Sunday, 17 March 2019

Who Was That Masked Man?

One of the more curious exhibits in Edinburgh's Scottish National Portrait Gallery was this cabinet of life and death masks, most of which are not remotely Scottish. Look, there's Blake, Keats, Wordsworth and, blimey, that's Voltaire (his is not perfect, but good enough). They're there because they were assembled by the Scottish Phrenological Society and, well, they're just fascinating, aren't they? Before photography, I suppose this was as close as you could get to a 1:1 likeness, though the discomfort of the procedure in life led to some rather squashed, miserable-looking faces. Apparently Blake (top row, third from left) looked nothing like as grumpy as that in life (his hair got pulled out by the plaster) but I like to think he looks like he's getting down to some seriously heavy music in the celestial headphones.

I thought Keats (bottom row, first on the left) might go well with my "burning man" collage, so I've produced a second version which works quite well, I think. Again, he looks like a man blissed out to some music only he can hear. As he put it in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
  Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
  Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone...
"Ditties of no tone", though... The more I read Keats, the more I think he really could have done with a tough-love editor, prepared to wield the blue pencil. Look, I'm sorry, John, but "ditties" just doesn't work... And what kind of rhyme is that meant to be, anyway, might I ask? With just a bit more work, this could be really good... But FFS go easy with the "thees", "thous", "wilts", and "werts"! Nobody talks like that any more: this is 1819, mate!

Writ in water

Thursday, 14 March 2019


Regular visitors to London's Natural History Museum may recognise the statue at the heart of this new "Guardians" picture: it's the imposing marble rendering of Darwin, enthroned at the top of the staircase in the main entrance hall. Although positioned and unveiled there in 1885, from 1927 until 2009 it had been usurped in that prominent spot by a bronze of the museum's founder, Richard Owen. Owen was a complex Victorian figure, a gifted comparative anatomist, able to taxonomise, reconstruct, and predict the appearance of a creature from a few bone fragments, an ability which led him to identify and name the dinosaurs as an extinct group of lizard-like creatures. However, despite broadly accepting the principle of evolution, he fell out with Darwin over the central idea of natural selection, favouring a more creationist view, and became a spiteful establishment enemy of Darwin and his allies. As Darwin said, "It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me." It is quite surprising that it took the museum so long to re-right that wrong, if only symbolically.

But what strikes me is the excellence of that statue, carved out of solid marble by Sir Joseph Boehm. Is there anyone alive today who could achieve such a vivid likeness? On the evidence of the few statues that have been erected in recent decades, the answer is emphatically no. Setting aside abstract sculpture, or semi-figurative work like Antony Gormley's endless series of casts made from moulds of his own body, when it comes to statuary we seem to be stuck with kitschy stuff like the St. Pancras station monstrosity (The Meeting Place), or well-meaning but pedestrian efforts like this statue of that alternative Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace. I mean, seriously, if that were a six-inch plastic figurine it would be pretty good – I can easily imagine a series of Great Naturalists action figures, with switchable nets, hats, cleft sticks, and other collector's impedimenta – but at seven feet tall and cast in bronze it surely lacks any real sense of weight, volume, texture, or presence, doesn't it?

I suppose one of the motivations behind my "Guardians" series is precisely that uncanny sense of presence that inhabits so many pre-20th century sculptures, often of dignitaries whose names have long faded from history, but whose likenesses still gaze across museum galleries and civic spaces. Biologists are always at pains to point out that evolution is not teleological: it is not a process of refinement towards some ultimate end (maybe you, possibly even me), but an endless series of adaptations to changing environments and the niches they offer or cease to offer to life-forms. I'm not sure most of us believe that in our hearts, but then we also don't really believe that the sun only appears to go round the earth, do we? Or, for that matter, that the entropic heat death of the universe is inevitable. Somehow life and entropy seem to be fighting different battles, don't they? Something that, I now realise, my new Guardians image might be seen to express.

Similarly, when it comes to the art of sculpture, I suppose there are perfectly valid sociological and economic reasons why no-one today has the time or skill or motivation to release a truly lifelike simulacrum from within a block of cold marble. For one thing, quite apart from its sheer difficulty, it's too bloody expensive: even that oversized bronze Wallace action figure cost its commissioners £50,000. So our current lack of skill and sophistication ought not, in theory, be seen as a backward step, just as a new way of making public art, appropriate to the prevailing socio-economic conditions. But, come on, it really does feel like a falling off, doesn't it? And it's something I feel acutely in nearly every exhibition of contemporary work of any sort I visit: I'm tired of seeing the easy shortcuts, the lack of finish, the ironic promotion of calculated ineptitude over skill and craft, and the universal elevation of idea over execution. But then, as I am beginning to realise, I'm just a dinosaur...

Darwin in Berlin
(Museum für Naturkunde)

Sunday, 10 March 2019

REPOST: A Ducky and a Horsie

[For some reason this post from June 2015 has been attracting a lot of hits lately. This probably means nothing more than that some click-bot has locked onto it, randomly, in the hope I'll click through, see the commercial potential of having my page-view count artificially boosted, and sign up. Um, no thanks... Some more real visitors would be nice, but buying fake ones to attract more advertising revenue seems pretty low to me. Quite apart from the fact I don't run any adverts. But I thought I'd have a look at the post, anyway, as I couldn't remember a thing about it. It turns out to be an excellent manifesto for What Happened Next, so I thought I'd repost it, as a sort of "previously on Idiotic Hat..." style explanation of how on earth we ever ended up here for newer visitors.]

I have always had a strong tendency towards pareidolia, the ability to see meaningful images within random patterns of line, shape and shadow. In some ways, this is merely the flipside (or perhaps a precondition) of the ability to draw. What is a drawing, after all, other than patterns of line, shape and shadow contrived and intended to evoke a significant image within the viewer's brain?

Exactly a year ago, I was in front of a TV camera in the Fotoforum gallery in Innsbruck, Austria, trying to explain the nature of my work being exhibited there to a charming young interviewer who, luckily, spoke better English than I speak German (not unusual in the German-speaking world, I am ashamed to say). Now, I tend to take a certain level of pareidolia for granted, so drew her attention to this image from the Boundary Elements series:

I said something like, "This photograph is of a corroded metal box attached to a door and, although I really like the delicate balance of tone and colour here, what I mainly see is a Japanese-style horned dragon whipping its head round, with its snout now pointing to the left, don't you?" She looked puzzled, then an expression of childlike delight crossed her face, "Oh, yes!  A dragon!" Now, being English, and maybe having watched too much Graham Norton, I was on the alert for irony and sarcasm, but detected none. She simply didn't see what I saw until I pointed it out. Which made me think.

I've been thinking ever since. What I have been thinking is this:

My favourite kind of photography involves the creation of a picture by isolating evocative shapes and colours from the real world. You might say these are the semi-abstract paintings I'd make if I wasn't too lazy to make them, in the well-established vein of Klee, Kandinsky, and Rauschenberg. I am sometimes mistaken for a practitioner of the Gospel of the God of Small Things – best summarised as "He draws our attention to the small, everyday things we are too blinkered and busy to notice" – which I find annoying. I don't care whether you notice small corroded metal boxes or not. No; if I draw myself up to my full height of pretension, I prefer to consider myself more of the Blakean tendency:
What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight I look thro it & not with it.
William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgement
A ducky and a horsie be damned, Sir!

