Friday, 26 August 2016


Pisa, August 2016

Before we get back to a new season of blogging, I should address the challenge I set in the last post of July, "Hand-tooled Gnomitex". It was:
"A small end-of-blog-year prize, payable in self-esteem (at the current kudos exchange rate), to those who can (a) identify the source of this post's title, and (b) the source of the source, and (c) the source of the source of the source."
The response was underwhelming, to say the least. I know the prospect of Brexit has affected exchange rates, but even so: a stack of kudos has to be worth something, surely. Maybe we all took August off? Anyway, here are the answers:

1. The British satirical fortnightly magazine Private Eye has always made use of allusive in-jokes (for example, "tired and emotional" or "discussing Ugandan affairs"), some of which are of such long-standing that the original allusion has all but been forgotten. One of these is "hand-tooled Gnomitex", a faux-luxurious binding in which books purportedly published by Lord Gnome (the journal's fictitious proprietor) are always bound.

2. But why Gnomitex? "Gnomitex" is a riff on Skivertex, the plastic binding material, resembling leather, in which cheap but "sumptuous" hardbound sets of Dickens, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and other popular "classics" were usually bound, and proclaimed as such in adverts in Sunday colour supplements back in the 1960s and 70s (giving my father a chance to repeat his well-worn line about "genuine imitation leather"). My memory is that the Skivertex was usually said to be "gold-tooled"; the "hand-tooling" of Gnomitex is probably a bit of facetious one-upmanship (Private Eye can be very snobbish about matters of class, aspiration, and popular culture).

3. But why Skivertex? Well, Skivertex derives its name from "skiving", which in bookbinding means to shave off thin layers of leather for binding purposes. In other words, the plastic material resembles skived leather, in the same way the textured paper generally used on British hardbacks resembles real binding cloth*. I don't think there is any etymological connection between "skiving" (as in splitting leather) and "skiving" (as in avoiding work) but I suppose there may be.

On reflection, I suppose it is not impossible that I am the only person in the entire world who could or would make that series of connections. Oh, well. Of course, the lack of a winner means that next year's challenge will be a kudos rollover! So be sure to come back in August 2017!

Talking of skiving, as in avoiding work, a series of postcards from this year's exotic foreign travel will be dropping onto your e-doormat in September, quite some time after my actual return home, just like the real thing. Does anyone still send actual written postcards, I wonder? We haven't received any this year so far, and sent a total of one, I think, and that was delivered via some new-fangled alternative to the postal service, with a detachable QR code to monitor its progress. But, in the world of the instant mass-delivery of a smartphone selfie, even that seems quaint.

Crikey, isn't that tower leaning a bit?

* Both are examples of our favourite useful-but-ugly word, the skeuomorph.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Hand-Tooled Gnomitex

Continuing the theme of Schadenfreude, I thought I'd share this nugget of ironist's gold from the current TLS*. Bookbinding, inexplicably, is rarely the subject of much humour, so this redresses the balance somewhat. It appears that the booksellers Henry Sotheran's commissioned the upscale binders Sangorski & Sutcliffe to rebind a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in what would be "the greatest modern binding in the world", saying "there is no limit, put what you like into the binding, charge what you like for it".  Well, OK! Bling time!
After two and a half years' work, with more than a thousand gems, 5,000 leather inlays and 100 sq feet of gold leaf, it was catalogued in 1911, at £1,000. There was, however, no buyer, and eventually it was knocked down at Sotheby's for £405, to be shipped to America. Unfortunately, the ship was the Titanic, and Sangorski's fortunes seemed to sink from then on.
Just to rub it in, "a replica was made by Stanley Bray, George Sutcliffe's nephew, but bombed in 1941. The heroic Bray then bound yet another, which was not finished until 1989 and is on permanent loan to the British Library". Hmm. If I were in charge of the BL, I'd look with extreme prejudice on that loan, and have it returned ASAP. As Napoleon said, "I know he's a good bookbinder, but is he lucky?"

Talking of lucky, I'm off to Florence this week, and will also have a blog break for the whole of August. At least, I will if I can fight off the compulsion to write and share photographs, which is harder than you might think. And talking of that, you might like to cast an eye over my recent contribution to the online landscape magazine On Landscape. No facetious or irrelevant comments, please (I mean over there, not here, of course). I decided I needed an outlet that reached more than the handful of readers of this blog, and have some more landscape-related articles for them in the pipeline. I'm not really a pure landscapist at heart, as you know, but they seem like nice folk, and willing to give my ramblings a platform.

A small end-of-blog-year prize, payable in self-esteem (at the current kudos exchange rate), to those who can (a) identify the source of this post's title, and (b) the source of the source, and (c) the source of the source of the source.

* Review by Jim McCue of "Cinderella of the Arts" by Rob Shepherd, TLS no. 5913, July 29 2016.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Grave Matters

One of the largest cemeteries in Southampton lies opposite the General Hospital, situated on the south-facing, terraced slope of a hill, oddly reminiscent of a vineyard, and which may indeed originally have been used in experimental viticulture by prominent local landowners the Hoare family (after whom a nearby road was originally named Hoare's Hill, but changed in 1924 to the more anodyne Dale Road, at the request of the respectable folk moving into their new suburban semi-detached villas). I occasionally walk through Hollybrook Cemetery if I'm visiting the hospital and it's a pleasant enough place, though nowhere near as characterful or as photogenic as the Victorian cemetery at the south end of Southampton Common. With the twentieth-century decline in religious belief seems to have come a reluctance to invest the deceased's cash in a piece of grandiose memorial statuary. We'll take slab number two, please, in black marble, and go easy with the lettering.

One of the hidden surprises of this cemetery is that it contains a substantial number of official war graves, beautifully maintained, as always, by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In the main these are the burial places of men who were hospitalised back to Southampton from the two world wars and who subsequently "died of wounds", mainly in the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley. But there is also a monument which lists nearly 2000 non-naval service personnel lost at sea in "home waters" in troop and merchant ships sunk by submarines and mines.

Most striking among these names is the roll-call of around 500 officers and men of the South African Native Labour Corps, who died when the troop transport Mendi sank in the Channel following a collision in 1917. The role of Empire troops in both wars is often overlooked; in fact, this assemblage of graves and memorials in Southampton is an intriguing sample of all those who died in Britain's wars, recruited from every corner of the Empire and Commonwealth. There are also a few graves of German prisoners of war and airmen shot down in the Southampton Blitz. Unlike those monumental arrays in France and Belgium, where whole regiments lie together after the mass slaughter of particular battles, these are a randomly-selected group from many different regiments and theatres of war, potential survivors who, in the end, didn't make it, with the addition of some reluctant voyagers who were lost at sea in transit to or back from war, often in sight of land.

