Tuesday, 24 November 2020

The Proverbs of Hell


I can recall very vividly the day in 1975 when, one bleary-eyed afternoon – it must have been afternoon, as I rarely got out of bed much before lunchtime in those youthful days of very long nights – I crossed Broad Street in Oxford to have a browse in Parker's Bookshop, and came across a display of the newly-published OUP and Trianon Press facsimile edition of William Blake's illuminated book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I think it was probably one of the first books to awake my inner bibliophile: a perfect thing, a blue, cloth-covered hardback, about the size of a paperback novel, made up of proper sewn gatherings – already a rarity in the mid-70s – with blue-and-white end-silks, text and colour facsimiles of Blake's plates all printed on the same thick paper, and encased in a robust, cloth-covered slip-case with reproductions pasted on either side. I think it cost £7.50, quite a lot of money in 1975, but when destiny calls you just have to dig deep in your pockets [1].

Just this week I was tinkering with a collaged image of an owl that has gone through many versions but never quite found its rightful place, when it struck me that it would make an ideal illustration for one of the "Proverbs of Hell", as found in Blake's Marriage: "The crow wish'd every thing was black, the owl that every thing was white". Naturally, I reached for that perfect volume in its customary place of honour on my bookshelves, and within minutes a potential new project was born. Which was good, as I had been feeling a little at a loose end since the dissipation of the impulse that had resulted in the several Let's Get Lost volumes.


It has been many years since I opened The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and I was surprised by the wave of nostalgia evoked by the ancient bits and pieces that were entombed inside, mainly slips of paper serving as bookmarks, but also tiny fragments that had ended up in the page "gutters", something that can only really happen with sewn bindings, where the gaps are deep enough to trap debris, notably shreds of tobacco. Tobacco! Not many books have survived the journey from when I, like a large proportion of the population in those days, was a smoker. Like coal fires and boys in short trousers, smoking as a habit of the professional classes belongs to a world we have left behind. I remember the occasional visit to my school's Staff Room during the lunch hour: your tentative knock would be answered by some teacher, generally with a pipe clenched between his teeth, and you'd be enveloped in the choking haboob of tobacco smoke that rolled out of the door. A pipe and its accompanying rituals and paraphernalia were as much a part of the male teacher's kit, then, as the elbow-patched tweed jacket. It is hilarious, now, to look at university group photographs from before the 1960s, ranks of fresh-faced boys got up as middle-aged men, complete with tweed, pipes, grey flannel trousers, and serious spectacles, as if in a fancy-dress competition [2].

Which may well go to show that, as Blake puts it in the Proverbs of Hell, "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction"; certainly, as Jean Rhys knew, tigers are better-looking. It's also the case that, in those far-off days of 1975, there was a certain self-justifying truthiness to that other famous Proverb, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom". However, I'm afraid I got off the Excess Bus a stop or two before the Palace: I gave up smoking decades ago, and I'm in bed well before midnight, these days, and usually up by eight. I do still buy too many beautiful and expensive books, though [3] and, more to the point, keep on making these pictures and books of my own despite the fact that nobody else seems to want them. So, given another, lesser-known Blakean dictum, "If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise", there may be hope yet... Enough, or too much!

1. OUP obviously over-estimated the demand for Blake. For years afterwards this book could be picked up much cheaper in remainder shops, as could the substantial volume that followed shortly after from OUP, The Illuminated Blake, setting out the entire oeuvre, but in monochrome reproduction only, which was both overwhelming and surprisingly dull. I gave my copy to Oxfam a few years ago.

2. As opposed to the actual dressing-up box competition of my student days, which was really just a different kind of uniform...

3. A friend recently pointed me at the Japanese word "tsundoku", meaning "to buy too many books that lie around in piles, unread". Who, me?

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Let's Get Illuminated



One of my Covid-year "lockdown" activities has been playing around with what started out as a "postcards" project, loosely modelled on Luigi Ghirri's Kodachrome, and eventually became a Blurb book, Let's Get Lost, a series of mainly topographic photographs extracted from my backfiles, arranged into pairs, and – following a quotation from Rilke [1] – sequenced around six simple, "liveable" questions ("Where On Earth Am I?", "How Did I Get Here?", "Are We Lost Yet?", etc.). I've reported periodically on the progress of this absorbing project, and it's been enlightening (for me, anyway) to look back on the blog-trail [2], from the first glimmerings of an idea in April to the finished book in August, followed by a calendar for 2021, and now the launch of a new version, Let's Get Lost: an Illuminated Selection.

This new item is a selection of twenty-six page-spreads from the original, complete book, which was a relatively plain 116 pages. For this smaller selection, I embedded each pair of facing photographs into a single unifying "illuminated" two-page frame, an approach that suggested itself when creating the twelve images for my 2021 calendar. The pages are presented in the order that they are found in the complete, sequenced book, but without the schematic framework of the six questions. I decided to use Blurb's "premium magazine" format, which is both larger than their standard photo-book and considerably cheaper.


I must admit I'm very pleased with it. So much so that – even though I don't anticipate selling more than a handful of copies – I've slightly madly assigned it one of the remaining ISBNs from my long-dormant Shepherd's Crown self-publishing imprint, and given it the official publication treatment i.e. sent a copy to the British Library's Legal Deposit Office, but in the hope that the other five copyright libraries won't be asking for copies, too. If nothing else, this means that at least one copy will go bobbing along into the future in the massive flood of published material. If you're interested, here is a full preview:
A copy will cost you £14.99 via Blurb (plus their charge for p&p). I've also made a PDF version on CD, in a hand-crafted sleeve: if you'd like one for £5.50 (p&p free in UK, anywhere else add £2.50), email me (see "View My Complete Profile" at top right for an address).


So why not join me on this photographic dérive? Come on, let's get lost!

To put this modest venture of mine into perspective, if you cast your mind back to my Christmas book recommendations in 2017 you may remember one of them was A Group Photograph, by Andrew Tatham, a remarkable 20-year project in which he not only tracked down every man in a particular formal WW1 group photograph in his possession, but also their pre- and post-war lives and careers, and even found their descendants. Well, Andrew has now followed that up with I Shall Not Be Away Long: the First World War letters of Lt. Col. Charles Bartlett, an equally remarkable adventure in research, book design, and self-publication, and well worth your consideration if you have an interest in that period. You can read about it on Andrew's blog here, which contains some interesting reflections on the costs, pleasures, and perils of proper self-publication, publicity, and promotion. Personally, I'm going to stick to Blurb and "print on demand": the prospect of selling enough copies of either version of Let's Get Lost even to cover the cost of the five extra copyright-deposit copies, should they be requested – that would be twenty, I think – is laughable.



