Wednesday, 1 April 2020


Because of the restrictions on travel, this year – for what I think is the first time in 40 years – we won't be going to Mid-Wales at Easter. Which is particularly annoying, as for the first time in several years we had managed to book our favourite accommodation, a large, comfortable barn-conversion on the top of a hill near Penybont. It goes by the name of Hiraeth, which is one of those Welsh words that seems to have no direct equivalent in English, but lies somewhere in the region of "homesickness", "nostalgia", "longing", and "regret", that heady brew of mixed feelings exiles have for a homeland lost in time and space: you get the picture. So, as a name it seems very appropriate at the moment, even though I don't have any Welsh ancestors [1]: like your elective family, it seems you can adopt a new Heimat.

Hiraeth the ex-barn is ideally placed to experience and photograph the full range of landscapes in the area. Not least because, being perched high on one side of a SW-NE oriented valley with a handy balcony outside the bedroom, you get to see the sort of scenic sunrises and sunsets usually the preserve of the hard men of landscape photography, with their bivouac bags and thermal underwear, and go back to bed afterwards with a cup of tea. It is also nicely situated between the cultivated valleys around Llandrindod Wells down below and the austere uplands of the Radnor Forest up behind, as well as within a comfortable drive of a number of attractive destinations either side of the border, not to mention at least one Michelin-starred restaurant.

But not this year. Or at least not, as is our tradition, at Easter, when the farms are loud with all-night lambing sheds, the long-distance ramblers are out on the Offa's Dyke Path, and there could be snow or there could be sunshine, depending on the mood of the weather. So, instead, I'll continue to raid the landscape backfiles and put up some galleries of Radnorshire [2] scenics, perhaps even including some of the truly nuclear sunsets I have watched going down beyond the far side of the valley.

1. AFAIK. My maternal great grandfather is unknown, but must have been in Liverpool around March 1896, so not impossible.
2. Technically, Radnorshire no longer exists, having been subsumed into the mega-county of Powys around the time we started visiting but, like the Ridings of Yorkshire, it continues an outlaw existence as a necessary geographic and cultural category.

NOTE: I have now received a paper copy of Byrne and Swinton's Guide to Edinburgh, and it is good to go, so I've made it available for purchase. I know how much you'd be waiting to hear that!

Monday, 30 March 2020

It's Not Rocket Science

In the interests of cheering everyone up, may I bring your attention to this article in today's online Guardian. Hilarious... It made me weep with laughter, and still does, whenever I think of it.

That is all: carry on.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

On Clifton Down

Here are a few more photographs from my excavations into the dusty backfiles, looking for overlooked "landscape" treasure. The first two may look almost sequential – same place, approaching storm, clearing storm – but in fact the one above was taken at 11:49 on 25th November 2015, and the one below at 16:14 on 26th April 2016. They may also look rather like a drone was involved, but in fact there is a car park on the top of the cliffs at Clifton Down, where in summer an ice-cream van is parked, and from which a zillion snaps of this view must have been taken. I suppose the only claim to distinction for my efforts is a willingness to endure hailstones and driving rain to get a more unusual shot.

If you take a short walk further along the clifftop and look back the other way, you get a view down the Avon to the port at Avonmouth, with the Bristol Channel beyond, and the hills of Wales looming on the horizon, north-west of Newport. And there on the right is the fence around that car park, so conveniently placed for a view of the Suspension Bridge. Despite the magic of compression performed by a long focal length lens, those nearest blue hills are something like 20 miles away, with the Brecon Beacons a further 20, as the crow flies.

Talking of crows, being high, windy, and frequented by humans who are inexplicably prone to scattering tasty grub all over the place, it's a popular spot with scavenging birds. Which in turn makes it a handy spot for birds that find other birds rather more tasty than picnic scraps: peregrine falcons nest on the cliffs, and most days with a bit of luck you can catch sight of them flying rapidly overhead, or (with the aid of binoculars) sitting on their favoured perches in Leigh Woods on the far side of the Gorge, wondering whether it's time for lunch yet. Pigeons, though, not crows, are the peregrine's snack of choice, and it's impressive to watch the way pigeons dash across the vast vacancy of the Gorge at top speed, jinking like hares to throw off any unseen predator's dive. I'm surprised they haven't evolved the equivalent of the "chaff" thrown out by military aircraft to divert heat-seeking missiles. Or maybe that is precisely why pigeon-droppings are so ubiquitous...

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Buying and Selling

The National Monument, Calton Hill

It's a shame not to be able to take full advantage of the bright spring sunshine outdoors, but this sort-of enforced sort-of lockdown does have its up-side: for one thing, I've already completed the little book I mooted in the previous post. I decided to stick with the title Byrne and Swinton's Guide to Edinburgh, and you can see it here:
Should you feel like buying a copy, I recommend the relatively inexpensive PDF version as, if it is viewed properly [1], you will then get the full "flicker-book" effect as you page through it, whereby the couple remain static while the backdrop behind them changes. To be honest, I also recommend it because I haven't yet received a paper copy myself, and won't for some weeks, so it would be foolish to make it available for sale until I have had a chance to check it over for errors.

Also, an interesting thing that I hadn't noticed before is that Blurb's embedded free preview (as above) of these small, so-called "trade" books does not respect their native aspect ratio (they're tall and thin, like the old foolscap paper) and squidges the page to fit the more typical Blurb book shape. Hence Tilda Swinton's dramatic facial bone structure gets an unflattering podgy makeover. To see it as nature intended you need to use the PDF.

But, listen, I'm fully aware that you have no intention of buying anything. Hardly anyone does. I was pleased and not a little flattered to get an unsolicited testimonial on Andrew Molitor's blog recently, but that was the proverbial exception that proves the rule. It means a lot when someone appreciates your work; it means even more when someone buys your work. As I'm sure I've said before: cash purchase, not imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery. But here's the thing: much as I appreciate the compliment, and always will [2], I do not depend on sales for income. I'm a retired professional with a decent pension, now further topped up by my state pension. Obviously, it's not entirely accidental that I am now in this fortunate position – choices were involved – but I nonetheless count myself lucky.

