Saturday, 28 January 2023

RWA Photography Exhibitions

 The old nationalised British Rail used to have a slogan in its advertising: Let the train take the strain. I wanted to travel to Bristol yesterday, just for the day, as the Royal West of England was having an "exhibitors only" preview day before the official opening of the Photography Season exhibitions today, so I thought, Why not?, and decided to take the train rather than drive yet again up the M4 motorway.

The rail route up from Southampton is one I'm very familiar with, as back in my working days I used to attend regular meetings as a consultant at the HQ of a library tech company in Bristol, and it is a very beautiful journey, passing via Salisbury to Bath and Bristol through the Avon Valley, which can be spectacularly scenic, especially early in the morning. However, the railways are no longer nationalised, and seem to be descending ever deeper into incompetence and chaos. Only two carriages were provided for a busy route, and people were standing in the aisles most of the way. Combine that overcrowding with post-Covid paranoia about coughs and colds and I was only too glad to get off, a mere ten minutes late.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the judges for this very first RWA photography "open" exhibition was Jem Southam, one of our outstanding British landscape photographers and, in parallel with the Open, there is a large show of the work collected in his book Four Winters at the RWA. A long time ago, in 1995, I did a residential workshop at Duckspool with Jem, and we've stayed sporadically in touch since, so I was pleased to meet him being shepherded out of the building for lunch with the gallery staff as I was coming in. He was kind enough to break off from his entourage, have a catch-up chat with me and to show me where my picture was hung, leading to the selfie you see here. Jem is tall and I am short, and my picture has been hung low, so a certain amount of undignified crouching was involved.

These exhibitions are well worth a visit if you're in the area (they're on until 1st May). The Open has about 150 exhibitors, selected from nearly 2,000 submissions – you can see all the pictures here (I'm No. 45 on page 4...) – and is a good cross-section of contemporary photographic approaches. I'm afraid it did confirm me in my prejudice about over-large prints, though: nearly all of the exhibited works that appealed to me were small or modestly-sized. I think an inherent weakness of photography as a medium is exposed when "blown up" too far: the photographic image lacks what we might call the fractal granularity of other picture-making methods. A painting or an etching have visual interest even with your nose within touching distance of the surface. This is only the case with photographs made well within the resolving capacity of their grain or pixels, where closer inspection (even, in the case of large-format images, with a magnifying glass) will reveal more detail. But if you get even reasonably close to a very large photograph you (or, perhaps I should say, I) become all too aware of the unsatisfying softness of the rendering, and the collapse of the crucial illusion that you are seeing a window onto reality, with nothing substantial to take its place (like brush strokes, say, or textures). Why make work that requires you to stand on the other side of the room to appreciate? That said, I was impressed by a very large series of images by Roger Clarke, "9 plastic security trays from lanes 3, 4 and 5 at Bristol Airport" which, if you've flown anywhere recently, will need no explanation.

Jem Southam's two rooms really require more time than I was able to give them. He has taken the idea of working in series in a single location to an extreme, which means there are more dimensions, links, and resonances to consider than simply admiring the photographs, which are inevitably rather similar in their sombre dawn and dusk variations. It is clearly a major, mature work by a significant artist, but one that didn't immediately speak to me: I need to return a few times and give it the time it deserves. What did immediately appeal to me were the accompanying works of nature illustration by the likes of John Leigh-Pemberton and Charles Tunnicliffe, so familiar to Brits of my generation from the Shell Guides and Ladybird Books of our childhood years. I particularly enjoyed "August: Life in the Sky", painted by Pemberton for Shell: that impossible mix of species sharing the same evocative setting is so typical of the encyclopaedic super-abundance of 1950s and 60s nature illustration, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who can remember poring over such pictures with pure delight.

Of course, the self-styled Great Western Railway did its best to make an enjoyable day out a truly memorable one, but for all the wrong reasons. It was not entirely their fault, I concede. The train I boarded was scheduled to depart at 14:22, but did not move and remained stationary at the platform, due either to "intruders on the line", "emergency bridge repairs" – possibly both – or possibly some more embarrassing reason they weren't going to own up to. After various intercom messages that prompted mass evacuations ("Anybody wanting to go to Bath should leave the train NOW and go to platform 12!") we did eventually leave Bristol at 15:05, pretty much at half speed, with the train becoming more and more impossibly packed with passengers at each stop along the way, many annoyed at having to miss important rail connections further down the line. I eventually got back to Southampton at 17:30, more than an hour overdue. I suppose at least the "delay repay" scheme means I should get half of my fare back, eventually. But "let the train take the strain"? Hardly... I think even Tory-voting train users must be yearning for the old days of British Rail and more than ready to contemplate re-nationalisation by now.

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Old Digital Cameras

A number of people have picked up on a New York Times piece with the title "The Hottest Gen Z Gadget Is a 20-Year-Old Digital Camera", which remarks on the take up of "old" digital cameras by the young (I haven't read it myself, though, as it's behind a paywall). As it happens, before Christmas I sent on to my daughter (who is technically a "millennial", I think, not "Gen Z") a little Canon Ixus 70 we gave her waay back in 2007, and which I was clearing out of my cupboard of obsolete camera junk. I assured her she'd almost certainly get better photos out of her phone, but she was still keen to have it. It is a lovely thing, it's true, a classic bit of cool industrial design that puts nearly all subsequent "compact" cameras in the shade, if your chief goal is to create something elegant to keep in a handbag or the glove compartment of your Audi TT.

Despite advances in sensor size and resolution, older cameras can still have a certain something when it comes to picture quality. "Picture quality" is clearly a highly subjective business, despite the efforts of manufacturers and reviewers to reduce it to a series of quantifiable measures like resolution, "sharpness", lack of noise, etc. But the fact is that, whenever I gather together photos from my backfiles for a project, I am always surprised at the number that I have singled out as excellent photos which happen to have been made with "obsolete" cameras. This could mean several things, of course. Perhaps I was a better or more inquisitive photographer a decade or two ago; not impossible. Perhaps the limitations of those earlier digital cameras caused me to take more trouble over my photographs: by avoiding (or taking steps to ameliorate) situations like "too dark or "too bright", maybe I more consistently hit the mark. Or, most likely, maybe the software engineers had to pull out all the stops to get acceptable results from those early cameras with their smaller sensors and files, which gave the images character, an even more difficult quality to define and measure, but one you know when you see it.

