Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Runaway Thought

Two adjacent items from a notebook I kept in 1978:

"Runaway thought, I wanted to write it; instead, I write that it has run away"

Blaise Pascal, quoted by Roland Barthes, in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes

"He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel.  Over the phone anyway."

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Sorting the Snapshots

A sudden storm of flints at Holkham Hall, Norfolk 2001
(or is it Houghton Hall, Norfolk?)

It's been some years, now, since I last used film.  I was quickly impressed by the potential of digital photography, though for quite a while I did distrust "digital" as a medium: the resolution of affordable digital cameras was too low for enlargements of any size and, above all, the preservation of digital files seemed unreliable compared with film (it still does, come to that).  I continued to do my "serious" work on medium-format film which I scanned and printed digitally.

As well as medium-format, right up until about 2004 I was still getting through a fair bit of 35mm film, mainly for family album purposes.  Not by professional standards, of course -- my peak was about 45 films in 1997 -- but enough to pose a problem of storage and organisation.  As I never developed or printed my own colour "snaps", rather than neat and easy-to-file contact sheets and negative pages, I have boxes, drawers and carrier-bags full of those annoying paper wallets of 6" x 4" prints.  They pop up everywhere.

Sorting them out has been at the back of my mind for years, in that deep-storage space that contains all the other tedious jobs like fixing the cracks in the ceiling, painting the as-yet-unpainted plaster walls in the kitchen extension, re-carpeting the stairs, washing the car, and a dozen other long-postponed chores that reduce me to glum despair if I am ever foolish enough to open the door that conceals them, like an overstuffed glory-hole under the stairs.  Yes, we have one of those, too.

This week, I finally got down to it: I made up my mind to tackle the snapshots.

I decided the only way to approach it was as a sorting job.   Step one: find and gather together all the print wallets -- easier than it sounds.  Even after the main drawers had been emptied, and crates lugged in, various strays and sub-stashes in cardboard boxes kept appearing on shelves and inside cupboards to inflate the hoard.

Having got them all in one place, the first task was to identify the year and month of each batch, and write this information on the outside of each wallet with a felt-pen.  Luckily, I had been sensible enough to annotate about 90% of them with dates and locations, so this was a simple, if tedious chore.  To identify the year and month of the other unannotated 10% became detective work: how old did the children appear to be, what time of year was it, could I remember where it was?

A complicating factor was the use of different cameras in parallel and at different intensities.  My main snapshot camera was an Olympus Mju, and multiple films might pass through it in a single holiday week.  Other cameras might get only intermittent use, and one film might span many months.

I sorted the wallets into tottering year piles, and fine-sorted them into something like date order.  I then finally numbered each wallet within each year, so that any prints removed for, say, album purposes could be annotated on the back as "1996/5", and subsequently re-matched with the correct negative sleeve.  Simple, but effective.  No doubt undiscovered troves of prints have yet to turn up, but these will become "1996/5b", etc.

The next step will be to fill several bin bags with rejects.  Anything that is not at least a Grade B album shot, or irreplaceable evidence of that time we saw Elvis in Lyme Regis, is going to go.  Any attempts at "art" which have not previously been scanned will go, too.  In this lifetime I will never get around to reconsidering 20 years worth of 35mm negatives.

Does anyone know if standard photo prints count as "paper" for recycling purposes?

Then will come the fun part: the family album that stalled in 1996 will be brought up to date.  It seems a very appropriate thing to be doing, in the year one child turns 21 and the other 18.    Actually, I will probably scan the real "keepers" and make Blurb books of them, as this seems the best route in terms of both usability and preservation (I'm only too aware of what happens to colour snaps in albums).  The negatives and the remaining prints will go into archival boxes, until the hopefully far-off day comes when someone else has to decide what to do with them.

Next up: those cracks in the ceiling...

Flinging pebbles at Southwold, Suffolk 2002
(or is it Aldeburgh, Suffolk?)

Friday, 22 June 2012

Avian Dilemma

Something in the eco-system of southern England has changed, for better or worse; this summer, there are house sparrows everywhere, after a decade or more of almost total absence.  All over town, that irritating "cheep, cheep" can be heard coming from front garden shrubs and house eaves, and it doesn't take long to remember what annoyingly ubiquitous little opportunists they used to be.

