Sunday, 17 December 2017

Twice In A Lifetime

The Philosopher Considers Breakfast and The Meaning of Life

Almost twenty-four years ago I turned 40, and began to wake up from a ten-year trance. Huh? What time is it? What do you mean, a quarter past 1994? I found myself the father of two very young children, working in a stalled professional career that had turned into a part-time job, and without any clear idea of where to go next with my life. Cue up Talking Heads, "Once In A Lifetime" ... Yeah, yeah, midlife crisis... You and a million others. Get a tattoo, or something.

Well, thanks for your concern. So, anyway, instead of buying a powerful motorbike, I decided finally to do something about the alternative life as an artist that had been bubbling under ever since I was (thankfully) persuaded by my teachers not to set my sights on art-school and instead to persist with academic studies, for which, all the available evidence suggested, I probably had rather more talent. In fact, as I eventually discovered, taking exams was my actual main talent, but (as far as my school was concerned) this was pretty much the same thing as an aptitude for scholarship. Which, trust me, it ain't. The world is full of people who ran out of road when there were no more exams to take or dissertations to submit. Frankly, earning a humanities PhD is an excellent way to fast-forward your midlife crisis into your twenties. I know one guy who used to work for me – now there's an abject fate – who had postponed real life a degree too far by doing two doctorates. Nobody ever called him Dr. Dr. Smith, though.

Anyway, that alternative artistic life. At a workshop I once did with German photographer Gerhard Stromberg, it was suggested that an artistic career takes about ten years to happen, starting from the moment you begin to take the idea seriously, and actually do something about it, as opposed to day-dreaming about it. Like: make a substantial body of work, submit it to the appraisal of people not obliged by ties of family or friendship to make encouraging noises, learn to accept serial rejection, and then how to keep on keeping on, making more, better work. It's tough, and it turned out Gerhard was right. For me, that process of serious critical self-examination had started around 1994, and I got my first serious break – a long-running exhibition of photographic work made and shown at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire – in about 2003.

Of course, career is not a word to apply, without irony, to the endeavours of 99% of would-be artists, or even to those who appear, on the surface, to have made a success of it. I'm certainly no exception, and I'm glad I never had to try to make a living from my "art"; I'm sure by now I'd have been reduced to producing greetings cards and calendars. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much where I am, anyway. With the crucial difference that – having had a rather enviable part-time day-job that it would have been folly to have given up – I can sit here contentedly mucking about, happily retired from 35 years of public service in academic libraries, with the satisfaction of knowing I spent my working years both usefully and gainfully employed. There are worse fates. So I should tip my idiotic hat to those teachers who cared enough to save me from myself. Thanks, guys!

All of whom, I now realise, without exception, are dead. Or sadly dead, as we should say, apparently. Or who have passed (as if death were an exam), or are no longer with us (like they might yet show up). Yep, but nope: plain dead, all of them. And, what's more – and this is still hard for me to grasp – several of them died at an age rather younger than I am now. Teaching's a tough job, I know, but even so... It seems kind of unfair, doesn't it? To die in your mid-40s or 50s, at the stage of life when a stale career could still be transformed by some new adventure, or chasing some preposterous dream still hanging around from your teenage years? Although it would be far, far worse, I'm sure, to live to regret having put it all off until it was far, far too late. So, go for it, Sir! Buy that powerful motorbike! Come out as gay, or as a political animal with a mission to help the poor, or begin seriously training for a marathon, or why not learn to play the Northumbrian pipes? But, on the other hand, no, don't get a tattoo, Miss... And please: do think twice before blowing the pension.

Evidence: a mind can be expanded too far

Friday, 15 December 2017

Don't Panic

Ashmolean Trip (Southampton-Oxford, December 2017)

Despite being pretty well-informed about quite a few things, the boundlessness of my own ignorance is undeniable. There are just so many knowable things I will never know, can never know. We're all in the same position, of course. You should try to do something about it – you might even see it as the nearest thing to a purpose in life – but sometimes it is hard not to experience an overwhelming sensation of pointlessness, when confronted with the infinite dark forests of the Known and Unknown Unknowns stretching in every direction. Help! Why even bother? It's not surprising, really, that most people seem to give up on the Quest for Knowledge somewhere around age 11. Montaigne's famous question, "Que sais-je?"[1], is all too easily re-inflected from a mission statement to a shrug of resignation: "What the hell do I know?". From there, it's just one easy step to, "What do I care?"[2].

But, like breathing, the point is not to inhale all the available oxygen in the atmosphere, but simply to keep on doing it, in order to stay alive. If staying alive by taking a series of tiny atmospheric samples doesn't seem like a pointlessly feeble – not to say doomed – compromise, then neither should maintaining an active curiosity about the world. It's never been easier, after all: Wikipedia, for example, is an incredible and entirely admirable resource, despite its (much overstated) shortcomings[3]. If you doubt the accuracy of what you read there, then why not check it out? Fact-checking is an important instinct to develop in a world increasingly corrupted by Fake News. Remember the reference librarian's credo: Look it up for yourself, you lazy bastard!

Take novels, for example. I've raised this before, but it bears repeating as a concrete instance of the problem. It's harder to get good figures than you might think, but estimates of how many books are published in the UK each year vary between 70,000 and 100,000, of which, let's say, about 5 percent would be regarded as proper "fiction". So, around 4-5 thousand British novels are published, every year; let's call it 4,500. Now, we can apply the sound general principle that "90% of anything is rubbish". So, of those 4,500 published novels, let's say only 450 are really worth reading. I don't know about you, but identifying, getting hold of, and then reading 8 or more brand new novels every week is beyond my capacity. I'm simply not keeping up as it is – last week I only read one novel, started the week before. And that wasn't a title published this year or even last year! In reality, even if only 45 of this year's crop are really worth reading, I'm never going to get round to reading them all. And I still haven't read any Jane Austen. And that's also completely to ignore the output of any other English-speaking country with a publishing industry. The United States, for example, where I believe the odd novel still gets published.

