Friday, 30 November 2012

Museology

I was up in London on Wednesday, for a meeting in the library of the Natural History Museum.  If, like me, you had an abiding childhood interest in all things "natural history", or, again like me, had a child with an abiding interest in all things "dinosaur", then the NHM is probably a very familiar and special place to you.  I have to say it's fun getting to go behind the scenes, which is all a bit Harry Potter-ish, then emerging from one of those mysterious doors marked "private" and becoming just another visitor again.

However, I had a couple of hours to kill before my meeting, so I decided to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum first (or "V&A" as it brands itself these days) which, amazingly, I have never visited before, despite the fact it's just on the other side of the road from the NHM.  Once inside, I was tempted to give the meeting a miss, as I could have happily spent the rest of the day there.  Wonderful things, wonderful things.


Stately pleasure dome


Psycho-Raphaelite



The Hereford Screen as a shadow theatre


I fell for this sculpture in the "glass" gallery,
but it was too heavy to get under my coat


Outside, a pavement artist had abandoned Big Ben


The NHM all dressed up for Christmas
(there's an ice-skating rink out the front)

Currently, there's a free exhibition at the V&A, Light from the Middle East: New Photography.  It's worth a visit, if you're in Town before it comes down in April.  It's an interesting look at the ways photography is being used by documentarists and artists to examine the "social challenges and political upheavals" in that part of the world.  There's some good work, though I'm afraid to say the ubiquitous trustafarian art-worldview has established itself, even there.  I won't go on about that now, except to say that if you have to explain to me using text why your pictures are worth a look, then it's you, not me, that needs to question some assumptions.

Amongst all the shouty giant colour images, I was most taken by the series "The Imaginary Return (Le retour imaginaire)", a set of tiny, quiet, monochrome pictures shot with a box camera:
Atiq Rahimi is a writer, film director and photographer who fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1984, seeking political refuge in France, where he is now based. He returned to Afghanistan in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban. Confronted by the ruins of Kabul, he decided not to photograph the city with his digital camera. Instead he chose a primitive box camera normally used to take identity portraits in the streets of Kabul. The unpredictable process resulted in dreamlike photographs. They convey the nostalgia and brutal feelings of loss that Rahimi experienced when revisiting the war-wounded city.
I don't know whether it's the result of handling so many pre-1960s family snapshots recently, but I find I really like the "production values" of such small images.  It seems more "photographic" to me, more connected to the true social function of the technology in most people's lives.  Anything printed larger than, say, 12" x 16" (and that's pretty enormous, by snapshot standards) seems to reveal the weaknesses, rather than the strengths, of the medium.

Paradoxically, the famed illusion of reality created by photography evaporates when super-enlarged:  the fractal-style interest of a pencil line or a painted mark (the closer you get, the more interesting its complexity becomes) is not there when looking at photographic grain or pixels, especially on an unpleasantly glossy or mechanically-textured plastic paper.  It's generally either too blandly smooth or not grainy enough, rarely "just right", and rarely visually compelling.  At larger scales, I think I prefer the simplified colours and shapes but more suggestive lines and textures of the graphic arts to photography.


A caged peacock...
I can imagine ways of presenting this as a comment on Iran,
but actually it's just a small, gorgeous, "found" photograph

that I really, really wish was one of mine.
(from the Foster Collection of found photographs)

But that's the whole point of the V&A.  It's set up to enable you to do an extended "compare and contrast" across media, materials, styles, approaches, and time periods.  In places it's a bit too "interpreted" for my taste (the displays on 20th century design beg so many questions I got quite annoyed), but it's worth getting annoyed about something worth getting annoyed about, for a change.


Thursday, 29 November 2012

Every Translation is Terrible

In the afterthought to the previous post, I had wondered what Google Translate would make of those first six lines of Dante's Inferno, and was impressed.  Imperfect, to be sure, but pretty sound for a freakin' machine.

