Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Talkin' 'Bout My Generation



To mention the Pink Floyd's damp squib at the Knebworth Festival in 1975, as I did in a recent post, is inevitably also to conjure up the counter-image of John Lydon hanging around the King's Road later that same year in his ripped and safety-pinned Pink Floyd t-shirt, with the band's eyes scratched out and "I HATE" inscribed above the name. It now seems he may not have really meant it, ma-an, but it was what got him noticed by Malcolm McLaren, and ultimately landed him the gig as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. In any history of pop, this is the moment at which the jarring, jangling opening bars of "Anarchy in the UK" will strike up. It's a cliché that will never age, because it perfectly expresses in a few seconds whole paragraphs of poptasmic bombast.

Such transitional moments are never really the simple, clean break the TV histories like to portray, though, are they? For one thing, it's an obvious but frequently ignored fact that the music a youthful "generation" identifies itself with has generally been created by the previous generation. Just to pick a few names at random, John Lydon was born in 1956, Graham Parker in 1950, Joe Strummer in 1952, Elvis Costello in 1954, Adam Ant in 1954, Jordan in 1955, Siouxsie Sioux in 1957. In other words, it would seem my generation created "punk" and New Wave music and styles, for the edification and entertainment of our younger brothers and sisters born in the early to mid-1960s. By the same token, my age-cohort will never, in its bones, venerate the Clash or the Jam the same way it does the Who (Pete Townshend, b. 1945) or the Kinks (Ray Davis, b. 1944). Plus, however fresh that brash, "new" music may have seemed – and attitude is everything to the young – the fact is that by 1975 pop had already begun to eat itself.

I can recall the the first throat-clearings of punk. In fact, I can still remember when, listening to my little transistor radio late at night while working on a master's dissertation at the University of East Anglia in 1976/7, DJ John Peel was still scoffing at noms de punk like Rat Scabies and Sid Vicious. Only later did he become their champion. Had it not been for the infamous TV "interview" with Bill Grundy, I would have seen the Sex Pistols live at UEA on 3rd December 1976! But the university panicked, pathetically, and high-handedly cancelled the gig. However, at the time, being far more interested in Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Joni Mitchell's Hejira, and jazz fusion pioneers like Weather Report, the loss seemed more annoying than historic. Poorly-executed shrieks of incoherent rage at the unfairness of the world were no longer my thing: damn it, I was studying Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, and finally finding my feet as an academic after three wasted undergraduate years. Although it is true I was still reading the NME every week, then in its era-defining heyday with a writing team including Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Ian Penman, Paul Morley, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons.

But – and this is a big "but" – although I have had a wide-ranging acquaintance over the years, socially speaking, from the king in his castle to the beggar at his gate, from haughty lawyers to humble buskers, I cannot think of a single person of my "generation" I actually knew who either trailblazed or followed the Way of Punk. I suppose I came close to a few: the older brother of one friend, and the younger sister of another were closely identified with that scene, but it remains a puzzle. So many of us had gone the whole way with various versions and combinations of the standard-issue late-1960s alternative lifestyle: the very long hair, the ragged clothes, the "soft" and not-so-soft drugs, the music, the politics. And sure, plenty of us had eventually recoiled from the excesses of prog and "rock", had cut our hair short, and were enjoying the new sounds coming out of the radio (in my case so much so that I began for the first time noting tracks down in my notebook: see the post Playlist). Certainly, the anti-commercial, DIY ethic of punk played to my politics. But, although that whole safety-pin, spitting, and spiky hair thing looked fun, in a self-dramatising adolescent way, it was definitively "greasy kids' stuff", and it is a mystery to me where the nascent Rotten and Vicious demographic had been hiding itself all that time. Possibly locked in the bathroom since crashing a party where the dodgy brown microdots had been circulating in 1972.


After all, by the late 70s we were young adults in our twenties. The good parts of the previous "alternative" lifestyle were far too good to be thrown away in a mere fit of fashion-consciousness (unlike those split-knee loon pants or crushed velvet flares*). The wholefoods, the communitarian impulse, the ecological awareness, the rejection of patriarchal norms, the commitment to various versions of a radical left politics: all of these were things that needed defending into the future against a resurgent conservatism in British politics, not trashing in a spirit of No Future nihilism. We had developed a new definition of  what "grown up" meant, and were keen to try it out in a grown-up world that included jobs and babies, as well as compromising things like mortgages, pensions, and ageing parents.

What this most likely illustrates is what a silly idea a closely-defined youthful "generation" has become, at least when determined by musical tastes. Clearly, the break between generations before and after World War 2 was very real, if always shaded and nuanced. The difference between pre-War parents growing up in anxious, insecure poverty, maybe sharing one outside toilet with many neighbours, and their post-War children growing up in newly-built, self-contained council houses with rights to free medical care, schooling and social security was absolute, and led to mutual incomprehension. And I suppose there's something in the distinction between those of us who somehow managed to get along without the internet and mobile phones, and today's "digital natives". But the differences between growing up listening to the Beatles on a Dansette, Oasis on an iPod, and whatever it is the kids today are digging on Spotify, are simply so much more relative. To dwell on them as amounting to important generational signifiers really is the "narcissism of small differences".

But there is another obvious but frequently ignored fact, however, which is that at any given time multiple "generations" co-exist and, um, interbreed. If we take some other birth dates – let's say, Ian Dury (1942), Debbie Harry (1945), or Patti Smith (1946) – the idea of an identifiable punk or New Wave founding "generation" starts to wobble. Pink Floyd didn't die of shame when faced with the scorn of Johnny Rotten: far from it. Tastes and styles persist and have influence long after their official Best Before dates, and operate on far slower and stronger rhythms than the short-lived trends of pop music and youthful fashion.

