Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Ghost in the Machine

An inclination to invest inanimate objects with thoughts, feelings, and personality seems to be one of humanity's more indelible characteristics; what you might call an animistic cast of mind. It takes a far sterner rationalist than me to bin a favourite cup when its handle comes off, for example. Eventually I will do it, but there needs to be a suitable period of mourning first, while the cup lies in state on a shelf. Most young children, of course, seem to inhabit a permanently liminal world, where consciousness swirls in and out of things like a tide.

My daughter was particularly susceptible as a toddler, occasionally entering a state we referred to as "goggling", which involved holding her breath and trembling visibly in an open-mouthed, wide-eyed stare of rapture, as (we presumed) the toys arranged before her came to vivid life. She was our little living-room shaman. That animistic tide keeps going out much further as we grow, of course, until the edgy moment arrives so hilariously (and poignantly) captured by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band: "Mummy, teddy's stopped breathing!"

But the idea that certain categories of thing acquire a personality in use is not just a vestige of childhood enchantment. New instruments need to be "played in" to develop their tone, and the quality of their final tone may well depend on the quality and character of their initial playing-in. What could be more full of personality than a pair of old shoes, and more devoid of personality than a pair of new ones? And who does not keep an assortment of pebbles, conkers and the like in their coat pockets, that gradually over the years acquire a deep patina and "pocket polish"? Ah, OK; just me, then.

I am convinced that cameras, too, exert some kind of influence over the pictures that emerge from them that far exceeds their mechanical functioning. You have to meet a camera half-way, get to know it, persuade it to do its best for you. Have you ever noticed how awful the first batches of images from a new camera are? You can set it on "auto everything" or on full manual, you can even use a cable release, spirit level and tripod in extremis, and still get rubbish. Blurry, over-exposed, poorly-composed rubbish. Yet, a few months later, if you've played it in nicely, you can forget to check what settings you're using, and you and your camera will still get your act together -- magic begins to happen.

I'm just about reaching that point with the used G3 I bought late last year. In some weird way, I had to exorcise the ghost in the machine installed by the previous owner, who had clearly not
liked the camera; after all, he'd sold it on "priced to sell" not long after he'd bought it. It's a bit like buying a dog from the kennels: it takes time for an abusive or unloving owner's traces to be erased. Sounds nutty, I know.

The opposite case is a disenchanted object. Sometimes, in the back of a cupboard or the depths of a drawer, you'll come across a keepsake, or a forgotten item once in everyday use -- a cigarette lighter, a pen, a postcard. You'll look at it, and remember why you kept it, but wonder where the magic went. The ghost has finally gone, and you can safely bin it.


David Brookes said...


I sold my G3 because I found it too small for my hands. I am now glad you were not the buyer!

Mike C. said...


Not all quick sellers are camera abusers! I like to think my E-P1 was nicely house-trained and found a good, appreciative home.

The G3 is a bit small, it's true: I have small hands but I'm constantly hitting the White Balance control with my thumb -- I recently took half an afternoon's batch with "incandescent" WB set...

But, that's part of the process e.g. always remembering to check the LX3's mode dial is the price you pay for using that excellent camera.

It is an interesting thought, though, that most cameras (being Japanese) are generally designed too small for us ham-fisted Westerners.


Tony_C said...

You threw away Lenny the Lighter? THAT's why you had to go up the road in the powercut for another box of (quaint?) matches!

I actually bought a box for the first time recently just for the novelty value of having some. They were Ship brand and came in a teeny-tiny box marked(mendaciously) "Av Contents 40". More like 25.

Mike C. said...


Now listen, Leonard is dead, and we've all got to move on. He was beginning to smell a bit, too.

I like matches -- they're one of the few things I can smell. Though I do have a small, circular scar on one palm where the head of a carelessly struck match once flew off... Ow.

But you're right, even matches are made too small these days -- I keep finding these odd ultra-thin ones in the box, which only a slightly drunk idiot would attempt to strike (see above).


Martyn Cornell said...

I still have the key to an AA roadside box on my keyring. Can't throw it away. Although since there are apparently only 21 AA boxes left, I doubt I'll ever be using it.

Mike C. said...


I was never quite sure what they kept in an AA box -- was it something useful like a complete set of AA books ("AA Book of Household Maintenance", etc.) or merely a time-travelling machine?

How long have you been a Time Lord, anyway?