I'm standing in the middle of the road on Waterloo Bridge! Ingrained instincts prevail, and it'll be a while until that imagining becomes a reality, I'm afraid.



There was something of a low-key festival atmosphere, with a stage, a skateboard ramp, and various other solid-looking facilities-cum-obstacles: someone had clearly put some time, thought, and money into this protest. Before the end of the afternoon, however, the police began to gather in greater numbers, and token arrests started to be made. This may seem an odd comment to make, but what struck me was how short some of the Met's coppers are now. I mean, I'm a strapping 5' 6", but some of those guys were shorter than me. Maybe they have a special Bantam Division to make eco-protesters seem more huge and threatening? It will be interesting to see how this pans out: the core protesters are perfectly serious about not budging. I imagine the police will be equally perfectly serious about getting the traffic flowing again.


Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Sweet White Poison


Unplugged flute tooter, Powis Castle

I was pretty much off-grid last week, in a cottage without wi-fi, situated in a part of Mid-Wales where the erratic appearance of a two-bar phone signal is an Event. From a creative point-of-view it's something I should probably do more often. Like the boredom of childhood in the 1960s, it's a great stimulus to getting out and doing stuff during the day and also, like the computer- and phone-free nights of my youth, no impediment to just sitting around and thinking about stuff. I had some good ideas for more work that may or may not bear fruit in the coming months.

Sitting around idly one evening, a random, amusing thought that struck me was the hypocrisy of the Tate Gallery deciding to sever its ties with the "tainted" cash of the Sackler family. If you haven't been following this saga, it goes something like this:

Once upon a time, in the days before accumulating riches beyond the dreams of most small countries became a conscience-free competitive sport, the embarrassingly wealthy would seek to avert the all-seeing eyes of envy and equitable redistribution by doing Conspicuous Good Works. Institutions such as libraries, galleries, museums, and universities would bear the names of the wealthy, philanthropic families that had paid for them to be built, filled, and staffed. Later, other wealthy benefactors might pay for a new extension, endow a fund that enabled more stuff to be bought, or even donate their personal collections of stuff (generally as a tax dodge, it's true, and usually with the stipulation that the family name be attached in perpetuity). The Sackler family are one such: they made piles of money from pharmaceuticals, trading under the name Purdue, and over the years have funded many "Sackler Wings" and the like around the world.

However, one product associated with Purdue (and thus the Sacklers, even if indirectly) is a notoriously addictive opioid painkiller called OxyContin. Uh oh! As everyone surely knows, there is an epidemic of opioid addiction and abuse in the USA, with OxyContin as Exhibit A. It seems photographer Nan Goldin – who achieved notoriety and A-list success with her unblinking documentary photographs of her circle of friends, blithely mired in New York's heroin, gay, and drag subcultures – had become addicted to OxyContin herself, and decided to launch a campaign to encourage the art world to reject Sackler money because, well, OxyContin, yeah? Which might seem just a little hypocritical, given the nature of her career launchpad (street heroin = romantically decadent; prescription painkillers = work of the devil). But one outcome of this campaign has been the cutting of ties with the Sacklers' sacks of "tainted" cash by the Tate Gallery in London, as little better than suitcases of grubby notes from the Medellín Cartel.

Phew, got there, at last! So, anyway, I had this amusing thought: Tate - Sackler - Goldin - hypocrisy - heh. Why? Because the Tate family, of course, had made their fortune from pushing sugar (though not, it appears, from exploiting Caribbean slavery). There had to be a blog post there, surely? But it seems Private Eye (a fortnightly satirical magazine of long standing, M'lud [1]) had beaten me to it, and done a far better job. I quote:
As the controversy over unethical arts funding continues, the Sackler Trust today announced that they want nothing to do with any gallery bearing the name of the discredited sugar magnate, Henry Tate.
  Said a Sackler spokesman, "Sugar has done irreparable harm to society, causing obesity, tooth decay and life-threatening diseases such as diabetes. Tate & Lyle is synonymous with this addictive white substance which has ruined so many lives."
  She continued, "Tate sullies the good philanthropic name of the Sackler family and this connection with the evil sugar trade is proving an unwelcome distraction from our hugely popular opioids."
Private Eye 1493, 5 -18 April 2019
So, leave satirical commentary to the professionals, I say.