In his war memoir my father wrote about his own far-from-luxury cruise as a private soldier from Greenock in Scotland to North Africa via Cape Town aboard the Llangibby Castle, and then on to Calcutta on the Silver Teak (doing an emergency handbrake turn past Singapore, their original destination, which had just fallen to the Japanese). The fear of submarine or air attack and death at sea was a constant background note beneath the sheer boredom of days and weeks at sea. Troops were issued cork lifejackets and ordered to have them close by at all times, but were informed by the resident jolly tars that if they jumped into the water from any height wearing those bloody things they would assuredly break their necks. Fortunately, both of Dad's journeys went unmolested, but the Llangibby Castle was torpedoed carrying troops in another Atlantic convoy in 1942, managing to limp back under escort to Gibraltar.

 As with all war cemeteries marking so many wasted and truncated young lives, the understated, uniform rows of Portland stone have a quiet democratic dignity that is very affecting. Which, I have to say, distinguishes them from an increasing number of contemporary memorials. There is something very odd going on, when relatives feel a need to festoon a grave with helium-filled metallic balloons, plastic toy windmills, and even solar-powered gizmos that whir round and round perpetually. A walk past certain parts of Hollybook Cemetery feels more like the aftermath of a fairground than a graveyard. Is this a revival of some kind of inchoate animistic or pagan belief system? Or just a me too fashion, masquerading as a custom, like the recent vogue for flying Chinese lanterns at New Year? It's clearly related to the mass urge to leave floral tributes, mawkish messages, and soft toys at the site of road accidents and child-murders and, to my taste anyway, distinctly creepy. So much so, that I can't even bring myself to photograph them. But there's a project there for someone with a stronger stomach for the excesses of popular sentimentality.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Just Like That

This grey weather finally seemed to have lifted last week, but has returned, and if it's been getting me down I dread to think what it's been doing to those people who live for summer. Our neighbours took off for a last-minute week in Corfu, in despair of ever seeing the sun again. I've never been there – Corfu, not despair – but feel I know it intimately, having read and re-read Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals so frequently in my childhood. Its only rival in my personal re-reading stakes is Catch-22, which I read and re-read in my teen years. Both books eventually acquired the patina and added bulk which come from the long-term two-way transfer of essences between a human and an inanimate object. No doubt scientists of the future will be able to reconstruct me completely from the biological and possibly mental traces transferred into those pages. And I suppose somewhere in the recesses of my memory complete texts of both books must be lodged.

The trouble with weather, jet travel between climate zones excepted, is that it's out of our control when it comes to managing the way we feel. Mood change, however, can be voluntary. Perhaps you have a joke, say, or a funny scenario you can think of at will, which is guaranteed to lift your spirits? Apart from a very few, very silly ones, jokes tend not to do it for me. In private, that is. A joke is essentially a social act, and really needs a teller and an audience to work. It takes a genius of "voice", like Wodehouse or Bill Bryson, to make a joke laugh-out-loud funny when read cold on the page. But I do have two scenarios, drawn from real life, that usually manage to cheer me up.

The first is the death of comedian Tommy Cooper. No, seriously. Cooper's fame will not have spread far beyond these rocky shores, I think we can be certain. He was one of a generation of British entertainers who emerged from the armed forces after WW2 equipped with the rudiments of an act, which they then developed and polished in clubs and "variety", going on to become mainstays of television during the 1960s and 70s. Most of the comics were slick and safe; the Goons being the obvious exception. Cooper's act, ingeniously, was based on being neither slick, safe, nor even particularly funny – his stage persona was the clumsy conjurer whose tricks never worked, accompanied by his trademark flustered cover-ups and lame patter. The act never varied, and why he was so successful is a mystery. He even became something of a National Treasure, beloved by impressionists, but ill-health and a drinking problem caused his career to tail off. In the end he collapsed and died on stage, on live prime-time television, with the audience laughing heartily as he was dragged behind the curtain, convinced it was all part of the usual performance of haplessness. The savage irony of which never fails to cheer me up.

The other thing is another tragic event that strikes a similarly ironic resonance that gives me the giggles. Sorry, I can't help it, I'm just made that way. As Oscar Wilde said, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." I'm just the sort of heartless, tasteless fiend who enjoys reading the Darwin Awards.

In 2009, at Seaton in Devon, a Polish man fell 300 feet to his death, having decided to pose for a photograph clinging on to the sheer cliff edge by a tuft of grass. I think what makes me laugh is the idea of a man feigning for the camera the terror of a man clinging to a cliff by a tuft of grass – "Aaargh!" – when he actually is a man clinging to a cliff by a tuft of grass. Or not so much feigning as parodying that terror, a split-second before experiencing it in reality, as the ironic quotation marks fall away from the situation. Aaaargh...

Oddly, on the very same day, a Russian man also fell 300 feet from another cliff near Folkestone. It doesn't seem to be known whether he was also larking about for his friends' cameras, but I wouldn't be surprised. I understand that both Poland and Russia are very wide and quite flat, but you'd think the concept of a 300 foot sea-cliff, and its accompanying perils, would surely be easy enough to grasp.

If all else fails, though, I think of novelist Arnold Bennett who died of typhoid, contracted by drinking a carafe of tap-water in Paris in 1931, against the waiter's advice, just to prove it was perfectly safe. If that doesn't cheer you up, there's nothing more I can do for you. You probably do need a holiday in Corfu. Watch out for those cliffs, though, and do listen to the waiter.

Friday, 22 July 2016

A Sticky Googly

I heard what seemed to me a significant language moment this week. England and Yorkshire cricketer Jonny Bairstow was being interviewed about the first test match in this summer's Pakistan tour – lost rather lamely by England, apparently – and moved onto some interesting linguistic ground when he talked of being "forced onto the back burner" by Pakistan's attack. That wasn't the significant moment, though. Sportsmen are notorious for the inanity of their metaphors, and that was probably a forgivable metaphorical mash-up, a forced error committed under pressure from Rob Bonnet's deceptively suave bowling questioning. A cricketer – not least a batsman like Bairstow – might very naturally refer to being forced onto the back foot, though I think this may be a boxing expression in origin. But to put something onto the back burner is clearly a culinary metaphor, and generally means "to reduce the priority of something, to give it less attention". The combination of the two was an entertaining novelty, though, and put me in a state of alertness for what was coming.

