Sunday, 30 November 2008

Blogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home

In a recent post (Me and My Demographic) I mentioned the idea of "morphic resonance." I realise that this may not have become quite such a household expression nor so well understood as has, say, "Collateralized Debt Obligation," so I thought I'd return to the subject. I don't pretend to have any great insight here, it's just something bright, shiny and slightly mad that caught my eye.

Actually, it always surprises and interests me, how -- given the way even the serious newspapers and broadcasts are daily churning over much the same stuff (of which the "arts" component now seems entirely driven by publicists' press releases) -- we still manage to take away quite different doggy-bags of scraps from the Great Media Feast. What catches my eye probably won't catch yours.

This is a good thing: it means there's still a future for conversation. My partner -- an academic with a high-maintenance news habit -- can be literally entranced by the heavyweight end of a broadsheet for several hours, and may need reminding to sit down, or even asked to move along if the traffic is building up. I, on the other hand -- an idiot with a bottomless appetite for pictures and strange trivia -- make straight for the cartoons and the "human interest" supplements. Lively and sustaining conversations (and, of course, arguments) result.

But, returning to "morphic resonance." The surprising and interesting thing is how very mediaeval most of us are, despite a lengthy exposure to education and ready access to information. One's Inner Superstitious Peasant (ISP) is never far from the surface. And there's nothing gets the attention of your ISP quicker than a really good coincidence. Check my earlier post X Marks The Spot for a good example. A truly splendid coincidence like that is like a giant hand appearing from a cloud and writing the words "Mene, mene, tekel upharsin" on the roof of your car. Hard to ignore, hard to dismiss.

Of course, what counts as a significant coincidence is very much a question of what you notice, or are equipped to notice. For all I know, the leaves on our back lawn this morning may spell out "And what are you looking at?" in Aramaic, and may have done so every Sunday for the last six weeks. A rational person might say that such phenomena are merely the side effects of chance operating within our cognitive framework. I think a lot depends on how you feel about those famous monkeys trying to type out the complete works of Shakespeare. Will they produce a complete Goethe before they manage a Shakespeare or after? And where are they getting all those carbon ribbons from, I'd like to know?

The best coincidence, the one that everyone sees every day without giving it much thought, is the fact that the sun and the moon, as seen from planet Earth, are pretty much exactly the same size. Think about it: the sun is 400 times bigger than the moon in diameter, but happens to be 400 times as far away, and thus appears to be the same size. When the maths are just right, the little 'un covers up the big 'un as neat as a plug in a plughole. For the Ancients this was simply a given, and they presumably thought it made perfect poetic sense -- brother sun and sister moon, the greater and the lesser light, and so on. The sheer gobsmacking wonder of the 3-D truth of the matter was unavailable to them.

But what to make of such a thing? There seems to be a hard-wired resistance to the category of "amazing but ultimately meaningless coincidence" in the human brain: in evolutionary terms you can see how this may have saved us from being eaten by leopards and, as a by-product, given rise to useful things like the National Lottery. Your ISP brain's insistence that All this must MEAN something! must either be bypassed or placated.

Hard on the heels of anything that gets the attention of the ISP comes the Grand Alchemizer, the magus who theorises what it all means, and how it can be put to to practical use. Just as the ISP loves a coincidence, so the GA loves to spot patterns and correspondences. A kidney-shaped bean? It must be useful in the treatment of kidney ailments. That old woman looked at you in a funny way just a week before your cattle died? Burn the witch! A cloud exactly the same shape as a Collateralized Debt Obligation? Come on, it must mean a recession!!

Universities, curiously, are still quite hospitable to Grand Alchemizers, despite claims to being "evidence-based research-led" institutions. But only in the humanities. When scientists develop GA tendencies, they're either on their way to a Nobel Prize, or to a life of ignominy on the fringes of respectability. "Morphic resonance" is the work of one such, a man called "Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D". That "Ph.D." tells a tale, as do the titles of some of Dr. Sheldrake's bestselling books: The Sense of Being Stared At, and Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, for example.

Here is the blurb for The Presence of the Past : Morphic Resonance & The Habits of Nature:
"Challenging the fundamental assumptions of modern science, this ground-breaking radical hypothesis suggests that nature itself has memory. The question of morphogenesis - how things take their shape - remains one of the great mysteries of science. What makes a rabbit rabbit-shaped?
.
.. these questions remain unanswered in part because convention is hobbled by the reductionist assumption that finding the answers to such questions is largely a matter of figuring out the machinery of nature, of getting to the bottom of an ultimately mechanical universe. But, Sheldrake suggests that nature is not a machine and that each kind of system - from crystals to birds to societies - is shaped not by universal laws that embrace and direct all systems but by a unique "morphic field" containing a collective or pooled memory. So organisms not only share genetic material with others of their species, but are also shaped by a "field" specific to that species."
Now, I'd like to say I'm agnostic about this sort of thing, but that's not true. I'm deeply schizophrenic. I have nothing but admiration for science, scientists, and the scientific method. I read New Scientist and Scientific American (at least, I did, until our Staff Club cancelled the subscriptions when its budget was recently slashed by the university by 50%). But I also find Carlos Castaneda entertaining, love "cabinet of curiosities" websites documenting the weird and wonderful, and find Richard Dawkins a boorish dork. I also suffer from / enjoy repeated encounters with The Uncanny. I am very far from being an enemy of science, but recognise and to a degree sympathise with the huge constituency out there that salivates when the gong labelled "Challenging The Fundamental Assumptions Of Modern Science" is struck. However, those folk who want to "believe in something" simply because the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate are merely Agents of the Anti-Dawkins, and not to be taken seriously. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, the problem when people stop believing in God is not that they believe nothing, but that they will believe anything.

This is a subject to which I will return, if only because I think the proposition "This reminds me of That, and maybe we can understand That because we are familiar with This" is fundamental to the way art works, trading under the name Metaphor. That science sometimes works in the same way (but likes to pretend it doesn't), is illustrated by the story of Vortex Theory, which is oddly reminiscent of and connected to String Theory in more ways than one. Briefly:

"A theory of the atom had to explain:
  • The stability of atoms.
  • The variety of atoms, as shown by the periodic table of elements.
  • The vibrational properties of atoms, as shown by their spectral lines.

Lord Kelvin had seen smoke rings made by his physicist friend P.G. Tait, and was impressed by their stability, and vibrational properties. He had a vision of atoms as vortices in space. How to explain the variety of atoms? In 1867, Kelvin presented a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in which he wrote:

Models of knotted and linked vortex atoms were presented to the Society, the infinite variety of which is more than sufficient to explain the allotropies and affinities of all known matter.

