Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Seize the Day



This year has been quite a year for dead writers.  Seamus Heaney, Doris Lessing, Elmore Leonard, Ian Banks, Chinua Achebe...  That's some list.  It's also been a year for late-starters and rediscoveries; suddenly, it seems, everyone is reading Speedboat or Stoner, or publishing first novels late in life.

The writer Paul Torday also died earlier in December.  Who? Torday was a sort of patron saint of late-starters, having published his first novel at the age of 59 in 2006.  That first book was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which has (so far) sold 500,000 copies, won various prizes, been a Richard & Judy Book Club recommendation, and been made into a moderately well-received movie starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt.  This, after a working life spent as a successful businessman in the engineering industry.  It's the sort of real-life fantasy that keeps the much-postponed ambitions of so many of us ageing hopefuls alive.

I have to say I've never read any of his books.  There are seven, each in a different genre.  Apparently, after Salmon Fishing, he published one a year, having discovered he was in a particularly one-sided and short race with mortality.  I was surprised to find the news that a minor writer had died quite arresting (a man whom I never knew, had barely heard of, and whose books I had never read), simply because it dawned on me that this is the best I -- we -- can now hope for.  That 20 second slot on the news, those cursory obituaries in the broadsheets might seem an inadequate summation of a decent life's work that ended in a final, splendid, public success, but it's more than most of us will ever get, and it's still something to aim for.  The game is not yet over.

So, come on, Grey Team, let's actually DO IT this year!  Let's all stop sharpening pencils, stop making notes, stop finding other things to occupy our time.  The kids don't need you now, and your partner is already sick of the sight of you hanging around the house.  Remember when, about 35 years ago, someone said to you, as they must have, "This is not a dress rehearsal or a drill, man, this is the real thing"?  Well, they were right.  But you did the right thing, and spent 35 years doing the real thing, rather than conjuring vacuous stuff out of your empty young head.

Of all the great writers who died this year, probably the greatest had this to say about the urge to write:
So many people say, "I'm dying to write".  Well, if you're dying to write, why aren't you writing?  If you're not writing, you're not dying to do it enough.
Elmore Leonard
You don't need me to spell out the connection between "writing" and "dying" here.  For Elmore, the game is over.  But, stand back, you young pretenders, some of us old 'uns have things to say now, after a lifetime spent pondering the nature of the Real Thing we were busily doing. All we have to do is remember what they are.  Where the hell are those notes?  And who's got my pencil?

Though I've already got my opening sentence.  It goes like this:
"Screw you, Elmore Leonard!" he exclaimed drunkenly but assertively.
There, three of Leonard's Rules of Writing broken in one sentence!  Things can only get better...

Have a happy and fulfilling New Year!


Monday, 30 December 2013

Board Game



Sometimes, the world just looks strangely unreal, like a giant game unfolding on a three-dimensional board.  The cows seem to be in a strong position.

Meanwhile, around the side of the board, some sheep are being held in reserve, while ramblers move into play using the snaky-ladder.



Sunday, 29 December 2013

Sunday Morning Sun



Our back garden is rather small, and west-facing (if a pit surrounded by high trees and walls can be described as "facing" any particular direction), so is only penetrated by sunlight at certain times on certain days, like one of those Megalithic structures on the Orkneys.  More often, as this morning, it can be seen blazing over the roof from the east, illuminating the copse beyond our wall.

I quite often gaze at this spectacle absent-mindedly out of the kitchen window as I brew a first pot of tea.  This morning, however, the combination of a slight frost in the garden and the warm beams beyond the wall seemed quite enticing, so I actually opened the back door, and ventured out in the garden half-dressed and with flip-flops on bare feet.  This is as far as I generally go in the direction of suffering for my art. I leave it to others to cover the Antarctic and Alaska.  You'd need to put your socks on for that, I reckon.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

On a Stick

As my hands get less steady than they once were, I've conceded the usefulness of a monopod for use with a long lens (I have the Panasonic 45-200 f/4-5.6 -- a very handy Micro Four Thirds lens).  So I asked for a stick for Christmas. In situations like this brief interval of sunshine on a walk yesterday afternoon, I'm sure it will prove invaluable. It doubles as an "Alpenstock", so may find other uses, too (looks just the job for dealing with aggressive farm dogs...)


I like that painterly "where the hell was he standing?" perspective you get from a position 100 yards or more distant from the subject.  A long lens also has an agreeable tendency to flatten the picture planes, something that I realise doesn't appeal to everybody.

I tend to think there are two, complementary philosophies of successful photography.  One regards a photograph as essentially tied to three-dimensional reality, and is concerned with exploring issues like illusions of depth, or composition in receding planes.  3-D people tend to see the image as a "window" onto the world. The other philosophy regards a photograph as an essentially two-dimensional composition, like a painting or a print, and favours similar strategies to those of painters and printmakers.  Issues of tone, colour, shape and balance take primacy over the accurate representation of reality.  For 2-D people, a photo is less a window, more an object of contemplation; to paraphrase Ariel's song, everything suffers a sea-change into something rich and flat.  I seem to find myself in both camps, using the means of one to explore the concerns of the other.  And, of course, the other way round.  Well, it works for me.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Idiotic Hat Christmas Address to the Nation

Well, there goes another year!  Where does the time go?  Nobody knows!  Thank you, and good night!

King of Christmas

We've just been battered by violent winds and torrential rain, and more is on the way.  What better excuse to batten down the hatches, put one's feet up with a good book, put a bottle of something expensive within easy reach, and try not to worry too much about the spreading wet patch on the front bedroom ceiling?  And we'll just ignore the wheelie-bins and tree debris careening up and down the street.

Best wishes for 2014 to all readers of this blog, especially to the sturdy band of participant-commenters!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Nobody Knows!

