Friday, 15 February 2019

Black And White In Colour


1958

Talking about The Beatles (the "White Album") reminded me that the most striking thing (and, initially at least, the most disappointing thing) about that record was its stark cover design by Richard Hamilton, situated somewhere between a white-label bootleg and the minimalist sophistication of Habitat. Not least when compared with the baroque, eye-pleasing fairground that was its predecessor, Sgt. Pepper, designed by Peter Blake. As it happens, there had been a rival design for The Beatles (working title: "A Doll's House") which used a group portrait by my recent acquaintance, John Byrne. His painting did end up getting used on a later album, but its faux-naive, Rousseau-esque sentimentality would never have worked on the 1968 recording that finally emerged, I'm sure. In fact, its use on a retrospective, soft-focus compilation of Beatles Ballads released in 1980 merely serves to underline, particularly for that first generation of "boomers" that had already passed out of its youthful years, "here are the Beatles as you prefer to remember them". There are all sorts of clever meta-comments one could make about that all-white sleeve, in retrospect, but at the time it was simply a bit of a puzzle, compensated only slightly by the bonanza of colourful loose pictorial enclosures contained within.

It's hard, now, to appreciate how colour-starved Britain had been before the mid-1960s. In any documentary of the time, there's always a point when the archival footage changes from black-and-white to colour, I suppose around the time BBC TV began broadcasting in colour in 1967. We didn't actually live in monochrome until then, but it could feel like it, especially on Sunday afternoons. You only have to watch a few vintage clips of the Beatles or Stones being interviewed to see how badly the Old Monochrome Britain was struggling to understand the new, youthful, full-colour supplement that had appeared between its staid pages (at least, in its London edition), and how its tweedy avatars invariably tried to reduce things to a more easily accommodated and dismissed grey-scale [1]. I was amazed to discover, on a school exchange trip to the Rhineland, that in Germany 7" singles were released in full-colour photographic picture sleeves. At home, where so many of these sacred objects originated, even sure-fire hits like the latest Beatles single were still being released in the same dull wrapper as anything else, a generic, corporate-branded paper sleeve with two circular, label-sized holes cut in it. I suppose it was a typical expression of the kind of levelled-down, lowest-common-denominator "democracy" Britain reserves for the general populace.

Colour, after all, was expensive, which, for much longer than was probably necessary, outranked "attractive". We Brits do enjoy a bit of deprivation. Also, I suppose the shadow of wartime rationing was long: I was born in 1954, the year food rationing finally ended. Ironically, it seems to have been the unprecedented expense of the Sgt. Pepper cover that opened the door onto to an era of exuberantly inventive sleeve design. So that blank white packaging has to be seen in the context of what, by 1968, had been just a few years of new, eye-popping colour everywhere, from newspaper colour supplements to product packaging and clothes. Consumerism, and a little uptight hedonism had belatedly come to Britain. So, as an art statement a blank white album sleeve was a witty, smart, and post-modern gesture, but as a piece of consumer goods, it was little less than a puritanical reproach.

1968

In my youth, LP sleeves mattered. For small-town kids like me and my friends, short of cash and cultural capital, the record racks that sat at the back of High Street shops like Boots or W.H. Smith offered a free creative education in art, photography, design, and typography, one square foot at a time. There was no such thing as a "record shop": the first LP I ever actually bought with my own money was from an electrical retailer, mainly selling TVs, radios, and toasters. As it happens, it was the studio half of Cream's Wheels of Fire, with its psychedelic silver sleeve by Martin Sharp, but I had already handled and pored over many, many more, admiring and absorbing their pictorial styles, the more excessive the better, along with all the small-print details of music I would never actually get to hear, often made in places I had never heard of, never mind expected to visit. So where the hell was Nashville? Or Detroit? Why did people keep going on about them? Like travel brochures to exotic destinations, or the copies of National Geographic in the dentist's waiting room, record sleeves were both documentary evidence of and invitations to a fuller, more colourful world that existed out there somewhere, if only you could break free of the gravitational pull of small-town life. Colour was breaking into ordinary lives, and with it came a huge, new challenge: did you dare to be different?

Too often, cultural history concentrates on the initiators, the pioneers, and the facilitators, who are never more that a numerically tiny elite. I suppose this is fair enough: later generations want to know about the tensions in the Abbey Road Studios during the making of the White Album, which Beatle contributed what to which track, when and why Ringo walked out, and so on. But, in the end, what was the result of all that closely-observed Sturm und Drang? A mass-entertainment product of very mixed quality, marketed and sold to the general public by the million. The individual numbering on the sleeve of the "first edition" of The Beatles was quite consciously an ironic – you might even say a snobbish – comment on that, by comparing the album to a limited-edition multiple [2]. So, on one level, the narrative of the 1960s – of which the Beatles are the type specimen – is how a handful of young, working-class kids could start out as seedy dance-hall entertainers, with no ambition greater than a tour of Mecca ballrooms, and end up regarded and revered as world-changing "artists". Which is, no doubt, a great story. But it's not the whole story. In fact, the real story is what happened next, in the 1970s. Which, of course, as far as the more daring young members of the general public were concerned, is when "the 1960s" really happened [3].

1971

1. It was not only in Britain, of course. Perhaps the most hilarious example of this is Bob Dylan's 1965 interview, featured in Scorsese's documentary, No Direction Home:

Reporter:  How many people who labor in the same musical vineyard in which you toil, how many are protest singers? That is, people who use their music, and use the songs to protest the, ah, social state in which we live today. The matter of war, the matter of crime, or whatever it might be.
Dylan:      Um...how many??
Reporter:  Yes. How many?
Dylan:      Uh, I think there's about, uh ... 136.
Reporter: You say about 136, or do you mean exactly 136?
Dylan:      Uh, it's either 136 or 142.

2. It's also a bit of a con. Apparently, there were 12 pressing plants, all producing the same series of numbers in parallel.
3. Don't believe me? Look in your family photo album...

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

You Say It's Your Birthday


Tate Modern

At a certain precise chronologically / astronomically / astrologically [1] / biographically significant point over the weekend I became what is generally referred to as "65 years old". Which is late middle-age by any reckoning, and quite possibly even a first, tentative step into becoming "old". It certainly feels like one of those significant anniversaries, the ones that deserve a special space in the rack of greetings cards in the local stationery shop. My sister did actually find me an "On Your 65th Birthday" card, but, disappointingly, it did not come with one of those "I AM 65!" badges you get when you're ten. Which is a shame, as I'd have enjoyed wearing that, when we took the train up to London to meet our children, and visit the Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern, my birthday treat.

