Saturday, 22 July 2017

Perseverance and Challenge

I read this in a book review a while ago, and it struck me as an interesting insight into the way certain things have changed:
Though Hajdu doesn’t address this particular issue, he does pinpoint a subtle yet profound transformation digitization has brought about in many people’s listening habits, including his own. Consider, to begin with, what things were like in the pre-digital age:

'I remember buying the album Hejira in 1976, to use the example of Joni Mitchell […] and finding it tuneless and confusing. But, damn it, I spent a whole $7 on the thing. So I stuck with it, hoping to find a way to appreciate it and get my money’s worth. Within a few days, I did, and my taste expanded in the process.'

The situation is quite different now. With a streaming service at your disposal, you can skitter from one song to another (and not only within a single album) until something hooks you from the very start. Hajdu, by his own admission, does just that. Such an approach, he pointedly remarks, “inhibits perseverance and impedes challenge.”

review by Rayyan Al-Shawaf of "Love For Sale: Pop Music in America" by David Hajdu (LARB 16 Jan 2017)
Setting aside the totally baffling reaction to Hejira –  tuneless and confusing? Perhaps he played it backwards? –  the general point being made is sound. Those used to be the keynotes of education, didn't they: "perseverance and challenge"? Even though you might forget every poem, date, fact, theorem, constant, and equation you had encountered along the way, the main takeaway from a solid education was that sticking to difficult tasks brought rewards that far exceeded those of more easily-achieved satisfactions. And, what's more, that is a true truth, universally acknowledged, copper-bottomed, and unconditionally guaranteed.

I knew my career in university libraries was coming to its end when our profession, in its over-eagerness to please, decided to smooth away as many as possible of those little difficulties that, essentially, constitute the real, actual educational benefit of using a research library. You know: learning how to look stuff up, determine whether it is relevant, and whether it exists in your institution, and if so, where and in what form, and if not, how to get hold of it. Above all, to discover the variousness of the world of books, information, and scholarship. Yes, it's inconvenient and frustrating that different catalogues, databases, and reference works all make different assumptions, contain different materials, index them in different ways, and deliver them in different forms and to different degrees of completeness, but learning to navigate these peculiarities is all part of the art of becoming a competent researcher. It's also a genuinely transferable life-skill: how to be indefatigable in the face of systematic bureaucratic obfuscation.

Or, so it seemed, until we decided the best way to serve our students and staff was to disguise and package up these many inconvenient differences – which still exist – into a one-stop automated vending-machine, capable of delivering instant gratification. Why, kids, you don't even have to know how to spell what you're looking for: we've taken care of that! Better, you don't have to get out of bed, as all the stuff on your reading lists is online, right here, ready and waiting! We've spent hours of staff time getting hold of all those reading lists, tracking down the copyright holders, and getting it all legally scanned and digitised for you. So no more boring note-taking and queueing for photocopiers! We've even made an app, so you can "research" your essay on your phone, and it's all so damned seamless, frictionless, and flavourless that you won't know or care whether you're reading a chapter from a book, an article in a peer-reviewed journal, a newspaper column, or a website put up by a 15-year-old as their school project. Spoon feeding? You're kidding me: this is more like force-feeding geese for foie gras...

Sorry, I'm ranting. Also, I should confess: although I did eventually take myself out of that picture because I was no longer comfortable in it, it was precisely me and people like me who, like willing but unwitting atomic scientists, wrote the code and developed the systems that made it all possible. What harm could it do? We had no idea how it would end! It was really good fun! We voz only following orders!  Sigh. In my darker moments, I suspect that some combination of the drive to save time and effort with the desire to be seen to be astonishingly clever will result in the killer app that finally sees off Western civilisation. My little satire of 2010 (on humanities education delivered as a placebo pill) comes to seem less and less far-fetched.

Isn't it interesting, though, how – in the days of the tweeting president and the instant dissemination of false "news" – those of us nominally on the oppositional left should find ourselves taking up what are essentially conservative stances towards things like research skills, attention spans, and reading and listening habits? I suppose there has always been a strong puritanical streak on the Left which, let's be honest, is precisely what has turned most people off. If your idea of the good life is a lively meeting to discuss housing policy, followed by an invigorating run, some green tea and a light, nutritious vegan supper, then an hour or two's reading and an early night to bed, then you are not so much out of touch with the majority population as a separate species sharing the same planet.

But it is important to learn how to tug away at the masks worn by the would-be manipulators of mass society, as they continually assimilate good things to bad ends. Look at how managerialism has co-opted the languages of community, mindfulness, and "personal development" and yet has created a precarious ant-world where people must learn to be corporately on message and to regard themselves as flexible, disposable human resources, lucky to be in work and always needing to justify their continued employment and, if necessary, to take one for the company. Job for life? Final-salary index-linked pension? Trade unions? So last century, grandad! Similarly, the glossiness and invasive ease of use of our "devices", coupled with social media and celebrity culture, have become the lubricants for a know-nothing, "price of everything" popularism that places no value at all on those old-fashioned virtues of perseverance and challenge. TL;DR!* After all, why bother to learn, to seek out, to question, to discriminate, to overcome lazy disinclination, when you are being hosed down with personally-targeted torrents of shiny, sexy, ephemeral infotainment all day, every day? Every hour spent learning irregular verbs or practising scales is an hour that could have been spent catching up with Facebook.

