Sunday, 22 July 2018

Slightly More Fabulous

A few subtle revisions to yesterday's St.Petersburg / Krylov composite have improved it, I think.

Saturday, 21 July 2018


In the Summer Gardens in St. Petersburg there is a large monument which, unlike most statues in most big-city parks, seems to attract a lot of attention. When I was there a few weeks ago, Russian visitors, in particular, were constantly arranging selfies in front of it; so much so, I had to wait quite a while just to get a clear shot of it. The inscription simply says, "To Krylov". So, I wondered, who the hell is this Krylov guy, anyway?

The clue is in the crowded, wonderfully detailed bronze panels surrounding the statue's plinth, depicting animals in various unlikely combinations and peasants doing unsettling things with ladles of soup. We are clearly in the land of fable, that faux-folksy genre where speaking animals with peculiarly human motivations encounter and outwit each other in tales that convey an easily-digested (and usually quite conservative) form of wisdom. Ivan Krylov, it turns out, is a much-loved fabulist, often referred to as "the Russian La Fontaine".

When Wittgenstein declared, "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him", he probably had such fables in mind. By the same reckoning, if a fox could speak, I'd be amazed if a crow could understand him, either. No need, really: a fox's intentions are pretty straightforward to grasp. So, obviously, the various creatures acting out these exemplary tales are not representatives of their species, but people in disguise. Foxes don't eat grapes, sweet or sour, much less mutter memorable aphorisms about them as they scamper off. At least, not that we could understand. Famously, Isaiah Berlin borrowed the fable of the fox and the hedgehog to characterise human thinkers into two categories: foxes who know many small things, and hedgehogs who know one big thing. Personally, I prefer the mind-blowing version of this aperçu that fell out of my Christmas cracker in 1973: "There are two kinds of people: those who believe there are two kinds of people, and those who don't". No talking animals required.

Despite the success of the likes of Animal Farm and Watership Down, not to mention the oeuvre of Beatrix Potter, the fable has never really established itself as a genre in the English-language literary tradition, except in a defanged version for the consumption of children. It seems to be a very European thing, drawing on classical sources but recast in the image of the rural life of an all-purpose Euro-peasantry. You might say the fable is the literary equivalent of Marie Antoinette dressing up as a milkmaid. I suspect our early industrialisation and urbanisation put paid to the fable as a useful means of expression; talking animals are few and far between in English literature, post-Chaucer. Indeed, I suspect very, very few literate Britons will actually have read any Aesop or La Fontaine or Hans Christian Andersen, or even heard of Krylov. Whether the likes of Kafka are urban fabulists is an interesting question, but not one I'm inclined to pursue further without the prospect of a degree or a substantial cash payment at the end of the process.

Anyway, I couldn't resist extracting Krylov from his sunny park setting, and putting him in front of a more evocative St. Petersburg prospect, where he becomes a bloke absorbed in a book, oblivious to whatever is going on around him.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

In Sibyl's Cave

Deep in the face of that Euboean crag
A cavern vast is hollowed out amain,
With hundred openings, a hundred mouths,
Whence voices flow, the Sibyl's answering songs.
While at the door they paused, the virgin cried :
“Ask now thy doom!—the god! the god is nigh!”
So saying, from her face its color flew,
Her twisted locks flowed free, the heaving breast
Swelled with her heart's wild blood; her stature seemed
Vaster, her accent more than mortal man,
As all th' oncoming god around her breathed :
“On with thy vows and prayers, 0 Trojan, on!
For only unto prayer this haunted cave
May its vast lips unclose.” She spake no more.

Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 6, translated by John Dryden
The core of this picture is one of several busts I photographed in the Summer Gardens in St. Petersburg (a delightful place, incidentally, and clearly very popular with the locals for a shady Sunday stroll in hot weather). When I started to play around with it, it seemed to want to lead me in certain directions, and I ended up inside this imaginary cave twinkling with watery reflections. I had genuinely forgotten (if I ever bothered to notice) who or what the bust represented, but when I decided to check, I found to my surprise that it is, in fact, a sibyl. The Erythraean Sibyl, to be exact, and not the Cumaean Sibyl (the one that Aeneas consults before descending into the underworld), but still very appropriate. I suppose my subconscious must somehow have noted the identity [1], and encouraged me to go with it. Although, as I have taken care to point out several times, I am no classicist, and I'm afraid to say that the name "Sybil", for me, primarily evokes Fawlty Towers, and not any cave-dwelling fortune-tellers.