Rob unexpectedly switched the questioning to the breaking issue of whether team selection should be taken away from the current panel and revert to the captain and coach. Jonny was suitably nonplussed. "That's a complete curve ball you've thrown me there, to be honest!" he protested. Which is extraordinary. Think about it: a professional English cricketer, asked about a cricketing matter, reaches for a baseball comparison. Not a googly, not a yorker, not a bouncer, or any of the native cricketing terms for a tricky ball to hit, but a curve ball. And a thrown ball at that! Indifferent as I am to ball games in general, I nonetheless experienced a moment of outrage. Which team are you playing for, Bairstow? Bat and pad, lad! Bat and pad!

It just goes to show, I suppose, how deeply Americanisms have penetrated the language. I was waiting for Bairstow to exhort England to "step up to the plate" in case they "strike out" in the second test, which would have been an easy boundary, but he didn't; maybe next time, fans of language sports! But, who knows, maybe this is a two-way process? Perhaps in the US professional players of various games are even now talking of "a sticky wicket" and "keeping a straight bat", and public figures are leaving the crease after a good innings?

Well, maybe. Cue Roy Harper.

Thursday, 21 July 2016


We attended our daughter's graduation ceremony at the University of Sussex yesterday. As it happens, despite holding seven degrees and two postgraduate diplomas from five universities between us, neither my partner nor I have ever attended a graduation ceremony in our own right. As I explained to the daughter, back then it all seemed a bit ... um... She offered the word bourgeois? Which is probably about right. They obviously teach them something at Sussex.

Clearly, we are very proud of her, and were very happy to cheer her as she crossed the stage, one of very few women to wear trousers, and not to wear ridiculous heels.  But Sussex use the Brighton Dome for their ceremonies, a concert venue, and clearly feel they need to put on a bit of a show. A process that could have been rattled through in an hour or so – next! – was extended to two and a half by the addition of  a video presentation about the university, and another by and about the students ("We had such fun! We don't know what we're going to do next!"), and then the preliminary speeches of the Vice-Chancellor and actor-comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar, who happens to be the university's Chancellor. Who also insisted on giving a hug to every graduand stepping onto the stage, and a wave to their family's smartphones if requested. Oh, please, just get on with it! Then there was his closing excursion into Wikiquote territory, in the style of an American "commencement address". Honestly, Sanjeev, you're a funny guy, but I don't think anyone wants to hear some borrowed thoughts on Life, the Universe, and Everything. Plus – and this bit I didn't mind – halfway through they awarded an honorary doctorate to venerable folksinger and folklorist Shirley Collins, with the inevitable presentation speech, video, and acceptance speech. Luckily it was just the degrees for the arts and media faculties being awarded, or we might still be there, wearily clapping the next happy young thing folding the diminutive Chancellor into an embrace.

The Prof had to be back in Bristol that evening, though, and so – trains from Brighton being fraught with ongoing cancellation problems – I sped us both back to Southampton in the car so she could catch the last train from there. Finally, job done, I headed home and made myself a late supper, and thought I'd better do the washing up before sinking into a chair.

But, what's this, no hot water? I checked the boiler, and it was displaying a fault code. I reset it, and another one came up. Never mind: although it was late I thought it best to call British Gas, with whom we have a maintenance agreement. I negotiated the usual maze of button pressing ("If you are a nuisance caller selling PPI, please press 7, for a sales pitch disguised as a marketing survey, press 8") and eventually got to speak to a real person, and explained the problem.

"Can you smell gas?" they asked.
"Um, no," I replied, "And anyway according to the fault code it's a water pressure problem".
"But can you smell gas?"
"Well, no, actually, I can't smell anything much, as it happens. I have very little sense of smell".
"Could you get a neighbour to smell for you?"
"At this time of night? Of course not!"
"In that case, I'm passing you through to the emergency gas escape team!"
"What?? No, really, there isn't..."

But it was too late. No doubt the B Team that mans the phones at 11:00 pm has strict procedural instructions, and I was being sucked into the flowchart. Turn off the gas. Don't turn any lights on or off, or operate any electrical equipment. Don't smoke. Is there a dog in the house? (What? Is this a trick question?). Someone will be there within the hour!

And they were. A nice guy showed up, confirmed there was no gas escape, and, yes, better get British Gas to come and see to the boiler. I apologised for the call-out, and he said it was no problem, another hour's overtime for yet another British Gas overreaction was always welcome. Better safe than sorry, eh?

So here I am today, stuck indoors on a lovely afternoon, waiting for an afternoon call from an engineer, "any time between 12 and 6". But at least I don't have to clap continuously while I'm waiting, or listen to any half-baked life-coaching. And I might even see what Shirley Collins I can find on Spotify.

Sunday, 17 July 2016


Incredibly, my sister turned 70 this last week. I dug out some ancient family snaps and found this one, probably taken in Hemsby, Norfolk, probably in August 1957 or 1958. And, yes, that cheeky chappie clutching his little stick of rock is me. No wonder my teeth have given me so much trouble over the years... We had been pounced on by one of those roaming seaside photographers, who would hand you a ticket so that the next day you could visit a booth and buy the prints if you liked them. The clue to its origin is the pencilled number on the back (not to mention the poor fixing of the image...). Few people owned their own camera in those days, and until the late 1960s you could scrape a living in the summer months servicing the demand for photographic souvenirs. Fifty-eight years later, such ephemera have become precious heirlooms.

What years those were, the late 1950s!  Wartime rationing had ended in 1954 and a New World was dawning, the UK had become a Welfare State, with free education and healthcare for all, antibiotics and mass immunisation, full employment, television (although we didn't have one yet), telephones, nuclear power, jet aircraft, and – as is evident from the photograph – cheap yet jazzy clothes for the young. On the jukebox (though rarely on the radio) you could hear freshly-minted classics from Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Everly Brothers, with British copies and covers from the likes of Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde, Tommy Steele, and Lonnie Donegan. A shocking noise, according to my father. It was the age of cover versions; you could probably fill a jukebox with covers of "Volare" alone, much more to his taste. Rock'n'Roll? Skiffle? Country and Western? No – to my four-year-old ears it was all Cowboy Music, and I loved it.

