Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Dogs of May

It's a very distinctive month, May.  Probably my least favourite in the calendar, with its increasing heat and humidity, high pollen counts, and two pointless bank holidays at just the wrong time of year... The muggy month of May. Worst of all, these adumbrations of the dog days of summer to come also announce the transformation of the countryside into a leisure resource; one in which entitled fools in shorts light their smoky portable barbecues, dump picnic litter and leftovers everywhere, and lay claim to stretches of the meadows and riverbanks as if they were at some Mediterranean beach resort. What's not to dislike?

I really should know better by now, but I have a particular dislike of the sort of own-brand alpha-minus / beta-plus male you find polluting the summer landscape in rural Hampshire, all sports sandals, rugby shirt, and loud, braying voice. If Jeremy Clarkson and Nigel Farage have a natural constituency, these guys are it. They're the kind of chap who uses the word "chap" and – above and beyond the usual pieties of family, country, and Tory Party – adores and identifies with his damned dog. I resent these dogs as much as their complacent owners – "Don't worry, he's just friendly, he doesn't bite!" – and, now I come to think of it, I have rarely met a dog I didn't dislike.

The Dog Thing is quite alien to me. It's hard to be definitive about most things in life, but I have never, ever wanted a dog, something for which my daughter will never, ever forgive me. I may have inherited this aversion from my mother, whose childhood kitten was savaged to death by two greyhounds, but then that's dogs, isn't it? Deceitful predators – he's just being friendly! – emboldened by pack behaviour. Yes, he does bite, given a little encouragement. My partner was nipped on the leg only last year in a field near the viaduct. Come on, he's only being playful! Someone's Staffordshire bull terrier recently bit eleven (eleven!) children in a playground, putting three in hospital. I expect its owner thought it was just a little over-excited. Perhaps one of the children had been foolish enough to tease the animal? Asking for it! Luckily, dogs don't carry guns in this country, though enough of them have been weaponised, intentionally or by neglect, to warrant universal mistrust.

So. I imagine that little outburst may have lost me a substantial chunk of readers. So be it. Certain other, rather more popular blogs with a photographic focus are certainly very dog-friendly indeed. But if you think that was a bit of an anti-canine rant, have you ever come across this extract from that venerable cyclist's maintenance guide, Richard's Bicycle Book?
If the dog attacks: one defense is aerosol pepper sprays made for this purpose. They have a range of about ten feet and are light enough to clip to your handlebars. A water pistol loaded with a water-ammonia solution will also work, but is a good deal less convenient. If you have neither of these and can't or won't climb a tree get a stick or a large rock. No? The bicycle pump. Try to ram it down his throat. In any event, don't cower or cover up, because the dog will only chew you to ribbons. Attack. Any small dog can simply be hoisted up by the hind legs and his brains dashed out. With a big dog you are fighting for your life. If you are weaponless try to tangle him up in your bike and then strangle him. Kicks to the genitals and which break ribs are effective. If you have got a pump or a stick hold it at both ends and offer it up to the dog horizontally. Often the dog will bit the stick/pump and hang on. Immediately lift the dog up and deliver a very solid kick to the genitals. Follow up with breaking the dogs ribs or crushing its head with a rock. If the worst comes to the worst ram your entire arm down its throat. He will choke and die. Better your arm than your throat.
Richard Ballantine, Richard's Bicycle Book, 1972
Now that's a rant.

Friday, 27 May 2016

How Blurb Works

Each time I launch a new Blurb book into the world, it occurs to me that most people – even the genial and well-informed folk that are the readers of this blog – haven't a clue how Blurb works, or why it is such a brilliant idea. As I have an interest in keeping them in business, I thought now might be a good time to say a few words about it, and how you, too, could be a self-publisher.

The basic model is this:
  • You sign up for a Blurb account. This costs nothing. You get a personal "bookshop" where your publicly-available books will be displayed for sale, plus various administrative tools.
  • You download some free book-making software onto your computer. I much prefer the older BookSmart software to the newer BookWright software, but that may just be because I'm used to it. You can also use an online book-creation tool for really simple stuff, or at the other extreme design your own PDF file for upload.
  • You choose a format for your book, using either a ready-made "look", or assembling your own from page-templates which enable you to choose combinations and placement of text, image, and things like running headers and page numbers.
  • You fill however many pages you want. Images need to be 300 dpi JPEGs or PNGs. Text can be typed in or uploaded. It sits on your computer to be played with for as long as you like.
  • When it's complete, you upload the book to Blurb. This can take anything up to an hour for an image intensive book of 50 or more pages.
  • Once there, it's private to start with. To keep it there, you have to buy one copy, at basic production cost. Now, this is the point at which most people who have never tried self-publication before balk. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty pounds? For one copy?? Friends, that is not a rip-off, that is a bargain.  Even though any revisions you decide to make have to be uploaded and re-purchased as a fresh book. Why? Listen:
  • Once you're confident it's right, you invite people to buy it, or open it for sale to the general public, in the formats you choose. There are various tailored publicity tools available, free of charge, for social media, your blog or webpage, etc. But: you yourself need never buy another copy. Repeat: you need never buy another copy.
  • Every copy that a customer buys is made on demand, and the whole transaction is handled by Blurb. It costs you nothing. Requires no attention. If you have added some profit for yourself onto the basic production cost, Blurb will pass this on to you, provided it exceeds a certain accumulated monthly total, currently £12.50. If it doesn't, it's rolled over into the next month.
Sure, Blurb are making money, and you, probably, are not. But your book is out there and easily available, and you have not spent thousands of pounds up front to a printer for copies of a book you will not be able to distribute, and which will sit unsold in cardboard boxes under your bed and in your closet and in your loft and in your shed forever like a bad dream. Have you ever seen 1000 copies of a hardback book?*

The big plus, I think, is that the low cost of entry (and the zero cost of failing to sell many copies) means that producing new books regularly is not just feasible, it's addictive. And, if you're serious about your writing, or your photography, or your recipes, or whatever it is you do, there is no better creative discipline than editing and sequencing a book. Plus you have a permanent, compact, and convenient record of your work, which is far more likely to survive the coming decades than boxes of prints, ephemeral image files, or reams of text. Best of all, it's the sort of fun, self-motivated challenge that can shift your life into a higher gear.