There do seem to have been quite a few sibyls and practitioners of allied oracular trades hanging out around the Mediterranean; I suppose it must have been quite a good racket, sitting around inhaling the vision-inducing gases, and dispensing cryptic ambiguities to superstitious alpha males. Although sitting perched on a tripod does sound distinctly precarious, unless it was more by way of a bar-stool ("Of all the ethylene joints in all the caves in all the world..."). It's been interesting, though, reading up on the sibylline lore. I had no idea that the word "acrostic" was originally applied to the prophecies of the Erythraean Sibyl, for example, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters of the leaves formed a word, in a kind of oracular Scrabble. I wonder how often the word was some appropriately offensive reference to the gullible recipient?

This will not be news to any proper classicists out there, but I was very taken by the story of how the Cumaean Sibyl marketed her books of prophesies to the last Roman king, Tarquinius: it's become a true classic of bookselling technique, used by publishers' reps everywhere. Apparently, she offered Tarquinius a set of nine books of prophecies at a ridiculously high price, but the king turned her down. So, she burned three of them, right there, and offered the remaining six to Tarquinius, still at the same crazy price. Again, he refused. So, she burned another three. Just three left, now; but, to you, sir, still at that same high price. Anyone got any more matches? Tarquinius, the superstitious alpha male, panicked: who knew what useful prophesies might be lurking in those pages [2]? So he bought the remaining three at the full, original price and, over the centuries, they were resorted to whenever some intractable problem presented itself. Plague? Floods? Catastrophic military defeat? Break out the Sibylline Books!

The solutions offered by the books do seem distinctly odd, however, such as when in 216 BC Hannibal annihilated the Roman army at the Battle of Cannae. The books were consulted, and as a consequence, two Gauls and two Greeks were buried alive in the forum. Um, sorted... Maybe. But that's what happens when you entrust the nation's fate to the ravings of some gas-happy soothsayer. Although the real problem may have been the failure to invest in the complete set of such an invaluable part-work. As anyone will attest who has bought into the cumulative monthly issues of, say, The Wacky World Encyclopaedia of Prophesy, the best bits are generally in the early volumes, and the contents of the last few gets progressively thinner and less reliably sourced. And I bet Tarquinius didn't even get the binders or the index.

Summer Gardens

 1. Though what it would have made of "Сивилла Эритрейская" (Sibilla Eritreiskaya) I'm not sure: it's hard to imagine why or how the Ancient Greeks would have consulted a sibyl located in Eritrea.
2. I haven't checked whether the Sibylline Books were actual books, as such, or – heh – more of a loose-leaf affair.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

The Good, The Perfect, And The Ugly

There are many "life lessons" out there to be learned and passed on, most of which turn out to be the self-evident BS that falls out of a Christmas cracker. People were fed up with this sort of sententious nonsense even in Shakespeare's time – see Polonius in Hamlet – but it seems we have an insatiable appetite for bite-sized wisdom. However, for those diligent souls who care about their work and are prepared to take pains to get it right, there is one essential lesson I can pass on which can be reduced to this convenient takeaway sound-bite: nobody cares how hard you worked to get it right. When something – whether it be it a device, a project, some software, a submarine, whatever – just works, nobody will give a tuppenny damn quite how it was made to work, even if it might just as easily not have worked, or how much effort and ingenuity went into making it work so well. That's what we pay you for, isn't it? Of course, if that something doesn't work, or work as well as it might, people will care very much, and they'll know who to blame.

I think I have shared before various of my own Polonius-like insights into management, but one in particular bears repeating, and it is this: in any organisation, most people are passive onlookers, little more than passengers working their passage on a journey whose reward is a monthly salary and whose destination, in the short term, is the weekend and, in the long term, retirement. Therefore, to ensure the success of any enterprise, whether it be a voyage of discovery, a zoo, or a university, two unusual personality types are necessary: people who make things happen, and people who make things work. These are two very different and equally rare sets of characteristics, hardly ever embodied in a single person. Such people often hold each other in contempt, openly or secretly, but, when brought together – by force, if necessary – they can generate an awesome transformative energy. The inner secret, however, is this: People Who Make Things Happen must never be given a complex task to see through, and People Who Make Things Work must never, ever be put in charge. I could give chapter and verse – indeed, there's a  bestselling book in there for some wannabe consultancy guru – but I think the truth of this will be self-evident to anyone who has ever worked for a living in a corporate setting, at least now that I have pointed it out.