However, that's not something that most active artists and musicians can look forward to, literally living as they do in the "gig economy", not to mention all those allied trades that keep theatres, galleries, small publishers, and music venues running. The current situation is desperate for many, but then it's always been a pretty hand-to-mouth way of life, and probably always will be, until they listen to their parents, give up this arty nonsense, and get a proper job in McDonald's. Or, as the luckier ones do, get a day job teaching the next generation of young hopefuls. As I say, choices are involved.

So, if you're fortunate enough to be in stable, well-remunerated employment and you come across a book, a picture, or some music that you like (I'm talking about struggling unknowns, here, not me or the overpriced work of established "names"), then I suggest that you should buy it, and – once things return to normal – if there's an interesting play, concert, or exhibition on locally then you should buy a ticket and see it. And, if you've booked to see something that has had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus, FFS don't ask for your money back! You can afford it: think of it as an arts tithe of 5-10% of your income annually that you invest to keep the pool of talent healthy, and not the exclusive preserve of unsalaried interns, trust-fund bohemians, and fraudulent crowd-pleasers.

On Calton Hill

1. It is especially important that you set your PDF viewer (typically Acrobat) so that you are seeing a two-page view with a separate cover page, ensuring that the correct pages face each other. In Acrobat the settings are:
Under the menu "View" / "Page Display" choose all of:
"Two Page View"
"Show Gaps Between Pages"
"Show Cover Page in Two Page View"

2. To the extent that, if you are willing to identify yourself, you may even receive free stuff!

Monday, 23 March 2020

Byrne & Swinton's Guide to Edinburgh

Back in December 2018 I spent a few days in Edinburgh, courtesy of one my partner's academic gigs. On the last day I had a brief encounter in the Royal Scottish Academy with painter and playwright John Byrne and actor Tilda Swinton [1], which resulted in this snapshot portrait of the two. You may recall that I had a little fun cutting them out and posing them in front of a couple of different Edinburgh backdrops.

For some reason, this week I felt like revisiting those pictures, and in particular that idea of dropping the celebrated pair in front of various Edinburgh scenes. I could see there was the potential for a book of some kind there: I suppose in the back of my mind was the example of Willy Puchner's book, Penguins – Traveling the World (Könemann, 1999), in which he posed a pair of large model penguins in front of tourist sights worldwide (actually posed them, that is, not transported them by the magic of collage, which in the digital rear-view mirror of 2020 strikes one as mildly insane).

It would be nothing grand – these were all taken with my tiny "travel compact" Fuji X20, after all – but a home-made accordion-fold book might work, perhaps, or maybe even one of Blurb's little "trade books". Like me, I expect you have been receiving a flurry of emails from various utilities, services, and suppliers, laying out their responses to the corona virus crisis, and being as reassuring as possible under the circumstances; for their own benefit, I suspect, as much as anyone else's. Blurb has been no exception and, as I value the service they provide (and worry that their frequent discount sales indicate underlying financial problems), I feel inclined to support them by sending a little more business their way, so the latter is most likely.

But first, as proof of concept, I thought a poster-style layout of a few might be useful:

Actually, I was surprised how many usable "backdrop" views of Edinburgh I'd come away with after just 2½ days at the darkest time of year, and so far I have assembled twenty-four, which is more than enough, really, for such a slight idea. Like so many slight ideas, of course, it may or may not come to fruition, but I like the sort of flicker-book way the couple in front remain absolutely static, while the background behind them constantly changes.

1. And friend of John Berger: if you're a Berger fan, it's worth getting hold of the DVD of The Seasons in Quincy: four portraits of John Berger, in which Swinton has conversations with the grand old man of writing about art, shortly before his death.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Shakespeare's Sonnets Abridged

Hope on the horizon...

In the process of going through my backfiles looking for "landscape" photographs, I came across this one. It's the view from the balcony of the flat of the parents of a friend I met there in October 2015, following the death of his father. It was 8 a.m. and I'd had a rough night following a little too much wine and spirits and a few hours of intermittent sleep on a lumpy sofabed. Looking out of the window, I saw this and grabbed my camera. Somehow it's taken me nearly five years to get around to processing it. It reminds me powerfully of a similarly hung-over dawn on the East Coast, half a century ago, when I woke up on the beach somewhere north of Great Yarmouth, having failed to make it back to the tent I was sharing with a schoolfriend in California. No, not that California: California, Norfolk, a tiny place which has more or less tumbled into the sea in the intervening five decades. Which, for Steely Dan fans, may have a certain resonance.

Anyway, here's a thing. Today I came across the abbreviation TIL in a comment on another blog, and had no idea what it meant. This Is Laughable? Totally Inconceivably Ludicrous? So I looked it up, and apparently it means "Today I Learned"... So, TIL that TIL means "today I learned". Heh... The New Thing Learned For Today file can be shut early and with an unusually reflexive thump.

Talking of Shakespeare and self-isolation (yes, we were), here's something to cheer you up. The incomparable Zach Wienersmith (whose Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoons are witty, weird, dark and, above all, dizzyingly frequent) has made available – free to download – some of his PDF books as a COVID-19 Book Pack, and I would draw your attention in particular to Shakespeare's Sonnets Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness. Which, if you know the sonnets, or have even only the vaguest acquaintance with them, is both insightful and hilarious.

Sample (Sonnet 2):

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.
Then being asked where all they beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty's use
If thou couldst answer "This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse",
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
  This were to be new made when thou art old,
  And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.
Eyes get sunken, skin gets loose.
Before you're old, man, reproduce.
I may have got that the wrong way round, but they're easily confused, no? You'll need a copy of the originals close at hand to fully appreciate Weinersmith's towering achievement in poetic form. Although it has to be conceded that Philip Terry's equally playful Oulipan revisions of the Sonnets may carry more intellectual weight. Perhaps even a little too much around the middle? There's always something to be said for at least appearing not to be trying too hard. And, in this context, you've got to give extra credit to the one who dedicates his volume "To the Woman whom History shall remember only as The Dork Lady".