There was (I thought) a very funny sketch on John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme on Radio 4 a while back, in which contestants enter a quiz called Nobody Knows! ("The game where your guess is as good as mine"). The answer to every question is, naturally, "nobody knows!"
Let's meet the contestants! Anne, you're a sleep therapist. Tell me, why do we dream?
Anne: Err... Nobody knows.
Presenter: Nobody knows! Richard! Hi! Why are you?
Richard: Very well, thank you.
Presenter: I said 'why are you?'
Richard: Oh, sorry. Nobody knows.
Presenter: Nobody knows! And Frank! Good to see you! Tell me, when will you die?
Frank: Nobody knows.
Presenter: Nobody knows
!
Et cetera.  As I say, very funny. But also (slipping into Thought for the Day mode) there's an underlying serious proposition here, as with all the best comedy.  Let's be honest, so much of what passes for intellectual life is little more than a leaden-footed attempt to circumvent that breezy, all-purpose answer to life's mysteries:  nobody knows!  Anyone who has brought up small children will know the vertiginous plummet, in the face of insistent questioning, from omniscience to angry bafflement.  "Because I say so!" is merely the authoritarian cover-version of "nobody knows!"  And much so-called knowledge is nothing more than the cover-story for the cover-version.

Virtually any question starting with "why" is doomed to end up neck-deep in the Slough of Despond, of course.  Religions, I am sure, were invented precisely to fend off annoying and unanswerable questions starting with "why".  The invocation of a Supreme Being -- particularly one with a penchant for smiting -- is the ultimate "Because I say so!"  But not to ask questions of authorities, real or imagined, is to let authorities off the hook too easily.  I think I have quoted Diderot before:  "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest".  An extreme view, but you can surely see his point.

To substitute "how" for "why" can be very enlightening, though, and can even lead in the end to genuine knowledge. Nobody may know, but somebody might be able to find out.  Science is clearly more a matter of asking "how" rather than "why", but to a large extent this substitution is also how psychotherapy works.  Rather than endlessly asking oneself, "Why, oh, why do I engage in this self-defeating behaviour?", one is encouraged to ask oneself the question, "How do I engage in this self-defeating behaviour?", and this is the first step on the road to stopping it.  Besides, nobody is going to pay a therapist £50 an hour just to be told, "Nobody knows!"

On the subject of avoiding unanswerable questions, though, the master was Buddha himself.  See my earlier post, Don't Ask Me.  And if, after reading that, you're wondering whether I'm ready to reveal my own third Undetermined Question, then I have to confess I can't now remember what it was.  Nobody knows!

New light on an old subject


Sunday, 22 December 2013

Solstice Squibs


December, by and large, is a pretty dreary month in the Northern Hemisphere, which is why we put bright lights and colours everywhere at this time of year.  It's probably also why some of us get seriously, serially drunk.

We've just gone over the tipping point, and the days will lengthen, very gradually, from now on.  The month does have its own subtle palette, however, and a little sunlight at midday is all it takes to bring it out.


Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes ;
The worlds whole sap is sunke :
The generall balme th' hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunke,
Dead and enterr'd; yet all these seeme to laugh,
Compar'd with mee, who am their Epitaph.

John Donne, A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

More Views of Mount Nuffield



I discovered yesterday I had been walking around for a couple of days with my camera set at 1600 ISO, following some night photography.  You should check these things, obviously, but it's not the first time it's happened, and won't be the last.  It's the digital equivalent of leaving the lens cap on.

What is interesting, however, is how much the high sensitivity suits a certain low-contrast, high-key look I've been favouring lately. 1600 is pushing it a bit -- the graininess is fairly unpleasant -- but I might try 800 for a while.  As people always say, we can often learn more from our mistakes than our intentions.  I'm glad I've got the Noise Ninja plugin for Photoshop to help me out, though...


Thursday, 19 December 2013

Chinoiserie

Few things are as exhausting as a first baby.  Yes, there's the interrupted sleep, and the endless round of feeding and nappy-changing, but underlying all that there is also the energy-sapping, ever-present anxiety.  I have never felt so nakedly unprepared as the day we brought our son home from the hospital in a brand-new car-seat, plonked him down in the middle of the front room, and contemplated this new, inescapable presence in wordless terror.  What have we done?  What do we do next?  As so many have observed, babies do not come with a handy and informative owner's manual.

In preparation for a certain upcoming 60th birthday, I have been looking back through my pre-digital photo-files, and digging out some of the better images.  This one has alway been a favourite.  I came into the front room one afternoon in that first year, to find my partner fast asleep on the sofa, still wearing a violently-patterned work-top.  The composition and the chinoiserie effect of the clashing patterns seemed perfectly to express the deep opium dreams of utter exhaustion.


Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Bongo-Bongo Land

I found this old post under the sofa, and thought it would be a shame to bin it:

Over the summer there was a classic Silly Season story.  One of those dinosaurs who have found a congenial home in UKIP made some comment about the way British foreign aid to "Bongo-Bongo Land" is generally used by kleptocrats to buy "Ray-Ban sunglasses, apartments in Paris, Ferraris and F18s for Pakistan".  Cue factitious outrage, and a debate over whether the expression "Bongo-Bongo Land" is, or is not, racist.

Ah, racism!  There are few other topics where hypocrisy comes so easily to so many.  The concealment of uneasy feelings about "race" beneath a veneer of inclusiveness or pretended indifference has become a matter of modern good manners, an updating of the perfect politeness shown by the perfect gentleman even to those he despises.  And rightly so: polite hypocrisy is often a precursor of a genuine change of heart and social advance.  Besides, is there any worse company to find oneself in than the sort of braying saloon-bar philosopher who revels in dragging down these well-meaning but fragile fictions, with tales of "political correctness gone mad", and provocative references to "sluts" who don't clean behind the fridge?*

I was brought up in a context where racism, of an abstract kind, was the default setting. Abstract, because ours was then a predominantly monoracial town.  Small, essentially white-on-white differences -- Irish vs. English, grammar school vs. secondary modern, skinheads vs. longhairs  -- were the stuff of conflict, such as it was.  But casual contempt for the absent "racial other", mainly expressed as jokes, was the norm.  Jamaicans, Jews, Pakistanis... These fabled, seldom-seen creatures each had a characteristic, diagnostic set of amusing or alarming features, like Pokémon monsters, which gave such jokes their point.  It's easy to learn to play that game; much harder to unlearn.