The crucial thing is to figure out is who you are, and not to kid yourself. After all, you're almost certainly a passive passenger. "This ship's going to India? No problem, just tell me what to do! And when is my lunch break?" You may want to make things happen, but probably lack the people skills, love of meetings, and sociopathic ruthlessness to achieve this. If you wore the captain's hat, would the ship ever leave dock, never mind get to India? No, I thought not. Similarly, you may want to make things work, but probably lack the compendious attention to detail, the resourceful creativity, and the unforgiving work ethic that makes lunch breaks an unwelcome distraction. If you held the chief engineer's oily rag, what are the chances of the ship drifting helplessly in mid-ocean at the first mechanical setback? Quite. No, step back, do whatever you're asked to do, and let those rare creatures – they know who they are – do their thing. That way, we'll all get to India in one piece. Why are we going there? As if you cared. Lunch for your team is from 13:00 to 14:00. Carry on.

But, to return to my original "life lesson": one thing People Who Make Things Work need to learn and accept is that all the praise and rewards will go to the People Who Make Things Happen. It's the way of the world: nobody cares how hard you worked to get it right. It's just a fact. Nobody ever got a knighthood for ensuring the ship of state didn't stop, hit a rock, or run out of rations. That honour goes to the person who stands on the bridge, declaiming, "Plot me a course to India. Did anyone remember to bring a map? Full steam ahead! And make sure those engine-thingies don't break!" Even if where you all end up turns out to be America. People Who Make Things Happen are also People Who Make Things Up, when it suits them.

Of course, by the same token, an important life lesson for People Who Make Things Happen is not to grab all the credit: you'll get it, anyway. A few quiet, grateful words, some fulsome praise where fulsome praise is due, maybe even a recommendation for a lesser gong or a generous cash reward; these things win loyalty and, let's be frank, make you look even better. And yet, in my observation and experience, this is a lesson that those preening bastards on the bridge – with never a drop of oil or sweat on their dress uniforms – hardly, if ever, bother to learn, as the ship glides gracefully into port, on course and on time, to general acclaim. Well done, captain!

So, me hearties, just be content that a job well done is its own reward, and repeat: nobody cares how hard you worked to get it right, nobody cares how hard you worked to get it right... Got it? Expect nothing, and you won't be disappointed. Now, lunch break's over, you worthless dogs: get shovelling that coal! Pass me my oily rag!

Thursday, 12 July 2018


You'll be relieved to know that I have nothing whatsoever to say about the weather or the football, both of which have become pretty boring. Instead, here are recent examples of something I've been doing with my extensive collection of photographs of statuary of various sorts. I really like that jolt of the uncanny you get from giving these human representations a new context, especially when they're fairly hermetic to start with.

The one at the top is a rare example of an, um, intact classical statue. Very intact, in his case. The one below, bizarrely, is a monument in a Southampton cemetery. I have no idea what either is trying to tell us. I suppose it might be about football or the weather, but I doubt it.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

A Mind of Winter

When it gets as hot and sultry as this, there's only one place to go. In your mind, at least.
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The Snow Man, by Wallace Stevens (1921)

Friday, 6 July 2018

Compare and Contrast

Southampton Old Cemetery
July 2017

I like to look back through my image-file folders to remind myself what I was doing at the same time last year – where I was, what the weather was like, and so on – especially when we're having a long run of notable weather like this current uncharacteristic summer heatwave. For me, these files (arranged by camera, then month, then year) constitute a very effective sort of diary. Unlike the entries in a written journal ("Another day of fine weather. Went to the Old Cemetery. Took photographs.") a set of photographs represents a much fuller spectrum of sense data, including, paradoxically, those that are absent: I can still hear the dry rustle of a steady western breeze blowing through the dry grasses of the Old Cemetery in the photo above, as well as the shouts of a game of football on the Common, just beyond those trees. Now that I've mentioned it, I expect you can, too.