So I wondered, what would it make of some equally famous lines of poetry, but lines written in a more difficult language, and of a certain inherent difficulty?  The poem that sprang to mind was Rilke's first Duino Elegy, simply because I have been grappling with Rilke, on and off, over the past couple of years.  Here are the first seven lines:
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.
Again, an awful lot of people have attempted a translation of these words or, more often, a "version" i.e. a poetic rendering of a literal translation by a German speaker.  Here is my effort at a literal translation:

Who, then, if I were to cry out, would hear me from among the Orders of Angels?  And, even assuming one of them were suddenly to take me to its heart: I would die by its stronger being.  For Beauty is nothing other than the beginning of a terror which we can only just bear, and we admire it so, because it calmly disdains to destroy us.  Each and every angel is terrible.

Here is Google Translate's first attempt:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
Orders? and self-imposed, it would take
a me suddenly against his heart: I would be his
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
the beginning of terror we can just barely endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
Again, not bad, but it misses some important points of sense: for example, "gesetzt selbst" (something like "even assuming") becomes "self imposed"*, and  "I would die by/of" is crucially misunderstood as "I would be"**.  It also comes up with the comic "take a me" by mistakenly associating "einer" ("one of them") with "mich" ("me").

It seemed some of this might be to do with the disruption of word order by poetic line breaks, so I fed it a concatenated version without breaks. Curiously the only differences this made was to change "Orders" into "hierarchies" (good), and to change "I would be his stronger existence" into "I would of his stronger existence" (weird):
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies? and self-imposed, it would take a me suddenly against his heart: I would of his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
But definitely a 7 out of 10 for Google Translate, with a red "see me" against lines 2 and 3.


Pre-Raphaelite psycho-angel
(seen yesterday in the V & A Museum)


*A question for native German-speakers out there:  what exactly do you make of "und gesetzt selbst"?  It strikes me as the most difficult bit of the extract to translate, often passed over by translators as simply "even".

** Another: what is the difference, if any, between "vor  etwas vergehen" (the normal, expected preposition), and "von etwas vergehen"?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

In A Dark Wood

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Those are some of the most famous words ever committed to paper: the opening lines of Dante's Inferno.  Amazingly, given they were written in the early 14th century, they are immediately understandable to anyone with a bit of basic modern Italian.  Chaucer's English?  Not so much.


Longfellow did a decent translation:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

But you'll notice the "music" of the Italian has gone, as well as the rhyme scheme ("terza rima", ABA BCB CDC, etc.), which was Dante's own invention.


Many have tried to render The Inferno into English, but most have failed.
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like
(Seamus Heaney)

Oh dear, Seamus, Seamus....


Robert Pinsky's version is highly rated by some:
Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.  To tell
About those woods is hard -- so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
But, in the end, Italian is a very different language from English, with many times more rhymes.  You would go mad, trying to translate the sense as well as sticking to the rhyme scheme.

Which makes me wonder whether photographs have national identities, too, even though on the face of it they don't need translating.


Addendum at 17:30:  

Thought I'd let Google Translate have a go:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah, how to tell what a thing it is hard
this forest savage, rough, and stern
that in the very thought renews the fear!
 Not at all bad!   Scarily so, in fact.  I wonder if it's been pre-primed to be "Dante ready"?

Sunday, 25 November 2012

BSA M20 Motorbikes

My father was a motorbike enthusiast. Here he is in 1937 in the yard of the engineering firm where he was an apprentice, Geo. W. King in Hitchin. He's sitting on what I think must be a BSA M-series, probably an M20, 499cc single-cylinder (I'm no expert, does anyone out there know)? I suspect there have been some modifications made: the tank looks non-standard, compared to other photos I've seen.



If I'm right about the model, it was good preparation for the war years, as Dad became a despatch rider in the Royal Signals, and the BSA M20 was the model used by the military.  It's a lot of bike for a 19-year old.  Don't you love the fishtail exhaust pipe?  Nice shoes, too --  Dad was a bit of dandy in his day.

Here he is again, five years later in Calcutta, outside a requisitioned house, Tivoli Park.  Still looking sharp, Doug.  Note my mother's name painted on the rear mudguard.


And here are a couple of the other guys in his section, giving a better view of the bikes.  Is it obligatory, do you think, for DRs to look ultra-cool?


