Monday, 15 September 2014

You've Got To Laugh

I am now into my first weeks of retirement, and I can report that, so far, it feels just like a holiday.  Not in the fun sense of enjoying yet another day away from humdrum reality, but in the more unsettling sense that -- in the background, like the rumble of traffic -- the uneasy prospect of an inevitable return to work is lurking.  The fact that I need never return to work has simply not yet sunk in: this still feels like a temporary respite.

After 30 years or more of wage-slavery, this is hardly surprising: I still dream about taking exams, after all, and the last exam I sat was in 1980.  Who knows, maybe work will now take the place of exams in my subconscious, and I will awake from anxiety dreams at 3 a.m., only to experience the profound relief that, no, I really don't have to give a presentation tomorrow on the migration of metadata standards from AACR2 to RDA, for which I have not done a stroke of preparation.  Phew.

On the subject of anxiety, I recently had a day in hospital (a first serious brush with Old Man's Stuff -- don't ask) and spent much of the time lying around in a post-anaesthetic haze, idly listening to the conversations and exchanges going on around me.  It began to dawn on me that the British have a problem with humour.

We're famous for it, of course.  Ah, you British, with your sense of humour!  It's a coping mechanism, obviously.  It's no accident that our strongest comic traditions come out of the pressure-points of industrial working-class life -- places like Liverpool, London, Newcastle, and Glasgow.  An acute sense of the absurd expressed as blunt ironies; anger, outrage and frustration sublimated into laughter; a love of wordplay, shot through with the edgy, proletarian pleasures of double-entendre and "dumb insolence": these are the hallmarks of our humour.  Max Miller used to ask his audience:  "Listen, I've got two books of jokes here: do you want the White Book or the Blue Book?"  They always chose the blue*.

It can be confusing for foreigners.  I ran into problems with this myself in Austria.  At every turn, it seemed, I managed to offend somebody, quite unintentionally, generally by assuming that it was understood that, in pursuit of a humorous moment, one might often say the complete opposite of what one actually meant, or might even appear to insult someone as a form of friendly inclusivity.  I dread to think what they would have made of an Australian.  At any rate, several people there are no longer replying to my texts or emails.

But, in hospital, I began to feel a little like a foreigner myself.  The formulaic banter of people under stress began to drive me crazy.  Is it possible, I wondered, for an Englishman confronted by a form which asks "Sex?" not to respond, "Yes, please!"?  Or, if asked by a nurse, "Would you like anything else?", not to reply, in an apparently hard-wired reflex, "Well, it depends what else you are offering!"?  It was like sharing a ward with several shop-worn avatars of Benny Hill.  Even doctors -- pressed for time and exhausted by long hours -- in order to extract the simplest information had to endure their patients' anxious attempts to lighten the mood, serially, all without themselves resorting to sarcasm or physical violence.  I don't think I could do that.

It then occured to me that perhaps some apparently irrational acts of heroism in situations like the trenches of the First World War might have had a simple, rational cause.  Anything -- anything -- up to and including spontaneously leaping over a revetment and running across No Man's Land to single-handedly storm a machine-gun post, would be better than continuing to share a dugout with several dozen British men nervously jesting and joshing away the discomforts and indignities of war.  Enough! Stop! Not everything has to be funny, all the time, just because there's nothing you can do about it!  Which may, of course, be the exact opposite of what I mean.

* "Blue" humour, in English slang, is risqué or "off-colour" humour, generally of a sexual nature.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Raising Our Sails

The Solent at Hill Head

"The winds of grace are always blowing, it is for us to raise our sails higher"

I recently watched a DVD published by the ECM label about the jazz* woodwind player and band leader Charles Lloyd, Arrows into Infinity. By any standards, Lloyd has had a remarkable career, starting out in Howlin' Wolf's backing band and progressing to his current status as an internationally-respected musician, with a million-selling album along the way, Forest Flower (released in 1966, and featuring a very young Keith Jarrett), which opened the door to sharing the bill with the likes of Hendrix and the Grateful Dead.  There was also a decade of silence, recovering from heroin-addiction, and discovering and following his spiritual path at Big Sur.

Lloyd is a major figure in that cerebral, spiritually-oriented, improvisatory lineage that includes John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Billy Higgins, one which seems to predispose musicians to an open-minded collaborative approach with players from other traditions and genres.  His is an interesting story that crosses the paths of many interesting people, which makes for an engaging film.  If you get a chance to see it, do.

The words at the head of this post (adapted from the 19th century guru Ramakrishna) are quoted by Lloyd towards the end, and I found them inspiring enough to scribble down as I watched. It was fun, over the weekend, to watch wind-surfers on the Solent putting these words into prosaic practice, catching the blustery tail end of Hurricane Bertha.  Some raised their sail so high they were practically blown away.

Equally inspiring is Charles Lloyd's apparently endless selection of idiotic hats.  Why do musicians like to wear "characterful" hats, even indoors?  They surely can't all be bald.

And with that profound thought, we raise our own sails, and head off for our summer blog break.  See you later, probably some time in September.  I hope you have a good summer.

*  What an inadequate word "jazz" is to cover the range of musics that get lumped together under that label.  It's like describing Paul Simon or David Bowie as a pop musician.  Unfortunately, I don't think any other word works, either.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Word War Won?

Fed up with the War To End All Wars yet?  Unfortunately, the commemorative frenzy won't be over by Christmas.  Four more years!  Such a senseless waste of human life, turned into a senseless waste of media air-time...  Have we already had Trench-Foot Challenge ("celebrities stand in a water-filled trench all night for a week, and are then forced to run across a booby-trapped ploughed field") or Bully Beef Masterchef?  I must have missed those.  Radio 4's 1914: Day by Day, presented by historian Margaret MacMillan, has been an honourable exception.

One of the best (as in, most authentically moving) WW1-related things I've seen this year I came across by accident.  I heard a short piece of music that I liked one morning on BBC Radio 3, and the presenter attributed it to one F.S. Kelly, who had studied at Balliol College, Oxford, won a gold medal at the 1908 Olympics, and quickly gained recognition as a composer of talent.  Tragically, however, Kelly was killed in France, like so many other young men of promise in that generation.  Naturally, I followed this up, and in the process discovered that the Balliol College War Memorial Book, published in two volumes in 1924, is available online at, of all places, Flickr.

