Wednesday, 31 December 2008

White Crows, Black Swans, Half-and-Half Sheep


I want to end the year with a favourite joke, and by telling you about a project from this year that did not work out (or, let's be optimistic, has not yet worked out). The joke is related to the project and, somehow, embodies something I want to explore. It goes like this:

Four scientists -- a mathematician, a physicist, a biologist and an astronomer -- go on a trip to Scotland. As they cross the border, they see a black sheep in a field.

"Amazing!" says the astronomer, "All the sheep in Scotland are black!"


"Don't be silly," says the biologist, "It would be more precise to say that some sheep in Scotland are black."


"Nonsense," says the physicist, "You need to be much more precise than that: all we can say with certainty is that in Scotland at least one sheep is black!"


The mathematician sighs. "You people make me laugh with your sloppy talk about precision... I think the best we can say is that there is one field in Scotland containing one sheep, one half of which is black."
Now, this joke does not make everybody laugh, and this may be my problem. Indeed, if the mathematician's "one half of which" does not make you laugh (or at least raise a wry smile) then I am clearly barking up the wrong tree (or simply barking). Perhaps, like me, you need to have spent more time than is healthy or normal writing and debugging Perl programs and Unix shell scripts to see the point of the joke.

So. We all know that a black sheep is black all over, and that the idea of a sheep bilaterally divided between black and, well, some other unknown colour (hey, let's not jump to conclusions -- it could be purple) is ludicrous. Don't we? Just as we all knew that the sun went round the earth until, of course, some idiot with a mathematical bent proved otherwise, simply by (a) making the observations, (b) doing the maths, and (c) mentally keeping open the possibility that, so to speak, one half of the sheep might not be black.



But that's the interesting thing about many jokes: we can laugh at "the other," but in the process, part of the other's "other-ness" gets assimilated. Racist jokes do not exist, I am sure, in societies that are not in the process of becoming multi-racial. (On the other hand, I probably wouldn't counsel a programmatic barrage of racist jokes as a means of accelerating the process ...)

But what interests me is (c) above -- we may not have the time, inclination or ability to do (a) and (b), but being open to the possibility that things may not be what they seem is something we can all aspire to. Mind you, it's still quite a rare trait. Even people who would lay claim to open-mindedness can be intolerant of inconvenient truths. Try explaining to an academic who has made the political-economic judgement that, say, Microsoft is a Bad Thing, that nonetheless the reason their PowerPoint presentation doesn't work is because, simply, they have failed to take account of how PowerPoint actually works -- it is unconnected with any alleged evil being worked by Bill Gates in the world [still haven't worked out how to spell that evil laugh ... "Bwahahahaha"?].

Simply seeing what's in front of you is quite a skill, and usually has to be learned (or rather, certain perceptual shortcuts have to be unlearned). It's a large part of becoming a half-decent photographer. Have you ever taken this Awareness Test? It's quite well known now, but most people feel considerably humbled (and amused) by their first encounter with it.

But back to my project. This year, the book The Black Swan : the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was widely reviewed and discussed. Its central thesis is neither highly original nor hard to summarise: indeed, the book's subtitle does a good job. However, the ramifications of this simple idea (that the unpredictable, highly unlikely event is precisely the one likely to have the most impact) and its corollary (that we may be rather too dependent on the predictions of "experts" who are little more than astrologers in suits) are many. Look no further than the current economic crisis. But, quite how anyone would make the world a better place by trying to anticipate the highly improbable is hard to see. And do I feel the draught from a back door being opened for Superstition to sneak into the House of Reason?




But, setting aside thoughts of Douglas Adams' "improbability drive," you can see how the mathematician in the joke has got something right by leaving the door open to the unknown in the very precision of his method. The "black swan" is a traditional problem in philosophy, usually associated with Carl Popper and his view that falsifiability is an essential characteristic of a scientific theory. But this is dull stuff for a New Year's Eve: there's a good discussion of that here. It boils down to the fact that the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to falsify the proposition "All swans are white." But there is a more intriguing real-life example, and one which seems to push open that draughty back door even wider.

Towards the end of the 19th century, William James (philosopher brother of literary windbag Henry James) became convinced of the supernatural powers of Leonora Piper, a trance medium. In an address to the Society for Psychical Research in 1890, he said: "If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn't seek to prove that no crows are; it is enough to prove one single crow to be white." He believed Leonora Piper to be his white crow. In other words, even if all other mediums were shown to be fraudulent, her example showed that mediumship was a true possibility. Maybe so: but as the sceptical psychologist James McKeen Cattell responded in 1896, "One white crow is enough, but its skin should be deposited in a museum."

So, a heady mix: a basic tenet of scientific method, a trance medium, open minds and closed minds, improbable things, "always" versus "sometimes", etc. But above all, crows. I like all the crows: rooks, jackdaws, magpies, ravens, they're all magic to me. I know a lot of people don't like them. But I love the way the rooks see off the buzzards and sparrow-hawks that circle over our street; I'm intrigued by the magpie parliaments that convene in the trees behind our house with much hissing, clicking and squawking; I'm amazed by the intelligence of the typical crow, ducking and diving around the ragged edges of the human world; I'm in awe of the huge mixed flock of crow species that gathers at dusk on winter evenings over the fields before settling for the night in their traditional trees.




One of my Christmas presents this year was the Rat Hole Press reprint of Masahisa Fukase's Solitude of Ravens, one of the great photobooks, and a fine example of how to bring many concerns together in a photographic sequence. But can I put all this together myself in a satisfactory way? Not yet... Maybe next year.

My best wishes to anyone reading this for a happy, peaceful and fulfilling year in 2009.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Noise Be My Friend

I was taking snaps around the house the other day with the Panasonic LX3. Usually, with any digital camera I work with the ISO set as low as possible, and exposure set on manual. But, for a change, and because I don't like using flash, I was using the "Programmed" mode in combination with the "Intelligent ISO" setting, which lets the camera choose the ISO rating as a third parameter in the classic "aperture vs. shutter speed" exposure calculation. You can set the upper ISO limit you're prepared to use, and I chose 400 which, for me as a recovering film user, is at the crazy extreme of what I'm prepared to deal with (though the camera will go up to a genuinely whacky 3200).

Anyway. Mostly, I got what I expected i.e. nicely-exposed available-light shots:


Our Christmas Angel
(nice idiotic hat!)

