Thursday, 29 September 2022

St. Cross Saturday

There was a bit of a party going on at the ancient St. Cross Hospital in Winchester on Saturday. Inside the inner sanctum, a rather beautiful garden, it was revealed that the hosts were some rather bored and stand-offish hawks and owls. Nonetheless, they did deign to press the flesh with the plebs, when properly introduced. Ouch!

We got there late in the afternoon, just in time to see these avian aristocrats do their last rounds of flesh-pressing (Ow! Not so hard, your majesty!), and then being helped by their servants into their customised vehicles after a light snack, which appeared to be the bits of a chicken you and I never get to see, exclusively reserved for the well-feathered upper crust.

Sunday, 25 September 2022

King's Move

What's that you say, Sooty, my conveniently mute hand-puppet? You want to read my reflections on the death of our constitutional monarch, and the pomp, ceremony, and circumstance surrounding her funeral? Really? Is this a joke? [insistent squeaking] OK, quiet now, Sweep, apparently not. Well, as it happens, I suppose I might just have a few things to say on the subject. So, settle down, and let's see what I can come up with. [excited squeaks and magic wand tapping]

First, let's be clear. I have no investment whatsoever – emotional, political, sentimental, or patriotical – in our late queen, as a person or as an institution. I have never met her, seen her in person (I'm pretty sure I'd have spotted her if she was ever down the shops) [1], sworn any oaths of loyalty to her [2], been invested with or declined any honours, received or refused an invitation to any palace garden parties, or even read much about her in the newspapers. I have certainly never bought or read any books about her or followed the royal family saga with any interest, which basically seems like a particularly poisonous soap opera which "jumped the shark" several seasons ago, and features a very unappealing line-up. Charles has clearly been cast as a pompous, manipulative dork, and Andrew... Well, we don't talk about him any more. I cared nothing about Diana, and care even less about Harry and Meghan, although it's true his ginger haired, un-Windsorish conformation does give me a little smirk of Schadenfreude whenever I see him. Nice plot twist! So, if I'm honest, I find the popular obsession with royalty both baffling and repellent, and the Ruritanian aspects of its pomp and ceremony hilarious.

I think that's clear enough? But, that said, I'm also not a convinced and campaigning republican, who wants to replace a hereditary head of state with an elected president. The very thought of choosing a new figurehead every five or so years from the available pool of talent is enough to have me out there waving my little Union Jack on a stick. Not least because it would require a complete rewrite of our, um, so far unwritten constitution. Again, looking at the available talent, and their competing visions of nationhood, that's not a prospect I'd willingly face. No: bizarre, hilarious, and anachronistic as it is, there's a lot to be said for knowing exactly who your next several heads of state will be, provided they have been reduced by the wisdom of history to a condition of ceremonial impotence. Continuity with a predictable succession of defanged, neutered devils-you-know is probably preferable, when it comes down to it, to the prospect of suffering a series of empowered, unpredictably malevolent, ideologically-motivated, and even plain plank-stupid devils-in-waiting. The queen is dead? Next, please!

As to the actual funeral, I was very struck by the observation made on the radio by a thoughtful vicar that, if you subtract the bells and whistles of the royal rigmarole, the queen got much the same ceremony as any other Anglican. Now, as it happens, I have been to few Anglican funerals: the religious members of my family are Baptists, and most other sendings-off I have attended have been of that unsatisfying "humanist" variety I referred to in a previous post, Memorial. But there is a solid and reassuring backbone of ritual to the standard Anglican job, as established by the Book of Common Prayer of 1559, and pretty much followed ever since: "ashes to ashes, dust to dust", and all that. Our common, levelling fate was underlined by referring to the grandest personage in the land as "our sister Elizabeth": a nice touch, I think.

Of course, it was the bells and whistles that attracted the most attention. You can hardly ignore the military aspect of royalty, for example. It seems that the regal equivalent of the naughty step, as applied to Harry and Andrew, is that you're not allowed to dress up in your fancy uniform any more: ironic, really, these two being the only senior royals to have seen active service in a real shooting war. Mind you, the fanciest ceremonial get-ups of all probably belong to the stern drum and trumpet majors of the cavalry regiments, like my own great-uncle Jim, who joined the 7th Dragoon Guards in 1907 as a 14-year old bugler, straight out of a Liverpool orphanage. And, of all those present, you surely had to feel most sympathy for the bandsmen of the Coldstream Guards, marching along at a precise 75 steps per minute whilst playing Beethoven's Funeral March No. 1 (actually not by Beethoven, apparently), faultlessly and on repeat like some interminable "on hold" recording. I started to learn the trumpet myself, a long time ago, and don't know where anyone finds enough puff for that.

We should also spare a thought for those human mules, the 142 Royal Navy ratings who manoeuvred the state gun carriage around the two-mile obstacle course from Westminster Abbey to (or rather through) Wellington Arch. I must admit that I was disappointed when it transpired that the orb, sceptre, and crown were very firmly fixed to the coffin lid; sensible, I suppose, but somehow it detracted from the achievement. I had imagined the army escort might have been trained to catch the orb, in particular, if it rolled off going up Constitution Hill. The whole exercise reminded me of the days when the Royal Tournament was prime-time TV, and two Naval teams competed to transport a field gun across a real obstacle course constructed inside the Earls Court Exhibition Centre; never mind your Strictly or Bake Off – that was proper television!

Thank goodness it's all over now, though, and we can stop listening to media types basking in their own gravity, and their ability to utter sepulchral platitudes and obsequious non sequiturs, seamlessly, for hours on end. Enough! I suppose all that remains is for us plebs to get used to having a series of kings, again, assuming the younger ones still want the gig. In time there'll be new stamps, new banknotes and coins, new passports, all that. It seems that it's possible that the Union itself may now be approaching breaking strain. Oh, well; that will be a big mistake, I think, but there's no point arguing with an angry Scot. And even if republican sentiment is not yet in the ascendant, some reluctance to continue paying out of the public purse for this over-populated, fantasy-world soap opera will surely be growing, especially among the young. A "bicycling monarchy" may yet be in our future, and who wouldn't enjoy that? I, for one, would happily cough up for the biggest and best ceremonial bike available.

