Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Where Shall We Go Today?

The New Forest – just lots of trees, right? Well, although there are plenty of trees in the New Forest, it's primarily an area of open heathy badlands; sand, gravel and thin acidic soils left behind by the titanic rivers that flowed at the end of the last Ice Age. Basically, the Forest is the gritty sludge at the bottom of the British Isles tank, and nothing much thrives in it except gorse, heather, snakes, deer, and scrawny semi-wild ponies. Oh, and caravan and camping sites. For some reason a lot of people favour the New Forest as a holiday destination.

I don't know why, but – despite its attractions and despite being situated just the other side of Southampton Water – it's just not an area I've visited much in recent years. Perhaps it's because we visited so often when the kids were small. There are various child-oriented wildlife centres in the Forest, and it's full of quiet corners where you can spend a relatively safe but adventurous afternoon among the trees and heather-covered dips and rises. I suppose I ended up thinking of the area as little more than a handy recreation ground, despite the occasional somnolent snake, one strewn with natural sandpits and climbing frames, and threaded with shallow streams to dam and paddle in, watched over by huddles of sullen ponies.

Looking towards Bolton's Bench, Lyndhurst

But last week I had reason to visit Lyndhurst, the administrative centre of the Forest, where curious bodies like the Court of Verderers and the gender-fluid Queen's / King's House are situated (the name of the latter changes, depending on the reigning monarch). It was a beautiful day so, while I was there, I thought I might as well take the opportunity to further break in my new boots, bought to replace a venerable but now leaky pair in anticipation of a visit to an old friend living in the Scottish Highlands in May.

I was reminded of how fortunate we are, to live within a short drive of holiday destinations like the New Forest, the South Downs, the Hampshire and Dorset coast, not mention the Isle of Wight, another place we used to visit frequently – mainly on fossil-hunting expeditions – but now never do. Providing small children with a memorable and instructive childhood is a wonderful stimulus to getting out of the house. I resolved to recapture some of that spirit – two parts fun to one part duty to one part desperation – that got one poring over the map and thinking, where shall we go today?

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Elective Affinities 2

Recently, while driving somewhere or other, I heard a song – one of those radio-friendly, kit-assembly MOR rock numbers that used to dominate the charts. But this one, unusually, grabbed my attention. As so often these days, the babbling DJ failed to identify it, so I had to google the lyrics later on. It turned out to be "Photograph" by Nickelback, a band I had never heard of, but which, I am informed, it is de rigueur to mock. However, "Photograph" is a good song, and captures the spirit of this second batch of pages from my imaginary Elective Family Album.

A long time ago, in a small town where nothing much happened, there was a little gang of friends, largely from the same school, all devotees of various denominations of the church of rock'n'roll. I think it is a truth universally acknowledged that the longest, most intense years of your life – if you're lucky, which not everybody is – are often the five years from 16 to 21. They can be hell, they can be heaven – often both on the same day – but rarely anything in between. These few years (in my case, 1970-75) are best savoured with a generous sprinkling of idiotic risk-taking, and the scars and the memories acquired will last a lifetime. Another song, Jackson Browne's "The Barricades of Heaven", evokes the bitter-sweet nostalgia of time spent with other seekers-in-training, "trying to hear your song". These are among the closest friends you will ever have and yet, having finally found your voice and left home to see where it will take you, you may well never see them again.

Ch-ch-ch-changes 1968-72

What you don't know – can't know – at the time, of course, is that simply being the same age in the same place – having sat in the same classrooms, haunted the same playgrounds, parties and pubs, and shared the secrets, anxieties, and enthusiasms of youth – is far from unique, nor is it the basis for anything long-lasting. All over the world, similar brightly-coloured scenes are constantly coming into being and then – after a few intense years of fun, irresponsibility, occasional brushes with the law and even with tragedy – breaking up in the grey but far stronger currents of adult life.

So, although those guys are part of my "elective family" – brothers, sisters and cousins by choice – with few exceptions we haven't actually met in over twenty, thirty, forty years, although the advent of email and social media in the meantime has turned some of us into a later-life version of those youngsters who conduct the majority of their social life on a screen. But, inevitably, we've all changed, one way or another, and live in very different worlds now, with little other than a rapidly-receding and patchily-recalled past in common. There's not a lot to say, other than, "So, how was your life?"

But that's the point. After all, I haven't seen or spoken to my own much-loved sister since our father's funeral in 2009, but the nature of our relationship is permanent, if no longer close, or even, in a day-to-day sense, important. That's how it is with family, isn't it?

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Blue Skies

One of my regular walks in Southampton takes me through several extensive municipal facilities: a sports centre, a golf course, and a cemetery. You are spoiling us, Southampton City Council! Why, next week our road is closed for five days for resurfacing... No more potholes! What next, recycling collection every week?

Yesterday, we had one of those early spring days, when – away from the traffic fumes – the air is still brisk and bright like a February day, yet everything is warmly lit by the sun's higher elevation. Even the golf course looked enticing, although I did resist the temptation to imprint the immaculate greens with the soles of my new walking-boots.

But it was the blue, blue sky and the stately regatta of fair-weather clouds that were dominating everything. What a pleasure and a privilege no longer to be confined to an office beneath neon lighting, and free to wander on such a day. On any day, come to that.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Elective Affinities

Forty-odd years ago now, I had to choose a "special" paper for my English degree, selected from the sort of long, and rather eccentric list of options you might expect to have accumulated, stalactitically, in one of the "ancient" universities. As it happened, one of the options was "Goethe". Not "Goethe's relation to Shakespeare", or "Goethe and German Romanticism in 19th century English literature"; just "Goethe". But, as I had studied Faust Part 1 as a set book at German A-Level – and had grown a little bored with my monolingual diet – it seemed a good choice. In fact, only one student made that choice that year, and the exam paper in finals had to be compiled and printed for a single candidate, me.