And yet, without cues like a nudging title ("A Ducky and a Horsie Go Boating #5") or my personal presence behind the viewer's shoulder to point them out, it seems that my intended points of reference are never as obvious as I had thought. Of course, this is a general issue with abstract or semi-abstract art. Take this print from Matisse's late "cut-out" phase, published in his wonderful book Jazz:

Les Codomas, Henri Matisse, 1947

Lovely, isn't it? But how obvious to you is it (or was it when you first saw it) that the image shows two trapeze artists above a safety-net, surrounded by spectators? It probably doesn't matter if you can't see it without prompting, but Matisse had an intention here, which the nudging title makes clear – he hasn't called it "Untitled Abstraction #47", after all, but the equivalent of "The Flying Burritos".  The fact that our first take might "see", let's say, tadpoles in a pond surrounded by stylised weed, beams of light, reflections, and even a lurking octopus is not to mistake the image, but to engage with its nature. The realisation of the "correct" interpretation gives a focus to our other responses, but it doesn't invalidate them; they can all fruitfully exist at the same time. But this is like explaining how to bowl a cricket ball:  if you're going to be able to do it at all, you can probably do it anyway.

But the path this led me down was this:  If my intentions are not clear, why not make them clearer?  Why be inhibited by the photographic "facts on the ground"? Why not make intentional pictures sourced from multiple photographs, or bits of photographs collaged together with bits of drawing, in the same way Matisse assembled pictures from his cut-up pieces of painted card, rather than relying on pictures presenting themselves whole and ready-made to my camera? Despite the many precedents – Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté, for example, or more recently John Goto's under-appreciated work – this still feels heretical, and calculated to lose what little audience I have gained over the years for my work.

But consider a photo like this, which I took last week, strolling behind the big-barn retail outlets of West Quay in Southampton:

Not brilliant, but a good example of the kind of thing I do when working in an "abstract" vein. Yes, it does happen to be another corroded metal box attached to a door, but I am not a "photographer of corroded metal boxes" in the way that Bernd and Hilla Becher are photographers of grain elevators and water towers. It's nice enough in itself, but what makes it compelling to me is that it suggests a large, weighty, telephone-box-shaped object plunging down into deep water trailed by a stream of air-bubbles, or, rotated 90 degrees, a shotgun cartridge discharged into a blue sky. There is dynamism in those accidental marks. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but I took the photograph because I saw and liked the pictures that my mind conjured from those superficial elements.

So, it seems to me that one way to use my hyper-pareidoloid tendency to good effect is to exploit it as a means of drawing, using the real world as my palette, and Photoshop as my canvas. I'm having a lot of fun discovering techniques to do this, and I'm very pleased with some of the early results. But if you do come here because of the photographs, don't despair – I have no intention of giving up "straight" photography.

(But, hmm, that bit on the right will make an excellent milky-blue summer sky crossed by vapour trails...  Just add a few crows...)

Wednesday, 6 March 2019


In 1839, Paul Delaroche, a French portraitist and painter of historical scenes, saw some early examples of the daguerrotype, and is famously alleged to have declared, "From today, painting is dead" (except in French, obviously [1]). He was wrong, evidently, but you could see his point. The process of making lifelike representations of people and things in paint – until then pretty much the whole point and purpose of painting – requires genuine talent, skill, and a major investment of time and effort to achieve. Painting might have been regarded by its patrons as a trade, but it was a pretty exclusive one, and thus attracted a high price tag. The commissioning of, say, a portrait was something reserved for the very wealthy or major institutions: its very costliness was, in a way, the whole point. To see the prospect of this profitable, well-respected business de-skilled into a trivial, mechanical matter that any idiot capable of saying "watch the birdie!" could perform, with results of truly astonishing fidelity (and, worse, that could be turned round within a couple of days) would have been concerning, to say the least.

I was trying to think of what other mechanical innovations there have been that stand in the same disruptive, democratising relationship to some other hard-won craft or profession as photography does to representational art. That is, that, as a result of that invention, something that had previously required the services of an expensive professional had come within the grasp of everyone: you could now just do it yourself (or hire a much less expensive pro), often with even better results (assuming that, in the case of portraiture, an accurate likeness is the main measure of success). But most mechanisations I could think of have instead either replaced far humbler occupations – the vacuum cleaner, for example – or have industrialised some time-consuming, skill-based craft like making furniture. Although, ironically, many middle-class households do still employ someone else to operate their vacuum cleaner, and buying a flat-pack wardrobe from IKEA is really not the same as making it yourself (however much it can bloody well feel like it).

Printing suggests itself as an example – bye-bye, you scribes and scriveners – but that was hardly a DIY business, either: in fact, a whole new, even more highly-skilled profession had entered the scene. I also considered the typewriter, but that, too, merely ended up creating a new, more humble but still quite skilled occupation (can you touch-type seventy-five words per minute?). Back in the 1960s, a newspaper editorial office would resound with the clatter of typing, and be shaken by the thunder of hot-metal presses in the basement. But both, however, were supplanted by the advent and imposition of the personal computer and word-processing. Older, trade union-minded readers will still recall the ensuing period of industrial unrest in the mid-1980s, summarised by the one word, "Wapping".

I remember being the proud but somewhat perplexed recipient, in 1985, of the first PC to be unboxed in our university library [2]. There it is, I was told: see what it will do. What it did, of course, was to make redundant our entire typing pool. Which caused some upset, as "typist" was one of the few occupations compatible with the sort of part-time hours that suited the complex, multi-tasking lives of many women, then and now. The advent of the PC was nothing if not "disruptive" in the workplace. Suddenly, professionals had end-to-end control of their working lives. With the advent of the internet, email, spreadsheets, desktop publishing, and the Web, your entire focus, day in, day out, became the screen on your desk; no typing pool, no secretaries, a much-depleted mail room, and whole new ways of looking busy. But, again, with the exception of certain trades doomed by automation such as the typesetter and the draughtsman, the expensive professionals had not been replaced by some new-fangled DIY gizmo, just empowered to do more, with fewer support staff to pay.

One interesting innovation of recent years, though, which may bear some comparison with photography, is on-demand self-publishing. Just as any fool can take a photograph, so anyone can now design and "publish" their own book. That is, if "publish" is taken to mean putting in your hands a single book, with the somewhat illusory, but nonetheless real prospect of selling more via an online shopfront or even on Amazon. It's not vanity publishing – you don't pay thousands in order to end up with boxes of unsold and unsellable copies around the house – but it's not "publishing", either, in the traditional sense of a business model which includes editing, design, publicity, distribution, and production, with all the economies of scale. It's a genuinely new thing that meets a real demand. I don't suppose any publisher has said, on seeing the products of Blurb or Lulu, "from today, publishing is dead", but, like painting, the nature of publishing may yet be changed in unforeseen ways by these Web-based upstarts which cut out the middle-man.