For example, for many years I have used a 12 MP Fujifilm X20 as my "holiday" camera. In almost every way it is just right for the purpose. It is small (but not too small), robustly made out of metal, zooms from 28mm to 112mm (in 35mm terms) using a very satisfying twist mechanism around the lens that also turns the camera on, is "fast" (f/2 wide to f/2.8 tele), has a just-about-acceptable optical viewfinder, uses a proper lens cap rather than those fragile blade thingies that most compacts have, and – most important – takes decent photos under almost any conditions. These pictures have a film-like grain that is especially pleasing when converted to monochrome. As I say, they have character, rather than a sterile perfection.

Fuji X20, August 2016

Fuji X20, August 2016

Similarly, I find that photographs made with a 10MP Panasonic LX3 or even my venerable 5 MP Olympus 5050z still hold up very well. For years these were the cameras I used for my daily lunchtime perambulations around the Southampton University campus, after I had realised that these new-fangled digital cameras would give me results matching (or even sometimes exceeding) the medium-format film cameras I'd been lugging around, and best of all would slash my not inconsiderable weekly "dev & contact" costs to zero. Indeed, the most popular set of photos I have ever made in terms of exhibitions and sales (collected in my first real book, The Revenants) were made with that Olympus 5050z. I simply print them small, usually about 15cm square on a 21cm square sheet, and their imperfections vanish, overwhelmed by their pictorial interest.

Olympus C5050z, ca.2004-5

Olympus C5050z, ca. 2004-5

Olympus C5050z, ca. 2004-5

So if old cameras can only make small prints that's fine by me: I've never seen the appeal of a photograph printed any larger than about  A3 (12" x 16"), anyway, and even less so ones printed at the size of a garage door. I think photographs are best regarded as an intimate, hand-held medium, not as a gallery-scale billboard experience. In fact, if I'm honest, I think photographs are best seen reproduced as well as possible in a book. I can't imagine owning more than one or two of Pentti Sammallahti's sublime photographs (which are actually very small [1]), and certainly couldn't contemplate owning a few hundred, but paging through his superb "best of" book Here Far Away is one of my favourite ways of restoring my faith in photography.

Of course, whether this interest in older digital cameras is anything more than a passing hipsterish thing, like the baffling craze for using film, remains to be seen. But a fad, caught at its height, is definitely a good time to offload old kit. I was amazed, for example, when I was clearing out that photo-junk cupboard, to make £200 on a commission sale of my old Olympus Mju II (Stylus Epic in the USA), a film camera. Why anyone would think it was worth the £250 they must have paid for it beats me. It served me well back in the last century – most of our first decade of family snaps were taken with it, as it fits so easily into the pocket of a pair of jeans – but it uses 35mm film, FFS! I mean, old digital cameras, yes, but film compacts? Haven't you got a decent phone? Trust me, you'll get much better pictures, and save yourself a ton of money on processing. But there's no point in talking sense to someone in the grip of a must-have fad.

We're all subject to irrational impulses from time to time, of course: this is one reason why photo-junk cupboards exist in the first place. A few years ago I started to collect the different coloured variants of the tiny Olympus Mju-mini Digital ("Stylus Verve" in the USA) when they were plentiful and dirt-cheap on eBay. As much as anything I just loved the way they look: nothing quite so sleekly quirky has been made before or since. I'm not sure why not; as well being extremely cute, it's a very practical design for a truly pocketable camera. But I've never actually used any of the examples I now have – black, red, white, and silver – partly because they use the old XD Picture memory cards, which is a pain, but also because, like that Canon Ixus, the main attraction is the novelty of the design, not their capacity as picture-making machines.

Rummaging deeper into the cupboard, I find I'm often surprised by some of the stuff in there: when and why on earth did I ever think I needed a set of macro extension tubes and a ring flash? Whatever, I'm pretty sure I have no need for them now, and I should really sell them on. But then, you never know when some old impulse might return... I suppose they might yet come in handy? Safest to put them back in the cupboard, just for now.

Panasonic LX3, March 2010

Panasonic LX3, May 2010

Panasonic LX3, January 2023
(that's right: I took it out for a test-drive)

1. No, really: some of his best-known panoramic images are printed on a sheet just 15cm x 23.5 cm in size. If you've ever contemplated buying one from the Photographers' Gallery in London (I have, quite often, but have never followed through: much as I'd like to own one, I'm too mean to part with that much money) here's a "heads up": his prices will go up by 25% from February 1st.

Friday, 20 January 2023

Traffic Cones of Japan

While we're on the subject of self-published books, I thought I'd mention my most recent acquisition. Now, I'm not supposed to be buying any more photo-books at the moment, but when I saw the title of this one, I knew I had to check it out. Traffic Cones of Japan by Max Cameron does sound like a runner-up in the "Oddest Title of the Year" awards, but is exactly the sort of quirky, obsessive use of photography's superpower of documentary fidelity and an artist's ability to notice and connect [1] that combine so well with the book-form's own superpower of simultaneous serial and random-access presentation. Curiously, this sort of project seems to suit the culture and environment of the Far East : see Michael Wolf's ongoing series of thematic photographs of Hong Kong and Tokyo.

As soon as I saw a review (in PetaPixel, I think) I ordered a copy from Good Press (an interesting link, that, for any self-publishers out there). To my mind it's perfect: small, well-priced, unpretentious, obsessive, humorous, and the photographs are uniformly excellent. If you can find one (Good Press are already sold out), why not buy a copy and earn yourself some book-making karma-points by supporting a worthwhile project?

Traffic cones of Southampton
(Danger: traffic cones!)

1. Sorry, Max Cameron, I resist the use of the job-description "creative", ubiquitous as it has become...

Sunday, 15 January 2023

How Blurb Works: A Reminder

A well-stocked bookshop

This is essentially a revised repost of an item I published in 2016. I was quite harsh about Blurb's shipping costs in the posts about my latest book Dream Theatre (and rightly so), so why do I continue to use them? The fact is that the service they provide is nonetheless very good, and I've been a loyal customer for many years. It may be worth explaining again why this is the case.

Each time I launch a new Blurb book into the world, it strikes to me that most people – even the genial and well-informed folk that are the readers of this blog – seem not to understand what makes an on-demand self-publishing service different from other publishing services, or why it is such a brilliant idea. As I have an interest in keeping Blurb in business, I thought now might be a good time to say a few words about the on-demand model, and how you, too, could be a self-publisher.

