Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Trickle Treat

Much as I resent the imposition of Halloween (or "Hallo, Ian!" as one of our neighbour's kids used to have it), I have no desire to be known as the grumpy old man who lectures kids on the doorstep about cultural imperialism.  No siree, Bob!

So, today is the day to get out the ceremonial trickle-treat pot, which spends most of the year leering out of the Red Cupboard.  Actually, it is known in our family as the Skanky Sweets Pot, as it has traditionally been our way of disposing of all the disgusting sweets our own kids had, wisely, decided not to eat that year.

This year, my daughter pleaded with me to buy some fresh sweets, as (despite her pose of hip anomie) she is a tender-hearted creature, who was feeling guilty about poisoning the neighbourhood children.  I maintained that this was, in large part, the point of Halloween, but could tell she would prefer not to believe her parents are utterly mad.  I checked the sell-by dates, and concluded that two or more years counted as too far gone, even for Haribos.

So, the Skanky Sweets Pot is somewhat puzzled, finding itself charged with brand new confectionery.  I don't think we'll be renaming it, though: those are some very, very cheap sweets.  Trickle treat!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Summer Time Blues

This weekend, we had the annual ritual in Britain of "putting the clocks back".  No, we hadn't hidden them anywhere (though wouldn't that be a great idea?): they had simply all been set to "British Summer Time" (i.e. GMT +1 hour) during that other great ritual, "putting the clocks forward" in March, and needed restoring to GMT. It's a hassle.  For a start, clocks tend to be mounted inaccessibly high on walls, and getting them off and back onto the wobbly nail is a hazardous procedure.  Twiddling that knurly knob on the back through eleven hourly cycles does nothing for anyone's fingertips.  And is it a superstition or a law of physics that the hands of a clock may not be turned backwards?

Worse, every digital clock in the house (and every year there are more) seems to operate differently.  Some have smugly adjusted themselves in the night.  It's uncanny -- I'm sure we have never told our kitchen radio where we live. How does it know? Perhaps it's because it is permanently tuned in to BBC Radio 4.  All the other digital clocks use utterly different, completely counter-intuitive combinations of simultaneous button presses to adjust the time.  Our bedside alarm, for example, requires the correct button on the top to be held down, while a right-hand multi-function button on the front is used to change the hour, and a left-hand button is used to change the minutes.  It couldn't be more wrong.

Some clocks are so inaccessible or so arcane that they are never changed.  There's at least one in every household.  The digital dashboard clock in our Renault, for example, is both inaccessible and arcane, and has been on Summer Time ever since we bought the car in 2005 (not to mention 7 minutes fast).  You get used to it.

The change is usually expressed and experienced in bed-hours: you either get an extra hour in bed, or lose an hour's sleep.  If you are not mathematically-inclined, it can be surprisingly hard to work out which change has which consequence (and that's why I am late for school today, sir).  The actual purpose of Summer Time is obscure: it appears to have something to do with children in Scotland, though why they need to lose an hour's sleep in spring is never explained. It may have something to do with one of those old Celtic festivals, like Samhain or Bellan Sebastihain.

I discovered an interesting thing this week, though, that I hadn't known before.  Apparently the general cultural relaxation that occurred around 1968 found temporal expression, too.  It seems Harold Wilson and his cabinet were hanging out (probably sharing a reefer or two, the way everyone did in 1968), and someone said, "You know what? I cannot be arsed to change the clocks back again this year, man! It's, like, such a hassle!"  And Harold said, "Yeah, you know what would be, like really, really cool?  We should pass a law saying, hey, people, no-one ever has to change the clocks back ever again, ever!  Like, NEVER!!"  And everyone round the table said, "Wow!", and that's exactly what they did.

Apparently the "experiment" with so-called British Standard Time (i.e. permanent summer time) lasted from 27th October 1968 to 31st October 1971.  I was amazed.  Back then, it seems, even the government felt free to play with your mind!  It made me think: how had that affected my own adolescence, given I was aged 14 in 1968?  Had it been like, for example, life within the Arctic Circle, with six months of permanent daylight followed by six months of permanent darkness?  Was that why I had developed the urge to stay up all night and to stay in bed all day?  Might it not after all have been my own moral failing, as alleged by my parents, but the fault of the government?

