Wednesday, 1 April 2015

An Appeal


"Odd, from the back she looks perfectly normal..."

I'm in a campaigning mood, so this is an appeal to the BBC, particularly those with responsibility for talk radio, with regard to a number of important matters.

First, young women with childish voices.  A lisp may have a certain cute-factor when deployed by an 8-year old. Even then, it is a pretty emetic, Shirley Temple kind of cute.  I listen to a lot of radio, and I'm hearing more and more young women speaking in a distinctly child-like manner, using a high, breathy register, and an over-distinct, mannered pronunciation, up to and including lisped sibilants.  So many of the younger female guests on, say, BBC Radio 4 Today sound about twelve.  It's the speech equivalent of one of those dreadful semi-military overcoats that royal girl-children were buttoned into in the 1940s, or white ankle socks.  Sometimes, it can sound as if the BBC has been overrun by the progeny of Violet Elizabeth Bott (you know, "I'll thcream and thcream until I'm thick!").

It's clearly a fashionable thing, and I'm not sure why this has come about.  Perhaps it's a reaction to hyper-masculine young male laddishness.  Perhaps it's an offshoot of that faux-naive, croaky-feeble singing voice that you hear everywhere now (yes, you, Laura Marling).  Or  -- whisper it -- maybe kawaii, the dreaded Japanese Cult of Cute, has finally taken ineradicable root on these shores, like knot-weed? But, wherever it's coming from, it's up to you, BBC, to put a stop to it.  Insist on grown-ups, please.  Get Mishal Husain to give them a severe talking-to.

Second, tutting.  There's been an outbreak of tutting and lip-smacking, as a form of aural punctuation.  Weather-forecast presenters do it, magazine-programme presenters do it.  Even certain Today and World at One regulars have started doing it.  [smack!].  Radio is an intimate medium, and these noises are intrusive, unpleasant to listen to, and give an air of smugness to everything ("Tut! There, wasn't that clever?").  There are a number of reasons Paddy O'Connell is not my favourite radio presenter, and this is one of them.

Next:  the use of So at the beginning of every response to a question by academics.  So I'm finding it very annoying.  So I don't understand why they think it helps.  So get Melvyn Bragg on the case; In Our Time would be a very good place to start.

Also, now the election is in full swing, could we start a Radio 4 "glottal stop jar" for middle-class politicians, starting with Ed Balls?  A pound for every ludicrously misplaced "ʔ" would soon sort it out.  Let Alan Johnson be the judge, as an appropriate punishment for not running for leadership of the Labour Party.

And finally, Robert Peston...  Why, BBC, why?

Thank you for your attention.


Monday, 30 March 2015

Posts of Few Words #4



If you go down to the woods today...  There's always something Arthur Rackham-esque about hedgerows and woodland, and something about the fidelity to line and tone of a camera seems well-suited to capturing it.  It's tempting to say that his characteristic blend of the uncanny and an ambivalent innocence is very English, but it's probably more true to say it's very Northern European -- something to do with wolves and witches, babes in the woods, and dodgy woodcutters.

Certainly, other illustrators of folk and fairy tales have shown a similar feeling for those earthy tones and twisted shapes -- Swede John Bauer and Russian Ivan Bilibin, for example -- but Rackham did always seem somehow to invest his tangled roots and malevolent dwarves with a greater sense of character.


Saturday, 28 March 2015

Posts of Few Words #3

IKEA!  What a maze... There are poor wanderers in there who have been lost for days, living off frozen köttbullar (the famous IKEA meatballs).  I believe köttbullar is simply Swedish for "spherical processed meat product"; odd, that they don't give them an IKEA-style name (PÜKI, perhaps, or PLOPS).

I read somewhere that people have started arranging IKEA hide-and-seek games, which sounds like madness to me.  I have always thought that hide-and-seek sets up two of the loneliest experiences in a child's life: as the seeker, left alone at the start of the game with everyone else hiding, and as the last hider, who fears he or she may never be found!

IKEA blue

IKEA pink

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Posts of Few Words #2

Over the next few weeks I'm likely to be putting up a series of these picture posts, as I'm quite busy with a number of real-life projects that are eating into my blogging time.  Odd, how time seems in short supply now that, in theory, I've got plenty of it, but there you are.  Words take time and consideration, but the pictures just happen.  Maybe a little too easily, sometimes, but that's something I'm aware of and working on.  Another project!

I must admit I'm never quite comfortable with that word, "project".  It always falls somewhere slightly odd inside the triangle defined by schoolwork ("I've got to finish my GCSE project by Friday"), celeb-speak ("Lady Gaga is developing several projects at this time"), and mighty works ("The pyramidical project proceeds apace, Your Pharaonic Fabulousness!").  It's hard to think of an alternative, though, so it will have to do.  Places to go, people to see, projects to develop!

Banks of the Test, Mottisfont Abbey

Bull Drove, Winchester

North slope, St. Catherine's Hill

Monday, 23 March 2015

Three-Square Story


Horseshoe Bridge, Southampton

Burgess Road, Southampton

Lordswood Road, Southampton

Friday, 20 March 2015

Here's One I Made Earlier

Here in Britain this Friday morning we had our first solar eclipse since 1999.  Exciting!  Cue media hysteria!  However, it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib down on the South Coast -- only 80-odd percent of eclipse, and 110% cloud cover.  The morning started gloomy, and it merely got a bit darker around 09:30.  I couldn't even see where the sun was in the sky; though I did have to turn a light on in the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Spooky!

At the time of the previous eclipse in summer 1999 we were on holiday in Norfolk.  Our son was eight, and our daughter five -- perfect ages for a bit of home-made science magic.  So, with the aid of a couple of kitchen stools, a mirror, a piece of white card and some sticky tape we rigged up an eclipse viewing station in the garden of our cottage.  It worked!


I really enjoyed that aspect of being a father -- the endless improvised making of props and playthings with scissors and tape, whether it be an elaborate crawl-through tunnel of cardboard boxes or a carefully painted and fitted Power Rangers mask made from robust watercolour paper.  It's a bit like being a primary school teacher with a class of two.  Or perhaps more like home-schooling, where the only lesson is always Art & Craft.  Putting up the occasional shelf or redecorating the bathroom just doesn't hit the same spot.

Something of that same spirit must have animated those early pre-astronomers who worked out the basic solar, lunar, and stellar patterns.  I mean, for thousands of years you couldn't just look up in a calendar how long it was until spring, never mind when the next eclipse was due.  In fact, it must have taken a while for someone to first figure out that there were regular cycles involved, and then even longer for someone to be bothered to work out exactly what they were.  One of my earliest blog posts (Bloody Elves!, a good post, too) was a tribute to those odd souls who could be bothered to do the observational spadework that eventually meant that the rest of us could just look it up with confidence (at least, those who can be bothered to make even that minimal effort).

I imagine a field somewhere, where someone -- a minor princeling, perhaps, someone not entirely cut out for warfare, much derided, but oddly driven -- has decided to lay out a stick for each day that passes, perhaps aligning each stick with the point on the horizon where the sun rose that day.  He has a sense that there is a pattern, but what?  After a couple of years, rapidly running out of field, it strikes him that if he lays them in a circle, he only needs to do the job once.  Bingo!

Next steps:  he puts in a bid for funding for a permanent version -- maybe some large imported stones would be nice? -- and charges the rest of the tribe fat fees for bespoke predictions from version 2.0; spring, start of the raiding season, Black Friday, and so on.  He is no longer much derided, and starts wearing an especially idiotic hat, just because he can, and begins planning a massive and profitable franchise operation:  Solar Solutions.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Many moons, many sticks...

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Highfield Lane



Running up through the eastern side of Southampton Common is the main road out of town towards Winchester and ultimately to London, known along that stretch as the Avenue.  This busy thoroughfare cuts off a narrow vertical slice of the Common, which sits alongside the university campus and the residential area known as Highfield.  Because it is nowhere in particular -- a long and narrow transitional green buffer between highway and suburb -- it is actually wilder and denser than much of the main Common.  It is also more dangerous: students are advised to avoid its few, poorly-lit paths at night as, unfortunately, serious assaults happen there most years.

The road leading off the Avenue into Highfield cuts through about 200 yards of this tangled urban wilderness.  I walked over to the university earlier this week by this route, and in a steady light drizzle the emerging spring colours were subtly enhanced.  In a matter of weeks, new leaves will start to obscure and darken the woodland, and the undergrowth will become impenetrable; already, thorny loops of bramble are booby-trapping the ground.  If you do wander about in there, however, you may notice the bumps and ditches of some old foundations.  During World War 2, military huts of various sorts were built there, mainly in preparation for the D-Day landings.  After the War, these were squatted for some years by the homeless, bombed out during the Blitz, before being dismantled.

Somewhere on the Common -- perhaps on this side of the Avenue, perhaps the other -- there is also the concealed entrance to an underground bunker, which was to be the hideout for members of a so-called Auxiliary Unit of the "British Resistance", recruited from the Home Guard and trained in sabotage in anticipation of a German invasion.  Remarkably, my grandfather was a member of this very unit; we are not a Southampton family, but in 1939 he moved here to take up a job at a printing firm, and as an ex-infantryman had joined the local Home Guard at the outbreak of war.  After the war I know he showed the bunker's location to my uncle but, unsurprisingly, seventy years later he can't remember where it was.  I wonder whether anybody does?


Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Our Emails Now Are Ended

As those of you who contact me off-blog should know, I'm in transition away from my long-standing institutional email address, which I'd got into the habit of using for everything, simply because I acquired it back in the days when having any email address at all was a novelty and a privilege.  I do still have the use of that original email ID, thanks to the indulgence of the university, but can't rely on it indefinitely.

Before I retired I foolishly decided to transfer much of my "personal" mail into a separate location, where it would be safely archived, only to discover -- too late -- that the transfer had not worked.  So that was 20 years of choice wit'n'wisdom down the e-tubes.  But now I realise I need to clear the decks again so the remaining "personal" stuff  (still a considerable quantity) can, at some point, be transferred to my new address (or more probably dumped down a different e-drain).  Oh, well.  So I spent much of Saturday and Sunday deleting thousands of work-related emails, received and sent, which I had felt the need to keep for one reason or another.  The bulk of them dated from after 2005, when I must last have seriously purged my mailboxes, but some dated back as far as 1998.

It was a real trip down Memory Lane, an electronic repeat of the bulk dump of paper files I carried out before vacating my office.  Not, I hasten to add, in a Stasi-style attempt to evade justice, but merely in recognition of the fact that the contents of my over-stuffed filing cabinet of personal copies of various agendas, minutes, and position papers were not unique or rendered more valuable by the annotations and elaborate doodlings I had scrawled over them (though see Tom Phillips' book Merry Meetings for a different perspective).

Doodles?  I'll always have my notebooks...
(where the doodle:note ratio is quite high...)

Ah, all those half-forgotten names, the prestigious projects and the last-minute lash-ups, the pressing concerns and the coat-trailing, the mails marked "urgent" and still unread after a decade (sorry!) with their never-to-be-opened attachments, the real and imagined crises, the routine comradely banter, and the occasional flash of genuine wit or even genius...  The stuff of work, replicated a billion-billion-billion-fold across the planet, and deader even than yesterday's papers: the day before yesterday's emails...

But talk about the ten thousand things!  Just to pick one: How could I forget the sheer aggravation caused to our library -- and to me, personally -- by the soliciting, chasing, submission, processing, and recording by my staff of something as apparently straightforward as our own bloody PhD theses?  Oh, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, but above all emails.  Lots of emails.  For example, a few years ago I was required to submit a signed and witnessed statement to a court in Massachusetts, where a multi-million dollar patent-infringement lawsuit hung on exactly when a particular PhD thesis -- embargoed for a certain period due to its commercial sensitivity -- had become available to public scrutiny on our shelves, more than a decade previously.  Lawyers can be fussy devils when they want to be -- the meter was really ticking on this one -- and there was an endless round of emails before the scope and wording of this statement was satisfactory to all parties.  And yet, ironically, it turned out that a faxed document is more acceptable to the legal mind than an email attachment.  I'd imagined flying to Boston with a notarised parchment chained to my wrist, but there was to be no expenses-paid trip to New England for me (although finding a functioning fax machine in the 21st century was an adventure in itself).

Then there were the endless changes.  Changes of library management system, changes of operating system, changes in programming language, changes in bibliographic standards, changes in network protocols, changes in platform and delivery of services, changes to the ownership, personnel, practices and geographical location of library automation "partners", and the constant updates, patches, service packs, changes to changes to ch-ch-ch-changes, version 16.3.4.1.14 succeeding 16.3.4.4.1.12a (which we had never implemented, anyway)...  I suddenly remembered why it was I had felt it was time to retire.  I was really, really tired of all that.


Over the years, I have taken to email as a medium.  I enjoy its to-and-fro, its immediacy, and its informality.  Where others preferred a perfunctory, all-business tone -- often mispelling wrods on prupose, I suspect -- I cultivated an email "voice" which, in a way, was a twenty year dry run for this blog.  However, I realise my attempts at witty, wordy, oblique, perspective-restoring replies may often have been exasperating, particularly for anyone trying to whip up some serious attention to a serious issue.  I was tempted to keep a representative sample, but a "selected emails" doesn't really have the same cachet as a "collected correspondence", especially when the subject is yet another go-round on the strange smell emanating from the basement.

Besides, I always have in the back of my mind the (bad) example set by a senior member of staff at one of the branch libraries at the university where I started my career, who -- in response to a letter from the manager of a local bookshop, explaining a problem with the supply of a certain book -- wrote that he had "no interest in the exculpatory whinings of a jumped-up shop-boy".  Luckily, this was in the pre-email days, when such a letter had to be typed up and filed and could be spotted and quietly modified by a wise secretary (who might keep it nonetheless, perhaps for blackmail purposes, or perhaps merely to show to junior professionals like me, for amusement and instruction).

I'm sure there must have been many times when I did hit "send" too soon, with no mediating secretary to save me from myself.  I do know I once accidentally broadcast confidential details of a competitive system tender from a particularly annoying supplier to an entire email list of British university systems support librarians, none of whom would afterwards believe it was an accident.  Which it was.

So, better now to hit "delete" a few thousand times, and say goodbye to all that...
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Except that all those emails will probably still be hanging around on or in some cloud somewhere, and cluttering up cyberspace until the last syllable of recorded time.


[Note: the new email address is in my "Profile", above right.]

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Half Full



Many years ago, when I was young and open to new ways and ideas, and trying to escape the limitations of my small-town swot-cum-stoner mentality, I met a few people whose ideas were so far out I thought they must be faking it.  One guy -- a tall, lugubrious northerner whose chest-length dark hair seemed to weigh his upper body down into a permanent stoop of resignation inside the heavy dark overcoat he wore in all weathers -- was the first anti-humanist I had ever encountered.  Not in the sense that he had problems with humanist philosophy, but that he thought humans were the problem, and extinction of our species was the planet's best hope. No, really?  Far out!

My friend was a straw in the wind, it turned out.  In certain parts of the academy, and in particular within that strange penumbra of academically-tinged thinking on the Web that is the haunt of the recovering but still-unemployed humanities postgraduate, an oppressive orthodoxy of pessimism has taken hold, a sort of intellectual End Times mindset.  For a while, this stuff seemed compelling.  But, I don't know about you, now I'm really bored with the dull droning sound that this sombre hive produces, and I still tend to think they're faking it.

There is a serious contemporary problem of disillusion, of course: the steady stripping away by science of the handy illusions and delusions that have, for most of us, in large part defined our humanity, can be experienced as a bleakness.  If not god, if not transcendence, if not spirit, if not art, then what?  Attempts to rationalise consciousness -- most recently as a heuristic, integrating information-processing device -- strike directly at the "soul" and the "self" and the deep values of moral behaviour in ways that can be profoundly upsetting, but don't offer anything to put in their place.  Humanism itself comes to seem like a mere comfort break on the journey away from superstition to nihilism.

Some sad cases, not themselves scientists, revel in this bleakness.  Humanism is dismissed by them with a sneer.  They enjoy the oh, so superior sense that -- you poor sentimental fools! -- it's all in vain.  Life is a meaningless text, onto which we merely project whatever grids of meaning we have inherited, created, or had imposed on us.  It is a tale told by an idiot, so to speak, full of sound and fury, signifying ... Well, nothing.  The ultimate revenge of these nerds of nothingness, these nihilism wonks -- many of whom have found a congenial home in higher education -- is to take our brightest and best children and fill them with this grey poison of relativism and cultural pessimism.

This often goes hand in hand with a rejection of "Enlightenment" values, generally understood as a set of beliefs about the autonomy of the individual and the importance of human rights, with an underpinning conviction that cumulative progress through rational enquiry will free humanity from the chains of superstition and political oppression, and the scourges of disease and hunger.  Hah!  As if!  Don't you know we're all doomed?

This toxic stuff is seeping into the wider culture.  Take this quote from an article in a recent weekend's Guardian Review by voguish novelist Tom McCarthy:
Careful not to fall back on some naive escapist fantasy (of individual self-expression, or the transcendent human spirit, or art-as-redemption and so forth -- in other words, the very fantasies to which a conservative view of fiction still clings), De Certeau is nonetheless groping his way towards some kind of resistance to or rupture of the machine's logic.
(James Joyce Would be Working for Google, 7/3/2015)
Whoah...  Watch out for those naive escapist conservative fantasies, dude!  He goes on:
We could quite easily dismiss these thoughts as French bollocks, brush them aside and pen great tales of authenticity and individual affirmation, even as the sands in which we'd need to bury our heads in order to do so are being blown away.  Alternatively, we could explore, with trepidation and with melancholy joy, this ultra-paradoxical and zombie-like condition, this non-life-restoring resurrection that, if De Certeau is correct, is writing's true and only lot, its afterlife.
Blimey, what is the point?  Hand me that razor-blade, when you've finished with it, mate.


Now, I'm no philosopher.  The problem is, neither are most writers or humanities scholars.  Sure, they've read some French bollocks Bourdieu and some Foucault and some Deleuze and maybe some Benjamin and some Bakhtin, mainly in translation, but they have no sense of the traditions and arguments in and against which such marginal, provocative figures are writing.  Also, so much academic writing is scholastic in impulse, in the mediaeval sense that it merely looks for interesting, approved and publishable wriggle-room within the confines of the thoughts of certain acknowledged authorities.  Who these are, of course, is largely a matter of fashion.  Who now admits to reading even Althusser, Adorno, Goldmann, or Lukács?  No doubt Deleuze is already curling the lip of some black-clad 20-year old.

As I say, I'm bored with this pessimism, however smart.  Life is not meaningless, except as defined by someone playing linguistic games, obsessed by the meaning of "meaning", or by someone with an oedipal grudge against organised religion, and a minimal grasp of what religion is and does.  Your life may have no "meaning", but it is not futile.  All of the universe has followed a clear and compelling logic of behaviour -- "laws" -- that, however improbably, has resulted in me and you, right here, right now.  You exist!  I exist!  Is that not utterly bizarre?  Is that not exciting enough?

Yes, consciousness is fragmentary, and yes, we have plural, largely constructed identities, and yes, we're mortal, and yes, there is almost certainly no continuance of existence after death, at least in any form we would recognise, but...  When was it ever any different?  Why let the too-clever sweet nothings of a few academic doom-mongers poison your life at the well?

But then I'm still just a small-town swot-cum-stoner at heart.  In the end, life is simply so much nicer than the alternative.  Its very absurdity is a deep source of joy.  I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't convince myself otherwise.  Besides, pessimism breeds passivity -- what's the point? -- and if we're ever going to get out the various messes we're in as a species, rather than simply extinguish ourselves, we're going to need all the optimism and activism we can muster.

Ditch, post, tree, copse, wood

Friday, 13 March 2015

Mottisfont



A recent visit to Mottisfont Abbey was productive despite the return of dull weather.  I love that "out of season" feel, most obviously encountered at seaside resorts; it's a liminal time when visitors are starting to return but repairs are ongoing, and the attractions are still swathed in the tarpaulins that protected them against the winter weather.  Though it does seem extreme to swathe the ground staff -- I expect this guy stood still just a bit too long.

There are some major and mysterious construction works still underway at the entrance, there's been a lot more tree-felling and undergrowth-clearing, and some new sluiced drainage ditches have been dug to protect against flooding of the Test.  As always, I'm ambivalent about the aesthetic appeal of such "improvements", but it's nice when the interests of estate managers and visiting photographers coincide.  I still don't like the new adventure playgrounds, though.  If kids can't learn to be bored at National Trust properties, where can they learn to be bored?




Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Livestock



Increasingly, it seems "class" is becoming uncomfortably old-fashioned as a way of describing one's background and the workings of society, not least because politicians and others have put a lot of effort into persuading us we now live in a "classless" society.  That is to say, not classless in the sense of a society where wealth and ownership are spread evenly across the population, or where the difference between the richest and the poorest has diminished to some morally acceptable multiple, but in the sense that sufficient opportunity and means now exist for "social mobility"* to be a matter of choice, supposedly, regardless of the stratum of society into which an individual was born.  There are, it is claimed, no longer any barriers of class.  The only real barriers are attitude and aspiration. To which my considered response is:  Yeah, right.

To a limited extent, this has always been sort-of-true.  As Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall reaches its apotheosis as a BBC TV six-parter, we should remind ourselves: Thomas Cromwell is not a fictional character.  The son of a Putney blacksmith really did rise to become the most powerful man in the land.  Not many years later, and pace various anti-Stratfordian lunatics, the son of a Warwickshire glover really did become the greatest wordsmith the English language has ever known.  Although we should bear in mind that such men were never illiterate, dung-spattered ragamuffins from the hovels of the lower orders.  That our society should regard the children of influential tradesmen as coming from "humble" beginnings is revealing in itself.  For centuries, if not millennia, the actual poor -- numerous, ubiquitous, malodorous, and dangerous -- have been regarded as essentially a form of livestock.

I think what is really signified by this insistence on "classlessness" is that the privileged now once again feel sufficiently threatened by the structural "problem" of the poor that their best answer is to deny the existence of any such problem.  Anyone who points out the inbuilt unfairness and self-replicating rigidity of society must be derided as an out-of-date "class warrior" or -- in a word that tops my hate list -- merely "chippy".  A clown like Russell Brand only gets the attention he does because he is a clown.  It's tempting to say something similar about Slavoj Žižek.  I mean, how many other academic Marxists get millions of views on YouTube?

Obviously, in a world of limited opportunities, it suits the interests of those who regard an interesting, meaningful life as their exclusive birthright to control and limit access to the Good Stuff.  Nepotism, prejudice, shibboleths, patronage, connections, and inheritance; these were always the traditional methods of ensuring the Good Stuff went to the right people and, more importantly, to the children of the right people.  The striking thing is, in modern Britain, these sleights and sharp practices are being used more, not less.

You only have to look at the widespread contemporary use of unpaid "internships" as Route A to the juicier jobs in practically any employment sector that will -- eventually -- pay a proper professional salary.  These are open to "anyone", of course, provided you happen to know the right people, and can survive on no pay at all for at least a year or two.  As a way of filtering out the lower orders it couldn't be improved upon, really.  I have even read of cases where unpaid internships are offered as prizes at top fee-paying schools.  I was deeply confused the first time I was approached by a recent graduate asking to work for no pay for a year.  What?  I simply could not process the information.  She had used the word "internship", but I did not recognise its meaning at the time: it had something to do with doctors and hospitals, as far as I knew.  Did junior doctors work for nothing, then?

It is also quite shocking to observe shameless and systematic nepotism going on quite openly.  A network of famous families is threaded all through the media and the arts, for example, to a degree that suggests that we have re-invented a form of aristocracy for the 21st century.  How amazing -- in a classless meritocracy like ours, where jobs always go to the best available candidate -- that the second and, yea, even the third generations should turn out to be just as talented as the dynasty's founder!  Nepotistic?  No, genetic!

But it's not just the good jobs and the influential friends -- useful as these are -- that build a wall around our ruling elites and their lucky offspring, but something more enabling: the permission and the means to regard yourself as exempt from the common run of expectations, not least from the social gravity of failure.  It has long been a mystery to me:  where do upper-middle class children of average or below average intelligence and no particular talent end up?  Where are they educated, given most fee-paying schools have fiercely competitive entrance requirements?  Why are they never to be found stacking supermarket shelves, or emptying my bins?  Is there an offshore island somewhere, entirely populated by Justins and Sophies who cannot master the twelve times table?

When celebrating the undoubted achievements of "our" culture, we should never overlook the fundamental truth that the productivity of what we might call the Achieving Classes was bought at a high social and human price.  It depended entirely on a ready supply of domestic servants, for example, expected to work long and unsocial hours for little pay, and to remain single as a condition of employment.  It also depended on private incomes, derived from rents, grimy industries, dubious colonial enterprises, and speculation, all of which wrought misery for others before being laundered into immaculate cash in the bank.  Above all, it presumed the unquestioning commitment of the majority population to living lives of unrewarding drudgery, building and shoring up the economic base that supported the gilded pin, on the head of which "our" cultivated angels danced their elegant dance.

Many might ask:  So what has changed, exactly? I think I'd reply: Nothing much, except that, increasingly, the very wealthy and the globally well-connected like to think they don't really need the poor any more -- or, indeed, most of the rest of us -- and are losing interest in the political fantasy that they, too, have a stake in alleviating poverty by means of welfare and social mobility.  So last century!  Welcome to the New Middle Ages; just one mobile classless class, plus livestock.


* Always understood as an "upwards", never a "downwards" movement.  Eventually, I suppose, we could all be wealthy, leisured aristocrats!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

A Walk in the Woods



As the weather seemed finally to have taken a spring-like turn, I went for a wander in Spearywell Wood, near Mottisfont, on Friday.  I would have described it as "peaceful", had my ears not been assaulted periodically by the hysterical snarling of chainsaws.  It's not just the birds, dog-walkers and photographers who get busy in the woods in Spring.


I wonder if the tree in that last photograph thought it had won some kind of prize, when it was awarded the red dot?  Yesss!  You could almost hear the other trees calling out a warning, "Run, Jimmy, run!"  For some reason it reminded me of my favourite Tom Gauld cartoon:

© Tom Gauld

At this time of year the strength of the sunlight has increased significantly, but the day is still relatively short-lived, so by the time I headed back to the car the late-afternoon shadows were raking through the trees in dramatically gothic fashion.


It gets a bit spooky, after a bit, tramping through the woods at dusk alone, with chainsaw-wielding maniacs round every corner.  Unfortunately, this puts me into the sort of nervous, ironically-theatrical mood where I start cackling with laughter to myself, which probably accounted for the expression on the faces of the dog-walking couple I met on the way back to the carpark.  Sorry about that, guys.

Carpark noticeboard sprite

Friday, 6 March 2015

At Maldon


Spearywell Wood

I forgot to report back on J.O. Morgan's At Maldon, his rendering of the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon.  I mentioned it way back in October 2013 (Badwulf), when I was having a contrarian moan about the universal praise for Seamus Heaney's (to my mind) indifferent translation of Beowulf.   So:  it's very good.  But don't take my word for it, check out this page of comments at publisher CB editions.  And note the availability from today of that limited edition CD of Morgan's own recital.  By all accounts it's electrifying: I've already ordered mine.

And talking of Beowulf, did you hear Professor Andy Orchard on this week's edition of In Our Time (see Thursday 5th March 2015) ?  I was truly impressed.  Orchard is everything an inspiring teacher should be: learned, witty, insightful, fluent, amusing...  (Odd, therefore, you might think, that he should have chosen early mediaeval languages as his speciality, but never mind).  I'm pretty sure that if I had studied Anglo-Saxon with him, my view of it would have been rather different (see Caedmon's Dream Part 1).  I think what impressed me most was his awareness of the "Dark Ages" as a multi-cultural, multi-lingual melting-pot of influences.  His comments on the importance of those "Saxon poems in Latin that no-one reads" and how it is a shame that Anglo-Saxon is generally studied in English departments -- where, ahem, let us say that linguistic competence is scarce -- were well made.

I have to say Andy Orchard restored much of my waning faith in the standards that apply on the Humanities side of our institutions of higher education, although to acquire his manifest level of fluency in Latin, Old English, Welsh, and the ancient Scandinavian languages is a big ask by any standards.  Best of all, he had a welcome reticence about the virtues of "Heaneywulf", as it is apparently known in the trade, despite Melvyn Bragg's presumption of enthusiasm.

Spearywell Wood

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Fly Past

I expect all habitual photographers are the same, in this respect: there are certain potential photographs that you have seen and liked, and continue to see and like every time you go past, and yet have never yet got around to making.  Partly because it's never the right time or the right light, or you never have the right camera or lens, but mainly because you only ever remember them when you happen to be in that particular spot.


This is a classic example.  I pass its location less often these days, and rarely with a suitable camera, but any time I do, I think:  must remember to do that one, one of these days.  Last week, I happened to be in the right place with the right camera, but the light was awful.  Nevertheless, there it is: a dull facade transformed by a bit of imagination (artist Ray Smith's, in this case).  I may get a better shot at it, another time, I may not.  At least now I know where (and on what) to stand.

Monday, 2 March 2015

On Lambeth Bridge


 Looking south

Looking north

A trip to London yesterday, to visit the "Salt and Silver" exhibition of early photography at Tate Britain.  It was a toss-up between that and the poorly-reviewed "Sculpture Victorious" in the next room.

I suspect a laugh at the expense of Victorian sculptors might have been more entertaining.  One forgets how in love those early photographers were with the novelty of photographing ancient architecture.  The detail!  The even tonality!  And, best of all, the immobility!  So, several rooms mainly full of historic, worthy but dull records of grey stonework.  Although I wouldn't have minded taking home John Wheeley Gutch's wonderfully toned image of Tintern Abbey in 1858, ranging from the deep shadow of the ivy-covered arches to a bare hint of a sunlit, tree-covered hillside beyond, a view surely little changed since Wordsworth's repeat visit in 1798:
Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods
And not a single English Heritage interpretation board in sight.

As always, the photographs of people proved the most compelling, especially Roger Fenton's Crimean War portraits, which I have long admired for their bleak and scruffy renderings of the realities of life "in the field".  Especially as the field in question was located in the cold and rocky Crimean Peninsula, but its temporary residents were kitted out for some rather more congenial field near Aldershot.  I felt for them as we crossed the Thames on Lambeth Bridge, with a cold March wind cutting up the river and the clear sunlight periodically blocked by the ever-higher architectural cliffs along the Embankment.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

How Big Was Titanic?


Civic Centre fountain (empty)

I had intended to go to Oxford yesterday, in order to see the William Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean before it closes on Sunday.  It hadn't occurred to me to book a ticket in advance, though.  I mean, people have had plenty of time to see the show, it's a weekday in late February, and I had expected to be able to buy one at the door.  Luckily, I did check ticket availability on Thursday night, only to discover that there were no tickets left for Friday, and that Mr. Blake has proved so popular that extended late opening hours had been provided on Friday and Saturday.  Last chance to see!  But the earliest I could have got in would have been 17:00 on Saturday. Forget about it...  The man was a lunatic, anyway.

So, instead, I followed the prompting of Graham Dew, and visited our own outstanding local City Art Gallery, where painter Kurt Jackson has a major exhibition, Place.  The exhibition has an organising concept: 32 "contributors" were invited to share a written description of a place of special personal significance to them, which Jackson then visited and painted.  These contributors are very much a Who's Who of contemporary landscape writing -- the likes of Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, and Alice Oswald -- with special guests like Michael Eavis of the Glastonbury Festival.  I'm not sure how far this concept has really motivated Jackson's work, beyond getting him to places he might not otherwise visit, but a theme is always handy, if only to give the hyper-critical something obvious to chew on.

It's a very good show, though, with some strong pictures, which you can see on Kurt Jackson's website.  You will get quite a false sense of the work there, however, as some of the pictures are very large indeed, and some are tiny, and many of them make use of collaged natural materials and bold impasto painting effects. I enjoyed the smaller pieces a lot -- his sense of the dynamics of colour within our landscape is very much to my taste -- but felt the large-scale canvases did rather expose the limitations of his technique, which tends towards the formulae of "spontaneity" used in much popular landscape painting, with lots of expressive splashes and dribbles, and bold brushwork.  A dribbly tree looks great at sketch-book size, less so at garage-door size.  Faced with a huge painting, I like to be able to get in close, as well as stand back; the "granularity" of a big image is important.  In a contemporary gesture more to my taste, he also inscribes text onto the paintwork, sometimes in a naive, child-like script which, oddly, reminded me of Anselm Kiefer.  In fact, these paintings are technically quite reminiscent of Kiefer's work, but without any of that Germanic angst, torment or portentousness, and with rather nicer colours: he's basically a very English pictorial painter of landscape, whose main anxiety seem to be to avoid any accusation of "prettiness". Well, we can relate to that.

It's an intriguing "Desert Island Discs" type of question, though: where, if you had been asked, would you have nominated as your place of special personal significance?  At the age of 61, I now have so many "special" places it's hard to know where to begin.  But -- having so recently re-imagined it -- I think I'd be tempted to propose that virtual space, fifty or so feet above the ground, where my teenage bedroom looked out so commandingly from our now vanished fourth-floor flat.  It seems to be where all paths lead, and, if nothing else, it would have presented Kurt Jackson with an interesting easel-location challenge.

SeaCity

As I was in the neighbourhood, I thought I might as well visit the newish and not uncontroversial SeaCity museum, dedicated to Southampton's maritime history.  Oh dear.  I never enjoy museums where the acreage of interpretative panels and interactive displays vastly exceeds the actual exhibits on show -- very much the contemporary style -- and Sea City is a classic example.  It also has an unbalanced obsession with the Titanic story -- which is, in the end, just one ship that sank.  I was in and out in a matter of minutes, and can't think of any reason I would ever go back.  Which is a shame, given the richness of this city's maritime heritage, and its key relationship to Empire, trade, migration and immigration.  Inevitably, I think of Amsterdam's Tropenmuseum, which impressed me so much two weeks ago; unfortunately, there's really no comparison.

For the avoidance of doubt...

Thursday, 26 February 2015

My Back Pages

I like February, in principle.  It's my birthday month, and it does make you feel a bit special, as a kid, to have been born in the most eccentric, short and shape-shifting month of the year.  I associate it with clear, crisp blue-sky days, with the anticipation of waking up to an overnight snowfall and another day off school; February 1963 was definitive.  But, this year, February has been a truly dull month, weather-wise, down here on the south coast.  Weeks of cloud, rain, and nothing in particular, broken only by the occasional frost, a single feeble snow-shower, and a hailstorm of great intensity that briefly buried our garden with what looked like polystyrene packing beads.  It means there has been little disruption to normal life, but it has also made for an uninspiring month, photographically.  I looked with envy on the images from the Middle East this week, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem blanketed in snow like Christmas cards.  Though after some initial fun snowballing I expect it got old pretty quickly for refugees from Syria camped out in makeshift tents in Jordan and Turkey.

I've also been trying, with mixed success, to overcome the inertia induced by some surgery in late November which restricted my mobility until very recently.  Once you get into the habit of mooching about indoors, reluctant to test the boundaries of your new comfort zone, it's awfully hard to break out of it.  Dull, dull weather doesn't help.  A brief morning outbreak of sunshine, or a pretty frost would get me out in the back garden at breakfast-time, but it was generally gone by the time I was ready to think about going out.



As a consequence, I've been reading a lot, drawing a lot (once I've got my hand-eye-brain mojo back I may show some here), and browsing through my image backfiles, like a soothsayer looking for hints of the shape of the year to come.  But, as the financial advisers are required to say, "past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance".  I'll say.  I came across these next two pictures looking at Februaries past, and liked them for their clarity, and the fact they weren't taken in the back garden.  Both from February 2012.

Hockley Viaduct

M3 motorway from the B3335

And, despite my declared reluctance to revisit the past, I've spent a fair amount of time there in recent days, having broken out some old notebooks and read about the acts and opinions of some strange young man whose terrible handwriting seems uncannily similar to mine.  If nothing else, it's been a useful reminder of the value of writing things down.  For, dear reader, whatever you think you remember about your past, you're probably wrong.  And so is everybody else.  But in your case you probably don't have written (or drawn) evidence to the contrary.  In the absence of which -- and assuming you have no belief in an omniscient Recording Angel, whose revelatory notebooks will eventually be opened to us all -- your life is indeed writ in water.  Which may, of course, be just the way you like it.

Ah, but I was so much older then...

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You To Sadly Die


Southampton Common cemetery

I think I am going to start a campaign against an annoying formula that has established itself in the writing of even the more sensitive journalists and commentators:  "to sadly die".

Now, death and dying do present the writer with a number of difficult issues of tone and vocabulary: you don't necessarily want to upset or insult anybody (other than the recently rigidified themselves, who are beyond all that).  Death has often been described as the the "last taboo", which is just silly.  There are plenty of taboos left.  I find, to my surprise and embarrassment, that toenail trimming in restaurants (even with proper nail-clippers!) is still generally frowned upon, for example, just to start at the milder and more obviously absurd end of the taboo spectrum.  There are also any number of subjects which it is forbidden to discuss, but we won't talk about them here.

But "to sadly die" is a curious construct.  Typically, a sentence will read:  "Joan McGloan, who sadly died last month, was perhaps best known as a virtuoso on the Ettrick nose-harp".  Now, what work is the word "sadly" doing in that sentence?  Was Joan sad to die?  Did she die in a sad way? Is the writer sad that Joan died?  Is it sad, in particular, that it was Joan who died?  Perhaps we are being invited to admire or share the writer's sensitivity to Joan's death?  Or is the word merely acting as a sort of soft buffer before the dread word "die"?  Is there perhaps a feeling that to write, plainly, "Joan McGloan, who died last month..." is somehow a bit too brutal, a touch "inappropriate"?  Or is it even that to name, um, Mr. D out loud and unqualified is a form of tempting fate, so that "sadly" performs an apotropaic function?

Whatever.  It's still annoying.  But I think I can help.  I have some alternative suggestions, for those who blink at plain old "died":

to gladly die (for evangelical Christians)
to badly die (for those who make a bit too much fuss about dying)
to madly die (for candidates for the Darwin Awards)
to radly die (for grunge band members)
to tadly die (for those who die surprisingly quickly)
to fadly die  (for those who die from dieting or self-medication)
to plaidly die (for Scots nationalists)

These could be used in combination, too.  For example, "Joan McGloan, who gladly madly plaidly died last month" would indicate in an efficient way that Joan was a Scottish Nationalist evangelical who died in some risibly stupid way; for example, while attempting to prove the Ettrick nose-harp could be played by ear.

Of course, the judicious use of some commas ("Joan McGloan, who, sadly, died last month...") might rescue the situation, and turn an annoying verbal tic into a mere cliché, but where's the fun in that?

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Time-Traveller's Dream

Look away now, any photo-purists.  There's nothing to see here.  Move along, please.  Come back later.


By means of the triptastic, far-out magic of Photoshop, I have cunningly combined two photos from the previous post into one, resulting in an image that invokes a certain recently-mentioned virtual space, with its vanished entrances and exits -- not to mention its walls, floor and ceiling -- a time-traveller's dream of a faraway time and place, forever lost in the early 1970s.

Well, you had to be there...  If nothing else, that would have made a great album cover.  Oh, what?  Like this, you mean?


Or possibly this:


Cult albums, both of them, marking the transition of The Tryptolytes from psychedelic folk-rock -- songs like the plangently pungent "Lost in Woolworths", and the pungently plangent "Time (To Buy Another Packet)" -- to proto-punk space-rock, exemplified by the fervently frantic "Get Off My Face (No, Really, Get Off My Face)" and the festival favourite, the 15-minute free-form thrash "Metal Iron Jelloid Tin" (described by the New Musical Express as "Hawkwind meets Gong in an industrial cement-mixer, but with attitude", and by Melody Maker as "a crowd-pleaser, in the great British tradition of public executions and machine-breaking").  Heady days, heady days.

So, take that, Hipgnosis!  What a shame I could never actually have done this in the early 1970s...  But at least no stuntmen were set on fire in the making of these album covers.

Friday, 20 February 2015

A Chair in the Sky


Entrance lobby, Chauncy House flats, 1970

This week, in order to resolve yet another "partial memory" dispute  -- they seem to be getting more frequent -- I ended up looking through various boxes of old notebooks and diaries, searching for the ur-notebook, the one I started in 1971, shortly after breaking up with my first serious girlfriend.  There's nothing quite like a dose of teenage misery to get the attention of the diary-muse.

Having found it, and deciphered the relevant pages -- written during a hitchhiking trip a schoolfriend and I took through Holland and Germany later that same year, aged 17 -- I was able to establish The Truth: that he and I were both mistaken about various things we thought we could recall with certainty -- but rather differently -- after 44 years.  Those battered pages did confirm, however, that we were both correct in remembering a lift in Germany from the driver of a car with only second gear, who liked to roll himself cigarettes, one foot up on the dashboard, while my friend steered us down the autobahn from the passenger seat.  You do tend to remember that sort of thing.

Naturally, I ended up reading the whole notebook.  People, events and feelings I had utterly forgotten about came bobbing back up into memory.  Although, according to this irrefutable primary source, some occasions I thought I remembered well had in fact been played out rather differently, or with a different cast-list, and some others might as well have happened to someone else, as they had utterly gone from my mind.  I was a little appalled to see what a casual -- or, more likely, ignorant -- view I took of various risks and dangers, but I found myself experiencing an acute nostalgia for the intensity of life at that age, when the slightest thing -- some unusual weather, an encouraging smile from a girl, a difficult day at school -- was fretted with the hot Shakespearean fires of flaming youth, only to be doused by a wet blanket of adolescent bathos.


The trouble with such documents is that they are themselves a very partial account.  Sadnesses and setbacks are meditated upon with greater zeal than simple joys and successes.  The everyday goes unrecorded, and the exceptional is described in depth and at length.  The life of a 17-year-old -- this 17-year-old, anyway -- is apparently a life lived for the weekends, in a small-town soap opera with a cast of about a dozen close contemporaries, sporadically disrupted by invasions from the outer space inhabited by parents and teachers.  Seeing myself seeing myself, as it were, was a real hall of mirrors: "You're wrong, you little idiot... Don't do it!" I wanted to shout down the years.  Though I know only too well what I'd shout back.

Time-travel is bound to have unpredictable consequences. The main fallout for me was that I started obsessively mentally reconstructing my bedroom in the fourth-floor council flat we had lived in since 1967, from the dark blue I had painted my walls right down to the carpet I butchered, by cutting up hardboard sheets for paintings with a Stanley knife and steel ruler on the floor.  That block of flats, where I spent some of the most intensely lived years of my life, became emblematic of all my subsequent personal and private griefs and losses when it was demolished a few years ago, something I only discovered when taking a memory-lane detour through town on the way to my mother's funeral in Norfolk.  It was one of those ludicrously symbolic moments -- I had to pull over to the side of the road, gaping in utter disbelief -- when you think, Really?  Who writes this stuff?

And it's very odd to think that this intimately-known room, fifty or so feet above the ground, with its window hooded by our little balcony, looking out over a playing field and the town centre towards the motorway -- the stage-set for all my teenage hopes, fears, dreams and ambitions -- is now just an empty space somewhere in the air above the new houses built on the site.

The alchemical bedroom 1972