Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Summer Term?


Deserted campus...

It was with some consternation that I learned that my daughter, a first year university student, would be coming home for the Easter break and not returning to university, other than to submit some assessed coursework.  It's the kind of thing that causes dark thoughts to crowd in on a parent. Is she unhappy?  Is she unwell?  Or is she still not capable of reading a calendar properly?

But, no.  It seems most of her friends have already gone home, and will also only be returning to take exams or hand in essays.  Their summer term will be very short --a single month -- and is an "assessment period", in which no teaching takes place.  For them, the academic year is effectively over.  Really? And all this for a mere £9000 p.a.!

After I'd made a few enquiries and done a few comparative sums, it emerged that quite a few universities are quietly shrinking the teaching year from the traditional three ten-week terms to an Oxbridge-style 24 weeks, sometimes split into two longish 12-week terms, sometimes spread in a complex overlay of two "semesters" over three terms.  In the process, it appears that some are abolishing the summer term.  At those institutions the student year, as a communal experience, now simply fizzles out in April.

I have to say I am amazed.  The 1970s, when I was a student, may be slipping into history -- incredibly, 1974 is as far in the past now as 1934 was back then -- but I still recall those summer terms vividly.  When people talk of the Student Experience (and they do, incessantly and anxiously, within university circles*) it is surely that sequence of year-end terms they ought to have in mind.   Whether it was the compression of a few years of neglected study into a month of cramming in the run-up to finals, or the bliss of a couple of summer months without the pressure of exams, those weeks from Easter until mid-June were an intensely-lived experience. It was, traditionally, a time when undergraduates -- mainly destined for worthy but dusty careers in public service -- got to behave, briefly but memorably, like the decadent idle rich, in a sort of swot's heaven.  I think I even once went punting in a Laura Ashley dress, though I may be making that up.

By contrast, a sort of alienated, lonely drifting-away in April is not the stuff of fond memories.  We seem to be moving towards an industrial efficiency in graduate throughput that may, I suspect, presage a move to intensive two-year degrees.  I'm not sure what the actual benefit of a factory-farmed, leisure-free degree would be: it seems like an academic version of the bean-counter's fallacy that 100 men can dig the same hole 100 times faster than one man.  My vision of the Degree-in-Pill-Form starts to seem less satirical.  It's yet another step down the road that leads to Ant World, where any moment not spent on achieving carefully-aligned national, corporate and personal goals by approved methods is a wasted moment. Possibly, eventually, a criminal moment.

This is not even to mention the prospect of bored young adults hanging around the parental home for four long summer months -- heh, as if that were even a problem! -- or trying, hopelessly, to enter the job market temporarily which so many long to join permanently.  Once upon a time, of course, as well as there being full, serial maintenance grants, all students were entitled to sign on for Supplementary Benefit (a.k.a. The Dole) during university vacations.  No, really: I remember those weekly Giro cheques with great fondness.

Ah, the world we have lost...  And all because nobody wants to pay taxes any more.



* The hope is to make the Student Experience at your institution so compelling that (a) school-leavers choose you, rather than the competition, and (b) graduates (sorry: alumni) remember you with such fondness they feel inclined to bestow regular gifts of cash (to make up for those taxes they don't want to pay).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Easing the Spring



To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
          And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
          Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
          Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
          They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
          For to-day we have naming of parts.


"Naming of Parts", by Henry Reed


Thursday, April 10, 2014

March Past



I haven't been over to the Hockley Viaduct for some weeks, mainly due to the weather, so here's a suitably spring-like image from late March.  This is one of those shots I have taken repeatedly over the past few years.  I like the way that trunk obscures the view of the viaduct, and gives an ambiguous sense of discovery, revelation, and concealment to the picture.

This is as much a necessity as an aesthetic choice.  To get this shot, I have to push through a gap in the shrubs and saplings lining the road, and balance on a very small, often slippery piece of level ground, above where the bank shelves steeply down into a culvert, heavily overgrown with thorns.  The tree is just there -- large, close (but out of reach), and in the way -- so it's a simple case of use it or lose it. Or lean waay out over to the right.  I have generally decided to use it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Kiosk Collage



On a wet, drab Monday lunchtime, there is a pleasing, diffused lighting-effect to be found inside a telephone kiosk, rather like a large, vertical light-table.  It's nice and dry, too.

I like the palimpsest of stickers and posters that builds up on the more prominently-situated kiosks.  It's an effect reminiscent of those modernist and Dada collages that were first made, incredibly, 100 years ago.  Whatever did happen to that scissors-and-paste modernity?

Sometimes -- in fact, most of the time -- it seems impossible to imagine what comes next, as if we were stuck in an eternal present, facing helplessly back towards the past watching it pile up, as in Walter Benjamin's famous description of Angelus Novus, a monoprint by Paul Klee that he used to own.  The knowledge that things are, in effect, changing radically in unimaginable ways behind your back is either exhilarating or terrifying, depending on your mood, age, and frame of mind.

Today, after a successful upgrade to our library management system software -- probably the last I will ever oversee -- it all seems perfectly benign.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Tourist from Mars



It was once suggested that, in the end, there are only two stories:  A Person Goes on a Journey, and A Stranger Comes to Town.  As an analytical tool, this is pretty feeble.  You might as well further reduce those two to their lowest common denominator, and say there is only one story:  When People Get Around Stuff Happens.  True enough, but even more useless.  So what about stories where people turn into giant beetles? Or lament the impossibility of even travelling to the next village?