1. "You are so young, barely a novice, and I would like to urge you, so far as I can, dear Sir, to have patience towards everything that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms, like books written in a very foreign language. For now, don't look for answers which cannot be given to you because you can't yet have lived them. And the great thing is to live everything. For now live the questions. Perhaps then you will gradually – one far-off day, without even noticing it – live your way into the answer." (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet).
2. The trail goes like this: April: PostcardsPostcards 2. May: Postcards 3Postcards 4Pages & Pages. June: Let's Get Lost. August: Let's Get Completely LostSpecial EditionSpecial Edition 2. September: Dummies. October: Calendar 2021Cover Story.

Monday, 16 November 2020

Inscription, Part 2


The St. Petersburg fabulist ponders НАДПИСЬ

It's been a while since I wrote Part One of this "review". Partly because I've had other things to do, but also because, if I'm honest, every time I picked up the first issue of Inscription and started to read I quickly grew frustrated with its size and floppiness, and the calculated "challenge" of the slow rotation of the page orientation around the central hole. Not to mention the tricksy tête-bêche construction of the volume, which makes it surprisingly difficult to return to whatever you were reading ten minutes ago. I understand that there are spiral and other underlying structural metaphors at work here, but it's not easy being even-handed towards something that seems wilfully designed to obstruct its own use, like a non-absorbent towel (if this seems an odd comparison to reach for, then fast forward to footnote four).

I should say up front that, for the right audience, the contents of Inscription are well worth reading, with the proviso that a high tolerance for the academic writing style is needed, and also for that of first-person essayist-rhapsodists such as Kathleen Jamie or Robert Macfarlane. Obviously, as with all work produced for the consumption of fellow specialists, there is a certain threshold beyond which the general reader will not want to proceed. No matter how much you love, say, cars, you will find little in the International Journal of Automotive Engineering that is of interest or even comprehensible. And, despite appearances, Inscription is not a volume for the general reader: it is an academic journal which has expanded to fill the production values of an expensively-produced artist's book or "little magazine". You can make up your own mind whether it's for you, as it's freely available on the Web.

There are aspects of material culture touched on in these pages that the intelligent general reader would certainly find interesting. For example, that pre-19th century papers are made from the rags of the cast-off clothing of the poor, that the preparation of vellum or parchment is a grisly and time-consuming business that begins with a dead sheep (or, in the very finest cases, an aborted calf), or that the lithographic stone that enabled the graphical freedom of the posters of Toulouse Lautrec is the very same Solnhofen limestone that yielded the original fossil of Archaeopteryx. And, yes, that manuscripts often differ significantly from the final, printed product in instructive ways. But these pieces are written by and for those for whom any of that is old news, and under an obligation, as in any peer-reviewed journal, to make something novel out of those old familiar rags.

I enjoyed Alexandra Franklin's account of learning the lore and craft of printing in a hands-on project of personally typesetting a copy of Moby-Dick (!), but then I come from a family of bookbinders and printers, and benefitted from the flamboyant lectures of the British Library's Nicolas Barker on historical book production when at UCL's postgraduate library school. I also appreciated John T. Hamilton's piece comparing Kafka's manuscripts with the final published work, which takes the form of a close reading (a sermon, almost) riffing on significant family resemblances between certain words used by Kafka, and their etymologies. Although, again, it happens to be the case that I have studied both German and Kafka: I'm sure other readers will pass over Hamilton's reflections on subtle shifts in the use of different passive voices in versions of The Trial as quickly as I did the utterly baffling notes of the "Roland Barthes Reading Group". I thought I had studied Barthes, too, but clearly not closely or recently enough: I have absolutely no idea what those hermetic annotations are all about, or who would benefit from reading them.

But the thing is, grappling with these often challenging pieces of content is not made any easier (in the print version) by continually being nudged in the ribs by their container, like one of those tiresome po-mo novels that insists, "Hey, this is just a novel! This is not real! I'm making this all up!" Well, no shit, Shakespeare. If my willing suspension of disbelief is not going to be appreciated around here, then I guess I'll just have to take it elsewhere.

It should go without saying that I am not some anti-intellectual despiser of academics. Had the job market for comparers of literature in the late 1970s been different, I'd probably have ended up doing homework for a living myself. But I also know only too well that the Oulipo Syndrome [1] has a fatal attraction for the academic mind, not least when that mind aspires to creativity. The lure of cleverness is a will-o'-the-wisp that can tempt the susceptible into the swamps of incomprehensibility and pretension. Example: a couple of weeks ago on BBC Radio 4 there was what sounded like it might be an interesting programme, "Trump: Backwards", in which archive footage would be played in reverse order, from the present day back to the beginnings of Trump's appearance on the American scene. Clever! The trailer included promising things like the voice of Alastair Cook describing the young Donald in one of his Letters from America. But I turned it off after 5 minutes. Why? Because the producer had decided to mash everything up into an infuriatingly jagged sound-collage of uncredited snatches of broadcast and music, shot through with the sort of "it's a fucked-up world" sound-effects that tell you what to think and feel even more insistently than an intrusive musical soundtrack. No doubt they had been encouraged to produce something really innovative. Instead, what resulted was something truly rebarbative: a train-wreck disaster of style over content.

Now, Inscription descends to nowhere near that level of misapplied ingenuity [2], but I do want to have a bit of a sustained moan about the format. Look, if you can imagine a very large paperback book, a slightly larger square than an LP sleeve, containing something like 130 pages printed on a heavy matte paper-stock that, in use, opens out into an unwieldy, sagging, two-foot by one-foot object which, in order to be read sequentially, has to be slowly rotated through 360° as you turn the pages, then you will understand how quickly one's mood can pass from amusement through bemusement to annoyance. I've complained about impractically large books before: see, for example, the 2010 post Oi, Nazraeli, No!!. I often wonder quite how much shelf-space, or what reading arrangements the designers of such books imagine are available in the typical household, or even at what distance they think reading glasses are optimised for, um, reading. Mine are set for somewhere between 12" and 18", so in the case of Inscription (which I'm reluctant to fold in half) it's rather like wrestling a fat newspaper that happens to weigh over 1½ pounds (800g). Worse, I also have the beginnings of arthritis in my neck, so do not appreciate being obliged to cock my head at an angle when reading for any length of time. I suppose it would help if you had a large, uncluttered, inclined surface, perhaps fitted out with a "lazy Susan" style turntable, two or more feet in diameter, ideally with ten-degree detents, a non-slip surface, and adjustable page-clamps. Or, failing that, perfect vision, exceptionally strong arms with excellent muscle stamina, and an awful lot of patience. But it does seem a lot to ask as the price of entry, doesn't it?

