Wednesday, 30 May 2012


I've been doing a little writing -- you know, proper writing -- on the side when I can find the time, but -- as I had to confess to those who were curious enough to enquire about the ghost story I mentioned at Christmas -- I am very easily sidetracked into "research". I think this is a common pitfall of writing:  it turns into reading.

Anyway, I though I'd share this "well I never!" fact with you.

You probably know that Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were both injured in a car crash towards the end of a famous UK tour in 1960, and that Eddie died as a consequence next day in Bath Hospital.  For some reason the idea of two of the greats of the rock'n'roll era lying at or about midnight on the verge of the A4 near Chippenham has always struck me as worthy of a story, a movie even.  Though in some ways John Byrne's magnificent 1987 TV drama Tutti Frutti has already been there, done that*. 

So, naturally, when I decided that now might be the time, rather than writing, I started reading.  You know, get the facts straight, find some useful local colour -- anything other than actually write something.  In the process, I discovered something that may tickle all you coincidence hounds.

Hearing the accident, and seeing what had happened, a nearby resident dialled 999 for the police and an ambulance.  They discovered Cochran, Vincent and Sharon Sheeley ( Eddie's girlfriend and a songwriter -- she co-wrote "Somethin' Else") lying seriously injured at the roadside, along with a Gretsch guitar** and a load of publicity photos that had been ejected from the car's boot.  The taxi driver and the tour manager were uninjured.

So, it turns out that one of the first people on the scene of the accident was a young Wiltshire Constabulary police cadet named Dave Harman.  The Gretsch was impounded by the police, and young Harman started quietly having a go on it over several evenings.  Well, you would, wouldn't you?  Anyway, Dave Harman subsequently changed his name to Dave Dee and by 1962 was a professional musician.  Yes, that Dave Dee.***

So you might say that British schlock rock was born on the same evening and on the very same roadside where the Real Thing lay dying.  And even made off with its guitar.

But perhaps a little more research is needed before I try to turn it into a story...  Perhaps I should call it "The Legend of Xanadu"?

Addendum:  I discover in, ah, Wikipedia that is is claimed (let us put it no stronger than that) that, earlier in the tour, the self-same guitar had been carried to the car for Cochran by a young fan later to become Marc Bolan of T. Rex, who would also, of course, die in a car crash.  Suddenly the history of British pop all makes sense!!  I wonder where that guitar is now?

Addendum 2:  Apparently it's idling away its time in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio, when it could be out spreading its pop magic.  Serial no. 16942, should it ever come up at auction.

* Now -- finally!  -- available on DVD

** a modified 1955 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins G-brand Western model, apparently

*** For the benefit of non-British readers (and, indeed, younger British readers): the beat combo known as  "Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch" were inescapable in the late 1960s, with a string of Top Ten singles, each more appallingly catchy than the last.  In many ways, they were the definition of commercial pop, as well as pioneers of "glam rock" and "euro pop", and their many, many appearances on TV's Top of the Pops were notable for their good-natured idiocy.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012


About a year ago, I wrote a post (The Writing Paper on the Shore) which I knew might alienate a few of my most loyal readers, criticising what I found to be the overwritten and oddly inorganic style of the book The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane.  It is never easy rejecting a book which has been warmly recommended by so many, but I don't suppose either of my regular readers comes here for the warm, fuzzy affirmation of their prejudices.  As Macfarlane is currently out and about publicising his new book (even his voice annoys me!), I thought it worth mentioning that I have just finished reading Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie.

What a contrast!  I'm not sure that it is quite up to the standard of her surprise bestseller Findings as a collection, but her writing, as such, is simply superb.  I won't go on about Macfarlane again, but in many ways Jamie is the exemplar of what I find absent in his style.

Nothing is superfluous, shoehorned in, or simply showy: every metaphor and simile is doing proper, writerly work, setting up connections and expectations that are always played through.  The opening piece, "Aurora", is a good example.  She is on one of those superior tourist-boat expeditions to the Norwegian fjords, to watch icebergs, whales, and the aurora borealis.  Unsurprisingly, she gets cold, she sees icebergs and the aurora.  It snows.  That's about it.  But the whole thing is a cunning weave of metaphors about accidents, destiny, the indifference of "nature", and human endeavour.