But a few showed unexpected amounts of noise, probably because of underexposure resulting from some combo of minimum shutter speed, maximum aperture, etc. The in-camera JPGs actually did a bang-up job of reducing this, and it was only when looking at the RAW files that I realised quite how much noise there was:


RAW file converted to TIF with SilkyPix (100% crop)


In-Camera JPG (100% crop)

When I started playing around with the TIF files in Noise Ninja, I realised that although I dislike "colour noise" (chroma) a lot, I actually quite like "luminance noise" -- it can be quite a pleasing graphic effect, reminiscent of film grain, and for certain subjects has an appropriate gritty detail (compare the hair in the image below with the JPG -- and, remember, these are 100% crops of 10 Megapixel images).


RAW file converted to TIF with SilkyPix (100% crop)
Chroma noise (only) removed with Noise Ninja

Now, I'm not a huge fan of "alternative processes" as such, but sometimes an image just wants to go in a certain direction, and this portrait of a scruffy guy just cried out for the full-on monochrome nostalgia treatment. The grain and the silvery tones give it that Pictorialist Alvin Langdon Coburn / Julia Margaret Cameron look. Strange to think it originated in the highest-tech piece of kit that I own...




Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Revenants

One of my favourite and (I think) most successful completed sequences of work is the one I call The Revenants. It's simple enough: in the usual MO, I found a body of water, and returned to it repeatedly, using the same camera to photograph similar objects in a similar way. In the self-published book of the work, I described it like this:
This series of photographs was made on daily visits to an ornamental pool on the university campus in Southampton, England where I work, over the course of a year. More specifically, the series records some of the objects that found their way into the pool, whether as simple wind-blown litter, or as semi-conscious offerings to tutelary spirits.

A revenant is defined as "one who has returned (from death, exile, etc.), a ghost." As well as the likes of Hamlet's father, the word might describe these spectral bits and pieces which reappear, in different guises, day after day in the pool.
Of course, the main revenant, the one who kept returning, was me. In more senses than one: I don't know about you, but I have spells when I seem to have gone AWOL, when I am no longer answering the metaphorical front door bell, but am slumped in a chair somewhere inside watching daytime TV. This is not just a symptom of advancing age. Even at school, I remember reading in class the poems "Woodspurge" and "Sudden Light" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and immediately recognising the mood and metaphors of a fellow absentee.

Sometimes these spells go on longer than they should, and a project like this one can get me re-engaged. The seed is usually one or two photographs that were taken out of habit for an old reason but point towards a new reason. Hello, you think, And where did you come from?

In the case of The Revenants, it was a goldfish cruising past a shred of bubblewrap floating in an ornamental pond that I passed every day on my way to and fro across the campus. I had been photographing fish, with no particular success, but my attention was grabbed by the bubblewrap, as soon as I saw it printed, adrift against dark space like something discovered by the Hubble Telescope.





The connections and currents started to build. At first mechanically: as the stacks of pictures begin to pile up, you begin to spot similarities and subtle differences, or ways in which the camera sees things you hadn't seen, which you then start consciously to seek out. For example, the dramatic fall-off in illumination and colour of semi-submerged objects. Or you encounter "photographic" problems to solve, like dealing with the extreme reflectiveness of foil sweet wrappers, in even the dullest light. There will be false trails, followed for a week or two then abandoned, but which may someday go on to become the seed of a new sequence.




And then one day, if you're lucky, as I described in the post X Marks The Spot, it's "game on," and the magic kicks in. It's as if the world has suddenly noticed you, and wants to play. I remember when I was deep into my first serious sequence based on the campus stream, called Curriculum, when (for reasons too complicated to explain briefly) I was thinking about the mock-Homeric epic poem The Battle of The Mice and The Frogs. In two days, in the same week, the world presented me with first -- Lo -- a dead frog then -- Behold -- a dead mouse, both artfully arranged on the bed of the stream. If this sounds too like the wishful thinking of a Get Creativity Into Your Life book, what can I say? It happened. In my experience, it usually does.




It's an exhilarating feeling: you push, and push, and then, finally, something pushes back. (Stop giggling at the back there!) If I had to characterise "it", I would think of something elementally old, without language, but a deep sense of fun -- Totoro in Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro, perhaps. But even without the element of the Uncanny, the concentration of purpose such a project gives is re-energising, and has effects all across your life. I'm sure I become a nicer person (not difficult, some might say).

I think that -- for those that respond to it -- a large part of the appeal of The Revenants is that "home-made Hubble" feel of deep space found in what is little more than a deep puddle. If you're the kind of person that gazes rather than glances, then that aspect may speak to you, too. For me, however, there was an extra element of drama which is hard to convey through a sequence of still images.

On that same small stage, certain characters would appear, disappear for a while, then reappear slightly worse for wear, like derelicts in a town square. I had a particular affection for an especially resilient Twix wrapper, sometimes cruising like a light boat in the breeze, sometimes harboured deep in the reeds. There was also an indestructible but protean plastic bag, which showed different aspects -- sometimes a Portuguese Man O' War, sometimes a grotesque face -- as the air trapped within it shifted about.

You know you've engaged properly with your subject when you can't wait to rush over to see whether "your" pool has crusted over with ice in the night, and to see how your acquaintances among the flotsam and jetsam have fared. It's a benevolent form of lunacy.

I have made the book of The Revenants available as a free PDF download via the Issuu website (thanks to Doug P. for pointing me in this direction). You can also view it rather nicely using their software here:

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Review of the Year's Reviewers

Today's post is not one for anyone who can't get British radio, I'm afraid.

Having sat through assorted round-ups of the year from the cultural broadcasters, I thought it might be good finally to get my reactions to the broadcasters themselves off my chest. Is it just me, or are the journalists who cover the arts on BBC Radio 4 a particularly odd and annnoying bunch of folk? After a brief but expensive chat with our legal team, I've decided to name names.

Mark Lawson (Front Row): Seems to take pleasure in the mispronunciation of foreign names and words. Has a tabloid sub-editor's urge to set up links between topics via laboured and pointless puns. Has a boring obsession with what he refers to as "the psychology" of interviewees, prodding repeatedly at anything to do with sex or personal grief (watch out for the words "Does it?"). Has a particularly monotonous voice, aggravated by his failure to breathe at appropriate points in a sentence.