But, FFS, you galleries, take whatever money you're offered, and stop being so prissy and faux-PC about it: all extreme wealth is "tainted", one way or another, from the Catholic Church and the Medicis on down. The patrons of art are always the privileged oppressors or the pushers of product, aren't they? But if you really don't want the money, please pass my details on to that nice Mr. Sackler, and let him know that I'll happily change the name of this blog to "The Idiotic Sackler Hat", or whatever he wants. Although I will be wanting payment in cash, not kind...

Sugar-rush shepherdess, Powis Castle

1. It occurs to me that, as well as describing Private Eye, I may need to explain this conventional British joke format to overseas readers. An English judge is addressed by lawyers as "My lord", pronounced "M'lud". It is considered amusing that, typically, judges will be (or pretend to be) entirely ignorant of popular culture, for example asking "Who are the Beatles?" (Answer: "A popular beat combo, M'lud").

Sunday, 14 April 2019

The Weather in Wales



We made our traditional annual Easter expedition to Radnorshire this last week. A little earlier than Easter proper, obviously, but we had left our booking a little late.  It had snowed heavily the week before and, thoughtfully, they saved a little for us. It's good to get your boots in some snow at least once a year, even if you have to walk a few miles and track it down to its hilltop lair.


Then it went wet and misty. Very wet and misty. A good day to visit the famous bookshops in Hay-on-Wye (where I found nothing worth buying, but did have a strange encounter with a brochure, which I'll probably describe later).


Then it cleared up. We had a few of those beautiful clear, cold, sunny spring days. Walking on top of the world!


By the end of the week, it was actually getting quite warm. Once you were out of the wind, that is, crouched down in the lee of a hill, and wearing a coat, hat, and two pairs of socks. If you have an interest in trilobite fossils, by the way, that quarry on the horizon is a good spot to look for them. Except that the owner has now understood this, fenced it off, and installed a rentable shepherd's hut on the premises.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Shazam!

Driving along a main road in Southampton, my eye was caught by an enormous, illuminated poster for the latest comic superhero film, Shazam! In one of those revelatory, Proustian moments that would be hard to explain at a road traffic accident investigation, I was transfixed, transported, transformed, transmogrified into a boy who could fly. Shazam!

"Just say the word", read the poster's tagline, and I knew exactly what that meant, although I hadn't said or even thought the word for nearly sixty years. It was like the call of some secret society of which I had been an unwitting sleeper, and immediately conjured up a black and white image of a man flying, with arms thrust forward, and his short cloak rippling in the slipstream. Luckily, I remembered to brake as the traffic slowed, and not try to fly over the car in front.

Perhaps I should explain. When I was about eight years old – this would have been around 1961/1962 – my friends and I used to congregate on Saturday mornings in Shephall Community Centre, one of a number of such multi-purpose neighbourhood centres, not unlike parish halls, which the Council provided for the residents of our New Town. It was just across the road from our primary school, and felt like part of our civic entitlement as junior citizens of the People's Republic of Stevenage; just like the library or the swimming pool, a continuation of school by other means. It was where, a few years later, I would attend weekly judo classes, and it was where my activist-minded grandmother ran the local Over Sixties Club. Anyway, on Saturday mornings, a large room would be filled with rows of stacking chairs, and a screen and projector set up. For a small fee, you could watch, communally, a couple of cartoons and one of those film serials that for a decade or two occupied the slot that would soon be filled by solitary TV-watching. As the room darkened, and the projector started up, numbers would appear on the screen, and we would all join in a ritual count-down. TEN, NINE, EIGHT...