However, the example that strikes me as most comparable with photography is machine translation, of which the most obvious example is Google Translate. A friend, knowing my interest in such things, pointed me at a recent article, by the eminent Douglas Hofstadter [3], in which he pooh-poohs the quality of Google Translate's efforts. Now, I know how difficult good translation is. I know all about the pitfalls, the "false friends", the tricky equivalence of idioms, the problems of inflection, tone, dialect, and voice. I have suffered a pedant's wrath for my failure to translate "Ger-doing!" and "Kerplunk!" into German. A good translator is a highly-skilled individual, with superb language skills backed up by a broad hinterland of appropriate technical and cultural knowledge that is kept bang up to date. I mean, jeepers creepers, you don't want your, like, business proposal or legislation to sound as if it were gabbled over the phone by some ditzy teen from the 1950s, or – oh, wow, heavy! – intoned by a prog-rock muso. Unless, of course, that's exactly what is required in, say, a novel. As a consequence, good translators are in demand, busy, and expensive.

But: if you've ever been abroad in a country whose language you can barely fathom, without a dictionary or a phrasebook [4] but in possession of a smartphone, you'll know how readily you can tolerate even a risibly poor translation of the menu or gallery guide in front of you, when it is offered free and on demand, right now, unlike the perfectly nuanced translation you might be able to purchase (with suitable advance notice) from a competent professional, perhaps with a bit of luck by close of business tomorrow afternoon. But I suggest the latter is about as likely as you deciding to commission a landscape painter to capture the enchanting view of the piazza immediately in front of you, rather than simply taking a photograph. Machine translation apps, these days, may not yet be perfect, but have improved massively, and are better than they have any right to be. Which is good enough, at least for the major European languages, if not all of the 100 on offer. As Voltaire once put it:
Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l'ennemi du bien
Apparently, this is his version of an Italian proverb, le meglio è l'inimico del bene. Either of which I think you'll find Google Translate will make a decent, if not perfect job of rendering into English. For a fee, I could improve either or both for you, probably by close of business tomorrow afternoon, but I think you'll get the gist.

(The inscription reads, "This tablet left intentionally blank")

1. If you insist: "À partir d'aujourd'hui la peinture est morte". It's an interesting question whether an apocryphal quotation is more authentic when rendered in the language it was never actually said in, but might have been...
2. A twin-floppy drive machine, with no hard drive. Floppies were floppy in those days, vulnerably bendy 5.25" disks in a frail plastic housing. You booted up the PC with a bootable DOS floppy in the left-hand drive, took it out, replaced it with, say, a WordPerfect disk, fired that up with a command, and then put your data disk in the right-hand drive. The total RAM available was 640K... Ah, the sheer capaciousness, speed, and convenience of my first 32MB hard drive!
3. Author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book I have never read, but which has probably been pressed upon me more often than any other.
4. I was astonished to discover, before a visit to Barcelona last summer, that no Catalan phrasebook of acceptable quality exists. Això és increïble! (Thanks, Google Translate).

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Lord Snooty's Giant Poisoned Electric Head

Some years ago now, my kids were into an American group called Death Cab For Cutie. Weirdly, the advent of iPods, smartphones, and the universal preference of the young for earphones over speakers have combined to mean that I don't have a clue what that band actually sound like. Unlike my poor father, whom I subjected to more late 60s rock than a sometime semi-pro drummer, and fan of jazz and big-band music should ever have been expected to bear. And they say there's no progress.

But that name, "Death Cab For Cutie", always rang a distant bell. It took a surprisingly long time for me to recall that it was, in fact, a track on the album Gorilla, by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, released in 1967. An album I used to know very well, but haven't heard since somewhere around 1974. In fact, it had become a minor cult when I was at university: a group of us knew it and another Bonzo album, The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse so well that we could recite every song, all chipping in at the Good Bits ("Ecstasy, Bruce, ecstasy", "On my left, Sir Kenneth Clark, bass sax. It's a great honour, sir!"). When I described this to my kids, they said, "What, you all used to sit around listening to records together?" Um, why, yes... Yes, we did. Quite a lot. Sometimes there might be a dozen or more of us, sitting on the floor, passing around smokes and drinks and having a laugh and talking nonsense and, I suppose, generally killing all that wasted time until someone finally got around to inventing the internet. With the emphasis on "wasted".

The other day, in one of those revelatory moments that demonstrate (yet again) how wrong-headed most cultural history is, I discovered two things you would suppose I ought to have known, but didn't. First, that the Bonzos perform "Death Cab For Cutie" on the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. Blimey! At least, apparently they do in the original TV "video" version, which I haven't seen since it was broadcast in black and white into our family living room, to universal perplexity, on Boxing Day 1967; the song doesn't figure on the MMT album. Second, and even more amazingly, that the title comes from The Uses of Literacy, a rather solemn book by Richard Hoggart about working class education and the dilemma of the "scholarship boy", stranded in an uncomfortable limbo between his class of origin and his class of aspiration. I used to own (and may even have read) this book, in its blue-spined Pelican paperback incarnation. In a moment of uncharacteristic inspiration, it seems Hoggart made up the title "Death Cab For Cutie" as an example of the sort of trashy gangster movie that typified popular culture (he didn't much like popular culture), simply because the publisher wouldn't let him use any real ones. I expect you knew this already, but my point is that I didn't; despite my fondness for pop culture trivia, this fascinating set of connected dots had passed me by, despite having lived each one of them. Real Life 1: Cultural History 0.

But, ah, the Bonzos! One of the "nearly" bands of British pop. The result of what happens when nostalgia, trad jazz, art school, music hall, pop, and a joyous sense of the absurd all come together, but never quite settle into a consistent mix. Paul McCartney's fondness for the musical styles of the 1920s can seem perverse, until you recall the nostalgia for a re-imagined version of that era that permeated the 1960s (the Temperance Seven, anybody?) [1]. The initial taking off point for the Bonzos was an anarchic art-school urge simultaneously to parody and celebrate that nostalgia, but it never quite took flight as a pop vehicle. I suppose one point of comparison would be the Mothers of Invention, but the Bonzos lacked the edge, depth, and anger of Zappa's satire. Indeed, it was their very frivolity that made them funny: I defy anyone to listen to, say, "Jollity Farm", "I'm Bored", or "The Intro and the Outro", and not feel their spirits being lifted ("nice!").

But the collective energies pulled in two very different directions that were radically inconsistent: tracks inspired by Viv Stanshall's effete, surreal nostalgia (all of those above-mentioned tracks are his) sat awkwardly with Neil Innes' leaden-footed urge to parody pop styles, most of which come across now as exercises in envy, rather than satire. Stanshall went on to become a professional eccentric and loose cannon, a sort of alternative National Treasure (huzzah!), and godfather to the likes of Tubular Bells and Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters [2], whereas Innes' strange love-hate relationship with pop led to The Rutles (yawn) and Monty Python. Both are venerable strands of British idiocy, but my personal preference is for the former: less smug, and dangerously in love with failure.