These fair children of mine...

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Now Wash Your Hands

It's all a bit confusing, isn't it? Listening to the news yesterday morning, I heard a senior government medical adviser set out the current advice on avoiding the COVID-19 virus, and thought: but that's a description of my normal everyday life! It was hard to know whether to enjoy the kind of smug glow that a slim, low-cholesterol, vegan gym-nut must feel much of the time, or to be concerned: what kind of self-centred recluse have I become in retirement, that my day-to-day existence counts as "social distancing", verging on quarantine? When this crazy war is over, maybe I should get out a bit more.

It's also hard to judge whether the entire world is overreacting wildly, like a germaphobe trapped in a public toilet [1], or whether there is really rather more to this thing than "a bad bout of flu, with a teeny-tiny chance of dying". It's not helped by the kind of tin-eared insensitivity that allows a phrase like "herd immunity" to go viral in the public media. Inevitably other, not entirely unrelated expressions come to mind, like thinning and culling the herd – that is, the removal of weak, elderly, and diseased individual members, to the benefit of the abstract "herd". Yes, it's a shame about grandma, but look on the bright side: no more tedious visits at the weekend, and more turkey for everyone at Christmas!

I imagine most of us are finding virus-related reports have started to come in from home and abroad. No-one I know has so far been directly affected by the virus, but I'm hearing of travel plans that have been disrupted, real concerns about work and the daily commute, and the inevitable anxieties of the elderly and those with "underlying conditions". Several old friends are now effectively quarantined in France. A neighbour's son has been isolated in his Shanghai flat for what seems like months. Even the photo-bloggers are doing their bit: the always readable Mike Johnson has put up a good post at T.O.P., and Andrew Molitor has an amusingly bushy-tailed blog-response to school closures in Washington State. So far it's all about boredom, inconvenience, and the absurdity of hoarding behaviour (I learned a new piece of German vocabulary this week: Hamsterkauf). The longer it stays that way the better.

Such times may yet make what seem like unreasonable demands on us all. I was very struck by an account I read recently of a visit home to Australia, following those much more spectacular catastrophes of drought and fire:
During my last visit to Armidale I listened to passing conversations, eavesdropping, taking comfort in the civilities of the townspeople. Under café parasols and at the tables inside the secondhand bookshop people talked and talked. Each person seemed to be responding to a single question: tell me about yourself. They made small announcements. My arteries are like bark. When I was a child we lived two doors down from the Prime Minister. A Yorkshire accent is the hardest one to lose. Of course they talked about the catastrophe that had befallen their town. Later, as I walked through the devastated streets, finally standing at the gate of my former home within view of the tall shrivelled hedges, I grew afraid for all of us. I was once told that Scots at the Battle of Culloden stood upright, reciting their genealogies as they were shot. Unless we arrest the processes of climate change we will perish, still announcing ourselves, telling our stories as we fall.
Brenda Walker, "Nothing to be Done", TLS 6099, Feb 21 2020
On one level, this amounts to little more than "we must love one another or die" (the famous line from Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" which he later removed, saying, "That's a damned lie! We must die anyway"). But it's more than that: the image of highlanders reciting their bloodlines in their final fated moments – both noble and ludicrous: tragicomic Homeric posturing among the gore-spattered heather – has stayed with me. History and the herd care little for the individual and their petty self-obsessions, but what else does the individual have? And what else are history or the herd than the stubborn residue of individual lives?

Some glass-half-full type recently remarked that Shakespeare was able to take advantage of the closure of the theatres in the plague year of 1606 to write some of his great late works. Which is quite likely true: see James Shapiro's book The Year of Lear. So, it's an ill wind, etc., especially if you're a world-class writer under pressure or merely someone who needs to get the house redecorated. But what is also true is that he had a number of well-documented close encounters of the plague kind. A quarter of the population of Stratford on Avon was wiped out by the outbreak of 1563-4, the year of his birth, including some very near neighbours. A small shift in the wind of luck, and there would have been no Shakespeare, the man. Then there was the closing of the theatres in the plague year of 1592-3 when thousands of Londoners died. Had Shakespeare been among them, we would know him (if at all) as the reputed author of about six plays, with only the texts of Titus Andronicus and the three parts of Henry VI surviving. So, no "Shakespeare" the legend. Then the outbreak of 1603 saw off a fifth of the population of London, and that handy "time-out" repeat performance of 1606 was actually the narrowest squeak of all, as it (probably) killed the landlady of his lodgings in Silver Street, Marie Mountjoy, as described by Charles Nicholl in his book The Lodger. Alas, no "great, late" Shakespeare.

So, yes, a plague year can deliver invaluable free time for writing or redecorating alongside death and misery, but it can also be a bit of a toss-up which you get. Remarkably, our ancestors all made it through every pestilence thrown at humanity so far, one way or another, so we'd all still be here, anyway, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare; working from home, washing our hands (please, guys!), staying away from the pubs, clubs, and theatres, hoping for the best, and just doing our little bit for ourselves and for the herd. Unless, of course, we are medics, in which case: may you get through this trial by plague unscathed [2].

There's a much-quoted passage from Pascal's Pensées, that goes: "I have often said that all of humanity's problems stem from the inability to sit quietly in a room". Really? What, all of them? Well, we may be about to find out. That's an easy opinion to hold, of course, when meals appear regularly at your elbow, servants sweep and scrub your floors for a pittance, and your time is your own to contemplate intriguing mathematical problems, or even write blog posts. Not so easy, when failing to turn up for work means no rent money or bread on the table as, 350 years later, it still does for so many. So, as that other deep thinker Sgt. Phil Esterhaus used to enjoin the morning roll-call in every episode of Hill Street Blueslet's be careful out there. There's not much else we can do, and we can only trust it will be enough.