There is a strange belief, implicitly shared by many photographers, that they have been personally responsible for all the pictorial elements and the arrangement thereof that have been recorded by their camera, as if they were packshot photographers, painters, or cinematographers; a belief reinforced by critiques that pore over accidental details in the best photographs as if they were clever brushstrokes in a Rembrandt. It is a form of magical thinking, and equally delusional. Wiser photographers take a justified but limited pride in their ability to be out in the world, notice things, improvise a suitable composition, and record it. That is what "f/8 and be there" means (unless you're a "blurry backgrounds" obsessive, in which case substitute "f/1.8 and be there"). But, in a world awash with photographs, I think we're finding that to get beyond this flood of documentary, indexical photography to the foothills of art now requires more than the venerable simplicity of "f/8 and be there".

I like to think I have an uncommon ability for that reactive, observational style of photography, and it has sustained my creative impulse for the 30 years it has been constrained by work and family commitments. But – now that I am off the leash and free to do whatever I want – I find it's no longer enough. Taking many photographs, getting the chance to exhibit my work, abroad and at home, pursuing multiple photographic "projects" and sequencing the results in books... These no longer hit the spot for me. Photography as an art-form – like proper journalism, the compilation of reference works, or high-street retail – is under severe pressure from the paradigm-shifts introduced by the internet. If you wanted to exaggerate, you might even say it's "over": Bye Bye, Photography, Dear. So, increasingly, my photos are becoming the starting point in an improvisational game of associations and transformations, played out in my head and on my computer screen, a game which enables me to build something I find more personal, more completely satisfying, and more self-sufficient out of the raw materials mined from the rich seams of my image-file folders. Above all, I want to make something more expressively complex, and more intentional. It's not that I want to control your response, but that I want to give you something richer and stranger to respond to.

Whether the end results are true works of art or meretricious abominations is, in the end, not for me to judge. Doubtless, my efforts swing from one pole to the other. All I know is that I get an enormous amount of enjoyment from doing it and, for what it's worth, it seems that people are more willing to part with hard cash to own a picture like the one below than they are to buy a copy of its originating photograph above. Which is a shame, in some ways, but, although sales are hardly the only or even the best measure of artistic success, they are surely the most sincere form of flattery, and the only metric that will also keep you well-stocked with printer paper and ink.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018


Woah, Polly put the kettle on... A jubilant nation makes a fresh pot of tea! The national grid's stress test is ON.

I don't really follow or even understand football much, but to be knocked out of the World Cup in a penalty shootout, ideally by Germany, is an essential and compulsory exercise in national humiliation. It keeps us honest (unlike those ungentlemanly Colombians this evening, grr). But, somewhere, somehow, something profound seems to have changed in the complex whirring gears of Fate, and ... We won. What? Oh well, there's always Sweden on Saturday.

Looks like all those St. George flags will be staying up a bit longer. They always make me nervous, walking through town, as if whole streets have suddenly gone bully-boy white nationalist, but I suppose they mean no real harm. After all, as Billy Bragg says, it's our flag and we'd like it back, please.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

The Height of High Culture

[Note: this is a rewrite of a lengthy post from a few years ago, which I wanted to revisit. Come back later if TL;DR is an issue for you. Nice pictures, though!]

Recently, I saw this picked out as a pull quote in an article by Edmund White: "In the nineteen-fifties, high culture was forbiddingly high. Learning to be gay felt not unrelated to learning to be cultured." (New Yorker, 25 June 2018).

It had never occurred to me that it was necessary to learn how to be gay, or that it was a difficult enterprise to get right, although, obviously, illegality and profound social disapproval must have made negotiating yourself a place within a maligned and secretive sexual subculture a much tougher proposition back in the 1950s than it is now. Also, no doubt what one learned to be back then was not always in line with what one had hoped for or expected. I wouldn't presume to know about that, but making a link between "learning to be gay" and "learning to be cultured" is intriguing: I suspect very few of us born in the 1950s or later have ever really felt the coercive pressure to conform – to do the necessary homework, to lose your regional accent, to wear the right clothes, to make the appropriate lifestyle choices – that used to be the high price of entry to "high culture".

