Friday, 24 July 2015


The front door to our house is set within a surround of tongue-and-groove wood panels and large leaded-lights of a very typical 1930s design.  Many thousands of suburban houses built in that decade will have the same or some very similar arrangement.  It lets in a lot of light, which gives a nice, airy feel to the entrance hall and staircase.  None of the panes of glass in the leaded sections are coloured, as in some houses of this vintage, but the pattern does use about six varieties of clear "pebbled" glass, which means you can't see through from the outside.

For a long time I have intended to produce a template of these three windows -- one within the top of the door, and two large ones either side.  They're made with quite an interesting sub-Art Deco design, which has a way of imprinting itself on your retina as an afterimage.  I finally got around to making this template recently and when the reality is abstracted into its basic shapes it look like this:

Producing a template was not as straightforward as I'd imagined, though, as it turned out to be tricky getting into a position where a camera could be pointed directly square-on at the door and include all three windows without distortion.  I was also unwilling to clear out of the way all the coats, boxes, and various other obstacles blocking the view.  So to get to the desired end result required much tweaking of perspective, and digital elimination and restoration of unwanted and missing elements before the relatively simple job of blacking out the solid parts and whiteing out the glass could take place.  It's not perfect, but then the real thing is not perfect either: like most Southampton houses, ours has been subject to subsidence due to the unstable underlying geology and bomb shocks from the 1940 Blitz.  Parallel lines are the exception, rather than the rule; if anything, this is an improvement on reality.

Why did I want to do this?  Because I thought it might be an evocative set of shapes to play with in Photoshop.  Using the magic of layers and "clipping masks", it is possible to combine different foregrounds and backgrounds in ways that play with ideas of interior and exterior, frame and subject, etc.  As I'm going to be away from home for the next ten days, I thought I'd schedule a series of posts of these experiments.  Make of them what you can!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

A Stately Garotte

The Ravilious (and the Samuel Palmer)
on our staircase

I was in London on Saturday to see the Eric Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, where I met up with my partner (who'd stayed in London overnight, having seen Richard II at the Globe Theatre), and our son and his SO, on their way to a comedy event somewhere else in south London that evening, which she was to review for a blog she edits.  It's a fine exhibition: if you're an admirer of Ravilious' work, which I have been for many years, it's a real treat to see so many of the original watercolours and lithographs, and get a close look at that distinctive cross-hatched, dry-brush style, and his characteristic line, teetering on the brink of faux-naive mannerism, but never quite toppling over into cartoonishness (though I really don't enjoy his aeroplane propellers).  They're a lot bigger than I had supposed, too; I had somehow imagined him as something of a miniaturist, probably the result of seeing so much of his work in reproduction in books.

Now, although I do make the odd cultural excursion to an exhibition or the theatre  -- maybe half a dozen times in a typical year -- I've never quite got into the habit.  Until I was well over thirty, I associated visits to museums, galleries and theatres with school trips -- a lively coach to central London, full of over-excited schoolkids comparing packed lunches and pulling faces at passing motorists.  It just wasn't something you did at home, as part of normal domestic life.  As a student I would sometimes haunt the Ashmolean museum, but that was because it was nearby and I found the atmosphere congenial, especially after staying up all night in pursuit of the lost chord, truth and beauty, terror and magnificence, or whatever it was we thought we were up to.  I remember it actually felt quite transgressive, enjoyably strange, to be visiting a museum alone and for no reason at all (and with no packed lunch).  There was nothing "normal" about it.

Why do I mention this?  Because on the rail trip back to Southampton we found ourselves in a carriage from Hell.  No, not drunken Saints supporters, or even the thirty voluble Italian girls from some language summer-school I had to endure on the way up, but three ultra-posh private-school teachers, a couple and a single man, who happened to notice each other as they settled into the seats across the aisle from ours, and chatted long and loud over the headrests all the way from Waterloo to (inevitably) Winchester.

As it became evident they were never going to shut up, it became really annoying.  The main problem was the single man, who clearly loved the sound of his own voice, which had that sing-song, eeyore-ish Yorkshire accent used by the likes of Alan Bennett or Russell Harty, and which was very loud.  Neither of the couple -- both possessed of that icy clarity of diction that normally expects to command attention -- could start a sentence without him completing it for them, and going off on another tangential monologue.  I began to wonder how many other passengers were thinking how gratifying it would be to garotte him -- very slowly -- with an earphone cable dropped between the seat headrests.