Being a "quick study", I did unlearn my parochial prejudices after I left home for university.  My father -- a decent, fair-minded man, who worshipped Dizzie Gillespie, Count Basie, and Erroll Garner -- would sound hair-raisingly racist to my freshly re-educated ears when discussing his wartime experiences in the Middle East, India and Burma.  I would cringe inwardly when, after a glass or two, he would explain that "wog" ought not to be taken as an offensive word, as it merely stood for "worthy oriental gentleman".  Oh dear... Shades of Bongo-Bongo Land.

Mind you, for him there were good wogs and bad wogs.  Like all British servicemen who came into contact with them, he had massive respect for Gurkhas and Sikhs.  One of his stories concerned driving trucks through the streets of Calcutta with a couple of Gurkha bodyguards leaning out and clearing a swathe through the dense crowds with pickaxe handles and occasional bursts of overhead gun-fire.  The hillmen's contempt for urban Bengalis was, apparently, even more profound than that of the typical British soldier.

image © Library of Congress

Clearly, you don't have to be white to be racist, it seems, though it certainly helps.  But there is another side to this: you don't have to be racist to find certain cultural habits and practices uncongenial.   We needn't go as far out as grotesque genital mutilation or the assassination of little girls who show an interest in going to school. I only have to think of the relish for public hawking and spitting of Chinese men, for example, or the ritual drunkenness of the British sports-fan abroad.

Often, the "anti-racism" of the liberal middle classes -- who generally live in enclaves free from the issues of conflicting cultural practices and values brought about by immigration into the poorer parts of town -- is as theoretical and friction-free as the racism of my childhood.  To live next door to the delightful family of a hospital consultant from Pakistan is not the same as living next door to an ongoing riotous house-party of transient young Poles.  You can trust me on that  (see my post "Trouble").

No, genuine racism is not just a negative reaction to "difference", which is a simple extension of the impulse to despise the inhabitants of the next village.  For what it's worth, I prefer to define racism quite narrowly as a systematic set of false but firmly-held beliefs: in the absolute reality of races as "natural" divisions within humanity; in a person's race as their essential defining property; and in the superiority of one's own race over all others.

This set of beliefs seems, unsurprisingly, always to arise among those who happen -- by whatever contingencies of history and geography -- to be holding Top Dog position at any particular time.  I have yet to hear of an ethnic group who believe themselves to be essentially and eternally inferior to all other groups, though if such a group does exist I'd quite like to meet them.  They may hold the key to humanity's salvation.  Maybe they live in the much-despised Bongo-Bongo Land?


* Same idiot, same summer.

Friday, 13 December 2013

A Night on Mount Nuffield





A couple of days later in the week, and a couple of hours later in the day, and Mount Nuffield is showing a very different face.  It's that time in December when it's a pleasure just to think about getting home and putting your feet up for the evening.  Only slightly marred by the oppressive feeling that yet again you've let Christmas ambush you, like Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football.  Aaugh!  It's not as if it's not printed in the calendar...

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Mysterious Barricades, Take Two



... and here's one for the square-heads, that has a slightly more graphical appeal.

Now I really must drive to Brighton, and fetch my daughter back from university.  Did someone say something about Christmas?

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Mysterious Barricades


As promised, here is a better view of that mysterious "ladder and barrier" installation at the side of the Nuffield Theatre yesterday.  As was suggested in the comments, this is clearly a ceremonial assemblage: the ladder goes nowhere, and the barriers bar no-one, although their unmistakably apotropaic colour and configuration clearly relate to various folk-beliefs concerning the avoidance of scalar subambulation.  "Mysterious Barricades" indeed (Couperin).

Meanwhile, across University Road, the empty Faraday Building -- home of the Peregrine Falcon, Vodafone masts, and precious little else -- was bathed in a crepuscular glow.



Monday, 9 December 2013

100 Views of Mount Nuffield, cont'd.



You want pretty?  I can do pretty...

Briefly at mid-afternoon today, there was an interval of beautiful, warm-hued, raking sunshine, that shone between an assortment of campus buildings to illuminate the copper-clad hump of the Nuffield Theatre.  Curiously, and something I have never noticed before, it projected onto the Nuffield a triple shadow of the tall, minimalist sculpture in the foreground, actually made of four upright pillars.



Friday, 6 December 2013

Magic

I have written before about the mixed blessing of having a talent.  Natural abilities, even if possessed in abundance, are only of use to their possessor if combined with the urge and opportunity to pursue goals in life in which they bestow some advantage.  You might be fast on your feet, but perhaps your dream job involves sitting down.  You might be freakishly good at mental arithmetic, but in a world in which electronic calculators are treated as disposable land-fill, it's hard to think of a suitable career-track for you.

The merely-talented are often left with a nagging sense that they have somehow failed to lead a righteous life.  My own talent, such as it is, is for drawing, and it is one I have surely severely neglected.  People still ask after it, as if it were a relative, or a chronic condition: how's the drawing, these days?  Luckily, the Social Services do not interest themselves in those who under-nourish their abilities.

Curiously, in a jealous world, we are generally quite happy for other people to have major talents.  A cynic might suggest that this is because it lets most of us off the hook of under-achievement -- not enough talent,  you see!  -- but I think it has more to do with a desire to believe in magic and its human manifestation, genius.