I became acutely aware of this recently, when pointing out to an old schoolfriend that most, if not all, of our most influential teachers were not only dead, but had also died relatively young, a decade or so younger, in fact, than we ourselves are now, at 64. It struck me that, despite living longer, I would never be as "cultured" as they had been – that is, as intimately knowledgeable about and conversant with the established touchstones of serious literature, classical music, and art – simply because I had never felt any compelling need to be.

Why not? Mainly because the boundaries of what now counts as "culture" have been relaxed and extended so far that any canon of essential cultural knowledge and "required reading" is all but impossible to agree upon or define. There is no longer any High Culture Club with narrow, elevated membership requirements and an inflexible dress code. The word "culture" itself has lost much of its meaning along with its exclusivity; there is simply too much one could know about to justify mocking or excluding anyone for not knowing any one particular thing, or even whole genres. It's OK to say, "I just don't like jazz fusion": nobody will mind, much, although you might run the risk of some well-meaning enthusiast trying to turn you on. In fact, never to have listened to, say, The Dark Side of the Moon is probably more eyebrow-raising today than never to have heard The Magic Flute. But, even in the late 1960s, our teachers went to great lengths to ensure that we know-nothing cultural neophytes had at least heard of the latter, as they scattered little cultural cues into our lessons – mentioning in passing as self-evident facts, for example, the supreme greatness of Beethoven's late quartets or Jane Austen's Emma – most of which have stayed with me my entire life, and most of which I have entirely disregarded. I have never read Emma, and probably never will.

Don't misunderstand me. I regard myself, with some justification, as a "cultured" person, insofar as that still means anything; perhaps it's better to say that I would like to think that I am the audience today's artists, curators, and enablers have in mind, and whose informed attention they are seeking. I am also, in my own small way, something of a player. If anything, I am actually more actively engaged than my teachers, with their firmly-drawn, unchallenged boundaries between "high" and "low" that amounted to little more than 57 varieties of snobbery. I suppose the crucial difference is that, for us, "culture" is not the one-size-fits-all straitjacket it once was; we are free to assemble our own pick'n'mix outfits, however casual, tasteless, or bizarre. Check it out! But has something important nevertheless been lost in this wholesale casualization, and might that be the ability to cope with and enjoy depth and difficulty? If something is not to our taste, or too demanding, do we move on too quickly to something else, rather than persevere with it?

I have often had the feeling that I and my contemporaries experienced the very last gasp of an older England. Behind us, it seems, certain immemorial doors were being firmly and finally closed. Take the teaching of Latin in state secondary schools. Like generations of grammar-school pupils before us, we were drilled in Latin from the age of eleven. Conjugations of verbs, declensions of nouns... We chanted them aloud together in class in the time-honoured fashion. Amo, amas, amat...  Dominus, domine, dominum... O, lord! O, table! [1] But, times were changing. By the time we reached the run-up to our O-level exams in 1968, it was decided the teaching of Latin would be discontinued. We had become a comprehensive school, and Latin was considered too difficult for a non-selective intake. It had finally become irrelevant and unnecessary.

Now, in those days, although the compulsory requirement had been abandoned in 1960, it was still felt that your chances of entering Oxford or Cambridge universities were far greater if you had passed O-level Latin. There was also a residual sense that any candidate for admission into the higher echelons of the national life ought to know some Latin. So the abandonment of the subject was, in effect, a declaration that pupils from this school would probably no longer be aspiring to Oxbridge entrance, or to any serious social mobility. That immemorial door was creaking shut.

Remarkably, the response of a couple of teachers was to put a foot in the door. They took a small group of potential Oxbridge candidates, about eight of us as I recall, and got us up to O-level standard by giving intensive extra-curricular sessions in our lunch hour. It worked: every single one of us passed, a year early, all with the top grade. It was almost certainly an unnecessary effort – we'll never know – but I have always been grateful for that last chance to slip under the barrier and jump aboard the last carriage on the last classics train just as it was leaving the station. It was a third class carriage, of course: the possession of a little elementary Latin and no Greek at all does not make you a classicist. But then neither was William Shakespeare, according to Ben Jonson, with his "small Latin and less Greek"; so the seats may have been hard but the company was good.