So, I was sitting in the car waiting for my daughter to come out of college, where she had just finished her very last A2 exam paper.  As I scanned the exit gate, checking the body-language of the young people emerging, I could hear a steady "cheep, cheep" coming from the small suburban front garden behind me.  It somehow matched my inner mood; I've been considerably more anxious about my kids' exams than I ever was about my own.  As I've said before, one of the worst things about being a parent is having to relive the bad bits of school, without the power to do anything much about them.

Eventually, the cheeping started to get on my nerves, and I turned to look where it was coming from.  Yes, as expected, a cock sparrow on its mobile phone, cheep cheep, cheep cheep bloody cheep, in a bush about two yards from my ear.  But a movement beyond it caught my eye. A larger bird, a starling, was flying repeatedly against the garden owner's front-room window, like a moth trying to get into a lighted room.  Weird.

Then I realised the starling was not outside the house trying to get in, but inside trying to get out.

Now, I have a lot of experience with birds trapped inside houses.  I have ejected a panicky bluetit from a living room with a squash racket, and captured in a cardboard box a sooty pigeon, that had fallen down the chimney and got itself trapped in our fireplace.  I have also seen the evidence of what anxiety does to the avian digestive tract, distributed all over the furniture.

From the closed windows, and lack of curtain-waving, it seemed likely no-one was at home at number 37.  A frightened bird in an enclosed space is not something you can simply ignore, as you watch daytime TV or snooze on the sofa.  My problem is that I always experience such situations as a moral dilemma.  I blame my Baptist upbringing.  What action, if any, would be sufficient to quieten my conscience?  Drive off and ignore it?  Not happy.  Call the emergency services?  I think not.  Break in and release the bird?  Are you mad?

Meantime, my daughter emerged.  All had gone well; the questions were completely different from the ones predicted, but she was nonetheless able to turn what she knew to advantage.  Excellent news.  I explained I had a small mission to fulfil before we left for home.  No problem; she knows well enough that her father is not entirely normal.

I rang the front doorbell.  After a long interval, a shuffling figure was visible through the rippled glass, slowly approaching the door.  I put my face nearer the glass, and smiled.  I forget that I am not a pretty sight, these days; the figure turned, and began to shuffle away.  I rapped on the glass, and the figure shuffled back.

An old guy of eighty or so opened the door, and I explained the situation.  "Really?" he said, and shuffled out into the garden to look.

"Well I'm buggered", he said, "How did he get there?"

"Down the chimney?", I offered.

"Ain't got one", he said.  "Never mind, I'll get him out.  Thanks for that, boy".

He declined my offer of help, and I did wonder whether he would have forgotten all about the bird by the time he reached the other end of the entrance-hall.  But: good enough for me.

Conscience?  Clear!  Fasten your seat-belts, we are now ready for departure.  We apologise for the delay.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012


I recently got in touch with an old teacher, the one mentioned in the post Life Drawing. Having written the post, I realised I simply wanted to say "thanks" for that 40-year-old act of kindness. I knew he would not remember me, as our "contact hours" had been very few and a long time ago, but the debts we owe to our mentors and teachers so often go unacknowledged that it seemed worth the effort. I was pleased to discover he is well, and still actively producing artwork in the form of ceramics.  Pleased, and relieved.

Relieved, because the regrettable fact is that few of us think to round off such debts until it is too late.  People remain stalled, in our minds, at the age we last knew them, "forever young" in a state of suspended animation.  But let's say that you, like me, are now approaching 60. At the age of ten -- 50 years ago -- you had a wonderful teacher, whose creative attention transformed your life. She was then, say, about 30 years old. You remember her vividly, just as she was, young and enthusiastic, full of life, totally focussed on you and your fumbling efforts. But, do the arithmetic:  incontrovertably, she is now around 80 years old.  Eighty!

Miss Hendey, doing her thing in 1964

Now, old age is a lottery, and has no respect for lives lived usefully in the service of others. Ill-health and dementia are the spectres awaiting us on those final haunted corridors of life's journey (evolution clearly has no use for us once we're past the age of reproduction) and to intrude on an elderly and quite possibly infirm person because of some foolish personal redemptive mission should give anyone pause for thought.

Assuming, of course, that person is still with us.  I recall the shock and surprise of discovering that "my" significant teachers were all already dead. Shock and surprise and, I admit, a certain release.  All debts cancelled.

