Thursday, 27 August 2009


The view from Old Winchester Hill on Sunday

I think if I had a lot of money and leisure, I'd spend most of my time getting high. Not in the chemically-assisted sense, but literally: one of the most reliable thrills is looking down on the surface of the earth from a great height. I'm sure one of the motivations behind the invention of flying machines was simply to see what it all looks like from up there. I'd employ a personal pilot to fly me around in a helicopter or, if that's a little anti-social, maybe some silent steam-punk airship powered by nothing but the force of strong opinions (not so much an aviator as a bloviator).

For me, the best bits of a flight are the first and the last ten minutes, when you bank steeply over a city and its surrounding countryside, having what I think of as an Inverse Auden Moment, where the "something amazing" is not (hopefully) a boy falling out of the sky, but the 21st century equivalents of ploughmen and a horse "scratching its innocent behind on a tree" seen from 1000 feet above. Yes, I'm that idiot going "Look! Look down there!" when half the passengers are trying studiously not to do precisely that.

Two of the greatest aids to timewasting and woolgathering that have been invented in recent years are Google Maps and Google Earth. There's a great post by Struan Gray on his blog on this very subject, which I won't try to improve on. Suffice it to say that, in idle moments, I like nothing better than to trace routes from Old Haunt A to Old Haunt B from the commanding heights of the Google satellite imagery, zooming in to check out the field marks and archaeology which is invisible from the ground, and zooming back out to admire the broader colours, shapes and patterns. The sense of controlling an all-seeing crystal ball always reminds me of the time some friends and I were ejected from the camera obscura perched high on the top of Bristol's Avon Gorge for engaging too ecstatically and too vocally with the large and luminous saucerful of secrets laid out before us by that miracle of optics. I think it was the same afternoon in 1972 we were also asked to leave the Arnolfini Gallery, after interacting too vigorously with an exhibition of kinetic art ("This is an art gallery, not an adventure playground").

Back in those same far-off days when the chemically-assisted sort of high still seemed like it might be a useful route to knowledge, I saw an extraordinary film called Powers of Ten by Ray and Charles Eames (yes, they of the famous chair) which, adopting the manner of an educational short made for schools, proceeded to blow minds simply by proposing a journey out into the universe in a series of 10x enlargements, starting looking down on a man lying on his back on a blanket and ending at the limits of the observable universe. The trip is then reversed, but this time it doesn't stop with the man on the blanket but goes straight on through to the inner space of the sub-atomic level. Like, Whoah! I imagine it's a little quaint, now, but at the time it mapped nicely onto a series of [sub]cultural concerns that sought to negotiate a link between art and science, and found an austere new sublimity in the objective but "conceptual" insights of maps, graphs, catalogues, inventories and indeed photographs.

This sensibility found expression in works as various as the music of Terry Riley and Philip Glass (think of the film Koyaanisqatsi), the famous "Self Burial" photo-sequence by Keith Arnatt, the land art of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, and the early films of Peter Greenaway. There was an exhibition ("1965 to 1972 -- When Attitudes Became Form") in 1984 at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge and the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh which documented some of this alternative to central casting's appallingly inaccurate "flares and flower power" view of the period, and the catalogue is worth seeking out. Its legacy today can be seen in the camera-less photography of Susan Derges and Garry Fabian Miller, and its decadence can be detected in the ironic but pointless scientizing of artists like Mark Dion. "If in doubt, make a grid" was always a handy guideline, but has probably outlived its usefulness.*

Of course, the desire to get up high and look down from a great height is as ancient as our envy of the freedom of birds. A shaman's inner journey to the Otherworld is usually at some point an experience of flight -- it's as if flight were a latent human capacity just waiting to be realised. During WW1, for the first time in human history, significant numbers of men did experience that realisation (and troops on the ground will indeed for the first time have witnessed "something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky"). One such aviator was O.G.S. Crawford: archaeologist, Marxist, crank, and pioneer aerial photographer who learned his trade as an observer flying over the Western Front, and who acquired an enthusiasm and sense of wonder for what the aerial view could reveal about structures on the ground.