The common ground between them, it quickly emerged, was choral music.  They had clearly once been in the same choir, quite probably at Cambridge, and had multiple links, professional and familial, within that curious world where, it seems, everyone is known to everyone else.   Over the course of a journey of more than an hour they did not exhaust their gossip about mutual acquaintances, each others' children, ex-pupils and their musical and academic achievements (suspiciously linked, involving choral scholarships at Cambridge), not to mention cathedrals, musical administrators and choir conductors ("SUCH a lovely man!" "Oh, yes, yes...  Although..."), and private schools and teaching colleagues ("SUCH a lovely man!" "Oh, quite, quite... Although...").  It was infuriating, but also enlightening.  It is curious to learn how such high-grade networks of connection, influence, and patronage can hide in plain sight from the rest of us.

Lead water-butt outside Dulwich Picture Gallery

Of course, we're all guilty of gossip on the train.  Somehow, the ambient white noise of the train combines with the semi-privacy of the seating arrangements to give the illusion that you cannot be overheard.  But you can.  I learned my lesson many years ago, travelling up to London for some trades union event with a colleague who was an ex-Wren (women's branch of the Royal Navy).  We fell to gossiping, and she revealed that her brother, still in the Navy, was in effect a real-life James Bond, based at a highly-secret establishment, H.M.S. [redacted] in [redacted].  I was suitably impressed -- she was a very level-headed person, and not given to fantasy -- and encouraged her to share as much detail as she could.  Which she did.  A few weeks later, she was both amused and mortified to receive a communication concerning her recent indiscreet disclosures, and reminding her of the consequences of loose talk.  It didn't actually say "remember, we know where you live", but the threat was clear, and delivered, ah, with the icy clarity that expects to command attention.

However, to get back to the train.  It was clear that these three were not your run-of-the-mill consumers of culture: these were prime specimens of that unseen stratum of society that makes culture happen.  Choirs and orchestras don't form spontaneously, and top performers don't emerge fully formed out of nowhere.  Just as Premier League football depends on large numbers of dedicated but invisible support staff, and a long tail of less prestigious leagues and school and amateur teams, so the less commercial musical and artistic life of the country depends on the efforts of people like these.  But, listening to them talk -- oblivious to their seething captive audience -- it's clearly not just a case of selfless, unpaid dedication to the promotion of Bach, Britten, and Eric Whitacre, with the prospect of an MBE at the end.  It is yet another of the many ways the upper-middle classes can exercise their "soft power", carefully positioning their children, their own careers and those of their favoured friends by cultivating connections and networks, maximising the payoff from an investment in piano lessons, choir practice, and school fees.  It suddenly occurred to me that, when you step back and look at it, the entire edifice of classical music -- with its unchallengable position within the wider culture, and profound links to the traditional seats of power -- might be viewed as resting on a conspiratorial network of exclusive unpaid internships and patronage.

I'm sure there are people within that network who genuinely regret the lack of wider "access" to proper music education, which is pretty much non-existent in state schools.  But classical music is, effectively, becoming a closed shop for the privately-educated, as the price of entry, in terms of commitment, effort and expense, is set so high, relative to any likely material rewards; "cultural capital" pays no bills.  It is also surrounded by an offputting, semi-ecclesiastical force-field of solemnity and decorousness, optimally designed to keep the uninitiated out.  I mean, who knew that eating your crisps during the slow movement was frowned upon?  Where does it say that in the programme?

At primary school, my daughter was offered cello lessons -- take it or leave it, a spare cello was all they had left in the cupboard -- on a once-a-week basis from an uninspiring peripatetic teacher.  After a few weeks she chose to leave it.  I didn't blame her: there was no school orchestra to join, after all, and at seven she had no real idea of what a cello was, or where it fitted into the musical scene.  Having had no background of joyless piano lessons myself, I couldn't see the point of forcing her to endure the pain of learning such a recalcitrant, niche (and expensive!) instrument.  I did play her a couple of Bach's cello suites on CD, but they somehow didn't hit the same spot as whatever was hot in the charts that year (Bob the Builder, possibly).  So I allowed a door to shut which a "tiger parent", I suppose, might have forced open.  But thankfully my kids seem to have done alright, without me clearing a path for them and insisting that they follow it...  As if I knew how.

Hey, fancy guitar!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

On Twyford Down

Looking SE from the "dongas" trackway

Looking N from the golf course

One thing that has impressed me as I collate my photographs of the St. Catherine's / Viaduct / Twyford "triangle" is how diverse the landscape of Twyford Down is.  Although at heart a typical square mile or two of chalk downland, the different types of land use -- grassland, cultivated fields, wooded slopes, a golf course, and various "edgelands" where road and rail routes pass through -- mean that a very different prospect lies before you, depending on which path you have followed, in which month, and in which direction you are facing.