John Wilson (Front Row): Asks interviewees interminable breathless "questions", which finally reveal themselves as statements of opinion, to which the only polite answer is "Yes" or "No." Audibly resents his interviewees trying to get a word in edgeways. Increasingly reminds me of Alan Partridge. Deeply impressed by his own Tiggerish enthusiasm.

Kirsty Lang (Front Row): Cheerful sort with a lively personality, but sometimes suffers from a strange urge to pull an interview towards that philistine territory, where "Never 'eard of him!" and "You're having a laugh, aren't you?" are the keynotes. Can crunch gears badly when she shifts registers between fruity chortling over Mr. Darcy and earnest discussion of the legacy of Auschwitz.

Tom Sutcliffe (Saturday Review): Saturday Review would be the best arts programme on Radio 4, if only anyone ever got to finish a sentence. As they never do, it's the worst, and gives me indigestion. Tom has a pleasant voice and interesting opinions, but so do his guests: it seems to be the agreement that if Tom talks over anybody in mid-sentence, they must immediately shut up. It's particularly aggravating when he shuts someone off only to offload some pre-prepared aperçu he clearly anticipates will otherwise be wasted. Once the guest reviewers start behaving likewise, no-one gets to express a complete opinion about anything. Argh! I'm particularly fond of American anthropologist Kit Davis, a regular guest whose good nature seems never to be challenged by this dog-eat-dog style of reviewing. I've always wanted to hear what gets said to Mr. Sutcliffe once the show goes off air.

Nigel Wrench (Today): Makes John Wilson seem luke-warm. He is radio's über-Tigger, striving earnestly to paint word portraits of works and installations which fill up so much airtime, it saves the artist the bother of talking about their own work. Even "Yes" and "No" would seem superfluous. Sometimes doesn't even bother to put a question mark at the end of his spiel, which is embarrassing. Shares Kirsty Lang's dangerous "Yes, but you're having a laugh, aren't you?" tendency.

And a general comment on Radio 4 "arts" programmes:

Why
do they all let their content be driven by the same limited range of PR press releases? By the time Saturday Review is aired, we've generally already heard several reviews of this week's three or four middlebrow-to-mainstream releases. Why should I care what anyone, let alone Adam Mars-Jones or David Aaronovitch or Fay Weldon, made of the latest Coldplay album or George Clooney vehicle or Sunday night costume drama? Can't we hear more about those "cultural events" that slip under the press release radar? A book of poems by someone other than Seamus Heaney? An exhibition or play outside London? A book or some music that hasn't been shortlisted for or won a prize?

Maybe in 2009...

Friday, 26 December 2008

Boxing Day

Boxing Day, traditionally the most boring day of the year, is also the day for a brisk walk in the afternoon, as the shadows lengthen after lunch.

Late afternoon sun on newly coppiced trees on St. Catherine's Hill, Winchester (opposite side of the wood to the Miz Maze)

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Christmas Day

What? You again? We're closed! It's Christmas Day!!

Well, OK. Seeing as you're here, here's something. If you like word games, I found this magic word square on a website, looking for something else. It's kinda crude, but it works, and the sort of thing you might get out of a superior Christmas cracker:


B O N K
O N A N
N A N O
K N O B


Those things are harder to construct than you might think... See how it reads in every direction?

It's even harder to make one with an element of, um, meaning. This next one is a special one, that has turned up as Roman grafitti in a few places (e.g. Pompeii and a Roman villa in Cirencester), and is usually thought to have been a cryptic indication of Christian beliefs, as it appears to be based on "pater noster" (Our Father) plus "alpha" and "omega" (well, sort of...):


S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S


It also reads in every direction, and doesn't really mean much in Latin, but can be made into something like "The sower Arepo holds the wheels with effort" or, given that Arepo is not a known name and if you read the lines in alternate directions, "The sower holds in his hand all works; all works the sower holds in his hand." Note the central "tenet" cross, too. It clearly meant something to someone, but ... what?



Now, I'm afraid we really are shut for the day, and I'm off to eat, drink, and wear an idiotic hat!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Eve: Ancestral Arithmetic

Christmas is traditionally a time for ghost stories. But, instead of something spooky and scary, I'm going to tell you about something you may, like me, find oddly comforting.



You have probably heard this factoid at some time: "75% of all the people who have ever lived are now currently alive." Given our worries about overpopulation, it sounds very convincing, doesn't it? And, if you have the remotest vestige of a belief in fairy godmothers or benevolent ancestral spirits, it must also make you think: perhaps they're a wee bit overworked?



It's not true, however. Let me point you towards an article in Scientific American (1st March 2007) which concludes that, according to the calculations of demographer Carl Haub, the living will never outnumber the dead. Far from 75% of all humans being alive now, he makes it about 6%. There have been 100 billion humans, of whom around 6 billion are currently living. So, the supply of Guardian Angels is not only guaranteed, we've got enough to have several on our case at any time, with several more taking a nap. Good news in troubled times!



Actually, that calculation (and that figure of 6%) chimes with another article I read, on a related topic, this time in New Scientist (27th January 2007). This looked at the faulty maths behind most genealogical calculations, which multiply the generations in a too simple-minded way, ignoring overlaps between families, marriages between cousins, etc. For example, someone once calculated that Prince Charles has 262,142 ancestors in 17 generations. But when these were investigated, only a much smaller number of real individuals were found; astonishingly, a mere 6%, in fact. "The difference was due to duplication by intermarriage. So the number of ancestors was only 6% of what might have been expected. The proportionate reduction increases the further back you look. Go back far enough and we're all twigs at the bottom of the same tree."

Mash those two stories together, and you've got yourself a Brief History of Humanity. Although we do have to hope that these two scholars, tunnelling towards each other through a mountain of supposition, have each taken the other's methodology into account, and will meet in the middle ...

But, as this is a Christmas Eve post, what all this really puts me in mind of is James Joyce's great short story, The Dead. Here is its justly celebrated ending:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I can't follow that. Have a happy Christmas, and an exceptionally good New Year!


Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The Old Ones Are The Best

Our friendly Maltese postman is off getting married, so we've had more than the usual run of temporary Christmas postfolk. Posties have been in the news recently, because of an absurd management target that they should average 4 m.p.h. on their round. Incredible. Some hairy-legged Brit explorer was on the Radio the other morning explaining the impossibility of this -- it's effectively a jog-trot -- but that won't stop some fool in a suit harrassing posties to walk faster!