But there is a truth there.  Far down in the archaeological layers of the human spirit, there's an urge to move on, to see what lies over those hills.  Much of civilization comes down to ways of persuading the young that this might not be such a good idea.  Why not stick around and do something useful, instead? That washing up won't do itself!  But the gene pool urges a different, deeper story: listen, why not go and see if the girls in the next village are as pretty as they say?  Hmm? Otherwise we'll probably all end up as giant beetles.  Hey, is it your turn to feed Ugly Franz, or mine?

Over on another blog I occasionally frequent, the topic of travel vs. tourism often comes up.  You know, proper travel: running out of cash after six months -- ideally somewhere that doesn't have running water, electricity, or use the roman alphabet -- and trusting to your native wit and the kindness of strangers (plus a supersized, western-style helping of luck) to avoid ending up robbed, raped, and dead in a ditch.  It's scary stuff, independent travel, at least in retrospect. Travellers' tales so often seem to be hymns to blissful ignorance, near-miss horror stories that usually hinge on the tolerance and forbearance of the resident population.

The great paradox of travel is that, as temporary, uninvited and marginal guests -- often in tradition-bound, dictatorial and corrupt societies from which the locals themselves would dearly like to escape -- we act as ambassadors for the hard-won comforts of our liberal, technological democracies back home, advantages dismissed by most hardcore western drifters as inauthentic.  Like players in some global game of trust, the abandon with which we cast ourselves adrift is seen as a measure of personal integrity.  The bragging rights of travel are earned, not by wisdom ("I decided not to wade into the crocodile-infested waters"), but by dumb luck ("As luck would have it, the crocodile that swallowed the bag containing all my cash and documents was caught downstream, and I was able to buy my passport back from the local police, three months later, with the cash I earned by [censored]".

Much-despised tourists, by contrast, are welcome guests everywhere.  They spend lots more money, and are perfectly happy to be corralled, herded and milked as a seasonal resource, risking nothing more irksome than a room with a view blocked by the hotel next door.  The local businessmen must beam upon those glistening hides, as they bake in the sun, like farmers admiring a prime dairy herd.


I am unusually stirred by this subject at the moment, because I have a little adventure of my own coming up.  In June, I will be having another exhibition at the Fotoforum in Innsbruck, Austria (thanks to Rupert Larl).  This time, I have agreed to attend and give an opening night presentation, and have been asked to stay on and do a short photo-project in the Tyrol (double thanks, Rupert!).  As you can imagine, this is both exciting and terrifying, partly because I am prone to attacks of Impostor Syndrome, partly because my spoken German is pretty rusty, but also because of the tourist / traveller thing.

Although I have travelled in the past, I am, at heart, a native.  It has taken something in the order of a decade of constantly photographing a very few, very local beats to emerge as a photographer with some small degree of originality, preceded by another decade in which the clichés and false steps were worked out of my system, not by avoiding them but by making them.  I cringe when I look back at my contact sheets from, say, 1995. But that's just how it works -- the 10,000 hours, and all that.

Now, if anything worthwhile (photographically) is to come of my time in the Tyrol, I need to compress that 10-year process into about 10 days.  I think I can probably bypass the worst clichés -- we all know what they look like, whether perpetrated by tourists or landscape-porn professionals -- but the Austrian Alps are hardly photographic terra incognita; it's ground that has been thoroughly worked over since the invention of photography. Heard of Heinrich Kuehn, the pioneer of autochrome in the 1900s?  He was an Innsbruck resident.  There is also no shortage of contemporary Austrian photographers: wherever you look, wherever you go, it will be someone's well-trodden personal turf.  That is not even to mention the thousands of tourist snaps that must be taken every year.

Heinrich Kuehn, 1912

The hope, and the challenge, of course, is that dropping a keen-eyed stranger into such thoroughly pre-visualized territory (one is tempted to call it a hyperreal space) will deliver a fresh perspective.  Well, let's hope so.  I intend to be a tourist from Mars, combining the curiosity of a traveller with the voracity of a tourist, and avoiding the crocodiles wherever possible.

It may even be -- and this is just a thought -- that the best subject may not be the magnificent landscape, or the "real" Austria, but the tourists themselves, and the industry that surrounds them.  I have, after all, been there, done that.  But not for a very long time.

Near Tarrenz, Tyrol, summer 1966


Saturday, April 5, 2014

You Again

Marina Abramović is back in the news.  She is the ne plus ultra of performance art, the test case, working at the borderline where narcissism, obsession, insanity, sheer daftness, and that nebulous thing called "art" ebb and flow.  She is the self-styled "grandmother of performance art", with the stories and the scars to prove it.

I'm not much interested in her work, as such, but the story of her relationship with fellow nutter-cum-artist Ulay is deeply fascinating to me.  They met in 1976, and formed an intense folie à deux that found expression in some (now) famous performance pieces:  breathing mouth-to-mouth until they both pass out from lack of oxygen, alternately slapping each other in the face until one or other is unable to continue, bellowing incoherently at each other for hours -- just the usual stuff of any intense relationship, no?  We've all been there, though not generally before a public audience...

But:
In 1988, after several years of tense relations, Abramović and Ulay decided to make a spiritual journey which would end their relationship. Each of them walked the Great Wall of China, starting from the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle. As Abramović described it: “That walk became a complete personal drama. Ulay started from the Gobi Desert and I from the Yellow Sea. After each of us walked 2500 km, we met in the middle and said good-bye". Abramović conceived this walk in a dream, and it provided what she thought was an appropriate, romantic ending to a relationship full of mysticism, energy, and attraction. She later described the process: “We needed a certain form of ending, after this huge distance walking towards each other. It is very human. It is in a way more dramatic, more like a film ending … Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do.”
(from Wikipedia's Abramovic article)
The thing is, having decided to end their relationship as a grandiose piece of performance art, they never met again.