The possession of "small Latin" is certainly enough you help you appreciate the special place the classics once held in elite western culture. The ability to recognise and respond to lines from Homer or a poem by Catullus has acted for centuries as a combined shibboleth, letter of introduction, and secret handshake. Amusingly, but not untypically, in 1940 a certain lance-corporal Enoch Powell [2] – a grammar-school boy from Birmingham – was selected for officer training when he answered the question of a Brigadier, inspecting the army kitchen where Powell was working, with an apt Greek proverb. More famously, Patrick Leigh Fermor, having abducted General Kreipe, the German commander on Crete during WW2, found common ground with the general in an ode by Horace which they both knew by heart. I suppose the contemporary equivalent would be something like finding a shared love of Joni Mitchell or the films of the Coen Brothers; by no means lesser things, and rather easier for me to imagine (I have never knowingly read any Horace). But, at the same time, however difficult these outstanding contemporary achievements may have been to create, it has to be conceded that they are relatively easy to consume and appreciate. The asymmetry between creator and audience is exaggerated in a consumer culture: we are required to admire, and to buy, and to queue for tickets, but not expected to participate. Or, where participation is seen as a Good Thing – for example, in the interests of "diversity" – then levels of difficulty and expectation are quietly and patronisingly reduced. All must have prizes! [3]

It is important to disentangle the element of social class from any perspective that sees an alignment between "difficulty" and "culture", hard as that is. Intelligence, ability, talent, and ambition are not restricted to the wealthy and privileged. Does this really need saying? And yet, despite the popularising efforts of dons like Mary Beard at Cambridge, the study of Latin has expired at state schools, and is now pretty much the preserve of the privately-educated (Ancient Greek, of course, was hardly ever taught outside of private schools). Similarly, music and art are rarely taught in our state schools at any level beyond the facile splashing and bashing of "self-expression". If we expect little of children, we will get even less. Even subjects as crucial to our civilisation as mathematics and science have been reduced to a level where universities are obliged to run remedial courses if first-year students are to cope with undiluted higher-level studies. Calculus? Too difficult, and not needed in order to be a diligent employee! Besides, find me a teacher prepared to work in the state sector who can teach it... It is simply misguided, to put it mildly, that "hard" subjects, like luxury goods, should only be available to those who can afford to buy them. But have too many of us unwittingly colluded in this outcome, by rejecting the "challenging" as elitist and outmoded?

True, in an increasingly flattened and broadened culture, even those who can afford to study difficult but "useless" things may find these increasingly devalued as cultural capital. In a world that speaks English universally, why would a native speaker bother to learn foreign languages? Equipped with a smartphone, why trouble yourself with mental arithmetic, or memorising phone numbers, or learning to read a map? Clearly, you don't need to study composition or even play an instrument to make music, and you don't need to study life-drawing or art history to make art. There are apps and backroom nerds that will do all that for you; so long as you look the part, prepare to reap your easy-come, easy-go celebrity!

But: maybe coming to terms with these "difficult" things has broader benefits, in the same way as taking regular exercise, eating well, or getting enough sleep do. And might there be a connection here between the lack of invested effort, quick and easy rewards, and the fact that popular music has been stuck in a self-consuming feedback loop for the last 30 years, or that art schools have similarly found themselves trapped for decades in a conceptual hall of mirrors? Or, worst of all, that ever greater numbers of children are learning, not how to "be" anything, but merely how to spend as many waking hours as possible gazing passively into a screen, keeping up with friends who are not friends, and being policed into conformity with a reality that is not actually happening anywhere.

Perhaps, after all, I should find the time and make the effort to read some Jane Austen, and maybe even tackle Emma. A long time ago, in a world very different to this, someone once told me that it's as good as it gets. Even if I hate it, at least I'll have rejoined an ongoing conversation that is, in the end, all that a culture is.