Like most people, I've done my stint as a postman to earn a bit of Christmas cash (though my best stories are about the year I spent a week on a turkey farm, where a friend was a farm-hand, stretching necks and plucking feathers in an unheated barn), so I'm not unsympathetic. However... The new guys are in the habit of folding everything in half into a wad and ramming it through the letterbox, shredding envelopes and content in the process. This makes me VERY ANGRY.

So, I will mention what used to be a joke, but now reflects bitter experience:

One of those card-backed envelopes comes in the post, marked "PHOTOGRAPHS: DO NOT BEND." Before folding it in half and shoving it through the letterbox, the postman has written on it: "OH YES THEY DO."

As the season of Idiotic Hats is hard upon us, I thought I'd also mention this little aperçu from the estimable comic David Mitchell, which he came out with on Radio 4 the other day. He said he judged people by whether they wore their Christmas cracker hat, and how long they kept it on. Those who took them off ASAP were basically vain people with a limited sense of fun. He preferred people who kept them on as long as possible. Indeed, he himself tended to keep his on so long that when he finally removed it, it felt as if he was still wearing it... The sheer joy of recognition in that still makes me smile.

Monday, 22 December 2008

LX3 x 3

Nothing much to say about these, they're just three examples of why I'm so impressed by the Panasonic LX3. Without any particular effort on my part beyond underexposing a stop or so, the thing has captured a much larger dynamic range than I'm accustomed to seeing, and has an understated zing to the colours that I find very attractive. These are JPGs, though -- soon, I'll go back to the RAW files and really squeeze some juice out of them.





Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Emperor's New Challenge

Having been an early adapter of quite a few annoyingly modish phrases in my youth, I try not to be blimpish about our language's constant and endearing effort to stay Forever Young. But as I get older the list of words that annoy me gets longer, and "edgy" has to be near the top of the list. "Challenge" is also up there.

Not the old "edgy", of course, which is something people used to feel in John Buchan thrillers, but the new one. You know: "This edgy new installation challenges the lazy idea that a poke in the eye with a sharp stick is always the more painful option." I'm just not sure what it can mean when so much contemporary art or entertainment is routinely described as "edgy" and/or "challenging." Even less so, when so many people use these words about their own person or work.

Does edgy art make you feel "on edge"? Are the artists that create it close to the edge? ("Don't push me, 'cos ...") The edge of what? Sanity? Bourgeois convention? Making a living? Or maybe they're close to The Edge (his brother, perhaps, or his best friend from school?) Come to that, is The Edge edgy? In one sense, by definition, extremely; in another, not at all (though you have to wonder what he keeps under that hat). I need to know.

The dictionary, as always, is helpful. The "new" edgy means something "that challenges received ideas or prevailing aesthetic sensibilities; at the forefront of a trend." Ah, as I thought. And notice how "challenge" has got itself in there, too.

I think my problem with these words, and the people who claim the attributes they denote, is that you cannot simply decide that you are (or would like to be) the kind of person who "challenges received ideas or prevailing aesthetic sensibilities", any more than you can decide to be six feet tall (you can trust me on that one) ... You have to do the spadework. There is more to being Francis Bacon than hanging out at The Colony Room. Of course it helps to be born a misfit with a tragic or bizarre family life. But it helps even more to produce a body of work that goes into places no-one ever thought of going before. Call me a cynic, but I don't think merely being a trustafarian with a few piercings or tattoos and a mockney accent counts (though this may meet the second part of the definition, i.e. being "at the forefront of a trend").

Conceptual art has a lot to answer for in this regard. The sheer cunning of the conceptual approach is that you have to take the artist's statement of intention at face value. If, say, I place a single pound coin in the centre of a room and claim to be "challenging prevailing notions of the distribution of wealth", then that's precisely what I'm doing. Just as if I were to step outside and, in a very loud voice, challenge the entire population of Moscow to a game of Rock Paper Scissors. These may not very effective challenges, true, but then I always have the Irony Clause to fall back on.

However, even by playing the conceptual-ironic Get Out Of Jail Free card, I surely cannot get away with claiming, out loud and in public, that a thing has qualities which it self-evidently does not? Why would anyone want to go along with the deception? What's in it for them? Do they all just want to be part of the Edgy Gang?

But, on reflection, that's exactly what some people seem to have been doing left, right and centre. Some really edgy conceptual artistry has been going on, right in our faces, but in the last place you'd ever think of looking for it. Talk about cool.

"See this worthless debt? This one here, where some other guy has loaned a house-worth of money to someone with no income at all? I'm going to give it a Triple A credit rating... No, really: trust me, we're all going to be rich!"

Now that really is challenging and edgy...

Friday, 19 December 2008

Chinese Whispers

I remember being completely thrown by the discovery that all the cells in a human body are replaced on a five-year cycle. In other words that, although you are clearly still you, you may not be who (or what) you thought you were. Although this may not be strictly true (I think the latest view is that the average age of the body's cells is about 15 years, and they don't all get replaced in the same "wear cycle") it still means that we are all walking examples of the "Grandfather's Axe" paradox.

You know the one: is this still my grandfather's axe, despite the fact that my father replaced the handle and I replaced the head? It's also known as "The Ship of Theseus" or "Locke's Socks" paradox (look 'em up, the Wikipedia article also gives a nice example from Douglas Adams).*

I suppose a fossil is the ultimate example of the metamorphosis of something into another thing "identical but completely different", in which every molecule of a creature has undergone a sea-change into something rich and strange, and yet is still recognisably itself.