So, consider me successfully challenged. Obviously, one has to accept that this is, in large part, a physical embodiment of the whole point and purpose of the journal: to highlight and explore the materiality of inscribed culture. But how necessary or useful is it, really, for form to disrupt, to reflect, or to provoke reflections upon content? It can be effective, of course, and particularly if the content is both well-known and ripe for critique, and also has a strong, single personality – the Highway Code, say, or Scouting For Boys – but less so when the content is diverse and consists of dense academic prose or carefully tabulated texts spread over many pages.

Back in my student days, a book with the title The Book of the Book, by Idries Shah appeared. It was essentially a hardback book, equipped with all the usual publisher's bells and whistles – dustjacket, title-page, and so on – but was otherwise filled with 250 blank pages. Which you either thought was totally far out, or a complete rip-off. My friend Gerry bought a copy in Blackwell's Bookshop – we were fans of Idries Shah's Sufi tales of Mulla Nasrudin – and had to reassure the anxious sales-assistant that he would not be returning it due to its lack of content. As far as I understand it, that book was intended as a stimulus to spiritual awakening, a sort of bibliographic koan. [3] Other, similarly reflexive bibliographic or literary jeux d'esprit also tend to have designs upon our presumed complacency, as embodied by the boring old codex: wake up, sheeple! However, such would-be galvanising games, whatever their motivation, can only ever really be played once (or once in a generation, perhaps), and even then are best played in the sandbox of the imagination. How many blank, cut-up, randomly-shuffled, repurposed, redacted, or otherwise subverted texts – there has been no shortage of such "experiments" over the past century – have actually delivered a satisfying reading experience, enlightenment, raised consciousness, or pointed the way forward to a fruitful new direction for literature? [4] Very few, I'd say: Tom Phillips' Humument, of course, is one exception, but they're mostly famous dead-ends, like Raymond Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes, or pure conceptual provocations, like John Latham's Still and Chew: Art and Culture 1966–1967. To the scholarly cast of mind, of course, there are no dead-ends, just under-explored and forgotten byways. Many of which, sadly, lead straight into the aforementioned swamps of incomprehensibility and pretension.

But, OK, that will do: end of sustained moan. Although...

No: I have said enough. I'm just indulging in some pet peeves at the expense of an excellent, well-produced, and thought-provoking endeavour, which I actually want to support and endorse (even if I do have a funny way of going about it). My prediction: it will survive and thrive, but online only. For all its bookishness, this is a project that wants to be a hyperlinked, multimedia website. Meanwhile, back in the material world, I haven't even taken the shrink-wrap off the vinyl record yet, or looked properly at any of the other generous printed enclosures. All of which puts me in mind of the fondly-remembered paraliterary phenomena of my childhood, things like the "free gifts" that occasionally came with a comic, generally yet another mask or "thunderclapper" (for the simple reason, I imagine, that they were flat and cheaply made out of printed card), but also the informative and beautifully-painted "cigarette" cards that came interleaved within the paper layers of a Brooke Bond tea-packet.

Suggestions for a future issue of Inscription, perhaps? I quite like the thought of the muffled crack of thunderclappers coming from behind academic office doors, or sundry profs trying out their scary Baudrillard masks for effect. Boo!

1. Oulipo = Ouvroir de littérature potentielle = the writing of literature with artificial constraints (such as a 300 page novel entirely lacking the letter "e") and described by the Oulipian Raymond Queneau as "rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape".

2. Although consider this: "The body text of this book [Inscription] is set in a collection of different versions of Garamond. There are 20 aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas, 20 bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbs and so on, which are sequentially ordered as the text is set. This sequence repeats every line." Ooookaay...

3. I was pleased to see that Inscription makes use of my favourite satori device as found in many instruction manuals: "This page intentionally left blank", which is repeated as "This page unintentionally left blank" at the other end/beginning of the volume. Heh... Did I mention that the whole thing is structured as a tête bêche publication?

4. Genuinely innovative and experimental design stands or falls by the extent to which it improves on the experience delivered by previous tried and tested formats, or offers a new, worthwhile experience. The Dyson Airblade hand-dryer (and its imitators) has taken over in most public toilets and washrooms for a simple reason: it's better. That is, better than those infuriating button press air dryers, which were better than a pull-operated towel dispenser, which was better than an actual towel with its ends sewn together on a roller, which was better than a towel hanging precariously on a hook (which was actually probably worse, not better, than nothing at all). The Airblade is quicker, more hygienic, more energy efficient, and completely unlikely to fall onto the floor. Of course, if the design brief had been to disrupt users' expectations of the hand-drying process – rather than dry their hands more quickly and more hygienically, with the added bonus of reducing cost and carbon footprint – then a towel made of non-absorbent cloth that consistently falls onto the floor into a puddle of piss might well do the trick.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Here


I used to live here. That is to say, for about a year from 1980 I rented the top flat of 7 Gloucester Row, in Clifton, Bristol, which is the leftmost facade you see in this row: my flat was a kitchen and two rooms directly beneath that large triangular pediment. Clifton is one of those urban areas that has gone through cycles of grand and grim ever since it was developed in the Georgian boom times, financed largely by the, ahem, products of New World slavery like sugar and tobacco. In 1980 it was at the bottom of a grim cycle; now, it has swung back to grand. I see the three-bedroom basement flat is currently valued at £763,000, and the two-bedroom 2nd floor flat sold last year for £430,000. I don't suppose anyone will ever again occupy the whole edifice, however, as originally intended.

When I moved in, taking over the lease from some friends, every floor bar the top two was unoccupied, and the one beneath me was haunted by a pair of junkies, their two small children, and a large alsatian dog that roamed the communal staircase. Coming back at night, I dreaded the sound of its pattering claws on the uncarpeted, unlit wooden stairs. It was beyond grim, actually: that winter of 80/81 was the sort of long, cold, snowy, ice-bound freeze-up that we haven't seen in England for many years, now. My toilet bowl actually froze and cracked. Worse, snow somehow blew into the roof space, and when it eventually thawed it created a large, expanding bubble in the ceiling paper that eventually burst and sent water cascading everywhere. I moved out as soon as I could.

It's strange, revisiting such places, forty years on. There's a wonderful graphic novel, Here, by Richard McGuire, which imagines the goings-on in the space occupied by a single room over the decades, centuries, and millennia. As with the absence in the sky once occupied by my teenage bedroom, in a block of flats which was demolished a dozen years ago, one's own little stretch of time in a room is both incredibly significant from a personal perspective, and yet utterly without meaning or connection to previous or subsequent occupants of that space. Whoever lives in that top-floor flat now can have no idea of those cold winter nights when I sat reading in the tiny kitchen with the ancient gas oven turned on, just to keep warm. Why, I bet they've even got central heating.