So, fiction-wise, the situation is beyond hopeless. Every year at this time, the heavyweight papers remind us of that fact with their humiliating "books of the year" lists. The same relentless listing goes on for cinema, TV, recommended restaurants, places to visit... Stop! Just stop! Had we but world enough and time... And yet some of us – a minority, admittedly – do keep on reading, do keep on going to the cinema... What is the matter with us? Well, absolutely nothing. Surely it's obvious that a good life is not well served by a collect-'em-all "bucket list" mentality and, the closer I get to my personal bucket-kicking situation, the more this profound truth impresses itself on me: a few cities well-explored, a few books well-read, some true friends well-loved, maybe just one foreign language well-learned[4]... These are worth a thousand lightly-skimmed, easily-forgotten "experiences". So, don't panic in the face of overwhelming plenitude: just remember to keep breathing, people, and take slow, deep, full breaths!

Obscured by leaves (Paris, October 2017)

 [1] "What do I know?", also the title of a long-running series of informative pocket guides, the model for similar publishing enterprises, such as OUP's "very short introductions".
[2]  "Je m'en fous!" would probably not make a terribly interesting series of pocket guides. Though I don't know...
[3] Next time their plea for funds pops up on your screen, why not send them a few [your currency units here]?
[4] A chance to offload my favourite Russian quotation : znat' tri yazyka nenuzhnaya roskoshch' (to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury - Chekhov).

Wednesday, 13 December 2017


Back in October we visited Paris, primarily because my partner had to spend a couple of days working there; why waste the opportunity? One of the highlights of our stay was a comprehensive exhibition of the work of André Derain at the Pompidou Centre, which was something of a revelation. I knew his fauve London paintings, but little else. I'm no art historian, and simply "know" those artists (or, more precisely, individual artworks) that have attracted my attention, magpie-like, over the years. If I like it then in it goes into my mental rag-bag, probably to pop up again, transmogrified, in my own picture-making, possibly decades later. This is the difference between theft and appropriation, or unconscious influence and plagiarism, Your Honour.

I was very struck by Derain's "weathercock" tendencies. It seemed that he adopted something of the style of whoever he had recently been hanging out with: Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne... Hard not to be influenced by such chums, I'd say. I was probably particularly alert to this because I see something of this tendency in myself. Sadly, I don't get to go drinking with the great artistic names of our day, so my weathercock gets spun by whatever I've most recently been admiring; in a gallery, a book, or online. So I was in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum last week, and most strongly felt a breeze of japonisme blowing there, admittedly something of a prevailing wind for me. Hence the above pastiche.

Certain sharp-eyed observers have asked about the Led Zep-alike symbol that has been cropping up in my collages (see top right). Have I joined a cult? What does it mean? Well, no, and nothing, really. While we were in Paris, I spotted the grating below in a wall on the Rive Droite*, below the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Amazing, no? How could I not steal / borrow / appropriate / be influenced by something so ... pointlessly and decoratively mysterious?

Oh, and those other cryptic inscriptions? Should you ever find yourself on Southampton Railway Station, Platform 1, look down at your feet:

* Why on earth do Parisians refer to Left Bank and Right Bank, when they could quite straightforwardly have used "South Bank" and "North Bank" (see: London)? Does everyone always face west in Paris? I think not. The Seine isn't even as wiggly as the Thames! So much for that famous French logic...

Monday, 11 December 2017

Calendar 2018: Last Call

If you were still thinking about buying one of my 2018 calendars (see Project Report 2017), now is the time to act. I have just a few extra copies left, and won't be making any more.

They are £15.00 + P&P. If you don't live in the UK, don't be put off: PayPal can handle the conversion into Sterling seamlessly. Just let me know where you live, and I'll adjust the shipping accordingly.

UPDATE 16/12/17: All gone now.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Book Club 2017

For me, this year has not been a stand-out year for photo-books. No bad thing, as I've been trying to ease off on my book-buying, anyway, partly because I've got far too many already, but also because I think the photo-book boom has got out of hand, and the rewards are diminishing as more and more half-baked projects get the full-on luxury treatment. You know the sort of thing: a top-quality, cloth-bound publication with tasteful but possibly over-designed layouts, accompanied by an incredibly expensive "special" edition in a slipcase or clamshell box with a small print and a signed archival envelope of the artist's nail-clippings thrown in for good measure. But the actual work? Meh. True talent is always spread thin, and it only gets spread thinner by this sort of hyperventilated, premature publication.

Nonetheless ... I have bought a few books of particular interest, so allow me to draw your attention to some of them.

Nancy Rexroth, Iowa
I said my piece on this landmark book (from that landmark year, 1977) in this blog post, and have nothing to add. If you didn't buy a copy then, I can't see you're going to buy one now. Even though you should.

Michael Wolf, Tokyo Compression Final Cut
Michael Wolf (website here) is a photographer whose thematic compilations are full of interest (particularly those delightful small books from German publisher Peperoni Books collating objects like brooms and chairs found in the back-alleys of Hong Kong), but the series of "Tokyo Compression" books – in which tube passengers in Tokyo are captured crushed against grimy, condensation-covered windows – established a genre and brought him to wider attention. This "Final Cut" edition is his own selection of the best of these wonderful images, that capture moments of private interiority in conditions of enforced intimacy with the rest of humanity. We've all been there. Christmas is coming.

Stephen Gill, Night Procession
I'm ambivalent about Stephen Gill's work, which often seems to be driven more by some gimmick than any real vision or theme, but when he's good he's really good, and he really knows how to put a top-quality book together. The gimmick of Night Procession is the use of a movement-triggered camera and infra-red flash to capture nocturnal wildlife in his new rural Swedish neighbourhood – quite a radical change from the grimy streets of Hackney (some sample images here and a book preview here). They have an ethereally-drawn quality that I find very beautiful. And the book itself is a real pleasure to handle.

Stephen Coates, X-Ray Audio
This book is one part of an extraordinary project, documenting the use of old x-ray plates to create bootleg audio-recordings of forbidden music like jazz and rock'n'roll in the Soviet era (website here). As visual objects, these discs are simply remarkable (and, it has to be said, spookily reminiscent of some of my own work), and although I am very familiar with Russian samizdat print publications from that era I had never come across this phenomenon before. File under Weird and Wonderful.