Souvenirs of Easter at Llandrindod Wells

If you are also intrigued by this sort of thing, a good game for an idle moment is to use the Google translator to translate poetry. It's like linguistic photocopying, or the game we used to call Chinese Whispers, each copy slightly more corrupt (or different, I should say) than the last. Here is a famous poem by Goethe, passed back and forth between languages a few times:

Original:

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch

First English translation:

Over all summits
Is Ruh,
In all Wipfeln
You feel
Hardly a hint;
The Vögelein silent in the forest.
Just waiting, and soon
You also Ruhest

English to French:

Au cours de tous les sommets
Est-Ruh,
Dans tous les Wipfeln
Vous vous sentez
À peine un soupçon;
Vögelein Le silence de la forêt.
Tout d'attente, et bientôt
Vous avez également Ruhest

French to German:

Während alle Gipfel
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Du fühlst
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Wald.
Zum einen wartet, und bald
Sie haben auch Ruhest

German to English:

While all summit
Is Ruh,
In all Wipfeln
You feel
Hardly a hint;
The Vögelein silent in the woods.
For one wait, and soon
They have also Ruhest

Just like the replacement of cells in the human body, you can see a sort of ageing process at work. Or maybe it's an evolution?

Once, long long ago in a galaxy far away, I was interested in the way the "cultural transmission" of literature can be seen as a form of Chinese Whispers passing from generation to generation. Just like the languages we speak, all cultural artefacts undergo small but real changes as they are passed on, until one day they both are and aren't "my grandfather's axe." As Alexander Pope put it: "As Chaucer is, so shall Dryden be" (and not a moment too soon).

Memories of Lascaux


* Oddly, the "socks" paradox is virally present all over the Web and is always attributed to Locke, but I can't find any reference to socks or stockings or darning or patches anywhere in Locke's actual writings. In fact, I suspect it may originally have been a satire aimed at Locke and his Whiggish understanding of the Self as a construct, but is such a memorable illustration of Locke's point that its ownership and satirical intention have gone into reverse.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Wednesday Windows

The "windows" project continues to grow: there are a lot of windows to explore in any educational institution. I was rather pleased with today's find, actually the skylights inside the atrium of the Shackleton Building. The resemblance to, but contrast with the "DNA Windows" couldn't be better. Luck really does favour those prepared to give up their lunch hour for art...


For the first time, we are holding graduation ceremonies at Christmas, as well as in the Summer Vacation. I believe it's because the ol' degree factory has been turning them out big time in recent years. It's an odd spectacle, seeing the newly minted graduates shivering in their gowns and idiotic hats, especially as graduation here is very much an outdoors marquee-based affair. Here is the Ice Queen's Graduation Boudoir:



Weird, or what? David Lynch has clearly been involved in the planning concept at some stage. And here is the interior of one of the graduation marquees. Please note that we do award degrees in aeronautics and astronomy, so it's not entirely ridiculous. Or maybe that just makes it worse...


Wednesday, 17 December 2008

What? Who, Me?

It was very foggy this morning, and it hung around all day. Fog is a bit like a low-rent version of snow -- it transforms familiar scenes into something new and strange, but not always in a good way. Driving to work through thick fog can be peculiar -- all your senses feel simultaneously heightened yet slightly truncated, and there's a touch of what the Board of Censors calls "mild peril" when doing the most routine manoeuvres. But I was really looking forward to getting to the car park and working the early light with my camera before settling into work for the day.

The cranes were good value, as usual:



Then I sat down at my desk, cranked up the PC, and checked the Google Analytics statistics for this blog. I was amazed. Yesterday, I had NINETY THREE visitors. That is, compared to the nineteen I had the day before, which had been the peak so far. And worldwide: not only did I have visitors from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and Melbourne, Australia but even one each from Bangkok and Seoul. Something was up. Hmm, had I perhaps inadvertently used the name of some obscure sex act in my most recent post?

Later, by the simple, but somehow always transgressive act of googling my own name, I discovered that some other blogs had generously made links to mine. Thanks to Struan and Schmutzie, I have taken my first faltering steps towards global domination. [I would insert a maniacal laugh here, but there seems to be disagreement as to how to spell one. Is it Mwahahahah? Or Buwahahaha? Or what? Good Grief, what kind of would-be global dominator gets hung up on spelling, for God's sake?]

Anyway, at lunch, still feeling quite high, I went out to find something to justify all this attention. The fog was even thicker, but -- by quietening the light and obscuring some of the background noise -- it helped me finally to see the point of this pair of Barbara Hepworths that stand in the campus:


There is a twin pair way off on the other side of the valley, but obscured by the mist. Oddly, after years of looking hopelessly dated, these sculptures suddenly seem quite contemporary again. And the fog gives a nice muted harmony to other scenes I wouldn't normally notice. Here, the Students' Union building is nicely washed away by a cascade of willows, punctuated by some UFO lamps and a pit-droid bin:

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The DNA Windows


These stained-glass windows, which I photographed yesterday afternoon as I was leaving work, are the remnant of a sculpture which was once installed in the Library, but which was removed in the most recent round of refurbishment. The installation itself was entitled "DNA And..." and aroused rather mixed feelings (but then what public sculpture doesn't?) We used to have an A4 handout, so that staff didn't have to try continually to answer the question "What the Hell is that supposed to be?"

Its centre-piece was a large wooden pterosaur hanging above the main issue desk -- copied and massively enlarged from one of those wood assembly kits made up of cross-sectional slices, but with a large propeller at its rear end. I think most people who gave it any thought found its facetious humour rather facile to be addressing seriously any real issues around evolution and genetics, and inappropriate to its setting (its main gesture towards the Library were some dummy books entitled The Beano and Hard Sums). Few were dismayed when it came down. The joke had worn very thin, and there wasn't much else to take from it.

However, the windows (by the glass artist and architect Ray Bradley) remain, and have acquired a restraint and a Tom Phillips-ish elegance now that they're not associated with (or obscured by) their original raison d'être. They depict a nucleotide sequence of the DNA code of a growth hormone (it says here). They're also rather beautiful.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Hallelu-you, or, Look What They Done To My Song, Ma

Once, there was this great song by Leonard Cohen. Like a lot of Leonard Cohen songs, it was slightly bitter, slightly angry, but with a huge reserve of irony and resignation in its tank. A quasi-religious song composed by a Jewish Zen monk ladies' man, with an eye for the tear in a famous blue overcoat. My kind of guy.

I first started listening to Leonard Cohen around 1969 on a reel-to-reel tape copy of Songs From A Room and Songs of Leonard Cohen that a friend made for me, and it became a secret vice. It was OK to listen to Joni Mitchell (boys had no idea, and girls were simply delighted) but everyone knew Leonard Cohen was for depressive freaks. Friends would pull his albums out of your box with a whoop of surprise ("Leonard COHEN??"). It's only since other singers have started covering his songs that people have retrospectively added Cohen to the ever-growing list of music they "always" used to listen to (usually the same liars who despised Motown or Atlantic Soul or Reggae at the time, but now claim always to have loved it).