Now, if you had to point at a single recent span of time when British culture (or, at least, popular culture) seemed most galvanised, creative, and vividly alive, might you not point at the years 1968 to 1972?  No?  Well, perhaps you're right, and it only seems that way if you did happen to be 14 in 1968.  But wouldn't it be something if -- just as the ability (nay, right!) to sign on the dole and learn to play the guitar was said to be one of the stimuli behind Punk -- a slightly weird government experiment with time gave us the heyday of British rock?

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Big Bottom

One of my favourite weekly reads is the NB column on the back page of the TLS, written by "J.C."  This week's issue (26/10/12) continues an ongoing thread about the word "asshole", and British "arse" versus American "ass".  The TLS is a very learned periodical, as you can tell.

Something very disturbing emerged, though, which I thought I should share.  J.C. wrote:

We also asked if the noxious dumb asshole of vulgar insult could be related to the endearing dumb ass of farm and field.  Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream, after all, combines the two.  He has the head of an ass and, for a name, the synonym of an ass.
    Or so you might think.  Alastair Fowler, an authority on Renaissance matters and a regular contributor to these columns, writes to say that in the 1590s, "your arse could be your bum, butt, cheeks, croup, prat, rump, seat, stern, tail, toute, backside, buttocks, hurdies or fundament; but before about 1794 it was not your bottom".  So, Professor Fowler, is it the case that puerile giggling at Bottom for his funny name is to see a joke where Shakespeare intended none?  That's correct.  In his latest book, Literary Names: Personal names in English Literature, Fowler writes, "We must give up the notion of Bottom with his arse where his head should be".  The name, he insists, refers to "the spool or nucleus a weaver's thread is wound on".

Whaat?  Say it ain't so!  Personally, I do not give a kick up the hurdies what Alastair Fowler thinks, it simply CANNOT BE TRUE.

The famous Harley Granville-Barker production of 1914

Meanings do change, of course. I was always fond of this early example of product placement in Antony and Cleopatra, spoken by Cleo's waspish handmaiden Charmian:

O excellent! I love Long Life better than figs!

You could have imagined the advertising campaign, but its time is past.  Long Life, I should say for younger and overseas visitors, was a particularly awful beer brewed by Ind Coope in the 60s and 70s ("The only beer brewed specially for the can!  It never varies!" was their proud boast).

But, look, WS wasn't exactly above a bum joke, or a knob joke (see "Will" in various sonnets), or any other kind of crowd-pleaser.  One of my favourite examples is this exchange from Measure for Measure:

ESCALUS:  Come you hither to me, Master tapster. What's your name, Master tapster?
POMPEY:   Pompey.
ESCALUS:  What else?
POMPEY:   Bum, sir.
ESCALUS:  Troth, and your bum is the greatest thing about you.

Oh, Will, Will, you tart... You might as well write the stage direction, "Ride laughter; wait two beats; riposte" before Escalus' final line there.  It's practically a Carry On film joke.

Mind you, if Fowler is right about "bottom" (and he surely isn't) it wouldn't be the first time a well-wrought work of art has acquired new innuendos and inadvertent humour with the passage of time, and changes in usage.  Sticking with Shakespeare, I can remember the hilarity at finding buried yoof and drug culture references in the texts we studied.  When Rosalind, speaking the epilogue the end of As You Like It says, "If it be true that good wine needs no bush, 'tis true that a good play needs no epilogue", it is unlikely WS knew that 500 years later "bush" would become a synonym for "marijuana", causing much nudging at the back of the class.

