Monday, 15 October 2018


She don't say so much, these days, do she, ship-mates?

So, I hear you say, it's all very well, hiding behind Todd Hido, and his assertion that "As an artist I have always felt that my task is not to create meaning but to charge the air so that meaning can occur". But your Puck's Song stuff is clearly about something, isn't it? You can't invoke Kipling and then stand back looking all innocent, as if you had merely mentioned one of your colleagues at work, or the milkman.

OK. It's a fair cop. Let me venture into explicatory territory.

On one level, this series of images simply illustrate, stanza by stanza, one very partial account of the English national story, as told to children by Rudyard Kipling, through the character of the Oldest Old Thing in England, Puck, in Puck of Pook's Hill. If you don't know the book, or its companion, Rewards and Fairies (neither of which I'd read until quite recently: children's books were never my thing, even as a child) they're worth a look, if only to discover how "England" looked to a fairly unusual but prominent Englishman in the Edwardian high summer of 1906.

Now, looking a little deeper, many of us rightly regard with suspicion and dismiss as dangerous nationalism any concern with nativist narratives of nationhood, especially when coupled with an unexamined exceptionalism. In the (ironic) words of Flanders and Swann, "The English are moral, the English are good, and clever and modest and misunderstood". Oh, yes. We have also preferred to forget the Empire ever happened, or at least draw an imaginary line between "us" and "them". But I like this quotation from George Orwell:
But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
George Orwell, England Your England
They are us, we are them, the same but different. Having been branded as an imperialist, a nationalist, and even as a racist, a writer as full of brilliance, empathy and insight as Rudyard Kipling can be conveniently forgotten, too. But it's no good, as a way of moving forward, to pretend the past never happened. Especially if your past has had serious negative impacts on the present of others. And the fact that a subject is dangerous in the wrong hands should not put it off limits for art; quite the opposite.

But, actually, if you take the trouble to read him, Kipling's version of "England" is not some chest-beating fantasy of racial purity and superiority: it is the story of a serial multicultural mashup, ever-changing, endangered, defended, conquered, transformed, volatile, yet with a base-note of continuity symbolised by the imagined anima loci Puck. England is a place, not a "people" or an idea, and yet it is a place where different ideas and many peoples have been layered into something as solid as geology. Had Kipling lived an improbably long life, Puck's Song would (and, in a sense, does) have verses that include Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, the "Windrush Generation", Ugandan Asians and, more recently, an infusion of young families from Eastern Europe. To Puck, we're all newcomers, all English, and to align Kipling with the likes of UKIP is to profoundly misunderstand him [1].

Also, although in a sense it's a case of the part standing for the whole, Puck is the spirit of a very particular place, the Weald of Sussex and Kent. I'd never visited the area until very recently, driving some of my pictures to hang in an exhibition in Battle, near Hastings. Kipling's house, Bateman's, is located nearby, and I'd meant to pay it a visit. But, having gone astray once too often in the Wealden maze of lanes and B-roads, I headed for the safety of the A27 and Brighton; another time. However, I couldn't help but get a strong sense of the layering of history that had so clearly impressed Kipling. This, after all, is where the original Stormin' Normans came through in 1066, upturning everything, including the language. It's also one of those places with a secret industrial past: guns were cast here for the Navy. The Weald had all the necessary ingredients to be a major centre for iron-founding from Roman times until coal replaced charcoal in the late 18th century. Located on the Channel, close to the shortest crossing routes, the Weald has always been among the first to experience the latest breaking wave of change.

So much for Kipling: what about me? What attracted me to this odd and clunky little piece of verse? Well, when I was building my photographic sequence based in the area around the Hockley Viaduct and St. Catherine's Hill near Winchester (self-published via Blurb as the book England and Nowhere) I had a very similar experience to that of Kipling in the the Weald: everywhere I looked there was evidence in the landscape of layer upon layer of occupation and industry, converging on a natural transport "pinch-point" into south Hampshire. Rather than repeat myself, here is a link to what I wrote at the time.

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

I had come across that penultimate stanza of "Puck's Song" somewhere on the Web, and it seemed to encapsulate much of what I was trying to convey. So, even if I may have had nothing more profound than that to say, it still seemed worth expanding upon. It led me to read Puck of Pook's Hill, and to review my ideas about Kipling, and then subsequently to devote many hours to creating a suite of interpretive photo-collage illustrations that were originally intended as a sort of coda to England and Nowhere, but have actually become what is probably a more substantial and personal piece of work. Hopefully I have managed to "charge the air" a bit, too, so that more meaning can occur in the receptive viewer's creative mind.

1. If you've never read any of Kipling's work, you might  be surprised by it: why not try "Kim", or a few of the "Barrack-Room Ballads" (my favourite), or perhaps "Plain Tales From The Hills"? He is not what, perhaps, you have been led to believe: an orientalist, a racist, a proto-fascist, and a blinkered apologist for Empire. He is more multi-faceted than that, less dogmatic, more open to conflicting points-of-view, gifted with what Keats called negative capability: "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason". Even at his very worst, he is not simply or uncritically any of those bad things. "White saviour", certainly; "racist", no. Never forget that it was Kipling who wrote, after WW1, "If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied" ("Epitaphs of the War"), and it was Kipling who insisted on properly acknowledging the contribution of Indian and other Empire troops to the war effort.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Charging the Air

I found this slightly androgynous person hanging around a local cemetery, and decided to appropriate her/him/it/them for my own purposes. Step one was to remove a slightly cumbersome pair of wings. Step two was to decide, on closer inspection, that she's anatomically female, no matter what angelic non-binary identity she may claim. I know, I know... I can't help it. The whole idea of gender fluidity makes me feel old and irritable.

Anyway. I was intrigued by her soupy expression of awestruck wonder, and decided it needed some suitable objects of contemplation, as opposed to some invisible and abstract theistic construct "up there". Why a crow or a dormouse, though? I have no idea. They came to hand, and seemed more appropriate than, say, a teapot. Although that could work, too. As you have probably grasped by now, there is no profound message that I am trying to inculcate or illustrate. Or, if there is, it's as much a mystery to me as it is to you.

I recently noted down these words of photographer Todd Hido, from a recent interview:
As an artist I have always felt that my task is not to create meaning but to charge the air so that meaning can occur. 
I like that. I suppose it's then a question of whether the charge I have tried to create attracts anyone into its field of potential meaning. Or, of course, repels.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Ten Idiotic Years

Today – incredibly, uniquely, unprecedentedly, unrepeatably – is the tenth anniversary of this blog. Ten years! Who'd have thought it? What started out as a tentative investigation into the nature of Web 2.0 and the possibilities of social media has ended up as ... Well, I'm not entirely sure what. A sort of diary-notebook-sketchpad left open on the virtual table for anyone to read, maybe? Or perhaps, for those of you in the sophisticated seats, Bruchstücke einer grossen Konfession ("fragments of a great confession", Goethe's formulation for his autobiographical writings). Whatever it is, there is now quite a lot of it, most of which you will almost certainly not have read.

