Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Rain Theory



I was doing my photo-collage thing yesterday, when it struck me that certain pictures I have been working on in recent times have a rainy theme in common with some slightly older, as yet unused work. Clearly, there is potential for a new series there. The expression "rain theory" popped up in my mind, and I remembered it belonged to a set of photographs collected under that title, which I had assembled way back in the late 1990s. It was after I had learned to write HTML – "HyperText Markup Language", the coding that underlies the World Wide Web, and controls the display of "pages" containing text, images, and hyperlinks – and I was excited by the idea of creating CDs containing HTML pages as an inexpensive way of making and distributing interactive books of high-quality photographs, which anyone with a CD drive would be able to use. So I dug out one of the old Rain Theory CDs, as I didn't have any memory at all of what was actually on it.

I have to say I was both surprised and impressed. I'd completely forgotten what photographs were in the "sequence" – just twelve, in fact – and that all of them had been originated on medium-format film and scanned. The linking idea was that in the 1990s we had been experiencing some unusually severe summer droughts, and I realised I had been photographing the various water conservation methods that people (in particular gardeners and allotment keepers) had improvised. Visually, they could be seen as a variety of makeshift theories of what rain is, where it comes from, how it may be stored, and even, on the level of sympathetic magic, how it might be encouraged to fall. A nice idea, but fairly poorly executed, I have to say. I'm not surprised that people who saw my work at that time tended to look bemused. Some of the photographs are good, but some are not, and more than a little generosity must be deployed to see them as linked by the stated common theme. Although, as a classic example of a strong concept derived from and illustrated by rather less strong material, you might say I was ahead of the game...


However, I was impressed by the effort I'd put into the web-page design, especially the navigation. Each page is essentially a single image, with clickable areas designated by their mapped co-ordinates within the image. The "home" page (above) reproduces the CD cover image – a bold, text-only statement using a stencil typeface – but adds a "mouseover" navigation bar using simple numbers to link to the pages of the sequence, a question mark to link to a help page, and quotation marks to link to a page of text. Neat!

The images are presented as a series of six pairs, each pair on a numbered page, with one of the pair shown large, and both shown as medium-sized "thumbnails" (below). It's all done by graphical suggestion; very little is explicit. The hollow, clickable arrows are intended to indicate that the other image in the pair may be viewed in a large version, too (the whole area of the alternative image itself is also clickable), and clicking either the arrow or the image links to the alternative version of that same page, with the other photograph shown large. Simple! The numbered, clickable chevrons indicate how the previous or next pair in the sequence may be viewed.


Of course, I'd probably make some very difference choices now, not least because far more sophisticated user interfaces and designs are possible, with the addition of CSS ("cascading style sheets"), JavaScript, and whatever has evolved since I retired in 2014. Although it's true my knowledge of HTML, Perl, CGI, and all the rest of it has now gone to the same dark place in my mind as Latin conjugations and declensions. But, looked at now, I find I still enjoy the simple, "pre-Windows", through-designed look I came up with in 1998. Each page has the appearance of an interactive postcard. Only one very important thing has been "broken" by subsequent developments: it seems a CD with an "autorun" file will no longer automatically fire up a web-browser and open the designated "home" page when put in a drive, which means you have to start the thing up yourself by identifying and double-clicking the relevant file, which defeats the whole point. Distributing primitive, home-made e-books on CD using HTML pages is no longer practical.

Mind you, I don't now recall if I ever sent anyone a copy of this or any of the other, similar (and better!) projects I came up with before "Web 2.0", social media, real e-books, and online, on-demand publishers like Blurb rendered the whole approach redundant. Twenty years is a long time, but it's an eternity in tech-years. I do hope that in another twenty my efforts won't have become as unreadable as Ogham or Linear B. But given that then, with any luck, I'll be a couple of weeks away from my 85th birthday, I may not care about it all that much.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Two-Dimensional


Winchester Road, Southampton

Although I don't do it very often, sometimes I like nothing better than to wander about town with a long zoom lens. The one I own is the "cheap" Fuji XC 50-230mm f/4.5-6.7 (equivalent to 70-300mm in 35mm terms), a lens at which most gear-head photographers would sneer, but its modest specifications enable it to be small(ish) and light, and optically it's absolutely fine. That is, it's good enough for me.

