Sunday, 31 May 2015

Crow Guitar

I'm not sure why, but this "clumsy guitar" really sings for me.  It's a reminder that a tortoise shell has been used since ancient times as a resonator box for stringed instruments, such as the lyre and the mbira ("thumb piano").  Tortoiseshell -- in the sense of marbled brown and amber plastic -- is, of course, still a fundamental part of the design of modern instruments, from picks to pickguards.

I won't spoil the effect by telling you what my drawn "tortoise shell" is derived from, but a little lateral thinking may reveal it to you.  The whole thing, obviously, is a mash-up of diverse elements.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Heart of Glass

The Avon Gorge, on a less than
beautiful day

I spent most of this past week in Bristol, where we are establishing a new branch of the Idiotic Towers franchise, due to a change in the location of the employment of our senior partner.  I suppose, if you're going to have a second home, it might as well be somewhere worth living, and Bristol is certainly that.

Bristol is where we spent the last decade of our kidult existence, 1977-87 B.C. (before children).  Those were mainly fun years in a characterful city in the era of squats and punk and reggae, tempered by a dawning realization that the Thatcher Years were not going to be a mere blip in the inevitable historical progress of society towards a socialist utopia. I alternated much of my time between work in the university library, political meetings and demonstrations (I was a union activist in NALGO, the local government union), and sweaty nights in small music venues and pubs.  Well, we made our own fun in those days.

Then there was cinema.  Bristol has two arthouse cinemas, at the Arnolfini Gallery and the Watershed arts centre, and those years were the great years of independent cinema.  Herzog, Fassbinder, Tarkovsky, Jarman, Greenaway...  Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive; I'd sometimes see three new "foreign" movies in a week.  You would gradually tune in to something astonishing like Tarkovsky's Mirror, ignoring the shuffling and muttering of those who didn't get it and who left after 20 minutes, ending up blissed out in a half-empty auditorium, with the impulse to exchange addresses with everyone else left in the place when the lights went up.

The music was pretty good, too.  We saw many now-legendary acts -- the likes of Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, and the Clash, though I mainly recall an outstanding gig by jazz-fusion masters Weather Report, and two by the amazing Graham Parker -- and most pubs back then had a decent jukebox, regularly refreshed with the latest sounds.  It is a toss-up now whether the title "Heart of Glass" calls to mind the film by Werner Herzog or the chart-topping single from Blondie.

The city has changed, of course, as has the sophistication of the entertainment demanded by the young.  Mall-blight is becoming evident in the more peripheral streets, where many venerable shops have closed and become nightclubs and restaurants.  I was particularly appalled to discover that George's Bookshop -- once a rival to establishments like Blackwell's in Oxford -- is now a Jamie Oliver restaurant.  It's all still reassuringly shabby, however.  My daughter remarked, as we drove through town a few weeks ago, that it was quite like Brighton (where she lives) but much grungier.  Which, if you know Brighton, is quite an achievement.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Leaping Lions

I first encountered these hunted lions from Nineveh in the British Museum last year. Now they've found a new home in one of my digital collages.  What I really ought to do is to follow the example of Grayson Perry and get these produced on computer-controlled looms as wall-sized tapestries...  Wouldn't that be something?  But, until I can afford that, A3 inkjet prints will have to do.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Terrible Twins

Never mind a new portrait of Shakespeare*, here is a rare shot of the mad twins who govern our neck of the universe.  You really don't want to anger these Kosmic Krays...**

* Silliest. Non-story. Ever.  See here for the post I would have written.
**  I can't believe I'm the first person to make this joke (Kray Twins / cosmic rays, geddit? Heh...) but apparently I am, at least according to Google.  Good name for a band!

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Dream House

Do you have recurring dreams?  I understand most people do.  Certainly, I seem to have dreamed variations on the same few scenarios most of my adult life.  There have been many changes of personnel, shifts of location, and a varying balance of anxiety and serenity -- becoming a parent introduces a whole new level of anxious terror into the mix -- but, most nights, I seem to revisit the same old scenes and storylines, like a complex role-playing videogame where I can never seem to progress beyond level three.