One of the works I studied was the novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften, traditionally translated as Elective Affinities, which is a wonderfully grandiloquent, mysterious, yet baffling title. I can recall little of the actual plot or characters, now, but the title refers to an old chemical theory that particular substances are driven to combine with certain other substances, as if they were "naturally" electing (choosing) to do so. Goethe extends this idea to relations between men and women, and the way certain new attractions can turn out to be, um, stronger than other, previously-sanctioned bondings. Yep, Die Wahlverwandtschaften is Goethe's attempt at a high-minded bonkbuster, bolstered by a self-serving theory of adultery.

The book has also been translated with the clunky title Kindred By Choice, which is easier to understand, but rather misses the point. However, ever since coming across this I have had a fascination with the idea of an elective family. That is, that one might have a chosen family, in parallel to one's "blood" relatives, who – in most families, anyway – generally turn out to be a dull lot, with only a minimal involvement or, indeed, interest in the Sturm und Drang of one's actual life. Such elective bonds seem to form most strongly in adolescence and early adult life; these are the friends who – even if you haven't met for decades, or have since argued dramatically and terminally, and even if a few have died far too young – are the standard against which other relationships are measured. They don't need to know they have been chosen, and they need not be contemporaries, either. Certainly, I have had several older mentors  – all dead now – whose help, guidance and example proved invaluable, and who still occupy a permanent and honoured place in my mind.

The point is, having made your choices, you are stuck with them; they're family. Some of these chosen cousins may be close, frequent companions, elective uncles and aunts to your children. Some may have continued down dangerous paths where you have decided not to follow, while others may have subsided into a complacent middle-age, where you are happy to leave them. A few may have been lost to the ravages of time, but somewhere (you hope) they are still out there, somehow, doing God-knows-what. At least one or two would rather forget all about you (you know this is true). But occasionally (you trust) all will be reminded of and find themselves thinking about you. Whether they think of you with pleasure, however, is not for you to determine. As I say, they're family, not friends.

With this idea of an elective family in mind, I thought it might be fun to construct for myself an elective family album, using some Victorian carte de visite album pages I found on Ebay. Happily, I've managed to hold on to photographs of most of the candidates for such an album, even if only photo-booth shots (actually, these scan rather well) or handed-on snaps for which I can take no credit (it's called "appropriation" in the trade, I believe).This will probably remain a private, rather than a public project, unless I find it has resonances which strike a sympathetic note with others.

To protect the innocent and avoiding naming the guilty, in these initial trial album pages I've associated each portrait with a song, rather than a name. I quite like this idea: it gives a nice extra dimension to the enterprise. You may not know these people, but through the medium of song I can convey something of how I see them, or how I saw them then, or perhaps how I think they saw themselves.

Of course, eventually, if you're lucky, elective relationships lead to a brand new set of "blood" relationships, and the whole cycle starts all over again. Or at least it should: there surely have to be better examples to follow and mentors to listen to out there for my own children to choose from other than me... Or naughty old Urururopa Goethe, come to that.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

On Twyford Down

On Twyford Down some sheep get grassy banks and the freedom to harass passing ramblers, others get a muddy field full of some kind of root crop, and an electric fence. What with the woodsman's St. George wheelbarrow, and the stumpy concrete remnants of something-or-other, the place is just one big metaphor.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Old Bill

Go Outdoors, Millbrook, Southampton

There are an awful lot of guitar players out there, vying for our attention. Very few of them have a sound and technique that are instantly recognisable, however, even a sometime guitar "god" like Eric Clapton, who has become little more than just another tasteful, soulful, blues-lick broker. Bill Frisell is different, though, a proper guitar deity; at least, in my personal pantheon of musicians. Never heard of him? Well, if not, it's time you did. Check out these interpretations of two very familiar tunes:

These may not be slick, fretboard-shredding pyrotechnic displays, but no-one understands the inventive use of space, timing, and dynamics quite like Bill Frisell. His understated use of pedals and loops is also pretty unique. This is guitar-playing as an art-form, as feeling, not as ego-amplification. His people-skills and self-presentation may be lacking, somewhat (he has been referred to as "the Clark Kent of the guitar" – you can watch him don his Superbill cape in this performance), but you can tell that he just loves the way a guitar sounds. He must spend hours just playing about with the same plangent chord sequence, even just striking the same resonant note, over and over. And any guitar genius who can carry off wearing a cardigan while playing the theme from Bonanza is OK with me. Carry on, Bill.

Villiers Road, Shirley, Southampton

Interpretive creativity like this is based on – but should not be confused with – technical mastery. I could draw some parallels with certain alleged masters of and approaches to photography, but won't. Interpretive creativity is not quite the same thing as the first-order creativity that actually writes the songs in question, but a close relative. If you're interested in such things, the best account I've read recently of the nature of creativity, of what it feels like to invest time in writing or making pictures, is this article in the Guardian by George Saunders. Well worth ten minutes of your time.

Highfield Campus, Souhampton

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Under the Influence

N.C. Wyeth, from Treasure Island, 1911

The comments this blog receives are part of its flavour. In the main, they are well-meant, amusing, and thoughtful. I realise most visitors to most blogs avoid reading comments, and with good reason: without sensible moderation, they can be as toxic as the calls on an unregulated phone-in. But I think no-one need fear the comments here. Blogger does not allow one to edit them, so it's a case of either in or out. By and large, I'm happy to choose in; I don't have enough readers to alienate regulars by suppressing their occasional digs at me or their questionable opinions. But I do reject any comment which violates any one of a dozen subjective and variable criteria. And occasionally, it seems, I lose a few, for which I apologise.