Standard issue BSA WD M20, I think? Not long after this, the army decided to replace the BSAs with American-made Indian bikes, and the DRs were not happy.  Dad wrote in his memoir:
Our next surprise was the arrival of a lorry-load of timber crates all with American markings. On opening them they contained American-made Indian motor-bikes in knocked-down condition, which we were obviously supposed to assemble, and use, instead of our BSAs. They had "cow's horn" handlebars, plus foot-boards instead of foot-rests, a long hand-change gear lever, foot clutch, an immense leather saddle, sprung from the front, and coil ignition! The engine was a V-twin, and altogether we were not too happy with the idea, as on wet roads the very long wheel-base would be tricky to handle. Our worst fears were realised, and in wet weather they were very difficult to start and skidded out of control on bends unless we were very careful. We soon found out that the enormous leather saddles did not dry out during the monsoon, so we always started off with a wet seat.

It was around this time that my genes had one of several narrow war-time squeaks:
Whilst we were not using our bikes I took the chance to strip mine down for a good overhaul. I undid the bolts holding the two halves of the petrol tank together and when I took them off I found tucked up between the two halves a stick of bamboo about six inches long. One end was the large knot which formed an effective seal, the other end had been plugged with some sort of cement, from which protruded two wires - one was earthed to the bike frame and the other was supposed to be on one of the spark-plugs, but it had come adrift. Had it been connected, as I kick-started the bike it would have exploded and I would have had a lapful of burning petrol.

The British Army was not universally popular in the last days of the Raj, of course.  Having survived Dunkirk and the North African Desert, that unit of DRs had a number of very close shaves in the "friendly" environment of Calcutta.  I think they were glad to ship out to Burma.

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Lunchtime Jungle Line


Rousseau walks on trumpet paths
Safaris to the heart of all that jazz...
 

With his hard-edged eye and his steady hand
He paints the cellar full of ferns and orchid vines
And he hangs a moon above a five-piece band...
 

And metal skin and ivory birds
Go steaming up to Rousseau's vines
They go steaming up to Brooklyn Bridge
Steaming, steaming, steaming up the jungle line

 ("The Jungle Line", by Joni Mitchell, from the album The Hissing of Summer Lawns)

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Hula Hoops


I'm not sure why anyone would keep a supply of hula hoops in their office, but why not?  The spiral of leaves remaining on the tree have a certain rotary quality, too.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

La Règle du Jeu

Certain memories seem so permanent, so non-negotiable, that the rest of your mind has to arrange itself around them, like water flowing around rocks.  If that famous fast-forward lifetime review really does happen when the end of life is imminent, then I expect it is made up of such moments.

For example, I recall sitting in our doctor's waiting room, somewhere around 1961 -- probably waiting to have him peer, yet again, into my eternally-aching ear -- and seeing a small, amateurishly-printed poster for a showing of a film by Jean Renoir, La Règle du Jeu.  I was proud of my reading ability, aged 7, but here were words -- clearly important words in capital letters -- I could not render. Fascinating! I suppose it must have been put up by a local society, though nothing as interesting as a film society existed in our town when I was old enough to appreciate one.

In fact, nothing as interesting as a cinema existed by then.  Incredibly, a whole New Town for 75,000 people was built around a place with a population of 7,500 without factoring in a new cinema.  There were two ancient and tiny "Old Town" fleapits, the Publix and the Astonia, but the depradations of local youths and a presumably non-existent business model meant that the Publix closed in 1961 and then the Astonia in 1969.

I never actually entered the Publix, as by its desperate final days it was only showing X-rated films to an audience of 300 seated on benches, not stalls, and on whom water dripped whenever it rained.  Allegedly the projector beam was regularly blocked by opening umbrellas.  I did see my own first X-rated films in the last days of the Astonia (1968's Girl on a Motorbike and Witchfinder General), brazening my way in with some bolder school-friends.  The staff couldn't have cared less how old we were, actually, so long as we didn't slash the seats or add to the stains on the undersized screen by hurling ice-creams.  And they weren't that bothered about that, either; it wasn't exactly a "family" cinema.  Within the year the place had closed, and it was another four years before a proper "New Town" cinema opened its doors.  Sadly, I doubt any Stevenage cinema ever did or ever will show Renoir's La Règle du Jeu.