Looking S over the golf course

Looking W across the London mainline and the M3 sliproad

Friday, 17 July 2015

Submarine Tank

A tank of well-chosen tropical submarines makes for an interesting conversation piece.

I was a huge fan of the German TV series Das Boot when it was broadcast back in the 1980s, and  I can never see a submarine without internally hearing those ASDIC pings and the dramatic theme tune of each programme's opening sequence.  Although those who lost relatives to submarine action in WW2 probably found Das Boot unwatchable (a friend was telling me recently how her father survived torpedoes, twice) I found it absolutely compelling to share the agony of being depth-charged, or the cluttered, intimate claustrophobia of the submariner's everyday life.

Last year's Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy had a giant vitrine full of his signature lead U-boats in the courtyard, and the mental pings were particularly loud.  I suppose my submarine tank above might be best seen as my own response to that, though this has only ocurred to me in the writing of this post.  Funny how submerged our motivations and influences can be.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Skate

I was in Bristol for a few days last week, and was walking along a street in the early evening when the decorative overnight display on a fishmonger's marble slab brought me to a sudden halt.  There, before my very eyes, was a skate.  Now, the skate is a sort of edible ray that is quite scarce these days, a protected species in fact, but once, in the form of "skate and chips", it formed a staple of the British diet.  Not as downmarket as "rock and chips", or as bland as "cod and chips", it was something of an adult, acquired taste.  But this skate was a plastic skate, which made it doubly covetable, for reasons I will try to explain.   I wrote down the name and address of the fishmonger, just in case he was open to cash offers, and went happily on my way.

There is a certain creativity that seems to come easily to the young.  It's generally not the Real Thing, but a precursor, an instar stage in the metamorphosis which may, eventually, see the emergence of the Real Thing.  But probably won't: it is the fate of most youngsters setting out in pursuit of dreams of excellence to fall by the wayside, stalled in some intermediate state; good, but never good enough to stand among the best.  Athletes, artists, musicians, magicians, scientists, scholars, cooks, comedians, and criminals: many are called, but few are chosen.  True originality, in particular, does not recognise concepts like democracy and equal access, unfortunately, no more than it bows to privilege and wealth.

In the adolescent years, though, every field always appears empty and wide open, the rules seem to be few, and there is much fun to be had ignoring them.  A little talent goes a long way at sixteen.  What's more, wiring talents together can have an amplification effect out of all proportion.  The Beatles, collectively, were a world-changing force; individually, less so.  I'd guess that in any school at any time there has been a tight little gang of friends who make each other feel like Lennon, Lenin, and Lenny Bruce all rolled into one, with their private banter, obscure enthusiasms, and exclusive in-jokes.  Regrettably, these years are also the time of shifting alliances and treacherous Best Friends Forever.  As a parent, you quickly lose track of who's in and who's out, and learn not to ask, "Whatever happened to So-and-So?", when for a year or two So-and-So had seemed virtually to be a part of the family.

A long time ago, I had a medium-term BFF with whom the inventive spark was very strong.  For a few years we were the closest of friends, spending long hours in each other's company, amusing ourselves with what we took to be the reach and depth of our originality, whether it be novel ways to destroy plastic aircraft, creative scatological wordplay, or the malicious pleasures of lampooning teachers and classmates.  As a fixture I suspect we were tolerated, but not much liked. Nobody loves a smart-arse, especially two wired together in parallel.

In the summer of 1970, shortly before the sudden decay of our friendship, we spent a week camping in California.  California, Norfolk, that is, just north of Great Yarmouth (I described this formative trip in a previous post).  For reasons I cannot now recall, one of our joint obsessions was the possibility of making plaster moulds from real fish and casting replicas in rubber.  The idea of possessing a rubber skate was a particularly enticing and amusing holy grail.  So, given the prevalence of fishmongers in Yarmouth, we thought we'd make some enquiries.  How much would a whole skate cost?

It seemed a simple enough question, but it drew us some very dark looks, and the sort of curt dismissal that says, "Go on, sling yer hook, and take the piss out of someone else, you cheeky little sods".  Which was mystifying.  Until one fishmonger saw the funny side, and told us that bringing whole skate ashore was actually illegal.  Why?  "Because fishermen, ah, sometimes use them, if you know what I mean?  Are you with me?  The skate's mouth is not unlike, um, a woman's part..."  We were astonished, revolted, and, if anything, even more highly amused by our doomed quest.  A rubber skate had taken on a whole new layer of in-joke nuance.  We couldn't wait to get back and start spreading the news.