Ironically, what better illustration of this can there be than the tendency of pop culture to evolve combinations of lifestyle, fashion, and music that are so compelling that they break free of their time of origin? Think of teds, bikers, mods, metal, goths, hippies, punks: all fossilised style-packages from past decades which nonetheless continue to attract new waves of adherents. Indeed, some loyal souls will have found themselves a lifelong commitment, as if they had taken an unbreakable oath, and will wear their tribal leathers and denims, thinning quiffs and ponytails defiantly into old age. Which is either steadfast, silly, or sad, depending, I suggest, on what you see (or think you see, or wish you saw) when you look in the mirror.

Fashion tribes meeting at a festival

* Fashion note: I never, ever wore flares. Partly because when you're 5' 6" you look ridiculous, but also because I thought they looked ridiculous, full stop. In fact, I rarely wore "fashion" clothes at all: my tailors were Oxfam and the army surplus stores. That's me on the right in the bottom photograph.

Monday, 19 June 2017

So Bad It's Bad


Southampton hoarding

On Saturday night we attended a concert by some young Finnish "jazz" musicians (no, wait, don't go yet...) which was pretty good. In the main, anyway: sooner or later, it must dawn on most contemporary musicians that an over-excitable drummer is not an asset, and will drown out everyone else with their crash, bang, ta-ting, ba-dump, maniacal walloping of the skins. Either do without – maybe try tapping a foot? – or sit him in the corridor outside. And I speak as the direct descendant of two generations of semi-pro drummers.

I have a soft spot for Finns, ever since falling for the inimitable photography of Pentti Sammallahti, and dealing with an excellent Unix computing support person at work named Mika, whose English, patience, and expertise all outstripped mine by some margin. Their language is a mystery on a par with Basque, though, and their names similarly unmistakable and unique: our evening's entertainment was provided by the Alexi Tuomarila Trio and the Pohjola/Louhivuori Duo. Nothing too remarkable – they play standard Euro-jazz to a high level of competence – but it was a very stimulating evening, with only a little tinnitus to trouble me afterwards.  Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola is particularly good, I think, with a fine control of tone, dynamics and range. We also got two free CDs into the bargain.

So the title of this post has nothing to do with them, as such. Breathe easy, my Finnish friends! One day, I hope to visit your beautiful country in the far, far north. Probably during daylight hours. No, I'm referring to some artwork on display in the foyer of the concert venue, which was breathtakingly bad. Truly, madly, deeply awful.

Now, I try not to leap to judgement where artwork is concerned. It's a good principle in life, generally, isn't it? Judge not, lest thou be judged, an' that. But I find, with age, my first impressions are increasingly reliable, especially the one that goes, "WTF?? LOL!!" with a little emoticon of a face pushing fingers down its throat.

Sometimes – when you're in a country pub or restaurant, say – you will come across a little gallery of work by local Sunday painters in a room out back, which is usually forgivably mediocre. Swans on a pond, floral still-lifes, some by-the-numbers abstracts, even the occasional disturbing revelation of mental illness. But it's nice to see people trying, and having the courage to show their work in public. Or perhaps at the Open Day of your local 6th-form college there wil be some bold coursework on show, but understandably derivative and technically lacking, the result of a combination of low expectations and teaching that values expression over technique. There's always something a little melancholy about such displays, though, each one a little parable about the universal discrepancy between ambition and talent, reach and grasp, intention and result. We can't all be Rembrandt, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't aspire to be, and even Rembrandt will have kicked many a canvas across the studio in despair.

But: if the work on display is by students at a prominent regional art-school – oh, just to pick a name at random, say, the Winchester School of Art? – I think you are entitled to be outraged by a complete absence of anything of value, whether it be expression or technique, irony or sincerity, use of colour, shape or line, or even basic competence.  I mean, just look at these sad, sad things:


Isn't it ironic – tragic, even – that the  20th-century reaction against the refined polish of 19th-century "academic" painting has led to this? Why would anyone attend art school, in order to produce such negligible efforts? Why would anyone compromise the reputation of their institution by putting it on public display?

It was not without some further sense of change 'n' decay all around, then, that I saw a display of poster work on Sunday afternoon from the Shell Collection, which is currently being exhibited at Mottisfont Abbey. How exciting it must have been, in the 1920s and 30s, to see such bold graphical work from young artists just coming into their prime. It's hard to imagine just how you would go about finding anyone capable of accepting such a commission now.



Saturday, 17 June 2017

Burning Flats

Having spent a significant portion of my life living in a block of council flats, and with friends and family still living in towers of various sizes and configurations – including my daughter on the White City Estate, just a few minutes' walk west from the blaze – I felt the nightmare of Grenfell Tower quite keenly. There was a tower-block fire in my neighbourhood here in Southampton a couple of years ago, in which two firefighters lost their lives. Like fire at sea in the mind of a sailor, it's a horror that lurks constantly in the back of any flat-dweller's mind. How would I escape? What would I save? What is it like to burn to death, or to be suffocated by smoke, trapped within a building?

Perhaps you, like me, sense a turn in the national political mood. Corbyn, improbably, is up; May, less improbably, is down. It's enough to make you believe in astrology. Doing everything for the public benefit grudgingly and on the cheap, mocking "health and safety culture", getting rid of "red tape" restrictions on the rapacity of business, zero-hours contracts, the absurdity of housing policies that emphasise ownership over secure, fair-rent tenancies... Suddenly, these are things to be ashamed of, and the apologists for unfettered, neoliberal, global capital are on the defensive. Seemingly, anyway; and "seeming" can sometimes be enough, when it comes time to vote.

Building it together...


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Kittens!