Usually, it's the other way round (no, not "good bush needs no wine", fool).  There are scholars (from the "Get A Life" school of criticism) who are convinced every other word in Shakespeare is a pun on or synonym for various genital components and sex acts.  I remember vividly, as an innocent lad of 17, taking down a copy of Shakespeare's Bawdy by Eric Partridge from a shelf in our local public library.  I remember it, because a wad of pornographic photographs fell from between its pages, showing real genital components and various sex acts.  There was something slightly cosmic about the contrast between the inky smut-quest on the book's pages, and the lusty reality of that dubious free gift.

That's the Blue Corner.  In the Red Corner we have Thomas Bowdler, who gave his name to the process of "Bowdlerization" (i.e. removing the naughty bits from texts, to spare the blushes and corruption of the impressionable) by producing his Family Shakspeare "in which nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family".  One of these days I must get hold of a copy, and see what rib-tickling surname Pompey gets to announce in Measure for Measure.

Amusingly, but apocryphally I suspect, some prudish Victorian other than Bowdler is said to have changed this line from Cymbeline:

IMOGEN [reads]: "Thy mistress, Pisanio, hath played the strumpet in my bed"

to "Thy mistress, Pisanio, hath played the trumpet in my bed", which, if anything, is worse, if you are minded to look for double-entendre.

Meanwhile, back in Measure for Measure:

MISTRESS OVERDONE:  Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk.
[Enter POMPEY, for it is he]
How now! what's the news with you?
POMPEY:  Yonder man is carried to prison.
MISTRESS OVERDONE:  Well; what has he done?
POMPEY:  A woman.
MISTRESS OVERDONE:  But what's his offence?
POMPEY: Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.
MISTRESS OVERDONE:  What, is there a maid with child by him?
POMPEY:  No, but there's a woman with maid by him.

Every word is plain as day, except one: "peculiar".  It used to mean "belonging exclusively to one person",and now it means "unusual, strange, odd".  Both work, but only the first was intended.  Fundamentally peculiar business, language, at bottom.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Now Then, Now Then, As It Happens

International visitors to this blog, of whom I glad to say there are quite a few, will not recognise the allusion in the title of this post.  British readers over the age of 40 will.  Where to begin?

Back in the Dreamtime of British pop, when the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were still one-minute wonders, it was decreed that there should be a TV programme dedicated to the "hit parade", and that it should be broadcast unto the nation at tea-time on Thursday nights. And the BBC laboured mightily, and it was so.  Lo!  And they called this programme Top of the Pops.  And it was good sort of OK.

The first broadcast, on New Year's Day 1964, featured the Rolling Stones ("I Wanna Be Your Man"), Dusty Springfield ("I Only Want to Be with You"), the Dave Clark Five ("Glad All Over"), the Hollies ("Stay"), the Swinging Blue Jeans ("Hippy Hippy Shake"), oh, and the Beatles ("I Want to Hold Your Hand"), that week's number one hit.  Not a bad week.

So.  That pop chart show ran for 40 years, and was presented by an assortment of strange men, the strangest of whom was an ex-wrestler and dancehall manager turned DJ called Jimmy Savile, famous for dyeing his wig-like hair a different colour each week, smoking large cigars, and for his oddly mannered delivery of various catchphrases that were a gift to impressionists, as it 'appens, guys'n'gals.  His self-branding was tedious and shallow, but as authentically British as a Kiss-Me-Quick cowboy hat, and he went on to become a national institution, presenting "family" TV programmes and running marathons to raise money for charity.

His charitable efforts had a particular focus on hospitals caring for children and the vulnerable, inside which institutions -- remarkably -- it has recently emerged that he had been given private rooms and a full set of keys.  Eh?  To anyone with a real interest in pop and rock he was nothing but a self-promoting parasite, but he was tolerated and encouraged by the Establishment, because the British like to think they like eccentrics, because charity fund-raising is the ticket-price of "honours", and because since 1964 the old folks have felt continually anxious about not being down with the kids.  He was knighted in 1990, as it 'appens (oh, stop it).

Well, it seems Sir Jimmy was being rather more down with the kids than anyone had thought.  In recent weeks, a year after his death, a wave of hysteria (nay, a "tsunami of filth", according to Lord Patten) has broken over the British media, as the long-standing rumours about Savile's dodgy sexuality have finally been confirmed, and the finger-pointing has begun.  How could this happen??  How come no-one guessed that this creepy guy who sought, and was granted, private rooms and unrestricted, unsupervised access in children's hospitals was -- of all things -- a paedophile!