The memory of that little poster remained, however, a hint that the world was bigger than I thought, if only I could be bothered to look and learn. My father could speak some French, and explained how to pronounce the words, and that they meant "the rules of the game".  As I gained competence in the language myself, that stubborn memory would resurface occasionally, and I would wonder why "rules" was singular ("la règle") and not plural ("les règles")?  Did the French regard rules as a singular thing, perhaps, like "the law"?  It was an early lesson in the niceties of translation.*

By some twist of fate, I have never yet seen La Règle du Jeu. I did become a devoted cinéaste in 1976/77, stuck on the remote campus of the University of East Anglia, with nothing better to do in the evening than attend every available film showing.  Happily, there were several every week. In one year I saw all those films that no-one other than film students ever sees in real life -- Last Year in Marienbad, Breathless, The 400 Blows, Closely Observed Trains, Céline and Julie Go Boating -- but never the Renoir.

So, an important memory in my life is a poster half-buried on a pinboard in a doctor's waiting room for a film I have never seen, and -- who knows? -- may never see.  And it's fairly certain that the film, were I to see it now (even if it does live up to its perpetual critics' Top Ten billing), could never match the significance of that memory.  Talk about a meaning forever deferred through an endless chain of signifiers!  Which we weren't, but it's all very French, n'est-ce pas?



*Titles are notoriously difficult to translate.  On a  German school exchange, I was delighted to learn that the spy series The Avengers was screened on German TV as Mit Schirm, Charme, und Melone ("With umbrella, charm, and a melon bowler hat").  Germans, it seemed, either didn't see the camply veiled sexuality and the ironically cocked eyebrow, or saw through it to something they took to be as archetypically British as a double-decker bus. They may, of course, have been right. I suspect James Bond film titles have always posed similar challenges of translation.  It's interesting how many early foreign-language renderings go for "007 vs. [name of villain]", as if Bond were Tintin or Giant Haystacks.

 In a perfectly German case of "it does what  it says on the tin", Woody Allen's Annie Hall was released in Germany as Der Stadtneurotiker ("the urban neurotic").   I am not entirely convinced that Grease was really released in Spain as Vaselina (¡Vaselina es la palabra!) but allegedly it is so.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Twyford Down


Looking south towards Twyford from Twyford Down

A pleasant afternoon walking on Twyford Down today, when the sinking sun and a convenient bonfire set up this classic little landscape scenario for me.  I wasn't going to say no, was I?  Those oddly flat green surfaces are greens on the outer edge of the Hockley golf course.  In summer, this walk can be hazardous.

It's a little known fact, despite the best efforts of Winchester City Council's Tourist Information department, that Keats was staying in Winchester in autumn 1819, and wrote his Ode to Autumn (you know the one, "Season of mists and mellow fruitfuness", and all that) after repeating a daily walk along the River Test out to the mediaeval hospital at St. Cross.  In other words, he walked through the water meadows that lie on the western side of St. Catherine's Hill.

I doubt a man in his terminal condition would make an attempt on the hill itself, but it's a pleasant thought, and yet another layer on the story I'm telling myself about the area.  And did those feet...

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Static



Of course, the reward for staying on later at work is having all of Wednesday off , which means that I can get out and have the landscape all to myself, apart from the odd dog-walker.  In this case, St. Catherine's Hill, near Winchester.


What is missing from these images is the constant white noise from the M3 motorway passing through the cutting at Twyford Down, about 10 feet behind and 100 feet below where I am standing.  It's a constant on a busy work-day, like static on an analogue radio.