In many ways, though, some of the most interesting responses I get to the work I put out in this blog happen "privately", that is, from people who email me directly, rather than submit a comment. For example, this email from a long-term regular reader:
I’ve been reading a book I just received titled Matisse/Diebenkorn that explores the acknowledged influences Matisse had on American painter Richard Diebenkorn. And it brought up a question I’ve held back from asking you for a long time about influences that may have been important in informing your photography. I don’t mean to pry – well, maybe I do in some respect (but not in terms of “secret sauces”) – but I have always seen the vibrant color palette in your photography very much akin to painting rather than photography. For starters, there is no question that your photographic style, the way you use color, is unique and quite beautiful when compared to other contemporary color photography that I have seen.

To me, your color palette in some way relates to that of American painter/illustrator and member of the so called Brandywine school, N.C. Wyeth. I had always held his illustrations, and those of a few other Brandywine School artists like Howard Pyle (Wyeth’s teacher) in high regard. In fact I used to collect books that Wyeth illustrated. I get the same “feeling” from his colors and the sense of romanticism (some call it realism) that I do from your work. 

So, if you’d care to consider this unsolicited inquiry, I’d be very interested to know if there are influences from painting that have been important to you. Of course I won’t be offended if you reply that this is none of my damn business! 
It's an interesting (not to say flattering) question, and not one I'd given much thought to. Most of us who share work publicly probably prefer to erase all trace of "influences", mainly out of pride, but also to avoid any ensuing lawsuits in the unlikely event of hitting some financial jackpot ("where there's a hit there's a writ"). It's all very well for whoever-it-was to say "talent borrows, genius steals", but genius can generally afford better lawyers. Influences are inescapable, however, and not always as obvious as they might seem. So, if I may give myself permission to take myself a bit more seriously than usual, I have some thoughts on the matter, which you may or may not find interesting.

I've said before that I generally favour the aims and techniques of "illustration" over those of "fine art", and by far the most powerful influences I'm aware of must be the illustrations in the reading material I pored over in my childhood. There were comics; Victor and Hotspur were my weekly reads, with the occasional copy of War Picture Library and ‒ the ultimate treat ‒ American comics picked up on summer holidays. There were my sister's battered copies of Mad, weekly colour supplements and occasional magazines; the '50s and '60s were the heyday of an evocative, sketchy-but-realistic graphic style, typified by Bernie Fuchs. There were illustrated books ‒ not least natural history identification guides ‒ and encyclopaedias (see this post from 2010). When you have a hungry eye, even the "exploded view" instructions to a model kit are a feast of graphical know-how, and model box-lid illustrations were a wonderful, absorbing art-form in themselves.

Airfix 1:72 WW1 Bristol Fighter, artist Roy Cross, 1960s

The main legacy of this vast body of ephemeral graphical work, for anyone with eyes to see, is an appreciation of line, volume, and drama, often supplemented by the limited but subtle colour palette enforced by the mechanics of cheap printing. An illustrator is an artist who believes everything that needs to be said can be conveyed by the way someone holds a drink, who cares about the ways different surfaces reflect light, and who knows which details to leave out, and which to dwell upon.Whatever happened, I wonder, to all those people who could really draw? Can you imagine Tracey Emin (Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy Schools, 2011-13, and not an influence) illustrating a kids' book about cars or cookery? The pleasure of those recently repurposed "Ladybird" books (Ladybird books for Grown-Ups) is all about the way their innocence can be subverted with new captions, but this is only possible because of the expressive clarity of their painted illustrations.

Like my questioner, I am a fan of that "Brandywine", turn-of-the-century school of illustration; in fact, I can see a reprint of Wyeth's illustrated Treasure Island from where I'm sitting. However, I came to these artists later in life, as illustrated children's books did not figure much in my childhood. In the 1970s there was a revival of interest in this sort of "realist/romantic" illustrative work, along with British antecedents and equivalents like William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Arthur Rackham, whose particular weaving of textures and near-monotones into an English other-wordliness influenced a generation. I suspect this was because such pictures reward the sort of unwaveringly rapt, child-like scrutiny that a young adult in the grip of certain intoxicants will bring to a picture; what we might call "the stoner's gaze". I have written before about the "dressing-up box" mentality of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and these evocative and lively paintings of pirates, elves, American indians, and Arthurian figures ‒ nearly always derived from children's books and intended to stimulate the imagination ‒ were a perfect match.

I didn't want to turn this post into a simple list of "artists I have liked", so I looked for some common threads. An obvious one is Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which share that same graphical emphasis on boldness of design, subtle and pure colours, and economy of line, all held within a flattened, strongly-framed picture-plane. In effect, you might say they are comics for an adult sensibility (very adult, in the case of the notoriously erotic shunga prints), and indeed were regarded as ephemera by their native audience, to the extent that woodblock prints by the likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige were used as protective wrapping for pots exported to the West. You can imagine the delight with which these crumpled freebies were discovered by the artists of late-19th century France, and the impact of japonisme on Impressionism and subsequent movements in art was profound. I have a particular liking for "post-impressionist" colourists like Vuillard and Bonnard, with their flattened, patterned, child-like shapes and improbably gorgeous palette of colours. A photographer like Saul Leiter (also a painter and illustrator) has clearly taken these same influences on board.

