Saturday, 30 April 2016

Puck's Song II



See you our pastures wide and lone,
   Where the red oxen browse?
O there was a City thronged and known,
  Ere London boasted a house.


See you our stilly woods of oak,
  And the dread ditch beside?
O that was where the Saxons broke
  On the day that Harold died.

Friday, 29 April 2016

All Hail



I was in Bristol for the first half of the week, and Tuesday was a day of rapidly changing extremes of weather.  It is April, after all.  From a favourite vantage point on Clifton Downs you could see hailstorms passing over both ends of the gorge, and yet the air was also clear enough to see the cranes at Avonmouth four miles away and the Welsh mountains beyond the Bristol Channel.


Later, I was wandering around on a park-on-a-hill near the university known as Brandon Steep, when a thunderstorm broke out overhead with yet more hail, so I abandoned a plan to climb the Cabot Tower as foolhardy and retreated instead into the City Museum, where I came across this wonderfully strange thing:


It put me in mind of the "expensive, delicate ship" in Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux Arts", and I automatically looked up, half-hoping to see a boy falling out of the sky, but saw this instead:


Oh well, another day, perhaps. You have to work with what you've got. Boys don't fall out of the sky every day, even when the weather is as mixed-up as this. And it's easy to forget what a privilege it is to be out and about just feeling the afternoon weather in your face, when so many other honest citizens of my age are still bent over a desk under fluorescent lighting, or some other form of wage-slavery, longing for the long bank holiday weekend.



Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Road Trip



While compiling the sequences for the "England and Nowhere" book (still not sure about that title) I have become aware of certain gaps, the biggest of which is the absence of many suitable photographs of the M3 motorway and its cutting running through Twyford Down.  Obviously, without that gash being opened up in the landscape, there would be rather less cause to notice how everything converges there. It's rather like the definitive, first bold stroke of paint on a canvas, or that famous jar placed upon a hill in Tennessee*, around which everything else finds itself arranged into meaning. Though I doubt very many people see it that way.

Anyway, it's a crucial element, and I've been meaning to plug that photographic gap, but circumstances and the weather have conspired against me. On Sunday morning, however, it was a beautifully clear spring day, with rain forecast for the afternoon, so we headed out while there was still a chance for a walk and for me to get some shots over the rim of the cutting.

Of course, once you gaze over the brink, you remember why you have so few compelling pictures of the motorway or its cutting. It's just a very busy road, and not terribly exciting to look at... Never mind, I will keep plugging away while (ahem) waiting for some stragglers' feedback on the sequence as it was around Easter time. Somewhere out there are the two images I need to make the whole thing go click.



* Anecdote of the jar, by Wallace Stevens
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

For Shakespeare and Saint George, by Harry!



Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
From camp to camp through the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds,
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other's watch:
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other's umber'd face;
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night's dull ear; and from the tents
The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation.
The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,
And the third hour of drowsy morning name.
Proud of their numbers and secure in soul,
The confident and over-lusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice,
And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night
Who like a foul and ugly witch doth limp
So tediously away. The poor condemned English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently and inly ruminate
The morning's danger, and their gesture sad,
Investing lank-lean cheeks and war-worn coats,
Presenteth them unto the gazing moon
So many horrid ghosts.

Henry V, Act IV, Prologue (before Agincourt)


Friday, 22 April 2016

When This Old Sofa Was New



I was playing around with the various techniques I use to produce interesting textures and colour combinations for ring-making, when I thought: Wait... That's the upholstery of the Old Sofa!

We bought the Old Sofa just before the birth of our first child, in 1991. Although, I suppose, technically it was the New Sofa back then. It was a January sales item from a very up-market brand, and pushed the outer limit of our budget, but it was felt a decent sofa in the living room was an essential part of the new bourgeois, nuclear-family lifestyle we were embarking on, and it was damned comfy, I can tell you. Not to mention stain resistant.

It figures in the background of so many of the snapshots from that first decade and a half of family life – tiny babies checking out their feet with that absorbed "WTF?" expression, exhausted parents crashed out in unlikely poses, toddlers making castles out of the large square seat-cushions, doting grandparents doing their doting, and serial, ritual Christmas and birthday gatherings for the distribution and unwrapping of presents. If that era has a distinctive "colourway", then this is it.

Eventually, its cushions began to subside, and its stain resistance began to retreat in the face of sustained attack, and it was decided that the Old Sofa would need to be replaced. But, like the valiant light-blue Vauxhall Nova saloon with its capacious boot that took us on our first holidays, it will always hold a permanent and honoured place in the collective family memory. I have yet to conjure up the like of the Old Curtains, though... They remain a colourist's enigma.


Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Fail Better

I don't make a big thing of it, and in fact usually try not to mention it at all if I can, but sometimes it's best just to get it out of the way: incredibly, not only am I an Oxford graduate, but I am a Balliol Man. Or was: I'm not sure how far these things are a lifetime condition or whether, like a criminal record, they expire after a certain length of time. It's not like I go around wearing the damned tie, after all, and the matriculation tattoo is very discreet.

