Saturday, 25 September 2021

RWA Secret Postcards



 

Remember what I was saying about artists with identifiable "brands" and the Royal West of England Academy's fund-raising Secret Postcard auctions (see Overvaluation)? Well, the latest auction has just concluded, and although the names of the 300+ contributing artists have yet to be revealed, I don't think anyone familiar with contemporary art will have had any trouble identifying two of the postcards above.

Did you notice the slight anomaly in the final prices realised? I rather like Grayson Perry's "Boomer Cat", although I have to say a bid of £8,105 is more than generous: it's actually 8.5% of the amount realised by the sale of all 398 postcards. OTOH to my eye it's only 90% certain that no. 014 actually is by Antony Gormley, which may be reflected in a final offer of only £4000... Try harder next time, Sir Antony; your brand recognition is slipping.

But well done RWA: the auction raised a total of £94,875.06, to be spent on art-related activities in the local community. A cynic might wonder whether these stand-out prices are achieved by wealthy artists and their galleries bidding each other up, in a brand-boosting exercise. Surely not... Whatever, the RWA benefits, and a few grand, whoever makes the final bid, is probably an excellent investment in Famous Artists Ltd., too. Win-win, I'd say.

If you're curious, the whole lot of 398 postcards can be seen here (not sure for how long). To be honest, I find the overall standard rather depressing: I mean, all of these people are sufficiently well recognised as artists to be invited to contribute. This is the best you can do? Really? What, because you were giving it away? Come on: think "brand forward"! And please: no more soppy dogs... That's just playing to the gallery.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Riverside Walk

St. Catherine's Hill

It was a fine, early autumn afternoon on Sunday, so we went for a walk along the river Itchen just outside Winchester where it skirts St. Catherine's Hill and, if you want to follow a circular route, you can cross the river and come back along part of the "Keats Walk" past the ancient St. Cross Hospital and some water meadows now maintained as a nature reserve.

It seemed like a good opportunity to test the photographic capacities of the iPhone, so I decided to leave any "real" camera at home: I've photographed this area enough already, and I knew I'd only end up doing everything twice, which is probably more than twice as annoying for one's walking companion. If nothing else, it's remarkable how inconspicuous you feel, staring at a small smartphone like pretty much everyone else you pass. And although various cameras are described as "pocketable", nothing of any real capability can match the pocketability of a small phone. The question remains: can the capability of a phone match that of a "pocketable" camera?

So far, the evidence is "pretty much", although there's a certain tension between accepting the over-processed native results and putting in the work to get the best out of the raw image data. The former look absolutely great on a phone screen, but the iPhone will try to turn every grey sky into a blue Californian idyll, turbo-boosts the colour saturation and contrast, and aggressively reduces noise so that a closer view reveals an almost cartoonish reduction of subtlety, resulting in that blocky "watercolour" look that marred many early digital cameras. I don't think these would print well, but I've not got around to testing that yet. But I'm generally happy to put in the work on the "raw" files – it's what I do routinely anyway – even if the results don't have that same instant eye-candy appeal.

The Itchen Navigation canal

A problem I've encountered with advancing age is that objects sometimes want to fling themselves out of my hands without warning. For example, when I'm washing up a fork may attempt to embed itself in the wall, or a cup to dash itself against the tap; so holding and operating an expensive phone delicately between thumbs and fingers is not exactly playing to my strengths. I have looked at add-on grips of various sorts, but there are surprisingly few that offer camera-style graspability, and of those that do most are ridiculously expensive.

But I came across the Ulanzi CapGrip and decided to take a punt on it, as it is cheap (only about £10 on eBay), is suitable for pretty much any smartphone, does not require the purchase of some special proprietary case, is simple to attach and remove, and as a bonus has a Bluetooth-connected shutter button that can be removed and used as a remote control. Even better, it has a standard 1/4" tripod screw on the bottom, so although it could be used to mount the phone onto some kind of support more important from my p-o-v is that I can attach a D-ring with a wrist-strap: the phone can then attempt to fling itself into the river, but won't get far!

The CapGrip had its first run-out on Sunday, and it seems just the job. How robust it is and long it will last remain to be seen, and I also suspect this may now be a discontinued item, available only through the sort of resellers who use eBay. Which would be a shame, as it offers exactly the basic functionality I imagine a lot of phone-photographers need. If it sounds useful you should probably get one while you still can.

Mr. Constable considers the Itchen water meadows

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Photographs Not Taken

It's been a while since I made a book recommendation, so here's something relatively cheap, but very interesting: Photographs Not Taken : a collection of photographers' essays, edited by Will Steacy (Daylight Community Arts Foundation, 2012). It's available in various formats; I downloaded it onto my Kindle. This is a good summary of the contents:

No printed images mar this page-turning collection of anecdotes from 62 working photographers. They are men and women like Mary Ellen Mark, Andrew Moore, Laurel Nakadate, Alec Soth, Todd Hido and the late Tim Hetherington, whose cameras are practically extensions of their bodies. Editor Will Steacy asked each to describe an irresistible photo op that they let pass, however great the temptation or ingrained the habit.
   Their "mental negatives," as Steacy terms their recollections, bring up a variety of ethical questions that stem from a common predicament: whether to shoot or not – or, in Hetherington's case, whether to expose an image of the dead to the public or not.
  Linda Yablonsky, Artnet

It's an interesting idea, getting eminent photographers to describe "the ones that got away", but which live on in memory. Not least because it's a sort of apophatic definition of their photographic aims: by describing the things they have not photographed, and why, they draw a defining boundary around their working "practice". Any keen photographer will have at least a few of these: opportunities lost because of a failure of nerve or instinct; by not having a camera to hand or only the "wrong" camera; because of a humane impulse or that measure of emotional literacy known as "tact"; or even a simple desire to be in the moment, rather than at one remove from it. Any of these can cause the most experienced and determined photographer to fail to rise to the occasion, or to deliberately turn aside, leaving a lasting and vivid impression in the memory that is somehow stronger than any photograph.

For those of us who are not professional photojournalists, of course, such lost opportunities are of far less consequence, but will nonetheless have significance. Thinking about my own mental album of missing photographs quite a few do spring to mind. Many, if not most of these are actually instances of a more general regret that I did not take more photographs, however, rather than specific occasions: I wish I had more records of the friends, events, and residences of my youthful years, for example. Although I did have a camera – a Russian Fed 3 rangefinder bought for my 13th birthday – I wasn't in the habit of carrying it around, and was still firmly the sort of amateur who used a mere handful of rolls of film in a year, to be ceremonially processed into a paper wallet of prints at the local chemist. Regrettably, when I did start to carry one around, albeit casually, it was a Kodak Pocket Instamatic, a convenient but truly awful fixed-focus, single shutter-speed, fixed-aperture plastic brick that used 110-format film cartridges. I tried scanning some of those tiny negatives recently, with mixed results. I suppose, if you wanted to be positive, you could say there's an appropriately nostalgic feel to scenes from the past glimpsed through a beaded curtain of film grain.

However, thinking of those times when I did have a camera but failed or chose not to use it some vivid examples do spring to mind. There was the time walking in mid-Wales when an aeroplane appeared over a nearby hill: an ancient Dakota, I think, almost silent and flying slower and lower than I would ever have thought possible. It was painted matt black all over, and apparently without any identifying markings. We watched it pass slowly through the valley like the dark ghost of an aircraft, but only after it had gone did it occur to me I might have used the camera dangling in my hand. Sometimes the uncanny spell of a spectacle is too strong to be broken.