The basic Blurb model is this:
  • You sign up for an account. This costs nothing. You get a personal "bookshop" where your publicly-available books will be displayed for sale, plus various administrative tools.
  • You download some free book-making software onto your computer. I much preferred the older BookSmart software to the newer BookWright software, which is by comparison quite weak on certain important book-making functionality [1]. However, BookWright is now the only sensible  option, as it is regularly maintained and updated. Alternatively, you can also use their online book-creation tool for really simple stuff, or at the other extreme you could design your own complete PDF file in something like Adobe InDesign and upload it.
  • You choose a size for your book, and either use a ready-made "look", or assemble your own from page-templates which enable you to choose combinations and placement of text and image, plus useful features like page numbering.
  • You complete however many pages you want. Images need to be 300 dpi JPEGs or PNGs. Text can be typed in directly, cut and pasted, or uploaded from a text file. The book will sit on your own computer to be tinkered with for as long as you like. You can learn a lot just playing around with sequencing and layout, without ever actually making a book.
  • When it's complete and free of errors (and you need to be sure about that, as any later revisions you decide to make will have to be uploaded as a new book) you upload the book to Blurb. This can take quite a while for an image-intensive book of 50 or more pages, depending on your broadband speed.
  • Once there, it's private to start with. To keep it there, you have to buy one copy, at basic production cost. Now, this is the point at which most people who have never tried self-publication before balk. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty pounds? For one copy?? But, friends, that is not a rip-off, that is a bargain. Even bearing in mind the often extortionate cost of shipping. Why? Listen:
Once it's uploaded you can invite people to buy it, as I recently did with Dream Theatre, and also open it for sale as an item listed in your personal Bookshop, available in the formats you choose (hardcover with dustjacket, image-wrapped hardcover, softcover, PDF), on the paper quality you want, and at the prices you decide. There are various tailored publicity tools available, free of charge, for insertion into social media, your blog or webpage, wherever.

But here's the important thing: you yourself need never buy another copy. Repeat: you need never buy another copy.

Every copy that a customer buys is made on demand, and the whole transaction is handled by Blurb. It costs you nothing, requires no attention, and definitely does not involve trips to the Post Office. If you have added some profit for yourself onto the basic production cost, Blurb will pass this on to you, provided it exceeds a certain accumulated monthly total, currently £12.50. If it doesn't, it's rolled over into the next month.

Sure, Blurb are making money, and you almost certainly are not. But your book is out there and easily available, and you have not paid a ton of money up front to a printer for copies of a book you will never be able to distribute or sell, and which will sit unsold in boxes under your bed and in your closet and in your loft and in your shed forever like a bad dream. Have you ever seen a "small" run of 1000 copies of a hardback book? I have (thankfully not one of mine), and you should be very afraid... [2] Worse, if you hope to go down the classic self-publication route more than once, the only certainty is that you're going to need a bigger house. Plus a willingness to write off hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, all for the sake of a vanity project.

So the really big plus of on-demand publishers like Blurb, I think, is that the relatively low cost of entry (and the zero cost of failing to sell many or even any copies) means that producing new books regularly is not just feasible, it's addictive. And, if you're serious about your writing, or your photography, or your recipes, or whatever it is you do, there is no better creative discipline than imagining, editing, and sequencing a book. Plus you will have a permanent, compact, and convenient record of your work, which is far more likely to survive the coming decades than boxes of prints or ephemeral image files. Best of all, it's the sort of fun, self-motivating challenge that can shift your life and your work into a higher gear.

But you should never assume you might sell more than, say, 20 copies. Dream on! I'm happy if I manage to recover just half of the cost of the copies I buy for myself or to give away. Sadly, although the stats will tell you how many copies of a book have been sold in the last 45 days (none, usually), Blurb does not disclose the name, email, or location of anyone who does buy a copy of your book, so gratitude from you as its author to your tiny group of fans has to be taken for granted. But then, Lee Child doesn't send a thank-you note to everyone who buys his books, so why should you?

Tools for shameless self-promotion...

1. Things like being able to choose the position of page numbers, or add a running header to pages, etc., all of which have become more tricky in the new software, which seems much less oriented to fundamental book-making concepts, bizarrely.
2. Back in 2003 I did have 300 copies of a 24-page A5 landscape pamphlet printed to accompany an exhibition, The Colour of the Water, that ran at a popular local beauty spot from March 2003 to November 2004. It was the first publication of my imprint Shepherd's Crown, and 300 seemed a modest enough quantity. Luckily for me the National Trust had funded the printing, as it sold poorly, even reduced from £3.50 to £1 each, even during an exhibition that ran for twenty months!  I still have a box of the bloody things... Want one? Email me. Or why not take a look at the much more elaborate Blurb book Downward Skies?

Wednesday, 11 January 2023

Dream Theatre, Act 2

 I decided to make the cheaper version of Dream Theatre using the "magazine" format, as I've done in the past for other publications, such as Let's Get Lost, or Stand. You should be able to check it out using this link:

The price is right, but the only problem, as always with Blurb, is that the shipping cost is disproportionate. At least, it is if you import an item made in the USA or even in Europe into the UK. Your shipping may be significantly cheaper, of course, if you do actually live in the US or Europe (which, come to think of it, most of my regular readers do). I decided to take this up with Blurb, so "reached out", as they like to say. I wrote:

Blurb shipping charges can be far too high. I recently uploaded a magazine, and wanted to order a single proof copy. Base cost of magazine: just over £8. Shipping cost: over £18...  This is insane. 
I realise this is probably because magazines are still made in the USA. But others (e.g. Zno) can ship US to UK for a reasonable price, and I'm sure you could, too, if you looked into it.

They replied:

Our shipping and handling fees include the actual cost of shipping a parcel from our print facility to your doorstep as well as the materials and manpower needed to package your book. This means the price you see for shipping and handling isn't just for the postage alone but includes other costs associated with shipping the order to you.
We do conduct regular research to ensure that the shipping and handling fees we charge are competitive while offering reliable methods and multiple shipping options for every budget.
That said, we appreciate the feedback and I will pass it on to our operations team so they can consider it in their next shipping-cost review.
If you have any additional questions, please don't hesitate to reach out to me.

To which I replied:

"Our shipping and handling fees include the actual cost of shipping a parcel from our print facility to your doorstep as well as the materials and manpower needed to package your book."

And other people's don't? I'd be surprised...

So, *are* magazines made in the USA? Is it really too much trouble to have them produced in Europe? I've been a Blurb customer for many years now, and I know from feedback that the shipping cost is why so many potential sales fall through.