Who knew? Well, quite a few people knew, of course, in the most direct and upsetting way possible.  The trouble was, no-one wanted to believe them when they said what they knew.  Or, more culpably, knowing what they were told to be true, people in positions of authority chose to turn a blind eye.  Worse still, it seems they spiked various attempts to expose him.

Why? Ongoing investigations may reveal the details and the extent of the cover-up and perhaps uncover some other very prominent figures, but the invulnerability of powerful people -- all right, powerful men -- to retribution for their illicit sexual activities is hardly news.  That people  -- all right, men -- are dowright bad when led primarily by their genitalia is also old news. If you're feeling strong, this article by Nick Davies reveals the extent of child abuse in Britain.  It's pretty shocking.

Now, taboos exist on a spectrum which is constantly shifting.  Morality, legality and reality are rarely in alignment.  Consider that in England homosexual activity was illegal until 1967. In establishment and entertainment circles, an awful lot of blind eyes must have been turned to an awful lot of sexual activity which was, simply, illegal.  Humanely, most of the time, of course.  How unfair, how humiliating, for friends or colleagues to be forced to hide their emotional life "in the closet"!  But then one reads of drugged guardsmen being raped as entertainment at show-biz parties in the 1920s, and the humanity of it seems to diminish.  A blind eye tends not to judge the relative morality of what it chooses not to see.

There is a difference, where sex is concerned, between illegal behaviour, behaviour which is "frowned upon", and agreeably naughty behaviour, but you could be forgiven for thinking that difference is negotiable, especially if you are turned on by transgression. Did you know that the age of consent in Germany and Italy is 14, and in Spain is 13?  Surprised?  I am.  But, knowing that, it is not hard to imagine how, back in the ferment of moral change of the 60s and 70s, a decent person might have been tempted not to to expose -- or even to protect -- a powerful, predatory celebrity for acts which might, for all anyone knew, be legal in few years.  You wouldn't want to look foolish, or to lose your job over something which, it would be easy to persuade yourself, was a purely private matter.

The key word, of course, is "consent".  Feminists have fought a long battle to establish that "no always means no".  A tough fight indeed, given that men have always been encouraged to regard "no" as simply a bargaining position.  Check out those songs in the first TOTP broadcast:  I wanna be your man, I wanna hold your hand, please, won't you stay?  I only want to be with you!  They are all pleas for a change of heart, romance as negotiation.  Do you recall any Top 10 songs that went, "Oh, all right then. Never mind. Sorry!"?

But tweak those lyrics just a little, and suddenly the spectre of Jimmy Savile and his ugly like is conjured:  I'm gonna be your man, I'm going to hold your hand, you are going to stay...  Add a locked room, a feeling of helplessness and confusion, and a powerful, famous, implacable man, and you have a nightmare, where "consent" is a word without meaning.  As it happens.

At moments like this, someone usually wheels out these words of Lord Macaulay:  "We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality".  This time, not so much.  This time, it's "Dig him up, scatter his ashes to the four winds, erase his name from the book of life". Perhaps some other words of Macaulay may be more appropriate to the way the wind seems to be blowing:

"The highest proof of virtue is to possess boundless power without abusing it."

The question is, can anyone now in possession of power even remember what virtue is?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Whatever Happened to Donkey Jackets?

As autumn starts to bite my thoughts always turn, with pleasure, to coats.  I have always loved wearing a winter coat, and it is a mystery to me why today's kids prefer to walk the icy streets at 3 a.m. dressed for a Californian beach party.  No doubt my grandfather felt the same about my failure to wear suitable headgear whenever leaving the house; he wore his flat cap when gardening or even, according to a snapshot I have somewhere, sitting in a seaside deckchair with an ice-cream.  If the trend continues, in a couple of generations Brits will be walking the streets in swimwear at all hours in all weathers.