Then there was the time when – on the first day of a 10-day residency in Innsbruck, Austria in 2014 – a striking young woman in full riding gear came down a path towards me on a magnificent bay horse. I brought up my camera and gestured at it with that universal raised-eyebrow expression that says, "Mind if I take your photograph?". In response, though, she twisted away in the saddle, making a startlingly strange, high-pitched squealing noise that was quite unsettling, pitched somewhere between a scream and a whimper and which definitely did not mean "yes, please do". I supposed she was either mad, an alien in human form, or some photo-shy Austrian celeb I wouldn't have recognised anyway, so I quickly stepped aside as the horse cantered towards me. It takes more courage than I possess to risk getting trampled or horse-whipped just for a photo opportunity with some crazy woman on a big brown horse. They did look very fine, though, coming down that track with the hazy blue mountains and bold pine trees in the background, and I should have just taken the damned photograph.

I also think of an unusual vista that, every time I see it, I think, "I must photograph that one day", but never have and probably never will, partly because it would require more forethought and preparation than it is worth to me, and partly because a large part of its impact is the surprise and pleasure of suddenly seeing it again, usually after hours of driving, and that element of time is something that can never be present in a still photograph. If you drive into Bridport in Dorset from the east, you generally get stopped by some traffic lights at the main junction in town. As you look down the street directly ahead of you at the lights, about 1.5 miles in the distance you will see the conical bump of Colmers Hill with its distinctive crown of trees nicely framed by the receding facades of the high street. Colmers Hill is an unmistakable landmark in south Dorset, visible from almost everywhere and much photographed, but I don't think I've ever seen it recorded from this particular angle. The trouble is, you need to be in a stationary vehicle, ideally one with an elevated seating position to see it to best advantage; I suppose you could hop out and onto the roof of a regular car, or even quickly erect a stepladder in front of the traffic temporarily halted at the lights. Yeah, right; feel free. You can have that one on me.

One final one. There are some houses near where I live which are of the same vintage and design as the council houses I grew up among in the 1950s and 60s. Once sold off to private ownership, as happened in the 1980s, British ex-council houses tend to have had extensions, new windows, and even tacky stone cladding inflicted on them, and very few houses these days have not had their front gardens paved over to provide hard-standing for cars. But on one corner a couple survive in their original state, and still have front gardens which are mainly scrubby lawn, separated from the public pavement by a simple rounded concrete edging, barely an inch high. Every time I pass them I get a rush of nostalgia, recalling happy years spent playing with friends in similar front gardens, whether crouched over intense scenarios constructed with toy cars and soldiers, splashing in and out of inflatable paddling pools full of tepid water and floating blades of grass in hot summers, or in the snowy winters we had then – 1962/3 was the Big One – scraping up snow into lumpy snowmen until our gloved fingers went numb. No simple photo of these unremarkable front gardens could convey any of this, though, even to me, so when I pass by I never bother to take the camera off my shoulder. Cameras capture light superbly, but feelings are always much more elusive.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Phoning It In


For quite a few years, now, I've been using an iPhone 4s which I inherited from my daughter when she moved up to a new phone plan and had no further need for it. I was pleased to have it, as a 4s had been my first revelation of the smartphone experience: back in 2011 the university loaned me one so that I could be involved in the development of this new-fangled thing called an "app" for our students, who seemed oddly reluctant to interact with us using anything other than their phones. Their phones? This, despite the generous quantities of PC workstation clusters we had only just thoughtfully scattered around the campus (see the post Phone Fun). Kids!

That iPhone has served me well and I have been reluctant to replace it, as it's a solid, reliable device, which I use almost exclusively as a phone, with a bit of texting and WhatsApp thrown in. True, it has also been a handy clock, calculator, and travel radio. Oh, and weather forecaster, train timetable, and world map. However, despite the occasional experiment, I have somehow never come to see it as a camera. The fact is that, despite the praise heaped on it at the time of its release, the output leaves an awful lot to be desired. In the proverbial event that Elvis were to step out of a flying saucer in our street, it would never have occurred to me to reach for my phone, in the absence of a "proper" camera. More to the point, the iPhone 4s is also now permanently marooned at a truly ancient release of the operating system – iOS 9.3.6 – and therefore cannot load the current incarnations of many apps, including (incredibly but thankfully) the NHS Covid-19 "track and trace" app. Pingdemic, what pingdemic?

While we were away in Dorset recently, however, I was impressed by the photographic results my daughter was getting on her iPhone 11, and I had to concede that cameras on phones are now more than good enough for many purposes; either that, or she is a better photographer than me, which is clearly unthinkable. So, given the cash surplus I have accumulated over the period of the pandemic – not catching trains up to London once a month or so, at £30+ a trip, must have saved me around £600 all by itself – I thought the time had finally come for a hardware upgrade. I swallowed hard (I hate spending money), and bought myself an iPhone 12 "mini", which is just a bit larger than the 4s, but has a lot more screen.

The various iPhone 12 models have been much trumpeted for their photographic abilities, but this is something I have taken with a large pinch of salt, coming as it does from people whose main picture-making activity seems to be photographing their own dinner plate, and whose main technical ambition is apparently to achieve a blurred background ("just like a pro!"). It seemed obvious I'd need something more sophisticated than the built-in camera app so, after some consumer research, I settled on the Halide app, with its capacity to create "raw" files from the iPhone data. The initial results have been promising, but I still need to do a lot of work on the reflex to use my phone as a camera.

Actually, the initial results are not so much promising as convincing. To be honest, I hadn't really expected to use my new phone's "camera" as anything much more than a note-taking device, for use as a stand-in when I didn't have an actual camera to hand: useful for recording things like textures for later use in digital collages, family snaps, or those unexpected little still-life compositions that crop up everywhere once you're attuned to them. It was obvious – to someone of my high standards – that a tiny 12 megapixel sensor with a fixed aperture of  f/1.6 and a rather wide angle of view wouldn't be adequate for anything more. I also expected to ignore the JPEG or HEIC output, and work exclusively with the "raw" files produced by Halide. After a few weeks of experiment and comparison, however, it seems I may have been wrong on most counts, although there are pluses and minuses in every direction you choose to look. So much depends on factors like light levels, acceptable amounts of "noise", whether a file is uploaded from the phone direct to a PC via a cable, or indirectly via iCloud, email, or social media, and so on. The main limiting factor for me, however, will always be the fixed wide angle lens, even though this is something I'd become accustomed to by using the Fuji X-70; I much prefer working with a "standard zoom" in the wide to mid-telephoto range.

So, there's going to be some "iphoneography" around here. My hope is that you won't even notice, unless I draw your attention to it, perhaps by making some comparisons. I'm not sure who I'd be trying to convince, though, other than myself. You have probably already come to your own conclusions about "phone versus camera". If worldwide sales of compact cameras are any indication, most people have already come down firmly on the "phone" side of the debate, which is not surprising, given the uses to which most people put their photographs. But it seems that even some entirely serious photographers have fallen in love with their phones. Who knows? I might yet turn out to be one of them.

Incidentally, something I have only just discovered but which is probably common knowledge in the smartphone community (i.e. pretty much everyone else on the planet) is that an iPhone with no SIM is still a working WiFi device, provided it has previously been "activated" (I imagine the same is true of an Android phone), so the 4s will continue to have its uses. For example, and ironically, perhaps, I now find I'm interested in its capacities as a lo-fi alternative camera... [phone displays "eyeroll" emoji].

All three of the pictures in this post were taken with the new phone, but this last is the one that really gave me pause for thought. Remarkable quality, I think, even compared with a good 12 MP compact camera (Fuji X20).