To which they replied:

At the moment, our magazines are produced in print shops in the USA and Europe. We always try to use a print shop closest to the final destination. I looked into this and your order will be printed in our European print shop. 

Hmm. Let me see... From the UK, Royal Mail charge £3.25 to send a large letter weighing less than 750g by Standard International mail to the Netherlands. VistaPrint (also based Somewhere in Europe) charge £3.75 for Economy Shipping, and Zno charge $9 to ship from the USA. In other words, someone at Blurb thinks it costs something like an additional £15 ($18 or €17) for someone to pick up one printed 40-page magazine, put it in a cardboard mailer, print out and attach an address label, and put it in the post to the United Kingdom. Blimey! I suspect they need to stop employing lawyers on legal hourly rates in the post-room, and should also check they're not being ripped off by their stationery suppliers. Or maybe they should simply stop trying to gouge customers by massively overcharging for shipping?

Anyway, I have to say that I actually prefer this slightly revised version, and (provided the shipping isn't prohibitive) I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to buy a hard copy. A downloadable PDF version is also available at the bargain price of £5.99 (and no shipping charge!).

Friday, 6 January 2023

Dream Theatre

Charmouth Beach, 28th December 2022

We had a rather quiet break over Christmas and New Year. As has been our custom in recent years, we hired a place down in Dorset for a family get-together, but all of us either arrived with or shortly went down with a horrible flu-ey cold and cough that has persisted for weeks but is, surprisingly, not the result of the obvious candidate virus: it's been a case of "I can't believe it's not Covid". On top of that the weather was mainly awful – gloomy skies, strong winds, and driving rain – so, unless you want to hear about how I forgot to remove certain components of our Christmas dinner from the side oven of an unfamiliar stove, or how gratifyingly well-stocked the Nisa convenience store in Charmouth is, there's not a lot of general interest to report back on.

I didn't even get many decent photographs. By contrast, last year I had a couple of excellent walks that yielded some unusually spectacular landscape images. I used one of them, "Pickaxe Cross, 23rd December 2021", as this year's Christmas / New Year card. In fact, that same photo has now been selected for the Royal West of England Academy's new open photography exhibition. Which is great, except for the fact that it was what I regarded as the "safest" choice of the three I submitted; the other two were more typical of my work and, in my opinion, more interesting uses of photography as a medium. Among the judges were Jem Southam and Susan Derges, both photographers I have admired for many years, and I can't pretend I wasn't disappointed that they went for this striking but conventional landscape photograph.

Pickaxe Cross, 23rd December 2021

I've been amusing myself over the past month or two by fiddling about with a new book of digital collages, which I think I have now pretty much completed – or at any rate it has now reached the point of diminishing returns – and so I have put it up on my Blurb page. For now it's semi-private, visible by "invitation only" via the following link:

Some of these pictures will be familiar from previous incarnations that I've shown in these blog posts, but I think it works as a sequenced whole, a sort of fitful meditation on the subject of dreams, dreaming, and dreamers. I'm not expecting anyone to buy it in this 30cm square hardback version, and will be making a much cheaper version in the 18cm square paperback size, once I'm sure I've got it right. Feel free to comment, and even to buy a copy of the super-cheap PDF version, if you want to have a proper look at the pictures [1].

Charmouth, Christmas Day 2022

Lyme Regis, Boxing Day 2022

1. If you do, for the best viewing experience you need to set your PDF reader (typically Adobe Acrobat) so that you can see a two-page view with a separate cover page. This ensures the correct pages face each other. In Acrobat the settings are: 
Under the menu "View" choose "Page Display", then choose both of "Two Page View" and "Show Cover Page in Two Page View". You may also want to select "Show Gaps Between Pages".

Wednesday, 14 December 2022

A Day Like Any Other Day, Again

I have things to do, places to go, and people to see over the next few weeks (Look out and look lively: just in case you hadn't heard, Christmas is coming!). I imagine you, too, have better and more urgent things to be doing at this time of year. So I'm going to pack up the blog slightly earlier than usual this year to relieve some of the pressure to write stuff – an entirely self-imposed task anyway – and I'll take this opportunity to wish you all the best for the coming year. It's only weeks away, after all... I should be back early in January.

As I have started a certain amount of recycling of old posts, I thought it would be appropriate to revive this seasonal one from December 2012, lightly revised, and brought up to date.

A Day Like Any Other Day

I have confessed several times in this blog that my understanding of history is poor, and arranged around various tropes from popular culture. For me, there are the Pirate Days, the Age of Wigs, Top Hat Times, and so on. In recent times (that is, the Internet Era) I have been attempting to address this failing, mainly through the medium of historical novels, films, and TV series. If I now have any greater understanding of the Napoleonic Wars, it is by following the adventures of Richard Sharpe and Jack Aubrey. I am aware that this is rather like trying to grasp the politics of the Cold War Era by reading John Le Carré and Len Deighton, but I simply can't handle too many books without pictures and conversations any more, and it's not as if I'm going to be sitting any exams.

One thing this approach has revealed is that popular culture has its historical blind spots (not unlike the school history curriculum). The 17th century, for example, is quite poorly represented, even that period of turmoil known variously as the Civil War, the War of Three Nations, or the English Revolution. This is very odd, given that the conflicts of this era and their outcomes are the crucible of our modern British world. I'm not sure whether Germans have a similar amnesia about the Thirty Years War, but I suspect they might.

It's largely to do with religion, of course. Most modern Brits have reverted to a sort of secular paganism, which is our default spiritual setting, one which regards cruelty to animals as the Sin Against the Holy Ghost, and Live And Let Live (except for paedophiles, dog abusers, and queue jumpers) as the whole of the law. I doubt many today could point out the dogmatic differences between a Protestant and a Catholic, let alone the internecine issues that separated the official Church of England from the various emerging "low church" protestant sects in previous centuries. These once heartfelt things are complex, "unrelatable", and difficult to dramatize.
"So, Ensign Brown, we are agreed that rule of the church by bishops is an outrage?"
"No, colonel, I hold that all priests are usurpers of God's word!"
"Why, sir, I go further, and hold that God's presence in my soul means I am saved and therefore free to do whatsoever I do like. And I do quite like your wife!"
[A scuffle breaks out]
Complexity is pop-culture poison, and the whole thing is as mystifying now as, in Jorge Luis Borges' words about the Falklands War, two bald men fighting over a comb.

