Wednesday 22 May 2024

Red Rust

As I pointed out in the previous post, Only Connect!, the house named Howards End at the centre of E.M. Forster's novel of the same name (I am allergic to the word "eponymous") is modelled on Rooks Nest, Forster's childhood home. Which happened to be more or less in Stevenage, which happens to be my own home town, albeit in its post-war New Town version, an urban expansion Forster and many other "old town" residents had tried, unsuccessfully, to strangle at birth.  

So here's an interesting little exchange from Forster's novel:

“All the same, London’s creeping.”

She pointed over the meadow—over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust.

“You see that in Surrey and even Hampshire now,” she continued. “I can see it from the Purbeck Downs. And London is only part of something else, I’m afraid. Life’s going to be melted down, all over the world.”

Margaret knew that her sister spoke truly. Howards End, Oniton, the Purbeck Downs, the Oderberge, were all survivals, and the melting-pot was being prepared for them.

E.M. Forster, Howards End, 1910
That "red rust", of course, was not the New Town, which began construction in 1949, but just a little bit of new housing of the sort you might have seen then on the periphery of many places like Stevenage, as well as the beginnings of the Garden City of Letchworth, a forerunner of the New Towns that would become a substantial patch of "red rust" a couple of miles in the other direction across the meadows from Rooks Nest. The building of such new housing intensified in the years "between the wars", with the result that many of us in Britain today are still living in suburban streets populated by the typical semi-detached houses built in the 1930s.

The inhabitants of those first new houses in Stevenage – mostly local working- and lower-middle class families of long standing – would in time be encouraged by the resident gentry to oppose the construction of a New Town for outsiders from London, which a lot of them did. Just as some of the New Town residents who had bought their former council properties in the 1980s would be persuaded by NIMBY activists a few decades later to protest against any further expansion into the factitious, bucolic mirage of "Forster Country". I know, Don't it always seem to go, etc.?  Joni Mitchell had a point, obviously, but the reactionary element in "hippie" attitudes tends to go unremarked, and I'm glad she didn't live anywhere near North Hertfordshire. People need somewhere to live.

As a grateful product of that post-war melting-pot myself, it is enlightening to eavesdrop on the private thoughts of conflicted Edwardian writers like Forster – torn between their progressive ideals and their fears for the survival of the comfortable world they had inherited – whether as recorded in their published diaries or expressed through their sock-puppet fictional proxies. Thanks to Merchant Ivory films and numerous other costume-drama adaptations of their novels, it is still surprisingly easy to enter, imaginatively, into that world of the Edwardian "long summer", still unperturbed by the horrors to come in the 20th century. But it was clearly already an anxious time, and not entirely the soft-focus utopia of Sunday-evening TV. Even the moderately wealthy could enjoy lives insulated from the majority population – who seem to have been regarded as an uncouth but essential natural resource that provided income, food, servants, labourers, and clerks – but the prospect of any little progress for the many seemed, rather hysterically, to threaten a complete breakdown of society, a melt-down of "life" even, for the fortunate few.

For those servants, labourers, and clerks, though, you could safely say that things could only get better. Here, for example, is a page from the 1906 Poor Law Union book for the North Herts market town of Baldock – just a couple of miles across the fields and meadows from Rooks Nest – which records the assistance given to the paupers of the parish. There, at the top of the page, are my great-grandmother Mary Ann Mabbitt, a 49-year-old charwoman, my grandmother Daisy, aged 12, and her younger brother Henry, receiving 3 shillings and sixpence "weekly relief". Four older children had already left home, two of them girls not much older than Daisy and living "in service" on a nearby farm.

Mary Ann had not had a lot of luck in life. She had been disfigured in a domestic fire, but married an older man of 36 in 1882 – a soldier turned farm labourer – who gave her six children in quick succession and then promptly died at age 50. The stigma of living "on the parish" was considerable, and must have left its mark. Nonetheless, according to my father Granny Mabbitt was a sweet, kind, and generous woman, with a knack for home-brewing (the two are not necessarily connected).

She lived to be 80 and shared a household for many years in the new Garden City of Letchworth with another of her daughters, Alice, who had been abandoned by her husband and left to bring up their single child alone. Mabbitt women were survivors, though, and between the two of them I imagine they were pretty much immune to any amount of contempt, condescension, small-minded gossip, or scandal. Again, according to my father – who as a boy lived in the same Letchworth street – his Aunt Alice was a good-humoured, life-affirming woman. In fact, in 1941 at age 56 she married for a second time, to a younger man of 39; a bricklayer, no less. The marriage certificate shows that they were both already living at that same address in Letchworth. Let 'em talk!

They were an interesting bunch, those Mabbitts, especially compared to the rather stiff-necked Scottish contribution to my genetic makeup. Daisy's older sister Florence, for example, frequently wore trousers (unusual in those days) and sold coal in the winter and ice in the summer from a pit in her back garden. Daisy herself worked as a bookbinder at J.M. Dent's Temple Press, and was Mother of the Chapel there (i.e. the senior female trade union shop steward). Needless to say, I am proud to carry whatever share of those resilient, kind, and (dare I say) mildly eccentric Mabbitt genes I may have inherited, and hope to have passed on: in the end, it's really the only connection that matters.

Resilient, kind (and mildly eccentric?)

Mildly eccentric (and resilient, kind?)

Resilient, kind (and mildly eccentric?). Only connect...

Friday 17 May 2024

Only Connect!

The complex webs of snobbery and socially-conscious agonising that characterised the more "progressive" inhabitants of early 20th-century Britain are well, if one-sidedly explored in the work of writers like Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. Woolf's The Years and Forster's Howards End are both novels about the shifting boundaries of class at that time, but of the two – although Woolf's is the better book in my judgement – it is Forster's book, with its famous epigraph "Only connect!" that is better known, and also happens to have a particular resonance for me, personally.

Why? Well, when I was growing up I had a local street map, which I would pore over like a cabbie learning The Knowledge. The New Town of Stevenage was hardly Greater London, but it seemed pretty big to me. One of its more curious features was a small black rectangle labelled "Rook's Nest" just north of the Old Town (the original small town of Stevenage around which the New Town was built). This always struck me as amusing – rookeries are not usually single, large, rectangular, or even regarded as worth noting on a map – but it was only many years later that I discovered that Forster's novel takes its name from a house, Howards End, which is modelled on Forster's own childhood home, which, to my amazement, happened to be the very same Rooks Nest marked on my map (although, like Howards End, minus the apostrophe).

So, now that's got us started, let's play Only Connect!