Thursday, 9 September 2021

Overvaluation

As I seem to have kicked off September with a theme of "overvalued art", I suppose I'd better deal with my earlier tease about the thing I saw for sale in a Bristol gallery that truly expanded my ideas of how overvalued something could be. It was this:

Ignore the reflections and the frame, and consider that scrap of paper float-mounted inside the frame. Look closely. I mean ... Yikes. I wonder how far you agree with me that this is both the ugliest and the most incompetent piece of work you have seen for some time, compounded by the fact it is offered for sale at £7,750? That's SEVEN THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS [1]. I noted that this lino print is from a tiny edition of five, and discovered on the Web that No. 2 in the edition (this is No. 3) was sold at Sotheby's for £4,000, with an estimate of £2,000-3,000, so the Bristol price tag is optimistic, to say the least. Given that a gallery's commission is normally situated around 45%, I suspect someone is suffering buyer's remorse – who wouldn't? – and is trying to recoup their original outlay.

The actual block of lino the image is cut into is postcard sized, no larger, and the rumpled, inky-fingered sheet of paper it has been printed onto looks like it has been torn out of a sketchbook (if you can read the label, "wove paper" is the regular stuff you write shopping lists on, nothing fancy [2]). Setting aside the – presumably intentional – crudity of the draughtsmanship (not to mention the, um, subject matter), I think that to anyone who enjoys printmaking the most unattractive aspect of this item is that outlines have simply been cut into the surface, rendering them white on a black background; no attempt whatsoever has been made to use the inherent capacity of relief printing to produce contrasting blocks of solid colour and white paper, or bold graphical linework. It's a clumsy sketch cut with a minimal level of skill or imagination, like something scratched with a key into a public lavatory door, although it's true the word "love" has come out the right way round, which is something, I suppose. It reminds me of the beginners' efforts I saw when I worked as an art technician in a secondary school in 1972/3, although those generally involved football and glam-rock rather than transgressive sex. Of course, this may all be part of the artist's intention; a poke at the artsy-craftsy, tasteful preciosities of conventional printmakers. It might also be said that there's a subversive tradition being invoked here: art brut, punk, and even "zen mind, beginner's mind", stuff like that.

But this would be odd coming from Grayson Perry – for it is he – surely one of the most self-consciously artsy-craftsy artists working in Britain today. The man makes pots and tapestries, FFS! Isn't his artsy-craftiness in itself his sly poke at Art World snobbery? Although, admittedly, tastefulness does not figure large in his output. I'm not sure how well-known Grayson Perry is beyond these shores, but here he has achieved recognition as a National Treasure in waiting. His two Big Things are that he is a painter of pots, a cross-dresser, and has an obsession with his childhood teddy bear Alan Measles... Correction, his three Big Things are that he is painter of pots, a cross-dresser, has an obsession with his childhood teddy bear, and loves to talk about art ... OK, his four Big Things ... [3] And it has to be admitted, annoying as the transvestite-potter-with-a-teddy-bear performance is, that Grayson does have interesting things to say about art. His book, Playing to the Gallery : Helping Contemporary Art in its Struggle to be Understood is well worth reading. He may be a posturing provocateur, but he's no idiot.

The thing is, no matter what you think of him or his art, a great many people will have heard of Grayson Perry, whereas they probably won't have heard of many other artists, and certainly not accomplished but distinctly un-provocative printmakers like, say, Neil Bousfield or Sarah Gillespie, just to pick two artists whose work I have admired in recent years. He has made himself into a brand, and the whole point of a brand is to save people who want to buy art – or anything, come to that – from having to make their own judgements about it. A really successful art brand is one that can be instantly identified without any label. For example, in the Royal West of England Academy's annual "secret postcard" fundraising auctions the anonymous but unmistakable contributions from the likes of Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry immediately become the subject of bidding wars that soar away into the thousands, while the majority of contributors' efforts remain stalled below £100. Which is about what a hastily hand-painted 6" x 4" postcard is worth, whoever's signature is on the back.

In support of a cash-strapped institution like the RWA, of course, the absurd overvaluation of a small token artwork is fine and indeed admirable; the truism that something is only worth what someone is prepared to pay for it is not so much contradicted as exemplified when something intrinsically valueless has become an opportunity for charitable generosity. But that framed scrap of paper above is not inviting bids, it is asserting its own market value, hanging on a commercial gallery wall somewhat hubristically alongside beautiful (and cheaper!) original prints by Matisse, Picasso, and other notables. Had it been made by anyone less well-known, it would surely have gone straight into a drawer or even the bin; unframed, unwanted, at most a cack-handed curiosity, best forgotten. But it's "a Grayson Perry" and therefore must be worth a lot of money, mustn't it? It may look like shit, but it's an investment. Well, we'll see about that; only time will tell.

Frankly, I think Grayson Perry should be ashamed of himself (an unlikely scenario) for letting such a lazy, phoned-in effort out into the wild, but nowhere near as ashamed as any fool willing to pay that sort of money simply for the bragging rights of hanging the dismal thing on their wall. And, just think, when they grow tired of it and suffer buyer's remorse in their turn, the next gallery will have to offer it at £15,000 if the owner hopes to recover their outlay plus commission! Provided, of course, Grayson's stock doesn't takes a tumble in the meantime.

1. That's roughly 10,500 US dollars, or 9,000 euros.
2. I love the way giving something a technical or euphemistic name seems to elevate its status. I'm sure you have noticed the frequency of a substance called "aqua" in household products and cosmetics. And then there's giclée printing, so much more sophisticated than plain old inkjet printing...
3. Sorry, I recently saw the Monty Python sketch about the Spanish Inquisition ("Nobody expects..."), still quite funny after all these years.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Post-Plotnick Packaging Pictures

It seems there are so many wannabe artists out there, all looking for the stylistic edge that will be distinctively "theirs" – their brand, their trademark, their signature style – that, like the parallel evolution of sabre-toothed dentition or bristling defensive spines, even the weirdest novelties will be thrown up independently any number of times. If you have banked heavily on the uniqueness of your own innovations, then the unwelcome discovery of a stranger's footprints all over what you had considered your private turf can induce annoyance, and even paranoid, violent, and litigious thoughts. Alternatively, you can just let it go, and write it off to experience. I'm a porcupine, you're a hedgehog, that weirdo over there is an echidna: let's all get along!

More than a decade ago, I wrote about an instance of this that paralleled my own efforts, in the post Snails in Outer Space. Now I've come across an even more striking example.

You may remember me describing my interest in deconstructing cardboard packaging last year (Cut It Out; hey, listen, a man needs a hobby). It had occurred to me – how could it not? – that these oddly-shaped sheets of card would make an interesting series of surfaces for some visual art, whether as an actual "support" for painting or drawing, or scanned as an element in digital art. So I decided to scan a few, cleaned up the shapes, and then superimposed some digital patterns onto them, just to see how it would look. TBH, it wasn't anywhere near as interesting as I'd hoped, and the whole idea went onto the back burner, along with a dozen other such potential ways of occupying the hours between breakfast and bedtime. Maybe later, maybe not.



So, imagine my surprise when I opened the regular emailed newsletter from Photo-Eye, and saw the announcement of their latest "Showcase" artist, someone called Walter Plotnick (no, really) who – you've guessed it – is using scanned deconstructed cardboard packaging as the canvas for some digital art. My initial flash of annoyance was quickly replaced by amusement, however, when I saw quite how dreadful Plotnick's efforts are (IMHO, obviously, you'll have to follow the link). Not only is his scanning crude – nothing screams "scanner!" louder than those horribly abrupt shadowed edges, and that harsh overall contrast – but his taste for a pointless and superficial retro-surrealism is also, well, pointless and superficial; again, IMHO. The whole thing just reeks of "gimmicky art" to me and, if nothing else, it made me glad I had shelved my own packaging project.