1. Although I was astonished to learn that SIXTY PERCENT of men don't wash their hands after using a public toilet. How do they know?? Apparently some academic study used actors to ostentatiously wash their hands in public loos (you can just imagine: "what is my motivation?"), and this actually had a statistically significant effect on handwashing behaviour (a positive one, surprisingly).
2. Can you believe people have been stealing the hand-sanitizer dispensers and boxes of protective gloves from hospitals? Sadly, it's true.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Now Available in Orange

My trusty Epson Stylus 1400 printer – and when I say "trusty", I mean that I have been using it constantly without a single problem for well over a decade – developed a fault a while ago. It may have been nothing more than a severely clogged nozzle, but I tried every trick in the book to free it up without success. Including every trick revealed in various YouTube "how to" videos, most of which are truly hilarious examples of how not to do a "how to" video, including one where a phone starts ringing halfway through, and the How-To lady yells, "Can somebody get that phone??".

I decided the time had finally come to replace it, something I'd been mulling over for a while, anyway, not least because the 1400 uses non-archival dye inks, which means I've never felt justified in charging as much as I might like for my prints. After the usual lengthy shop-around, I went for the SureColor SC-P400, another Epson A3+ printer, but this time a model that uses archival pigment inks. Not cheap, but not the top of the range, either: a peg or two down, which is where I always feel most comfortable. I've just set it up, and it's a nice, solid piece of kit. If it's as durable as its predecessor, it should pay for itself several times over, even allowing for the ludicrous price of the ink cartridges. All eight of them, that is, including, mystifyingly, an orange cartridge and something called a "gloss optimiser", which is surely something you normally get in shampoo ("Epson pigment inks, now with new orange flavour and jojoba extract. Because you're a gullible idiot worth it").

However, getting the thing connected is not the same as getting it into full production mode. The longevity of the 1400 has meant that I haven't had to grapple with the complex business of colour management for a very long time, and I've forgotten most of what I once knew. In fact, I can barely remember what the main issues are, so it's back to the bottom of the learning curve in that regard. Early results have, happily, been very encouraging; it seems modern printers may need much less house-training than their distant ancestors.

Photo-quality printers do not seem to go through the annual spasms of upgrades and new features that disrupt other digital-imaging devices and keep the gearheads and kit reviewers busy. They have been as good as they need to be at doing what they do for some time, and have outlasted many generations of pixel-count increases in cameras: I think I was using an 8 megapixel Canon DSLR when I bought the Epson 1400. It's also clear that many – most? – self-declared photographers do not own a printer, so the market is relatively small and, if the constant complaints about dried-up ink and blocked nozzles are anything to go by, even those who do own one don't use it regularly enough either to keep it happy or to justify the expense.

In fact, it seems that many serious photographers prefer to outsource their printing, if only for exhibition purposes, and it's certainly the case that a specialist outfit like theprintspace will do a superb job at a very reasonable price. If you can negotiate the endearingly bad English rendering of their website, you can even get your prints made online by the legendary Paris photo-processors Picto laboratoire (who used to print for Cartier-Bresson, and not to be confused with Laboratoires Garnier, no matter how much gloss optimiser they use). For sure, the fashion for BIG prints has encouraged this: even a full A3+ print can look pretty modest in the company of dining-table-sized photographs, but nobody without a proper studio space and guaranteed megabucks sales can afford to feed or house a professional-scale inkjet printer at home [1].

This may also be a generational thing. For me, the job is not done until I can hold an actual print in my hands: that's what a photograph is, surely? Obviously, I don't print everything, but I certainly print more than I ever did in the days of film, and with far better results. I like having prints around, lots of them, small ones, large ones, framed and unframed, propped up on the bookshelves or even used as bookmarks, but mainly just lying around in stacks and boxes (OK, I realise this is starting to sound alarming to minimalist, clutter-averse millennials). But then I also like to use an actual camera, never use my phone as an "imaging device" [2], and don't regard sharing via social media as the ultimate purpose of taking a photograph. I do accept that this is an outmoded set of attitudes, verging on the quaint, like never wearing a hat indoors, or giving up one's seat on a train to a more elderly or infirm passenger. But I'm looking forward to sharing, showing, and selling prints with proper archival longevity. And I'm anticipating that the oranges will be particularly glossy.

1. Of course if you can, you also earn the right to refer to your prints as "giclée" prints, not manky old inkjets...
2. I'm not against this, in principle, it's just not something I do. After all, I'm still using my daughter's cast-off iPhone 4s, which is not really capable of acting as an acceptable camera-substitute. A photographer who is a convincing advocate for phone-photography is Mark Hobson, whose Life Squared blog is worth a visit.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Explicit Content

Innsbruck 2014

I have often remarked in this blog that pop music seems to have remained stuck in a groove for decades. In the case of music aimed primarily at a white audience attempting to dance, or kids posing with a hairbrush in front of a mirror, quite possibly since the late 1960s. However, at least one remarkable change has taken place, lyrically, which reflects another remarkable change in society. That is, the emergence of sex from behind the curtain of respectability. Sur-pri-i-ise! To anyone who grew up in the decades when censorship (and self-censorship) ran the show, the sheer frankness of today's lyrics about sexual proclivities that weren't even generally known to exist by the majority population not so long ago is fairly astonishing.

Despite any retrospective myth-making, sex was a scarce commodity in Britain in the 1960s, even more scarce than good, nutritious food. With all due respect to Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse did not start in 1963, but 1972 (I know this for a fact: I remember it well, and still cringe with embarrassment whenever I think about it...). The advent of the Pill may have, in Fay Weldon's words, separated having sex from making babies (a connection, sad to say, that has never securely established itself in the male mind), but society doesn't change overnight. Even married couples lived with the constant anxiety of inadvertently adding another member to the family (such as myself, I suspect: I'm eight years younger than my sister). Anything remotely to do with sex – really to do with sex, rather than its symbolic sublimations, like loud, rhythmic music, or shampoo adverts – was still a strictly under-the-counter, plain-wraps business. Even so-called "top-shelf" magazines were laughably innocent affairs, compared to the filth you can completely accidentally stumble across on the internet. Or so I'm told. I remember, one school summer vacation day in 1968, taking a bus to another nearby town with a friend, so he could buy a copy of Health & Efficiency – a naturist publication, M'lud – without fear of recognition and denunciation as an onanistic pervert by any passing relatives or friends of the family.

