Monday, 30 March 2015

Posts of Few Words #4

If you go down to the woods today...  There's always something Arthur Rackham-esque about hedgerows and woodland, and something about the fidelity to line and tone of a camera seems well-suited to capturing it.  It's tempting to say that his characteristic blend of the uncanny and an ambivalent innocence is very English, but it's probably more true to say it's very Northern European -- something to do with wolves and witches, babes in the woods, and dodgy woodcutters.

Certainly, other illustrators of folk and fairy tales have shown a similar feeling for those earthy tones and twisted shapes -- Swede John Bauer and Russian Ivan Bilibin, for example -- but Rackham did always seem somehow to invest his tangled roots and malevolent dwarves with a greater sense of character.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Posts of Few Words #3

IKEA!  What a maze... There are poor wanderers in there who have been lost for days, living off frozen köttbullar (the famous IKEA meatballs).  I believe köttbullar is simply Swedish for "spherical processed meat product"; odd, that they don't give them an IKEA-style name (PÜKI, perhaps, or PLOPS).

I read somewhere that people have started arranging IKEA hide-and-seek games, which sounds like madness to me.  I have always thought that hide-and-seek sets up two of the loneliest experiences in a child's life: as the seeker, left alone at the start of the game with everyone else hiding, and as the last hider, who fears he or she may never be found!

IKEA blue

IKEA pink

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Posts of Few Words #2

Over the next few weeks I'm likely to be putting up a series of these picture posts, as I'm quite busy with a number of real-life projects that are eating into my blogging time.  Odd, how time seems in short supply now that, in theory, I've got plenty of it, but there you are.  Words take time and consideration, but the pictures just happen.  Maybe a little too easily, sometimes, but that's something I'm aware of and working on.  Another project!

I must admit I'm never quite comfortable with that word, "project".  It always falls somewhere slightly odd inside the triangle defined by schoolwork ("I've got to finish my GCSE project by Friday"), celeb-speak ("Lady Gaga is developing several projects at this time"), and mighty works ("The pyramidical project proceeds apace, Your Pharaonic Fabulousness!").  It's hard to think of an alternative, though, so it will have to do.  Places to go, people to see, projects to develop!

Banks of the Test, Mottisfont Abbey

Bull Drove, Winchester

North slope, St. Catherine's Hill

Monday, 23 March 2015

Three-Square Story

Horseshoe Bridge, Southampton

Burgess Road, Southampton

Lordswood Road, Southampton

Friday, 20 March 2015

Here's One I Made Earlier

Here in Britain this Friday morning we had our first solar eclipse since 1999.  Exciting!  Cue media hysteria!  However, it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib down on the South Coast -- only 80-odd percent of eclipse, and 110% cloud cover.  The morning started gloomy, and it merely got a bit darker around 09:30.  I couldn't even see where the sun was in the sky; though I did have to turn a light on in the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Spooky!

At the time of the previous eclipse in summer 1999 we were on holiday in Norfolk.  Our son was eight, and our daughter five -- perfect ages for a bit of home-made science magic.  So, with the aid of a couple of kitchen stools, a mirror, a piece of white card and some sticky tape we rigged up an eclipse viewing station in the garden of our cottage.  It worked!

I really enjoyed that aspect of being a father -- the endless improvised making of props and playthings with scissors and tape, whether it be an elaborate crawl-through tunnel of cardboard boxes or a carefully painted and fitted Power Rangers mask made from robust watercolour paper.  It's a bit like being a primary school teacher with a class of two.  Or perhaps more like home-schooling, where the only lesson is always Art & Craft.  Putting up the occasional shelf or redecorating the bathroom just doesn't hit the same spot.

Something of that same spirit must have animated those early pre-astronomers who worked out the basic solar, lunar, and stellar patterns.  I mean, for thousands of years you couldn't just look up in a calendar how long it was until spring, never mind when the next eclipse was due.  In fact, it must have taken a while for someone to first figure out that there were regular cycles involved, and then even longer for someone to be bothered to work out exactly what they were.  One of my earliest blog posts (Bloody Elves!, a good post, too) was a tribute to those odd souls who could be bothered to do the observational spadework that eventually meant that the rest of us could just look it up with confidence (at least, those who can be bothered to make even that minimal effort).