Amusingly, in retrospect, a well-meaning friend warned me that my RA pictures might not sell at all, as perhaps I hadn't realised that most people don't like wasps? I said I'd take his advice on board, and would immediately abandon my projected but ill-advised series on bedbugs and cockroaches.

On reflection, though, I do wonder how much better a series of pictures of kittens in a basket would go down? Kittens being stung to death by wasps, obviously. And then eaten by crows.

I know, I know... I'm falling into the trap of becoming a crowd-pleaser.


Tuesday, 13 June 2017

What, More Wasps?



Not surprisingly, the success of my two "Golden Wasp Game" prints at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition has prompted me to re-engage with a project that I had put to one side last year. The idea behind the pictures – a mysterious game played by both wasps and by humans in their different ways, perhaps a little like Hesse's "glass bead game" but, um, with wasps – now needs working up, so I can put the inevitable Blurb book together.

In the last few days I've added quite a few new images to the series, and in the process developed some new (to me) techniques, which I've found very useful. I like to work at a very lo-tech level, combining elementary Photoshop moves in what, I like to think, are quite creative ways. At the risk of flattering myself, I'm rather reminded of the scissors-and-paste approach behind the Sgt. Pepper album's innovations in sound recording technique, which were described in a recent 50th anniversary programme on the BBC. With any luck, as with that album, the trickery is sufficiently tastefully subordinated to the desired end effect as to be invisible, and thus may stand the test of time.


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Careful What You Wish For, Part 2


Gallery goers like sensible shoes

Remember what I said about my two pictures in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition? No? I said:
The validation is the main thing, of course, but I'm hoping for a few sales, too, although that will truly be icing on the cake. I've declared them both to be in an edition of 50, and will be asking a very modest £75 for an unframed, signed and numbered print. I took the advice from One Who Knows that people visiting the show and looking for a takeaway are more likely to go for small, attractively-priced prints, than a wall-sized canvas in the price-bracket of a new car.
Well, the One Who Knew was right. In spades. It turns out that by mid-afternoon on so-called "Buyers' Day" on Friday all 50 copies – fifty! – of one of my pictures had been sold, and the other was selling well, too.  I knew this because I was getting emails from disappointed would-be buyers wondering whether, you know, I might have any spares knocking about? I have rarely been assaulted by such an exotic mix of feelings. Disbelief, astonishment, gratification, alarm, confusion, exultation, bafflement... I mean: FIFTY copies of one image sold in a few hours, from the premiere art show in London. Cor...

So I went up to see one of the Private Views of the show myself this afternoon, first going round with my son and then with my daughter (you're restricted to one guest at a time), and we were able to bask in the sense of occasion and, well, achievement. I have to say, it's an unaccustomed pleasure, this reversal of the normal roles where, if you are as lucky as we have been, as proud parents you get to watch and applaud as your children pick up the prizes that mark an auspicious start in life. But it's nice to be able to make your children proud in return: not just to be selected out of some 14,000 aspirants to hang work democratically and anonymously next to the great names of British art, but then so quickly to collect all those red dots!

The pictures above mine are by some bod called Quentin Blake
(the orange dots on the right are mega-dots for 10 sales...)

However, it's a sobering moment, too. I had set the edition of these two prints at what seemed a preposterously high 50, in order both to be able to play by the rules, sales-wise, and still have plenty left over to sell and distribute after the show. I also set the price attractively low in order, with any luck, to sell the few I needed to in order to cover my costs: the entry fee, the framing, the travel, and so on. But now, now I've got to organise the printing, packing, and posting of what may, by the end of the show's run, be approaching 100 items! Not to mention invoicing and collecting the money from the same number of individuals. Sigh.... Admittedly, the final payoff on such volume of sales is not negligible, even after the RA have taken their cut, but thank Hockney I didn't make it an "open" edition, which I nearly did, or I might be spending the next few months in the queue at the Post Office.

Clearly, Theresa May is not the only one to have a Cunning Plan backfire this week. I think I will have another go next year, but make the editions smaller, and the prices rather higher. So, should I get in again, at least I won't have made a logistical nightmare for myself. I also finally realise why those ludicrous prices have been attached to most of the work on show: no-one actually wants the hassle of selling more than two or three things a year. I'm an artist, darling, not an eBay merchant!


Friday, 9 June 2017

Careful What You Wish For



Well, that was an interesting night, wasn't it? It seems Jeremy read my post, but Theresa didn't.

I must admit, I've been puzzled and not a little disappointed by the number of my old "leftie" friends who wrote Corbyn off as unelectable, and regarded the Labour manifesto as the stuff of fantasy. Re-nationalisation of the railways and the utilities? Free higher education? Dream on! But – come on, comrades! – I can see nothing in there that I (or you) wouldn't endorse as the solution to so many of our national problems (apart from Brexit: I do wish Labour had stuck with and hardened its original line on that). I have heard both Corbyn and John MacDonnell described by certain parties as "old Trots" with controversial views on the IRA, Palestine, and other such left-wing perennials: well, wow, talk about pots and kettles. After all, most interesting people have more than a few skeletons in the closet (what a curious expression that is); it's what makes them interesting. Only the media are really fascinated by their obsessive blood-sport of hypocrite-hunting ("But in 1975 you said..."). But I suppose it's probably true, sadly, that most of us enjoy the kibbitzing of opposition much more than the prospect of actual power. It can be terrifying to have one's clever and contrarian pipe-dreams taken seriously, can't it?

But Corbyn reached into the bag and pulled out a good measure of political charisma, and May ... didn't. Despite everything the media and his own sulking A-Listers could throw at him – loser! tieless beardie! – and despite having to field a distinctly B-list team (Diane Abbott came close several times to sinking the whole thing) he managed to inspire and increase the Labour vote and win seats from the Tories. Well, who'd have thought it?