A British New Town was a curious sort of place to grow up, especially when it was still actually new in the 1950s and 60s, not least because of the conspicuous absence of the wealthy and the privileged, or even the property-owning middle classes. Our town was almost entirely constructed out of self-contained estates of social housing rented from the Development Corporation, each a named "neighbourhood" with its own set of local amenities: shops, schools, medical and community centres, and so on. With the result that as children we never saw the sort of high-hedged, secluded, privately-owned dwellings that denote the presence of the upper-middle classes in more organically-developed settlements. Such as the original "old" Stevenage, whose residents had vehemently opposed the imposition of a town of 65,000 homes for London's blitzed slum-dwellers onto their small town, thirty miles up the Great North Road from the capital.

They denounced it as "Silkingrad", Lewis Silkin being the government minister responsible for the development plan, and "grad", of course, implying a communistic diktat (plus a subtle touch of xenophobic antisemitism, Silkin being an East End Jew with Lithuanian parents). In the words of that sometime local resident E.M. Forster – yes, him again, he was still alive – a New Town would "fall out of the blue sky like a meteorite upon the ancient and delicate scenery of Hertfordshire". Which it did, and when the meteorite fell the wealthy left, and their houses were bought by compulsory purchase, demolished, and built over. It was as if they had never been there. [1]

Years passed, and the population grew. At the close of the 1970s the Thatcher government had given tenants the "right" to buy their own council homes at a knock-down price, destroying the egalitarian principles behind a place like Stevenage at a stroke. So – predictably, perhaps – when the time came to expand the New Town, some of the inhabitants – forgetful of their town's origins and having become property owners with an eye on the value of their asset – opposed any such new meteor strikes. This time, however, rather than invoke parallels with Stalinist Russia, they played the heritage card. They conjured up a vision of an unsullied landscape in need of protection, which they dubbed, yes, "Forster Country".

In reality, Forster Country consisted of a few not particularly remarkable farm fields surrounding Forster's not especially grand childhood home, Rooks Nest. Fields which were, in fact, the same ploughed expanses of Hertfordshire mud through which we were forced to wade on cross-country runs at my secondary school, in a sort of lightly-clad replay of the Battle of the Somme. Those claggy acres must contain hundreds of lost gym shoes, not to mention the cigarette packets and fag-ends tossed aside by boys grabbing the chance for a smoke behind a hedge. It will be a curious harvest for future archaeologists to ponder.

What now follows may seem something of a diversion, but bear with me. We're still playing Only Connect!

That school, Alleynes, was then in its 30-year heyday as a state-funded boys' grammar school – situated in the Old Town but modernised and expanded to meet the educational needs of the New Town population. It was a decent-enough school, academically, and attracted a number of boys from middle-class families who either couldn't or wouldn't pay for private schooling, and who daily rode the bus routes into town from the surrounding villages. The war still cast a long shadow over Britain in the 1950s and 60s, and these village boys were self-evidently "officer class", and inclined to identify with the school and its aims and methods. We townies, however, had inherited the uncooperative, awkward-squad attitudes of our other-ranks fathers, most of whom had either served in the wartime forces or been conscripted into post-war National Service. Ironically, as an embattled minority, often mocked and even bullied, these village boys actually represented the true continuity and traditions of the school, which had been educating the local gentry on the same site since 1558. Had Shakespeare been a North Herts lad, this could well have been his school. Sadly, from an Only Connect! point of view, it was never Forster's.

With hindsight, it is clear that this volatile mix of compliance and defiance within the school – given a vigorous shake by the advent of counter-cultural attitudes in the later 1960s and the school's conversion to "comprehensive" intake in 1968 – was problematic for teachers accustomed to a traditional grammar school ethos. As a result, a certain institutional split personality developed over the years: you might get the secret handshake reserved for the compliant minority, or more likely the professional reserve (and occasional resort to corporal punishment) offered to everyone else.

For example, there was whispered school folklore about how to behave when invited to the home of the chair of the school governors ("Never take the sixpence placed on the lavatory cistern – it's an honesty test!"). And yet no-one I knew had ever received such an invitation or, if they had, they kept very quiet about it. It was also known (and regarded as deeply suspicious) that a few of our classmates encountered teaching staff socially – at cricket clubs, classical concerts, church socials, and other such mysteriously off-the-map venues – and that some might even have been receiving private tuition. But I don't remember ever so much as glimpsing a single teacher out of school hours. Any that did live in the New Town – there were certainly some – clearly kept a very low profile.

School for most of us was, in effect, a job: you turned up, did what you were asked to do, and – apart from several hours of homework most nights – left it behind you at 4 o'clock. To be a pupil at the "snob school" was not any sort of advantage on the street; if you had any sense, you removed or covered up your uniform on the way home. Reciprocally, there was zero curiosity on the part of teaching staff  about what we got up to in our own time, unless there were concerns it might be illegal and thus endanger the school's reputation.

Quite a few boys had musical talent and ambitions, for example – those were the years when teenage rock groups were popping up everywhere you looked – but the school had no interest at all in advancing their progress, or putting them in touch with anyone who could. To have a passion for folk, blues, or rock was on a par with collecting stamps or breeding pigeons; strictly extra-curricular hobbies. Similarly, my own artistic leanings – which had been enthusiastically encouraged at primary school – were confined to doodling in the margins of my exercise books. We simply accepted this indifference: we probably were talentless dreamers, after all, and understood that, if we persisted in refusing to join in with the "life of the school", as so many of us did, then all that was required from us was good exam results or, failing that, to disappear without trace back into the sulphurous pit we had emerged from.

But for recipients of the secret handshake, doors were opened. In the years below us there was a boy we'll call Peter Weston. He had been injured playing rugby (in a ridiculous and truly snobbish move, the school had abandoned football in favour of hockey and rugby in the 1950s), so that, if my memory is correct, he was obliged to wear a crash helmet all day, rather like B.D. in Doonesbury. He was another would-be musician, but of an acceptably conventional sort, and in his very special case was granted unprecedented permission to use the school's precious and untouchable grand piano; even, it seems, at weekends [2]. Many years later I read in an obituary I came across – he had died in 2004 – that he had also been receiving tuition during those school years from Elizabeth Poston, an established composer who happened to be living locally. Despite the complete absence of formal music teaching in the school, he was able to go on to the Royal Academy of Music, and became a composer in his own right.