I'm not quite sure what it is about this spot that keeps drawing me back, but it has something to do with ghosts; there's another kind of static hanging around the place. It has been a busy crossroads of humanity, of course, in both space and time, for thousands of years.  People have been passing through here for generations, ever since Iron Age tribes chose to settle on the hilltop.  Those salesmen and container trucks speeding up to London are just adding the latest sedimentary layer of noise.  Perhaps I simply love the encouragement to see things sub specie aeternitatis you get up here from what feel like its resident friendly spirits.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Nights Are Drawing In



Of course, what you forget about this staying on later at work lark, is that at this time of year it's dark when you come out to play.

It has been some time since I heard anyone say, "The nights are drawing in..."  Has that expression died out, or have we simply got better things to talk about, these days?



Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Chromatic Aberration a Go-Go


Yikes!  It seems my camera has been experimenting with e-peyote.  I had an inkling this image would turn out a little strange, but this is way stranger than I had thought.

Basically, I took the Itorex Pan-Focus lens out for a lunchtime walk last week, bolted onto the front of my Panasonic GF1.  It was a sunny day, and I pointed the assembly directly towards, but not at, the sun.  Those leaves belong to one of the weirdest plants on the planet (including totally bonkers things like Rafflesia): Gunnera manicata a.k.a. the Giant Brazilian Rhubarb.  Each leaf is about about four feet across, and the whole plant, including the underside of the leaf ribs, is covered with wicked spines.  Seriously strange: the first time you see one, you suspect that someone may have slipped something hallucinogenic into your drink.  They are distinctly alien-looking, especially when heavy rain has exposed their ugly, knobbly rhizomes.

But the weirdest thing is the optical distortion.  Now that's what I call chromatic aberration! I'm used to seeing a rainbow effect in the LCD viewer of a digital camera when it is pointed towards the sun, but it rarely actually appears in the final image.  Here, it looks so much like the result of some tacky filter that I'd be embarrassed ever to use the image for any serious purpose.  Wot, no starburst?

Strangest of all, though, are the "doughnut" rings scattered over the whole frame.  It must be some kind of internal reflection off the cheap glass element that sits in front of the fixed f/40 pinhole, or maybe it's a virtual image of the pinhole itself.  I have no idea -- I'm a photographer, not a physicist, I'm afraid.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Yellow lines




I had a revelation the other day.  I've been such a fool!  For years, I had misunderstood the significance of the single and double yellow lines we see painted down the side of the road in the UK.

I had thought that a single yellow line meant "No waiting or parking during the hours indicated on that sign over there", and that a double yellow line meant "No, really, you mustn't stop or park here AT ALL".

But, I've been watching what everyone else is doing and, when you think about it, it's obvious.  The clue is in the colour. One line means, "You can park here, so long as you have one indicator flashing", and two lines mean, "You can park here, so long as you have both indicators flashing".  Simple!


Thursday, 8 November 2012

Facebook Status Update

Over the summer, I took a proper look at Facebook for the first time.  The executive summary:  I didn't like what I saw.

As an information-professional-in-a-research-led-university (that's what it says on my passport, honest) I have to try to keep up with "social media", for the simple reason that's how the majority of students experience the world.  True, I have this Grumpy Old Man thing going on, where I repeatedly try to persuade my colleagues that finding things a bit difficult to find is an honourable tradition in higher education.  Might even be the point of the whole thing, maybe, d'ya think?  But I know it's a lost cause.

At least the current generation don't have to memorize core texts, in the way mediaeval scholars once did.  Why, they don't even have to buy, copy out or photocopy core texts, as we 20th century students did.  The library has either bought access to e-book versions or taken the trouble to copyright-clear and digitize individual key chapters for them, then made them freely accessible via the online catalogue.  They need never get out of bed. Have smart-phone, will study.  The pill-form degree cannot be far away.

We were all caught napping by smart-phones.  Three years ago, most of us didn't understand apps, or the differences between the Apple and Android platforms (not to mention also-rans like Blackberry and Windows).  We thought it was pretty whizzy that all students were able to use our resources on their laptops in the campus wireless environment.  Why would anyone want to scrutinize data on a screen the size of a large matchbox?

Because they just do: that's how they lead their social lives, idiot.   I frequently see little groups sitting at a table sharing a coffee break, silently engaged with their texts and tweets on their phones, and busily "liking" stuff on Facebook.  The downside of all this is obvious to anyone over 40, but there has to be a massive upside, doesn't there?  Or why would smart young people spend so much time doing it?

I decided to investigate, so -- fearlessly -- I signed up for Facebook.  There seem to be three camps, where Facebook is concerned.  There are the Professional Oldies, who like to pretend that anything involving a computer is Satanic; to them, Facebook is final proof of that proposition.  Then there are the enthusiasts: "Come on in, you'll love it! You'll have 10,000 friends in no time!!"  Naturally, I'm a bit wary of them, in the same way I'm wary of Jehovah's Witnesses and exercise fanatics.  Finally, there are the Facebook Survivors: "I tried it, and barely escaped with my privacy intact..."  They pressed survival tips on me -- Dos and Don'ts, recommended settings, the phone number of a good cult-debriefer.

Having signed up, the first thing I did was to seek out genuine friends, and to "friend" them.  Hey, look at me over here, being all ironically contemporary!  Be my "friend", friend!

So.  The first thing I discovered was that most of my friends are extremely infrequent Facebook users: they were on it but not in it, so to speak.  It took weeks for some of them to notice they had a new "friending" request (that was their story, anyway).  They had not updated their own "status" for months, years even.  It seemed they had joined up, toyed with a few updates, then forgotten all about it.  It seemed they didn't get it.

But the next thing I discovered was that, as soon as they did friend me, all their other "friends" piled in, like a coachload of garrulous gatecrashers. Help!  Mind that carpet! A good many of these people were updating their status every ten minutes with the most unbelievable rubbish.  This was incredibly annoying.

The thing is (and I almost feel I should be ashamed to admit this), I do not care about the ephemera of the lives of people I do not know and will never know, much as I'd like to hear every little thing from my actual friends. I don't want to see a stranger's daughter's baby snaps, or read about that delicious meal in a Seattle restaurant, or join a campaign to save a neighbourhood shop in Belgium, or be puzzled by unfunny cartoons, or pretend to admire cute (and not so cute) pictures...  I was overwhelmed and repelled by this endless, churning tidal wave of stuff that hundreds of strangers "like" and, incredibly, therefore want to share promiscuously with the entire Facebook universe.  Argh!  My friend's "friend" is my enemy, it seems.

The Facebook Survivors helped me out, of course: unfriend people with too many chatty friends, they said, change some privacy settings, if necessary get a new identity and move house to somewhere without broadband.  As much as anything, though, I was annoyed to find that Facebook seemed to bring out my inner Professional Oldie.  I simply couldn't see the point of it. And that, of course, was exactly what I had set out to discover. I, too, didn't get it.

So, with the ending of my summer Blog Break, I did what everyone else had done: I walked away, shut the door, but left Facebook turned on and the door unlocked.  Occasionally I have a peep, but don't go in.  Like my friends, I am also now on Facebook, but not in it.

And, please, don't even think of asking to be my "friend".  A refusal often offends, as the sign over the bar used to say.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Mythic Beings From Another World



I have owned this photograph since 1962; it is roughly 14cm x 85cm in size.  Quite a few will have been printed, but I doubt many will have survived the last 50 years intact.  It shows the entire staff and pupil complement of Peartree Spring junior school, Stevenage, at the end of the academic year I joined the school, 1961/62.  Not to mention the caretaker, Mr. Jarvis, and his alsatian dog.

I remember that summer well.  There were refurbishments happening in several classrooms, so we had lessons and sat our end-of-year exams in a marquee on the playing field, with grass beneath our feet, hot sunlight filtered through white canvas, and the gentle clucking of bantam hens outside.  Those were the first exams we had ever sat  -- I still recall the light-blue type and shiny paper of the duplicated question sheets -- and just as some children feel the bounce of a ball or the heft of a bat and realise their destiny, I knew this was something I could do well.  Though to go from that humble tent to the Examination Schools at Oxford University was, in the end, an ambition pretty much on a par with getting a trial for Arsenal.


I recently scanned the photograph for another ex-Peartree pupil, and found that a lot more detail could be extracted than was visible to the unaided eye.  The picture must have been made onto a huge negative with a proper rotating panoramic camera, and printed -- probably contact-printed -- using a rig that could include the school's name and the date. Compared to the class photographs my children brought home from school each year -- mere colour snaps, with half the kids squinting or with eyes shut -- it is a masterpiece of assured, special-occasion photography.  The image is proudly signed by the specialist firm Ray Studios, all the way from Braintree in Essex.

It is remarkable, the way the photographer has engaged an entire school's attention and created a "moment".  Notoriously, such cameras scan across a large linear group like this at a sufficiently slow speed that, if you are minded to, you can run round the back and appear at both ends of the final image.  That may, of course, explain why Mr. Jarvis is standing with his dog at the extreme right.  Somehow, every child has been persuaded to offer a characteristic expression to the lens at just the right moment.


It's the faces, of course, that engage your attention.  1962 is a long time ago, now.  These are faces from another world, a very interesting experimental world, but one which I have described often enough before (for example, here, and here).  Boys were leaner, their ears seemed much larger and more prominent; girls were dressed with far less attention to fashion, their hair was cut into practical, rather middle-aged styles.  These are, almost without exception, the children of the aspiring working classes, moved en masse from those parts of London devastated by the War, seeking a new life and a fair deal away from the slums.  I remember a lot of Irish surnames, too: the children of the labourers who came to build a new town on a green-field site, and who decided to stay.

Ah, the names.  They stay with you for life, those names.  A few boys in this photo were in the same class as me all the way through school but, even though I have no idea of the destinies of most of this motley crew, so many other names leap back into my mind when I look at the faces, even after 50 years. These are all mythic beings from my personal creation story.


Of course, it's nothing more than a pretty good cross-section of average humanity; what you get, once you have eliminated wealth, social class, and selection by ability.  There are statistical "outliers", of course.  At least five children of exceptional intelligence, plus another twenty of university-level academic ability. A similar number of gifted athletes and players of various sports.  There are some tough kids in there, too, who went on to build themselves a local reputation as hard men (and at least two hard-hitting women, to my certain knowledge); those of us of a gentler inclination had to learn early on how to keep on their good side.  There is also a fair smattering of what are now referred to as "special needs" children (check some of those prematurely old,  leprechaun-like faces in the extract above).  The children's home situated on my street is well-represented, too. I count four black and Asian kids.  But the majority, the 80%, are just nice, ordinary people, born into an optimistic time.


Then the smug bastards all went and voted for Thatcher in the 1979 elections, bought up their council houses at knock-down prices, left or failed to support their trades unions, and generally set about trashing the place and its public services, so lovingly built by the previous generation, and bought at such a high price.

Don't you just love nice, ordinary people, eh?  Personally, I have always preferred the company of those "outliers" of whatever stripe, hard-hitting women and all.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Hours

When my children started school, way back in the 20th century, I decided that I would go part-time (roughly 80%) so that I could collect them and be around for those post-school afternoon hours.  I had been a "latch-key kid" myself from an early age, and knew how lonely an empty house can be.

It was a good thing for many years, and I enjoyed getting to know my children better than most fathers get the chance to do.  It was obviously not really necessary once they could get home by themselves, but I enjoyed having a bit of the afternoon to myself, and I was always available as a taxi-service, homework consultant and short-order chef, if needed.  But recently it ocurred to me that, as they were now more likely to be coming home at 3 a.m. than 3 p.m., it might be worth reconsidering the arrangement.

Of course, when you earn as much as me, 20% of salary is such a mighty big chunk of the university's budget that it would have been unwise to ask to return to full-time hours; the consequences to various prestigious, capital-intensive building projects and so on could have been devastating!  Or so it seemed, when I saw the look of panic in my boss's eyes.  So I decided instead to consolidate that 20% of unpaid time into one big chunk, and take one whole day off work every week.

A whole day!  From now on, I will have the luxury of an entire Wednesday to do whatever I want, from staying in bed to ...  Well, we'll see how it goes.  Staying in bed is looking good at the moment.


 It's coming along...  No hurry...