The broader issues of liberty, democracy, and freedom from tyranny are easier to grasp. When I was a student, in the heyday of the New Left, there was a vogue for seeing the radical wing of the Parliamentarian cause – the so-called Levellers, Diggers, and Ranters – as an alternative, dissenting strand in British history, suppressed and sublimated, but eternally bubbling under. There is clearly a great deal of truth in this, but it is equally clearly a demonstration of the idea that we make history in our own image. In 17th-century reality, the demands for liberty, democracy, freedom of worship, and religious reform were as inextricably linked as a box of tangled Christmas-tree lights.

A puritan Christmas flag

Which brings me conveniently to Christmas. Oliver Cromwell is remembered as The Man Who Banned Christmas. Gasp! In the Disneyfied world of 2022, what greater crime against consuming humanity could be imagined? Unless it were to be the closing down of the TV and streaming channels – nooo! – which, if you consider the theatres were the contemporary equivalent in Cromwell's day, is exactly what they did do. Strictly Come Dancing is henceforth banned. Graham Norton is to undergo re-education. The revolution will not be televised.

That said, a whole fourteen years ago there was a TV miniseries set in the Civil War, The Devil's Whore, the first part of which showed Croyland Abbey under siege by the troops of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough – the highest ranking Leveller in Cromwell's New Model Army – on Christmas Day. In a brave attempt to dramatise some of the ideological conflicts within the roundhead ranks, Rainsborough is shown turning on a subordinate who has suggested that bombarding the Royalists sheltering in the Abbey on Christmas Day is, well, perhaps, just a little OTT?  Rainsborough snarls, "It is a day like any other day!"

At which point, either your inner Roundhead or your inner Cavalier is roused. Christmas: blessed occasion for revels and extravagance, or wasteful descent into mindless hedonism?

Perhaps, like that subordinate, you are conflicted, but will take a firmer grasp on your 16-foot pike or matchlock musket, remembering Rainsborough's rousing words at the Putney Debates:
I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under.
Turning the home of some aristo into rubble on Christmas Day would certainly have seemed a small price to pay for that, wouldn't you say? It was surely a high point in our history, but one that doesn't get celebrated much or mythologised in popular culture. Instead, like the left of the Labour Party today (never mind those even "lefter" than that), it is regarded more as an embarrassing smell emanating from history's bad plumbing, best ignored in polite company, or covered up with the latest political air-freshener (New! Plug-in Starmeriser!).

A certain number of Brits on either side didn't like what happened next, and what they foresaw would happen after that: the betrayals, the compromises, the broken promises, the restoration of the monarchy, enclosure of common land, industrialisation, rule by top-hat wearers, Christmas as a retail opportunity, and endless repeats of The Snowman on the TV... So shiploads of them decided to head over to the New World, and become Americans.

Sorry about that, you Wampanoags, Pequots and all tribes west. They meant well. Puritans always do, but it somehow never quite works out, and always seems to end in tyranny and massacres. And as for the discomfited Royalists who headed for the plantations of Virginia, southern slavery may fairly be regarded as their rotten legacy. As Pascal famously wrote in the Pensées, "J’ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre" (I have discovered that all of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room). An admirably Quaker-ish sentiment for a Jansenist, but the sad truth is that it's life's restless fidgets who make the history the rest of us have to deal with.

So, all best wishes for a tolerable Christmas, if Christmas is your thing, and a happy and fulfilling New Year!

Friday, 9 December 2022

A Day Out

 I had a brilliant, if tiring day out in London on Wednesday. Our son had booked a family outing to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican. Despite having enjoyed Miyazaki's animated film when we saw it some years ago I have to confess I was reluctant to go: it was hard to imagine how that curious edgeland between sentimentality and horror that Studio Ghibli productions tend to occupy would translate to the stage, and I was not anticipating with any great pleasure two and three quarter hours of toe-curlingly cutesy musical pantomime, not least with Shakespearean actors pretending to be Japanese. But, you know, sometimes you just have to push yourself out of your own comfort zone...

My partner had work business to attend to during that afternoon, so we travelled up to London together, and I went on to the Royal Academy to see the William Kentridge exhibition in its last days before it closes next week. I confess I had never even heard of Kentridge before the show opened in September, but it has had rave reviews, so it seemed a good way to spend a few hours before heading to the Barbican. Of course, rave reviews do not guarantee a worthwhile exhibition, as my experience at the National Gallery with Winslow Homer demonstrated so vividly, so I was pre-skeptical, so to speak.

As it turned out, the reviewers were right: I was amazed, enthralled, and enthused; in short, gobsmacked. What a show, what a consummate artist, and what a shame you won't get to see it, if you haven't already been. I won't try to describe the experience, other than to say it is humbling to see what truly engaged creativity looks like; most of us aren't even trying by comparison. You can get a taste of Kentridge's work by viewing this online video, William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible, produced by Art21 [1]. The video runs for 53 minutes, but you'll probably either abandon it after one minute, or watch the whole thing. I like to think that you, too, will be amazed, enthralled, and enthused.

As for Totoro, it is also a really top-class piece of work, which you also won't get to see, unfortunately, unless it is to tour somewhere near you, as it is completely sold out until the end of its run. Which is not surprising, as it is a delightful feat of stagecraft. The sets, puppetry, and coups de théâtre are amazing, and establish a wonderful sense of suspended disbelief, even in a crusty old cynic like me. And, thankfully, the actors are East Asian; mainly Japanese, too, it seems. That said, Totoro could not fairly be described as Shakespearean in its scope; the storyline is pretty linear, and Miyazaki's characteristic turn to Japanese animism is enchanting, but not really a match for, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream [2]. We did have to leave after the intermission to get a train back to Southampton, but I think it's safe to say we had seen the very best of the show by then. We know how the story ends, after all (although I admit I had to be reminded).

When we arrived at Southampton station, I was astonished to find that our car was already covered in thick frost: a final little theatrical surprise. The weather has taken a cold turn, but I hadn't thought it was that cold yet. It took quite a while to clear off, evoking memories of early winter mornings with fingers and wrists aching with cold and the effort of scraping ice before heading off to work. It's a fine thing, being a pensioner at leisure; although not so much if, like so many this year, you can't afford to heat your house. We eventually got home around 11:30.

Such days are what it is all about, I think. Whatever "it" is. I'm glad they don't come along too often, however: that would be exhausting, and – like a superb coup de théâtre – are best when completely unexpected.

1. A site that looks to be packed with other good stuff. Do you admire Richard Misrach, for example? Then try this.
2. Curiously the light-hearted and life-affirming Totoro was released as a double bill with Grave of the Fireflies, which is an utterly grim tale of the last days of Japan in WW2. It's so harrowing, I don't think we ever managed to watch that one all the way through...

Saturday, 3 December 2022

Oh Well

Tom Phillips at 50, on page 50

I was saddened to learn that the artist Tom Phillips died this week. He was 85. I suppose I'm now at the age when our heroes and mentors – who are generally a decade or two older than us, rather than our actual contemporaries – will start dying off with appalling regularity, and all too often with the words "after a short / long illness" attached, rather than "tragically young". I won't rehearse Tom's life and achievements: there are obituaries here and here. What matters, of course, and what you want to read about is what role he played in my life!

I'm joking, of course, but there is a serious side to that, too. The purpose of a successful artist of any sort, especially in these media-dominated times, is twofold. First, obviously, they make the work that you absorb and make use of in your own life: the pictures you choose to hang on your walls, the books you have read and keep on your shelves, the music you return to in your particular moods. But, second, they also (whether they like it or not) become public figures whose lives and deeds also belong to us, at least in some caricatured version that suits our purposes, not theirs. Artists may despise biographies, and seek to circumvent them by covering their tracks, but we demand that their lives be served up in a few hundred pages – not necessarily whole, just the juicier bits will do – and what we want someone will find a way to provide.

The cleverer artists and entertainers create a public persona – a sellable brand – that they can comfortably hide behind and live within, dangerous as that is. Think of Keith Richards, for example, as an extreme case, or even David Hockney. Who knows what either of them is "really" like in private company? Nonetheless, it seems that the ultimate price you pay for full-on fame, for want of a better word, can be to lose all control over and ownership of your own life, permanently distorted by the myth like the famous mask that cannot be removed, either because it has become permanently stuck, or in order to conceal the disfigured reality beneath. At the very least you won't be able to walk down the street without someone bothering you for a selfie, complete strangers behaving as if they owned you (which, having sold yourself in the public marketplace, they sort of do, like shareholders); which is not to mention the crazies and stalkers who can turn the life of even quite minor celebrities upside down. I suppose, in a way, we are all potential stalkers of the artists and performers we have invested in, especially now so many have made themselves vulnerable to hostile takeover by playing the social media market.

Tom Phillips was not that sort of famous, obviously: I doubt he had any problems shopping in Tesco, even in the streets of Peckham where he and other locally-based artists like Antony Gormley had designed benches, bollards and streetlamps (can there really be a street called Bellenden Road? Very Tom Phillips...). He seemed like a kind man, and I imagine he'd probably have been happy occasionally to be recognised and asked to pose with any passing admirers. I will now always regret not following up my invitation to the 2017 "varnishing day" at the Royal Academy, where I could have introduced myself (we had exchanged emails and blog comments for a while) and, yes, bothered him for a selfie: I was (am) a fan. In a modest way I have also been a collector of his work. I had a completist phase with regard to his books, not least the amazing Humument in its various editions, but I also picked up a few prints whenever they appeared on eBay – I was often the only bidder – and even scored a couple gratis from the man himself, one a prize for inadvertently first-footing his new blog back in January 2007.

Oh, and I see Christine McVie has also died this week, aged 79? That's sad, too, but I have no real personal investment in her story. I was a fan of the original Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green – the series of hits they had from 1968 to 1970 were a large part of the soundtrack of my teenage years, and I recall buying "Green Manalishi" for my then girlfriend's birthday (an odd choice now I come to think of it) – but I am perhaps the only person remaining in the world not to have bought, or even listened to the album "Rumours". The funny thing is, I only realised after reading her obituary that she is/was Christine Perfect of Chicken Shack. Duh! "I'd Rather Go Blind" was another one of those teenage soundtrack songs. I always wondered what happened to her. Oh, Well.

A Humument, page 27

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Solvitur Ambulando

At my secondary school, as in all state schools before compulsory team sports went the way of elasticated plimsolls and girls in baggy gym knickers, one afternoon every week was dedicated to "games". This was never a problem for me: I was quite sporty for a "swot" (definition: one with an unnatural leaning towards academic study), and was usually chosen for the first or second teams in rugby, cricket, and hockey, despite having little interest in and only the vaguest understanding of the rules and strategies of any team sport. For others, though, I realise "games" were a weekly torment and a humiliation, particularly for the cack-handed, ill-coordinated, and bespectacled, with no interest whatsoever in chasing a ball or knocking each other over.

If we chose to stay on for the sixth form, however, another option became available, at least for a few: to join the Perambulators. This had nothing to do with pushing a pram [1].  I can't now remember how the Perambulators were chosen – it was something of a privilege, as I recall, with numbers restricted to about a dozen boys, drawn from both upper and lower sixths – but the arrangement was essentially that the group would be driven out to some rural spot, where we would go for a circular ramble, accompanied by one or more of our teachers. On the walk smoking was permitted (in fact encouraged, as in, led by example), and on the way back we would sometimes stop off for a drink in a pub. It was fun, although the smoking and drinking part was not widely advertised as a feature, obviously.

Strange as it may sound, I had never been "walking" before. Most families in places like Stevenage didn't (and probably still don't) "go for a walk". On holiday we sat on the beach, splashed about in the sea, or went for a ride of some sort. At weekends, we might occasionally go for a picnic, but that mainly involved driving, sitting, and eating. Recreational walking, involving special footwear, the use of maps, and getting cold and wet was something you might do in the Scouts, but was not a recognised family leisure activity. Besides, our parents and grandparents had done quite enough of that in the army to last a lifetime, thank you very much. So Perambulation was actually quite a good preparation for a certain sort of middle-class life. It meant I didn't laugh hysterically when a bracing walk was proposed on Boxing Day afternoon, for example, or wonder out loud why anyone would want to book a remote cottage in Wales, 25 miles from the nearest beach, for a summer holiday? Thanks to Perambulation, I passed these simple entry requirements when I encountered my future partner's robustly outdoorsy family; why, thanks to geography field trips, which were Perambulation writ large, I could even use an OS map in a high wind and driving rain.