I don't know how or by whom the connection with Elizabeth Poston would have been made – AFAIK you couldn't simply look up "composers" in the Yellow Pages – but it was probably a combination of ambitious, well-connected parents and the school networking on his behalf. Ironically, though, you almost certainly won't have heard of "Peter Weston", but may well have heard of our school's most (only?) famous alumnus, Ken Hensley of Uriah Heep, entirely self-taught, remarkably determined and successful as a musician, and yet – so typically – noted within the school not for his extra-mural musical endeavours but as a demon fast bowler in the cricket team. [3]

So how does any of that connect to Forster or the development of the New Town?

It was many years before I realised that the isolated private house near the old parish church, just up the gravelled, chestnut-lined avenue that ran alongside Alleynes was the "Rook's Nest" of my street map. In fact, the connection only became clear when I was reading the introduction to a copy of Howards End, probably somewhere around 1978. It was surprising and amusing, obviously, to discover that Forster was a Stevenage boy of sorts. But then, some time after I had read Peter Weston's obituary, the surprise was compounded when I discovered that – from childhood right up until her death in 1986 – Rooks Nest had been occupied by none other than composer Elizabeth Poston. It appeared that her family had had a close relationship with the Forsters, and that she was a long-time friend of Forster himself, too ("Morgan" to his friends, apparently). Beyond that, she had connections with the BBC, and the entire classical music establishment. Inevitably, I suppose, among her own musical output was the score for a BBC TV dramatisation of – you've guessed – Howards End.

So, as a high-scoring Only Connect! connection, it is hard to beat the Elizabeth Poston nexus. As a final flourish, though, apparently Poston had been one of the most vociferous campaigners against the development of the New Town, and had busily exploited her many influential connections to get the development plan scrapped. I don't doubt that she was responsible for eliciting Forster's "meteor" soundbite, for example; he, after all, hadn't lived anywhere near Stevenage since 1893. [4]

But they weren't able to stop the New Town, thankfully, and so thousands of us were able to grow up as participants in a bold experiment in town planning and social engineering, and to take full advantage of all the benefits a benevolent and generous state chose to provide. Before, that is, it all started to be taken away again as "unaffordable" in the mean-spirited, penny-pinching Thatcher years.

For a decade or two, though, it had seemed that the ordinary people of Britain might finally be coming into their inheritance, however meagre. That, for example, the building of many small rentable houses might outweigh the survival of a few large private houses in the scheme of things, or that all sorts and levels of ability might be recognised and nurtured across the whole social spectrum. But it didn't last, unlike the ancient and inalienable right of the wealthy and well-connected to find ways to favour the children of the "right" people. "Only connect!", indeed.

Chauncy House flats, my home 1968-78
(now demolished and built over...)

1. I was actually born in a converted upstairs flat in one such, shortly before it was demolished. See the post Blackamoors.

2. And thereby hangs a tale, as they say, but my legal team have instructed me to leave it untold. Besides, the disgrace and downfall of a headmaster is not the sort of connection we're looking for today.

3. Ken's first real band was an Alleynes-based beat combo, Kit and the Saracens.

4. Ironically, both Forster and Poston grew up in Rooks Nest when it was rented accommodation, which Poston was only able to buy after her mother's death. Thatcher would have approved.

Friday 10 May 2024

Three Things

First Thing:

In a sign o' the times, Blog2Print, the business I have been using to make my "Idiotic Hat Annual" for some years now, has announced that it is closing in May. It seems blogs are now definitively yesterday's thing, at least as far as selling services to bloggers is concerned. Unfortunately, Blog2Print were the only people I was aware of who could offer a tailored "book from your blog" service, one which allowed you to specify a range of dates and produce a publication from the selected posts, nicely formatted, and which included all the illustrative material.

The books were not particularly cheap, but in my case I would choose instead the option of a downloadable PDF file at the extremely reasonable price of $9.95 (about £8.00). That way I was able to produce an annual compilation every September – I started the blog in October 2008, back when the academic year was still my default setting – and then write each downloaded PDF to CD, which made the perfect hard-copy backup. Plus, of course, a record of all this profusely illustrated bloviation for the entertainment of posterity. Although it's true that optical drives seem to be yesterday's thing, too...

Cover of the first compilation on CD

Oh, well. So if you happen to know of anyone offering the same or a similar facility, I'd be very pleased to hear about it. I do realise that I can download a complete XML dump of the blog free of charge from Blogger, but I've been too long away from programming now to contemplate extracting and formatting a year's worth of posts and pictures from that tangled briar patch of code. Although, that said, if you know of a suitable XML processor that would simplify the task, please do let me know.

Second Thing:

Here is something I've been meaning to point out to my fellow photography enthusiasts for a while: a guy called Tomasz Trzebiatowski runs a hard-copy photo magazine called FRAMES. It looks interesting, but I already have more subscriptions than I can manage (I'm five six issues behind in my TLS reading alone), but here's the thing: Tomasz sends out a free daily email from his substack called PHOTOSNACK which is worth signing up for, I think. Each "snack" features one photo by one photographer, as recommended by one FRAMES subscriber, usually with a link to their website.

If you're curious about the range of photographic "practices" out there it is a very interesting sample to have dropped into your mailbox every day. If only because it is a demonstration – both humbling and reassuring – of quite how many relatively-unknown photographers there are out there who can be very good indeed but, like the rest of us, rarely work consistently at the very highest standard. True, sometimes a well-known, established name is featured – recently there have been Flor Garduño, Michael Lange, Tish Murtha, Michael Kenna, and Saul Leiter, for example – but more often than not it's someone you (well, OK, I) have never heard of before, someone who is diligently ploughing their particular furrow and turning up the occasional gem from a heap of what is usually (but not always) the same old same old.

The nice thing is that these are people who have been recommended to Tomasz by other photographers and enthusiasts, and the chances are that you'll discover a few practitioners whose work is very much to your liking. Plus, of course, a fair few whose work is very much not, but it's good to get pushed off our familiar trails through the Photo-Phorest from time to time, isn't it? Daily, even.

So who is this Mike Chisholm, and why does he like barrier tape?

Third Thing:

And here's something for the rock and pop people.

When I was a postgraduate student at the University of East Anglia in far-flung Norwich, 1976-77, I had a room in one of the famous "ziggurat" accommodation blocks. It was unsettling to be so quickly cut off from the close friendships I had made in the previous three years at Oxford, and in particular from the woman who would become my life partner – at that stage by no means a certain outcome – who was away backpacking in South America. I would often find myself working at my desk into the early hours, probably a little high and feeling a little lonely, and either playing tapes on a portable cassette recorder or listening to my little transistor radio for company.