Back to this song. You know the one I mean. It has the clever but tongue-in-cheek rhymes, more than a hint of sexual humiliation, and a magnificent sense of the redemptive value of staying true to your song, even while worshipping something or someone who shows no reciprocity, and whose chief pleasure and aim is to steal your strength and render you powerless. It's quite an adult song, to say the least.

I believe there are over 170 cover versions of Hallelujah. My personal favourite is the one by K.D. Lang, though I can't say I've heard them all. You know she knows what the song is about. But now it's going to be a Christmas Number One, as sung by an X Factor contestant. Soon everyone will know this song. Holy Shit: will it join the relentless Christmas medley played in supermarkets? Will the ladlefuls of syrup drown the song's bile? Or will the lyrics insinuate themselves and subvert the show-stopper treatment? I fear not: the chorus makes it sound like a hymn, and the biblical references reinforce that impression. It may only a matter of time before the song's content becomes its own fate. Tied to a kitchen chair while some warbling choirboy over-enunciates those words originally groaned by Leonard Cohen's world-weary baritone.

Or maybe not: the clever rhymes may yet save it. You can't sing "do you" or "to you" and expect them to rhyme with "hallelujah" --it can't be done, it's got to be "do ya" and "to ya," and that will always have an undermining cutting edge, will resist the attempt to sentimentalise the song or make it polite and proper. There is hope. Hallelujah!

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Stick It In The Family Album Part I

There has been an almost total removal of the senior generation of our two families in the last two years, a truly grim succession of one of those "predictable crises" of adult life that everyone tries to ignore. But, in the process of coming to terms with all this, we have come up against a secondary problem that the self-help gurus mystifyingly fail to address: What to do about the photo albums?

Now, I hate to seem ungrateful, but there does seem to have been a decline in the standard of family albums in the last 40 years. It's partly to do with quality, and partly with quantity. Any halfway decent family photo album from before the 1960s is a thing of beauty and mystery, and -- most importantly and almost accidentally -- near-archival permanence. A black and white image, properly processed and kept in an album secured by photo corners, is good for a century or two.

But then along came 35mm colour prints, cheaply processed in bulk by machines onto resin-coated paper stock using dyes rather than silver salts, and the shit hit the archival fan. Go now -- run! -- and look at your oldest, most irreplaceable colour snaps: see how everything doth fade to a swimming-pool blue? Talk about your full fathom five ... Oh, and where are the negatives? And (should you be moved to get them out of that album and scan them before it's too late) are they by any chance sandwiched on album pages between stripes of tacky glue and a fold-over "protective" plastic sheet? Lots of luck with that, then...

And the sheer quantity. Where once a single silvery image stood in for an entire holiday, or even an entire life, now the album is stuffed with dozens and dozens of shiny snaps from unmemorable weekends, which the albumiser didn't or couldn't edit. And, crime of crimes for the family historian, failed to label. Not to mention the paper wallets of 6x4s and the plastic boxes of slides.

Obviously, the options are simple. You can chuck the lot in the bin; or carefully sort through looking for keepers, then chuck the rest in the bin; or just stuff the albums and wallets into a carrier bag and shut them in the closet. Hey, maybe the next generation will sort them out when it's their turn, or -- even better -- they'll have faded away to nothing by then. ("What the hell are these bits of plasticated paper Grandad kept in these icky sticky books? Is it some kind of money? Are we rich?")

Of course, it's not easy when a weird mix of magical thinking and sentimentality is at work, it's bound to cloud your judgment. Each charmingly bad, repetitive snap is the last remnant of something that mattered enough to someone you loved for them to raise a camera to their eye. I understand this: I'm a genuine primitive when it comes to photographs. I think at some level I actually believe that something of a person's soul is captured by a photo, like a sort of flypaper. It may be one reason I tend not to photograph people other than close family and friends. It's almost unbearable to fill a binbag with images of family, friends and familiar places. Rather like deliberately smashing a mirror on Friday the Thirteenth with your eyes crossed and your shirt on backwards. "I'm not superstitious, but..." Stick 'em in the closet for now.

Luckily, my Dad was very much a "two films a year" guy, so the Christmas tree comes hard alongside my Mum sitting outside their caravan, wearing her invariable "I'm being photographed" smile, separated only by the odd spectacular sunset or visits from the grandchildren. But even at the rate of 5o or so a year, when each one is filed away -- even the thumb close-ups and the ones so over-exposed by flash they look like souvenirs of a nuclear blast -- then it all adds up to quite a stack.

I've done my best to excavate the keepers. Selfishly, perhaps, the last 30 years-worth have meant little to me: people met on my parents' holidays, and the like. Straight in the bin. Duplicates of photos of my own kids sent through the post as grandparent fodder. Straight in the bin. Christmasses past with faces seared into white masks by flash. No thanks. Ten shots of the same carpet so faded I can't even tell what colour it was originally. Please!

But as we go further back, back to the time of the overlap of black and white and colour, the early sixties, genuine gold begins to emerge from the thinning archaeological layers. Little shots of pleasure and grief. Look, there's my cat! That's our car!

Me, ca. 1960, in the New Forest with a Silvine drawing book
and our beloved Austin A40 Somerset

And then finally, the real thing: irreplaceable evidence of ancestors known only by name, and the places they lived and died before, during and between the Wars. And a few mysteries to tease out, by much gazing, guesswork, and the triangulation of fashions and faces.


My great grandmother Mary Ann Mabbitt,
disfigured by fire but a woman
of legendary
kindness
and a keen home brewer

Now, here's a thing. When I scanned Granny Mabbitt's picture, I discovered that around her neck she has a locket, which almost certainly contains a photo of her elusive husband, ex-soldier and Man of Mystery Henry Mabbit, absent from every 19th century Census, and dead at 50 in 1896, leaving Mary Ann to bring up six children in a two bedroom cottage in Baldock, North Herts. Her occupation is given on the 1901 census as "charwoman." Think about that.