Our favourite serial was the one in which a teenager transformed into a flying superhero by declaiming the magic word, shazam! For years – at our school, anyway – you would see boys with raincoats secured around the neck only, zooming around the playground with arms extended, shouting "shazam!" as their dark-blue gabardine cloak trailed behind. Beyond that single, repeated image of a man flying, however, I found I could remember nothing about it. I assumed the original serial had also been called Shazam! and that the new film was somehow derived from it, but could find no reference to it either in the movie's online documentation or on the wider Web.

After a bit of hunting around, however, I discovered it had really been called The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Its Wikipedia page actually includes the serial's full first "chapter", which is hilarious to watch now, not least for the introductions to the characters, where the actors mug for the camera. The mild racism, orientalism, and general assortment of off-the-peg cliches out of which the storyline is constructed is just the standard fare of the time, and not a lot more sophisticated than an imaginative playground adventure brought to the screen, but with better props and scenery. I expect Steven Spielberg and George Lucas sat in some similar venues as small boys, absorbing the influences that would lead to Indiana Jones and Darth Vader.

I imagine anyone born after 1980 will find it hard to credit that this was the standard of entertainment children expected and enjoyed at that time. No doubt the new Shazam! is slick, full of smart and ironic dialogue, and – it goes without saying – jaw-dropping special effects. But I wonder if it will sink so deep into someone's subconscious that, in 60 years time, they will nearly crash their hovercar by glimpsing the word "shazam!" on some nearby holographic advert?


[N.B. I'm away at the moment, mainly off-grid in Mid-Wales. I'll probably wait to deal with any comments when I get back in a week or so.]

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Money Will Ruin Everything


Southampton City Centre

"We have more or less come to believe that our culture is a support system for commerce, whereas it should be the other way round". Words of wisdom, indeed, which I wrote down as soon as I read them. That's it, isn't it, in a nutshell? "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd" [1]. Pretty much everything that has gone wrong since the late 1970s is summarised in that one elegant sentence, I'd say. It's not by anyone famous, though, just something left as a comment on another photography-oriented blog (Photos and Stuff) by a guy who comments as (and may indeed be called) Robert Roaldi. But then, as any blogger will attest, the comments are often what make blogging worth the trouble.

This change in values has been particularly noticeable in higher education, and I've remarked on it numerous times in this blog. Here's a good example from 2010. Now, while there was plenty wrong with the old idea of a university as a sort of finishing school for a ruling elite – even when enlarged, post-1945, to include the top ten percent of the ability range (at least, as measured in exam-passes) – the new idea that a university is a credential factory for certifying nearly fifty percent of the population as "workplace ready" is a comparative disaster, especially when tied to commerce-oriented notions like "value for money", "market competition", and the rest of it. "Look, Vice-Chancellor, there are next to no jobs for Egyptologists, and no research grants to be had from Big Egyptology, so why the hell are we running a course in it? Especially when the postgraduate courses in Advanced PowerPoint Presentation are so desperate for more teaching space..." But the same story has been repeated across the public sector, with devastating results: theatres, libraries, museums, and galleries – not to mention fundamental public services like social work, hospitals, general practice surgeries, and the police – have all been forced to justify their existence in service to a "price of everything, value of nothing" regime.

One arena in which even the more unobservant members of the general public must surely have noticed this corruption by commerce is sport. Once upon a time in Britain, many sports teams, up to and including national level, would have comprised two distinct categories of member: "gentlemen" and "players". In other words, there were the amateurs of private means, able to live the "Corinthian" ideal – as still (sort of) embodied by the Olympics – and then there were the professionals: talented players, usually working-class men paid a wage for their services, or sometimes given "boot money" (not to be confused with Zoot Money).  No-one would want to return to that. Professionalised sport (if you're into sport, which I'm not) is doubtless a Good Thing; and no-one would want, either, to revive absurdities like the cap imposed on professional footballers' earnings until the 1960s. But: the relationship between sport and commerce is now completely out of balance, with star players earning ludicrous amounts of money simply because, at the top level, things like TV rights, sponsorship, and merchandise have been leveraged so hard that the money machine is now wedged permanently open, and cash simply cascades into the more popular sports, bringing with it the inevitable greed and corrupt inversion of values.