Let "My Pink Half of the Drainpipe" be the band's epitaph, a monument to what might have been:
My pink half of the drainpipe
Separates me from the incredibly fascinating story of your life and
every day-to-day event in all its minute and tedious attention to
And was it a Thursday or a Wednesday? Or, oh, no, it wasn't, though, oh,
who cares, anyway, because I do not, so Norman, if you're normal, I intend to
be a freak for the rest of my life, and I shall baffle you with cabbages
and rhinoceroses in the kitchen, incessant quotations from "Now We Are
Six" through the mouthpiece of Lord Snooty's giant poisoned electric
So theeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere

1. Talking of pop history trivia, I also didn't know that McCartney more-or-less produced "Urban Spaceman", the Bonzos' one Big Hit. It's striking, though, that 1928 was as distant from 1968 as 1979 is from today. As I have commented many times before, pop and rock seems to have been stuck in a time-warp for decades... You wouldn't raise many eyebrows by imitating the styles of Elvis Costello or The Clash today.
2. One of the great overlooked albums, IMHO, a high spot among concept albums, Hawkwind-style Space Rock meets satire, and a 1975 favourite for sitting around wasting time, waiting for the internet. It, too, has quotable Good Bits, though not as many as, say, Gong's Radio Gnome Invisible. Now there's another music post...

Thursday, 28 February 2019

February's Child

Lordshill, Southampton

A February heat-wave is not something you expect to experience in Britain, but a record temperature has been broken twice this month, setting a new high of 20.3 Centigrade, with temperatures rising over 20C for the first time in winter "since records began". Which, officially and surprisingly, is only 1914: although the Met Office holds amateur records going much further back, that's the extent of the verifiably accurate archive. Still, it does seem like another polite cough from Mother Nature, before she cranks up the serious retribution for our reckless ways. It's so irritating, to have this ominous, anomalous phenomenon reported as if it were an enjoyable stroke of good fortune, as opposed to the rather unsettling "straw in the wind" it actually is.

If, like me, you were born in February, with its short stature and leap-year variability, you can't help but feel a little bit of its eccentricity has rubbed off on you. Add to this left-handedness, a few more brain-cells than are strictly necessary, and a deep-seated creative urge, and you have a recipe for an acute sense of personal exceptionalism. You're just different, an outlier, the joker in the pack. In my case, I suppose if I'd turned out to be gay, I'd have had a full house of square-peggery; as it was, I was never entirely sure how to play the hand I'd been dealt, and probably folded and cashed out my winnings way too soon. It doesn't help if you grow up in a background where difference is not valued as an asset, and regarded by many with grave suspicion. However, I had good, supportive parents, a forward-looking and effective state education, and the good fortune to grow up in one of the post-war New Towns, the very embodiment of "Beveridge Britain". It's sad to think how much things have changed; I wouldn't want to be a bright little square peg growing up right now.

Tanner's Brook, Southampton

Wednesday was the first day I ventured outside without a coat this winter, having made the mistake of going for a lengthy walk on Tuesday wearing one. Usually in February, if it looks sunny outside that simply means there's going to be an exhilarating, keen edge to the wind, not that the temperature will climb by mid-afternoon to somewhere around 20C. So when I decided on Wednesday's walk, through a part of Southampton known as Lordshill (as in, Lords Hill, not Lord Shill), this time I made it coatless, which turned out to be a wise choice, as it was even warmer. Lordshill is an area that always reminds me acutely of Stevenage, the town where I grew up. The rolling chalk hills of South Hampshire are quite similar to the rolling chalk hills of North Hertfordshire, and Lordshill is a large area of mainly "social housing" built in the 1960s and 70s, out of much the same architectural handbook of off-the-peg council-house designs. It also has a network of cycle-paths and underpasses, not to mention substantial remnants of the former forested and agricultural landscape, both hallmarks of my home town.

Around mid-afternoon, you start to pass kids in uniform on their way home from school, and this inevitably leads to reflections on where life is taking them. My own children were lucky enough to go through their schooling just before the mass uptake of smartphones, and just before state education took yet another dip in standards (for example, the sad state of foreign-language teaching, now that the offer of one [!] foreign language at GCSE at state secondary schools is no longer compulsory, with the predictable outcome, something which makes me very angry indeed). Today's state pupils in a mainly working-class district like Lordshill are getting a pretty shabby deal, and anyone achieving outstanding grades nonetheless is, frankly, showing world-class determination. Not least in resisting the downward pressures to conform with the norm imposed by peer pressure, social media, and cyber-bullying.

I noticed a surprising number of the younger ones returning home accompanied by a parent, or in little adult-shepherded groups; I presume there are problems with real bullying, not to mention the contemporary obsession with "stranger danger". This is not entirely unwarranted, of course: the heavily-wooded fringes of the walkways and the neglected underpasses do have that brooding sense of threat that always haunts such liminal spaces, even in my day, and it's true there have been a couple of recent murders of young girls, locally. But it's a shame there's so little remaining of that freewheeling sense of end-of-school, out-of-doors play. Despite the unseasonably fine weather, the woods and playing fields are silent, and you get the sense that most kids are heading straight home, in order to shut the door on the real world and put on the TV, play computer games, or open up the door onto an alternative, online reality. No doubt any bright little square pegs feel a lot safer, and a lot more welcome in there. I'm sure I would, too, today. And if you were the sort of kid bursting with questions you wanted to have answered, I'm pretty sure you'd be waiting to get home, too, in order to ask them of your good friend Wikipedia, rather than risk attracting the attention of the ever-vigilant levellers at school. The ones whose only question is always, "Who do you think you are?"

Lordshill, Southampton

Monday, 25 February 2019

It's Crow Time

At Christmas, the exclusive community of Idiotic Brethren and Sistren were in receipt of a crow-themed calendar for 2019, a fine collector's item that will no doubt be much sought-after in centuries to come, unless, of course, said folk have carelessly scrawled their appointments and reminders all over the thing in biro and felt-pen. Which, I suppose, is what it's for.

So, knowing the likely fate of most calendars, I also made a small, Blurb booklet using these same designs, titled Crow Time. It was originally intended as a Christmas one-off, but I have now decided to open it for sale in the usual way. It's a 7" square paperback, costing £10.99 or the equivalent. Here it is, check it out:
 If you'd like one, go ahead and order from Blurb. If you don't want one, don't.