If you are sensitive to this sort of writing, the way "green" is used in "Aurora", for example, is wonderful, culminating in a perfectly timed comparison between the aurora and the radar screen on the ship's bridge.
We're like an audience -- some gaze directly, others have again raised long-lensed cameras -- standing in the deep cold, looking up, keeping silence, but it's not a show, it's more like watching fluidity of mind; an intellectualism,after the passivity of icebergs.  Not the performance of a finished work but a redrafting and recalculating.  In fact, because the aurora's green is exactly the same glowing green as the ship's radar screen, as the readout which gives the latitude and longitude, the aurora looks less like a natural phenomenon, more like a feat of technology.
 Above all, you sense someone whose curiosity is rooted in an honest appraisal of her life.  And who is fearless enough in pursuit of her curiosity to brave both a pathology laboratory and an open boat to St. Kilda.

Recommended.  But don't blame me if you don't enjoy it!

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Ants and Grasshoppers

A university is a big organisation, employing a lot of people.  I think I'm right in saying that, in most university towns, the "uni" is usually second only to local government as an employer. Where a typical large school might employ a few Jacks and Jills of all trades to do the maintenance and the financial and clerical support, a university will have large teams of "support staff".  Our library system alone employs around 200 staff across five sites.

So, if you're a dedicated and curious people-watcher and all-round nosey devil like me, there's a lot of activity to observe and eavesdrop on, ranging from bawdy exchanges between the cleaners who congregate beneath my office window early in the morning, to high-table gossip over a coffee between senior professorial types.

I learn many things from observing this sample of humanity, but I am often struck by the difference between intelligence and achievement, and how one doesn't necessarily lead to the other.  There are some very stupid professors, and some very bright maintenance men.

There is much talk at the moment about the decline of social mobility in Britain since the 1970s.  This always means, of course, people going up the social scale, never down.  To my mind, a few more public-school-educated binmen would do a lot more for social solidarity than any number of comprehensive-school-educated merchant bankers.

But, politicians being people in search of a quick fix, they don't really want to understand the nature of the problem represented by "social mobility".  Someone has to empty the bins, obviously, though I think we're all now less convinced of the need for merchant bankers.  But the basic assumption seems to be that an intelligent person should not be emptying bins and, given equal opportunity with an Etonian, would choose not to.

My humble suggestion is that this assumption fails to take into account the way your social class can trump your intelligence, when it comes to [under]achievement.  The crux is one's relationship to authority, to deferred gratification, and to work.  Obedience, a willingness to accept on trust the desirability of long-term goals, and a belief in the inherent virtue of hard work are the ant-like hallmarks of the "achieving" classes.

You only have to look at the groundsmen and maintenance guys around campus, to see that the spectrum "dumb binman to smart banker", that wants to correlate intelligence with social position, is too simple.  Some of these guys are considerably smarter than the well-qualified middle-management halfwits who tell them what to do.  And their view of life is often far more mature than that of the self-regarding, narrowly-focussed academics whose offices and essential services they maintain.

But do these "smart guys in dumb jobs" look on the work of middle-managers or of academics with envious eyes?  Do they resent being "managed" by fools?  Do they regret now the choices they made in early life?  Do they wish their parents had made them stay in and do their homework when they wanted to play football, or just hang out?

Of course they don't.  And their heart won't be in it when they try to persuade their own kids not to give up too soon on their schoolwork. This is the core issue of social mobility: horizons of ambition and "pain-to-gain thresholds"* are, for whatever reasons, set low in many working-class families. After all, society has put centuries of effort into persuading people not to get "above themselves", up to and including public hanging and deportation to Australia.  It will take more than a relaxed policy on Oxbridge admissions to counter that.

If you come from a "regular" background, you will know that some of the brightest of your fellows will have left school at the first opportunity (if not well before, mentally).  They did not like or see the point of school.  They did not like or understand teachers.  Happily for them, neither did their parents.  This situation has got worse, not better, since I was at school.

A few do go on to success in business: my old primary school playmate John B. failed the Eleven Plus but, after an apprenticeship, went out to South Africa to start various metal-bashing businesses and, I discovered recently, is now CEO of a multinational company.  Wow! But, mostly, they just wanted to start earning proper money, or to work outdoors or with their hands, or perhaps had ambitions in sport or the creative arena, or even just wanted to sign on the dole and live a life of hand-to-mouth hedonism.  To have ill-defined, "grasshopper" goals that do not demand three hours' homework a night is hardly incompatible with intelligence.