Not Vermeer, but my 2009 Christmas card

I was reminded about this by an article on Vermeer's use of optics in, of all places, Vanity Fair (avert your eyes, gents, from those sidebars; some o' they gals there got next to nothin' on...).  I'm never quite sure what people are hoping to prove with this kind of exercise.  I enjoyed David Hockney's book, Secret Knowledge, and found his thesis and examples very convincing.  It seems almost certain that optical devices, of one sort or another, have been used by painters for longer than one might think.  But, in the end, does it amount to anything more than a factitious excitement over the use of the sort of aids to creativity and productivity that any professional uses?  Up to and including the use of more talented (but anonymous) craftsmen, in the case of "conceptual" artists.

Setting aside the main, fascinating discovery by Tim Jenison described in the Vanity Fair article, which may well account for the missing "how" between seeing with optics and doing with paint, I thought the most interesting point made was this:
“One of the things I learned about the world of art,” Teller says, “is there are people who really want to believe in magic, that artists are supernatural beings—there was some guy who could walk up and do that. But art is work like anything else—concentration, physical pain. Part of the subject of this movie is that a great work of art should seem to have magically sprung like a miracle on the wall. But to get that miracle is an enormous, aggravating pain.” To see Vermeer as 'a god' makes him “a discouraging bore,” Teller goes on. But if you think of him as a genius artist and an inventor, he becomes a hero: “Now he can inspire.”
That rings true to me.  The fear of "disenchantment" as a consequence of too much understanding of process (encountered in its extreme form in Creationism) is essentially misplaced.  Vermeer's "genius", if we want to call it that, lay not in his innate ability to draw, or to spontaneously conjure magic onto a canvas, but in his ability to discover new ways of using paint by means of new ways of seeing that both reflected and arose from new ways of living, and new ways of understanding the world.  The thing is, unlike stage magic, knowing how the trick is done takes absolutely nothing away from the spellbinding "magic" of a Vermeer painting.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Eroded Aura


Big Red Stripe and Tiny Pencil Flag

I was on the South Bank in London a couple of weeks ago, wandering in and out of various galleries.  On any day, at any time, it seems that looking at art in the major London galleries is rather like going to a funfair.  I had hoped to see the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern, but the tickets were expensive and the queues were long, and I find it hard, these days, to share contemplative space with parties of shrieking schoolchildren.  I gave it a miss.  By contrast, I enjoyed the quiet of the Bankside Gallery, home of the Royal Societies of Watercolours and Painter-Printmakers, even though most of the work on show there is kind of stuck in a tasteful "late 20th century decorative" mode.*

I don't know if I'm peculiar in this respect, but I find many modern paintings, encountered directly, disappointing.  Frankfurt School theorist Walter Benjamin is best known for a single essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", in which he reflects on the social and aesthetic consequences of widely-available reproductions of works of art, and recordings of music.  I'm not going to discuss this tendentious (and widely misunderstood) essay here, except to refer to Benjamin's idea that the "aura" of a unique work or performance -- its presence in time and space -- is "eroded" by reproduction.  I have to say that, for most post-19th century painting, I have the opposite experience.  Works I have encountered many times in reproduction seem to lose their numinous quality and simply deflate when encountered on the wall.  They become mere bits of wood and canvas with painty marks on.  I become obsessed with the careless and unfinished quality of much brushwork, something which is smoothed out in reproduction, so that the painter's intention is able to shine through the sloppy execution.  But, hey, I'm just a petit-bourgeois skill-fetishist.

In the spirit of the gallery experience, I have given my photos titles, for a change.  After all, is there anything more annoying in a gallery than a work entitled "Untitled", or worse, "Untitled #97"?  Actually, yes, shrieking parties of schoolchildren are much more annoying.

Illumination Respects a Boundary

* A secret for gents of a certain age:  it has excellent toilet facilities (worth knowing if you're exploring the Thames embankment with a camera in a cutting cold wind).

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Rolleiflex

I woke up this morning, and I found a tune was running through my head.  No, it wasn't a blues...  It was a bossa nova.  As well as the music, I could smell chlorine, taste chicken soup, and felt profoundly happy.  Not something I often feel at 6:30.

But what was it?  As well as a teasing rhythm and tricksy melody, there was a yearning, whispy saxophone that had to be Stan Getz, and there were the words "Love is like a something something melody".  A little googling uncovered "Desafinado" by Antonio Carlos Jobim, which hit the charts in 1962 in various instrumental and vocal versions.

Back before those watershed years that followed 1963, there was a brief period when cool, jazz-inflected music figured in the pop charts.  West Coast classics with exotic time signatures like "Take Five" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet were to be heard on the radio, alongside the show-tunes, crooners and all-too-occasional rock'n'roll.  While "serious" jazz was going off down its own stony path of self-inflicted exile, this smooth, sophisticated strain found its fullest popular expression in bossa nova.  In rainy Britain, still emerging from the stiff, austere post-war period, it was music that evoked a better, sun-soaked world: one where men in sharp suits and narrow ties wooed exotic women with ironic, gentle songs that deployed achingly subtle chords and the sort of rhythms that angels dance to.

My father was then in his 40s, and it was music very much to his taste.  In another world -- perhaps the one where he is now -- he would have been sitting with his band in a beachside club, effortlessly sketching those rhythms on the drums, while beautiful people swayed in the long, warm evening.  But, in 1962, he used to take me swimming every Saturday in the newly-opened municipal indoor swimming-pool.  It was probably the closest we had ever been, or ever would be: we both loved to swim, and he would always take a sixpence to throw into the pool for me to dive after and chase to the bottom of the pool.  Afterwards, with our eyes pink and stinging with chlorine, we would drink plastic cups of gritty instant chicken soup from a vending machine.  At least once, "Desafinado" must have played on the PA.  A happy time.


On rediscovering "Desafinado", I watched  a fine solo performance on YouTube by the bossa nova master, João Gilberto.  Portuguese is a beautiful but strange language -- it looks like Spanish but sounds like Russian -- and I don't speak it.  But I distinctly heard the word "Rolleiflex" pass by, which made my ears prick up.  What?  I didn't remember that in the "something something" version I heard in 1962.
Quando eu vou cantar, você não deixa
E sempre vêm a mesma queixa
Diz que eu desafino, que eu não sei cantar
Você é tão bonita, mas tua beleza também pode se enganar
Se você disser que eu desafino amor
Saiba que isto em mim provoca imensa dor
Só privilegiados têm o ouvido igual ao seu
Eu possuo apenas o que Deus me deu

Se você insiste em classificar
Meu comportamento de anti-musical
Eu mesmo mentindo devo argumentar
Que isto é Bossa Nova, isto é muito natural

O que você não sabe nem sequer pressente
É que os desafinados também têm um coração
Fotografei você na minha Rolley-Flex
Revelou-se a sua enorme ingratidão

Só não poderá falar assim do meu amor
Este é o maior que você pode encontrar
Você com a sua música esqueceu o principal
Que no peito dos desafinados
No fundo do peito bate calado
Que no peito dos desafinados também bate um coração
Yes, indeed, there it is...  But why? Call for Google Translate!
When I'm singing, you do not let
And always have the same complaint
Says I of tune, I can not sing
You are so beautiful, your beauty but also can deceive
If you say that I love out of tune
Note that this causes me immense pain
Only the privileged have heard equal to its
I own only what God gave me

If you insist on classifying
My anti-musical behaviour
I argue myself lying
This is Bossa Nova, this is very natural

What you do not know even senses
Is that tune also have a heart
I shot you in my Rolley-Flex
Proved its enormous ingratitude

One can not therefore speak of my love
This is the biggest you can find
You forgot your music with the main
That chest of tune
Deep in his chest beats draft
That chest of tune also beats a heart
 There is clearly a very witty and ironic lyric lurking in there, by Newton Mendonça -- it's far from being some dreamy, sun-kissed love-song.  Put it together with the tune, and there's a suppressed, sublimated anger bubbling under.  It's not "Idiot Wind", but ... Bearing in mind that "desafinado" means "out of tune" or "off key", and with a bit of unpicking, the relevant verse goes like this:
What you don't know and can't realize
Is that people who are "out of tune" also have a heart
I took a picture of you with my Rolleiflex
And all it shows is your huge ingratitude
With a film pun in "show / develop / reveal" -- nice.  Well, of course; in 1960, what could have been cooler than a Rolleiflex?  Though, like jazz and bossa nova, the Rollei was about to be steamrollered, not by the Beatles, but by the 35mm SLR.


James Dean with Rollei, photo by Roy Schatt

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Clouds





Do you know Joni Mitchell's song Both Sides Now, from way back at the start of her career?  I'm not generally one for soupy orchestral arrangements, but this one ... works.  Especially if you've known the song for 40+ years, and have come to the conclusion that you, too, really don't know clouds at all.

Friday, 29 November 2013

November 2012

Late November marks the onset of the Season of Nostalgia -- books of the year lists have already been and gone -- so I thought I'd look back a year to see what I was about in November 2012.  It's easy to forget how long, subjectively, a year is, though as a friend said recently it wasn't so much the years as the decades he was losing track of. I know what he means; whatever did happen to the 1990s?

Naturally, I looked at my photographic backfiles, which I keep in directories sorted primarily by month, then year, which makes comparison easy.  Now, I think there has never been a month when I have processed from RAW more than 60% of the photographs I took, and the average is probably closer to 25%.  This means it is always rewarding to go back, periodically, to root out any overlooked images.  As I have often said, one's reactive eyes are often way ahead of one's conscious, reflective mind.  It may take a year or more to see what you saw.

It seems that last November I was mainly interested in hard-edged, contrasty, semi-abstract compositions, with quite pure colours, so typically was producing pictures like this:

Valley Garden, November 2012

This meant that quite a few softer, lower-impact images got passed over.  I found I liked these two, previously unprocessed images, variations on two very familiar views:

St. Catherine's Hill, November 2012


Car-park allotment, November 2012

My processing technique has evolved, and so has my approach.  More and more, I'm stepping back and seeing the whole view, rather than diving in and looking for telling details.  I'm also interested in a different, more subtle palette of colours. No doubt this says as much about about my stage of life as my changing tastes. I wonder what I've recorded but overlooked this year?

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Because the Night

These photographs, if nothing else, are a tribute to the capacities of even modest modern digital cameras, in this case a Panasonic G3.

I was heading home on Tuesday night, when I noticed the side doors of the Nuffield Theatre were open, the ones that give on to the mysterious under-stage world of the theatre techs.  It was already pretty much dark, and I was just hitting my stride for the 45 minute walk home, but it was such a nice image that I stopped, took off my back-pack, rummaged around for my camera, and snapped off a couple of shots.


Now, this probably won't impress anyone who is "digital native", but I thought I'd really push out the boat by setting the ISO at 1600.  SIXTEEN HUNDRED. In film terms, that's crazy talk.  Even so, the recorded data tells me this frame was taken -- hand held -- at 1/10 sec at f/4.5.  ONE TENTH OF A SECOND. Again, in film terms, it should be blurred beyond recognition, but the image-stabilized lens (Panasonic 14-45mm kit zoom at 24mm) has done a superb job.  What's more, with a bit of highlight recovery and shadow-fill in RAW processing, every bit of this image falls within the captured exposure range, from the neon lit interior to the darkest exterior shadows.

It's a small miracle, and one more image for the slowly-building portfolio of "100 Views of Mount Nuffield".  Then I turned round, and saw this:


I think I may be developing a taste for these astringent, night-time colours under artificial lights.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Tribute of Vice to Virtue

There are sleazy, marginal, and dangerous areas in life -- literal and metaphorical -- where "respectable" people don't go.  Or, at least, claim they don't go (celebrities mainly have people to do that for them).  The militantly-respectable, if we can call them that, would have such places cordoned off, and condemn anyone who frequents them.  We're talking about drugs, drunkenness, pornography, boxing, prostitution, cottaging, dog-fighting, gambling... All those resilient remnants of a rougher-edged world, wherever illegality is not so much a problem as an opportunity.

There is a constant stream of factitious hoo-hah in the media whenever celebrities or people in positions of responsibility are caught "visiting" these red-light districts: most recently it's been about the use of illegal recreational drugs.  The interesting thing has been how quickly and how far things have moved on.  Not so long ago, politicians were being pilloried over a few tokes on a joint when they were students; now, it seems, mayors and bank chairmen are getting high on crack on the job.  Never mind inhaling, I'm amazed these guys are still breathing at all.

I used to think I knew something about the desire and pursuit of intoxication.  For a while in my youth, the question was not whether, like President Clinton, I inhaled (don't be silly) but whether I ever exhaled.  I liked getting high, and I liked the company of those who shared this enthusiasm.  Nothing unusual there, of course: since the mid- to late-60s, hardly any young person of curiosity, character, or contemporaneity will not have felt -- and in most cases followed -- the urge to "experiment".  President Obama's "Choom Gang" back in Hawaii was just one of thousands of such bands of idiotically-giggling experimenters.

I love that word "experiment".  It adds a flattering air of solemnity and respectability to getting thoroughly wasted.  "Experiment" is what the upper middle-classes do behind the bike sheds at Harrow.  But, back where I learned the necessary lore and craft, we had no such pretensions or defence:  we simply enjoyed getting high, as often and as intensely as we could afford, and paid the full, non-negotiable price if caught.  Scuzzy little New Town longhairs don't "experiment", they break the law.

The Harrowing of Hell
in a church in Banganarti, Sudan
(from livescience)

Nowadays, of course, I need my sobriety just as much as I need a good night's sleep.  How anyone can hold down a job -- any job, let alone a prominent position in the public eye -- with multiple competing rushes from alcohol, crack, amphetamines, and God knows what else surging through their metabolism, I simply do not know.  It is hard to understand the urge to risk that sort of damage to your body, mind, or career, though it does often seem that risk itself, pure or cut with self-delusion, has claims to be the most addictive drug of all.

Self-delusion shades easily into hypocrisy -- the recent eye-stretching case of the Reverend Paul Flowers springs readily to mind -- and this and the related media sport of hypocrite hunting are major obstacles to clear thinking on a number of subjects, none of which, in truth, has a simple political or moral dimension.  Some of the most puritanical people I have ever known were on the outer extremes of the revolutionary left*.  In contrast, consider the case of Paul Staines, better known as the ultra-conservative blogger Guido Fawkes:
His politics, however, could hardly be described as toeing the Party line. In an article published by the Libertarian Alliance in 1991, Mr Staines wrote enthusiastically of his experiences with LSD and ecstasy, saying: "I have fond memories of taking LSD and pure MDMA, trance-dancing and thinking that I had turned into a psychedelic, orgiastic wisp of smoke – it was the most staggeringly enjoyable, mind-warping experience I have ever had. The only word to describe it is WOW!"

He suggested that many Tories "would benefit from taking drugs, particularly Thatcherites", adding: "Couldn't we put acid in the punch at the Young Conservatives ball and then really have a party?"

As a father of two daughters aged four and two, he has since changed his views, admitting: "I don't want my daughters to do that kind of stuff."

From an article in the Daily Telegraph, 19/4/2009
That Rave Scene generation took their "experimentation" to a whole new level, qualitatively, quantitatively, and demographically.  There's a cohort of people of all political stripes in public life, now in their 40s, whose idea of a good time resembles the kind of interrogation-by-disorientation techniques that even the CIA would disown.  Will civilisation be safe in the hands of these brain-addled monsters?  We'd better hope so, as they are next in the queue for high office.

Krazy Kat, by G.J. Herriman

But, to get back to hypocrisy.  It was François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-80) who proposed that "hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue".  Very nice, your lordship.  But, 500 years on, fear of being hounded by the media has led to a paralysis of public discourse that goes way beyond any clerically-induced hypocrisy.  There's a strategic, fearful political silence on many subjects where rational debate is badly needed.  The foolish, expensive, unwinnable "War on Drugs" is just one of the more obvious cases.  Is it not ridiculous that policy-makers with a "past" (i.e. most of them) should be afraid to argue, let's say, for the legalisation of cannabis, simply out of fear of what the Daily Mail might dig up and how its readers might react? Is a vote-winning "zero tolerance" policy on assorted human weaknesses worth the consequent price in organized crime, exploitation, alienation, and wasted tax-money?

Perhaps what we need is a National New Start Day, when every politician and public figure who has a harmless little secret in their past -- an affair or two, some minor expenses fiddling, that unfortunate misunderstanding with the goat -- can own up en masse and be granted amnesty from media witch-hunting.  Let's get it all out in the open, and let the disinfectant of sunlight do its healing work.  Let's make this minor stuff deeply boring, and let the media concentrate on the heavy-duty bad stuff that happens on those darkest city streets where depravity accosts liberty at every turn.

I'm sure Chris Huhne would back the idea. In another of La Rochefoucauld's maxims, "Most of our faults are more pardonable than the means we use to conceal them".  Sound about right, Chris?

"Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I will meet you there."
Jalal al-Din Rumi
"... And don't be late"
Jimi Hendrix

* FWIW, I think a "puritan" is someone who regards any spectrum that goes from "depravity" to "virtue" as a slippery slope, rather than a bell curve.  To a puritan, the only safe answer to, say, habitual drunkenness is abstinence.  To a more radical kind of puritan, the difference between, say, prostitution and conventional patriarchal marriage or slavery and waged labour is not so much one of degree as of semantics.  Sometimes puritans have a point.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Cats and Dogs



I read a review this morning in Saturday's Guardian of Geoffrey Hill's new collected poems, Broken Hierarchies, by Nicholas Lezard.  Like Woody Allen, Hill made some accessible early works -- I'm a fan of Mercian Hymns -- then went off down his own personal rabbit-hole.  He's clearly a great poet, but why or what about is hard to say.  It's a big book -- 992 pages! -- and this comment made me laugh out loud (that's LOL for younger readers):
From the word go, Hill gave some of his readers problems with his style, which, to use the most boring word about it, is "difficult", and there was some small, perplexed part of me that hoped one of the reasons this book is so big is that the answers are printed in the back.
As did this:
The editor of the 1960 Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, Kenneth Allott ...  said of the poem finally chosen: "I understand 'Annunciations' only in the sense that cats and dogs may be said to understand human conversation, i.e. they grasp something by the tone of the speaking voice, but without help I cannot construe it".
In conversation I have something of the same problem, these days.  My partial deafness and tinnitus mean that, in less than ideal conditions, I only have the vaguest impression of what anyone is saying.  I had a great evening out with friends on Wednesday night, and we ended up in a rather fine restaurant called Fish! in Borough Market (I recommend the sausage and mash); but it was full to capacity, and there was a cacophony of voices simmered in that enclosed space to a perfect white-noise jus.

In answer to the question "Why do you favour images over words, these days?" (at least, that's the question I heard), I said it was because it accessed an important, non-verbal part of my mind which had been given short shrift in my education.  Boys with a talent for taking exams were not encouraged to pursue other talents, especially of a hands-on, non-academic kind.  If I have any degree of visual originality, this may be because it has never been educated out of me.

But another answer might have been that I have a taste for difficulty, and visual difficulty is more accessible and less off-putting than verbal difficulty.  Many people will find themselves liking a work of visual art without feeling a need to understand it and, without realising it, hanging the equivalent of a Geoffrey Hill poem on their wall.


Thursday, 21 November 2013

The House of Details

 I went up to London yesterday, to visit an old friend, Leo Amery, who has opened an exhibition of his work this week at the Menier Factory Gallery.  It was a day of contrasting weather: at one point in the late afternoon the north bank of the Thames was brightly sunlit while the south bank lay in shadow.  This gave some interesting opportunities to see the one reflected in the other.  Here, St. Paul's Cathedral is seen shimmering within the foyer of the Globe Theatre.


Leo is based in the Dordogne these days, where he has his workshop.  He works in stained glass, which he had to pack and drive all the way from Martel to Southwark.  Carefully.  If you've ever driven off a cross-channel ferry, you'll know that dreadful lurching jolt as you move off the ramp, that rattles your duty-free bottles alarmingly.  It appears everything arrived safely.


My friend has two sons, and the eldest, Joey, is severely autistic.  Leo comes from a distinguished political family, and has become a consummate activist on behalf of autistic children in France, where attitudes and standards seem to lag behind those in Britain.  He has some shocking tales to tell about arrogant and dismissive officials and medical staff.  That curious greenhouse-like structure, The House of Details,  is his attempt to interpret and convey something of the autistic experience of the world.  As he writes:
For some people, the first time they enter The House of Details there is momentarily an invasive or overwhelming feeling at the quantity of visual information that is not easy to take in and/or make sense of. This may be a permanent part of perception for some people on the autistic spectrum.
We took the opportunity of this exhibition to arrange a mini-reunion of some college friends, with the result that we were in need of somewhere to eat.  While nosing around  the backstreets of Southwark looking for a restaurant, the so-called "Shard" building is inescapable -- all  1004 feet of it.  Apparently it costs £25 to ride the lift to the top and see the view.  Um, no thanks.


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Steam Variations

One of the side-effects of working fixed hours at a fixed location is that you incorporate quite unlikely places into your spiritual/artistic life. Unable to seek out sites where beauty and inspiration might be found, beauty and inspiration must seek you out, instead, in their own time and on ground of their choosing.  This is by no means a bad thing, I have found.

November 2013

This car-park, for example, with that fence, that wall, those chimneys, and that towering plume of steam: for me, it has become like starting each day with a view of some grand mountain-range, or a mighty work of architecture, on which the light and weather play daily variations.  I'll miss them when I retire next year, and become free to seek, rather than be sought.  But this, too, will be no bad thing.  At least, I hope so.

December 2005

Of course, such places have history.  The decorative walls are a hint that the ground that is now a car-park was, within memory, once covered by delapidated old dairy buildings, and next to that nest of five steel chimneys was the magnificent brick chimney of a boiler room that fed hot water to the entire campus.

January 2010

And beyond the fence, in a hollow squeezed between a street of houses, the car-park and the campus boundary, was a set of allotments, on which seldom-seen gardeners played out yet more seasonal variations, with their improvised shelters and defenses against birds.  Now the university has bought the land, the gardeners have gone, and someone is no doubt laying up plans to build over it.  More history, more variations.

April 2009

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Another Roadside Attraction

I have a particular liking for minor country roads, and what can be seen on and from them, whether along the roadside verge or through gaps in the the hedges that -- in most of southern England -- bar access to neighbouring farmed fields.  Such roads are the nowhere that is everywhere.


NE from Twyford Down across Morstead Road

I grew up in a New Town plonked down into an agricultural, mainly arable, part of the country, where what lay on the other, farmed side of the hedge was generally regarded as off-limits.  Not that anyone was much bothered -- the attractions of a ploughed field in heavy clay soil country are zero, unless you're a crow.  You can trust me on this: at school, we were required to go on wintry cross-country runs through a particularly sticky one.  There must be hundreds of gym-shoes lost in the deep mud of that field, a puzzling find for future archaeologists ("We think it's a ritual deposit -- some kind of Shoe Cult").