For really late-night listening, there were a number of channels you could tune into, depending on the weather and atmospheric conditions, such as Radio Caroline, a "pirate" station broadcasting from a ship anchored in international waters off the East Coast, which was then in its "Loving Awareness" phase (follow the link if you're curious: Caroline had what might be called a "chequered" history). Rock music was in its pomp, then, even as it experienced the first skirmishes with punk and New Wave. In fact, one of the first Sex Pistols gigs to be cancelled after their notorious 1976 TV interview was at the UEA Student Union. But it was hard rock that dominated late-night radio, and one of the new generation of "big hair" rock bands emerging then was Boston: their big hit "More Than a Feeling" could generally be heard several times a night. Despite myself, I grew to love it, and still do.

Now, here's the thing: you may already know all about Rick Beato and his YouTube channel, but I only came across him recently. He is a very personable, incredibly well-informed musician and producer who interviews prominent pop, rock, and jazz artists he admires (check out his hilarious and enlightening session with Stuart Copeland, ex-drummer with the Police) and also analyses individual songs in depth, under the rubric "What Makes This Song So Great?" If you have the slightest interest in what lies behind a great song, especially if you can play a few chords yourself, it's fascinating stuff. So here is his analysis of "More Than a Feeling", which I found truly eye (ear?) opening about a song I thought I knew inside out. Great stuff from an enthusiast with real insight into the complexities of record production.

He doesn't only cover rock and Big Hair music, though: check out this star-struck description of his dinner with Joni Mitchell (yup! three hours!), an invitation which resulted from his appreciation of another of my favourite songs from that UEA year 1976-77, "Amelia", from the album Hejira. Or how about this reaction to a new Adele release? Worth a look, I think.

Complicated harmonies, made in the studio...

Saturday 4 May 2024



Rembrandt dishcloth

I don't watch a lot of TV, although I do have a bit of a Netflix habit on my iPad, which is not quite the same thing. Our actual TV – which until recently was a 12" portable, but is now a massive 32" flatscreen – is monopolised by my partner, a current affairs junkie. Personally, having heard the news once in the morning on the radio, and again in the early evening while cooking, I rarely feel any need to watch it again on TV, much less repeatedly throughout the evening, like an extended piece of rather repetitive minimalist video-art on a continuous loop. I also suffer from an inability to split my attention in various conflicting directions. I'm either watching, reading, or listening to something, or I'm not; the idea of TV or music as ambient filler in a multitasking environment is profoundly alien to me.

However, on the occasions when I enter the living room – bringing a cup of tea or a meal, say, to sustain the multitasker working therein – it surprises me how often there is yet another documentary about the Nazis playing on one of those obscure channels that live somewhere between the heavyweight channels and the fluff lower down the list. For a regime that lasted little more than a decade, Nazi Germany really is the gift that keeps on giving for documentary makers, conspiracy theorists, and history nuts.

Located further down the scale, down below the latest rehashed documentary about the Siege of Leningrad or Hitler's secret weapons, lurk dubious programmes about "occult Nazis", one of the more curious tropes of popular culture. From Indiana Jones to Hellboy, Luger-toting SS officers in long leather greatcoats are forever seeking to commandeer and weaponize some ancient power-gizmo in crazed pursuit of world domination. As it happens, some of this world war woo-woo is not entirely without foundation: most people know that Hitler & Co. relied to an extent on astrology, and that the Aryan thing had a pseudo-mythological underpinning, but had you ever heard of World Ice Theory (Welteislehre)? Me neither. Of course, in pop culture this occult angle seems to keep permanent company with that other campy trope: the association of Nazi uniforms with BDSM inclinations. No trashy film or comic is complete without some blonde, busty, uniformed dominatrix flexing a crop. It's all a bit sleazy, not to say hypocritical, and – given what the real-life Nazis got up to – not a little tasteless: perhaps it's time certain aspects of the western mind were de-Nazified?

Which all leads me to wonder: why are only some few moments in history so endlessly fruitful? Is it pure chance, or do certain mythic conditions have to be met? The Wild West is certainly another such time. Again, this was a mere decade or two in "diachronic" historical terms, but is an infinite well of "synchronic" story-telling, repeatedly extracting gallon upon gallon of documentary, character, narrative, themes, and myth-making from the same little pint pot of history, far more than could ever actually have taken place in that limited chunk of space and time. In contrast, the First World War, with its cast of millions and multiple far-flung stages is by and large a single story, rarely elaborated or extended beyond the mud and trenches of the Somme. Does anyone even think of, say, Lawrence of Arabia as a "First World War film", for example? There are no "Krazy Kaiser's Witchcraft Weaponry" documentaries, as far as I know, or  even any "I was the Red Baron's Sex Slave" tales (notably, DC Comics' Enemy Ace ends up flying out of WW1 into WW2 to liven things up with the inevitable Nazi-themed storyline). Could this be because the USA was absent for most of that conflict, rendering it parochial to the Hollywood imagination? Or is there some vital missing ingredient: surely it's not just the Hugo Boss uniforms?

But if you're looking for a truly world-class yield of culture per square inch of source, though, the Bible springs readily to mind. The churches were the main patrons of art in Europe for centuries: if you wanted to live by your wits or talents, you pretty much had to fashion something you could sell to a pope or a bishop. Most of those excruciatingly dull, dull, dull religious paintings that fill the walls of the world's museums are variations on a very limited range of approved biblical scenarios, albeit enlivened by the occasional gory martyrdom. It's a great story, the New Testament, with its distinctly post-modern retelling from four different perspectives, but as the official manual of Christianity it's short on scope for creative re-interpretation and, besides, you deviated from the official line at your peril. Artists may claim to suffer for their art, but nobody wants to be burned at the stake as a heretic for, you know, just making some painting. There were also fairly rigid non-Biblical traditions to follow. Mary always dresses in blue? Jesus's cross was bigger than the other two? Of course, your holiness... And I promise I'll put a bit more drapery on the angels this time.

With the Old Testament it's a different story, though, and, best of all, there are lots and lots of different stories. Pillars of fire! Floods! Plagues of frogs! Ladders ascending to heaven! Smiting! Beheadings, deceptions, bed-tricks, begettings a-plenty, and even a little incest and sodomy! Nobody seems entirely sure why all that stuff in Hebrew has been appropriated and put up front as a massive, rambling prequel to the main Greek action, but there it is: a bottomless pit of stories, all told in terse but colourful language, with the extra cachet of having been retrospectively declared gospel truth. Once the Bible had finally been translated into various European vernaculars – and Bible scholars seemed commendably less reluctant than artists to end up in the flames for their trouble – it became the main (if not sole) reading matter for the literate masses for quite a few centuries. It was even available as a serial audio-book for the illiterate, courtesy of your local church. Come back next week for the next exciting, but randomly chosen instalment! All of which meant that an awful lot of imaginative energy was focussed for an awfully long time on mining the text of the Bible for parables, metaphors, similes, turns of phrase, and so on, not to mention its role as a treasury of splendidly sonorous first names.