It seems to be a feature of human vision that the brain can isolate items of interest within the whole field captured by the eye, so that something quite tiny, in absolute terms – like, for example, the moon, occupying just half a degree of arc, which (I think) means you could fit 360 of them in the sky, edge to edge, from horizon to horizon – becomes subjectively huge. It's a very good and useful trick, a sort of neurological "digital zoom", but can only be duplicated photographically by actually narrowing the angle of view. With a long lens, you can really concentrate on the lovely, often quite graphical things that tend to happen in the distance where widely separated objects are brought into juxtaposition with each other. A slight movement of the head, or a step sideways, and a whole new combination presents itself. The combination of "foot zoom" and optical zoom is unbeatable, if you tend to like what you see out on the horizon.

Redbridge Hill flats, Southampton

I also like the sense of compression given by a long lens. I enjoy pictures that display a strong two-dimensional sense of design – it's one of the great pleasures of Japanese prints, and the western art inspired by them – and, if you can get the balance of aperture and point of focus right (which, with a long zoom, can be difficult, especially if you're a lazy person who prefers to work in auto-everything mode), the flattened perspective is very two-dimensional. I do wish the camera manufacturers would provide an automatic hyperfocal [1] setting, however, which would simplify getting this balance right. How difficult can it be? I always prefer things to be sharp from front to back: I was annoyed by the soft focus on the rearmost branches in the picture below, for example, as it restores the illusion of three-dimensionality. But then it was taken as dusk was falling at 16:30 at the widest available aperture. I suppose I was lucky to get anything useable at all; with any luck whatever that thing is will still be there the next time I pass by that tree.

The contemporary obsession with shallow depth of field and the quality of the resulting out-of-focus background (so called "bokeh", from the Japanese for "blur") as a marker of "good" photography is mystifying to me. The idea that one would spend hundreds, even thousands of pounds on a big, heavy, "fast" lens to hang on a camera (ideally, one with as big a sensor as possible), merely in order to blur out as much of the background as possible – "just like a professional" – is hilarious. Personally, I much prefer a slow lens, one which isn't pushing the optical envelope. A kit zoom  – the sort that comes bundled with a camera – has always suited me fine. Apart from the benefits in cash outlay, size, and weight, it means you're also always in with a good chance of some decent depth of field. Not least because in Auto mode you're not having to fight some software developer's urge to use, at every opportunity, the biggest, light-greedy, shallow DOF aperture available. A modest f/5.6 will do just fine, thanks.

But I think that's probably quite enough gear-talk for 2019.

Southampton Common

1. "The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp. When the lens is focused at this distance, all objects at distances from half of the hyperfocal distance out to infinity will be acceptably sharp."

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

White-Out


Clutter? What clutter? I've just tidied up!

Have you come across this ridiculous person (I can't even be bothered to look up her name, she's some kind of self-styled "de-cluttering" guru) who has claimed recently that nobody needs to keep more than thirty books? THIRTY?? Surely a zero or two have gone missing there? It's all a bit King Lear, to my mind: you know, the scene where the Ugly Sisters try to persuade him that keeping his own retinue of 100 knights is terribly inconvenient for them and, you know, really, what is the point, father? Here's a reminder:
GONERIL:
Hear me, my lord;
What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
REGAN:
What need one?
KING LEAR:
O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life's as cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,--
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
Act 2 Scene 4
Reason not the need, indeed... And for goodness sake put a jumper on, missy! Is it just me, or is there quite a draught in this castle?