But, coats!  Part of the joy of the return of the colder weather is the knowledge that now is the time to get a favourite coat off the peg where it has hung all summer, to be surprised by the weight of its heft across your shoulders, and to rediscover the odds and ends that got left in its pockets somewhere back in March. Amongst (many) other things, I keep a Leatherman multitool and a blindingly-bright LCD mini-torch in my winter coat, and it is great to finger their familiar contours again.  Not to mention the conkers, pebbles, and escaped medicinal lozenges with their protective coating of pocket lint, reminders of last winter's bouts of colds and flus.  Ah, you Fisherman's Friends and Strepsils!

This week I found myself remembering the coats of my youth, checking them off in my mind like old girlfriends.  Of course, we used to have proper winters back then, cold dark nights after the pubs had closed, hanging around the recreation ground swings, seventeen going on seven, so it would have been madness not to have worn a coat.  Besides, where would you put your tobacco tin and copy of A Confederate General From Big Sur otherwise?  Let's see, there were several cheap unlined duffel coats, a green fishtail parka with a bright red lining and a cheap zip that never quite worked, an impossibly heavy army surplus greatcoat, but above all I remembered a series of donkey jackets.

Donkey jackets are great.  Originally designed as workwear for manual labourers, they are everything a coat should be: warm, cheap, shapeless, capacious, easily buttoned with cold-numbed fingers, with big pockets and a decent collar to turn up against the wind and rain.  A really echt donkey jacket had PVC shoulder panels bearing the name of the local council or a building firm: my Dad had one with "FORD DAGENHAM" stencilled across the back. You could have any colour, so long as it was black or very dark blue.  Thinking about it, I realised that everything I now feel about coats had its origin in those donkey jackets I wore well into the 1980s.

So, naturally, I thought I might buy myself one, for old time's sake.

"What's a donkey jacket?", asked the guy in the surplus store.  "A what jacket?", said the girls in Milletts and Oswald Bailey.  I got the impression they thought I was taking the piss, like someone asking for a left-handed spanner (or, for that matter, like the time I wandered into El Vino's on Fleet Street, asking for a bottle of Pisco, but that's another story).  "Is that like a pea-jacket?", or "Oh, you mean a reefer jacket!", were other responses I got, before giving up my quest.

I suppose I hadn't noticed, but it seems no-one wears donkey jackets any more, not even dustmen. Perhaps the supply of donk, or whatever they were made out of, ran out.  When did that happen?

Addendum at 17:30:
My friend Gerry pointed me at this atrocity.  I am speechless. A donkey jacket from Burberry...  Costing £850...  With a WAIST!  Next thing you know, they'll be selling shiny pink Doc Martens boots!  (What's that you say, Sooty?)

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Back Numbers

I'm currently wrestling with a photo-book project, probably now titled "Elevation", though it was called "The Catoptric Theatre" for quite a while, until I realised this was (a) pretentious and (b) unpronounceable.  I did learn a lot about 17th century Jesuit magician Athanasius Kircher ("the last man who knew everything") along the way, not to mention how to entertain your colleagues by putting a cat inside a mirrored box.  I had fun tracing the crucial quote in the original Latin of Kircher's assistant Gaspar Schott's great work Magia Universalis (Würzburg, 1657), despite Gaspar using the word "cattus" for cat, rather than "feles".  All useless knowledge now, but I suppose it might help me win an upmarket pub quiz one day.

This two steps forward, one step back process is what a project of this sort is all about --  trying things out, rejecting anything that doesn't feel right, and generally groping towards a satisfactory whole.  The thing that always happens, is that gaps appear.  Wouldn't it be great, you think, if that picture I took in October 2007 had actually been in focus / properly exposed / as good as I remember it?  Inevitably, trawls through the back files ensue, and along the way gems like these two get uncovered -- never even processed from RAW before, somehow overlooked, probably because they didn't quite match whatever it was I thought I was doing back then.

Pentti Sammallahti may have a way with dogs, but you must admit I'm pretty good with vapour trails...