Andrew Tatham, A Group Photograph
I must admit I haven't got around to reading this one yet, the result of another multi-output long-term project, but just the idea of it sold it to me (website here). In recent years, like so many, I've become very interested in my own family history, and have shown various vintage group photographs of, for example, my grandfather in WW1 on this blog. Anyone in possession of such photographs must surely have wondered about the identities of the other, non-family members in the group, but will almost certainly have done nothing about it. Andrew Tatham has, and – taking it several stages further – has not only tracked down every man in a particular formal WW1 group photograph in his possession, but also their pre- and post-war lives and careers, and even found their descendants. It's a remarkable enterprise, that took over twenty years; as the website says, every man has been remembered "as if he were a part of your own family". Like all such acts of "remembrance", one hundred years on, it's both deeply moving and gloriously pointless. That's a recommendation, in case you were wondering, and also, of course, a fairly sound definition of "art". In fact, you might even say that this sort of project is a true form of conceptual art, that puts the empty, ego-driven posturings of most work trading under that label to shame.
As always, I'd urge you to buy your books either directly from the artist's or the publisher's website, or from a specialist bookseller. In the UK I use both Beyond Words and PhotoBookStore, both of which offer an excellent service. If I lived in the USA, I'd probably recommend photo-eye. These booksellers all run what libraries call a "current awareness" service, in the form of a regular newsletter and a "what's new" spot on their websites. Sign up, if you like your photo-books, but be like a patient watcher of the skies, waiting for a rare glimpse of a spectacular comet. You have to keep your eye on the constant stream of the ordinary to know the truly wonderful when it appears, and be quick to capture it before it goes.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Market Farces

Shadow trap...
“We are deliberately thinking of higher education as a market, and as a market, it has a number of points of failure. Young people are taking out substantial loans to pay for courses without much effective help and advice, and the institutions concerned are under very little competitive pressure to provide best value. If this was a regulated financial market we would be raising the question of mis-selling. The Department is taking action to address some of these issues, but there is a lot that remains to be done.”
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, 8 December 2017
It was a vintage morning wake-up session yesterday with BBC Radio 4's Today programme. After a slightly hallucinatory encounter with a spokes-trilobite from the Cambrian, the coverage of a report from the National Audit Office, "The Higher Education Market", had me wide awake and laughing. Which is, admittedly, not a bad way to start the day.

It reminded of the old joke about the patient who complains, "Doctor, it hurts when I do this...", to which the doctor replies, "Then stop doing that!" I mean, really, of course if you think of higher education as a market it all looks a bit dodgy. That's why it's been such a stupid idea all along: higher education is not a market, no matter how long you look at it or fervently wish it was. Neither is it a frying pan, a swimming pool, a fleeting shadow on a sunlit field, or an ancient oriental art of self-defense. Sorry, it just isn't. Although there may be people out there who think otherwise, those people are in need of professional psychiatric help, and should definitely not be occupying positions of influence paid for out of our taxes.

Here are some highlights from the report's press release, with some marginal annotations:
Only 32% of higher education students consider their course offers value for money, and competition between providers to drive improvements on price and quality has yet to prove effective, according to today’s report from the National Audit Office.
I'm not sure what proportion of students gain upper-second or first-class degrees, but I'm suspecting a close correlation with "only 32%" here. There have been many stories about poorly-performing students complaining that they paid good money in good faith, and therefore the university had a duty to steer them to a first, or at least an upper-second. Then there were the courses in "pet grooming and astrology" and the like, developed as money-spinning crowd-pleasers. These all used to be passed on as self-evidently hilarious; now, not so much. But is a middling-to-poor degree "value for money" if you paid considerably less for it, though? And is it OK to offer a piss-poor course if it's the cheapest on the higher-ed "market"? Hey, you get what you pay for!
There is no meaningful price competition in the sector and market incentives for higher education providers to compete for students on course quality are weak. In 2016, 87 of the top 90 English universities charged the maximum permissible fee of £9,000 a year for all courses. The relationship between course quality and providers’ fee income is also weak. The NAO finds that, on average, a provider moving up five places in a league table gains just 0.25% of additional fee income.
 Oh, please. See above. Did the government really expect any institution as complex and as expensive to run as a university to take a voluntary cut in income, in acknowledgment of its abject performance in some dubiously-framed beauty competition? Yes, minister, it seems even the less prestigious universities have to use electricity, pay their staff a decent wage (some of them, anyway, let's not get into that right now), as well as stock their libraries and maintain laboratories and up-to-date computer infrastructure. But have you ever looked at the "market" in academic journal prices, minister? Now there's a rip-off worth investigating.
Students can do little to influence quality once on a course. The sector ombudsman considers that providers have improved their handling of complaints and feedback, with a 25% drop in student complaints referred to it since 2014. However, students are unable to drive quality through switching providers. There is also not yet evidence that more providers entering and exiting the market will improve quality in the sector, and protections for students are untested.
This is the bit that made me laugh.

I love the idea of students driving quality by "switching providers". Imagine the scenario. Student Hugo Entitled-Dicke scrapes three grade C A-levels at some fee-paying crammer, and gets himself onto a politics course at Smalltown Uni. He finds the course (and the all-important "student experience") not up to his elevated expectations, not least in not equipping him for the career in politics he considers to be his manifest destiny. Entitled-Dicke hears that PPE at Oxford is a much better course, with consistently better career outcomes. So, given he is already paying the same fee at Smalltown as those Oxford PPE students, he decides to switch providers. Well, you can fill in the rest of this scenario. That markets can be a two-way thing seems not to have occurred to the National Audit Office.

I was also amused by the idea of students not being able to influence the quality of a course in an imperfect market situation. Oh, really? Now, I have to hold up a hand here. Once, a long time ago, I was part of a small group of dissatisfied students (customers?) of English Language & Literature, who considered our university's course to be disgracefully old-fashioned: Anglo-Saxon was compulsory; the curriculum stopped somewhere around 1940; it completely ignored literary theory (and in particular the continental, feminist, and Marxist theories we were so keen to study); and anything not written in the British Isles was, well, not English. We agitated for change and, a few student generations later, what do you know, change happened. Too late for us, but change nonetheless, change which we had initiated. Without us even threatening to switch our "provider", either! Though we may have threatened to occupy the English Faculty building, my memory is fuzzy on that point. Some of us had certainly occupied both the Examination Schools and an administrative building on separate occasions the previous year, but that's another story*.