If you had to make an "elevator pitch" to describe a lot of the more memorable pop of the 1960s, it might go like this: from and for boys, heartfelt but disguised pleas for full sexual intercourse, or at least a little, you know, satisfaction; from and for girls, heartfelt pleas not to be discarded or maligned for facilitating same, or laments after having done so. The word "love" occurs in those songs an awful lot, but when Steve Winwood or Robert Plant wailed about lovin', they were not talking about the same thing as Dusty Springfield or Carole King when they asked: will you still love me tomorrow? Or rather they were, but from a completely different end of the, um, telescope. Once you start to unwrap them, even those innocent boy-girl songs of the early Beatles reek of sexual frustration. I mean, come on, what else is "Please Please Me" all about? I suppose a song which openly begged for a hand-job would never have got past the record company. And, no, that's not what "Willy and the Hand Jive" is all about.

But then there was the magnificent example of Little Richard. I've loved the music of Little Richard since I was nose-high to a juke box. But how a raunchy, rambunctious song like "Good Golly, Miss Molly" ever got recorded, let alone broadcast is unfathomable. Even without the lyrics, it's all hangin' out, baby. But with... For God's sake put it away, Richard. I suppose, in those days, it was still possible for the censorious mind to associate the verb "to ball" exclusively with dancing. BBC Home Service translation: Golly, my dear Molly, how you do enjoy cutting a rug! Our jitterbugging up here in your room is such fun, we can't hear your poor mother imploring us to stop making the lampshade jiggle about!

Of course, songwriters have always been able to resort to double entendre and euphemism. Music-hall songs are rife with the sort of crudely-nudging lyrics that would get the censors all hot and bothered. A little of what you fancy does you good, eh? Phwoar! Once you've set the appropriately louche tone with an audience, even a Methodist hymn can sound like an invitation to depravity,  something which has dogged many an innocent conversation between a bishop and an actress. But even at the most sophisticated level of songwriting the habitual (and in the case of gay songsmiths like Cole Porter, necessary) self-censorship of overt meaning could result in songs that seethe with an unspecific but unsettling sense of transgression: I've always found Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" particularly creepy, for example.

My father was a very patient man who loved music, and he would encourage my own curiosity about it by explicating the lyrics we'd hear on the radio. I'm certain it was his careful unpicking of songs like "Red Sails in the Sunset" (Nat King Cole version, obvs [1]) or "Mack the Knife" (Bobby Darin, unfortunately, not Bertolt Brecht: "scarlet billows ... hup, hup ... start to spread ... woah, yeah...") that set me on my literary-hermeneutic path. This would have been the late 1950s and early 1960s, so the broadcast diet on the BBC Home Service was largely big numbers from musicals, light orchestral confections, and recent hits and "standards" from the less excitable popular artists. You have to remember, this was a time when the BBC's notorious "Green Book" guidelines were designed to squash the merest hint of smut or naughtiness. But even at that family-friendly end of the broadcast spectrum, the lyrical opacity that obscured the actual meaning of any song concerning relations between the sexes – which, after all, must have been at least about 70 per cent of them, once you'd discounted novelty songs and instrumentals – meant there was a lot of explication to do, and he had to pick his way carefully, and sometimes evasively through the metaphorical minefield.

So, in fact, it was my father who explained to me how to make "whoopee" at a very young age indeed. No, really. Whoopee being a bowl of desiccated coconut with raisins or sometimes sweets – generally Spangles – scattered in it, and eaten with a teaspoon. Yum! Why, what else did you think it was? Oh, that! No, a whoopee cushion is so-called because desiccated coconut makes you fart. I know it's true because my Dad said so.

Innsbruck 2014

1. It seems the lyric writer, Jimmy Kennedy, often saw an actual red-sailed yacht off the coast of Northern Ireland. Dad's version was better, though: the sails were white, but the setting sun made them appear red. Of course!

Sunday, 8 March 2020


 Having gone through my files looking for "landscape" photographs taken in the past five years (playing by the "let's pretend" rules of the LPOTY game), I've been having fun mocking-up the better finds into the sort of uniform, embossed-card mount presentation you see in museum collections. As you might imagine, I've got an awful lot of candidate landscape-ish files, and it has been instructive to see how many rejects and passed-over images from just a couple of years ago are now looking much more interesting than their more obvious stand-out neighbours.

I suppose my ideas of "interesting" are constantly evolving, but I have also found that the idea of defining a selection of pictures in opposition to and in contrast with the sort of thing that wins photography competitions can clarify and refine precisely what makes my work "mine", and not just yet another anonymous contribution to some collective, box-ticking beauty contest. I have also come across a surprising number of these "anti-landscapes", where a wall, fence, or some other barrier stands between the viewer and whatever prospect lies beyond. No doubt a psychologist or psychiatrist could tell me what that is all about.

It amuses me, too, how these sombre, institutional-style mounts lend an extra gravity to the pictures: these are not just photographs, these are Victoria & Albert Museum collection photographs! So please put on these white cotton gloves when handling them. It has also been a useful exercise, fitting the images into a standard aspect ratio: that opportunity for a second crop often seems to concentrate and "reduce" the image, in a culinary sense. Rather like photography itself, museum-style presentation is all about isolating a little window of attention, and creating a permanent object of contemplation out of a scrap of time and space that some habitual elbow-tugger like me thought worthy of your notice.

There's easily enough good stuff to make yet another Blurb book there, maybe several, or even an exhibition, if only I could interest some gatekeeper in the work of a sixty-something, professional class, white, hetero, cis-male photographer. Which, once you put it like that, is unlikely. Besides, in 2018, I approached another similarly sixty-something, etc., university retiree, Stephen Foster – with whom I have spent many hours in various committee meetings, who used to run the in-house John Hansard Gallery, is a mover and shaker in the local art world, and who has in the past made encouraging noises about my photographs – to see if he could suggest anyone who might be interested in my photo-collage work. In 2019, to jog his memory, I gave him a copy of my Prestidigitation "best of" sampler to look at. In the end, though, his response amounted to "I have no idea what these are all about, or who might be interested in them, sorry!". Which makes two of us, I suppose.