Such adventures get burnished, in time, into anecdotes.  In my university years, my speciality became delivering tall, dark tales in the darkest hours to a receptive, if somewhat captive, audience.  But, until I learned the New Manners of political correctness, I had a tendency to step over certain lines and find myself suddenly knee-deep in taboo areas.  Who knew that stories about the perils of having sex with cartilaginous fish was not something to discuss at the progressive dinner table?  Why, Frank Zappa had made the subject positively au courant with "The Mud Shark"!  What, that's unmentionable, too?  Jeez...  I had such a lot to learn.

But the skate thing obviously stuck in certain impressionable minds.  It is rather unforgettable.  So about a decade later a recent issue of a small culinary history journal -- Petits Propos Culinaires 27 -- arrived in the post, with a covering note from an old friend.  She wrote,  "It seems you were right after all!  See page 46."  And there, under the title "A Further Tale of the Skate", the writer described a very similar series of baffling encounters with fishmongers, culminating in the information that "sailors on long, lonely voyages ... would nail a skate to the mast and gratify themselves by fornicating with it".  Which is probably why cooks use the "wings" only.

A further interesting sidelight on this sordid matter is shed by the sometimes rancorous rivalry between the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, and in particular the supporters of their football teams.  To fans of Pompey, the residents of mercantile Southampton are "scummers", a naval term for the merchant marine.  Whereas the followers of the Saints know their naval-base rivals as "skates", for reasons that should now be obvious.  Apparently, Portsmouth women would reject the advances of sailors on shore-leave with the words, "I ain't no skate bait, mate".

Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Offering

The Offering

I'm out of town for a few days.  But, look, I found an overlooked crow and another owl.  One is stuffed, and the other just looks stuffed.

Owl Dream #1

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Day and Night

 Flags for Sunrise

I'm starting to run out of usable crow pictures, and have begun to diversify into gulls and even plastic owls...  I need to get out there with a long lens and stalk some more, but for such a common bird they're oddly elusive at this time of year.  Do crows take holidays?  I wouldn't put it past them.

The Night Watch

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Wasp Waste

Going through a pile of old papers, I came across two unfinished scraperboard pictures of wasps.  I'd completely forgotten about them; not surprising, as I must have abandoned them about fifteen years ago.  As far as I can recall, these are the only two forays into that medium I have ever made.

I used to be an admirer of woodcuts and wood engravings; as I write this, I am sitting beneath three framed Clare Leighton engravings -- pages from The Farmer's Year -- that I rescued from a secondhand book shop.  My recollection is that I thought scraperboard might be a way of getting to the attractively crisp end result of engraving without going through the tedious and messy process of actual printmaking, something I know a little about.

For years, I used to make linocuts and woodcuts.  When I was about 17 I actually dared to venture into the premises of printmaking suppliers T.N. Lawrence, when it was still located up an external staircase in Bleeding Heart Yard in London.  Old man Lawrence was notorious for chasing away anyone he didn't like.  Luckily, he did like the cut of my jib, and helped me choose some wood-engraving tools.  However, much as I enjoyed cutting away bits of lino and plank, the process of working up the ink on an old mirror with a roller, inking up the block, and taking an impression on paper (using the back of a spoon in the absence of a press) -- not to mention subsequently cleaning up the whole inky lot -- was a messy business and not really suited to a two-bedroom council flat.  My mother would despair when ink found its way into the crazed enamel of our kitchen sink.

Two-colour linocut, 1979

I kept up the printmaking into early adult life, though, and later on I thought etching might be worth a try, so signed up for evening classes.  I managed a few completed test-pieces -- all featuring wasps -- before deciding that this elaborately ceremonial "intaglio" process elevated the fussiness of printmaking to the pitch of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, if not beyond, and gave it up.  It's no wonder that most "name" artists employ a specialist studio to do the actual skilled, repetitive, dirty work of making editioned prints for them to sign and number.  It's one of the guilty secrets of art.  Making some nice marks into a wax-covered sheet of metal is one thing; etching it in a tray of acid to just the right degree of "bite", then inking it, wiping off just the right amount of ink, and then experimentally adjusting the blankets in the press to find just the right pressure to yield a perfect impression on a carefully pre-soaked sheet of (very expensive) paper is quite another.  However, in the process of exploring etching I did discover the darkroom, which is another story.

But why ... wasps?  Why, indeed.  If only I could have developed a more popular obsession -- oh, I don't know, people, maybe, or even bees -- then I might have got a more encouraging reaction than "huh..." to my efforts, and gone on to produce the hundreds of prints -- those famous 10,000 hours -- that form the bedrock of real accomplishment.  After all, people have built whole careers out of making linocuts of bloody hares for greetings cards.  But wasps just don't have that irresistible combination of mystic folksiness and prick-eared cuteness going on for them.