So, will that do, Sooty? I think that's all I've got. [gratified nodding] But do follow the link to Samuel West doing the speech "Upon the king..." from Henry V, it's pretty good. It seems that Shakespeare was rather obsessed by royalty – some idiotic snobs think he must therefore have really been a royal, or at least some attendant lord, and not just some nobody actor bloke from nowhere – but then he did witness the transition from the triumphant reign of a popular queen to that of a somewhat remote king with some strange obsessions, from witchcraft to an inexplicable urge to unite the crowns of England and Scotland. [ironic squeaking!] What's that you say, Sweep? Plus ça change? Heh... I had no idea you could squeak French!

What do you mean, "poor taste"?

1. She did visit Stevenage in April 1959, when I was five, but AFAIR didn't drop by our house to say hello.
2. Actually, not entirely true. As a Wolf Cub, aged 8, I did promise the following:
I promise to DO MY BEST —
To do my duty to God and the Queen,
To keep the Law of the Wolf Cub Pack,
and to do a good turn to somebody every day.
I'm presuming the death of Her Majesty has now released me from that promise. Phew! Those good turns are a bloody nuisance. I mean, every day?? Well, I did my best.

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

The Terrible Traum Twins

Recently, an old college friend copied me in to an email – subject: "Where are they now?" – which contained a clipped item in which, it was implied, persons of mutual interest were mentioned. As it turned out, there was actually only one such name in there, but it was another, unknown name that caught my eye. I was intrigued by the name of one of the co-authors of a scholarly presentation – a Catalan name, as I later discovered – which struck me as unusual in itself, but which also had all the hallmarks of an anagrammatic invention, the sort of thing a playful author – Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace come to mind – might come up with in their novels. So, just for fun, I remarked on this otherwise irrelevant name and came up with a few anagrams based on it in my reply to the email. It seemed nobody else wanted to play, though, but I didn't mind: I realise my urge to be amusing can be tiresome, and many of my older friends are considerably more earnest, these days, than they used to be.

My interest in that other name was thoroughly piqued, however: there seemed to be something about its particular combination of letters (AAEGMNRRTU) that invited anagrammatic formations. So (mainly as a distraction from the incessant and obsequious coverage of the queen's funeral on Monday) I set about seeing whether it would be possible to populate an entire novel with names solely derived from it.

It was. In the end (and I'm tempted to say "so far") I came up with well over 200 names. Obviously, most of them are silly, repetitive, and unconvincing. Once you establish a simple first name – "Meg", for example – the surnames can be cranked out mechanically from the remaining letters, AANRRTU: Meg Runarat, Meg Ruranta, Meg Ruratan, Meg Runtara, etc, etc., ad nauseam. It starts out being fascinating and fun, passes through mild obsession, and ends up with you at midnight wondering why on earth you started doing this in the first place.

Along the way, though, some great names popped out. To pick just a few, I like Runt Ramage, Ruta Manger, Tam Runrage, Marten Ragu, Urma Retang, Ragnar Mute, Ranter Magu, Marta Unger, Grant Mauer, Egan Marrut, Uma Tregarn, Tamar Gruen, Marge Nutra, Margaret Nu, and the terrible twins Regan and Negra Traum, for example. It's curious how such invented names seem to arrive imbued with ready-made character traits, mainly created by the cultural and semantic cross-currents they set up, from the deep-fried Mars bar of Tam Runrage to the enticing fusion cuisine of Urma Retang.

The fact that they are all combinations of the exact same letters adds another dimension, of course. I can imagine an Oulipian novel where it gradually dawns on the protagonist that everyone else in the story bears an anagram of their own name: The Hunt for Runt Ramage, or Who Are You, Margaret Nu?, perhaps. Sadly, I don't suppose I'd ever write it. Setting aside the fact that I'm far too easily distracted to write a novel, it's all a bit too "meta" for me. But it wouldn't surprise me to discover that someone else has already written something along those lines. Writers have always enjoyed the alphabetic mischief of using anagrammatic names: as long ago as 1668 Christoffel von Grimmelshausen published his picaresque novel Simplicius Simplicissimus under the pseudonym German Schleifheim von Sulsfort, for example (and, yes, I've checked, and it is an exact anagram). But, if it has already been done, I wonder whether the starting point was also a chance encounter with one strikingly unusual name? That wouldn't surprise me, either.

Friday, 16 September 2022

Bristol Gallery

As a change from my usual wordy posts, here's a small gallery of photographs from our recent break in Bristol, mainly from an afternoon wander along the Portway that runs through the Avon Gorge. The Avon being tidal, a lot depends on the timing of your walk. I generally prefer a low tide, which exposes the photogenic mudbanks. Plus anything cast up by the river or thrown down from the roadside, like this empty guitar case... Perhaps Orpheus passed this way.

On the Downs above the Gorge, yet another a festival was in preparation. It seems many cash-starved councils are having to rent out their green spaces in this way to raise essential funds. I read that a big event can generate as much as £500,000. But it's a shame: why central government seeks to put a cash stranglehold on essential local government is a mystery to me. It's also a nuisance: the sudden arrival of thousands of merry-makers into a neighbourhood not equipped to receive them, accommodate them, or park their cars can be a problem, to say the least, not to mention the wear and tear on the grass on its thin soil, still under stress from a summer of drought.

On the Clifton side of the Downs Bristol Zoo was in its last days on the site it has occupied for the last 186 years as it prepares to close down, in anticipation of a future move to a new out-of-town location out near the M5 motorway. For many British children of my age the Bristol Zoo holds a special place in our affections, as it was from there that Johnny Morris presented the children's TV programme Animal Magic, with him got up as a zoo-keeper and voicing dialogues with various animals. In its heyday the Zoo offered elephant rides and a "monkey temple", fondly remembered by my partner, who was born and grew up in Bristol. I myself only got to visit the Zoo in its later years, when concerns for animal welfare had thinned out the inhabitants and it had become fairly dull as an experience: more like a park than a zoo. And a park is what it is about to become; or rather, "The 12-acre site is due to be sold with planning permission for sustainable homes set in beautiful gardens".

Monkey temple, but no monkeys...