In such intensively-farmed areas, a "country walk" generally means a walk down a country road.  In these days of constant heavy, high-speed traffic, of course, this is not to be recommended, but I enjoy it anyway.  There's something revelatory about seeing all that road-furniture that you normally whizz past in a car -- signs and kerbs and barriers and so on -- up close and at walking speed.  Not to mention the intriguing road-side debris, ranging from hub-caps and bits of body-trim to roadkill in various states of flatness, and the piles of fly-tipped rubbish.  As people say nowadays, what's not to like?


Though you do have to be careful.  Wandering down the verge of the A3057 between Southampton and Romsey, I nearly stepped into a deep storm-drain, the cover of which had been removed and left lying by the side of the road.  Another time, I thought for 30 spine-tingling seconds I had come across a human skull  in a lay-by.  On closer inspection, it turned out to be a disposable nappy, balled up, taped shut, and swollen with rain.  Phew.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Sublunary



A Valediction : forbidding mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
    And whisper to their soules to goe,
Whilst some of their sad friends doe say,
    The breath goes now, and some say, no:                  

So let us melt, and make no noise,
    No teare-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
'Twere prophanation of our joyes
    To tell the layetie our love.

Moving of th'earth brings harmes and feares,
    Men reckon what it did and meant,
But trepidation of the spheares,
    Though greater farre, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
    Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love, so much refin'd,
    That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
    Care lesse, eyes, lips, and hands to misse.

Our two soules therefore, which are one,
    Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

If they be two, they are two so
    As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule, the fixt foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if th' other doe.

And though it in the center sit,
    Yet when the other far doth rome,
It leanes, and hearkens after it,
    And growes erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to mee, who must
    Like th'other foot, obliquely runne ;
Thy firmnes makes my circle just,
    And makes me end, where I begunne.

John Donne

Friday, 15 November 2013

Fair Enough

Those who, in Peter Mandelson's immortal words, are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich tend to accuse those who are not so relaxed about it of "the politics of envy".  This is a curious accusation, if you stop to think about it.  It says, "You are not criticising the wealthy from a moral standpoint or any systematic egalitarian political analysis; you're just jealous!"  It's as if someone were to justify bullying by saying, "You don't really care about people getting hurt -- you just wish you were big and strong, too, so you could push everyone around!"

Now, clearly, we'd all like to have enough money, and then some.  Few of us, given any choice in the matter, are inclined to select the hair-shirt from the rack, or to ask whether cold gruel is on the menu today.  The problem is, who decides what counts as "enough"?  Enough to buy the kids nice new winter coats is one thing; enough to fund a private jet quite another.  Crudely, your politics are defined by whether you think the ownership of private jets by a few enables or prevents the purchase of winter coats by the many.  There are arguments on both sides, but the harsh truth is that most people don't have any politics, as such.  What they do have is a fairly pragmatic sense of social justice, of what is fair enough in an unfair world.

Radix malorum...

Now, I was amazed to learn that, if I were working full-time, my income would put me in the top ten percent of earners in the UK.  In a country where my full-time annual earnings would be seen as a pretty disappointing Christmas bonus by many this seemed unlikely, but statistics do have a way of concealing reality, rather than revealing it.

According to a 2008 report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies ("Racing away? Income inequality and the evolution of high incomes"), these are the facts on top earnings in the UK:

                             Top 10%-1%     Top 1%-0.1%       Top 0.1%
Number              4.21 million              421,000             42,000
Minimum value       £35,345             £99,727         £351,137
Average value         £49,960           £155,832        £780,043

In other words, if you earn as much as / as little as * £10K more than the national average of £25K p.a., then you should probably stop thinking of yourself as "about average" in the earnings stakes, and start thinking about where to moor that yacht, not to mention hiring some security to protect you against the envy of the 90% earning less than you.  Though, I must say, when I look at those figures I think there must be an awful lot of undeclared earnings up there at the top end.  In the final analysis, it's all about distribution, not averages.

To return to envy, though.  It is impossible -- even, ahem, for those of us in the top ten percent -- to be envious of the stinking Mandelsonian rich, because we have no idea of what it must be like to live like that.  It is even pretty difficult to imagine the life of a bottom-feeder in that top 0.1%, with an individual entry-stake income of a mere £350,000 per annum.  We cannot see these people; there is no fast-lane checkout queue in Tesco, no heliport on the roof of Kwik-Fit.  They might as well be a separate species, with different needs and imperatives, passing unseen through our lives like the Fair Folk of legend. If anything, we should pity them: what must it be like, to live sated, gated lives in moneyed quarantine?  As the song asks, who wants to be a millionaire? A country estate?  That's something I'd hate! **

So, let us save the hyper-wealthy from themselves.  In a fair enough world, no-one would have an income of less than £25,000, and no-one would earn more than £250,000.  And why not?  As multi-millionaire tax-exile John Lennon once put it,  imagine.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,
where moth and rust doth corrupt...
Matthew 6:19

* delete according to taste
** Though a large house in a choice part of Central London could be tempting...

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Not Dark Yet

There's a light, a certain kind of light ... (No, no, start again, let's not invoke the Bee Gees).

There's a special light at this time of year, that sometimes spreads over everything in the last half-hour or so before dark.  It falls after the famous Golden Hour, beloved of landscape photographers, and just before dusk and the gathering shadows; an eerie, even kind of pale fire that seems to emanate from the landscape itself.  It's a moment of sober intensity, suitable for making solemn vows and clear-eyed judgements:  "Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late...".


We were up on the western remnant of Twyford Down on Sunday, looking across at St. Catherine's Hill, when that cold radiance of the dying light fell across the land.  I grabbed a few quick shots, in the full expectation I was wasting my time.  Hand-held low-light photography is never more than an act of faith.

But I must have accidentally pressed a previously-undiscovered [GLOAMING] preset, as I got one shot that -- with a little help -- is as close as I have yet come to capturing that elusive luminous quality.  "It ain't dark yet, but it's gettin' there".