That clean sweep will also have saved me from the humiliation of not being remembered. Teachers must dread that encounter:  "Remember me, miss?"  "Ah, nope, sorry..."  There is a huge asymmetry in the relationship between students and teachers. The expression in loco parentis is used to describe the legal position of teachers, but it can be an emotional truth, too; at least, as experienced by the individual student.  By the individual teacher, not so much.  Who did you say you were, again, dear?

Some kids loathe school, can't wait to leave, and do their best to disrupt things while they're there.  Many more loathed at least some of their teachers.  But that hatred of individual teachers can be deep and true and, in a perverse way, character-forming.  Others, of course, enjoy school, and find they receive from these substitute parents a degree of nurturing, attention and ambition that home life may not provide.  Either way, schooling is an intense experience, and many people find themselves recalling certain key teachers and conducting an internal dialogue with them --- perhaps angry and recriminatory, perhaps not -- for decades afterwards.

But, inevitably, those teachers will have forgotten all about you.  Teachers are not parents, after all, and in the course of a career will have taught hundreds, possibly thousands, of students.  You might flatter yourself that a select few would stick in the memory, but the chances are that you will not be among them, and it is more likely those little bastards who tried to make her working life a misery who populate her fading recollections of 30, 40, 50 years ago.

Unless, of course, that was you. But, never mind, it's probably rather late to be saying "sorry", now, too.

Mr. Picasso: No, don't tell me, the face is familiar...
Ex-pupil:  We used to call you Nosey!  Remember
how we'd all duck, whenever you turned round
from the blackboard?   I HATED you!

Monday, 18 June 2012

Danger Man

As all intrepid photographers know, sometimes you have to risk your life to get the shot.  And, as all idiots know, sometimes you risk your life inadvertently, and fail to get the shot into the bargain.

I was sitting on the downstairs loo, absently contemplating the familiar scene in front of me, when I was struck by the way the light was falling onto a parchment lampshade.  It looked like a little group of spectral figures, a cluster of Lowry-esque spirit folk.  Nice!

Now, a lot of photography boils down to being bothered (I nearly wrote being arsed, but it seemed inappropriate). You see a potential picture, and the good photographer slams on the brakes, jumps off the bus, shouts "Stop!" or "Hold it like that, but lose the octopus!" -- whatever is necessary to get in front of the potential picture.  Having a camera with you is pretty useful, too, and saves a lot of misunderstanding. In this case, it was merely a case of abandoning the original project, pulling up my trousers, and fetching a camera from another room.

Now, the only problem with this potential picture was the lightbulb sticking out of the lamp.  It was one of those energy-saving fluorescent bulbs, which I find aesthetically unpleasing, like something twisted out of a balloon by a drunk at a children's party.  So, I unscrewed it, and tried various angles to get the Lowry spirits into a pleasing composition and focus -- not easy, with your hands inside a lampshade.

Anyway, once I'd finished, I started to screw the bulb back in, only to have it break in my hand.

Uh oh!  Something about the mercury content of energy-saving bulbs pinged to the front of my mind, and I immediately carried it to the kitchen bin, dropped it into a foil takeaway carton sitting handily on top of the rubbish, folded it over, and washed my hands.  I then hoovered the floor, just in case any bits had fallen down.  Your man in a crisis!

Just to be safe, I thought I'd look up "dealing with broken energy-saving lightbulbs" on the Web.

Now, I don't know about you, but whenever I read the words "Evacuate the room", my concern level goes from "mild" to "elevated".  Although I hadn't actually put the bulb up a nostril and inhaled, I'd pretty much broken every other safety guideline.  It was then just a question of whether to call an ambulance, the fire service, the police, or simply to get some perspective.

I decided to do the latter, and I'm glad to say I'm still here, a day later.  I did resist the temptation to look up the symptoms of mercury poisoning, though, as I knew from past experience I would immediately begin to experience them.

But, don't panic, my friends.  According to the sanest advice I read, you would have to break about five bulbs in a confined, unventilated space to experience any problems.  So, take my advice and don't practise your juggling with low-energy lightbulbs whilst sitting on the loo.  Do it in the garden and you'll be fine!