But selling more than 20 copies, though? Dream on! I'm happy if I manage to recover half of the cost of the copies I keep for myself or give away.

* Back in 2003 I had 300 copies of a 24-page A5 landscape pamphlet printed to accompany an exhibition, The Colour of the Water, that ran at a popular local beauty spot from March 2003 to November 2004. It was the first publication of my imprint Shepherd's Crown, and 300 seemed a modest enough quantity. Luckily for me the National Trust had funded the printing, as it sold poorly, even reduced from £3.50 to £1 each, even over twenty months!  I still have a box of the bloody things...  Want one?  Email me.

ADDED 28/5/16:  By the way, Blurb does not disclose who buys copies of your books. So, sadly, a "thank you" from me has to be taken for granted.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Feedback Loop

As ever, Wondermark seems uncannily on target (the mouseover text is "nothing worse than the fear you might be good at something that'd be really hard to do"). Luckily, I no longer have a day job not to give up.

So, my heartfelt thanks to those who took the trouble to give feedback (or even just "reassurance") on England and Nowhere. Not to mention those (few, so far) who went the extra yard and actually bought a copy*. It really is both reassuring and helpful to hear something – anything! – from the Great Void out there other than the feeble echo of my own voice.

As to the rest of you – you tongue-tied, tight-fisted lurkers – I really don't know what your problem is. Seek help before it is too late...**

* I should probably point out that I make the same profit on a £4.99 PDF (even more on an e-book) as I do on a £30.50 hardback. Really! So no need to feel cheap...

** To be honest, I don't really expect support for these projects from blog readers. There, that's let you off the hook! What is really annoying is the resonant silence from those photo-world "usual suspects" to whom I send mail-shots, most of whom are not readers of this blog. I mean, sure, people are busy, but... How long does it take to write "When I said 'stay in touch' I meant keep telling me how good my work is. Your work is worthless, pretentious rubbish. Please stop sending me these emails"? Too long, apparently.

Monday, 23 May 2016


It is one of the great pleasures, I think, to see something like this hiding in plain sight in the town centre, as I did this morning, and to be able to record it with a camera. Not least because – despite the fact that it screams "Oi, you! Yes, you! Over here!!" – it's unlikely anyone else will have paid it a moment's attention. But I mean... Just look, it's a Japanese scroll painting, complete with a misty Mount Fuji.

Then to turn a corner, and see its companion piece in japanned black... Yes! I really don't care if people passing by give me funny looks, clutching their New Look and Primark carrier bags. This stuff is the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Improbable Views of Distant Storms

Bedminster through Bristol Zoo

Avon Gorge through Bristol City Museum

Avonmouth through St. George's, Bristol

Friday, 20 May 2016

As Seen from Space

I mentioned in the comments to a previous post that I had downloaded a high-resolution satellite image from Google Earth Pro of the area explored in my recent book England and Nowhere. I had originally planned to include it in the book, primarily as a way of showing how closely interconnected the various landscape elements are, but in the end it seemed both superfluous and distracting, and I left it out. Here it is:

          1: St. Catherine's Hill
          2: M3 motorway (Twyford Down cutting)
          3: Twyford Down
          4. Hockley Viaduct
          5. Itchen water meadows
          6a-c: River Itchen and Itchen Navigation canal
North is at the top. The area covered by the image is roughly five square kilometers (two square miles). Winchester lies immediately to the north.  The large building to the west of St. Catherine's Hill is the St. Cross Hospital, the terminus of the "Keats Walk". If you park in the lay-by next to the viaduct, it takes no more than an hour or two to complete any number of pleasant circular walks, even at the annoying stop-start pace we might call a "photographer's dawdle". Note the handy pedestrian bridge over the motorway between the hill and Twyford Down, and the tunnel beneath the motorway between the viaduct and the southern stretch of the Itchen. There is nowhere that cannot be connected to anywhere else, on either side of the road.

Obviously, satellite imagery tends to flatten out topography.  For example, you get little sense of the depth of the valley between St. Catherine's Hill and the motorway, with its very steep rise up to the left-hand side of the cliff-like cutting. Also, from space Twyford Down looks like a flat field; it's hard to imagine the exhilarating sense of elevation you experience when walking on that rolling high ground. What you do see, however, is the way everything diverges and re-converges as it flows around the hill, like a rock in a stream. Or perhaps like a gigantic green eye, gazing back at the satellite.

In fact, the main road into Winchester used to run along the west flank of the hill, tight alongside both the canal and the old railway line that crossed the river on the viaduct. The only way to really understand how entangled it all once was is to use a very large-scale pre-War Ordnance Survey map. Or, better still, an online service like that provided by the National Library of Scotland, which enables you to view and compare OS maps of different scales and vintages. A good map makes all the difference: is there anything more intriguing than seeing words in close proximity on a map like "Plague Pits", "Ancient Fields", "Roman Road", and "Earthworks"? Not to mention "Sludge Beds", or "Sewage Farm"?

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Lion Around

The pair of particularly chummy-looking lions bookending this post guard the doorway of a terraced house in Brighton. Their scruffy, neglected air is very typical of the British urban landscape, and I am increasingly interested in such remnants of an older Britain, one where imperial motifs were freely used, unironically, as decoration on the most unpretentious buildings. You expect to see this sort of thing in central London, but it turns up everywhere once you start noticing; at least, anywhere where there are still buildings remaining from before WW2.