Naturally, I have had thoughts of drawing a line under the whole enterprise, or perhaps even starting a new blog (I was strangely drawn to the title "Public Pyjamas"), but concluded that I enjoy doing this too much to stop and, crucially, can't imagine doing it any differently, unless I were to attempt writing it in, say, heroic couplets or blank verse. Or maybe a classic four-frame cartoon à la Doonesbury, until I realised quite how bloody difficult that is, compared even to heroic couplets. Respect, cartoonists.

So, to mark the occasion, as mooted earlier in the year, I have produced a CD containing all ten years compiled, unedited, as individual Idiotic Hat Annual PDF files. That's it, up above. Any resemblance to a fondly-remembered record label from the late 1960s is entirely intentional. Each of the ten volumes of the Idiotic Hat Annual that it contains runs from September to August, because when I started the blog I was still employed in an academic institution, and that's how the academic world does things, and also because before retirement I was in the habit of taking a summer "blog break" when posts became very thin on the ground. As with so many illogical things, it has its own logic.

You may recall that, in the earlier post Puck's Song Revisited, I referred to the availability of an "artisanal" CD of the book distributed in a "handcrafted" container. This was simply a facetious way of describing the traditional home-burned CD hand-labelled with a Sharpie pen and mailed out in a paper envelope. However, by happy chance I then discovered in a drawer a mysterious piece of plastic which turned out to be the CD tray for my venerable Epson Photo 1400 printer. Never having used it, I had completely forgotten that printing CDs was within its capabilities. Bingo! What's more, it works. Hence the Island pink-label lookalike above, and the New Improved Puck's Song CD below. Handcrafted by me, artisanally.

Having gone to that trouble, it seemed a shame not to match the effort with proper DVD-style cases, also handcraftily artisanal. Here's Puck's Song:

And here's the one for the "Ten Idiotic Years" album:

My original offer still stands. Send me £12.50 via PayPal [1], and give me your postal address, and I'll mail you a copy of either anywhere in the world. You can have both for £22.50, and if you've already bought Puck's Song via Blurb, but would like to have this version, too, you can take £4.50 off either price.

1. My email address is in the "View My Complete Profile" gadget at top right.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

A Souvenir of Southampton Water

I'm not saying Southampton Water is polluted, but ... Well, actually, I am. Which is hardly controversial: it is. I mean, Southampton is in the national Top Ten for air pollution, thanks to the docks and the Fawley refinery, so it's hardly surprising that the body of water that separates one from the other is far from pristine, what with office-block-sized boats going up and down it all day.

I wouldn't even consider swimming in it, unless by some appalling mischance I fell in, but apparently local author Philip Hoare does most days. I imagine he has the water pretty much to himself, setting aside the ocean liners, container ships, and smaller craft that churn through this cloaca maxima of heavy-metal and fuel-oil pollution. Occasionally, when we hosted a conference or seminar, naive visitors from abroad would ask where the nearest and safest bathing beach might be located. "Bournemouth", was the only responsible answer.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Puck's Song Revisited

A couple of years ago, I put together a set of photo-collages illustrating "Puck's Song", something that will probably be remembered by anyone who has read Rudyard Kipling's version of English history, as told by the Oldest Old Thing in England to a couple of imperialists-in-training young children, in his book Puck of Pook's Hill. At the time I made the twelve core images available as that year's calendar (handily there are twelve stanzas), and also as a little booklet.

I had always intended to revisit this work in order to produce something more substantial, and have now done so. It will become publicly available later in October via Blurb as a magnificent 12" x 12" hardback book. However, even at production cost a copy of this will come in at around £50, so I don't expect to sell many (any?). It's the sort of "vanity project" that is mainly intended to leave something substantial for posterity to marvel at: why on earth wasn't this man taken more seriously in his time? Well, it worked for William Blake.

So, in anticipation of limited sales (and initially for readers of this blog only) in addition to the book I am making available a very nice, very high-resolution PDF version of the entire thing (40 pages), also via Blurb for just £7.49. Both the book and the PDF are available immediately, but for now this is an "invitation only" offer via this link. Note that it's a 21 Mb file download. Alternatively, you can pay me £12.50 via PayPal (my email address is in the "View My Complete Profile" gadget at top right), email me your terrestrial address, and I will mail you a copy of an artisanal CD containing the PDF, anywhere in the world, in its own handcrafted container.

There will be prints, too. The individual images are roughly 40cm in diameter, and will be printed archivally on a 50cm x 50cm sheet of Hahnemühle German Etching paper by the excellent theprintspace, whose services I thoroughly recommend. The samples I have look fantastic. I haven't settled on a price or an edition size for these yet, but if you might be interested, please do get in touch. I think we can safely say each print will cost more than a copy of the hardback Blurb book, however...

NOTE: If you do go for the PDF, for the best viewing experience you need to set your reader (typically Adobe Acrobat, or an alternative like Foxit) so that you are seeing a two-page view, but also with a separate cover page. This ensures the correct pages face each other. Unfortunately, this is not hard-coded into the PDF's properties by Blurb, which is annoying.

In Acrobat the settings are:
  Under the menu "View" / "Page Display" choose all of:
    "Two Page View"
    "Show Gaps Between Pages"
    "Show Cover Page in Two Page View"

In Foxit the settings are similar:
  In the menu "View" there is a "Page Display" pane:
    Click the "Facing" icon and the "Separate Cover Page" icon

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Five A.M.

Hi there, perhaps you remember me?
We met at the Royal Academy

Do you ever have one of those dreams where you wake up afflicted with a deep sense of dread, so convinced that you have committed some terrible act in your past – generally a murder, in my case – that it can take some very long half-awake minutes to persuade yourself that this is not the case? And sometimes even a bit longer to convince yourself that you have not so thoroughly buried, concealed, and covered up all evidence of the ghastly event so deep in your consciousness that you had, somehow, actually forgotten all about it? Well, I suspect the recent wave of outings of prominent men for past acts of sexual harassment and assault will have given many senior sirs similar cause for close self-examination. Did I? Didn't I?

As far as what may be regarded as sexual assault is concerned, the situation has changed rather a lot since I was a young man, and with retrospective effect, too, which might seem unfair to some, and which will, as I suggest, have provoked panicky self-interrogation among ambitious men who had hoped and expected whatever bad stuff might be in their past would stay safely buried there. But, in a "post-Savile" world [1], the plea that "things were different back then" counts for very little. The point is, they weren't different, not really, and on an exculpatory scale, this objection has about the same weight as "I was only following orders". Ditto "it was just a bit of fun", "we didn't mean it", "she didn't complain at the time", and all the rest of the complacent litany of masculine entitlement.

So, despite my lack of eminence or ambition, I have carefully audited my internal files, and – unless, as in the dream, I have totally suppressed, shredded, and burned all the evidence, and served a non-disclosure order on my conscience – I can report that I have found little or nothing in there to trouble my sleep. As a monogamously-inclined guy with the same partner for forty years, I suppose this was likely to be the case. Even rummaging through the grubby files of adolescence, all I can turn up are one unwisely pinched bottom, for which I received instant and unforgettably sharp retribution, and a few snogging sessions that might have gone – but didn't go – too far. Looked at from the 1970s end of the telescope, it may look a bit dull – is that all there is? Yep, sorry, young 'un! – but, from this end, it's reassuring. I may not actually have collected signed consent forms for any of my more significant adventures, but my conscience is clear. Although quite how I could prove this many decades later is a very good question.