Now, of course, is when it all gets very interesting indeed. After all, technically, Labour have lost, and May's Pyrrhic victory must run its course. Corbyn's real challenge will be to get everyone up and excited all over again. Again. You do realise, don't you, that we'll soon be back in election mode, quite possibly within the year?

Meanwhile, here are some wasps.


Monday, 5 June 2017

Varnishing Day



One of the curious benefits of getting work accepted into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (did I mention that?)  is that you become a temporary member of an exclusive club. I believe one of the signifiers of establishment status has always been the number of gold-embossed invitation cards one has on display on one's mantelpiece, dontcha know. Well, I now have one, requesting the honour of my company (not pleasure, mark you, but honour) at the Royal Academy's Varnishing Day. Which was today.

I did think about going, but when I awoke to stormy winds and driving rain this morning, it felt more appropriate to be at home keeping an eye on our newly-repaired roof, rather than hustling up to London and back just for a two-hour reception at midday. Not to mention getting the extra hour in bed. A shame, really, as I'd quite fancied getting within selfie-distance of any number of my art heroes who happen to be RAs. If nothing else, it would have been an easy blog post, and I could have made some feeble joke about the "varnishing point" in linear perspective. But never mind, the private view happens this coming weekend, and I'm not going to miss that, whatever the weather.

I have been surprised, however, by how many people have asked, "What the hell is Varnishing Day?", as I had thought it was quite well-known, famous even, as the day when exhibitors at the RA Summer Show would get together and put the finishing touches to their work, and add a final coat of varnish. Most famously of all, it was on Varnishing Day 1832 when J.M.W. Turner – having found his own seascape hung next to and upstaged by the reds in John Constable's "Opening of Waterloo Bridge" – added a red buoy to the painting. "He has been here, and fired a gun!", grumbled Constable.

It was well worth being at home, however, as I was able to take delivery of a book order from the Czech Republic (Josef Sudek's Smutna Krajina / Sad Landscape) which arrived in a sack. Not a mailing bag, but an official Poste Tcheque sack made of close-woven nylon fabric, measuring about 110cm by 70cm, and tied off with an official cable tie. Perhaps a lot of potatoes get put in the mail over there. Whatever, the Parcel Force guy looked as baffled as me as he handed it over. The book I found inside is great, however, even if it does only measure 34cm x 23cm. And I'm sure I'll find a use for the sack, too.


Friday, 2 June 2017

It was Fifty Years Ago Today...

Asked by some idiotic journalist whether Ringo was the best drummer in the world, Lennon replied that he wasn't even the best drummer in the Beatles. I feel much the same about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I mean, it's a very good album, and a very significant one, with some "peak Beatles" tracks on it, but it has a self-indulgent, cartoonish sensibility that moved the band significantly in the direction of Yellow Submarine, and away from the truly outstanding Revolver. It would be pretty much downhill all the way for them from here. White Album? Abbey Road? Please...

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1967 we lived in a world where it was perfectly possible to be unaware of a major media moment such as an imminent new Beatles album. As a 13-year old, I was pretty much oblivious. I loved the music I heard on the radio (what there was of it: bear in mind that the BBC's dedicated pop station Radio 1 didn't launch until September that same year) but I owned no records at all. I had a vague sense that buying records was something girls did, not boys. My older sister had records; I didn't. Besides, in our rather earnest, Baptist family, the frivolity and decadence of psychedelia did not sit well. My mother was given to saying things like, "Imagine if a son of mine came home looking like that!" Being the only son around, the message was clear.

So my most vivid memory of the album's release in summer 1967 was seeing, for the first time, on a visit to London multiple copies of the same striking album cover arrayed around record-shop windows and hanging from ceilings, tiled and strung like bunting, in a combination of decoration and advertisement. "Here it is!" the displays were screaming. But what is it, exactly? I wondered. It was a full year before I found out. But I found out*. And it wasn't long before my mother's fears about a son of hers were gradually, painfully, fulfilled, as we fought bitter battles over hair length, scruffy clothes, and unsuitable friends.

Fashion victim, ca. 1972

* A little quote from "Day Tripper", surely better than any track on the Sgt. Pepper album?

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Poster Boy



I was in the Salisbury Museum on Monday, to see a wonderful exhibition, British Art: Ancient Landscapes, showing artists' representations and interpretations of the prehistoric Wessex landscape. It's on until September 3rd, and I urge you to see it if you're in the area. There's everything from Turner watercolours and sketchbooks to contemporary work by the likes of Richard Long and David Inshaw. There is a particularly stunning photograph of Avebury by Bill Brandt, made in 1944, which is worth the price of admission all by itself. If you can't make it, the catalogue is superb.

In the general collection I was much taken with their collection of Shell posters from the 1930s, showing Stonehenge and other Wessex sites of interest, all well worth filling the tank of your Austin 7 to visit. So I thought I'd have a go at a poster, of sorts, with some bits and pieces from my recent Inverness trip*. I await a call from the Scottish Tourist Office (or VisitScotland, as it now appears to be called).

* Sorry if you get moiré patterns in the central panel: it's a net curtain that I've overlaid on the view of the Firth.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

RA Summer Exhibition 2017


The Golden Wasp Game #7

I've not posted about this before, but back in February I decided to submit two of my "wasp" photo-composite images to the Royal Academy Summer Open Exhibition. I'd been feeling the need for some relatively objective endorsement of this road I've been taking away from "photographer" to "artist", and in a rash moment thought: Why not go for the Big One? Today, after a three-stage judgement process, I heard that both were accepted into this year's show.