Even by the 1930s, the British Empire was not an uncontested subject, and certainly outmoded as a decorative theme. As early as 1926, for example, the Labour Party had passed a motion to end the celebration of "Empire Day" (May 24th), though it was only finally abolished in 1958. However, if you enter "Empire Day" into a Google Image search (and ignore all the Star Wars images) you get a strong taste of what we might call "the old, weird Britain", with Empire-themed dressing up for schoolchildren and rampant union flag fetishisation. I think what intrigues me is the way such a powerful ideology – once so central to our national identity, for good or ill – has faded so completely from living memory, despite the persistence of its relics on our streets, like the symbology of some forgotten religion. Unlike the "Lenin parks" of ex-Soviet Bloc countries, where ranks of redundant mustachioed statuary can find a home, we either sling the stuff in a skip, or just leave it lying around.

There has been a fair bit of attention paid recently to Ian Nairn, and the 60th anniversary of his concept of "subtopia" – the alleged erosion of a distinctive sense of place in Britain by careless, anonymous urban planning – as proposed in his book Outrage, published in 1956. As Nairn's glum, end-to-end survey of England started out here in Southampton, those reviewing or repeating his work have also tended to start here; typically, a recent BBC Radio 4 programme had someone stand on top of a city-centre multi-storey carpark in order to bemoan the quality of the view. Really? I mean, is there a city-centre carpark anywhere that gives onto the sort of vista that gladdens the heart? And even if there is, who cares?*

But, as it happens, I am very fond of our ugly, palimpsestic British streets. If you travel in Europe, you are immediately struck by how uniquely ugly our own town-centres are, with their filthy, multilayered, ill-matched and ill-fitting facades, and "here today, gone tomorrow" acceptance of their own ephemerality. Think of a typical shop: once it was a tailor's – the proud proprietorial sign is still engraved in stone above the door – then a branch of a chain of clothing stores; then it was a series of three unsuccessful restaurants; then for five years an electronics supplies shop, handy for replacement cables; briefly it became a place you could buy tacky mobile phone accessories; now it's an empty, shuttered space, plastered in grafitti and fly-posters, awaiting its next incarnation, or possibly demolition. Vestigial evidence of each of its previous existences still hangs around in the form of bits of old signage, rows of rawlplugged screw holes, traces of paint, and protruding wires and brackets. Yes, it's "ugly", but I really don't mind. I am fascinated by the way older British high streets openly wear their history, like a sleeve of tattoos. True, this fascination is probably compounded by having come of age during that first wave of nostalgia for the authenticity of Old Stuff.

There are a couple of particularly splendid examples of these Empire leftovers on Shirley High Street, Southampton, which I keep meaning to record before they finally vanish.  They're a pair of full-on imperial lions-banners-and-Britannia mouldings in a niche situated on the brick facade above the plate-glass of two shopfronts, one currently a cut-price goods market (the sort of cheap stuff that would once have been described as "Empire made"), the other an upscale Indian restaurant. Now there's irony for you! But I think I'm probably going to need a step-ladder to get the picture.

* And if you've ever tried to manoeuvre a large vehicle round one of those labyrinthine French underground multi-storey carparks, you'll appreciate the airy roominess of the British equivalent. Though my kids used to love the way the shiny, grippy texture of the flooring they use down there makes tyres turning a tight corner at 5 m.p.h. squeal like a Hollywood car-chase.

Sunday, 15 May 2016


If you were thinking of buying a copy of England and Nowhere at a discounted price, act now.  I'm about to move the book onto my public Blurb page, and add a small profit to the various prices.

I'm feeling uncommunicative at the moment, as I've done something unfortunate to my lower back by moving furniture around, and rendered myself immobile. (Is that the time? Almost time for another dose of Ibuprofen). There's something particularly humiliating about not being able to pull on your own socks, at least, not without undergoing some absurd and time-consuming contortions. I read recently that it took men on Scott's Antarctic expedition an hour each morning to get their boots on, and now I know how they felt.

Mind you, this, from the same essay, cheered me up:
Even in the privacy of their journals and diaries, polar explorers maintain a fine reserve. In his journal, Ernest Shackleton described his feeling upon seeing, for the first time in human history, the Antarctic continent beyond the mountains ringing the Ross Ice Shelf: "We watched the new mountains rise from the great unknown that lay ahead of us," he wrote, "with feelings of keen curiosity, not unmingled with awe." One wonders, after reading a great many such firsthand accounts, if polar explorers were not somehow chosen for the empty and solemn splendor of their prose styles – or even if some eminent Victorians, examining their own prose styles, realized, perhaps dismayed, that from the look of it, they would have to go in for polar exploration.
Annie Dillard, An Expedition to the Pole

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Waspocalypse Now

The forging of the Great Golden Wasp ("Vespa, vespa, burning bright...").

I know, I know, I could so easily be mistaken for a complete lunatic. But when Reason takes a well-earned nap, such monsters are brought forth. Just ask my man Francisco Goya.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Puck's Song III

Out of the Weald, the secret Weald,
Men sent in ancient years,
The horse-shoes red at Flodden Field,
The arrows at Poitiers!

Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn –
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born!

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Brandless Brand

I know I said it was a question expecting the answer "No", but it is nonetheless disappointing when yet another publisher's  pro forma letter of rejection hits the e-doormat: "Dear [your name here], Thank you for considering our humble publishing house, but..."  Ah, well.

But it does raise the question, why set yourself up like this for serial rejections? Which I certainly have done, over the last 40 years. Poems, plays, stories, articles, cartoons, exhibitions, illustrations, photographs, books of photographs...  The list of my rejected submissions is depressingly long, when I come to think of it; the list of my acceptances very short indeed. So, at what point should you think: sod it, I am one of life's civilians, and will be much happier when I finally forget about trying to discover what life is like on the other side of that magic barrier that separates us wannabes from the published and the players?