I imagine a field somewhere, where someone -- a minor princeling, perhaps, someone not entirely cut out for warfare, much derided, but oddly driven -- has decided to lay out a stick for each day that passes, perhaps aligning each stick with the point on the horizon where the sun rose that day.  He has a sense that there is a pattern, but what?  After a couple of years, rapidly running out of field, it strikes him that if he lays them in a circle, he only needs to do the job once.  Bingo!

Next steps:  he puts in a bid for funding for a permanent version -- maybe some large imported stones would be nice? -- and charges the rest of the tribe fat fees for bespoke predictions from version 2.0; spring, start of the raiding season, Black Friday, and so on.  He is no longer much derided, and starts wearing an especially idiotic hat, just because he can, and begins planning a massive and profitable franchise operation:  Solar Solutions.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Many moons, many sticks...

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Highfield Lane

Running up through the eastern side of Southampton Common is the main road out of town towards Winchester and ultimately to London, known along that stretch as the Avenue.  This busy thoroughfare cuts off a narrow vertical slice of the Common, which sits alongside the university campus and the residential area known as Highfield.  Because it is nowhere in particular -- a long and narrow transitional green buffer between highway and suburb -- it is actually wilder and denser than much of the main Common.  It is also more dangerous: students are advised to avoid its few, poorly-lit paths at night as, unfortunately, serious assaults happen there most years.

The road leading off the Avenue into Highfield cuts through about 200 yards of this tangled urban wilderness.  I walked over to the university earlier this week by this route, and in a steady light drizzle the emerging spring colours were subtly enhanced.  In a matter of weeks, new leaves will start to obscure and darken the woodland, and the undergrowth will become impenetrable; already, thorny loops of bramble are booby-trapping the ground.  If you do wander about in there, however, you may notice the bumps and ditches of some old foundations.  During World War 2, military huts of various sorts were built there, mainly in preparation for the D-Day landings.  After the War, these were squatted for some years by the homeless, bombed out during the Blitz, before being dismantled.

Somewhere on the Common -- perhaps on this side of the Avenue, perhaps the other -- there is also the concealed entrance to an underground bunker, which was to be the hideout for members of a so-called Auxiliary Unit of the "British Resistance", recruited from the Home Guard and trained in sabotage in anticipation of a German invasion.  Remarkably, my grandfather was a member of this very unit; we are not a Southampton family, but in 1939 he moved here to take up a job at a printing firm, and as an ex-infantryman had joined the local Home Guard at the outbreak of war.  After the war I know he showed the bunker's location to my uncle but, unsurprisingly, seventy years later he can't remember where it was.  I wonder whether anybody does?

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Our Emails Now Are Ended

As those of you who contact me off-blog should know, I'm in transition away from my long-standing institutional email address, which I'd got into the habit of using for everything, simply because I acquired it back in the days when having any email address at all was a novelty and a privilege.  I do still have the use of that original email ID, thanks to the indulgence of the university, but can't rely on it indefinitely.

Before I retired I foolishly decided to transfer much of my "personal" mail into a separate location, where it would be safely archived, only to discover -- too late -- that the transfer had not worked.  So that was 20 years of choice wit'n'wisdom down the e-tubes.  But now I realise I need to clear the decks again so the remaining "personal" stuff  (still a considerable quantity) can, at some point, be transferred to my new address (or more probably dumped down a different e-drain).  Oh, well.  So I spent much of Saturday and Sunday deleting thousands of work-related emails, received and sent, which I had felt the need to keep for one reason or another.  The bulk of them dated from after 2005, when I must last have seriously purged my mailboxes, but some dated back as far as 1998.

It was a real trip down Memory Lane, an electronic repeat of the bulk dump of paper files I carried out before vacating my office.  Not, I hasten to add, in a Stasi-style attempt to evade justice, but merely in recognition of the fact that the contents of my over-stuffed filing cabinet of personal copies of various agendas, minutes, and position papers were not unique or rendered more valuable by the annotations and elaborate doodlings I had scrawled over them (though see Tom Phillips' book Merry Meetings for a different perspective).