Of course, another fan of mudflats is Bristol's own world-class artist, Richard Long, whose enormous smears and streaks of river mud were a central part of an exhibition Earth in the newly-refurbished buildings of the Royal West of England Academy:

Although I think my favourite piece in the exhibition was this, the key to a necklace of 170 beads made by Katie Paterson from individual fossils spanning all the geological periods of the earth in sequence, from Pre-Cambrian to Holocene. I prefer it to the actual necklace, which looks like any other bead necklace you've ever seen. I also think the key has an uncanny resemblance to a famous diagram of a slave-ship; an appropriate, if unintended resonance in Bristol.

Monday, 12 September 2022

Coffee-Table Comment

Maybe a coffee-table would help...

I used to comment quite frequently on various blogs, but not so much in recent times, not least because so many of the various bloggers whose blogs I used to comment on have ceased publishing. I have to assume there is no direct causal connection between the two; it's just quite likely that the sort of thing that appeals to an ageing white male like me with slightly esoteric interests may be doomed as an online enterprise. There just aren't as many of us around as there used to be. It's rather like my experience of supermarket shopping: no sooner do I take to buying a nice new product regularly, than they seem to stop stocking it. A person could become paranoid.

Commenting is only rewarding, I think, if the blogger takes the trouble to respond to comments. It seems only polite, and sometimes the ensuing exchange of views in the comments can become more interesting and entertaining than the post itself, and may even come, in time, to constitute an online community with its own resident personalities, in-jokes, and persistent themes (as an example see Language Hat, no relation). A few years ago this blog had something of a commenting heyday along those lines, which I enjoyed a lot. Without that element of dialogue, though, leaving a comment feels rather too much like talking to yourself. Perhaps that's why commenting, like blogging in general, seems to be losing much of its attraction, except on the very largest sites, where you can at least presume a comment will get a cursory read from a number of people, if not necessarily any response.

However, I was moved to comment on a certain blog recently, because of the use of the term "coffee-table book" to describe a particularly fine and sought-after photo-book. My comment was this:

Sigh... Can we please stamp out the use of "coffee-table book" as if it were the technical term for any large illustrated book, including superbly sequenced and beautifully printed photo-books? It's a derogatory term, meaning "the sort of thing the pretentious rich leave lying around ostentatiously (on their coffee table) as a sort of interior decoration"...

Anyone leaving any of my precious photo-books lying around on any table where food or coffee might be served (we don't actually have a "coffee table") gets to sit on the naughty step.

It's one of the (admittedly numerous) things that irritate me when I go out on the Web, and encounter the damage done to the nuances of our language by misuse, neglect, and ignorance. It's as if the term "fashion victim" had somehow become the standard, neutral term for anyone with a lively interest in clothes; although it's true that "fashionista" seems to have done precisely that, despite what is surely the mildly derogatory inflection behind the original coinage. But there is no question that "coffee-table book" was intended to be derogatory, and still is, surely, to anyone with any sensitivity to language. A large volume mainly containing photographs of improbably chic interiors, like a hardbound edition of some glossy lifestyle magazine, may of course be referred to dismissively as a coffee-table book; because that's what it is. But anyone choosing to refer that way to, say, Richard Avedon's In the American West or Josef Koudelka's Gypsies needs to get a dictionary. Yes, they're big books; yes, they're full of photographs; and, yes, they're light on text. But coffee-table books? Please...

On the other hand... An awful lot of the photo-books getting published these days are little more than half-baked vanity projects or rehashed master's degree work, cobbled together by a publisher's design team so as to "pass" to the casual eye as a serious bookwork, and often tarted up in various ways to appeal to the collector mentality. You'll know the sort of thing I mean if you, like me, are a recovering photo-book punter who still follows the form of the runners and riders but rarely places a bet these days. Limited editions, signed and numbered limited editions, special editions with a print, limited signed and numbered special editions with a print and an invitation to dinner, and so on... There are simply too many of these zombie books, heavy on packaging and self-declared significance, but ultra-light on content. Hardly any are actually worth buying, whether as items of delight or profound insight, or simply as speculative investments. Frankly, I pity the deluded fool who opens a special edition copy of Fifty Shitty Shoe Shops in anticipation of an enlightening or pleasurable experience.

We need another word for these unworthy offerings: certainly, they're not destined to decorate the coffee tables of the wealthy. There's no status to be gained in coffee-table circles by leaving even the limited signed and numbered special edition with a print and an invitation to dinner of Affectless Teens Contemplate Futility lying around in plain view. If I wanted to be facetious, I suppose I might call them McBooks (as in MACK-books). I quite like "zombie books". But the crucial thing is, where are such false-starts and fashion-forward abominations intended to end up, if not on a coffee table? On that basis I'd be tempted to call them, say, CV-books (or in the US, résumé-books); cruel, but fair.

But, no, I think I've got it. Periodically I get sent lists of "on sale" reductions from various photo-book sellers, and – look! – there they all are, last year's most puffed publications, as well as the ones from the year before, and the year before that, still unsold and now taking up precious shelf-space. Or I might go into a specialist bookshop, and there they are again, all laid out with "reduced!" stickers on the front. It seems nobody actually wanted to buy Affectless Teens Contemplate Futility or even Fifty Shitty Shoe Shops, despite figuring so prominently on those hipper-than-thou "books of the year" lists. So I'm pretty sure that what they should be called is: remainder-table books.

Thursday, 8 September 2022

Restraint, Lack of

Raw material...

When I was a student way back in the 20th century I fell among politicos, and got involved in the production of a left-inclined magazine called "Oxford Strumpet" (hey, don't blame me, we inherited the name). This involved the "laying up" of each weekly issue; that is, sitting up all night with scissors, paste, sticky tape, and Tipp-Ex, assembling typed text, Letraset headlines, and illustrative material (often "borrowed" from elsewhere) onto large sheets of card, each sheet representing an individual page, all for delivery by hand the next morning to a local print shop. Yes, that's right, kids: cut'n'paste and even uploading IRL! My only contribution to the actual content consisted of drawing the odd cartoon and some covers. The one for issue 69 raised some eyebrows, I recall, but that, too, was "borrowed": my ink re-rendering of a Crumb cartoon that someone slapped in front of me in the small hours.