The magic password is self-promotion, of course, but I think most sane people are uncomfortable with that game. It's one thing to submit the odd book proposal, quite another to spend quality time polishing up brand Me Me Me. I had a very curious conversation with the director of a gallery that showed some of my work a couple of years ago. It was the afternoon before the opening of the exhibition. I was exhausted from travel, highly-wrought from being interviewed in front of a TV camera, and nervous about the prospect of holding forth that night to an audience of strangers. Somehow a vague chat over coffee about motives and opportunities took a weird turn, and I found myself being taken to task over my amateurism, lack of ambition, and my foolish unwillingness to push my "brand".

Wait, what? I thought that was who I was and how I had come to be there; indeed, my presentation that evening was entirely concerned with the joys of process-not-product, the freedom-to-fail conferred by amateur status, and so on. The one thing I was not, for good or ill, was a brand. Unless perhaps I was, unwittingly, the Brandless Brand? I was nonplussed and annoyed, and – being me – responded by getting onto the rhetorical front foot. I said that I valued being a good parent and partner over being a successful artist, and was not prepared to leave the traditional trail of broken relationships and promises in the wake of the pursuit of My Brilliant Career. Which is true. "Don't be an arsehole" is kind of my mission statement.

Nonetheless, my presentation did seem to go down well, up to and including a proposal of marriage. It was clearly a message people want to hear. However, as all fellow "high-functioning introverts" will know, by mid-evening I had gone through the high and was coming down fast. I needed to escape, and quietly sloped off to catch the tram back to my hotel. Oops. Epic fail! I had forgotten I was meant to attend a meal in my honour, which is clearly an unforgivable branding faux pas in the gallery world. At least, I assume that is why my subsequent emails to that director have gone unanswered, and my conciliatory gifts of books and photographs unacknowledged.

But, to return to the question: should you acknowledge defeat, stop kidding yourself that constant rejection is really a back-handed compliment to your uncategorisable brilliance, and simply resign yourself to the status of – deep breath – hobbyist? Or should you redouble your efforts by focussing less on the product, and more on the marketing strategy? The answer to that is clearly more pressing if you're trying to sell a couple of grand's worth of art every month to make a living. The pure joy of the unalloyed creative process is a fine and noble thing, but pays no bills. Besides, the competition is intense: far too many insecure souls are seeking validation by setting up a rickety stall in the overcrowded art marketplace.

When I say "you", of course, I should really be saying "I". So perhaps there's a simpler question: what would convincing a publisher to take a gamble on making, distributing, and attempting to sell 500 copies of my latest book do for me that selling 10 self-published copies of essentially the same thing would not?  Make money? Not a chance. Raise my profile? Not really and, anyway, to what end? I'm 62, and comfortably retired; to paraphrase Lao Tzu, I sell no work, and yet bills get paid.

I think I probably need to re-read and inwardly digest my own presentation again. Was it, I wonder, just the self-serving bullshit of a (justifiably, if temporarily) swollen ego, or a genuine manifesto for a happier, more creative life?

Oh, and talking of my latest book... I think I'm done playing around with it, so if you'd like a look – or even to buy one! – I've put it up on Blurb, temporarily, on an "invitation only", production-cost only basis for readers of this blog. There are two links:
  • If you follow this one, you'll see a paperback option (with the cheapest paper), a hardback option (with a dustjacket and premium paper), and a PDF download.
  • If you follow this one, you'll see the e-book option (Apple iPad/iPhone only).
Both physical books are 6.5" / 17cm square, 86 pages. The e-book and the PDF are excellent value, at £3.99. If you go for the PDF, you'll need to set Adobe Acrobat's "View" options as follows:
  • Choose "Page Display"
  • click "Two Page View"
  • click "Show Cover Page in Two Page View" (important)
  • click "Show Gap Between Pages"
There will also be a larger (8.5" / 22cm square), non-Blurb, signed and numbered hardback edition, available only from me directly. Unfortunately, this will have to cost in the region of £65. If you might be interested, contact me via email.

This offer will expire when I remember to cancel it, and finally get around to adding some profit for me onto the price. Now there's aggressive marketing for you!

UPDATE 17/5/16: All versions of the book have now been made public on my Blurb Bookstore, and the prices adjusted. The links given above still work, however.

Thursday, 5 May 2016


Long-standing readers may recall my sometime reputation* as a "horizonless photographer".  That is, not someone whose imagination and capacities are boundless (if only), but one who rarely includes any sky, or indeed much distance at all, in his pictures. You may therefore have been struck by the sheer quantity of skyscape that has made it into my recent photographs.

It's the clouds! I don't know about any other UK observers, but I have been astonished by the changes in the quality of the clouds over southern England in recent times. Talk about your "rows and flows of angel hair, and ice-cream castles in the air"... I sometimes open our front door in the morning, and gape in wonderment at the cloud theatre taking place overhead. It's amazing! The humblest view of suburban rooftops is rendered sublime beneath these towering swags of luminous and purple-shaded water vapour. They seem to have more substance, more sculpture, and more drama than I can recall seeing before. They're also a lot lower, arranging themselves artfully behind trees and buildings, rather than lurking bashfully high above the con-trails.

Something is going on. Unfortunately, I fear that that something is probably climate change at work. Warmer seas, warmer air, changing jetstreams, changing atmospheric dynamics... Put it all together and it adds up to more better clouds. It's a delightful visual treat, but it does feel rather like admiring the sparkle of an iceberg towards which we are inexorably and fatefully drifting.

And, no, I have not been using HDR (perish the thought) or "constructing" these skies! They're just there, and the Fuji seems to enjoy recording them as much as I enjoy looking at them. Not to shift one's attention upwards a bit would seem perverse. After all, I was never a self-declared horizonless photographer.