Doodles?  I'll always have my notebooks...
(where the doodle:note ratio is quite high...)

Ah, all those half-forgotten names, the prestigious projects and the last-minute lash-ups, the pressing concerns and the coat-trailing, the mails marked "urgent" and still unread after a decade (sorry!) with their never-to-be-opened attachments, the real and imagined crises, the routine comradely banter, and the occasional flash of genuine wit or even genius...  The stuff of work, replicated a billion-billion-billion-fold across the planet, and deader even than yesterday's papers: the day before yesterday's emails...

But talk about the ten thousand things!  Just to pick one: How could I forget the sheer aggravation caused to our library -- and to me, personally -- by the soliciting, chasing, submission, processing, and recording by my staff of something as apparently straightforward as our own bloody PhD theses?  Oh, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth, but above all emails.  Lots of emails.  For example, a few years ago I was required to submit a signed and witnessed statement to a court in Massachusetts, where a multi-million dollar patent-infringement lawsuit hung on exactly when a particular PhD thesis -- embargoed for a certain period due to its commercial sensitivity -- had become available to public scrutiny on our shelves, more than a decade previously.  Lawyers can be fussy devils when they want to be -- the meter was really ticking on this one -- and there was an endless round of emails before the scope and wording of this statement was satisfactory to all parties.  And yet, ironically, it turned out that a faxed document is more acceptable to the legal mind than an email attachment.  I'd imagined flying to Boston with a notarised parchment chained to my wrist, but there was to be no expenses-paid trip to New England for me (although finding a functioning fax machine in the 21st century was an adventure in itself).

Then there were the endless changes.  Changes of library management system, changes of operating system, changes in programming language, changes in bibliographic standards, changes in network protocols, changes in platform and delivery of services, changes to the ownership, personnel, practices and geographical location of library automation "partners", and the constant updates, patches, service packs, changes to changes to ch-ch-ch-changes, version succeeding (which we had never implemented, anyway)...  I suddenly remembered why it was I had felt it was time to retire.  I was really, really tired of all that.

Over the years, I have taken to email as a medium.  I enjoy its to-and-fro, its immediacy, and its informality.  Where others preferred a perfunctory, all-business tone -- often mispelling wrods on prupose, I suspect -- I cultivated an email "voice" which, in a way, was a twenty year dry run for this blog.  However, I realise my attempts at witty, wordy, oblique, perspective-restoring replies may often have been exasperating, particularly for anyone trying to whip up some serious attention to a serious issue.  I was tempted to keep a representative sample, but a "selected emails" doesn't really have the same cachet as a "collected correspondence", especially when the subject is yet another go-round on the strange smell emanating from the basement.

Besides, I always have in the back of my mind the (bad) example set by a senior member of staff at one of the branch libraries at the university where I started my career, who -- in response to a letter from the manager of a local bookshop, explaining a problem with the supply of a certain book -- wrote that he had "no interest in the exculpatory whinings of a jumped-up shop-boy".  Luckily, this was in the pre-email days, when such a letter had to be typed up and filed and could be spotted and quietly modified by a wise secretary (who might keep it nonetheless, perhaps for blackmail purposes, or perhaps merely to show to junior professionals like me, for amusement and instruction).

I'm sure there must have been many times when I did hit "send" too soon, with no mediating secretary to save me from myself.  I do know I once accidentally broadcast confidential details of a competitive system tender from a particularly annoying supplier to an entire email list of British university systems support librarians, none of whom would afterwards believe it was an accident.  Which it was.

So, better now to hit "delete" a few thousand times, and say goodbye to all that...
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Except that all those emails will probably still be hanging around on or in some cloud somewhere, and cluttering up cyberspace until the last syllable of recorded time.

[Note: the new email address is in my "Profile", above right.]