Now, an even more exclusive subset of the aforementioned community were astonished to find themselves presented with one or more of a set of similarly crow-themed plastic picnic plates, as adumbrated back in October. And you thought I was joking! (Actually, so did I).  If the idea of a microwave- and disherwasher-proof plastic picnic plate or two appeals to you (there are four different ones), drop me an email. I think they look rather good hanging on a wall. They're also not as expensive as you might think, and, as one recipient put it, adorably kitsch.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Breaking Bad

There is an important, if embarrassing conversation you should probably have had with your children (assuming you have any, can find them, and that you can get them to listen to you) but probably will have avoided. No, not that one – teachers deal with all that, these days, thankfully. I mean the one that, in my case (YMMV) should have gone something like this:
I, the lord thy father, am not actually an omniscient being, demanding and deserving of fear and respect and a propitiatory card on Patriarch's Day. What? No, I know you don't think that, not really, but just stop giggling and humour me for a second, OK? I ... thy father ... that is to say, me ... Look: I might seem old and wise – well, old, anyway – but inside I am still just 16, just a regular little small-town teenage dirtbag, too bright and ambitious to stack shelves, but not bright or ambitious enough to amass fame or money, and saddled with some seriously self-defeating attitudes and inclinations, who was saved from himself by the love of a good woman. And then I met your mother! Heh... Only joking. Seriously, I'm just some everykid whose genes threw a six enough times to help him climb more ladders than his lazy, stupid, self-destructive impulses caused him to slide down snakes. Result! If you can call 40 years of anonymous but useful public service and a decent pension a result. Which I do. Plus, of course, there's you. Double result! That is all. Carry on!
I suppose the conversation would have to go somewhat differently if you were, say, a wildly successful artist, a rock-star, or a prominent politician. Although then it would be even less likely to happen. It must be a massive burden growing up in the shadow of some household name, someone with a carefully constructed myth and persona, the sort of person whose long shade can darken the lives of several generations. Particularly, of course, if that personage's shadow was rarely actually cast within the walls of the family home. Success in this world is usually the reward of ambition, narrow focus, and inflexible egotism, qualities which do not make for a good parent or partner. What a strange fate it must be, always to be tagged as "So-and-So's child", but never having really spent much quality time with old So-and-So. I'm always puzzled when the children or even grandchildren of some grandee like Churchill or Picasso are interviewed about their prominent progenitor, as if there was any way they could have acquired any insight whatsoever into why the old bastard made the choices he did in politics or art. You might as well ask the postman.

Worse, I suppose, you could be a complete blank in your children's lives, leading what is euphemistically called a "chaotic lifestyle", estranged from family and friends, and enduring an abject, lonely, pointless life in a gutter somewhere. In which case, you probably do have a very private, much-rehearsed speech, an apologia refined in occasional moments of clarity and regret, but which no-one will ever hear, or even want to hear. But, for most of us, who have been adequate-to-good parents, it is an important but too-often neglected act of empowerment to break the binding spell of parenthood, like Prospero in The Tempest, freeing your children from the illusory cage of authority that did once invest their young lives with structure and security but which, perpetuated into adulthood, can become a real prison. In the words of the philosopher Gordon Sumner, "If you love somebody, set them free (free, free, set them free)".

This liberation works both ways. You may also need to free yourself from your children, or rather, from their limited, limiting perspective on your life. Which can be quite difficult, if you've worked hard at creating an admirable, flattering version of yourself in the mirror of your children's eyes for twenty years or more. Continuing to live up to that fiction is a prison all of its own. I think my generation has been better at avoiding this trap than our own parents, who – like those retirees whose entire identity had been constructed around work – often seemed unable to recover any sense of themselves as independent beings, once the family-raising phase of their lives was over. Not helped, of course, by having been forced to spend their formative years in uniform, alternating regimented boredom with abject existential terror; that will put a dent in anyone's sense of self. But to set up any kind of mutually-dependent relationship is to prepare a potential pitfall. For example, trying to insinuate yourself into your kids' lives as their best mate, as I have seen some cringe-worthy contemporary parents do, is bound to end badly in the longer term. It also ties your hands somewhat in the short term, when it comes time to administer the punishment beatings.

If you're serious about achieving a really meaningful, full-spectrum, all-round Declaration of Independence, however – not a bad retirement project – I think you first need to know and acknowledge who you really are, which is to say, who you really have been, not some evasive or self-aggrandising semi-fiction. You've done some good things, sure, but what about that other stuff? No-one else need know about your truly grim secrets [1], but – and call me a Baptist-heritage party-pooper if you must – to know who you really are surely means that you must "own" that Bad Stuff, too. And this is harder, these days, than it once was. Shameful secrets and ugly truths have become so much easier to ignore, now most of us have stopped believing in some cosmic surveillance system, able to see into our innermost thoughts, and record it all on eternal, multi-dimensional, uneditable tapes. We forgive ourselves too easily – I was young, I was drunk, I was being ironic, I didn't really mean to hurt you (I'm just a jealous guy) – or, worse, we just pretend The Bad Stuff never really happened.

After all, who's to know? One of the most surprising discoveries of advancing age is that the witnesses to your past misdeeds have either died, forgotten all about them, or even got you muddled up with some other wicked person. It turns out that things that have haunted you for decades, when sleepless at 4 a.m., have passed some natural, attritional statute of limitations. So, relax: none of it'll ever stand up in court. There will be no Day of Judgement. There are no tapes. Although, on the other hand, do bear in mind that there may be some confused person out there who bears you an eternal grudge for something you never actually did [2]. Or might there even be someone you really did hurt badly enough – you were young, you were drunk, you were being ironic, you didn't really mean to hurt them – that they will never forgive, never forget? Even with the passage of time, it seems there is always unfinished business, where the Bad Stuff is concerned.

But if, like me, you are now more or less free of the role-playing demands of the workaday world, have long abandoned your wicked ways, and agree that achieving a full-on Declaration of Independence is a worthwhile goal, here's a thought: maybe now is the right time to get back in touch with your inner outlaws? No, fool, not your in-laws! You know who I'm talking about: all those liars, cheats, cowards, braggarts, thieves, swindlers, and general-purpose bad hats we locked away in the past, and never acknowledge, even though they look so suspiciously like us? Believe me, they're still banged up in there somewhere. You may not love them the way you love your children, but they're still yours, all right, so why not set them free, too? [3]  Don't worry, they're unlikely to stick around: why would they want to hang out with such boring, straight-edge, senior citizens as we've become? (I know, I know: speak for yourself...). But if there's one thing I know for certain, it's that you sleep better if you don't have to listen to those desperados rattling the bars all night.

We're outta here... See ya! Wouldn't wanna be ya! Loser!

1. For example, that vacation job executing turkeys by hand will have to stay between me and Bad Santa.
2. I discovered the truth of this myself a few years ago at a sort of reunion. That wasn't me, honest!
3. How? Well, that's a matter for your conscience, or perhaps your therapist. A few of them, of course, may need to suffer the consequences of their actions: I'd recommend withholding pocket-money.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Westward Window

February 2019

I hope it goes without saying that I don't spend a great deal of my time photographing sunsets. A lot of people do, of course, but I am not one of them. Unless, that is, we are in our Bristol flat. From our west-facing kitchen window, the view of the setting sun at the far end of the Gorge is often little less than gob-smacking (sorry, that's a technical meteorological term).

Quite often, this spectacle starts to brew while I'm washing up. Which is probably the only real reason I might have need of a waterproof camera. It would also help to have one that can survive a 30-foot drop, as I need to lean out of a window both to get the best angle and also to avoid shooting through grubby double-glazing. I've already lost a lens hood into the gutter of the balcony of the flat below... (shhh, I'm hoping my ever-curious corvid friends will help me out here).

Sometimes, though, if you look in the opposite direction to the obvious attraction (always a good rule in photography), strange shadows and reflections are being cast onto the kitchen wall by the setting sun.