And talking of clouds, and changes, and ice-cream castles in the air...  If you're a Joni Mitchell fan, you've probably already seen this performance of "Both Sides Now" from 2000, in the orchestral arrangement by Vince Mendoza. Wow... Talk about songs of innocence and experience... Incredibly, she was 23 when she wrote that song, in March 1967, but now she really has seen both sides, several times over, and dropped an octave in the process.

* You are absolutely forbidden to read Elisabeth Spector's generous words in the comments to that T.O.P. post. Absolutely. Oh, all right, go on then... (Thanks again, Elisabeth).

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Avoiding Giants

I was walking through a local wood on Saturday afternoon when I spotted something strange. It looked almost like an immense pair of antlers emerging from the forest floor. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a yew-tree which had somehow been split in half where its twin trunks emerged from a common root.  So precise was the split that each half looked the mirror-image of the other, right down to the half-disc of roots torn from the ground. It's one of the stranger things I've ever encountered in the natural world. It looked as if the tree had been hewn in half by a gigantic sword stroke.

I suppose lightning is the obvious candidate, but there is no evidence of scorching anywhere on the bark. A number of trees have blown over in this particular stretch of woodland, so it would seem the twin trunks had simply finally become too much of a burden for their short supporting bole, and been wrenched apart in a winter storm. That they would fall away quite so symmetrically is a curiosity, though.

Among the more impressive of the other arboreal casualties since my last visit was this venerable and massive old beech:

That is one hell of a log, and a salutary reminder why it is never wise to shelter under a tree during a storm. Though I suppose feuding giants can't absolutely be ruled out as a cause, in which event I'm not sure what you can do to stay out of harm's way, other than run for it.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Puck's Song II

See you our pastures wide and lone,
   Where the red oxen browse?
O there was a City thronged and known,
  Ere London boasted a house.

See you our stilly woods of oak,
  And the dread ditch beside?
O that was where the Saxons broke
  On the day that Harold died.

Friday, 29 April 2016

All Hail

I was in Bristol for the first half of the week, and Tuesday was a day of rapidly changing extremes of weather.  It is April, after all.  From a favourite vantage point on Clifton Downs you could see hailstorms passing over both ends of the gorge, and yet the air was also clear enough to see the cranes at Avonmouth four miles away and the Welsh mountains beyond the Bristol Channel.

Later, I was wandering around on a park-on-a-hill near the university known as Brandon Steep, when a thunderstorm broke out overhead with yet more hail, so I abandoned a plan to climb the Cabot Tower as foolhardy and retreated instead into the City Museum, where I came across this wonderfully strange thing:

It put me in mind of the "expensive, delicate ship" in Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux Arts", and I automatically looked up, half-hoping to see a boy falling out of the sky, but saw this instead:

Oh well, another day, perhaps. You have to work with what you've got. Boys don't fall out of the sky every day, even when the weather is as mixed-up as this. And it's easy to forget what a privilege it is to be out and about just feeling the afternoon weather in your face, when so many other honest citizens of my age are still bent over a desk under fluorescent lighting, or some other form of wage-slavery, longing for the long bank holiday weekend.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Road Trip

While compiling the sequences for the "England and Nowhere" book (still not sure about that title) I have become aware of certain gaps, the biggest of which is the absence of many suitable photographs of the M3 motorway and its cutting running through Twyford Down.  Obviously, without that gash being opened up in the landscape, there would be rather less cause to notice how everything converges there. It's rather like the definitive, first bold stroke of paint on a canvas, or that famous jar placed upon a hill in Tennessee*, around which everything else finds itself arranged into meaning. Though I doubt very many people see it that way.

Anyway, it's a crucial element, and I've been meaning to plug that photographic gap, but circumstances and the weather have conspired against me. On Sunday morning, however, it was a beautifully clear spring day, with rain forecast for the afternoon, so we headed out while there was still a chance for a walk and for me to get some shots over the rim of the cutting.

Of course, once you gaze over the brink, you remember why you have so few compelling pictures of the motorway or its cutting. It's just a very busy road, and not terribly exciting to look at... Never mind, I will keep plugging away while (ahem) waiting for some stragglers' feedback on the sequence as it was around Easter time. Somewhere out there are the two images I need to make the whole thing go click.

* Anecdote of the jar, by Wallace Stevens
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

For Shakespeare and Saint George, by Harry!

Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
From camp to camp through the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other's watch:
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other's umber'd face;
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night's dull ear; and from the tents
The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation.
The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,
And the third hour of drowsy morning name.
Proud of their numbers and secure in soul,
The confident and over-lusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice,
And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night
Who like a foul and ugly witch doth limp
So tediously away. The poor condemned English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently and inly ruminate
The morning's danger, and their gesture sad,
Investing lank-lean cheeks and war-worn coats,
Presenteth them unto the gazing moon
So many horrid ghosts.

Henry V, Act IV, Prologue (before Agincourt)

Friday, 22 April 2016

When This Old Sofa Was New

I was playing around with the various techniques I use to produce interesting textures and colour combinations for ring-making, when I thought: Wait... That's the upholstery of the Old Sofa!

We bought the Old Sofa just before the birth of our first child, in 1991. Although, I suppose, technically it was the New Sofa back then. It was a January sales item from a very up-market brand, and pushed the outer limit of our budget, but it was felt a decent sofa in the living room was an essential part of the new bourgeois, nuclear-family lifestyle we were embarking on, and it was damned comfy, I can tell you. Not to mention stain resistant.

It figures in the background of so many of the snapshots from that first decade and a half of family life – tiny babies checking out their feet with that absorbed "WTF?" expression, exhausted parents crashed out in unlikely poses, toddlers making castles out of the large square seat-cushions, doting grandparents doing their doting, and serial, ritual Christmas and birthday gatherings for the distribution and unwrapping of presents. If that era has a distinctive "colourway", then this is it.