Now, I suppose, this particular graphical real estate has been claimed, post-Plotnick, so – unless I come up with some truly compelling reason to pick it up again – those sheets of card will be going into the recycling bin where they belong. Although I will probably scan a few more first, just in case. Hmm, I'm seeing kimono patterns... And architecture... Or perhaps some parody product packages... But, then again: maybe later, maybe not.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Dorset is Full


Looking across Lyme Bay from Charmouth
(not so much chilling as getting chilly on the beach)

You expect Dorset in August to be lively with holidaymakers, and the roads to be busy, but I hadn't expected it to be quite as lively or as busy as it has been this summer. We were staying in a cottage near Beaminster with our son and daughter and their partners, and one afternoon headed to Lyme Regis in a two-car convoy. Knowing that the traffic was very bad on the A35, we took the "scenic" route, negotiating the maze of narrow sunken lanes and potholed, under-signed backroads, eventually approaching Lyme Regis through its less-used back door at Uplyme, and headed straight for the Holmbush car park, well away from the seafront. After so many visits over so many years in the area, we know the ropes.

However, to my amazement, Holmbush was full; there was not a single parking space available in the entire 400 capacity car park, which is unprecedented. In the past, at any time of year on any day of the week we have simply pulled in, and taken the most convenient space in the first few rows of an otherwise empty car park. To be honest, I had no idea Holmbush was so big; I had never had cause to explore its full extent before. So we headed for the fallback position: that is, to what I have always considered the semi-secret Woodmead car park, tucked away up a steep backstreet, and relatively expensive into the bargain. But it, too, was full... Crazy stuff! At which point, we gave up and headed for Charmouth, where we managed to squeeze into a couple of recently-vacated spaces on the rugged field that serves as a seafront car park. It's official: Dorset is full.

I suppose it's obvious what has been going on. Thousands of people who would normally head for the beaches of the Mediterranean and beyond in August have opted for a domestic seaside holiday instead, not wishing to endure the expense and inconvenience of multiple Covid tests and the possibility of a ten-day quarantine on return. As a result, coastal counties like Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall are jam-packed, and everything is under unaccustomed pressure: apart from a birthday celebration we had pre-booked weeks ago, we could not find a single restaurant with a free table all week. Which, again, is unprecedented. Dorset, with its unpredictable weather, few indoor entertainments, and mainly stony – not to say hazardous – beaches is normally the preserve of the hardier holidaymaker, wellington-booted and waterproof-clad. We may be few, we may look ridiculous, but we do know how to make our own entertainment, come rain, come shine. On a wet day – and it was very wet indeed on our first few days – Dorset has little to offer anyone whose idea of a good time is to stretch out in the sun with a succession of long drinks from a beach-front bar, in anticipation of a long night ahead clubbing. I suspect that many of these Dorset newbies won't be back next year, Covid willing, unless they've acquired the necessary tastes for long walks, National Trust property visits, and eating fish and chips in the rain.

Charmouth beach

The area around Lyme Regis has been given an added boost for some by the fact that Mary Anning has been having a moment: there's a film, Ammonite, a proposed sea-front statue, and a certain amount of accompanying hoo-hah about her alleged obscurity and neglect. This is almost entirely factitious. Doubtless, there was injustice in her treatment at the time, mainly due to social class and gender, but – like any child with an interest in natural history and fossil-hunting – I have known about Mary Anning and her role in discovering the marine reptiles in the cliffs at Black Ven since I was about eight years old, nearly 60 years ago. Frankly, I would have said she is and has always been more widely and enduringly celebrated than establishment figures like William Buckland or Gideon Mantell, or even William "strata" Smith (also studiously ignored by the palaeo-toffs, and whose pioneering geological maps have recently been made available in a magnificent book). Sadly, the practical upshot has been a great deal of pointless and dangerous whacking of rocks and even the notoriously unstable cliffs with blunt instruments by assorted ill-advised idiots. Quite apart from the hazards to unprotected eyes from flying rock fragments and to bare feet from the consequent jagged edges left lying around – wear wellies, people! – it seems pretty certain that yet another major cliff fall must be brewing, given the alarming amounts of water and liquid clay I saw seeping out of the cliffs at Charmouth. To climb ten feet up the cliff and bang away with a hammer at the hard layers is to invite disaster. Even more so than those Streep-inspired meme-seekers, following Lyme's previous moment in the 1981 film of The French Lieutenant's Woman, who used to stand perilously on the end of the Cob in stormy weather.

A curious aspect of our rented cottage was that the walls were hung with a number of very large limited-edition prints by Elisabeth Frink. Frink is no longer as famous as she was in the 1960s, and I have to say her obsessions with fascistic male figures and badly-drawn horses are not to my taste, but it's not often you find a holiday let decorated with such upscale artwork. Maybe the owner didn't really like the prints much, either, and decided to stash them somewhere out of his daily sight. Whatever, I couldn't resist checking out their value, and managed to discover that a copy of one of them – from a series of lithographs of "green men", about 30" x 18" in size and all pretty hideous – is currently available from a dealer for £3,500. It's funny how knowing that causes one to scrutinise the ugly thing more closely for hidden virtues... Maybe the overall composition is strong? Do the muddy colours work well together? Or perhaps the draughtsmanship is good? Or even just the underlying idea? But, nope, none of the above; it was still irredeemably grim, and to my mind that price-tag is an inflated overvaluation of what is surely the result of no more than 30 minutes of Dame Elisabeth's time; a lot less, anyway, than the time and effort that would have been required from whoever did the actual work of printing the edition of 70 lithographs (certainly not Frink herself). Mind you, in a future post I will show you something I saw in Bristol recently that really expanded my conception of "overvaluation". It's a shocker. Stay tuned.


Friday, 30 July 2021

Solent Moments



Time for a short blog-break, I think. I hope you have a good summer, despite everything. See you later.

[UPDATE: back in September!]

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Telescope 2


There, that's rather better, with a bit of a wipe. Still can't see anything but mist, though. Issa was right.

Suddenly it's too hot for anything but tinkering, and I've got one of those annoying summer colds, which at first I thought might be you-know-what; either way almost certainly an unwelcome takeaway from that recent wedding. I think it may soon be time to reconsider the traditional Summer Blog Break.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Respectability


The guest with the effortless small talk

At the weekend we attended a family wedding in Bristol, between our nephew, a tattooist, and his barista girlfriend, who was originally from what I'm told is quite a traditional rural Catholic background in Northern Ireland. The resulting contrasts of friends and family made for some interesting people-watching on what turned out, despite the forecast, to be a very sunny afternoon. Which was just as well, as the timetable of events was, for some of us older folk, more than a little over-extended. After a 4:30 ceremony in a community centre that was as close to a full-on wedding as you could get without a vicar and hymns – I have never understood the point of bridesmaids, for example – there was a three hour wait in the grounds – three hours of drinking, making endless small talk, drinking some more, talking some more, and listening to a poorly-amplified but decent Irish folk duo on guitar and fiddle – before a sit-down meal at 8:00, followed by live music at 9:30. As a fully-qualified introvert, my batteries were already running very low by 6:30 [1].