But by now, of course, even in "Christian heritage" countries, biblical allusions are becoming as baffling as allusions to classical literature and mythology have always been to most of us. A poem like Milton's "Lycidas", however celebrated it has been in the past, is virtually unreadable today; it is so thoroughly swathed in classical winks and nudges that the poem itself is barely visible. Although it is true that, in the right mood, it can be an amusing read, with its baroque impenetrability and infuriating evasion of just getting down to saying what it bloody well wants to say. As Samuel Johnson put it:
It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough satyrs and fauns with cloven heel. Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.
Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, 1783
Quite so, Sam! In the end, all intertextual allusions have a half-life, which dooms to obscurity any art which is draped in them. The Bible and the classics have had a good run, but are rapidly decaying into inert cultural geology. There will also inevitably come a point when any invocation of or comparison with the Little Bighorn, D-Day, or Dien Bien Phu will have joined them in the compacted sedimentary layers of footnoted, hyperlinked obscurity, along with all those painted depositions, annunciations, and martyrdoms. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Tatooine, Lothlórien, and the Millennium Falcon are already rather more firmly rooted in the minds of the young as points of reference than, say, the OK Corral, Stalingrad, or the Enola Gay.

In complete contrast, we recently visited the exhibition of Holbein portraits in the King's Gallery, at Buckingham Palace. What a treat! Whatever allusions are present in those pictures – and I'm sure there must be plenty, especially in the finished paintings – no passage of time or decay of cultural capital will ever detract from the skill that captured the human presence of those aristocratic sitters in such wonderful drawings on paper. Who really needs to know which Lady This or Lord That this happened to be, or what they did or was done to them, when you can encounter them so vividly, unmediated by anything other than a stick of charcoal, some chalk, and the hand-eye co-ordination of a draughtsman of genius? 

Although, that said, to know that this man looking warily over his shoulder is Thomas Wyatt is priceless. What wouldn't we give for a "sketch" from life of this quality of Shakespeare?

Lux, my fair falcon, and your fellows all,
How well pleasant it were your liberty,
Ye not forsake me that fair might ye befall.
But they that sometime liked my company,
Like lice away from dead bodies they crawl.
Lo, what a proof in light adversity.
But ye, my birds, I swear by all your bells,
Ye be my friends, and so be but few else.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Monday 29 April 2024


 I mentioned in March that I was compiling a book of uniformly square photographs of Southampton. In the end I made two slightly different versions: one in the "magazine" format, cheap enough to post out on spec to local galleries, and another, more expensive, as a conventional paperback book. Here it is, in the "book" version, which includes a final family history page not present in the magazine (click the central circular device for a full screen view):

I've given it the title "Shipshaped". Non-native speakers may not have come across the expression "shipshape" before, which means "neat, tidy, with everything in its proper place", as on a well-ordered ship. In this case, however, I've adapted it to reflect the way this city has been formed (or can be seen to have been formed) by its maritime aspect, whether directly, indirectly, or in imaginary ways.

As always, it is now available to buy on my Blurb bookstore here, either as the magazine or as a super-cheap PDF. Don't all rush at once... 😀

Tuesday 23 April 2024

Shakespeare's Birthday


What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend;
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen's cheek all art of beauty set
And you in Grecian tires are painted new;
Speak of the spring and foison of the year:
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear,
And you in every blessed shape we know.
    In all external grace you have some part,
    But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

Sonnet 53

Note: "tires" means "clothing", as in "attire", and not the sort of tyre / tire that goes on a wheel, amusing as that might be, and "foison" means "an abundant harvest". "Every blessed shape" is hard  to read without a smile, too, for fans of minced oaths. Settle down at the back! And, yes, that final couplet is deeply ambiguous, open to multiple readings... Is "like" a preposition or a verb, for example? Are "you" a "constant heart", or not? Ah, you're such a big tease, Will!

Saturday 20 April 2024

The Sun Rising

My memory is pretty good – unusually good, in fact, by most standards, although not freakish or photographic – although I realise that this is not necessarily a Good Thing: forgetting can be a form of healing, after all. Like anyone else, though, I do forget plenty of things, too, although there are clearly degrees and levels of forgetting, ranging from "Nope, sorry, don't remember that at all" to "Wow, yes, how could I ever have forgotten!". For example, I had sort-of forgotten about my close encounter with John Donne, whose "metaphysical" poetry I had been introduced to and studied during the intensive extra term of cramming at school that led up to the Oxford entrance examinations in late 1972. But a recent mention of his poem "The Sun Rising" in the comments on another blog brought it all flooding back with an intensity that took me by surprise. Wow, yes...

That poem, published in 1633, plays with the conventions of a genre known as the aubade, poems in which, typically, the arrival of dawn means it is time for a couple in bed to part, presumably because they can't risk being found together, and not because one of them has an early train to catch. To a romantically-inclined eighteen-year-old boy like me, yet to share a bed with anyone, it was an intoxicating preview of what, with any luck, lay ahead in my not too distant future.

It occurs to me now that I had been primed to appreciate this poem in particular by the song "Wond'ring Aloud" on Jethro Tull's 1971 release Aqualung, an album on which I knew every note, word, and inflection of every track with the intimacy that you only ever really acquire with the favourite recordings of your adolescence, played time after time in your bedroom. I knew little about poetry then, but it felt as if I already knew everything about rock and pop. Even now, hearing that song for the first time in decades (and in particular the line "Wond'ring aloud, will the years treat us well?") gives me an emotional jolt that hot-wires seventy-year-old me directly to seventeen-year-old me, and awakens all sorts of long-dormant memories, feelings, and faces.