That era of the hand-knitted publication passed long ago: the job was made so much easier and quicker using even the very cheapest desktop publishing software (Serif PagePlus was – still is – brilliant), and with much more professional-looking results. Mind you, even if we'd had computers in 1973 we would probably have stayed up all night, anyway – how I miss not needing sleep – as it added to the sense of urgency and mission: we had to get "all the news that's left" out to the people! Today, if you actually want to imitate that scrappy "punk 'zine" look on a computer, you have to work quite hard at it; perfection comes as standard with DTP, although it's true that not everyone (which is to say virtually no-one) has an eye for typography. Hideously misjudged font combos are not the same thing as that cut-and-pasted ransom-letter look, but may already have acquired a certain retro "parish newsletter" charm of their own.

There has been a similar trajectory with collage as an art medium. Classics of the genre like Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté or John Heartfield's anti-Nazi photomontages required meticulous cut and paste technique, so that the final printed product did not betray any badly-cut edges, inky fingerprints, glue smears, or whatever other imperfections unsteady human hand-eye coordination could introduce. As with 'zines, some do still admire the scrap-book quality of a handmade collage – perhaps because it reminds them of the sort of thing they used to proudly bring home from primary school  but, again, computers and specialised software packages have introduced a whole new level of sophistication into the medium. Although it's equally true that sophistication of technique does not necessarily mean sophistication of result.

I've already discussed at length the problems the "art world" has with digital work (Original Print 2). But the simple fact is that most digital imaging – certainly the sort I do – is nothing more or less than an evolved form of collage. You take existing bits of visual material – photographs, textures, patterns, and so on – and layer them together to create something new, often something with a degree of trompe l'oeil authenticity that would require prodigious amounts of talent, technique, and time to produce by any other means. It's new, it's powerful, it's fun, and it's available to anyone with a computer; so, inevitably, it is regarded with suspicion by the art-world gatekeepers, just as they once regarded lithography as a dubiously commercial variety of cheating. Of course, as with DTP, some people, presented with such a powerful toolbox, cannot exercise sufficient restraint and plunge headlong into kitsch and comic-book hyperbole. I don't think you need to ask how I know this. Guilty as charged.

So I thought it would be interesting to disassemble and reverse-engineer a lurid but representative example of my recent work and, by giving a little insight into how it was made, perhaps demonstrate how new technologies breed new sorts of talent and technique which are as deserving of admiration in their own right as anything done with a brush or an engraving tool. I wanted to underline that a "digital print" like this is not a substitute for a painting, or a mere reproduction of some other hand-crafted artwork: it is an artwork in its own right, a digital collage created entirely from my own source materials on a blank "canvas", ultimately resulting in a physical print made with archivally-permanent inks and paper. The fact that I don't need to wear an acid-proof apron or have access to a press weighing as much as a small car to make it is, I think, irrelevant.


But then I realised: this image is made up of 28 image layers sandwiched between a white background layer and a "Brightness/Contrast" adjustment layer on top. Each of those image layers has its own blend mode and transparency properties, and its effect in and on the whole is dependent on its position within the stack of layers, best imagined as transparent overlay sheets which affect those beneath in some way, and are affected in turn by those above. This complex stack of image elements and effects is created interactively and experimentally, in a sort of improvisational game guided by precedent, experience, and curiosity. How on earth to account for that?

Probably the only way would be to record and explain every move made over the course of the week or so it took to arrive at the final image, including the false steps and serendipitous discoveries made along the way. Which I didn't do at the time, obviously, would be impossible to recreate, and would anyway be about as interesting to most people as one of those interminable amateur YouTube videos explaining how to replace the clutch in a Ford Fiesta. "Heh, now here's, um, an interesting thing about the, ah, so-called Soft Light blend mode, one of me fav'rites... See? Sorry, that may have been a bit too quick... Didya see that? Sorry, um, I'll do it again... See that now? Now, what the bleep was I just saying? Oh, yes..."

A digression: these digital images may not clutter up an actual studio like abandoned canvases or framed prints, but their size can nonetheless be an issue, too. This one, with its 30 layers (actually quite a modest tally by some standards) is 524 MB in size as a Photoshop PSD file with its dimensions set at 40cm x 52cm and a resolution of 300 ppi. I couldn't actually print it that large myself – my printer is "A3+", i.e. 32.9cm wide  but it makes sense to create a print at the largest desirable printable size, as it's always possible to outsource printing and, besides, an unresampled reduction of a large file always gives far better results than a resampled enlargement of a small one [1].

Typically, I'll save versions that I like along the way to the final image, something painters can't do, but quite similar to the idea of "states" in printmaking. The fact that this file is named "kingfisher6c4" shows there have been at least 12 previous stages in its development and refinement, and actually nearer 50, if one follows the evolutionary tree all the way back to to the ur-kingfisher file made five years ago. That's a lot of disk space to be occupied by just one idea, even when superseded versions have been "flattened" into a single layer and saved as a high-quality JPEG file (this image, for example, is still 15 MB in size as a JPEG). So it's not surprising that I constantly feel the need for more storage space in my virtual studio [2].

Now, what the bleep was I about to say? No idea... Oh well, I'm sure it will re-surface later.

More raw material...

1. I have always found that the crucial concept of "resampling" vs. "not resampling" when resizing an image file is strangely difficult to explain to even quite experienced users of imaging software. I'm not even going to try here... But maybe there's another post there? For now, if this is a mystery to you, just accept that it's one of the most important things to understand in image editing.

2. I was surprised to discover that 2 TB is the biggest hard drive any of the usual suspect desktop computer suppliers can offer. This, as I understand it, is because 2 TB is the largest partition a Windows computer can address. Needless to say, I already have a 2 TB hard drive, plus several external backup drives, plus numerous portable USB sticks and SSDs, and am rapidly running out of space. Some housekeeping may be required...

Sunday, 4 September 2022


We have been in Bristol over the last few weeks, having a bit of a break from our routines (I think this may be what is often referred to as "a holiday"), and while we were there we attended a second celebration of the life of my partner's sister, Maggie, who died in 2021 after a sudden, unexpected, and fast-developing illness which, as it happened, had nothing to do with COVID. Why a second celebration, a full year later? Well, because of the restrictions on funeral attendance and public gatherings in force at the time: there had been no real chance for anyone other than a very limited number of family and friends to come together and perform those rituals of mourning and remembrance that we – the highly diverse community of humanists, atheists, agnostics, secular mystics, militant positivists, and the simply irreligious – are still in the process of re-inventing.