The Dream House is one of mine, and I believe it's a classic scenario, shared by many.  The Dream House is a strangely familiar, multi-storey dwelling, with a shifting complement of rooms, passageways, inhabitants (both welcome and unwelcome), in which I am sometimes a guest, sometimes the owner, and sometimes something anxiously inbetween.  I am forever finding new rooms, an unknown basement (what, another one?) or stairways that take me into unsuspected corridors, where Tarkovsky-style shifts of mood and ambience take place.  Sometimes the house is more like a block of flats or a college; sometimes it's a weird amalgam of various places I've lived; occasionally it is somewhere I have never lived, but have perhaps often passed in the street.

Playing around with these two digital collages, I realised that I was building versions of the Dream House.  That is, quite real-seeming edifices, but constructed out of disparate elements, always on the verge of dissolving into some new arrangement, and haunted by disconcerting presences. Nothing is quite what it seems.  These may not be places where I have ever actually lived, but I suppose might be said to be places that inhabit me.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Guitar Hero

A couple more digital constructions using my "clumsy guitar" drawings.  I'm finding that one quite satisfying way to do this is to use photographs all taken on the same day in the same place.  For example, the one at the top memorialises a snowy February day in 2009, wandering in the Oxford Botanical Garden.  If nothing else, having a ready-made unity of light and subject matter -- not to mention having the same image size and resolution using files from the same camera -- eases the work of layering and blending.

By contrast, the second one brings together image files from widely different occasions and cameras.  A lot more effort was required to unify the whole, but in the end only I need to know that was the case.  As someone once said, no-one cares how hard you worked.  What matters is the result.

Why the guitars?  Perhaps because, like so many of my generation, for most of my life I've been a guitar noodler.  As a left-hander who self-taught on a cheap instrument borrowed from a friend, I have terrible technique, not least because I play upside-down i.e. holding a guitar conventionally-strung for a right-hander in the left-handed orientation.  This has taken its toll, and a year ago I realised I was developing arthritis in certain fingers, and a variety of tennis-elbow in my right arm.  Well, as the doctor says in the old joke, if it hurts when you do that, then you should probably stop doing it.  So I did.  I was never that good, but I do miss the sensations of playing, in the same way I missed the sensations of rolling and smoking a cigarette.  It'll pass.

N.B. I'm away for a few days over the Bank Holiday.  I'll schedule a post or two to keep things ticking over, but I'll be back mid-week.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


Yet another series of digital images is coming together, on the theme of Orpheus.  I found myself drawing crude stringed instruments, some of which resembled guitars constructed by luthiers wearing oven gloves and blindfolds, some of which had more in common with ancient radio sets than lyres.  I liked them, but felt they needed more context.

What I like about this digital collage approach is that I can finally find a use for those "end of roll" style images that speak strongly of something, but are not complete enough in themselves to stand as straight photographs.  It's a lot of fun assembling something new out of the various elements that come to hand.

I particularly like the combination of hand-drawn and photographic elements.  It seems to evoke a 1940s/1950s sensibility that lurks just below the surface of my mind.  Unsurprising, really, as -- like anyone born in the 1950s -- I grew up surrounded by that Festival of Britain aesthetic.

Saturday, 16 May 2015


Another thing I've been filling the idle hours with is drawing.  As I have written before, drawing was my first love, and -- like any first love -- has been the subject of many a "what if?" fantasy in the subsequent years.  On balance, though, I'm content with the choices I made.  Most successful artists, in my observation, are either completely reckless in their self-belief or have a soft trust-fund cushion to fall back on; ideally, both.  The rest teach.  There is a huge amount of survivor bias in tales of artistic success ("I believed I could do it, and that's why I succeeded!").  Well, maybe, but it ain't me, babe.  Given the need to earn a living, the oddly toxic atmosphere of the mid-1970s, and my Groucho-Marxian constitution (a reluctance to join any club that would have me as a member), it was never really an option.  Besides, I suspect I'd have struggled eternally with that dissenting-protestant-heritage misgiving that drawing pictures doesn't count as a proper job.