That said, I have been trying to keep my book-buying under control, and in particular my photo-book addiction. Like any recovering addict, I really shouldn't be touching the stuff, but one or two now and then can't hurt, surely, can it? Not least because I believe in supporting the photographers I admire by buying their books. I can't afford to buy their actual prints and, even if I could, I'm sure buying prints would pose a far greater domestic "clutter" problem than any amount of books. As with paintings, you need wealth but, above all, space in abundance to collect original art. One of the many wonderful things about books is the fact that there's no doubt about the best way to store them, although I concede that "in tottering piles on the staircase" is not it. It's also a curious fact that a great many photographs look far better presented in a book than either hung on a wall or fumbled from a portfolio. Quite apart from all the advantages of juxtaposition and thoughtful sequencing that a serial succession of pages offers (with random access thrown in, should you prefer that), the threesome of photograph, printer's ink, and book-quality paper is a very happy one. Although, obviously, the gigantism of recent years is not well served by any book smaller than an actual coffee table.

However, it's another fact – a sad one, but, for us addicts, quite helpful – that the glory days of the photo-book, like those of pop and rock, have passed. Sure, there are more being published than ever, and to a far higher production standard, but the parallel with pop is instructive. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had put in their 10,000 hours before cutting their first singles, recorded on wax cylinders (or whatever the technology was), in studios equipped with nothing much more than a glass booth to muffle the engineer's cries of despair and a pair of scissors. They then went on to change the world as we had known it. Today, some kid will go straight from his bedroom to fifteen minutes of pointless but remunerative global domination on the strength of two decent songs, a nice face, and a voice that can be straightened out in a studio where he is little more than a flavour to be tweaked and added into the mix. Similarly, too many young photographers, with their half-baked, fashion-forward, art-school projects, are going straight to publication, as if that were Stage One of a career – the equivalent of sleeping in the van and endlessly touring small clubs – rather than one of its major peaks. There's no opportunity to learn anything much that way, beyond what a mistake it was to blow grandad's legacy on a vanity project. I was depressed, looking through an online photo-book seller's January "on sale" list (come on, don't you mean "remaindered"?) to see how many of the hyped hot items of the last few years have failed to sell. Unsurprisingly: even at a tenner each, I wouldn't buy any of them.

Nonetheless, I continue to have a loyalty to certain veterans I have been following since the 1980s, prominent among whom is Thomas Joshua Cooper. As with Jem Southam, I will buy anything he publishes, sight unseen, and have never regretted it. I've mentioned TJC several times in this blog, and I wrote a piece in 2017 for the online magazine On Landscape which described a workshop I did with him in 1991 at Duckspool. He is a remarkable man, by any measure, producing remarkable work in remarkable circumstances. He was recently persuaded to give a session at the annual "Meeting of Minds" conference organised by On Landscape, and this event was videoed and generously made available on YouTube. You can see it here. Go on, I urge you to watch it, I can wait. It's not short – about 90 minutes, in fact – but if you have a serious interest in photography, art, long-term projects, landscape, geography, adventure, or even just enjoy the intersection of swearing and scholarship, then this is essential viewing.

Meanwhile, here is an utterly inconsequential photograph of one of the lovely 1930s leaded windows in our house:


Back? I hope you agree it was worth it. He does go on a bit, I know, and, despite his many years in Glasgow, has that curious American academic/artistic habit of assuming (or pretending to assume) a British audience must be aware of this, that, or the other piece of cultural arcana. Oh yeah, we do all that stuff in school, mate... I also think a skeptical person would be justified in wondering quite how many times an 1898 Agfa-Ansco view camera on a tripod (never mind an ageing human being) can really survive repeated swampings by unexpected waves, or tumbles into the sea, or down crevasses; the "weather-proofing" on those things being about on a par with an orange-crate. Or, indeed, why anyone would consider it worth the risk of being shot by third-world border guards or tortured to death by drug-smugglers in order to secure a photograph – and just one photograph! – from precisely the right spot on some godforsaken promontory with a name like For Fuck's Sake Point on Keelhaul Bay. But I believe every word; the man is cut from the same mad cloth as the guy who just had to climb the sheer faces of El Capitan and Sendero Luminoso without ropes. Or, indeed, film-maker Werner Herzog.