Maggie, like my old friend John Wilson who died in 2010, led a surprisingly multi-faceted life, and had many friends from various "communities" who were keen to attend a second memorial, even one held during peak August summer holiday time; at least one person actually cancelled his holiday. I counted around sixty people there, only a handful of them known to me, mainly family or very close friends we had met at the previous ceremonies.

The event was held in a part of Bristol which is a bit off the beaten track, St. Werburghs, because of Maggie's active involvement in the allotments and the City Farm located there. It took place in the Boiling Wells Amphitheatre, an open air space in a corner of land in the shadow of the railway mainline which has been given over to all things green, alternative, and community-led. It actually felt more like entering one of those slightly chaotic but intensively-cultivated hippie enclaves you find in Germany or Holland than anywhere I've experienced in recent decades in England; an impression helped by the unaccustomed blazing sunlight, I expect, not to mention some extraordinary wood-carved architecture nearby in a style situated somewhere between Lord of the Rings and Antoni Gaudí. It's also been a long time since I used a "urinal" consisting of a hay-bale, and I'm pretty sure I've never been at a memorial where the various encomia were regularly interrupted by the thundering passage of a nearby train.

Grief is clearly one of the most problematic human emotions, and I'm happy to say that it's one I have yet to experience, so far, in its full-on manifestation. Good friends, both of my parents, and a full set of elderly relatives have died in recent times, which I found upsetting for a while to varying extents, but which never came close to overturning the balance of my life or my mind, or my ability to function at work or domestically. Others, I know, have different, more tragic stories to tell; grief can take over your life, like a chronic medical condition. It's clear that a certain performative element has been found to be useful in processing grief in most societies, ranging from the quiet closure of the Book of Common Prayer all the way up the scale to ritualised self-harm. In many ways, it has been the primary, primal function of religion: to at least attempt to navigate a safe passage for the living past the confounding finality and inexplicability of death.

The humanist funerals I have attended have generally fallen rather short in this regard. For the purposes of safely sublimating grief, it's not really enough to substitute celebration (usually in the form of happy memories, upbeat readings, and a curated playlist) for a profound and unillusioned engagement with what is, after all, the greatest mystery and some of the most unsettling emotions experienced by humanity. At sixty-eight, I suppose it's not too early to be giving some thought to the sort of send-off one might wish for oneself (chillingly referred to as "disposal" in most will formulations). Although I remember now that – over ten years ago! – I'd already given some though to the matter, especially the tricky business of coming up with a suitable playlist (Funeral Music). Never let it be said, even at my funeral, that I was not forward-looking, and often inclined to find humour in inappropriate places.

Talking of which, I was struck by this passage in a recent review of Katherine Rundell's biography of John Donne, Super-Infinite (on my Kindle, but as yet unread):

But overpraise, or praise with reverb, is very Elizabethan and very, very John Donne, as Rundell shows us. “Compliments,” she writes, “were core currency,” and Donne was loaded. He flung out admirations; he strewed encomia. “Your going away,” he assured one Lady Kingsmill in a letter, “hath made London a dead carcass.” Rundell calls this Donne’s “pleasure in extravagance.” When Elizabeth, the young daughter of Sir Robert Drury, died, Drury (the sort of grandee to whom Donne was always sucking up) commissioned an elegy. And although Donne had never met Elizabeth Drury, he went at it with a vengeance: In two long, slightly bonkers poems, “The First Anniversary” and “The Second Anniversary,” he unfurled the full howling panorama of human existence and almost beatified the deceased girl. “She, she is dead; she’s dead; when thou knowest this / Thou knowest how dry a cinder this world is.” It was heavenly hackwork. “If he had written it of the Virgin Mary,” opined Ben Jonson, “it had been something.”
James Parker, "The Unlovable, Irresistible John Donne", The Atlantic, August 16, 2022

"Praise with reverb" might be going a little far – maybe a subtle use of the sustain pedal? – although it's hard to imagine anyone, these days, going to the trouble of commissioning an elegy from some contemporary wordsmith-for-hire, however wealthy. What a blessing that none of us will get to hear what is actually said about us, if anything, or have to listen to the stupid music we had chosen for ourselves and listed in a light-hearted moment, and forgotten all about.

Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Summer Break

After weeks of record-breaking temperatures, drought, and wildfires we've all had enough, and could do with a radical change, I think. So, utterly selflessly, we have decided to cool things down and bring on the rain by taking a holiday. It usually seems to work. Actually, though, this will be more like a break of routine, as we're simply moving the domestic operation to Bristol for a bit, but it should still have the required effect. I'll also be giving the blogging a rest, and will be back in a couple of weeks.

Probably... I'm reminded of the post that I rewrite and sometimes even publish in a new version every other year or so, declaring the imminent end of my blogging adventure, like the periodically updated letter of resignation you might keep in a desk drawer at work. And another thing...! My own resignation note from work did start out as an actual letter, mutated into an early-retirement speech, but was eventually delivered as a farewell email to several hundred colleagues. As the readership of this blog comes nowhere near that sort of number now, at least most of the time, I suspect by the time I finally put up the CLOSED FOR BUSINESS sign I might as well hand deliver a note of explanation to the remaining readers (I'm resisting the urge to add: "both of them"... heh!).

It's inexplicable, I know, but I've somehow never managed to get Barack, Britney, Bill, or Bieber to "like" one of my posts, and thus become an overnight millionaire influencer, with my own menswear franchise, grooming products, and everything. I'm sure you've all been trying on my behalf, but it just hasn't worked out so far. Try harder!

Have a good summer.