In 2010, Abramović gave her most famous performance, "The Artist is Present", at New York's MOMA, in which she shared a period of silence with each of an endless queue of visitors to the gallery, sat opposite each other at a small table.  After their 22 year separation, Ulay simply turned up.  You can witness what happened here on YouTube.

Despite the fact that some of those present clearly knew what was happening, suggesting it was not quite as spontaneous as it might seem, it is nevertheless a very moving moment, and in a spirit quite different from the studied, stony-faced mask of the performance.  It's an undeniable moment of humanity, interrupting -- and, surely, undermining -- an art-form which can seem little more than sterile narcissism, onto which we are free to project whatever we care to or need to.  Which may, of course, have been the point all along.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Derby Day


File:PaulStrandBowlerHat.jpg
Paul Strand, Man in a Bowler Hat, 1916

I try to avoid the topic of hats on this blog, for obvious reasons.  But I was idly "researching" (i.e. surfing) the subject of bowler hats, when I came across this photograph by Paul Strand.  Does it remind you of anyone? Surely that is none other than Keith Richards?  I mean, I'm not going to suggest that Keef is one of the Undead (no need), but ...

Uncanny.

[Little-known Keef Fact #47: Richards sang as a boy soprano at Westminster Abbey for the Coronation of Elizabeth II.  No, really.]

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Blades

The shifts in light and atmosphere at this time of year can be extreme.  At 8:00 a.m. on 1st April there was a heavy, drifting fog shrouding and diffusing everything.

Then, by 12:30 p.m. the sun was bright in a clear sky.  As it raked down this bank, it caught the emerging green shoots in a dramatic, stage-lighting effect.  Rarely has the expression "blades of grass" seemed so appropriate. Or maybe "light-sabres of grass" would be better.


Without the barrier, of course, it would be nothing...

Later, as I drove home, a hailstorm pounded on the roof of my car. The hailstones were falling so hard they were invisible, and appeared to be pinging up out of the road, like popcorn.  By the time I got home, the sun was out again.  Perfectly normal April weather, of course.  However, yesterday and today things turned weird as the "Saharan Smog" enveloped the South Coast, somehow muffling everything in a blanket of smoky fog.  You can feel the soft grit on your teeth after even a short walk.  I decided not to risk scratching my lens coatings ...

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sunshine Superman



My Becher-like taxonomical pursuit of the decorative possibilities of barrier-tape and plastic mesh fencing may be beyond the grasp of some readers (not so much "Mysterious Barricades" as "Downright Baffling Obstacles"), but these daily five-finger exercises do at least give me a reason to get off my backside at lunchtime and beat the bounds of the campus.

I don't know whether it's just that I've become a familiar loony, like the alleged sometime professor of Maths who used to wander the place shouting incomprehensible greetings and occasionally dropping his trousers (whatever happened to him, I wonder?), but I rarely attract any attention when I'm about my photographic business.  Today, however, was different.

I was hunkered down inside my favourite telephone booth, squinting at the fresh tape-marks and abrasions in the sunshine, when the door was opened.  I assumed that, by malign coincidence, the only person on campus without a mobile phone wanted to use the pay-phone.  "Sorry," I said, "I'll come out."  "No," the person said, "I just wondered what you were doing?"

Now, I suppose it's possible that, from the outside, it may have looked a bit odd, suspicious even, to see a man squatting down inside a phone booth.  But it takes a certain kind of guileless curiosity, actually to open the kiosk door and ask what's going on.  I must admit I was tempted to play the situation for laughs  -- quite a few obvious turns on telephone booth tropes sprang instantly to mind -- but instead waggled my camera, and said, cheerily, "Taking photographs!"  "But why?  What on earth of?" he said.

This is always a tricky one to negotiate.  I could see he was genuinely baffled, and perhaps even concerned for my sanity.  It's easy to forget, quite how far beyond most people's concept of "normal" any photography is that does not involve close relatives or safely-accredited subjects (sunsets, kittens, porn, etc.).  The beauty of digital cameras, however, is that you can show, not tell.  "Here," I said, "Have a look", and put the camera into "chimping" mode.  I showed him the image below.

I could see he wasn't convinced.  Which was quite disappointing, and even a little insulting, so -- with my best "Good day to you, sir!" expression -- I firmly shut the door and carried on.  There's none so blind as they that will not see.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Temple

Architects can be remarkably insensitive about any aspect of their projects not intended to be seen from the street.  They always have been: go behind the glorious facade of any Georgian terrace in, say, Bath, and be prepared to be amazed (and not in a good way).  Costs are costs, and speculative clients will always demand that they are minimised.  Round the back is where the corners get cut.

Of course, there is a utilitarian "big barn" philosophy that says, in effect, I don't care what this thing looks like from any angle; it's a carpet superstore, for Richard Rogers' sake, not a cathedral.  But you have the aesthetic poverty of the 21st century built environment, right there.  Who cares what "ordinary" looks like? Is there anything more soulless than those clusters of steel-frame, aluminium-clad cubes that dominate light-industrial and retail "parks"?  The liveried employees grabbing a fag in the service area around the back are the true animae loci of such places -- furtive, temporary, alienated, dispensible.  There's a photo-project there for someone, but not me.