So Tait set about preparing a list of knots, to see if there was a relation with the elements in the periodic table.The vortex theory of the atom soon disappeared, but Tait's 10 years of work on his list of knots of up to 10 crossings and the conjectures he made (some of which have been proved only recently) have been an inspiration ever since. Further, the idea of relations between knots and fundamental properties of matter is being shown to have a continuing force."

(Text taken from http://www.popmath.org.uk/exhib/pagesexhib/aether.html)

A fundamental difference between science and non-science is probably the readiness of science to drop those bits of a hypothesis that are shown not to work. Reluctantly, sometimes: this is the same infuriatingly smug Lord Kelvin who insisted that the Earth was 20-40 million years old (based on his calculated rate of cooling from a red-hot state), and who pronounced in 1900 "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, all that remains is more and more precise measurement," and in 1902 that "No balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful." Doh!

But note, too, how science has kept the other bits just in case they might come in handy. A stack of theorems and conjectures with a handy metaphor at their core, kept in a drawer and taken out from time to time for tinkering. A behaviour which, oddly enough, is traditionally referred to as "string saving."

Saturday, 29 November 2008

The Same River Twice

Although I try, I can't keep away from bodies of freshwater. Rivers, ponds, puddles -- they're all irresistible to me. Must be my Celtic genes (maybe that's also why I sometimes get the urge to throw my camera into the water). I admit it: the window images are water images by another means.

Here is the same river -- well, ornamental stream -- at the same place, in the same week. The 24th was a very cold day, and that graininess is a curious kind of "pre-ice" that sometimes forms on the water's surface. In both pictures, there is a hint of an oil slick which has come from further upstream.


Campus stream 28th November 2008


Campus stream, 24th November 2008


Friday, 28 November 2008

Reflections on Reflections

People often praise children's drawings and paintings as more authentic or more expressive than the work of adults, because they have not yet learned how things are "supposed" to look. Now, I'm as fond of my children's productions as any doting parent, but two things have always struck me. First, no-one is as quick to reach for a visual cliché as a kid with a crayon (come on, do you live in a square box with four evenly-distributed windows on the front, each with four panes of glass, and a chimney with smoke curling out of the top? Yes? Then, I've got some lovely drawings of your house you might like to see). Second, kids really don't get colour.

It's not surprising, as colour is mysterious. To photograph reflective surfaces like windows is to get a lesson in the ways of light and colour. Kids and purposeful adults like pure comic-style colours-- broad simplified areas of even tone, perhaps with a bit of light and dark for subtlety. But real colour is fairy dust -- it gets all over everything, and is changing constantly, mercurially. We tend to think of colour as a static property of an object (a red hat, a sheet of white paper), and there are indeed objective ways of measuring and reproducing colours: Pantone, RGB, CMYK and the like are all ways of ensuring you get exactly the right shade of green in your logo. But reflective objects reveal a deeper truth, that colour in the real world is constantly being overwhelmed by and leaking into its surroundings.

Imagine a world made entirely out of multi-coloured mirrored surfaces (H & S Alert: if you've ever taken LSD or suffer from vertigo, you may want to stop reading at this point). Picture everything reflected in everything else, buildings appearing to plunge deep into the ground, clouds floating far beneath your feet, and distorted shapes and colours intermingled everywhere, receding into infinity. Just reaching out to pick up a cup of tea would be quite an adventure.

To varying degrees, of course, that is exactly where we live: there are latent images projected all over everything by light -- all we have to do is make something wet, or smoother, or change the lighting, and the truth of this becomes apparent. Except on the dullest, driest days, colours are rarely purely themselves. Our eyes and brains work very hard to simplify this for us, to make Mirror World into Comic World. But Mirror World and its twin, Shadow World, are always there, just waiting for a shower of rain, a bit of polish, or for the sun to come out. It's a delightful truth told over and over again by Impressionism, and reliably reported by those brainless objects, cameras.


Laminated window, Highly polished floor

Leaf pattern carpet

Thursday, 27 November 2008

We Apologise For This Interruption to Normal Service

Although I have quite a few things waiting in the pipeline, the written content of this blog may go a little thin for a month or so, although I can guarantee the images will continue relentlessly. I like to write, but I can't help making pictures.

The reason for this is that both of our children suffer from Crohn's Disease, and from time to time one of them will need to go onto a fluid-only diet (a food supplement called Modulen) which calms and suppresses the symptoms when they approach an unacceptable level. This is rotten for them (how would you feel about eating nothing but 330 ml. of a milkshake-like drink, six times a day, every day, for a month or more? When at school?) but is also time-consuming for me -- the stuff has to be made up from canned powder every night, decanted into bottles and refrigerated, then everything thoroughly washed, etc. Blogging time will necessarily shrink until just before Christmas, when Number One Son will be reprieved.

Meantime, here are today's windows:

Mondrian Meets The Triple E Building


Weird Scenes Inside the Concert Hall

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Me and My Demographic

There are few things more likely to make me change course than to discover I'm part of a trend. Some would say this is typical of an Aquarian with a Scorpio ascendant (the trait of resisting traits?), and some would say this is just typical Awkward Squad behaviour. It's that Groucho Club thing again. So it was with mixed feelings I read this post by Doug Plummer in his blog Dispatches, which points to a New York Times feature on the phenomenon of "slow blogging."

Of course, there's a big difference between identifying a new behaviour and prescribing it as next season's thing; getting in step with a different, slower drum is not everybody's thing. A nice new counter-intuitive truth will always appeal to those who instinctively resist the hive mind ("The earth is going round the sun, you deluded fools!") -- hence the success of books like Freakonomics and Outliers -- but, in the end, humans are social creatures: it's nice to feel part of a collective, and not nice to be burned at the stake for heresy. Although I can see how that might happen to you...

So, is this "slow blogging"? Maybe yes, maybe no. It's certainly being read by such a small constituency that I could pull the plug at any time and barely hear the gurgle. My idea of a blog was formed by the one the photographer Alec Soth ran for a year until he felt it had started running him. It was a delightfully creative interaction between Alec and his commentors -- like the best postgraduate class you ever sat in. Of course, it made quite a difference that Mr. Soth was HOT after the success of his book Sleeping By The Mississippi -- everyone wants to be where the action is. To use the NYT comparison with "slow cooking," that was not so much slow blogging as bravura next-to-your-table blogging, with flaming brandy. Not something you can keep up for long.