A distant prospect of the Suspension Bridge

The edge of the Downs

Gloucester Row is a mere hundred yards or so from the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge at its most impressively craggy point. On Tuesday and Wednesday last week we were in Bristol, and I went for a couple of walks along the Gorge: one along the top into Clifton, the other along the bottom to Sea Mills. Unlike the surrounding city, the area has a certain air of permanence, at least viewed on a human scale. The timeworn rocky steps along the cliff-edge paths remain as treacherous in wet weather as they always were, and the open green space of the Downs appears unchanged: even in these Covid times it echoes to the barking of excitable dogs and the shouts of young lads chasing footballs. The lack of space within the Gorge means that infrastructural changes are slow and constrained: the Portway road and the light railways that run along on either side can never be expanded or diverted, and the river just keeps on being the river, and the cliffs and the woods, as I've noted before, have a primal quality, all of which is doubtless illusory, but nonetheless reassuring in a Wordsworthian kind of way. 



The Avon is a tidal river, and twice a day drains away into the Bristol Channel, leaving behind an expanse of slick grey mud, intricately patterned into herringbones by the runoff channels of the departing water. At Sea Mills, about half way from Clifton to the sea at Avonmouth, you can get good views of the gloopy wilderness, should you find that an interesting prospect, particularly where the tributary River Trym runs beneath the railway and Portway bridges, stranding small boats at low tide, and depositing rubbish onto the grassy edgelands when the river floods. I must admit it's my kind of place, although I wouldn't want to live there.

A rising tide lifts all boats
(but not this one any more)

Yes, that is a dumped motorbike, centre right

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Elevation



Although we live in Southampton, for reasons too complicated to explain we also own a flat in Bristol. Lucky us: it's a pleasant modern flat on the top floor of a low-rise block that overlooks the Avon Gorge, and the picture above shows the view from the kitchen window, surely one of the best breakfast-time vistas to be had anywhere. I can spend hours just watching the tidal river ebb and flow, the clouds passing, the buzzards circling above Leigh Woods on the far bank, and the occasional peregrine falcon throwing the other birdlife into fits of hysteria. If you ignore the busy traffic on the Portway down below (easy enough if you have double glazing) it has a certain primal quality, a landscape in which bears, wolves, and hunter-gatherers would not be out of place. At night you sometimes see the lights of daredevil mountain bikers braving the trails that descend through Leigh Woods to the water's edge.

Because a kink in the Gorge means we look more or less due south across it, the change of light from dawn on the left to dusk on the right is, for a photographer, a pure delight. Even though we're only there intermittently, the neighbours must surely be accustomed by now to the lunatic who leans out of the window at all hours clutching a camera. Being in an elevated spot, we get to see some spectacular sights invisible to those on ground level. It's one of the pleasures of life in a flat, as I know from my adolescent years spent on the fourth floor of a council block in Stevenage, gazing out from my bedroom across the town centre, due west towards the motorway and the countryside beyond. Elevation opens out the perspective, and there are few landscape photographs that couldn't be improved by finding higher ground to stand on (or, failing that, a stepladder). Or, indeed, a drone, for that buzzard's eye view.

The window-cleaner's hose has made patterns in the dewy grass

We drove over to Bristol on Sunday as we had to be there for a plumber, and also to enjoy a few days away before the new lockdown began on Thursday. Sunday and Monday were washouts, however: a deep low sent alternating bands of sunshine and truly torrential rain sweeping up the Gorge, which was spectacular to watch but not really ideal walking weather, even with a freshly waterproofed coat. High pressure came in on Tuesday, though, bringing with it the classic conditions for ground-frost and fog, and early on Wednesday morning a pink, dawn-lit snake of mist was winding up the Gorge, as if a low-flying plane had zoomed through, leaving a con-trail behind.


Unfortunately the extreme lighting temperature contrast between east and west meant that the colours in my attempted "stitched" panorama were too weird to fix, so I decided to render it in monochrome. With a bit more work – those highlights need lifting for a start – I think it could still be quite effective, even though the distortion is quite bad. It's a shame about the colours, though: one of these days I will remember that digital cameras have a built-in "sweep panorama" function. I should probably figure out how it works and give it a few tries before the next real opportunity presents itself. Or maybe even start using a tripod, establish the nodal point [1] of some lens and camera combinations, and do some proper stitched panoramas? Maybe, but don't hold your breath...



Back in the days of film I did have a bit of a fling with panoramic imaging: I actually owned one of those Russian swing-lens Horizont cameras, that records a 120° view onto 35mm film. I think I was probably inspired by Josef Koudelka's adventures with a panoramic camera. One of these days I should look out the negatives and scan a few. More to the point, in the early days of digital I did have a brief enthusiasm for some panoramic stitching software (Panorama Factory, I think it was) but, as you can imagine, getting suitable images is very dependent on the use of a tripod and, well, that's just not the way I work. My real successes were few and, besides, that exaggerated panoramic look quickly becomes its own cliché, and tends to dictate the sort of subject matter that is suitable, unless you are a Koudelka-scale genius.

In the end I realised that what I really liked was simply the wide, narrow format, such as the 16:9 ratio offered by a camera as portable as the tiny Panasonic LX3, which is not at all the same thing as a panorama. Or, when it came down to it, I thought, why not just place adjacent photos into a single frame, without any attempt to "stitch" them together, as I did with two pictures from another very rainy day in the Bristol flat? It seems somehow more honest, and also consciously incorporates an element of time passing into the image, something usually missing from a still photograph.

From rainy day to washout in two frames

Here's another using the same approach, from further down the Avon Gorge, on a day when the sun was alternatingly out, revealing the warm autumnal tones, then back behind the clouds, bringing out the cooler colours:


I like that a lot but, even so, a little more attention to parallax / nodal points and all that wouldn't have gone amiss: it was a lot of work getting the two halves to match up properly. Contrary to popular belief, I do own a tripod (not to mention a "nodal slider" attachment!) and might even consider getting it out of the broom-cupboard one day soon. Probably.

1. Don't understand the importance of nodal points / entrance pupils in panoramic photography? If you're curious, or having problems getting to sleep, let this guy explain it to you... Good Lord, why don't these self-appointed explainers on YouTube ever write themselves a proper script, and stick to it? This is surely no more than a four-slide PowerPoint presentation, six at most. Mind you, I've endured many a session where some windbag took 20 minutes to get through a single, four bullet-point slide...

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Hey Jude


1940

I was idly surfing the Web when I came across the arresting news that an old friend, Jude Woodward, had died earlier this year. Jude was only a "friend", however, in the highly-qualified sense of "someone I used to hang out with in my student days, but haven't seen or heard from since". It sometimes troubles me that I seem to have more friends of that sort than of the more conventional variety, but in that regard I don't think I'm unusual. Enforced proximity and common causes and concerns do seem to generate a special kind of closeness that doesn't often survive exposure to normal life: school friends, university friends, and work colleagues would be the typical time-limited comradeships that most of us experience. The intensity and the longevity of friendships might even appear to exist in inverse proportion. My father endured five precious youthful years, the entirety of WW2 from Dunkirk via the Western Desert to Burma, with the same small group of pals – a unit of despatch riders, all motorcycling enthusiasts – but none of them kept in touch once they had returned to civilian life. Which struck me as strange, and not a little sad, when I was young man, rich in friends, but now seems entirely normal.