To browse through these volumes is to get a real glimpse of the bloody swathe that the Great War cut through an entire generation. From just one Oxford college, around 300 men died.  Some of them were barely-formed boys, with little more to be said about them than "He was clever; he won a place at Balliol; he joined the army; he died".  But some were destined to be the shapers of the future, for example Raymond Asquith.  It is particularly moving to read in one place so many contemporary accounts of ordinary and not-so-ordinary untimely deaths in war, using the language and emotional range of the time, and written while the grief was still raw.

Kelly's page is here.  Remarkably, he was present at the death of Rupert Brooke at Skyros en route to Gallipoli (not from wounds, but from an infected mosquito bite).  In that last heyday of the old, rigidly class-bound Britain, it seems such young men of talent and similar background found themselves thrown together wherever they went.  As someone once said, "life is just one damn Balliol man after another".

A corner of a field in France...

Friday, 8 August 2014


We all have a list of words that make us react irrationally when they are used, as we see it, improperly.  For all I know, "improperly" may be high on yours.  I have carefully avoided using "inappropriately" here, which I'm aware is a word that is beginning to irk many. One word which is heading to the top of my list is "grab".

"To grab", of course, is a perfectly decent, venerable and useful word.  It has a primary meaning of "to grasp or seize suddenly and roughly". It also has a figurative sense, as in "to obtain or get (something) quickly or opportunistically", and it is here the trouble starts.  People have long been grabbing something to eat before doing something else, or grabbing an opportunity to speak to someone.  The use of "grab" lends a feeling of vigour and spontaneity to what is generally a fairly mundane act.  To a large extent, that is the whole point of figurative language in everyday use.

But increasingly "grab" is becoming a synonym for "to get", "to buy", or "to take advantage of".  Every day, I am urged by advertisers to grab some of this Great Deal or some of that Amazing Bargain as it goes by, as if shopping were a slightly hysterical, competitive game for the street-wise and sharp-elbowed, and not simply a question of forking over the required amount of cash.  I'm sure if you did actually "grab" his latest pizza offering, Mr. Domino would call the police pretty sharpish.

But then I'm 60 years old, and still wince whenever the youngster in front of me in the queue asks the nice lady behind the coffee counter "Er, can I get a latte to go?"  No "please", no "thank you", no hint of a smile.  Just wrong in so many ways...  Of course you can have a latte, kid, but the nice lady will have to get it for you, and then only if you ask her politely.  And no grabbing!

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Down the Town

I don't often go "down the town" these days, by which I mean the central shopping area, dominated since 2000 by the monstrous West Quay mall.  It's not just the disheartening spectacle of consumer flocking behaviour which puts me off, but also the large number of non-mall shops which have closed, due to the West Quay force-field sucking the life out of them.  There are few more depressing sights than rows of shuttered and graffiti-splattered shopfronts, where not so long ago many small retailers thrived.

I don't really have much reason to go there; it's been well over a decade since our kids required a weekly expedition to Toys'R'Us to spend their pocket money, and apart from the occasional foray to buy socks at M&S I mainly try to shop elsewhere.  If I must go "down the town", then I try to avoid the weekends, when le tout Hampshire seems to descend on the John Lewis store to buy a new fridge.

If I am in the area, however, I generally visit a favourite spot, a tiled underpass that runs beneath Portland Terrace to Bargate Street, with its cave-like entrance in the shadow of an imposing chunk of the ancient city wall.  It generally yields a few photographs; the silver birches on the adjacent grassy and litter-strewn bank are reliably photogenic.

As it happens, I've never yet photographed any of the city wall itself  -- once the very waterfront where Henry V set sail for France -- or even the castle-like Bargate, probably the only things left in central Southampton a tourist would bother to point a camera at.  I probably never will do so, either, but I really should spend more time down by the docks and Southampton Water, where the cruise liners and the gigantic container vessels come in, more like floating office blocks than ships, and where the Fawley Refinery looms on the far shore like Mordor. Soon, of course -- very soon, in fact -- I will have plenty of time to do just that.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Idiotic Hat Life Coach

It's August, and the blog break is fast approaching, so it's time for a few words from our visiting Idiotic Guru:  Lay some hard-won wisdom on us, guru!

[The Idiotic Guru speaks]
OK, listen closely now, I'm only saying this once, unless there are repeat fees, of course.  People often say to me, how is it that someone as inadequate, plebeian, short, and ugly as yourself has made it to a position of such eminence that you feel able to hand out advice to the likes of me, whose many apparent advantages have taken me nowhere in life?  Explain your secret, Idiotic Guru!

Behold, my secret is a list, which I found in a magazine on a park bench one afternoon, long ago in the past, where all good secrets are to be found, and which I will now share with you. Of course, strictly speaking, the real secret is to disagree as violently as possible with every item in this checklist of well-meaning, sententious twaddle: a kick in the listicles, so to speak.  As William Blake said to me, the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.  At least, that's what I heard him say.  It was a very noisy pub.

Anyway, here we are, my annotated Twelve Steps To Success:

1. Stop spending time with the wrong people. Avoid anyone who makes you unhappy, wastes your time, or holds you back.  People who want to drag you down to their level are not your friends.
WRONG:  Seek out the "wrong" people, they will enrich your life, and at the very least make you look good.  Who needs dull friends?
2. Stop lying to yourself.  There's no need to pretend everything is OK if it isn’t.  It's pointless to pursue goals you don't believe in, only to blame someone else for your subsequent failure.
WRONG:  Self-deception is the royal road to the top.  Who cares to the top of what? You can always pretend you meant to go there, should you ever get there. If not, you know who to blame!

3. Don't ignore your own needs. In particular, don't pretend to be, or try to become, someone you’re not, just to please someone else, or to be liked.
WRONG:  I don't need to spell this out, do I?  Do you think the secret of any successful long-term relationship is "just be yourself, and insist on having things your way"?