Well, of course, I'd like to think that this blog is a bit different, in that you get some of the quality of slow cooking but at a somewhat faster pace -- like an upmarket stock cube, perhaps. And if you want to add to the mix, you can comment -- anonymously if you like -- by clicking on the "Comments" count below each post.

Oh, and talking of idiotic hats and trends, is the outbreak here of woolly caps worn baggily dangling from the back of the head (like a Smurf) a purely local thing, or is it a global phenomenon? This kind of "street" fashion trend has a lot in common with the idea of "morphic resonance" -- you know, the way that new behaviours seem to spread in a mysteriously simultaneous way (Rupert Sheldrake). The classic example is blue tits learning to attack milk bottles. And that started in Southampton, too.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Techno Update

In order to leaven the Triple M Effect* of blogging (and also in a shameless attempt to pick up a few more readers), I promised in earlier posts that I would let you know how I was getting on with a couple of hi-tech toys.

The Panasonic DMC-LX3 camera:

A nice feature of the LX3 (see post The Start of a Beautiful Friendship) is the availability of three aspect ratios (the proportions of the image rectangle), including a wide 16:9 which I have found myself gravitating towards. It suits a certain kind of picture-making that I enjoy.


The Optoelectronics Manufacturing Laboratory


Electricity Substation at West Quay

In the pursuit of lo-tech (OK, cheap) solutions to hi-tech problems, I've made a couple of good moves:

1. I've been hanging the camera from a neck cord (inherited from my Olympus Mju) attached to just the right hand strap lug. This means it can dangle under my coat as discreetly as an ID badge. You can also get a good grip on the thing by wrapping the cord round your hand. The supplied strap is too stiff, makes the camera look like a Leica that shrank in the wash, and has branding all over it. I'm very much a No Logo person, and would rather be taken for a tramp than impress anyone with my purchasing decisions.

2. There's a cheap clip-on viewfinder around at the moment, branded as Helios. This is actually ideal for the LX3. There are brightlines for 35mm, 85mm and 135mm, and if you position the zoom at its 60mm (equivalent) extreme, the bottom of the 35mm brightline is the bottom of the actual view (i.e. it's corrected for parallax), with the sides falling halfway between the 35mm and 85mm brightlines. This is "close enough for jazz", and works very well.

Although the wide setting is the camera's USP, I prefer the 60mm setting, as the lens is then at its most compact position -- easier to have beneath a coat without snagging, and less obtrusive for the kind of grab shots you'd be using a viewfinder for.

There is also a viewfinder which was made for use with wide and tele supplementary lenses for the Yashica Electro rangefinder cameras. The "tele" end is a mere 60mm (perfect), and the wide about 35mm (again, hopefully this will act as a parallax guide). These get detached from their kits and turn up on Ebay as "wide tele" viewfinders, because that's about all they have written on them. One is on its way to me, and I'm looking forward to giving it a try.

So far, I've identified two design faults that can be aggravating:

1. The mode dial is far too easily shifted by even gentle contact with a pocket or coat, or when pushed into a bag. This is incredibly annoying. You can easily find yourself going from Manual to Programmed Mode between shots.

2. There is no way to select a focal length between the two extreme positions other than unsubtle trial and error. It reminds me of the electric windows on our Renault, which lurch to every position but the one you want. The perfect thing would be the ability to specify a start-up position, as the Olympus C5050 was able to do, combined with preset hyperfocal depth focussing positions. I believe this is a feature of the Ricoh GX cameras, the obvious competitor to the LX3.

The Bookeen CyBook Gen 3 e-book reader:

I have nothing but praise for this device (see post My New Toy). It works. It's even easier to read in bed than a book, and hurts less when you fall asleep and it drops on your face. It's frustrating that more books aren't yet available (I'd like to join the Cult of Mankell, for example, but there's not a single title) but that's down to publishers, not the ebook reader manufacturers: there's no Henning Mankell for Amazon's Kindle yet, either.

One design fault: the rubber bung covering the USB port is far too difficult to remove when the reader is inside its natty case, unless you have supermodel fingernails. Otherwise, nice job, mes amis.


Friday Sunset at Southampton Docks
(Message for Andy Weir)


* i.e. "Me Me Me" -- thought I'd made this up, but it seems to have occurred to a lot of other people, too!

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Running Repairs

We connoisseurs of the delapidated and time-worn are pretty much on the winning side, when it comes to the long view, but we do suffer constant set-backs at the hands of the fixer-uppers, as illustrated by recent events in the botanical garden. Don't get me wrong: without the People With Plans and Power Tools we'd have nothing tumbledown to admire except the dripping wall of a cave, so we don't moan too much when a favourite site of neglect finally gets a lick of paint. As I say, time is on our side.

But it can seem that no sooner has a pane of glass, say, acquired a pleasing pattern of grime than someone comes along and washes it off. It can be very frustrating, and you have to learn to act quickly and accept your losses. It's guerilla warfare.

Sometimes, of course, stuff just needs fixing. The sequence I call Water Gauge illustrates the point. I've been visiting the grounds of Mottisfont Abbey (a National Trust property near Romsey, Hampshire) for a very long time, but a few years ago the natural chalk spring caught my eye, and I spent a year photographing it more or less weekly.

18th March 2006

1st April 2006

6th May 2006

As it happened, I had managed to pick the first year in human memory that this "perpetual spring" actually ran dry, which lent some additional interest to the sequence, and gave me the handy metaphor that became the sequence's title. But clearly something had to be done about checking the plumbing.

31st September 2006

During the closed season the Trust got on the case, and presumably cleared a blockage, perhaps a little too enthusiastically:

March 2007

It does look like a military re-enactment society is doing The First Day on the Somme, doesn't it? But it's all fixed now, and back to its job of constantly and mysteriously extracting pure water out of the ground and pouring it into the River Test again. I recommend a visit if you're ever in the area.

N.B. if you'd like a copy of the Water Gauge book, you can get one at my Blurb shop, just click on the cover to go there:

Friday, 21 November 2008

Lighten up, Erik

"Jazz is screaming its sorrow in our faces and we don't give a damn about it."
Erik Satie, 1866-1925

"Do you not hear that terrible screaming all around you, that men usually call silence?"
Georg Büchner, 1813-1837

Really? I'm like, whoah, lighten up, guys.

@ Erik: maybe if jazz backed off a touch and got out of our faces we might give a damn. Or recommend a therapist. What jazz are you listening to, anyway? A lot of people find Kind of Blue quite soothing. On the other hand, if we could just talk for a minute about Harrison Birtwistle...

@Georg: Yes, I do, actually. My doctor tells me that they usually call it tinnitus, and there's nothing much to be done about it. It's nature's way of telling you that you have been to one too many VERY LOUD gigs.