 But walking also has a mental – I'm tempted to say "spiritual" – dimension that is hard to describe, but easily experienced. There's something about the physiological effects of keeping a rhythmic, steady pace over medium to long distances in the open air which can stimulate thought and a sense of well-being, and even a curiously meditative state of heightened awareness (unless you are wearing boots that are too loose, too tight, or insufficiently waterproof). As an extreme example I think of a strange little book written in 1978 by film-maker Werner Herzog, Vom Gehen Im Eis (translated as Of Walking in Ice, and still available). In a move typical of Herzog, when he heard that a friend and mentor was gravely ill – the 78-year old film historian Lotte Eisner – he decided to walk – yes, walk – from Munich to Paris, "believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot". Rightly, as it turned out [2]. In Herzog's account it took from 23rd November to 14th December 1974, which is good going for a non-stop journey on foot of 450 miles. The book recounts the journey in the form of a diary, as a sort of expiatory pilgrimage, or a real-life Winterreise. The whole adventure, as you might expect, is tinged with Herzog's characteristic super-intensity, constantly in danger of tipping over into madness. Whenever I dip into it, I am reminded of the poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" by Robert Browning, in which perfectly innocent stimuli like farm animals and implements become transformed into threatening objects of ill-omen, incorporated into the narrative of an increasingly hallucinatory personal quest [3]. But the belief that there is something special – sacramental, even – in the act of simply walking is widely held. As the saying goes: solvitur ambulando (roughly, "perambulation will get it sorted").

Anyway, most of my photography happens on walks, although nothing too strenuous these days, and in recent times I've taken to using my phone almost exclusively, and not just on the more routine, local walks. I have, on a few occasions, had reason to regret this, but not often enough to warrant always lugging something more substantial around, on a "just in case" basis. In case you haven't yet got the memo, phone photography is now way better than it has any right to be. I'm using an iPhone 12 mini and, by using the Halide app to get PNG "raw" files, I find that it can deliver results just as good as the fixed-lens Fuji X70 compact I was previously using as my "pocket" camera. Seriously: it's very impressive.

I've been selecting and arranging the pictures taken on these excursions into mini-sequences of three and four images, which I have inevitably named "iPhone Perambulations". The (so far) inviolable rule I have applied to these sequences is that all of the pictures must have been taken on the same walk, and must be shown in a chronological sequence, labelled to show how close or far apart in time they were taken. Photo-sequences benefit from such rules, I think, if only to avoid (or at least put a brake on) the temptation to resort to formulas or to the sort of semi-fakery that quietly adds the perfect complementary image taken on one walk into the sequence from another. Obviously, only I can know or even care about this, but it's a useful and creative discipline to follow.

Rather than print the photographs individually, I have been printing them all together on a single cut-down A2 sheet, with captions to indicate their time and location, mostly either full width (59.4cm) or trimmed to 50cm. The idea is that they should become a single, frameable, self-contained artwork. The ones I'm showing here are just a small sample: as you can imagine, as a committed daily perambulator I have already put together quite a number of these, retrospectively, although it's inevitable that not every walk yields a suitable sequential design. A majority have, though, almost as if – without getting too Herzogian about it – an unconscious thematic link had been driving my choices of photographic subject and approach all along. Which is not impossible: most walks do have their own mood and motivations, after all. Doubtless, now I'm aware of this, it may become a more conscious process, until it does eventually become too formulaic, and I get bored with it, at which point this new "perambulations" project will have finally run its course. In the mean time, though, this is proving to be productive, and, which is more important, good fun.

1. A wheeled baby-carriage is known as a "pram" in Britain, shortened from "perambulator", i.e. what in the US would be called a "stroller", apparently.
2. In an interview at Stanford University's Another Look Book Club (here, about 20 minutes in), Herzog claimed that 8 years later she complained to him of her infirmities and said: "I am saturated with life (in German: Lebenssatt). There is still this spell upon me that I must not die – can you lift it?" He says that he did, and that she died 8 days later. Hmm. It must be great, to live so comfortably within your own mythology like that.
3. Extreme exertion can induce altered states. A good friend did the 95 mile endurance run from Milngavie north of Glasgow to Fort William in the Highlands, the so-called West Highland Way ultra-marathon, in his 50s, twice (I know... Talk about "super-intensity, constantly in danger of tipping over into madness"...). The first time very bad weather intervened, underlining the "ultra" part, and he found himself hallucinating an accompanying ship escort halfway along the course.

Saturday, 26 November 2022

A Cage Went in Search of a Bird

When I was young I remember arguing with George Steiner about an essay in which he said old men don’t read fiction. Well, I’m an old man and I don’t read much fiction; whatever fiction gives you, I don’t seem to need it any more.
novelist John Banville, interviewed in Guardian, 12/11/2022

Well, I'm almost an old man (I reckon "old" starts at 70) and I have to say I agree with old man Banville, 76, and very old man Steiner, who died in 2020, aged 90. I no longer feel any great desire to keep up with contemporary "serious" fiction, as if that were even possible. Even ignoring the "90% of anything" that is rubbish, there are hundreds of allegedly good-to-brilliant novels published every year in the English language, of which, on current showing, I might at most read a dozen – I may even be exaggerating there, thinking of the past few years – and of those a quarter or more will turn out to have been a bit of a waste of time. Been there, read that. As the old man says, whatever it is that fiction gives you, it seems I don't need it any more.

I certainly used to need it. My parents were intelligent working-class people but, denied the benefits of post-war state education, were about as far from bookish as it's possible to be without manifesting active philistinism. My father would probably have liked to have read more, but my mother resented being in the same room as a reader – I think she felt she was being ignored – and would quickly make her displeasure known. It was far easier for them both to settle down to watch the TV all evening, and most nights I would retreat to my bedroom to read, under cover of "homework".

But I had become a reader well before the advent of the grammar-school burden of three sets of homework every night. I suppose in many perfectly normal, un-bookish families there's some outlier like me, who – as the un-bookish like to say – always has his nose in a book. It wasn't always so, but when I started winning the annual prize for English at my primary school, these prizes would inevitably take the form of a book, and at my school in the 1960s they were usually entertaining accounts of his adventures by the naturalist brother of novelist Lawrence Durrell, Gerald: My Family and Other Animals, The Bafut Beagles, and so on. I loved them, and, I suppose around the age of 9, discovered that I simply loved reading. Pretty much every night my parents would find me fast asleep in bed with my bedtime reading spread across my face: literally with my nose in a book. It became a family joke.