It's a funny old business, isn't it, the passing of time? They're a hundred years old, some of those Bonnard canvases, and yet something about them now seems very contemporary, unlike, say, an aeroplane or motor-vehicle of around the same vintage. Which may mean that art, as Ezra Pound said of literature, is news that stays news, or perhaps it simply means that art is stuck in certain recurring loops in ways that engineering isn't. Certainly, back in 1968/9, when those paintings would only have been fifty years old and the Beatles were coming to a fractious end, Bonnard could well have appeared a little dated. But it seems his time may have rolled around again.

Everything does and will always change, albeit at different rates and on different scales, especially if we humans cannot resist giving it a prod. This, as we are discovering to our cost, includes the climate, which you would have thought was quite changeable enough. The sort of cold snap with snow that we had in Britain recently is becoming quite a rarity these days, as unusual and as short-lived as our customary few days of hot, sunny summer. As I embark upon my anecdotage, I find myself remembering the more wintry winters of the last century, when snow would start by sending a thrill of excitement through the classroom, drag on for weeks, and end as a dreary, disruptive bore for those trying to get to work. And houses were really cold in those days! Central heating? What's that?


The other day I heard "Blackbird" from the 1968 album The Beatles on the radio (I think it was one of poet Wendy Cope's Desert Island Discs) and experienced an intense flashback to that very cold winter of 1968/69. I had asked for The Beatles (a.k.a. "The White Album") for Christmas that year and – entirely by accident, it must be said, if not entirely truthfully – I found it hidden in a cupboard. In the days before shrinkwrap, I was able to give it a couple of fairly thorough sneak pre-auditions, school having broken up for the holiday and both my parents being out at work all day. That year we had a white Christmas and, for me and I imagine for the thousands of others who bought or received the album that winter, the White Album has an indelible association with frosty air and snow on the ground. So, for old times' sake, I decided to put it on my 65th birthday wishlist.

The White Album has never been one of my favourite records: four sides of vinyl of which at least the equivalent of two sides are made up of lightweight tracks and filler (although Beatles-quality filler, obviously). The true Lennon-McCartney magic had faltered, and the record sits at an oddly sardonic angle to the new directions popular music was taking: several tracks seem to be heavy-handed parodies of other artists and styles. In fact, quite a few are parodies of the Beatles themselves, so that, for example, those middle-eight and chorus changes of rhythm, so brilliantly original in a song like "We Can Work It Out", have simply become an annoying stylistic tic. Worst of all, McCartney's love of whimsical pastiche and Lennon's daft sixth-form poetry had been allowed to run completely out of control. I don't think it would be controversial to say that many, if not most of the album's better tracks were actually written by George Harrison: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", "Long, Long, Long", "Savoy Truffle", and "Piggies".

Something very important was happening to the more serious-minded side of "pop" music around then. Like some mobile fluid suddenly setting into a crystalline form, music found certain hospitable modes of expression which became stable and are still with us now, remarkably, fifty years later. Compare, say, Simon and Garfunkel's Book Ends of 1968 with their Bridge Over Troubled Water of 1970. The former is strange, experimental, tentative, and clearly derives from the coffee-bar, beatnik era of the New York of the 1950s and early '60s; I doubt whether anyone under 60 even knows the album. The latter is end-to-end hits, most of which you will still hear on the radio today, with no sense of having passed their sell-by date. The Beatles, of all people, somehow couldn't make that transition, collectively, and the White Album is the fascinating residue, an experimental fluid that failed to crystallise out.

That strange and significant year 1968 had seen plenty of influential new musical departures, but the new year would see even more, things like the first Led Zeppelin LP and Stand Up (Jethro Tull), Unhalfbricking (Fairport Convention) and Basket of Light (Pentangle), Songs From A Room (Leonard Cohen) and Clouds (Joni Mitchell), just to mention the few that would eventually end up in my record box [2]. But there were dozens of other unobtainable treasures, too, whose empty sleeves we used to flip through ritually in the record racks in Boots or W.H. Smith on the way home from school, and most of which I still haven't heard to this day. In the end, I gave my copy of the White Album away early in the 1970s – I think I swapped it for something else, something more of the moment – and haven't heard most of those thirty tracks in the fifty years since I first guiltily put the needle of the family stereogram down onto side one, and heard the whistling jet engines and Beach Boys pastiche of "Back In The USSR". Fifty years! It seems enough time may have passed to give it another chance.

Hold VERY still, grumpy old man... Pinhole selfie

1. At birth in February 1954 I became "Aquarius, with Scorpio in the ascendant", or so I'm told. Whatever that means.
2. Figuratively speaking: there was a thriving exchange of home-made tapes going on between pocket-money-poor music fans... One Christmas present had many recipients.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Pin Board



Just a few more pinhole pictures from yesterday's experiment. Unlike today, when the weather has turned very wet and windy (thanks a lot, Storm Eric), it was a brisk sunny day, and I took a lengthy stroll through the municipal Hollybrook cemetery and its surroundings.

Southampton being both a major channel port and the site of a military hospital at Netley, a lot of wounded troops from both world wars and from both "sides" got evacuated here, and a fair number didn't make it. There are War Commission graves all over town, not least here: about 1900 men are memorialised, but most of these are not graves, just the names of those "lost at sea". One of the most poignant is the memorial to the S.S. Mendi, which was sunk in a collision in the Channel transporting men of the South African Native Labour Corps to France in 1917, over 600 of whom died. It was reported that Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, an interpreter who had previously been a Minister in the Congregational Native Church, addressed the men as the ship sank:
Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do...You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers...Swazis, Pondos, Basotho... So let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.



I think the main trick with pinhole photography is to anticipate its two main characteristics – severe vignetting and a liking for bold shapes and strong lighting contrasts – and compose with them in mind. When the weather clears up (after the weekend, if the forecast is correct) I'll head out somewhere suitable – maybe down by the waterfront? – with, yes, a tripod, and have a few more goes at getting it right. Or maybe just a monopod; I always feel such an idiot setting up a tripod I never actually do it. Which is the main reason I bought one that is reasonably compact and has its own shoulder bag...


Thursday, 7 February 2019

Pin Unsharp



Rummaging around in a drawer looking for something or other, I turned up something quite different that I'd forgotten I even had: a little round tin, about 2.5" in diameter, labelled "Pinwide: Micro Four Thirds Model. Designed in Chicago. Manufactured in the USA." Inside, there is what is essentially a Micro 4/3 body cap with a pinhole installed, giving a fixed aperture somewhere between f/96 and f/128, and a focal length of around 22mm in 35-mm terms. It's very cute, and – having succumbed to some well-pitched advertising – I had bought one on impulse, put it away, and promptly forgot all about it. Thinking about it, I last used a micro 4/3 camera, a Panasonic G3, when I was on a 10-day residency in Innsbruck in 2014. Almost immediately thereafter I switched to Fuji, and haven't looked back. Until today.