Consider the English Premier League in football. Could the fact that fewer than a quarter of regular Premier League players are eligible to play for England – because of the luring of the most talented players from every corner of the world by those huge salaries – possibly have anything to do with the national team's poor performance, internationally? Not to mention the all too predictable failure of that fountain of cash to trickle down below the top league, never mind down to grassroots level, where native talent must learn which end of the pitch is which. Everyone knows this is true, yet, as noted above, because culture (very broadly defined) has come to act as a support system for commerce, when it should be the other way round, all anyone can do is shrug, as if the generation of huge cash flows in a single direction was nature's way of acknowledging the essential virtue of one course of action over another. We have been sold – and bought – the idea that markets are nature at work.

But what may work for elite sport or retail is a disaster for public services. There's no money to be made in providing school dinners or probation services or cleaning hospitals, except by reducing standards and staffing and salaries to unacceptable levels, so the government strategy of outsourcing such essentials to the lowest bidder among private, profit-making concerns was bound to backfire, sooner or later. The financial collapse of all-purpose government contractors like Carillion and Interserve is therefore hardly a surprise, neither is the stripping of contracts such as the Medway Secure Training Centre (in effect a children's prison) or more recently Birmingham's Winson Green Prison from that other outsourcing giant, G4S, because of too few, too poorly-trained, and too-often ill-disciplined and abusive staff.

If there's any up-side to Brexit, it's that we have had a chance to sit back and think: what kind of country, what kind of culture, do we really want to be? The alarming thing is that the answer that seems to be emerging is: we don't have a fucking clue. Or, worse, we don't fucking care. Perhaps we've become so used to outsourcing our problem-solving to the lowest bidder, that – like those idiotic cheats who buy all their college assignments from an essay bank and still feel entitled to a First – we've never really thought about it, because we've foolishly confused ends and means. I may not be able to get a doctor's appointment this week, but at least my tax bill is really low! My job may depend on EU membership, but I've had enough of being pushed around by Brussels! I don't trust our politicians, but I want them to take back control! I don't like immigrants, but I'm never going to do any of that dirty, low-paid work, thanks very much!

Or perhaps we never did give it that much thought, anyway – apart from that one shining moment in 1945 – and, like the idle great-grandchildren of some Victorian magnate, have merely been living off the financial and cultural capital of the trust fund of Empire. Which, it seems – now that we've finally got around to reading that letter from the trustees that's been sitting unopened on the national sideboard for the past couple of decades – may actually have run out some time ago.

William Draper monument, Bristol

1. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism ("True wit is Nature to advantage dress'd / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd"). Same source as "A little learning is a dangerous thing" and a dozen other pithy sayings that have entered the language. Thus Pope's Essay is "what oft was thought" in action. Is there a word for something which embodies the very qualities it advocates? "Popery" is certainly not it...

Friday, 29 March 2019

Goto, Goto!


Southampton Water

Drained pool, Southampton Sports Centre

Theresa May's notoriously robotic assertion, that "Brexit means Brexit", will have struck most as a bit of rhetorical tautology: "east is east, and west is west", etc. To those of us who have written the odd program, however, it was clear that the Maybot was simply indulging in the deprecated practice of giving a constant and a variable the same name. Or, at least, her programmers were.

Worse, she / they committed the further sin of failing to declare the variable ${brexit}, assign it a type, and, ideally, initialise it with a value. Even worse, and fatally, she / they then compiled the program and ran it, without any testing or beta phase. Amateurs!