So, have we finally said goodbye to seriousness and difficulty? Many might hope so. As long ago as the book of Ecclesiastes, it was lamented that of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. And will the daughters of musick be brought low, and will there now never be another Hejira, in the sense of a coherent body of work from a serious artist, carefully thought through, and delivered without condescension to a minority audience? Well, of course there will! Except it won't be nine songs on a 12 inch disk of vinyl in a cardboard "gatefold" package. I look forward to it, although I do hope it won't come in pill or implant form**. But, be glad, for the song (and the making of many books) has no ending...

 * Too long, didn't read!
** ImplART ™ ... You read it here first! Just stick it in your sockART!

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Southampton Water

I have a strong association between pike and Southampton Water, or rather the marshy reed-beds where the river Test meanders into the brackish estuary, as somewhere in there is (or used to be) a keeper's cottage with a dozen or so pike "masks" mounted on the exterior wall. We passed it once on a walk many years ago, and I've been meaning and forgetting to go back there ever since. As I recall, some of them were huge.

And I knew I'd find a use for that St. George wheelbarrow, sooner or later.

Booth Museum pike, Brighton

One for the language-enthusiasts: isn't it curious, that nearly all fish names are singular in the plural? I have a hunch, though nothing more than that, that this has something to do with the names of creatures that can be hunted and eaten. Despite "rabbits", and no doubt a dozen other contradictory examples. Besides, I've a feeling that to say "there's half a dozen rabbit over there" is subtly but significantly different in intention from saying "there's half a dozen rabbits over there". Run, rabbit, run... (and, yes, don't tell 'em your name, Pike!).

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Sleep of Reason

In making this latest series of composites, I keep thinking of the words that accompany one of Goya's most famous images from Los Caprichos, a series of satirical etchings: el sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters). They somehow seem very appropriate for these Interesting Times of ours, and I might even, um, appropriate them as the title for my own series.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Forty-Seven Memory Palace

I have mentioned several times the block of council flats in Stevenage New Town, in which I spent my adolescent years. After my sister had left home we moved, in summer 1968, to a two-bedroom, fourth-floor flat in this seven-story block, known variously as "Stony Hall, Block C" and "Chauncy House". It was the last home I shared with my parents and, in Neil Young's words, all my changes were there ("There is a place in Northern Hertfordshire..."). It was there that I went from being a lonely, obedient swot to a gregarious, rebellious swot. Well, you can't change everything!

After I, too, had left home (about as hastily as I could manage it, I'm afraid to say), my parents finally moved out of that flat in the 1980s, at first into a council-maintained old-people's bungalow then, as they grew increasingly frail, into a mobile-home in my sister's back garden in Norfolk (we were under oath never to call it "the caravan"). My increasingly tenuous connection with my home-town had finally been broken.

Driving up from Southampton to my mother's funeral in 2007, I thought I'd take a detour through Stevenage to get a look at the flats, and maybe take some photographs. To my complete amazement I discovered that the entire block had been demolished, and building work was already starting on the site. It was hard to take in: my bedroom, the theatre of so many vivid teenage dreams, fears, aspirations, and fantasies, had simply become an empty, dusty space, fifty feet up in the air. It was a scene you wouldn't dare write into a film, for fear of being accused of heavy-handed symbolism.

Being of an obsessive bent, in the years since I have continually attempted to recreate that flat as a sort of exercise in mental archaeology. In idle moments, drifting off to sleep or travelling on trains, I have carried out many walk-throughs of its layout and contents, to the extent that I could probably use it as a "memory palace"; a memory flat, perhaps, for a more modest mnemonic store of material. The door was here, it had frosted glass, no pebbled wire-reinforced glass, it was dark red, next to the wall of the kitchen which looked onto the walkway, and so on. Somehow, though, whenever I tried to put the layout on paper, it never quite fitted together. I tried working from the few photographs I had, but these were all of the front elevation, not the back where all the walkways, lifts, entrances, and rubbish chutes were. Periodically, I would carry out Google searches, to see if any new images or information would show up. Usually, I would draw a blank.

But, recently, I finally hit paydirt. It turns out that the University of Edinburgh maintains a database of UK tower-blocks, including the ones that are no longer with us. Their entry for Stony Hall a.k.a. Chauncy House was very informative, giving front and – finally! – rear view photographs taken by Miles Glendinning in the 1980s, and useful things like the name of the architects, and references to some articles written about it in architectural journals back in the 1950s, when the design of "social housing" was a hot topic, and racking plebs like battery hens was considered a decent solution to the housing shortage.

A quick check showed that "my" library did actually hold two of the journals concerned, and a descent into the basement (where disruptive and noisy refurbishment is taking place over the summer) put the relevant volumes into my hands. I couldn't believe my luck: there was a ten-page article in The Architectural Review for December 1952 that included fresh photographs, front and rear, and the thing I had dreamed of finding: an architect's plan of the layout of the flats.

The curious thing is that there is almost certainly no-one else in the entire world who cares about this in the slightest. The even more curious thing is that the perfect solution to my self-imposed problem had been sitting in my former place of work, undiscovered and patiently waiting, all along.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Grant Museum

Back around 1980 I was a postgraduate student at University College London, and spent a lot of time that should have been spent studying just wandering the backstreets of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, where the Old, Weird London was still in evidence. The area was crammed with second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, musical instrument repairers, record shops, specialists in umbrellas and walking sticks, and the kind of strange little outlets that sold sex-aids or surgical prosthetics (often hard to tell apart). It's all gone now, replaced by coffee-shops and upscale eateries. Apart from that umbrella shop.

However, in all the time I spent mooching around at UCL, I somehow failed to notice the Grant Museum of Zoology. In fact, despite searching the Web a number of times last year for potential "museology" sites, it was only a few weeks ago that it came to my attention. It's remarkable how something like this can hide in plain sight: I must have walked straight past it dozens of times. In fact, in trying to find it yesterday (not realising it had been moved from its original site in the confusing warren of buildings and infrastructure that is UCL's main site) I walked straight past it yet again on my way to Gower Street from Warren Street tube.

It was worth a bit of pavement-pounding on a very hot July day, though, even though it was dimly lit and I'd forgotten to bring my 60mm macro lens. So, despite the fact that the photographs are not optimal, I couldn't resist knocking together the two composites above last night. And, I mean to say, where else are you going to find a jar of moles? Seriously: a jar full of moles! Ah, the world we have lost...

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Birds

I'm currently feeling enthusiastic about a new series of composite pictures I've been working on, provisionally called"Birdsong". To an extent they're just another reworking of the images I compiled last year under the theme "museology", but a bit more "meta", I suppose, in that they're pictures about pictures of birds. But I've been having fun finding different ways of framing and reframing my original photographs of stuffed specimens from various museums.

Who knows? Maybe another hit like this year's "Golden Wasp Game" is about to emerge, maybe not. Talking of which, I heard this week that both of my pictures at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition have now sold out their editions of 50. How about that? I really didn't expect that outcome (I know, I know, my son has already made pointed reference to "hashtag humblebrag", whatever that means).

Mind you, that is a lot more invoicing, packing, and trips to the Post Office than I'd bargained for. I mean, have you seen the size of a box of 100 rigid A3 envelopes (not to mention the price)? Then there's the occasional expedition to the bank, as I've actually received a few payments in the form of a cheque, which now seems incredibly quaint. That may not sound such a burden, but there is now only one – one! – branch of the HSBC bank in the entirety of the city of Southampton where such antediluvian curios can be paid in. It seems "three miles away" is now considered to be "conveniently near you" if you will insist on making us handle your gold nuggets, actual grimy cash, promissory notes, and banker's drafts.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Flying Weasels

You know summer has arrived when the weasels take to the air. Why? Just for the fun of it, it seems, the little thrill-seekers.

But, wait, is that a bubble they're floating in? And might one of those slightly odd-looking swallows cause it to burst? I think you can see where I'm going here...

Friday, 30 June 2017

Captain Swing

Just to mark the end of flaming June, we'll have one more fiery Whasp View – this time of the rick-burning and machine-smashing celebrations of 1830 that went under the name of Captain Swing (nothing whatsoever to do with Glenn Miller) – then I think we'll give the slightly overworked wasp theme a rest.


And, yes, I've borrowed the Ag Lab and stooks at bottom right from my man Samuel Palmer, but I've checked and he says he doesn't mind in the least.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Whasp View of History


You may be familar with the so-called "Whig view of history".  That is, an approach to the description and study of history that sees the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater freedom and enlightenment. Impossible? No, teleological!* Things can only get better!

It's the essence of a liberal, Enlightenment politics, which sees the power of human reason as a force able to reshape society for the better, abandoning all repressive, superstitious, aristocratic, traditional forms of government. In the Whig view, whatever the setbacks along the way, the progress of humanity to a better state is inevitable. Marxism shares something of this same admirable mindset, as do I, when in a good mood.

But then there is the Whasp view of history. Which is a rather different view, and one that glowers in the darker corners of our story. Well, what do you expect from a species whose main experience at the hands of humanity is to be squashed flat with a rolled up newspaper, or exterminated en masse by chemical warfare?


* I will never tire of this feeble joke, based on a TV advertising campaign in the 1970s for Ariel, the first washing powder to use enzymes. Their slogan was, "Impossible? No, biological!". Heh.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Museology Revisited

I've been looking for a way of using the "museology" images I was playing around with last year, and was excited by some album pages I saw recently in a book on early photography. I'm not sure whether this really is the answer, but I've enjoyed making these two today.

And, yes, those are wasps in the background of both pictures.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

To mention the Pink Floyd's damp squib at the Knebworth Festival in 1975, as I did in a recent post, is inevitably also to conjure up the counter-image of John Lydon hanging around the King's Road later that same year in his ripped and safety-pinned Pink Floyd t-shirt, with the band's eyes scratched out and "I HATE" inscribed above the name. It now seems he may not have really meant it, ma-an, but it was what got him noticed by Malcolm McLaren, and ultimately landed him the gig as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. In any history of pop, this is the moment at which the jarring, jangling opening bars of "Anarchy in the UK" will strike up. It's a cliché that will never age, because it perfectly expresses in a few seconds whole paragraphs of poptasmic bombast.

Such transitional moments are never really the simple, clean break the TV histories like to portray, though, are they? For one thing, it's an obvious but frequently ignored fact that the music a youthful "generation" identifies itself with has generally been created by the previous generation. Just to pick a few names at random, John Lydon was born in 1956, Graham Parker in 1950, Joe Strummer in 1952, Elvis Costello in 1954, Adam Ant in 1954, Jordan in 1955, Siouxsie Sioux in 1957. In other words, it would seem my generation created "punk" and New Wave music and styles, for the edification and entertainment of our younger brothers and sisters born in the early to mid-1960s. By the same token, my age-cohort will never, in its bones, venerate the Clash or the Jam the same way it does the Who (Pete Townshend, b. 1945) or the Kinks (Ray Davis, b. 1944). Plus, however fresh that brash, "new" music may have seemed – and attitude is everything to the young – the fact is that by 1975 pop had already begun to eat itself.

I can recall the the first throat-clearings of punk. In fact, I can still remember when, listening to my little transistor radio late at night while working on a master's dissertation at the University of East Anglia in 1976/7, DJ John Peel was still scoffing at noms de punk like Rat Scabies and Sid Vicious. Only later did he become their champion. Had it not been for the infamous TV "interview" with Bill Grundy, I would have seen the Sex Pistols live at UEA on 3rd December 1976! But the university panicked, pathetically, and high-handedly cancelled the gig. However, at the time, being far more interested in Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Joni Mitchell's Hejira, and jazz fusion pioneers like Weather Report, the loss seemed more annoying than historic. Poorly-executed shrieks of incoherent rage at the unfairness of the world were no longer my thing: damn it, I was studying Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, and finally finding my feet as an academic after three wasted undergraduate years. Although it is true I was still reading the NME every week, then in its era-defining heyday with a writing team including Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Ian Penman, Paul Morley, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons.

But – and this is a big "but" – although I have had a wide-ranging acquaintance over the years, socially speaking, from the king in his castle to the beggar at his gate, from haughty lawyers to humble buskers, I cannot think of a single person of my "generation" I actually knew who either trailblazed or followed the Way of Punk. I suppose I came close to a few: the older brother of one friend, and the younger sister of another were closely identified with that scene, but it remains a puzzle. So many of us had gone the whole way with various versions and combinations of the standard-issue late-1960s alternative lifestyle: the very long hair, the ragged clothes, the "soft" and not-so-soft drugs, the music, the politics. And sure, plenty of us had eventually recoiled from the excesses of prog and "rock", had cut our hair short, and were enjoying the new sounds coming out of the radio (in my case so much so that I began for the first time noting tracks down in my notebook: see the post Playlist). Certainly, the anti-commercial, DIY ethic of punk played to my politics. But, although that whole safety-pin, spitting, and spiky hair thing looked fun, in a self-dramatising adolescent way, it was definitively "greasy kids' stuff", and it is a mystery to me where the nascent Rotten and Vicious demographic had been hiding itself all that time. Possibly locked in the bathroom since crashing a party where the dodgy brown microdots had been circulating in 1972.

After all, by the late 70s we were young adults in our twenties. The good parts of the previous "alternative" lifestyle were far too good to be thrown away in a mere fit of fashion-consciousness (unlike those split-knee loon pants or crushed velvet flares*). The wholefoods, the communitarian impulse, the ecological awareness, the rejection of patriarchal norms, the commitment to various versions of a radical left politics: all of these were things that needed defending into the future against a resurgent conservatism in British politics, not trashing in a spirit of No Future nihilism. We had developed a new definition of  what "grown up" meant, and were keen to try it out in a grown-up world that included jobs and babies, as well as compromising things like mortgages, pensions, and ageing parents.

What this most likely illustrates is what a silly idea a closely-defined youthful "generation" has become, at least when determined by musical tastes. Clearly, the break between generations before and after World War 2 was very real, if always shaded and nuanced. The difference between pre-War parents growing up in anxious, insecure poverty, maybe sharing one outside toilet with many neighbours, and their post-War children growing up in newly-built, self-contained council houses with rights to free medical care, schooling and social security was absolute, and led to mutual incomprehension. And I suppose there's something in the distinction between those of us who somehow managed to get along without the internet and mobile phones, and today's "digital natives". But the differences between growing up listening to the Beatles on a Dansette, Oasis on an iPod, and whatever it is the kids today are digging on Spotify, are simply so much more relative. To dwell on them as amounting to important generational signifiers really is the "narcissism of small differences".

But there is another obvious but frequently ignored fact, however, which is that at any given time multiple "generations" co-exist and, um, interbreed. If we take some other birth dates – let's say, Ian Dury (1942), Debbie Harry (1945), or Patti Smith (1946) – the idea of an identifiable punk or New Wave founding "generation" starts to wobble. Pink Floyd didn't die of shame when faced with the scorn of Johnny Rotten: far from it. Tastes and styles persist and have influence long after their official Best Before dates, and operate on far slower and stronger rhythms than the short-lived trends of pop music and youthful fashion.

Ironically, what better illustration of this can there be than the tendency of pop culture to evolve combinations of lifestyle, fashion, and music that are so compelling that they break free of their time of origin? Think of teds, bikers, mods, metal, goths, hippies, punks: all fossilised style-packages from past decades which nonetheless continue to attract new waves of adherents. Indeed, some loyal souls will have found themselves a lifelong commitment, as if they had taken an unbreakable oath, and will wear their tribal leathers and denims, thinning quiffs and ponytails defiantly into old age. Which is either steadfast, silly, or sad, depending, I suggest, on what you see (or think you see, or wish you saw) when you look in the mirror.

Fashion tribes meeting at a festival

* Fashion note: I never, ever wore flares. Partly because when you're 5' 6" you look ridiculous, but also because I thought they looked ridiculous, full stop. In fact, I rarely wore "fashion" clothes at all: my tailors were Oxfam and the army surplus stores. That's me on the right in the bottom photograph.

Monday, 19 June 2017

So Bad It's Bad

Southampton hoarding

On Saturday night we attended a concert by some young Finnish "jazz" musicians (no, wait, don't go yet...) which was pretty good. In the main, anyway: sooner or later, it must dawn on most contemporary musicians that an over-excitable drummer is not an asset, and will drown out everyone else with their crash, bang, ta-ting, ba-dump, maniacal walloping of the skins. Either do without – maybe try tapping a foot? – or sit him in the corridor outside. And I speak as the direct descendant of two generations of semi-pro drummers.

I have a soft spot for Finns, ever since falling for the inimitable photography of Pentti Sammallahti, and dealing with an excellent Unix computing support person at work named Mika, whose English, patience, and expertise all outstripped mine by some margin. Their language is a mystery on a par with Basque, though, and their names similarly unmistakable and unique: our evening's entertainment was provided by the Alexi Tuomarila Trio and the Pohjola/Louhivuori Duo. Nothing too remarkable – they play standard Euro-jazz to a high level of competence – but it was a very stimulating evening, with only a little tinnitus to trouble me afterwards.  Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola is particularly good, I think, with a fine control of tone, dynamics and range. We also got two free CDs into the bargain.

So the title of this post has nothing to do with them, as such. Breathe easy, my Finnish friends! One day, I hope to visit your beautiful country in the far, far north. Probably during daylight hours. No, I'm referring to some artwork on display in the foyer of the concert venue, which was breathtakingly bad. Truly, madly, deeply awful.

Now, I try not to leap to judgement where artwork is concerned. It's a good principle in life, generally, isn't it? Judge not, lest thou be judged, an' that. But I find, with age, my first impressions are increasingly reliable, especially the one that goes, "WTF?? LOL!!" with a little emoticon of a face pushing fingers down its throat.

Sometimes – when you're in a country pub or restaurant, say – you will come across a little gallery of work by local Sunday painters in a room out back, which is usually forgivably mediocre. Swans on a pond, floral still-lifes, some by-the-numbers abstracts, even the occasional disturbing revelation of mental illness. But it's nice to see people trying, and having the courage to show their work in public. Or perhaps at the Open Day of your local 6th-form college there wil be some bold coursework on show, but understandably derivative and technically lacking, the result of a combination of low expectations and teaching that values expression over technique. There's always something a little melancholy about such displays, though, each one a little parable about the universal discrepancy between ambition and talent, reach and grasp, intention and result. We can't all be Rembrandt, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't aspire to be, and even Rembrandt will have kicked many a canvas across the studio in despair.

But: if the work on display is by students at a prominent regional art-school – oh, just to pick a name at random, say, the Winchester School of Art? – I think you are entitled to be outraged by a complete absence of anything of value, whether it be expression or technique, irony or sincerity, use of colour, shape or line, or even basic competence.  I mean, just look at these sad, sad things:

Isn't it ironic – tragic, even – that the  20th-century reaction against the refined polish of 19th-century "academic" painting has led to this? Why would anyone attend art school, in order to produce such negligible efforts? Why would anyone compromise the reputation of their institution by putting it on public display?

It was not without some further sense of change 'n' decay all around, then, that I saw a display of poster work on Sunday afternoon from the Shell Collection, which is currently being exhibited at Mottisfont Abbey. How exciting it must have been, in the 1920s and 30s, to see such bold graphical work from young artists just coming into their prime. It's hard to imagine just how you would go about finding anyone capable of accepting such a commission now.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Burning Flats

Having spent a significant portion of my life living in a block of council flats, and with friends and family still living in towers of various sizes and configurations – including my daughter on the White City Estate, just a few minutes' walk west from the blaze – I felt the nightmare of Grenfell Tower quite keenly. There was a tower-block fire in my neighbourhood here in Southampton a couple of years ago, in which two firefighters lost their lives. Like fire at sea in the mind of a sailor, it's a horror that lurks constantly in the back of any flat-dweller's mind. How would I escape? What would I save? What is it like to burn to death, or to be suffocated by smoke, trapped within a building?

Perhaps you, like me, sense a turn in the national political mood. Corbyn, improbably, is up; May, less improbably, is down. It's enough to make you believe in astrology. Doing everything for the public benefit grudgingly and on the cheap, mocking "health and safety culture", getting rid of "red tape" restrictions on the rapacity of business, zero-hours contracts, the absurdity of housing policies that emphasise ownership over secure, fair-rent tenancies... Suddenly, these are things to be ashamed of, and the apologists for unfettered, neoliberal, global capital are on the defensive. Seemingly, anyway; and "seeming" can sometimes be enough, when it comes time to vote.

Building it together...

Wednesday, 14 June 2017


Amusingly, in retrospect, a well-meaning friend warned me that my RA pictures might not sell at all, as perhaps I hadn't realised that most people don't like wasps? I said I'd take his advice on board, and would immediately abandon my projected but ill-advised series on bedbugs and cockroaches.

On reflection, though, I do wonder how much better a series of pictures of kittens in a basket would go down? Kittens being stung to death by wasps, obviously. And then eaten by crows.

I know, I know... I'm falling into the trap of becoming a crowd-pleaser.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

What, More Wasps?

Not surprisingly, the success of my two "Golden Wasp Game" prints at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition has prompted me to re-engage with a project that I had put to one side last year. The idea behind the pictures – a mysterious game played by both wasps and by humans in their different ways, perhaps a little like Hesse's "glass bead game" but, um, with wasps – now needs working up, so I can put the inevitable Blurb book together.

In the last few days I've added quite a few new images to the series, and in the process developed some new (to me) techniques, which I've found very useful. I like to work at a very lo-tech level, combining elementary Photoshop moves in what, I like to think, are quite creative ways. At the risk of flattering myself, I'm rather reminded of the scissors-and-paste approach behind the Sgt. Pepper album's innovations in sound recording technique, which were described in a recent 50th anniversary programme on the BBC. With any luck, as with that album, the trickery is sufficiently tastefully subordinated to the desired end effect as to be invisible, and thus may stand the test of time.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Careful What You Wish For, Part 2

Gallery goers like sensible shoes

Remember what I said about my two pictures in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition? No? I said:
The validation is the main thing, of course, but I'm hoping for a few sales, too, although that will truly be icing on the cake. I've declared them both to be in an edition of 50, and will be asking a very modest £75 for an unframed, signed and numbered print. I took the advice from One Who Knows that people visiting the show and looking for a takeaway are more likely to go for small, attractively-priced prints, than a wall-sized canvas in the price-bracket of a new car.
Well, the One Who Knew was right. In spades. It turns out that by mid-afternoon on so-called "Buyers' Day" on Friday all 50 copies – fifty! – of one of my pictures had been sold, and the other was selling well, too.  I knew this because I was getting emails from disappointed would-be buyers wondering whether, you know, I might have any spares knocking about? I have rarely been assaulted by such an exotic mix of feelings. Disbelief, astonishment, gratification, alarm, confusion, exultation, bafflement... I mean: FIFTY copies of one image sold in a few hours, from the premiere art show in London. Cor...

So I went up to see one of the Private Views of the show myself this afternoon, first going round with my son and then with my daughter (you're restricted to one guest at a time), and we were able to bask in the sense of occasion and, well, achievement. I have to say, it's an unaccustomed pleasure, this reversal of the normal roles where, if you are as lucky as we have been, as proud parents you get to watch and applaud as your children pick up the prizes that mark an auspicious start in life. But it's nice to be able to make your children proud in return: not just to be selected out of some 14,000 aspirants to hang work democratically and anonymously next to the great names of British art, but then so quickly to collect all those red dots!

The pictures above mine are by some bod called Quentin Blake
(the orange dots on the right are mega-dots for 10 sales...)

However, it's a sobering moment, too. I had set the edition of these two prints at what seemed a preposterously high 50, in order both to be able to play by the rules, sales-wise, and still have plenty left over to sell and distribute after the show. I also set the price attractively low in order, with any luck, to sell the few I needed to in order to cover my costs: the entry fee, the framing, the travel, and so on. But now, now I've got to organise the printing, packing, and posting of what may, by the end of the show's run, be approaching 100 items! Not to mention invoicing and collecting the money from the same number of individuals. Sigh.... Admittedly, the final payoff on such volume of sales is not negligible, even after the RA have taken their cut, but thank Hockney I didn't make it an "open" edition, which I nearly did, or I might be spending the next few months in the queue at the Post Office.

Clearly, Theresa May is not the only one to have a Cunning Plan backfire this week. I think I will have another go next year, but make the editions smaller, and the prices rather higher. So, should I get in again, at least I won't have made a logistical nightmare for myself. I also finally realise why those ludicrous prices have been attached to most of the work on show: no-one actually wants the hassle of selling more than two or three things a year. I'm an artist, darling, not an eBay merchant!

Friday, 9 June 2017

Careful What You Wish For

Well, that was an interesting night, wasn't it? It seems Jeremy read my post, but Theresa didn't.

I must admit, I've been puzzled and not a little disappointed by the number of my old "leftie" friends who wrote Corbyn off as unelectable, and regarded the Labour manifesto as the stuff of fantasy. Re-nationalisation of the railways and the utilities? Free higher education? Dream on! But – come on, comrades! – I can see nothing in there that I (or you) wouldn't endorse as the solution to so many of our national problems (apart from Brexit: I do wish Labour had stuck with and hardened its original line on that). I have heard both Corbyn and John MacDonnell described by certain parties as "old Trots" with controversial views on the IRA, Palestine, and other such left-wing perennials: well, wow, talk about pots and kettles. After all, most interesting people have more than a few skeletons in the closet (what a curious expression that is); it's what makes them interesting. Only the media are really fascinated by their obsessive blood-sport of hypocrite-hunting ("But in 1975 you said..."). But I suppose it's probably true, sadly, that most of us enjoy the kibbitzing of opposition much more than the prospect of actual power. It can be terrifying to have one's clever and contrarian pipe-dreams taken seriously, can't it?

But Corbyn reached into the bag and pulled out a good measure of political charisma, and May ... didn't. Despite everything the media and his own sulking A-Listers could throw at him – loser! tieless beardie! – and despite having to field a distinctly B-list team (Diane Abbott came close several times to sinking the whole thing) he managed to inspire and increase the Labour vote and win seats from the Tories. Well, who'd have thought it?

Now, of course, is when it all gets very interesting indeed. After all, technically, Labour have lost, and May's Pyrrhic victory must run its course. Corbyn's real challenge will be to get everyone up and excited all over again. Again. You do realise, don't you, that we'll soon be back in election mode, quite possibly within the year?

Meanwhile, here are some wasps.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Varnishing Day

One of the curious benefits of getting work accepted into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (did I mention that?)  is that you become a temporary member of an exclusive club. I believe one of the signifiers of establishment status has always been the number of gold-embossed invitation cards one has on display on one's mantelpiece, dontcha know. Well, I now have one, requesting the honour of my company (not pleasure, mark you, but honour) at the Royal Academy's Varnishing Day. Which was today.

I did think about going, but when I awoke to stormy winds and driving rain this morning, it felt more appropriate to be at home keeping an eye on our newly-repaired roof, rather than hustling up to London and back just for a two-hour reception at midday. Not to mention getting the extra hour in bed. A shame, really, as I'd quite fancied getting within selfie-distance of any number of my art heroes who happen to be RAs. If nothing else, it would have been an easy blog post, and I could have made some feeble joke about the "varnishing point" in linear perspective. But never mind, the private view happens this coming weekend, and I'm not going to miss that, whatever the weather.

I have been surprised, however, by how many people have asked, "What the hell is Varnishing Day?", as I had thought it was quite well-known, famous even, as the day when exhibitors at the RA Summer Show would get together and put the finishing touches to their work, and add a final coat of varnish. Most famously of all, it was on Varnishing Day 1832 when J.M.W. Turner – having found his own seascape hung next to and upstaged by the reds in John Constable's "Opening of Waterloo Bridge" – added a red buoy to the painting. "He has been here, and fired a gun!", grumbled Constable.

It was well worth being at home, however, as I was able to take delivery of a book order from the Czech Republic (Josef Sudek's Smutna Krajina / Sad Landscape) which arrived in a sack. Not a mailing bag, but an official Poste Tcheque sack made of close-woven nylon fabric, measuring about 110cm by 70cm, and tied off with an official cable tie. Perhaps a lot of potatoes get put in the mail over there. Whatever, the Parcel Force guy looked as baffled as me as he handed it over. The book I found inside is great, however, even if it does only measure 34cm x 23cm. And I'm sure I'll find a use for the sack, too.

Friday, 2 June 2017

It was Fifty Years Ago Today...

Asked by some idiotic journalist whether Ringo was the best drummer in the world, Lennon replied that he wasn't even the best drummer in the Beatles. I feel much the same about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I mean, it's a very good album, and a very significant one, with some "peak Beatles" tracks on it, but it has a self-indulgent, cartoonish sensibility that moved the band significantly in the direction of Yellow Submarine, and away from the truly outstanding Revolver. It would be pretty much downhill all the way for them from here. White Album? Abbey Road? Please...

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1967 we lived in a world where it was perfectly possible to be unaware of a major media moment such as an imminent new Beatles album. As a 13-year old, I was pretty much oblivious. I loved the music I heard on the radio (what there was of it: bear in mind that the BBC's dedicated pop station Radio 1 didn't launch until September that same year) but I owned no records at all. I had a vague sense that buying records was something girls did, not boys. My older sister had records; I didn't. Besides, in our rather earnest, Baptist family, the frivolity and decadence of psychedelia did not sit well. My mother was given to saying things like, "Imagine if a son of mine came home looking like that!" Being the only son around, the message was clear.

So my most vivid memory of the album's release in summer 1967 was seeing, for the first time, on a visit to London multiple copies of the same striking album cover arrayed around record-shop windows and hanging from ceilings, tiled and strung like bunting, in a combination of decoration and advertisement. "Here it is!" the displays were screaming. But what is it, exactly? I wondered. It was a full year before I found out. But I found out*. And it wasn't long before my mother's fears about a son of hers were gradually, painfully, fulfilled, as we fought bitter battles over hair length, scruffy clothes, and unsuitable friends.

Fashion victim, ca. 1972

* A little quote from "Day Tripper", surely better than any track on the Sgt. Pepper album?

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Poster Boy

I was in the Salisbury Museum on Monday, to see a wonderful exhibition, British Art: Ancient Landscapes, showing artists' representations and interpretations of the prehistoric Wessex landscape. It's on until September 3rd, and I urge you to see it if you're in the area. There's everything from Turner watercolours and sketchbooks to contemporary work by the likes of Richard Long and David Inshaw. There is a particularly stunning photograph of Avebury by Bill Brandt, made in 1944, which is worth the price of admission all by itself. If you can't make it, the catalogue is superb.

In the general collection I was much taken with their collection of Shell posters from the 1930s, showing Stonehenge and other Wessex sites of interest, all well worth filling the tank of your Austin 7 to visit. So I thought I'd have a go at a poster, of sorts, with some bits and pieces from my recent Inverness trip*. I await a call from the Scottish Tourist Office (or VisitScotland, as it now appears to be called).

* Sorry if you get moiré patterns in the central panel: it's a net curtain that I've overlaid on the view of the Firth.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

RA Summer Exhibition 2017

The Golden Wasp Game #7

I've not posted about this before, but back in February I decided to submit two of my "wasp" photo-composite images to the Royal Academy Summer Open Exhibition. I'd been feeling the need for some relatively objective endorsement of this road I've been taking away from "photographer" to "artist", and in a rash moment thought: Why not go for the Big One? Today, after a three-stage judgement process, I heard that both were accepted into this year's show.

Obviously, I'm very pleased. I know the RA Summer Show has a mixed reputation, but as a showcase for work it really can't be bettered. Unless, of course, my little A3-sized works end up being hung halfway up a wall above some enormous and garish David Hockney canvas. The validation is the main thing, of course, but I'm hoping for a few sales, too, although that will truly be icing on the cake. I've declared them both to be in an edition of 50, and will be asking a very modest £75 for an unframed, signed and numbered print. I took the advice from One Who Knows that people visiting the show and looking for a takeaway are more likely to go for small, attractively-priced prints, than a wall-sized canvas in the price-bracket of a new car.

The Golden Wasp Game #3

The competition...
(See you on Varnishing Day!)

Friday, 26 May 2017

Winchester Windows

Summer arrived in a big way on Thursday; it'll be gone again by the weekend, I expect. Just for a change, I parked in my usual spot near the Hockley Viaduct, but decided to walk the couple of miles into Winchester town centre instead of heading for the hills, and spent the afternoon just wandering around. I was rather surprised to see pairs of armed police also just wandering around, cradling their Heckler & Koch carbines. However, unlike my little adventure on Tuesday, I attracted no unwanted attention. Just another idiot with a camera. Maybe the Fuji X-T1 makes me look more touristy; or maybe things are less edgy around Winchester Cathedral than they are around Downing Street...

I think I will probably never tire of shots like these (you may differ, but...). The play of light on translucent surfaces diffused, reflected, obstructed and framed by the shapes made by wear and tear and simple accident is endlessly fascinating to me. You might see metaphors for the mind and consciousness or even meta-metaphors for photography itself at work here, I suppose, but I'm happy to use the shorthand "beauty" and pursue it wherever I find it. Which, in this case, happens to be the windows of vacant shops.