Thursday, 18 October 2012


It may only be the result of having outlived the tedium of Sundays in the 1950s and 60s but, somehow, I seem to have been handed a belief that boredom is character-building; an experience to be overcome by direct engagement, not evaded.  An odd belief, really, and clearly not one based on encounters with pub bores.  A truly dreadful example used to haunt our local in Bristol, whom we dubbed "Red Alert" -- as soon as he was spotted, all eye contact ceased, and any seating space at every table mysteriously vanished.

Of course, true boredom is in rather short supply, these days.  There's a big difference between the princely ennui of today's kids, fed up with the shrink-wrapped sameness of their diet and diversions, and the kind of soul-sapping dullness which makes setting fire to a neighbour's cat or tattooing one's own knuckles with a pin and a biro seem like fun things to do.

Whenever my kids claimed they were bored, I would bore them further by telling them about mandatory Sunday visits to grandparents, where children were not so much "seen and not heard" as ignored and invisible.  On dark winter afternoons, I would slip into the pitch-dark vestibule between their back door,  broom-cupboard, and living-room door (known as "The Passage") and spin round until I had lost all sense of direction.  After the excitement of the sense of total disorientation had worn off, I would attempt to work out -- using all available sensory clues -- which of the three possible exits was which; hoping to escape into the rain, and maybe count the spiders in the outside toilet, rather than get a faceful of broom or, worse, stagger dizzily back into the stifling heat and dullness of the ancestral hearth.  If nothing else, it prepared me for the ordeal of the colour darkroom.

Oddly, over the summer I found I was bored with photography.  At first, I thought I was just bored with my own work.  It happens.  Perhaps I'd been repeating myself?  Maybe what had once seemed a useful focus -- to be confined by daily work routine and family responsibilities to a few narrow geographic and temporal opportunities -- had begun to feel more like a self-imposed prison than the "freedom of restraint"?  After all, there are no nappies to change now, or school lunches to pack, and within a short 18 months there may well be no university campus walls or windows to anatomize any more, either, as I hope to retire at 60.  The prison door swings open...  I did begin to wonder whether I was getting prematurely "demob happy". As I have said before, the borderline separating "project" from "obsessive-compulsive behaviour" is easily crossed.

But then I noticed that everyone seems to be getting bored with photography.  Contemporary photography has become boring.  Sure, there are some good new photographers out there, but their work is not compelling or even that new.  So much of it is a retread of work done in the previous 30 years. In the end, there are too many photographers, too many photographs, and not enough world.  It seems that most of the books that have grabbed my attention in recent times contain work by artists whose signature images were made a decade or two ago.

"Disenchantment" is probably a better word than "boredom".  So much work that is getting the attention at the moment seems a bit too easily won, and doesn't open any doors into the future.  So, do let me know if you've seen anything genuinely exciting recently.

Yawn...  One of the better spreads from the book I'm working on

Friday, 12 October 2012

Count No Account

Over the summer I read the much-praised biography of poet Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France.  To be honest, I find biographies heavy going, and this was no exception.  The true facts of most lives are dull: given a choice, "print the legend" is always my preference.  Thomas was clearly an unhappy man and, by modern lights, an irresponsible husband and parent; it is not particularly edifying or entertaining to read about his narcissistic self-tormenting.  Having followed his endless dithering about whether or not to enlist at the outbreak of WW1, it came as no surprise to learn that he found a sort of happiness within the disciplines of army life, once he had actually joined up.

More often than not, the true facts of "famous" lives have a series of narrow near misses with legend.  For example, I learned the extraordinary fact that both Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen were at the Artists Rifles' Hare Hall training camp, Gidea Park, in 1915, and that Thomas may well have instructed Owen in map-reading, but it seems neither realised or recognised that the other was also a poet.  So close!