May 2018

Friday, 15 February 2019

Black And White In Colour


Talking about The Beatles (the "White Album") reminded me that the most striking thing (and, initially at least, the most disappointing thing) about that record was its stark cover design by Richard Hamilton, situated somewhere between a white-label bootleg and the minimalist sophistication of Habitat. Not least when compared with the baroque, eye-pleasing fairground that was its predecessor, Sgt. Pepper, designed by Peter Blake. As it happens, there had been a rival design for The Beatles (working title: "A Doll's House") which used a group portrait by my recent acquaintance, John Byrne. His painting did end up getting used on a later album, but its faux-naive, Rousseau-esque sentimentality would never have worked on the 1968 recording that finally emerged, I'm sure. In fact, its use on a retrospective, soft-focus compilation of Beatles Ballads released in 1980 merely serves to underline, particularly for that first generation of "boomers" that had already passed out of its youthful years, "here are the Beatles as you prefer to remember them". There are all sorts of clever meta-comments one could make about that all-white sleeve, in retrospect, but at the time it was simply a bit of a puzzle, compensated only slightly by the bonanza of colourful loose pictorial enclosures contained within.

It's hard, now, to appreciate how colour-starved Britain had been before the mid-1960s. In any documentary of the time, there's always a point when the archival footage changes from black-and-white to colour, I suppose around the time BBC TV began broadcasting in colour in 1967. We didn't actually live in monochrome until then, but it could feel like it, especially on Sunday afternoons. You only have to watch a few vintage clips of the Beatles or Stones being interviewed to see how badly the Old Monochrome Britain was struggling to understand the new, youthful, full-colour supplement that had appeared between its staid pages (at least, in its London edition), and how its tweedy avatars invariably tried to reduce things to a more easily accommodated and dismissed grey-scale [1]. I was amazed to discover, on a school exchange trip to the Rhineland, that in Germany 7" singles were released in full-colour photographic picture sleeves. At home, where so many of these sacred objects originated, even sure-fire hits like the latest Beatles single were still being released in the same dull wrapper as anything else, a generic, corporate-branded paper sleeve with two circular, label-sized holes cut in it. I suppose it was a typical expression of the kind of levelled-down, lowest-common-denominator "democracy" Britain reserves for the general populace.

Colour, after all, was expensive, which, for much longer than was probably necessary, outranked "attractive". We Brits do enjoy a bit of deprivation. Also, I suppose the shadow of wartime rationing was long: I was born in 1954, the year food rationing finally ended. Ironically, it seems to have been the unprecedented expense of the Sgt. Pepper cover that opened the door onto to an era of exuberantly inventive sleeve design. So that blank white packaging has to be seen in the context of what, by 1968, had been just a few years of new, eye-popping colour everywhere, from newspaper colour supplements to product packaging and clothes. Consumerism, and a little uptight hedonism had belatedly come to Britain. So, as an art statement a blank white album sleeve was a witty, smart, and post-modern gesture, but as a piece of consumer goods, it was little less than a puritanical reproach.


In my youth, LP sleeves mattered. For small-town kids like me and my friends, short of cash and cultural capital, the record racks that sat at the back of High Street shops like Boots or W.H. Smith offered a free creative education in art, photography, design, and typography, one square foot at a time. There was no such thing as a "record shop": the first LP I ever actually bought with my own money was from an electrical retailer, mainly selling TVs, radios, and toasters. As it happens, it was the studio half of Cream's Wheels of Fire, with its psychedelic silver sleeve by Martin Sharp, but I had already handled and pored over many, many more, admiring and absorbing their pictorial styles, the more excessive the better, along with all the small-print details of music I would never actually get to hear, often made in places I had never heard of, never mind expected to visit. So where the hell was Nashville? Or Detroit? Why did people keep going on about them? Like travel brochures to exotic destinations, or the copies of National Geographic in the dentist's waiting room, record sleeves were both documentary evidence of and invitations to a fuller, more colourful world that existed out there somewhere, if only you could break free of the gravitational pull of small-town life. Colour was breaking into ordinary lives, and with it came a huge, new challenge: did you dare to be different?

Too often, cultural history concentrates on the initiators, the pioneers, and the facilitators, who are never more that a numerically tiny elite. I suppose this is fair enough: later generations want to know about the tensions in the Abbey Road Studios during the making of the White Album, which Beatle contributed what to which track, when and why Ringo walked out, and so on. But, in the end, what was the result of all that closely-observed Sturm und Drang? A mass-entertainment product of very mixed quality, marketed and sold to the general public by the million. The individual numbering on the sleeve of the "first edition" of The Beatles was quite consciously an ironic – you might even say a snobbish – comment on that, by comparing the album to a limited-edition multiple [2]. So, on one level, the narrative of the 1960s – of which the Beatles are the type specimen – is how a handful of young, working-class kids could start out as seedy dance-hall entertainers, with no ambition greater than a tour of Mecca ballrooms, and end up regarded and revered as world-changing "artists". Which is, no doubt, a great story. But it's not the whole story. In fact, the real story is what happened next, in the 1970s. Which, of course, as far as the more daring young members of the general public were concerned, is when "the 1960s" really happened [3].


1. It was not only in Britain, of course. Perhaps the most hilarious example of this is Bob Dylan's 1965 interview, featured in Scorsese's documentary, No Direction Home:

Reporter:  How many people who labor in the same musical vineyard in which you toil, how many are protest singers? That is, people who use their music, and use the songs to protest the, ah, social state in which we live today. The matter of war, the matter of crime, or whatever it might be.
Dylan: many??
Reporter:  Yes. How many?
Dylan:      Uh, I think there's about, uh ... 136.
Reporter: You say about 136, or do you mean exactly 136?
Dylan:      Uh, it's either 136 or 142.

2. It's also a bit of a con. Apparently, there were 12 pressing plants, all producing the same series of numbers in parallel.
3. Don't believe me? Look in your family photo album...

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

You Say It's Your Birthday

Tate Modern

At a certain precise chronologically / astronomically / astrologically [1] / biographically significant point over the weekend I became what is generally referred to as "65 years old". Which is late middle-age by any reckoning, and quite possibly even a first, tentative step into becoming "old". It certainly feels like one of those significant anniversaries, the ones that deserve a special space in the rack of greetings cards in the local stationery shop. My sister did actually find me an "On Your 65th Birthday" card, but, disappointingly, it did not come with one of those "I AM 65!" badges you get when you're ten. Which is a shame, as I'd have enjoyed wearing that, when we took the train up to London to meet our children, and visit the Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern, my birthday treat.

It's a funny old business, isn't it, the passing of time? They're a hundred years old, some of those Bonnard canvases, and yet something about them now seems very contemporary, unlike, say, an aeroplane or motor-vehicle of around the same vintage. Which may mean that art, as Ezra Pound said of literature, is news that stays news, or perhaps it simply means that art is stuck in certain recurring loops in ways that engineering isn't. Certainly, back in 1968/9, when those paintings would only have been fifty years old and the Beatles were coming to a fractious end, Bonnard could well have appeared a little dated. But it seems his time may have rolled around again.