4. Don't cling on to the past. In particular, stop beating yourself up over old mistakes.  Get over it.
WRONG: Show me a successful person who does not obsess over past mistakes, and I'll show you a trustafarian.  We learn through shame and humiliation...

5. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Avoid the urge to perfection. "The best is the enemy of the good".
WRONG: Look no further for an explanation of the wave of mediocrity that has overwhelmed us. "Good enough" is not good enough.  Sure, make mistakes, but don't let them get into the final draft!

6. Stop trying to buy happiness.  The best things in life are not free  -- they are actually very expensive -- but they cannot be bought with money.  Try investing some time.
WRONG: Oh, please...  Invest as much time as you like in your Lada, it will still be a Lada.

7. Take care of the pennies. Notice and value the constant flow of small, ordinary things, otherwise one day you will realise -- too late! --  that was all there was ever going to be.
WRONG: Nobody ever became rich, actually or metaphorically, by penny-pinching.  Think big, or you will shrink to fit.

8. Don't be lazy Don't follow the path of least resistance. Don’t always take the easy way out.
WRONG: Trust John Keats: "If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all".  If you find something tough going, give it up and get out of the way.  Find your own groove!

9. Don't postpone things until you feel completely ready. It will be too late.  Nobody is ever really ready: successful people just get on with it.
WRONG:  See 8 and 5.  Stop filling the world with half-baked crap.

10. Avoid self pity and complaint.  It's tough all over. Nobody wants to know how hard it was for you to do what you did, especially if moaning about it has become your substitute for doing it.
WRONG:  A good moan in good company (see 1) is one of life's great pleasures.  Why deny yourself?

11. If at first you don't succeed, try doing it differently, but only slightly differently.  To persist in a course of action hoping for a different outcome is not the definition of neurosis, it is the definition of persistence.
WRONG:  Yet another way to bury us in unwanted gifts from untalented people.  Give it three or four radically different approaches, then give it up and try something else.  Or better still, get back in the audience.

12. Ambition and competitiveness are easily confused.  Jealousy of the achievements of others and holding grudges are poisons -- hate, anger and jealousy will hurt you, not their object.  True ambition is generous to the aspirations of others.
WRONG: A little poison can be highly stimulating... "It is not enough to succeed.  Others must fail".

And if that lot doesn't turn you into a happily successful yet ruthlessly driven narcissist, then I don't know what else I can do for you.  Stop wasting my time!  Do try not to leave a trail of pain and damage in your wake, if you can avoid it, but if you can't then read a few biographies of the people you admire, and you won't feel so bad about it.  Although you may also decide that "success" isn't really your thing after all.
[The Idiotic Guru stops speaking]

OK, Idiotic Guru, thanks for that.  I think we can all find a takeaway message in there somewhere!  Now go and visit somebody else, please.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Collapsible Canoes

I'm finding that being 60 is oddly like being 16 again.  Not, unfortunately, in the good ways (although the main down-side of being 16 is that you are incapable of appreciating what these are). It's just that, after a long period of time when somebody's age seemed the least notable thing about them (for most of my life I've assumed that anyone vaguely adult must be older than me) I find that embarking on this new phase of life means that small relative differences in age have once again become significant.  So, a 55-year old and a 65-year old are as different to me now as an 11-year old and a 21-year old were back then. After all, the first may be a whole decade or more away from retirement, and the second will probably already have retired.  In one of those moments of revelatory stupidity*, I have just realised that these would be exactly the same people, then and now.

I read someone saying somewhere recently (sorry, whoever you were, I didn't make a note) that it seemed they had spent their entire life preparing for something -- reading books, acquiring skills, accumulating stuff -- without ever quite figuring out what it might be, and now felt the time had come when this constant preparation should probably stop.  I feel much the same.

Once, for example, learning Russian seemed like a really useful thing to do; now, much less so.  I can safely close the door that once led to an alternative universe, the one where I became a Russian specialist in the late 1980s, just in time to catch those Interesting Times when the Soviet Union was collapsing and re-emerging as a kleptocracy. Though, ironically, that was also precisely the time when most Russian departments in British universities were being closed down.  Not so much the "end of history", then, as the end of languages, both ancient and modern.  So, with some relief, I need never again concern myself with the accusative form of animate nouns or the use of verbs of motion.  Asked, "Do you speak Russian?", I will now answer, "No, not really".**

Similarly, I may soon give up noodling on the guitar.  Not because I don't enjoy it, which I do, and not just because it's beginning to hurt, though it certainly is, the penalty for being left-handed and self-taught on a borrowed instrument strung for a right-hander.  It's also because, like learning Russian, it's a broken link to a path not taken, the one where some promising rehearsals with a band back in the 1970s led to a performing and songwriting career.  I can finally stop preparing myself to step out on stage and delight an audience with my rich back-catalogue of witty, original songs, not least because it seems I never got around to writing any.  Oh well, Richard Thompson can stop looking over his shoulder, now.

There comes a point where such half-finished, could-have-been-handy things become useless baggage, holding you back and slowing you down.  In youth and even in middle-age this didn't matter.  In the chaotic, improvisatory business of building a life, there's plenty of room for shelved dreams and alternative, "Plan B" strategies; it's as if you're on some major expedition, with space on the ship for absurd but plausible junk like collapsible canoes, cleft sticks, and maybe even a few spare pianos.  The contemporary regard for openness, multiplicity, diversity, and resistance to closure is perhaps one of the ways in which the worship of open-ended youthfulness has worked its way into the culture (never mind philosophy, check out the Lytro light-field camera).  No need to decide now, keep your options open!

Which is fine, until the truth begins to dawn that old age will not be an easy descent into a lush green valley in an air-conditioned, all-terrain vehicle with a convivial crew of companions, but a solitary climb on foot into a high rocky place where the air gets awfully thin.  Better leave that collapsible canoe behind.  Shame about the pianos.  A couple of those cleft sticks might come in handy, though.