Pinhole photography was once a bit of a thing for me, when I was still using film. I removed the lens assemblies from several old box-style rollfilm cameras, and replaced them with pinholes I had made myself. I liked the idea of this most primitive of techniques, and admired the work of pinhole enthusiasts like Ruth Thorne-Thomsen and Abelardo Morell, but somehow the results never lived up to expectation. The need to use a tripod, for one thing, killed a lot of the spontaneity that is essential to my enjoyment of photography.


As far as I can recall, I've never actually tried using a pinhole on a digital camera before, so I dug out my Panasonic GF-1, charged up the battery, and headed out to experiment. Hand-held only, obviously.  [Top Tip: for this sort of non-electronic attachment to work, you need to set "SHOOT W/O LENS" to "ON"]. It was fun, just pointing the combination at things, and letting the auto function work out the exposure. The results were better than I expected, especially for hand-held shots at f/96: almost the right combination of mystery and photographic crappiness. So much so, I might even consider the next logical step. Yes, a tripod. And, yes, I do own one (another impulse buy that sits in the back of a cupboard somewhere). And, yes, I suppose this is another gear post...

Monday, 4 February 2019

Fore!


Southampton City Golf Course

Among the many things I do not understand in this life, and which have probably marked me out as rather less than alpha male material, golf figures quite high. It's very striking, when you take the train up to London from Southampton, quite how much acreage has been allocated to this bizarre activity. What seem at first to be tumuli turn out to be bunkers and putting greens; what appears to be interesting parkland, glimpsed through trees, turns out to be stretches of fairway and rough. Every town seems to shade into golf courses at the edges.

Which is not to say that a golf course, as such, doesn't have quite a strong visual appeal. As it happens, two of our regular weekend walks take us through golf courses, which can be a slightly hazardous business: it's quite hard to spot an incoming, badly-sliced golf-ball. But the contrast of velvety greens and tussocky rough can look rather attractive in the right sort of light, only spoiled by the presence of golfers (are those strange clothes an essential part of the game?) and an overpowering sense of futility that hangs about the place like a chill mist. The recent snow has rendered our local municipal course unplayable, however, so it was a chance to wander about freely without fear of concussion.

Living among the semi-detached houses of suburban streets laid out on what were "green field" sites in the 1930s, as so many of us do, it's striking to realise that, at the very same time, eighty-plus years ago, acute observers like T.S. Eliot were already identifying a hollowness in what seemed to be happening to society, a busy purposelessness that the new, efficient network of roads and the game of golf somehow exemplified:
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.

Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore
I have given you the power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.

And the wind shall say: “Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”
from: Choruses from The Rock, 1934
To be sure, there's a snobbery there, but you don't have to share Eliot's Christian conservatism to appreciate the sentiment. In fact, I suspect that it is precisely at the other end of the political-confessional spectrum that we now look at golf with bafflement and suspicion. Mindless motoring, of course, is widely recognised as having become rather more than a spiritual sickness. But then, eighty years on, things that could once only be detected by the most fastidious antennae are now obvious to anyone. In Choruses from The Rock, Eliot's denunciation of our society's inclination to anaemic distractions and disinclination to make positive choices seems almost to have anticipated the draining of meaning from work by IT:
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
"Systems so perfect that no one will need to be good"... Or need to work, or even to get off the sofa. Never mind golf, I wonder what Eliot would have made of a Prime Minister with an Angry Birds habit? Somehow, I don't think he would have been surprised that a man like David Cameron would make an epically foolish choice, one that ended up sacrificing national for party interest, and then clear off to chillax and write a book about it all. Does Cameron play golf? Of course he does.


Southampton City Golf Course

Friday, 1 February 2019

Burning Man



No, not that Burning Man. This one is actually one of the model écorché (flayed) torsos to be found in the Royal Academy in London. When we encountered the word "écorché" on a visit there last September, I speculated to a friend that – given the way an initial acute "e" in French is often equivalent to an "s" in English – it might be connected with our word "scorched". It isn't, as far as I can determine, but the association must have sunk into my subconscious, the way these things do, only to re-emerge once I started putting disparate elements together in a photo-collage. A process which, in this case, began with the steamy "porthole" which, should you be curious, is actually part of the lid of our kettle.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Rain Theory



I was doing my photo-collage thing yesterday, when it struck me that certain pictures I have been working on in recent times have a rainy theme in common with some slightly older, as yet unused work. Clearly, there is potential for a new series there. The expression "rain theory" popped up in my mind, and I remembered it belonged to a set of photographs collected under that title, which I had assembled way back in the late 1990s. It was after I had learned to write HTML – "HyperText Markup Language", the coding that underlies the World Wide Web, and controls the display of "pages" containing text, images, and hyperlinks – and I was excited by the idea of creating CDs containing HTML pages as an inexpensive way of making and distributing interactive books of high-quality photographs, which anyone with a CD drive would be able to use. So I dug out one of the old Rain Theory CDs, as I didn't have any memory at all of what was actually on it.

I have to say I was both surprised and impressed. I'd completely forgotten what photographs were in the "sequence" – just twelve, in fact – and that all of them had been originated on medium-format film and scanned. The linking idea was that in the 1990s we had been experiencing some unusually severe summer droughts, and I realised I had been photographing the various water conservation methods that people (in particular gardeners and allotment keepers) had improvised. Visually, they could be seen as a variety of makeshift theories of what rain is, where it comes from, how it may be stored, and even, on the level of sympathetic magic, how it might be encouraged to fall. A nice idea, but fairly poorly executed, I have to say. I'm not surprised that people who saw my work at that time tended to look bemused. Some of the photographs are good, but some are not, and more than a little generosity must be deployed to see them as linked by the stated common theme. Although, as a classic example of a strong concept derived from and illustrated by rather less strong material, you might say I was ahead of the game...


However, I was impressed by the effort I'd put into the web-page design, especially the navigation. Each page is essentially a single image, with clickable areas designated by their mapped co-ordinates within the image. The "home" page (above) reproduces the CD cover image – a bold, text-only statement using a stencil typeface – but adds a "mouseover" navigation bar using simple numbers to link to the pages of the sequence, a question mark to link to a help page, and quotation marks to link to a page of text. Neat!

The images are presented as a series of six pairs, each pair on a numbered page, with one of the pair shown large, and both shown as medium-sized "thumbnails" (below). It's all done by graphical suggestion; very little is explicit. The hollow, clickable arrows are intended to indicate that the other image in the pair may be viewed in a large version, too (the whole area of the alternative image itself is also clickable), and clicking either the arrow or the image links to the alternative version of that same page, with the other photograph shown large. Simple! The numbered, clickable chevrons indicate how the previous or next pair in the sequence may be viewed.