I shouldn't be so flippant, I know ... But there's a certain brand of doom-laden solemnity that has cast a pall over a lot of the artistic endeavour of the modern world. Someone (wish I could remember who) once referred to this as "heavy breathing", which is spot on: it's a rather humourless and creepy way of insisting on the significance of your work. "I have penetrated the veil of bourgeois hypocrisy to glimpse the Complete And Utter Futility of Life, and will now proceed to share my pain with you. No, please, don't put the phone down ..."

It's a very adolescent, masculine worldview: Heavy Metal and its various hysterical variants are its crypt-kicking apotheosis. The word "screaming" is a bit of a signature: a voice turned up to 11, with nowhere further to go. And what better Heavy Metal album cover was ever painted than Edvard Munch's risible The Scream?

Talking of risible, you may have recognised the title of yesterday's post. It comes from a famous passage by Cyril Connolly, written in the last issue of Horizon in 1950:
“It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.”
You've got to admit that's funny, Eeyore in a tweed jacket fiddling portentously with his pipe. Of course, at the other extreme there is the infuriating equanimity of John Cage:
"The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason."
I think I feel a scream coming on ...

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Closing Time in the Gardens of the West

In the introductory text to my Brilliant Corners book, I wrote that "such scruffy moments of revelation do not reflect the neat view of a university and the process of learning that the public relations people have in mind, and nearly all of them have been tidied up or built over in the meantime." Well, they're at it again. I'm sad to say that the Botanical Garden has been shut until further notice, so that they can demolish the old greenhouses.

Now, let's set aside the inconvenience to those of us with idiotic projects to pursue, and acknowledge the clear health and safety hazard presented by those wonderfully decrepit greenhouses. I think what bothers and alienates me most is the anticipation that, whatever replaces the old greenhouses, it will certainly not be anything as useful, and it will inevitably be something unimaginative, one-dimensional, and utterly lacking any personality or the potential to acquire it over time. Above all, it will lack the quality which the Japanese refer to as wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic rooted in a Buddhist understanding of the world,
reflecting the imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness of existence. It is a bitter-sweet acceptance that nothing is finished, nothing lasts, nothing is perfect. Its prized qualities are usually said to include simplicity, roughness, asymmetry, modesty, intimacy, and the revelation of natural processes at work. It is the difference between appreciating the patina and wear on an old coin, and scrubbing it off with Brasso. A semi-derelict greenhouse has wabi-sabi; a row of concrete planters do not.

We'll see. In the meantime, expelled from lunchtime Paradise, I'm looking for a new hunting ground.

The Gates of Eden

Who told thee that thou wast naked?

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

X Marks the Spot

I think the nature of my newly emerging obsession ("project", if you prefer) is becoming clearer. Not in the sense that I could tell you what it is, but in the sense that I am starting to know when something fits in. This is quite an exciting point in the process that may, or may not, lead to another completed sequence of images. Suddenly, it's Game On.

Quite often, the seed of the new thing is there to be seen (with the benefit of hindsight) in something already completed. For example, today I saw this in the car park, as I was leaving work:


It is almost a mirror opposite of this, an image from exactly the same location taken a few years ago, which became part of my Brilliant Corners sequence:


I didn't "know" this connection at the front of my mind at 3:00 pm, but I do now, and I love it. This kind of thing either excites you, or leaves you cold. It's true that there is a hint of madness in scouring the world for Signs and Connections (of what, exactly? The Templars and the location of the Holy Grail?) ... But the whole point of a game is to re-enchant the world, and the funny thing is that the world does seem to respond: it wants to play, too.

But, at bottom, as Garry Winogrand said: "I have a burning desire to see what things look like photographed by me." And if you're thinking, "Yes, but I'd rather see pictures of people," then why not get yourself a camera and take some? I also have a burning desire to see what things look like when photographed by you.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Windows on Learning

More university windows. I seem to have developed a new obsession (always a good sign), this one seems to be something to do with "square world meets curvy world" and "through the looking glass", or something like that.


The so-called self-styled "Triple E Building"


That apotropaic camo pattern again

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Full Shilling

When I was small, my mother used to work in a shoe shop. As it was known that I was interested in Old Things, the women in the shop would keep an eye on the till, in case any old coins turned up in the change. In the days before decimalisation, this happened surprisingly often. Victorian coins were still in everyday circulation, and older ones would turn up from time to time: the Georgian "cartwheel" penny of 1797 was not uncommon, usually worn to a richly smooth, deep bronze-brown patina. As these fat pennies weigh exactly one ounce, they had often been kept and used as kitchen weights. No doubt they were regularly put back into circulation when granny died and her kitchen was cleared out.

A pocketful of pennies was not a negligible thing when I was a boy. The standard 20th century penny weighed 1/3 of an ounce, and measured 1.25 inches across, a substantial chunk of metal. Trouser pockets were deeper and made of tougher stuff than they are today, and even a dainty purse resembled a feed bag. The traditional English male affection for baggy tailoring can perhaps be attributed to the need to accommodate a veritable cosh of loose change slapping against a chap's thigh. (Please insert your own "... Or are you just pleased to see me?" joke here).

My prize find from the shoe shop's till, though, was a silver William III sixpence, dated 1697 and in fine condition: fully one hundred years older than even a cartwheel penny, itself 165 years old in 1962. Its age seemed prodigious to me, and I would often simply gaze at it, as evidence that the past had really existed. In fact, I still do from time to time.

Tokens of the past like this are now very rarely turned up in the present by the plough of everyday life. No coin now in circulation in Britain was minted before 1968. With decimalisation and the abolition of the shilling, we entered a new world. British children no longer had to learn to divide and multiply by 12 and 20 (and yet: ever wondered why UK primary schoolkids still learn "times tables" that go up to twelve? A nation of shopkeepers, indeed). Life became easier, but a lived connection with the past had been severed. Old expressions were devalued: "The King's shilling," "Not the full shilling," etc. -- these are more foreign now than a "groatsworth of wit" was then. After all, it made perfect sense in 1962 to say that a groat was "fourpence"; but now it's equivalent to about 1.666666666666666667 new pence ... I suppose it's a sign of age when your stories require explanatory footnotes.

I'm not a coin collector, but recently I developed a craving for an Elizabethan penny. We have recently seen three brilliant Shakespeare productions with our kids (Rupert Goold's Tempest at the Strand, Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre, and Filter Theatre's Twelfth Night at the Nuffield, Southampton), and I've also been caught up in the latest round of Shakespeare-bio fever (The Lodger and 1599, etc.). I wanted to own a penny piece of silver, which had been the price of admission to the theatre in Shakespeare's time -- ideally from around 1597, for obvious reasons of symmetry.