The seaside, with its liminal, permissive air, was where America was leaking into the Old Stiff Britain like penetrating oil, freeing things up. I can still recall the joy of sitting in seaside cafes in those years, being taught to hand-jive to the jukebox by my sister, drinking warm Coke through a straw and with the prospect of a brand-new Superman comic to share. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that I learned to read via those capitalised speech balloons. ZAP! Though, just to keep things a little British, I can also never see a pack of Cadbury's Snack (chocolate covered shortbread biscuits) or Chocolate Fingers – usually bought from a sparsely-populated counter-top glass cabinet in a cafe, alongside some disgusting cream horns and sugar-crusted Chelsea buns – without an overpowering sense of seaside nostalgia.

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive – no-one, in the entire history of the world, had surely ever been so blessed or so happy (indeed, the Prime Minister himself told us so in July 1957) – although I will concede that to have been a teenager then, when the very word "teenager" was being coined, was probably very heaven. What a shame, what an appalling shame, that the political will wasn't there to make it last beyond the troubles of the 1970s. It seems we simply couldn't afford to go on being so happy, to continue living in such a hopeful, generous world. At least, most of us couldn't. What had we been thinking? Who on earth did we think we were? As another Conservative Prime Minister was to tell us, twenty years later, we had been living beyond our means. It couldn't be allowed to go on!

The tragedy was, so many of us were prepared – wanted, even – to believe her. But we'll always have 1958, won't we? Except, of course, that those of you with the misfortune to have been born later than that will never have it, even though your cokes will always be cold, and you have more music than you know what to do with.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Gunner Who?

My current review of the "Garden" files is proceeding down some familiar lines. I just checked on the five emotional stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance), and some amusing parallels could be drawn. But, go ahead, do it yourself, I'm still in Denial...

Heh... It is a daunting prospect, though, and the obvious question is, "Why am I doing this to myself, when I could be doing ... Well, anything else, and preferably something easy, fun, and rather less like work?" Hmm, is that Anger, or Bargaining, I wonder? Whatever, I have just spent two (luckily, rainy) days doing a preliminary pass through the tangled undergrowth of these Garden files, and now have a long-list of four hundred decent photographs. I'm sure I must have made the comparison before with selecting candidates for a job interview, something I did many times in my working life. Shortlisting for interview is always made easier, if never entirely objective, when all or most of the candidates are strangers. The curious thing is, quite a few of these photos were taken so long ago that it is as if someone else had made them; someone, ah, not very good. Which is depressing – Aha! Depression! Progress! – but does make the weeding-out process rather more straightforward.

The prime characteristic of this kind of work – which I think of as serial chorography, repeatedly visiting the same few sites, in pursuit of small but exciting differences – is a high level of repetition. You can't avoid taking what are essentially the same photographs, again and again. You may not be able to step into the same river twice, but it takes a certain level of dedication and an unusually high boredom threshold (and quite possibly a lack of imagination) to demonstrate this by practical experiment. Most people, I suspect, have been happy to regard this one as QED ever since Heraclitus first proposed it some time around 500 BC. And I bet even he only regarded it as a thought experiment.

So, within the 400 images, selected mainly for their quality, there is a high degree of similarity. Certain subjects look best in certain lights from certain angles, and there isn't a lot you can do about that, especially if you're always rocking up at midday or first thing in the morning. What saves such a project from dullness is the cycle of the seasons, and the accompanying arcs of growth, maturity, and decay. Plants are good at that. Very good indeed. And, of the entire plant kingdom, one of the very best is gunnera manicata, or the Giant Martian Brazilian Rhubarb.

It is a bizarre, utterly bonkers plant, gunnera. They grow all along the stream running through the university, but most of all they love the marshy bottom of the Valley Garden. I assume they were deliberately planted, and probably looked great in some plantsman's catalogue of Exciting New Invasive Species. Leaves the size of a tablecloth? What's not to like? And, certainly, they are gobsmacking, in a trippy, triffid-ish kind of way. They grow rapidly from a mere twinkle in a dinosaur's eye to giant plants bearing leaves four or five feet across (120-150cm), held up by spiny, reptilian stalks that can grow to eight feet in height. They look so evil that their sap must surely be capable of etching glass and hospitalizing anyone ill-advised enough to attack them with a machete.

As the year progresses into winter, however, the stalks lose their rigidity and kink under their burden like bent drinking straws, and the massive leaves flop onto the ground to rot. I believe the gardeners accelerate the process by snapping the plants over at the end of the season, presumably wearing chain-mail gauntlets and full bio-hazard suits. But as the leaves are made out of the vegetable equivalent of leather they take a very long time to rot down. By December and January, nothing looks deader than a dead Gunnera leaf. But the plants are just hiding underground in the form of knobbly rhizomes and, like all unkillable alien zombie plants, they'll be back...

Many years ago now, the University asked me, as an alleged photographer, to give them a selection of images so they could choose one for the official uni Christmas card. As it happened, the previous year it had snowed, and I had a truly magnificent shot of rotting brown gunnera leaves covered in snow, down by a bit of the stream where the banks and the water have an interesting iridescent orange coloration, due to the combination of brick clay and bacterial pollution that occurs there. It was clearly The One*.

But, to my amazement, the PR people rejected it, and instead went for a dull shot of some snow-covered apples in the Valley Garden orchard that I'd slipped in as a makeweight. Asked why, they explained – in that patient, cautious tone you use with unpredictable idiots – that the picture of those dead things down by the stream did not really capture the intended seasonal spirit and, yes, that was despite the lovely orange colour and all that snow. Ah well, frustrating, but what can you do?

Oh look, the last stage: Acceptance! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a project...

* I'd reproduce it, but this picture is on medium-format colour negative film, and if I can possibly avoid it I do not intend to complicate matters by delving back into that prehistoric era of contact sheets and fiddly strips of film.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Sunny Sunday

Finally – finally! – after yet another wet morning on Sunday we had a sunny afternoon, and I headed out onto Twyford Down. There was a stiff breeze blowing once you got up out of the valley, and it was exhilarating just to be out and about after so many weeks of drizzle and rain. Slippery, though -- wet chalk paths and grassy slopes are not to be taken casually. And windblown grass and leaves do not make for sharp pictures.