As you can probably imagine, our nephew's friends and elective family belong to that particularly Bristolian tribe that is heavily-tattooed, pierced, and given to curious hair-stylings, up to and including some Keith Flint lookalikes, whereas his wife's family-sized family are from a rather different tribe, and were clearly somewhat bemused by some of the spectacle they had found themselves involved in. The bride's father in particular, a farmer, looked baffled throughout, and although this may have been the anxious frown of a man on unaccustomed leave of absence from his livestock, you had to suspect he hadn't quite realised what his daughter had been up to in recent years, and who with. There was no hint of trouble, though, at least not up until the point we made our excuses and left, well before the speeches, music and dancing kicked off.

At the meal – pie and mash with gravy and mushy peas – I found myself seated next to one of our nephew's old housemates, who was acting as the official photographer. Now here was someone with whom I was actually keen to make some small talk. He'd been using a lens that I was pleased to get a closer look at: one of those white monsters that declares "professional event photographer" as soon as it heaves into view. It turned out to be the Canon EF 35-350mm, which covers an extreme zoom range from moderate wide-angle to serious telephoto when mounted on a full-frame body, and from normal to "blimey!" on a body with a smaller APS-C sensor. There is a price to pay for this sort of versatility, however. I'd never handled such a beast before, and was surprised by its weight: a full 1.385 kilos. If you are susceptible to well-made precision engineering, though, it's a lens that exudes that reassuring heft, fit and finish that says, trust me, use me, I'm built to last, I can take whatever you throw at me! Which is a sort of wedding vow in itself, I suppose, although I have to say that it's not a union I'd ever be seeking: simply not my type. I wasn't surprised that the poor guy was exhausted after carrying that weight (not to mention that responsibility) all afternoon, with the lively evening yet to come.

Some people enjoy weddings, but I'm afraid I'm not one of them. It's not just that I find socialising exhausting: I have a strong aversion to any formal occasion of the sort that encourages men to wear suits and women to wear hats. Despite having gained four degrees from three different universities I had never even considered attending a graduation ceremony until, finally, it was my own children's moment in the scholarly spotlight; it seemed churlish not to go, if that was their choice [2].  Mind you, if you want to experience extreme tedium, perhaps as a sort of spiritual exercise, I can recommend a degree ceremony, an endlessly repetitive parade of more or less identical small events, framed by speechifying, and lightened only by the occasional spectacular tumble on the steps up to the stage, and the single shining minute when it is your child's turn to step up and shake hands with whoever is handing out the certificates; in my daughter's case comedian and actor Sanjeev Bhaskar, which did liven things up a bit.

Which may go some way to explain why it was, a couple of weeks ago – after 40 years together, raising two children, and paying off several mortgages – that we finally booked ourselves into the local Register Office, and – in a ten-minute ceremony that had all the romance of taking out a bank loan – signed a Civil Partnership. The pandemic had offered the perfect opportunity for a no-fuss, pared-down, guest-free experience, witnessed by two neighbours, a retired nurse and a French neuroscientist, whom we treated to a no-expense-spared ice cream in a nearby park afterwards. No, go on, have a chocolate flake! Extra sauce? Why not! It was fun, it was quick, it was inexpensive (and will be, um, tax-efficient), and we have no regrets that, after all this time, respectability has finally been achieved.

"We don't need no piece of paper from the City Hall..."
(but we've got one now, anyway)

1. A useful definition of an introvert is someone whose psychic energy is sapped by social life and restored by solitude, whereas an extrovert is the other way round. Most people are somewhere more moderate on the spectrum between the two extremes.
2. Some might say it was churlish not to have given my own parents the dubious pleasure of attending at least one degree ceremony, and in hindsight I probably agree.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Telescope


One of the best-known writers of haiku is Kobayashi Issa, generally known as "Issa", which is actually his adopted pen-name, meaning something like "one cup of tea". His stance of resigned irony, relaxed attitude towards life and literary conventions, and his constant one-sided poetic conversation with insects and other disregarded life-forms may endear him to many secular western readers even more than the more rigorously formal and Zen-inflected work of, say, Basho. I'm certainly a fan. They were writing in different centuries, of course – Basho in the second half of the seventeenth century, and Issa in the early nineteenth – so it's rather like comparing the work of Dryden and Keats, although I'd be surprised if the contrast were quite so pronounced as that in such a convention-bound society as Japan.

One of my favourite Issa poems (there is debate as to whether it is a haiku or a senryu) is this (in my slightly revised British version, suitably adjusted for decimalisation and inflation):

Telescope:
Nothing but mist
For twenty pence

In Japanese: 三文が霞見にけり遠眼鏡
Transliterated: san mon ga kasumi minikeri toomegane
Literal: Three mon / but / mist / see (in a past tense form with an exclamation) / telescope
(No, I don't speak Japanese: information from The Haiku Experiment)

"Mon" were apparently low value coins, although I'm reminded that "mon" are also the red "grade" stripes that we were awarded in junior Judo to be sewn onto our white belts– first mon, second mon, and so on – as opposed to the coloured belts for adults; the word literally means something like "badge" or "emblem".

So the basic scenario, as I imagine it, is not that someone has bought a very cheap telescope, but that on a dreary day they have put a few coins into one of those coin-operated telescopes situated at viewpoints, and found that it is misted up with condensation. Nothing to see here... Typical! Think I'll pop into the caff and have a nice hot refreshing beverage instead.

Issa K.
On a foggy day
Finding nothing to see
Had just one cup of tea
As far as I know, the clerihew has never caught on in Japan, but it seems to me one obvious equivalent to a short, often wryly humorous Japanese form like the senryu, especially in such an incorrigibly facetious culture as ours. Just my, um, three mon's worth.

Monday, 5 July 2021

The Dust of Your Feet


St. Petersburg, June 2018

July is here – how did that happen? – and I have not been able to find a suitable replacement for the outgoing "widget" that emailed notifications of new posts to subscribers (see the post The Curious Incident of the Vole in the Night-Time). That is, I have not been able to find a replacement that works with Blogger, is cost free, and enables users to sign themselves up (and unsubscribe) rather than requiring me to maintain some sort of mailing list. Which is a shame, but there it is: I have now removed the "Follow This Idiot by Email" widget from the blog.

In the end, the number of active readers relying on the old service was really quite small, and I trust they will either sign up for a blog-feed service (Feedly and The Old Reader seem OK, but I'm sure there are others), remember to click on a bookmark from time to time, or (to get Biblical), "whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet". Although I'm not sure who would be doing the dust shaking thing here, me or them. Hopefully, neither of us.

Buddhapāda
(Drawing of the Buddha's footprint)

Friday, 2 July 2021

You Shall Not Pass!



It's a funny old business, language, isn't it? It's amazing, really, the way the various grunting noises we can make have evolved into something so precise, and yet so elusive and changeable, when it comes to conveying real meaning in real life. As with, say, cars, the essential purpose of the thing remains constant, but the form it takes changes constantly, according to need, circumstance, fashion, and accident. Anglo-Saxon never quite recovered from its head-on collision with Norman French, for example, and you should see our little Skoda after the close encounter with a lorry we had recently. The sort of care and attention we pay to both language and cars varies enormously, too: my view of a few bumps and scrapes is probably not the same as yours, and certainly not the same as that of our friendly garage owner, Luke, who managed to convey to me that he would be embarrassed to be seen driving around in anything in quite such a distressed condition. Although "distressed" is not a word he would ever reach for. By comparison, I may be a slob where cars are concerned, but linguistically I like to think I drive the equivalent of a well-maintained Jaguar XJ.