The Development Team have now spent the best part of three years trying to debug this fundamentally flawed program, and the Maybot is stuck in a classic infinite loop. Someone is going to have to do something as crude and as deprecated as stick in a simple "goto" here, before the stack overflows.

Meanwhile, here are some pictures of the real world in March.

St. Cross, Winchester

Cricket pitch, Southampton Sports Centre

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Waterloo 2.0


River Itchen at St. Denys, Southampton

I've always been interested in the nuances of voices and accents. That is, British voices and accents, of which there are many. Very many, in fact: at every intersection of region with age, gender, class, race, education, aspiration, affiliation, sexuality, and general world-view, there is a distinctive mode of speech. Given that a region can be as small as the next village or the other side of the river, that makes for a bewildering array of distinctions and gradations. Some of these differences are quite striking, although most, I assume, are inaudible to the foreign ear, even when instantly recognisable to the native. I imagine this is pretty much the case everywhere. To my ear, an accountant from Frankfurt sounds much the same as a Bavarian smallholder, but I am sure they are immediately, mutually identifiable.

But, Britain being such a class-conscious society, even today, there are special nuances to the spoken language which make us particularly sensitive to the intersections of accent. On walking into a strange pub or bar, the first thing any streetwise person does, after a quick appraising glance, is to take the temperature of the local linguistic micro-climate and quickly decide whether to stay, leave, or perhaps just keep a low profile.

George Bernard Shaw (an Irishman) famously declared in his preface to Pygmalion:
The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen. The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play. There have been heroes of that kind crying in the wilderness for many years past.
Shaw's unfavourable comparison of English English with German or Spanish is quite odd, really. Certainly, consistency of orthography is a great help in learning a language, but in itself is hardly capable of preventing any major regional or class differences in pronunciation. The idea that phonetic spelling reform (based on some single version of "correct" pronunciation, presumably) would somehow helpfully homogenise English English is hilarious, as if anyone had ever learned to speak their mother tongue from a textbook. The passage is most famous, of course, for that third sentence ("It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him"), an observation which is much quoted out of context, probably because, as a sound-bite, it seems as true in 2019 as it was in 1913.

Why? Well, the persistent diversity of British voices is not an innocent fact of geography. It is profoundly tribal; jealously preserved and beset with booby-traps for intruders. Although I'm a pretty good mimic, I wouldn't attempt to copy another person's regional accent to their face. That's a mistake I've made in the past, and seen others make, and it rarely ends well. People don't enjoy being the object of what amounts to a personal parody, however well-intentioned. Not least when it amounts to an implicit assertion of superiority: "Hear how well I can mimic your delightfully quaint accent!"[1].  This needn't be as incendiary as an Old Etonian attempting Glaswegian in a Glasgow pub (yikes, someone call an ambulance): the current presumption of the privileged that by knocking the sharp edges off their speech – usually by adopting a flattened "mockney" mode, randomly spattered with glottal stops – they have rendered themselves invisible as they move among the common people is as laughable as it is insulting. See: any number of public-school educated pop stars, actors, artists, and that Harry bloke, Meghan Markle's husband.

This works both ways, of course. Despite any amount of education, intelligence, and talent, it is next to impossible for a person from the accented classes to pass as posh, should they so wish. The "posh" voice (a.k.a. "received pronunciation", or "RP") having, in its various versions, long enjoyed its self-declared status as the norm from which "accents" and dialects deviate, and – by a neat sleight of hand – as the vocal embodiment of the aforesaid education, intelligence, and talent. Back in the early post-1945 years, when state-funded higher education first offered its escape route for bright kids from stifling working-class lives, one of the first things abandoned at the local railway station was their local accent, a rite of passage that amounted to an act of self-harm, one that marked them for life. To get on in the world, it was assumed, you had to mimic the speech patterns of your social superiors. Inevitably, this stranded them in the sad "scholarship boy" no man's land described in Richard "Death Cab" Hoggart's book The Uses of Literacy. But, through the 1960s, new role-models of worldly success were evolving, and people like David Bailey or John Lennon or Michael Parkinson seem never to have got the memo about losing that dreadful accent. By the time I went to university in the 1970s, the idea of changing your manner of speech over the course of Freshers' Week had become as ludicrous as wearing a tie [2]. To be honest, I think my parents were quite disappointed.