And yet, inexplicably, I persist. Why, you'd almost think I was some kind of self-willed outsider, a contrarian who thrived on rejection, fascinated as much by the wall between himself and ... Ah.

Hello? Yes, I'd like to cancel that appointment with the psychiatrist, please.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

World Book Day

Apparently it's World Book Day. It's raining, so I've been reading a book (Surfacing, by Kathleen Jamie, as it happens). Does that count? Obviously, this is something I might do most days, and I confess I feel no compulsion to dress up as my favourite character, which seems to be the main activity associated with the day (hey, why sell kids books when you can sell them costumes?). Besides, if I want to dress up as Kathleen Jamie that's a private matter.

It's a curious enough idea in itself, though, having a favourite fictional character. It's probably something only a ten-year-old (or a semi-literate retail manager) could contemplate. I mean, Monday might be a Jack Reacher day (grr!), Tuesday a Bertie Wooster day (top hole!), and Wednesday mainly haunted by shifting blends of Josef K. and Tristram Shandy (help!). After more than half a century of reading, anyone's assembled team photograph of most memorable characters should resemble the Sgt. Pepper album cover, or a sizeable symphony orchestra.

Although, having said that, I do have an enduring affection for Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Every humble but aspirational mechanical deserves a night of hallucinatory abandon with Titania – sweet confusion under the moonlight – followed by a triumphant appearance in the public eye.
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called Bottom’s Dream because it hath no bottom.

I haven't seen any Bottom costumes in Tesco, but maybe next year...

Monday, 2 March 2020

Dusk & Diver

I'm not sure why this "three bar" design works for me, but it does. Two old avian friends here, having new adventures. I'm particularly pleased to get some mileage out of one of my several attempts to photograph the very striking silhouette of some huge yucca shrubs in the Southampton sports ground. In the one used here, some birds (starlings?) flew out at just the right moment, which suggested the whole composition.

I have now received the first A2 posters from Vistaprint, and the quality is even better than I had expected. As I have repeatedly discovered, you cannot fault Vistaprint's production values. However, the downside of producing A2-sized images is, obviously, the size of the "unflattened" PSD files, especially those containing many layers: typically, they're about 300MB. I need either to scale back the ambition, or invest in another external drive...

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Leap Year Bonus Track

What, it's still February today? Why, of course, it's a leap year! Being born in February is reason enough to feel special, I think, but it must give a sense of true exceptionalism to be born on this most elusive day; not quite on a par with being the seventh son of a seventh son, but pretty cool, nonetheless. Put the two together, of course, and you've got the makings of an insufferable sense of entitlement. I wonder if such a person has ever existed?

It's quite odd, though, listening to earnest folk on the radio exhorting us to make the most of this "extra day". What extra day? As far as I'm aware, an extra spin of the earth has not somehow been shoehorned in, or our regular circuit around the sun – or indeed our lives – somehow magically prolonged. It's not even comparable to that glorious extra time in bed when the clocks are turned back an hour in Britain at the end of October.

More severe adjustments to the calendar do tend to play badly in people's heads. It seems surprisingly few of us are now aware of the Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750. That is, when Britain belatedly joined the rest of Europe in declaring January 1st to be the start of the year (as opposed to Lady Day, 25th March) – which resulted in a "short" year in 1751, which ran from 25th March to 31st December – followed by the "loss" of eleven days in September 1752, removed in order to bring the old Julian calendar into alignment with the new-fangled Euro-Popish Gregorian calendar. Naturally, 1752 was also a leap year, just to add to the confusion. Apparently, the so-called "calendar riots" are a myth (What do we want? Eleven days! When do we want them? Um.... Anybody got a calculator?), but I bet people were pretty discombobulated by the whole thing.

It also means that every anniversary of any event that took place before 1751 isn't actually an anniversary, technically speaking. This must have caused havoc with people's birthday arrangements in the second half of the 18th century. Being British, of course, and having ignored those Euro-Popish Gregorian calendar reforms for 170 years, many people persisted with "old style" or "O.S." dates, well into the next century. That very British expression, "that's X in old money" (where X is some more readily understandable or sympathetic alternative to Y, not necessarily a quantity) – one that you will still hear today, nearly a half-century after decimalisation and metrication – speaks to a deep-seated, small-c conservative sense that worthy and time-honoured Old Things are continually being forcibly replaced by highly-suspect New Things, purely at the whim of "them". You can read across from Reformation to Brexit fairly directly.

Talking of Old Things, I'm calling the picture above "The Horseman's Word", for reasons you will understand if you have read this old post, or share my fascination with the rural mysteries of the Old Weird Britain. Plus, of course, frogs and toads are into leaping, aren't they?

Friday, 28 February 2020

Pentagonal Pool Revisited. Again

Here are two more of these "poster books", both derived from my ancient Pentagonal Pool project (which you can read about here). It's been enjoyable to revisit this old work, rather like discovering and trying on an old pair of jeans, and finding that they still fit (sadly, a very imaginary comparison in my case). It's poignant to recall not only how precious a daily hour of solitary daylight freedom (a.k.a. the "lunch break") was in those time-poor days of employment and family life, but also how this gave a high level of concentration to my photographic efforts, revisiting the same locations day after day. As many have observed, creativity thrives under constraints.

The first example is a relatively straightforward, decorative presentation of three of the multiple-image blocks from the original book, together with one of the quotations from Francis Bacon (no, not him, the other one, the frozen chicken man) that I used in the book. The second is more like a set of panels from a graphic novel, incorporating a frog skeleton I photographed in Paris a few years ago, and vaguely referencing the "Batrachomyomachia" ("The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice"), a comic (?) Ancient Greek epic, once attributed to Homer, that I used in an even earlier effort at sequencing my photographs of the bodies of water on Southampton University campus.