If you took the trouble to follow the link in that first sentence, you'll have seen that Jude led a left-wing activist's life, and in the process accumulated a lot more "friends" of varying degrees of intimacy and – inevitably, in a political life – instrumentality than most of us can boast. Certainly, I don't expect any such effusion of public mourning when the time comes (not least because I intend to outlive everyone). When I first knew her, in 1974, she was installed as half of a couple known to all as "Toff 'n' Jude" in a room in a decrepit student house in Hurst Street, Oxford, a pair of Afghan-coated hippie-anarchists who held open court, often from their bed, like Lennon and Ono. Winters were cold in those days, and the only heating in those crumbling houses came from inadequate electric bar-heaters, or whatever could be scavenged to burn in the open fireplace. I remember long winter evenings sat on their threadbare carpet with a circle of those intensely temporary friends, rolling and passing joints, listening to music, and trying out personalities and opinions for size, as you do at that age. Bizarrely, Jude liked to call me "Ed", as for some unfathomable reason she thought I resembled Ed Marimba from Captain Beefheart's Magic Band (which I don't, and never have done [1]). Most notably, it was in that very house that I began a relationship with the young woman who occupied the room at the back, overlooking the enclosed rectangle of gardens behind the houses, and whose voice I can hear coming from the room upstairs in this house, fully 45 years later, as she conducts some Zoom meeting with colleagues from work.

Those were happy times, and for a while I thought I might have "found my tribe", as people say. As it turned out, it was less a tribe than an ephemeral gathering of nomads and transients; a few shared shining nights before moving on to our very different destinations. It wasn't obvious at the time that we were merely living out the fag-end (the roach?) of the "long sixties"[2], and that things were about to take a turn for the worse; and, as it now seems, might never turn back. At least, it wasn't obvious to me. As the disillusion of the 1970s progressed people's views began to harden and polarize and Jude, to the surprise of many, cast her lot with one of the more austere brands of the Trotskyist and Leninist left that dominated student politics at the time.

Personally, I found those self-regarding, self-styled revolutionary groups uncongenial, despite the amount of time I spent in the company of their members, and they in turn found me puzzling, I think, so any friendships I made there were distinctly short-lived. As so many of them had come from privately-educated, metropolitan, upper middle-class backgrounds, I think they couldn't square the things an actual, unreconstructed small-town headbanger like me thought and said [3] with their idealised notions of the revolution-ready proletarian masses they hoped soon to be leading in class struggle. Quite apart from what even I would now regard as the crude and unexamined attitudes I brought with me to university – a hardly untypical sample of my tribe of origin in those days, it has to be said – I have never been a joiner, am constitutionally resistant to "group think", and gravitate to the role of skeptical observer on the fringes of things, where true friends are sparse, but highly valued. My own subsequent activism took the form of two decades of trade union work, something regarded with more than a degree of suspicion by the more stiff-backed, doctrinaire Trots [4].

Unlike so many student politicians of the far left, Jude stuck by her youthful ideals and principles, and became something of an "influencer": not so much an éminence grise as an éminence rouge, perhaps. She was part of Ken Livingstone's core team as London Mayor, and developed an interest in China that may even – I'm guessing here – have had its roots in the Taoist texts and the Tibetan thangka posters I recall from that long-ago room in Hurst Street. To be honest, I doubt that she would even have remembered my name in latter years, unless it were perhaps as that teller of tall tales and dubious jokes, "Ed". But the death of yet another contemporary and sometime friend does concentrate the mind, doesn't it? Doubtless there will have been others, whose lives were lived less publicly, and whose passing has gone unremarked. Sadly, like land (or distant cousins) there's a limited supply, and they're not going to be making any more.

2004

1. You may recall that I have also been known as "Roy", for much the same reason. But you can call me "Al".
2. The "long sixties" in Britain are regarded as running from 1954, the end of rationing and the year of my birth, to 1973, the Oil Crisis, and my first year at university.
3. It took me a while to adjust to what would now be called the "woke" view of things... ("It is considered unwoke to laugh incredulously when the subject of veganism arises in conversation"; "However hilarious, a joke is not to be considered funny, if it is racist, sexist, or relies on lazy national stereotypes: probably safest to avoid telling jokes altogether"; "
The Sun is not a newspaper", etc.).
4. The reluctance of professional academic Marxists to get involved in campus trade unions has always been a source of bemusement to me.

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Zip Solutions


Stormy weather, Clevedon Pier, January 2017

Ever had a favourite coat, bag, or other zip-up item where the slider broke off and you thought, "Well, that's it, my favourite coat, bag, or other zip-up item is now destined for landfill..."? This happened to me recently: for some reason the top slider on a waterproof with a double zip I've worn for years suddenly developed metal-fatigue and broke away in my hand. "Well, that's it...", I thought, and began to research replacement rainwear.

Which was frustrating. It seems the fashionistas who design our clothing have decided that a wet bum and wet thighs are not, after all, the problem we pathetic wimps had thought they were for all these years, with the result that practically all wet-weather gear sold as coats – even from specialist "outdoors" manufacturers like North Face or that most traditional of purveyors of waxy kit to the huntin' and shootin' set, Barbour – now stop short just below the waist. Really? What, you weren't selling enough waterproof leggings? Or does keeping dry but looking like a dork offend your fashion sense? Well, excuse me...

These so-called "coats" – actually jackets, surely – have also become bloody expensive, what with the multiple layers of "technical" fabrics, taped seams, and all the rest of it. Which wouldn't necessarily be a problem, if they actually kept your important middle bits dry. I must admit I was quite tempted by the products of Swedish firm Tretorn, not least because the idea of a coat made out of "regenerated nylon from fishing nets and consumer waste found in the oceans" has a certain green cachet, but I was saved from an uncharacteristically large outlay of cash by the discovery that broken zips can easily be fixed. Wow!

I had no idea. I'd assumed that, at the very least, the old zip would have to be removed and a new one sewn in, probably by a specialist in repairing waterproofs and thus quite time-consuming and expensive. But then I stumbled across a little YouTube video, "How to Repair a Zipper With Two Sliders", put up by a firm called FixnZip. As people like to say, the clue is in the name. Basically, FixnZip (and doubtless other manufacturers of similar zip-oriented solutions) sell replacement sliders, which you simply open up with a screw mechanism, slip over the zip's teeth, and screw shut. So I bought one, put the favourite coat through a Nikwax wash cycle to re-waterproof it, and fixed the zip. Good as new! Job done.