However. Teenage boys are, generally speaking, more interested in impressing other teenage boys than in impressing teenage girls; they are "homosocial". Boys grow up in a constant, bullying tussle over pecking orders. A classroom can be like a volatile mediaeval court: friends change, alliances shift, and he who is now Up, will later be Down, and get the kicking, real or metaphorical, he has so richly earned for himself while in favour. Girls have their own version of this, I know (something men only discover when raising daughters), but – and I may be utterly mistaken when I say this – I doubt if it thrives in quite the same salty brew of outrageously competitive, but largely imaginary salaciousness.

Again, things have changed since my younger days. Sex, back then, was an almost entirely imaginary, not to say solitary activity, even for that minority of us fortunate enough to attract girlfriends. Real pornography was also extremely hard to come by, so imagination counted for a lot. A certain respect could be earned among your peers by retailing a constant supply of dirty jokes or by the exercise of some vivid fantasy on the subject, usually with grotesque results not unlike those exotic monsters in faraway lands conjured up in early travellers' tales. It could take years for mannish boys to wade out of the swamp of their feverish imaginings, and finally meet women on equal terms on the common ground of consent. Sadly, this has probably only got worse, not better, with the free availability of pornography, which – by definition – is essentially the acting out for the camera of those same feverish, one-sided imaginings.

But the truth is that girls can still be harmed by boys without any physical contact at all. I was very struck by the savage irony of what happened to Renate Dolphin, one of the women caught up in the Brett Kavanaugh case in the USA. Having testified to the good character of the would-be Supreme Court judge, she then made the shocking discovery that she had unknowingly been "slut-shamed" by him and his crew of preppy chums in their high school yearbook, all describing themselves as "Renate Alumni". Which they probably found hilarious. And, let's be honest, at that age I would probably have found it hilarious, too. Especially so if not actually true. Things were different back then; it was only a bit of fun; we didn't mean it; she didn't complain at the time. Hmm.

This did make me wonder. Might our own group of not-so-preppy chums have said or shared or invented things – long forgotten by us and intended solely for the private amusement of a circle of friends – that caused unintended but lasting pain to some of the girls we knew back then? It's not impossible, though unlikely: the girls we knew gave as good as they got. Rather better, in certain cases. As a young lad I had a quick-witted brain and a fast mouth, and I was tormented by the usual longings and frustrations. Might I have reached into the sulphurous depths for some stinging response to fling in the face of some girl's indifference, rejection, or mockery, some corrosive riposte that left scars for longer than it should? I sincerely hope not, but I can never be sure, not least because, self-evidently, it was not important enough at the time – for me, that is – to remember now. Which, in all these historic "he says, she says" confrontations, is perhaps the core indictment to be laid before Kavanaugh and his like: they may well not remember their actions, as they claim, carried out decades ago in the pursuit of laddish laughs and what would now be called "bantz", but their victims have never forgotten. A lapse of memory is one thing, but to accuse your accuser of lying when the asymmetry of memory has itself become the issue is surely to compound the offence.

I suppose it comes down to what is at stake. No-one is going to rake up ancient accusations against anyone I knew in my youth: what would be the point? But criminal behaviour is still, largely, a barrier to high office, and I suppose truly ambitious, alpha-male types with a lot to lose are still vulnerable to their own past behaviour, and so will simply deny any accusations and take their chances in the courts, especially if rich and lawyered up. Also, although some offences are not crimes, or were not crimes at the time they were committed, they are still shameful in the eyes of mature, responsible citizens. Shame is no longer the informal regulatory force in society it once was, however, and, besides, one measure of maturity is the awareness that we, too, have been immature and irresponsible in our time. Forgiveness and repentance are essential social and moral virtues; they're the civilised way of dealing with minor transgressions. But, confronted with bald-faced denial of serious wrongdoing, and with sufficient evidence to the contrary, a fair legal hearing is the only recourse. Get it all out in the open and, if anybody has been lying or conveniently forgetting, on either side, string 'em up. That is, assuming non-disclosure settlements, bribes, intimidation, perjury, and establishment cover-ups don't get in the way of due process, of course. As if!

But at least I am as certain as I can be that I have never actually committed and covered up a murder, despite what my subconscious mind would like me to believe, when it wakes me up at 5 a.m. And if you think you know different, you're wrong, and I'll see you in court.
There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.
Fleur Adcock
Whoah, dude, you've pulled off that chicken's head!
Sure, but history will absolve me...

1. "post-Savile" is probably an exclusively British expression, relating to the fall of sex-predator, paedophile, disk jockey, and TV personality Jimmy Savile, and the "turn a blind eye" policies of the establishment, in its various guises, towards his activities. The whole sordid affair is described here.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Hinton Ampner

Having expected heavy rain, but having got autumn sunshine, we headed out to the National Trust property at Hinton Ampner on Sunday afternoon. It's a 40 minute drive from Southampton through some glorious rolling downland, and the house is set in some fine terraced gardens and parkland, so it's ideal for a not-too-strenuous Sunday walkabout.

It is a damned strange place, however. Serially destroyed and rebuilt, from a notoriously haunted Tudor mansion through various Georgian and Victorian versions, it finally had a major fire in 1960, and was restored in a faux-Georgian style by its last owner, who died unmarried without an heir, and left the property to the National Trust.

We'd never actually been inside before and, unlike the grounds and gardens, it turned out to be a fairly unrewarding experience. That terminal owner, Ralph Dutton, 8th and last Baron Sherborne, was a keen gardener and did a great job on the terraced garden and landscaping, but filled the house with a collection of that awful, gilded bric-a-brac so beloved of the landed gentry. Some of the worst paintings I've ever seen hang on the walls, and it has the drab atmosphere that reminds you of English cooking before the momentous discovery that vegetables are not inherently poisonous.

As always, however, there is enough entertainment value in the random grotesquerie to keep me occupied, and I came away with some useful potential material for photo-collage purposes. I particularly liked this Britannia, with one hand on the globe and the other grappling a sturdy book away from a cherub; even when you have a global Empire, childcare is a problem. But, wait, look at the one on the left: is he scalping some woman? Never mind the book, Britannia, really bad stuff is happening behind your back! I imagine the thing is probably some kind of parable about distracting Parliamentary oversight of the excesses of MI6 and the military. Perfect for any aristocratic mantelpiece.