1. For some reason "mensa" (table) was traditionally used as the primary exemplar of a Latin 1st declension noun, resulting in the unsettling example of the vocative case (the case used when directly addressing a person or object), "O table".
2. For non-Brits and younger readers: The late Enoch Powell holds a special place in British culture, as the most egregious example of right-wing Toryism and the links between narrowly-defined cultural capital and racism (his lurid 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech about the imagined perils of immigration in Britain managed to make a bridge between the Aeneid and the worst kind of British thuggery and intolerance).
3. "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!" The Dodo's verdict in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Deep In The Greenwood

"Why, swive me sidesaddle if thou sayest not sooth, Robin!" exclaimed Marian, "And, look yonder, there be yet another! What in the name of Austin Morris can they be?"

Monday, 25 June 2018

True Colours

Sometimes, it can take quite a while for a picture to work out what it wants to be, to find its "truth". Assuming that it ever does, and that there is such a thing. As I have pointed out before, I go through multiple iterations, re-workings, and cannibalizations of these photo-collages, most of which, obviously, don't appear in this blog. Pretty much everything is a "work in progress". As I recently read Ed Ruscha (I think) quoted as saying: "I never really finish a painting, I am simply eventually dragged away from it..."

In this case, for example, what was originally a minor element in the first of the two "Babylon" images in the previous post – a border I made to set off the central elements – became more prominent in the second. Seen as a whole, I realised it made a fine background, especially when I had added some texture to make it look woven. The mosaic owl and the moon (both extracted from other previous collages) seemed to make something more of the tree branches and add atmosphere. I then decided to reverse the lion, remove the brick wall (the side panels had already gone), and I also decided to make a virtue of a rather obvious join in that background, and placed a patched "seam" over it. That resulted in the second "Babylon" composite.

It then seemed to me that the "background" had more potential as a picture in its own right. So I took away the Ishtar Gate lion altogether that had started off the whole process, rather like removing the scaffolding from a completed structure. The owl had to go, too, but the moon and golden branches had become an essential part of the whole. But it still needed something. Bats, maybe? And maybe I could make some subtle use of that join? In the process it became not so much the originally-intended triptych, as what we might call a sesquitych (hemioliotych?) [1] ... So, here we have yet another version, only tenuously related to the first. The "truth" of it may or may not be getting closer – there's something good in there, I'm sure – but I'm having fun, trying to find out. And, unlike Ed or whoever it was, there's nobody waiting impatiently to drag me away from the thing so they can put a price tag on it.

1. That is, a "one and a half  panels" picture, using either a mixed Latin/Greek or a pure Greek etymology. Both of which are unique coinages, as far as I can see: so you literally read it here first.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

By The Rivers Of Babylon

I have been very impressed by some of the enormous murals – tiled, painted, carved, moulded, and occasionally woven – that are to be found in the museums of Europe, often located in the calmer, less-visited galleries where the spoils of imperial archaeological raids on the riches of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Near East are to be seen. The grandest of these by far is the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, reconstructed in Berlin's Pergamon Museum, but huge slabs of decorated masonry can be seen in any of the larger city museums. A personal favourite is the Assyrian Lion Hunt relief in the British Museum, which is a truly sensational piece of work made in the 7th century BC. The skill and imaginative coherence of the work of these ancient artists, masons, and architects is really quite astonishing.

As you would expect, on my visits I've appropriated various bits and pieces, and mixed them up to produce my own, more modest visions. Obviously, I mean appropriated by using a camera, but I've been struck by how easily, at least in some institutions, someone equipped with a hammer could assemble a collection of actual bits and pieces. Certainly, someone, somewhere must once have had quite an assortment of prominent anatomical bits knocked off Greek and Roman statuary. Maybe they're all in a museum of comparative knobs and noses somewhere or, more likely, rattling around in some locked drawers in the Vatican?

The two pictures above are very recent, incorporating a lion from the Ishtar Gate (there are dozens of them on it, as well as other real and mythical creatures, all made of tiles); it has a very baleful, Blakean presence. The picture below dates from my earliest dabblings with photo-composites, around 2014/15, and uses a couple of figures from the Assyrian Lion Hunt. I still consider it a pretty successful effort: the technique may have evolved, but the song remains the same.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Summer Solstice

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

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

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Kingfisher Revisited

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

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

Monday, 18 June 2018

The Secret

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

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

Monday, 11 June 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 June 2018


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

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

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Anna Akhmatova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial to Mandelstam, seen from Akhmatova's window

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

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

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Revolution? What Revolution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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