Such goals, however, are completely incompatible with acquiring qualifications.

The ones who do stay on at school will always include a few truly bright, self-motivated, and creative youngsters.**  But the majority will be earnest, unimaginative plodders who will rise without trace and, if they can afford it, will have their own children privately educated, and vote for policies that reward hard-working ants and punish freeloading grasshoppers.

Grasshoppers, of course, rarely vote.  But, as the grasshoppers say, whoever you vote for, the government always gets in.

*  I've just invented that expression

** I reckon there were probably fewer than 60 in my cohort out of a town with a population of 65000; I doubt this ratio has improved.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The First and Natural Station

There is often a long way and a short way to the same destination.  Sometimes you're in the mood for the scenic route, with many diversions and frequent stops to admire the view, sometimes you just want to get there as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Compare and contrast:
A man may say with some colour of truth that there is an Abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it: an ignorance that knowledge creates and begets, at the same time that it despatches and destroys the first. Of mean understandings, little inquisitive, and little instructed, are made good Christians, who by reverence and obedience simply believe and are constant in their belief. In the average understandings and the middle sort of capacities, the error of opinion is begotten; they follow the appearance of the first impression, and have some colour of reason on their side to impute our walking on in the old beaten path to simplicity and stupidity, meaning us who have not informed ourselves by study. The higher and nobler souls, more solid and clear-sighted, make up another sort of true believers, who by a long and religious investigation of truth, have obtained a clearer and more penetrating light into the Scriptures, and have discovered the mysterious and divine secret of our ecclesiastical polity; and yet we see some, who by the middle step, have arrived at that supreme degree with marvellous fruit and confirmation, as to the utmost limit of Christian intelligence, and enjoy their victory with great spiritual consolation, humble acknowledgment of the divine favour, reformation of manners, and singular modesty. I do not intend with these to rank those others, who to clear themselves from all suspicion of their former errors and to satisfy us that they are sound and firm, render themselves extremely indiscreet and unjust, in the carrying on our cause, and blemish it with infinite reproaches of violence and oppression. The simple peasants are good people, and so are the philosophers, or whatever the present age calls them, men of strong and clear reason, and whose souls are enriched with an ample instruction of profitable sciences. The mongrels who have disdained the first form of the ignorance of letters, and have not been able to attain to the other (sitting betwixt two stools, as I and a great many more of us do), are dangerous, foolish, and importunate; these are they that trouble the world. And therefore it is that I, for my own part, retreat as much as I can towards the first and natural station, whence I so vainly attempted to advance.
Michel de Montaigne, Of Vain Subtleties (Essays, tr. Charles Cotton)
Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment.
Jalaluddin Rumi, The Masnavi

 Both sages, I think, are trying to persuade us of the wisdom of rediscovering idiocy.  They'll get no argument from me.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

My Aim Is True

Things are very rarely what they seem, or to put it another way, they are usually different to what you had thought.  The trick is knowing when to adapt, and when to persist in your delusion.  As the man says, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em".

A couple of months ago I was invited to give a talk to a group of photographers and quickly realised they were less interested in hearing about my work, as such, than in hearing about the experience of blogging about it.  Ah... Persist or adapt? No problem: I'm nothing if not adaptable.

One of the questions I was asked was, "How can I increase the number of visitors to my blog?"  Well, frankly, this was a bit like asking me, "How can I be taller and richer?"  If I knew, trust me, I'd be doing it.  But, really, the bad news about blogging is that it's just like any other form of communication: even if you think you have something to say, and the means to say it well, there's no guarantee that anyone will read what you write.  After all, there's no guarantee that anyone will ever stumble across your blog.  Viewing numbers that regularly reach double figures are an achievement to be proud of, given the competition.  There are millions -- literally millions -- of English-language blogs out there.

So, down here among the bottom-feeders, any significant increase in readership is notable, and worth analysing. This week, for example, I noticed that my normal page-hit tally was being trebled.  On one day, I came close to breaking into four figures for only the third time in four years. Being wise in the ways of the world, I knew this would turn out be some kind of freak.

Now, the semi-facetious answer I gave to the question, "How can I increase my visitor numbers?", was "Write about camera kit, or write about sex, or ideally both".  Of course, you don't even have to do this on purpose.  One of the things Blogger's statistics will show you is what keyword searches have caused strangers to wander through your pages, and I get a regular insight into the sad people out there looking for a taste of something rather gamier than they will ever find on my blog.  Given how much of their time must be wasted like this, someone could probably make a fortune running courses on "effective Google search strategies for perverts".