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in the Bath, 1925

While thinking about this, I found it helpful to distinguish between "systematic" influences and partial ones. For example, when I came across the French artist Henri Rivière (initially, I think, on holiday in Britanny, where much of his work is set) I felt the urge to explore further, and the more I looked, the more I liked what I saw, culminating in the discovery of that fine series of prints, 36 views of the Eiffel Tower. He became a "systematic" influence, an artist whose whole body of work I found rewarding, and whose available work, especially work in print, I actively sought out. As to "partial" influences, the example of Leonard Baskin comes to mind, whose work stimulated by the poems of Ted Hughes, especially Crow, still ranks very highly with me, but whose wider oeuvre doesn't carry the same charge. Similarly, David Hockney's early prints, such as the illustrations to the Grimms' fairy tales, which blew my mind* when I first saw them in a Sunday colour supplement in 1970 and which I still find amazing. But, for me, the majority of his later work is rather less compelling.** A more recent example would be Josef Stoitzner (1884-1951), an Austrian artist who produced some very attractive Henri Rivière-like images of rural Alpine landscapes, boldly graphical with the limited colour palette associated with posters and print-making, but whose stock-in-trade turned out to be rather forgettable "genre" oil paintings. Often, of course, it can turn out to be just a single example of an artist's work that has caught my attention – usually something seen on a website and clipped for future reference using Evernote – but which then turns out to be completely untypical of the work as a whole.

Henri Rivière, Enterrement à Trestraou, 1891
(notice the Japanese-style red artist's stamp)

I suppose I probably am, in many ways, a print-maker and illustrative painter manqué. At primary school, my work used to be entered for – and win! – national painting competitions, but once at grammar school "art" was relegated to the level of metalwork and carpentry – something to occupy the less academically-able boys – so I was reduced to tinkering around at home. I did have vague thoughts of going to art school, but my teachers had grander plans for me, and I was hazy enough about my goals in life to be talked out of it (thankfully). Photography became my passionate interest in my 30s, but those earlier influences always made themselves felt; for example, in a liking for the flattened perspective of a short telephoto lens, or the clarity of the colours and even distribution of the tones in low-contrast lighting conditions. So it's no surprise that, when it came to the wider range of possibilities opened by digital colour photography, my eye led me in certain "painterly" directions.

In fact, I actually dislike most colour photography. There's a sort of heightened glossy verisimilitude ‒ a pure photographic "look" aspired to by many ‒ that I find unattractive, especially when applied to the landscape and portraiture, as if these subjects were just another application of "packshot" techniques. I'm tempted to suggest that the reason for this is that so many photographers lack influences other than photography itself, and generally only recent photography of the most banal sort. Obviously, if you aspire to nothing more than record-shots of scenic spots at "golden hour", and have mistaken technical business for aesthetics, your pictures will look just like those of everyone else who has made the effort to rock up at the Old Man of Storr on Skye at the "right" time. Well done, you! But if you know your art history, and have looked for interesting work across all genres and all time-periods, and developed your personal preferences and allowed them to influence your own seeing, then you're at least in with a chance of producing something a little different, but also ‒ and I now think this is very important ‒ something with a recognisable ancestry other than the pages of Amateur Photographer.

Pinax of Persephone and Hades
Locri, Calabria, 5th century BC

* Still a thing in 1970... When you're 16 and obsessed with being able to draw well, it is liberating, empowering, and  yes  mind-blowing to be given permission to draw "badly" but expressively.

** During my stint at Balliol College, Oxford, I held the elected JCR post of "Mr. Picture Fund", which gave me a small budget to spend on new artwork to add to a collection of pictures which could be borrowed by students to hang in their college rooms. Consequently, I was able to have close, hands-on, "stoner's gaze" acquaintance with an actual early Hockney etching, "Myself and My Heroes", and the original of one of Ralph Steadman's large pen-and-ink illustrations to Alice in Wonderland.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Looks a Bit Wet Out There

Never mind "the best camera is the one you have with you", sometimes the best view is the one from your kitchen table, watching the driving rain with a nice cup of tea. Actually, it's not a bad view under any circumstances.

And, yes, I know the overlapping frames don't match. I like it that way.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Telling Stories

Stick it in yer family album

Nowadays, it seems everyone thinks the answer to everything is having a good story to tell or, if you prefer, a convincing narrative. From advertising to politics, both success and failure are pinned on the box-office rating of the story that was told to the public. Why did we lose the election? We failed to get our narrative across. Why is our brand a success? Because we have given it a place in our customers' personal stories. It seems as if the story-arc and character-development nostrums of Hollywood may have overflowed into real life, which is troubling.

Now, when I was little, "telling stories" was synonymous with "lying". As in, "Michael says the cup jumped off the table, but I think he's just telling stories, mummy!" (Hey! Hey! I'm just providing a convincing narrative here! What are you, my sister, or a critic?). I think there used to be a healthy presumption that stories were rarely co-extensive with the truth, and that life was seldom – for which read never – as neat as that. Or, to put it another way, that a good story needed to be better than real life, which was both the source of its satisfaction, but also solid grounds for suspicion. "Too good to be true" is a reliable metric to apply to life. Face facts, Jack: those beans are just beans, and you've just been conned out of the family cow. And Jill: exactly how did Jack come to fall down the hill? Was this before or after the ruckus about the beans? And why the hell would anyone go up the hill to fetch water, eh? It's just not a convincing story, young lady.

Parish register 1782, Westruther, Scotland

Some years ago, I knew an academic whose speciality was the then emerging field of "life-writing". At the time, although I appreciated the democratic impulse behind the urge to encourage "ordinary" people to research and tell their stories, this seemed to me a curiously narrow, narcissistic, not to say voyeuristic project. History, surely, was not simply an aggregate of autobiographies and family histories and, besides, wasn't everyone these days deeply suspicious of historical storytelling, with its "grand narratives", blinkered focus on "our island story", and all that? Of course, that was before (following whatever original impulse) I began researching my own family history, and realised that, "narrow, narcissistic, not to say voyeuristic" as the project might be, it was also deeply fascinating and a lot of fun.