[N.B. any comments to this and previous posts will be put on hold in the meantime]

Saturday, 13 August 2022


I think I'm probably not alone in thinking that the unsubtle binary of "like" vs. "not like" is, shall we say, unhelpful. This has most obviously been manifested by the vociferous policing and trolling of opinions expressed on social media, resulting ultimately in the so-called "cancellation" of individuals, both socially and professionally. This person is wrong! We don't like this person! Ex-ter-min-ate! I mean, whatever your views on the matter, we are clearly at a very curious stage in the development of our civilisation when, for example, the expression of the previously unproblematic view that to be "a woman" or "a man" is a biological condition and not a matter of opinion or choice has come to be considered intolerably provocative by people with whom one might otherwise agree on most other things. TERF! Ex-ter-min-ate!

The danger in such polarisation – you're either with us, or against us! – is that we are losing touch with the concept of "tolerance". Toleration is a much more nuanced and accommodating condition than "approval", is often hard-won, and is an indispensable feature of liberal cultivation and society. I don't approve of, much less "like" the noisy party down the road that is keeping me awake, but I tolerate it, just as most of us tolerate many nuisances and behaviours that we don't actually like, rather than invoking the law or rounding up a posse of like-minded neighbours to silence the merry-makers (much as the latter option might entertain my sleep-deprived mind as 3 a.m. approaches). "Do as you would be done by" and "live and let live" are excellent principles to live by, despite the sad fact that selfish, unthinking bastards are unlikely to notice, learn anything from, or reciprocate your own saintly tolerance. It does have to be conceded that sometimes wrathful Old Testament smiting does have its attractions over meek New Testament cheek-turning, but "let's all get along" is infinitely preferable to "let's find out who's the strongest here".

These distinctions are useful where art is concerned, too. Echo-chamber art, where one hears, sees, or reads nothing but work that is gratifyingly close to one's own worldview, is barely "art" at all: it is merely interior decoration, chosen to complement the colour scheme of one's mind. The equivalent of tolerance in aesthetic terms is suspension of judgement, the willingness to let unfamiliar or even rebarbative offerings do their work, something I have previously described as a "Hendrix Moment": giving "argh!" a chance to transmute into "wow!". Naturally, as you get older, this flexibility of mind starts to stiffen, along with your knees; you know what you like, dammit, and this is not it. But that is all the more reason to deploy the relaxed mental yoga of toleration: someone must enjoy this rubbish, perhaps there's something in it after all?

But – and this is merely to state the bleedin' obvious – provided you have given something every chance to work whatever magic it might or might not possess, there's absolutely no reason to pretend to like it, or to force yourself to like it, just to fit in with the prevailing opinion. There are many hilarious stories of gallery-goers mistaking a pile of builder's rubble for an art installation and enthusing about it, just as there are thousands of high-profile artworks out there that I, for one, wouldn't rescue from a builder's skip (have you seen the finalists for this year's Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize?). To pretend to enjoy something is to mistake cowardice for tolerance, like pouring your complementary limoncello [1] into a handy plant pot, rather than spitting it in disgust onto the floor, which is surely the only honest reaction. It's perfectly OK not to understand or enjoy, say, opera, Rococo art, or atonal music, having given them a chance; why pretend?

At the same time – and this should be even more bleedin' obvious, but clearly isn't – what is definitely not OK is to campaign for the suppression of opera, Rococo art, or atonal music simply because you don't like them or, worse, because you don't approve of them or the people that do like them. All those pretentious fools? Those rich bastards? Cut off their public funding! Shut it all down! It seems to me perfectly acceptable not to like very camp self-presentation or to find drag queens repulsive, without feeling the need to banish Ru Paul's Drag Race or, by the same token, to suffer accusations of homophobia as a consequence; after all, there are plenty of gay men who don't like them, either, for whatever reasons (good taste, most likely). To be tolerant of things, people, and behaviours we don't actually like may sound condescending – oh, how big of you, not to hate me! – but it is the only way we have to prevent dislike – whether instinctive or considered, aesthetic or political – mutating into active and malevolent intolerance, and is far more effective than any legislative measures.

In the otherwise rather neglected play Almansor, written in 1820 by the German author Heinrich Heine and set in the Granada of 1492, the burning of the Qur'an by the Archbishop of Toledo is mentioned, prompting the much-quoted response: "That was just a prelude: wherever books are burned, eventually people will be burned, too" (Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen). In fulfilment of his own prophesy, Heine's books were among the 20,000 burned on Berlin's Opernplatz in 1933 – he was an "assimilated" Jew – and those words are now engraved on the commemorative plaque set into the square.

We know only too well how destructive ideological behaviours can escalate: first books, then people. As it happens, I'm writing this the day after Salman Rushdie was repeatedly stabbed at a literary gathering in New York state. It seems to me there is an unavoidable paradox here. Which is: intolerance should not be tolerated. But one is therefore obliged to ask the question: if social-media zealots are the present-day book-burners, can we really distinguish between good-guy book-burners and bad-guy book-burners? After all, it is only a few easy social-media steps from a "cancellation" pile-on to actual violence. There's always an excitable mob, or some lone nutter who hears and acts on the implicit command to act. Kill the pig! Slit her throat! Bash her in!  Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest? 

One view, certainly, is that some Old Testament wrathfulness directed at all the enemies of toleration is the best way to ensure its preservation; let the trollers be trolled, and the cancellers be cancelled, yea, unto the last generation. But then there is also the more reform-minded New Testament alternative, as demonstrated when a certain woman faced a terminal cancellation by stoning, to be executed by a mob convinced of its own rectitude: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her". It worked then, allegedly, and is clearly a Great Teaching and always worth a try, I think, but should be followed up, when necessary, by some righteous pre-emptive smiting, before things really get out of hand.

1. For some reason, Italian restaurants like to ruin a good meal by offering you a post-prandial glass of this disgusting brew.

Sunday, 7 August 2022

My Postillion Has Been Struck By Lightning

Now that the summer holiday season is here, and COVID restrictions have been lifted for now, a lot of people are heading overseas (not us, I'm happy to say: such people are surely mad, bad, and dangerous to sit next to). Which means a lot of foreign-language phrase books will be finding themselves packed next to the sunscreen. Whether they'll ever actually get used is another question: the typical phrase book in the hands of the typical tourist is a pretty useless combination.