I have always enjoyed the fact that the Artists Rifles existed.  As a military unit, it has a certain Terry Pratchett-esque improbability about it. But for a jaw-dropping fact, how about this: according to Hollis, among its grizzled veterans the Artists Rifles can boast Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne.  No kidding.  Can you even begin to imagine?  It gives a whole new dimension to Ernest Thesiger's alleged response, when asked how his military service in France during WW1 had been: "Oh, my dear!  The noise!  And the people!"

I was curious about this -- I really couldn't imagine Swinburne snapping to attention with a smart salute -- so did a little research.  I read that the Artists Rifles was one of several volunteer regiments set up around 1859, in the alarm following "the Orsini Affair".  This was not the first time I had seen a reference to Orsini, but had never bothered to follow it up before. You could spend your life following up such things (though there are worse ways of spending a life).  It turns out that in 1858/59 there was a genuine fear that France might invade Britain, following the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by one Felice Orsini, an Italian nationalist who, it seemed, had the backing of English radicals, and had thrown bombs at the Emperor more-or-less stamped "Made in Birmingham".  Curiously, Swinburne was "rusticated" as an undergraduate from Oxford University for publicly supporting Orsini's action.

All interesting enough, but it gets better. Sometimes historical fact and legendary truth successfully avoid that narrow near miss and collide head on, scattering bits of myth, legend and fact in all directions.  The Orsini Plot and its aftermath is one such mash-up.

For example, Orsini was sent on a secret mission to Hungary in 1854 by Mazzini (oh, look it up) but got arrested and imprisoned in Mantua.  He escaped by using a saw to cut through the bars on the cell window, then climbed out, 100 feet above ground, and slid down using a rope he had made of bedsheets. Passing himself off as a friendly peasant, he then managed to get past the Austrian guards.  Are you kidding me?  Is it possible Orsini was the inventor of the old "bedsheet rope" trope?  Swiftly followed by the old "fool the guards with a cheery wave" routine?  History does not record whether the saw was smuggled in to Orsini using a cake.

This is history as operetta, long-forgotten works with titles like "Zeppo and Floriana", set in a world that has now vanished and faded from consciousness -- 1848 and all that, Mazzini, Garibaldi, the Austrians and the French as Evil Empire -- and which only remains as forgotten names on pigeon-spattered statues in European city squares.  Believe it or not, Napoleon III was actually on his way to see Rossini's William Tell at the Paris Opera when Orsini's assassination attempt was made.

But there's more.  One of Orsini's accomplices was Count Carlo Camillo di Rudio, an aristocratic Italian nationalist and military man.  I could spin this tale out, but here's the thing in a nutshell:  after the assassination attempt, di Rudio was arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on Devil's Island.  However, he escaped from Devil's Island and made his way, via British Guiana and London, to America, becoming Charles De Rudio on the way.  There he fought for the Union in the Civil War, becoming a 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd US Colored Infantry. After the War he became an officer in the regular US Army, and was eventually appointed to the 7th Cavalry.  In 1876 he participated in and survived -- yes -- the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  Apparently, he was known to his fellow 7th Cavalry officers as "Count No Account" because of his habit of telling tall tales.

As they say, you couldn't make it up, could you?  Odd, isn't it, how -- in the course of a single man's life -- a Ruritanian operetta about Italian unification becomes a tense assassination drama, then an escape thriller, then a Civil War epic with a "buffalo soldiers" twist, finally followed by a minor part in Custer's Last Stand.  If nothing else, it means the use of the William Tell overture as the theme for the Lone Ranger finally makes perfect sense.

Why no-one has ever made a movie telling the story of di Rudio's extraordinary life is a mystery.  It would have to be called Count No-Account, of course.  Perhaps it just mixes up too many genres to pitch.   There is a English-language biography, however, though I suspect it is self-published:  Alien Horseman: an Italian Shavetail with Custer, by J.C. Ladenheim.

Somehow, I doubt anyone will ever to want to make a movie about Edward Thomas, though: a few good poems and a friendship with Robert Frost are no substitute for serial derring-do with bombs and knotted bedsheets, and close encounters with Custer and Crazy Horse.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


A couple of recommendations:

I've mentioned Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti before.  He is without doubt the Zen master of monochrome landscape photography, and practically the only photographer I know who can use a panoramic camera without resorting to cliché, or drawing more attention to the means of production than the end product.  In fact, only the peerless Josef Koudelka comes close.