So here is Donne's poem, in the original spelling as I first encountered it in Herbert Grierson's classic anthology Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the Seventeenth Century
                    The Sunne Rising

         Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,
        Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers seasons run?
         Sawcy pedantique wretch, goe chide
         Late schoole boyes, and sowre prentices,
     Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
     Call countrey ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time.
         Thy beames, so reverend, and strong
         Why shouldst thou thinke?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a winke,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
         If her eyes have not blinded thine,
         Looke, and to morrow late, tell mee,
     Whether both the Indias of spice and Myne
     Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with mee.
Aske for those Kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt heare, All here in one bed lay.
         She is all States, and all Princes, I,
         Nothing else is.
Princes doe but play us; compar'd to this,
All honor's mimique; All wealth alchimie,
         Thou sunne art halfe as happy as wee,
         In that the world's contracted thus;
     Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee
     To warme the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare.
"The rags of time"... "Nothing else is..." Wonderful. But I also remember waking early one summer morning, actually but awkwardly sharing a very narrow single bed, and declaiming some Donne – quite likely this very poem – only to be told in no uncertain terms about the appalling one-sided sexism of male so-called "love" poetry. Huh? This was something neither Donne, Tull's Ian Anderson, or even Joni Mitchell had prepared me for. I don't think the expression "male gaze" was current then, but this was definitely a case of "Welcome to the other half of the world; I'm no state, and you're not my prince, poetry boy!" Hmm, point taken; think I'll go and make some tea...

As it happens, that woman was the woman I can hear talking on the phone upstairs just now. I'm pretty sure she won't remember that morning forty (fifty!) years ago, but I do, and I acknowledge it as one of those important moments when your complacent view of the world is turned upside down and given a good shake. I had a lot of complacent views in those days, some of which were rather worse than merely complacent and which I remember only too well. Although, mercifully, however much our own cringeworthy moments may haunt and torment the memory, it seems we rarely recall those of others. "Nope, sorry, don't remember that at all..."

So I'm pleased to report that the years have treated us reasonably well, and if nothing else I have learned that some people are not in the mood for poetry first thing in the morning when that busy old fool, the unruly sun comes streaming in through windows and through curtains to call on us, yet again. There are no metaphysical kings congregated in this bed. And I'm still making the tea every morning...

Friday 12 April 2024

Easter 2024

As advertised, we spent Easter in mid-Wales, a habit we broke last year for only the second time in something like forty years. I can't even remember why, now. Perhaps someone else had booked our usual rental, and we couldn't be bothered to look for another? Perhaps we just felt like a change? Whatever, life in the Marches went on without us. While we were away several pubs, shops, and restaurants changed hands or went out of business, yet more farmers seemed to abandon the idea of raising sheep, and someone had taken the trouble to put up some 4G masts, with the result that, miraculously, we were able to ignore our phones because we wanted to, and not because they were unable to detect even a hint of a signal. I suppose that last, at least, counts as an improvement.

I decided to try something a little different with the photography this year. Apart from the fact that my partner's walking capacity has been curtailed by a mild but prolonged case of "long Covid", after a bit (whatever fraction of forty years constitutes "a bit") you do start to repeat yourself. We did manage to get out when the weather allowed, and I experimented with long-lens shots (mainly using the crazy zoom built into the Panasonic TZ70), as well as with a 60mm supplementary lens for the iPhone. Naturally, this led to a higher number of "misses" than usual – never has the old adage that "you can't beat physics" seemed more appropriate – but also some interesting "hits". I will probably have some things to say about this in a future post.

Despite the fact we've been using the same cottage for quite a few years now, I had never explored a nearby church which is, like a lot of ancient places of worship in "Celtic" Britain, situated on top of a mound with a churchyard full of very old yew trees. I've probably mentioned this before (and, let's be honest, after sixteen years of blogging there is very little that I haven't mentioned before, and probably more than once) but the prominent, treeless mass of upland known as the Radnor Forest is alleged to contain within it the last dragon in Wales, sleeping away the centuries. Surrounding the Forest in an apotropaic ring are four churches dedicated to that Satan-stomping archangel Michael: Llanfihangel Cefnllys, Llanfihangel Nant Melan, Llanfihangel Cascob, and the one near our cottage, Llanfihangel Rhydithon. [1]

The legend states that the dragon will awake if any of the four churches were to be destroyed. Now that's what I call an insurance policy (or is it extortion with menaces?). Like so many parish churches, though, the original structure at Llanfihangel Rhydithon seems to have been replaced or at least extensively remodelled in the 19th century; I wonder if the dragon might have stirred in its sleep for a moment then? As the door was locked when I visited I couldn't check out the interior, so I picked my way carefully around the jam-packed churchyard, which is still in use, and where there are some lovely 18th century tombstones with "vernacular" carving and lettering (all in English, none that I could see in Welsh).

Easter in Wales is all about the unpredictable weather, of course. In the past we've had snow, dramatic inversion fogs, and blazing sunshine – sometimes all in the same week – but this year we had the classic British springtime "sunshine and showers", although some of the showers were rather heavier and longer-lasting than any "shower" is supposed to be, and the sunshine rather fleeting. Oh, and there were strong, gusty winds, which (partly) accounts for the softness of some of these photographs.

Something our Bristol flat and this mid-Wales cottage have in common is elevation: the flat is on the fourth floor of a block perched on the edge of the Avon Gorge, and the "cottage" (actually a barn conversion) is tucked into the NW shoulder of the Radnor Forest. At both locations this means that you can see the next wave of weather coming in from a distance just by leaning out of a window: it's one of the reasons I have come to like using a long lens in this landscape. What? Oh, relax, you hair-shirted landscape puritans... I'm not aware of any law that says you can't do landscape photography in your pyjamas...

1. Llanfihangel in Welsh is the equivalent of "St. Michael" (but, no, Marks & Spencer did not label their own-brand apotropaic underwear "Llanfihangel" in Wales). Quite why an angel gets to be a saint, too, is an interesting question, but we of Baptist heritage do not trouble ourselves with such stuff. It is curious, though, that a high-street retailer could use that name as a brand on their very mundane (but very reliable and comfortable) lines of clothing without protest from the saint-importuning community. Maybe M & S socks and knickers were given a free pass in an encyclical? (De Subuculis Soccisque, perhaps?).

Sunday 7 April 2024

Post 2K

We are now back from our traditional week in mid-Wales, with its usual mixed bag of weather. I'll be posting something about that soon, for sure, plus some photographs. But first...

I sometimes refer to mid-Wales as the Land the Internet Forgot. Which is not entirely fair: the fact that our favoured cottage rental has no WiFi might have something to do with that impression, after all. But the complete absence of any sort of phone signal had always been a challenge or a blessed relief, depending on the nature of your needs and your susceptibility to the pester-power of email. So it was a surprise, to say the least, to find that this year a one-bar 4G signal was frequently available indoors, occasionally swelling into an intoxicating second bar. So on 3rd April I was tempted to take a quick peek at my blog stats, and I noticed a figure that immediately made me take a screen shot.