But family history research poses an interesting question: just how far back does one's personal "story" actually go? Does the unfortunate incident with the vicar's daughter in 1817 still cast a shadow 200 years later? Did your grandfather's terror-filled days of being shelled in 1917 somehow pass on a fear of sudden, loud noises? Certainly, your mother's suppressed anger at losing her promising career to give birth and care for you will have left some kind of mark. Certainly, your own failures, triumphs, and peculiarities will have shaped your own children's lives – some of which will be uniquely yours, and some of which will have been passed to you from your parents, and in turn were passed to them by theirs (and so on back to Adam and Eve who, according to recent studies of DNA, lived 135,000 years ago, but probably never met). This Be The Verse, indeed. In the end, though, most family history is hugely speculative and requires an awful lot of "real" history to flesh out and clothe the bare skeletons of dates, places, and occupations that are all that can be exhumed from documentary sources. It's hardly ever a "story" at all, but a simple roll call of ancestors, who will have been something rather indeterminate between, at best, the "mute inglorious Milton" of Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and, at worst, the village idiot.

1841 census, Bygrave, N. Herts
"Ag Labs" all, boy!

There is another important question. How far does not knowing one's own back-story affect one's ability to live a full, authentic life? Probably less than one thinks. Who you think you are and who you choose to be must matter more than where, objectively, you fit into any number of diachronic narratives. But, equally, how far does that ignorance render one a blank canvas, onto which politicians, advertisers and other manipulators can try to inscribe whatever narrative they find expedient? With the result that "we" – that is, people like us, people who, we are told, share our story-arc – may find ourselves encouraged to despise the undeserving poor ("benefit queens" and "dole scroungers") or the idle rich ("hooray Henrys" and "trustafarians"), or to loathe "Guardian readers" or "Daily Mail readers", or any of the other factitious tribal feuds and rivalries that give a vivid but false colouring to the news and to opinion. It takes unusual strength of character to reject the script you're being handed and start improvising your own.

Knowing and sharing our stories – personal, familial, national, cultural – may not mean that we know who we are ("I" is always elusive, always a work in progress) but it does mean we know by what different routes we each of us got here, and this may help to expand the boundaries of our sense of fellow-feeling, of who is included in "us". Which, if nothing else, is a powerful antidote to those toxic, exclusionary stories that enchant the more unreflective members of our community.

1861 census, Bygrave, N.Herts

What is more uncertain, though, is whether the daily struggle to follow so many contradictory narratives and counter-narratives is making us more or less aware that we are constantly being told stories, in the sense of being misled and lied to, and that any story is just a story, and probably too good to be true?  Or does this exhausting struggle overwhelm us, as if we were minor characters in some poorly-written serial blockbuster, with an over-elaborate plot, improbable dialogue, and too many unlikely coincidences, so that we simply resign ourselves to our incomprehensible walk-on part in this preposterous fiction? Whatever!

Which may lead the more independent-minded to that most modern moment of revelation: No, wait! Everyone is just making this up as they go along! Everyone! It seems nobody knows how the story will end, and practically no-one knows or cares what happened in the previous episodes... You just have to hope that, from somewhere in your back-story, you have been bequeathed the ability to extemporise your way to a satisfactory denouement.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Me and My Shadow

Normally, I go to great lengths to keep my own shadow or reflection out of my photographs. Traditionally regarded as a cardinal error of photography (along with the blurred thumb, the headless torso, the tree apparently growing out of the subject's head, and the like) one's own shadow or reflection can be used as one of those po-mo "meta" gestures: Hey, look, guess what? This is just a photograph, and it's me that's taking it! In fact, Lee Friedlander put together an entire collection of such witty self-inclusions as long ago as 1970, published as Self Portrait. But, sometimes, as in this one, it is impossible to avoid, and did seem sort of appropriate. I actually wanted the brightly-illuminated brickwork and the markings for possible use in a collage, but the angle of the sun was making it impossible to take any other way. In fact, I quite like the resulting image.

You may have thought you'd spotted me standing reflected within the seated girl in the previous post, but if so you'd be wrong. Look closer:

Blimey, is that guy having a pee against the Social Sciences building opposite? In broad daylight and in plain sight? The stance, the furtive sideways glance, are diagnostic. But, surely not...

In both cases, though, this is a reminder that it would be really handy to have a short telephoto prime lens, something like the good old 135mm that everyone used to have (and rarely used) in their 35mm kit. Personally, I used to love my Olympus Zuiko 135mm f/3.5, with its built-in lens-hood and perfectly-balanced ratio of weight to length. It simply matched the way I saw back then, although it's true my preferred personal angle of view has widened considerably with age. That new-ish Fuji 90mm f/2 would hit the spot nicely, but at £750 exists only in a parallel universe, the one in which my in-town runaround – nothing flashy, just a well-maintained Audi TT Mk. 1 – is parked outside our Chelsea mews pied-à-terre. Perhaps that's where my shadow-self lives.

[cue theme music and opening titles from The Prisoner]

Friday, 24 February 2017

The Optics Thing

Have you noticed the expression "the optics" creeping into media discourse recently? It means "how something looks", or more particularly, how something looks to the public, as mediated via the lens, literal and metaphorical, of the media. For example, a collection of exclusively white, middle-aged men might be said to give "bad optics" at a press conference, in media-relations terms. Better mix in a few women and ethnics, yeah? And get the good-looking ones front and centre. Who cares who they are or what they do? It's all about the optics.