N.B. on reflection, photographically, what I should have done was use a longer lens, and resume my original seated position.  All possible cracks about "bog-standard photography" have already been made.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Blooms-Morning After

It always amuses me, the fuss over "Bloomsday", as if Ulysses had been required reading at school, and was a familiar and fondly-recalled experience for the entire English-speaking world.  It won't be long before someone thinks to make it a national holiday, and it appears printed in calendars, along with all those other anniversaries, meaningless to most of us.

I had the misfortune to study English at a university that dealt with the literature of the entire twentieth century in the first year; we studied it for an eight-week term, were examined in it at the end of the year, and then forgot about it.  Joyce, typically, might have been given a week's attention, perhaps two.  Next!  As I had already read Ulysses, and Dubliners, and Portrait of the Artist, it was one of the easier weeks for me.  I did take a look at Finnegans Wake, decided puns in Sanskrit were not my thing, and slowly backed away.

I say I had read Ulysses, but I had come nowhere near to understanding it.  I doubt many English English students ever did, though in many ways James Joyce was English literature in the 1960s and 70s, a bottomless playpit of linguistic cleverness, in which to exercise one's own linguistic cleverness.  I'm sure I wrote a perfectly acceptable essay on it, pointing out the structural links to Homer, the revelling in style-for-style's-sake (one lacked the critical vocabulary, back then, to detect the  ironic presence of the "post-modern" in the work of the arch-modernist), the multi-layered humanity, the delightful taste of the language on the tongue, the sheer artfulness of it all.

But I didn't understand it.  At all.  For a start, I couldn't have pointed to Dublin on a map.  I couldn't have pointed to "Ireland in 1904" on a map, either.  The Prof asked me yesterday morning, "Why is Bloom Jewish?" and I realised I had no idea.  I'm pretty sure I had no firm idea of what it meant to be Jewish (or anti-semitic, come to that) -- or even what it meant to be Irish -- when I originally read the book, aged 18.  (I have told you I was an idiot, haven't I?)

Well, by the end of the day I was considerably wiser.  The BBC has done us all all a service by dramatising the book in nine chunks broadcast yesterday.  What a revelation!  The cleverness fell away, and the human drama emerged, like one of those optical tricks where the apparent foreground recedes and the rabbit becomes a woman in a large hat.  The breadth and depth of Joyce's humane sympathies shone through, and I  pulled my old copy from the shelves, amazed by what I had missed all those years ago, that multiplicity of voices.  Yes, they were really there, but I had simply lacked eyes to see, ears to hear.

If you have the remotest interest in Joyce, and missed yesterday's broadcasts, then do make the effort to listen: they're all available on the BBC iPlayer.  I also recommend this article by Colm Tóibín, writing in yesterday's Guardian Review on Joyce's Dublin.  His insight into the world of "The Dead", the last and greatest story in Dubliners, is acute.  It would never have occurred to me to link Dublin, Barcelona, Calcutta and Edinburgh in the way he does -- capitals without parliaments, cultures divided by language -- but then I'm English, aren't I?

Two men drinking at a Dublin bar
Photograph: Bert Hardy/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Friday, 15 June 2012

Puck of St. Catherine's Hill

I mentioned our recent North American visitor a few posts ago.  At one point the conversation came round, via cookery, to weights and measures, and the late unlamented imperial system with its 16 ounces to the pound, 14 pounds to the stone, 8 stones to the hundredweight, and 20 hundredweights to the ton.  Not to mention gills, pints, quarts and gallons, or yards, chains, furlongs and miles.

I can't believe we used to have to learn all that at primary school.  I can still reel off obsolete magic numbers like "1760 yards to a mile" and "112 pounds in a hundredweight", as if they were universal constants. Working in a shop, before decimalisation and before electronic tills and scales, required a nimble mind.

Which reminded me of my mother, who used to work in a shoe-shop, and how she would bring home old coins for me that had turned up in the till.  Before decimalisation, Victorian pennies were commonplace, worn smooth and black from their adventures, and every now and then a fat Georgian "cartwheel" penny would roll out of someone's purse: a full ounce of copper minted in 1797, and still legal tender until 1971.  People used to use them as kitchen weights. Once, someone handed over a William III silver sixpence -- dated 1696 and as exotic as a piece of eight -- in exchange for their court heels or slingbacks.