I do now seem to be getting the hang of the Ricoh GR. Having thought I was going to hand it back, saying, "No thanks, and I can see why you want to sell it", I am now thinking I might hand over the cash instead. Probably. Like I need another camera... But that's the thing about "niche" items; they create a niche you didn't know you had vacant, and offer to fill it. A lightweight, pocketable, APS-C camera, with a fixed 28mm equivalent lens and no viewfinder? I had no idea... But, now you come to mention it... Well, we'll see.

Three things made a difference, apart from the lovely light up on Twyford Down on Sunday afternoon. First, I stopped using the silly wrist-strap supplied, and attached a proper Op-Tech neck-strap made out of neoprene. It's stretchy enough to make a good, steadying tension between the camera and the back of your neck when held out at half arm's length. Second, I started using the "snap" focus, set to 1.5 meters with the camera in aperture-priority mode at f/11, which is more or less a hyperfocal combination*. Apart from giving good front-to-back focus (I can't understand this obsession with blurry backgrounds), it also means you can take your light reading off any useful part of the scene – the sky, or the grass at your feet, generally – without faffing about with a fiddly AE/AF lock button, and without even thinking about focus, which is exactly how I used to use a manual focus film camera.

Third, and most important, I started seeing in wide-angle. I've never really been a wide-angle person; in fact, if anything, I incline towards the "short telephoto" angle of view, around 25-30 degrees horizontally. But it's rather like adjusting to another car. I normally drive a Renault Scenic; hardly a van, but it's a decent size with an elevated seating position and good all-round visibility. It accelerates and corners well enough, but is built for cruising, not agile urban driving. My partner has a Ford Fiesta. Again, it's hardly a Mini, but whenever I drive it I feel hilariously gigantic, with my knees up against the steering wheel and with my backside perilously close to the road. I can also barely see what is around me, which is a little worrying in heavy traffic with cyclists weaving in and out – you have to rely on side-mirrors, not windows – but it's very nippy and after a bit a lot of fun to drive. It's the same with a different lens with its different properties; it takes a while to adjust, but then becomes enjoyable. Though I don't think I'll ever be a complete convert, just as I never really learned to like the Opel Corsa I hired in Innsbruck, with its unresponsive, underpowered diesel engine and cranky features (does any other car need to have both its clutch and its brake pedals pushed down before you can start the engine?).

Talking of cranky features, though, two things about the GR are still giving me pause. A camera with no viewfinder needs a screen you can see in all lighting conditions. This really is not it. But then, neither is the one on my iPhone, which I can barely read in daylight. What all those kids ambling along gazing down at their palms are actually looking at is a mystery to me. Worst of all, though, is the exposure compensation rocker. Grrr! This is placed exactly where your fat western thumb wants to go when holding the thing. With virtually every shot I've had to remember to correct massive under- or over-exposure, often as much as four stops, where repeated accidental presses of the +/- rocker have taken it to the maximum value. There seems to be no way to disable or reassign this button. As they say on the forums, this could yet be a deal-breaker for me.

* That is, everything from half the focussed distance to infinity is in acceptable focus, for some definition of "acceptable", calculated in "circles of confusion", a lovely expression.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Getting Back To The Garden

As I mentioned in the previous post, the pictures in Boundary Elements are a tiny selection from a large hoard of hundreds of candidate photographs, mainly taken in my previous life as a wage-slave, wandering the confines of a university campus during my lunchtime hour of freedom. Fortunately, most of these older files were fully backed-up and survived the Great Backup Drive Disaster, and in the process of reviewing them I realised I had overlooked an even more massive, probably even better accumulation of work, the files loosely compacted into a bin labelled "The Garden".

I have described before my eternal losing struggle with the tidy-minded and the fixer-uppers. The campus that I knew in the 1980s and 1990s was a wonderfully rich mosaic of neglected corners, and of these the richest was the Valley Garden, a couple of acres of abandoned orchards, taxonomically-ordered terraced beds, hazardously delapidated greenhouses and cloches, with at its deep, dark heart a secret pond where great knots of frogs gathered every February for a breeding frenzy. Although I am slightly phobic about flowers and gardens – the municipal hanging basket and concrete planter embody everything I find repellent about modern life – I loved exploring this Edenic post-human spot, with its abundant wildlife and its little stream that regularly flooded after heavy rain, turning the valley bottom into a marsh. When my children were at the university Day Nursery, I would take them exploring here, too, and we would gather fat apples from the orchard and check on the progress of the frogspawn in the pond.

Most of the year, but especially in winter, I had the place to myself. I experienced intensely rhapsodic moments, standing in the frosted grass watching a sparrow-hawk circle in a clear blue sky, or stumbling on something rare and strange, like a cluster of earthstar fungi. After a long morning enduring the boredom of meetings, I could escape into my private hortus conclusus, and document the regular small changes that excited my eye. Broken panes of glass scribbled over by snails, abandoned botanical experiments, the astonishing table-sized leaves of gunnera manicata growing by the stream, the tell-tale traces left by invasive nocturnal thrill-seekers... Every day was a fresh page.

As well as the birth and pre-school years of my children, this time saw me make the transition from film to digital. In addition to that compost bin of files labelled "The Garden", I have an enormous stash of images on medium-format colour-negative film, most of which will never now be printed or scanned. Of the three oldest books I still make available on Blurb, Brilliant Corners is entirely derived from film, Pentagonal Pool is a transitional mix, and The Revenants is entirely digital (still my Greatest Hit, and made with the 5 megapixel Olympus C5050).

Pentagonal Pool is transitional in another sense, too. From about 1995 to 2007 I was preoccupied with the idea of presenting repetitive imagery of the same places or objects, showing variations over time. You can easily see how well this matched with repeatedly visiting a few interesting but unspectacular corners, and it felt like a significant nod in the direction of contemporary art's use of grids and multiples. That book is the last in which I present, side by side, very similar shots of the same location, in this case a five-sided weirpool just outside the Valley Garden. In several earlier hand-made "leporellos" (concertina-style books) I had assembled multiple shots of exactly the same location, generally a body of water, separated by periods as short as a second. It's fun to do, but challenging to look at, unless you are the sort of black-clad aesthete who truly enjoys conceptual art.