As it is, I don't think I've made a print of any sort -- other than photographs -- since I turned 30 in 1984, though my recent efforts at digital collage might be seen as a return to that earlier impulse.  But no wasps this time!  Although....  Those scraperboards are just waiting to be incorporated into something new.  It would be a shame to waste them.

Addendum 8/7/15:  I suddenly remembered one possible influence on my focus on wasps.  A book that shaped me more than most was The Albemarle Book of Modern Verse, an O-Level set text that included many worthwhile poems, as well as some astonishing but memorable rubbish.  An example of the latter contained these lines, much of which I can recite to this day:
There's not a rhyme to wasp in English tongue.
Poor wasp, unloved, unsung!
Only the homely proverb celebrates
These little dragons of the summer day
That each man hates.
'Wasps haunt the honey-pot,' they say,
Or 'Put your hand into a wasps' nest,' thus
Neatly condensing all report for us
By sharp experience into wisdom stung,
As is the proverb's way.

    Of many a man it might be said
    No one loved him till he was dead,
    But of a wasp not even then
    As it is said of many men.


 Vita Sackville-West, The Garden

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Moth Bling

In the week a show of Joseph Cornell's little boxes opens at the Royal Academy, I thought this piece by Simon Armitage, the new Professor of Poetry at Oxford, was rather appropriate, and an interesting read.

I really like his idea of poems as little stage-sets; if it's a commonplace idea, it's certainly not one I've come across before.  Similarly, the suggestion that, as a teaching practice, withholding a poem's title and then revealing it can be like providing the "negative terminal ... which when supplied allows a sudden emotional charge to arc across the gap" is nicely put, and applies equally well to visual works.  Armitage has a remarkably ego-free and unacademic gift for sharing the inwardness of his engagement with the work of other poets.  Not sure whether this bodes well for his period of tenure at that least ego-free and most academic of institutions, but it will be their loss if it isn't a success.  And, no, this time I didn't vote for anyone.

Talking of little boxes, these are a couple of box-type things I knocked together this week.  Perhaps I should take them along for those over-dressed vulgarians on the Antiques Roadshow to consider.  Apparently Bling & Sons are very collectable, especially their entomological range.  You say they're worth how much?  Gasp!  Suppressed leer of avarice!  No, they're not insured.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Lost Golf Balls

As hoped and expected, hidden gems have started to emerge, now I have begun to take a closer look at the backfiles, with an eye to editing a "Viaduct" sequence.  This always happens.

I think it's partly to do with the way the more declamatory, obvious images demand your immediate attention, and then -- too soon -- you have moved on to the next, fresh and exciting batch.  Good stuff -- sometimes the best stuff -- goes unnoticed.  But it's also got a lot to do with the way a sequence suggests a narrative, and demands connections.

For example, how do you show how the M3 cutting divides St. Catherine's Hill from Twyford Down, which, before 1991, were joined by a simple neck of downland?  And, having found suitable images, what else do they bring to the story?

In the case of these two, I think you also get a strong sense of the watchful way nature's resilience has started to reclaim and heal the wound opened in the 1990s.
And the wind shall say: Here were decent Godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.

T.S. Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Calling All Angels

Police were called to investigate reports of an angelic manifestation at a Brighton bus stop, just outside the Royal Pavilion.  By the time they'd arrived and managed to cross the road, however, there was just a single elderly lady in the shelter.

What happened next is a short story which you can make up to your own satisfaction.  You're welcome!  Don't send it to me, though, thanks all the same.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Itchen Navigation

I've been trying to crank myself up to get on with the long-postponed task of editing my photographs from the Hockley Viaduct, St. Catherine's Hill, and Twyford Down.  I've been visiting that tight little triangle of landscape most weeks since 2010, so there are quite a few of them.  At the end of the editing process, of course, there will probably prove to be just about fifty that are both excellent images in their own right, and which will work in concert with the others in a sequenced series.  On the other hand, I will undoubtedly discover some overlooked gems.

The thing that is easily missed -- here and throughout England -- is the extent to which ours is a thoroughly man-made landscape, and one which has been continually made and re-made over several thousand years.  Take these two views of the River Itchen.  Or, rather, the Itchen Navigation, a canalised waterway developed in the 18th century to bring goods from the docks at Southampton to Winchester.  The "natural" Itchen itself threads its way through multiple, non-navigable channels in the nearby meadows, although these are not "natural", either.  Those meadows are water-meadows, full of carefully-planned "carrier" channels and sluices, designed to irrigate the fields and ensure an early and continuing grass supply for livestock.