But the sheer improbability of Cooper's quest raises an interesting question, I think. What if – just what if – the whole Atlantic Basin project was a complete hoax? What if all those evocative photographs of rocky shores and breaking waves and misty horizons were actually made in, say, the Hebrides during holidays with the family? It's a pretty varied geography up there, the weather changes every ten minutes, and you can face out to sea in pretty much any direction you like. It could be done. What's more, if your claim is to have photographed from a place where only nine other people (or even no other people) have ever stood, what possible contradictory evidence could there be? As far as I know, even the very latest sheet film has no GPS functionality. So, what difference would it make, if the whole enterprise was shown, on completion, to be one enormous, slow time, conceptual-art put-on? That, far from hitching rides to the North Pole with Russian ice-breakers, Cooper had been marking student assignments in his Glasgow office, with the central heating turned up to max? Would the photographs lose all value, like the currency of a country that has ceased to exist, or would they still retain an aesthetic charge, like the prettier, collectable, high-denomination notes of that obsolete currency?

It's an outrageous question, obviously (and one I have no intention of answering), but it goes to the heart of the eternal debate between "photograph as document" vs. "photograph as autonomous art object". Cooper's work has always shown an intriguing oscillation between the two. From the early work like Between Dark and Dark or Dreaming the Gokstadt to the current Atlantic Basin "Atlas" magnum opus, the captions and texts have always played an important role, being both both highly specific as to location, but also always gesturing towards an image's place in a well-defined series, as well as to certain highly personal mini-genres spread across all his projects (such as "premonitional works"). Somewhat paradoxically, you might think, here we have fine art prints made to the very highest standards (Cooper is a master printer) presenting a very conceptual thesis about a direct engagement with geographical extremity (literally, it seems: you can download his "PhD by Publication" at Glasgow School of Art here). It's an unusual mix. If one were looking for parallel contemporary enterprises, I suppose the work of Sally Mann or Raymond Meeks would come to mind.

In a way, I think trust is the key. In that videoed Meeting of Minds session, the story behind the photograph "Polar White-Out" is crucial (at: 1h 22m 43s). How far do we trust Cooper, when he describes feeling the desperate urge to photograph, on day 13 of an Antarctic snowstorm severe enough to confine everyone to their tents and sleeping bags for 23 days? Can we accept that, with the aid of seven others – three to hold the tripod, three to hold Cooper, one to hold the darkcloth according to the video; three on the tripod, three on the camera, one on Cooper according to the thesis – he ventured out into a horizontal blizzard to record what turned out to be a blank white image, slightly vignetted at the corners? An image that could have been made anywhere in front of any blank white wall? Of course we can. We have to: the story belongs in the same folder as the making of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, or Turner being lashed to the mast, like Odysseus, to observe a storm at sea. Without the story, the picture is nothing. Without the picture, the story is nothing. Without the overarching project, without the specificity of time and place, neither picture nor story have any context or coherence. Put them all together, however, and something truly extraordinary has been made, so long as we are prepared to invest the necessary trust, going so far as to consider a blank white photographic print as, at the same time, documentary evidence, a work of art, a testament, and a semi-parodic condensation of the whole romantic enterprise, a sort of negative image of the "black page" in Tristram Shandy. Or, perhaps, as an evocation of how it feels to be "nothing himself" beholding "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is"...
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Wallace Stevens, The Snow Man
Meanwhile, I await the publication of The World's Edge later this year with some anticipation, "Polar White-Out" and all. I'm sure I'll find space for it somewhere.

A Mind of Winter

Saturday, 19 January 2019

De Profundis



I came across the unfinished picture above yesterday, while looking for something else. I appear to have been putting it together in January 2017 and, when I look at it in context, it seems it's not untypical of the sort of thing I was doing two years ago, as I was consolidating my move away from "straight" photography into construction and collage. And yet it seems to me now that it was made by someone else; I recognise, but don't "own" the characteristic moves and judgements made by this person, and I'm pretty sure that even if I were to take the exact same raw material now I'd end up somewhere completely different. It's not an experiment I'm likely to try, though: most of those elements no longer really speak to me. Submarines are so 2017.