Eventually, its cushions began to subside, and its stain resistance began to retreat in the face of sustained attack, and it was decided that the Old Sofa would need to be replaced. But, like the valiant light-blue Vauxhall Nova saloon with its capacious boot that took us on our first holidays, it will always hold a permanent and honoured place in the collective family memory. I have yet to conjure up the like of the Old Curtains, though... They remain a colourist's enigma.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Fail Better

I don't make a big thing of it, and in fact usually try not to mention it at all if I can, but sometimes it's best just to get it out of the way: incredibly, not only am I an Oxford graduate, but I am a Balliol Man. Or was: I'm not sure how far these things are a lifetime condition or whether, like a criminal record, they expire after a certain length of time. It's not like I go around wearing the damned tie, after all, and the matriculation tattoo is very discreet.

This may not mean anything to you at all, but, if it does, you may not be sure whether to believe me. You and me both: it is an identity that sits so oddly with the rest of my upbringing, aspirations, and subsequent life that I sometimes wonder myself whether I have made it all up, and that I am about to awake, alone in my narrow bed, still 18, still living in our family's fourth-floor, two-bedroom council flat, still with my whole life ahead of me. Phew! It was all just a dream! I imagine jailed serial killers and indicted war criminals from perfectly respectable, ordinary families must sometimes feel the same illusory relief from their dreadful psychic burden. Then, like Caliban, cry to dream again.

Seriously, though, it can be a bit of a burden, this Balliol thing. I may not make much of it, but other people do. There are certain elite educational establishments in the world that trade on their reputation as launch-pads for eminent careers, and Balliol College has been doing it longer and louder than most. Competition for admission is fierce, and the list of those who famously applied and failed – usually being admitted to a "lesser" Oxford college – includes the likes of Tony Blair (hah!) and Bill Clinton. But success can be problematic, too: the consequent weight of expectation and, later in life, the feelings of underachievement can be crippling to those who have bought into the myth-making.

Luckily for me and my schoolmate Dave, we knew nothing of this when – following a clutch of top A-level grades and having gained something of a reputation as a pair of show-offy smart-arses – we were encouraged to apply to Oxbridge back in 1972. First, pick your university, boys. Cambridge? Nah, too close to home! Oxford, then. OK, now pick a college, any college... Um. Haven't a clue. Balliol, you say, headmaster? Great name! Why not? So we took the exams, went to the interviews, and we got in. Well, no real surprise there, that's what we were good at, taking exams and that, innit?

So, because of the timing of the Oxbridge entrance exams for state-school candidates, we did not follow our friends going off to university in 1972, but were obliged to spend an extra term at school, then two thirds of a "gap year" at home, during which we both worked as teaching assistants in other local state schools. It was a very formative year. I found that the experience of putting in a regular working day and earning a salary made the prospect of study and student life begin to seem a little unreal. Although, unlike Dave, I also quickly realised that school-teaching was never going to figure prominently in my future.

Of course, once we finally arrived in Oxford, the truth dawned. This here college really does seem to think it's something a bit special, doesn't it? And, crikey, these other guys are spectacularly clever. Some were very posh and privately-educated; some were poor-but-brilliant refugees from oppressive regimes; some were here on prestigious overseas scholarships; many were unclassifiable oddballs. So what the hell were WE doing here? Surely there had been some terrible mistake?  Just weeks ago I had been picking Stanley-knife blades out of school clay bins*, and teaching remedial English classes to 12-year-olds! Perhaps we were here merely to fulfil some sort of state-school quota? Were we really up to this?

It was all very confusing. Impostor Syndrome aside, there were no lessons, no mandatory lectures, no benign teachers in loco parentis, no handy user's guide or glossary to the baffling local lingo in the non-existent Welcome Pack. It was deep-end time – sink or swim, gentlemen, freestyle! As a consequence, I disengaged roughly five minutes after I arrived into an ironic, semi-detached, permanently-stoned haze that lasted for about two years. In some ways this was a mistake but, to be honest, I felt I was owed at least a couple of years of fun, and was determined to have them. And did.

Two sane men in an asylum

All these years later, and now considerably more sober than any judge, I am aware I had been handed an opportunity with a capital "O", and chose to pass it up. I don't regret it, though; the many extra-curricular adventures I had were life-enhancing and character-forming, and I made lifelong friends among the university's Awkward Squad, an elite within an elite. I did get a decent degree, to everyone's surprise, and it proved to be the ticket of entry to the useful and stimulating life of professional public service I went on to enjoy for 35 years. Not to mention the pension that now supports my early retirement.

But the irony in this heartening stoner-to-citizen success story is that, by Balliol standards, it has been a disappointing failure. Balliol students are not selected for their dedicated, unflashy, all-round competence in keeping the wheels turning in some Department of Thankless Tasks, but for their potential as world-leading, world-beating, world-changing somebodies. Apparently, more than one in twenty living Balliol graduates figure in Who's Who. Blimey! Why they ever chose me or Dave will forever remain a mystery.

Now, despite her light-touch parenting, our alma mater is relentlessly judgmental – just look how well your brothers and sisters have done! – and the consequent twinge of underachievement whenever an alumni newsletter hits the doormat is infuriating, even for someone as immune to ambition as me; there is clearly unfinished business here. So recently I proposed to another old college chum that we might found The Failliol Society, a suitably ironic home for all those admitted within those august precincts, but who subsequently failed to live up to the college's tiger mom expectations, the more casually and spectacularly the better. Why? Mainly because the arrogance and entitlement of that hyped minority of over-achievers – and the college's over-investment in their achievements – really does need to be challenged by the 95% of the rest of us who are not and were never going to be in Who's Who. It'll be a big club, after all. Proposed society motto: If at first you don't succeed, get a proper job.