This hint of a face is about as tantalising as any genuine glimpse into the past can be. This preservation of an unexpected detail, rays of light reflected off a surface in the late 19th century and captured on that flypaper -- something no painter could or would ever have rendered faithfully -- is what makes photography the magic process that it is.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Hamsters

"Men love women; women love children; children love hamsters; and hamsters don't love anybody."
Alice Thomas Ellis

How true that is. I'm not totally sold on the men, women, and children bit, but she really does understand hamsters, doesn't she? When researching the psychopathology of our own dear ex-hamster, Cookie, I kept reading bright-eyed raves about hamsters called Mr. Fluffy-Wuffy who apparently had endearing little personalities, and practically begged to be stroked and played with. I now know these to be the delusional fantasies of truly odd people who really do need to get a life.

Why these critters are thought to make good pets is quite strange. They might as well have "Just leave me alone" written across their backs. The first thing our Cookie did was bite my hand. And, yes, I was about to feed her; hamsters have no sense of irony. They even fight with each other. At first you think it's some rather rough sex going down in the petshop sawdust but, no, they really are trying to kill each other.

My kids were dedicated watchers of the inspirational cartoon series Recess (way better than the overrated Simpsons, if you ask me). The episode centering on the eternal classroom hamster Speedy, secretly and serially replaced since the 1950s, was one of my favourites -- a true insight into the morose interchangeability of the species, but even more so into the odd propensity of our own species to love that which has no interest in being loved.

Apparently hamsters died out in the wild ages ago, and I'm not surprised. Any creature as grumpily, short-sightedly self-centred as a hamster, willing to attack its own brethren on sight, and yet too dim to flee from a lazy household cat, is never going to be worth much of a bet in the Darwinian stakes. We keep them going on the planet for the meagre entertainment value they provide our children; but are they grateful?


Cookie, we hardly knew ye

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

You Must Change Your Life

How are you with poetry? It makes a lot of people feel awkward these days. It's certainly not generally well taught, at any level, which means fewer and fewer people are learning to encounter their own language in its purest, most playfully serious mode. I find this strange, not least because in many ways it was the discovery of a talent for poetry that catapulted me into the category "highly susceptible to education."

Not so much for writing poetry, of course, as reading and interpreting poetry. An idiotic talent, if ever there was one. If you need a difficult poem sorting out, I'm your man. I don't think there's a Yellow Pages section for literary interpreters (Hermeneuts?) but, if there was, that would be me in the big banner advert. Unfortunately, the bottom dropped out of the interpretation business in the late 1970s, so that's not how I make a living. I did diversify into Theory, but theorised myself into that corner where all theorists are destined to end up*, and shortly thereafter decided to get a proper job instead.

Some poems are as key to our culture and, in their way, as iconic as our most famous paintings, and should be as well-known to everyone. However, they're not, and -- to make it just that little bit more difficult -- they're not all written in English (gasp!). But they exist and persist, nonetheless, and are continually rediscovered, reinterpreted and retranslated by explorers of the culture. One of these is Archaïscher Torso Apollos ("Archaic Torso of Apollo"), by Rainer Maria Rilke. There are plenty of translations on the Web, if you don't know it.

The poem has a famous closing line ("You must change your life") which looks like sententious finger-wagging, and is therefore beloved of the Self Help and Therapy crowd. But that is wrong; about as accurate as fixing on "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" as the key to Hamlet. At its simplest, it's a classic example of an "Art meets Art" poem (Ode on A Grecian Urn and Anecdote of The Jar, for example). Ursula K. Le Guin (yes, that U.K. Le G.) said of it:
"True myth may serve for thousands of years as an inexhaustible source of intellectual speculation, religious joy, ethical inquiry and artistic renewal. The real myth is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is. You look at it and it vanishes. You look at the Blond Hero - really look - and he turns into a gerbil. But you look at Apollo, and he looks back at you."
Personally, I think she half misses the point. Rilke wrote about avatars such as angels and figures from myth, and even claimed to take dictation from voices in the wind, but did not expect us to believe in them. If pressed, I would say it's a poem about the conflict between the projection and the embodiment of essential qualities, and how culture is made from the challenge of living up to an engagement with the two (Don't agree? Let's talk!).


Plastic torso on back window

The poem has always intrigued me since I first read it in the Sixth Form, and a year ago I proposed a project to a teaching colleague along these lines:
Hi [...],
At the moment, I'm still thinking about this and it may well come to nothing, but:
I have in mind a project pulling together a variety of interpretive contributions from staff/students working within the University, focussing on a single poem. I suppose I have a slightly naive vision of, on the one hand, a class of German students creating visual art and, on the other, certain artists engaging creatively with poetry in a foreign language ... If a viable project plan does emerge, I will try to interest either [...] at the [...] Gallery or [...] at the [...] Gallery in an exhibition / publication.
From my p-o-v, I'm interested in the way the visual and the literary interact, and the whole business of translation / transmission between languages, cultures and different expressive means. The Rilke suggested itself as a choice, partly because of its intrinsic concerns, and partly because it has been so frequently translated and variously interpreted. It also seems auspicious that you teach it yourself in your classes.
I have studied German myself (although my 1st degree was in English, I did a special paper on Goethe for finals -- I'm told they printed the exam paper just for me) but, obviously, such a project would benefit enormously from your linguistic expertise and insight (I am baffled, for example, by the various translations of "sein unerhörtes Haupt" as "legendary", "fabulous", "terrific", etc.).
What do you think? Best wishes,
Mike
The project so far has come to nothing, but who knows?

A while ago, I found a brilliant translation of the poem on the Web that seemed to discover a dimension beyond the epistemological "heavy breathing" that most translators focus on. It's funny, too. It seems to have gone now, so I've taken the liberty of transcribing it here. I have tried but so far failed to contact the author: I hope she won't mind this publicity.


Archaic Torso of Apollo, a Translation for Bored Children.
After Rilke, by Catherine J. Coan

eyeball ripening
in the head

candle in the chest

in and of
and in itself
and of it

did you know
you didn't know

loins
smile

don't think of buttcrack
here you mustn't think of it

think of the shoulders
or a waterfall

you see
a cat and a star
and an unframed frame
and here is the thing

don't think buttcrack
otherwise you'll never
beget what he meant

no snickering
this is a museum

the statues have no arms
because they fell off
from strangling stupid kids like you

do you want to be a serious poet or what


Wrapped statue in the Ashmolean

* I didn't originally intend "up one's own arse" but it reads that way and I bow to the Derridean différance ...