The other useful thing I learned from this is that zips have standard sizes, and this is nearly always moulded onto the slider as a number [1]. You'll probably need to use a magnifier to find it, but it's there. Who knew? Who cared, until now?

Favourite coat, courtesy of Caterpillar,
hanging on my old office door, 2014

1. The most common sizes are 3, 5, 7, and 10. The number corresponds to the width of the teeth when closed, in millimetres. A size 5 zip, for example, has teeth that measure 5mm across when the zipper is zipped.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Hijack!


We went down to the sea at Meon Shore on Sunday afternoon, where we encountered an exhilarating autumnal mix of sunshine, strong wind, and torrential downpours. The Solent often seems to generate spectacular cloud formations and rapidly changing light conditions, and Sunday was no exception. On such days the photographs take themselves. Well, almost.

Meanwhile, however, completely unknown to us, or to the dogwalkers, the bird-watchers, or the hardy windsurfers riding the waves, a high-seas drama was taking place just over the other, south-east side of the Isle of Wight (that's the IoW on the horizon in these photographs), where seven stowaways from Nigeria were intimidating the crew of an oil tanker sufficiently violently for them to lock themselves in the so-called "citadel", a safe strongroom installed in tankers for just such eventualities. Unfortunately for the stowaways, the Special Boat Service – the maritime equivalent of the SAS – are based just down the coast in Poole, and the attempted takeover was extinguished fairly rapidly.

Quite why stowaways would choose to make themselves known in such an attention-grabbing way in such an odd location is a mystery. And, let's be honest, the idea of hijacking an oil tanker in the Solent is the stuff of comedy, not high-tension drama. "Quickly, as fast as you can, turn this tanker around..." If you've ever taken the car-ferry from Portsmouth to France, though, you'll know how easy it is to mistake the island for the mainland, so perhaps they thought they were about to head into the Fawley refinery, and hoped somehow to escape from the ship by bullying the crew. But – like those desperate people who have concealed themselves in an airliner's outer cavities, and occasionally plummet down from the skies when the aircraft lowers its undercarriage as a dead, frozen block of ice – you have to think this was a plan that had not been thoroughly thought through.

Most mysterious of all, though, to many Brits is why this constant stream of refugees and economic migrants want to come to our overcrowded, increasingly squalid and fractious little country in the first place, to the extent of paying huge sums of money to people-smuggling gangs, who eventually pack them into death-trap container-lorries, or consign them to overcrowded rubber inflatables, in which they are sometimes given spades to row with – spades, FFS! – in what generally turn out to be ill-starred attempts to cross the Channel from France, bobbing about on the open ocean over what is said to be the busiest waterway in the world.

Apart from speaking our own parochial variety of that world language, "English", a marginally less racist culture – questionable – and a more generous benefits system – also very questionable – what on earth do we have that the French or the Germans or even the Italians do not, that is worth risking your life for? You do have to wonder whether our TV and movie exports paint a false picture of what to expect here, or perhaps some boosterist body like the British Council has been over-selling our brand somewhat. Come to Britain and... Well, what? Languish for months, sometimes years in some asylum-seekers' detention camp? Hot-bed it with a dozen other illegals in one room, cleaning hotel toilets or harvesting vegetables? Vanish into the sleazy underworld of the sex trade? It's a shitty old world, one ravaged by conflict, persecution, and injustice, where the prospect of any of that is enticing enough to cross half the globe at great expense and enormous risk, isn't it?

But on Sunday it was all happening on the other side of the island, miles out to sea, and resolved under cover of darkness, so we were oblivious until we saw the evening news. We had a really nice afternoon, and I expect the SBS lads had a terrific time, too; the tanker crew and the stowaways, not so much. So, welcome to Britain: your cell awaits you. Aren't you glad you came?



Saturday, 24 October 2020

Out, Demons, Out!


Berlin, Museum Island

Is it just me, or has the level of madness tolerated in the world gone up several notches in recent times?

One of the highlights of my visit to Berlin in March 2018 was, as usual, visiting the museums, as I reported at the time. In particular, I was impressed by those situated on the Museumsinsel ("Museum Island"), and of those the Pergamon Museum made the biggest impression. It is simply awesome. It hadn't struck me, though, as an essentially evil place; far from it.

It seems others disagree. Recently, artwork and artefacts in three museums on Museum Island have been vandalised, sprayed with an "oily substance", presumably the same apotropaic or demonicide mix of oil and myrrh used in a similar incident by two Bulgarian women in Athens. Why? Well, at least according to the Guardian, certain coronavirus deniers and QAnon fantasists believe that the Pergamon Museum is the centre of the "global satanism scene" because it holds a reconstruction of the ancient Greek Pergamon Altar. Well, of course! How could I not have noticed this? What a fool I 've been.

It gets worse. Apparently, "Attila Hildmann, a former vegan celebrity chef who has become one of Germany’s best-known proponents of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, posted messages on Telegram in August and September in which he suggested that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was using the altar for 'human sacrifices'". Uh, WTF?... How is it that such people are not in confinement somewhere secure for the criminally insane? And I'm not talking about Angela Merkel.

It explains so much. Not the human sacrifices, obviously, but the toleration of widespread asylum-grade insanity in public discourse, as if allegations of satanic practices by public figures were just, you know, a valid opinion, with no consequences in real life. Remember "pizzagate"? At least one man actually believed there were children imprisoned by Hillary Clinton for sex-trafficking purposes in a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. ... A man with an actual gun, which he actually fired. Now, it's never clear to me how far the propagators of such transparent nonsense actually believe what they say, or simply enjoy the mischief they can unleash; doubtless, they belong to the same tragic subspecies of humanity that releases malware into the internet for no better reason than adolescent malevolence. Is there anything more despicable than someone who enjoys causing real harm by cynically exploiting the stupidity and gullibility of others?

One hope for us might be that such sad cases are highly unlikely to find opportunities to breed but, unfortunately, a witless attraction to demonic malice and elaborate conspiracy theories does seem to be a basic setting of the human genome. And exploiting those inbuilt vulnerabilities – whether by means of religious hysteria or authoritarian politics – has certainly been Route One to power for millennia. Trump and his like are not exactly a new phenomenon.

Although it does suddenly occur to me: has anyone tried dousing the White House with oil and myrrh? It's been tried before, of course, back in 1967: Out, demons, out! But, in the end, simply voting always seems so much more effective; with the proviso, however, that it has to be done in the right way, of course. Which is precisely what these lunatics are trying to prevent.

Bow down before Nebuchadnezzar's Golden Image (or else...)