Take, for example, our campus swimming pool.  From the front, an attractive expanse of smoked glass and glazed terra cotta tile; from behind, a bleak cube of corrugated metal siding.  Well, fine; it can't be seen from the street.  But it seems not to have occurred to anyone that this giant silver-grey brick with its drainpipes would dominate the view from the "recreational space" of the Valley Garden.



Mind you, if you get really close up, sneaking around the service paths, and maybe squeezing through the odd fence, there's a curious sub-tropical ambience of heat and light created by the reflective surfaces which I, for one, find quite interesting.  Nature is encroaching on this fresh wound at the micro level -- algae and moss -- and at the macro level -- vigorous sapling growth.  Give it a decade, and the thing may have vanished like a Mayan temple swallowed by the jungles of Central America.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Obliterated



If there's one thing I will regret when I retire later this year, it's not being able to spend my lunch hour wandering around such a visually-rich environment.  Today, with a bit of alternating sunshine and rain, was perfect: after about 20 minutes I was in the zone and stumbled back into work like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.

Which reminds me, it's time I watched that film again...
The heads. You're looking at the heads. I, ah... Sometimes he goes too far. He's the first one to admit it...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Later



Later, on the same morning as yesterday's post, it clouded over and drizzled a fine rain.  Those are the steps on which I stood to take yesterday's photograph, several hours earlier.  The lime-stains on the new-ish buff brickwork make a nicely ironic echo of the bright shapes of the reflected glass windows in that earlier image.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these inevitable stains and discolorations, that always appear within a year or two of the completion of a new building, never figure in the architect's renderings, and yet they do give a sort of character and interest to bland expanses of brickwork.  Just wait until those railings really start to corrode, and bleed rusty red trails down the facade...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Early One Morning



The oddest places, even the most mundane corners, can be touched with a bit of magic,  first thing on a bright March morning...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Equinox

A couple of days late, maybe, but still to the point. Look, what's that strange, beckoning shape over there?


It's the gateway where days begin to be longer than nights.


Not long now, and the swifts will be here.  Time to quote Ted Hughes:
"Look! They’re back! Look!" And they’re gone
On a steep

Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

For air-chills -- are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance

Behind elms.
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come --
And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror. Frog-gapers,
Speedway goggles, international mobsters...


from: Swifts
The globe's still working (we hope) ... 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Socialist Sorcery

I haven't written anything about the deaths last week of two of our most prominent socialist personalities, Tony Benn and Bob Crow, because I don't really have a great deal to say.  Unless you suspect some sort of co-ordinated assassination plot -- unlikely, given that the two of them were probably the Right's greatest media assets -- it merely seems one of those odd coincidences that might, at most, reinforce a belief in astrology.

As a radio listener, primarily, I always thought of Bob Crow as as a fat man with a thin man's voice, and Tony Benn as a thin man with a fat man's voice.  Profound, eh?  I did hear Tony Benn speak a few times in my days as a NALGO activist in Bristol, and shook his hand twice: he was our local MP in those days, and would often come along to address our meetings, especially in those early years of the Thatcher government, when it seemed that there was still everything to fight for.  As many have said in their Benn obituaries, he was a mesmerising, old-school orator, but one whose spell-binding effect lasted precisely until you stepped out of the meeting-hall and breathed the tobacco-free air.  His career as a politician was somewhat similar: he could move rhetorical mountains while he spoke, but diminished into a smouldering, jut-jawed sulk as soon as he stopped.

But, talking of spells and astrology, I heard Tony Benn read some extracts from his famous diaries on Radio 4 on Thursday morning, covering the early Blair years.  At one point he described exchanging gifts at Christmas, and how he'd given his wife Caroline, an academic and educational reformer, an aromatherapy kit, which struck me as an odd choice.  I was then slightly astonished to hear Benn describe, in those familiar, measured, rational cadences, how -- it being a full moon -- Caroline had gone out into the garden that night to bury half a potato, in order to charm away a wart.

Eh? Witchcraft! Who knew?  But, I must say, I felt rather fonder of the whole Benn Family Project, knowing such things had gone on in their Holland Park home, and that he felt able to share them with us.  I wonder if there was a little Blair mannekin stuck with pins somewhere in the house?  I do hope so...  It would have been a sort of Blair witch project, wouldn't it?


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Timber!

Waiting at home for a British Gas engineer to call, I listened to this morning's In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg's wonderfully informative weekly series, where he chairs a discussion between three academics on a topic of interest.  This morning it was the philosopher bishop, George Berkeley, amazingly apposite to this post, which I began yesterday evening.  If a tree falls on the university campus, and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  I think I'm an unsubtle Johnsonian on this matter, i.e. don't be a bloody idiot, bish, of course it does. 


It was a monster, this time, a 40-foot conifer, crashed across and blocking a groundsmen's access track leading out of the Valley Garden.  It looked pretty recently fallen, as no-one had even trimmed the branches, never mind attempted to saw up the immense, gnarly trunk. It seems the recent biblical rains have softened the ground to the extent that many trees are in imminent danger of falling in the slightest breeze.

The thing is, trees are heavy.  I mean, really, really heavy.  This sounds obvious, but the sheer weight of timber in a mature tree is not uppermost in your mind, as you watch its branches swaying in the wind.  Trees have a curiously weightless, anti-gravity quality about them; in a storm, you could imagine them just blowing away like dandelion seeds.  It's only when one topples over that your view of its properties changes quite quickly.  It transmutes from a gracefully vertical adornment in the landscape to an inert, horizontal obstacle, a deadweight capable of crushing a car like a beer-can.