I know, I know... "Never knowingly unpretentious" is our motto. [1] Or at least it was back then: I seemed incapable of framing a photo-sequence without linking it implicitly or explicitly to some heavyweight cultural touchstones, quite often things I had come across in the course of my background "research", and had almost certainly never read before. Native ostentation aside, it's probably a reflection of my professional formation as a university librarian: you know about many times more fascinating things than you could ever absorb, where to find them, and how they fit into the broadest possible picture of human knowledge: you become a human signpost. In a favourite quotation from Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson:
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.
Those catalogues don't make themselves, of course. You're welcome, Sam. But right now it's my lunch break, and I have places to go, photos to take...

1. Non-British readers will probably not recognise the allusion to the motto of the John Lewis department stores: "never knowingly undersold".

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Return of the Revenants

Vistaprint were having one of their "50% off everything" flash sales on Monday this week (these are not infrequent but, I have to say, not as worryingly frequent as those of on-demand publisher Blurb), and this prompted me to think that – given my own printer can handle at most so-called "A3+" (48.3cm long) sheets – perhaps a straightforward way of producing the concertina-style booklets I was discussing in a previous post might be to have A2 or even A1 posters produced (59.4cm or 84.1 cm long) bearing multiple copies of a booklet, which could then be cut out as single strips.

I like having my work printed commercially, as I do with the calendars and cards. I suspect this is a result of having seen most of the art I absorbed in my formative years printed in books or on posters, rather than "live", as it were. To me, it always looks more convincing that way, and is also both more durable and rather less precious than, say, a beautiful but easily-damaged original pigment print on classy paper. It's a lot cheaper, too: done in moderate bulk, you're talking pence per item, not pounds.

So, I laid up an A2-sized image of three copies of my test title, This is Not a Drill, and uploaded it. The cheapest poster paper that Vistaprint do is 125gsm in weight, which is relatively light and should therefore fold quite nicely when scored, provided the "grain" of the paper is not too resistant. Vistaprint's print quality is usually pretty good, so even at full price this could be an economic way of producing something worthwhile. We'll see.

However, having done that, I found that I liked the visual impact of those three bars of images on a single sheet. It reminded me that, way back when I first started doing digital photography and cameras were only really capable of producing a 7" x 5" image at print resolution, I used to play around with arrays of multiple photographs, as a way of overcoming this limitation and produce something that could still be seen to advantage framed on a wall. In that retrospective cast of mind, I went back to one of the more successful efforts from that time, The Revenants (2007), and quickly bashed out another A2 sheet, this time as a work in its own right (above), a sort of "poster book". I finished it in time to catch the midnight deadline for the Vistaprint sale, and I'm curious to see what the printed result will look like.

I then remembered that one of my earliest self-published books, Pentagonal Pool (2006), is actually largely made up of such multiples (examples above). Revisiting it, I found I was still pleased by the quality of the work. That kind of repeated, serial imagery has become a bit of a cliché now, but 15 years ago it still had a bit of excitement about it, and something of that has persisted (due, I'd like to think, to the mastery with which it was carried out). So, even though the current Vistaprint sale has finished – there'll be another one along soon enough – I decided I'd opened a sufficiently interesting and fresh avenue of exploration to continue wandering down it.

Having started by simply stacking some Pentagonal Pool rows onto a blank A2-sized background, I spent a rainy Tuesday afternoon playing around – is there any other kind of afternoon, lately? – and ended up with the result you see below. I'm still quite pleased with it, and think it would look pretty good mounted in a sympathetic frame about 65cm x 50cm. Or even – given it would probably share the sad fate of most commercially-produced "posters" – blu-tacked to a wall.

Sunday, 23 February 2020


Having seen the picture above, you may well already be way ahead of me, but: bear with me and let me tell the tale. As the Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi might have put it, my bewilderment is the point, not your cleverness.

Down near the docks in Southampton there is a pedestrian underpass that goes beneath a busy dual-carriageway. It is narrow, dark, litter-strewn, and susceptible to flooding – for all I know, it may even be below sea-level – but it's the only convenient way to get from one side to the other without a major detour. Going through it a couple of weeks ago I was struck by this unusually elegant bit of graffiti at one end, which has a distinctly Arabic feel to it. Having passed a number of women in hijabs on the way, this seemed quite likely. Might it even be, to slightly paraphrase Paul Simon, the words of the Prophet written on a subway wall? I was curious about it and, although I realise calligraphic script is not always easy to read, I have an old friend whose Arabic is good, and thought it was worth a try. "Can you read the attached?" I asked in an email, sending him the photograph.

Now, to put it mildly, I am not a fan of most "tag" style graffiti. Frankly, it's moronically imitative at best, and makes a lot of ugly places even uglier. People might be delighted to discover a Banksy has appeared on their wall overnight, but few are equally as pleased to find some local kid has tagged their front door, like a cat peeing on a bush; even less so, I expect, when the target is that actual Banksy. It seems someone has only to put up a half-decent bit of wall-art for some little prick with a spray-can to scrawl their initials or wannabe gang-name over it. But I thought this one had a definite aesthetic appeal and, besides, it's nice to see a bit of diversity emerging in vandalism.

Anyway, my friend replied to my email, and the following dialogue ensued:
HE: Does it say "fuck" perhaps?
ME: I was thinking it was Arabic. Presumably not, then?
HE: No, doesn't look like Arabic to me. Where is it? Maybe it is the tag of a graffiti artist called Rich?
ME: It's in an underpass near the docks. Looking at it, you may well be right. And there was me thinking it meant something like "Bow down before the One God, crusaders dogs!" or "Ali is a bumboy"...
Which is only mildly humiliating: I mean, it does look Arabic, doesn't it? At least, it does to the untutored eye. What is more, I suspect it is meant to. So I thought I'd help out "Rich" (or "Fuck", "Puck", "Rilke", "Puch", or whatever handle this calligrapher goes by), and get my people on the case. First up, the tapestry team:

Not bad, guys, a nice bit of weaving, embroidery, and appliqué work there, and as a wall-hanging it definitely has a certain grungy authenticity: a perfect backdrop for a falafel-workshop video. But then who should drop by for a chat but Banksy himself and we ended up making a stencil that really hits the spot, even if it did involve tweaking the tag a bit:

"Awesome" is the word, I think. Of course, no sooner will we have installed it on a suitable wall, than some little prick with a spray-can will pass by...