Which brings me to the books.  All those books.  "Have you read all these books?" our more unlettered visitors often ask.  Well, yes, or rather, more yes than no.  But how many of them will I ever read again?  How many will remain unread?  Difficult questions, but at some point there will have to be a great reckoning in a little room.

But, listen, I'm nowhere near that old yet.  There's an important difference between a decluttering exercise and a house clearance.  I will certainly be needing some of those books in the coming years.  Though perhaps not the ones in Russian.  And How To Write Popular Songs That Sell is definitely going to Oxfam.

* There surely must be a word for these moments -- the opposite of a revelation, an epiphany or satori -- when one realises, "By Simpson, I'm such an idiot...".
** Still, I will always be able to amuse Russian speakers with my paradoxically fluent excuse for why my Russian is so poor:  Po slovam Chekhova, znat' tri yazyka nenuzhnaya roskoshch' (In the words of Chekhov, to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury), something I mined many years ago from the rich lode of illustrative quotations in the Oxford Russian-English Dictionary.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Same Kitchen Twice

There's an anecdote, derived from Aristotle, which goes like this:

Some visitors came to visit Heraclitus.  They found him warming himself at his kitchen stove. So they waited outside the door, expecting him to come out and welcome them into the more formal part of the house. But he called them into the humble kitchen, saying, "There are gods in here, too."

A nice story (provided you can avoid the temptation to add the coda, "So they humoured him from a safe distance, while someone discreetly called for an ambulance"), one often quoted as a part of the canon of The Gospel of the God of Small Things.  As someone who has always felt most convivial seated at a relaxed kitchen table, I must say I've always fancied the idea of a long winter's afternoon spent beside Heraclitus' AGA stove, putting the world to rights.

But, if you like the sound of a classicist warming himself up on a cold morning by heaving a mighty axe to split a few hairs ("Impossible? No, philological!"*), you'll probably enjoy this paper, originally published in the journal Ancient Philosophy in 2001.  I had no idea that this little story was itself an illustration used by Aristotle to make a bigger point about the need to study even the more repellent minibeasts, as today's children have been taught to call them.  As ever, context is everything.

* I have several times in this blog made plays on this formula, and I now realise that it is utterly meaningless to non-Brits or anyone under about 45 (I suppose the same might cruelly be said of this blog as a whole...).  Back in the 1970s, there was a TV advertising campaign for Ariel washing powder, the first to contain enzymes, and thus tagged as a "biological" washing powder.  Its catchphrase was, "Impossible?  No, biological!"...  Heh.  You had to be there...

Sunday, 27 July 2014

St. Cross Hospital

From up on St. Catherine's Hill, near Winchester, you can see the Hospital of St. Cross in the valley below, a squat tower in the meadows along the Itchen, looking rather like a small castle.  In the winter it's shut to visitors on Sundays, so we'd never got around to visiting it until last week, our ascents of the hill tending to happen both in winter and on Sunday afternoons.

What an extraordinary place: it's as if an Oxbridge college has been teleported into a Hampshire water meadow, although in fact it is rather older than any college, and the influence is, of course, the other way round: that enclosed, cloistered layout is of ecclesiastical, not scholastic origin.  The proximity of the words "Plague Pits" on the Ordnance Survey map give a hint as to one of its mediaeval functions, but it is now a rather tastefully maintained -- and by the looks of it undervisited -- haven of peace.

There is still a curious tradition:  if you ask for it (and I mean ask for it by name, not politely enquire whether it's true that such a tradition exists*) you can get a free cup of beer and a 1.5 inch square of bread, the so-called Wayfarer's Dole.  Not ideal if you're driving on a hot afternoon, of course.  The beer is not brewed in the Hospital, but is a pleasant 4.5% beer rebadged as "Wayfarer's Ale", with a George Gale cap and supplied by Fuller's.  I expect someone out there may know what it really is...

* Very reminiscent of claiming Supplementary Benefits -- a.k.a. The Dole -- back in the 1970s, where you had to ask explicitly for your entitlements.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

With the Beatles

Writing about Hard Day's Night got me thinking about the Beatles.  Or rather, got me thinking about the Beatles' music as actually experienced in my own life, rather than as seen from some artificial, all-seeing critical perch.  A book like Ian MacDonald's celebrated tome Revolution in the Head, that exhaustive account of every Beatles track from every angle, does nothing for me; in fact, a feeling of despair overwhelms me any time I open its covers.  I really don't need to know any of that stuff, and prefer my music unmurdered for dissection.*

Born in 1954, I think I'm probably too young to be a Beatles fan.  My sister, born in 1946 and thus a proper Boomer, was just the right age to catch the early, upbeat Beatles in her dancing years, but lost interest in following them through their later, more interesting phases.  People grew up fast in those days, and psychedelia and cynicism about the ways of the world held little or no attraction for young parents with a mortgage and small children.  I, on the other hand, lived with the Beatles as background music from the age of nine, found them briefly interesting around 1968, but lost interest as soon as "real" rock in its many guises swaggered onto the stage.  My guess is that most die-hard Beatles fans will have been born in or around 1950.

So "my" Beatles story is neither a fan's hagiography nor an exercise in musicology, but a series of glimpses of a life with musical accompaniment, and probably about as interesting as listening to someone else's dreams, or seeing their holiday snaps.  Well, hey, the movement you need is on your shoulder.

Track 1:
My most vivid memory of the early hits is evoked whenever I hear "She Loves You".  Oddly, I am instantly transported to an enclosed concrete and brick passageway running between our house and the next one in the terrace on a blazing hot summer's day. Perhaps one or other back door is open, in the heat, and a radio is on, perhaps a little louder than necessary.  We had recently moved away from the neighbourhood where my primary school was situated to a newly-built estate on the far edge of town, still under construction, which -- in those pre-internet, pre-mobile phone days -- meant expulsion from my previous Edenic life.  Our cat simply ran away, rather than move into this unlovely, half-finished place.  With no friends living nearby, my sister away at college, and both parents at work, those were hot, lonely summers, 1964 to 1966.  A delicious sense of inner sadness entered my life, back then, which has never entirely gone away, and those astringent, plangent harmonies, first heard in the previous year -- our last summer in paradise -- gave it a shape.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeaah.