As it happened, I didn't have to look far. A local jewellery shop had several for a few pounds each, tiny and worn but with a clear grey ghost of a queen in the silver mist. I'm told the heads on Elizabethan coins are frequently worn like this, as people kept them as "touchpieces", rubbing the old queen's head for luck; there's also often a hole where they have been sewn into someone's clothing. These pennies are almost as small and as delicate as sequins.

A year ago my mother died. She had a hard last few years, bewildered and adrift in dementia, her store of memories and experiences in tatters. On the way to her funeral, I stopped off in our old home town. The shoe shop was long gone, of course. More surprising, the block of flats where we lived had been demolished and was being built over. It had only been built in 1952. "Only" being 55 years ago, of course. Sometimes it can seem as if the world is just passing the time, busy doing nothing: endlessly renewing and tidying itself out of existence. Prospero's words from The Tempest come to mind:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a wrack behind.
A few years before she vanished into dementia, Mum gave me some other coins that I'd always wanted: four, tiny silver threepenny bits from her first wage packet, given as rent to my grandparents somewhere around 1939. They had never been spent, and for decades the coins lived in an enamelled metal eggcup on their sideboard. I was allowed to get them down and look at them on Sunday afternoon visits. Two of them, Victorian, are even more worn than my Elizabethan pennies. Almost gone, but still here, you might say.

So, pace Prospero, perhaps the odd old coin can slip through a crack in time, to keep us company from the past.



The one on the left has been in one pocket for one year
The one on the right has been in and out of many pockets for 265 years


Sunday, 16 November 2008

Gift. Horse. Mouth.

As mentioned in my previous post, I had a day off on Friday, and travelled up to London to see an old college friend who now lives in rural France (running a stained glass studio and workshop or rather un atelier de vitrail d'art contemporain), who is showing some beautiful work in the Menier Chocolate Factory Gallery. It is a cliché, but true nonetheless, that the friendships made in those vulnerable years do seem to be of a different order to any made in later life. However brief, they are part of the architecture of who you are. However long the intervals between meetings, your trajectory still seems the same. You are all part of the same story, somehow always on the same page.

It was a lovely day to be free in London, wandering the South Bank of the Thames east from Waterloo Bridge. The National Theatre, the South Bank galleries,The Globe Theatre, Tate Modern, Borough Market, Southwark Cathedral -- one of the best linear tourist walks in the world. And always the light on the river and the riverside.

Beneath Waterloo Bridge


View of St. Pauls Cathedral


The South Bank at Dusk


On the way home I got to thinking about exhibitions. It's a while since I showed any work; when you're the Unknown Artist you have to make your own luck, and the effort and expense of even a modest show is usually disproportionate to to the rewards, either in exposure or cash sales. A website and some self-published books seem rather less writ in water, and remain permanently on view. Putting work on a wall can seem even more of a vanity project than, say, writing a blog. I more or less decided that I wouldn't really mind if I didn't have another exhibition.

So, when I got home, it was with a sense of astonishment that I found, among my new emails, an unsolicited and quite flattering invitation to exhibit work at the Fotoforum Gallery in Innsbruck, Austria. As far as I can see, this is not a wicked leg-pull by one of the above-mentioned friends. Nor does it seem to be the art world equivalent of an email from a Nigerian prince. I need to ask some serious questions about this offer, but all of a sudden exhibitions seem quite exciting again.

Now, I have always been a Marxist of the Groucho tendency: I've never really thought it would be worth joining a club that would have the likes of me as a member. But Innsbruck and I have form, as they say.

We spent our first family holiday abroad in the Tirol, and I started to study German at school that same year. Innsbruck was the first really exotic city I had seen. Then a friend and I hitchhiked through Europe in the summer after finishing secondary school, surfing the tidal wave of mobile youth swilling around everywhere in those days (remember looking for the local sleep-in?), only to wash up in Innsbruck. I recall a sunny afternoon in the hills above the town, high as a kite on red wine, when a mole burrowed up from underground right beside my ear. Impossible to describe the fullness of feeling you can experience when you are just 18 and free as a bird.

Anyway. The simple reality is that someone in Austria likes my work, and I might be having an exhibition in Innsbruck, and they might even fly me out there for the opening. How cool is that?

Friday, 14 November 2008

Glass works

Another of those miniature landscapes, like the one that opened this blog way back in October. This one is a sheet of glass, leaning against a greenhouse wall in the Botanic Garden. Is it just me, or is that China through there?


Another early success for the Psonic. I'd love to visit this again today, now that it's been raining, but I'm going up to London to see an exhibition of some other, rather more artful glass crafted by my friend Leo on exhibition at the Menier Gallery.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Song of Sixpence

"When I try to put all into a phrase I say 'Man can embody truth but he cannot know it' ... The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence."
Yeats, in his last letter (Letters ed. A. Wade, 1954, p.922)

Questions (Time: 3 hours. Use one side of the paper only):

1. Was Yeats an Idiot?
2. By "The Saint", does Yeats mean the popular TV drama starring Roger Moore? If not, why not?
3. Discuss the implications of decimalisation for The Song of Sixpence. Please show your working.
4. Can you refute Hegel?
5. Can a woman know truth but not embody it? Are men thereby always wrong?
6. Draw a contradiction.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Start of a Beautiful Friendship

At a workshop I was at in 1995, Jem Southam passed on something that Paul Graham* had once said to him that turned out to be good advice: whenever he wanted to start a new project, he got a new camera. Not "new" in the sense of buying the latest-greatest, but as in "different"; for example, using a different film format, or having an unfamilar kind of viewfinder, or maybe requiring the use of a tripod. Just something to invite your eye into a new way of seeing, and that will lend its characteristics to your new work.

Now, the gearhead side of photography has never been much of an attraction to me; I like to take and look at photographs to the level of vice, but have little interest in comparative kit studies. That is not to say that I haven't owned quite a few cameras, but most of those have been bought for quirky reasons, and bought second-hand. Partly because I don't enjoy carrying a small fortune in precision engineering round my neck, and partly because the cameras I have found rewarding to use have tended to be the "interesting also-rans". Among my favourites have been: the Agfa Isolette II, the Fuji GS645, the Mamiya C330f (though not the 645, which I hated), the Olympus OM10 / XA / Mju / C5050 and -- the ultimate, the one and only -- the Koni Omega Rapid. In fact, in 30 or so years I have only bought four cameras brand new, and two of those were digital.