Everything does and will always change, albeit at different rates and on different scales, especially if we humans cannot resist giving it a prod. This, as we are discovering to our cost, includes the climate, which you would have thought was quite changeable enough. The sort of cold snap with snow that we had in Britain recently is becoming quite a rarity these days, as unusual and as short-lived as our customary few days of hot, sunny summer. As I embark upon my anecdotage, I find myself remembering the more wintry winters of the last century, when snow would start by sending a thrill of excitement through the classroom, drag on for weeks, and end as a dreary, disruptive bore for those trying to get to work. And houses were really cold in those days! Central heating? What's that?

The other day I heard "Blackbird" from the 1968 album The Beatles on the radio (I think it was one of poet Wendy Cope's Desert Island Discs) and experienced an intense flashback to that very cold winter of 1968/69. I had asked for The Beatles (a.k.a. "The White Album") for Christmas that year and – entirely by accident, it must be said, if not entirely truthfully – I found it hidden in a cupboard. In the days before shrinkwrap, I was able to give it a couple of fairly thorough sneak pre-auditions, school having broken up for the holiday and both my parents being out at work all day. That year we had a white Christmas and, for me and I imagine for the thousands of others who bought or received the album that winter, the White Album has an indelible association with frosty air and snow on the ground. So, for old times' sake, I decided to put it on my 65th birthday wishlist.

The White Album has never been one of my favourite records: four sides of vinyl of which at least the equivalent of two sides are made up of lightweight tracks and filler (although Beatles-quality filler, obviously). The true Lennon-McCartney magic had faltered, and the record sits at an oddly sardonic angle to the new directions popular music was taking: several tracks seem to be heavy-handed parodies of other artists and styles. In fact, quite a few are parodies of the Beatles themselves, so that, for example, those middle-eight and chorus changes of rhythm, so brilliantly original in a song like "We Can Work It Out", have simply become an annoying stylistic tic. Worst of all, McCartney's love of whimsical pastiche and Lennon's daft sixth-form poetry had been allowed to run completely out of control. I don't think it would be controversial to say that many, if not most of the album's better tracks were actually written by George Harrison: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", "Long, Long, Long", "Savoy Truffle", and "Piggies".

Something very important was happening to the more serious-minded side of "pop" music around then. Like some mobile fluid suddenly setting into a crystalline form, music found certain hospitable modes of expression which became stable and are still with us now, remarkably, fifty years later. Compare, say, Simon and Garfunkel's Book Ends of 1968 with their Bridge Over Troubled Water of 1970. The former is strange, experimental, tentative, and clearly derives from the coffee-bar, beatnik era of the New York of the 1950s and early '60s; I doubt whether anyone under 60 even knows the album. The latter is end-to-end hits, most of which you will still hear on the radio today, with no sense of having passed their sell-by date. The Beatles, of all people, somehow couldn't make that transition, collectively, and the White Album is the fascinating residue, an experimental fluid that failed to crystallise out.

That strange and significant year 1968 had seen plenty of influential new musical departures, but the new year would see even more, things like the first Led Zeppelin LP and Stand Up (Jethro Tull), Unhalfbricking (Fairport Convention) and Basket of Light (Pentangle), Songs From A Room (Leonard Cohen) and Clouds (Joni Mitchell), just to mention the few that would eventually end up in my record box [2]. But there were dozens of other unobtainable treasures, too, whose empty sleeves we used to flip through ritually in the record racks in Boots or W.H. Smith on the way home from school, and most of which I still haven't heard to this day. In the end, I gave my copy of the White Album away early in the 1970s – I think I swapped it for something else, something more of the moment – and haven't heard most of those thirty tracks in the fifty years since I first guiltily put the needle of the family stereogram down onto side one, and heard the whistling jet engines and Beach Boys pastiche of "Back In The USSR". Fifty years! It seems enough time may have passed to give it another chance.

Hold VERY still, grumpy old man... Pinhole selfie

1. At birth in February 1954 I became "Aquarius, with Scorpio in the ascendant", or so I'm told. Whatever that means.
2. Figuratively speaking: there was a thriving exchange of home-made tapes going on between pocket-money-poor music fans... One Christmas present had many recipients.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Pin Board

Just a few more pinhole pictures from yesterday's experiment. Unlike today, when the weather has turned very wet and windy (thanks a lot, Storm Eric), it was a brisk sunny day, and I took a lengthy stroll through the municipal Hollybrook cemetery and its surroundings.

Southampton being both a major channel port and the site of a military hospital at Netley, a lot of wounded troops from both world wars and from both "sides" got evacuated here, and a fair number didn't make it. There are War Commission graves all over town, not least here: about 1900 men are memorialised, but most of these are not graves, just the names of those "lost at sea". One of the most poignant is the memorial to the S.S. Mendi, which was sunk in a collision in the Channel transporting men of the South African Native Labour Corps to France in 1917, over 600 of whom died. It was reported that Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, an interpreter who had previously been a Minister in the Congregational Native Church, addressed the men as the ship sank:
Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do...You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers...Swazis, Pondos, Basotho... So let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.

I think the main trick with pinhole photography is to anticipate its two main characteristics – severe vignetting and a liking for bold shapes and strong lighting contrasts – and compose with them in mind. When the weather clears up (after the weekend, if the forecast is correct) I'll head out somewhere suitable – maybe down by the waterfront? – with, yes, a tripod, and have a few more goes at getting it right. Or maybe just a monopod; I always feel such an idiot setting up a tripod I never actually do it. Which is the main reason I bought one that is reasonably compact and has its own shoulder bag...

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Pin Unsharp

Rummaging around in a drawer looking for something or other, I turned up something quite different that I'd forgotten I even had: a little round tin, about 2.5" in diameter, labelled "Pinwide: Micro Four Thirds Model. Designed in Chicago. Manufactured in the USA." Inside, there is what is essentially a Micro 4/3 body cap with a pinhole installed, giving a fixed aperture somewhere between f/96 and f/128, and a focal length of around 22mm in 35-mm terms. It's very cute, and – having succumbed to some well-pitched advertising – I had bought one on impulse, put it away, and promptly forgot all about it. Thinking about it, I last used a micro 4/3 camera, a Panasonic G3, when I was on a 10-day residency in Innsbruck in 2014. Almost immediately thereafter I switched to Fuji, and haven't looked back. Until today.

Pinhole photography was once a bit of a thing for me, when I was still using film. I removed the lens assemblies from several old box-style rollfilm cameras, and replaced them with pinholes I had made myself. I liked the idea of this most primitive of techniques, and admired the work of pinhole enthusiasts like Ruth Thorne-Thomsen and Abelardo Morell, but somehow the results never lived up to expectation. The need to use a tripod, for one thing, killed a lot of the spontaneity that is essential to my enjoyment of photography.

As far as I can recall, I've never actually tried using a pinhole on a digital camera before, so I dug out my Panasonic GF-1, charged up the battery, and headed out to experiment. Hand-held only, obviously.  [Top Tip: for this sort of non-electronic attachment to work, you need to set "SHOOT W/O LENS" to "ON"]. It was fun, just pointing the combination at things, and letting the auto function work out the exposure. The results were better than I expected, especially for hand-held shots at f/96: almost the right combination of mystery and photographic crappiness. So much so, I might even consider the next logical step. Yes, a tripod. And, yes, I do own one (another impulse buy that sits in the back of a cupboard somewhere). And, yes, I suppose this is another gear post...