But, to return to my page-view bonanza.  Had I written something particularly zeitgeisty, or had I perhaps picked up a mention in one of the über-blogs?  No, of course not.  A picture of my grandfather in his WW1 uniform had been linked to by some weapons-and-survivalist website, as an illustration for a piece on the admirable fire-rate of the BEF in 1914.  Well, at least they did acknowledge the source of the image, but I seriously doubt whether any of those hundreds of gun-toting visitors will have found much to detain them here.

Collect your pieces on the way out, gentlemen.

Bullseye, nice grouping...
A picture I never tire of taking

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Quarrel of the Universe

On campus, I overheard something recently that touched a nerve.  Two overseas students were in an exchange with a British student.  One of the two was saying, "... and the English have always done it.  No, it's true!  The English ...  the English have always fucked over everybody".

The British student's reaction -- he was tall, lean and ginger-haired -- was to double over and laugh, loud and exaggeratedly.  "Yes", he seemed to be acknowledging, "That's us, perfidious Albion, world leaders in duplicity and treachery!  I love it!  Don't you love it?"  Though, actually, I doubt that he had ever heard the expression "perfidious Albion", much less given it any thought.

"Why do you laugh so much?  Do you think it is a joke?" asked the earnest overseas student, reproachfully, with a hint of contempt, even menace.  It was the edge in that remark that touched the nerve in me.

As a nation, we are in the habit of casting ourselves as the good guys.  Not without justification: we have much to be proud of, and our contribution to the improvement of life on the planet has not been negligible.  But there is, and there has always been, a Dark Side.  Anyone who thinks that the British Empire and its foreign policies were regarded as a benign force in the world by those who experienced them first hand is a blinkered idiot.

Dear readers, once again, I have to confess that in my youth I was a blinkered idiot.

Student radicalism is no longer the force that it once was.  When I became a student in that unsettling Dreamtime we call the 1970s, real "revolution" really was on the agenda -- the cobblestones thrown in Paris in 1968 were still, metaphorically, in the air.  This was the Baader-Meinhof era of kidnappings, communiqués and killings.  These were the years when striking miners managed to cut off Britain's power supply, forcing the Cabinet to meet -- by candlelight! -- to agree to their demands.  Not forgetting The Troubles in Northern Ireland, or The Birmingham Pub Bombings. This was also the time of Watergate, and the CIA-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende's elected socialist government in Chile.  Incredibly, there were still fascist dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece -- popular holiday destinations for newly-affluent Brits.

A lot seemed to be at stake.  History was visibly in a raw, malleable state.

To the committed student radicals I knew, the world was made up of many local instances of the same global struggle with Capital.  Revolution was the only solution.  It was important to be informed, to be international, to show solidarity with revolutionaries and activists world-wide.  It never ceased to amaze me how much more than me my fellow students already knew about the world -- names, places, dates, events -- and I was constantly shamed by my ignorance.

It was that disconcerting feeling of ignorance exposed that came back to me, overhearing that recent rebuke.

But, of course, in 1972 I was little more than a small-town boy who happened to be bright and good at taking exams.  My world was school, girls, music, and the dedicated pursuit of intoxication.  I knew what I knew about the world from my school lessons, but was otherwise astonishingly ignorant.  In our family no daily newspaper was read, and the TV news was simply an opportunity to get the kettle on, or a sleep-inducing sedative before bed-time.

I was happy to be British.  It seemed self-evident that, if not world champions at everything, we were always contenders.  But  -- to take just one example  -- back then I had never heard of Palestine, Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate, the Stern Gang, Black September, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, though I can recall supporting the Israelis in the Six Day War of 1967, as if were a cup final, and I knew there was a novel by Aldous Huxley called Eyeless in Gaza which I had not read.  "Gaza" was simply an agreeably exotic name, like "Zappa" or "Kafka".

It came as a surprise to me, therefore, that it was common ground among my new friends that to be British was not a source of pride but a matter for cynicism, guilt and atonement.  I learned that, as self-aware sinners, they had been sanctified by alignment with the struggles of the oppressed around the world.  They possessed a solemn sense of justification (in the theological sense) that was both deeply cool and intensely annoying.  As, in the main, they had been privately educated and were the privileged children of prominent members of the establishment, you could see the appeal of this particular theology.