In a market-style interpretation of universities I wonder what sort of intervention an occupation is? A hostile takeover, perhaps? Or a stakeholders' revolt? Which reminds me of a saying current in those far-off days of innocence: we don't want a bigger slice of the cake, we want to own the bloody bakery!

Fleeting shadow corral...

* And one well documented and well told in: Thompson, Fiona. Fight for a CSU! Oxford Polytechnic, 1975. A true collector's item.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Cambrian Specs: Update

Incredibly, there was a "news" spot on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning outlining the importance of the evolution of eyes in the so-called Cambrian Explosion. I had always assumed this was an established theory, but they were interviewing a trilobite who said, "Yeah, it was incredibly important. Suddenly, we could, like, see everything around us, instead of, you know, bumping into it. It's hard to imagine, now, how mind-blowing that was at the time. Especially when your mind is just a few swollen ganglions, or whatever they're called. I mean, whoah... I'm afraid it did all become a bit of an all you can see you can eat buffet for a while down there on the sea floor... I'd put my hand up to that, sure, except I don't have any! Heh... I mean, srsly, evolution, eh?"

I think that's how it went, but admittedly I was still half asleep. But you read it here first, folks; I may change the name of the blog to Zeitgeist Hat. "Synchronicity spoken here", as we used to say.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Cambrian Specs

If you're a regular reader of Mike Johnston's TOP blog you've probably noticed how, over the years, his posts have alternated unevenly between obsessive examinations of photographic gear and jeremiads about not obsessing about photographic gear. It's all about the pictures, you gearheads! No, wait, it's all about the best standard prime lens money can buy! At the moment, Gear Mike seems to have the upper hand over Picture Mike (a cynic might say that this, realistically, probably does return better reader figures) so a recent post about how the pleasure of seeing precedes photography stood out all the more. He concluded that "these things remind me that before photography comes the joy and the wonder of simply seeing. It's one of the reasons for photography in the first place." Well, yep and amen.

I was going to make some idiotic comment there* about the superiority of "Eyes 1.0", but realised that would make me sound like a creationist. In evolutionary release-number terms, we must really be on Eyes version X.Y, where "X" is a very large number, and "Y" is an even larger number. Technically, we may even still be in the beta phase. Eyes have come a long way since the Cambrian, 500 million years ago, but are still far from perfect. I have recently come to realise that my phone screen is not blurry, and I may have to start using reading-glasses soon. Like Apple devices, eyes look great, but lack the necessary ports for essential peripherals. What was that about a blind watchmaker?

Of course, seeing may primarily involve Eyes X.Y, but it also requires Nervous System X.Y, Vascular System X.Y, and so on. The joy of seeing is a whole body experience that situates us convincingly and quite often ecstatically in the world. It also makes extensive use of whatever the latest release of one's own emotional and aesthetic firmware might be. Which is problematic; a lot of us, it seems, fail to regularly update that firmware, and may even still be using a very early version indeed. What else can explain the popularity of videos of cats on social media?

I suppose the point is not just that eyes make cameras look a little simple, but that "photography" is not so much a way of seeing as a way of making things to look at. Although I have a long-standing sympathy for those who argue that using a camera to make pictures is more than a mechanical process – well, of course it is – it isn't much more than that, when compared to whole-body input-and-output experiences like painting or drawing. If you have ever tried to draw a convincing likeness of a person (never mind one that seems to offers insight into the personality of both the sitter and the drawer) you will know how mechanical and – crucially – external to your "whole self" the skill-set of photography really is. Although it is equally true that, if you have ever despaired of the ability of your eyes, brain, nerves, muscles and tendons to make sufficiently satisfying marks on paper to create such a likeness, you may well have fallen back on the mechanical almost-perfection of a photograph; not as an end, but as an aid.

Which, I suppose, is why I'm increasingly interested in picture-making from photographic elements, rather than in photographs as an end in themselves. Whatever anyone else makes of the resulting images, it's just so much more satisfying to do, and consistently and reliably takes me into a similar place to Mike Johnston's "joy and the wonder of simply seeing".

* A number of my comments on TOP have ended up as a "Featured Comment", which would be gratifying, except that it has the annoying side-effect of removing any link back to this blog! I mean, why else would I be making a comment, other than a transparent attempt to attract new readers?

Monday, 4 December 2017

This Is Just To Say

This is just to say that, yep, this three-part obsession could get relentless. For a while anyway. I'm imagining this thing printed at its native size of 85cm x 30cm (essentially a sheet of A3 flanked by two sheets of A4, a proper euro-spec triptych), or perhaps a bit smaller to tighten things up, then framed with a generous border, about 110cm x 55cm overall. Large, but not ridiculously large. Or maybe that is ridiculously large? Do speak up if you have any views.

Listen, why not speak up anyway? It's boring for me never to hear from so many of you, and – who knows? – some early feedback could save me from myself. Although it's true my reader numbers have taken a dive in recent years, I can't decide whether this is because people are voting with their metaphorical feet as my content is no longer so interesting, or a symptom of a general fall-off in interest in blogs as such. Curse you, TwitterBook!

By the way, for another kind of three-parter, why not check out the current Wondermark cartoon? It's a classic, although if you don't recall a certain famous poem, and in particular the name of its author, it will make very little sense. Nice one, Malki!

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Three in One

For some reason the triptych thing has been grabbing my attention. I made these two this afternoon, and although I suspect they may turn out to be nothing more than exercises in ingenuity, there's definitely something exciting there that I need to pursue, and what more can you ask for on a cold, dark December afternoon than that? Although a nice cup of tea and a couple of slices of toast wouldn't go amiss, either.

Thursday, 30 November 2017


Redbridge Towers and M271 flyover

Traffic fumes at sunset...

I wish I could think of a decent alternative to "project", as it's a word with unfortunate associations; I can practically feel people smirking every time I write it. At one extreme, it brings to mind an extended piece of schoolwork ("My Pets", or "Collective Behaviour of Chemotactic Microorganisms in a Viscous Environment", you know the sort of thing). At the other extreme, it's the word actors, models, and musicians use to dignify their self-centred little worlds to us civilians; the words "vanity" and "project" seem to have a horse-and-carriage-style magnetic attraction. But it's a good, useful word, nonetheless, which I use to signify something lying somewhere between two of its Oxford Dictionary definitions, "an individual or collaborative enterprise that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim" or "a proposed or planned undertaking". Delete "carefully" from the first, and emphasise "proposed" in the second, and they're pretty much in the same place, aren't they?