Mind you, I think I do now know from where at least part of the impulse behind this picture came. I was looking for something to watch on Netflix recently, and came across the condensed, cinematic version of Wolfgang Petersen's enthralling U-boat drama, Das Boot. I had watched and admired the original miniseries on my little 8" screen portable TV when it was first broadcast in 1984, and it's clear that U-96 and its crew must have made a deep, deep dive into my subconscious and stayed lurking down there. Watching it again condensed into 149 minutes – and on an 18" computer screen! – was peculiarly vivid: it was as if I was recalling an actual lived experience involving those people and that series of events. Yes, yes, that's exactly how it happened! I remember it so well! In particular, there were two contrasting scenes which must have made a strong impression on me. The first is when U-96 surfaces at night in Vigo, Spain, in order to make a clandestine rendezvous with German officials on board an impounded but well-supplied ship ("Frische Feigen! Hab' ich noch nie gegessen..." [1]), and must quietly manoeuvre through the dark waters and moored boats, fitfully illuminated by the twinkling lights of the harbour. The second being when the submarine is surprised and attacked on the surface by a British aircraft while attempting to pass undetected through the Strait of Gibraltar. My unfinished picture is clearly a sort of synthesis of the two.

These false or borrowed memories, if we can call them that, are the persistent afterimage of the true lies of art, particularly those of narrative fiction. In time they become part of the sediment at the bottom of our minds, pretty much indistinguishable from the wreckage of the "real" stuff that has actually impacted our lives. In fact, because of its artfully-contrived nature, the detritus of art can seem even more compelling than proper, real-life junk. With any luck, none of us will ever have to experience such a perfect storm of tragedy as that forced upon King Lear by Shakespeare, and I'm pretty sure that if we did, in real life we'd shut down emotionally and submit willingly to whatever medication or counselling we were prescribed. We would avoid feeling the pain at all costs, choosing "comfortably numb" over agony. What we would absolutely not do is head for the nearest heath, rip off our clothes in a violent storm, and rave quotable profundities about the human condition. No, that way sectioning lies... Similarly, I fully expect never to find myself in a disabled, depth-charged submarine, sinking uncontrollably to the bottom of the Mediterranean, as the rivets pop like bullets and men's nerves are tested to destruction under the excruciating physical and psychological pressure. Even if the crew are just actors, and the sub a stage-set.  But, in an important, if vicarious way, I have "been there, done that". Sure, I will never actually have to reap the consequences of unwisely dividing my kingdom between Cinderella's wicked step-sisters [2], or really have to devise a cunning, it-might-just-work plan to rescue my comrades from certain death (though my work life did often feel like that). But, in something like a more practical, bodger's version of Platonic anamnesis ("learning is remembering"), I may well find that bits salvaged from those intense but unreal experiences will come in very handy when lashing up a fix for some more mundane crisis. Or even just making a picture.

Some would go further and say that, like artificially exercising a muscle, our understanding and sympathies can be enlarged by the willing suspension of disbelief in convincing, artfully-told untruths. That, unlike a pumped-up gym-bunny physique, an augmented ability to empathise is a real strength, and an asset to ourselves and those around us. Certainly, that's the official, critical line: art is good for you. Which, of course, it can be. Not all of it, not all the time, and not for everybody. Anyone who has attempted to ease their inner turmoil by listening to Harrison Birtwistle or reading Samuel Beckett really should have tried paracetamol or even something a little stronger first. The spectrum that goes from "mindless entertainment" to "ascetic self-flagellation" is very broad indeed, and the benefits of any particular point on it are rarely predictable, consistent, or immediate (unlike paracetamol). But, when it comes to art making, this allegedly wholesome, therapeutic aspect is not really a factor, unless you regard creativity as a form of occupational therapy, harmlessly channelling impulses that would otherwise be a social nuisance [3]. I mean, let's be honest, most top-flight artists and performers are also first-rate monsters of ego; it's pretty much part of the job description. Their art may be good for you, but it hasn't done much for them. Although who knows what perverted criminal masterminds they might otherwise have become?