However, a few years after Gerald Durrell had switched on the reading lamp, so to speak, my reading matter changed, along with my hormones. I think it's difficult for those brought up in homes where reading "proper" literature is a normal and well-established habit to realise how hard it is to know what to read. So, as an adolescent, financed by my book tokens and pocket money, I would scan the shelves of W.H. Smith looking for promising-looking paperback covers, or for the sort of books that were being passed around or whispered about at our all-boys school, which were never "literary", and often American. In this way I read Catch-22 multiple times, The Dice Man, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Slaughterhouse-Five, the schlock-horror oeuvre of Dennis Wheatley, the brutal war tales of Sven Hassel and Jerzy Kosinski, and so on. I can honestly say that – quite unlike most of my contemporary students of English when I arrived at university – I had never read a single classic "literary" novel other than those we were required to read for exam purposes. Which, as I recall, were Dandelion Days for English O-level, of all things, a volume in Henry Williamson's "Flax of Dream" tetralogy and about which I can remember absolutely nothing, Little Dorrit for English A-level, plus Middlemarch and most of Virginia Woolf for Oxford entrance.

So I had the need to read, but the resort to the official canon of "great novels" as a source of wisdom, inspiration, and pleasure had never quite been installed in me; it was rather too much like extra homework, I suppose. But my appetite for semi-junk novel-reading continued into the years when others were taking their deep dive into the canon. Instead, I was reading my way through the rival classics of the counterculture, from Kerouac and Burroughs to Richard Brautigan and Tom Wolfe, not to mention entertainingly wacky stuff like Erich von Däniken and Carlos Castaneda. Literary novels were not and have never been my thing: in the subsequent 60 years I have yet to read another Dickens, have never read a single Jane Austen, or indeed most of the prose classics that form the bedrock of the Western literary mind. This is not a boast, or a confession, just a fact. I suppose I might get around to them, some day, but, to repeat: whatever it is that fiction gives you, it seems I don't need it any more.

For sources of wisdom and inspiration, as opposed to entertainment, I tend to look elsewhere. Primed, perhaps, by the sort of attention demanded by the lyrics of songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell, poetry has always "spoken" to me, and I have always appreciated the short, the weird, and the challenging (don't look at me like that, I'm 5' 6"). I'll take a double shot of poetic spirits over a litre of prose beer any day. So it was a stroke of great good fortune to find myself studying A-level German in a year when a book of Franz Kafka's short stories was one of the set texts, rather than some turgid novel. Somehow, it seemed like fate, as if my path had been heading that way all along. It turned out that a familiarity with Erich von Däniken and William Burroughs might even have been a better preparation for this than a devotion to, say, George Eliot or Jane Austen: "Kafka" was clearly where the more seriously far-out counterculture hung out with canon culture. Like, say, Rothko or Zappa, to Anglo ears the very name Kafka had more than a hint of the exotic; so much so you couldn't help but wonder whether – like Houdini, or Groucho, Chico, and Harpo – it had actually been made up as a literary stage-name.

Now, most literate people will have heard of Kafka, and many think – without ever having read a single word – that they know what his writing is all about; "Kafkaesque", after all, has entered the language and the dictionaries. Frustrating encounter with a bureaucracy? Kafkaesque! Nightmarishly bizarre and illogical experience? Kafkaesque! See: Orwellian! See also: Bad trip! None of which is altogether wrong, but is like reducing Shakespeare to men in tights and the confusing proliferation of titles of nobility: "Get thee to Gloucester, Essex. Do thee to Wessex, Exeter, etc." [1]; it's both superficial and an evasion of the actual experience on offer.

Kafka is much more complicated than that. This is not the place to write a semi-scholarly essay on why and how Kafka is complicated (I'm not sure I could do that any more, anyway); suffice it to say that he is a multifaceted author, an insurance company clerk who combines the qualities of a comedian, a storyteller, a secular mystic, an adept of the via negativa, a neurotic self-doubting nerd, a genius truth-teller, a womaniser but a bottler and bolter when it came to commitment, all wrapped up in a German-speaking Jew from Prague who was only too aware of living under an impending death-sentence, finally carried out by TB at the age of 40 in 1924.

Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean (sorry, Elton)... I've increasingly found myself revisiting old literary haunts, rather than looking for new ones. In particular, recently I've been rediscovering Kafka's 109 numbered bits of gnomic reflection, collected as the Zürau AphorismsZürau – now Siřem in the Czech Republic – being where Kafka went to stay on a farm with his sister after his TB diagnosis in 1917. I actually have these so-called "aphorisms" on my shelves in four versions: a volume of a Secker & Warburg "definitive edition" collected works in translation by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, bought when it was discarded by my home-town public library; the original German in the Bibliothek Suhrkamp series as edited by Roberto Calasso; a tiny little Penguin "Syrens" series version, translated by Malcolm Pasley; and a very nice small hardback from Schocken, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir and Michael Hoffmann.

Some of these are quite well-known:

16. A cage went in search of a bird.
18. If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing up it, that would have been permitted.
84. We were created to live in Paradise, and Paradise was designed to serve us. Our purpose has been changed; we are not told whether the same has also happened to the purpose of Paradise.

If you know a little German, it can be instructive (and at times baffling) to compare the translations. But, in order not to prolong a post which is probably of limited interest to you, anyway, I simply want to draw your attention to no. 32:

Die Krähen behaupten, eine einzige Krähe könnte den Himmel zerstören. Das ist zweifellos, beweist aber nichts gegen den Himmel, denn Himmel bedeuten eben: Unmöglichkeit von Krähen.
(The crows like to insist a single crow could destroy heaven. This is incontestably true, but it says nothing about heaven, because heaven is just another way of saying: the impossibility of crows).

That head-spinning, Escher-esque paradox is typical of the Zürau Aphorisms. So many of them resemble a sort of Jewish koan, a Möbius strip of twisted logic in which the absence of divinity or ultimate human purpose are also proof of  their existence, and vice versa. And what are the chances Ted Hughes had read no. 32 before writing Crow? Or, come to that, what are the chances it has been perched patiently in the back of my own mind for half a century? Unlike the contents of Dandelion Days, Little Dorrit, or even Catch-22.

Oh, and look, this week sees what is possibly the most Kafkaesque SMBC yet: Give Me a Sign...

The Metamorphosis...
"Ein ungeheures Ungeziefer" (a monstrous verminous bug")
(I reckon one of these little bastards is what FK really had in mind)

1.  Beyond the Fringe, "So That's the Way You Like It".

2. One of the more difficult ones to translate, as "Himmel" wobbles between singular and plural (i.e. Heaven and the heavens), and "beweist gegen" ("prove against") feels wrong in English. FWIW I'd offer: Crows reckon that just one crow could destroy heaven. True, but heaven is unaffected, because the meaning of heavens is precisely: the impossibility of crows.