Track 2:
Liverpool came into my life in a big way in the form of my sister's future husband, whom she had met at teacher's training college. Les was everything a ten-year-old could wish for in an older brother.  He was tall, good-looking, knew jiu-jitsu, enjoyed fishing, rolled his own cigarettes, and had actually been to the Cavern to see the Beatles in their earliest days.  Above all, he noticed me. The youngest of a Liverpool Catholic family of ten -- his oldest brother was the same age as my father -- he brought a Lennon-esque Liverpudlian teasing and banter to bear on my lonely self-obsession.  I suspect he was the only one to notice that I was in danger of becoming more than a little odd.

When they married soon after, my only regret was that I couldn't leave, too.  Instead, I would spend the occasional weekend with them, as they followed a succession of teaching jobs and raised their children, helping to decorate a new flat or clear the overgrown garden of their first house.  On one of the last times I went to stay, they gave me their hardly-played copy of Revolver to take home, which I loved but was never really their cup of tea.

I still think Revolver is the only entirely successful Beatles LP (even "Yellow Submarine" is almost tolerable), and is probably the peak of their achievement.  It's the point where the song-writing, the studio production, the ambition and the musicianship are all in perfect balance. Though to fully appreciate this you have to have put the stylus of a mono Dansette record-player carefully down onto a spinning black vinyl LP, sitting in the middle of the floor of a darkening back room, with nappies and clothes hanging everywhere to dry.  She said, I know what it is to be sad...

Track 3:
Somewhere around 1968, I started spending pocket-money on records, and began to construct an identity around music.  We couldn't have known it at the time, but as mid-teens schoolkids we were part of a world-changing revolution, that was inverting and shaking up the values and snobberies that still separated high from low culture.  We were also consumers-in-training, of course, and the two things are not unconnected.

Being an instinctive antiquarian, I found myself haunting the stall at our Saturday open-air market that sold second-hand singles.  After school, too, having flipped through the LP racks at the back of W.H. Smith, we might also check out the Co-op, where ex-jukebox singles were racked in a carousel display, in blank sleeves and with the punched out centres replaced by a plastic insert. You could buy anything "old" -- reckoned as more than two or three years -- for pence, and assemble a set of vintage Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, and Kinks singles that was an education in itself.

The first and last Beatles single I ever bought new was "Hey Jude", with its pioneering pictorial label -- the A side a whole apple, the B side a cut apple -- and I played it constantly.  I think I felt about it then as some might feel about the Beethoven late quartets: it seemed both the summation of a career and of a moment.  By then, we had moved into a fourth-floor flat in a council block of such bomb-proof solidity that you could play music as loud as you liked without troubling neighbours in any of four directions.  I would gaze out across the town centre to the motorway, with "Hey Jude" pounding out behind me. 1968 was my biggest Beatles year, and naturally the White Album was top of my Christmas list.

What a massive disappointment that album was.  With the possible exception of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", there is not a single track on any of its four overblown, incoherent sides that meets the gold standard of Revolver, or matches the excitement of the sudden mass emergence of new blues- and folk-based sounds from acts like Cream, Jimi Hendrix, or the Incredible String Band.  And with Beggars Banquet, the Rolling Stones were finally pulling ahead, laying the foundations for Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, surely the two most sophisticated albums of that era, and still among my favourites (Lord, if only the Stones had broken up, like the Beatles, after the mish-mash of Exile on Main St. ...).  I gave away my copy of the White Album some time in the 1970s.

Track 4:
Still, at their peak, the Beatles explored certain areas and breathed the air of some rarefied heights that few have visited since. There is such a thing as "Beatles country", and other musicians tread there at their own risk. If I had to pick a single item (and, frankly, I could live without any Beatles at all on my desert island) it would be the double A-side release of "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever".  It is simply perfect.

Why?  Because that double sound -- one side sharp and clear as a piccolo trumpet solo, the other slurred and wistful as a stoner's daydream -- defines an eternal moment of pure provincial Englishness, the long summer picnic of post-imperial decline.  It is psychedelia used to a purpose:  the perception-in-confusion surrealism of the lyrics is not meaningless, or chest-beating (compared to, say, "Purple Haze") or twee (compared to, say, "Hole in My Shoe" or even "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"), and the underlying musical arrangements of both tracks are simply incredible in their bold originality.  This release did not so much reflect the times as remake them in its own image.  As I say, perfect.
No one I think is in my tree
I mean it must be high or low
That is you can't, you know, tune in
But it's all right
That is I think it's not too bad...
Exactly, John, exactly.

* Wordsworth:"We murder to dissect" ("The Tables Turned")

Wednesday, 16 July 2014


I was up in London this week, saying a quick "hello" to two friends stopping off in Britain en route to the United States from South Africa, where they have been for the last 6 months.  Having asked the usual lame questions about jet-lag, etc., I was amazed to discover that SA is only an hour ahead of the UK, time-wise, and thus jet-lag was no more of an issue for them than it is for my daughter, who returned this afternoon from France.  Obvious, really, if you look at a map; after all, those swifts and swallows still zipping around overhead (though not for much longer) showed no signs of jet-lag when they arrived from their winter in the African sun, though it's true they did take the scenic route.

On the way back to Waterloo station yesterday morning, I thought I'd stop off on the Thames Embankment with my camera, which has been fruitful territory recently.  However, I hadn't reckoned on the weather -- hot and humid -- and the seasonal influx of tourists and school parties converging on the London Eye, Parliament and all those other places that get pictured on souvenir tea-towels and t-shirts.  I trudged around for several hours, but couldn't even see the entrance to the Zone, never mind get into it.  The queue was too long...

The best I could come away with was some contrasts of the sunny side vs. the shady side, which seemed appropriate.