Obviously, I'm very pleased. I know the RA Summer Show has a mixed reputation, but as a showcase for work it really can't be bettered. Unless, of course, my little A3-sized works end up being hung halfway up a wall above some enormous and garish David Hockney canvas. The validation is the main thing, of course, but I'm hoping for a few sales, too, although that will truly be icing on the cake. I've declared them both to be in an edition of 50, and will be asking a very modest £75 for an unframed, signed and numbered print. I took the advice from One Who Knows that people visiting the show and looking for a takeaway are more likely to go for small, attractively-priced prints, than a wall-sized canvas in the price-bracket of a new car.

The Golden Wasp Game #3

The competition...
(See you on Varnishing Day!)

Friday, 26 May 2017

Winchester Windows



Summer arrived in a big way on Thursday; it'll be gone again by the weekend, I expect. Just for a change, I parked in my usual spot near the Hockley Viaduct, but decided to walk the couple of miles into Winchester town centre instead of heading for the hills, and spent the afternoon just wandering around. I was rather surprised to see pairs of armed police also just wandering around, cradling their Heckler & Koch carbines. However, unlike my little adventure on Tuesday, I attracted no unwanted attention. Just another idiot with a camera. Maybe the Fuji X-T1 makes me look more touristy; or maybe things are less edgy around Winchester Cathedral than they are around Downing Street...



I think I will probably never tire of shots like these (you may differ, but...). The play of light on translucent surfaces diffused, reflected, obstructed and framed by the shapes made by wear and tear and simple accident is endlessly fascinating to me. You might see metaphors for the mind and consciousness or even meta-metaphors for photography itself at work here, I suppose, but I'm happy to use the shorthand "beauty" and pursue it wherever I find it. Which, in this case, happens to be the windows of vacant shops.



Wednesday, 24 May 2017

By the Way, Which One's Pink?



I had an interesting day this week. We've got roofers in (on?) at the moment, tracking down a leak and generally fixing up the roof and gutters, so after one day of banging and scraping, I thought I'd make myself scarce by going up to London for the day on Tuesday. Looking through the "what's on" listings, I saw that there is a new Pink Floyd exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which sounded intriguing, so I booked myself in for an early afternoon slot.

Like everyone but a lunatic minority, I was appalled by the news from Manchester when I woke up that morning. If you've ever dropped excited children off at their first real gig, and later hung around outside to collect them as the crowds emerge, you'll know a little of the terror and panic that will have been experienced around the Manchester Arena the night before. It really doesn't bear thinking about.

In the aftershock of an event like that, so recently following the attack on Westminster Bridge, you expect security everywhere to be tight, but especially so in the capital. Now, I'm not a complete idiot. I know that, to a certain mindset, I can look suspicious, especially if I'm doing my thing with the camera. You know: Hey, what's that scruffy guy with the beard and backpack doing, taking pictures of blank walls, windows, and doorways? So, especially in central London, I take care not to look furtive. I use the camera openly, I don't sneak around, I do my best to look like what I am: a harmless tourist in town for the day. So, I was taken by surprise when, waiting for the crossing lights to change near Westminster, a police van pulled up, two enormous uniformed officers got out, and asked me to step to one side so they could ask me a few questions, if I didn't mind. When two more rocked up from behind, followed by a second van, they had my complete attention.


Obviously, on Tuesday security was on a hair trigger. It seems someone inside one of the government buildings I had just been working – lovely stained hoardings! – had thought I looked noteworthy, but not in a good way, and within a minute I had become the focus of a co-ordinated police operation. In my younger days, we used to play silly games with the police when stopped and searched; it was a foolish and risky rite of passage that said, you've chosen to waste my time so now I'll waste yours, just to amuse my pals. But not nowadays, and certainly not on a day of such heightened tension. I am cut from the same cloth as most policemen (if not generously enough to make a complete one) so, once it became obvious I was a harmless idiot with a baffling but unthreatening urge to photograph random marks on walls, we had a nice, friendly chat while my identity and story was being checked out, and a third police van was waved away as it arrived. It turned out my main interrogator was from my home town – we get everywhere – and I found myself interrogating him about his personal repertoire of streets and pubs and schools, rather more closely than he was prepared for, which clearly amused his colleagues. Most surprising of all, though, was that one of the most bulky coppers – who can't have been older than 30 at most – was very interested to hear that the V&A was having a Pink Floyd show, and keen to see it for himself. What is the world coming to?

So, eventually, as they say, I proceeded on my way in a westerly direction, until I reached the V&A, in good time to sit in the sunshine for a while in the spacious interior courtyard, eating my lunch before heading to the Floyd exhibition. It may have been residual paranoia from my recent encounter, but I got the distinct impression people were surreptitiously checking me out, as well as various other silver-haired bohemian types draped around the place. I think they were trying to decide whether or not we were somebody, most likely minor aristocracy from the Prog Era. It's a curious phenomenon that we become more generic as we age and wear our youthful flamboyance more lightly: after all, today's David Gilmour could easily be a prosperous IT consultant who'd always wished he was David Gilmour, and collects vintage Fenders. But, in Emily Dickinson's words, nope, I'm nobody, who are you?

In the queue for the time-slot I had booked, 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, the balding and grey-haired IT consultants and guitar collectors were out in force. Hardly surprising: it would be impossible to overestimate the significance of Pink Floyd in the lives of a certain senior segment of the population. If you were intelligent, counter-cultural, and born between, say, 1946 and 1956 then you, like me, will have spent many hours listening to their albums, although "absorbing" may be a better word. A little younger, and Pink Floyd will have represented everything you affected to despise in music; a little older, and you will have thought of them (if at all) as pretentious druggie drivel.

Look, isn't that Pink?