My most transformative encounters were not with Oxbridge radicals, however, but with two African postgraduate students at the University of East Anglia.  One -- from Malawi, I think -- I only ever knew as The Native.  This, I hasten to add, was his own chosen nom de guerre, based on his perception that, to most Brits, the citizens of sub-Saharan African countries were still, simply, the natives.

For some reason, he would often gravitate to my table in the bar, and try to educate me about African politics and the evils of colonialism.  "Hello, it's me again, The Native!"   I think my main attraction was that I had learned enough by then to shut up, and had little to say on his pet subjects.  He was an angry man, delivering impassioned rants about places and politicians that meant nothing to me.  I think he took my beery silence as a form of solidarity, which I suppose it was.

Abdi, by contrast, was one of the serenest human beings I have ever met.  He was from Somalia, studying for a PhD in Oceanography.  He was tall and graceful, and resembled Peter Tosh of the Wailers, with incipient dreadlocks and an expression of permanent amusement.  He didn't drink alcohol, but had no objections to rendering himself horizontal with a chillum pipe.

His story was -- to me, with my conveyor-belt progress through life -- a fable.  When I asked him where his family lived, he replied that he could only give me some map co-ordinates: until the age of ten he had been a nomadic goat-herder in the Ogaden Desert.  The government had instituted a programme of identifying and educating bright children and, well, here he was.

His view of Britain's colonial villainy couldn't have been more different from that of The Native.  I got the impression that to an inhabitant of the Horn of Africa the long view of mankind's history comes naturally, and the to-ings and fro-ings of rulers and ruled, and the behaviour of one towards the other, are all explicable and forgivable as variable expressions of a constant: human nature.  To be "British" or "Somali" is a convenient label, a state in time, not an essence.

This may be my inner "orientalist" speaking, but I felt there was something of Omar Khayyam about his view of life:
But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub couch'd,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward FitzGerald
I'm still not much of a follower of current affairs, but whenever some fresh tragedy unfolds in that region, I remember Abdi.  My hope has always been -- for his sake -- that he never returned to suffer the subsequent history of his unhappy homeland.  It would seem a cruelly ironic punishment for his sunny, forgiving optimism, so different to The Native's glowering grudges. 

But to return to where we started, I sincerely hope that, when our many overseas students do return home, they take back with them a more nuanced view of this country than the one they came with.  If nothing else, yes, we are a people who find our own capacity for self-interested wickedness amusing, and that, my solemn friends, is a strangely redeeming feature, and one of the reasons we are still worth your best attention.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Sometimes, we all need to submit to that exercise traditionally known as "counting your blessings".  I'm not aware of a more modern, less toe-curling formulation for this process:  an "asset audit", maybe? I expect there is such a term, though: this is the territory occupied these days by "therapy culture", and therapy is all about labels.

I'm not a natural blessing counter, and resist most attempts to tell me how lucky I am.  I'm afraid that, for me, Nina Simone singing "Aint Got No / I Got Life" sits high alongside Richard Harris performing "MacArthur Park" in my Top Ten "risibly portentous songs" (not to mention "reasons to forget 1968").  You got no money, no class, and even (yikes) no sweater, but you got your liver?  Yay!  However, this is exactly why, sometimes, I need to assay my assets.

Top among my Reasons To Be Cheerful -- it's making me smile even now as I think about it -- is that I don't have to clean the fish-tank any more.  If you're a parent, you'll know where I'm coming from.

My children had very different attitudes to the Pet Question.  At a very early age, my son had decided that the inevitable upset of its eventual demise would outweigh any advantage gained from learning to love and look after some dumb beast.  My daughter, by contrast, was determined to have an animate companion, preferably a speaking dog.

Knowing her fantasist tendencies (she gets it from me), we started small with three goldfish -- two fancy and one plain -- Star, Poseidon, and Gemini by name.  The deal was the standard contract:  prove you can look after some fish, and then we'll consider the talking dog.

Looking after fish is dirty, dull, and rather smelly.  Mainly, it's unpleasantly wet.  In the end, I think she endured the water-changing, glass-scraping, pump-cleaning routine three times, maybe four.  I didn't blame her for giving up, but thereafter it became one of my household chores and, I'm afraid, I tended to neglect it until it was more of a rescue operation.  Can't see the fish?  Time to change the water.