More mischievously – and bearing in mind Balliol-reject Bill Clinton's famously wimpy denial (no, not that one, the other one) and the recent demise of that exemplary Balliol Man, smuggler and cannabis advocate Howard Marks – I thought there should also be an Inhalliol Club, for those who have boldly experimented with altered states within those same august precincts. With Howard "Mr. Nice" Marks (1964) as Permanent Life President (deceased), and Aldous "The Doors" Huxley (1913) as Eternal Secretary (on indefinite leave of absence). I'm not yet sure who to nominate as Treasurer, but some eminent media types are definitely in the running. They know who they are. Membership by personal recommendation only; dress code (slovenly casual) mandatory.

But, thank you for listening. I can't remember now why I ever brought the subject up. We will never speak of this again.

photo © Fiona Thompson 1974

* The little bastards would drop the razor-sharp blades into the clay, in the hope of adding the odd severed finger to the mix. They would also add a sprinkling of transparent plastic injection-moulding pellets, which caused pots to explode in the kiln. I had to pick those out, too. Happy days!

Monday, 18 April 2016

Puck's Song

Just as I feared / expected / hoped, the "Puck's Song" pictures have commandeered my interest, and become a project in their own right. Well, there are twelve lines in the poem... Inevitably, next year's calendar is composing itself before my eyes. Plus another nice Vistaprint book like the Crow Country book (still one copy left, at low, low clearance price of £50! When they're gone, they're gone!).

Friday, 15 April 2016

And So Was England Born

A couple of late doubts came to me concerning the book which I have, up until now, thought of as "England and Nowhere". That title comes from a passage in one of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, "Little Gidding". Setting aside the slight pretentiousness of this and also Eliot's slightly repellent religiose, modernist heavy breathing, the main doubt that came to me was when I remembered what happened when I approached Faber for permission to use two lines from Ted Hughes' rendering of Ovid's Metamorphoses in my book The Revenants. Faber also being Eliot's publisher, and his work not yet being in the public domain in the UK, as far as I know.

For The Revenants, I had had the neat idea of putting together in parallel various translations of the opening of the Metamorphoses – "In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora": in a modern version, "Of bodies changed to other forms I tell" – from Arthur Golding's Elizabethan translation ("Shakespeare's Ovid") onwards, in a sort of meta demonstration of the theme of the book: the reappearance and transfiguration over time of various bits and pieces found floating in an ornamental pond on the university campus. Hughes' version seemed a good modern end point.

As I intended to self-publish the book under my own imprint Shepherd's Crown* it seemed best to clear the copyright issue first. To be honest, I'd expected the reply, "Just two lines? No charge, mate! Thanks for checking though!" However Faber decided they wanted to charge me £200. Oh, really? Naturally, I chose another current version (A.D. Melville), for which Penguin, bless them, made no charge at all.

God knows what Faber would charge to quote a whole FIFTEEN line extract from Eliot, should any publisher decide to take up my book proposal. So, it seemed to me that "Puck's Song" from Kipling's Puck of Pook Hill, which I use in my introduction, was even more apposite as a quotable source. And, better still, definitely out of copyright! Though whether I'll change the book's title at all remains to be seen.

Then, as the book matured, it seemed to me to lack something. I began to wonder whether introducing a graphical element might work as a form of punctuation between the photographic elements. I'd done something similar in another previous book, Downward Skies, breaking up the sequence of photographs with circular haiku texts. When I looked at the verses of "Puck's Song", several of them seemed very appropriate to the six sections of the current book, and I began to play.

I'm pleased with the results so far. But whether they'll make it into this book, or be the seed of yet another one remains to be seen.

* Don't ask me how Terry Pratchett latched on to this obscure piece of folklore for the title of his last book. It's very odd, but I somehow doubt he'd been a follower of my work...

Incidentally, I recently found five remaining copies of the original Shepherd's Crown edition of The Revenants (an A4 paperback of 60 pages) which is a rather nice thing, and I'd be prepared to sell three of them at, say, £65 each. If you're interested, contact me by email.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Book Progress

I'm still working on the "England and Nowhere" book. It's already at a stage where it could more or less be declared finished, but I've decided not to rush things, as it would be nice to make it as close to a definitive summation of five years of work as possible and, after all, I have no-one to satisfy other than myself.

I do have other reasons to delay. Before Easter I sent out an early draft to various parties for comment, something I've not done before. I should at least wait to hear what they have to say. Sometimes only a fresh set of eyes can see the obvious problem or the hidden flaw. I have also asked a couple of "proper" publishers whether they'd be interested in the work, and will wait to hear from them before going down the usual self-publication route, but I am not holding my breath, this enquiry being what the grammarians call "a question expecting the answer no".

I suppose I might also float the set to a few galleries – there are currently 86 photographs in the book, and at least another 25 top candidates, which is a respectable exhibition – but, as I said to one of my previewers, it's hard to know whether publication or exhibition is the bigger ask, these days. It must be very nice, I think, to have the sort of established reputation where publishers and galleries are pestering you, instead of the other way round ("Oh, not the Tate again! They're worse than bloody Steidl!").

Having originally thought I'd make two 48-page books I then changed my mind, and have now settled on a conventional single volume. Obviously, this will be more expensive, but getting all six elements into one sequence – St. Catherine's Hill, the river Itchen, the water meadows, the viaduct, Twyford Down, and the M3 motorway – is much more interesting, and leads to a more balanced and nuanced presentation. Assuming nothing comes of my approaches to publishers, I will probably self-publish a special "limited" hardback edition, probably 21cm square and comparable in quality (and price) to last year's "Crow Country" book, plus a Blurb paperback, an e-book for the iPad and iPhone owners, and a PDF for the cheap seats.

For a while I was struggling to write a suitable foreword, but then remembered a blog post I had written some while ago, which made all the points I wanted to make better than anything else I had come up with. So I adapted that, and it now reads as follows (sorry if it seems a bit long):
This series of photographs of the landscape south-east of Winchester started around 2010, when I began regularly to visit Hockley Viaduct, St. Catherine's Hill, and Twyford Down.  The more I visited and photographed this threefold site, where ancient and modern histories are intimately packed together, the more I began to feel that it (and I) had something to say about the multilayered English landscape, and the way it is the expression of our contradictory human urges to venerate, to destroy, to improve, and to preserve.