Caged and dangerous vegetables

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Snake Oil

I was looking through my backfiles for something or other, and noticed this photograph, which was taken wandering along a little tributary stream of the Itchen a couple of years ago. If nothing else, it's quite nice... I especially like the tiny trout hatchlings chasing their own shadows in the greenish, sun-dappled water. Like most photographers of a certain disposition, I have happily spent my time looking for pictures like this, serendipitously extracting pleasing little bits of the world, rendered into the 2-D stillness of a rectangular frame. Or like this one, from the same month, April, in the same year, 2016, with the same camera, a Fuji X-E1:

They have a certain compositional, tonal, and textural similarity, and – insofar as any photographer can claim to put a personal stamp on their work – I'm happy to claim them, stylistically, as "mine". Were I ever to be invited to put on another photographic exhibition, pictures like this would figure prominently. As people seem never to tire of saying about other, similar work, it's all about "noticing the elusive, often surreal beauty that is revealed in the small, overlooked details in our everyday surroundings", and is a standing invitation to turn on, tune in, and – momentarily, at least – drop out of our habit-dulled perceptions. Blah blah, tum-ti-tum, and lah-di-dah. You read this sort of thing all the time, because there is an awful lot of other, similar work being made out there, and, in the end, you have to wonder whether, like landscape photography, it has finally become inextricably enmeshed in its own clichés. And, besides, exactly whose windows of perception are being given a wash-down, here?

I was looking at the online version of the TLS, which regularly features a Poem of the Week. This week it is by Anthony Thwaite, and (because the poem is nominally about a river) it is illustrated by a photo of broken, colourful reflections on rippled water. Seeing it, I immediately thought it must be by Jessica Backhaus, a moderately well-known German photographer who has published an entire book, I Wanted To See the World, of precisely such wave-fragmented imagery. Checking the credit, I saw that the picture was not by Backhaus, however, but sourced from the agency Alamy and by someone called Maria Galan, who turns out to be a stock-photography supplier. I imagine she saw some Backhaus-ish reflections somewhere, and thought it would be worth adding a few to her inventory. Why not? It's easy enough to do, once the idea is out there. Besides, it's no good being snobbish about someone trying to make a living from her photography.

But it does reveal something about the nature of photography, I think, that a journal like the TLS would be happy to source a nice-enough picture of some semi-abstract river-waves from Alamy to illustrate a poem (no doubt they have an account there) rather than use the work of an acknowledged artist of similar stature to the poet. After all, the only differences are pretty intangible: whereas someone like Jessica Backhaus, presumably, sees the broken imagery as expressive of some personal themes, and constructed her obsessive, book-length series out of a conviction that sequenced serial imagery can be greater than the sum of its parts, Maria Galan simply sees a gap in the stock-photo market. Same photo, different motive. It may be unfair, but I'm reminded of those bargain "Can You Tell The Difference?" LP compilations of current hits that were popular in the late 1960s, made by what we would now call tribute acts. For every innovator there are 100 imitators, and each imitator is followed by 1000 impersonators. Can you tell the difference? Does it make any difference who made two more-or-less identical pictures, with what motivation, and with what level of creative innovation?

To be clear, I don't mean to elevate Jessica Backhaus to that primary category. I own a couple of her books, which are nice enough, and have a story to tell, but are not essential. I'd place her in with the interesting imitators. But, having been reminded of her work, I decided to look her up on the Web, where I found this rather well-produced little video on her website. It's called "Wonder", a rather presumptuous title that says it all: yes, here we are, back in the presence of the same-old same-old, that "elusive, often surreal beauty that is revealed in the small, overlooked details in our everyday surroundings", which I have to admit I have begun to find quite depressing as a formula. Is this really what this approach to photography comes down to? A sort of wide-eyed evangelism for... Well, for what? Is there really a philosophical or political or religious significance to be derived from, say, noticing the play of light on a torn poster on a broken window? And does that alleged significance lie in the final photograph, or in the act of noticing itself, an act motivated by the desire to make photographs?

Perhaps we are all just recovering slackers making a virtue out of those lost hours spent idly gazing at walls and floors and out of windows. Or maybe we are aficionados of wabi sabi, aliens adrift in a world that is far too enchanted by the glossy and the new. Certainly, like me and a thousand others, in the video we see Backhaus gravitate to those shop-soiled environments where picturesque dilapidation can be found, producing pictures that could quite easily be mine, or those of just about any other photographer working in this free-floating lyrical genre that, as far as I'm aware, has no name. Which is to say they're good pictures, they're interesting, but not exceptional. That she appears to make a living from this work – she is represented by no fewer than eight galleries worldwide – is both mystifying and, I suppose, enviable. Which provokes the question: who buys such work at gallery prices when, with a little effort, they could just as easily be making it themselves?

Seriously: to believe otherwise is to invest in an illusion. The photographic boom of recent decades is a classic investment bubble. Anyone spending more than a couple of hundred pounds on a contemporary digital colour photograph is, in my opinion, a fool. Anyone asking over a thousand pounds for a single such photograph is, surely, a charlatan. Much as I love it, and depend on its practice for my sanity, photography is a secondary, mechanical, imitative art. The world will put on its photo-face whenever it is photographed, no matter who presses the button; it's simply a matter of learning how to use a camera to the same level of competence as, say, driving a car. The rest is choices. As a medium of record, photography is second to none. But photographs of puddles and broken glass that hint at (or challenge) some sort of immanence are not acts of witness to the world – here are the suffering children of Syria, here is the railway station before it was rebuilt, here is your great-great-grandmother –  but acts of personal testimony. Call me a hopeless old romantic, but selling non-transferable testimony by the yard and at top dollar smacks of snake oil to me.

I find myself coming back to my little manifesto, written some years ago:
Self-motivated photography is like writing poetry: if you are after fame and fortune, you are in the wrong game. You do it for its own sake, and the appreciation of a small, dedicated, statistically-insignificant audience, most of whom will be practitioners themselves. Even to be famous within such a small circle is to be invisible to the wider world. Martin Parr is as little-known to the general public as Paul Muldoon. But invisibility does have benefits: you're free from the expectations of paying audiences, so there's no excuse for your work not to be "as serious as your life" [jazz pianist McCoy Tyner on music] or even as daft as a brush, if that's what you prefer.
I might revise my example and estimation of Martin Parr, not least because his consummate skill in self-promotion seems to have imprisoned him, stylistically, within his own "brand" (although I have yet to hear anyone say to someone wielding a camera, "Who do you think you are: Martin Parr?", in the way people used to invoke David Bailey). I suppose I have also been surprised by the number of non-commercial "me, too" photographers who seem to have ridden the wave of the photo-boom (although I'd be curious to scrutinise the balance of incomings and outgoings in their bank accounts, not to mention their pension arrangements). But I stand by my basic proposition that the true value of whatever this kind of photography is – whether it be labelled self-motivated, lyrical, testimonial, poetic – lies in the doing of it, and the freedom to do it, and not in the final product.

Although, obviously, if you were to feel inclined to offer me a grand or two for any of my pictures, I'd be happy to oblige, even though (shhh...) seventy-five pounds is my normal asking price. PayPal is fine.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Homeopathic Ancestry

The face of hard times: my great-grandmother Mary Mabbitt,
listed here as receiving "parish relief" as a pauper family in 1906.

I've been thinking about the past a lot recently. Not so much my own personal past (although that does inevitably acquire prominence as one gets older) as the historical past, and in particular those dark but densely-populated stretches of the 19th century where most of our family histories lie. This is territory I've covered before (for example here), but I've been helping a friend with his family-tree researches, and it's remarkable how familiar so much of the ground has been. True, we come from very similar working-class backgrounds, but then, don't we all? Any trawl through the records of the 19th century will reveal how the general prosperity of the later 20th century is built on the compacted foundations of generation upon generation of hard grind and poverty.