You had a real, if unconscious sense of the continuity of history, going down to the sweet-shop with an assortment of old metalwork chinking in your trouser pockets. Pounds, shillings and pence had a noble lineage that included storied ancestors like the farthing, the groat, and the golden guinea.  But I don't think anyone missed them, once they were gone, and the simplicity of the new mental arithmetic meant our collective national brain could relax and take a permanent holiday from twelves and twenties.

The forty years since decimalisation have seen a steady erasure of that sort of link with the past in Britain.  If you happen to live in a historic old town then the ancient traces may appear to be there, but this is illusory, as the "grandfather's axe" paradox is being enacted around you: all the parts of everything have certainly been replaced at some point over the centuries.  We live in a world of permanent makeover, where 50 years counts as old.  The block of flats where I spent my adolescence, built in 1950 and as solid as a nuclear bunker, has already been demolished, the site levelled, and built over again.

There is a patronising view in Europe of the USA as a "young" country with little history, a view reinforced by American popular culture -- I think of comics and cartoons, with their obsessive repertoire of spooky mansions, gothic graveyards, ghost towns, and abandoned mines.  In reality, such places would be how old, now? 100, 200, possibly even 300 years? Well, I think most of us living in Britain would be hard-pressed to find a building within 50 miles that could get a walk-on part as a haunted house.  There aren't even many graveyards now where you can find a gravestone older than 150 years.  We are becoming a "young" country, too.

So "ancient" is probably more of an idea than a place on the map.  After all, everyone has ancestors going back to Eve, but hardly anyone still lives in Eve's village.  We're all migrants, tourists, and blow-ins.

The next day, I stood with our American visitor on top of St. Catherine's Hill above Winchester, and pointed out the landmarks, like a native guide.  The Iron Age fort, the Norman cathedral built on a Saxon site, the mediaeval hospital and plague pits, the undated Miz Maze -- possibly ancient, possibly some antiquarian's folly -- and the chalky tops where the detectorists find Roman coins, and where we find skylarks, peewits and golden plovers.

I began to feel like Puck, the oldest Old Thing in England, but we were within earshot of the Twyford Down motorway cutting, where 5 acres of ancient downland and 500,000 years of history (not to mention 65 million years of geology) were dug away, in order to smooth the path of traffic from Southampton to London.  It is conventional to huff and puff about this, but we live on a crowded island, over-stuffed with remnants and relics.  We must accept that the Twyford cutting, too, is our history, for the simple reason it is what we did next.

In its day, I imagine, the hillfort above the cutting must have been equally appalling.  Dug out by slave labour, an eyesore of heaped chalk rubble and palisades, it was a place of domination and brutality; mutilated human remains have been found in the ditches.  No doubt its construction violated immemorial holy springs and groves; there will have been protests.  Short-lived protests, no doubt.  In their turn, venerable Saxon abbeys were demolished to raise the Norman cathedral -- more domination and brutality. Later, toxic slums were cleared to build housing estates, and ancient fields were ripped open, scattering flints and coins and Roman roof-tiles, to provide those estates with water and electricity.

Who can regret any of this? To go forward you need to build, and to build you need to clear ground, whether it be a crumbling castle, a block of flats, or irrational weights and measures.  Whether this also necessitates slaughtering and disinheriting the previous inhabitants, and then writing them out of history, is another question.  On the evidence, however, this does seem to be the English Way, and a substantial part of our legacy to the Now-Not-So-New World.

Trackway and Camp and City lost,
  Salt Marsh where now is corn;
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
 And so was England born!

Puck's Song, from Puck of Pook's Hill, by Rudyard Kipling

Wednesday, 13 June 2012


It's that time of year now when the students start to vanish from the campus, and their place is taken by conference and summer school attendees, and overseas students who need to attend "pre-sessional" courses in English language, so that they have at least a fighting chance of understanding the vernacular mutterings of lecturers from the more challenging parts of our dialect-diverse country.*

A "shibboleth" is a sort of tribal password, originally a word chosen because a speaker of a different language or dialect would find it impossible to pronounce (see Judges, 12: 5-6), but now generally used figuratively.  I have noted before that the accurate use of the present tense is a pretty effective shibboleth for native English speakers: even highly-competent foreign speakers of English find it hard to get right.

So, in the interests of international harmony, here is the Idiotic Hat Present Tense Test.  Just match the answers to the questions!