However, my own acquaintance with the Floyd is both narrow and very deep: I can honestly say that I know Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here as intimately as I know any other works of art, from Hamlet on down. Although I have barely listened to most of the other Pink Floyd albums, if at all. But then, I could say the same about the works of Shakespeare, or Keats, or Beethoven. I would have no hesitation in ranking Dark Side of the Moon among the great cultural achievements of the 20th century, and as one of the bedrock elements in my own psyche.

Which is why, for me, the V&A show is such a waste of time and effort. It's a multi-room, multi-media extravaganza, with a clever, location-sensitive audio-guide, all of which probably seemed pretty far out in the planning, but is actually impossible to follow in dark rooms crowded with knots of relic-worshippers hunched over guitars, gizmos and documents, impossible to see in their dimly-lit glass cases. The show is also utterly meretricious in its sensibility. It reminded me of how the Floyd's journey went from the thoughtful English romanticism of Dark Side of the Moon and the jagged, self-harming nostalgia of Wish You Were Here to giant inflatable pigs in a single, ill-judged stride.

So in the end I took off my headset and made my way to the exit through the now bizarrely silent rooms full of headphone-isolated zombies. It reminded me of nothing so much as being at the Knebworth Festival in 1975, where Pink Floyd conspicuously failed to rise to the occasion, dogged by technical problems, and I ended up wandering through the crowd thinking that this whole thing – not just this gig but the whole counter-cultural idea – had all gone horribly wrong, and been transmuted into mere merchandise-shifting and show-biz, and yet nobody seemed to have realised it quite yet.

And yet, it seems, in another part of the wood they had... [cue opening bars of "God Save the Queen"].

Exit through the gift shop...

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Clava Cairns



Not far from Culloden is a remarkable place. The cairns at Balnuaran of Clava are simply one of the most evocative prehistoric sites I have ever visited. The impression is rather like walking onto the film-set for some tale of swords-and-sorcery like The Lord of the Rings. The large chambered burial cairns are almost too perfectly preserved, the standing stones surrounding each cairn uncannily picturesque, and the setting and atmosphere thick with a wary watchfulness. In this open-air cathedral to something just out of memory, thickly cushioned underfoot with moss, it almost comes as a surprise that no linen-shrouded body lies within each chamber, surrounded by rich but untouchable grave-goods. Or, less romantically, that a film-crew and actors are not taking a lunch break among the trees.


Of course, some of this is stage-setting. In the 1870s, the site's owner regarded these Bronze Age burial cairns as Druidic Temples, and enhanced the site by planting a grove of trees around it. As at Culloden, the Victorians were great interpretive "improvers" of historic sites. It's also not impossible that some of the features have been tinkered with or repurposed: they are 4,000 years old, after all. Certainly, the archaeologists regard the stone rings enclosing each tomb as a later feature, perhaps acting as an insulating, apotropaic barrier, perhaps serving some more mundane purpose. But such tombs are a feature of the Moray Firth region, and their authenticity is unquestionable; I have rarely felt the presence of the distant past so tantalisingly close at hand.



Thursday, 18 May 2017

Culloden



One must-see tourist attraction near Inverness is the site where the Battle of Culloden was fought in 1746, the chaotic, brief, and bloody last gasp of the Jacobite rebellion on these islands, and epicentre of the subsequent suppression of the Highland way of life. There is an excellent visitor centre at Culloden, run by National Trust for Scotland, and we took advantage of their excellent and informative guided tour. If you're ever there I recommend you do the same, as battlefields are rarely eloquent places, and our guide's script was a well-balanced, nuanced account of the affair, taking pains to counter the over-romantic and simple-minded view of the battle as essentially a Scotland v. England match played out with swords, muskets, and artillery.

Now, I have direct Scottish ancestry on the male side traceable well back into the 18th century, and bear one of the surnames that figure in accounts of the battle and its aftermath. But, as Borderers and Edinburgh artisans, I strongly doubt that any ancestor of mine fought on the Jacobite side. In fact, the then Chisholm clan chief, although a Jacobite supporter with one son leading a smallish contingent of Highlanders, also had another two sons fighting as captains in the Duke of Cumberland's army. That's certainly one way to end up on the winning side, and he was far from alone in this canny calculation.

The "clan" thing is complicated, but essentially tribal and feudal, and most of us having a clan surname are descendants of dirt-poor tenants with no more relation to the clan aristocracy than, say, Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the US Congress. The picture at Culloden is further complicated by the distinctions between Highland and Lowland Scotland. Quite apart from the fact a great many Scots rejected the Stewart claim on the British throne, and certainly had no desire for a Catholic monarchy, it's hard to imagine the likes of David Hume or Adam Smith charging through the boggy heather waving a broadsword. We're talking about 1745, not 1545.


Although initiated by the writing of Walter Scott, it was the Victorian 19th century that saw the great revival of interest in the tartan-swathed romance of the Highlands, as safely distant in time by then as the Wild West was from Hollywood, and most of the memorialising at Culloden was done well over a hundred years after the event. Following the actual battle, most of the 2000 Jacobite casualties were stripped and tossed indiscriminately into two mass graves. The various, clan-specific memorial stones – so solemnly visited by overseas bearers of those same surnames – are a pious fantasy, erected in 1881, at the same time as the large memorial cairn. I rather liked the ones engraved with "Mixed Clans", however, which pretty much describes what lies underneath all of them.


In 1964, when I was ten and still at primary school, the BBC aired Peter Watkins' remarkable docudrama about Culloden, presented as if modern TV journalists had been documenting the battle, complete with shaky handheld footage, and interviews with participants, in the main played by non-professional actors. I was allowed by my parents to watch it, and it was very powerful, and rather shocking, especially the scenes of Cumberland's army brutally "mopping up" the Jacobite wounded with bayonet and sword after the battle. It was the first time I had been made acutely aware of our (frankly, rather spurious) "Scottishness", and for a while it became an important part of my identity, especially the heady sense of tragic destiny that it endowed.