Now, of course, I can afford to be a reckless, if backdated, trustafarian, or "pensioner" as we generally call my new tribe.  I suppose I may have left it a little late, and am aware my tastes may have been permanently fixed somewhere around 1978.  Nonetheless, I've been filling various sketchbooks, and to my delight have found that moderately high-resolution scans of these small original drawings (1200 dpi on my Epson flatbed) reproduce very nicely indeed enlarged on plain paper.  Once I can find a suitable paper stock (perhaps a Japanese paper like a medium-weight kozo, provided it can survive the journey through the printer) I'm going to try editioning some of these as digital prints.  In the end, there's no better test of whether you are just a superannuated Sunday painter than asking hard cash for your wares.

This may be doomed as an enterprise, but people tend to value only what they have paid good money for.  There are fewer more deflating sights than seeing a drawing or photograph of yours, given as a gift, unframed and dog-eared, and blu-tacked to a wall in a guest bedroom.  This lack of regard for the cost-free is reinforced by the prevailing business model of the internet, i.e. that content is free.  This radical undervaluing of creativity -- hey, everyone's an artists now! -- is spreading into the real world.  There may originally have been some sort of libertarian inflection to that word "free", but now it just means that nobody gets paid for colouring in the blank spaces on the advertising hoarding that is the Web and social media.  Musician, photographer, writer, film-maker, journalist...These used to be highly-competitive, reasonably-paid careers, not sanity-saving hobbies for pensioners and the under-employed.  That dissenting-protestant-heritage reflex mentioned above seems to have triumphed:  wait, you want to be paid for this?  OK, I'll find someone else...

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Fallen Angels

Two more angels, equally literary, but this time of a more fallen variety.  In the first, you may recognise Satan's words from Book 1 of Paradise Lost, debriefing and regrouping his fallen angels with the mission statement to end all mission statements:
What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc't,
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.
In the second, you may equally recognise the famous opening tercet of Dante's Inferno:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

(In the middle of our life's journey I found myself in a dark wood, where the straight path was lost)

I knew it would be worth holding on to that rubber bat...

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Book Buying

This is really a temporary post that I will probably take down after a while.  I need to establish whether Blurb is returning an accurate account of book sales.

Have you bought one of my Blurb books in the last year?  If so, it would be useful if you would let me know which, and roughly when, using one of the email addresses in the profile above right ("Since you ask...").  This would include e-books and PDFs, as well as conventional paper books. In fact, e-books are of particular interest.  Did you buy yours direct from Blurb, or via Apple's iBookstore, for example?

It would also be helpful to know if you had declared your intention to buy one, e.g. in a comment, but never actually did.  I really don't mind (I only make about £1 profit from each sale, so I'll get by...) but it's useful to know.  This could be the source of my impression that there have been more sales than are showing up.

Of course, the best test would be if I could persuade you to buy a book now, using the "My Blurb Bookstore" link, also over on the right.  If you have an iPad or iPhone most are also available as e-books, which are very good value at just a few pounds/dollars each.  If you then let me know that you have done so, I can monitor Blurb's sales account. But please don't feel I'm turning this into a disguised sales drive!

Books?  We've got a few ... In every room...

Sunday, 10 May 2015


Nothing to do with Robbie Williams, obviously.  At least, I don't think so.  In my recent dabblings with digital imagery, a theme of "angels" has started to emerge.  There is a slightly disreputable vein of modern thinking that has revived the ancient figure of the angel as a "messenger" between different domains of discourse, for example in the work of philosopher Michel Serres, Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), or Tony Kushner's Angels in America.  The idea of these mercurial envoys, faithfully and patiently transmitting communications between realms appeals to me, perhaps in part because of my father's wartime trade as a despatch rider.  The emblem of the Royal Signals is Mercury, wing-heeled messenger of the gods, known to all as "Jimmy".

The words inscribed on the image above are the opening of Rike's first Duino Elegy:  "Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?" (Who, among the ranks of angels, would hear me, if I cried out?).

Friday, 8 May 2015


No matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.  Remember that one?  Rarely has it seemed so true as it does this morning.  Even if Labour had won, or there had been some improbable-but-intriguing "coalition of the losers", it would still simply have meant five more years of the same dreary branch-office managerialism; "tough decisions", implementing whatever dispensation gets handed down from the offices of Global Enterprises Incorporated.