Eventually, however, someone in the university noticed this wasted space, and decided to re-develop it into a proper (and hazard-free) leisure resource for staff and students. The Gates of Eden were chained shut and, lamenting, I was expelled into the world, to look for a little touch of wabi sabi elsewhere. For a time, there were the allotments that occupied a corner squeezed between the ever-expanding campus, a temporary carpark on the site of some demolished dairy buildings, and the back gardens of some houses on the edge of the real world. Frustratingly, though, I could never enter this alternative Eden, but only gaze down into it over the fence each morning as I parked and made my way to my office. Then the university demolished the terraced houses that had accommodated the Day Nursery, and built two enormous new faculty buildings on the site that further increased the squeeze on the allotments. And then they they bought the actual allotments in anticipation of some new bold enterprise, possibly a multi-storey carpark, and ejected the hapless vegetable growers with their wonderful season-by-season improvisations made out of cast-offs, polythene sheet and barrier netting. A more paranoid man might have suspected a deliberate campaign of persecution.

At that point, the very long-term "garden" project was clearly and definitively over, and I turned my attention to the campus itself, and its walls and windows in particular: the books Curriculum and Elevation were the result. Good projects, both of them, but fraught with irony; I was feeling very much at odds with what was happening to higher education. Finally, having said my piece – take that, you philistines! – I realised there was nothing and nowhere left for me to go after thirty years, work-wise or photographically, and decided it was time to take early retirement.

Somehow, in these last few years, I had come to forget about the garden images, or perhaps I had become unable to regard them as any kind of "project". Maybe, like the memories of our children when they were very small, they were almost too precious, too inchoate, and too long-ago to be subjected to the risk of the inevitable distortion that recollection, retelling and restructuring would entail. But now, it seems, may be the right time. Having" rediscovered" them is like finding the key to a locked drawer and seeing within, almost as if for the first time, wonderful things, wonderful things. There has to be one good book in there, at least.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Boundary Elements Revisited

One of my books, Boundary Elements, is a compilation made from photographs I took in the years 2009 to 2010. Although some of my favourite single images are contained in that book, like the one above, it has never really worked for me as a satisfactory whole. My original idea was to let some randomness into my hitherto highly-controlled and labour-intensive book-sequencing procedure. I would select the best of the hundreds of photographs I had taken on various repeated walks – mainly daily lunchtime circuits on the Southampton University campus – and allow the order of the sequence to be determined by chronology, rather than by any conscious act of ordering. I wanted the book to have a sense of plenitude, and for it to be a chunky, small text with many pages, rather like a handbook or manual.

An interesting idea, but it just didn't work. Looking back, I now realise that this was the period immediately following the death of my parents and various other trials and tribulations, which may explain a dark, glum mood that pervades the book. So, given how much I still like some of the pictures, I decided it would be worth revisiting the sequence, if only to see whether a bit of weeding – letting in a bit of light and air – would allow the best of the series to thrive. I also decided not to be as bothered as I had been before by a certain amount of overlap with the Curriculum book. They are, after all, two very different approaches to what is essentially the same source material. Why shouldn't a picture like "Medusa's Bad Hair Day" (a private title, and not one I'd actually use) appear in both?

I think the revised book has been improved, and I've put it on Blurb as Boundary Elements revisited. Have a look, if you like, and see if you agree. It's still quite dark in places, but not oppressively so, although another time I might do some work on lifting the darker shadow tones, which don't reproduce well. I've removed the original version, though, as I no longer wish to offer it for sale.

Sunday, 3 July 2016


A classic example of "How on earth did I miss that one?", this photograph was overlooked in my previous trawls through the image-hoard I brought back from my Innsbruck residency, two summers ago. Two years later, I can finally see what I saw in the heat of the moment back in June 2014. Hot it was, too, up around 30° C plus in the afternoons, with a tricky range of highlights and shadow in the streets.

The troubling thing is that all of these files very nearly vanished forever in the Great Backup Drive Disaster of 2015. Luckily, I still had duplicates of all but a handful on the little netbook I had taken with me to Austria. But: lesson learned. Two, actually: back up your files and never assume you've squeezed them dry...

Friday, 1 July 2016

Back In Your Box

Entertaining as it is, people are begging me to make it stop, so, OK, Mr. Mojo, you've had your fun, now it's time to go back in your box. One, two, three ... Brexit fixit! Boris nixit! Govus blowsit! Whoosh.

Now, you lot, don't make me do this again, OK? Behave yourselves. Wish I'd done this before the bloody referendum. Oops, forgot to sort out Corbyn... Oh well, another time. Besides, he seems perfectly capable of producing a satisfactory result all by himself. Which is just as well, that being exactly where he is.

What a long political week... What does that remind me of? Hmm, is that pipe tobacco I can smell? Anyone else sensing the ghosts of the Two Harolds, Wilson and Macmillan, having a laugh? Wooooo...

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Et tu, Gove?

Got my mojo workin'... It may not work on you, but it sure as shit seems to work on Westminster. Crikey!

Enough political chaos for you yet?  Do tell me when you want me to stop...

Monday, 27 June 2016

Endless Rain Into a Paper Cup

Barrow on Old Winchester Hill, August 2014

There I was, at midday on one of the longest days of the year, skulking indoors with the light on, would you believe. Perfectly normal, of course; plenty of summers in recent years have been washouts, and there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that the rich layabouts at Glastonbury are having a crimp put in their glamping. It was particularly annoying to hear that some local children were late for their GCSE exams because of the festival traffic snarlup; some school bus drivers even decided to turn back, judging the situation hopeless. Apparently some less-than-happy campers were stuck in the queue for twelve hours. Twelve hours! Frankly, nothing – except perhaps flight from imminent genocide – is worth twelve hours in a traffic queue, and I wouldn't even cross the road to hear Coldplay whining in a wet, muddy field.

Anyway. Following on from a previous post, I've been looking at some more of those unprocessed Fuji X-Pro1 files from summers past, and found some pretty ones (not necessarily "pretty good", mark you, but "pretty" will do) from August 2014. I'm intrigued by their quality. The processing innards of the X-Pro1 and the X-E1 being pretty much identical, what I'm noticing must be the quality of the XF 35mm f/1.4 lens that came with the second-hand X-Pro1 body, and which I quickly set aside in favour of the more versatile "kit" zoom that arrived with the X-E1. That 18-55 lens is very good, but I'm finally seeing why the 35mm has the reputation it does. I did keep it, so maybe I will be using it more. Assuming the rain ever stops.