Mental well-being aside, it's that curiosity shop at the bottom of your mind that interests me. I think one indication you may be destined for a life afflicted by creativity is this: you tend to be less concerned with the overall shape and message of an experience ("the moral of this story is...") than with the shiny bits and pieces that can be prised off it, stolen, and recycled. Yeah, yeah, nice car, but look at those fancy hubcaps! Would they make great flying saucers or what? Unlike normal people, you just need to be constantly restocking those basement shelves with random psychic bric-a-brac, whether acquired by real experience, imitation, theft, or bought second-hand. The truly amazing thing, though, is how the subconscious mind is able to descend into the depths and fetch up exactly the right bit of junk at the appropriate moment [4]. Pretty much everyone will have been startled at some time by some cutting or hilarious remark that popped unbidden from their own mouth. Where did that come from? But only a few of us have the magic combination of a well-stocked, constantly replenished mental cellar and free and immediate access to its contents, which is what gives the sparkle to, say, a brilliant comedian's repartee. It's the opposite of l'esprit de l'escalier: to be able to produce, with a magician's flourish, the most unexpected but apposite response, instantly, as if prompted by an unseen team of script-writing angels.

Mind you, few things will kill a lively party situation quicker than having some would-be Oscar Wilde constantly trying to top everyone else's jokes or feeble pleasantries. Look, it doesn't matter how damned witty you are, Oscar, after a while this becomes as aggressive as offering to arm-wrestle everyone in the room, and about as attractive. (Um, please don't ask me how I know this). The art of art, like the art of conversation, is precisely not spilling the contents of your subconscious over everyone at every opportunity, but knowing when to speak, when to at least pretend to listen, and above all when to shut up. Which is what I'm going to do now.


1. "Fresh figs! I've never eaten 'em before..."
2. Oh, come on, don't say the similarities have never struck you...
3. Look at the sheer perverse creative inventiveness that goes into most fraud, for example. Somebody should give those guys a useful problem to work on, or some paints.
4. That is, "right" as defined by the subconscious, which can be embarrassingly like having a speech bubble over your head saying what you really think.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

New Morning



We live in a street lined with typically English semi-detached houses on both sides [1], built in the 1930s, with the odd interruption of the original sequence due to bomb damage from WW2. Our house is oriented roughly NNE by SSW, with the front facing ESE, so there comes a point early in the year when the rising sun starts to appear over the opposite rooftops, and shines directly into our bathroom window at an angle that turns the pebbled glass into a jewelled backdrop, and transforms the mundane spectacle of drying clothes hanging over the bath into a graphic spectacle worth dropping your toothbrush for, and running downstairs for a camera. It only lasts a couple of minutes, then the magic is gone.

Following the latest round of installations of uPVC windows, I think it is safe to say that we are now the sole remaining house in the entire street with the original, wood-framed, single-glazed, lead-lighted windows left intact. We like them, and don't mind the draughts or the need to have them regularly repainted. But, if we're not careful, we're going to end up living in a listed building: "the last authentic 1930s semi in Southampton"... Dammit, we've even got the original iron plumbing – can you believe anyone would even think of installing iron water-pipes? – now so clogged with decades of limescale and rust that it takes forever to run a bath. I wash in cold water, an odd habit I acquired from my father, but as I am generally the first out of bed, if I turn on the hot tap when I enter the bathroom the trickle of water that emerges will be hot enough for a normal person to wash by the time I'm finished. From these things a family routine is built...

1. As a builder once said to me, "In England we make a perfectly serviceable family house, then divide it into two..."

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Young Americans



Surprisingly, perhaps, the majority of the readers of this blog tend to be American (can you tend to be American? Are American!) so I will need to think carefully about what I have to say here. We British have the false impression that our language is becoming the lingua franca of the entire world. Not so: American English, for obvious reasons, is now the world-language of aspiration and education – you have only to listen to some bright youngster who has never left her dusty third-world village quacking like a rilly Californian, like, Valley Girl to realise this – and this linguistic hegemony is making itself felt here in Britain as well. Not surprisingly, this is not always welcome.

Although I must admit to experiencing a little buzz of annoyance whenever a fashionable Americanism supplants a perfectly serviceable British English equivalent [1] – things like the use of the absurd "pinkie" for "little finger", or "reach out to" for "get in touch with" – I generally suppress this feeling, as it is clearly one of the early symptoms of the onset of age-related pedantry, an incurable and unattractive condition. After all, as a young person I embraced plenty of Americanisms myself, consciously and unconsciously, simply because they were part of the US-dominated youth culture I had willingly embraced (or had been embraced by). More recently, I can even pretend indifference when I hear young people ask, briskly, "Can I get a small latte?" rather than "Could I have a bucket of perfectly ordinary coffee with milk, please?" It still sounds affected and ill-mannered to me, but there's something going on there that clearly works for the young, and which I am now too out of touch to find "relatable". However, certain imported expressions do grate, because what makes them work is their cultural hinterland; if this is missing, then the expression is not so much meaningless as lacking any meaningful referent.

I have a particular dislike for "stepping up to the plate", for example, so beloved of our politicians and political commentators. Now, I don't mind a useful cliché, so long as the people who use it have a clear image in mind. Anyone who has had children at primary school knows only too well, for example, what it means to go through something with a "fine-tooth comb", and you don't have to have served as a Napoleonic Era soldier to understand why you should keep your powder dry or avoid things going off half-cocked, either. Clearly, "stepping up to the plate" meets a felt need for an expression meaning "it's time to stop thinking and criticising and to act, to show what you're capable of, to take the initiative"; to put up or shut up, as you might say. But, come on, it's a baseball metaphor! No-one plays or understands baseball in Britain, and no British sport or activity involves a "plate", up to which one must eventually step. You can step up to the crease in cricket, or to the penalty spot in football, and even the oche (ocky) in darts. But "the plate"? What sort of plate do people imagine – a dinner plate? a commemorative plaque? – and what do they expect you to do, having stepped up to it?

Obviously, a lot of people do use language incuriously, chucking around linguistic small change as mere tokens of meaning. They may think, vaguely, if they think at all, that there is such a thing as a rather nice "tooth-comb", or that powder of any variety benefits from being kept dry, which is true enough, but there's more to it than that. I suspect there's a sort of inherent machismo to many American metaphors – especially military and sporting ones, things like "slam dunk", "knock it out of the park", etc. – which is absent from our native equivalents, and which makes them irresistible to the wannabe rhetorical tough-guy, even if the actual meaning of, say, "the whole nine yards" is entirely opaque, even to Americans. But, like a pair of ironed Levi's on a Prime Minister, however good they may feel to wear, the effect is ridiculous.

More insidious, though, is the gradual adoption by the young of American speaking styles. I don't mean the well-established differences in pronunciation: you say "tomato" and I say "route", and all that. Differences are fine; we enjoy difference. Although, let's be honest, some American pronunciations are risible: 'erbs for "herbs"? Please! And "primmer" as the "correct" pronunciation of "primer" is just, ah, dim and dimer, especially in the land of that renowned librarian and spelling reformer Melvil Dewey [2]. No, what is seeping into British English, presumably via the rich diet of US TV and film being consumed via Netflix and the like, is the sort of systemic stuff which affects the rhythm and music of speech. Things like that American habit of emphasising the adjective rather than the noun, as in "Red Bull" rather than "Red Bull" ("Can I get a can of Red Bull?"). And there's that teen-talk insistence on turning every statement into a question? Called "uptalk"? As if I must pretend to need constant reassurance about things I know to be perfectly true? Which may even be Australian, but nobody's sure? Yes, that. And let's not even get started on the infectious, faux-sophisticated idea in the American art-world that the word "cliché" is emphasised on the final syllable and is an adjective.

The linguistic traffic can still be a little two-way, of course. I am surprised how many "Britishisms" seem to have made it into American speech in recent years. Mainly vulgar stuff, it's true (well, it's what we do best): I'm pretty sure words like "bloody", "bugger", "bloke", "geezer", or even "wanker" were never as widely used in America as they seem to be now. Hey, you're welcome! But sometimes things are sailing under false flags. I was deeply baffled, some years ago, by one commenter's reference to a "bumbershoot". A what? Apparently he, like many Americans, was under the impression that this is British slang for an umbrella. No, sorry, Mary Poppins: never heard of it. Brolly, yes; but bumbershoot, no. Like the so-called English muffin (about to make the most out of a toaster, "I'd ease myself down, Comin' up brown!") it's a wholly American invention that, no doubt and nonetheless, we'll eventually be obliged to adopt as our own.

It goes without saying that there are many "Americans", just as there are many "Englishes". The intersections of region, social class, race, education, and gender all generate recognisable sub-dialects, right down to the level of the individual, what linguists call an "idiolect". My own speech is quite different from the written "voice" you probably hear as you read these words, in the same way the actual face of a radio presenter can never supplant the one their voice conjures in your mind [3]. In Britain, regional accents can be particularly finely-tuned. My mother came from Pirton, a tiny village in North Hertfordshire. Across a couple of fields, you could see another tiny village, Shillington, situated in Bedfordshire. Apparently, at social occasions like village-hall dances, you could tell Shillington from Pirton "gels" because of their quite distinct accent; at least, you could if you'd grown up in Pirton. I get the impression that American dialects are more broad-brush, but there's no question that the version of "American" that gets exported to the world via TV, film, and music is a blunt instrument that ignores all the important subtleties that enable one American to despise another (it surely can't just be us that do that, can it? [4]).

But, [heads up, guys] now look here, you young fellows! The day crisps become "chips" and biscuits become "cookies" in Britain is the day (expressed as DD/MM/YY) that age-related pedantry tips over into age-related patriotism, and us old codgers [light out for the Territory] take to the hills, packing the OED, Erskine May, and a complete backrun of The Beano into the boot of the car, along with plenty of petrol and, for those that way inclined, a good supply of fags. Ooo-err, missus! And not just for a fortnight, either. Understood, [kiddo] Sonny Jim? [Outstanding] Splendid! Anyone for a cuppa?


1.  I say "equivalent", rather than "original", because establishing precedence can be tricky. A lot of "Americanisms" actually turn out to be survivals of an even older British English.
2. "Buoy" is a curious one. I say "boy", you say "boowie". So do Americans feel "boowied up" by good news, or assess the "boowieyancy" of boats (or maybe it's their beyoncé)? I suspect not.
3. As it happens, it's an unlovely mash-up of London and North Hertfordshire, with top notes of higher-ed, and subcultural undertones. When I was at school, my teachers would actually mimic my pronunciation, presumably in an attempt to get me to change it, and I'll never forget being asked to repeat my reply, several times, to a question in my Oxford entrance interview ("I'm so sorry, I can't quite understand what you're saying... Could you repeat it once more?"). It was just as well he couldn't hear my sotto voce reply.
4. "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him" (according to an Irishman, George Bernard Shaw, preface to Pygmalion).

Thursday, 3 January 2019

NYD 2019


Dawn over the Avon Gorge, 1/1/2019
(as seen from our Bristol HQ)

It is something of a custom around here – and never one of those "more honoured in the breach than in the observance" – to get outside on New Year's Day, no matter what the weather, and grab a few lungfuls of New Year's Air, not to mention a few photographs to prove it. As we were in Bristol, we headed out to the seaside town of Clevedon on the Bristol Channel, which has the multiple advantages of a classy Victorian pier, a community second-hand bookshop, and numerous cafes, all of which are open on the 1st January.

By buying a plaque, you help keep the pier in good order.
Many are mawkish, some are hilarious, mainly unintentionally
 (we spotted one this year that is like a TripAdvisor review)

Looks like Goldsworthy is in town

For once, New Year's Day in the West of England was not cold and rainy – see previous NYD entries – and occasionally a bright low sun broke through the cloud cover. People were out in force, too: I've never seen so many about at this time of year, or had such difficulty parking before. So much so, I wondered whether there might have been a feature on Clevedon on the TV or in one of the tabloids; it's generally the only sort of stimulus that motivates my compatriots to do an outdoorsy thing en masse. Whatever, I think it's unlikely they got the idea from reading this blog.

Have I wished you a Happy New Year? If not, I don't think it's too late, so consider yourself so wished, individually and collectively. Strangely, I find myself looking forward to this year with some real anticipation. I don't suppose it will last.