One of the great insights of pursuing "family history" (a rather inflated term for the dogged pursuit of the paper-trail one's DNA has left, or failed to leave, in the bureaucracies of church and state) is to discover how very quickly you leave behind a familiar world of electric light, cars, fridges, and free schooling, and enter a crowded, dark, damp, unhappy world of struggle and short lives, where births, marriages, and deaths were signed off with a wavering "X": the "mark" of some illiterate forebear. The censuses show large families sharing small houses with other large families. Children vanish from the records, presumed dead, living with relatives, or in service somewhere. Widows serially marry men who die far too young, creating rival tribes of siblings. Families constantly split, like amoebas, into parallel strands of cousins, each bearing the same cluster of names, occupations, and ages, often living close nearby, making it impossible to tell one Henry or Hannah from another. Illegitimacy, and occupations and living arrangements that fell outside the law or the state's ability to categorise them would be glossed over with lies and euphemisms. Surprisingly often, people didn't really know how old they were, with the estimate varying, sometimes wildly (or perhaps wilfully) between each census and the various other required forms of certification.

The other day I was looking through our family photographs with my daughter, and was struck by the self-evident truth that her eight great-grandparents – just three of them familiar to me and all unknown to her – were born into a world that had yet to see cars, aeroplanes, electric lighting, or indeed any of the conveniences of modern life. It was no wonder I found them so hard to talk to: by the time they were the age I am now, which would have been around the mid-to-late 1950s, they were probably in a permanent state of PTSD, their once-familiar planet having been invaded and taken over by an alien species. I don't think many grandparents today have that problem, perhaps because rapid change is a condition we have come to expect and, to an extent, enjoy.  The pursuit of family history itself, once a time-consuming and expensive slog through scattered archives and graveyards, has become an almost trivial matter, carried out by ordinary people from the comfort of home on a machine and over a network that are far beyond the imaginings of even their most recent ancestors. It takes an act of true contrarian political will to reject the conveniences of globalised modern life, from out-of-season vegetables to dirt-cheap flights, on the grounds that their real price is too high. A price that is being paid by other families, in other parts of the world, where "modern life" as we understand it has yet to arrive.

I suppose the other main lesson of family history is the simple maths of the geometric progression of reproduction: every direct ancestral generation of every individual doubles in size. To which can be added siblings, cousins, and multiple marriages, although illegitimacy – far more common than we might think [1] – does tend to truncate some branches, genealogically if not genetically. Given that in the UK official registration of births, marriages, and deaths goes back to 1837 (and parish records much further), a child born today could reasonably expect to trace a family tree going back at least seven or eight, possibly even nine or ten generations. That's an awful lot of individuals to track down who have made a direct contribution to a single child's genetic pool; well over 1000, in a family with a conscientious attitude towards registration with officialdom. And yet, obviously, the further back you go, the more homeopathic is the contribution of any one individual. So, now that we're aware of the direct inheritance of "Y Chromosome" and "mitochondrial DNA" from male and female lines respectively, a lot of people choose to trace just those two direct lines of descent. But that is still a lot of work, and not so cheap if you do the thing properly, and buy a full suite of B/M/D certificates for each individual. It is also a lot of different sets of historical circumstances to take into account, even over a mere 180 years.

That last is, in many ways, the key. The old debate about "nature versus nurture" is always relevant. You don't acquire attitudes and behaviour from your genes, as far as anyone knows, although you may inherit certain aptitudes and predispositions. You acquire your attitudes and behaviour from the environment in which you grow up, which in turn is heavily influenced, positively or negatively, by the environments in which your parents and grandparents grew up. What is missing, in most family trees, is any sense of what sort of people your ancestors were and what sort of world they inhabited. You may have identified an individual living in 1841 with some precision, but probably only have the vaguest, most generic idea of the things that truly matter. What clothes did they wear? What food did they eat? Were they kind or cruel, churchgoers or notorious scofflaws, crippled by hard manual labour or people of private means? What did that street look like in 1841? Was it a hive of respectable conformity or a thieve's rookery? More research needed.

My own investigations illustrate this. On one side, I can trace my direct male line to a shepherd in Scotland's Lammermuir Hills, living in the late 18th century (Scottish records really are superb). It was only when I sat back, having succeeded in following this dry paper-trail, that I thought, "Holy shit, this guy is a contemporary of Robert Burns and Robert Adam, and his grandfather may well have been at Culloden". But I doubt very much that this romantically remote personage has had any influence at all on who I am [2]. On the other side, my maternal grandfather was illegitimate, the child of an unknown father and a woman who abandoned him into a Liverpool foundlings institution, lying about her name, age, and marital status on every official record, thus rendering herself invisible to posterity. In other words, an entire quarter of my genetic makeup is completely unknown and untraceable. But I'm pretty sure that my grandfather's experience of growing up without parents in the care of a late Victorian Poor Law Union, followed by service in WW1, had a profound effect on him, which will in turn have had a similarly profound effect on my mother. Certainly, it may explain why the taciturn old devil used to toss worms at me when gardening, which he knew I hated. "Tough love" would be the charitable interpretation, I suppose. Nature may deal the cards, but nurture plays the hand.

"Look, Ma! Posh folk!"
Queen Mary visiting shipyard workers, Sunderland, 1917
Tyne & Wear Museum & Archive (TWAM ref. DS.DOX/6/14/1/4)

1. I was impressed and quite surprised to learn recently that George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, the great art collector and patron of Turner, Constable, and others, filled Petworth House not only with art but also with over FORTY illegitimate children.
2. Although on a visit last year to a friend's smallholding near Inverness, I did discover a certain affinity with handling sheep. So who knows?

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Bun Fight

I was in the Royal Academy on Wednesday with a couple of old friends, exploring the new extension and admiring the various exhibitions it contains, and in particular the newly-displayed "permanent collection". Naturally, I was drawn to the anatomical models, including this fine example of an écorché (flayed) torso. Back in the days when artists suffered from the disabling delusion that both talent and the acquisition of representational skills were prerequisites for their trade, poor fools, the copying of such objects was mandatory. Some fine examples of anatomical and sculptural drawing are on show at the RA, and the sheer (sorry, mere) facility displayed is breathtaking.

Probably the most extraordinary object in the permanent collection is an almost full-size copy of Leonardo's Last Supper, actually made during his lifetime. Unlike the original, which started to fade about ten minutes after it was finished (and was not improved by having a doorway cut through it), this copy is pretty much intact. Studying it, the revolutionary if impious theory occurred to me that the whole composition actually revolves around the row of buns or rolls laid out in a row along the table edge. I counted them, and there are only ten, three too few, surely the cause of the disturbance and gesticulations erupting around the table. Italians take their food very seriously. I bet a panino to a ciabatta that here lies the true origin of the expression "bun fight". Go on, check it out, and tell me I'm wrong.