I think "the optics" still has the status of a buzzword. That is, a term used by a particular community as part of its own jargon, which both marks off insiders from outsiders, and also encapsulates some "buzzy" contemporary concept in a suitably concise shorthand. However, the fact that I, an observant outsider, am noticing "the optics" being used (mainly, paradoxically, on the radio) probably means it is in transition from a buzzword to a cliché, which is what inevitably happens when people other than the original users notice and adopt something, in the same way fashions are copied from the subcultural and the young by the middle-aged – a particular way of tying a scarf, say, at one extreme, to body-piercings at the other – and are as a result emptied of their authentic excitement, or "buzziness". It's not beyond the bounds of possibility, for example, that a few "respectable" public figures are sporting tattoos, even the odd "tramp stamp", though this is not a thought we wish to dwell on. Certainly, Samantha Cameron has a tattoo on her ankle. The desire of the conventional to appropriate the cachet of the unconventional, without sacrificing any of the privileges of conventionality, has always been one of the drivers of art and fashion.

Not all jargon is catchy, of course. Much contemporary academic prose is impenetrable to the lay reader, rendering a discussion of a poem as rebarbative as, say, the full-on anatomical description of a newly-discovered insect species. Mind you, personally, I love (but barely understand) the precision of the language of taxonomy. What's not to like (hmm, buzzword or cliché?) about this:

The head shining, punctured, the clypeus coarsely so; the face with dark griseous pubescence. Thorax with the pubescence beneath the wings fuscous, that on the legs beneath paler, the floccus on the posterior femora beneath of a dirty white; the scopa on the posterior tibiae fuscous; wings subhyaline, the nervures fusco-ferruginous, the tegulae testaceous.
(from the description of a Mexican bee, Colletes intricatus)

Mind you, that is pretty catchy, even if incomprehensible. I mean, "fusco-ferruginous"! It just trips off the tongue, doesn't it? It could be the name of a character in Star Wars, or a red-haired rapper, and I can't wait to drop it into a conversation. Though I may have to wait some time for the opportunity, and even then "a dark rusty colour" might be more readily understood. But the whole point of jargon in transition to cliché is that it should – even if only slightly – resist immediate understanding. The speaker's status is elevated by the level of attention piqued in the listener. Cor, what does that mean?

Naturally, nearly all buzzwords, when extracted from their original context, cease to mean what they were originally intended to mean. A classic example is "deconstruction", which does not mean "to take something apart to see how it works", although of course it does mean that, too, and if everybody else prefers to use the word that way that will continue to be its main signification, to the annoyance of "theory" scholars everywhere. But, given it's become a signature move (hmm, buzzword or cliché?) of humanities and social-science scholars to take an existing word and give it a new, specialised, often counter-intuitive meaning, then it serves them right. Lay users don't want to understand "theory", merely to appropriate the aura its vocabulary lends to their conversation, signalling that the speaker is not just down with the kids but also up with the academics.

BBC Radio 4 presenters pretend to disparage such "trendy" coinages, but use them nonetheless, usually prefaced by some sanitising phrase like "in that awful expression..." or "with that dreadful word...".  I see no reason to be so bothered by most buzzwords or even clichés, if they're used consciously and appropriately, perhaps with a suitable sense of irony, perhaps with a little added personal spin. After all, almost all idiomatic English is nothing but a collection of clichéd turns of phrase so worn-out and threadbare as to be virtually transparent. The recycling of novel slang and jargon is a democratic sort of creativity: everyone can enjoy using and sharing vivid new language, especially when it is in that lively transitional phase from specialists' argot to common currency. At worst, like Samantha Cameron with her tattoo, it's a harmless way for someone to show they are alert to trends and novelties, and to feel at the same time a little transgressive, a little ahead of the curve (hmm, buzzwords or clichés?), but without risking exclusion from polite society.

Which, I suppose, means that "the optics" may, for now, be a thing. As in, "I didn't know that was a thing", an expression that is itself now definitely well on the way to becoming a cliché. Although I am still eagerly waiting to hear the first government minister on the radio, protesting to their interviewer: "But, with all due respect, Mishal, that isn't even a thing!" It probably wouldn't sound great, though; I wonder if you can have "bad optics" on the radio?

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Same River Twice

River Avon, looking towards Sea Mills 

A dreary late afternoon in February down by the Avon at low tide.

Sea Mills, looking towards River Avon

Friday, 17 February 2017

wood s lot

I was sad, but not surprised, to read of Mark Woods' death this week. As I posted some while ago, it was clear something was up, when such a diligent blogger fell abruptly silent.

I didn't know Mark, though we did exchange a few emails, and he was kind enough to feature a few of my pictures over the years on his amazing and long-lived blog, wood s lot. But, on the basis of his judicious daily samplings from and links to the data-hose that is the online world, it was impossible not to form a strong impression of his personality. I felt I knew him – as, I am sure, did thousands of other regular readers – and yet, he never wrote a word of his own.

Above all, I learned from him. Artists and writers I would never have discovered for myself appeared on wood s lot every day. Every day! Debates and discussions I would never have had the engagement or patience to follow for myself were presented in thoughtfully filleted extracts, taken from online journals and forums I had never encountered. I cannot imagine how he found the time or kept up the enthusiasm, but he did. Every day.