I remember vividly one night on a summer holiday in the Scottish Borders.  We were staying in a friend's cottage near Jedburgh, and had been out for most of the day.  Driving back along a narrow lane after dark, I screeched to a halt when the leafy mass of a fallen tree appeared in the headlights, blocking the road ahead.  It wasn't particularly large -- the trunk can't have been more than eight inches in diameter -- so I got out and attempted to heave it off the road.

I simply couldn't lift it; it was as if someone had bolted it to the road for a laugh.  I think the kids thought I was pretending, the way us dads do sometimes, when you know perfectly well you can toss this particular caber over the hedge quicker than you can say "call the RAC!"  At least, I think that was the reason for the hoots of laughter emanating from the car.

Another vehicle had by now pulled up on the other side of the tree.  Our combined efforts still failed to move it.  Across the leafy barrier I asked whether there was an alternative route, but got the Scottish version of "Well, I don't think you can't get there from here..."    Luckily, we never leave home without a set of the local Ordnance Survey maps.  In the end, the only thing to do was to go back several miles, cross the valley, map-reading by torchlight, and follow a circuitous route that eventually approached our destination from behind.

By the way, it seems Berkeley never really said the thing about the tree.  Though Johnson definitely did kick the rock.  "Thus I refute him, sir! OW!!  Damn it, Boswell, don't just stand there laughing, I think I may have broken something..."

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

New Rings

Consternation in the museum.  Two rings of apparently 20th century design have now shown up, both made of decorative glass in a sub-Cubist style, one possibly dated "1923".  This raises interesting questions about the provenance and purpose of all the previously recovered artefacts.  Speculation is rife.



Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Head of a Dead Cat



Ah, Marcel Duchamp!  It seems he's not the messiah, but a very naughty boy.
"To a large extent, the art world today represents the institutionalization of Duchamp’s early-twentieth-century pranks. The great irony is that Duchamp intended not to extend the boundaries of art but to short-circuit the entire project of aesthetic delectation. “I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into to their faces as a challenge,” he noted contemptuously, “and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.” Duchamp had the courage of his contempt. He gave up on art entirely and devoted himself to chess."

From: The New Criterion, Volume 32 March 2014, "But is it Art?"
The New Criterion has a pretty conservative (and, in this case, slightly misleading) take on art, but when, as increasingly does seem to be the case, the cynics and nihilists find themselves running the show and acting as gatekeepers -- deciding who gets to join the private In-Crowd party where exhibitions, book deals and funding are given away -- it's probably time for a little conservatism.

After all, you can only really go in for épater la bourgeoisie so long as you are scrupulous about keeping your own snout out of the bourgeois trough.  It's like parricidal sniping from the sidelines (such a satisfying activity when you're young): it has to stop, when you find you are the only father-figure left standing in the room.


When I was a young man, I invented (or came across) a formula that I considered very profound.  It went:
Nothing matters, therefore everything matters.  Everything matters, therefore nothing matters.
It's a delightfully ironic position, one where absurdity meets eternity, and the choice is always open between doing the right thing and staying in bed. Far out! When you're young, and life is a bewildering and exciting maze of choices, and you're standing at the entrance with your crisp, new, unclipped ticket, wondering which way to go, it's not a bad stance to take.  No hurry...

Forty years later, lost deep in the maze, and fully conscious that there really is only one way out of here, you find you're only too aware that choices have consequences, but also of the paradox that you are where you are because of the choices you have made and yet -- whatever choices you had made -- you would always have ended up here, and never there.  Perhaps it's time to sit down on a bench in the sun, fish that old mantra out of a deep pocket, and contemplate it again.


Mind you, I think Duchamp knew, or sensed, more than he was letting on.  Here's a story from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps' collection of Zen teaching stories:
Sozan, a Chinese Zen master, was asked by a student: ‘What is the most valuable thing in the world?’
 The master replied: ‘The head of a dead cat.’
 ‘Why is the head of a dead cat the most valuable thing in the world?’ inquired the student.
 Sozan replied: ‘Because no one can name its price.’
As they say, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Among Broken Pines

There's nothing quite like a heavy fog to add a bit of mystery to your morning walk to work, especially when you can take a detour -- a dérive, maybe -- along the edge of a covered reservoir on Southampton Common.






Yellow





Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's The Real Thing



Accept no substitutes, they say.  For what?  Why, for the Real Thing!

But what is the Real Thing?  Everything is real, isn't it?  Apart from imaginary things (and a good case could be made for their reality, too).  PVC is every bit as real as hand-tanned hide.  What is meant, of course, is that real leather is better than its substitutes, because it is the thing for which they are mere surrogates.  We still assign primacy to materials and methods which were long ago superseded in the mass market.

For some, the Real Thing persists as a shadowy ideal, standing behind the ersatz approximations that we encounter in the, ah, real world.  I suppose a paper bag of plums from a market-stall does somehow feel more authentic than a plastic supermarket pre-pack, doesn't it? In the ideal world of Real Thing enthusiasts, everything would be manufactured to the standard of a Swiss watch, and delivered in a wooden box with proper dovetail joints, or perhaps wrapped in straw and waxed-paper, and packed in hand-crafted baskets or ceramic pots.

Once upon a time, of course, this ideal world was the real world inhabited by the wealthy. Nowadays, though, even the wealthy are content with the good-enough quality of mass-market goods; no-one expects the cabinet of a TV or a PC to be made of French-polished mahogany with gold-plated knobs.  That's why the Hasselblad Lunar is so risible.  I believe even the Queen helps herself to muesli from a Tupperware plastic box.  But authenticity and truth to materials are, in fact, as much matters of design and taste as vintage or tradition: so perhaps Tupperware, like the iPhone, is the Real Thing?


In the aesthetic realm, the Real Thing used to be the canon: those supreme works of the human spirit that stood, marmoreally eternal and unchallengeable, as the stern measure of everything else. In the late 20th century, we began to feel oppressed by these Nobodaddy superegos -- and rightly so -- and knocked them all over.  Free at last!

Now, there is a basic move in therapy, which is learning to say "I feel this is bad" rather than "this is bad".  It's a very simple, but very empowering shift in emphasis.  A similar, therapeutic move has happened with aesthetic judgements.  We have learned to say, "I feel this to be beautiful" rather than "this is beautiful", in the process disempowering a whole class of culture gurus, handing down their Olympian judgements.  That distinction between essence (this is) and experience (I feel) is an important part of contemporary culture.  But in a world where everyone, it seems, is compulsively sharing contradictory views on everything all the time, you could find yourself longing for culture-gurus and a fixed canon again, if only to expedite the process of finding the genuine article.

For -- reluctant as some might be to admit it -- there is a Real Thing, isn't there?  Or rather, a range of things that remain "real" for longer than most things.  Perhaps not eternally, and certainly not for everyone, but there is a cultural top drawer that holds works by Bach and Beethoven, John Coltrane and Joni Mitchell, and even the likes of Abba and AC/DC.  A "real" work of art doesn't have to be outstandingly original; in the end, everything is derivative of something else. The condition may not even last within an artistic lifetime, either: the Beatles produced the Real Thing up to but not including the White Album, and neither Lennon nor McCartney proved capable of the Real Thing separately.*

Authenticity is never a permanent condition in art, because all art has a mutable aspect, which is often overlooked:  the reception and use of works of art by audiences.  Without that, all you have is the sound of one hand clapping.  Keats was the poetic touchstone of the 19th century; now, many of us find his antiquated style  -- and not just all those thees and thous -- gets in the way.  "Verdurous glooms"?  "Blushful Hippocrene"?  Really, John?  The words haven't changed, but we have.  The volume of the applause is gradually fading.


Unless you are some sort of bloodless connoisseur, what you are seeking, in this pursuit of the Real Thing, amounts to a physiological response.  We talk of the chills, goosebumps, involuntary tears, hairs bristling, the spine tingling, a quickening of the pulse...  We know the Real Thing when we encounter it, because we feel it.  It is not the art object itself, or a property built into it by its creator, but an experience, felt when a mysterious, elusive wire joins the two poles -- work and audience -- and delivers an unmistakable, authentic jolt.  Everything else is just a way of passing the time.

Whether you regard this as a spiritual or a material experience is a matter of inclination.  When you sit among a rapt, wet-faced audience as King Lear soars to its conclusion -- "Never, never, never, never, never!" -- I doubt it matters much whether half the audience are right, and half wrong, about why this is happening to them.  Similarly with a good joke: no amount of analysis will make it any funnier, or enable you to come up with another one.  No doubt if the right area of the brain could be identified and stimulated, the same experience would be triggered.  But that would be a simulacrum**, not the real Real Thing.

That leaves the important question of how necessary it is to educate this response.  Is it OK to leave kids happily swilling Coke and only Coke into middle age (the Real Thing, allegedly), or should we attempt to broaden their horizons, in a world that also includes teas, coffees, beers, fine wines and single malt whiskies?  Are these "acquired tastes" more satisfying? Another time...



* IMHO. Not even "Imagine"?  Not really...

** I'm aware that this word has a technical use in deconstruction which is relevant to these reflections -- see Baudrillard and Deleuze --but we don't care about them any more, do we?  "So bad it's good" / "So unreal it's hyperreal" is fun, but you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our  fate.  So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunshine?

Two sunny early spring days in a row...  It's a bit intoxicating, after such a dismal winter.  Never mind the brimstone butterflies in the garden, and the platoons of ladybirds emerging from the eaves of our house: I spotted the first shirtless men in the garden of our nearest pub, showing off their tattooed "sleeves".  Weird.  You could see the goosebumps even through the ink...  Careful, guys:  cast not a clout 'til May (or, more likely, June) be out, and even then do keep a vest on, please.  I blame that Vladimir Putin.





Friday, March 7, 2014

Shades of Grey

Sometimes, when the light is dull and the contrasts are subtle, as was the case yesterday, monochrome does it best.






Working mainly with colour, as most of us do nowadays, it's easy to forget the importance of pure tone.  It used to be what photography was all about.  A wise photographer once said to me that no-one should be allowed to use colour until they have mastered black and white.  You might say it is the equivalent of drawing in relation to painting -- splashing colours about is fun, but leads nowhere very interesting without the underlying disciplines of line, shape, volume, tone, and balance.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Game of Doubles

Dodging the rain on campus on Monday, my sub-conscious mind must have registered the various doublings between and within these two quick shots, separated by about four hours (both with Fuji X100).  Or maybe I was just in an uphill kind of mood that day, and coincidence played its habitual part, who can say?

That was a truly stonking rainbow, though, which I have actually toned down a little: one of the guys on the path pulled out his mobile to photograph it himself shortly thereafter.  I would have liked to have isolated the Nuffield and the sculpture-with-no-name with the rainbow, but that's the price of not having a zoom (or not carrying two cameras).




A good thing about the X100 is that, having a less prominent "snout" than most cameras with an APS-C sensor (never mind one fitted with an f/2 lens), it slips neatly and safely away beneath your coat during rain showers, without snagging on inner pockets and linings.  I can imagine it would be a good, discreet camera to have on holiday walkabouts.  Its retro looks give it a usefully harmless, touristy appearance, too, quite different from putting a bulbous, stealth-bomber-black DSLR up to your eye.

Mind you, I suppose from now on anyone not using their phone to take a picture is going to be pretty conspicuous, anyway.  Though not as conspicuous as those twits who use their iPad as a camera.  How unreflectingly, un-selfconsciously idiotic do you have to be, to do that in a public place?  It's kind of magnificent, in an annoying sort of way.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Culture Club

I once had a teacher who was a very cultivated man, in a conservative sort of way.  Having himself gone from a state grammar school to Cambridge, where he became a disciple of F.R. Leavis and earned a Ph.D. in German literature, his commitment to state education was such that he dedicated his life to secondary school language teaching in a New Town, just a few miles -- geographically -- from his own home town.  Culturally, the distance from his historic market-town to the brash new council estates of Stevenage was rather greater than those few miles, and from Cambridge, just 25 miles away by road or rail, the cultural mileage was astronomical.

Born in the 1950s, ours was the first "new town native" generation to pass through a school which had, in one form or another, existed on its site by the Great North Road since 1558, catering to the educational needs of the sons of the gentry of rural north Hertfordshire.  Like the "old town" -- actually little more than a village -- which had been engulfed by the New Town, the school found itself the bewildered victim of a hostile takeover.

Clever boys from homes with zero "cultural capital" were clearly a challenge to the teaching staff, most of whom were heavily invested in what we might call Establishment Culture.  They played in amateur string quartets, were the backbone of local sports teams and dramatic societies, and served on committees and ran youth clubs.  Quite a few were evangelical Christians or Labour Party activists.

Seen from their vantage point, the poverty of our legacy was very real.  Our homes were book-free zones, and by 1970 the New Town was a cultural wasteland, with no theatre, no concert hall, no cinema, no gallery, no museum, no nothin', other than a library, a swimming-pool, a bowling-alley, and a dance-hall.  Our teachers tried to engage us in "improving" pursuits.  The problem was, we weren't listening.

School magazine 1966
(Po-Mo avant la lettre...)

Why?  Because we were also the first generation to have grown up during the supernova phase of pop culture.  Nothing at school -- particularly lo-fi activities like school plays, debating societies, magazines, and orchestras -- could compete with the extra-mural excitements of the years 1963-72.  Pop culture roared in to fill the cultural vacuum at home.  Girls, guitars, drink, drugs, clothes, revolution, alternative lifestyles -- these were the things we aspired to.  The most active engagements between staff and pupils that I recall were disputes over hair length.  School was a rite of passage, but we did not intend to emerge as little gents-in-waiting.

Disaffection was our thing.  It was a badge of pride not to be asked to become a "prefect".  I and my friends passed through that school without touching the sides: we rarely joined in or contributed to the broader life of the school. We were taken aside and told as much, fairly regularly.*  We took what was on offer, sceptically, but gave little back, on principle, as if we were in the army or a prison.  We served our time, then shook its dust from our fancy zip-sided boots.  I should probably say I regret this attitude now, but I don't.

My very cultivated teacher tried his best to rescue those of us who came into his care in the sixth form, but it was an uphill task.  Once, he took us on a theatre visit to Cambridge; I remember his amazement, when he treated us to a meal afterwards, that some of us had never eaten in a restaurant before.  Lessons were shot through with invaluable throwaway clues:  how else would I have known that Emma was regarded by some as the greatest novel, or that Beethoven's late quartets were a pinnacle of human achievement?  His teaching style was eccentric, easily mocked, but highly effective.  His unfeigned anger that not one of us had troubled to find a German equivalent for "Ker-blam!" in a translation exercise was seared onto our adolescent brains.  But I'll also never forget the time he awarded me A++ for an essay on Gottfried Benn's poetry.  If my German is any good, it is entirely due to his teaching.

Scholars of German embarked for France
(Ingelheim Exchange trip, 1971)

However, in a final act of disaffection, I chose to study English, not German, and at the "other" university, having grudgingly allowed myself to be talked out of applying to art school.  I, like most, never returned to discuss any of this, though I rehearsed the angry conversation often enough in my head.  That teacher died unexpectedly in the 1980s, and I am rather older now than he was then.  It is odd to think that, despite this age advantage and my broad cultural activity over the years, I have not and will never have the depth of engagement with official "museum culture" that he had.  I am unlikely ever to find the time, or inclination, to listen to Wagner's Ring or even to read Emma.  Though I have listened to the late Beethoven quartets; I find I am able to sense, but will probably never grasp, the loftiness of the achievement.

Life has changed, radically, since the 1960s. Schools have changed, too.  My German A-level group of six boys -- just six! -- seems to have taken place in a long-ago and far-away Golden Age of privilege.  My own children went to local sixth-form factories where hundreds of students study popular subjects in each year. German, it goes without saying, is no longer taught in most state secondary schools.

The mountain of new cultural products grows annually ever larger**, obscuring and distorting the venerable artefacts of earlier, quieter ages buried beneath deep archaeological layers.  Who has the time to dig, to re-evaluate, to re-frame the old?  What the contemporary world needs now, more urgently than ever, is adequate contemporary responses.  The nagging feeling that Schubert ought to deserve more attention than, say, Joni Mitchell is part of the baggage we left behind on the long trail from there to here, along with the prefects' badges and school ties.  That reflex deference to the canon is the soft-power arm of an older, pre-democratic world.

And yet -- and I hesitate to say this -- some might point to the decline of languages in our state schools, and see a direct link with the discarding of the old, the difficult, and the canonical in favour of newer, more straightforward work, untested by time, which is easier to understand, and easier to teach by a new generation of teachers with rather less cultural hinterland.

Perhaps that's why that nagging feeling about Schubert & Co. never quite goes away.  And for that, I'm never sure whether to blame or thank my one-time teacher.
Dare any call Permissiveness
An educational success?
Saner those class-rooms which I sat in,
Compelled to study Greek and Latin.

Though I suspect the term is crap,
If there is a Generation Gap,
Who is to blame? Those, old or young
Who will not learn their Mother-Tongue.


from W.H. Auden, Doggerel by a Senior Citizen

The Anxiety of Influence...


* I particularly enjoyed being asked to shave more regularly, by the Head of Sixth Form, because of the bad example it set the younger boys.

** In the UK alone, about 150,000 new books are published each year.  If only 0.1% are worthwhile, that's still another 150 British books you'll never get around to reading.  Not to mention those published in the USA, France, Germany, Spain, Latin America...

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Caedmon's Hymn, Part IV (finally)

[The capacious Idiotic Hat sofa has many lost posts stuffed between and beneath its threadbare cushions.  I recently found this one down there, which I will publish now, if only for the sake of completeness.  If you have never read Parts I, II, and III, start here].


I thought it would be worth saying a few muddled words about Anglo-Saxon poetry, and to present Caedmon's Hymn itself. Feel free to simply check out the pictures and head off to another lecture blog.

I don't know about you, but -- despite a lifetime of poetry reading and a few years of intensive (OK, fairly casual) study -- I've never quite got the hang of "prosody", that poet's rule-book full of exotic names for the 57 varieties of "tum ti tum", not least because the point always seems to have been to break the rules at the first opportunity. It all seems a bit of a tease.

I can spot a sonnet easily enough, and an iambic pentameter feels like a favourite old coat, but don't look at me if you want to know about "villanelles" or "sestinas" (no, these are not models of Ford family saloon). I admit that I'm more of a wine drinker, as it were, than a wine taster, when it comes to poems. However, I think there are four things that need to be known about Anglo-Saxon poems:

1. They are composed in Old English. Obvious, but important. Old English is an inflected language, and a lot of the work done by prepositions and word order in Modern English is done by case endings. This means word order can be altered and jumbled for effect, although not as severely as in Latin poetry, in which the aim seems to have been to cut up and reassemble the words in the order most calculated to baffle the reader.

2. The surviving texts are written versions of an oral tradition. Oral poetry is different.  It is a communal experience, it has to be memorable, its effects have to enter the brain via the ears rather than the eyes, and its subtleties reside in the skill and ingenuity of the teller. If one wanted to be condescending, one could compare oral poetry to bedtime stories: familiar tales told over and over again, with variations and innovations gradually getting introduced, if only to stop the teller dying of boredom. So-called "kennings" are symptomatic: little poetic coinages that ring changes on common themes, but which are entirely formulaic: "whale road", "whale way", "sail road", "swan shop", "seal bath" and "fish toilet" would all be kennings for "the sea".  The sea comes up a lot in Anglo-Saxon poems.

3. Alliteration is the poetic glue, rather than rhyme. As such, it is particularly sticky, but does lack that wonderful ability of rhyme to construct anticipatory structures. When you hear the words "There was a young man from Caracas", you know exactly what sort of ride you're in for.

4. The Anglo-Saxon poetic line is implicitly broken into two halves, and is often printed with a break (or "caesura") between them, though this never appears in the manuscripts. I have no idea how anyone knows this, but I do like the effect. It reminds me of the "call and response" structure of that slightly demented poem "Jubilate Agno" by Christopher Smart.

Oh, and one other thing. No-one really knows whether the twenty-one surviving and suspiciously similar versions of Caedmon's Hymn are an authentically transmitted "text", or whether someone rendered Bede's Latin version of the original back into Old English when they translated the "Ecclesiasical History" back in the 9th century.  A case of "Anglo-Saxon whispers", perhaps.  Bede himself has some wise words to say on translation, talking about his own Latin version of the Hymn:
"This is the sense, but not the words in order as he sang them in his sleep; for verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness."
Amen to that, Brother Bede.

Anyway,  next up, please give a big mead-hall welcome to Caedmon the Cowherd!  Take it away, Caedmon!

[Applause and foot-stomping]
Nu sculon herigean   heofonrices Weard
Now must we praise / heaven-kingdom's Guardian
Meotodes meahte   and his modgeþanc
the Measurer's might / and his mind-plans
weorc Wuldor-Fæder   swa he wundra gehwæs
the work of the Glory-Father, / when he of wonders of every one
ece Drihten   or onstealde
eternal Lord  / the beginning established
He ærest sceop   ielda bearnum
He first created / for men's sons
heofon to hrofe   halig Scyppend
heaven as a roof / holy Creator
ða middangeard   moncynnes Weard
then middle-earth / mankind's Guardian
ece Drihten   æfter teode
eternal Lord / afterwards made
firum foldan   Frea ælmihtig.
for men earth, / Master almighty.
[Silence, broken by the sound of various swineherds breaking wind]

Um, is that it, Caedmon? No monsters, no swordplay, no seafaring?  I suppose that's what they call modern poetry, eh?  Come on, someone, let's have a proper song!  What about "Big Bad Berghild from Bermondsey"?  All together now...