Section 1: Playing the Piano
1. What are you doing?
2. What do you do?
3. What do you play?
4. What are you playing?
5. Who plays the piano?
6. Who is playing the piano?
7. What are you doing this Friday?

a) The piano, innit
b) I play the piano
c) I am playing the piano
d) I do play the piano
e) Me play piano
f) Please be minding your own business

Section 2: Here's Looking At You
1. Are you looking at me?

a) I [do not] look at you
b) I am [not] looking at you
c) Me [no] look you
d) No, sorry!
e) A free country, innit?

(Answers on the reverse)

*  I have a very strong memory of a friend from Northern Ireland, lying on the grass one summer's day, remarking on all the "floffy clydes" passing by.  I always thought The Floffy Clydes would be a good name for a psychedelic-folk combo.

Sunday, 10 June 2012


As a forgetful person and wannabe writer, I have always kept notebooks in one form or another.  I generally have a number of them on the go, ranging from cheap, pocket notebooks that don't spoil the line of my immaculate tailoring, to more substantial hardbound items.  As these fill up at different rates, the wear and tear on them, and the chronological span of their contents, can vary widely.

Recently, I came across some thin little spiral-bound notebooks I had kept in coat pockets in the late 1970s / early 1980s, and which now look like archaeological finds.  Their pages are virtually welded together at the edges, and much stained.  Once opened, however, they are perfectly legible, and offer some surprising insights into my 25-year-old self.

Apart from concluding that I am considerably less interesting now than I was then, but much happier (those were the proverbial Interesting Times), I noticed that I had been in the habit of noting down tracks, mainly heard on the radio, that had got my attention.  I'd forgotten about that.

That post-Punk era was a car-crash of styles, musically, and these notebooks reflect that.  To give you a flavour of the times, these are some of the tracks I had noted down, 1979-81.  I've omitted albums and band and performer names without tracks.  It's a curious mix of the fab, the forgotten, the forgettable, the frightening, and the funky.

Prince Far I, No More War
Ricky Grant, All For One
Throbbing Gristle, United
The Jam, Eton Rifles
The Delta Five, Mind Your Own Business
Smack, Edward Fox
Glaxo Babies, Stay Awake
The Fall, Totally Wired
Tom Waits, Jersey Girl
Stray Cats, Runaway Boys
The Mechanics, Talking to the Wall
Talking Heads, Once in a  Lifetime
Barry Andrews, Win A Night Out With A Famous Paranoid
The Bush Tetras, Too Many Creeps
The Cure, Forever
Linda Ronstadt & J.D. Souther, Hearts Against the Wind
The Spizzles, Risk
Chaka Khan, Heed the Warning
Orchestral Manouevres, Joan of Arc
Steve Winwood, There is a River
Any Trouble, Girls Are Always Right
Marianne Faithfull, Ballad of Lucy Jordan
Tom Waits, The Piano Has Been Drinking

The thing is, of those 23 songs, I can now only really call to mind six.  A session with Spotify and Wikipedia did shed a little light, but  I forget, I forget...  It's a lesson in how useful notebooks are, but also in how much we become strangers to ourselves as the years go by.

I mean, Orchestral Manouevres?? Really...

Friday, 8 June 2012

Discount Guilt

We had a visit last week from an old friend, an American married to an even older friend from our student days.  Jim is an interesting guy with a complicated story.   He has gone from abandonment at age 8 in Alabama, through foster care, drifting and working on the railroads of the South West, to the salvation of Higher Education and -- 40 years later -- is now a professor of anthropology and linguistics within the State University of New York.

As you do, when the conversational flow ebbs,  I got out some toys.  One of these was my Kindle.  I had noticed the preposterous bulk and weight of Jim's baggage (not clothes; being an academic travelling between conferences, he was lugging several hundredweight of books and papers) and I was amazed to discover he had never considered using an e-book reader.

I was even more amazed to discover he didn't really use Amazon.  He was eloquent about his desire to support his local independent bookshop.  I felt a familiar rush of guilt:  by buying so many books from Amazon was I, unthinkingly, driving small bookshops out of business?

Then I read this week's NB column in the TLS, in which the closing of the Village Voice bookshop in Paris was remarked.  I knew all about the legend of Shakespeare & Co., where impecunious expat writers in Paris could bed down under the shelves at night, but didn't know there was a Village Voice in Paris.  Well, soon there won't be.  The column concludes, "There are plenty of book-buyers ... with a love of independent bookshops and discounted mail-order books on their consciences".