I took both of these photographs this weekend.  The first view looks rather bucolic, but in reality it shows a canal running beneath a railway viaduct.  What's more, to take it, I stood beside the roaring M3 flyover at Hockley, so it's practically an industrial landscape.  The second view is less than fifty yards from the first, on the other side of the M3 flyover.  It looks much more like the canal it is but, far from being a toxic sump full of supermarket trolleys, fat trout swim in its clear water, and swallows dart back and forth above it; they actually nest under the flyover.  A little further down herons and the occasional kingfisher haunt the banks.

This mix of pastoral, infrastructural and industrial elements is what makes the area so fascinating, and it's a quality I intend to bring out (and use thematically) in the edit.  Like almost anywhere in Britain, it's a place of thousands of years of layered, compacted history, but which also happens to be a transport bottleneck beside King Alfred's Saxon capital, and at the western edge of an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Brighton II

Seaside towns come into their own, visually, in brilliant sunshine, and Brighton more so than most.  The architecture and "street furniture" are self-consciously decorative, as in most holiday towns, but there is an extra, improvised overlay provided by the residents that probably drives the local council planners nuts.  "Seedy" always used to be the adjective of choice for Brighton -- it was where you went to spend a night with a paid "co-respondent" to give legal grounds for a divorce -- but the current generation have really taken "seedy" and run with it.  From a photographic point of view, the sunlight really does bring out the best in the grime and the grafitti and the peeling paint.

I like a bit of delapidation, myself, and I've never been one for "neat and tidy".  The inhabitants of Brighton evidently enjoy it even more, given how much they themselves contribute, whether actively (by covering every available surface with spraypaint and flyposters), passively (by overfilling their bins and failing to carry out minor repairs), or in person (by hanging around in public to show off their tattoos and the uniforms of their various subcultural affiliations).  It feels as if the town is permanently in the aftermath of some vast ongoing party, which no-one can ever bring themselves to tidy up.  Why bother?  There'll only be another party tomorrow...  And, besides, today it's sunny...

Friday, 26 June 2015


I've been in Brighton for a few days, helping my daughter move from one house to another.  The heat and humidity have been quite oppressive, and not ideal weather for the dusty, weary work of packing and transporting stuff.  It's been a while since I felt the salty sting of free-running sweat in my eyes; probably since the last time I helped move stuff in the back of the car.  But never mind: we had an excellent meal out one evening when things cooled down, and I got some time to wander the streets, and explore that uniquely Brighton combination of grimy delapidation, seaside architecture, and inventive grafitti.

Interestingly, I find that keeping half an eye open for digital collage components has freed up my photographic judgement.  Instead of thinking, no, that's too simple, or no, that intrusive bit of poster wrecks the composition, I take the picture anyway.  Frames, backgrounds, textures -- it's all useful.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015


Charmouth, Dorset

In theory, it's the time of year when holiday postcards start arriving from friends and relations, but with each new year these seem to grow more infrequent.  Email and social media have pretty much replaced that pleasant and venerable custom.  Not surprisingly -- an old friend is currently travelling in South East Asia, and his blog and Facebook posts are considerably more current, informative and entertaining than any dog-eared, hastily-scribbled bit of card could be that has survived weeks, sometimes months, of travel through the world's postal services.  What's more -- given the difficulty of getting a decent phone signal or internet connection in not-so-far-flung places like Bristol, and the impossibility of getting any at all in mid-Wales -- I am amazed to discover that buses in Vietnam have free wifi.

St. Catherine's Hill and St. Cross,

But I do still like the postcard as an object, and hope that they will continue to exist as a cheap, portable souvenir, even when so few of them now get inscribed, stamped, and entrusted to the mail.  In the age of the smartphone and the selfie, though, this really can't be taken for granted; if no-one buys them, no-one will make them.  Yet another good reason to ban all photography in museums and art galleries...  What would really seal the postcard's fate, I suspect, is if souvenir shops started offering an instant upload of an image from your phone to produce a real, personalised postcard, delivered anywhere in the world, in a street-level version of a service like Touchnote.  Perhaps they already do in Vietnam.

Artist Tom Phillips has had a long fascination with the photographic postcard, and has amassed a unique collection which he donated to the Bodleian Library a few years ago.  This was generous and public-spirited, but as an ex-cataloguer my heart sinks when I contemplate the scale of the task that will have landed on someone's desk.  Library directors love quirky and munificent gifts; library staff dread them.  They've clearly been getting on with it, however, and Tom and the Bodleian have already published various themed selections from this card cornucopia.  To get a free taste you can see a regular selection on a Twitter feed called "We Were The People" (you don't need to have signed up for Twitter to see them).