Check it out: can you see it? No, not those sixteen disciples followers: I have no idea how they got in, as I thought I'd shut that door quite firmly (I am, after all, just a very naughty boy). And, no, not those viewing figures, either, which are surprisingly high, but almost certainly in large part the record of visits by various robots and fleeting drive-bys from people looking for camera porn. No, it was that number, near the top! That's right, you've got it: 1999 posts.

Which means that THIS is post number TWO THOUSAND.

As an instinctive contrarian, I thought it would be a suitably low-key – not to say meta – use for this anniversary post simply to mention the fact that it is an anniversary post, and leave it at that. What, you expected there would be cake? Fireworks? A specially-commissioned piece from a prominent contemporary composer? If so, I suspect you haven't been coming here for very long, have you? Or, as people like to say these days, have you met me?

TBH, this satisfyingly round number should really have been racked up a few years ago. When I started blogging in 2008 I was aiming to post something nearly every day. I kept that up for a while, but subsequently my efforts seemed to stabilise at around a dozen posts most months, with a break during the summer. Then, latterly, I started to slow the pace to about 1.5 posts every week. This was partly due to declining energy on my part (and a sense that I had started to repeat myself), but also because some regular readers were complaining that they couldn't keep up and were letting posts go by unread. Noooo! But, point taken. After all, even the likes of Marina Hyde only publishes a couple of times a week.

Anyway, there it is. Two thousand posts. Who'd have thought it? No wonder I'm feeling tired. Just think, though, if I'd put  all that effort into writing fiction I'd have completed ten utterly unpublishable novels by now... But I'm pretty sure even most published novelists don't chalk up 7593 comments, or 20,000+ reads in a single month, however illusory most of those reads might be. I'll take that. And I should offer my sincere thanks to those of you who have been stopping by to read my ramblings over the years, despite my efforts to discourage "followers" (how did they get in here?). Here's to the next thousand! (Really? You do realise you're seventy now? Ed.)

Sunday 24 March 2024

Southampton Squared

King Edward VI School

I'm working on a book (yes, another one) that will pull together some of the better photographs I have made here in Southampton. I'm hoping it will also serve as an attractive – nay, compelling! – portfolio / exhibition proposal, as I am feeling the need to show some work locally, something I haven't done for a very long time. Actually, TBH I'd be glad to get work on a wall anywhere at the moment: it's been a long time since I showed more than a print or two anywhere. As I always say, I'm so glad I didn't try to make a living like this, and would strongly advise anyone not hell-bent on living the hand-to-mouth bohemian lifestyle against it: get a proper job, dreamer. Or marry someone who does have a proper job, and treasures your head-in-the-clouds take on life...

In the spirit of "show, don't tell", here are a few of them (there will be about eighty in the finished book). To impose a certain uniformity I decided early on to crop everything square. It's also an opportunity to tighten all the compositions by a couple of notches, which never does any harm, in my view.

City Cruise Terminal

Crosshouse Road

Calshot Beach

Ocean Dock

Western Docks from Shirley

Mountbatten Retail Park

Abandoned sofa on Burgess Road

Holyrood Church ruins

Electricity sub-station, city centre

We will shortly be heading off for our traditional Easter break in mid-Wales, so posts here will be paused for a week or so. Here's something, though, that any fellow walkers in possession of an iPhone may find of interest. Someone mentioned the other day that the "Health" app pre-installed as standard on iPhones (it's the white one with a little red heart on it) works as a pedometer if you carry it with you (well, obviously... It's not magic). But, here's the thing: it has quietly been monitoring and quantifying your footsteps ever since you bought the phone... No, really, it's true!

You may find this an alarming intrusion into your privacy, but I was fascinated, not least because I had no real idea of how far I would have to walk to manage the infamous "10,000 steps", or how many steps I was racking up on average on a routine basis. By taking a slightly roundabout "scenic route" from home to the University Post Office and back on Friday – about 4.5 miles – I did just over 10K steps according to the app, which, when I compare the phone's figure with a rule-of-thumb metric based on my height (about 2,300 steps per mile), seems pretty consistent and is therefore probably reliable, even if only in a "close enough for jazz" kind of way. It will be interesting, I think, to see how some very 3-D Welsh hill-walks will compare, step-wise, with the 2-D distances measured on the map.

Saturday 16 March 2024

The Wanderer's Wetware

I don't think anyone suffers from the illusion that this is, in anything other than a very vague sense, a "photography blog". It is a blog about whatever I happen to feel like writing about, and it just so happens that I often feel like writing about photography. But this post is definitely one for the camera buffs: the rest of you may be happy just to look at the pictures, or to sit this one out altogether. 

Some photographers value brand loyalty, as if it were a mark of integrity: "I married Nikon, and never fool around with other brands, however attractive they might be, or however badly Nikon keeps letting me down". Others go even further, with the "one camera, one lens" approach, under the curious belief that their "vision" – actual or metaphorical – is adequately matched by just one particular optical combo. "Yep, I'm a hammer guy: to me, everything looks like a nail!" In a world of overwhelming choices, I can see the attraction of choosing a single blinkered path, or buying into a single "system", but it's not for me. I may have remained loyal to one life-partner for half a century, but when it comes to cameras, I'm The Wanderer (that is, the 1961 hit from Dion, not the Old English poem).

In a previous post, I mentioned that back in 2014 I was transitioning away from cameras that used the "Micro Four Thirds" sensor to the larger Fujifilm "X-Trans" sensor. But before that I had been using Canon film SLRs and then DSLRs, as well as various Olympus cameras, film and digital. Mustn't forget my medium-format film cameras, either, Mamiya, Fujifilm, and the extraordinary, combat-ready Koni-Omega Rapid... I could go on. In fact, my photo-philandering has often run in parallel, as well as serially; luckily, cameras are easy-going devices, happy to share a bag. Once I had begun using them, however, I was sufficiently convinced by the outstanding qualities of the Fujifilm X-Trans "system" that the Micro 4/3rds cameras and lenses (mainly Panasonic, but also Olympus) would remain in a cupboard for most of the next decade.

Then, more recently, and much to my own surprise, I became convinced of the virtues and above all the sheer convenience of iPhone photography, and the Fujis started to join the Panasonics in the cupboard much of the time.