This is all just to say that I have just bought a fifth BRAND NEW camera: a Panasonic DMC-LX3. My wallet is in shock. Having come into a little surprise mad money, however, it seemed a shame not to spend it. I very nearly upgraded my (refurbished) Canon 350D DSLR, but thought: Why bother? I only have an A3 printer, and the Canon still does the business. Remembering Paul Graham's words of wisdom, I decided what I really needed was a pocket digital camera capable of top-quality results, to fill the gap left by the Olympus Mju that used to live in my pocket.

I hesitated quite a while over the Sigma DP-1 -- as the above list of cameras will indicate to the connoisseur, I'm a bit of a sucker for the slightly strange. Which the DP-1 certainly is. But I couldn't see myself getting used to being stuck at the equivalent of a 28mm lens. By my standards, that's virtually a fisheye. But I'm going to be very curious about the DP-2, though, with its promised 40mm f/2.8 equivalent lens.

So, after a lot of "Will I? Won't I?" I went with the Smart Money and took a chance on the LX3. It's a lovely thing, like a piece of jewellery (though I have deliberately smeared my fingers all over the LCD screen to stop me holding it like some precious freakin' daguerrotype). I am still bothered by the lack of a viewfinder; I may try a cheap hotshoe accessory finder (but I'm certainly not paying over £100 for one). But, after all, the point is to stimulate myself into new ways of seeing, and I did learn to compose on a screen with my beloved Olympus C5050. As it's going to live in a coat pocket, I've matched it with a Crumpler PP90: a nice, cheap, stretchy neoprene skin with a zip.

I have to say that so far I'm impressed. Resolution, rendering, dynamic range, handling: all top of the range. In fact, I'm slightly in awe, as I'm mainly working with JPGs (I despair of ever learning to use the supplied Silkypix software to convert the RW2 raw files...) and this is, after all, a small sensor camera. Wow. Yes, the barrel distortion needs attending to (and I believe some sneaky in-camera correction to this even in the raw files is the reason for the delay in getting RW2 conversion into anything but the egregious Silkypix), but the image quality is really rather amazing. Hey, the thing has even got a proper lens cap to worry about losing -- brilliant!

Here are two shots from yesterday's lunchtime sortie with the new camera, with which I am quite pleased. If it goes on like this, then this could be the Start of a Beautiful Friendship.






* Here's an Idiotic Thing: My partner and I used to live in Bristol in the late 70s / early 80s. We lived in the top flat of a typically Bristol converted Georgian house in the Redland area. It was around that time I first began to be seriously interested in photography, but had developed no taste or sense of history and was generally pretty ignorant on the subject. Now, I knew one of the guys in the flat beneath us was some kind of artist and having regular dealings with The Arts Council: I knew this, because we kept getting his mail. His name was Paul Graham.

To cut to the chase: when he self-published the A1 book copies were prominently displayed in our local bookshop. I thought the images were laughably bad (had this guy never heard of Ansel Adams, for God's sake?), but bought one anyway, mainly because of the novelty of having a book where the publisher's address was also ours. I didn't introduce myself, or get my copy inscribed. Just as well, as I'm sure he'd have told me to Fuck Off. I simply wasn't ready for chats with one of our most innovative photographic artists, someone genuinely ahead of the game.

And now -- now that I have developed a little taste and a sense of history -- it's one of my most treasured photobooks (and have you seen the price people are asking for copies?? If only I'd got it inscribed... "To my idiotic neighbour. Now please go away"). I learned from this, though: these days, I'm alert to and waiting for that Hendrix Moment ... You know, when you hear or see something so astonishingly new that you can't yet see it or hear it for what it is and, in self-defense, shout out "Rubbish!" along with all the other idiots.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Something Out Of Nothing

My favourite images tend to be like this one, caught immediately outside my office last week, just before disappearing inside for a morning's work. Something out of nothing.

November Morning on Campus
Construction of the new Life Sciences building

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Remembrance Sunday

There has been a fair bit of soldiering in my family. At least three generations before mine have served in the army, including both parents (unusually, my mother, a sergeant in the ATS, outranked my father). Mainly wartime service in the ranks -- nothing posh or professional -- though a great grandfather was a Victorian ranker overseas, a great uncle was an NCO in the Royal Dragoons, and in WW1 my grandfather rose through the ranks in an infantry regiment from sergeant to 2nd lieutenant. A lot of men did -- there was something of a shortage of proper gentlemen. So did his best friend from home, in the same regiment, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross in 1916. Grandad never talked about it, other than to say "He earned it, boy."

So, you could say they'd "done their bit", and had plenty to remember on Remembrance Sunday. But it was never much of a fixture in our family calendar. There was no visit to the local memorial, no wearing of medals.

Like most boys of my generation, my toys and games and light reading were almost totally centred on the experience of WW2. But unlike a lot of fathers, even those who had served in the war, mine would take pains to explain that bullets hurt much more and did rather more damage than they appeared to do in Westerns, and that soldiering was mainly very boring. It's only in retrospect that I can see how alien the absurdly heroic war stories in boys' comics like Victor and Hotspur must have seemed to him.

Above all, I think my family -- in common with most "citizen soldiers" -- resented the way the politicians would try to smuggle in a conservative militarised ideology on the back of their wartime service. Remembrance Sunday, with its marching and medals and shouted orders, looked back to a pre-war world that, actually and symbolically, the 1945 election had tried to banish. Yes, they had been loyal -- if grumpy -- servicemen and women but, No, they would no longer snap to attention, thank you. Yes, they had lost friends and relatives but, No, they were not going to mourn on command. My father attended a couple of Burma Star booze-ups immediately after the War, but that was it.

So, I was quite surprised to discover that, somewhere around his 80th year, Dad had finally joined the Dunkirk and Royal Signals Associations, and had started attending local Remembrance Sunday services; he had even obtained replacement medals to wear. It seemed quite out of character.

Oddly, I think it had something to do with media coverage of the wars in the Falklands and Iraq, and in particular the new focus on post-traumatic stress disorders, and civilian resentment of and aggression towards returning service personnel. After decades of feeling that you should not dwell on the War and just get on with life, I think he finally "came out", as it were, as a veteran, in solidarity with newer generations of young men returning from the wars. I suspect he felt able to stand alongside them, in remembrance of the terrible things that had happened to them all, because -- after a lifetime of standing aside -- he had satisfied himself it was now his choice and not his duty to do so.

