Tuesday, 31 May 2016

An Incident in Winchester

On Saturday night we were sitting on some very hard chairs in the nave of Winchester Cathedral, mere feet from the burial place of Jane Austen, listening to The Deer's Cry, a performance by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen of choral pieces by Byrd, Tallis, and Arvo Pärt. My partner, on whom nothing is lost, nudged me as they trooped in, and muttered, "There are 18 of them!", which there were. High above them hung something (a microphone?) draped in a dangly white cloth, and I made a joke about the cathedral being haunted by the Holy Ghost. Heh. It's what makes me such good company on such occasions.

It goes without saying that the concert was pretty good. The Sixteen are a world-class ensemble, and the mighty vaulted nave of the Norman cathedral delivers a perfect acoustic environment for choral music. Although on a hard seat a little Byrd does go a long way, to be honest. And the polyphonic wall-of-sound experience delivered by the ancient stones did become a touch unvarying. But, partway through the first half, something happened.

Oddly, although I am a short man, when seated – especially when sitting bolt upright with a dodgy back in a sternly unforgiving chair – I become rather taller, and can actually see over the heads of most of the audience around me. Consequently, I noticed a disturbance off to my right, and saw someone, apparently collapsed, being extricated bodily from the seating. Naturally, this became more interesting to watch than the vocalists arrayed what seemed like a quarter of a mile away.

A woman on my side of the nave – a doctor, I presume, and not just some busybody overwhelmed by curiosity – quickly got up and went over to the side aisle, where the body and its attendants were out of sight. Shortly after, a young cleric in full-length black cassock appeared striding purposefully along some passageway behind the choir and the altar. A minute later he strode purposefully back the other way.  The eighteen sublime voices of The Sixteen sang on. Another minute later he reappeared, this time with a red medical backpack slung incongruously over his clerical garb. Over on the right, I saw him again, pulling his cassock off over his head, revealing a plain white shirt. Despite the possible tragedy happening over on that side aisle, it was all getting a little Python-esque, not least because of the obliviousness of most of the audience, and the overwhelming surround-sound accompaniment.

I began to wonder what it would be like to die under such circumstances. Laid out on the cold memorial slabs of an ancient cathedral floor, head propped on a hastily folded clerical robe and gazing up at the vaulting 80 feet above, surrounded by a few friends and well-meaning strangers, ears ringing with Byrd's Miserere mihi, Domine, with a large, like-minded gathering nearby, also listening, rapt, unaware of your plight. Compared to a hospital ward, or a care home, or some anonymous street corner, it didn't seem so bad. In fact, it seemed rather pleasant. Not a bad way to go, even if a little too camp and stagey for my taste.

Then the interval came, but a side door had already been discreetly opened, and the incident – whatever it was – was already over. I was dying for a pee, so made my way quickly in the opposite direction, striding purposefully over the vaulted dust of Jane Austen and sundry other locals and dignitaries, notable in their time.

I appreciate you have even less reason
to trust me than Steve McCurry, but
I swear this uncanny image has not
been altered in any way. 

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Dogs of May

It's a very distinctive month, May.  Probably my least favourite in the calendar, with its increasing heat and humidity, high pollen counts, and two pointless bank holidays at just the wrong time of year... The muggy month of May. Worst of all, these adumbrations of the dog days of summer to come also announce the transformation of the countryside into a leisure resource; one in which entitled fools in shorts light their smoky portable barbecues, dump picnic litter and leftovers everywhere, and lay claim to stretches of the meadows and riverbanks as if they were at some Mediterranean beach resort. What's not to dislike?

I really should know better by now, but I have a particular dislike of the sort of own-brand alpha-minus / beta-plus male you find polluting the summer landscape in rural Hampshire, all sports sandals, rugby shirt, and loud, braying voice. If Jeremy Clarkson and Nigel Farage have a natural constituency, these guys are it. They're the kind of chap who uses the word "chap" and – above and beyond the usual pieties of family, country, and Tory Party – adores and identifies with his damned dog. I resent these dogs as much as their complacent owners – "Don't worry, he's just friendly, he doesn't bite!" – and, now I come to think of it, I have rarely met a dog I didn't dislike.