Of course, because, like anyone, I understand and can use a wide range of social "registers", I am able to converge with Luke, and I wouldn't say "distressed" at the garage, either: "a bit of a fuckin' mess" does the job nicely, without causing anyone unnecessary awkwardness. But the fact that I refer to the "um, passenger side?" of the car rather than the "near side" reveals me as an outsider. It's clear that I'm no more a car mechanic than Luke is a librarian. Which is fine: this is an insider:outsider transaction. I'm happy to trust in and to pay him for his expertise, and he's happy to sort out for me whatever needs sorting out. But these little linguistic markers that distinguish insiders from outsiders interest me, particularly when they fall into the category referred to as a shibboleth.

Few people understand Biblical references, these days. The original shibboleth was, in fact, the word "shibboleth" itself, as described in the Old Testament, Judges 12:

5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

In other words, the ability or inability to pronounce a word "correctly" – that is, as it falls from the tongue of an insider – is a quick and easy way to determine outsiders and slaughter them ruthlessly, Bible-style, or at the very least enjoy an inward smirk of superiority. Looking at the examples of shibboleths in the Wikipedia entry, it seems the Biblical option has more often than not been the consequence of even quite mild and perfectly comprehensible differences in pronunciation. "You say tomato, I say toma... Argh!"

The names of people, places, and foreign words are a particularly tricky set of silent intruder alarms to negotiate. I remember reading out an essay in a tutorial on Shakespeare's comedies – none of which I had seen acted on stage – and pronouncing the name of the character Jaques in As You Like It as "Jacques", in the French manner. My tutor tactfully let me know that the conventional pronunciation is, in fact, "JAY-kweez" or "Jakes". Well, who knew? Everybody on the inside, that's who; but come on in, lad, and shut the door behind you. Similarly, a friend who was studying politics mentioned the difficulty he was having getting hold of something called the "Grundle Gung", which sounded intriguingly Tolkien-esque to me. Of course, when he showed it written down, it turned out to be the single word "Grundlegung", German for "foundation" or "groundwork", and pronounced rather differently: I like to think my mockery saved him from a deeper humiliation. The ruthless slaughter of outsiders is no longer an option in university circles, not least because the whole idea is to turn outsiders into insiders, but the mortification of having revealed the true depth of one's ignorance can be quite wounding enough, especially when only realised with hindsight.

In the end, I suppose what distinguishes a true insider from an ill-informed wannabe is whether you have heard certain crucial words and names spoken out loud in the right company, or merely read them silently on the page. I mean, who would ever have guessed that artist Ed Ruscha's name is pronounced "roo-SHAY", or that photographer Diane Arbus was a "Dee-ahn"? It's true that a facility with foreign languages can take a lot of the mystery out of this, but most of us will stumble over names like Vija Celmins or László Moholy-Nagy. Besides, there is a perversity in the Anglosphere that means that, just as we prefer Munich over München or Florence over Firenze, not even the most interior of insiders will use the native-language rendering of certain long-established names ranging from Titian to van Gogh. That is, as far as I know. Maybe the consistent (mis)pronunciation of, say, Degas as "DAY-gah" on TV and radio programmes – there is no acute accent over the "e", and the French do not tend to stress syllables – is a simple but effective shibboleth that keeps the rest of us out of the connoisseurs' club?

Naturally, as with language in general, the insider's version of any shibboleth is no more "correct" than the outsider's version: it's just that only one will get you across the river Jordan unscathed. It's no good insisting, "Look, mate, that is perfectly good Ephraimite!" when it is precisely your Ephraimitishness that is being tested. The difference between a shibboleth and simple pedantry about "correct" pronunciation is that pedantry gets you nowhere, whereas a shibboleth, like a secret handshake, opens doors. Let's go back to Luke's garage. You might wince at your mechanic's mangling of marques like Peugeot or Porsche, but you're not going to be the one picking up the phone to order a new brake drum at trade discount. The guys at Pete's Parts know and trust Luke's lads, and they all speak the same language. And when it comes to small talk, as lifelong Saints fans and followers of Premier League football, they have no trouble handling names like Ralph Hasenhüttl or Moussa Djenepo, albeit in versions with the rough edges knocked off. Just don't pay too much attention to that umlaut, though, or you'll instantly mark yourself as an overeducated snob like me who doesn't watch Sky Sports; although fastidious attention to such niceties could, of course, open doors elsewhere.

When it comes to pure linguistic pedantry, though, I have a good story which I think I've told before, but here it comes again.

Now, if you don't speak German you may not be aware that the vowel represented by the letter "a", when short, is pronounced rather like an English "u". Thus, for example, the surname "Mann" is pronounced "Munn" in German, and so the writer Thomas Mann is – "in German", as it were – "Toe-muss Munn". However, to give foreign names their full native-language pronunciation when speaking English is both tedious and pretentious, and can have unintended consequences. When I was in the sixth form, we were taught German by a brilliant but eccentric man, whose ability to turn on a sixpence from mischievous, fun-filled provocateur to outraged vengeful tyrant could be disturbing. You learned to read his mood quite closely. So one day, this man – a true pedant, one who habitually pronounced "questionnaire" as "kestionnaire" – decided we needed to know a little about the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. I think you can probably see where this is going. Few things are as painful as forcibly-suppressed mirth, so you can well imagine the agonies of seven 17-year-old boys, all trying not to catch each other's eye as their teacher solemnly expounded the philosophy of a man whose name, in his fusspot rendering, now rhymed with "blunt". I never knew whether this was a deliberate provocation on his part to make us squirm – I wouldn't have put it past him – but it makes me laugh to this day whenever I recall it, and is also a useful lesson in the perils of misplaced pedantry; a self-inflicted anti-shibboleth, a vice that puts you in a category of unwelcome outsiders alongside bores, egomaniacs, anecdotards, and compulsive practical jokers. You shall not pass!


Sunday, 27 June 2021

Blue



This week a strong candidate for Best Album Ever is 50 years old, and everyone, it seems, is a fan. It wasn't always that way. That year of 1971 alone, when I turned 17, was unusually full of contenders for that meaningless title, although few of them have shown the longevity of Blue. Certainly, music writer David Hepworth has set out a music insider's case for that time as "rock's golden year" in his book 1971: Never a Dull Moment. But the views of insiders, whether journalistic or musical, always entirely miss the point. Yes, it's interesting to be reminded by Graham Nash that some of the songs on Joni Mitchell's Blue were written about him, or by David Crosby that "Joni went out with me, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Leonard Cohen", but all this is simply wrong-headed narcissism: those songs were written for and about me.

I've already written about my relationship with Blue and have nothing to add, other than to repeat the more general case that all music – indeed all creative work – ultimately belongs to those who use it in their own lives, not to those who create it, or provoked its creation. If some scholar were to finally identify the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets, or even discover a bundle of tear-stained manuscript copies in Shakespeare's hand, it would add nothing whatsoever to them, beyond fuelling the sort of higher gossip and copy-editing that excites scholars and fills superfluous books. If you love and admire the sonnets – or any of the thousands of such messages in a bottle thrown into the uncertain waters of time and fate every year – and have made them part of your life, then they are your personal property, written for you alone, and you already know precisely who the dark lady is. I certainly do, even allowing for the fact that she was actually flaxen blonde. You may also, like me, have had a drink or two with "Carey", wished yourself elsewhere at Christmas, or retreated to the bar and brooded over a candle, with nothin' to talk to anybody about, especially that damned "Richard"! [1]


So perhaps the most authentic response to Blue I've come across this week is this, not from one of Mitchell's famous exes or a musician, but from a woman who had to walk five miles through the African bush to the game lodge where she hoped to spend the night, and sang songs from Ladies of the Canyon and Blue in order to keep up her courage as she passed through lion country. See, Mr. Nash and Mr. Crosby? You know nothing of the power of those songs.