Of course, I'd probably make some very difference choices now, not least because far more sophisticated user interfaces and designs are possible, with the addition of CSS ("cascading style sheets"), JavaScript, and whatever has evolved since I retired in 2014. Although it's true my knowledge of HTML, Perl, CGI, and all the rest of it has now gone to the same dark place in my mind as Latin conjugations and declensions. But, looked at now, I find I still enjoy the simple, "pre-Windows", through-designed look I came up with in 1998. Each page has the appearance of an interactive postcard. Only one very important thing has been "broken" by subsequent developments: it seems a CD with an "autorun" file will no longer automatically fire up a web-browser and open the designated "home" page when put in a drive, which means you have to start the thing up yourself by identifying and double-clicking the relevant file, which defeats the whole point. Distributing primitive, home-made e-books on CD using HTML pages is no longer practical.

Mind you, I don't now recall if I ever sent anyone a copy of this or any of the other, similar (and better!) projects I came up with before "Web 2.0", social media, real e-books, and online, on-demand publishers like Blurb rendered the whole approach redundant. Twenty years is a long time, but it's an eternity in tech-years. I do hope that in another twenty my efforts won't have become as unreadable as Ogham or Linear B. But given that then, with any luck, I'll be a couple of weeks away from my 85th birthday, I may not care about it all that much.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Two-Dimensional


Winchester Road, Southampton

Although I don't do it very often, sometimes I like nothing better than to wander about town with a long zoom lens. The one I own is the "cheap" Fuji XC 50-230mm f/4.5-6.7 (equivalent to 70-300mm in 35mm terms), a lens at which most gear-head photographers would sneer, but its modest specifications enable it to be small(ish) and light, and optically it's absolutely fine. That is, it's good enough for me.

It seems to be a feature of human vision that the brain can isolate items of interest within the whole field captured by the eye, so that something quite tiny, in absolute terms – like, for example, the moon, occupying just half a degree of arc, which (I think) means you could fit 360 of them in the sky, edge to edge, from horizon to horizon – becomes subjectively huge. It's a very good and useful trick, a sort of neurological "digital zoom", but can only be duplicated photographically by actually narrowing the angle of view. With a long lens, you can really concentrate on the lovely, often quite graphical things that tend to happen in the distance where widely separated objects are brought into juxtaposition with each other. A slight movement of the head, or a step sideways, and a whole new combination presents itself. The combination of "foot zoom" and optical zoom is unbeatable, if you tend to like what you see out on the horizon.

Redbridge Hill flats, Southampton

I also like the sense of compression given by a long lens. I enjoy pictures that display a strong two-dimensional sense of design – it's one of the great pleasures of Japanese prints, and the western art inspired by them – and, if you can get the balance of aperture and point of focus right (which, with a long zoom, can be difficult, especially if you're a lazy person who prefers to work in auto-everything mode), the flattened perspective is very two-dimensional. I do wish the camera manufacturers would provide an automatic hyperfocal [1] setting, however, which would simplify getting this balance right. How difficult can it be? I always prefer things to be sharp from front to back: I was annoyed by the soft focus on the rearmost branches in the picture below, for example, as it restores the illusion of three-dimensionality. But then it was taken as dusk was falling at 16:30 at the widest available aperture. I suppose I was lucky to get anything useable at all; with any luck whatever that thing is will still be there the next time I pass by that tree.

The contemporary obsession with shallow depth of field and the quality of the resulting out-of-focus background (so called "bokeh", from the Japanese for "blur") as a marker of "good" photography is mystifying to me. The idea that one would spend hundreds, even thousands of pounds on a big, heavy, "fast" lens to hang on a camera (ideally, one with as big a sensor as possible), merely in order to blur out as much of the background as possible – "just like a professional" – is hilarious. Personally, I much prefer a slow lens, one which isn't pushing the optical envelope. A kit zoom  – the sort that comes bundled with a camera – has always suited me fine. Apart from the benefits in cash outlay, size, and weight, it means you're also always in with a good chance of some decent depth of field. Not least because in Auto mode you're not having to fight some software developer's urge to use, at every opportunity, the biggest, light-greedy, shallow DOF aperture available. A modest f/5.6 will do just fine, thanks.

But I think that's probably quite enough gear-talk for 2019.

Southampton Common

1. "The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp. When the lens is focused at this distance, all objects at distances from half of the hyperfocal distance out to infinity will be acceptably sharp."

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

White-Out


Clutter? What clutter? I've just tidied up!

Have you come across this ridiculous person (I can't even be bothered to look up her name, she's some kind of self-styled "de-cluttering" guru) who has claimed recently that nobody needs to keep more than thirty books? THIRTY?? Surely a zero or two have gone missing there? It's all a bit King Lear, to my mind: you know, the scene where the Ugly Sisters try to persuade him that keeping his own retinue of 100 knights is terribly inconvenient for them and, you know, really, what is the point, father? Here's a reminder:
GONERIL:
Hear me, my lord;
What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
REGAN:
What need one?
KING LEAR:
O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life's as cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,--
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
Act 2 Scene 4
Reason not the need, indeed... And for goodness sake put a jumper on, missy! Is it just me, or is there quite a draught in this castle?

That said, I have been trying to keep my book-buying under control, and in particular my photo-book addiction. Like any recovering addict, I really shouldn't be touching the stuff, but one or two now and then can't hurt, surely, can it? Not least because I believe in supporting the photographers I admire by buying their books. I can't afford to buy their actual prints and, even if I could, I'm sure buying prints would pose a far greater domestic "clutter" problem than any amount of books. As with paintings, you need wealth but, above all, space in abundance to collect original art. One of the many wonderful things about books is the fact that there's no doubt about the best way to store them, although I concede that "in tottering piles on the staircase" is not it. It's also a curious fact that a great many photographs look far better presented in a book than either hung on a wall or fumbled from a portfolio. Quite apart from all the advantages of juxtaposition and thoughtful sequencing that a serial succession of pages offers (with random access thrown in, should you prefer that), the threesome of photograph, printer's ink, and book-quality paper is a very happy one. Although, obviously, the gigantism of recent years is not well served by any book smaller than an actual coffee table.

However, it's another fact – a sad one, but, for us addicts, quite helpful – that the glory days of the photo-book, like those of pop and rock, have passed. Sure, there are more being published than ever, and to a far higher production standard, but the parallel with pop is instructive. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had put in their 10,000 hours before cutting their first singles, recorded on wax cylinders (or whatever the technology was), in studios equipped with nothing much more than a glass booth to muffle the engineer's cries of despair and a pair of scissors. They then went on to change the world as we had known it. Today, some kid will go straight from his bedroom to fifteen minutes of pointless but remunerative global domination on the strength of two decent songs, a nice face, and a voice that can be straightened out in a studio where he is little more than a flavour to be tweaked and added into the mix. Similarly, too many young photographers, with their half-baked, fashion-forward, art-school projects, are going straight to publication, as if that were Stage One of a career – the equivalent of sleeping in the van and endlessly touring small clubs – rather than one of its major peaks. There's no opportunity to learn anything much that way, beyond what a mistake it was to blow grandad's legacy on a vanity project. I was depressed, looking through an online photo-book seller's January "on sale" list (come on, don't you mean "remaindered"?) to see how many of the hyped hot items of the last few years have failed to sell. Unsurprisingly: even at a tenner each, I wouldn't buy any of them.

Nonetheless, I continue to have a loyalty to certain veterans I have been following since the 1980s, prominent among whom is Thomas Joshua Cooper. As with Jem Southam, I will buy anything he publishes, sight unseen, and have never regretted it. I've mentioned TJC several times in this blog, and I wrote a piece in 2017 for the online magazine On Landscape which described a workshop I did with him in 1991 at Duckspool. He is a remarkable man, by any measure, producing remarkable work in remarkable circumstances. He was recently persuaded to give a session at the annual "Meeting of Minds" conference organised by On Landscape, and this event was videoed and generously made available on YouTube. You can see it here. Go on, I urge you to watch it, I can wait. It's not short – about 90 minutes, in fact – but if you have a serious interest in photography, art, long-term projects, landscape, geography, adventure, or even just enjoy the intersection of swearing and scholarship, then this is essential viewing.

Meanwhile, here is an utterly inconsequential photograph of one of the lovely 1930s leaded windows in our house:


Back? I hope you agree it was worth it. He does go on a bit, I know, and, despite his many years in Glasgow, has that curious American academic/artistic habit of assuming (or pretending to assume) a British audience must be aware of this, that, or the other piece of cultural arcana. Oh yeah, we do all that stuff in school, mate... I also think a skeptical person would be justified in wondering quite how many times an 1898 Agfa-Ansco view camera on a tripod (never mind an ageing human being) can really survive repeated swampings by unexpected waves, or tumbles into the sea, or down crevasses; the "weather-proofing" on those things being about on a par with an orange-crate. Or, indeed, why anyone would consider it worth the risk of being shot by third-world border guards or tortured to death by drug-smugglers in order to secure a photograph – and just one photograph! – from precisely the right spot on some godforsaken promontory with a name like For Fuck's Sake Point on Keelhaul Bay. But I believe every word; the man is cut from the same mad cloth as the guy who just had to climb the sheer faces of El Capitan and Sendero Luminoso without ropes. Or, indeed, film-maker Werner Herzog.

But the sheer improbability of Cooper's quest raises an interesting question, I think. What if – just what if – the whole Atlantic Basin project was a complete hoax? What if all those evocative photographs of rocky shores and breaking waves and misty horizons were actually made in, say, the Hebrides during holidays with the family? It's a pretty varied geography up there, the weather changes every ten minutes, and you can face out to sea in pretty much any direction you like. It could be done. What's more, if your claim is to have photographed from a place where only nine other people (or even no other people) have ever stood, what possible contradictory evidence could there be? As far as I know, even the very latest sheet film has no GPS functionality. So, what difference would it make, if the whole enterprise was shown, on completion, to be one enormous, slow time, conceptual-art put-on? That, far from hitching rides to the North Pole with Russian ice-breakers, Cooper had been marking student assignments in his Glasgow office, with the central heating turned up to max? Would the photographs lose all value, like the currency of a country that has ceased to exist, or would they still retain an aesthetic charge, like the prettier, collectable, high-denomination notes of that obsolete currency?

It's an outrageous question, obviously (and one I have no intention of answering), but it goes to the heart of the eternal debate between "photograph as document" vs. "photograph as autonomous art object". Cooper's work has always shown an intriguing oscillation between the two. From the early work like Between Dark and Dark or Dreaming the Gokstadt to the current Atlantic Basin "Atlas" magnum opus, the captions and texts have always played an important role, being both both highly specific as to location, but also always gesturing towards an image's place in a well-defined series, as well as to certain highly personal mini-genres spread across all his projects (such as "premonitional works"). Somewhat paradoxically, you might think, here we have fine art prints made to the very highest standards (Cooper is a master printer) presenting a very conceptual thesis about a direct engagement with geographical extremity (literally, it seems: you can download his "PhD by Publication" at Glasgow School of Art here). It's an unusual mix. If one were looking for parallel contemporary enterprises, I suppose the work of Sally Mann or Raymond Meeks would come to mind.

In a way, I think trust is the key. In that videoed Meeting of Minds session, the story behind the photograph "Polar White-Out" is crucial (at: 1h 22m 43s). How far do we trust Cooper, when he describes feeling the desperate urge to photograph, on day 13 of an Antarctic snowstorm severe enough to confine everyone to their tents and sleeping bags for 23 days? Can we accept that, with the aid of seven others – three to hold the tripod, three to hold Cooper, one to hold the darkcloth according to the video; three on the tripod, three on the camera, one on Cooper according to the thesis – he ventured out into a horizontal blizzard to record what turned out to be a blank white image, slightly vignetted at the corners? An image that could have been made anywhere in front of any blank white wall? Of course we can. We have to: the story belongs in the same folder as the making of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, or Turner being lashed to the mast, like Odysseus, to observe a storm at sea. Without the story, the picture is nothing. Without the picture, the story is nothing. Without the overarching project, without the specificity of time and place, neither picture nor story have any context or coherence. Put them all together, however, and something truly extraordinary has been made, so long as we are prepared to invest the necessary trust, going so far as to consider a blank white photographic print as, at the same time, documentary evidence, a work of art, a testament, and a semi-parodic condensation of the whole romantic enterprise, a sort of negative image of the "black page" in Tristram Shandy. Or, perhaps, as an evocation of how it feels to be "nothing himself" beholding "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is"...
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Wallace Stevens, The Snow Man
Meanwhile, I await the publication of The World's Edge later this year with some anticipation, "Polar White-Out" and all. I'm sure I'll find space for it somewhere.

A Mind of Winter

Saturday, 19 January 2019

De Profundis



I came across the unfinished picture above yesterday, while looking for something else. I appear to have been putting it together in January 2017 and, when I look at it in context, it seems it's not untypical of the sort of thing I was doing two years ago, as I was consolidating my move away from "straight" photography into construction and collage. And yet it seems to me now that it was made by someone else; I recognise, but don't "own" the characteristic moves and judgements made by this person, and I'm pretty sure that even if I were to take the exact same raw material now I'd end up somewhere completely different. It's not an experiment I'm likely to try, though: most of those elements no longer really speak to me. Submarines are so 2017.

Mind you, I think I do now know from where at least part of the impulse behind this picture came. I was looking for something to watch on Netflix recently, and came across the condensed, cinematic version of Wolfgang Petersen's enthralling U-boat drama, Das Boot. I had watched and admired the original miniseries on my little 8" screen portable TV when it was first broadcast in 1984, and it's clear that U-96 and its crew must have made a deep, deep dive into my subconscious and stayed lurking down there. Watching it again condensed into 149 minutes – and on an 18" computer screen! – was peculiarly vivid: it was as if I was recalling an actual lived experience involving those people and that series of events. Yes, yes, that's exactly how it happened! I remember it so well! In particular, there were two contrasting scenes which must have made a strong impression on me. The first is when U-96 surfaces at night in Vigo, Spain, in order to make a clandestine rendezvous with German officials on board an impounded but well-supplied ship ("Frische Feigen! Hab' ich noch nie gegessen..." [1]), and must quietly manoeuvre through the dark waters and moored boats, fitfully illuminated by the twinkling lights of the harbour. The second being when the submarine is surprised and attacked on the surface by a British aircraft while attempting to pass undetected through the Strait of Gibraltar. My unfinished picture is clearly a sort of synthesis of the two.

These false or borrowed memories, if we can call them that, are the persistent afterimage of the true lies of art, particularly those of narrative fiction. In time they become part of the sediment at the bottom of our minds, pretty much indistinguishable from the wreckage of the "real" stuff that has actually impacted our lives. In fact, because of its artfully-contrived nature, the detritus of art can seem even more compelling than proper, real-life junk. With any luck, none of us will ever have to experience such a perfect storm of tragedy as that forced upon King Lear by Shakespeare, and I'm pretty sure that if we did, in real life we'd shut down emotionally and submit willingly to whatever medication or counselling we were prescribed. We would avoid feeling the pain at all costs, choosing "comfortably numb" over agony. What we would absolutely not do is head for the nearest heath, rip off our clothes in a violent storm, and rave quotable profundities about the human condition. No, that way sectioning lies... Similarly, I fully expect never to find myself in a disabled, depth-charged submarine, sinking uncontrollably to the bottom of the Mediterranean, as the rivets pop like bullets and men's nerves are tested to destruction under the excruciating physical and psychological pressure. Even if the crew are just actors, and the sub a stage-set.  But, in an important, if vicarious way, I have "been there, done that". Sure, I will never actually have to reap the consequences of unwisely dividing my kingdom between Cinderella's wicked step-sisters [2], or really have to devise a cunning, it-might-just-work plan to rescue my comrades from certain death (though my work life did often feel like that). But, in something like a more practical, bodger's version of Platonic anamnesis ("learning is remembering"), I may well find that bits salvaged from those intense but unreal experiences will come in very handy when lashing up a fix for some more mundane crisis. Or even just making a picture.

Some would go further and say that, like artificially exercising a muscle, our understanding and sympathies can be enlarged by the willing suspension of disbelief in convincing, artfully-told untruths. That, unlike a pumped-up gym-bunny physique, an augmented ability to empathise is a real strength, and an asset to ourselves and those around us. Certainly, that's the official, critical line: art is good for you. Which, of course, it can be. Not all of it, not all the time, and not for everybody. Anyone who has attempted to ease their inner turmoil by listening to Harrison Birtwistle or reading Samuel Beckett really should have tried paracetamol or even something a little stronger first. The spectrum that goes from "mindless entertainment" to "ascetic self-flagellation" is very broad indeed, and the benefits of any particular point on it are rarely predictable, consistent, or immediate (unlike paracetamol). But, when it comes to art making, this allegedly wholesome, therapeutic aspect is not really a factor, unless you regard creativity as a form of occupational therapy, harmlessly channelling impulses that would otherwise be a social nuisance [3]. I mean, let's be honest, most top-flight artists and performers are also first-rate monsters of ego; it's pretty much part of the job description. Their art may be good for you, but it hasn't done much for them. Although who knows what perverted criminal masterminds they might otherwise have become?

Mental well-being aside, it's that curiosity shop at the bottom of your mind that interests me. I think one indication you may be destined for a life afflicted by creativity is this: you tend to be less concerned with the overall shape and message of an experience ("the moral of this story is...") than with the shiny bits and pieces that can be prised off it, stolen, and recycled. Yeah, yeah, nice car, but look at those fancy hubcaps! Would they make great flying saucers or what? Unlike normal people, you just need to be constantly restocking those basement shelves with random psychic bric-a-brac, whether acquired by real experience, imitation, theft, or bought second-hand. The truly amazing thing, though, is how the subconscious mind is able to descend into the depths and fetch up exactly the right bit of junk at the appropriate moment [4]. Pretty much everyone will have been startled at some time by some cutting or hilarious remark that popped unbidden from their own mouth. Where did that come from? But only a few of us have the magic combination of a well-stocked, constantly replenished mental cellar and free and immediate access to its contents, which is what gives the sparkle to, say, a brilliant comedian's repartee. It's the opposite of l'esprit de l'escalier: to be able to produce, with a magician's flourish, the most unexpected but apposite response, instantly, as if prompted by an unseen team of script-writing angels.

Mind you, few things will kill a lively party situation quicker than having some would-be Oscar Wilde constantly trying to top everyone else's jokes or feeble pleasantries. Look, it doesn't matter how damned witty you are, Oscar, after a while this becomes as aggressive as offering to arm-wrestle everyone in the room, and about as attractive. (Um, please don't ask me how I know this). The art of art, like the art of conversation, is precisely not spilling the contents of your subconscious over everyone at every opportunity, but knowing when to speak, when to at least pretend to listen, and above all when to shut up. Which is what I'm going to do now.


1. "Fresh figs! I've never eaten 'em before..."
2. Oh, come on, don't say the similarities have never struck you...
3. Look at the sheer perverse creative inventiveness that goes into most fraud, for example. Somebody should give those guys a useful problem to work on, or some paints.
4. That is, "right" as defined by the subconscious, which can be embarrassingly like having a speech bubble over your head saying what you really think.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

New Morning



We live in a street lined with typically English semi-detached houses on both sides [1], built in the 1930s, with the odd interruption of the original sequence due to bomb damage from WW2. Our house is oriented roughly NNE by SSW, with the front facing ESE, so there comes a point early in the year when the rising sun starts to appear over the opposite rooftops, and shines directly into our bathroom window at an angle that turns the pebbled glass into a jewelled backdrop, and transforms the mundane spectacle of drying clothes hanging over the bath into a graphic spectacle worth dropping your toothbrush for, and running downstairs for a camera. It only lasts a couple of minutes, then the magic is gone.

Following the latest round of installations of uPVC windows, I think it is safe to say that we are now the sole remaining house in the entire street with the original, wood-framed, single-glazed, lead-lighted windows left intact. We like them, and don't mind the draughts or the need to have them regularly repainted. But, if we're not careful, we're going to end up living in a listed building: "the last authentic 1930s semi in Southampton"... Dammit, we've even got the original iron plumbing – can you believe anyone would even think of installing iron water-pipes? – now so clogged with decades of limescale and rust that it takes forever to run a bath. I wash in cold water, an odd habit I acquired from my father, but as I am generally the first out of bed, if I turn on the hot tap when I enter the bathroom the trickle of water that emerges will be hot enough for a normal person to wash by the time I'm finished. From these things a family routine is built...

1. As a builder once said to me, "In England we make a perfectly serviceable family house, then divide it into two..."

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Young Americans



Surprisingly, perhaps, the majority of the readers of this blog tend to be American (can you tend to be American? Are American!) so I will need to think carefully about what I have to say here. We British have the false impression that our language is becoming the lingua franca of the entire world. Not so: American English, for obvious reasons, is now the world-language of aspiration and education – you have only to listen to some bright youngster who has never left her dusty third-world village quacking like a rilly Californian, like, Valley Girl to realise this – and this linguistic hegemony is making itself felt here in Britain as well. Not surprisingly, this is not always welcome.

Although I must admit to experiencing a little buzz of annoyance whenever a fashionable Americanism supplants a perfectly serviceable British English equivalent [1] – things like the use of the absurd "pinkie" for "little finger", or "reach out to" for "get in touch with" – I generally suppress this feeling, as it is clearly one of the early symptoms of the onset of age-related pedantry, an incurable and unattractive condition. After all, as a young person I embraced plenty of Americanisms myself, consciously and unconsciously, simply because they were part of the US-dominated youth culture I had willingly embraced (or had been embraced by). More recently, I can even pretend indifference when I hear young people ask, briskly, "Can I get a small latte?" rather than "Could I have a bucket of perfectly ordinary coffee with milk, please?" It still sounds affected and ill-mannered to me, but there's something going on there that clearly works for the young, and which I am now too out of touch to find "relatable". However, certain imported expressions do grate, because what makes them work is their cultural hinterland; if this is missing, then the expression is not so much meaningless as lacking any meaningful referent.

I have a particular dislike for "stepping up to the plate", for example, so beloved of our politicians and political commentators. Now, I don't mind a useful cliché, so long as the people who use it have a clear image in mind. Anyone who has had children at primary school knows only too well, for example, what it means to go through something with a "fine-tooth comb", and you don't have to have served as a Napoleonic Era soldier to understand why you should keep your powder dry or avoid things going off half-cocked, either. Clearly, "stepping up to the plate" meets a felt need for an expression meaning "it's time to stop thinking and criticising and to act, to show what you're capable of, to take the initiative"; to put up or shut up, as you might say. But, come on, it's a baseball metaphor! No-one plays or understands baseball in Britain, and no British sport or activity involves a "plate", up to which one must eventually step. You can step up to the crease in cricket, or to the penalty spot in football, and even the oche (ocky) in darts. But "the plate"? What sort of plate do people imagine – a dinner plate? a commemorative plaque? – and what do they expect you to do, having stepped up to it?

Obviously, a lot of people do use language incuriously, chucking around linguistic small change as mere tokens of meaning. They may think, vaguely, if they think at all, that there is such a thing as a rather nice "tooth-comb", or that powder of any variety benefits from being kept dry, which is true enough, but there's more to it than that. I suspect there's a sort of inherent machismo to many American metaphors – especially military and sporting ones, things like "slam dunk", "knock it out of the park", etc. – which is absent from our native equivalents, and which makes them irresistible to the wannabe rhetorical tough-guy, even if the actual meaning of, say, "the whole nine yards" is entirely opaque, even to Americans. But, like a pair of ironed Levi's on a Prime Minister, however good they may feel to wear, the effect is ridiculous.

More insidious, though, is the gradual adoption by the young of American speaking styles. I don't mean the well-established differences in pronunciation: you say "tomato" and I say "route", and all that. Differences are fine; we enjoy difference. Although, let's be honest, some American pronunciations are risible: 'erbs for "herbs"? Please! And "primmer" as the "correct" pronunciation of "primer" is just, ah, dim and dimer, especially in the land of that renowned librarian and spelling reformer Melvil Dewey [2]. No, what is seeping into British English, presumably via the rich diet of US TV and film being consumed via Netflix and the like, is the sort of systemic stuff which affects the rhythm and music of speech. Things like that American habit of emphasising the adjective rather than the noun, as in "Red Bull" rather than "Red Bull" ("Can I get a can of Red Bull?"). And there's that teen-talk insistence on turning every statement into a question? Called "uptalk"? As if I must pretend to need constant reassurance about things I know to be perfectly true? Which may even be Australian, but nobody's sure? Yes, that. And let's not even get started on the infectious, faux-sophisticated idea in the American art-world that the word "cliché" is emphasised on the final syllable and is an adjective.

The linguistic traffic can still be a little two-way, of course. I am surprised how many "Britishisms" seem to have made it into American speech in recent years. Mainly vulgar stuff, it's true (well, it's what we do best): I'm pretty sure words like "bloody", "bugger", "bloke", "geezer", or even "wanker" were never as widely used in America as they seem to be now. Hey, you're welcome! But sometimes things are sailing under false flags. I was deeply baffled, some years ago, by one commenter's reference to a "bumbershoot". A what? Apparently he, like many Americans, was under the impression that this is British slang for an umbrella. No, sorry, Mary Poppins: never heard of it. Brolly, yes; but bumbershoot, no. Like the so-called English muffin (about to make the most out of a toaster, "I'd ease myself down, Comin' up brown!") it's a wholly American invention that, no doubt and nonetheless, we'll eventually be obliged to adopt as our own.

It goes without saying that there are many "Americans", just as there are many "Englishes". The intersections of region, social class, race, education, and gender all generate recognisable sub-dialects, right down to the level of the individual, what linguists call an "idiolect". My own speech is quite different from the written "voice" you probably hear as you read these words, in the same way the actual face of a radio presenter can never supplant the one their voice conjures in your mind [3]. In Britain, regional accents can be particularly finely-tuned. My mother came from Pirton, a tiny village in North Hertfordshire. Across a couple of fields, you could see another tiny village, Shillington, situated in Bedfordshire. Apparently, at social occasions like village-hall dances, you could tell Shillington from Pirton "gels" because of their quite distinct accent; at least, you could if you'd grown up in Pirton. I get the impression that American dialects are more broad-brush, but there's no question that the version of "American" that gets exported to the world via TV, film, and music is a blunt instrument that ignores all the important subtleties that enable one American to despise another (it surely can't just be us that do that, can it? [4]).