The Dog Thing is quite alien to me. It's hard to be definitive about most things in life, but I have never, ever wanted a dog, something for which my daughter will never, ever forgive me. I may have inherited this aversion from my mother, whose childhood kitten was savaged to death by two greyhounds, but then that's dogs, isn't it? Deceitful predators – he's just being friendly! – emboldened by pack behaviour. Yes, he does bite, given a little encouragement. My partner was nipped on the leg only last year in a field near the viaduct. Come on, he's only being playful! Someone's Staffordshire bull terrier recently bit eleven (eleven!) children in a playground, putting three in hospital. I expect its owner thought it was just a little over-excited. Perhaps one of the children had been foolish enough to tease the animal? Asking for it! Luckily, dogs don't carry guns in this country, though enough of them have been weaponised, intentionally or by neglect, to warrant universal mistrust.

So. I imagine that little outburst may have lost me a substantial chunk of readers. So be it. Certain other, rather more popular blogs with a photographic focus are certainly very dog-friendly indeed. But if you think that was a bit of an anti-canine rant, have you ever come across this extract from that venerable cyclist's maintenance guide, Richard's Bicycle Book?
If the dog attacks: one defense is aerosol pepper sprays made for this purpose. They have a range of about ten feet and are light enough to clip to your handlebars. A water pistol loaded with a water-ammonia solution will also work, but is a good deal less convenient. If you have neither of these and can't or won't climb a tree get a stick or a large rock. No? The bicycle pump. Try to ram it down his throat. In any event, don't cower or cover up, because the dog will only chew you to ribbons. Attack. Any small dog can simply be hoisted up by the hind legs and his brains dashed out. With a big dog you are fighting for your life. If you are weaponless try to tangle him up in your bike and then strangle him. Kicks to the genitals and which break ribs are effective. If you have got a pump or a stick hold it at both ends and offer it up to the dog horizontally. Often the dog will bit the stick/pump and hang on. Immediately lift the dog up and deliver a very solid kick to the genitals. Follow up with breaking the dogs ribs or crushing its head with a rock. If the worst comes to the worst ram your entire arm down its throat. He will choke and die. Better your arm than your throat.
Richard Ballantine, Richard's Bicycle Book, 1972
Now that's a rant.

Friday, 27 May 2016

How Blurb Works

Each time I launch a new Blurb book into the world, it occurs to me that most people – even the genial and well-informed folk that are the readers of this blog – haven't a clue how Blurb works, or why it is such a brilliant idea. As I have an interest in keeping them in business, I thought now might be a good time to say a few words about it, and how you, too, could be a self-publisher.

The basic model is this:
  • You sign up for a Blurb account. This costs nothing. You get a personal "bookshop" where your publicly-available books will be displayed for sale, plus various administrative tools.
  • You download some free book-making software onto your computer. I much prefer the older BookSmart software to the newer BookWright software, but that may just be because I'm used to it. You can also use an online book-creation tool for really simple stuff, or at the other extreme design your own PDF file for upload.
  • You choose a format for your book, using either a ready-made "look", or assembling your own from page-templates which enable you to choose combinations and placement of text, image, and things like running headers and page numbers.
  • You fill however many pages you want. Images need to be 300 dpi JPEGs or PNGs. Text can be typed in or uploaded. It sits on your computer to be played with for as long as you like.
  • When it's complete, you upload the book to Blurb. This can take anything up to an hour for an image intensive book of 50 or more pages.
  • Once there, it's private to start with. To keep it there, you have to buy one copy, at basic production cost. Now, this is the point at which most people who have never tried self-publication before balk. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty pounds? For one copy?? Friends, that is not a rip-off, that is a bargain.  Even though any revisions you decide to make have to be uploaded and re-purchased as a fresh book. Why? Listen:
  • Once you're confident it's right, you invite people to buy it, or open it for sale to the general public, in the formats you choose. There are various tailored publicity tools available, free of charge, for social media, your blog or webpage, etc. But: you yourself need never buy another copy. Repeat: you need never buy another copy.
  • Every copy that a customer buys is made on demand, and the whole transaction is handled by Blurb. It costs you nothing. Requires no attention. If you have added some profit for yourself onto the basic production cost, Blurb will pass this on to you, provided it exceeds a certain accumulated monthly total, currently £12.50. If it doesn't, it's rolled over into the next month.
Sure, Blurb are making money, and you, probably, are not. But your book is out there and easily available, and you have not spent thousands of pounds up front to a printer for copies of a book you will not be able to distribute, and which will sit unsold in cardboard boxes under your bed and in your closet and in your loft and in your shed forever like a bad dream. Have you ever seen 1000 copies of a hardback book?*

The big plus, I think, is that the low cost of entry (and the zero cost of failing to sell many copies) means that producing new books regularly is not just feasible, it's addictive. And, if you're serious about your writing, or your photography, or your recipes, or whatever it is you do, there is no better creative discipline than editing and sequencing a book. Plus you have a permanent, compact, and convenient record of your work, which is far more likely to survive the coming decades than boxes of prints, ephemeral image files, or reams of text. Best of all, it's the sort of fun, self-motivated challenge that can shift your life into a higher gear.

But selling more than 20 copies, though? Dream on! I'm happy if I manage to recover half of the cost of the copies I keep for myself or give away.

* Back in 2003 I had 300 copies of a 24-page A5 landscape pamphlet printed to accompany an exhibition, The Colour of the Water, that ran at a popular local beauty spot from March 2003 to November 2004. It was the first publication of my imprint Shepherd's Crown, and 300 seemed a modest enough quantity. Luckily for me the National Trust had funded the printing, as it sold poorly, even reduced from £3.50 to £1 each, even over twenty months!  I still have a box of the bloody things...  Want one?  Email me.

ADDED 28/5/16:  By the way, Blurb does not disclose who buys copies of your books. So, sadly, a "thank you" from me has to be taken for granted.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Feedback Loop

As ever, Wondermark seems uncannily on target (the mouseover text is "nothing worse than the fear you might be good at something that'd be really hard to do"). Luckily, I no longer have a day job not to give up.

So, my heartfelt thanks to those who took the trouble to give feedback (or even just "reassurance") on England and Nowhere. Not to mention those (few, so far) who went the extra yard and actually bought a copy*. It really is both reassuring and helpful to hear something – anything! – from the Great Void out there other than the feeble echo of my own voice.

As to the rest of you – you tongue-tied, tight-fisted lurkers – I really don't know what your problem is. Seek help before it is too late...**

* I should probably point out that I make the same profit on a £4.99 PDF (even more on an e-book) as I do on a £30.50 hardback. Really! So no need to feel cheap...

** To be honest, I don't really expect support for these projects from blog readers. There, that's let you off the hook! What is really annoying is the resonant silence from those photo-world "usual suspects" to whom I send mail-shots, most of whom are not readers of this blog. I mean, sure, people are busy, but... How long does it take to write "When I said 'stay in touch' I meant keep telling me how good my work is. Your work is worthless, pretentious rubbish. Please stop sending me these emails"? Too long, apparently.

Monday, 23 May 2016


It is one of the great pleasures, I think, to see something like this hiding in plain sight in the town centre, as I did this morning, and to be able to record it with a camera. Not least because – despite the fact that it screams "Oi, you! Yes, you! Over here!!" – it's unlikely anyone else will have paid it a moment's attention. But I mean... Just look, it's a Japanese scroll painting, complete with a misty Mount Fuji.

Then to turn a corner, and see its companion piece in japanned black... Yes! I really don't care if people passing by give me funny looks, clutching their New Look and Primark carrier bags. This stuff is the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Improbable Views of Distant Storms

Bedminster through Bristol Zoo

Avon Gorge through Bristol City Museum

Avonmouth through St. George's, Bristol

Friday, 20 May 2016

As Seen from Space

I mentioned in the comments to a previous post that I had downloaded a high-resolution satellite image from Google Earth Pro of the area explored in my recent book England and Nowhere. I had originally planned to include it in the book, primarily as a way of showing how closely interconnected the various landscape elements are, but in the end it seemed both superfluous and distracting, and I left it out. Here it is:

          1: St. Catherine's Hill
          2: M3 motorway (Twyford Down cutting)
          3: Twyford Down
          4. Hockley Viaduct
          5. Itchen water meadows
          6a-c: River Itchen and Itchen Navigation canal
North is at the top. The area covered by the image is roughly five square kilometers (two square miles). Winchester lies immediately to the north.  The large building to the west of St. Catherine's Hill is the St. Cross Hospital, the terminus of the "Keats Walk". If you park in the lay-by next to the viaduct, it takes no more than an hour or two to complete any number of pleasant circular walks, even at the annoying stop-start pace we might call a "photographer's dawdle". Note the handy pedestrian bridge over the motorway between the hill and Twyford Down, and the tunnel beneath the motorway between the viaduct and the southern stretch of the Itchen. There is nowhere that cannot be connected to anywhere else, on either side of the road.

Obviously, satellite imagery tends to flatten out topography.  For example, you get little sense of the depth of the valley between St. Catherine's Hill and the motorway, with its very steep rise up to the left-hand side of the cliff-like cutting. Also, from space Twyford Down looks like a flat field; it's hard to imagine the exhilarating sense of elevation you experience when walking on that rolling high ground. What you do see, however, is the way everything diverges and re-converges as it flows around the hill, like a rock in a stream. Or perhaps like a gigantic green eye, gazing back at the satellite.

In fact, the main road into Winchester used to run along the west flank of the hill, tight alongside both the canal and the old railway line that crossed the river on the viaduct. The only way to really understand how entangled it all once was is to use a very large-scale pre-War Ordnance Survey map. Or, better still, an online service like that provided by the National Library of Scotland, which enables you to view and compare OS maps of different scales and vintages. A good map makes all the difference: is there anything more intriguing than seeing words in close proximity on a map like "Plague Pits", "Ancient Fields", "Roman Road", and "Earthworks"? Not to mention "Sludge Beds", or "Sewage Farm"?

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Lion Around

The pair of particularly chummy-looking lions bookending this post guard the doorway of a terraced house in Brighton. Their scruffy, neglected air is very typical of the British urban landscape, and I am increasingly interested in such remnants of an older Britain, one where imperial motifs were freely used, unironically, as decoration on the most unpretentious buildings. You expect to see this sort of thing in central London, but it turns up everywhere once you start noticing; at least, anywhere where there are still buildings remaining from before WW2.

Even by the 1930s, the British Empire was not an uncontested subject, and certainly outmoded as a decorative theme. As early as 1926, for example, the Labour Party had passed a motion to end the celebration of "Empire Day" (May 24th), though it was only finally abolished in 1958. However, if you enter "Empire Day" into a Google Image search (and ignore all the Star Wars images) you get a strong taste of what we might call "the old, weird Britain", with Empire-themed dressing up for schoolchildren and rampant union flag fetishisation. I think what intrigues me is the way such a powerful ideology – once so central to our national identity, for good or ill – has faded so completely from living memory, despite the persistence of its relics on our streets, like the symbology of some forgotten religion. Unlike the "Lenin parks" of ex-Soviet Bloc countries, where ranks of redundant mustachioed statuary can find a home, we either sling the stuff in a skip, or just leave it lying around.

There has been a fair bit of attention paid recently to Ian Nairn, and the 60th anniversary of his concept of "subtopia" – the alleged erosion of a distinctive sense of place in Britain by careless, anonymous urban planning – as proposed in his book Outrage, published in 1956. As Nairn's glum, end-to-end survey of England started out here in Southampton, those reviewing or repeating his work have also tended to start here; typically, a recent BBC Radio 4 programme had someone stand on top of a city-centre multi-storey carpark in order to bemoan the quality of the view. Really? I mean, is there a city-centre carpark anywhere that gives onto the sort of vista that gladdens the heart? And even if there is, who cares?*

But, as it happens, I am very fond of our ugly, palimpsestic British streets. If you travel in Europe, you are immediately struck by how uniquely ugly our own town-centres are, with their filthy, multilayered, ill-matched and ill-fitting facades, and "here today, gone tomorrow" acceptance of their own ephemerality. Think of a typical shop: once it was a tailor's – the proud proprietorial sign is still engraved in stone above the door – then a branch of a chain of clothing stores; then it was a series of three unsuccessful restaurants; then for five years an electronics supplies shop, handy for replacement cables; briefly it became a place you could buy tacky mobile phone accessories; now it's an empty, shuttered space, plastered in grafitti and fly-posters, awaiting its next incarnation, or possibly demolition. Vestigial evidence of each of its previous existences still hangs around in the form of bits of old signage, rows of rawlplugged screw holes, traces of paint, and protruding wires and brackets. Yes, it's "ugly", but I really don't mind. I am fascinated by the way older British high streets openly wear their history, like a sleeve of tattoos. True, this fascination is probably compounded by having come of age during that first wave of nostalgia for the authenticity of Old Stuff.

There are a couple of particularly splendid examples of these Empire leftovers on Shirley High Street, Southampton, which I keep meaning to record before they finally vanish.  They're a pair of full-on imperial lions-banners-and-Britannia mouldings in a niche situated on the brick facade above the plate-glass of two shopfronts, one currently a cut-price goods market (the sort of cheap stuff that would once have been described as "Empire made"), the other an upscale Indian restaurant. Now there's irony for you! But I think I'm probably going to need a step-ladder to get the picture.

* And if you've ever tried to manoeuvre a large vehicle round one of those labyrinthine French underground multi-storey carparks, you'll appreciate the airy roominess of the British equivalent. Though my kids used to love the way the shiny, grippy texture of the flooring they use down there makes tyres turning a tight corner at 5 m.p.h. squeal like a Hollywood car-chase.

Sunday, 15 May 2016


If you were thinking of buying a copy of England and Nowhere at a discounted price, act now.  I'm about to move the book onto my public Blurb page, and add a small profit to the various prices.

I'm feeling uncommunicative at the moment, as I've done something unfortunate to my lower back by moving furniture around, and rendered myself immobile. (Is that the time? Almost time for another dose of Ibuprofen). There's something particularly humiliating about not being able to pull on your own socks, at least, not without undergoing some absurd and time-consuming contortions. I read recently that it took men on Scott's Antarctic expedition an hour each morning to get their boots on, and now I know how they felt.

Mind you, this, from the same essay, cheered me up:
Even in the privacy of their journals and diaries, polar explorers maintain a fine reserve. In his journal, Ernest Shackleton described his feeling upon seeing, for the first time in human history, the Antarctic continent beyond the mountains ringing the Ross Ice Shelf: "We watched the new mountains rise from the great unknown that lay ahead of us," he wrote, "with feelings of keen curiosity, not unmingled with awe." One wonders, after reading a great many such firsthand accounts, if polar explorers were not somehow chosen for the empty and solemn splendor of their prose styles – or even if some eminent Victorians, examining their own prose styles, realized, perhaps dismayed, that from the look of it, they would have to go in for polar exploration.
Annie Dillard, An Expedition to the Pole

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Waspocalypse Now

The forging of the Great Golden Wasp ("Vespa, vespa, burning bright...").

I know, I know, I could so easily be mistaken for a complete lunatic. But when Reason takes a well-earned nap, such monsters are brought forth. Just ask my man Francisco Goya.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Puck's Song III

Out of the Weald, the secret Weald,
Men sent in ancient years,
The horse-shoes red at Flodden Field,
The arrows at Poitiers!

Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn –
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born!

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Brandless Brand

I know I said it was a question expecting the answer "No", but it is nonetheless disappointing when yet another publisher's  pro forma letter of rejection hits the e-doormat: "Dear [your name here], Thank you for considering our humble publishing house, but..."  Ah, well.

But it does raise the question, why set yourself up like this for serial rejections? Which I certainly have done, over the last 40 years. Poems, plays, stories, articles, cartoons, exhibitions, illustrations, photographs, books of photographs...  The list of my rejected submissions is depressingly long, when I come to think of it; the list of my acceptances very short indeed. So, at what point should you think: sod it, I am one of life's civilians, and will be much happier when I finally forget about trying to discover what life is like on the other side of that magic barrier that separates us wannabes from the published and the players?

The magic password is self-promotion, of course, but I think most sane people are uncomfortable with that game. It's one thing to submit the odd book proposal, quite another to spend quality time polishing up brand Me Me Me. I had a very curious conversation with the director of a gallery that showed some of my work a couple of years ago. It was the afternoon before the opening of the exhibition. I was exhausted from travel, highly-wrought from being interviewed in front of a TV camera, and nervous about the prospect of holding forth that night to an audience of strangers. Somehow a vague chat over coffee about motives and opportunities took a weird turn, and I found myself being taken to task over my amateurism, lack of ambition, and my foolish unwillingness to push my "brand".

Wait, what? I thought that was who I was and how I had come to be there; indeed, my presentation that evening was entirely concerned with the joys of process-not-product, the freedom-to-fail conferred by amateur status, and so on. The one thing I was not, for good or ill, was a brand. Unless perhaps I was, unwittingly, the Brandless Brand? I was nonplussed and annoyed, and – being me – responded by getting onto the rhetorical front foot. I said that I valued being a good parent and partner over being a successful artist, and was not prepared to leave the traditional trail of broken relationships and promises in the wake of the pursuit of My Brilliant Career. Which is true. "Don't be an arsehole" is kind of my mission statement.

Nonetheless, my presentation did seem to go down well, up to and including a proposal of marriage. It was clearly a message people want to hear. However, as all fellow "high-functioning introverts" will know, by mid-evening I had gone through the high and was coming down fast. I needed to escape, and quietly sloped off to catch the tram back to my hotel. Oops. Epic fail! I had forgotten I was meant to attend a meal in my honour, which is clearly an unforgivable branding faux pas in the gallery world. At least, I assume that is why my subsequent emails to that director have gone unanswered, and my conciliatory gifts of books and photographs unacknowledged.

But, to return to the question: should you acknowledge defeat, stop kidding yourself that constant rejection is really a back-handed compliment to your uncategorisable brilliance, and simply resign yourself to the status of – deep breath – hobbyist? Or should you redouble your efforts by focussing less on the product, and more on the marketing strategy? The answer to that is clearly more pressing if you're trying to sell a couple of grand's worth of art every month to make a living. The pure joy of the unalloyed creative process is a fine and noble thing, but pays no bills. Besides, the competition is intense: far too many insecure souls are seeking validation by setting up a rickety stall in the overcrowded art marketplace.

When I say "you", of course, I should really be saying "I". So perhaps there's a simpler question: what would convincing a publisher to take a gamble on making, distributing, and attempting to sell 500 copies of my latest book do for me that selling 10 self-published copies of essentially the same thing would not?  Make money? Not a chance. Raise my profile? Not really and, anyway, to what end? I'm 62, and comfortably retired; to paraphrase Lao Tzu, I sell no work, and yet bills get paid.

I think I probably need to re-read and inwardly digest my own presentation again. Was it, I wonder, just the self-serving bullshit of a (justifiably, if temporarily) swollen ego, or a genuine manifesto for a happier, more creative life?

Oh, and talking of my latest book... I think I'm done playing around with it, so if you'd like a look – or even to buy one! – I've put it up on Blurb, temporarily, on an "invitation only", production-cost only basis for readers of this blog. There are two links:
  • If you follow this one, you'll see a paperback option (with the cheapest paper), a hardback option (with a dustjacket and premium paper), and a PDF download.
  • If you follow this one, you'll see the e-book option (Apple iPad/iPhone only).
Both physical books are 6.5" / 17cm square, 86 pages. The e-book and the PDF are excellent value, at £3.99. If you go for the PDF, you'll need to set Adobe Acrobat's "View" options as follows:
  • Choose "Page Display"
  • click "Two Page View"
  • click "Show Cover Page in Two Page View" (important)
  • click "Show Gap Between Pages"
There will also be a larger (8.5" / 22cm square), non-Blurb, signed and numbered hardback edition, available only from me directly. Unfortunately, this will have to cost in the region of £65. If you might be interested, contact me via email.

This offer will expire when I remember to cancel it, and finally get around to adding some profit for me onto the price. Now there's aggressive marketing for you!

UPDATE 17/5/16: All versions of the book have now been made public on my Blurb Bookstore, and the prices adjusted. The links given above still work, however.

Thursday, 5 May 2016


Long-standing readers may recall my sometime reputation* as a "horizonless photographer".  That is, not someone whose imagination and capacities are boundless (if only), but one who rarely includes any sky, or indeed much distance at all, in his pictures. You may therefore have been struck by the sheer quantity of skyscape that has made it into my recent photographs.

It's the clouds! I don't know about any other UK observers, but I have been astonished by the changes in the quality of the clouds over southern England in recent times. Talk about your "rows and flows of angel hair, and ice-cream castles in the air"... I sometimes open our front door in the morning, and gape in wonderment at the cloud theatre taking place overhead. It's amazing! The humblest view of suburban rooftops is rendered sublime beneath these towering swags of luminous and purple-shaded water vapour. They seem to have more substance, more sculpture, and more drama than I can recall seeing before. They're also a lot lower, arranging themselves artfully behind trees and buildings, rather than lurking bashfully high above the con-trails.

Something is going on. Unfortunately, I fear that that something is probably climate change at work. Warmer seas, warmer air, changing jetstreams, changing atmospheric dynamics... Put it all together and it adds up to more better clouds. It's a delightful visual treat, but it does feel rather like admiring the sparkle of an iceberg towards which we are inexorably and fatefully drifting.

And, no, I have not been using HDR (perish the thought) or "constructing" these skies! They're just there, and the Fuji seems to enjoy recording them as much as I enjoy looking at them. Not to shift one's attention upwards a bit would seem perverse. After all, I was never a self-declared horizonless photographer.

And talking of clouds, and changes, and ice-cream castles in the air...  If you're a Joni Mitchell fan, you've probably already seen this performance of "Both Sides Now" from 2000, in the orchestral arrangement by Vince Mendoza. Wow... Talk about songs of innocence and experience... Incredibly, she was 23 when she wrote that song, in March 1967, but now she really has seen both sides, several times over, and dropped an octave in the process.

* You are absolutely forbidden to read Elisabeth Spector's generous words in the comments to that T.O.P. post. Absolutely. Oh, all right, go on then... (Thanks again, Elisabeth).

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Avoiding Giants

I was walking through a local wood on Saturday afternoon when I spotted something strange. It looked almost like an immense pair of antlers emerging from the forest floor. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a yew-tree which had somehow been split in half where its twin trunks emerged from a common root.  So precise was the split that each half looked the mirror-image of the other, right down to the half-disc of roots torn from the ground. It's one of the stranger things I've ever encountered in the natural world. It looked as if the tree had been hewn in half by a gigantic sword stroke.

I suppose lightning is the obvious candidate, but there is no evidence of scorching anywhere on the bark. A number of trees have blown over in this particular stretch of woodland, so it would seem the twin trunks had simply finally become too much of a burden for their short supporting bole, and been wrenched apart in a winter storm. That they would fall away quite so symmetrically is a curiosity, though.

Among the more impressive of the other arboreal casualties since my last visit was this venerable and massive old beech:

That is one hell of a log, and a salutary reminder why it is never wise to shelter under a tree during a storm. Though I suppose feuding giants can't absolutely be ruled out as a cause, in which event I'm not sure what you can do to stay out of harm's way, other than run for it.