This may not mean anything to you at all, but, if it does, you may not be sure whether to believe me. You and me both: it is an identity that sits so oddly with the rest of my upbringing, aspirations, and subsequent life that I sometimes wonder myself whether I have made it all up, and that I am about to awake, alone in my narrow bed, still 18, still living in our family's fourth-floor, two-bedroom council flat, still with my whole life ahead of me. Phew! It was all just a dream! I imagine jailed serial killers and indicted war criminals from perfectly respectable, ordinary families must sometimes feel the same illusory relief from their dreadful psychic burden. Then, like Caliban, cry to dream again.

Seriously, though, it can be a bit of a burden, this Balliol thing. I may not make much of it, but other people do. There are certain elite educational establishments in the world that trade on their reputation as launch-pads for eminent careers, and Balliol College has been doing it longer and louder than most. Competition for admission is fierce, and the list of those who famously applied and failed – usually being admitted to a "lesser" Oxford college – includes the likes of Tony Blair (hah!) and Bill Clinton. But success can be problematic, too: the consequent weight of expectation and, later in life, the feelings of underachievement can be crippling to those who have bought into the myth-making.

Luckily for me and my schoolmate Dave, we knew nothing of this when – following a clutch of top A-level grades and having gained something of a reputation as a pair of show-offy smart-arses – we were encouraged to apply to Oxbridge back in 1972. First, pick your university, boys. Cambridge? Nah, too close to home! Oxford, then. OK, now pick a college, any college... Um. Haven't a clue. Balliol, you say, headmaster? Great name! Why not? So we took the exams, went to the interviews, and we got in. Well, no real surprise there, that's what we were good at, taking exams and that, innit?

So, because of the timing of the Oxbridge entrance exams for state-school candidates, we did not follow our friends going off to university in 1972, but were obliged to spend an extra term at school, then two thirds of a "gap year" at home, during which we both worked as teaching assistants in other local state schools. It was a very formative year. I found that the experience of putting in a regular working day and earning a salary made the prospect of study and student life begin to seem a little unreal. Although, unlike Dave, I also quickly realised that school-teaching was never going to figure prominently in my future.

Of course, once we finally arrived in Oxford, the truth dawned. This here college really does seem to think it's something a bit special, doesn't it? And, crikey, these other guys are spectacularly clever. Some were very posh and privately-educated; some were poor-but-brilliant refugees from oppressive regimes; some were here on prestigious overseas scholarships; many were unclassifiable oddballs. So what the hell were WE doing here? Surely there had been some terrible mistake?  Just weeks ago I had been picking Stanley-knife blades out of school clay bins*, and teaching remedial English classes to 12-year-olds! Perhaps we were here merely to fulfil some sort of state-school quota? Were we really up to this?

It was all very confusing. Impostor Syndrome aside, there were no lessons, no mandatory lectures, no benign teachers in loco parentis, no handy user's guide or glossary to the baffling local lingo in the non-existent Welcome Pack. It was deep-end time – sink or swim, gentlemen, freestyle! As a consequence, I disengaged roughly five minutes after I arrived into an ironic, semi-detached, permanently-stoned haze that lasted for about two years. In some ways this was a mistake but, to be honest, I felt I was owed at least a couple of years of fun, and was determined to have them. And did.

Two sane men in an asylum

All these years later, and now considerably more sober than any judge, I am aware I had been handed an opportunity with a capital "O", and chose to pass it up. I don't regret it, though; the many extra-curricular adventures I had were life-enhancing and character-forming, and I made lifelong friends among the university's Awkward Squad, an elite within an elite. I did get a decent degree, to everyone's surprise, and it proved to be the ticket of entry to the useful and stimulating life of professional public service I went on to enjoy for 35 years. Not to mention the pension that now supports my early retirement.

But the irony in this heartening stoner-to-citizen success story is that, by Balliol standards, it has been a disappointing failure. Balliol students are not selected for their dedicated, unflashy, all-round competence in keeping the wheels turning in some Department of Thankless Tasks, but for their potential as world-leading, world-beating, world-changing somebodies. Apparently, more than one in twenty living Balliol graduates figure in Who's Who. Blimey! Why they ever chose me or Dave will forever remain a mystery.

Now, despite her light-touch parenting, our alma mater is relentlessly judgmental – just look how well your brothers and sisters have done! – and the consequent twinge of underachievement whenever an alumni newsletter hits the doormat is infuriating, even for someone as immune to ambition as me; there is clearly unfinished business here. So recently I proposed to another old college chum that we might found The Failliol Society, a suitably ironic home for all those admitted within those august precincts, but who subsequently failed to live up to the college's tiger mom expectations, the more casually and spectacularly the better. Why? Mainly because the arrogance and entitlement of that hyped minority of over-achievers – and the college's over-investment in their achievements – really does need to be challenged by the 95% of the rest of us who are not and were never going to be in Who's Who. It'll be a big club, after all. Proposed society motto: If at first you don't succeed, get a proper job.

More mischievously – and bearing in mind Balliol-reject Bill Clinton's famously wimpy denial (no, not that one, the other one) and the recent demise of that exemplary Balliol Man, smuggler and cannabis advocate Howard Marks – I thought there should also be an Inhalliol Club, for those who have boldly experimented with altered states within those same august precincts. With Howard "Mr. Nice" Marks (1964) as Permanent Life President (deceased), and Aldous "The Doors" Huxley (1913) as Eternal Secretary (on indefinite leave of absence). I'm not yet sure who to nominate as Treasurer, but some eminent media types are definitely in the running. They know who they are. Membership by personal recommendation only; dress code (slovenly casual) mandatory.

But, thank you for listening. I can't remember now why I ever brought the subject up. We will never speak of this again.


photo © Fiona Thompson 1974

* The little bastards would drop the razor-sharp blades into the clay, in the hope of adding the odd severed finger to the mix. They would also add a sprinkling of transparent plastic injection-moulding pellets, which caused pots to explode in the kiln. I had to pick those out, too. Happy days!

Monday, 18 April 2016

Puck's Song



Just as I feared / expected / hoped, the "Puck's Song" pictures have commandeered my interest, and become a project in their own right. Well, there are twelve lines in the poem... Inevitably, next year's calendar is composing itself before my eyes. Plus another nice Vistaprint book like the Crow Country book (still one copy left, at low, low clearance price of £50! When they're gone, they're gone!).


Friday, 15 April 2016

And So Was England Born



A couple of late doubts came to me concerning the book which I have, up until now, thought of as "England and Nowhere". That title comes from a passage in one of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, "Little Gidding". Setting aside the slight pretentiousness of this and also Eliot's slightly repellent religiose, modernist heavy breathing, the main doubt that came to me was when I remembered what happened when I approached Faber for permission to use two lines from Ted Hughes' rendering of Ovid's Metamorphoses in my book The Revenants. Faber also being Eliot's publisher, and his work not yet being in the public domain in the UK, as far as I know.

For The Revenants, I had had the neat idea of putting together in parallel various translations of the opening of the Metamorphoses – "In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora": in a modern version, "Of bodies changed to other forms I tell" – from Arthur Golding's Elizabethan translation ("Shakespeare's Ovid") onwards, in a sort of meta demonstration of the theme of the book: the reappearance and transfiguration over time of various bits and pieces found floating in an ornamental pond on the university campus. Hughes' version seemed a good modern end point.

As I intended to self-publish the book under my own imprint Shepherd's Crown* it seemed best to clear the copyright issue first. To be honest, I'd expected the reply, "Just two lines? No charge, mate! Thanks for checking though!" However Faber decided they wanted to charge me £200. Oh, really? Naturally, I chose another current version (A.D. Melville), for which Penguin, bless them, made no charge at all.

God knows what Faber would charge to quote a whole FIFTEEN line extract from Eliot, should any publisher decide to take up my book proposal. So, it seemed to me that "Puck's Song" from Kipling's Puck of Pook Hill, which I use in my introduction, was even more apposite as a quotable source. And, better still, definitely out of copyright! Though whether I'll change the book's title at all remains to be seen.

Then, as the book matured, it seemed to me to lack something. I began to wonder whether introducing a graphical element might work as a form of punctuation between the photographic elements. I'd done something similar in another previous book, Downward Skies, breaking up the sequence of photographs with circular haiku texts. When I looked at the verses of "Puck's Song", several of them seemed very appropriate to the six sections of the current book, and I began to play.

I'm pleased with the results so far. But whether they'll make it into this book, or be the seed of yet another one remains to be seen.




* Don't ask me how Terry Pratchett latched on to this obscure piece of folklore for the title of his last book. It's very odd, but I somehow doubt he'd been a follower of my work...

Incidentally, I recently found five remaining copies of the original Shepherd's Crown edition of The Revenants (an A4 paperback of 60 pages) which is a rather nice thing, and I'd be prepared to sell three of them at, say, £65 each. If you're interested, contact me by email.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Book Progress



I'm still working on the "England and Nowhere" book. It's already at a stage where it could more or less be declared finished, but I've decided not to rush things, as it would be nice to make it as close to a definitive summation of five years of work as possible and, after all, I have no-one to satisfy other than myself.

I do have other reasons to delay. Before Easter I sent out an early draft to various parties for comment, something I've not done before. I should at least wait to hear what they have to say. Sometimes only a fresh set of eyes can see the obvious problem or the hidden flaw. I have also asked a couple of "proper" publishers whether they'd be interested in the work, and will wait to hear from them before going down the usual self-publication route, but I am not holding my breath, this enquiry being what the grammarians call "a question expecting the answer no".

I suppose I might also float the set to a few galleries – there are currently 86 photographs in the book, and at least another 25 top candidates, which is a respectable exhibition – but, as I said to one of my previewers, it's hard to know whether publication or exhibition is the bigger ask, these days. It must be very nice, I think, to have the sort of established reputation where publishers and galleries are pestering you, instead of the other way round ("Oh, not the Tate again! They're worse than bloody Steidl!").

Having originally thought I'd make two 48-page books I then changed my mind, and have now settled on a conventional single volume. Obviously, this will be more expensive, but getting all six elements into one sequence – St. Catherine's Hill, the river Itchen, the water meadows, the viaduct, Twyford Down, and the M3 motorway – is much more interesting, and leads to a more balanced and nuanced presentation. Assuming nothing comes of my approaches to publishers, I will probably self-publish a special "limited" hardback edition, probably 21cm square and comparable in quality (and price) to last year's "Crow Country" book, plus a Blurb paperback, an e-book for the iPad and iPhone owners, and a PDF for the cheap seats.


For a while I was struggling to write a suitable foreword, but then remembered a blog post I had written some while ago, which made all the points I wanted to make better than anything else I had come up with. So I adapted that, and it now reads as follows (sorry if it seems a bit long):
This series of photographs of the landscape south-east of Winchester started around 2010, when I began regularly to visit Hockley Viaduct, St. Catherine's Hill, and Twyford Down.  The more I visited and photographed this threefold site, where ancient and modern histories are intimately packed together, the more I began to feel that it (and I) had something to say about the multilayered English landscape, and the way it is the expression of our contradictory human urges to venerate, to destroy, to improve, and to preserve.

This may best be explained obliquely, by a story.


A few years ago we had a North American visitor.  At one point the conversation came round, via cookery, to weights and measures, and the late unlamented imperial system with its 16 ounces to the pound, 14 pounds to the stone, 8 stones to the hundredweight, and 20 hundredweights to the ton.  Not to mention gills, pints, quarts and gallons, yards, chains, furlongs and miles, or pounds, shillings and pence.

Which reminded me of my mother, who used to work in a shoe-shop, and how she would bring home old coins for me from the till.  Before decimalisation, Victorian pennies were commonplace, worn smooth and black from their adventures, and every now and then there would be a Georgian "cartwheel" penny: a full ounce of copper minted in 1797, and legal tender until 1971.  Once, someone handed over a William III silver sixpence  -- dated 1696 and as exotic as a piece of eight -- in exchange for their court heels or slingbacks.


You had a real sense of the continuity of history, going down to the sweet-shop with an assortment of old metal chinking in your trouser pockets. Pounds, shillings and pence had a noble lineage that included fabled ancestors like the farthing, the groat, and the golden guinea.  But I don't think anyone missed them, once they were gone, and the simplicity of the new mental arithmetic meant our collective national brain could relax and take a permanent holiday from multiples of twelve and twenty.  But a thread was broken.


We think of the USA as a "young" country, with little history.  But, setting aside the monuments of the indigenous people, the oldest American places are now 100, 200, possibly even 300 years old.  I think most of us living in Britain would be hard-pressed to find a building within 50 miles older than that.  We live in a world of permanent makeover.  The block of flats where I spent my adolescence, built in 1950 and as solid as a nuclear bunker, has already been demolished, the site levelled, and built over again.  More broken threads.


Is this new?  The next day, I stood with our American visitor on top of St. Catherine's Hill above Winchester, and pointed out the landmarks, like a native guide.  The Iron Age fort, the Norman cathedral built on a Saxon site, the mediaeval hospital and plague pits, the undated Miz Maze -- possibly ancient, possibly some antiquarian's folly -- and the chalky tops where the detectorists find Roman coins and Saxon brooches.  I felt like Puck, the Oldest Old Thing in England.


But we were standing within earshot of the Twyford Down motorway cutting, where 5 acres of ancient downland and 50,000 years of history were bulldozed away in the 1990s, in order to smooth the path of traffic from Southampton to London.  Protestors camped out on Twyford Down in an attempt to halt the destruction of this landscape -- "heritage" to some, "sacred" to others -- and despite failing to stop the road became the focus of a new awareness of the ecological and archaeological price of progress.  Government and developers have to tread more carefully now.


But, in its day, the hillfort above the cutting must have been equally appalling.  Dug out by slave labour, an eyesore of chalk rubble and palisades, it was a place of domination and violence; mutilated human remains have been found in the ditches.  No doubt its construction violated immemorial holy springs and groves.  There will have been protests, brutally suppressed.  In their turn, venerable Saxon abbeys were demolished to raise the Norman cathedral -- more domination and brutality.  Later, slums were cleared to build housing estates, and ancient fields were ripped open, scattering flints and coins and Roman roof-tiles, to provide those estates with water and electricity.  Seen in context, the Twyford Down cutting, too, is our history, and no more outrageous or unnecessary than anything in the preceding four millennia.


Before the motorway, there were the railways.  Competing schemes to drive a line from London to Southampton resulted in two lines, one running immediately beside St. Catherine's Hill, that went no further south, and the winning mainline, further to the west.  The Hockley Viaduct -- one of the first poured concrete structures in the world -- was constructed in 1888 to link the two lines, but was abandoned in the 1960s.  It still stands, thirty-three brick-clad concrete arches going nowhere, stranded opposite the M3 in a water-meadow by the river Itchen.  The Itchen itself is not a natural waterway at this location: it was extensively canalised in the 18th century as the Itchen Navigation to transport goods from Southampton to Winchester.  The Hand of Man is everywhere, here.


   Trackway and Camp and City lost,
      Salt Marsh where now is corn;

   Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,

      And so was England born!

Puck's Song, from Puck of Pook's Hill, by Rudyard Kipling


To go forward you need to build, and to build you need to clear ground, whether it be a crumbling castle, a block of flats, or irrational weights and measures.  The idea that certain landscapes are inviolable and "sacred" is a belief we recognise in other cultures -- one thinks of Australia and Japan -- but which we regard with skepticism when it comes to our own island.  With good reason:  the 20th century invention of an ancestral, quasi-animistic relationship between the English and The English Land is shot through with political and religious elements that are very dubious indeed.  All ancient paths, ley-lines, and folkways seem nearly always to lead directly back to some very right-wing and reactionary sources.

Yet, when ancient and beautiful landscapes are torn apart to make way for public works like roads and housing, I think many of us do share a sense of violation strong enough to warrant language like "sacrilege" and "desecration" .  On an island like ours, where every square foot bears witness to thousands of years of human habitation, the sense of being haunted by heritage is strong.  This leads to a real dilemma.  So we sense something sacred when we feel we are walking the land our ancestors walked, and we want those Iron Age hillforts and ancient fields and water-meadows to be preserved, although we would shun the ways of life that gave rise to them.  Equally, though, we need more housing, utilities, factories, airports and bypasses to enhance our way of life, but are reluctant to pay the price.  We are all, at the same time, both desecrators and defenders, constructors and conservators.


This sense of the way cycles of disruptive "progress" patinate over the years into "heritage" -- and of the way a certain pervasive spirit of place persists beneath it all -- underlies these photographs.   These few square miles adjacent to Alfred's Saxon capital are a library and laboratory of English history, as written, unwritten, and extensively revised by succeeding generations.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

How Wow




As I said before, what I enjoy about creating these rings is the element of pure play. With the photo-collages, there is (that is to say, I feel) an obligation to make something coherent and, to an extent, meaningful. With these, any "meaning" emerges as a side-product of the cumulative, iterative pattern- and mark-making. It's an art-making game, with clear rules, and plenty of scope for surprises. And, played right, like all good magic tricks, the "how" should get lost in the "wow".




Saturday, 9 April 2016

The Watchers



The sensation of being watched, constantly, is a familiar one to urban dwellers, especially in Britain, where CCTV cameras are everywhere. Part of the pleasure of these high, open spaces may be a subconscious release from that oppressive feeling of supervision.


Of course, the watchers can't watch everyone, all the time, although they'd like to have you believe they can. There is no CCTV up here, and I doubt anyone wastes valuable satellite time on monitoring the movements of sheep, even the black ones. So, in the remoter, unwatched places, a stern notice has to do the job. Behave!



You may not be able to read the sign at this resolution.  It says:

POLICE NOTICE
DRIVING ON THE COMMON
WITHOUT LAWFUL AUTHORITY
IS A CRIMINAL OFFENCE
SECTION 34: ROAD TRAFFIC ACT 1988

It's a testament to something – I'm not sure what – that this notice is still there, unmolested, after what looks like some considerable time. Not a bullet-hole, not a stroke of grafitti, nothing. Perhaps the Welsh (or occasional hillwalkers) don't feel that English compulsion to subvert and mock self-proclaimed authority. Or maybe it was originally somewhere else entirely, and the subtle, sufficient joke is that it is here at all.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Surf and Turf



Following on from the previous post, I'm always very conscious that, despite having visited the Welsh Borders for nearly 40 years, we're still just fleeting visitors there, with no real stake in the area. Like any holidaymakers returning again and again to the same spot for an annual week or two of escape, we see a very different place to that experienced by the year-round residents. You can't help but notice the economic and social changes, but have played no part in bringing them about, or had to live with their consequences.

And changes there have been, over those four decades. Sadly, these have not generally been for the better. In many ways, this is a depressed area, trying to cope with the decline in hill-farming as a way of life, a steady loss of population and employment prospects, and a disappointing inflow of income from tourism. Beautiful it may be, but the region lacks obvious points of attraction and opportunities for lucrative "outdoor leisure pursuits"; Radnor will never rival the Lake District.

It's clear that very few locals who are not engaged in farming ever venture into these hills. Indeed, many, if not most of the "locals" are not local at all: they are retirees from the Midlands, local government employees, New Agers, artists, and allied trades, and, increasingly, youngsters from other parts of Wales surviving on benefits in the surplus hotel accommodation in faded Edwardian spa towns like Llandrindod Wells. Bizarrely, there also seems to be a small but significant population of Latin American immigrants, a sort of inversion of the fabled Welsh-speaking community that settled in Patagonia. I have often wondered what it must be like to grow up surrounded by all this this useless beauty, with little prospect of a job, and to long for the bright lights, diversions and opportunities of city life. There isn't even a bus or train service worth the name.

It is a justified criticism of most landscape photography that it idealises its subject matter, superimposing suburban notions of "unspoiled beauty" onto complex landscapes – which are often as man-made and as multi-faceted as any city street – like the ideological equivalent of a graduated tobacco filter. Although I do try to avoid this idealising tendency I would not exempt myself from the criticism, and it's one reason I have never tried to exhibit my Welsh photographs or compile them into a book. Powys is no more my turf than Portugal or the Pyrenees, and I have no real answer for why I have so few photographs of the valleys – where most economic and social activity is centred, in village shops, industrial estates and edge-of-town hypermarkets – and so many photographs of these lovely, deserted hills. There's a great project there for somebody, but it's not mine.

So, hello, I'm just here for the week. Yes, I live in Southampton. No, I'm not a dock-worker or a merchant seaman. They're a bit scarce, these days. Yes, I suppose it is nice living near to the sea, but as it happens I very rarely get down to the coast, and have absolutely no interest in sailing. And, yes, my daughter tells me the city-centre clubbing scene is great, but I'd rather go for a wander up in your hills any day. Don't get up there much yourself? What, never?




Monday, 4 April 2016

Sampling Wales



We had our traditional Easter break in mid-Wales last week.  It was just the two of us for the first time in 25 years (son travelling between Atlanta and New Orleans, daughter at home writing a dissertation), which meant longer, more solitary walks and – for me – a chance to spend rather more time considering the landscape without that nagging feeling of holding everyone else up, which will be familiar to anyone who attempts to combine their creative bent with a family holiday. We got the usual early spring mix of weather: snow, rain, sunshine, and awe-inspiring winds, and a couple of those exhilarating upland days of bright, clear air that give the sensation of walking on the roof of the world.


We have been visiting the Welsh Marches every year for over 35 years; ever since, as impoverished students, we started taking advantage of my partner's parents' holiday cottage near Presteigne. However, talking to the landlord of a local pub, who took over the premises 18 months ago having moved from Surrey, it struck me that in actual elapsed time he has already spent longer in the area than I have. Which, if anything, shows something of the truth underlying statistical sampling: 50 or so weeks spread over 35 years would seem to give a deeper experience of an area than 75 weeks end to end.


Friday, 1 April 2016

Potato Prints

Right now, it seems everyone still knows about the million-dollar potato print. But I wonder how long it will be before everyone has forgotten all about it?  I should probably put this link in, so that in the far-off distant future of, say, August 2016, readers who stumble across this post will know what the hell I'm talking about. Potato prints? We used to do those at school!

A publicity stunt, obviously, no? And one that seems to have worked, provided there's a follow-up of some kind before August 2016. Necessary, because most people have the memory-power of a particularly dense King Edward. The genius, of course, lies in the choice of a potato as subject matter. Not least for a photographer whose metier is apparently celebrity portraiture.  "Mr. Abosch, Mr. Rooney called to say he is 'made up' with his picture, whatever that means..." (apologies, Wayne).


As the subject of selling prints is in the air, I thought I'd mention that I had been thinking that I might pick up a little of the print action myself.  Nothing too precious, no expensive signed, limited editions, but something more along the lines of affordable posters.  For some reason, I rather like having my stuff printed on a "proper" commercial machine, rather than run off on an inkjet printer, which, obviously, I can do myself. I've had some nice results from good old Vistaprint, whose quality is always outstanding, but they don't offer any kind of on-demand "storefront". So I'd either have to stock up with posters in advance and sell them myself – too expensive, and too risky – or get each order fulfilled individually, which would take too long, and double the cost of the postage.

I had high hopes of an on-demand service called MagCloud, which is now a subsidiary of Blurb. Their main business is producing magazines and similar publications (hence the name – nothing to do with magnetic clouds, sadly) but they do also offer a poster service. The price of a poster is extremely reasonable, almost negligible, as is the overseas postage from the States. Like Blurb, your posters can be ordered by customers on demand from a storefront, with whatever level of price mark-up you want over and above the basic "production" cost. Hmm... I thought this might be exactly what I was looking for. To test it out, I uploaded a couple of files, and awaited the results. Unfortunately, the results were OK but not stunning, and – incredibly – were delivered through the intercontinental mash-up system as a flat 18" x 12" sheet in a polythene bag, face up, backed with some bendy cardboard. Noooo.... I suppose I had expected a tube, at least, but then the postage was very cheap indeed.


So, for now, it's back to square one. But, in the meantime, should you want to buy a print of any of the photographs or photo-collages appearing on this blog, do drop me an email (see View My Complete Profile above right for my email addresses). To you, dear reader, I'd charge something like £50 for a roughly A5 image on an A4 sheet, or £75 for an A4 image on an A3 sheet, plus a few pounds for postage and packing.

As for potatoes, I recommend a red-skinned variety like Desiree or Mozart as a good all-round potato, with just the right texture and flavour for baking and roasting.  But, honestly, what on earth did we eat before potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, sunflowers, cocoa and the rest were brought back from the Americas? Fifty-seven varieties of sludge, that's what. All world-historical considerations aside, nothing motivates empire-building quite as much as a diet of sludge.

[N.B. I'm away for the next week in a land where the phone signal can't penetrate the clouds, and the internet is a mere rumour. I'll get to any comments when I return.]

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Cento



I only recently became aware of the poetic form known as the cento. It's pronounced "sento", and not, as I had originally thought, "chento".  It also has nothing to do with 100; apparently the name is derived from a Greek work for a patchwork. Thus, if you like to get really pedantic, some people claim its plural is "centones".* Blimey! The cento is hardly one of the mainstream poetic forms, though, and gets taken out of the versifier's wardrobe even less frequently than a virtuoso straitjacket like the villanelle. Even so, it's curious how you can study and enjoy an art-form for decades and never come across something like this.

So what is it? Basically, it's a poem made up entirely of quoted lines from other poets. I like this idea. There's a good one in Stephen Knight's recent volume The Prince of Wails:
The last poem, called “99 Poems”, is astonishingly rich and intriguing: just the title makes this small book feel massive! Why 99? It is an elegy, so perhaps Knight’s father died at age 99, almost as long-lived as the centenarians we just met in “On Turning Fifty” and worthy of commemoration, worth staying up late for! In any case, the poem is a collection of 99 lines borrowed with great affection from elegies and epitaphs and maybe other sources too, perhaps film, across the centuries, and arranged by first letter from A to Y, starting with the beautiful line (possibly Thomas Hardy?) – A face that, though in shadow, still appears – and ending with the simple physicality of Your hands. Both images – the dead who re-appear and the father’s hand which holds his child’s – recur throughout the book, gaining power along the way. And it can be no accident that this last poem ends on the letter Y, not Z: there is no final letter in the alphabet of this wonderfully haunting collection.’
Chris Beckett, londongrip.co.uk (full review
here)
In fact, I really like this idea; it's postmodernism avant la lettre (considerably so: the earliest examples date from the 3rd or 4th centuries CE, and generally involve cutting and pasting lines from Virgil or Homer). It seem William Burroughs was not quite the innovator he thought, though the cento is not really the same as the "found" poem, and very little chance is involved in the cento proper. Quite the opposite: a cento has to be carefully mined and constructed from existing poetry.

In a way, you might see a photographic sequence as, in essence, a sort of cento. Your body of work is a series of "quotations" from the world around you, and to make a sequence you have to select and re-order out-takes from this larger body to create a new work. Or maybe not; a true photographic cento would involve, ah, appropriating photos from others' books, and creating something strikingly new from them. But, put that way, it doesn't sound quite so interesting, does it? That would be what we call an anthology...


* There's a nice little joke about such pedantry in a recent Wondermark, in which one character uses the plural "utopiaux" for "utopias". The  cartoon's mouseover caption reads, "No, of course utopiaux is not actually a word. The correct plural form is utopipodes".

[N.B. I'm away for the next week in a land where the phone signal can't penetrate the clouds, and the internet is a mere rumour. I'll get to any comments when I return.]

Monday, 28 March 2016

Two Trees



A couple of characterful trees from the Itchen water meadows, which have been particularly watery in recent weeks. I don't think the pollarded one below is going to make it through another storm, as it's now little more than a hollow shell. Perhaps I should have titled this post "One and a Half Trees"...


That second one reminded me of the sort of postcard I might rescue from one of those tightly-packed trays you find in second-hand bookshops.


[N.B. I'm away for the next week in a land where the phone signal can't penetrate the clouds, and the internet is a mere rumour. I'll get to any comments when I return.]

Friday, 25 March 2016

The Camp Bells Shall Be Coming



There is a species of online bloviation, generally to be found in the comments section of blogs, which opens with the acronym "IANAL" (i.e. "I am not a lawyer"), almost always followed by the word "but..."  This post, and others like it (for example the recent So So post), should probably be similarly prefixed, but with the signification "I am not a linguist".  So let's just say I am something of a barrack-room linguist, and get on with the "but..." bit.

I have a certain facility with language, and an abnormal level of formal education, but it is nonetheless a fact that much of my linguistic usage is "non-standard".  To an extent, this reveals my upbringing in the skilled working class of East Anglia, with strong dialectal admixtures from London, 1970s youth culture, and academese.  I also have a fondness for neologisms and "lively" language.  Blend it all up and you get a fairly strong idiolect.  We've all got one, but, like noses, some are more noticeable than others.

However, I would resist any suggestion that my particular (peculiar?) way with words is in any way incorrect, and I am arrogant enough to regard my usage as the norm against which all other dialects vary – including RP or "posh".  Yes, it is the world, and not me, that is out of step.  And note that use of "me" instead of the preposterous and pedantic "I".  You wouldn't catch I saying that, boy.

That said, I am always puzzled by those who maintain a strong idiolect in the face of all opposition and correction, when it is simply wrong.  I had a primary school teacher who insisted on pronouncing the surname Campbell as two distinct words (Camp Bell), which was almost as annoying to classmate Billy Campbell as her insistence on calling me "Chiz-hole-m" was to me.*  Similarly, I had a senior colleague at work who, mystifyingly, insisted on pronouncing the name of the port city just down the coast from us as "Port's Mouth", a truly heroic idiosyncrasy.  I never did manage to find the right moment to ask him why.

Pronunciation is easy to fix, of course, if you're bovvered about it.  Most of us aren't, these days, but it's not so long ago that an elective cosmetic accent-job was part of the higher education package.  I think my parents were a little disappointed when, after one term at Oxford, I didn't come home to our Stevenage council flat talking like Brian Sewell.  Harder to change, though, are the more deeply-ingrained habits of language, simple things like the use of pronouns and the "modal" and "auxiliary" verbs, a particular minefield in English usage.

One that has always puzzled me is "will" versus "shall".  I have always thought of "shall" as posh, and rarely, if ever use it, at least in my spoken language.  It feels as alien in my mouth as a phrase like "would you care for a biscuit?" (that all depends on what's wrong with it, missus).  To say "I shall go to the cinema tonight" sounds absurd to me.  In my linguistic tribe, "going to" and "will" do all the necessary work of futurity, admittedly with the occasional use of the conditional construction "Ish'll/Wesh'll probbly" (as in, "What you doin' t'nite?" "Ish'll probbly stay in").

So I eventually looked it up.  It seems the official line on "will v. shall" in Anglo-English is that "shall" is used with first person pronouns (I and we) to form the future tense, while "will" is used with the second and third persons.  However, when it comes to expressing a strong determination to do something, the situation is reversed: "will" is used with the first person, and "shall" with the second and third.  Well I never!  But then you only have to think about this for a minute to realise how simplistic this "rule" is.  Wikipedia's article gives a far more subtle account of the complexities.

Like so many of these things, a lot depends on your level of literacy, and how far your speech patterns have been adjusted to reflect the "proper" orthographic and grammatical norms of print.  To say "Camp-Bell" instead of "Camble" is presumably an extreme example of ostentatious over-compensation.  But that's how it's written, Billy!  Coming from the other direction, there are those people who say (and write) "should of" instead of "should have", presumably because they don't read enough to have registered the contraction "should've".  Somewhere in between are the legions of homespun pedants who think "to look good" is ungrammatical or insist the plural of octopus is "octopi", the snobs who affect blimpish pre-War pronunciations like "Rumsey" (Romsey), "Rafe" (Ralph), and "goff" (golf), and the dressed-down political toffs who think randomly inserted glottal stops make them popular with the common people.

If I think of the vernacular usage of modals and auxiliaries, though, I remember my grandmother, East Anglian to the bone (or "boon", as she would have said), who virtually never used the words "must not", generally using "don't have to" in its place.  It takes a while – even the odd clip round the ear – to realise that the exclamation "Oh, y'don't hatta do that, boy!" is a serious admonition, and in no way a suggestion that your proposed course of action is optional.


* For non-English speakers: the correct pronunciation of Campbell is "Camble", and my own proudly-borne Scottish/Scandinavian name is pronounced "Chizzm".  And, yes, I'm afraid it can sound a little dodgy in the wrong context, particularly to Americans...

[N.B. I'm away for the next week in a land where the phone signal can't penetrate the clouds, and the internet is a mere rumour. I'll get to any comments when I return.]

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Semprini Effect



These two contrasting scenarios – bright, rushing water and stagnant scum – are immediately next to each other, either side of the sluice that still exists on the Itchen Navigation, where St. Catherine's Lock and water-wheel used to be. You can stand on the lock, look down one side and see a grim accumulation of whatever has drifted downstream, and on the other be dazzled by the gleam of sunlight dancing on the foam and spray of a violent torrent of water. This has something to do with a principle of fluid dynamics established by Bernoulli, Venturi, Semprini, or possibly Garibaldi – one of those guys. Whoever, you really don't want to fall in, either side.


Monday, 21 March 2016

Scotch Mist



When one of us failed to see something lying in plain sight, for example a school-bag, my father would brandish it and use an expression which seems to have fallen into disuse: "What's this, then, Scotch mist?" It's a peculiar thing to say, and I assume it was something that was current in the army during WW2 or in engineering factories in the 1940s and 50s. Perhaps it was a catchphrase from a long-forgotten radio show? I have no idea why "Scotch mist" entered into the language in this way, but as a result it has always been a mysterious entity at the back of my mind.

It lurks there along with "bread and pullit" ("What's for tea, Mum?"), and various other disturbing and unresolved playground and nursery rhyme themes and scenarios. Why on earth was Wee Willie Winkie running through the town in his nightgown? Is the moon really an aching drum? Why would anyone need to have buckles on their knees? And what is a vainite? Funny, how as you get older these things start to emerge again, but leaving most of their mystery behind, back there with the Scotch mist.