Monday, 22 June 2015

Father's Day

Majorca 1970

Yesterday was Father's Day, and today would have been my mother's 92nd birthday, so naturally I've been thinking about them both.  No matter how happy your upbringing was -- and mine was very happy, in the main -- there inevitably comes a stage in your life when you realise that your parents were less than perfect, and may even sometimes -- whisper it -- have been idiotic or irresponsible.  As Loudon Wainwright III put it in that great tearjerker Your Mother and I, "your parents are people, and that's all they can be".  Crazy people, maybe.  Well, the past is a crazy place, and that's where they met.

All fathers are weird, I think; it's a weird job, believe me.  Though it was considerably more weird back then.  It took me years to realise my father was, under his easy-going manner, a wary, frustrated man.  You could never quite take him at face value, particularly when he expressed an opinion or made a joke.  Often, when he said one thing, he meant quite another, but he was so fond of certain well-worn ironies that you would eventually not notice their intended obliquity.  Take bourbon biscuits.  I will now never know whether his pronunciation of "bourbon" as "berben" in the American style was one of his little jokes, or a slightly mistaken bit of Besserwisser one-upmanship.  Whatever, within our family "berben" was the Authorized Version.  So I will never forget the day one of my partner's parents requested a bourbon biscuit, pronounced slightly pedantically in the full-on French manner, and I got a severe, spluttering case of the giggles.  Thanks, Dad.

Until you could spot and step past these multiple barriers of irony, he would keep you at a safe distance.  Few people ever made it through, and as a consequence he was a man with few friends in adult life.  In fact, in retrospect, it seems that this was a feature of male adult life in general.  You simply stopped having friends when you acquired a family; to have friends was somehow juvenile. The oddness of this didn't strike me until I was well into adult life myself.  When he died, admittedly at an advanced age, I couldn't think of a single living person to invite to his funeral not related by blood.  I understand this is not uncommon, and there have been cases recently where social media appeals were made to recruit potential mourners for some lonely old man who died with no friends or relatives left in the world.

Of course, there were reasons.  Like most of his generation, he had left school at 14 despite abundant academic ability.  In the 1930s it simply cost too much to stay on at school beyond the statutory leaving age.  That was tough for him, I think.  He was easily bright enough to have managed university, but that was so far out of the question, socially and financially, as to be unthinkable.  Then, after just a few years of apprenticeship and employment, he was required to spend six prime years of his life in the systematic limbo of active military service, with the occasional enforced descent into the chaos of active military hell.  By the end of the war, he was pushing 30.  Not exactly past it, but no longer young in those days.

Now, a conscript "citizen" army teaches good men the arts and habits of "dumb insolence" and a passive-aggressive, veiled hostility towards lesser men given unchallengeable disposal over their lives.  You do what you're told, sort of, but make sure in the doing that the teller realises you think he's an idiot, quite possibly by sabotaging the outcome by following the letter, not the spirit of your orders.  Anyone who seeks an explanation for the craziness of industrial relations 1945-1975 need look no further.  After the war, back in civilian life, ambitious and able men of my father's age found themselves blocked from significant advancement at work; at first by those very same lesser men, with their schooling and their connections, and then by a more highly-qualified, leap-frogging post-war generation, for whom free higher education came up with the rations, as they would have said in the army.  After rapid promotion from the shop floor, Dad spent his entire working life in the lower reaches of middle-management.  Again, this was typical for that frustrated generation, and a resigned, sometimes cynical, self-defending irony was the natural response.  The genius of someone like Spike Milligan was to find another, new and more creative way forward.

But I suppose the main culprit was what sociologists would call the "performance of masculinity".  Dad's generation was locked into possibly the most constricting, mutually-policed version of maleness ever known in Britain.  Any scope for flamboyance, emotionality, self-expression, or any other suspiciously feminine forms of behaviour was strictly channelled into acceptable modes of dress and conduct.  The gulf between the pre- and post-war male was very, very deep, and rarely crossed.  Even a good, intelligent man like my father found the post-68 appearance, behaviour, and beliefs of his son hard to accept.  Which, I suppose, was the point.

Now these guys in the photo below are performing their masculinity really well.  But that little one at the front is pushing it a bit with that tie...  And isn't that suit a bit ...  Italian?  Ah well, he's just become a father, and that'll soon sort him out.

Burma Reunion 1947

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Crow Country III

So you thought you were pretty far out, huh?  Read this and you might change your mind.  Ow.  Not to mention Whisky Tango Foxtrot...

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A Ducky and a Horsie

I have always had a strong tendency towards pareidolia, the ability to see meaningful images within random patterns of line, shape and shadow.  In some ways, this is merely the flipside (or perhaps a precondition) of the ability to draw.  What is a drawing, after all, other than patterns of line, shape and shadow contrived and intended to evoke a significant image within the viewer's brain?