Anyway, my proposed "Soul of Southampton" project (stop that smirking) is slowly getting under way, and may or may not get somewhere in the New Year. As part of my, uh, careful planning, I decided to go for a walk out onto the Redbridge Causeway (a.k.a. the Totton Bypass) on Tuesday. It was a beautiful, cold and crisp day, and by mid-afternoon the sun was already getting low and casting a deceptively warm glow onto the west-facing banks of the Test Estuary. There was nothing deceptively warm about the constant north wind, however.

I've driven over that bridge hundreds of times, as it's the quickest route to the New Forest. As you cross the River Test, you get a fleeting glimpse of the docks and Southampton Water and, depending on the state of the tide, either a gleaming expanse of water or a gleaming expanse of mud. Alongside the dual-carriageway is a narrow path and cycleway, so I threaded my way through the backstreets and underpasses of the Redbridge Estate (another kind of "project", and a lively place, to say the least, at school chucking-out time) and then risked life and limb on the motorway flyover slip-roads so that I could eventually get up onto the walkway, where I hoped to get some good views of the river and the docks.

Which, I hope you'll agree, I did. However, one obvious lesson was re-learned: don't use the rail of a busy road-bridge as a support for a camera. Even when the traffic is light, it's vibrating like a gong, and does absolutely nothing for the sharpness of your photographs.

OurSoles Safety & Workplace Supplies
(No, really...)

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Bar Tacked At Points Of Strain

I haven't really worn jeans for some years – like most middle-aged people, I've come to prefer the comfort and ease of movement of looser styles, particularly "combats" and chinos – but as my daughter had put a pair of Levi's on her Christmas list this year [note to self: aren't my kids earning more than me now?] I had reason to look into buying some and I was amazed, frankly, to discover how much they cost now. I mean, eighty-five pounds for a pair of jeans? Really? When did that happen?

I remember my first pair of Levi's. It was 1969, and I'd had a pair of Wranglers for a year or two, but was always conscious that Levi's were the real thing. In the 1960s you could only buy jeans in outdoorsy and army-surplus type shops; the idea of going into a High Street chain-store for a pair, let alone a high-fashion outlet, was ridiculous. The thing about Levi's was not so much that they were more expensive, which they were (I don't know what the equivalent of £85 was in 1969, but they were certainly nowhere near that expensive), but that they were shrink-to-fit. This strange ritual of entry to jeans subculture was confusing and off-putting to most.

Basically, you had to buy a pair which were a size too large. A pair of new Levi's were practically rigid, the cloth was so thick, and so heavily dyed with indigo that they were a very dark, very even blue, almost black. You pulled on these stiff, oversized trousers, ran a hot bath, and sat in it for as long as you could, while the cloth shrank around you. At the end of the process the bath water would be blue, and so were your legs. But, most important of all, the jeans would be tight; I mean really tight. The whole thing had the sort of louche, sleazy sexiness associated with bikers and fairground workers, with their leather jackets, T-shirts, and tattoos (all of which are now, of course, mainstream fashion choices). It's no wonder the wearing of jeans was frowned upon: they were banned on non-uniform school trips, in nightclubs, and anywhere that valued its respectability. In those days, jeans spelled trouble.

The trouble with tight jeans is...
they wear out in odd places

I suspect Levi's were probably the first clothing brand to capture the awareness of the British youth market. Other brands already had a cult following in certain subcultures – I think of Lewis Leathers, for example, or Clark's desert boots – but Levi's had already made a thing of their brand identity by the time they became generally available in Britain. There was the seagull rear-pocket stitching, the red tab, the distinctive leather label patch, and, crucially, the lack of any visible stitching down the outside leg seam, which marked out every other brand of jeans as greasy kid's stuff. There was even a decorative cardboard label-cum-certificate telling you what an authentic thing the Levi's identity was. Quite soon there would be other brands associated with other subcultures – Ben Sherman shirts, Crombie coats, and Doctor Marten's boots were de rigeur in skinhead circles, for example – but anyone who wanted a piece of the youth-culture action could wear Levi's. Unless, of course, you were sufficiently contrarian and counter-cultural to regard Levi's themselves as a bit, you know, mainstream. "No Logo", as far as I'm concerned, began in 1972.

Throughout, let it be understood, by "Levi's" I am referring to straight-leg 501s. Don't even get me started on the abominations that were flared jeans or split-knee loon jeans, or those short-cuts to unearned street-cred, pre-shrunk and stone-washed jeans. These aberrations all marked the shift from a utility brand, taken up by certain subcultures precisely because of its utility, to a fashion brand. And we all know where that has led us: people walking around in expensive clothes with the labels on the outside, like human advertising hoardings, rather than discreetly tucked away inside where they belong. And it would seem that we might even have Levi's to blame for that, both as originator and perpetuator. I mean, honestly, eighty-five pounds for a pair of jeans!

Why is that peculiar chap at middle left NOT wearing jeans?
Aren't those army-surplus trousers??

Monday, 27 November 2017

Stage Blood

The Barbican

I was up in London on Friday night to see Shakespeare's Julius Caesar performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican. It's an odd play, Julius Caesar. Like Hamlet, it seems to be entirely composed out of famous quotations and turns of phrase that have entered the language, spread out by scenes involving people stabbing each other or themselves with swords and/or daggers. In fact, the play does actually bear a strong family resemblance to both Hamlet and Henry V, both almost certainly written around the same time. To be honest, I could have sworn Mark Antony's words "cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war" were to be found in Henry V, and that the various agonisings by Brutus over the gap between thought and deed were outtakes from Hamlet. Shakespeare clearly had certain things preying on his mind around the turn of the century. The play used to be much more performed than it has been in recent times: the RSC's "revival" of the Roman plays is intended, I'm sure, to point up the contemporary relevance of their meditations on governance, absolutism, and the corruptions of power. They've gone for the full toga and sandals, though, rather than some modern camo-and-Kalashnikov setting, which, these days, counts as bravely controversial. It must be a problem for the crew, getting all that blood off those pristine white togas every night ("Impossible? No, dramaturgical!"*). Or perhaps they're reversible.

This is a perfectly competent version of the play by the RSC, as you would expect, with some nice touches, but oddly under-produced, I thought. In fact, although it improves immensely after the interval, the first half reminded me of nothing so much as a rather superior school play, with its static set, and too many minor characters and extras standing around doing the physical equivalent of muttering "Rhubarb! Rhubarb!". Plus, when a sword penetrates someone's guts on stage, as they frequently do in this play, for £50 a ticket I expect it to come out bloody, and not as shiny as when it went in, and for at least a little gore to be spilled, given the amount that ends up on stage when Caesar is stabbed to death. I mean, srsly; didn't they crack that one in Shakespeare's time? There was also far too much pouncing on hidden ironies and double entendres in the text that could be camped up or over-emphasised to get sitcom style laughs ("Julius Caesar is recorded before a live TV audience"). This is a disease of modern acting that needs stamping out. This is not meant to be a funny play. For me, Mark Antony casually breaking Brutus's boy servant's neck with an audible crack that made the audience gasp rather than titter was far more like it.

The school play comparison seemed to stick in my mind. Well, it's that time of year, isn't it? The end of the winter term draws near, with the days shortening until it's already dark at the end of the school day, and with the tinselly mass-hysteria of Christmas just coming over the horizon. Somehow, old memories seem to crowd in more tightly and in a purer distillation as November becomes December, and few are as vivid as the anxiety that accompanies trying to learn the few lines of some minor walk-on part, or wearing tights in front of your peers. Across the country, some poor devil will have been tasked with putting on a play to be performed in front of parents towards the end of the year – in my day almost invariably a Shakespeare – and imposing some discipline on the untested acting skills of a dozen or two 11-17-year-old children. In fact, I do now vaguely recall Julius Caesar itself being performed at my school somewhere around 1967, but only because one of my classmates was cast as Cinna the Poet, to be chased across the stage and killed in that oddly pointless case of mistaken identity by the brutal, fickle, and easily-swayed mob (it's hard to escape the feeling that Shakespeare was not an instinctive democrat).

Come to think of it, Julius Caesar is a good choice of play for an all-boys school, as there are just two small female roles, wives of leading characters, and the play's mood is about as hyper-masculine as a rugby-club changing room. Even so, I was slightly taken aback by the apparent misogyny on display at the Barbican. Sure, there's a lot of butch Roman talk in the play of Caesar whining like a girl when he's struck down with man-flu in Spain and the like, but the director has woven this into the texture of the whole play. Indeed, a typically Elizabethan display of hand-clasping, embracing, and love-and-eternal-friendship-pledging in all the key male relationships is extended into distinctly homo-erotic territory – bizarrely, the final angry row and reconciliation between Cassius and Brutus before the final, fatal battle is played like a lovers' tiff in a romcom – and the wives are given even shorter shrift by their husbands than the text really warrants. It's a valid take on the play, I suppose, but an odd one to be seeing in 2017, unless the idea is that plots, assassinations, counter-plots, and suicides – bodies all over the stage – are the sort of mess you get into in male-dominated, honour-driven, aristocratic societies unchecked by ameliorating influences. Though, as I say, I think you'd be looking a long time through his plays before finding much evidence of Shakespeare's democratic instincts.

By the way, talking of Christmas, I have now received the first batch of calendars from Vistaprint, and they've done their usual excellent job. I ordered most on 235g premium glossy paper, plus a few on 220g satin paper: the glossy is, um, shiny with deeper blacks and higher contrast, the satin is more of a matte finish, with slightly lower contrast. Both are good. If you decide you'd like to buy one (see previous post) I will assume you want the glossy version unless you say otherwise.

Calendar: October 2018

* One for the regular (and older) readers...

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Project Report 2017

Calendar cover

Suddenly, it's late November and high time to be thinking about year's end activities, like making next year's calendar. As a recovering parent, the advent of Christmas brings with it a range of residual seasonal anxieties which need to be found a suitable home, like household gods, and I suspect that the preparation of cards and calendars is where they have taken up residence. After all, it's not as if anyone else's peace of mind depends on the annual receipt of a selection of my homespun imagery.

November 2018

In previous years I've generally used twelve pictures from a single project that had been commanding my attention during the year; Puck's Song, for example, was perfect for 2015/16, being my twelve illustrations for Kipling's twelve stanza poem. But in 2017 I've been suffering creative overload, and have had any number of things on the go simultaneously. I found I couldn't decide which of them to feature, or which had the strongest dozen images that would each reward a month of viewing (naively, perhaps, I have to assume calendar recipients actually hang the thing somewhere, in preference to Kute Katz Kalendah 2018*). I also had a practical problem with my increasing fondness for the "portrait" orientation, which doesn't really suit the calendar format. So I decided on a Project Report, something like a visual corporate annual report, which would bring together a little of everything in progress during 2017, naming the "project" each picture had been extracted from.

December 2018

Calendar recipients probably don't realise or care quite what an exclusive club they have inadvertently been enrolled into by me. I only make about fifteen or so and, as my family don't need reminding what a weird person I am, these generally go to an inner circle of friends and well-wishers, plus some People of Influence. In recent years I've largely given up on the latter, however, as this little annual reminder of my existence seems to have had zero effect, while the number of friends and well-wishers has, gratifyingly, increased. However, if you're stuck for a gift for someone, or fancy something rich and strange for yourself, I'd get one made and sent to you for £15.00 plus P&P**. All you need to do is drop me an email (my address is in the "Since you ask..." profile section at top right).

June 2018

* An old friend who runs a stained-glass workshop in the Dordogne assures me he always hangs it in the toilet, because of the opportunities for extended contemplation this affords.

** The calendars are made by Vistaprint, on 235g premium glossy paperstock, 28cm x 21cm, wire spiral bound.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017


Southampton Sports Centre

A wonderful thing has just happened. To quote from the email I found in my inbox on Friday:
Dear friends of ECM,

Over the past week ECM begun the process of entering streaming, and from today, the full ECM catalogue is available to subscribers to services including Apple Music,, Spotify, Deezer, TIDAL and Qobuz.
That's .... amazing! There are so many ECM albums I've wanted to hear over the years, but couldn't possibly have afforded to take a gamble on, so this is like receiving the ultimate Christmas present. Let's see... There are the early Bill Frisell recordings, all that Jan Garbarek and Keith Jarrett, those intriguing combinations of world music virtuosos with musicians from the "jazz" tradition, the modern "classical" recordings by the likes of Arvo Pärt , beautiful polyphony from the Hilliard Ensemble... Oh yes, and John Surman and Terje Rypdal, I'd always meant to check them out, and I might even take a cautious look into the world of Carla Bley... The list just goes on.

I know that, for a lot of people, a little ECM goes a long way – "chilly" and "cerebral" are sometimes the words critics reach for, though I prefer "serene" and "uncompromising" – but if I had to nominate one label whose output I would like to be able to sample whenever I felt like it, that label would have to be ECM. So, thanks, Manfred Eicher! Let's hope you (or your artists) don't come to regret this, sales-wise.

So, now may be the time to put some decent Bluetooth speakers on my list for Father Christmas... Any recommendations?

Avonmouth from Clifton Downs, Bristol

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Sour Grape Juice (Best Served Cold)

A while ago back in the summer, I decided to enter three prints for the Royal West of England Academy's open exhibition. I realise this might look as if I only submit work to the exhibitions of bodies with "royal" in their name, but it is simply that the RWA is based in Bristol, and their gallery is a nice space in which to show work.

I had quite a number of candidate pictures so, having done the hard work of making a shortlist, I decided to try an experiment: I solicited the views of a select panel of notorious aesthetes as to which three of my six shortlisted choices they would choose. The results were interesting, in that they more or less coincided with my own top three choices. Make of that what you like. I'm inclined to think that all it demonstrates is that people whose judgement you trust tend to think the same way as you. It's "confirmation bias", or some such phenomenon.

Most interesting of all, though, 100% of cats who expressed an opinion (which was all of them) liked this image, which I titled "Southampton Water", and which was my own no-brainer candidate:

The signs were good. However, in the end, although two of the three (including "Southampton Water") made it into the final round of judgement, neither made it onto the wall. Disappointing, obviously, but these things are always a bit of a lottery. I bear the judges no ill-will, though if bad things have subsequently happened to them, their families, their pets, and their homes, then they only have themselves to blame.

As it happens, I am currently in Bristol for a few days, so I decided to drop by the RWA and take a look at the exhibition, if only to sneer at the work that did make it onto the gallery walls. Well, it turns out I didn't have to try very hard: although there is some excellent and interesting work on show, the overall impression is rather mediocre, and there is quite a lot of work that is so awful you have to wonder what on earth the judges were thinking. This showing of "bad" work was a feature of a couple of rooms in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, too, so I have to conclude there's a thing going on here. As well as just a little touch of sour grapes on my part, of course. Like revenge, I discover, it is a dish best served cold.

Now, obviously, ever since modernism began, there has been a bit of a cult of the "naïve" painter. In reaction to the sterility of academic painting, painters came to distrust their own facility with draughtsmanship and composition – natural skills refined, technically, by the disciplines of the academy – and deliberately made use of awkward and "unrealistic" lines, shapes and colours, often mimicking the bold and expressive work of untrained folk and "outsider" artists. The paintings of Alfred Wallis, for example, exercised a huge influence on the professionally-trained sophisticates of the St. Ives school. As with Derain's Fauvist work that I saw recently at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, there was a certain shock value at the time, but these faux-naïve moves soon became as formulaic as academic realism itself. However, the work I'm seeing on the walls of these open exhibitions (the idea of an "open" exhibition being that anybody may submit work) is not naïve, faux-naïve, bold, or expressive, it is simply bad: poorly executed and poorly conceived work by people not remotely in command of their materials, with no sense of design, line, or colour, often merely illustrating some half-baked political idea, or transparently imitative of other work.

Now, you may say, that is merely your opinion, and of course you'd be right. The challenge to elitist opinions and canons is a significant feature of our times. And I think therein may lie the problem. Like those modernist painters who disavowed their own skill-set, I suspect the judges of open exhibitions (often artists in their own right) are increasingly reluctant to impose their own sophisticated frame of judgement on the work presented to them, and as a consequence give the nod to work that, if they had produced it themselves, would have gone straight in the bin. This is deeply patronising, I think, and also profoundly unfair and confusing to the Sunday painters whose cack-handed daubs are being given prominent gallery space.

Don't believe me? Here's just one example of many:

I mean, honestly! Am I being unfair? Or is it the judges who are being unfair to the painter of this work, by exposing it to the ridicule of everyone I witnessed standing in front of it? I suppose it's a valid question to ask, whether this is (a) the work of a person who can't paint, (b) the work of a person who is artfully pretending not to be able to paint, or (c) the work of someone who doesn't care that you think they can't paint, because they are making a point in a visual language that your bourgeois, stuck-in-the-past imagination can't grasp. Whichever answer you go for, it is merely your own opinion, of course.

It has to be said that some of the most egregious and/or dull work in the show was actually by artists with the letters RWA after their name, which surprised me. I was also very surprised by how little of the work on show has actually been sold with only a couple of weeks to go before it all finally comes down off the walls. Which, as you can imagine, gave me absolutely no pleasure at all.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Old and New

Don't get me wrong on the nature of my proposed Southampton "quest". Although I am a self-declared admirer of the worn and torn over the brand spanking new, I'm not saying that "old" has any necessary correspondence with "soul". Quite often, the appeal of such battered remnants is quite the opposite of that, a sort of orphaned incongruity that is far from comforting, and that expresses the feelings of alienation in a world that is becoming inhospitable and incomprehensible that most of feel from time to time as we get older. We're not talking about favourite old sweaters here; we're talking about the coherence and continuity of civic awareness and culture that make, say, Liverpool "Liverpool", or Bristol "Bristol".