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Hiawathography

I was reading a piece in the New York Review about a new biography of Longfellow, who is perhaps the best example of a poet, eminent in his day, who does not figure prominently – if at all – in academic accounts of literary history, and yet who remains a household name even today. He's the poetic anti-matter to, say, Emily Dickinson, Longfellow's once obscure but now highly-rated American contemporary. It's a funny old game, poetry, and one which has changed radically; it's hard to imagine how a serious, published poet in the 21st century could become known for turning out popular, highly-polished, best-selling verse by the yard. I think Alice Oswald is the most serious contender for the unsought, unoffered, and unremunerated title of "heavyweight champion poet of Britain" – a straight left to the glass jaw of Simon Armitage and he's down! – but her latest is never going to be the cause of midnight queues outside Waterstones.

There were some curious facts about Longfellow in that review, which I won't rehearse: read it for yourself. But there was one thing I couldn't resist following up. Apparently, Lewis Carroll wrote a parody of "Hiawatha", titled "Hiawatha's Photographing". Now, this may be widely known in that niche community where enthusiasms for large-format photography and minor 19th-century poetry overlap, but it was news to me. Dodgson / Carroll is, of course, well-known as an enthusiastic amateur photographer – we won't dwell on his subject matter of choice, other than to say I don't think anyone today would cut him the slack offered to, say, Sally Mann – so his thoughts on the matter are first-hand and well-informed (unlike Tennyson, for example, who seems to have thought trains ran in grooves, not on rails: see that very peculiar poem, "Locksley Hall").

So here, for your enjoyment, is the first part of that parody, with the later, technical verses about collodion, hypo, etc., added in:

From Hiawatha’s Photographing, by Lewis Carroll

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.

This he perched upon a tripod –
Crouched beneath its dusky cover –
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence –
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.

First, a piece of glass he coated
With collodion, and plunged it
In a bath of lunar caustic
Carefully dissolved in water –
There he left it certain minutes.

Secondly, my Hiawatha
Made with cunning hand a mixture
Of the acid pyrro-gallic,
And of glacial-acetic,
And of alcohol and water
This developed all the picture.

Finally, he fixed each picture
With a saturate solution
Which was made of hyposulphite
Which, again, was made of soda.
(Very difficult the name is
For a metre like the present
But periphrasis has done it.)

All the family in order
Sat before him for their pictures:
Each in turn, as he was taken,
Volunteered his own suggestions,
His ingenious suggestions.

There's more... Lots more. It's all on the Web, however, so check it out, if it piques your interest. As Carroll himself wrote, "In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of 'The Song of Hiawatha'". In that rhythmic regard the relentless Hiawatha tom-tom beat is rather like the hip-hop or rap of its time, I suppose. But that first stanza is great, isn't it? (although a modern ear would probably require the second line to be, "Took the camera made of rosewood"). It was clearly written by a man who'd used a view camera with the admiration of the enthusiast, and blissfully unaware that, one day, he'd be able to use his phone instead ("Phone, sir? Do you refer to Mr. Bell's ingenious device? I think you have quite misunderstood its intended purpose...").

Which reminded me of the picture below, taken on my Innsbruck residency in 2014. In the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum (Tyrolean Folk Art Museum) there is a mock-up of an early photographer's studio, complete with cameras, backdrops, and props. Within the bellows of one of the larger view cameras a little demonic couple have been placed, lit with that red glow that either gives you a warm buzz of darkroom nostalgia, or (as in my case) bad memories of rocking slopping trays of chemicals long into the night (elephant one, elephant two...). The horror, the horror...


 As with Carroll's photography, I think we should pass quickly over the disturbing Tyrolean folk-psychology evinced by the chain-clutching Queen of Hell on the right. Have we been a good boy? Thought not... No, I've looked into that mind-set before, and backed away, cautiously (see Now Wash Your Hands). And then there's the naked mannequin waiting patiently by the folksy backdrop rolls. For what? They didn't say, and I didn't ask. Maybe lonely backwoods farmers needed a fake companion to stand woodenly beside them before a "happy families" backdrop (suitably clothed, of course), or – argh – maybe the egregious Hans Bellmer dropped round from time to time. No, don't look him up, you'll regret it.


Admire, instead, some more of Carroll's lines from the same poem, which will resonate with anyone who has attempted to take a photographic portrait:
Next to him the eldest daughter:
She suggested very little,
Only asked if he would take her
With her look of ‘passive beauty.’
Her idea of passive beauty
Was a squinting of the left-eye,
Was a drooping of the right-eye,
Was a smile that went up sideways
To the corner of the nostrils.
Hiawatha, when she asked him,
Took no notice of the question,
Looked as if he hadn’t heard it;
But, when pointedly appealed to,
Smiled in his peculiar manner,
Coughed and said it ‘didn’t matter,’
Bit his lip and changed the subject.
Nor in this was he mistaken,
As the picture failed completely.
So in turn the other sisters.

Friday, 16 October 2020

The Fourth Man in the Fire




For some reason, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego and the fiery furnace caught my attention recently (from the Bible, Daniel 3), I think because I came across the evocative expression "the fourth man in the fire". Now, I'm sure I don't really need to tell you how this one goes, but: 

Previously in the Book of Daniel: Nebuchadnezzar has made an enormous golden statue-thing, and requires everyone to prostrate themselves before it when they hear an oddly specific musical combo: "the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of musick". Wait for it... Too soon, that's a crumhorn, fool, not a sackbut! Now! So it's rather like a blend of the games Neduchadnezzar Says and Musical Idols, but with the forfeit that a failure to prostrate in a timely way will lead to you being cast forthwith into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. Everyone plays along nicely: well, you would, wouldn't you? Except for the three stubborn Jews, that is, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Uh, oh!

Nebuchadnezzar is not best pleased, so – as the three continue to refuse to take a knee before his enormous golden object (the damn thing is sixty cubits high, i.e. the best part of 30 metres, or 90 feet) – he has the furnace cranked up to seven times its normal setting – you thought it only went up to eleven? hah! – and has them dragged off by his most mighty military men in order to be cast therein, as advertised.

However... The furnace being seven times extra hot and all, the most mighty military types themselves get burned up by it in the very act of casting in Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, whereas our stubborn, miraculously oven-proof heroes do not get burned at all, and in fact end up taking a casual stroll around inside the burning fiery furnace. WTF? Nebuchadnezzar is "astonied" (I thought he probably must have been) and demands: "Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God". Blimey!