Phrase books are never entirely useless, of course, provided they are up-to-date, and you have at least a rudimentary grasp of the foreign language in question. It never hurts to know the current everyday, idiomatic way of asking directions, for example, or how to ask for a table for two in a restaurant without sounding like an idiot. Whether you'll be able to understand the reply is, of course, the point at which "usefulness" may collapse back down again into looking like an idiot. Communication is not a one-way street [1]. My German and French, for example, are in theory quite good, and I ought to be able to hack a bit of Spanish and even some Russian, too, but I have found that the attempt to buy something as simple as a bus ticket is the true test of fluency and comprehension and yet, oddly, has never figured in any examination, written or oral, that I have ever sat.

The problem is the sheer depth of idiomatic understanding required. It is no good stepping up to a bus driver, and burbling, fluently but ungrammatically, "Good day to you, sir, I will want buy some ticket, which take me after the central station, and then let me to come back this same place later by this same exact day. Please, sir." No good at all. The driver wants to hear the right ritual exchange, pitched at the right level of formality and politeness, and briskly expressed using the right vocabulary. Something like, "Hi, there. Central station, please. Super Saver return? Cheers, mate!"  Except spoken in French or German, obviously. Let's pass over the fact that French or German are probably not the first language of most French or German bus drivers, nor mention the humiliating fact that they usually manage to speak serviceable English, too.

What they definitely don't want is to tell you how much your ticket will cost, only for you to gape in incomprehension or, worse, for you to hand over a 50 euro note for an 80 cent fare. Numbers! Most languages have some aspect that strikes you as mad when you first encounter it in the wild, and distressingly often it is something as simple and as essential as numbers, which can be utterly baffling when spoken out loud. How such a self-declared rational people as the French, for example, ended up representing "99" as "four twenties and nineteen" (quatre-vingt-dix-neuf) is beyond me. Even the Italians have come up with a word for "ninety". I dread dealing with money in France, and always end up behaving like a true tourist at the till, shoving large denomination notes across the counter, and hoping for nothing more than an eyeroll, or at worst a minimal, incomprehensible tongue-lashing.

In Portuguese, I discovered that the "mad" thing is not the numbers but, of all things, the names of the days of the week. There's none of your good old "Mercury's day / Woden's day", and the rest of the Norse or Roman litany. It seems that the Catholic Church in Portugal, uniquely in Europe, banished all that pagan nonsense centuries ago. In an act of stunningly eccentric overreaction, the days of the week were given instead the names of the days of Holy Week: that is, the one week in the year in Catholic Europe when nobody was expected to work. So, apart from Saturday and Sunday, all the days are named as numbered feiras, meaning "fairs" or "holidays": Monday is segunda-feira ("second holiday"), Tuesday terça-feira ("third holiday"), and so on. Confusing is hardly the word, but here's where a decent phrase book can help, provided you take the trouble to read it before encountering, as I did, a roadside notice that says that parking restrictions apply "from second to sixth holiday". Huh?

There is a famous (but probably apocryphal) expression, "My postillion has been struck by lightning", that had purportedly survived from various antique foreign-language phrase-books; it's a good example of a "meme" before memes were a thing. Or, indeed, before being a thing was a thing. As well as being inherently amusing (unless you happened to be a postillion), it was intended to illustrate the useless fossilisation of phrase-book language; after all, who, in the days after horse-drawn coaches ceased to be a thing, even knew what a postillion was? (FYI: "the person riding the leading nearside horse of a team or pair drawing a coach or carriage"). Or how likely or how often – if ever – such an expression might have been needed, even in the days when supply postillions were hanging out at every coaching inn waiting for employment? "Find me a fresh postillion! Immediately / tomorrow / by next week! This one is injured / dead / mangled beyond reasonable repair!"

Personally, I love old phrase books, and if I had the shelf-space I might even collect them: they are indeed fossils, a remarkable deposit of bygone necessities and yesterday's routine politenesses. I do have a few. Here are some random pages from the Collins' German Phrase Book, for example, published in 1951, reprinted in 1961, but still oddly redolent of 1851:

I say "redolent of 1851" advisedly. And not just because of its peremptory tone, or the apparent need to know the cost of your servants' board and lodging (always a problem in hotels, I find; the answer is to take as few servants as is tolerable). Compare it with the star item that I own: a well-used, very grubby English-Greek phrase book published in Ermoupoli in 1858 that I found in a second-hand bookshop years ago. The resemblance is striking, right down to the layout and the surreal stream-of-consciousness dialogues that seem to be taking take place in some accident-prone bilingual pessimist's head. Somewhere in there, I'm sure, a postillion will actually have been struck by lightning, but I have yet to stumble across it. There are 276 pages, after all, and I always feel the need for a bath after handling it even briefly. So I'll simply scan a few page-spreads for your instruction and amusement:

It took me a while to realise that this phrase book was not intended for the English in Greece, but for Greeks visiting England. I mean, wake up, Sherlock, does it ever get too dark to see at five in Greece? Or snow? And what the hell are we doing feeling seasick in the mouth of the Thames? But if it is intended for Greek-speakers, as it clearly must be, then why on earth does the English come first? Whatever, the extended bickering over the validity of the shillings on pages 133-4 is priceless, and I'm sure that would have gone down just as well with a London cabbie in 1858 as it would have in 1951, or indeed in 2022. There is still a good deal of base coin about, I hear.

For comparison, here are some pages from a current phrase book, the BBC German Phrase Book & Dictionary. Handy small size, colourful layout, but not a word about accommodating the servants, or how to deal with counterfeit currency. Useless!

 And the pronunciation guides... Ish mershteIsh browke?! Puh-lease... If you didn't feel like an idiot before, you will after trying those out in the local cop shop.
Ish bin oonshooldig, officer! No, really – I had no idea that he was an unlicensed postillion! Lemme see: Ish browke iynen anvalt (der english sprisht), yeah? Oh, you speak English? It seems like everybody does... 
Look, don't take this the wrong way, I'm not being funny, but I don't suppose you sell bus tickets?
The naming of parts

1. Eine Einbahnstraße / une rue à sens unique / una calle de sentido único / улица с односторонним движением.

Tuesday, 2 August 2022


Hertfordshire Regiment territorials leave Letchworth for France 1914
(My grandmother is in the white hat, my grandfather behind on her right)

Last week I was having an enjoyable exchange of views with some old friends on a WhatsApp page that was set up following the college "gaudy" I mentioned a few posts ago (A Literary Discovery). Naturally, one topic led to another, from the event itself to COVID (half of our WhatsApp group attendees caught it), from undercover dining and drinking clubs to Rory Stewart's politics (and remarkable face), to the recently-concluded "Wagatha Christie" case (one of the group is a senior lawyer closely identified with the case – I know, I sometimes keep dodgy company). But the most interesting thread resulted from a discussion of the college's WW1 Memorial Book that I had linked to in that blog post, which ultimately led to three simple but related questions: "Were any men from our college killed fighting on the 'other' side?"; "Is there an equivalent memorial volume for WW2?"; and, "Do they have WW1 and WW2 memorials in Germany?"