Argh, more e-guilt!

But then I thought, hold on, when have I ever lived near, or enjoyed the services of, one of these legendary independent bookshops that I seem to have been driving out of business? A place where the owner, like the owner of the Paris Village Voice, "knew her customers' tastes and was able to point out books they would want to know about"?  I think I'd have noticed that, surely?

No, never.  I have spent many thousands of pounds in bookshops large and small, independent and chain, specialist and generalist, in a number of towns, small, large and global, and have never, ever, not once been guided to a book I hadn't asked for, or exchanged anything other than transactional words with the owner (or, more usually, the till operator).  Perhaps, despite repeated visits and multiple purchases in the same shops over many years, I looked more like a sociopath or shoplifter than a valued customer.   Above all, with the notable exception of a very few specialist shops like Zwemmer's late-lamented Art and Photography bookshops on Charing Cross Road, I have hardly ever entered a bookshop selling new stock and thought:  "Such riches! I had no idea! Can I afford this?"  Second-hand shops, of course, are a different story.

So, enough with the guilt!

Small, independent bookshops had already started to disappear in the UK in the 1980s, when small business rates and rents became prohibitive, and had all but gone from most towns before 2000 -- long before Amazon began to dominate the scene.  They went out of business because there wasn't enough money to be made from selling books.  The profit margins are too small, the turnover is too low: the genius of Amazon is to turn a loss-making hobby into a thriving business.

I know, I know, minimally-waged slaves toil in the Amazon book-mines, starved of daylight and bruised from falling hardback cookery books and bleeding from multiple paper-cuts inflicted by folding cardboard mailers.  But, ditto Tesco and every other profitable business in the land.  This is what trades unions are for, isn't it?  And how much was that till-operator being paid by the sainted independent bookshop owner?

I'm inclined to think that not buying books online is now less principled resistance than nostalgia.  Booksellers seem to me less important to support, these days,  than the small publishers and galleries who take the risk of producing books by unprofitable unknown artists and writers in the first place.  If I want to feel virtuous I like to buy direct from their websites: for example, I've just ordered a copy of Garry Fabian Miller's Home Dartmoor from the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, and a copy of In the Fields of Gold by Miquel Llonch from the publisher Poursuite in France.

But, if anyone knows a bookshop within 25 miles of Southampton owned by someone who could have pointed me at those two titles, I'd be very glad to hear about it.  I do know a bookshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which can, however that one is approximately 4900 miles away.

It's called Photo-Eye, and luckily it runs an excellent and informative "current awareness" service and mail-order website.  Out the back, there's quite a nice gallery of photographic work, too.  The staff don't care how weird you look (I often drop by in my pajamas*) and they never close.

* I keep meaning to post about this:  do you, too, keep seeing people, usually women, on the street in nightwear and slippers?  When did this start happening?  It's as if they have decided to live out in real life those unsettling dreams of, um, being on the street in  nightwear and slippers.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Village Idiot

Phillip Larkin (a poet I do not much enjoy) refused the Laureateship on the death of John Betjeman in 1984.  Knowing that Ted Hughes (a poet I admire) would be next in line, Larkin said, "I like Ted, but in a just society he wouldn’t be the Poet Laureate, he’d be the village idiot."

Well, you should know our line on idiocy by now.  What higher recommendation could there be? But Larkin did have a point: Hughes was, for an intelligent and gifted man, capable of truly exalted silliness.

Not having read it, I reserve judgement on Hughes' opus on the mythic roots of Shakespeare, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, allegedly a very silly book.  It does have a certain "tin foil hat" aura, to be sure, and that has caused me to replace it carefully back on the shelf each time I have considered starting to read it.  But, this being the week of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, it is Hughes' views on the monarchy that have been on my mind.

It should not surprise me that Ted Hughes was a monarchist, but it always does.  The hereditary monarchy, I suppose, is one of the few remaining institutions with a mythic dimension, where the divergent, parallax view of office and office-holder is particularly obvious.  You may be mad, but you're still George III.   You may be drab and eat your breakfast from Tupperware boxes, but you're still Gloriana 2.0.