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Frosty Tuesday, Too

It's not often you can accuse Nature of overdoing it, but this effort on our neighbour's Volvo estate this morning is getting pretty damn close. Or perhaps it's Jack Frost's comment on the Volvo. It's beginning to look as if we may have a Proper Winter this year -- something of a rarity in recent times in these southern parts.


There's something very exhilarating about these cranes that I pass by every morning. It may simply be the thought that I don't have to climb up there every morning to get to my place of work. I expect there's quite a view, but -- as someone once said at a workshop I once attended -- all you can really see from a very high place is a very long way.


Sunday, 7 December 2008

Frosty Sunday

Yesterday's post was a bit downbeat: I really shouldn't write them late on Saturday night after taking strong drink. Never mind, this morning was the first really hard frost we've had, and I went out into the garden in slippers and pajamas to get a few photos before making the tea. The rising sun makes it look warmer than it was.





Then we I drove over to Mottisfont Abbey in the afternoon, where someone seemed to be delivering Christmas:



The moot spring was steaming like a hot bath and, on the drive home, a thick mist was rising all along the River Test:


We got to talking about the moon, which was up as we drove home, and I mentioned the thing about the size of the sun and the moon (see post Blogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home). We agreed that it might be construed as someone taking the piss, but then wondered what size the moons of other planets appear relative to the sun, when you are standing on them? I must check whether anyone has done the maths. The implications of all moons on all planets being the same apparent size as the sun are too silly to contemplate.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Is There Gas In The Car?

There comes a point in your life, I'm convinced, when everyone you meet reminds you of someone else. It's partly a statistical thing, and partly a genetic thing. Despite the uniqueness of faces, and our fine-tuned ability to tell one face from another, in the end, we all look a lot like someone else, who also often behaves a lot like us, too. The experience is amplified if you work in education, as you encounter young people en masse, and see freshly-minted versions of familiar old faces every day. Damn it, there are types out there.

Now, this can upset some people, and it's a perception sometimes best kept to oneself. I grew up in a generation where the smarter type of person had a horror of categories, labels, and stereotyping. It took me a while to realise this, when I started mixing with the smarter type, and my stoner typological tendency ("Wow, this reminds me of that, and that reminds me of this!") marked me out as a know-nothing vulgarian.

Eventually, I was happy to buy into the idea that, even though 98% of people in Category A might behave in Manner X, that redemptive 2% meant that it was unhip (or A Crime Against Modern Manners) to predict that people in Category A were likely to behave in Manner X. As social re-engineering it was magnificent; as a way of avoiding mugging, downright foolish, albeit magnificently so. And compared to its extreme alternative, in which life becomes a complacent and fearful journey through Central Casting, it has many redeeming features. However, it gradually dawned on me that some of my new comrades had not really thought this thing through, and were simply working too hard at maintaining their surprise that -- so to speak -- the sun had come up in the East again this morning. Like, wow.

Of course, the sun is not people. I even eventually understood the idea that "Category A" was quite often a social construct. That is, somewhere along the way, someone had drawn a line ("Can we have all you As on this side, you Bs on that side, please?") that had maybe once served a purpose, but need not always do so. And that its usefulness might depend on where you stood, class-wise, race-wise, gender-wise. "Useful" often being the other side of the coin from "oppressive." Very little in the human realm was essentially so. And the belief that it was, I learned, was always the mark of a social conservative. This all made sense, though it was certainly not (yet) common sense, and certainly not street-wise.

[N.B. if you have understood and absorbed the last paragraph, then Congratulations! You have just short-circuited a three year degree-level course in the Humanities!! The rest is mere detail which you can fill in later. Collect your certificate and idiotic hat as you leave the blog.]

Of course, without a proper accompanying level of thought, a non-judgemental pose which is merely self-congratulatory can quickly flip-flop into its evil twin, paranoia, under the weight of accumulated contradictory life experiences. We're then either deep into denial and drugs (Steely Dan territory : "Is there gas in the car?"*) or looking at two decades of venality and voting Conservative. Or, in the worst cases, both. I think we all know of former radicals who, feeling personally betrayed by the failure of the British working class to follow their lead to the barricades, swiftly and irreversibly reverted to type. The ingenuity and sophistry of the excuses devised by the ex-bohemian middle classes to justify prosperous careers, large houses, and private education for the kids are, frankly, an impressive tribute to the benefits of higher education.

But I'm ranting -- how typical. All because I thought I saw someone I knew the other day, then noticed that they had not aged in the past 30 years, then realised my mistake, then -- in the same millisecond -- managed to wrench my smile and greeting into some weird but less embarrassing grunting grimace, and then reflected that in fact -- the last I heard -- Richard had married a figure skater and bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator.**

I'm gonna blow this damn candle out, and, Yes, there's gas in the car...






* Steely Dan, Kid Charlemagne, from the album The Royal Scam

** Joni Mitchell, The Last Time I Saw Richard, from the album Blue

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Wol of Minerva

For some reason, owls have often featured in our holidays. From a Little Owl that sat all day screeching on an Asturian fence like a demonic squeaky toy, through ghostly encounters in the Scottish and Welsh Borders, to the unidentified species that every night spat fat black pellets full of mouse bones down the chimney into the open fireplace of our Dordogne gîte.

One of the best was watching -- in North Norfolk, in broad daylight and from the comfort of a dining room window -- a Barn Owl working the next-door meadow, repeatedly hovering and pouncing, hovering and pouncing, trying to panic some rodent into becoming lunch. It was the kind of moment a BBC wildlife photographer would have spent a week in a wet ditch trying to capture. Another was driving along a valley side at dusk near Jedburgh, when a Barn Owl appeared beside our car, and flew close alongside and parallel to us along the road for several hundred yards, like an outrider.

Unfortunately, I don't have the instincts, abilities or equipment that would turn such moments of magic into photo opportunities, so these owlish images have to stand in for them.


Scops Owl snoozing at the zoo


The Wol of Minerva


Owl skeleton

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Charismatic Megafauna

When you get to know them, the Big Cats are a neurotic lot, a little mad even. It's the eyes that give it away. They've got a lot to live up to, image-wise, which can't be easy. I always think of the slightly melted-looking tiger in the third picture as a new father coming to terms with what he's got himself into.