First, a third to a half of the disgusting tank-water had to be scooped out with a cup into a bucket, carried to the bathroom, and discarded down the toilet bowl.  A similar volume of fresh water had to be prepared in a separate bucket with a measured amount of a chemical "conditioning" agent. Dead bits of waterweed and other debris had to be removed (there is an evocative term "mulm" used by aquarium owners, defined as "undecomposed fish waste and other solid matter that accumulates as a fine, brownish, fluffy material"*).  The glass had to be scrubbed clean of algae. The pump had to be removed, disassembled, cleaned of clogging weed, mulm, and other revolting impediments, and reassembled.  Finally the pump was returned to the tank, and the fresh water added, scoop by weary scoop.  Every step had its own hazards, and new opportunities for nausea.  Whole rolls of kitchen towel were sometimes needed to mop up the mess.  I loathed it.

Goldfish are prone to longevity, so this went on for years.  Eventually, however, when only Star was left, we found a new home for him/her with a colleague whose home is something of an animal sanctuary, and like Ariel I was suddenly free from enslavement to the needs of a lower life form. Free!  Yesss!  Merrily, merrily, shall I live now!

We won't talk about the reluctant experiment with a hamster, the egregious Cookie, which had a not dissimilar outcome.  On the plus side, hamsters breathe air.  On the down side, they're moody, spiteful little bastards.  Do you know the dictum about reciprocity, and the absence thereof?  "Men love women; women love children; children love hamsters; hamsters don't love anybody" (Alice Thomas Ellis, I think).  So true.

I'm afraid the price I pay for my freedom (there is always a price) is that I will never be forgiven.  All together now:
I'll be so glad when I get old
To do just as I please,
I'll have a dozen bow-wows then,
A parrot, and some bees,
And whene'er I see a little pet
I'll kiss the little thing,
'Twill remind me of the time gone by
When I would cry and sing --

Daddy wouldn't buy me a bow-wow! Bow wow!
So be it!  But every time I see elderly neighbours, pooper-scooper in hand, walking some ancient family canine while their kids are out in the world living large, I count my blessings, and remember:  I don't have to clean the fish-tank any more.

Lucky, lucky, lucky me!

* German-speaking readers will recognise Mulm as a word for "rotten, worm-eaten wood", probably equivalent to the "punk" beloved of Boy Scouts for starting fires.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

April is the Wettest Month

It has been very wet.  Apparently, April -- not generally known as a dry month -- was the wettest April on record.  Parts of the country that started the month officially in drought are now officially in whatever the opposite of "drought" is.  Ah, well:  "English weather unpredictable but quite wet" is hardly a headline, though of course it has been precisely that for most of the last month.

I'd like to say I've been busily photographing nonetheless, striding weather-booted through the plashy fen in my waterproof gear, but that is not the case.  "Staying home to watch the rain" has been more like it, and never have the lyrics of "Time" on Dark Side of the Moon seemed more relevant.
Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught, or half a page of scribbled lines.
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way...
The sun reappeared this week, though, so it's "get back to work, ye swabs!" for my rusting cameras.

Thursday, 10 May 2012


I was lying on my back on a PVC-covered reclining couch, with no trousers and my shirt pulled up round my chest. "All done, you can clean yourself up with these paper towels", she said, briskly.  I slid off, and wiped away improbable quantities of a gel-like substance from my stomach, groin and legs.  It took about half a dozen towels before I was in a dry enough state to get my clothes back on.  It was, I thought of remarking, a bit like waking up after a particularly entertaining dream, aged sixteen, but she was busy putting away various appliances, and our relationship -- so recently so intimate -- was clearly coming to a rapid end.  It seemed inappropriate.

I've had two sets of scans recently.  One to check the circulation in my lower half, to see whether this might be the cause of the painful "shin splints" I've been enduring, and one to see whether some faulty circuitry in my head might be causing the deafness that drives my family nuts ("Sorry, what did you just say?").

The bottom half experience was harmless enough, if slightly reminiscent of the scenes in The Singing Detective when Nurse Mills rubs grease into Marlow's skin.  The nurse had to squeeze electrolytic gel all over my legs, groin and stomach in order to investigate the state of my tubes with what felt like a paperweight.  Apparently I'm very healthy, with a good pulse and no obstructions, which is good to know.