He will be missed, and he will be remembered by those who followed his tireless curatorial work. Which is an extraordinary achievement in this churning world of ever-shortening attention spans.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

I'll Never Forget Old Wotsisname

Peartree Spring Junior School, Stevenage, 1961 (detail)

I don't really "do" Facebook, although I do have a minimal presence on it; if nothing else, it's an effective way to be reminded of certain birthdays. Which is admittedly a bit like using your smartphone primarily as a watch (which, now I come to think of it, I do). It seems to me that Facebook has a way of bringing out the worst in even the nicest people. That is, if you consider greetings-card sentimentality, say, or me-too groupthink as bad things. If you don't, well, go for it. We can't all be pretentious elitist snobs, can we? But nothing exposes the Dark Side of your friends more tragically than an unsuspected fondness for videos of kittens.

Very occasionally, though – generally when someone I lost touch with long ago comes to mind for some reason – I take a deep breath, dive in, and have a look around to see if they happen to be hanging out on Facebook. Happily, they very rarely are; it seems most of my old friends, colleagues and acquaintances are stand-offish killjoys, too, with no interest in cute cats or sharing photographs of their meals. Which is good. Although becoming a grandparent does seem to have a corrosive effect on even the most unyielding of moral fibres. Which is understandable.

If someone does show up in there, however, Facebook is set up so that the only way to get in touch is to send a "friend" request, an act that combines cheery inconsequence with needy self-abasement in such a uniquely strange way that I find it impossible to do, not least with someone I haven't met for 30, 40 or even 50 years. But then I hate having my name written on a cup in Starbucks, too ("Tall Americano for, uh, Mistry Mann!"). That presumption of the sanctity of privacy which is so important to the old is a cause of amusement to the young, I know. But then we seniors have invested a lot more time and effort into becoming who we are (as well as into concealing our mistakes), and don't feel like being quite so careless with our data or our dignity ("That's mister Mistry-Mann to you, sonny!").

But identity is a mutable thing, it goes without saying (what isn't?), and it's so easy not to notice the gradual, cumulative changes to our constructed "selves" as they are happening. But little and often adds up to an awful lot of change over a few decades. So it should have been no surprise when, the other day, I was idly following a series of Facebook links – friends of friends of friends who might be friends of a very old friend who didn't immediately turn up in a search – and it quickly became clear that I no longer had anything much in common with childhood friends with whom I once had everything in common.

Junior School trip, 1965

Life is all about those ch-ch-changes, of course. We continually make choices (some trivial, some not, it can be hard to tell the difference), we seize or fail to seize opportunities and, one way or another, leave the past far, far behind us, as we stumble through our unique, personal, labyrinthine flowchart, a series of crossed thresholds and chosen paths we can never retrace. There is no magic thread which will lead us back through the maze, although social media can sometimes give us glimpses into a maze-like hall of mirrors, offering up broken, refracted answers to the question, "Whatever became of old So-and-So?"

Now, this has to be a "no names, no pack drill" exercise. Let's just say I had been looking on Facebook for someone who was one of my best friends up until the age of eleven. We lived in the same street, went to the same primary school, played together with the same group of friends in the same woods, recreation grounds, back-gardens and bedrooms. His family were East Enders, mine were local yokels, but we all had in common the New Town spirit of the 1950s and 60s. Make yerself at 'ome, son! Fancy a bite to eat? Pull up a chair, boy, lovely grub! Those were good times with good people in a good place in some very good years.

But that friendship came to an abrupt end when the secondary school selection process* sent us on separate paths. My friend went through the door marked "secondary modern", and I went through the one marked "grammar" (or "snob school", as it was more generally known). When that door shut behind me I looked back, and all but a couple of my closest playmates had gone; the door might as well have had "EDEN – NO RETURN" written on it in letters of fire. It was the first instalment on the price of seizing certain opportunities (or having them thrust upon you), and in particular of choosing to walk the steep and poorly-signposted path of "social mobility".

Ah, grammar schools. There is a huge, unexamined nostalgia in this country for grammar schools, and not only, it seems, among ex-grammar pupils. They are held out as the route to social mobility for the "academically-able poor", if we can use such a label, one which was supposedly closed off when comprehensive schools were introduced, leaving potential little swots like me to be bullied and demotivated by peer pressure. What nonsense! A quarter-truth at best. Others know the arguments better: for example here or here, and I can't improve on them. Let's just say a return to grammar schools for a few also implies a return to secondary moderns for the many, and leave it at that.

Grammar Boys v. Grammar Girls 1971

Mobility is always relative, of course. Grammar schools – but also subsequently comprehensives – have been good at providing a steady stream of the kind of conscientious conformists who keep the public services running, freeing up the more glamorous professions for the privately-educated, for whom a steady job with a final-salary, index-linked pension is not the lure it is to the rest of us. Back in the 1960s, although a fair few of my grammar-school classmates were already children of the middle-classes (bussed in from surrounding commuter-dormitory villages), most came from New Town families like mine, working- or lower-middle-class families where aspiration and education were highly prized by our parents, not least because these valuable things had been denied to them.** For mobility even to be an option was a new and exciting thing. But in any school system, bright kids with motivated parents, however financially poor, are never a problem; it's the rest you have to worry about. Like my long-lost primary school friends, for example.

They weren't without ability, those other boys and girls, they just didn't like school, often despised those that did like school, and generally had parents who hadn't thought much of it, either. Quite likely – at age eleven! – they had also lacked that essential qualification: a capacity for deferred gratification. You could leave school at 15 back then, and start earning proper money; a very tempting prospect. People also forget that a majority of state grammar pupils did not go on to higher education, anyway. In those days of full employment, a lack of paper qualifications was no obstacle to anyone with a degree of ambition and determination. So, I was curious. Perhaps I thought that, in the process of triangulating one lost friend, Facebook might give me a glimpse of what had become of some of my old playmates in the subsequent fifty years. Or, more precisely, of how they (and their friends, relatives and business associates) choose to portray themselves now: where they live, what they do for a living, who they married and who they divorced, what their kids do, where they go on holiday, even (inevitably) what they eat. All the circumstantial stuff a person might choose to share with their Facebook "friends" and the wider world.

Old skool (Alleyne's Grammar, Stevenage, ca. 1965)

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, but what I often found – with fewer exceptions than I would have anticipated or liked – was that I was looking into the face of The Enemy: the Daily Mail and Sun readers, the UKIP supporters, the self-satisfied and the downright ignorant, with their racist jokes and toe-curling sentimentality, living in sterile, neat-as-a-pin homes with no books and no evidence of an inner life or cultural engagement beyond a TV the size of a dining table taking pride of place in the living room.*** Ironically, I imagine they would mostly be supporting the return of grammar schools, now. It's UKIP policy, after all.

In the main they seemed happy enough, though. Several developed and ran their own businesses, have clearly made rather more money than me, and live in considerable comfort, a few even living abroad. Others seem just about to have kept their heads above water, bobbing along with the economic tides, and are still living within a few streets of where we used to play. Obviously, I have no way of knowing what happened to the ones whose names I can't quite recall, or who didn't show up on the internet: some may have sunk (or risen) without trace, but most likely they are sensible citizens with moderate opinions and no appetite for self-advertisement or time to waste on Facebook.

But what was clear was that education, work, family life and fifty years of choices and chances had placed an uncrossable gulf between us, with our very different ambitions, achievements, pleasures, and disappointments. We started out from the same place, but live in such different worlds now that we would be entirely mutually incomprehensible on, say, some imaginary long, late summer's afternoon, standing around awkwardly on some complete stranger's immaculate suburban lawn, attempting to catch up over a barbecue and a beer.

So, no "friend" requests on Facebook, then? No reminiscing about long-ago playground larks? No getting the gang together for one last wild charge through the woods for old times' sake? No, of course not, there was never a ghost of a chance of that happening. Not least because I'm pretty sure they wouldn't now have a clue who I am, or any curiosity about what happened to me. Just as the bussed-in village kids at grammar school knew nothing of our townie weekends of underage drinking, music and partying, so those of us who ventured out to universities and a new life cut ourselves off from all those important small-town rites of passage around work, play, marriage, and family that create and strengthen the bonds of shared origins, year by year by year. Nobody ever warns you that to choose "social mobility" is also to choose a form of exile.

There are other kinds of exile you can choose, of course. For example, that sometime best friend I started out looking for? I did find him, in the end. To my amazement it seems he went out to apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and became a big noise in the packaging industry out there. There's an unmistakable photo of him awarding a long-service pin to a nervous-looking black employee. Oh, and look, nice house! But what a very big fence...

Peartree Spring Junior School, Stevenage, 1961 (detail)

* I don't recall sitting the dreaded "Eleven Plus" exam in 1965, but there must have been some kind of formal assessment, as Hertfordshire schools continued to be selective until around 1969.

** Aspiration is also relative, of course. The two most spectacularly academically-gifted pupils I was aware of in the years above me at school (both middle-class blow-ins, as it happens) ended up, after Oxbridge double firsts, as a less-than-eminent academic and a middle-ranking editor on a national newspaper.

*** It's some kind of marker of my new class identity that I do not call this room "the lounge", though that's certainly what we used to call it. Oh, well. What was that about pretentious, elitist snobs?

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Philosophical Investigations

Southampton Sports Centre

If you've ever felt bothered by not knowing much about Derrida and deconstruction – and I know I have – you could do worse than read this article from the New Humanist. If nothing else, you will find Nietzsche quoted as saying, "I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar". Now there's a little something to drop into your conversation sometime, perhaps as an alternative to my favourite dinner-party ice-breaker, "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest" (Diderot). Ah, such flashes of merriment, guaranteed to set the table on a roar!

But if that leaves you feeling a little impatient with the philosophical project, you may enjoy this amusing addition to Wittgenstein, by the inimitable Michael Frayn (the thinking man's Tom Stoppard), which I came across via the previously-mentioned Language Hat blog. You're welcome!

Hollybrook Cemetery

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Cadbury Camp

On Saturday afternoon we were up on a large hillfort near the Somerset coast known as Cadbury Camp, with wide vistas in all directions, including – this being a fine day – the Severn Bridge and the distant hills of Wales across the Bristol Channel. I love these high places, with their ditches, ramparts, and brooding sense of vestigial ancient presences.

However, it was a matter of dispute – my partner and I are much given to dispute – whether we had ever been here before, or whether this was the place she and her sisters had been brought by their parents in her Bristol childhood. I couldn't settle the question of her family visit, but I was pretty convinced I had never set foot in the place before, even allowing for the fact that all hillforts do share a strong family resemblance, and we have been visiting them for forty years.

Later, looking the place up on Wikipedia, I discovered that there are, in fact, three hillforts in Somerset with the name "Cadbury", one of which – Cadbury Castle – is significantly bigger and has a strong association with the Arthurian legends, to the extent of having once been known as Camalet. I strongly suspect this may be where we thought we were revisiting. There's only one way to find out...

To Brits, of course, the name "Cadbury" has an inescapable association with the manufacture of chocolate. Or in euro-terms – the EU rules having understandably inflexible requirements on the amount of cocoa solids actually used in "chocolate" – "chocolate-flavoured waxy substance, marginally suitable for human consumption". Regrettably, although I saw no evidence of chocolate production, ancient or modern, on Cadbury Camp, quite a few Crunchie and Flake wrappers were blowing around the place, adding their little local notes of non-biodegradable colour.