Sunday, 24 September 2023

Moth Magic

I had some fun making this latest digital collage – if you read the previous post you'll know where it started – and the result is quite pleasing, I think, in a subtle kind of way. It reminded me of various posts I have written in the (so far) 15-year life of this blog concerning my lifelong fascination with moths, so I thought I'd extract the best bits from them, and revise and combine them here in another sort of collage. It's lazy, I know, but I doubt even long-term readers [insert variation on "both of them" joke here] would have noticed if I hadn't pointed it out. The fact is, however, that some of my better bits of writing are lurking in posts more than a decade old that nobody will have read since they were originally published, and my current inclination is to dust off and polish up any that come to mind.

So, some of my earliest memories are of driving home in the dark from our weekly Sunday visit to my maternal grandparents, who lived out in a village in rural North Hertfordshire. On late-summer nights on those country lanes we'd be assaulted by a constant barrage of moths strafing the car like tracer bullets. Occasionally, a huge one would be sucked into the mighty vortex of the propellers of our Austin A40 fighter-bomber, gleam for a brief moment as brightly as the cat's eye reflectors embedded in the centre of the road, and as quickly vanish into the surrounding total blackness. Sadly, it's an experience of abundance that is now as lost in the past as listening to Two-Way Family Favourites at Sunday lunchtime on the BBC Light Programme. Or indeed the transformative imagination of my eight-year-old mind.

The newly-built council house in which I spent the first half of my young life in Stevenage New Town was backed by a venerable copse (or "spring", in Hertfordshire dialect) which had been left more or less intact, and it, too, was still bursting with insect life. Emerging from the dark of night, the moths which settled on our kitchen window would tremble with some unknowable ecstasy, and seemed like envoys from another dimension. Let us in, please let us in! We have tidings of great strangeness to impart! Needless to say, we went to great lengths to keep them out.

If they did manage to get inside, though, that ecstasy would be unleashed as fury. There is something profoundly disturbing in the way a large moth will hurl itself around a room, in the same frenzy as a fish landed on a riverbank or a cat in a sack, knocking itself to pieces in the blindness of its contradictory desire both to immolate itself and to tear itself free from its spellbound condition. Eventually, exhausted and broken, the moth would vanish from sight, and the next day the smouldering wreckage would turn up under a chair or inside a shoe: message undelivered, mission impossible.

I became fascinated by these dead husks, that – looked at closely – resembled alien spacecraft made of intricately-engineered parts, decorated with a pagan, earthy camouflage that had a satisfying harmony of colour and shape. Some even had markings in a strange, organic alphabet like the lettering that came with the transfers ("decals") of a plastic assembly kit. A magnifying glass would only enhance the wonder. Your gently exhaled breath would cause the defunct antennae and landing gear to tremble, and the hairy thorax would ripple like a tiny meadow of sun-browned grass.

The next step after wonder, of course, is knowledge. I still own the copy of The Observer's Book of Larger Moths and the two-volume Moths of the British Isles I received as end-of-year prizes in primary school. I spent hours bent over these catalogues of entomological marvels, feasting on their taxonomies of similarity and difference served up on glossy coloured "plates", in much the same way my own children would later pore over Pokémon cards. The main difference being, of course, that moths are real.

Their wonderful names alone invoke enchanted Edwardian summer nights spent "sugaring", sweeping kite-shaped nets around in the dark, and finessing captive moths into cardboard pill-boxes: Angle Shades, Clifden Nonpareil, Burnished Brass, Brindled Beauty, Silver Y, Hebrew Character, Snout, Toadflax Brocade, Foxglove Pug, Pebble Prominent, Autumn Green Carpet, Lunar Marbled Brown, Jubilee Fan-Foot... On and on and on... There are many hundreds of native moth species in Britain with "common" names alone (and about 2,500 in all), compared to the mere 60 or so native butterflies. This hidden abundance and diversity is part of their mystery, and its depletion in recent decades is a little-noticed ecological catastrophe. I suppose that unless you have experienced for yourself a drive through that nocturnal blizzard, or seen a dozen or more moths of assorted shapes and sizes clinging to an urban windowpane, you will have no idea of the devastation that has been taking place.

Inevitably, collecting followed knowledge. This is something I regret now but – like birdnesting – back then it was regarded as a normal and instructive outdoors activity, and far better than slouching around all day with a comic; you could even earn a badge in the Cubs for it. Incredibly, a ten-year-old could walk into any High Street chemist shop, demand a half-crown bottle of ether or ammonia ("for my killing bottle, please, mister"), and leave with their deadly purchase in a paper bag, no questions asked.

Our neighbours would be mystified when we pegged a bed-sheet to the washing line on muggy summer nights, together with a high-wattage lightbulb on an extension cable. The nocturnal messengers would come thick and fast, drawn out of the copse and neighbouring gardens like children to the Pied Piper's ice-cream van bell. I won't go into the details of what happened next, as I have no desire to attract hate-mail. Suffice it to say that I had made my own killing jar, relaxing box, and setting boards out of household items and balsa wood, and achieved a pleasing level of skill in the business of miniature taxidermy. [1]

That was all a very long time ago, but I still get a little charge of excitement when I see the Humming-bird Hawk-moths working our buddleia bush on September evenings, or come across a Red Underwing sheltering in the eaves of the garden shed. And my family sounded the true depths of my moth-madness when, twenty summers ago, they found me crouching in a  Brittany car-park at dusk, where twelve individuals of three species of very large hawk-moth – Privet, Convolvulus, and (I think) Striped Hawk – were feeding in a blur of wings on the municipal hydrangeas. Very nice, they said, but we're hungry, and left me squatting there, entranced, as they went to claim our reservation at the crêperie on the other side of the square.

Others feel the fascination, too, of course. Artist twins Doug and Mike Starn have produced some extraordinary photo-based images of moths, collected in their very desirable book Attracted to Light. Photographer Emmet Gowin, perhaps best known for his intimate family photographs of the 1970s and his aerial landscapes, has dedicated himself to a late-life project documenting the moths of Central and South America (his wife Edith, who features so prominently in the earlier work, is an entomologist). Two wonderful books – Mariposas Nocturnas: Edith in Panama and Mariposas Nocturnas: Moths of Central and South America, a Study in Beauty and Diversity (check out the video at that link) – have been the result. In Britain, printmaker Sarah Gillespie produces spectacular large mezzotint images of moths, also collected in a beautifully-produced book, Moth. No doubt there must be others, too, who are susceptible to their magic.

A while ago I came across Situationist Guy Debord's last film, made in 1978, called In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni. That bizarre title, I discovered, is both a Latin palindrome and a riddle, which translates roughly as "We go around in the night and are consumed by fire" (spoiler: the official answer is "moths", not "Catherine wheels" or "drunks at a Bonfire Night party"). It's well known, apparently, but something I'd certainly never come across before (a large category, admittedly). Once you start digging on the Web, it quickly emerges as a popular text within certain demographics, including makers of indie music and bearers of pretentious tattoos, most of whom couldn't tell an ablative from their elbow. So, well, why not? As a sometime moth-botherer with a little Latin I might as well make use of it, too.

1. Despite giving up the hobby in my teens, I kept my boxed collection of moths – I suppose as a reminder of a path not taken – and it followed me loyally over the years. However, I hadn't actually opened it for decades until one day in 2016. Yikes. Over fifty years most of the contents had been reduced to dust, leaving just ranks of pins and paper labels standing among scattered limbs and fragments of wing. What I'd been keeping was not so much a collection as an insect charnel house. It was clearly beyond saving, so I simply vacuumed the lot out, taking on board the Great Teaching I'd just been handed about holding on to things for too long, courtesy of the unsentimental forces of entropy. Though it was still with some regret that I chucked the box into the "mixed timbers" skip at the Recycling Centre the next day.

Tuesday, 19 September 2023

The World in a Jug

Japanese haiku masters, who grasp in passing a shimmer in its impermanence and consider the frailest things to have the greatest value and the most power, are not mystics. You could not imagine calling them 'ardent', or even that they climbed mountain peaks. They remind me more of those servants, in André Dhôtel's The Man of the Lumber Mill, who suddenly see the pure gleam of a garden reflected in the silverware or crystal glasses that they are cleaning.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), "Notes from the Ravine", in "And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry, 1990-2009" (Chelsea Editions 2011), p. 303.
I found this quotation transcribed in one of my notebooks, probably from someone else's blog or website, but despite the thorough sourcing of the quote itself I seem to have omitted to note the secondary source, not that it matters.

French literature has always been a blind spot in my Euro-culture, so I had some looking up to do: JaccottetDhôtel? Are those even real names? Apparently so. It turns out the work by Dhôtel is L'homme de la scierie, which I see our university library holds, as well as the Jaccottet (Notes du ravin), so if I wanted to find the original French of either text in order to verify the accuracy of the translation then I could. But, again, it hardly matters. What had caught my attention was the linking of haiku with that last sentence: servants "who suddenly see the pure gleam of a garden reflected in the silverware or crystal glasses that they are cleaning".

Why? Because that is an excellent description of a sort of photography that I enjoy. This is not a description to be taken literally, obviously – there's not a genre of photographs of scenes reflected in tableware – but in spirit: to be taken by surprise, often while doing something completely different and routine, by some oblique, ephemeral marvel that demands to be noticed and, if you are a photographer, recorded. These mini-epiphanies are never the result of a carefully planned expedition, the laying out and lighting of a still life, or the posing of a portrait, but a momentary glimpse of something perfectly ordinary transformed by light and circumstance, perhaps but not necessarily distorted and given that "pure gleam" polish by optical means: a mirror, a shiny surface, a window, or indeed a camera lens.

Inevitably, I suppose, its main proponents are Japanese: I think of the work of Rinko Kawauchi, or Masao Yamamoto. But it's something that anyone does who, in Gary Winogrand's words, photographs to see what things look like when photographed. Especially now phone cameras have added a whole new dimension of spontaneity to that enterprise.

Kitchen top, Bristol

Kitchen wall, Southampton

Of course, you can create similar surprises for yourself deliberately. Earlier in the summer I was in the kitchen, putting away the washing up, when I wondered what would happen if I took a picture through the bottom of a coffee jug. My phone gave a polite cough... Your wish is my command, master... Behold:

Hmm. So I then started taking pictures through the bottom of any transparent article that came readily to hand from the drying rack.

Interesting. A Pyrex jug or a jam jar are not things you'd want to lug around on a "just in case" basis, but might a light plastic food tray be worth slipping in a bag as a sort of filter? Probably not. Besides, for those of us unafraid to combine spontaneity with outright fakery in the pursuit of picture-making, there is always a simpler way...

All of which inevitably reminds me of this poem, an anthology favourite:
Anecdote of the Jar, by Wallace Stevens (1919)

I placed a jar in Tennessee,   
And round it was, upon a hill.   
It made the slovenly wilderness   
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.   
The jar was round upon the ground   
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.   
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,   
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Incidentally, I have only just learned, after all these years (from Wikipedia, naturally), that Dominion was a popular brand of glass jar in the USA for the preservation of fruit (not to mention the infusing of home-distilled alcohol), most notably the Wide Mouth Special, made in the, ah, Dominion of Canada.

Friday, 15 September 2023

Change Your Life (Get a Head)

Monestir de Pedralbes, Barcelona

As this strange summer finally started to relax its chokehold on my urge to do anything much, and the unaccustomed stretch of idleness began to bother me, I caught myself half-hearing the words you must change your life, almost as if dictated by a voice in the wind. Which may require some explanation, if you are not to doubt my sanity.

So, just as a preliminary, how are you with poetry? It seems to make a lot of people feel awkward these days. It's certainly not generally well taught any more, at any level, which means fewer and fewer people are learning to encounter their own language in its purest, most playfully serious mode. I find this sad, not least because in many ways it was a talent for poetry that catapulted me into that category of oddballs labelled "susceptible to education (but not of any useful sort)".

Fortunately, this was not so much a talent for writing poetry—that would have been a curse too far—as for reading and interpreting poetry. Which is an idiotic talent, to be sure, but one which used to be more remunerative than actually turning out the stuff. So, had you ever needed the plumbing or wiring of a difficult poem sorting out, I was your man. I don't think there used to be a Yellow Pages section for literary interpreters but, if there was, that would have been me with the big banner advert. [1] Unfortunately, the bottom had already dropped out of the interpretation business by the late 1970s, so that's not how I ended up making a living. I did seriously consider diversifying into the theory racket, but quickly realised that I would only end up in that notorious dark wood, the straight way lost, where all theorists of the untheorisable are destined to end up, and decided to get a proper job instead.

Despite the dwindling job market for poetry maintenance, however, some actual poems do remain as key to our culture, in their quiet way, as do our more famous paintings and musical compositions, and really should be as well known. They're generally not, though, and—just to make it that little bit more difficult—they're not all written in English (in stark contrast, you rarely hear it said that paintings are rendered incomprehensible by the use of, say, French, German, or even Chinese paint). Robert Frost was undoubtedly right when he remarked that poetry is what is lost in translation, but in our increasingly monolingual anglophone world essential work is done by those intrepid armchair explorers of the broader culture who continually rediscover and retranslate foreign-language literary touchstones.

One such is the poem Archaïscher Torso Apollos ("Archaic Torso of Apollo"), composed by Rainer Maria Rilke in 1908, after nine tempestuous months spent working as secretary to the notoriously "difficult" sculptor Auguste Rodin. There are plenty of translations on the Web, if you don't do German. All of them are quite bad, unfortunately—there are interesting discussions of the translation issues here and here—but then I believe Rilke's German can be quite challenging even for native speakers.

The poem is famous for its startling closing line —"You must change your life"—which, on the face of it, looks like the sort of sententious finger-wagging beloved of the self-help and therapy crowd. But that is to miss the point, rather like fixing on "neither a borrower nor a lender be" as the key to Hamlet. At its simplest, it's an example of an ekphrastic poem ("verse on art objects"), but it invites deeper reflections on just who is looking at who in the encounter with art. Ursula K. Le Guin (yes, that Ursula K. Le Guin) said of it:
True myth may serve for thousands of years as an inexhaustible source of intellectual speculation, religious joy, ethical inquiry and artistic renewal. The real myth is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is. You look at it and it vanishes. You look at the Blond Hero - really look - and he turns into a gerbil. But you look at Apollo, and he looks back at you.
Personally, I think she, too, half misses the point, not helped by that comparison with, of all things, a gerbil. Rilke often wrote about angels and figures from myth, and even claimed to take dictation from voices in the wind—hey, we've all been there—and it can be hard to be sure whether or not he expected us to understand them as anything more than convenient armatures or vivifying metaphors handed down to us from antiquity. If you want my interpretation of the poem, my rates are very reasonable. But, as I say, I hung up my hermeneutical hat four decades ago, so it may not be up to current specs. [2]

Parc del Labarint d'Horta, Barcelona

This poem has always intrigued me, however, ever since I first read it at school as a sixth former, and many years ago now I proposed a project to a teaching colleague in the German Department along these lines:
Hi Andrea,
At the moment, I'm still thinking about the thing I mentioned the other day and it may well come to nothing, but: what I have in mind is a project pulling together a variety of interpretive contributions from staff/students working within the University, focussing on a single poem. I suppose I have a slightly naive vision of, on the one hand, a class of German students creating visual art and, on the other, certain artists engaging creatively with poetry in a foreign language. If a viable project plan does emerge, I will try to interest either [X] at the [Y] Gallery or [...] at the [...] Gallery in an exhibition / publication. 
From my p-o-v, I'm fascinated by the way the visual and the literary interact, and the whole business of translation / transmission between languages, cultures and different expressive means. The Rilke suggested itself as a choice, partly because of its intrinsic concerns, and partly because it has been so frequently translated and variously interpreted. It also seems auspicious that you teach it yourself in your classes. Such a project would obviously benefit enormously from your linguistic expertise and insight (as you know, I do have some competence in German, but I am baffled, for example, by the various translations of "sein unerhörtes Haupt" as "legendary", "fabulous", "terrific", etc.). 
What do you think?
The project never did come to anything beyond some interesting conversations—at the time we both had children in the university Day Nursery, and it's always a relief for parents to talk about anything other than toddler-related matters—and, sad to say, that colleague has since died.

Anyway, around that time I stumbled across what I think is a brilliant rendering of Rilke's poem that seems to uncover a dimension beyond the mythological "heavy breathing" that most translators focus on. It's funny, too. It seems to have vanished from the Web now, so I've taken the liberty of transcribing it here. I hope the author won't mind this publicity.
Archaic Torso of Apollo, a Translation for Bored Children.
After Rilke, by Catherine J. Coan

eyeball ripening
in the head

candle in the chest

in and of
and in itself
and of it

did you know
you didn't know


don't think of buttcrack
here you mustn't think of it

think of the shoulders
or a waterfall

you see
a cat and a star
and an unframed frame
and here is the thing

don't think buttcrack
otherwise you'll never
beget what he meant

no snickering
this is a museum

the statues have no arms
because they fell off
from strangling stupid kids like you

do you want to be a serious poet or what

Wrapped statue in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
(protecting it from us, us from it, or us from ourselves?)

1. When I signed up for an MA in Comparative Literature at UEA in 1976 I was told of a cartoon I have never been able to track down, showing two famous pioneers of that dubious discipline standing at someone's front door in overalls, announcing, "Hello, we've come to compare the literature". So this XKCD cartoon will have to do.

2. Here are the notes on the poem by G.W. McKay in the Rilke volume of OUP's "Clarendon German Series" (1965), which were attractive, blazer-pocket sized books used as A-level set texts in many British sixth forms back in the 60s/70s:

"The subject here is not a complete statue but a torso, in which, however, the potency of an earlier, stronger culture and vision is still present. It is a poem about seeing; a power of sight has been sculpted into the statue which challenges and almost overwhelms our modern, more fragmentary vision.
line 4. i.e. the concentrated gaze which was present in the now missing head is still present in the torso.
line 14. A paradoxical way of expressing the powerful almost accusing 'otherness' of the torso: every spot on it sees the beholder of it. It has the force of an ethical challenge."

Quite helpful, and not a single mention of small rodents.

Some of you may also be reminded of a famous quotation from Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (1886). That is: "Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he himself does not thereby become a monster. And if you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks back into you." (Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, daß er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.)

Which is not entirely irrelevant, I think. The two men are not unconnected, either: extravagant taste in moustaches aside, they even had a lover /  muse in common, the extraordinary Lou Andreas-Salomé.

Friday, 8 September 2023

Annoying Noise

This picture is really annoying me. On holiday in Barcelona the truth had dawned that, while phone photography has its strengths, its weaknesses (at least, for me) will inevitably lead to poor photographs under less than ideal conditions. Even so, when we returned from Spain to Bristol we found a heatwave in progress, so for my first walk along the Avon Gorge I thought – ignoring my self-taught lesson – that I'd not encumber myself with anything more heavy than the iPhone in my trouser pocket. Along the way I encountered these two guys at the top of their climb in the Gorge, and the potential of the composition was exciting. I asked whether they'd mind if I took a quick shot, and as fast as possible tried to arrange it on a screen which was practically invisible in the ambient glare.

Later, looking at it on the phone, it appeared that I'd managed to get a good one, despite the guesswork. But... The "raw" file turned out to be unusably noisy, and the JPG had smoothed things out so much that it looked like it had been rendered with a palette knife. I have tried every trick in the book to save it, and what you see here is as good as it will ever be; which is not quite good enough, and a permanent reminder of quite what an excellent picture it coulda / woulda / shoulda been.

Compare it, for example, with this photo made a couple of weeks later with my Fuji X-T1 at almost the same spot under exactly similar conditions:

No noise, great detail and colours, excellent dynamic range, good depth of focus (yes, that is Wales on the other side of the Bristol Channel in the distance)... Now, I realise these are not necessarily the criteria a normal person would consciously apply to a photograph – indeed, I suspect most would respond more positively to the first image, whatever its perceived technical "faults" – but at some level such things must surely register in anyone's appreciation. So, what a good picture the "climbers" would have been with the photographic qualities of that second image! But: lesson learned, again.

Here is a less annoying gallery of photos taken in and around Bristol during those weeks of late summer sun:

Sunday, 3 September 2023

Marès Syndrome

Should you ever find yourself in Barcelona on a hot, humid day, I suggest you make your way through the impossibly crowded Gothic Quarter to the cathedral (the real one, that is, the one with geese in the cloisters, not Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, which is a grotesque waste of time, space, and money) and nearby, around to one side, you will find a blissfully peaceful little square enclosed by ancient walls, one of those perfect places where you can sit, recover from the heat, and – if you're so inclined – daydream a little while eating an empanada for lunch. There are benches, a couple of trees, and a small fountain (turned off in this year of drought, like most Barcelona fountains, but which can only add to the magic of the place when active). The few people that do find their way there mainly pass through quietly, sensing they have entered a special space, an enclave of quiet contemplation, where some bearded bloke happens to be sitting in the shade, brushing crumbs off his shirt.

But the real reason to go there is that on one side of the tiny square is the entrance to the Museu Frederic Marès, which is probably one of the most extraordinary museums I have ever visited, and I've been in quite a few, ranging in size and eccentricity from the tiny Shell Museum in North Norfolk to the vast Hermitage in St. Petersburg (see the post Hermitageous). Generously – but also compassionately, and responsibly – if you buy a ticket to the Marès museum you also get a free return visit. Why so? Let me explain.

In recent years, a genre of TV has become established in which, in its mild version, some smug guru of minimalist living "declutters" the perfectly normal house of a perfectly normal family. In its other, more hardcore version, the impenetrably congested rooms of a compulsive hoarder are excavated, examined, and sanitised by a specialist crew. The difference being that, in the first case, the mental disorder belongs to the minimalist guru, and in the second to the hoarder. Either way, "too much stuff" is portrayed as a problem in need of a solution. There is, however, a third way, which is to be wealthy enough and sufficiently systematic (not to say piratical) in one's obsessive gathering together of stuff for it to be designated an important collection, and indeed ultimately a public service, when gifted to the nation. Examples abound: virtually all of our major museums and galleries began life as someone's private compulsion. Elias Ashmole, Hans Sloane, Solomon Guggenheim, Charles Saatchi... The list is long and distinguished, but all such "collectors" are touched with the neurosis that in humbler circumstances would lead to complaints from neighbours about vermin, strange smells, and fire hazards.

Now, as someone who has accumulated more books than is normal or necessary, I am not really in any position to point the finger, but I think it is beyond dispute that Frederic Marès was more obsessive in his collecting than most. Not content with getting hold of a few of the best examples of, say, carved statuettes of "Mother of God and Child" to be found in old Catalan village churches, he had to have them all, or at least as many as the locals (or more likely their priest) were willing to let go, which they/he seem to have been strangely willing to do, for a price. As a result, in the Marès museum there must be a hundred or so of the things, all executed to a standard specification but varying tremendously in quality from the sublime to the hilarious.

But that's just the first few rooms of the museum. Marès, it quickly becomes clear, had to collect everything of anything he could lay his hands on. At every turn in this museum there is a yet another assemblage of not-quite-identical objects, ranging from the curious – decorative fans, say, or tobacco paraphernalia – to the awe-inspiring, such as entire walls, lintels, and columns of romanesque carving removed from those same remote village churches. It is like visiting a normal museum turned inside out, with the storerooms of less than A-list, museum-grade specimens – kept for comparative, typological purposes only – all laid out on display.

It is all incredibly absorbing, but also exhausting. By the time you've explored a couple of the five floors of displays, it begins to feel like wandering through the physical manifestation of an obsessive-compulsive mind. Which is, I suppose, precisely what it is. There are not just one or two nineteenth-century cardboard theatres and sheets of cut-out characters to admire, but dozens of them; not just a select few decorative cosmetic bottles, but an entire room full of them. You like playing cards, or tarot cards? We've got racks and racks of 'em! Broadsheet ballads? Photographic cartes de visite? Ditto!

I cannot believe anyone completes the entire museum in one visit: hence the "buy one, get one free" entry tickets. It's an act of mercy. Amusingly, the attendants are constantly solicitous, particularly of us visibly older folk: "Are you OK? You don't have to do another floor, you can always come back! There is rather a lot to see, isn't there?" Perhaps visitors frequently fall victim to "Marès Syndrome", like a hyper-concentrated version of Stendhal Syndrome. What, surely not even more erotic cigarette cards? And, yikes, now a room full of creepy dolls?? It's too overwhelming... Help!

In the end we did bail out after two and a half floors, but the experience was sufficiently compelling that we did take advantage of the free second visit, just to see what might be on display in the upper floors (no real surprises there: yet more curious stuff, wholesale and in bulk, systematically arranged; I particularly enjoyed the hundreds of decorative cigar bands and matchbox tops). But situated at the very top of the museum is a small collection of Marès' own work, which – after enjoying such an eccentric bric-a-bracathon – was rather disappointingly conventional, I have to say. Best known as a sculptor, I think I was expecting him to have produced something vaguely Gaudi-esque, or maybe even as agreeably bonkers as a Kurt Schwitters Merz assemblage. Instead, there was a collection of the sort of dull, sub-classical sculptures and busts that would definitely not have been tossed onto any fascist bonfire of "degenerate art". Even allowing for the fact that Franco's regime was then at its dreary peak, it is hard to believe, for example, that this rather camp portrayal of Goya was made in 1959, not 1859:

Full-size model for bronze statue in Plaza del Pilar, Zaragoza

But, look, in another museum in another part of the city (the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya), how about this stone bust of Pablo Picasso by Pablo Gargallo, made in 1913? Now that surely is agreeably bonkers, isn't it? I wonder what Pablo P. made of it? Isn't his fringe usually on the other side?

And – who knows? – perhaps it was inspired by something like this wonderful thing in the Museu Etnològic i de Cultures del Món, which is just down the alleyway from the Museu Picasso, as it happens:

But really, I hear you ask, exactly how many museums and galleries can a person visit in one week and stay sane? Easy: in such blazing hot, stickily humid weather, as many as possible... Besides, after so many museums over so many years, I've developed complete immunity to Marès Syndrome.

Civil War posters at MNAC

Plaça del Canonge Colom
(nice shady spot for a coffee)

Monday, 28 August 2023

A Decent Cup of Tea in Barcelona

The Torre de Collserola is inescapable...

... As is the nearby Tibidabo Amusement Park

I have always enjoyed being "abroad", but these days I have come to hate the business of actually getting there (or getting back home, come to that). How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways... Quite apart from the wilful absurdity of flying anywhere today on a burning planet, modern-day travel seems to consist of little more than various types of inconvenience, expense, and boredom glued end to end, broken only by episodes of mutual incomprehension and flashes of impotent rage. Travel may broaden the mind (I have always doubted this, myself) but tourism can certainly shorten your life. Grrr... But I've gone on about all this before (see The Trials of Travel) so won't unlock that overstuffed suitcase again.

I mention this because we were away for a week in August, staying in a pleasant hotel in a quiet part of Barcelona. Yes, such a facility in such a place at such a time does exist; it's not all young folk puttin' on the style (though there is quite a lot of that). And, yes, we did fly, with the admittedly feeble excuse that it has been four years since we last fought for luggage-space in the overhead lockers of a cut-price pressurised travel-tube. But I don't propose to bore you with my rather unexciting traveller's tourist's tales and holiday snaps.

But what's that you say? Well, OK then, since you ask, maybe just these few. I'll warm up the magic lantern. Can we dim the lights, please?

Slide 1:

Barcelona in August is by reputation always hot and humid, but was not as badly affected by the latest record-breaking heat-wave as parts further south, and thankfully not immediately under threat from wildfires. Something we hadn't anticipated, however, was that the city goes in for a Paris-style mass vacation during August, leading to streets lined with shuttered establishments of every kind, at least in the less touristy parts of town. It seemed that no sooner had we found an open restaurant that it would shut down the very next day for the rest of the month. No wonder the staff all seemed so cheerfully demob happy. Catalans are not French, of course, so service with a scowl is not de rigueur, but many waiters and bar staff seemed positively skittish, practically high; perhaps they were. That would certainly account for a couple of menu mix-ups, but my shaky Spanish was more likely to blame. At one meal, for example, I got manzana and manzanilla muddled up, receiving a cup of camomile tea instead of the apple tart I thought I had ordered. Being British, of course, I drank the tea uncomplainingly, and as a reward for my stoic / wimpish forbearance slept miraculously well that night. Camomile, eh? Noted. (I know, but I did warn you these adventures were rather unexciting).

Pork with padrón peppers, followed by apple tart
(I remembered the phrase book, this time)

Slide 2:

Talking of food, I happen to like nuts very much. I eat a lot of them under normal circumstances, but when travelling and the prospect of delays is inevitable, I usually put a large bag of mixed nuts and raisins in my bag, together with maybe an apple, which make a perfectly satisfactory substitute for a meal. In fact, I like nuts so much I quite look forward to that eventuality. So you can imagine my reaction when a steward announced on our outward flight that "today we have on board someone with a severe nut allergy, and so no food items containing nuts will be sold or should be consumed for the duration of the flight". Noooo!

It reminded me of how, when he was at day nursery, my son's lunchtime sandwich of choice was invariably peanut butter. Then a new child arrived with, yes, a nut allergy, and peanut butter was henceforth banned. Noooo! It was a first taste of what seemed like an emerging issue in the 1990s, where people could die – die! – from exposure to something as benign as a peanut. Which isn't even a real nut, dammit. I don't recall that ever being an issue when I was a kid, when we happily pelted each other at breaktime with various allergenic food items. Although perhaps children were regularly vanishing from our classes, unexplained, and we just didn't notice. Of course, after experiencing school dinners a lot of people have claimed to be "allergic" to semolina, say, or – argh – stewed plums and custard, but a lifelong repulsion is not really the same thing, is it? To say you would rather die than eat stewed prunes is rhetoric; actually to die as a result is not.

Rules, rules, rules, and petty restrictions everywhere...
What is the point of a museum, I ask you, if you can't even use a megaphone??

Slide 3:

Nearly there...

Talking of delays (yes we were), our two-hour flight to Barcelona from Bristol was extended into a three-hour-plus journey by the encounter with passport control. We arrived around lunchtime, simultaneously with several other flights, and joined an enormous queue of several hundred non-EU residents snaking around a tape-barrier maze that filled a swelteringly hot hall, shuffling forward painfully slowly to be inspected by just two customs officials, all the other four or so booths being closed. That aforementioned stoic British forbearance was being tested to its limit. I, for one, kept getting the urge to jump up onto something and demand, "So which of you complacent shits voted for Brexit?? Come on, show yourselves! Put up your hands! Show us your precious blue passports now!!"

However, it turned out that this was not spiteful euro-retribution for an ill-judged referendum. Because exactly the same thing happened on the return flight into Bristol airport. Our flight touched down at 23:30, as scheduled. As did several other flights. Because of the competition we had a tedious 20-minute wait on the tarmac for transfer buses to arrive, and then, yes, joined an enormous queue of several hundred UK residents snaking around a tape-barrier maze that filled a swelteringly hot hall, shuffling forward painfully slowly to be inspected this time by a row of automated booths, containing machines that failed to read the passports or biometric data of a fair number of us, me included, which meant I was directed to yet another queue which led, again, to the only two booths operated by human officials. We eventually arrived home at our Bristol flat at 1:30 in the morning. What was I saying about modern-day travel consisting of nothing more than various types of inconvenience, expense, and boredom glued end to end, broken only by episodes of mutual incomprehension and flashes of impotent rage?

Slide 4:

But enough of this moaning about "First World problems". Such mild inconveniences are nowhere near a fair price or adequate karmic offset for adding to the unwanted tourist burden of faraway places that were perfectly happy as they were before they became playgrounds for people who want to behave like entitled celebs for a couple of weeks, or experiment with their capacity for drink, drugs, and bad behaviour on someone else's doorstep. Not to mention raising property prices, destroying local communities, and accelerating climate catastrophe. We should all stay at home. Although we won't, will we?

Here's a fun thing, though. Like many well-meaning professional-class Brits, at home we favour brands whose green credentials are at least plausible. One of these is Clipper Teas, whose attractive packaging is very distinctive, and clearly designed to appeal to well-meaning professional-class types like us. Now, one of the fundamental problems of being a Brit abroad has always been getting hold of a decent cup of tea, instead of the anaemic infusions that are passed off as "tea" beyond our borders. So you can imagine the delight with which I fell upon an unmistakable box of Clipper "Organic English Breakfast Tea" teabags in a Barcelona store. It was only when looking closer that I noticed something odd.

At home ...

... Abroad

WTF? It seemed like the most blatant case of copycat brand-theft I'd ever seen, until I discovered that Clipper is marketed as "Cupper" in Europe, because another tea company had already registered the name "Clipper" in Germany (surely "Klipper" in German, though? And no doubt they peddle that instant-piss-in-a-bag stuff, not proper tea). You have to admit that "Cupper Tea" (geddit?) is a smart, economical, and creative typographical move, though, and a classic example of that eternal cliché, turning a problem into an opportunity.

Slide 5:

A final observation, and then I'll shut up. This magic lantern is starting to get a bit too hot, anyway.

I've often remarked that parachuting into an unfamiliar location for a week or two is not a good way to get good photographs. It can work for an experienced photo-journalist, but for most of us it's a waste of time. Your eye is caught by trivialities and novelties, not to mention the touristic eye-candy that everyone wants to photograph (or, these days, photograph themselves standing in front of). So for this trip I decided to take my own advice for once, and restrict myself to the use of my phone, so as merely to document a holiday and nothing more ambitious.

I did in the end pack a small camera as well (Fuji X20) but barely used it: 14 exposures, versus 234 on the phone. I am never the most prolific picture-taker anyway – it's usually a case of one or two shots and I'm done – and most of those 234 phone shots were actually of objects inside various museums that I thought might come in handy for collage purposes. I did have a few regrets (I really wished I'd had a "proper" camera for the dry fountain shot below, for example) but in the main it made for a more relaxing time, just to be able to wander about, behaving and looking just like everybody else, and without the (self-imposed) pressure to find great photographs. Although that fountain is still pretty good, I think: a decent phone camera is a camera, after all. You just have to accept and work within its limitations.

Passeig de Jean Forestier
(most fountains have been switched off this summer)

As an illustration of both principles – that local knowledge beats everything else, and that any camera can be the right camera in the right hands – the best pictures I brought back of the city were probably some postcards made from polaroid photos by a local setup called 4photos, who have managed to hit a sweet spot between the documentation of their own city's highlights for touristic purposes whilst looking for a fresh angle on them. I liked them so much, in fact, that I ordered a whole load more from their website when I got home. Here are a few:

But, in the end, there is no escaping from the fact that for "serious" work – photographs, that is, which are intended to be printed, exhibited, and bought (yeah, right) – a phone is not yet a substitute for a camera with good optics and a large sensor. This will change, I'm sure, and in good light and used with care the results of phone photography are already impressive (after all, the photograph that I did print, exhibit, and sell at the recent RWA show was taken with my iPhone). But in low light, dim interiors particularly, noise becomes a problem that no amount of clever filtration can improve without smoothing away too much fine detail for my taste. Phone JPGs always look great on a screen, though, even if the sky was never really that blue, or the colours quite so intense, and are perfect for sharing or (cringe) memory-making (/cringe), and if you must record and share your restaurant experiences (a habit I have always ridiculed, but our kids demand it, honest...) what better, more discreet way could there be?

A good memory, worth recording...
Squid at El Trapío. Yum.

Tuesday, 1 August 2023

To Be In A State

C.R.W. Nevinson, Acetylene Welding, 1917

One of the first things English speakers grapple with when learning Spanish is the fact that, whereas we have only the one verb "to be" (I am, you are, we are crazy), Spanish has two: ser and estar. How this came to be the case is complicated but, although it can be highly nuanced in idiomatic language, the basic distinction is easy to grasp: ser is used for permanent, essential conditions, and estar is used for temporary states.

You can do something of the sort in English, of course. Language, like nature, always finds a way. For example: I am an idiot (permanent), but you are being idiotic (temporary, even if frequently the case). No problem. Other languages make similarly subtle distinctions by other means. For example, an early cause for despair among would-be learners of Russian is the discovery that nearly all verbs come in two distinct versions ("aspects"): one for when an action is ongoing or incomplete, and one for when it has been completed (something Putin must be juggling with at the moment). What, you thought learning a different alphabet would be the hard bit?

As an amateur language-watcher, I find it interesting that a new sort of permanent vs. temporary distinction has been emerging in English in recent times – American English, mainly – particularly when describing certain minorities. When we are urged to speak of "enslaved people" rather than "slaves", the point is clearly to emphasise an unchosen state, potentially if not actually temporary, rather than an essential condition. Nobody is a slave, even if born into slavery; they will have been enslaved by somebody else. Similarly, the homeless are now often referred to as "unhoused people", and the autistic as "neurodiverse", all from the same dignifying, humanising impulse: "see me as a whole person, not as a diminishing label".

It is easy to understand and appreciate the motivations behind these locutions, even if the resultant language can be awkward and has a certain finger-wagging pedantry about it. It reminds me of the two most important lessons that I learned at university from the brightest, most forward-thinking people I encountered (who, it has to be said, did not include the actual teaching faculty), which were these:

First, that one of the main enemies of progress is essentialism i.e. the insistence that a person has a "natural" set of attributes derived from their basic biological configuration – particularly gender, race, and sexual orientation (although as a short, left-handed person I always wanted to add height and handedness) – which wholly determine who they are and what they are capable of doing. You know the sort of thing: women are less intellectual than men, white Europeans are a superior race, etc., etc.; the usual litany of discrimination and privilege. Those of a conservative, reactionary cast of mind love essentialism in the same way they love social class because, especially when deployed in combination, they explain and justify the existing order of society, with the "natural" result that the right people (them) come out on top, for all the right "natural" reasons.

The second lesson was that many of these arrays of allegedly essential qualities are actually social constructs i.e. they have been invented by humans, by imposing rigid patterns of behaviour onto fluid, complex realities. These patterns get embedded into a society's way of doing things, but they are often merely "performative", in the jargon, and almost always give a significant power advantage to one constituency in its relations with the others. Language tends to disguise this constructedness, and to make these prescribed behaviours and power relationships seem, again, "natural" or, even better, invisible. But, being social constructs, they can be changed by society, given the will, sometimes by changing the language, but primarily by political and legal remedies aimed at redressing imbalances. Thus, just as trade unions give workers collective strength in negotiations with employers, so legislation can make discrimination on various grounds not just bad manners but illegal.

Thus far, no problem. These ideas, once novel, have gone on to become commonplaces. But lurking in them is an assumption that, I suspect, some younger people might find "problematic". That assumption is that a short person is and will always be short, a left-handed person is and will always be left-handed, and so on. [1] In other words, these are not, in the Spanish sense, temporary states of being. It is the prescription,  prejudice, and discrimination that are the problem, not the permanent attributes towards which they are turned. I am left-handed, in common with 10% of the population, and I am truly horrified when I consider the damage and distress that must have been done to those poor devils forced in the past to adopt right-handedness as the only permissible normal and natural state. It can still be very frustrating dealing with an overwhelmingly right-handed world, but it has never occurred to me that problems with handedness or height could be remedied by surgery or by behaving as if one were really right-handed or taller. You adapt, and accept that yours is a minority condition.

That relatively clear-cut picture has become blurred in recent times. It's as if the idea that "you can be whatever you want to be" has started to replace, or at least to rival the venerable idea that "you have to make the best of what you are", especially in the minds of the young. This is quite a profound change, with considerable consequences. At some point in the relatively recent past, for example, the words "sex" and "gender", formerly synonyms, went their separate ways, with "sex" denoting biology, and "gender" denoting behaviour and chosen identity.

Of course, there have always been those who took issue with the expectations and restrictions imposed on them by virtue of their biological sex ("Hey, I'm a neurotic poet, why should I be the one to dig and die in these trenches, when my sister is the sensible, sporty one?"), and some – who knows how many? – whose deepest, secret, but forlorn wish was to have been born into the opposite sex. These strike me as issues unrelated to same-sex desire, or indeed to sexuality at all. It seems to me that the current fraught "trans" debate (uh oh, here we go) is really a debate about social behaviour and identity, not about who one does or doesn't want to have sex with. And, at its most explosively controversial, comes down to: how legitimately can one claim a different "gender" whilst retaining one's original "sex"?

As I understand it (which is not very far), full transitioning is not about swapping from one fully-functioning sex to the other, which is not (yet?) medically possible, but about enabling the appearance and social performance of gender for those who wish to take on a different gender identity as fully as hormone supplements and surgery can make possible. As it happens, an old friend of ours has a fully trans son whom I have met several times in recent years, and you would be unlikely to guess that he had not always been male, although there is perhaps an uncanny sense that he had somehow never been a boy. Whatever your views on the matter, he seems far happier as a result, and you can only admire the courage and commitment that such a full transition requires.

A much simpler form of gender-swapping, obviously, is cross-dressing, which has a long tradition in Britain, from boy actors in Shakespeare's day and 18th century molly houses, to Christmas pantomime dames and principal "boys". It is also conveniently reversible, and it seems a stretch to regard this as equivalent to irreversible surgery, unless you think "trans" is just an abbreviation for "transvestite". Does Grayson Perry change from a straight man to a trans woman and back, depending on which getup he is wearing? I don't think so, but perhaps he does; after all, a core credo of the vociferous trans lobby is that "a trans woman is a woman". Cross-dressing is nonetheless fraught with contradiction: I surely cannot be alone in finding drag queens, for example, actually rather misogynistic in their parodic stereotyping of what it means to be female, with every trivial signifier of a cartoonish "femininity" vamped up to the max? It all seems rather hostile, and at its worst surely bears comparison with "blackface". But OTOH there are doubtless permanently and soberly cross-dressed men and women going about their daily business who do not seek to draw attention to themselves and whom nobody notices (unless, presumably, they have occasion to remove their clothes).

But, whatever one's views, no-one should ever insist that there's no place on the decorative fringes of the human tapestry for the camp, the gaudy, or even the downright strange. Which is not even so "fringe", these days: it seems that the desire and pursuit of a certain outlaw status (or at least the performative, outward appearance thereof) is now a major life-goal for many. And why not? The widespread fashions for tattoos, piercings, and hints at BDSM sexuality are not to my taste, but I'm not going to campaign against them, and there is no reason at all why my tastes or inability to "relate" to anything should bother anyone who feels differently. I'm sure they would have things to say about my own conventionally drab clothing, too, which is rather more M&S than S&M. "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven"... Live and let live, eh? 

But this cuts both ways. For the first time, the 2021 Census of England & Wales asked a voluntary question: "Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?" According to the Office for National Statistics, a surprising 94% of the population aged over 16 answered the question, and 0.5% (262K people) answered "no". By contrast, there were 30,420,202 respondents who identified unambiguously as female: 51% of the population. Now, for reasons that I do not pretend to understand, advocacy of the interests of that 0.5% has become a passionate cause for the intelligent young. Which would be fine, except that when old-school feminists question whether a self-identified trans woman who remains biologically male should really be entitled to access women-only spaces and facilities, or to exert influence over women-only issues [2], they are subjected to organised campaigns of protest, persecution, and "cancellation" – leading in some cases to actual loss of employment – as if they were the moral equivalent of white supremacists, or predatory paedophiles.

The militant trans-activists' war-cry seems to be that those women they label as TERFs ("trans-exclusionary radical feminists") but who self-identify as "gender-critical feminists" are seeking to deny the very right of trans people to exist. Not just the right of some of them to occupy women-only spaces, but to exist. Really? Such over-heated rhetoric helps no-one, and spills over too easily into intolerance and even violence. Indeed, my own partner has disturbing stories to tell about the bullying of female colleagues (death threats pinned to office doors, for example), and has herself had to negotiate packs of aggressive demonstrators, often masked and male, seeking to disrupt the meetings of feminist academics. The irony that feminism is all about challenging the injustices constructed on the biology of 51% of the population seems to be lost on those agitating on behalf of that 0.5% burdened with the "wrong" biology. Strange, isn't it, how it always seems to be women (and in particular women defending the rights of women) who end up getting the rough end of the stick? [3]

I suppose you could see parallels with the equally passionate and uncompromising advocacy of revolutionary politics by the intelligent young in the 1970s. Those bookish, university-educated, would-be Lenins and Trotskys who sought to position themselves as the "vanguard" of an imminent but entirely imaginary working-class uprising, and who denigrated existing working-class institutions such as trade unions (too "workerist"), the Communist Party (too "Stalinist"), or even the Labour Party ("you're joking, right?") are, in retrospect, quixotic figures; naive, presumptuous, and misguided, to put it kindly. It does no harm to remember, either, that "women's issues" and gay rights were always dismissed by those same self-styled revolutionaries as a distraction from the real job at hand, i.e. the pursuit of that fantasy of an imminent proletarian revolution, which would turn out to be the one-size-fits-all solution to, y'know, everything, so just shut up about it for now, yeah?

However, those people were and in some cases still are my friends. At the time, I was happy to play the role of a spear-carrier in their disruptive and sometimes violent student-revolutionary plots and war-games; it was the sort of dangerous fun that the young seek out, and I really gave very little thought to the motivations behind or consequences of the actions I was being asked to take. Although if, as a result, I had been expelled from university or ended up with a criminal record – either of which could very easily have happened – or if I had directly or indirectly caused real harm to somebody – yes, even someone branded as a "fascist" – I doubt I would be looking back so indulgently now. So I have to wonder whether those young activists trying to bully older women with uncongenial views out of a job will one day look back with regret at their actions, too. I certainly hope so.

In the end, I suppose the young are always a solution in search of a problem, and what counts as a suitably soluble problem to the young will probably always be baffling to older generations. As the young Bob Dylan sang in 1965, "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?" Well, you're absolutely right there, Bob, I have very little idea, although in this case it's not so much "what" as "why". To be young is, of course, a clear case of a temporary state, Spanish-style, and not a permanent, essential condition, despite what a slightly older and wiser Dylan wished for us in 1974, and the inescapable and sad fact is that, when it comes to human life, ultimately no condition is permanent. The radical postures of one's youth have a way of losing their glamour as the years pass, as our sympathies broaden and our certainties soften, until the inevitable question arises: what on earth were we thinking? So repeat after me: I was, you were, we were crazy... 

1. I concede that "short" is a relative term, as I once discovered in a bar in the Spanish Basque Country, where to my surprise I was the tallest man in the room. Not having acquired a "tall man" mentality, however, it didn't occur to me to push my way to the front...

2. To return to language, there are for example those who would insist that references to "pregnant women" should be changed to "pregnant people", on the grounds it is discriminatory against self-declared trans men (48K in 2021, 0.1% of the population) or non-binaries (30K, 0.06%) who might find themselves pregnant because of the sex-specific internal organs they have retained.

3. Particularly from "people with penises". OTOH there seems to be relatively little fuss about trans men. Although whether trans men who remain biologically female are demanding access to men-only spaces and facilities is an interesting question. TBH I'd be surprised if they were, and definitely wouldn't encourage it.

[NOTE: I will be out of blogging mode for most of August, so any comments and/or death threats won't be seen, moderated, or posted / passed to the relevant authorities until I return later in the month, or perhaps even in early September if I'm having a particularly enjoyable and relaxing time away from my computer. See you later, alligator / Hasta luego, caimán / Fins després, caiman!]