Someone at BBC Radio 4 carried out a brilliant piece of scheduling this morning.  After intermittently listening to the election results from 05:30 to 09:00, I found myself listening to a repeat of The Reunion, a programme chaired by Sue MacGregor, where participants in some notable past event are brought back together to reminisce.  Today, it was Peter Brook's revolutionary 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, described at the time as "Best. Shakespeare. Ever", or words to that effect.  What a contrast; talk about "look here upon this picture, and on this..." (sorry, that's Hamlet).  That all-too-brief decade of post-1968 revolutionary turbulence provided my generation's formative years.  Unfortunately, in contrast to the now 90-year-old Brook and his generation, who brought about that shining time, it seems all we were capable of delivering was Tony Blair.  To a large extent, then, this is all our fault.  Our best and brightest refused to get involved in anything short of a proper revolution.  They're all out there, somewhere, still waiting.

Your blogger tends the People's flag, 1978

It all made me think of Miliband.  Not poor old Ed -- did anyone really imagine him as Prime Minister? -- but his father, academic Marxist Ralph.  His book, The State in Capitalist Society, was required reading for the serious student revolutionary back in my university days. Not that I ever read it -- I suppose I was at best a frivolous student revolutionary -- but I think his view can be summarised as: "The Labour Party is not a revolutionary party; parliamentary democracy can never change the balance of power between classes".  Well, right enough.  Presumably his boys Ed and David either thought him wrong or were more fascinated by the pursuit and exercise of power within those despised bourgeois institutions.

Did you ever read One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse?  I'm not going to summarise it here -- I don't think I could -- but it was one of the few "political" books I did actually read as a student back in the mid-1970s that made any sense to me.  "Free election of masters does not abolish masters or slaves" is only subtly different from the Ralph Miliband line; but the idea of "repressive tolerance" and the shift of emphasis from organised "class struggle" to freeing oneself from psychological and technological domination seemed more radical (and distinctly un-Marxist) and seemed to chime with my own experience.  Of course, the really smart guys were all way past that easy-reader Frankfurt School stage -- Feyerabend's Against Method was the hot read, I seem to recall -- but, having somehow arrived in the political-philosophical powerhouse and career launch-pad of Balliol College, Oxford as a know-nothing Mirror-reader (whose only real talents were for reading poetry, drawing, and telling amusing stories) I was badly in need of some remedial reading.

Other cult classics I managed to digest were Life Against Death by Norman O. Brown, the Illuminations collection of Walter Benjamin's writings, and various of the post-structuralist books of Roland Barthes.  I tried to read Marx and Lukacs and Althusser and Lucien Goldmann at the urging of Terry Eagleton and others but it was like eating porridge oats straight from the box.  To be honest, I much preferred Carlos Castaneda.

A windy day in the Wilson-Heath years, 1974

I have no problem with being an intellectual lightweight.  I did a few rounds with some genuine heavyweight title contenders back then, and quickly realised I was fighting in the wrong ring.  I discovered I had better intuitive understanding than them, could more easily tolerate illogical, irrational and contradictory ideas, and was considerably better at making the unlikely leaps and links between apparently unconnected subjects that make for an amusing conversation.  I was an artist, essentially, not a scholar or a politician. A piss-artist, others would have said, with some justification. But our rock-solid common ground was a conviction that the world needed to be changed, and could be changed.

Forty years on, I think very few people would still argue that "classical" Marxism offers an adequate critique of what is wrong with the world, and how to fix it.  The world has changed, along lines that were better predicted by thinkers once discounted as outsiders and inconsequential oddballs, people like Herbert Marcuse and Marshall McLuhan, and even Fritz Perls and Wilhelm Reich.  How?  In the film The Usual Suspects, Verbal Kint, speaking of the disappearance of Keyser Söze, says "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist" (actually Baudelaire: "La plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu'il n'existe pas").  By shedding that giveaway top-hat and donning designer jeans, international capital has pulled off the same trick.  But sometimes those standing back outside the crowd can better observe the moves of the ideological shell-game.  They can more easily see the con that is perpetrated on those who stare fixedly at the moving cups, those who believe, "Next time I'll get it!  Let's have another go!"