I wandered over to Whitehall, for a change of scene, and was amused to watch tourists posing for selfies with the impassively professional mounted guards in front of the entrance to Horse Guards Parade.  The horses were remarkably unbothered by the constant barrage of flashes and idiotic posing going on under their muzzles; it would be good battle training, I suppose, if there was even a remote chance of a cavalry charge ever taking place in a future conflict.  Perhaps when the petrol finally runs out...

This reminded me of my great-uncle Jim, who joined the Royal Dragoons -- then a cavalry regiment, now a tank regiment -- as a 15-year-old trumpeter in 1908, and retired as a provost sergeant (trumpet major) in the 7th Dragoon Guards in 1934.  At the outbreak of WW1, his regiment was stationed in India, and immediately embarked for France, presumably along with their well-drilled horses.  The conditions on the Western Front turned out to be famously unsuitable for cavalry manoeuvres, however.  Nonetheless, 10 minutes (TEN MINUTES) before the Armistice came into effect on 11th November 1918, a squadron of the 7th Dragoons galloped several miles to capture the town of Lessines.  Insane...

I was struck by the small size and boyish appearance of the horseguards on duty yesterday.  Getting closer, it became apparent, to my surprise, that all of them were women.  I'm not good on uniforms, but I think this must mean they were from the Royal Horse Artillery, giving the Household Cavalry their summer break.  I don't think this will have bothered the selfie-seekers.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Sorry We Hurt Your Field, Mister

It's a strange thing, but I'd never watched the Beatles film A Hard Day's Night until yesterday afternoon.  That is to say, I'd never watched it all the way through.  I've started to watch it several times, but usually bailed out after 5 or 10 minutes, because I found its self-conscious cuteness too toe-curlingly embarrassing.  I do have a fondness for the recordings of the early Beatles -- I was 10 in the year of the release of Hard Day's Night -- but for me those once exciting new sounds are diminished, not enhanced, by following the wacky adventures of four cartoonish mop-tops pursued by a horde of screaming pre-teen maenads.

The film has recently been re-mastered and will be re-released, and was shown the other night on the BBC,  presumably in its original version.  I could hear my daughter chortling in disbelief as she watched the scenes of tweenies gripped by the hysteria of Beatlemania.  Those shrieking girls, of course, are all now her mother's age.  So, I thought I'd give it yet another go, and see if I could get past the train compartment scenes this time.

I did, but only because it seems I'm more accustomed to dealing with embarrassment these days.  It still made me cringe.  Much is made of the film's influence at the time, stylistically, which I'm sure is true, but it is the usual fate of pioneers to be outshone by their imitators.  It seems pretty stilted and period-bound now; it's filmed in black and white, for a start, and it's far too over-excited about a Modern World where vending machines dispense pre-packaged milk, and photo-booths and public hip-wiggling are all outrageous novelties.  Even safety razors -- hardly a major innovation even in 1964 -- get a moment in the sun.

However, there is one bit of the movie that did totally seize my attention, a true "wow" moment of absolute stylistic innovation and mastery.  I'm talking about the closing credit sequence, made from close-up portraits uniformly taken from the same distance, and printed in that richly contrasty "soot and whitewash" style made famous by the likes of David Bailey, and sequenced in a semi-animated style that says everything about the excitement and innovation of 1964 that the film itself somehow fails to do.

The photographer was Robert Freeman, for some years the Beatles' photographer of choice.  The portraits are the same ones that appear on the cover of the Hard Day's Night album, except they are of necessity cropped from the original square to a cinematic letterbox aspect ratio, which gives an even tighter edit, so that the screen is filled with those familiar "always already" famous features, grinning, gurning, and looking thoughtful.

What is so special about this sequence?  On one level, it's pure, innocent teen-pop porn: without context, without distracting clothes or props, just an in-your-face, in-your-tweenie-dreams John-Paul-George-and-Ringo Beatles-fest.  I can remember the girls at school all interrogating each other: which one is yours?  It was perhaps the first time in human history that an entire generation could construct their fantasies around the same four virtual objects. Personally, I was more interested in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at the time, though Emma Peel throwing judo shapes in  a leather catsuit in The Avengers was beginning to make me shift uncomfortably on the sofa.

But that photography is essential, iconic 60s style, if not "art" on the level of David Hockney or Peter Blake, then still something pure and new and ahead of the curve.  It sits quite oddly at the tail of the preceding movie, as it is cut from such very different cloth; it's actually a much truer glimpse or prediction of the future.  The animation of the sequence is artfully done, too, nicely matching the reprise of the song "A Hard Day's Night" -- it may even be, in effect, the very first custom-made pop video.  It really is the most "zeitgeisty" bit of the film, a new visual language being born.

So, if you've never seen it, I recommend you sit through the film, if you can endure it,  just so you can see those closing minutes.  As for the rest, even the famous jokes and quips ("Are you a mod or a rocker?"  "I'm a mocker") have achieved the unenviable status of Shakespearean jests, which is to say, completely lacking in spontaneity and surprise after 50 years of exposure, and utterly unfunny.

Apparently the scandalous hobby Lennon writes on the reporter's pad is "tits".  Well, you had to be there.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014


Welcome to the society of the bicycle spectacle!  It's total cyclomania out there, as Britain hosts the opening stages of the Tour de France (that's "Tour of France", for non-linguists).  At least, it was until yesterday, when the whole thing relocated to yer actual France (do they cycle endlessly round the deck of the ferry on the way there?) and will now all quickly be forgotten.

I don't know about you, but I have always found people behaving as a mass both quite frightening and rather puzzling.  Ever since I was quite small I have preferred the way of the "lone wolf" to that of the pack.  I have never once been a spectator in a football stadium -- I support no football team -- and only with great reluctance have I even attended concerts in large venues.  I did go to a couple of open-air festivals in the 1970s, mainly to sample the ambience (that's code for "drugs"), but didn't really enjoy the experience of a crowd oo-ing and aah-ing to the sort of broad-brush spectacle that alone can command the attention of that many people in  that big a space.  "Look!  Jagger has just blown himself up with a landmine...  What a showman!!"