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Half Full

Many years ago, when I was young and open to new ways and ideas, and trying to escape the limitations of my small-town swot-cum-stoner mentality, I met a few people whose ideas were so far out I thought they must be faking it.  One guy -- a tall, lugubrious northerner whose chest-length dark hair seemed to weigh his upper body down into a permanent stoop of resignation inside the heavy dark overcoat he wore in all weathers -- was the first anti-humanist I had ever encountered.  Not in the sense that he had problems with humanist philosophy, but that he thought humans were the problem, and extinction of our species was the planet's best hope. No, really?  Far out!

My friend was a straw in the wind, it turned out.  In certain parts of the academy, and in particular within that strange penumbra of academically-tinged thinking on the Web that is the haunt of the recovering but still-unemployed humanities postgraduate, an oppressive orthodoxy of pessimism has taken hold, a sort of intellectual End Times mindset.  For a while, this stuff seemed compelling.  But, I don't know about you, now I'm really bored with the dull droning sound that this sombre hive produces, and I still tend to think they're faking it.

There is a serious contemporary problem of disillusion, of course: the steady stripping away by science of the handy illusions and delusions that have, for most of us, in large part defined our humanity, can be experienced as a bleakness.  If not god, if not transcendence, if not spirit, if not art, then what?  Attempts to rationalise consciousness -- most recently as a heuristic, integrating information-processing device -- strike directly at the "soul" and the "self" and the deep values of moral behaviour in ways that can be profoundly upsetting, but don't offer anything to put in their place.  Humanism itself comes to seem like a mere comfort break on the journey away from superstition to nihilism.

Some sad cases, not themselves scientists, revel in this bleakness.  Humanism is dismissed by them with a sneer.  They enjoy the oh, so superior sense that -- you poor sentimental fools! -- it's all in vain.  Life is a meaningless text, onto which we merely project whatever grids of meaning we have inherited, created, or had imposed on us.  It is a tale told by an idiot, so to speak, full of sound and fury, signifying ... Well, nothing.  The ultimate revenge of these nerds of nothingness, these nihilism wonks -- many of whom have found a congenial home in higher education -- is to take our brightest and best children and fill them with this grey poison of relativism and cultural pessimism.

This often goes hand in hand with a rejection of "Enlightenment" values, generally understood as a set of beliefs about the autonomy of the individual and the importance of human rights, with an underpinning conviction that cumulative progress through rational enquiry will free humanity from the chains of superstition and political oppression, and the scourges of disease and hunger.  Hah!  As if!  Don't you know we're all doomed?

This toxic stuff is seeping into the wider culture.  Take this quote from an article in a recent weekend's Guardian Review by voguish novelist Tom McCarthy:
Careful not to fall back on some naive escapist fantasy (of individual self-expression, or the transcendent human spirit, or art-as-redemption and so forth -- in other words, the very fantasies to which a conservative view of fiction still clings), De Certeau is nonetheless groping his way towards some kind of resistance to or rupture of the machine's logic.
(James Joyce Would be Working for Google, 7/3/2015)
Whoah...  Watch out for those naive escapist conservative fantasies, dude!  He goes on:
We could quite easily dismiss these thoughts as French bollocks, brush them aside and pen great tales of authenticity and individual affirmation, even as the sands in which we'd need to bury our heads in order to do so are being blown away.  Alternatively, we could explore, with trepidation and with melancholy joy, this ultra-paradoxical and zombie-like condition, this non-life-restoring resurrection that, if De Certeau is correct, is writing's true and only lot, its afterlife.
Blimey, what is the point?  Hand me that razor-blade, when you've finished with it, mate.

Now, I'm no philosopher.  The problem is, neither are most writers or humanities scholars.  Sure, they've read some French bollocks Bourdieu and some Foucault and some Deleuze and maybe some Benjamin and some Bakhtin, mainly in translation, but they have no sense of the traditions and arguments in and against which such marginal, provocative figures are writing.  Also, so much academic writing is scholastic in impulse, in the mediaeval sense that it merely looks for interesting, approved and publishable wriggle-room within the confines of the thoughts of certain acknowledged authorities.  Who these are, of course, is largely a matter of fashion.  Who now admits to reading even Althusser, Adorno, Goldmann, or Lukács?  No doubt Deleuze is already curling the lip of some black-clad 20-year old.