Now, if there's one characteristic common to most Oxbridge types, it's an instant, unfounded conviction in the veracity of one's opinions, even – especially! – when based on the flimsiest actual knowledge, evidence, or experience. I'm no exception, and I doubt this blog would exist otherwise. Although I hope that I do considerably less harm here than the typical government minister does, rather too many of whom have had their baseless self-belief reinforced on the PPE ("Politics, Philosophy, and Economics") course at Oxford. So my instant, confident opinions on those questions – based on nothing more than a moderate command of the German language, some visits to German-speaking countries, and a quick survey of Wikipedia – were that, yes, there may well have been "enemy" college casualties that went unrecorded in the Memorial Book; no, I couldn't see any evidence of a similar 1939-45 memorial book; and, yes, there would be some WW1 memorials in Germany, although probably not as many as in Britain, but no, there wouldn't be any WW2 memorials to speak of.

The so-called "Great War" was an enormous and unprecedented shock to European and British society and culture, and marked the end of a certain innocence about the nature of warfare and the acceleration, although not the beginning, of the questioning of the rigid class-structure and aims of British society itself. The industrialised slaughter of mass-conscripted men left its mark on even the smallest villages. I don't think I've ever been in a town or village in Britain that does not have a war memorial – typically in pride of place on a village green or town square – engraved with the names of the local men who died. The attrition rate among young infantry officers, obliged to be first "over the top", was especially high – Robert Graves estimated their life expectancy in the front line at two weeks, and the Balliol Memorial Book lists nearly 200 deaths from just one Oxford college, mostly junior officers. After the war's conclusion, it seems to have been felt that a great national mourning (combined with what would now be acknowledged as the mass PTSD of the surviving younger male population) could only be assuaged by convincing "the people" of the necessity, justification, and quasi-sanctity of the "sacrifices" required to achieve what passed as victory; local memorials were an important part of this attempt at transmuting raw grief into more manageable, contained acts of "remembrance". If you don't know it, Geoff Dyer's book The Missing of the Somme is worth reading as a reflection on this process of memorialisation [1].

All of which must have been so much more problematic in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the other so-called Central Powers. You could be forgiven for wanting to draw a veil over mass deaths incurred in a war you had both lost and been instrumental in starting; words like "sacrifice" must have rung especially hollow. So my presumption was that there would be 1914-18 memorials in Germany, but fewer and probably more impersonal than here. As we know, unrest about the terms of the Treaty of Versailles was widely felt, and the poisonous legacy of WW1 – not least the Dolchstoss myth – was influential in the rise of the Nazis. And as for 1939-45, it seemed very improbable indeed that anyone would want to be reminded at all of that darkest chapter in German history.

However, I may be over-confident in my own opinions, but if I have learned anything in thirty years as a professional librarian it is that any asserted "fact" rewards checking, and the best place to check institutional facts is in an institutional library. So I put in a call to the college library, and within a day got back a truly comprehensive answer. It turned out that any questions one might have about Balliol deaths in WW1 had been answered and statistically tabulated in an article in the college Record (an annual publication distributed to alumni, not unlike a school magazine); in the issue for the year 1975, as it happened, when, curiously, those of us in the WhatsApp group were actually in our first, second, or third years at the college. There were indeed ten Germans associated with the college who served in WW1, of whom just two died, including the son of the Chancellor, Friedrich von Bethmann-Hollweg.

As for WW2, it was confirmed that there is definitely no equivalent, expensively-produced, double-volume memorial book. In fact, all the library was able to produce for me were some partially-digitised notebooks, some as typed pages, others in manuscript, listing the casualties: a relative handful in the tens, not the hundreds. Numbers aside, it seems that by 1946 the enormous pressure of national sentiment had gone out of the memorialisation process: we were already in the post-war world, eager to get on with life and looking ahead to the emergence of the welfare state. If you look at most local war memorials in Britain, a similar handful of 1939-45 names will have been added to the existing monument at the bottom, like an afterthought or postscript.

Which brings us to those non-existent German war memorials. On which subject, I was completely wrong – who'd have thought it? – misled by my own uninformed instincts and, to an extent, by the biases of the English-language internet. A cursory search using the German word Kriegerdenkmal (war memorial) threw up, amongst others, this remarkable site: Onlineprojekt Gefallenendenkmäler (Online German War Memorials Project). It seems that not only are there memorials, but lots of them, and many of them also include names added from 1939-45, just like ours. As a sample, I took a look at the Rheinland-Pfalz region where my secondary school's exchange-partner town, Ingelheim-am-Rhein, is located, and was astonished at the sheer quantity of memorials recorded, photographed, and transcribed. But most astonishing of all (to me, at any rate) is the fact that, quite unlike our British monuments, the names from WW2, where present, generally outnumber those from WW1, often by a very large margin. A stark reminder that Germany lost between 4.5-5.5 million military personnel, compared to Britain's 384 thousand.

As for German men from the college who died in WW2, there were just five, and their names were added in 1947 (against protest from some old members) to the marble memorial tablet in the college chapel. One of these is of special note: Adam von Trott zu Solz, executed for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler on 20th July 1944. 

1946, somewhere in N. Herts...
"Eager to get on with life and looking ahead to the emergence of the welfare state..."
(Back row: all ex-army, top ranker my mother, 2nd right, a sergeant)

1. Alex King's Memorials of the Great War in Britain : the symbolism and politics of remembrance was well reviewed, but I haven't read it myself.