Nonetheless, despite decades of social mobility, the confident, articulate, public-school-and-Oxbridge RP voice has retained its stamp of authority. Yes, diverse voices are now heard at all levels of society (although I have yet to hear an RP bin-man or corner-shop owner), but to this day nothing commands instant, reflex obedience, deference, and respect quite like That Voice. It's somehow more reassuring when your doctor or lawyer seems to have descended from some higher realm, isn't it? There has always been the sense that we plebs and nobodies could merrily get on with our lives – just having fun, earning a living, raising a family, or arguing about bullshit things like Bake Off or the Premier League – while the grave, power-dressed, well-spoken grown-ups kept the national act together, doing the boring, necessary things. That is, until now. Because why? Because Brexit.

Put simply, I think the Brexit debacle has revealed to everyone – anyone, that is, who has bothered to follow the news over the past gruelling two years but who, naively, still believed otherwise – that very posh people can be very stupid, too. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Dense, dull, and dim. Fatuous fuckwits. If it wasn't self-evident before, it is now abundantly clear that being the product of privilege does not automatically make you the effortless embodiment of education, intelligence, and talent it has for so long, and so conveniently, been pretended. Far from it. Despite possession of That Voice, senior career politicians with the sort of in-depth poshness only money can buy have revealed themselves as quite stupid enough to declare a referendum with potentially catastrophic national consequences – a referendum winnable by a simple majority, FFS! – like some drunken idiot betting his house on the toss of a coin. Daily, we hear transparent nonsense uttered in That Voice by puffed-up fools incapable of thinking beyond tired sound-bite rhetoric; unwilling to seek necessary compromises; unable to predict the consequences of their own actions; and prepared to inflict as-yet unknown damage on the nation in the pursuit of self-enrichment and nineteenth-hole prejudices, mis-sold on a prospectus of "exciting new opportunities" and "taking back control". Above all, these people are deluded about Britain's place in the world:

BRITAIN: Put that EU trade deal on hold, China – UK PLC is coming!
CHINA: What's that funny little squeaking noise?

All led by a Prime Minister (admittedly only fake-posh) who, in a fit of hubris, voluntarily trashed her inherited majority, failed to see the strategic implications of leading a minority government – choosing to placate the extremists in her own party at every turn rather than seeking parliamentary consensus – and who has now succumbed to that proverbial definition of insanity: repeatedly trying the same course of action, and expecting a different outcome. Faced by a Leader of the Opposition (admittedly only fake-pleb) who has a Cunning Plan so secret that everyone in his party feels able to come out publicly with their own different version of it. Broadly speaking, however, the Plan seems to involve winning the next General Election, which is just another kind of delusion.

Madness in high places! I suppose we have been here before. But where is Napoleon when you need him, to distract and unite the people? Behave, child, or Boney'll getcha! Wait, what's that you say? You think the EU is Napoleon by other means? Heh! But, no, you're serious, aren't you? Finally, it all makes sense... Send for the straitjackets!

Southampton Water from Mayflower Park

1. I once knew a fellow student who was from the North-East of England, and had a strong NE accent. His favourite record was "Noah Woman Noah Cray", by Bob Marley. I am embarrassed to admit that those of us from the south of the country found this hilarious. He, needless to say, didn't. Sorry, Murph!
2. Indeed, the pendulum had swung so far the other way that certain public-school types with political ambitions had, it was said, taken de-elocution lessons to help them feel less conspicuous. Reverse Pygmalion? Heineken once made an amusing advert on this premise.