One of the privileges of working in a university library is close contact with a huge stock of books, most of which are dull or impenetrable, but some of which are exceedingly interesting and rare. One of my favourite finds has been O.G.S. Crawford's volume Wessex From The Air, published in 1928, and filled with wonderful aerial photographs of classic archaeological sites like Stonehenge, Maiden Castle, and Eggardon Hill. Its binding, typography, text and illustrations all reek of the atmosphere that pervades accounts of those post-war years, exemplified by J.L. Carr's A Month In The Country. For years the book was my private enthusiasm -- almost as much as the photographs I loved the ink interpretations of them, carefully hand-drawn and lettered and enclosed in ruled frames, in that style that textbook illustrations always used until the advent of cheap lithographic printing; they are unselfconcious works of conceptual art.

I had little curiosity about the author himself. Being a plunderer rather than a scholar, I am usually on the look out for visually-stimulating material, not a potential subject for a thesis. But, remarkably, last year Kitty Hauser arranged an exhibition about Crawford's photography in the gallery on our campus, and published an intriguing book about his life, Bloody Old Britain. It turned out that Crawford had lived locally and worked for the Ordnance Survey, whose exquisite maps are the ultimate conceptual bird's eye view of our landscape. There's a review of the book by Simon Heffer here, from which I quote this:

The ultimate act of stupidity by Crawford's masters was their refusal to ship the Ordnance Survey's records, books and maps to a safer location before the Blitz - as a port, Southampton was a prime target for the Luftwaffe. Crawford eventually took the matter into his own hands, and had much that was vital shipped out surreptitiously to his village home. Two final vanloads of his most personal papers were waiting to be driven out one evening when the drivers were called to a 'dental parade'. The vans and their contents were obliterated that night in the bombing, a blow from which Crawford seems never properly to have recovered.
Ironic, or what? The former military aviator's views of the ground from above destroyed by military aviators looking down on Southampton. On a personal note, I should add that my grandparents had moved to Southampton in 1938, and my grandfather, a veteran of the trenches of the Western Front, was in the Millbrook Home Guard, watching over the Docks. He would have witnessed the raid that destroyed Crawford's papers. You don't have to be high to get that feeling that, somehow, it all just fits together.

* Somewhere around this time, the word "experiment" seemed to detach itself from the laboratory and became a sort of mission statement. There was "experimental" music, film-making, and theatre. Intellectually curious young people didn't just get off their faces, but "experimented" with drugs, which always sounded better in court. Strange to think there was once a time when lying in the gutter looking at the stars could be regarded as an "experiment" but, although in retrospect experimenting with drugs is about as wise as experimenting with Russian roulette, it was by and large an innocent and geekish enterprise to which the word "experiment" was not completely inappropriate.


Struan said...

A further irony to add to the pile: the most comprehensive surviving aerial survey of the UK in the first half of the C20th, the one people turn to when they want to track land use through time, is the one made by the Luftwaffe.

Not much of it is online, but the Scots are starting to get their act together where Keele failed: Most of the negatives captured at the end of the war sit unscanned (or unavailable) in the US national archives.

Thanks for the plug. I can't help thinking of the Irn Bru snowman advert.

Mike C. said...

I hadn't seen the Irn Bru advert, but found it on the web -- a perfect match, it even has a boy falling out of the sky!

I'm going to check out those aerial photos at TARA, thanks for the tip.

Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

What a fascinating story, including the advert.

Mike C. said...

Advert? What advert, Bron? Sorry if I'm being dim...


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

Mike C.,

This is as surreal as the Irn Bru advert, in the comments, which is what I was commenting on; the original post, the part about O.G.S. Crawford, then in the comments, the mention of the Irn Bru advertisement. Or is the river roiled, now?
Sorry on not answering sooner, as my interwebs was out.

Mike C. said...

Of course, sorry, I was being dim!

I'd be amazed if either Irn Bru or The Snowman (the Raymond Briggs animation -- a Christmas TV staple in Britain -- which is being parodied in the advert) mean anything in the USA, though?


Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

Mike C.,

Nothing in the states, but it is a fascinating commercial.