Perhaps now the essential political task, once more as in Peter Brook's time, is cutting through the illusion that this is all there is.   Getting back the conviction that things can be different.  Having the courage to try different things, and fail, without fearing the media backlash or the poll ratings would be useful.  It would also help to figure out where the real battle is, and between whom and over what, then choose a side and stick to it.  Winning elections is not enough: Miliband senior was probably right -- it may not be where the real political fight is happening, if it ever was.  To despise and destroy those who stand in opposition, and to dance joyfully on their graves -- as we did in 1997 when Thatcher's exhausted Tory Party was finally and definitively trashed by a Labour landslide -- is never more than a short-term goal.  We should never forget that Blair's Labour Party was handed a massive opportunity, three times, and wasted it, three times.

I do think some questions need to be asked at the BBC.  For months, the broadcasters have talked up a predicted "hung Parliament", cutting off politicians attempting to present their policies, with a "Yeah, yeah, we know all about that, but what deals are you willing to do when nobody wins?"  Everyone knew there was going to be a hung Parliament: why waste our time pretending there wouldn't be?  The only interesting thing was who would get into bed with whom, and on what conditions.  The rush to premature analysis -- to exercise hindsight in advance -- and the attempt to trip politicians into mis-speaking a headline are so much more fun for highly-paid media folk than simply providing a platform for mere here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians to peddle their wares to the voting public.  Well, it seems "everyone" was wrong.  Power without responsibility, I think, is the phrase I'm looking for.

Same old new dawn...

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Amber Blues

Junked metaphors

Lately, I keep feeling a nostalgia for the vocabulary of the analogue world I grew up in.  A certain linguistic vigour seems to be fading away, as the old connections between language and the real physical world are replaced or weakened by more intangible digital equivalents.

Our most vivid vocabulary tends to leak into everyday use from other domains -- mainly the worlds of work, domestic labour, and entertainment -- and in the days when most work involved bashing and bending, inking and blotting, sieving and sorting, and a thousand other precisely named actions and processes, there was a lively, physical, real-world turn to our metaphors and similes.  Everyone still sort of knows what it means to blot our copy book, to go through something with a fine-tooth comb, or to get up a head of steam; such expressions have a vivid materiality that can outlive their real-world application.  But the digital, electronic world is itself already almost entirely a world of metaphors, where most user interfaces rely on quaint analogue gestures to perform mysterious digital tasks.  You page through a menu, dial in a setting, press the button, and complicated electronic stuff just happens.

Naturally, old figures of speech do get replaced by new ones; as we might say in 2015, they eventually reach their sell-by date.  But it's the wider vocabulary I'm talking about.  So many finely-tuned verbs, nouns and adjectives have been usurped by all-purpose equivalents, in a parallel process to the inflation that turns "tremendous", "terrific", "outstanding", "brilliant", "excellent", "amazing" and "awesome" into mere synonyms for "quite good". I was recently amazed to overhear someone describe an action as "quite dainty".  Dainty!  I half expected them to be dressed in a frock coat and top hat.  It's hard to imagine a word like that, with the degree of delicate discrimination it implies, in the vocabulary of many contemporary Britons.

Take colours, for example.  In the digital world, we can actually be very precise about a particular shade of orange, say, using the RGB (Red Blue Green) values used on a computer screen.  Oh, let's say, #FFA310  -- nice!  Designers, of course, have long used the Pantone system to specify colours for CMYK (Cyan Magenta Yellow Black) devices like offset printers, which might be seen as a sort of digitisation avant la lettre. Pantone 130 is a very similar orange to RGB #FFA310. But while this precision is an advance and incredibly useful to the specialist it is utterly meaningless to everyone else. Colours need names.

Colours have names, of course.  If you've ever owned a decent paintbox or set of coloured pencils, you'll recognise Prussian Blue, Chrome Yellow, Gamboge, and Crimson Lake -- less precise than Pantone, but far more evocative.  If you've ever been unlucky enough to help choose what colour to paint a room, you'll also recognise names like Nile Green, Terracotta, Duck Egg Blue, and the ubiqitous Magnolia.  And yet, despite this readily available nomenclature, colour names are increasingy rarely heard, and imprecision is the norm;  "kind of blue" is not just the name of an album by Miles Davis.  I particularly miss hearing the names of those interesting midway shades like "buff" and "tan" and "fawn" in everyday speech; they've all been subsumed into "sort of beige".  And who now would even think of using a word as precise as "amber" to describe the sort of orangey-browny colour of the middle traffic light?