The MRI scan of my head, though, was a different matter altogether. I've had an MRI before, some years ago when they were investigating my tinnitus, so knew what to expect.  Back then, it was rather like being slid head-first into a narrow stainless steel oven; it is definitely not an experience for the claustrophobic.  Knowing this, they would put a panic button in your hand, and there was a periscope mirror inside so you could see a distorted image of outside ("outside" being nothing more comforting, though, than a bleak fluorescent-lit room full of baffling wires and pipes).  Nothing much has changed since.  The scanner is less oven-like, but you still get to clutch a panic button, and you're still slid in like a shell into a cannon, although now there's no periscope -- you just get to stare at a curve of beige moulded plastic a few inches from your nose.

It's the noise, though.  Despite the ear-protectors, nothing can prepare you for the unpleasantness of the noise.  It starts up suddenly, loud and industrial, like a malfunction in a nuclear power plant, and goes on and on and on and on.  The initial "short three minute scan" seems to last forever.  But the full twenty-minute job takes you into psychedelic territory -- you are stuck eternally inside a machine which makes progressively louder and stranger whoops and grinds.  It starts to shake and emit panic-inducing alarm sounds. You are a pigeon sucked inside a jet engine, or a spider inside a vacuum cleaner.  It is hellish, and only borderline tolerable.  I found myself obsessively wondering whether I had, in fact, forgotten about any piercings or shrapnel or dentistry or other metal foreign bodies that might suddenly erupt out of my head, sucked out by the intense magnetic field.

When, finally, it was finished and I was rolled out again, I said something like, "Blimey, that was unpleasant". The technician replied, "Well, we're not here for entertainment!", and I confess I contemplated violence.  But it can't be fun, putting people through that several times a day, so I simply retrieved my metallic impedimenta and got out of there.

If you detect personality changes over the next weeks, you'll know what has happened.  My mind has been rummaged through with a magnet, like a careless customs examination, and I'm still cramming bits back into place.

Closely-observed marbles...
A "through the viewfinder" image (Kodak Duoflex)

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Pop Quiz

I've been trying to get some order into my "university facades" pictures, with a view to putting them into a sequence for a book.  This means coming up with a structural theme that is a bit better than just "Here's another bunch of my pictures, and I hope you like them".  Why I bother with this I'm beginning to wonder, though, given my sales rarely even enter double figures, but if you don't take yourself seriously, who else will?

One idea I had was to use a series of real or invented exam questions, something I've used occasionally in posts (you can tell how deeply I've been marked by the exam experience).  Then I thought, why not use the profound and often unanswerable questions posed in pop songs, as if they were exam questions?  This naturally led to a meditation on the assertion of reggae-lite master Johnny Nash that "There are more questions than answers".  Is that true?  I wondered.

On the face of it, it seems illogical.  Every question has an answer, even if it's unhelpful or negative, like "Not tonight, Josephine", or "42".  Though I suppose Nash probably intends "answer" in the sense of "solution" rather than "response".  Looked at that way, the logic might support Nash.  The number "3" is the answer to any number of questions:  "What is 5 minus 2?", "What is 9 divided by 3?", "How many steps are there to heaven?", "How often are you a lady?", etc.  But does that mean that the vast number of questions that have the answer "three" all have a single answer, or that there is an equally vast number of answers to those questions, all of which happen to be "three"?  And what about incorrect answers?  Or multiple correct and incorrect answers to ambiguous questions like "Do you know the way to San Jose?" (one of my all-time favourite songs, by the way).

It's a tricky one.  But then I always preferred Nash's more perspicacious song, "I Can See Clearly Now".

But in investigating this business of pop questions I came across a minor genre of humour, which might be called "serious answers to silly questions in songs".  Once you've got the idea, you'll be able to keep yourself entertained for hours, so here's a few to get you started.

"Why don't we do it in the road?"  : Hard to know where to start.  A lot depends on what "it" is.  If "it" is a three-point turn, then "in the road" seems an obvious place to do it.  But if "it" is, as I suspect, "to have sex", then some serious objections arise.  One appreciates the spirit of the question ("Why are we so hung up on having sex in comfortable, private places, when we could be freely doing it in public on challenging surfaces like this here gravelled, oil-stained tarmac?") but sometimes practicality does have to win out over rhetoric.  However, Sir Paul, if I can go on top and wear knee pads I'll certainly give it my consideration, for a suitable fee.

"Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?" : No, sorry.  Try next door.

"Have I the right to hold you?" : I had to run this one past my legal adviser.  Apparently and surprisingly, no, you don't have that right, under any legislation, national or international, including the European Convention on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  So back off, creep, and keep your hands to yourself.

"Why does it always rain on me?" : Well, a cheap answer to this one would be because you're living in Scotland, fool, but I sense something a little more existential behind your question.  I take it you don't literally believe this, but harbour some deep sense of cosmic injustice, for which "rain" is a metaphor?  Were you brought up in a religious context?  I'm thinking of Matthew 5:45, "He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust".  Or maybe Feste's song in Twelfth Night ("For the rain it raineth every day")?  Or -- now here's a random thought, just humour me -- did you by any chance lie when you were seventeen?

"Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?" : What??

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


The other day someone said to me that a certain mutual acquaintance should be feeling ashamed of himself.  I said that I doubted this was the case, as shame was so last century.  It was one of those throwaway remarks, but it did make me wonder: whatever happened to shame?

Shame is a curious experience.  I'm not even sure what sort of experience it is.  Is it an emotion, an idea, a physiological reaction, or some kind of mix of all of those, a sort of moral blushing?  It's a more acute experience than embarrassment,  but less acute than remorse.  In the end, to be ashamed seems to take two forms: it is both to acknowledge guilt before the tribunal of one's own better self, and it is also a perception -- often sudden -- that one has fallen short in the eyes of others.

I am glad to say that I have led a relatively shame-free life.  Partly through luck, partly through good judgement, and partly because I choose to stand humbly before the highest authority I know, and at moments of difficulty, uncertainty, and doubt, ask myself: "What would Shakespeare do?"  I have found the Court of Shakespeare a pretty humane and forgiving place, except in matters of spelling, punctuation, and infelicitous expression.  Will had plenty to be ashamed of himself, after all, that double-dealing, plot-stealing, brothel-owning, theatrical, whoreson rogue. Not to mention those dreadful puns!

But, obviously -- in common with all but the truly, worthily dull -- I have experienced moments of shame which have become prize specimens in the cabinet of torments I can resort to when a little self-reproof seems in order.  No, I'm not going to tell you about them; these are private moments, events generally long-forgotten by the other participants, or recalled by them in a quite different light. We are a forgiving species, and rarely remember the mortification of others, no matter how acutely we recall our own.  Besides, my time in the Left-Luggage Dept. of MI6 must forever remain a closed book.

And yet shame has been, in the past, a very public matter.  "Name and shame" used to be more than a handy rhyme, it was part of a system of regulatory behaviour that stood alongside -- and often substituted for -- the law.  Codes of honour used to be pervasive: words like "dishonour" and "disgrace" described psychic conditions that are now nearly extinct, but once had the capacity to render your life not worth living.

Do you remember the opening sequence of the TV series Branded, where the buttons are ceremonially ripped off Chuck Connors' uniform jacket, and his sword broken?  Or, in real life, the seppuku of Yukio Mishima following a failed coup d'etat in 1970?  Or what about the government minister who resigned his post in 1911 because his daughter had danced with a man whose brother's firm was involved in a tender to supply the Civil Service with paperclips?  Actually, I made that last one up, but you get my point.   It was pretty grim, living under such high expectations, and seems absurd and grotesque to us easy-going, live-and-let-live moderns.

No, thankfully, we have shaken off the shackles of shame, but have failed to put anything usefully restraining in their place.  In retrospect, this might be a problem.  Obviously, a government minister who, let's say, leaves his wife of 26 years to share his life with a bisexual woman, formerly in a civil partnership (who admits to selling stories about the sex life of his main political rival to the tabloid press), would -- once upon a time -- have been required to "consider his position".  Now?  Not so much.  Do we care?  Not really.

But consider the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady,  who, it emerges, was involved in "investigating" (i.e. covering up) and thereby enabling and prolonging the truly shameful activities of notorious paedophile priest Brendan Smyth in the mid-70s. Brady says he is now "ashamed" of his role, but sees no reason to resign.  In the classic defence of the shameless, he was only following (presumably holy) orders.

Would it have helped the Cardinal, or even Father Smyth, to have asked, "What would Shakespeare do"?  I have no idea, to be honest, but I recall these words:

Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
   All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
   To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Sonnet 129

Now there speaks a man who knows something about shame.