1. The strength of my connection with the songs on Blue first made me aware, I think, of the power of lyrical cross-dressing; a routine necessity for women, of course, given the preponderance of the masculine viewpoint in literature and song, and which must be particularly the case in languages inflected by grammatical gender. For me, though, it was a big step down the road towards understanding what Keats called "negative capability", or "being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason".

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Honresfield Library Appeal

This may be an issue that only appeals to a minority of those who visit this blog, but I thought I should raise it. You may have seen in the media mention of the Honresfield Library, which is coming up for sale. It is an incredible collection of literary manuscripts, assembled at the end of the 19th century by William Law, a Rochdale mill-owner living at Honresfield, a few miles from Haworth. The bulk of the Library has remained in family ownership, and it has remained largely intact. Here is just part of the description by the Friends of the National Libraries:

At the Library’s heart lies an astonishing set of manuscripts in the hands of the Brontë siblings, much of which has been unseen for 80 years and never properly examined.  It includes seven of Charlotte Brontë’s famous ‘little books’, each of which is a work of art; a manuscript collection of poems by Anne Brontë; some 25 letters by Charlotte Brontë; and a small but exquisite autograph manuscript diary note shared by Emily and Anne Brontë. The absolute jewel of the Brontë collection is Emily Brontë’s holograph notebook of 31 poems, believed by many scholars to have been lost. This poetry notebook carries annotations in Charlotte’s hand. The printed treasures of the sisters include Emily Brontë’s own annotated copy of their first publication, the exceptionally rare Poems of 1846, and fine presentation copies of first editions of their novels in their original cloth bindings. 

Jane Austen is represented by two hugely significant letters to her sister Cassandra (only three early such autograph letters are held in any UK national collection, the bulk being in the Morgan Library, New York). One is a very early letter, written on the eve of a ball where she anticipated the end of a love affair; the second dates from 1813 and discusses the reception of both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The collection also includes first editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in their original condition.

And there's more, much more. It is essential that this collection is not dispersed into private hands, and the Friends of the National Libraries have launched an appeal to save it for the nation. Compared to the usual appeals to save some indifferent painting by some Italian renaissance painter due to be auctioned off by some impoverished aristo, this is on a wholly different level of significance to our national heritage, I hope you'd agree.

The FNL appeal is here, with a link to a "Big Give" donation site. If, like me, you feel this is an essential, once-only opportunity to save some artefacts of real cultural significance, then I'd urge you to make a donation.

Not Haworth Moor, but you get the idea...


Saturday, 19 June 2021

Dunstable Downs



My memory is no longer what it was, and I am increasingly finding that there are gaps in it. People's names have always been a problem for me, but it's annoying to find myself struggling to remember the telling detail of some anecdote I have unwisely launched into. Typical old man stuff, I suppose. "Hang on, was that in Normandy? No, wait... It might have been Brittany or maybe even, um, Norfolk. Anyway..." Stranger than simple gaps in memory, though, are errors of recollection that have consolidated themselves into false memories. For example, for many years – in fact until this week – I believed that the poet who lived in a friend's squat off London's Caledonian Road in 1980 – whose bed I borrowed one night when she was away and who was none too pleased to discover Goldilocks had chosen her mattress as the one that was just right – was Gillian Clarke, sometime National Poet of Wales. In fact, it turns out it was another poet called Gillian, no less distinguished, but nonetheless not the person whose name has been falsely triggering that real memory any time I came across it in the last 40 years.

The only up-side of these memory-holes is that the unexpected sometimes shines through, like ancient sunlight. I suppose I should reach for that overused quote about the crack in everything from Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem", but I won't (even though, in effect, I just have). One such long-dormant glimmering was re-kindled recently, when we met up with our son and his partner at a convenient halfway spot, Donnington Castle on the outskirts of Newbury. There seem to be places like Donnington in or near most major towns: a hill or other elevated spot where families gather for picnics, friends congregate, and solitaries sit gazing out into the landscape. Blaise Castle near Bristol is another similar location we visited recently with some old friends who happened to be in town the day after a family funeral. But what I was reminded of at Donnington was how when I was a child, just once or twice a year, we would get in the car and head out from Stevenage for a picnic on Dunstable Downs

My parents were never great walkers – I think they considered they had already done quite enough of that in the army during the War – but the great advantage of Dunstable Downs is that the road runs along the top of the chalk escarpment, so you can drive there, park the car and walk straight out onto the sort of grassy chalk upland, with a magnificent elevated view over open country, that otherwise requires a lot more puff to achieve. On a sunny summer's day it is a glorious place to be.

For us children in those days, and perhaps even now, one of the main attractions was simply running down the steep hill, losing your footing, falling, and rolling helplessly into a patch of rough grass, or sometimes one of the thorn bushes that stud the slope. Insane, really, but it was the sort of innocent, free, and mildly dangerous fun, like climbing trees and making "camps" in the woods, that we used to enjoy in those final years of an older style of childhood, before entertainment for children became commodified, roped off and safely-cushioned by health and safety concerns, and most "play" started to take place indoors; now, it seems, more often than not sat in front of a screen. To this day I occasionally dream of becoming airborne by running down a grassy slope. Although this may also be connected to the fact that there was (is still) a glider club on the plain below the escarpment, the London Gliding Club, where those gawky-looking craft were hoisted into the air by a cable on a motorised drum. We used to watch them rise steeply and waited for the cable to fall away as the angle approached 90 degrees and the glider was free to rise gracefully on its invisible spiral staircase of air. Which in retrospect I can see as a symbolic longing for the greater freedoms we hoped to enjoy one day, when let off the parental leash.

As things turned out, I achieved a partial sort of freedom rather sooner than many. Our family life changed radically when I was about ten: we moved to a newly-developed part of town, miles from the friends and haunts I had grown up with. Our cat hated it and ran away; I wasn't crazy about it myself. Then I started at the local boys' grammar school, where very few of my primary school friends followed, and my sister – eight years older than me, and both a companion and surrogate parent – left home for teacher-training college and then rather precipitately married and started her own family. Things were never the same again.

I suppose those years marked the end of a carefree childhood. There were no more weekend excursions to Dunstable Downs. Both my mother and father had always been at work all day during the week, but they now seemed too tired to do much other than shop, catch up with the housework, and watch TV at the weekends; unless, of course, we were visiting my sister's new family, where it was all too easy for me to feel self-pityingly surplus to requirements. Few families are good at handling moody pre-adolescent boys, especially when there are adorable toddlers to dote on. I spent school holiday weekdays alone at home, a classic "latch-key kid", free to roam, but with no friends living nearby it was a fairly solitary, introspective sort of freedom. Those were the summers of the Beatles' early hits, and I can never hear, say, the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night" without being transported back to a street of brand-new council houses on the edge of town with bare-earth gardens, heaps of builder's rubble at the kerbside, and bright white cuttings into the chalk bedrock for as yet unlaid roads and cycleways. Fortunately, friends came back into my life when, three years later, we moved yet again – my parents were nothing if not restless, and the council always seemed happy to accommodate them – and I now found myself living near some of my grammar school classmates. It was summer 1967, and having our fourth-floor flat to myself all day suddenly became a plus as I discovered the furtive pleasures of adolescence, and began to assemble my new "elective family".

But that minor revelation at Donnington Castle helped me remember why I love high places, especially the dry, smooth shoulders of chalk upland, where the breeze ripples the grass and you can bask in the elementary pleasure of revisiting some old, familiar feelings that are too simple and too innocent to have names. But, even so, I'm damned if I'm ever going to run and roll down to the bottom again. It was such a long walk getting up here.