So, yes, that story. I thought you probably knew it. Like so many of a dissenting Protestant heritage, I must admit I love the Old Testament. Aside from being a treasury of truly classy first names for your offspring, the King James Version is a bottomless pit of quaint and memorable locutions – Nebuchadnezzar is troubled by "the visions of mine head upon my bed" – and stories with much smiting and cursing, lions, the interpretation of strange, pre-industrial dreams, not to mention burning bushes, talking whirlwinds, floods and plagues, plus regular visits from the mysterious Watchers and the Sons of God, who were not entirely to be trusted around womenfolk. It seems God was going through an oddly interventionist (not to say exhibitionist) phase in those ancient times, and putting himself and his emissaries about a lot more than in these latter days. After all, if angels did still occasionally turn up this would surely make the evening news? Talking of which / whom, I'm sure that final "the" in Nebuchadnezzar's astonied rant should really be an "a", as in "a Son of God", one of those intermittent visitors from Heaven with some decidedly un-angelic proclivities. I suppose the King James Version translators couldn't resist slipping in that little trailer for the New Testament.

Anyway, here are some of the dozen or so pictures I've made so far. My original thought was to make a concertina book of about ten, each 30cm square, but then I realised that, with covers, that would open out to 360cm, or about 12 feet. Not quite a Nebuchadnezzar-scale of ambition, but still impractical. So I suspect this will end up as one of the many half-finished projects that clutter up my hard drive. It's fun playing with the fiery effects, though. And, yes, the similarity of these tableaux to a toy theatre has crossed my mind, and, yes, others have been here before.



Monday, 12 October 2020

Inscription Part 1



You may think of me as one of the finest undiscovered artist-photographers, printmakers, book-artists, and bloggers in Britain (oh, go on, let's pretend), but in my previous life as a public-sector wage-slave, I was a professional academic librarian whose speciality was the bibliographic description of the diverse materials that find their way into the custody of a university library. These are books in the main, obviously, but also sound recordings, photographs, videos, audio-visual teaching aids, microform reproductions, and any other "non-book" format that human ingenuity has contrived for the transmission of knowledge and entertainment. Enabling people to find these things by looking them up in a catalogue was a dark art that I studied, practised, and taught for over 30 years. I also became an acknowledged expert in the creation, construction, and handling of large computerised bibliographic data-files.

One of the first Great Teachings that has to be imparted to a neophyte cataloguer is the ability to distinguish the content from the container. Which, as W.B. Yeats knew, is not as easy as it sounds [1]. To the naive user, what they hold in their hand is "Romeo and Juliet", a play by William Shakespeare. Sure, they may be aware that it's the only edition available in the bookshop, or the cheapest, or the one on their tutor's list of recommended reading, but the process of transmission and transmutation that has led from an inky manuscript to rehearsals and stage productions, then through successive printed incarnations to the actual copy of the particular edition they are about to read – new, second-hand, a battered library copy, heavily annotated, possibly even imperfect – is rarely their concern. In a "scholarly" edition this is the dry stuff about foul copy and folios and bad quartos that figures in the prefatory material that nobody reads.

But this is the ground where the dance of content and container is conducted, and it's a dance that can seem as protracted and bafflingly inventive as an episode of Strictly. Is Shakespeare really still the author of, say, a free translation of "Romeo and Juliet" into a foreign language, or the various graphic novel versions with the text rendered into "accessible" English? Who is primarily responsible for Baz Luhrmann's film Romeo + Juliet : Shakespeare or Luhrmann? How far is West Side Story a version of Shakespeare's play? And are we talking about the stage show, or the film? Staying with film, what about Shakespeare in Love: is it a sort of commentary on the play? How should Tom Stoppard's manuscript screenplay be distinguished from but linked to the published version, or indeed to the movie or the play itself? And to what extent is the DVD of any film the same thing as the actual cans of sprocketed reels, a TV broadcast of it recorded on VHS tape, or the version streamed from Amazon Prime? [2]

Disentangling this eternal dance of content and container is, from a cataloguer's point of view, an essentially practical matter, requiring a clear head, a good general and "subject" knowledge [3], a reading ability in a number of foreign languages, a thorough grasp of a dense handbook of rules and guidelines, and a steady eye on how any prospective user of the item in hand might search for it (or indeed be helped to stumble across it), and what aspects of it should be transcribed or described, not least to distinguish this particular copy of this particular manifestation of this particular "work" from any other. It's an important job, but not a role for anyone who wants to be noticed, applauded, or rewarded. Even librarians think cataloguers are a bit, um, odd special. But in recent years the study of this material aspect of culture has piqued the interest of literary academics (finally!) and I was pleased to notice in the emailed newsletter from my old college that one of the English tutors now there, Adam Smyth, has the enviable title of Professor of English Literature and The History of the Book.

My interest went up several notches when I read that Professor Smyth is jointly responsible for a new publication venture, a journal called Inscription, "the journal of material text – theory, practice, history", described as follows:

The journal combines work by practitioners – book artists, printmakers, poets, and artists – with academic discussion, to take the study of material texts in new directions. Inscription’s focus is not just on the meanings and uses of the codex book, but also the nature of writing surfaces (papery or otherwise), and the processes of mark-marking in the widest possible sense: from hand-press printing to vapour trails in the sky; from engraved stones to digital text; and from the ancient past, to today. Issue one contains articles about 18th century engraved epitaphs; Kafka’s notebooks and writing process; missing pages in 16th century Bibles; parchment making; hand-press printing; lithography; libraries and provenance; transcriptions of bird song; and more.

Inscription is also an experiment in format, design, and typography. Issue one comes with a vinyl LP, and a specially commissioned print; the journal is printed from both ends with pages that seem to spiral; and it has a hole drilled through the middle.

Now that has my name written all over it (not literally, obvs, even though that would seem fairly appropriate in the context, but you know what I mean) so I decided to subscribe to the first two issues. I have just received Issue One, and it is a magnificent object: not so much a journal as a thick, square-foot slab of artist's book, with accompanying LP record and, yes, a hole through the middle. That's just the container, of course: a review of the actual content and its relationship to the container will have to wait until I've read / looked at / played with / listened to it.

Now, as we know, (whisper it) academics do have a bad habit of locating the life-blood of a subject, then draining it away in order to measure, weigh, and analyse it, and book-artists also have a way of taking the idea of "the book" and re-arranging it into impractical bibliographic chimeras that serve no purpose beyond "challenging" the undisputed, self-effacing usefulness of the bog-standard codex. In both cases, there is the danger of overstating the neat but ultimately sterile idea that the container is the content, but I'm hoping for better from Inscription: we'll see! Part Two of this post will follow in due course. Meanwhile, if like me you find the idea of taking a punt on this enterprise compelling – there will only be 500 copies, so you may need to be quick – here is the Inscription flyer, with subscription details:


1. "O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, / Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? / O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?" (Among School Children). Extra points for knowing which song by The Eagles quotes (sorta) that famous last line.
2. As I often had to explain, for a library to have a photocopy of a Shakespeare First Folio is not the same thing as having a First Folio. No-one is going to want to fly from California to examine it.
3. Cataloguers are generally assigned specialist subject areas. Medical textbooks, however, are reserved as a punishment detail.