Of course, when it comes to the matter of copying casts of classical sculpture, William Blake (whom I revere, but who – let's be honest – was no great shakes as a draughtsman) had a typically contrarian opinion. The photograph you see above is of part of an installation in the RA, seen through a gauze screen: it's a small model of the original, heavily-restored version of the sculpture "Laocoön and his sons having a bit of bother with a large snake", once regarded in neoclassical circles as the exemplar and ne plus ultra of all plastic art (no, idiot, it's not made of plastic). Blake's own engraved version, annotated by him onto the actual plate at some later stage, is an extraordinary artefact, which raises demented marginalia to an artform in itself. If you want to read what he has to say, look here. Let's just say he begs to differ on the subject of the sculpture's alleged greatness, and indeed that of classical art in general. I must say I agree with his broad point, although – like any moderately sane person – I might take issue with quite a lot of the detailed argument. Or Blakean Rant, as we might more properly call it.

In the Permanent Collection is a full-size cast of the Laocoön. Like so many of the exhibits, it does give a certain thrill to think how many distinguished pairs of eyes have gazed upon it, labouring over a sheet of paper in their apprentice days. As is my habit, I went round behind it to see if there was a more interesting angle there, and was amused to find a "hidden" work of art, a little model boat painted in WW1 dazzle camouflage, inserted into the hollow base of the cast. The young attendant was pleased to note my discovery, and she told us all about it, and the RA's wartime role in developing camouflage patterns. Although she did look a little panicky when, in return, I expounded my theory of Leonardo's bread rolls, still hot from the oven, as it were. Perhaps I was being a touch more Blakean than I intended.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

You Have Mail

I've been an email user for a comparatively long time. Before I retired in 2014, I had been an IT administrator within a university library since the mid-1980s, so had been using electronic mail over academic networks even before the advent of the wider internet and the World Wide Web.

I think it is now a universal experience that email in the workplace has become a problem, and not the solution it once was. It's far too easy to copy a mail to multiple recipients, and regard that as "job done".  "What do you mean, you didn't know the electricity was going to be off today, didn't you get my email?" Got it, yes; read it, no... (a real example, unfortunately). For the last decade or so at work I was receiving so many emails daily – from colleagues, work-related interest groups, not to mention the leagues of fraudsters and spoofers – that, had I decided to read them all, my job would have consisted entirely of reading and occasionally answering emails. It wasn't so very far off from being that, anyway.

My only defence was to set up numerous "rules" to divert mail from known low-priority email sources into their own inbox folders, so I could ignore them en masse and concentrate on the residual incoming mail. When I retired, I was allowed to keep my university email address, but I carried out a mass cull of work-related mailings, some of which I had kept for over a decade (and, um, some of which had gone unread for almost as long). In one folder alone, containing messages from other users of the same library IT setup as ours, there were over 6,000 (six thousand) unread emails from the previous six months. At the end of the slaughter my inbox had shrunk from a shade over 1 gigabyte to 85 megabytes.

What I hadn't anticipated was the withdrawal symptoms. Now that I am no longer a member of those various interest groups, and no longer receive that daily barrage of work-related mailings, the frequency of my incoming emails has dwindled away to a mere handful. The arrival of a new item in my inbox has become an event, like the arrival of a real letter or postcard that isn't a bill or a piece of junk-mail. I discovered that part of me actually didn't mind as much as I thought all those scattergun requests, the "me, too" mails, and the duplicated notifications ("Apologies for cross-posting..."); a certain illusory sense of personal importance and centrality can be buoyed up by that daily tidal flow of email, which has now evaporated. It's a first taste of the isolation of old age, I suppose.

There are other factors at work, too. I love email, but many people now regard it as an old, superseded technology.  If I need to send either of my kids an email, for example – because I prefer to type a lengthy communication containing important details on a keyboard rather than prodding at a phone screen, and will edit it carefully for optimal communicative elegance  – then I generally also need to send them a text, to alert them to the incoming email. When my daughter was at university I had regularly to remind her that her lecturers, mainly being old farts like me, would be expecting her to check her institutional email regularly (as in several times a day, not once a week). Like me, they had probably come to find that email hits a sweet spot between modernity and Ye Olde Worlde of typewriters and duplicated memos.

Away from work, and apart from texting, it seems social media like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter have largely replaced email in public affection. I suppose the attraction is that you can follow today's ephemeral trends while they're still hot, and enjoy the serendipitous pleasures of a semi-public, semi-private life shared with hundreds, even thousands of like-minded folk. I think of it as the equivalent of being at some eternally-ongoing festival, like a virtual Burning Man, where lurking moodily in your tent is not an option. Email, by comparison, must seem both excessively private and lacking in spontaneity; the equivalent, perhaps, of hiring the same old gîte in the Dordogne with selected family and friends. I did have a Facebook presence for a while, and checked in most days to see what my half dozen "friends" – who (weirdly, I know) were all actual friends – had seen fit to share, but I hardly ever used it myself. Eventually, I simply deleted the account. Take that, Zuckerberg! As for Twitter, I have never signed up for it, and I resent the way broadcasters like the BBC have capitulated to it, using and publicising hashtags as if Twitter were a neutral and permanent public utility, like the phone network. Which it is not.

Not so long ago (if ten years can be thought of as "not so long ago") blogging also used to be thought of as part of the "Web 2.0" social media revolution, but this is clearly no longer the case. Certainly, if my own stats are typical and to be believed (and I'm talking about Google Analytics, not the ludicrously distorted figures in Blogger's own stats)  then the number of people reading blogs has dwindled dramatically over the past few years. I mean personal blogs, of course, not the mega-blogs that are essentially free magazines, published one article at a time. This is hardly surprising, as keeping up a consistent, regular and decent-quality flow of posts demands a high level of commitment and, dare I say, some actual writing talent. Most personal blogs were unfocussed, short-lived enthusiasms that are now dead or so intermittent as to be indistinguishable from dead. Unlike this one, of course, with its tenth anniversary coming up next month (gifts of money will be fine).

Well, it's so much easier to add the ten millionth "like" to a particularly cute cat video, and feel that brief warm glow of sharing, than to figure out what you think, stick your neck out in public by writing it down, and risk the humiliation and disappointment of not being read by anyone, isn't it?


Monday, 10 September 2018


Guardians: Bordeaux & Amsterdam

I came across this pair back in 2010, when visiting the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux. I'm not sure who or what they are, but it's clearly an angel either restraining some warrior type, or possibly checking the sharpness of his blade (stop giggling at the back, there).

The original is a mighty sandstone block, but I like them rendered as this tarnished bronze brooch or medallion. Beneath their watchful presence lies a rickety canal frontage from Amsterdam. Why? Who knows, but it works for me.

Friday, 7 September 2018


Guardians: The Sleep of Reason

When we were in Bristol recently we visited the American Museum near Bath. Mooching around Claverton Manor, the early 19th century building that houses the main collection, my eye was suddenly grabbed by the sort of weird detail that always excites my attention. A decorative plaster frieze on a staircase that I had originally thought to consist of urns linked by drapery turned out, on closer inspection, to be made up of the skulls of cattle. WTF? I had never seen (or, at least, never noticed) such a thing before, and naturally took care to photograph it. Given this was the American Museum, I was put in mind of the archetypal skull nailed on a ranch-sign, and of those photographs of colossal heaps of buffalo skulls slaughtered on the Plains in the late 19th century [1]. So it seemed quite appropriate, possibly even some witty site-specific twist on a classical theme.