Friday, 21 February 2020

Loo Lino

A (very) still life

As some of you lucky people will know, every year I send out cards to a select few to mark Christmas and New Year, which I generally have professionally printed by VistaPrint, so as to at least sustain the illusion that I am a serious player in the art game. In fact, most years I make two cards, one of which is usually an easy-on-the-eye picture, the other being something a little more demanding for the cognoscenti. In 2010, the picture above featured on one of those cards. As I explained at the time, that accidental still-life arrangement is something I contemplate every morning through the open door of our downstairs loo (I know! The sheer luxury of being a two-toilet family...). That orange bowl with its fortuitously-coloured carrier-bag has long moved on, only to be replaced by a series of other transient characters (currently a shoe-box of paperbacks, destined for Oxfam), but the other elements are constants.

The painting in the background was done by one of my partner's great aunts, who was an accomplished painter (in fact, she was a member of the Bloomsbury "Friday Club"), and dozens of her oils on board were stacked in the garage of another elderly relative, all slowly going mouldy. This one was given to us, and stands propped against the wall. Gradually, in the relative warmth and dryness of our house, a superficial milky bloom has disappeared, the colours have strengthened, and more details have emerged. It's almost been like watching the painting paint itself, day by day, week by week. Which is why you won't be hearing me use that tired cliché "like watching paint dry" as the epitome of tedium.

However, the other main, more prosaic object of my daily seated contemplation is the lino beneath my feet. It's a light beige in colour, with a regular pattern of diamonds and squares in greys and a reddish brown. It's not something I'd normally have chosen  anything beige always reminds me too much of my parents' conventionally timid taste in decor  but after we'd had the house extended (not least to add the downstairs toilet in question) some floor covering was urgently needed, and this was a cheap offcut of just the right size. I have now been staring at it for many years and have found that, like any good decorative pattern, it is repeated in a sufficiently complex way as not to become boring. I don't think I'm unusual in finding pleasure in letting my eye roam around ornamental geometric patterns like this, looking for the points where the tessellation links up: there's clearly some important and satisfying game going on there, as far as the brain is concerned, which it's happy to play at any opportunity.

Many times over the years the thought has arisen that this pattern on the lino could be a useful template for some picture-making, but  like so many such ephemeral notions  I have never actually done anything about it: the thought seems to arise exclusively in that space, and to fade immediately on exit. But yesterday, for some reason, the idea persisted, and I finally decided to act: I came back, and sketched out the pattern, trying to find the smallest chunk of it that would give an adequate impression of the whole. It's hardly a page from the Book of Kells (now available online, incidentally), but it took most of the rest of the morning to figure it out and then re-render it satisfactorily in Photoshop. Here it is:

I'm not sure yet what I'm going to be doing with it, if anything, but in the mornings to come  now I've got the basic skeleton to work with  I shall inevitably be mulling it over as I gaze at the original, spread out beneath my feet in my contemplative cell. Some decent colours would help, for a start. But, isn't it curious, how – abstracted like that – it looks like it must mean something? Even if it's only a flow chart for operating the washing machine.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Museology Cards

It's curious, how a project can consume your attention for a while, come to some sort of fruition, then drop out of your awareness. Something of the sort happened to a "museology cards" theme I was working on about four or five years ago. I've had an ongoing interest in photographing museum specimens for some while, and this was a particular offshoot of that longer-term project: a set of gilt-edged cartes de visite intended to foreground the expressiveness I could see, whether intentional or accidental, imbued into dead, empty skins by the intervention of a taxidermist or taxonomist. I put together quite a few of them, but then that confluence of approaches and techniques morphed into the "Guardians" series using life-like representations of humans, and I forgot about them.

Now, there is a concern with the nature – indeed, the existence – of non-human consciousness, a concern intimately connected with the assertion of animal rights, and it's an interest I share. No-one (other than a theologian) would surely deny the consciousness and agency of, say, a dog or a cat; as if any self-respecting cat would give a fuck as to whether you did or you didn't. This is not really a scientific question, determinable by anatomy or experiment, but a matter of fellow feeling: it's "obvious", in the way a lot of things that may or may not actually be true are obvious. But how far this sympathy should extend down the evolutionary chain (especially the edible parts of it) is a conundrum, as is the question of how this should affect human behaviour. Which is not an idle speculation, in the case of a species that at one extreme will joyfully torture an enemy to death, and at the other literally refrain from hurting a fly.

Coming across these cards again this week, I realised that these images display the other side of this "alternative consciousness" question. Despite their subject matter, none of the expressiveness on show here represents any actual non-human awareness, emotion, or intention. These "creatures" are long-dead, empty vessels, no more capable of feeling or motivation than a leather purse or a shoe: everything we can see and read here of pride, terror, contentment, and abjection has either been manipulated for effect by a taxidermist, or projected onto them by me. Which is what makes them fascinating to look at, and is also the source of their pathos. These once-conscious, living entities, that ought long ago to have returned to dust, float in formaldehyde or stand stuffed and wired into life-like postures for our education and entertainment. Why such grim simulacra should attract, rather than repel us (OK, me) is probably one of those unresolvable psychological questions, and one reason our species has developed this thing we call "art".

Older British readers may recall the Chimps' Tea Parties at various zoos, or the similar TV adverts for PG Tips tea. Like the Black and White Minstrel Show, it's a memory that may cause you to recoil in hilarity or shock (probably both) in recognition of a recent past we'd now choose to disown. But when it comes to misplaced, projected expression, I think of the wide, toothy grin of those chimpanzees, which we for so long mistook for a smile of pleasure, when it seems it was really a rictus of terror. Not an inappropriate emotion, really, having fallen captive into the hands of our pious, torturing, dissecting, all-consuming species.