As I say, I'm bored with this pessimism, however smart.  Life is not meaningless, except as defined by someone playing linguistic games, obsessed by the meaning of "meaning", or by someone with an oedipal grudge against organised religion, and a minimal grasp of what religion is and does.  Your life may have no "meaning", but it is not futile.  All of the universe has followed a clear and compelling logic of behaviour -- "laws" -- that, however improbably, has resulted in me and you, right here, right now.  You exist!  I exist!  Is that not utterly bizarre?  Is that not exciting enough?

Yes, consciousness is fragmentary, and yes, we have plural, largely constructed identities, and yes, we're mortal, and yes, there is almost certainly no continuance of existence after death, at least in any form we would recognise, but...  When was it ever any different?  Why let the too-clever sweet nothings of a few academic doom-mongers poison your life at the well?

But then I'm still just a small-town swot-cum-stoner at heart.  In the end, life is simply so much nicer than the alternative.  Its very absurdity is a deep source of joy.  I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't convince myself otherwise.  Besides, pessimism breeds passivity -- what's the point? -- and if we're ever going to get out the various messes we're in as a species, rather than simply extinguish ourselves, we're going to need all the optimism and activism we can muster.

Ditch, post, tree, copse, wood

Friday, 13 March 2015


A recent visit to Mottisfont Abbey was productive despite the return of dull weather.  I love that "out of season" feel, most obviously encountered at seaside resorts; it's a liminal time when visitors are starting to return but repairs are ongoing, and the attractions are still swathed in the tarpaulins that protected them against the winter weather.  Though it does seem extreme to swathe the ground staff -- I expect this guy stood still just a bit too long.

There are some major and mysterious construction works still underway at the entrance, there's been a lot more tree-felling and undergrowth-clearing, and some new sluiced drainage ditches have been dug to protect against flooding of the Test.  As always, I'm ambivalent about the aesthetic appeal of such "improvements", but it's nice when the interests of estate managers and visiting photographers coincide.  I still don't like the new adventure playgrounds, though.  If kids can't learn to be bored at National Trust properties, where can they learn to be bored?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015


Increasingly, it seems "class" is becoming uncomfortably old-fashioned as a way of describing one's background and the workings of society, not least because politicians and others have put a lot of effort into persuading us we now live in a "classless" society.  That is to say, not classless in the sense of a society where wealth and ownership are spread evenly across the population, or where the difference between the richest and the poorest has diminished to some morally acceptable multiple, but in the sense that sufficient opportunity and means now exist for "social mobility"* to be a matter of choice, supposedly, regardless of the stratum of society into which an individual was born.  There are, it is claimed, no longer any barriers of class.  The only real barriers are attitude and aspiration. To which my considered response is:  Yeah, right.

To a limited extent, this has always been sort-of-true.  As Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall reaches its apotheosis as a BBC TV six-parter, we should remind ourselves: Thomas Cromwell is not a fictional character.  The son of a Putney blacksmith really did rise to become the most powerful man in the land.  Not many years later, and pace various anti-Stratfordian lunatics, the son of a Warwickshire glover really did become the greatest wordsmith the English language has ever known.  Although we should bear in mind that such men were never illiterate, dung-spattered ragamuffins from the hovels of the lower orders.  That our society should regard the children of influential tradesmen as coming from "humble" beginnings is revealing in itself.  For centuries, if not millennia, the actual poor -- numerous, ubiquitous, malodorous, and dangerous -- have been regarded as essentially a form of livestock.

I think what is really signified by this insistence on "classlessness" is that the privileged now once again feel sufficiently threatened by the structural "problem" of the poor that their best answer is to deny the existence of any such problem.  Anyone who points out the inbuilt unfairness and self-replicating rigidity of society must be derided as an out-of-date "class warrior" or -- in a word that tops my hate list -- merely "chippy".  A clown like Russell Brand only gets the attention he does because he is a clown.  It's tempting to say something similar about Slavoj Žižek.  I mean, how many other academic Marxists get millions of views on YouTube?