The next day, it was a toss-up whether we would visit Dyrham Park in the Cotswolds or Lacock Abbey near Chippenham (the Fox Talbot Museum); looking at the distances involved, Dyrham Park won. To my surprise, wandering around the grand but dingy house that afternoon, my attention was drawn to yet another, similar frieze of bovine skulls, this time around a plinth, linked by garlands of leaves. It was beginning to seem likely that this was not some unique Western-themed conceit, but an architectural thing (sorry, I am becoming over-addicted to "thing"). I resolved to look it up.

It seems what I had come across were examples of a bucranium frieze. No, not some rare element which causes hair-loss in superheroes, but a curious decorative representation of the sacrifices of oxen that took place in classical times. Constantly, it seems, at any and every auspicious opportunity, though I doubt if the quantities of skulls ever approached those heaped up on the American Plains. All the same, to the silence and stillness of those Keatsian Grecian urns must also be added the absent stench of spilled blood and butchery, wafting over everything like a battlefield.

Strangely, it seems I was fated to encounter a second example that day, whichever choice of outing we had made, as one of the other places cited as an example of the use of bucrania in English neoclassical architecture is Lacock Abbey. Although, now I've noticed them, I expect they'll probably be turning up everywhere I go. Which doesn't make them any less weird as a choice for interior decoration.

1.  Not to mention the traditional cow skull that, in cartoons, always marks the onset of desert (and, in Popeye, intones, "You'll be s-o-o-o-ry!", which I believe was a 1940s catchphrase in the USA, derived from the TV show "Take It Or Leave It").

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

The Red Thread

Forty-odd years ago, I was reading for an examination paper on that all-purpose man of German letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Nothing unusual in that, other than the fact that I was supposed to be studying English, not German language and literature. But, as I've explained before, we had to choose a special paper from a long and rather eccentric list of options and, as it happened, one of the options was "Goethe". So, as I had studied Faust Part 1 as a set book at German A-Level and had grown a little bored with my monolingual diet, it seemed like it might be fun. In fact, only one student made that particular choice that year, and the exam paper in finals had to be compiled and printed for that single candidate, me. I also had to be "farmed out" for this paper, as my own college lacked anyone suitably qualified (or perhaps willing) to tutor me. In one of those intriguing but probably meaningless coincidences, the chosen tutor was Kenneth Segar of St. Edmund Hall who, I discovered a couple of years ago, now owns a property in Sauve, France, where he has become a good friend of one of my home-town "elective family", a musician who settled there some years ago [1].

Anyway, one of the works I studied with Dr. Segar was the novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften, traditionally translated as Elective Affinities, a wonderful yet baffling title, which refers to an old chemical theory that particular substances are driven to combine with certain other substances, as if they were "naturally" electing (choosing) to do so. One of the passages that struck me at the time was this, where Goethe reaches for an image to convey the family resemblance between the entries in one of the character's diary:
"We have heard about one particular custom of the British Navy. All the rope used by the Royal Fleet, from the thickest to the thinnest, is twined in such a way that a red thread runs through all of them; it is impossible to remove the thread without undoing the rope, and that means that even the smallest piece of rope can be identified as property of the Crown".
The idea of a "red thread" (ein roter Faden) as a kind of thematic connection running through something subsequently became a figure of speech, especially but not only in German, eventually deadening into one of those cliches, beloved of the pompous, that gesture toward quotation – expressions such as "grew like Topsy" or "like a curate's egg" – without requiring any awareness of their actual source.

However, in recent times I have noticed something odd. Obviously, most people have not read Elective Affinities, and so will only have at best a second-hand appreciation of the "red thread" expression. Unless, of course, they have been in the Royal Navy or for some other reason are aware of the old so-called rogue's yarn anti-theft device. As a consequence, most people will have read, heard, and used the expression with zero appreciation of its original referent. So it seems that attributional vacuum has been filled by the assumption that the "red thread" refers to Ariadne's thread, the one that guided Theseus out of the Labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur. Which, as far as I'm aware, was never actually described as "red".

But it seems the redness of Ariadne's thread has firmly established itself in the public mind. For example, recently two books on the subject of mazes were reviewed together in the TLS (Forking Paths, by Peter Thonemann, August 24 & 31, 2018). One book is actually called Red Thread, and the other, more graphical book, Follow This Thread, has a single red line running through the entire book "twisting and turning into impressionistic single-line images of mazes, Minoan bull-leapers and ... the horse from Picasso's 'Guernica'". The reviewer is quite caustic about the way "both authors have been led disastrously astray by the imp on their shoulder whispering why not structure the book itself like a labyrinth?", but at no point questions whether Ariadne's original thread was actually red. Which I found both annoying and intriguing.

I've since done my best to check the sources for the "Ariadne's thread" thing (or Stoff, as the comparative literature people like to call a thing). I'm no classicist, but so far I've checked out Catullus 64, Plutarch's Life of Theseus, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Diodorus Siculus, the Fabulae of Hyginius, and found no mention of the colour of the thread. Its thinness and fragility, yes; its redness, no. So, unless someone better informed can tell me otherwise, I think this is a case of the creation of a genuine factoid, a false or unreliable statement repeated so often that it has come to be regarded as true.

1. Sauve seems an intriguing place, having become something of a 21st century "artists' colony". Among other notable residents the American cartoonist Robert Crumb lives there, creator of Mr. Natural, the "Keep on Truckin'" meme, and numerous other figures familiar to the counter-culturally inclined of the late 1960s. One of these days I must pay it a visit.

Friday, 31 August 2018


I have already mentioned that I was born in the top flat of a converted house that belonged to the engineering firm where my father worked, Geo. W. King of Stevenage. Back then, Stevenage New Town was still very much under construction. The town I knew in my childhood and youth had already become a stable, knowable place, but in 1954 it was still a shifting mosaic of building sites and half-constructed roads. That house, scheduled for demolition, was a remnant of an older Stevenage, when it was still just one of dozens of former coaching stops strung out along the Great North Road; the road that, before the coming of the motorways, used to be the main route from London to Edinburgh. The property had an odd but evocative name: Blackamoors.

My parents had spent the first years of their marriage in my mother's native village, Pirton in North Hertfordshire, sharing accommodation with my maternal grandparents. It can't have been easy, so soon after both of them had returned from military service – my mother had been a sergeant in an ATS anti-aircraft unit, outranking my father, a humble despatch rider – and especially with a small child to care for, my sister, born in 1946. To move to an exciting new town, and finally to get their own place, however temporary, must have been thrilling enough. But Blackamoors was, by all accounts, a rather grand house with grounds that were far beyond anything they would ever be able to aspire to themselves. It is no exaggeration to say that my earliest days were spent in what, in family stories, comes across as a little paradise.