The most bizarre kind of crowd behaviour, I find, is the temporary intense enthusiasm that a Big Sporting Event will trigger.  Suddenly, people who spend most of the year doing nothing more sporty than wrestling open a family-sized bag of crisps on the sofa seem to know everything about athletics, or international football, or tennis, or, in this most recent outbreak, road cycling.  A few may go the extra yard and buy a pair of jogging pants (very comfy on the sofa), or even a bike, but most will simply enjoy the illusion of being part of it for as long as whatever it is lasts -- maybe even turning up to cheer on a fleeting glimpse of lycra and helium-filled titanium flashing past -- and then revert, forgetting their new fund of knowledge as quckly and as thoroughly as a student after taking finals.  The praiseworthy but pious hope of the organisers of such Big Sporting Events is always that increased participation will be the pay-off, with the associated benefits to their sport (bigger numbers means more funding which means more success) and to the nation's health (generally quantified as savings to the NHS).  Well, lots of luck with that.

As to cycling, I used to cycle everywhere as a mode of transport, but never truly enjoyed it: you need longer legs than mine to derive any actual pleasure from pedalling.  But I have several friends for whom cycling is a way of life, and always has been.  I blogged a few years ago about the untimely death of John Wilson, proprietor of Walton Street Cycles in Oxford.  I met John and his older brother Phil at university, where they managed to arrange adjacent rooms in college.  We would often converge on those rooms of an evening to sample the ambience, so to speak.  Which could be awkward, as there were often several semi-dismantled bike frames hanging from the ceiling, like stuffed crocodiles in an alchemist's laboratory, or inverted wheel-less on the floor.  If the ambience was particularly good that night, you had to be careful not to stumble into the dishes of meths on the floor (where disassembled derailleur gear parts were degreasing), or you might skid, fall, and impale yourself on a menacing pair of wheel-forks.

So, although I could not share their particular passion, I have always been engaged by any true enthusiasts, as typified by those two.  That is, people who participate, rather than merely spectate; people who are in for the long-term, not just for the temporary buzz of a fad.  It can be anything: metal detectorists, book collectors, cake bakers, flash-mob knitters, boxers, sea anglers; I'm sure I could even find some sort of common ground with train-spotters and body-builders, if I had to.  But I loathe mass-media-fed pseudo-enthusiasms, the sort that pass through the population like a mild virus, leaving no trace beyond the trail of consumer-goods that marks serial failed attempts to buy health and happiness -- all those exercise machines, tennis rackets, electric guitars, unused recipe books, blenders and non-stick baking trays.

Although, as an inveterate buyer of second-hand cameras and lenses, I suppose I should be grudgingly grateful to those whose attention span will last no further than the next hype, and whose wallets will have absorbed that first wave of depreciation.  "As new, boxed" -- music to my ears...

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The X Files

It's been back to earth, and business as usual, for the last couple of weeks.  I may have a few more Innsbruck posts in the pipeline, but felt the need to revisit some pictures I had made before going away.  Above, I have paired my favourite telephone kiosk with the  "Appearing Rooms" fountain on the South Bank.  Below, an intriguing South Bank window with a "campus corner".

These were all taken with the Fuji X-E1.  I don't think I mentioned my decision to take the Panasonic G3 to Austria.  Mainly, it was a classic case of convenience (smaller, lighter body, much lighter kit zoom lens) winning out over the clear advantages of image quality, when it came to packing a travel bag.  But there was also the issue of familiarity:  I'm well past the stage of wondering which button does what on the G3, whereas I'm still either accidentally pressing the wrong buttons or discovering useful new settings on the X-E1.

There was also the issue of raw file conversion.  Although the Fuji JPG files are extremely good (these are all out-of-camera JPGs), you would have to be a little reckless to entrust the outcome of an important one-off residency to JPG files.  The X system raw files are allegedly not well converted by Adobe Camera Raw:  I wouldn't know, as the X-E1 was released after the latest version of Camera Raw that my version of Photoshop Elements can handle.  So, I'm now giving PictureCode's Photo Ninja a try -- I've read good things about it, and have long been a user of the Noise Ninja plugin.  So far, it seems pretty good, and as a combination of file browser and raw converter it has improved my workflow considerably.  However, if any Fuji X user out there has alternative recommendations, I'd be glad to hear them.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Don't Mention the War

Last night, for once, I did not turn off that most annoying of BBC Radio 4 programmes, The Moral Maze, because I knew there was to be a discussion of the morality or otherwise of publishing Hitler's Mein Kampf when it comes out of copyright next year.  I wanted to hear the opinions of any German "witnesses" (should they manage to get a word in edgeways), as it might be that the era of German self-censorship over the Nazi period is drawing to a natural close.  As a professional believer in freedom of information, although I can understand the need to make symbolic gestures of atonement (which is what the Mein Kampf ban amounts to), I find it hard to accept the argument that the poisonous ravings of deluded people should be permanently (and enticingly) locked out of harm's way.  It's all too reminiscent of the patrician arguments advanced in the Lady Chatterley trial --  would you wish your wife or servants to read this book?

In the process of doing a little research before setting out on my recent Martian expedition into Austria, I was surprised to learn that the USAF and RAF had bombed Innsbruck 22 times towards the end of WW2.  If this seems surprising, the city's position at an important strategic crossroads, particularly for rail traffic, needs to be remembered.  Once the Allies had a foothold in Italy, Innsbruck came within reach, and the flow of rail traffic between Germany and Italy could be disrupted.  Bombing is an indiscriminate business, however.  As well as the all-important rail marshalling-yards, over 60% of Innsbruck's buildings suffered bomb damage, including the destruction of historic buildings like the 13th century Bartholomäuskapelle; 461 people were killed.

It would be nice to say this destruction was aimed, even in part, at disrupting the transport of Jews, gypsies and forced labourers out of southern Europe, but this was not the case.  It has been well established that the Allied leadership chose either to ignore, or not to believe, or to give a low military priority to the stories of systematized atrocity coming out of Nazi-occupied Europe.  The Holocaust is a tragic story with very few heroes.