I even wrote to the clan chief – the wonderfully named Chisholm of Chisholm, who kindly wrote back – but eventually came to a more realistic assessment of my place in the scheme of things when I discovered that very same clan chief's ancestors had forcibly evicted 10,000 of "our" clansmen from "his" land in the early 19th century Highland Clearances, in order to raise sheep. Virtually all of those Canadians, Australians, and Americans with Scottish surnames who visit Culloden and buy the appropriate tartan souvenirs in the knick-knack shops of  Inverness and Edinburgh are descended from similarly involuntary exiles, and have inherited not some precious, unbreakable bond of kinship but what is, in effect, just one step away from a slave-name. But, as I say, the clan thing is complicated, and romance will trump reality every time.


But, talking of romance, part of the bloody and vindictive aftermath of Culloden was the hunting down of Jacobite rebels and the extirpation of any remnant of Jacobite sympathy, including a ban on the wearing of Highland dress or the speaking of Gaelic. Set against the backdrop of this brutality is the story of the Seven Men of Glenmoriston, Jacobites who lived as outlaws, raiding and taking bloody vengeance on government soldiers and sympathisers, and eventually escorting the Young Pretender, a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie, safely across the Highlands to his cross-dressed escape to Skye with Flora MacDonald, and thence to France, never to return. As it happens, three of the seven were named Chisholm, but don't be looking at me, your honour, do you think I can be herding all these sheep wearing a damned Highland kilt? As if! Three cheers for King George, says I, and may his flocks increase! Slàinte mhòr! Oops, sorry, I mean: Your very good health, sir!

It is a good story, though, and has the makings of a great film, a mix of Kidnapped! and the James-Younger Gang. In fact, the parallels between ex-Jacobite outlaws and ex-Confederate outlaws are quite striking, sharing as they do the story arc of violated pride, proceeding through scofflaw retribution and fast-living, to a doomed ending on the gallows, followed by the later myth-making. And if all this also prompts memories of the Skye Boat Song ("Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing..."), do bear in mind that those stirring lyrics were written by an Englishman from Hertfordshire in 1884, to a tune collected on Skye in the 1870s. It seems that not only do the victors get to write the history, they also get to make the romantic myths about the losers, once they're safely dead and buried in the past. But, as the journalist says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Sheep May Safely Graze



I have just spent a long weekend with an old friend, a sometime Glasgow GP and now Professor of Rural Medicine, who owns an improbable acreage of wooded land and pasture just west of Inverness on the Beauly Firth. Phil is a remarkable and large-spirited man, with an unfortunate taste for outdoors activities. In his fifties, for example, he ran the West Highland Way ultramarathon (that is, 95 miles from Milngavie to Fort William), not once, but twice. Now that he owns a large chunk of Highland Scotland, tree-felling, log-chopping, and sheep-raising have been added to his repertoire. Few other people that I know will have enthusiastically received a new axe for Christmas. Must be a tough one to wrap, that.


Naturally, I was drawn into this outdoorsy regime, and found myself hauling logs up a hill and chasing sheep around a field, neither of which fall within my customary definition of leisure activities, but turned out to be a lot of fun. The sheep especially: my Scottish ancestors did a lot of shepherding, and some sleeping pastoral abilities were re-awakened, as I helped Phil and Susan round up and "spot" their forty sheep and lambs with an anti-tick treatment, and held each one steady while the filthy fleece was trimmed from around their backsides. The lamb casserole we had that evening tasted particularly good, I have to say.

More about Scotland once I've recovered, not so much from my exertions as from the travelling, including a flight in an aircraft with noise and vibration levels exceeding those of an airborne MRI machine. At least I didn't have to keep completely still, though some M.R.I. Bach would have been welcome.

Your blogger in shepherding mode

Friday, 12 May 2017

Hey Presto!



As we contemplate the upcoming general election, and what appears to be its inevitable, depressing outcome, it's worth remembering an obvious statement, but one that bears repeating: people are not, never are, and cannot be entirely rational. Least of all, when it comes to voting.

When we say that someone is being or has made a decision that is "not entirely rational" – oh, let's say, just as an example, to leave the EU – this is an understatement intended to convey that, in our opinion, that person has either allowed their feelings to interfere with their judgement, or has gone rather too far along the spectrum that ends in "barking mad". It also implies that we, unlike them, occupy the rational high ground, that sunlit upland bathed in the pure light of reason. In political terms, the rationalist's argument goes like this: if only people listened to the arguments, understood them, and made rational, reasonable decisions about what courses of action are, primarily, in their own and, secondarily, in society's best interest, then they would inevitably vote the right way, that is, for us. It's the only reasonable, rational thing to do!

The only problem being that the arguments are many, confusing, and contradictory, and that there are various competing "us" factions to decide between, all of whom consider themselves to be occupying that rational high ground. Which either means it is very crowded up there, or that there is more than one high place, or, more likely, that the sunlit uplands are a delusion. So, in the end, those of us without tribal loyalties to any particular party, no great interest in "current affairs", and without any gift for sophisticated thought – that is, most of us, and certainly the ones that matter most, electorally – tend to vote for the nicest hair, the most reassuring smile, the firmest handshake, or – I suspect, most often – whichever way we sense the tribe as a whole is moving, as reported in our entertainment and news media of choice. Thus, an election can be turned by something as apparently trivial as a politician's inability to consume junk food.