But there's a cyclical pattern at work here. Inevitably, after a while I realised how far the limitations of the iPhone had begun to define what I felt able to photograph. It was partly the camera's "noisiness" in low-light situations, but above all – for me – it was being stuck with a permanently wide-angle view of the world. I did try using one of the supplementary lenses made by Sandmarc that gives a narrower, 60mm-equivalent angle of view but, although the image quality did not suffer as much as I feared, it just felt a bit silly, having this weighty chunk of glass hanging off the back of my phone. The phone had suited the sort of photographs I had wanted to take for several years – in a way, it was my own "one camera, one lens" experiment – but it seemed my internal weather had changed. I still wanted convenience, yes, but image quality and flexibility of angle of view were equally important.

So I succumbed to "photography as window shopping" for a while – like biscuits, a temptation best kept well out of reach – and started to look for very small, high-quality cameras which could either take interchangeable lenses or had a built-in zoom; second-hand, of course, and knowing full well that this was likely to be one of those triads of choice: convenience, image quality, flexibility – pick any two. All of which seemed to lead inevitably back in the direction of Micro 4/3rds and Panasonic.

Now, whenever possible, I buy stuff from a reliable used-camera site like MPB or Ffordes, but if what you're after is scarce and you're willing to take a risk on eBay, as I am from time to time, then real bargains can be had. So last year I eventually found what I was looking for: a Panasonic GM1 on eBay at a reasonable price (in Italy, in fact), which is the smallest Micro 4/3rds interchangeable-lens camera ever made (and the body really is hilariously tiny, about the size of a pack of playing cards), together with its dinky little collapsible 12-32mm lens, and a supplementary grip.

Despite its diminutive size the GM1 is an excellent camera, yielding the same image quality as a full-size camera with the same sensor, and I'm not surprised they're hard to come by, although not as scarce as the elusive GM5; much the same camera, but with the desirable extra of an electronic viewfinder. You could almost hear the ironic cheers coming out of the camera cupboard as I dusted off the old Micro 4/3rds lenses. Add the equally tiny and collapsible Panasonic 35-100mm zoom (equivalent to a 70-200mm lens in 35mm terms) and you have a perfect "travel" kit, so light and economical of space you scarcely know it's in your bag. Convenience, image quality, flexibility: sometimes, it seems, you can pick all three.

But, as I say, these things are clearly somewhat cyclical and unpredictable, just like the weather: no doubt I'll be returning to the Fujis or moving on to something new in due course. They call me The Wanderer...

But the real bargain I picked up along the way, surprisingly cheap on eBay, was a Panasonic "superzoom", the TZ70 (ZS50 in the USA). I was looking for a more camera-like substitute for the mad Canon Zoom monocular that I was playing around with earlier in the year. The TZ70 has an even more insane 30x zoom, equivalent to 24-720mm in 35mm terms (that's "pretty wide" to "blimey!" in lay terms). It's small, flat [1], light, and easily as pocketable as the Zoom. It's image-stabilised, too, and even has a little viewfinder so you can steady it further by pressing it against your brow, in classic style (essential at the longer end of the zoom, even with stabilisation).

But the main thing is that it's great fun to use, which to my mind is an important (if subjective) attribute, often overlooked in detail-obsessed reviews. I really enjoy being able to stand on one side of a wet and muddy field or a busy road, and zoom in to compose a nice conjunction of elements on the far side. "Foot zoom" be damned: if you get up close you quite literally can't see the wood for the trees. Best of all, the combination of deep depth of focus (small sensor) with flattened perspective (telephoto lens) is a good match for what my eyes tend to spot and isolate within any scene in front of me, far better than a wide-angle view. Which, of course, is also available at the other extreme of this lens's range, should I feel the need, along with everything in between.

Sure, that triad of choices does come into play with the TZ70: it offers convenience and flexibility, but at the expense of technical image quality. Without doubt – in comparison with the GM1, say – this camera's IQ is somewhat less than stellar. Which you would expect from such a crazy lens stuck in front of a tiny sensor, even if it is badged "Leica" [2]. But the lesson it has reinforced for me is the importance of recognising the difference between photographic qualities and pictorial qualities. In the end, I'm looking for pictures, not opportunities to demonstrate or test the outstanding metrics of my camera.

Camera reviewers obsess over "sharpness", for example, as if this were an absolute, as if a soft or grainy picture is inherently inferior, pictorially, to a sharp picture. I suppose to many the ideal model of photography is a perfect pack-shot or a studio shoot for a glossy magazine: the more flawless, the more like a perfectly clear window onto reality, the better. But our own inbuilt optical system of "wetware" doesn't actually care about any of this (see the post Cambrian Specs). Otherwise, how could anyone ever have celebrated generations of iconic photographs made with fast, grainy, "soot and whitewash" 35mm film? Or admired Impressionist paintings, come to that, or the likeness of a lion, scratched onto a cave wall with a burnt stick? In fact, the brain actually seems to get more pleasure from joining the dots, as it were, than from gazing passively through some simulated window. [3]

Quality-wise, I should say, we're by no means in Krappy Kamera territory with the TZ70. However, I won't pretend that I haven't had to do a fair amount of work on the raw files (What? JPGs, you say? They're not bad, I suppose, but I never use JPGs, given the choice...). Besides, this work "in post" is, for me, a large part of the pleasure of photography. I discovered some very neat new tricks when wrestling those truly awful Canon Zoom files into submission, for example: nothing stimulates creativity like the challenge of making a useable sow's ear purse. [4]

So, I hope that the pictures on this page (all TZ70 images) demonstrate that you can have all three elements of that aforementioned triad – convenience, quality, and flexibility – for very little money, provided most of the "quality" is supplied by you and your own optical wetware (with a little help from some decent software), and doesn't depend on the camera's mechanical contribution alone. If you're not convinced, well, I'm still having a lot of fun wandering about at the wetware / software / hardware interface we call "photography", looking for pictures.

1. Unless you accidentally turn it on, that is, at which point it's a case of "Is that a camera in your pocket, or are you just (very) glad to see me?"

2. The ongoing relationship between photo-legend Leica and electronics giant Panasonic is a curious one, but really only of interest to students of business economics and the psychology of "branding". From a photographic p-o-v, suffice it to say that a miniature 30x zoom is unlikely ever to appear on any actual Leica camera.

3. My (not very thought-through) theory of visual art is that it is humanity's attempt to reverse-engineer pareidolia, our brain's tendency to see faces and other meaningful images in random patterns.

4. For non-native speakers: "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" is a venerable English proverb, presumably dating from the times when a sow's ear might be something to be found just lying around looking useful, in an ugly kind of way, and which typifies the paradoxical self-evidence of folk-wisdom (a.k.a. "the idiocy of rural life"). See: "a watched pot never boils", "all things come to those who wait", etc. If you say so, Gran!