Old Winchester Hill, where these photographs were taken, is a wonderful place to visit, in dry weather. As it happens it's nowhere near Winchester, and is about as far to the ESE of Winchester as Southampton is to the south, so it's rather like calling the docks "Winchester Waterfront". It's a high chalk escarpment with a promontory leading out to a hill, topped by Bronze Age barrows lying within the ramparts of a very large Iron Age hillfort. It's now a Site of Special Scientific Interest, due to its "unimproved chalk downland" flora and fauna, though it was also once used as a training ground for small arms and mortar-fire during WW2. I have several times come across the brass casings of .303 rounds thrown up by burrowing moles, and some areas are still officially out-of-bounds, due to the risk of "unexploded munitions". You can't help but watch the sheep grazing those parts of the hillside with unusually close interest, in anticipation of one vanishing in a Python-esque puff of pink smoke.

Old Winchester Hill, August 2014

Friday, 24 June 2016

A Tale of Two Islands

So, we're to leave the EC. Not the result I was hoping for. Or expecting – I was in Winchester yesterday afternoon, and saw almost exclusively "remain" posters and campaigners, which surprised me. The barricaded feel of the assemblage above is more what I associate with the Tory heartlands. Here in comparatively poor and grimy Southampton, banners for either side are conspicuous by their absence, but immigration has been a long-standing issue (one tenth of our population is East European, mainly young, many with children in local schools), and I'm not surprised, if disappointed, that 54% voted to leave. Weirdly, even bigger "leave" votes came from areas like Wales and the North-East, major recipients of EU regional aid funding, and relatively unaffected by the free movement of labour from EU countries. From here, that looks like desperate political self-harm.

Where do we go from here? Who knows? I'll let you know when I find out. Depressing, isn't it? Especially for the young, whose future is at stake, and who mainly voted to remain. The infuriating thing is that this referendum was totally unnecessary, a foolish gamble by David Cameron to outflank UKIP and settle a long-standing civil war within the Conservative Party. And yet, as it seems to have turned out, it was not so much the Tory voters who swung the "leave" vote as disaffected Labour voters, allegedly rebelling against the metropolitan certainties of the political class. If true, that is a very bad sign indeed. I have shared my thoughts on these issues before, and this does nothing to change my mind.

And, while we're still on the subject, the plural of "referendum" is "referendums". I'm surprised at the number of faux-posh types in the media who insist on "referenda". Look it up, guys.

Traffic island
(that's King Alfred's traffic island)

Wednesday, 22 June 2016


Mottisfont, June 2015 

As I'm sure I must have said more than once before, summer is not my favourite season. That said, I don't mind having a bit of summer, and we haven't had much at all so far this June. It's been grey and overcast, with squalls of heavy rain, and the occasional steamy half-hour of sunshine. Photographically, it's been a bit of a bust, either too dull, too wet, or horribly contrasty.

So I was looking in my backfiles to see what June was like last year, and was surprised to find some unprocessed raw files from a Fuji X-Pro1 I used to have but sold, preferring to keep the X-E1; an unexpected taste of summers past. Looks like it must have been quite hot last June, despite the clouds, and I doubt I'd have been sitting indoors all afternoon watching the rain, and wearing a jumper.

Incidentally, talking of cameras and annoying things: I've currently got a loaner Ricoh GR. It's one of those intriguing, niche cameras, that makes you wonder how it ever got past the design stage: APS-C sensor, fixed 28mm equivalent lens, no viewfinder, but as small and as light as a compact. I love its size and operation – it really is pocket-sized and has a brilliant "snap" focus facility, which means you can pre-focus at something approximating a hyperfocal distance – but I can't get a decent shot out of the thing. This is almost certainly a "perfect storm" combination of the unaccustomed wide angle, low light levels, and the lack of any anti-shake functionality, compounded by my inability to hold a camera still with the "praying mantis" stance. But, whatever the reason, it's deeply annoying. Anyone got any experience with the GR, and any tips?

Mottisfont, June 2015

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Luigi Ghirri

Brighton, June 2015

I've recently come across one of the best blogs I've ever read and, even better, it's written by one of the greats of photography, even if one not well-enough known in the English-speaking world. This "blog" is not online, however: it's a book, The Complete Essays 1973-1991 by Luigi Ghirri*, recently published in English translation by Mack. I urge you to buy a copy while you still can.

I've mentioned Ghirri several times before in this blog. If you don't know his work, and don't mind coping with (or ignoring) a little spoken Italian, there's a nice YouTube video about a recent retrospective exhibition at Museo MAXXI in Rome here. Ignore the commentary – it's mostly just Italian curators doing artspeak, anyway – and look at the pictures. Splendido! There's something unique about his way of seeing that resonates with me (his first book Kodachrome, published in 1973 and republished in 2012, also by Mack, is a fresh revelation to me every time I open it) and now I find that his writing about photography is quite special, too.

I say it's a blog because many of the pieces are short and, although they range widely over international photography and art (and it is hard not to feel parochial when reading an Italian photographer who references Scottish poet Edwin Muir, or our American friend Wallace Stevens, not to mention Peter Handke or Bob Dylan) they're generally written from a personal perspective and many are "occasional" pieces in the old sense of the word, beginning "Last Thursday..." or "When I saw So-and-So's recent exhibition..." As a bonus, most are accompanied by one of Ghirri's wonderful photographs. There is also, inevitably, a degree of repetition; we all have our favourite examples and comparisons, after all. One of Ghirri's appears to be "Tom Thumb's stones" – a trail of stones left to show the way home – which mystified me at first, until I realised the reference was to a folktale better known in English as "Hop-o'-My-Thumb". Tom Thumb, as I recall, is all about being swallowed, spat out, and baked into pies. I suspect this is a translator's error. Anyone own a copy of the Italian original, published as Niente di antico sotto il sole (nothing old under the sun)?

By the way, if you do own a copy, would you like to sell it? I'm visiting Italy for the first time in forty-three years this summer, and I've found that the quickest way to an enhanced reading knowledge of a language is to read something of interest which you also have in translation. I picked up most of my Spanish, such as it is, by reading Carlos Castaneda's Teachings of Don Juan in Spanish translation in the summer of 1979, while exploring the post-Franco, pre-EEC Basque Country. Although I admit the vocabulary acquired that way can be a little specialised (brujos were thin on the ground). I learned Russian primarily from cataloguing academic texts, and thus have a suprisingly good vocabulary in the higher reaches of aesthetic theory and geophysics, but couldn't order a beer, decipher a menu, or ask for simple directions to the railway station. Or rather, I could ask the question, but not understand the reply. Although, of course, these days the response would most likely be in English, anyway. What was I saying about parochial?