Exactly a year ago, I was in front of a TV camera in the Fotoforum gallery in Innsbruck, Austria, trying to explain the nature of my work being exhibited there to a charming young interviewer who, luckily, spoke better English than I speak German (not unusual in the German-speaking world, I am ashamed to say).  Now, I tend to take a certain level of pareidolia for granted, so drew her attention to this image from the Boundary Elements series:

I said something like, "This photograph is of a corroded metal box attached to a door and, although I really like the delicate balance of tone and colour here, what I mainly see is a Japanese-style horned dragon whipping its head round, with its snout now pointing to the left, don't you?"  She looked puzzled, then an expression of childlike delight crossed her face, "Oh, yes!  A dragon!"  Now, being English, and maybe having watched too much Graham Norton, I was on the alert for irony and sarcasm, but detected none.  She simply didn't see what I saw until I pointed it out.  Which made me think.

I've been thinking ever since.  What I have been thinking is this:

My favourite kind of photography involves the creation of a picture by isolating evocative shapes and colours from the real world.  You might say these are the semi-abstract paintings I'd make if I wasn't too lazy to make them, in the well-established vein of Klee, Kandinsky, and Rauschenberg.  I am sometimes mistaken for a practitioner of the Gospel of the God of Small Things -- best summarised as "He draws our attention to the small, everyday things we are too blinkered and busy to notice" -- which I find annoying.  I don't care whether you notice small corroded metal boxes or not.  No; if I draw myself up to my full height of pretension, I prefer to consider myself more of the Blakean tendency:
What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight I look thro it & not with it.
William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgement
A ducky and a horsie be damned, Sir!

And yet, without cues like a nudging title ("A Ducky and a Horsie Go Boating #5") or my personal presence behind the viewer's shoulder to point them out, it seems that my intended points of reference are never as obvious as I had thought.  Of course, this is a general issue with abstract or semi-abstract art.  Take this print from Matisse's late "cut-out" phase, published in his wonderful book Jazz:

Les Codomas, Henri Matisse, 1947

Lovely, isn't it?  But how obvious to you is it (or was it when you first saw it) that the image shows two trapeze artists above a safety-net, surrounded by spectators?  It probably doesn't matter if you can't see it without prompting, but Matisse had an intention here, which the nudging title makes clear -- he hasn't called it "Untitled Abstraction #47", after all, but the equivalent of "The Flying Burritos".  The fact that our first take might "see", let's say, tadpoles in a pond surrounded by stylised weed, beams of light, reflections, and even a lurking octopus is not to mistake the image, but to engage with its nature.  The realisation of the "correct" interpretation gives a focus to our other responses, but it doesn't invalidate them; they can all fruitfully exist at the same time.  But this is like explaining how to bowl a cricket ball:  if you're going to be able to do it at all, you can probably do it anyway.

But the path this led me down was this:  If my intentions are not clear, why not make them clearer?  Why be inhibited by the photographic "facts on the ground"?  Why not make intentional pictures sourced from multiple photographs, or bits of photographs collaged together with bits of drawing, in the same way Matisse assembled pictures from his cut-up pieces of painted card, rather than relying on pictures presenting themselves whole and ready-made to my camera?  Despite the many precedents -- Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté, for example, or more recently John Goto's under-appreciated work -- this still feels heretical, and calculated to lose what little audience I have gained over the years for my work.

But consider a photo like this, which I took last week, strolling behind the big-barn retail outlets of West Quay in Southampton:

Not brilliant, but a good example of the kind of thing I do when working in an "abstract" vein.  Yes, it does happen to be another corroded metal box attached to a door, but I am not a "photographer of corroded metal boxes" in the way that Bernd and Hilla Becher are photographers of grain elevators and water towers.  It's nice enough in itself, but what makes it compelling to me is that it suggests a large, weighty, telephone-box-shaped object plunging down into deep water trailed by a stream of air-bubbles, or, rotated 90 degrees, a shotgun cartridge discharged into a blue sky.  There is dynamism in those accidental marks.  Your mileage may vary, as they say, but I took the photograph because I saw and liked the pictures that my mind conjured from those superficial elements.

So, it seems to me that one way to use my hyper-pareidoloid tendency to good effect is to exploit it as a means of drawing, using the real world as my palette, and Photoshop as my canvas.  I'm having a lot of fun discovering techniques to do this, and I'm very pleased with some of the early results.  But if you do come here because of the photographs, don't despair -- I have no intention of giving up "straight" photography.

(But, hmm, that bit on the right will make an excellent milky-blue summer sky crossed by vapour trails...  Just add a few crows...)