Postscript -- I forgot to add this little twist yesterday:

My father had the unusual forenames "Douglas Haig". Born in 1918 to an infantryman who had fought in the trenches in France and then wisely managed to become a musketry instructor, you might have thought other names would have suggested themselves. Commanders are rarely popular with British soldiers, and Haig had given more cause for unpopularity than most. It's hard to speculate what grandad's motive might have been. From all I've heard, I don't think irony was his strong suit.

When his turn came, my father, as a despatch rider, saw active service in France (he was evacuated from Dunkirk), the Western Desert, India and Burma. Of various Brass Hats, the only commander he ever spoke well of was Slim of the 14th Army, a man who seems to have commanded the universal loyalty and affection of his men -- an unusual achievement. It only occurred to me very recently, when discussing Dad's name with a friend, that -- had he chosen to continue the precedent set by his father -- I might well have been named "William Slim" ... I'm so glad I wasn't. "Slim" is not a name I could answer to now without some embarrassment.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Choc-Box Time in the Gardens of the West

It makes me feel very lucky, to be able to spend my lunch hour exploring scenes like these, though I do usually end up tracking mud onto my office carpet. I usually have the entire university botanic garden to myself for 40 minutes.

These were taken yesterday. I can't resist those Autumn colours and sunshine.




And why not? I can only hope they give you the same kind of lift they give me.

This reminds me of a story which illustrates my idiotic tendency. A few years ago, I was asked to provide an image for the University's official Christmas card (no, really). The image that leaped to mind was a great shot from the Botanic Garden of some dead Gunnera manicata (those immense spiny rhubarb-leaved things) in the snow -- beautiful browns and decaying greens and yellows, sprinkled with snow, drooping like thorny prehistoric wings over a sinister black stream. But this was not the sort of thing the PR people had in mind, it seemed. In the end, they used another, rather boring shot I'd taken in the Botanic Garden of some apples covered with snow. They haven't asked me again.

On Coming From Stevenage

In this week of Barack Obama's triumph, we should spare a thought for the overshadowed achievement of another handsome young man of mixed parentage: Lewis Hamilton, who -- amongst other lesser things -- has become the first person from Stevenage to become a household name. I can't tell you how proud this makes me feel. We even grew up in the same street.

We Brits have always admired the American gift for mythologizing the names of towns. As a lot of these names are identical to British names, it clearly has more to do with how we feel about our towns and who lives there, than the way they sound. It's always been an easy target for comedy. "Straight outta Compton" is instantly amusing, if Compton is relocated from a tough neighbourhood in Los Angeles to rural Britain, and the two-edged bathos of "Straight outta Trumpton" is pure satiric Sterling.

It's not that we don't mythologize some of our towns (perhaps "stereotype" would be a better word). Just think Liverpool, Glasgow, Norwich ... But we always fall victim to our urge to belittle, to poke fun and to deflate. It's one of our most annoying characteristics which, characteristically, we think of as one of our most endearing. "We may not be much in the world, these days, but our snippy sarcasm is second to none."

Why am I bothered? Because -- have I mentioned this? -- I too was born and brought up in Stevenage.


If there is any town more stereotyped as London-lite working-class, white-van-driving, know-nothing, nothing-to-do, going-nowhere, council-estate, shopping-mall, bottom-of-the-range Britain, then I don't want to know where it is, and certainly don't want to live there. Some other New Town, no doubt, has that distinction. Stevenage may be no joke, but it does make an easy punch-line for lazy comedians.

It wasn't always like that, however.

Once, Stevenage was a Vision of the Future. It was part of England's Dreaming, the same one that produced the National Health Service, council housing, nationalised industries, free education, university grants, smoke-free zones, public libraries, motorways, full employment, Everyman's Library and Penguin Books, the BBC, Blue Peter and the Cycling Proficiency Test. Remember all that?

Well, all of that was literally made concrete after WW2, in the form of a New Town thirty miles north of London on the Great North Road, and populated with displaced East Enders and other folk looking for a better life. Defined as: good jobs in light industry, a council house with a garden at a fair rent, plus good schools, fresh air and safe places to play for the kids. For about 20 years it worked, too. I grew up in the closest thing Britain has ever had to a socialist utopia.

Of course, it was all just an experiment by well-meaning chaps with posh voices and tweed jackets in the last days of the Monochrome World (you know, that immense period of human evolution when, on the evidence of the surviving films and photos, everything was the colour of mud) -- presumably a different bunch of chaps from the ones who insisted that tower blocks were an efficient, modern, prize-winning way of warehousing working-class families. It's a bit spooky, reading the academic literature on New Towns today: "Hey, that's me they're talking about!"

It all started to go wrong in the 1970s, with the rise of what would become the Thatcher Nightmare. Council housing was sold off cheap. Jobs started to vanish. Public services -- schools and libraries, for example -- suddenly became expensive luxuries, grudgingly underfunded. The taxpayer's wallet became the measure of everything. My father was made redundant when Tube Investments took over the firm where he had worked for 30 years, and -- just because they could -- they even stole his pension. It was as if an evil spirit was abroad in the land. Nothing was ever the same again.

And so it has gone on. Stevenage is a kind of gauge, where you can read off the measure of Britain's decline into a post-imperial sulk. By any measure, it is no longer a socialist utopia.

Me and Lewis, we've made good our escape. But "World Champion's Home Town Is Nowhere" still makes good copy. Check out today's Times, 6/11/08:
After dinner and before the film, Britain's ninth Formula One world champion, whose career earnings could top £500 million, drove Scherzinger slowly around his old Stevenage stamping ground, the streets of the Shephall council estate where he was brought up and where he first raced go-karts. They stopped by the church where he was baptised, the local shopping mall, his primary school and the small end-of-terrace council house at No. 57, Peartree Way, where Hamilton spent his childhood. “To go back there and visit it was like, ‘This is where we started and this is where we are now,'” said Hamilton.
Yes, this is indeed where we started, and this is where we are now. I'm really quite impressed that a hyper-jock like Lewis would paraphrase T.S. Eliot ("We shall not cease from exploration", etc.); despite everything, it appears that Peartree Spring Junior is still doing the business.

Once, there was a brief time when nothing was too good for Britain's heroic workers, returning from yet another war. The likes of Harold Macmillan and Clem Attlee knew that we were still owed from 1914-18, and that "they" had still not delivered.
You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!


Rudyard Kipling, Tommy
Places like Stevenage were intended to settle that bill; a big deposit up front on a brighter future. Unfortunately, "they" seem to have forgotten that this kind of bill has to be paid not only in full, but also in perpetuity.

But well done, Lewis: I like to think of you scooting up Peartree Way, thirty years after and a hell of a lot faster than me.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Oh Happy Day

There must be a lot of very happy people in the States today, particularly the footsoldiers in that army of activists that has been Barack Obama's not-so-secret weapon all along. I envy them their happiness. If only there was the remotest hope of something similar happening here.