Name that colour!

Saturday, 2 May 2015


I'm going to try and get through this post without mentioning Proust, but -- oops -- it seems I have already done so.  Impossible not to, really.  I was making myself a cup of coffee, and had laid on the worktop the plastic screw-cap of a litre bottle of milk.  Something about the colour and shape of the knurled green top lying there triggered something deep in my memory and -- bang! -- suddenly I had an overwhelming sense-memory of a long-forgotten acrid smoky smell.  Caps!

A set of vivid images and sensations heaved into view: caps, cap guns, cap bombs...  Once, from about the age of five to the age of ten, I had been quite the gun-nut.  I had a drawerful of sidearms that might have alarmed even a particularly paranoid Tea-Party Texan.  There was a Buntline Special, long in the barrel, a Luger, a Derringer, multiple versions of the western revolver -- variously decorated with indian heads, bucking broncos and elaborate scrollwork -- and a selection of snub-noses and automatics, as packed by various TV detectives, spies, and law enforcers.  Some were water pistols, a couple were spud-guns, and a few merely went "click", but most of them fired caps.

Guns have largely disappeared from the toy repertoire in recent decades.  There seems to have been an outbreak of parental pop psychology in the late 1970s that predicted that heavily-armed toy-gunslingers like me would probably go on to carry out acts of mass slaughter.  I imagine cap guns are kept under the counter in toyshops, these days, along with the catapults and the pierced and tattooed Barbie dolls.  But in the 1950s and 60s, the production of toy weaponry must have been a significant industry.

Armed and mostly harmless, 1962

OK, I'll take it...

An important part of running a decent armoury, of course, was ensuring a proper supply of ammunition. Caps came as a tightly rolled paper strip, like a watch-spring, generally green but sometimes red, with regularly spaced black blisters of percussion explosive.  You would usually break open the gun, place the roll inside the gun onto a spool, and then feed the free end up through the feed mechanism and between the hammer and the strike-plate.  When properly loaded, pulling the trigger would cock and release the hammer, exploding the cap with a snap not unlike a Christmas cracker, and feed the roll through so that the next cap came up into the firing position.  After a firing frenzy you would end up with a pall of that glorious reeking smoke and a slightly annoying strip of spent caps protruding from your gun.

Back then, caps came in little round cardboard pillboxes with crimped lids, like bottle-tops.  I think they cost one penny a box, and out of my vivid Proustian reverie emerged a practically photographic memory that the brand we bought in our local sweet-shop had the words BROCK'S AMORCES crudely printed on the lid.  Brock's were a well-known fireworks company, but I have just looked up "amorces" -- it's the kind of word you take for granted at age eight, but not at sixty-one -- and it turns out to be a synonym for "caps".  Well, of course.

My most vivid memories, though, concern cap-bombs.  You could buy cap-bombs in the sweet-shop, too.  The crudest ones were made out of moulded metal, but they were generally a finned, rocket-shaped plastic projectile, with a spring-loaded plunger in a sort of cage on the nose end.  You would place as many torn-off single caps as you could get under the plunger, and then either toss it into the air or hurl it at the ground.  Where it went bang -- we were easily amused, I suppose.  The best place to do this was on the concrete driveway between two rows of garages, where the surface guaranteed an explosion, which the metal garage doors would amplify and reverb gratifyingly.  P-tangg!

The best cap-bomb of all, though, was made by finding a suitably large metal nut and two matching bolts.  You would screw one bolt in partway, pack a wad of caps in (or match-heads), and carefully -- very carefully -- screw in the other bolt on the other side.  Done just right, the thing made a terrific noise and stayed in one piece; done wrong, it flew apart at lethal speed.  Or exploded in your hands as you were tightening the bolt.  We discovered that parents would get inexplicably and unfairly exercised when they found out what was going on.

An advanced seminar on the merits of roll caps
versus the new plastic ring caps, 1973