The feeling that Southampton is not, or is no longer "Southampton" may be purely personal, of course. Certain crucial areas of experience are off-limits to me. I will never know what it is like to have grown up here, to have extended family nearby, to have played in these parks and streets, or to have attended local schools, with strong views on their relative merits and mythologies. I cannot enter the thriving docks as I don't have any business there that would get me through the security gates. I have no interest in the lively clubbing scene that emerges between 11 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., leaving its unmissable traces in the streets of the city centre, although I suppose if I wanted to risk life and limb I could attempt to document the late-night mayhem that, I am told, erupts reliably when the clubs shut. Even though I arrived here in 1984, the year the Saints were riding high in the old First Division, I have never once attended a football match, either at the Dell or the new St. Mary's Stadium, and probably never will; I cannot even be bothered to check the team's latest performance on a Saturday. Does this make me less of a "Sotonian"? Probably yes; incomers generally remain incomers. But then I also cannot know what that fully 10% of our population who have come from Poland and other Eastern European countries in recent years make of the city. They already have their own network of shops, and so overfill the local Catholic church at Christmas that the congregation congregates out on the street. Obviously, there are many versions of the city, some more authentic than others, but I have never sensed that they cohere into anything resembling a true civic identity.

I don't think this was always the case, however, and this is where "old" does come in. There are stretches of the city centre where buildings that were not destroyed by the 1940 Blitz or the redevelopers of the 1960s still stand, and many of them are truly outstanding examples of civic architecture. Once, on this evidence, there was money and pride to spare. There are some elegant Georgian terraces, for example (now mainly occupied by legal firms); there are marvellous pubs and hotels and shops and banks with elaborate exteriors, sometimes surviving with their original function and context intact, but more often than not repurposed as clubs and restaurants and sitting uncomfortably next to the thoughtless, off-the-peg architecture of modern retail outlets.

At the more monumental end of the spectrum, there is an extraordinary sculpted memorial to the many Southampton crewmen who went down on the Titanic in 1912, just across the road from an elegant cenotaph inscribed with the names of the men who died in 1914-18, designed by Lutyens and the model for the larger version in London's Whitehall. Then, looming gigantically but somehow hidden in plain sight, there are the remnants of the original mediaeval city wall and the twin drum towers of the Norman Bargate, which was at some point chosen by the Council as the city's logo (accompanied by a tower-block and a tree – ah, symbolism!). This odd device has replaced the city coat of arms on everything from council vans to headed notepaper. In fact, look, there it is on the rubbish bin at the extreme bottom right in my panorama of that magnificent tiled pub frontage below, a stone's throw from the waterfront – where ferries used to leave for France and passenger boats sailed for the farthest reaches of the Empire – and opposite the original railway station, where passengers and, at times, soldiers from all over the country arrived before embarkation. It's not hard to imagine taking pride in a prosperous and purposeful city that once looked like this, though, is it?

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Soul Quest

In a previous post (Solent Soul Suite) I described a potential project, a tentative search for the "soul" of the city of Southampton, which seems to have gone missing somewhere around 1960, having received a bit of a pasting during the Blitz of 1940. It seemed one good initial search strategy would be to become a tourist in my own town, and to do the things I would do if, by some miscalculation, I had ended up here on holiday. So, a couple of times in recent weeks, I've taken myself down to that part of the waterfront which is under development as a residential, business, and leisure district, and relatively open to mooching about with a camera.

It seems quite a transformation has been going on. It's been a while since I was last down in Ocean Village, as it is known, and the developers have been busy. Where there were once wind-blown vacant lots huge high-rise blocks have appeared, with bars and restaurants at ground level, and upscale apartments and office space above. Private residential estates have been packed in around the old dockside, which has been rebranded as a "marina" and now gleams with the hulls of yachts and cruisers, including some Trump-sized vessels that could accommodate a lobbying-party for the entire House of Commons. The only things missing are (a) tourists, and (b) a suitable climate. Admittedly, the centre of Southampton is Party Town for a substantial stretch of the South Coast, but why anyone would want to freeze their kneecaps off in a brisk onshore breeze carrying fumes from the Fawley Refinery while being deafened by the tintinnabulation of halyards slapping a hundred-odd metal masts is a mystery to me.

Soul-wise, whether this makeover will ever become the "real" Southampton only time will tell. Out of sight, round the bend, and behind razor-wire topped fences the business of docking, resupplying, lading and unlading improbably large cruise and container ships carries on regardless. You can still be held up for 10 minutes or more as an endless freight train rumbles into the docks across the only road into the area. On the other side of Southampton Water sits the industrial sprawl of Fawley Refinery. Further round the other way the mighty curve of the Itchen Bridge carries commuter traffic over the river, and near and beneath the bridge little industrial units continue to make and fix things. A little further up the Itchen the enormous St. Mary's Stadium of Southampton FC is located. It's hard not to feel that true traces of a city's soul may be more reliably sensed in these places, rather than down by the marina. But it's a start.

The Itchen Bridge and the new stadium are both emblematic of the continual process of change from "old" Southampton to "new" Southampton; a process which, obviously, is going on in all towns everywhere all the time, but which, here as elsewhere, seems also to have broken some essential element of civic pride and continuity. Any genuine local of my age would recall that, before the bridge was opened in 1977, there was a chain ferry across the Itchen, the so-called Floating Bridge. It had been there, in various incarnations, since 1838, which would make it venerable by most standards, but was clearly inadequate for the needs of modern-day traffic. In fact, the Floating Bridge was itself a compromise, a substitute for a bridge proposed in 1833, but opposed by other local interests, not least the company operating the rival bridge a little upriver at Northam.

Photographically, this sort of thing is hard to express. Bits and pieces of "old" Southampton survive, but need substantial interpretation. A case in point: towards the end of my recent explorations down near the Itchen Bridge, a guy pulled out of a nearby gate in his car and, seeing me, slowed to a halt and rolled down his window. It turned out he was the Scoutmaster of the local Sea Scouts, and was worried I might be sizing the area up for yet more development. On hearing about my actual mission, he started to fill me in on the significance of the local remains. Those tracks on a ramp running into the water? That's where they built Mulberry harbours for D-Day. And that bus-shelter thingie over there? That's the Cross House, built as a place for people waiting to be ferried over the river, back before land was reclaimed to make the current shoreline. It was first mentioned in the sixteenth century, but is probably mediaeval, possibly repurposed from a boundary cross. Now that's old. But it's also isolated nowhere near anywhere any tourist would ever show up: at the side of a dead-end road running through industrial units to a car-park. Which is where I came in.