This may best be explained obliquely, by a story.

A few years ago we had a North American visitor.  At one point the conversation came round, via cookery, to weights and measures, and the late unlamented imperial system with its 16 ounces to the pound, 14 pounds to the stone, 8 stones to the hundredweight, and 20 hundredweights to the ton.  Not to mention gills, pints, quarts and gallons, yards, chains, furlongs and miles, or pounds, shillings and pence.

Which reminded me of my mother, who used to work in a shoe-shop, and how she would bring home old coins for me from the till.  Before decimalisation, Victorian pennies were commonplace, worn smooth and black from their adventures, and every now and then there would be a Georgian "cartwheel" penny: a full ounce of copper minted in 1797, and legal tender until 1971.  Once, someone handed over a William III silver sixpence  -- dated 1696 and as exotic as a piece of eight -- in exchange for their court heels or slingbacks.

You had a real sense of the continuity of history, going down to the sweet-shop with an assortment of old metal chinking in your trouser pockets. Pounds, shillings and pence had a noble lineage that included fabled ancestors like the farthing, the groat, and the golden guinea.  But I don't think anyone missed them, once they were gone, and the simplicity of the new mental arithmetic meant our collective national brain could relax and take a permanent holiday from multiples of twelve and twenty.  But a thread was broken.

We think of the USA as a "young" country, with little history.  But, setting aside the monuments of the indigenous people, the oldest American places are now 100, 200, possibly even 300 years old.  I think most of us living in Britain would be hard-pressed to find a building within 50 miles older than that.  We live in a world of permanent makeover.  The block of flats where I spent my adolescence, built in 1950 and as solid as a nuclear bunker, has already been demolished, the site levelled, and built over again.  More broken threads.

Is this new?  The next day, I stood with our American visitor on top of St. Catherine's Hill above Winchester, and pointed out the landmarks, like a native guide.  The Iron Age fort, the Norman cathedral built on a Saxon site, the mediaeval hospital and plague pits, the undated Miz Maze -- possibly ancient, possibly some antiquarian's folly -- and the chalky tops where the detectorists find Roman coins and Saxon brooches.  I felt like Puck, the Oldest Old Thing in England.

But we were standing within earshot of the Twyford Down motorway cutting, where 5 acres of ancient downland and 50,000 years of history were bulldozed away in the 1990s, in order to smooth the path of traffic from Southampton to London.  Protestors camped out on Twyford Down in an attempt to halt the destruction of this landscape -- "heritage" to some, "sacred" to others -- and despite failing to stop the road became the focus of a new awareness of the ecological and archaeological price of progress.  Government and developers have to tread more carefully now.

But, in its day, the hillfort above the cutting must have been equally appalling.  Dug out by slave labour, an eyesore of chalk rubble and palisades, it was a place of domination and violence; mutilated human remains have been found in the ditches.  No doubt its construction violated immemorial holy springs and groves.  There will have been protests, brutally suppressed.  In their turn, venerable Saxon abbeys were demolished to raise the Norman cathedral -- more domination and brutality.  Later, slums were cleared to build housing estates, and ancient fields were ripped open, scattering flints and coins and Roman roof-tiles, to provide those estates with water and electricity.  Seen in context, the Twyford Down cutting, too, is our history, and no more outrageous or unnecessary than anything in the preceding four millennia.

Before the motorway, there were the railways.  Competing schemes to drive a line from London to Southampton resulted in two lines, one running immediately beside St. Catherine's Hill, that went no further south, and the winning mainline, further to the west.  The Hockley Viaduct -- one of the first poured concrete structures in the world -- was constructed in 1888 to link the two lines, but was abandoned in the 1960s.  It still stands, thirty-three brick-clad concrete arches going nowhere, stranded opposite the M3 in a water-meadow by the river Itchen.  The Itchen itself is not a natural waterway at this location: it was extensively canalised in the 18th century as the Itchen Navigation to transport goods from Southampton to Winchester.  The Hand of Man is everywhere, here.

   Trackway and Camp and City lost,
      Salt Marsh where now is corn;

   Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,

      And so was England born!

Puck's Song, from Puck of Pook's Hill, by Rudyard Kipling

To go forward you need to build, and to build you need to clear ground, whether it be a crumbling castle, a block of flats, or irrational weights and measures.  The idea that certain landscapes are inviolable and "sacred" is a belief we recognise in other cultures -- one thinks of Australia and Japan -- but which we regard with skepticism when it comes to our own island.  With good reason:  the 20th century invention of an ancestral, quasi-animistic relationship between the English and The English Land is shot through with political and religious elements that are very dubious indeed.  All ancient paths, ley-lines, and folkways seem nearly always to lead directly back to some very right-wing and reactionary sources.

Yet, when ancient and beautiful landscapes are torn apart to make way for public works like roads and housing, I think many of us do share a sense of violation strong enough to warrant language like "sacrilege" and "desecration" .  On an island like ours, where every square foot bears witness to thousands of years of human habitation, the sense of being haunted by heritage is strong.  This leads to a real dilemma.  So we sense something sacred when we feel we are walking the land our ancestors walked, and we want those Iron Age hillforts and ancient fields and water-meadows to be preserved, although we would shun the ways of life that gave rise to them.  Equally, though, we need more housing, utilities, factories, airports and bypasses to enhance our way of life, but are reluctant to pay the price.  We are all, at the same time, both desecrators and defenders, constructors and conservators.

This sense of the way cycles of disruptive "progress" patinate over the years into "heritage" -- and of the way a certain pervasive spirit of place persists beneath it all -- underlies these photographs.   These few square miles adjacent to Alfred's Saxon capital are a library and laboratory of English history, as written, unwritten, and extensively revised by succeeding generations.