Obviously, in a world of limited opportunities, it suits the interests of those who regard an interesting, meaningful life as their exclusive birthright to control and limit access to the Good Stuff.  Nepotism, prejudice, shibboleths, patronage, connections, and inheritance; these were always the traditional methods of ensuring the Good Stuff went to the right people and, more importantly, to the children of the right people.  The striking thing is, in modern Britain, these sleights and sharp practices are being used more, not less.

You only have to look at the widespread contemporary use of unpaid "internships" as Route A to the juicier jobs in practically any employment sector that will -- eventually -- pay a proper professional salary.  These are open to "anyone", of course, provided you happen to know the right people, and can survive on no pay at all for at least a year or two.  As a way of filtering out the lower orders it couldn't be improved upon, really.  I have even read of cases where unpaid internships are offered as prizes at top fee-paying schools.  I was deeply confused the first time I was approached by a recent graduate asking to work for no pay for a year.  What?  I simply could not process the information.  She had used the word "internship", but I did not recognise its meaning at the time: it had something to do with doctors and hospitals, as far as I knew.  Did junior doctors work for nothing, then?

It is also quite shocking to observe shameless and systematic nepotism going on quite openly.  A network of famous families is threaded all through the media and the arts, for example, to a degree that suggests that we have re-invented a form of aristocracy for the 21st century.  How amazing -- in a classless meritocracy like ours, where jobs always go to the best available candidate -- that the second and, yea, even the third generations should turn out to be just as talented as the dynasty's founder!  Nepotistic?  No, genetic!

But it's not just the good jobs and the influential friends -- useful as these are -- that build a wall around our ruling elites and their lucky offspring, but something more enabling: the permission and the means to regard yourself as exempt from the common run of expectations, not least from the social gravity of failure.  It has long been a mystery to me:  where do upper-middle class children of average or below average intelligence and no particular talent end up?  Where are they educated, given most fee-paying schools have fiercely competitive entrance requirements?  Why are they never to be found stacking supermarket shelves, or emptying my bins?  Is there an offshore island somewhere, entirely populated by Justins and Sophies who cannot master the twelve times table?

When celebrating the undoubted achievements of "our" culture, we should never overlook the fundamental truth that the productivity of what we might call the Achieving Classes was bought at a high social and human price.  It depended entirely on a ready supply of domestic servants, for example, expected to work long and unsocial hours for little pay, and to remain single as a condition of employment.  It also depended on private incomes, derived from rents, grimy industries, dubious colonial enterprises, and speculation, all of which wrought misery for others before being laundered into immaculate cash in the bank.  Above all, it presumed the unquestioning commitment of the majority population to living lives of unrewarding drudgery, building and shoring up the economic base that supported the gilded pin, on the head of which "our" cultivated angels danced their elegant dance.

Many might ask:  So what has changed, exactly? I think I'd reply: Nothing much, except that, increasingly, the very wealthy and the globally well-connected like to think they don't really need the poor any more -- or, indeed, most of the rest of us -- and are losing interest in the political fantasy that they, too, have a stake in alleviating poverty by means of welfare and social mobility.  So last century!  Welcome to the New Middle Ages; just one mobile classless class, plus livestock.

* Always understood as an "upwards", never a "downwards" movement.  Eventually, I suppose, we could all be wealthy, leisured aristocrats!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

A Walk in the Woods

As the weather seemed finally to have taken a spring-like turn, I went for a wander in Spearywell Wood, near Mottisfont, on Friday.  I would have described it as "peaceful", had my ears not been assaulted periodically by the hysterical snarling of chainsaws.  It's not just the birds, dog-walkers and photographers who get busy in the woods in Spring.

I wonder if the tree in that last photograph thought it had won some kind of prize, when it was awarded the red dot?  Yesss!  You could almost hear the other trees calling out a warning, "Run, Jimmy, run!"  For some reason it reminded me of my favourite Tom Gauld cartoon:

© Tom Gauld

At this time of year the strength of the sunlight has increased significantly, but the day is still relatively short-lived, so by the time I headed back to the car the late-afternoon shadows were raking through the trees in dramatically gothic fashion.