Dyrham Camp hillfort

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

After Life

We were in Bristol last week for a very sad occasion: the funeral of my partner's older sister, Maggie, who died in May, aged just 69. Younger sister Jill wrote and read out a eulogy, which was published in the Guardian's "Other Lives" obituaries (in an edit which, if the "live" version was the same as that submitted, left out the best bits); if you're curious, it can be read here. Oddly, all three sisters managed to end up with partners / husbands called Mike. To add to the confusion, we discovered at the memorial held later that same day that the father of Maggie's son's wife-to-be is also named Mike. I suppose it does keep things simple, although you can't help but feel some incomprehensible cosmic joke is being played out here [1].

Anyway, as these things do, it prompted a series of thoughts which I trust you won't find too morbid. Think of me as the chariot-slave at your shoulder, whispering memento mori... You may hope to be an exception to this universal mortality clause, but it's non-negotiable. Seriously, I've seen the paperwork in an astounding and privileged preview of angelic bureaucracy. You wouldn't believe the record-keeping effort that goes on up there: keeping track of the beetles alone requires an entire dedicated bureaucratic legion.

Sombrely, though, folks... Covid restrictions in England have meant that funerals can only be attended by 15 people and memorials by 30, which rather restricted the numbers at Maggie's two events, which would clearly otherwise have been very populous occasions indeed. I was put in mind of  the memorial for my old friend John Wilson in June 2010, in which 200 or so people filled Balliol College chapel to capacity. It occurred to me at the time that although there is very little to be said for dying young, at least it does probably maximise the number of people who still know who you were and what you did, who will mourn your absence and, most important, make the effort to turn up for a memorial. It did also occur to me that, even a decade ago, I'd have been lucky to have secured a respectable fraction of that level of attendance, and resolved then to do something about it, by living a better, fuller, more people-oriented life. Which, of course, I haven't.

In that same year I had also mooted the idea of the Lost List, the people who vanished from your life at an unexpectedly early stage, the friends and acquaintances who died, who moved away and lost touch – something that was so often the case for those of us who grew up in pre-social media days – or who may simply have fallen out with you, or become mad, bad and dangerous to know. It now seems to me likely that, of these, the list of those who have died is the one that is inexorably lengthening, and I thought I should give this some consideration, and actually write down some names and dates: if not walking the dead, then at least counting them.

It was salutary to remember some names I was on the verge of forgetting. Work colleagues, in particular, seem to vanish from memory with alarming thoroughness, despite the closeness that can develop over decades of workaday contact. It took an entire morning to recall the surname of a German woman in an adjacent department whose dry humour I'd enjoyed and with whom I must have spoken on most workdays for more than twenty years before she died unexpectedly one summer. On the other hand, there was the annoying bloke I worked alongside for just three years in Bristol, a larger than life character – a folk enthusiast, morris dancer, and "real ale" proselytiser – whose bullying misogyny and practical joking were tolerated by the secretarial staff because, in those days, they had little choice in the matter. His name liveth, because he was such an infuriating ████.

Clearly, I can have no idea what imaginings or vestigial beliefs you may or may not have about the dead. But some idea of an afterlife has dominated human thought for so long that it must be hard for even the most rational person to reconcile the assumption that someone has simply ceased to exist with a more imaginative and emotional investment in their continued existence in some form or another. Ghost stories and zombie movies do not spring out of nowhere, after all. Personally, in my less rational moments, I like to imagine that there is a cohort among the dead who take a particular interest in the progress of my life, no matter whether benevolently, malevolently, or most likely disinterestedly. Huh, what's he up to now? Whether they can intervene or not in one's life is not apparent – I'm sure there are strict rules of segregation between the quick and the dead they have to obey – but it would go some way towards explaining some of those bizarre coincidences, close shaves, odd impulses, sudden insights, and mysterious barricades that punctuate and guide our lives.

But I think the most important lesson has been the simple recognition that life is finite, and that it is a good idea to get one's affairs in good order well in advance. Knowing that her end was rapidly approaching, Maggie was able to be quite specific about her own funerary arrangements, from the music she wanted played [2] right down to the picture she wanted to go on the front of the order of service. I get the impression that, more often than not, what most people leave behind them is simply a mess, an intestate chaos to be sorted out by whichever poor devil gets the job, probably accompanied by much family squabbling and ill-feeling that will last for years.

I was fortunate, I suppose, that my parents were poor and led a simple life, spending their final years in a mobile home in my sister's back garden. Apart from a couple of grand in a single joint bank account which needed to be closed, I was able to take my legacy home in a single carrier bag. Looking around just this one room, I get a sinking feeling that more than a few carrier bags, plus a couple of skips and a visit by a specialist bookseller will be needed when my time comes, unless I get on the case right now. Choosing the music will be the least of the worries, although it's a lot more fun to think about. In fact, I now recall, I had already begun to think about this a decade ago, in the post Funeral Music, and still haven't done anything about it. But perhaps I should work on that "better, fuller, more people-oriented life" first, while there's still time, if only to make sure there's a bit of a crowd to listen to it.

1. Many years ago – probably in the 1980s – I heard a wonderful reminiscence on the radio by a Scottish humourist, a man who, in his National Service, had ended up in the clerical office that assigned new recruits to their units. Realising that physical characteristics like hair colour were recorded, they succeeded in compiling entire units of, say, red-haired men, and – their triumphant moment, knowing that troops would at some point be lined up by height  a carefully graded selection of men, each of a different height ranging from well over 6 feet down to shorter than 5 feet. If anyone can remember who this was, I'd be very grateful (no, it wasn't Ivor Cutler or Arnold Brown, although his wry humour, delivery, and accent were very similar).

2. There was a particularly lovely piece by Malian performer, Fatoumata Diawara, "Kanou".


Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Twyford Down



There is something interesting about the field in the photograph above, which is on Twyford Down near Winchester and, as I saw it there a few days ago, currently covered with an oil-seed rape crop. If you go to Google Maps at location 51.040453, -1.289038 and use the satellite view you'll see what I mean. There is a lot of archaeology in Hampshire, and the fields near Winchester are particularly rotten with it: from the air this looks like it must be an abandoned settlement. However it is on a steep south-east facing slope, one side of a narrow valley immediately opposite an equally steep north-west facing slope: not really the sort of place you'd choose to put a villa or farm.

The opposite slope, same day, same time

In fact, although Romano-British stuff is found by detectorists in the fields a little to the north, those diamond-shaped field-marks are most probably "lynchets", an ancient way of terracing slopes for agricultural use, a bit like the rice paddies of South-East Asia. There's very little evidence of them visible on the ground now, though, even when the field is bare earth in winter. Hundreds of years of ploughing are remarkably effective in removing all surface traces of earthworks, unless they're so big that you have to plough round them. In which case they become even more obvious. It's a testament to our ancestors' respect for the past (or more likely, superstitious fear of it) that so much has survived above ground into the present day undisturbed or just lightly-looted. Before the massive cutting was driven through Twyford Down to channel the M3 motorway past Winchester an archaeological survey was made of the land due to be lost, and the various reports are online, if archaeology is your thing: some interesting finds were made. A brief blog-style summary is available here.

There is always something a little uncanny about walking in an area so rich with the leftovers of so much human activity: you never know what may lie beneath your feet, and it's always worth looking to see what the rabbits and moles might have turned up in their subterranean housekeeping. For centuries, field labourers will have quietly pocketed little treasures and curiosities left for them by the Old Folk. But life goes on, and those crops won't plant themselves. As Blake puts it in the Proverbs of Hell: "Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead".