Thursday, 21 June 2018

Summer Solstice

Today, around 11:00 a.m. in Britain, the sun will appear to stop, look around at the Northern Hemisphere, and think, "Nah...", as it always does, and start heading back south again. For some reason, we celebrate this celestial snub, and the further north you go, the harder the partying.

For example, the so-called "white nights" in St. Petersburg culminate in one of those invented traditions, known as Scarlet Sails (alye parusa), a slightly hysterical event deriving from, of all things, the end of the school year and a popular Soviet-era children's book, which nonetheless looks a lot more fun than morris dancing in a pub car-park or feeling the damp vibe at dawn at Stonehenge.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Kingfisher Revisited

If you were fortunate enough to receive one of my calendars this year, you'll know that this month has been nominated the Month of the Kingfisher Triptych. You'll probably already sick of looking at it. Me, too. There's something a little too dark, a little too blue about it. So I'm revisiting it, starting with this version. I think it already works well, but there's always room for improvement (I'm resisting popping a crow in there; for now, anyway).

I'm still hoping to print a version of this one BIG (big for me: about 120cm x 60cm) with maybe some hand-done augmentations, and place it in some prestigious exhibition somewhere, with an eye-watering price tag on it. I doubt anyone would actually buy it, but it would be a work of art in itself to see one's own name on a label printed next to the price of a small car, wouldn't it?

Monday, 18 June 2018

The Secret

Something I saw recently in the paper:
Two books – Lauren Slater’s The Drugs That Changed Our Minds and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind: the New Science of Psychedelics – that have been published this year, and have both received wonderful reviews, suggest that taking hallucinogenic drugs may help people suffering from depression. The science appears fairly conclusive but, much as I would like greater relief from the feelings of anxiety and depression that have punctuated much of my adult life, I find myself an extremely reluctant guinea pig. Over the course of about a year in the mid 1970s, I took LSD at least once or twice every week. At first it was fun – having a laugh as people melted before my eyes – but towards the end I began to feel as if I was going mad. My last trip was a 14-hour nightmare which I only got through by staring at a wall and telling myself that it had to end at some point if I could just sit it out. That did it for me. More than 40 years on, I can still vividly recall the sheer terror of the experience. I know that what Pollen and Slater are suggesting is somewhat different – micro-doses of hallucinogens rather than the full-on psychedelic experience – but even the thought of a partially distorted reality makes me feel anxious. I’m just not ready to lose my mind in the hope of regaining it.
John Crace, Digested Week, Guardian, 18 May 2018
Let's just remind ourselves that John Crace is the Guardian's Parliamentary sketch writer, as well as an acute parodist of novelists. It's interesting, how many similar confessions Pollan's book, in particular, has stimulated in the press recently. There's clearly a need out there among the media-types to out themselves as sometime acid-heads. Does it give them more or less credibility? It's hard to say. That John Crace's experience of Prime Minister's Questions might sometimes be a grotesque flashback is moot: how could you possibly tell? This urge to confess is not new, however, and neither is it confined to left-leaning scribes. Consider the case of Paul Staines, better known as the ultra-conservative blogger Guido Fawkes:
His politics, however, could hardly be described as toeing the Party line. In an article published by the Libertarian Alliance in 1991, Mr Staines wrote enthusiastically of his experiences with LSD and ecstasy, saying: "I have fond memories of taking LSD and pure MDMA, trance-dancing and thinking that I had turned into a psychedelic, orgiastic wisp of smoke – it was the most staggeringly enjoyable, mind-warping experience I have ever had. The only word to describe it is WOW!"
  He suggested that many Tories "would benefit from taking drugs, particularly Thatcherites", adding: "Couldn't we put acid in the punch at the Young Conservatives ball and then really have a party?"
  As a father of two daughters aged four and two, he has since changed his views, admitting: "I don't want my daughters to do that kind of stuff."
From an article in the Daily Telegraph, 19/4/2009
That was a decade ago, and what's more, in the Daily Telegraph. The Daily Telegraph! But, "WOW"? Really? I have to say, I think the more typical experience of the undisciplined intake of street-sourced psychedelics (pretty much a mandatory rite of passage around 1972) is far better summed up by Crace's observation above, i.e. "My last trip was a 14-hour nightmare which I only got through by staring at a wall and telling myself that it had to end at some point if I could just sit it out". As a friend once revealed to me while he was deep in that exact same, peak-panic, wall-staring phase, the profound secret revealed by LSD is this: How incredibly grateful you will be – grateful in a desperate, quasi-religious sense, like a trapped caver or falling climber praying for rescue – just to emerge intact, to continue to be just the same as you were before, and never have to experience this ever again. In other words, the primary, paradoxical revelation of LSD is that you should never take LSD, just as you should never descend into dark caves or climb steep rockfaces, you idiot. Anyone who tells you different is either a liar, very lucky, or addicted to risk.

So just say NO, kids. Listen to Mr. Crace. Unless you are Young Conservatives, of course, in which case, why not take two? What harm can it possibly do?

Monday, 11 June 2018


I was only in St. Petersburg for three and a half days, but I made many pages of notes, most of which will never make it into these blog posts. Sometimes, though, these small observations can be telling, although I am aware of the danger of the "all sheep in Scotland are black" syndrome [1]. I was astonished, for example, to find that most Russians no longer smoke. Who'd have thought it? Certainly, the Poles who have come to Britain in such numbers in recent years seem to smoke continually. I was also intrigued by the crude, large-bore downpipes that seem to have been bolted on to most city-centre buildings as an afterthought. I mean large: often about 30 cm or more across. The intriguing thing is that they go nowhere, other than splashing straight onto the pavement: there seems to be no sub-surface drainage system in St.Petersburg. It must be tricky, negotiating the pavements in a heavy downpour or a big snowmelt. If it all refreezes overnight, you probably need skates to get to work. Which reminds me that there appear to be no speed limits on Russian roads, or much by way of rules, either – it was easily the worst, most aggressive driving I've seen anywhere in Europe. Crunched cars abandoned by the roadside are, unsurprisingly, a common sight. Oh, and none of the cars are Russian: it's all Hondas, Toyotas, Renaults, Volkswagens, Jeeps, and Skodas, just like here at home.

My partner did stay on longer, but she had work to do; my visit, and my visa, were conditional upon hers. Have you ever applied for a Russian visa? The curious thing is that you can't just want to visit Russia, you have to be invited into the country by someone. Just like, um, a vampire. In the case of most tourists, this invitation will come (at a small fee) from the hotel they have booked, or intend to book, or are pretending to be going to book (there are "easy visa" websites offering precisely this latter service, which feels more than a little fraudulent). But apparently Russians are used to this: you just need to put something down, anything, to satisfy the bureaucracy. It doesn't matter if it's not strictly true; the appearance of compliance is what matters. Which, to a Brit, feels like walking into a trap.

In our case, we had an official "humanitarian" invitation from the Ministry of Internal Affairs which, you would have thought, would be a real red-carpet, jump-the-queue sort of ticket: this way, professor! In fact, the form to be filled out for a "scholarly-technical relations" visa was twice as onerous and intrusive as that for a regular tourist (I mean, honestly: Dates of parents' deaths? Children's addresses and passport numbers? All visits abroad in the last ten years, with dates?), and even then we still had to hang around all afternoon in the visa office in London. You'd almost think they don't really want you to to come... No wonder numbers are down for the World Cup: I don't think most Ingerland football supporters could manage the visa process without succumbing to despair.

A highlight of any visit to St. Petersburg has to be the Hermitage Museum (Ermitazh in Russian, mimicking the French pronunciation), which is truly prodigious. Is there a word that combines "cavernous" with "palatial" and "baroque"? If there is, then that is the word for the Hermitage. "Hermitageous", perhaps. The place is full of gorgeous and interesting stuff (as well as an awful lot of gilded tat), and yet so BIG that some of the huge salons still seem practically empty. We made two visits and barely scratched the surface of what is in there. An unfortunate metaphor, that, in the context: I was amazed at how vulnerable most of the exhibits were to wear and tear and malicious intent. I suppose, with that amount of stuff, you can afford to take a Stalingrad-style view of the rate of attrition: there's plenty more where that came from. But it's the first time I've visited any major gallery or museum where attendants open the windows when it gets a bit hot, letting in the traffic fumes and insects to perform their destructive alchemy on the exposed paintings, furniture, and tapestries. Maybe that's why nearly everything that can be gilded or gold-plated is gilded or gold-plated. The Hermitage really is Bling Central; gold, gold, gold!

The palace is also packed with visitors. More full, even, than the Uffizi or the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum, which I would not have thought possible. Curiously, a clear majority of these visitors are Chinese. I have to say, one of the main impressions we took away from our two Hermitage visits was: what are all these Chinese doing here? [2]. On one occasion, attempting to enter a room, we stood back to allow a large guided group of Chinese to exit. But this exodus went on for so long – several minutes – that it actually became hilarious. We estimated this single group must have numbered 300, at least. Many of these visitors are very elderly, and not a few seemed confused to the point of distress. Loud and acrimonious disputes would erupt – uninhibited shouting is not something you often hear in a museum – and you'd regularly encounter some ancient person staggering about in a state of utter bafflement. It was clear they had little interest in the Hermitage's contents, as they were shepherded to and fro, beyond ticking off a Leonardo or two. Is it possible the Chinese government has outsourced the care of its elderly population to the world's museums and galleries, forcing them to eternally wander the parquet corridors until they drop? It certainly looks that way.

The Hermitage is so enormous, however, that there's a sort of M25 motorway effect: you get pulses of intense congestion, rendering everyone immobile, and then it will clear miraculously, so that you have the room to yourself for an entire minute. However, we discovered that one way to have the place permanently all to yourself is to go down to the basement galleries housing the amazing archaeological treasures excavated from prehistoric nomadic burials preserved in the Siberian permafrost. The guided tours give these a miss, but they're a revelation: I've never seen so much perfectly preserved wood and fabric, all elaborately carved and woven, including the oldest knotted carpet discovered anywhere in the world, from around 500 BC. It makes you realise how little material culture survives under normal circumstances, and how much this skews our view of the past, as if the clothing you are wearing today were to be reconstructed in the future from a belt buckle and a few buttons and eyelets ("The god Levi Strauss appears to have been widely worshipped").

The biggest surprise, though, was the famous golden peacock. If you've seen Eisenstein's film October, you will doubtless remember the montage scene where wicked Tsar Kerensky [Tsar? Fact check this, please! Ed.] is compared, mockingly, to a mechanical peacock found in the Winter Palace (a large component of today's Hermitage). I had always imagined this clockwork novelty to be about a foot or so tall, with the tail adding a bit more height when erected, the sort of thing that would sit comfortably on, say, a large bookcase. Wrong. It's still there in the Winter Palace and it's a lot bigger than that – in fact it occupies its own grand room – and is just one part of an extraordinary mechanical clock, entirely covered in gold, naturally: a scenario of a peacock, an owl, and a rooster perched on the branches of a golden tree, about six feet or more tall. It is without doubt the ultimate piece of bling in a treasure-house of imperial bling, teetering ludicrously but awesomely on that baroque edge between fine craftsmanship and vulgar, over-elaborate, and pointless ostentation. I dread to think what the crowd is like in that room on a Wednesday, the one day each week when the gilded clockwork combo is allowed to do its tail-spreading, head-spinning, clock-striking, wacky automaton thing.

In some ways more compelling than the Hermitage, however, is the Ethnographic Museum, which celebrates and documents the ethnic diversity of Russia and the various folkways that used to exist across the length and breadth of that enormous and varied landmass before sovietization and a one-size-fits-all modernity stamped them out. It's a bit exhausting, but a real treasure-trove of vernacular weirdness.

If you recall my drawings of imaginary "clumsy guitars", you can imagine the delight with which I discovered these home-made stringed instruments, complete with slack strings and cracked soundboards:

And my even greater delight in finding a gallery of tableaux – Weird Scenes Inside the Izba – that such instruments must once have been used to accompany. Ah, the world we have lost! Well, you've got to do something to keep you entertained on those long, dark winter evenings... This is a game called "Tell Me Again That I Don't Make Kasha Like Your Mamma Used To Make":

Looks fun, doesn't it? And this is a bentbark hat, as worn by all properly-accoutred Aleutian seal hunters, from up Alaska way:

Curiously, although the modern day Aleut wears a Berghaus parka, rather than the traditional coat stitched together out of seal-gut, he still seems to favour this striking headgear, at least if the accompanying photos are to be trusted. It makes for an odd combination, breathable Gore-Tex and birch-bark party hat, but, doubtless, like all the best idiotic hats, it serves a purpose far greater and more mysterious than merely keeping the rain off or the sun out of the eyes. It's also possible, I suppose, that seals can be rendered helpless by laughter.

Naturally, these Arctic peoples turned out shedloads of these traditional engraved walrus tusks or whale-teeth, depicting hunting scenes from time immemorial. But... Wait a minute... Isn't that Trotsky there in the middle? WTF! Send for the Director!

1. I was sure I must have told this joke before, but can't find it anywhere. It is a Great Teaching:
Four scientists, a mathematician, a physicist, a biologist, and an astronomer, go on a trip to Scotland. As they cross the border, they see a black sheep in a field.
"Amazing", says the astronomer, "All the sheep in Scotland are black!"
"Don't be silly", says the biologist, "It would be more accurate to say that some sheep in Scotland are black".
"Nonsense", says the physicist, "All we can say with certainty, at most, is that one sheep in Scotland is black!"
The mathematician sighs. "You people make me laugh with your sloppy talk... The best we can say is that there is one field in Scotland which contains one sheep, one half of which is black!"
2. I believe it's OK, these days, mandatory even, to be a little racist about the Chinese, in the same way it's apparently OK to mock us white, middle-class males: something to do with asymmetric power relations. You want to run the world? OK, then at least we get to take the piss.

Sunday, 10 June 2018


Before I continue to mine my St. Petersburg notes for posts, I'm pleased to point out that I have three pictures in an exhibition associated with the Broadway Arts Festival in the Cotswolds. The exhibition opened on Friday 6th June and is in the Little Buckland Gallery until 17th June. If you're in the area, why not drop in and have a look? As I won't actually be able to visit the gallery myself, I'd be curious to hear what you make of it. The judging panel was chaired by distinguished printmaker Norman Ackroyd, and not by that ████ Grayson Perry, unlike certain other exhibitions I could mention.

Here are the pictures (image size roughly 18cm x 12cm on a 25cm x 20cm sheet, each available for sale in an edition of 25, at £125 unframed). Assuming they don't sell out at the exhibition (unlikely, I think), do let me know if you'd be interested in one.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Anna Akhmatova

Most big cities have at least one essential literary or artistic pilgrimage to make, and in the case of St.Petersburg this was for me, without question, the Anna Akhmatova apartment museum. Despite their obvious artificiality, I like to visit the houses and apartments of creative figures preserved as museums. A room has a personality which is more or less permanent; it has an orientation and a volume, as well as doors and windows, all determining how much light and air are admitted, and how private or public the space is – important in an apartment, like this one, shared with rather more occupants than it was originally intended for. To stand in a room and allow that personality to work on you is a real form of connection with its former inhabitants. If original furniture, pictures, and possessions are present, so much the better.

If you don't know Akhmatova's story or her work there's plenty on the Web, but this Poetry Foundation summary is a pretty thorough introduction. Akhmatova embodies something essential about Russia, both its tragic twists and turns in the 20th century, and its edgy love-hate relationship with the arts, especially poetry. As another great Russian poet, her friend Osip Mandelstam, declared (prophetically in his case), "Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?" Akhmatova was a survivor, however, who endured the worst, including the Siege of Leningrad and the Yezhovshchina Purges, and yet who chose to stay in the Soviet Union, in St.Petersburg, despite everything. A great beauty in her youth, much admired, courted, photographed, and painted, I actually think I prefer the gritty granny Akhmatova who lived into the mid-1960s, still writing, finally getting the recognition she deserved (including an honorary degree from Oxford), still uneasily at odds with the various paranoias of the Soviet authorities.

So I am pleased to say that I have now stood in the space where her great poem about the experience of the Great Terror, Requiem, was written, or rather, composed, as it had to be committed to the distributed memory of trusted friends, rather than written down, for fear of further persecution by the authorities. But I think my preference is for the short, lyrical work, such as this very famous one:

You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.

That day in Moscow, it will all come true,
when, for the last time, I take my leave,
And hasten to the heights that I have longed for,
Leaving my shadow still to be with you.
1961-63, translation by D.M. Thomas

The poem is very beautiful, spoken out loud in Russian... Uslýshish grom i vspómnish obo mne, / Podúmaesh: oná grózy zhelála... [1] Thomas's translation loses both the rhyme scheme and the incantatory rhythm of the original, and I'm not convinced by the literal sense he makes of the second stanza, but what do I know? Here's another, this time translated by Judith Hemschemeyer, which also loses the rhymes and rhythm, but seems to get the sense right:

The Last Toast
I drink to the ruined house,
To the evil of my life,
To our shared loneliness
And I drink to you–
To the lie of lips that betrayed me,
To the deadly coldness of the eyes,
To the fact that the world is cruel and depraved,
To the fact that God did not save.
June 27, 1934
Translation by Judith Hemschemeyer

Memorial to Mandelstam, seen from Akhmatova's window

The museum itself is a nice combination of rooms left in (or restored to) their original condition, and a surprisingly hi-tech gallery with interactive displays of manuscripts, books, and artefacts. And unlike, say, the Brownings' flat in Florence I visited in 2016, there is a steady stream of visiting literary pilgrims and curiosity seekers. For lovers of poetry, Akhmatova has a special place: she represents the ability of the poetic impulse to survive and thrive, despite the most brutal attempts to stamp and starve it out. True art is not a delicate, decorative affair, but a virus, or a vigorous weed. The museum is well worth a visit, should you ever be in St. Petersburg, if only to see what a Soviet-era apartment looked like; but there surely must be some special magic to be had in seeing your face reflected back from Anna Akhmatova's own mirror.

1. It's an interesting question, which had never occurred to me before, how far the poetic "voice" is affected by a heavily gender-inflected language like Russian. In other words, where the "I" of a poem is female, all the verbs, adjectives, etc. are inflected to indicate this (and similarly for a male voice). If read out as written, a poem by a member of the opposite sex must sound oddly like an impersonation, surely? This is, of course, never a problem in English, but to an extent must affect, say, French or German. Anyone have an informed view on this?

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Revolution? What Revolution?

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but St. Petersburg was definitely not it. Obviously, life has changed dramatically in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, and I suspect those of us in the West who grew up in the "Cold War" years still have a hard time mentally separating today's Russia from the Russia of yesterday. "Yesterday" being nearly 30 years ago now. Soviet-style Communism? What's that?

But even so: it was not what I had been led to expect. In a good way, I suppose. After all, this is supposed to be the City of Crime. This is where white supremacists are supposed to hang out, and murder overseas students. This is Putin's home town. I suppose it was not as different as I had anticipated. Frankly, if it were not for the Cyrillic signs and the bling-fixation – gold is everywhere – I could have been in pretty much any major European city I have visited in recent years: I was constantly reminded of Lisbon, or Paris, or Berlin, or Amsterdam. There is the same crumbling but magnificent heritage architecture, the same constant traffic, the same advertising hoardings, the same hordes of tourists (including vast numbers of Chinese), the same restaurants, bars, and clubs, the same apartment blocks and out-of-town megastores, the same discreet courtyards entered via anonymous-looking gates and passageways, the same museums and galleries, large and small, and even the same hipster-run cafes with chalkboard menus and a baffling variety of coffees, teas, and healthy, wholefood snacks. Why, there are even the ubiquitous silver-painted human statues, scaring the bejesus out of passing small children when they break pose, asking a few roubles for a selfie opportunity. In a nice local touch, though, couples dressed as 18th century courtiers cruise the tourist hotspots, and a crimson-clad executioner plies his trade in front of the utterly bonkers Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.

Mind you, I did get a distinct sense that the place has been recently and thoroughly cleansed, perhaps in anticipation of the World Cup and the global media spotlight that will accompany it. There were very few drunks, beggars, or street-people of any sort, and no obvious petty criminals. I mean, you get all of those mob-handed in Southampton, never mind central London. There were also not many police in evidence, either, come to that. True, I have read that those apex-predators, the vory ("the thieves", or Russian mafia) have made such a killing on construction contracts connected with the World Cup that in return they are expected to keep a lid on the activities of the bottom-feeding, small-time crooks and parasites who would otherwise be swarming to service and rip off the upcoming tourist bonanza. And no doubt if you were to head out to the seedier suburbs the story would be different. But I suspect there's more to it than that.

All the guidebooks say that Russians are by nature surly and unsmiling: don't be surprised, they say, if your attempts at détente are met with a blank stare. Only lengthy acquaintance and copious vodka will unlock the effusive warmth within, or so it says here. Now, this may well be true for those Russians who recall the heady, carefree days of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, but I was very struck by how friendly and west-orientated the young are. In those hipster chalkboard venues, you will be served your Americano by the same young girl with piercings and tattoos, or the same young man with a topiary beard and topknot that you will encounter in similar places from Edinburgh to Florence; they are glad to practice their English, and apparently genuinely happy to see you. They serve a damn fine cup of coffee, too. And I totally recommend the samsa s kapustoi (cabbage pasty) in the Tronskii Most cafe at 25 Millionnaya ulitsa as a perfect light lunch after an exhausting morning exploring the Hermitage. Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Putin? Or maybe you do.

But what really surprised me was how far nearly all trace of the Soviet past has been eradicated. It's as if it had never happened. I was expecting to have fun, sorting through mountains of flea-market communist-era detritus, but found none at all. None. Apparently there is a big car-boot affair on the edge of town with rich pickings, but I didn't have enough time to get out there. You can buy purple or orange fun-fur military-style caps with a red star on most souvenir stalls, along with the odd repro Lenin pin-badge, but it's mainly matryoshka dolls all the way down. But, if you look really hard – and trust me, I did – you may spot a few memorials at significant sites associated with the 1917 revolution. Just round the corner from our hotel, on the Fontanka Embankment, I found this:

I've never been a student of the events of 1917, but the one at the top commemorates a speech Lenin gave to the [deep breath] Extraordinary All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Peasants' Deputies on the "agrarian question" on 14th November 1917, which may or may not have had a major significance in the early history of the Revolution. Whatever, someone obviously thought it warranted a marble tablet, which is not something many speeches on agrarian policy get. More to the point, it is still there.

Then, on our second visit to the Hermitage, taking a breather on the landing of a back staircase, I spotted this:

Now that one is significant, especially if you've ever watched Eisenstein's film October. This relatively modest plaque commemorates the "storming of the Winter Palace" in October 1917, or, more specifically, the rush up this actual staircase by "detachments of revolutionary workers, soldiers and sailors", thus "opening the path into the palace". However, it seems that Eisenstein's exaggeratedly heroic version has supplanted reality, which was more a case of, "Oh look, they've buggered off and left the back door open". In fact, I am told that more people were hurt during the cinematic reenactment than in the event itself. But, hey, print the legend!

And talking of October, I had a real surprise in store waiting inside the Hermitage. More about that later, comrades.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Freedom and Hot Porridge

Foot of one of the Atlantes outside the Hermitage Museum
In Russian, the words for "leg" and "foot" are the same
(ditto "hand" and "arm", as well as "toes" and "fingers")

There's no telling what small events or apparently negligible happenstances may determine the course of your life. But, once determined, these things will come to seem like signposts of destiny. Fate, you might say, is chance seen in the rear-view mirror [1]. In my case, the opportunity to learn the Russian language, if only briefly and inadequately, had a major impact on my life-choices, and so one of my most important signposts turned out to be written in the Cyrillic alphabet.

At school, in the sixth form, for some reason we were obliged to study "General Studies" alongside our chosen three subjects at A-Level, a nothing-and-everything non-subject that seemed utterly pointless. However, as an alternative for the better linguists, one of our teachers happened to be able to offer the rudiments of Russian, to O-Level standard if we chose to stick at it. I think he had learned it himself on the famous course that was offered to the brighter National Servicemen in the days when a reliable supply of Russian linguists was a national priority. Presumably they did it as an alternative to the National Service equivalent of General Studies. So a small cadre of about six of us took him up on this opportunity, and we had a lot of fun doing it. It was pretty much the same little group who had stuck with Latin when our school, having "gone comprehensive", decided to drop it as a subject, despite the fact we'd already been learning the language in traditional grammar school fashion for four years. We were intensively tutored in the lunch-hour, and all got the top grade at O-Level.

Now, Latin is difficult enough, even if you have spent your youthful years chanting verb conjugations and noun declensions, and have learned to grapple with peculiar constructions like the "ablative absolute". But Russian is really difficult, on a par, I imagine, with Ancient Greek. And, like Greek, it hides its severe grammatical challenges behind the wall of a different alphabet. Learning to read and write Cyrillic is just the price of entry. Beyond lie some true weirdnesses for anyone used to the cosy familiarity of the Romance and Germanic languages, the details of which I won't trouble you with. Suffice it to say that although I picked up a fair amount of the language I decided it was too much like hard work to get it to O-Level standard in just one and a half years.

Fast forward to 1977 when, after taking undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, my extended adolescent life of studying, taking exams, and writing dissertations had finally run out of road. I needed a job. Ideally, I wanted a career, a real one, with promotion prospects, a decent salary, and an index-linked pension at the end. Even more important, it needed to be in the same town as my girlfriend's chosen teacher-training course, which happened to be Bristol; otherwise, our rather turbulent relationship would probably come to an end. So the appearance of an advert for a graduate trainee in the library of Bristol University able to deal with foreign-language material, especially Russian, seemed like several strands of destiny coming together in a fateful knot. The job, inevitably it seemed, was mine. In the rear-view mirror, a decisive junction had been successfully negotiated.

The Russians are bookish people, and hardbound classics are widely available
and cheap (these are all around a fiver each). Here you can see Solzhenitsyn's
"First Circle", once banned,  on a street stall alongside the Tolstoys and Turgenevs.

So I spent a happy five years of my life cataloguing Russian books and, in the process, developing a passable reading knowledge based on the rudiments I had acquired at school. However, until last week I had never visited Russia or even spoken with a native speaker. My Russian, such as it is, is therefore a highly specialised scholarly and book-oriented dialect. "A complete selection of contemporary plays and poems, edited and translated by Blokey Blokeyvich"? No problem. "Revised edition, translated from Old Church Slavonic and profusely illustrated with folksy woodcuts?" Easy... "Twelfth Annual Congress of the International Federation of Sanitary Engineers"? I remember doing the eleventh just last year! But I lack an awful lot of the basic vocabulary and verbal glue that make ordinary conversation between human beings possible. We had amused ourselves at school by inventing our own revolutionary slogans ("svoboda i goryachaya kasha!" was a favourite – "freedom and hot porridge!") and I memorised a number of sonorous phrases from the examples in the exemplary Oxford Russian-English Dictionary [2], but none of this is much use when trying to ask for a table for two in a busy restaurant, or when trying to explain to a hotel receptionist over the phone that your flight has been delayed by two hours and you will therefore be arriving well after midnight. This I can do in German, French, or, haltingly and possibly hilariously, in Spanish, but in Russian? Nyet.

I think the greatest single linguistic takeaway for me from my brief time in St. Petersburg has been that my pronunciation is bafflingly, and occasionally amusingly, wrong. A language learned in the head and on the page is not the same language you hear fired at you over the cash desk or on the bus. Everything in Russian pronunciation depends on which syllable is stressed, and yet there is just no way of predicting which this is. Unlike, say, Spanish, there are no simple rules to follow, and the stress will often move when the same word is inflected (e.g. water is vuhDAH, but VAWdoo in the accusative...). The music of spoken Russian is beautiful, but owes much of its musicality to these apparently random shifts in stressed and unstressed syllables. Speaking it out loud for the first time, I felt like an idiot bashing at a Bechstein grand piano.

No, let me correct that: I think the greatest single linguistic takeaway for me is that I am too freakin' old to do anything about any of this any more. I find I cannot now remember a new word from one hour to the next, without resorting to schoolboyish mnemonic tricks. I was going to write "forget about it!" in Russian just there – very witty, eh? – but now realise (1) I've forgotten the verb "to forget" (no, really), (2) can't remember, anyway, the difference between an imperative using the imperfective or the perfective aspect of a verb (don't ask), and, crucially, (3) have lost the urge to impress you with knowledge I barely possess, anyway.

Nonetheless, I am profoundly grateful to the Russian language for, however tangentially, delivering to me the life I have lived – career, partner, children, house, pension, all of it. Without a command of the Cyrillic alphabet and a smattering of vocab and grammar, things would have turned out very differently, although no doubt the trail of wreckage and skid-marks would still have made coherent sense, as seen in the rear-view mirror. And the most useful thing I have now learned to say, perfectly stressed and clearly pronounced, is:

Ya lish' nemnogo govoryu po-russki... Vy govorite po-angliiski?
(I only speak a little bit of Russian... Do you speak English?)

Increasingly, it seems, especially amongst the young, the answer is, "Yairs, bud only leetle..." Which is good enough for me.

1. Although, in a more Nordic worldview, you might also say that chance is merely oncoming fate seen through the windscreen...
2. Typical example: Po slovam Chekhova, znat' tri yazyka nenuzhnaya roskoshch' ("In the words of Chekhov, to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury").

Tuesday, 5 June 2018


Bright days

White nights

I'm back from a brief visit to St. Petersburg a.k.a. Leningrad a.k.a. Petrograd. I took a lot of pictures, most of which are disappointingly bad. There's nothing quite like being somewhere new and exciting to reduce your photographic skills to those of the average tourist. Oh, well. I will be sharing some of the better ones, and the profound insights into Russia, Russians, and Russian-ness that only a long weekend can bring, over the next few days.

In the meantime, if you've ever wondered why places like St. Petersburg (not to mention Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Hamburg and a dozen other watery contenders) are referred to as "The Venice of the North", I have discovered it has nothing to do with canals or architecture. No, this is why:

I have rarely seen so many tourists. Indeed, the Hermitage exceeds even the Uffizi or the Louvre for its relentless tidal flow of humanity, bent on ticking off some cultural highlights. If you want to know where the Leonardo is, just let the crowd carry you there.

Friday, 1 June 2018


On Saturday, as I returned from doing the weekly shop and was unloading the bags from the car, I heard the unmistakable booming sound of a heavily-amplified PA system drifting in and out of audibility on the wind. "HellOOo SouthAMPTOn..." This only ever means one thing: there is an event happening on the Common. Looking on the Web, I saw that a two-day festival, Common People, was getting under way.

Naturally, in the afternoon I headed over there to have a look [1]. These free fairs and festivals on the Common have happened most years since the 1990s, and when the kids were small it was fun to take them over there for some fairground rides, and to teach them essential social skills like how to deal with candy floss, and maybe even catch a band or two, pumping loud, muffled, wind-shredded music over the heads of an indifferent crowd. As they got older, they could hook up with their friends and get all the excitement of an Event, without the hassle of travel or camping out. Or, of course, the preposterous expense (I see that a weekend camping ticket at this year's Reading Festival is over £200). But, to my surprise, and despite the demotic title, this Common People festival was not free. In fact, there was a bloody great fence around it, and a day ticket cost £30!

It seems times have changed. So, I ended up wandering around the perimeter and, as it was a pleasantly sunny-but-breezy day, I sat for a while in some favoured elevated spots to listen to the music, along with dozens of others who were unwilling to pay the price of being among the hundreds on the more heavily-populated side of the fence. I think we had the better bargain, and the music was actually pretty good. I mainly heard the set of some band that had been allocated the unenviable 3 o'clock slot, and they did a fair rendition of what we might call "stadium sublime", that broad-brush genre pioneered by the likes of U2, featuring soaring vocals, uplifting chord changes, and complicated fills and flourishes for those standing close enough to the stage to pick them out of the aural mush. But that musical style is over 30 years old now; the only thing that has changed is that some bunch of young unknowns can do it just as well as its ageing originators. Which is both impressive and depressing. Get yer own music, kids! Inevitably, I was reminded of festivals past, live acts I have risked sunburn for, and why I can no longer work up any enthusiasm for them.

Now, I know several people of my age who still love their festivals: they have even invested in camper vans so that they don't have to put up with the privations of nights under canvas, and for them festival-going is a thing. They'll do two or three most summers, and will treasure the memories of favourite acts seen in live performance. It's no coincidence that these people are amateur musicians of some accomplishment, or at least sophisticated super-enthusiasts; festivals tend to specialise, genre-wise, and so the audiences of the longer-running ones become a genuine community of fans and practitioners. I mean, nobody is going to pay for a long weekend at, say, Cropredy or Cambridge who doesn't already love folk music to excess, and they return year after year, generation after generation, like swallows. Which is all very jolly, if your idea of fun is to be confined to a couple of fields for a day or two with hundreds of other people, with nothing better to do than stand around all day – all day – listening to music of varying quality, or queuing for drinks, food, and toilets. But, and speaking purely personally, I don't enjoy crowds, I like my music in small, hi-fidelity doses (preferably sitting in a comfortable armchair), and I need to pee inconveniently frequently [2]. Oh, and I loathe camping in British weather, though I must admit I could go for one of those all-mod-cons VW camper vans, if I had £20-30K to spare (and that's for a second-hand one).

So, festivals are for me a thing of the past, along with vinyl records, recreational drugs, and anything that prevents me being in bed by midnight. Or, indeed, easily getting out of it a couple of times during the night (my bed, I mean, not my head). Let the young people enjoy themselves, and let the young at heart congregate in muddy fields if that's their thing, but don't look for me in the crowd; I won't be there.

Mind you, my idea of what a festival is actually like is well out of date. I was puzzled by the concept of the "surrender bins" I saw situated next to the site entrance of the Common People event. In case you can't read the photograph above, here is what the notices say:
Please dispose of prohibited items here. No questions asked.
You may be searched on entry to the event site. Any items that may be used in an illegal or offensive manner will be confiscated. No responsibility is given for the return of confiscated items.
If you are in possession of illegal substances you may be arrested.

  • Illegal substances
  • Glass (of any kind) or cans
  • Spray cans
  • Laser equipment or pens
  • Gas canisters
  • Fireworks
  • Flares
  • Chinese lanterns
  • Klaxons / Air horns
  • Any item which may reasonably be considered for use as a weapon
  • Bicycles
  • Skateboards
  • Scooters
  • Roller blades
  • Personal motorized vehicles (unless a mobility scooter)
  • Large umbrellas or parasols of any kind
  • Chairs of any sort
  • Trolleys / Radio flyers
  • Wagons of any kind
  • No food or drink (customers are allowed to bring their own small bottles of water so long as they are unopened and sealed)
  • Any animals
Seriously? How many skateboards and bicycles can you get in a wheelie bin? And I believe that the more psychopathic martial arts teach how to kill with keys, pencils, stiletto heels, and even a tightly-rolled newspaper: all in the bin, please! And that prohibition on wagons and animals? That would account for the disappointed-looking wagon-train of settlers I saw heading west, back out of the Common onto Hill Lane, clutching their glass bottles of sarsaparilla and oversized umbrellas. I suppose, looked at through a contemporary lens of liability and litigation, a lot of it makes sense. The Common is a public space, and needs to be returned quickly to good order when the fence comes down; you don't want it covered in broken glass, trashed wagons, and dead livestock. But,"parasols of any kind"? And no food or drink? Sure, the "event" is presumably part-funded by food and drink stall owners who have paid for the privilege to be there and need to turn a profit, but ticket-holders have also already paid £30 or more to be there; having to dump your carefully-prepared vegan, kosher, or halal lunch in a bin seems pretty harsh. Not to mention your parasol. And to be searched? No, that is not a sausage, and no, I am not pleased to see you.

It's all a far cry from the chaotic, danger-filled, pioneer festivals I recall, when a poor act could be pelted off stage with horse-dung and planks torn from wagons, and young revellers could be knocked senseless by carelessly-deployed parasols – parasols of any kind – thus missing the main act, and waking the next morning amid the wind-blown rubbish of an empty field.
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom.
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Festival
Nick Bottom at Knebworth Festival © 1974 Martyn Cornell

1. If nothing else, a commitment to photography and to writing a blog encourages you to get out of the house, in the constant search for new material... It's like working for the most local of local newspapers.
2. It's hilarious, the things we take for granted as youths, that later come to dominate our lives. I have racked my memory, but – apart from a few unforgettable occasions, mainly travelling abroad – cannot recall ever being bothered about not being able to find a toilet during my first four decades.

[N.B. I am out of town for a few days: I'll deal with any comments when I get back]

Monday, 28 May 2018

Heads Up!

Uh oh. It appears Google is making some "exciting changes" to Blogger, which is never good news.

One of the tasks that used to justify my exorbitant salary was running periodic upgrades to our library management system, or to its underlying database and operating system. Even, every seven years or so, managing a complete migration of our data and procedures to a shiny new management system. Few things are more stressful. Where "success" is nobody noticing anything has happened, and "failure" is days of downtime and ad hominem recriminations, anything workable in between is an acceptable outcome. I suppose "exciting" is one word for it. However, the difference between our various library system suppliers and Google is that no money is involved; Blogger being free and, as far as I can see, having – as yet, anyway – no way of generating income for Google. Moreover, dialogue between Google and the end-users of its blogging product is non-existent, and consequently the guys at Google don't need to give much of a damn if things go wrong.

Inevitably, things are going to break. Already, I've stopped receiving email notifications of your comments, so it will take longer than usual for me to spot them, publish them and to respond. Not that, ahem, I'm getting that many at the moment... In case this affects you, note that OpenID sign-ins for comments will no longer be acceptable in future. Also, "third party gadgets" will no longer be supported, so that will break anything I've added that is non-standard. Right... Like I can remember which bits they might be, after ten years.

Isn't that exciting?

Leave it alone, Google,
or the kitten gets it!

Saturday, 26 May 2018


It'a a curious business, anatomy. I've just come back from a visit to my dentist, where she showed me an X-ray of a tooth I'm going to have to have extracted (noooo...) and I am struck by the cognitive dissonance resulting from the familiarity of what's on the outside my head (that's me!) and the mystery of what's on the inside my head, which is also me, and probably essentially much more so. A taxidermied "me" in a museum would be recognisably "me", whereas my prepared skeleton would not (although my dentist might differ on that, given access to my skull). In either case, the "I" would actually be long gone, an elusive construct it's impossible to bottle. You need the whole combo in proper working order – or must at least have a workable majority of it – in order to exist. See Hamlet, Act V, scene i (Alas, poor Bonehead). But, fortunately, a tooth either way seems to make little or no difference at all.

I find skeletons fascinating. Some creatures are easily imaginable from their skeletal underpinnings – a horse is clearly a horse, and a tiger is clearly not a huge rabbit, although it could just as easily be a lion – but most are not, to the untrained eye. Whales, for example, have evolved into something so contradictory, internally and externally, that I would defy anyone who had never seen a whale (or a picture of a whale) to envisage the creature that wraps its blubber around those bones. Which does raise the issue of palaeontological reconstruction from bony remains: has it ever struck you how much like dessicated corpses, with skin and muscle shrunk to fit around a skeletal armature, most dinosaur reconstructions are? It's as if we have imagined the Mesozoic as Zombie World writ large, inhabited by wizened undead monsters of skin and bone. I wonder if archaeologically-inclined members of some future species will be wondering why humans spent so much time lying on their backs in form-fitting boxes of various sorts, grinning like fools? Some behavioural adaptation, no doubt, to avoid those four-wheeled predators with the metal exoskeleton that seem to have dominated the planet.

Birds, I find, are particularly problematic [1]. Ignore the tell-tale beak, and the skeletons of an owl and a chicken look remarkably similar. But only one of those scaffoldings supports enough meat to make for a good meal (AFAIK, anyway: if you know a restaurant that serves owl, do let me know). The extra length of a bird's neck is particularly deceptive: reduced to its skeleton, virtually every bird looks like it might be some sort of swan. OK, you're not going to mistake a heron for a hawk, but if you can tell a pigeon from a partridge or a plover your Bird Anatomy badge was well-deserved.

Having spent more hours in Europe's leading anatomical museums than is necessary or normal, I now have quite a collection of photographic raw material to work with, and the collaged images here are the latest fruits of this particular obsession. I have no particular agenda with regard to comparative anatomy: I may have a master's degree in comparative literature, but it's not really the same thing and, although I'm pretty sure I do know a hawk from a handsaw [2], I can't even remember, now, what species most of my photos actually are. I really should take more notes. I suppose, if pushed, I could make some metaphorical claims for this "project" being about the fragility of life, mass extinctions, "nature" as spectacle, Frankensteinian hubris [3], and the like – and if I ever have to write an accompanying artist's statement I probably will, too – but, really, I just like the way they look. Aren't they amazing? And isn't it extraordinary, the skill with which some anonymous museum technician has assembled a heap of dry bones into something so spookily lifelike? Unheimlich, even. Ah, yes, the Uncanny! Now there's another paragraph for that statement...

The conjuror triptych

Galerie de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie comparée, Paris
(Hey, don't I know you, Bonehead? And what's the big joke?)

1. In the process of writing this post I've just come across this book – The Unfeathered Bird, by Katrina van Grouw – and couldn't resist ordering myself a copy.
2. Hamlet, Act II, scene ii: "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." The "handsaw" is thought by some to be a variant of a dialect word for a heron (heronshaw), though as a "hawk" is also a plasterer's tool, you can take your pick: he is able to tell one bird from another, or one tool from another. Either way, he's just pretending to be mad. Or ... is he?
3. Once, a long time ago and in an advanced state of intoxication, I briefly attained satori looking at some sausages in a butcher-shop window. Some time, I should write a post about that.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Blue Suburban Skies

Hill Lane

On some days, the light, the weather, and my mood find a perfect alignment, and pictures are everywhere I look. Luckily, this camera [1] was in the right mood, too. Trust me, cameras are capricious devils, and may decide not to be co-operative on the nicest of days. Half of the art of photography, IMHO, is keeping your cameras sweet, which – assuming you have more than one (polycamerous?) – means taking each of them out regularly, in an equitable rotation. They notice these things, cameras, and are prone to sulking.

Pewsey Place

Such blue, suburban skies... Now, if forced to choose a side of that peak-Beatles double-A-sided single of 1967, my preference would always be for "Strawberry Fields", but whenever I hear the piccolo trumpet solos on "Penny Lane" I am transported back to the summer months of 1967, which is a pleasurably bittersweet sensation. There were some perfect, baking-hot days with pure blue skies that year, and I was free to do pretty much whatever I wanted, but I was also very lonely. A couple of years earlier we had moved away from the part of town where I had spent my first decade; this, combined with the transition to secondary school, meant that I had no friends living nearby. Then my much-loved older sister left home under a bit of a cloud, and my parents – both of whom were at work all day – seemed suddenly to age [2], and became rather unavailable, emotionally. 1967, as it turned out, was also the last summer we were to spend in a house with a garden. Stevenage council used to be quite flexible about tenants moving around within the New Town, especially if it freed up family-sized houses, and so – this latest house now having become both too large and rather blighted by unhappy associations – we moved to a two-bedroom flat. Which would, in fact, be my fifth, final, and probably happiest address in town.

So, that trumpet's shrill perfection – so reminiscent of swifts and swallows exulting high over the rooftops in a clear blue sky – evokes one 60s latchkey kid's long summer holidays, pottering about or simply wandering the streets, free but alone, with a door-key and a half crown in his pocket to buy a chip-shop meal at midday, or maybe get a bus into town. Just some ordinary boy, checking out the passing scene, noticing things, invisible as a cat or a crow. Which, now I think of it, is still pretty much how I like to spend a day, whenever I get the chance. Minus the pie and chips, of course, and with a camera for company. Talking of which: Now, let's see, whose turn is it today?

Hill Lane

1. A Fuji X70, a very nice camera and something of a rarity, as Fuji stopped producing them quite soon after they were introduced, apparently because Sony suddenly stopped manufacturing the sensor used in them.
2. They weren't yet 50, though a sixties 50, which was rather older than 50 is now... I was amazed (and alarmed) to discover that no male forebear of mine had lived to see 60, although reassuringly Dad did make 89. It is one of those paradoxes, that one never seems to become older than one's parents or teachers.