Monday, 4 February 2019


Southampton City Golf Course

Among the many things I do not understand in this life, and which have probably marked me out as rather less than alpha male material, golf figures quite high. It's very striking, when you take the train up to London from Southampton, quite how much acreage has been allocated to this bizarre activity. What seem at first to be tumuli turn out to be bunkers and putting greens; what appears to be interesting parkland, glimpsed through trees, turns out to be stretches of fairway and rough. Every town seems to shade into golf courses at the edges.

Which is not to say that a golf course, as such, doesn't have quite a strong visual appeal. As it happens, two of our regular weekend walks take us through golf courses, which can be a slightly hazardous business: it's quite hard to spot an incoming, badly-sliced golf-ball. But the contrast of velvety greens and tussocky rough can look rather attractive in the right sort of light, only spoiled by the presence of golfers (are those strange clothes an essential part of the game?) and an overpowering sense of futility that hangs about the place like a chill mist. The recent snow has rendered our local municipal course unplayable, however, so it was a chance to wander about freely without fear of concussion.

Living among the semi-detached houses of suburban streets laid out on what were "green field" sites in the 1930s, as so many of us do, it's striking to realise that, at the very same time, eighty-plus years ago, acute observers like T.S. Eliot were already identifying a hollowness in what seemed to be happening to society, a busy purposelessness that the new, efficient network of roads and the game of golf somehow exemplified:
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.

Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore
I have given you the power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.

And the wind shall say: “Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”
from: Choruses from The Rock, 1934
To be sure, there's a snobbery there, but you don't have to share Eliot's Christian conservatism to appreciate the sentiment. In fact, I suspect that it is precisely at the other end of the political-confessional spectrum that we now look at golf with bafflement and suspicion. Mindless motoring, of course, is widely recognised as having become rather more than a spiritual sickness. But then, eighty years on, things that could once only be detected by the most fastidious antennae are now obvious to anyone. In Choruses from The Rock, Eliot's denunciation of our society's inclination to anaemic distractions and disinclination to make positive choices seems almost to have anticipated the draining of meaning from work by IT:
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
"Systems so perfect that no one will need to be good"... Or need to work, or even to get off the sofa. Never mind golf, I wonder what Eliot would have made of a Prime Minister with an Angry Birds habit? Somehow, I don't think he would have been surprised that a man like David Cameron would make an epically foolish choice, one that ended up sacrificing national for party interest, and then clear off to chillax and write a book about it all. Does Cameron play golf? Of course he does.

Southampton City Golf Course

Friday, 1 February 2019

Burning Man

No, not that Burning Man. This one is actually one of the model écorché (flayed) torsos to be found in the Royal Academy in London. When we encountered the word "écorché" on a visit there last September, I speculated to a friend that – given the way an initial acute "e" in French is often equivalent to an "s" in English – it might be connected with our word "scorched". It isn't, as far as I can determine, but the association must have sunk into my subconscious, the way these things do, only to re-emerge once I started putting disparate elements together in a photo-collage. A process which, in this case, began with the steamy "porthole" which, should you be curious, is actually part of the lid of our kettle.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Rain Theory

I was doing my photo-collage thing yesterday, when it struck me that certain pictures I have been working on in recent times have a rainy theme in common with some slightly older, as yet unused work. Clearly, there is potential for a new series there. The expression "rain theory" popped up in my mind, and I remembered it belonged to a set of photographs collected under that title, which I had assembled way back in the late 1990s. It was after I had learned to write HTML – "HyperText Markup Language", the coding that underlies the World Wide Web, and controls the display of "pages" containing text, images, and hyperlinks – and I was excited by the idea of creating CDs containing HTML pages as an inexpensive way of making and distributing interactive books of high-quality photographs, which anyone with a CD drive would be able to use. So I dug out one of the old Rain Theory CDs, as I didn't have any memory at all of what was actually on it.

I have to say I was both surprised and impressed. I'd completely forgotten what photographs were in the "sequence" – just twelve, in fact – and that all of them had been originated on medium-format film and scanned. The linking idea was that in the 1990s we had been experiencing some unusually severe summer droughts, and I realised I had been photographing the various water conservation methods that people (in particular gardeners and allotment keepers) had improvised. Visually, they could be seen as a variety of makeshift theories of what rain is, where it comes from, how it may be stored, and even, on the level of sympathetic magic, how it might be encouraged to fall. A nice idea, but fairly poorly executed, I have to say. I'm not surprised that people who saw my work at that time tended to look bemused. Some of the photographs are good, but some are not, and more than a little generosity must be deployed to see them as linked by the stated common theme. Although, as a classic example of a strong concept derived from and illustrated by rather less strong material, you might say I was ahead of the game...

However, I was impressed by the effort I'd put into the web-page design, especially the navigation. Each page is essentially a single image, with clickable areas designated by their mapped co-ordinates within the image. The "home" page (above) reproduces the CD cover image – a bold, text-only statement using a stencil typeface – but adds a "mouseover" navigation bar using simple numbers to link to the pages of the sequence, a question mark to link to a help page, and quotation marks to link to a page of text. Neat!

The images are presented as a series of six pairs, each pair on a numbered page, with one of the pair shown large, and both shown as medium-sized "thumbnails" (below). It's all done by graphical suggestion; very little is explicit. The hollow, clickable arrows are intended to indicate that the other image in the pair may be viewed in a large version, too (the whole area of the alternative image itself is also clickable), and clicking either the arrow or the image links to the alternative version of that same page, with the other photograph shown large. Simple! The numbered, clickable chevrons indicate how the previous or next pair in the sequence may be viewed.

Of course, I'd probably make some very difference choices now, not least because far more sophisticated user interfaces and designs are possible, with the addition of CSS ("cascading style sheets"), JavaScript, and whatever has evolved since I retired in 2014. Although it's true my knowledge of HTML, Perl, CGI, and all the rest of it has now gone to the same dark place in my mind as Latin conjugations and declensions. But, looked at now, I find I still enjoy the simple, "pre-Windows", through-designed look I came up with in 1998. Each page has the appearance of an interactive postcard. Only one very important thing has been "broken" by subsequent developments: it seems a CD with an "autorun" file will no longer automatically fire up a web-browser and open the designated "home" page when put in a drive, which means you have to start the thing up yourself by identifying and double-clicking the relevant file, which defeats the whole point. Distributing primitive, home-made e-books on CD using HTML pages is no longer practical.

Mind you, I don't now recall if I ever sent anyone a copy of this or any of the other, similar (and better!) projects I came up with before "Web 2.0", social media, real e-books, and online, on-demand publishers like Blurb rendered the whole approach redundant. Twenty years is a long time, but it's an eternity in tech-years. I do hope that in another twenty my efforts won't have become as unreadable as Ogham or Linear B. But given that then, with any luck, I'll be a couple of weeks away from my 85th birthday, I may not care about it all that much.