Brighton, June 2015

* Pronounced "Girri", not "Jirri".

UPDATE: A reader has pointed me at an online version of Niente di antico sotto il sole and, yes, the original text has "i sassi di Pollicino" which the translator has rendered as "Tom Thumb's stones". Pollicino is the Italian version of Le Petit Poucet in Perrault's tale, usually known in English as "Hop-o'-My-Thumb" or "Little Thumbling". The tales of Tom Thumb are a different set of stories, and rather more scatological, in the English manner.

Friday, 17 June 2016

First First

My baby's all growed up an' savin' China...

I've just heard that my daughter has been awarded a first (BA in Film Studies, Sussex University), the first first in our family, as it happens. She's done so well: she worked hard, and got the reward she richly deserves. I couldn't be more proud of her, though I have no idea where she gets the self-discipline and application. Certainly not from me or her mother, who tended to rely on last-minute cramming and what one of my old teachers would call, dismissively, "native wit". There'll be dancing in the streets of Brighton tonight, I'll warrant.

So now may be the right time finally to tell the much-postponed story of how I failed to secure a first, way back in the hot, dry summer of 1976. It goes like this:

As I have already confessed several times, I did very little actual work at university. At least, until some point in the third, final year. I did enough to meet the requirements, but at the "ancient universities" in those days these were not onerous. The route leading to a "theatrical third" was an accepted and well-trodden path for those who, having proved whatever they had to prove by getting admitted (also easier in those days, women being excluded from direct competition), decided to concentrate on things other than boring old homework. Typically, things like theatre, sketch comedy, sport, politics, getting totally wasted, sitting up all night listening to records, talking profound gibberish, and various combinations thereof. I majored in all-nite Stoner Studies, a very popular option in those days which I understand has, inexplicably, vanished from the curriculum in recent years. O tempora, o mores!

A simple version of the story might end right there.  And that, children, is how your father ended up with a third-class degree, before learning to straighten up and fly right. But, without boasting, I am better than that. In fact, I have a gift – let's call it fluency in Old High Bullshit – which enables me to conjure much out of little. Obviously, this is not much use in the physics lab or a tutorial on the constitutional history of Bulgaria, but my chosen subject was English literature (I know...), specifically poetry wherever possible – nice 'n' short –  all the way from Anglo-Saxon to Eliot. A bit of reading, a bit of staring into space, and I would have interesting things to say. Interesting enough, in fact, to put me in the running for a first.

Now, those ancient universities still operate a system for negotiating boundary cases known as the "viva". After sitting finals, most candidates' class of degree is clear-cut: a few thirds, a lot of seconds, and a few firsts. But a further few are felt to be hovering between classes: there is a sense that perhaps a paper or two had gone more badly than it might, pulling down an otherwise more representative result. The examiners agree a list of candidates for a further viva voce examination; in other words, some get a chance to talk themselves up a grade. I found myself on that list.

They don't tell you which class you are aiming at. It could be third-to-second, it could be second-to-first. I was pretty sure I was borderline first; the possibility of a third hadn't even crossed my mind.  My tutors were somewhat less sure. They had seen plenty of "theatrical thirds" in their time, and I rather fitted the profile. It was even hinted that a viva at the fail-third boundary was not out of the question.

So, one morning in June, I found myself sitting at a long refectory table, facing the examiners, about ten English dons from a variety of colleges, none from mine. I was told by the man in charge of the special paper on Wordsworth and Coleridge that I had given the best account of Coleridge's theory of the imagination he had ever read. Congratulations were in order. However. The paper was Wordsworth and Coleridge: I had rather avoided answering any questions on the former, hadn't I? Um. Well.The fact that the man in charge of that special paper was Jonathan Wordsworth, direct descendant of the Boring Bard's brother, put me in a tricky position. Nonetheless, I fought my corner, and I could sense the mood round the table was positive. They asked me to come back again that afternoon.

What? Two vivas? My tutor had meanwhile seen my marks, and confirmed that, yes, getting two papers over the "alpha" threshhold would deliver a first. This was unusual, but the examiners had clearly liked the cut of my jib. As I say: fluent in the Old High Bullshit. However, I felt in need of a break from all this, and headed down to the bar for a pint of Hook Norton. Probably a mistake.

That afternoon we reconvened at the same table and, considerably refreshed, we started in on Shakespeare. I was then asked what seemed to me a very odd question. It went something like, "So, you answered a question on the history plays. It was a good answer, but your chosen examples came from only three of the plays in the second tetralogy. Why not all four?" My answer was simple. Because the question, printed on that there paper, said "Using examples from three plays..." My interrogator, who had presumably set the the damned paper, said, "Does it?!", and reached for his reading glasses. Everyone around the table looked, and had to agree, well yes, it does say that.

This might have gone OK, had I not smirked at his obvious discomfort. I don't think I laughed out loud, but to any observer it was clear that, inside, I was having poorly-suppressed hysterics. Curse you, Hook Norton! At which point, sensing a threat to the honour of Team Don, they all rounded on me, and I got a good, thorough, Shakespeherean kicking.

Ah, well. So close. It was rather like losing a cup final to Germany in a penalty shoot-out. Regrettable, but somehow inevitable, and another Noble Defeat in that great British tradition. But now the daughter has scored, putting an unstoppable strike in the back of the net for our team! Yay!

Grrrl... Some of us prefer to stay inside the car!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Nearly Nothing

I think I could probably spend my remaining years quite contentedly just looking for pictures where, really, there is nearly nothing to look at. The chances are that I probably will.

If I think of nothings that are something, I usually recall the closing lines of Wallace Stevens' poem "The Snow Man":
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Many readers have considered those lines difficult, but keep the title in mind and a firm grip on your double negatives and it doesn't seem impossible to understand, intuitively, if not logically.

At least, not for us in 2016. Remarkably, though, this paradoxical, profoundly elusive poem was first published in 1921, the year before the great year of "modernism", which saw the publication of Eliot's Waste Land, Joyce's Ulysses, and a host of other foundational texts, including Wittgenstein's Tractatus. It seems that an average undergraduate can now, with a little effort, grasp texts that challenged the best minds of nearly a century ago. Time does its work.

But, hang on, it seems like only yesterday that I was an undergraduate and 1922 was just fifty years ago! How did that happen? How quickly everything becomes nearly nothing.