As Neil Roberts says in an interesting essay on the subject:
When he was appointed in 1984 many of his admirers, including myself, thought it incongruous.  Hughes, the celebrator of everything in nature that threatens the decorousness of human arrangements, who had pronounced civilisation an evolutionary error, as a member of the royal household seemed like Emily Brontë as lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria.
Well, yes, indeed.  But Hughes had a concern with the intersection of "natural time" ("where the flower of five million years ago is still absolutely up to date") with historical time, and saw the monarchy as belonging more to the former than the latter.  You, like me, may disagree. But the mask of official "royal witch doctor" was clearly one he was keen to try on.

One of the reasons I like Hughes is that he forces us onto ground most of us would rather avoid: for example, are myths metaphors or realities?  When someone's story embodies the myth of Adonis, are they "like" Adonis, or are they Adonis, even if only as a transient avatar?  Hughes is not simple-minded on these matters, but neither is he agnostic.

Why should we care?  Well, consider the spectrum represented by the word "belief" -- from full-on snake-handling lunacy to timid Church of England temporising -- or the challenging ways "faith" can still manifest itself in the contemporary world.  It's clearly still a subject worth thinking about.  Richard Dawkins seems to think about little else, of late.

Anyway, faced with the spectacle of 1000 boats struggling idiotically through the rain on that "strong brown god", the tidal Thames, and the accompanying steady drizzle of inanity from media commentators with nothing to say about an event almost perfectly free of content, mythic or otherwise, the whole-hearted ravings of the Village Idiot somehow seem more compelling, and of more substance, than the bloodless urbanities of the Village Librarian.

Sunday, 3 June 2012


Just to remind you (and me) that this blog primarily concerns itself with photography, here are a few recent images, where vertical stripes seem to be the predominant theme.

Friday, 1 June 2012

MOR alert

While we're on the subject of music and recommendations, here's a tip:  do not -- do NOT -- be persuaded into buying a CD which is getting some attention at the moment, Shakespeare: The Sonnets, produced under the direction of the very estimable early music enthusiast Robert Hollingworth, who directs the vocal ensemble I Fagiolini, and who was responsible for the revival of the brilliant 40-part Striggio motet I mentioned in an earlier post (Car Park Moments).

Here is the description on Amazon:

Fresh from his success of recording an outsize Renaissance mass for a massive 40 parts that had not been heard for 400 years (and winning a Gramophone Album of the Year Award in the process), Robert Hollingworth, director of vocal ensemble I Fagiolini (also a judge on the UK s Choir of the Year and involved in a number of films) was looking for a new challenge. To a specialist of the Renaissance period, Shakespeare s sonnets are an intriguing challenge: the most romantic and personal poems ever written but rarely set to music. All the lyrics are Shakespeare s own and no additions made, although occasionally lines have been moved around to fit the contemporary song structures. Within this, the meaning is never altered and the emotional content of the sonnets is always sustained. What is amazing is how modern some of Shakespeare s language is: Blind Fool Love , or the blues sonnet No Longer Mourn - or the final track, Love is a Babe . Singers from all over the UK perform on the album, some of whom have performed at the New York Metropolitan, La Scala Milan and just about every stadium and concert hall across the globe. Finding players of these rare and ancient instruments ought to have been incredibly difficult but in fact the UK is the world leader in modern performers on these recreated period instruments, and experts in playing in period style. What proved to be harder was securing their services, as they are constantly flying around the world, giving concerts and making recordings of the music of the time. February 6th seems like the perfect day to launch the project, the day in 1952 that Elizabeth II became queen. Words composed in the time of one Elizabeth, re-imagined in the time of another. The album The Sonnets will be officially released in the UK this year on Shakespeare s birthday, April 23rd.

Sounds interesting, doesn't it?  Well, it bloody well isn't.  Despite the rash of five star reviews it's the most toe-curling example of MOR "crossover" I have heard in recent years, and I heartily recommend you stay well away.  Nice sleeve design, though.

If you are interested in the contemporary interpretation of Elizabethan music -- and who wouldn't be? -- I do recommend the work of the Dowland Project,especially In Darkness Let Me Dwell,  a classic piece of ECM's sombre brilliance, bringing together the Hilliard Ensemble's tenor John Potter and saxophonist John Surman under über-producer Manfred Eicher in a moody examination of Dowland's complex, edgy melodies.  Perfect late night music.*

Hilliard self-portrait
(V&A collection)

* Defined in my case, these days, as "between 23:00 and 23:30 hours".