I am told I spent many contented hours in my carry-cot on the lawn, surrounded by foraging green woodpeckers – still among my favourite birds – while my sister and the little girl from the downstairs flat played in the grounds, which included a pond which still survives (perhaps symbolically located behind both the town library and a large office block that once contained the pub of my youth, the Longship, on its ground level). Back then, that pond was a home to newts and frogs and other pond-dwelling creatures; now, probably not so much. With the family in the downstairs flat being good friends (and my godparents) and with a daughter the same age as my sister, it must have felt rather like the sort of communal living my generation experienced in similar large properties twenty years later. There were so many happy, foundational stories told about the place that, in my mind, the name "Blackamoors" came to represent some paradisal phase in our family story [1]. It never occurred to me to wonder what a "blackamoor" might be, probably until I read Othello at university: it was simply the name on the gates of Eden.

A few years ago, I found some clues to the nature of this little Eden on the Great North Road. By some miracle, it turned out that the local museum had a postcard of the property in its collection, and they made me a copy. Naturally, I have no recollection of the place, and I had always imagined it to be somewhat older, but this, clearly, was a substantial private house built in the early 20th century. I then found an auction record dating to the pre-war period, describing Blackamoors, curiously, as "a little gem in Herts, a house to satisfy the most discriminating of housewives". According to the auction house, this "little gem" stood in 5.25 acres of grounds, with "quaint hall, 3 reception, 6 bed rooms, 2 bath rooms, 2 staircases, and the usual offices, all company's services, telephone, part central heating, lavatory, basins in bedrooms, useful garage". Not so very little, then, even divided into two. I also found a notice in the London Gazette for 1948 concerning the winding up of the London and Suburban Coal Company, in which the chairman was named as Robert Swan Brewis, coal merchant, of "Blackamoors", Stevenage. Brewis, presumably, was the last private owner of the house before the New Town loomed on the horizon, leading to the flight of the wealthier locals; King's then presumably took over short-term ownership, no doubt at a bargain price. Finally, I discovered a compulsory purchase order from 1956 by Stevenage Development Corporation for Blackamoors Lane, "which land was formerly an access way leading from London Road, Stevenage aforesaid to the property formerly known as 'Blackamoors'". So, at most, I can only have lived in paradise for two years, and probably rather less.

Obviously, there also needs to be a serpent in Eden. The other day, I was reading about the concept of "Maya" in Eastern religions, something which has always fascinated me, and noticed the story of the rope and the snake. That is, that in the dark, a rope lying on the ground may be mistaken for a snake, but in the light the illusion will vanish, and it will be clearly perceived for what it really is, a rope. At Blackamoors, my mother had the opposite experience. In broad daylight, bringing in some washing from the line, she noticed that someone had left a dirty old rope in the washing basket. Reaching in to remove it, she found she was holding a snake. This event became a key element in the Blackamoors origin myth, although I don't think it was ever regarded as the Great Teaching it probably was. Mum was a formidable, complex, and unusual person, but deriving metaphysical insights from even such startlingly instructive real-life incidents was never one of her stronger characteristics. Which, now I think of it, may in a perverse way account for why I have spent so much of my life doing precisely that, to the extent that I am still parsing out and puzzling over the episodes and anecdotes that went into the construction of my own personal Dreamtime.

Stevenage Town Centre under construction (image: Stevenage Museum)
Blackamoors was beyond the Co-op's facade, about 150 yards down to the left.
The family story was that I was born above the toyshop, Playland, that occupied
the corner of Queensway opposite the Library (now a Cash Converters, I see...)

1. Obviously, my take on the situation is both entirely reconstructed from hearsay, and also entirely self-centred. You might say I have put the ego in Arcadia... (Heh. Sorry about that).

Wednesday, 29 August 2018


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a couple returning from a brief vacation will probably still be in a holiday mood. So, having got home from Bristol and finding that we were still in a holiday mood, we finally made the trip out to Jane Austen's cottage in Chawton, something we'd meant to do for years, but had somehow never accomplished. Reader, at this point I should make my ritual confession of still never having read a single Austen novel, which, I'd guess, puts me in much the same position as at least 80% of the 55,000 visitors each year who creak across the venerable floorboards. Yes, many have admired Colin Firth in a wet shirt on TV, but far fewer have grappled with Aunt Jane's subtle literary ironies on social class, aspiration, and the screaming boredom of a woman's life among the landed gentry of early 19th century England. I have done neither, myself: it's nice, sometimes, to find yourself in the ignorant camp.

Among the exhibits in the cottage, I was very struck by some fragments of Jane Austen's actual wallpaper. They looked rather like the long shreds you end up with when stripping the wall, which is probably exactly what they were. However, enclosed in a glass case like geological specimens, they looked, inevitably, rather comical. I mean, it's good to know exactly what ambience surrounded the Austens as they went about their daily business and – who knows? – maybe those marks are where Jane herself spattered this exact spot opening a late night can of beer, or are the result of repeatedly banging her head against it in frustration, unable to find yet another synonym for "handsome". But, having served as a model for the reproduction paper pasted onto the actual walls, you'd think it was "job done" for the wallpaper scraps, and they'd be filed away, pending the time when some future advanced technology will enable Miss Austen's customary sweary sarcasm to be exhumed from the fossilized soundwaves trapped within them. But some curatorial impulse is persuaded that we should have the opportunity to contemplate these faded and torn quasi-religious relics of Georgian interior decoration.

In principle, I'm not about to disagree. I love to mooch about in a good museum – and a bad museum can be even more fun – and I also enjoy poking around in some stately pile, preserved for the nation by the National Trust. And, it's true, despite the heightened level of irony in my mooching and poking, I expect a museum to contain the real thing, even if it has been changed utterly by the depredations of time, rust, and moth; I don't expect a museum to be full of reproductions, artist's impressions, and interpretation boards. Although where time / rust / moth have been particularly active, these can certainly help, so long as they are placed alongside the real thing, and not substituted for it. But, on the other hand, I also don't expect any notable house with a steady flow of visitors to have been restored into a museum-piece by removing all modern amenities like electricity and flush toilets, or ensuring the west wing is authentically cold and damp by un-repairing the roof, or wafting in the bona fide stink of a Tudor barnyard (although I believe something of the sort is done at York's Jorvik Viking Museum). It's a difficult balance to get right.

But, I remembered visiting Dyrham Park last week – not least ascending the staircase shored up by acrow props and scaffolding ("No more than four people on the staircase at one time, please") – and thinking: this place is falling apart not just because of a lack of funds, but also because no-one is allowed to replace the woodwork, strip off that god-awful "original" wallpaper, fix the dodgy plaster, or generally brighten the place up. Like so many ancestral piles abandoned to the nation by their cash-strapped inheritors, it has the gloomy patina of a neglected attic. No longer anyone's home, it has become a tomb. I was reminded of the unplayable ethnic instruments in Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum, with their perished leather, cracked soundboards, and stiffened gut strings. Such dead things make a fine metaphor, but a rather sad display. If only we weren't quite so obsessed with preserving every last scrap of the ancestral past, down to ragged strips of wallpaper, such buildings could have a useful future, and be used for something other than rather dismal museums of aristocratic poor taste.