It gets a bit spooky, after a bit, tramping through the woods at dusk alone, with chainsaw-wielding maniacs round every corner.  Unfortunately, this puts me into the sort of nervous, ironically-theatrical mood where I start cackling with laughter to myself, which probably accounted for the expression on the faces of the dog-walking couple I met on the way back to the carpark.  Sorry about that, guys.

Carpark noticeboard sprite

Friday, 6 March 2015

At Maldon

Spearywell Wood

I forgot to report back on J.O. Morgan's At Maldon, his rendering of the Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon.  I mentioned it way back in October 2013 (Badwulf), when I was having a contrarian moan about the universal praise for Seamus Heaney's (to my mind) indifferent translation of Beowulf.   So:  it's very good.  But don't take my word for it, check out this page of comments at publisher CB editions.  And note the availability from today of that limited edition CD of Morgan's own recital.  By all accounts it's electrifying: I've already ordered mine.

And talking of Beowulf, did you hear Professor Andy Orchard on this week's edition of In Our Time (see Thursday 5th March 2015) ?  I was truly impressed.  Orchard is everything an inspiring teacher should be: learned, witty, insightful, fluent, amusing...  (Odd, therefore, you might think, that he should have chosen early mediaeval languages as his speciality, but never mind).  I'm pretty sure that if I had studied Anglo-Saxon with him, my view of it would have been rather different (see Caedmon's Dream Part 1).  I think what impressed me most was his awareness of the "Dark Ages" as a multi-cultural, multi-lingual melting-pot of influences.  His comments on the importance of those "Saxon poems in Latin that no-one reads" and how it is a shame that Anglo-Saxon is generally studied in English departments -- where, ahem, let us say that linguistic competence is scarce -- were well made.

I have to say Andy Orchard restored much of my waning faith in the standards that apply on the Humanities side of our institutions of higher education, although to acquire his manifest level of fluency in Latin, Old English, Welsh, and the ancient Scandinavian languages is a big ask by any standards.  Best of all, he had a welcome reticence about the virtues of "Heaneywulf", as it is apparently known in the trade, despite Melvyn Bragg's presumption of enthusiasm.

Spearywell Wood

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Fly Past

I expect all habitual photographers are the same, in this respect: there are certain potential photographs that you have seen and liked, and continue to see and like every time you go past, and yet have never yet got around to making.  Partly because it's never the right time or the right light, or you never have the right camera or lens, but mainly because you only ever remember them when you happen to be in that particular spot.

This is a classic example.  I pass its location less often these days, and rarely with a suitable camera, but any time I do, I think:  must remember to do that one, one of these days.  Last week, I happened to be in the right place with the right camera, but the light was awful.  Nevertheless, there it is: a dull facade transformed by a bit of imagination (artist Ray Smith's, in this case).  I may get a better shot at it, another time, I may not.  At least now I know where (and on what) to stand.

Monday, 2 March 2015

On Lambeth Bridge

 Looking south

Looking north

A trip to London yesterday, to visit the "Salt and Silver" exhibition of early photography at Tate Britain.  It was a toss-up between that and the poorly-reviewed "Sculpture Victorious" in the next room.

I suspect a laugh at the expense of Victorian sculptors might have been more entertaining.  One forgets how in love those early photographers were with the novelty of photographing ancient architecture.  The detail!  The even tonality!  And, best of all, the immobility!  So, several rooms mainly full of historic, worthy but dull records of grey stonework.  Although I wouldn't have minded taking home John Wheeley Gutch's wonderfully toned image of Tintern Abbey in 1858, ranging from the deep shadow of the ivy-covered arches to a bare hint of a sunlit, tree-covered hillside beyond, a view surely little changed since Wordsworth's repeat visit in 1798:
Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods
And not a single English Heritage interpretation board in sight.

As always, the photographs of people proved the most compelling, especially Roger Fenton's Crimean War portraits, which I have long admired for their bleak and scruffy renderings of the realities of life "in the field".  Especially as the field in question was located in the cold and rocky Crimean Peninsula, but its temporary residents were kitted out for some rather more congenial field near Aldershot.  I felt for them as we crossed the Thames on Lambeth Bridge, with a cold March wind cutting up the river and the clear sunlight periodically blocked by the ever-higher architectural cliffs along the Embankment.