" ... I began
To think with fervour upon management

Of Nations, what it is and ought to be,
And how their worth depended on their Laws
And on the Constitution of the State.
0 pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For great were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven! O times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seem'd the most to assert her rights
When most intent on making of herself
A prime enchantress to assist the work,
Which then was going forwards in her name!
Not favour'd spots alone, but the whole earth
The beauty wore of promise"

Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1805

There's not a lot you can add to that. If you've ever been there, or very badly wanted to be there, you'll know how precious this moment will be for those who have earned it. Note that word earned: one of our many contemporary curses is the belief that politics is something that happens on TV, or that it is as mysterious and beyond our intervention as the weather.

And let's not talk about May 1997 (though there are lessons to be learned from that massive and unforgivable betrayal of hope) -- I was already well into the scepticism of middle age by then, though I'll never forget that warm, unfamiliar feeling of cautious hope as I drove through the West Country on that sunny May morning to a workshop with the photographer Paul Hill at Peter Goldfield's much missed Photographers At Duckspool.

Of course, not being a Labour Party member, I'd done very little to earn that feeling directly, unless you count two decades of trade union activism, marching and banner carrying, some striking and picketing, and even the occasional vote. I used to think that slogans like "Don't vote, it only encourages them" or "Whoever you vote for, the Government gets in" were clever and insightful. I wan't the only one. But, over the years, I've come round to the opinion that -- due to radical fastidiousness, or a horror of compromise, or a disdain for politicians, or all of the above -- some of the best of our generation stepped back from a proper engagement with the world, and allowed others to push to the front. Let's face it, New Labour was our evil twin, guys, and we should feel a certain shame about that, especially in light of the news we woke up to this morning.

Of course, not everyone stepped back...



But Obama he ain't. (N.B. your favourite blogger's head is just visible in the top left corner).

Monday, 3 November 2008

Mountbatten Fire

Three years ago, at the end of October 2005, a major building at our university burned down. Fortunately, no-one was injured, but something like £50 million of damage was done, as the building housed part of the School of Electronics and Computer Science, where some of the most advanced research and development work in the university was going on, mainly in the fields of optoelectronics and microelectronics. It is said to have been the largest academic insurance claim in history. You can imagine the devastation at every level: apart from expensive real estate and equipment, many postgraduates and researchers will have lost all their computer files and notes.

Remarkably, I had a modest share in this disaster, too: I had just sold four works from my recent exhibition to the ECS staff common room, and they will have either been burnt to ashes or hosed into pulp by the firefighters. I'm not sure how big a proportion of that record insurance claim they were: I wasn't so tactless as to ask anyone ...

Now, exactly three years later, the new Mountbatten Building has, ah, risen from the ashes. Here is a view of its remarkable decorated windows from outside the university, from the adjacent Common. They're covered with patterns a bit like a dazzle paint job on a WW1 battleship. Perhaps they have an apotropaic function ... (go on, look it up).


And here is one of the images that perished in the flames. Conceived as a "all digital" project called Ring Hoard (still ongoing -- see my webpage for a sample), there's a distinct irony in the fact that the images are meant to represent pseudo-magical objects with, um, apotropaic powers. I'm not saying the fire was my fault, but I can't help wondering if I somehow got the polarities the wrong way round ...


Saturday, 1 November 2008

As The Sparks Fly Up

I've always liked Autumn, it's my favourite season. I always look forward to that first dark, cold night with an edge of frost and smoke to the air, when you think "Bonfire Night is coming soon!" One of the advantages of having kids is that you get another chance to do the things you loved when you were small, except this time you get to choose the fireworks. However, Autumn also always plunges me into deep nostalgia (and, as the joke goes, even nostalgia is not what it was).

So-called Guy Fawkes Night is supposed to be all about remembering, of course. "Remember, remember, the 5th of November, Gunpowder, treason and plot!" I can't speak for the inhabitants of, say, Belfast, Liverpool or Glasgow, but I don't think the anti-Catholic element in the celebration has been particularly prominent in living memory. You don't have to be a neopagan to think that a bonfire festival at this time of year has deeper roots and resonances, and it is notable that November 5th falls midway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, and thus is the likely real date of the Celtic Samhain festival.



What I remember, and miss most, are the fires. In the 1950s and 60s, it seemed that the children of every household would have scavenged every scrap of combustible material for miles around to build a bonfire heap at the end of every garden, together with an enormous communal pyre on any suitable green or wasteland. By 9 o'clock the smoke was drifting in thick layers illuminated by fires, flashes and streetlamps. You could point a torch up, and its clear-cut beam was a stiff, smoky wedge like an anti-aircraft spotlight. In our town -- a New Town almost entirely populated by people cleared from the slums of East London, devastated in the Blitz a mere decade or so before-- particularly strong memories and emotions were evoked by the sights, smells and sounds. The War was the invisible guest at everyone's party. Or perhaps, The Wars. The mustachioed "guy" that burned on everyone's bonfire was Hitler, was Napoleon, was Fawkes, was the King of Spain, was Harald Hardrada, was Caesar: every bogeyman who ever chanced his arm against the truculent tribes of this island. It was a night for telling tales, as rockets crackled and popped overhead, and the potatoes baked in the embers. "Swinging the lamp", as my father called it.

Pretty much gone now, I'm sad to say. Health & safety and anti-smoke legislation, and the invasion of that alien festival Hallowe'en have sapped the strength out of Bonfire Night. There are still fireworks, of course, and public bonfires, but somehow the point of it all has been lost, when children don't spend the preceding weeks scouring the woods for sticks, or making stuffed guys to beg pennies for fireworks. The tribal memories are somehow weaker, too: "How I endured the Great House Price Collapse of 1987" is hardly a tale worth lighting a fire for. Our world seems thinner, more disposable, slightly fake; even the weather no longer lives up to the occasion, and every year the frosts that make the moon shine and the equinoctial gales that shake the sticks and conkers down seem to come a little later.

But I have to resist this melancholy slide, or I'll end up thinking about Christmas (difficult to resist, now that the mince pies have appeared in Tesco). I'm probably just getting old: birthdays don't really cut it any more, either. I suppose the paradox is that the better life gets, the more widely Good Things are available to more of us, the less sweet they seem to taste. We can get bored with the uniform excellence of our lives, and yearn for a time when excellence was tasted but two or three times a year. Nostalgie de la boue is an aristocratic taste which we can all now afford to have.


November 5th 2007 on Lyme Regis Beach