Interestingly, you rarely hear any choice, political or otherwise, being criticised as "over rational" or "under emotional". Reason and reasonableness are the gold standard for civilised behaviour, the common sense of an informed, intelligent, humane person. But it's a curious word, "reason". It means rather more than, say, "a capacity for logical thought", and seems to stand in a similar relation to "logic" as "wisdom" does to "knowledge". That is, it is the fullest, most integrative, non-reductive expression of a human faculty, one able to take into account and give due proportion to those other human faculties and proclivities that will complicate even the simplest judgement. When we appeal to someone about to carry out some harmful action – voting Conservative, for example – "Please, be reasonable", we are not asking them to apply pure logic to the situation, but we are asking them to consider factors such as empathy for the feelings and situation of others, factors which would result in a more fully thought-through appreciation of the wider consequences of their act.

Consider the difference between "unreasonable" behaviour and "irrational" behaviour. It's unreasonable to throw rubbish into your neighbour's garden, or to bully your employees into voting against their own interests. It's irrational to throw your neighbour's rubbish into your own garden, or to vote to leave the EU when your depressed locality is in receipt of generous subsidies from that body. There are laws against most forms of unreasonableness, enforceable by the consensus of right-thinking citizens; there are very few, if any, laws against irrationality. Electoral irrationality is no exception. Turkeys are free to vote for Christmas, and – amazingly often – do. But why?


I think it's to do with astrology. Not in the sense that Theresa May has consulted her astrologer, and decided that, as May 2017 is the last time Saturn will trine Uranus until 2047 (which it is), this is an auspicious time for a major electoral gamble (which it may be). To the best of my knowledge, the post of Court Astrologer was abolished somewhere around 1945, and replaced with the Office for National Statistics. No, what I mean is that, in the end, pretty much every systematised understanding of the social world turns out to be no better than astrology, once it is turned to predictive ends. I think we should feel free to call out as "astrology" any set of reassuringly precise predictive protocols which is based on a profound confusion of correlation with cause, and of description with explanation.

Look no further than the inability of economists to predict the crash of 2008, so obvious and easily explained by the very same economists in retrospect. I expect the proper astrologists have a pretty convincing account, too, after the event. Let's be honest, pretty much everything – even reasonably well-understood things like tomorrows's weather or the workings of a smartphone – is far too complex for any normal person to understand. Worse, it probably involves mathematics. So, everything – everything! – has to be taken on trust, simplified, explained to us with entertaining parables and over-extended metaphors, until you end up with a murky soup of apparently conflicting explanations that actually cannot be understood, as a whole, rationally, by anyone, because they're not the actual explanations, but easily-digested substitutes.

So we who can truly understand nothing, have no obvious tribe, and have nothing to give but our trust, must be courted by astrologers and charm-artists of various stripes, who claim – with every appearance of confidence and competence – to have determined some fixed point around which patterns and predictions we can actually understand and even live by can coalesce, like a stick thrust into the whirling chaos of a candy-floss drum. Look, here is some truth I made for you! It doesn't last long, though, and do try not to get it in your hair. In other words, political charisma creates its own logic, and just as a well-executed magic trick is far more compelling than any explanation of how it is done, so a polished political performer – charlatan or saviour or tribune of the people – must excite the trust of voters, not demand or presume it, and thus motivate us to vote for them; even, it seems, when this is against our own interests. Which is a good trick. We vote irrationally, in the main, guided not by reason but by trust in someone else's congenial display of conviction. Democracy has never been a science, but seems to be becoming ever closer to some consequence-free game show.

But any political leader (yes, that includes you, Jeremy Corbyn) who, for all the right reasons, abjures charismatic astrology for sober reason, who refuses to wear the magician's hat, or to thrust their magic wand into the chaotic soup – in short, whose best hope is that the electorate are reasonable, rational people who, given the facts, can be depended on to come to the right conclusions about what is in their own and the national interest, without any demeaning hocus-pocus – is simply choosing to walk off the stage on which the ritual magic act must be performed, and – worse – expecting everyone in the audience to follow. Which is both unreasonable and irrational, but not in a good way.



NOTE: I will be in the Scottish Highlands over the weekend, and have no idea what sort of wifi or phone signal to expect. Comments, etc., may have to wait until next week.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Hinton Ampner



On one of those sultry, early May afternoons, when a storm seems imminent but never quite arrives, we drove over to Hinton Ampner, a National Trust property about 7 miles east of Winchester. It's a strange place, and one that the Trust seems to be fiddling about with constantly, so that it can seem like a stage-set at times. Which makes it a good place to wander about the grounds, casually photographing whatever happens to be lying around, on this occasion with a Ricoh GR.


The more I use it, the more I like the Ricoh GR as a carry-anywhere camera. The thing is so small and so light, you can actually forget which coat pocket it's in, not something you'd expect of an APS-C sensor camera. It seems to deliver high image quality effortlessly, and it's not surprising they're so hard to find second-hand. If you ever see one, just buy it and try it; you'll have no trouble re-selling if it's not right for you. I've completely got over the lack of a viewfinder, and the fixed 28mm-equivalent lens is a price worth paying for the overall compactness. It also gives the full depth of field that I like without having to think much about aperture (bokeh? ptah! I got hyperfocaleh!).

True, it's a wider angle of view than I would choose, and it can be frustrating see photographs that a longer lens or a zoom would suit better: the one below is an example. What I got is the top version; what I saw was the crop below, impossible to achieve with "foot zoom". Though I don't know that the full image isn't actually a better picture. It's funny: we like to think we choose our kit to suit our "vision", and I suppose the sort of photographer who carries a weighty bag of lenses everywhere may actually do so. Personally, I prefer to wander about as unencumbered as possible – a mere 245 grams, in this case – and find my vision will change, conveniently, to match whatever happens to be hanging round my neck. "Love the one you're with", I suppose.