In Germany and Austria, the subject of the War and the preceding Nazi period is not a comfortable topic of conversation, even today.  It's a problem with a very German word to describe it: Vergangenheitsbewältigung ("a struggle to come to terms with the past").  It is often said that Austria was declared after 1945 to have been one of the first "victims" of Nazi aggression, following the Anschluss of 1938, and thus was not required to undergo the same rigorous denazification process imposed on German public life.  This is not true, strictly speaking, though the reluctance to return confiscated Jewish property (read The Hare with Amber Eyes) plus the fact that the likes of Adolf Eichmann escaped justice using "ratlines" set up by the Austrian bishop Alois Hudal might paint a different picture.

It's an interesting question, though -- and one I am not qualified to answer -- whether the extreme racist right has been discouraged in either Austria or Germany by the imposition of denazification laws that make the open expression of Nazi sympathies or the displaying of Nazi flags and insignia a criminal offence.  As with Mein Kampf, I suspect this is essentially a symbolic ban, one that may serve a more useful purpose in the national psyche than in practical politics.  Though one does have to wonder about the need.  Kurt Waldheim may have drawn a veil over his military service in WW2 -- ill-advised, perhaps, but who wouldn't? -- but could never be accused of fascist tendencies when Secretary-General of the United Nations, and I strongly doubt that this was merely because he was prevented from wearing a nostalgic swastika in his lapel.  Careerists are rarely ideologues.  After all, if things had gone differently, British members of Bomber Command might easily have found themselves in a similarly compromised position in a post-war world.*

In fact, the most noticeable effect of this blanket ban on symbols may not be political at all, but seen in the absence in the museums and galleries that I visited of any art or objects from that "unspeakable" episode in the past, which I assume is not entirely due to aesthetic judgements.  In the excellent State Museum, or Ferdinandeum, for example, some pretty awful but representative art is on display from most periods, but I could find only a single example of art from the Nazi period: a tiny, graphical piece showing a portrait of Hitler, intended as a poster for a Nuremberg rally.  This is to be regretted, I think, and is a real distortion of historical reality. If nothing else, Nazi propagandists, like those in Soviet Russia, had a real flair for modernist graphic design that deserves to be seen, even if heavily-insulated by suitable "interpretation"; and let's not forget that the VW beetle and the Leica camera are examples of Nazi-inspired industrial design.

But, at this point in history, it is we Britons who need to take serious stock. We have become too used to casting ourselves as history's Good Guys.  Europeans used, grudgingly, to agree.  But it was instructive to hear from my new Austrian friends how Iraq and Aghanistan have changed all that: we are in grave danger of being seen as -- no, becoming -- the biddable attack-dog of an overweening American Empire.

It is ridiculous to imagine that "we" have essential qualities that inoculate us, on our crowded little island, against outbreaks of totalitarian folly, whereas "they" over the Channel are flawed in ways that make them eternally susceptible, to the extent that merely to have permission to read Hitler's anti-semitic ravings might well set them off down that dismal road again.  The "Little Englander" anti-European mentality as typified by UKIP is, at bottom, a delusional attempt to recover and hold on to the purity of this flattering distinction between "us" and "them", primarily by refusing further contamination of "our" culture by foreigners, and by assigning our economic decline to their baleful influence.  Sound familiar?  May history preserve us from such advocates of imaginary purity.

In the words of the blog-poem by Michael Rosen I quoted a few weeks ago:

"I sometimes fear that
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress
worn by grotesques and monsters
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.

Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you...

It doesn't walk in saying,
"Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

UPDATE 7/7/2014:    I've just seen this Rolling Stone article linked on Arts & Letters Daily.  Interesting, if worrying, confirmation, or just straws in the wind?

* The protestation that "I was only obeying orders" is often mocked as a typically authoritarian response, and no excuse at all for one's actions.  I wonder what alternative line of defense the bomber crews that destroyed Dresden would have taken, if brought to trial?  Obeying orders is what the military is all about.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Water Feature

Water trough, Mutters

As you might expect, there's a lot of water in the Tyrol, even at the height of summer.  The place is gushing, spraying water at every joint, like leaky plumbing.  At the centre of it all, the river Inn flows down its valley like a long brown flexing muscle, snatching and squeezing the supports of bridges with terrifying force.  But it seems that every street in every town or village has a fountain or a bubbling water trough, and even the central police station has a sculptural water feature.

For no reason other than I seem to have taken a lot of them -- I have always had a strong affinity with water as a subject -- here is a selection of some watery photographs.

Water feature, Police Station, Innsbruck

Leopoldsbrunnen, Innsbruck
(he'll never get that lit standing there...)

River Inn from bridge

Water trough, Mariahilfstrasse

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Building Houses

 Another thing that impressed me in the Tyrol, as it always impresses me in mainland Europe, was the design quality of the new-build housing.  Now, clearly, the photo above is not of what we in Britain euphemistically call "social" or "affordable" housing, but neither is it a part of some luxury gated estate.  It simply shows a couple of ordinary houses on a newly-finished estate, just outside the village of Mutters, built with a level of architectural imagination that is, evidently, simply unthinkable in Britain.

But, let's be honest, and as someone said in my hearing recently, the accidents of decay generally have so much more aesthetic appeal than the deliberate designs of any architect, especially to the photographer.  Guilty as charged!   Here's some evidence to back up that proposition...


Nice... Though it's true, the chaos of new building does have its own attractions, too.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Glass Mountains

The Nordkette ("north chain") mountains dominate Innsbruck.  They loom at the north end of every street, and are used by infrequent visitors as a navigation device: if you can see mountains at the end of the street, then you must be facing north.  It must be a pretty sight in winter, though the predominantly grey geology is fairly dreary in summer.  Close up, though, the rocks have quite a sparkle -- there seems to be a lot of mica or some similar glassy, crystalline substance within the rock.

For a while I had some fun finding highly-reflective modern buildings in which to play compositional games, making mountains appear, multiply, distort, and disappear.  As most of these buildings seemed to be in and around the university, however, I suddenly realised was in the familiar territory of my Elevation series.  A strong feeling of repeating myself descended, and I abandoned the idea fairly quickly, perhaps too soon.