A book which is a retrospective collection of the whole range of Sammallahti's outstanding work has been published this year.  It is a multinational effort, with Finnish, French, German and English versions available.  I bought the German version, Hier weit entfernt, from Kehrer Verlag.  This was partly because it was published earliest, but also because I know how highly the Germans prize production values in book publishing (I also bought the German version of the reissue of Koudelka's classic Gypsies last year for the same reason).  It is an outstandingly beautiful book.  The English version is titled Here, Far Away, and is now available from publisher Dewi Lewis, who also knows a thing or two about photo-book production.  I haven't seen a copy, but I assume it's pretty much identical, and recommend it unreservedly: treat yourself.

I have also mentioned musician and poet Richard Skelton before.  Richard recently announced the availbility of a new recording, Verse of Birds, as well as a new edition of his astonishingly original and thought-provoking landscape-based bookwork Landings, both available directly from his Corbelstone Press.   Richard's work is austere, melancholy, uncompromisingly personal, and intensely engaged with the particularity of his local landscapes (he has recently moved to Ireland) -- the impact of human settlement, the ambient soundscape, and the cohabiting wildlife.  His products are among the most beautifully-made and elegantly-conceived I have ever seen from a small press.  Again, highly recommended.

I wish I could add a third recommendation to an e-book of some of my own recent work, but this is still very much a work in progress.  As I have often said in this blog, sequencing your work is every bit as creative and demanding as making the actual photographs. Sometimes, as has happened this time, it is only when you come to put pictures end-to-end that you realise there are gaps and loose ends that render the project incomplete or incoherent.

It's easy, of course, just to say, "Sod it!", and put the work out anyway.  Who would know or notice?  But I have the good fortune of only having myself to please, and I am not yet pleased.  Besides, given the standard of the work recommended above, who would not think, "Perhaps not just yet....".

Monday, 8 October 2012

What's That Noise?

You know how it is: somewhere in your house -- in a bag, under a pile of books, maybe in a coat pocket -- an electronic device is beeping, demanding your attention.  Is it a phone, a computer, an e-reader, or maybe a long-forgotten light-sabre?  Just where is it, and what does it want?  It's annoying.

I'm especially sensitized to this beeping since we had smoke detectors installed some years ago.  These things start to give out warning chirps as their backup batteries begin to run down, with increasing frequency and attention-getting volume, eventually leading up to a continuous hysterical bleep-fest, generally at about 3 a.m.  A neglected smoke alarm is utterly relentless and ear-shattering at close range, and won't shut up until it's fed.  I literally ripped one off the ceiling in anger one night. The wires still dangle from a ragged hole in our entrance hall: a memento of a frantic sleep-addled search for a fresh battery under extreme sonic bombardment.  As a result, a sparrow cheeping in its sleep at night can now bring me to instant full wakefulness.

Anyway, the insistent metaphorical bleep I have been hearing in recent times turned out to be this blog.  Ah yes, the blog... Hidden under a cushion since August and now in urgent need of recharging.

I hope you had a good summer. I didn't see much of it, such as it was, as I had to attend to the move of a complex library management system to a new database and operating system and then troubleshoot the inevitable consequences, which occupied most of July, August, and September.  In lieu of a holiday I've just spent the last two weeks hanging around at home, gazing at the rain, getting in the way.

So, not much photography has taken place, and no e-books have yet been completed.  I did manage to get out a few times, though, not least to my son's graduation ceremony.  Although I possess degrees from several universities, I have never been to an actual ceremony at any of them myself.  We were a skeptical, refusenik generation, and not taking part was our speciality.  But seeing the simple pride of some families -- particularly those from overseas, some of them political refugees -- in the achievement of their children was a humbling reminder of the point and purpose of higher education.  Oxford, I'm glad to say, is not yet the degree factory that some other -- ahem -- universities are becoming.