But, [heads up, guys] now look here, you young fellows! The day crisps become "chips" and biscuits become "cookies" in Britain is the day (expressed as DD/MM/YY) that age-related pedantry tips over into age-related patriotism, and us old codgers [light out for the Territory] take to the hills, packing the OED, Erskine May, and a complete backrun of The Beano into the boot of the car, along with plenty of petrol and, for those that way inclined, a good supply of fags. Ooo-err, missus! And not just for a fortnight, either. Understood, [kiddo] Sonny Jim? [Outstanding] Splendid! Anyone for a cuppa?


1.  I say "equivalent", rather than "original", because establishing precedence can be tricky. A lot of "Americanisms" actually turn out to be survivals of an even older British English.
2. "Buoy" is a curious one. I say "boy", you say "boowie". So do Americans feel "boowied up" by good news, or assess the "boowieyancy" of boats (or maybe it's their beyoncé)? I suspect not.
3. As it happens, it's an unlovely mash-up of London and North Hertfordshire, with top notes of higher-ed, and subcultural undertones. When I was at school, my teachers would actually mimic my pronunciation, presumably in an attempt to get me to change it, and I'll never forget being asked to repeat my reply, several times, to a question in my Oxford entrance interview ("I'm so sorry, I can't quite understand what you're saying... Could you repeat it once more?"). It was just as well he couldn't hear my sotto voce reply.
4. "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him" (according to an Irishman, George Bernard Shaw, preface to Pygmalion).

Thursday, 3 January 2019

NYD 2019


Dawn over the Avon Gorge, 1/1/2019
(as seen from our Bristol HQ)

It is something of a custom around here – and never one of those "more honoured in the breach than in the observance" – to get outside on New Year's Day, no matter what the weather, and grab a few lungfuls of New Year's Air, not to mention a few photographs to prove it. As we were in Bristol, we headed out to the seaside town of Clevedon on the Bristol Channel, which has the multiple advantages of a classy Victorian pier, a community second-hand bookshop, and numerous cafes, all of which are open on the 1st January.

By buying a plaque, you help keep the pier in good order.
Many are mawkish, some are hilarious, mainly unintentionally
 (we spotted one this year that is like a TripAdvisor review)

Looks like Goldsworthy is in town

For once, New Year's Day in the West of England was not cold and rainy – see previous NYD entries – and occasionally a bright low sun broke through the cloud cover. People were out in force, too: I've never seen so many about at this time of year, or had such difficulty parking before. So much so, I wondered whether there might have been a feature on Clevedon on the TV or in one of the tabloids; it's generally the only sort of stimulus that motivates my compatriots to do an outdoorsy thing en masse. Whatever, I think it's unlikely they got the idea from reading this blog.

Have I wished you a Happy New Year? If not, I don't think it's too late, so consider yourself so wished, individually and collectively. Strangely, I find myself looking forward to this year with some real anticipation. I don't suppose it will last.



Monday, 31 December 2018

Apologia Pro Ryvita Sua

What, New Year's Eve already? Yes, indeed: Christmas is done and dusted – very nice, thanks – our children have gone back to their real lives in London, and, having returned from Dorset to Southampton briefly to re-up our clothing, we now find ourselves in the Bristol Winter Palace for New Year. It does feel a little bit like being royalty, this seasonally-adjusted, peripatetic life, except royals have no clue where clean underwear comes from, don't drive themselves across several counties in fog and rain, and certainly don't stand fuming in the supermarket queue on New Year's Eve with a modest wire basket of provisions, stuck behind a log-jam of trolley-pushers, all apparently under the impression that no shops will be opening in 2019. Mind you, the way things are going, they could be on to something. It seems HMV is to be the latest vacant space on the High Street. Sad, but unsurprising: the days of flipping through racks of vinyl LPs seem as remote, now, as my father's stories of following the milkman's horse with a bucket to collect up dung for the garden. So what was a shop, grandad?

As for 2018, it has been a good, productive, and at times exciting year for me, even if it has involved rather more travelling than I'd ideally have chosen to do. Anyone who says it is the journey, not the destination that matters has never been delayed sine die and sans snacks in an airport departure "lounge". I suppose the only real disappointments have been not getting any of my truly amazing entries into either the RA Summer Show this year (may your pots explode in the kiln, Grayson Perry, you ████!) or the final hang of the RWA Open. That, and the ongoing decline in reader numbers of this blog, and the sparseness of your comments. I miss the sparky dialogue of earlier times. What is the sound of one bloke blogging?

December 2017
(no frost this year, just fog..)

It occurred to me, as I scoffed the last remaining mince pie, that New Year's resolutions are really a form of self-cancelling confession-plus-absolution package. I'm too lazy: I will join a gym. I'm too self-absorbed: I will make more of the few friends I have left. I'm fat: I will eat nothing but rye crispbread. I'm ignorant: I will find a suitable evening class. The potentially active component of these packages, though, is not the self-prescribed solution – no-one sticks to those – but the recognition and admission of a personal shortcoming. That counts for something. It may be self-knowledge of a painful sort, but can also feel good, especially after a week or two wallowing in greedy materiality. Confession is, however, potentially addictive. The problem is that the illusory sense of a new start – like most addictive things – lasts only long enough for you to crave a fresh hit. But then there are so many potential confessions to make! Especially if you set the bar for fault-finding and guilt sufficiently low. The organized churches have been in this racket for centuries. Does the Catholic Church charge for confession? I have no idea, but I expect the first few are free, at any rate, just to get you hooked.

So, racking my brain to think of some personal shortcoming to admit to and possibly even remedy in 2019 – I must have some left – I decided that I had two contradictory tendencies that could do with some attention. On the one hand, most of my life I have tended to go with the flow. If there was an easy route to take that didn't require too much by way of effort or navigation, that was the way I went. As a natural loner with a mistrust of self-appointed leaders, this has inevitably meant spending a lot of time going round in circles. On the other hand, whenever some important opportunity has been presented to me – a chance to break out of whatever circular holding pattern I was in at the time – I have usually backed away, like a fox sensing a trap. In the immortal words of Groucho Marx, "Please accept my resignation. I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member". This is hardly revelatory stuff, however: I recently found my old school report book, and it's full of repeated warnings along the lines of "he's quite clever, but not as clever as he thinks he is, and very, very lazy. I'm concerned he will never fulfil his real potential". Yes, well, you had me pegged, guys, at 17 in '71 (now that was a year!), and I don't suppose 2019 will be any different. Apart from the salutary fact that you're all dead, now, and I'm not: there may still be enough time to do something about it! Perhaps this year?

The wonderful thing about New Year is that, for a day or two at least, we can persuade ourselves that all options are now open, all bets are off, and all psychic laws and constants are in abeyance. Anything is possible in the coming year: review, restart, reset, reboot! Of course, the same possibilities of renewal exist at every other time of year, it's just that this little liminal pause, however illusory, is like stepping through a threshold bearing the opposite inscription to that over Dante's entrance to Hell: All hope is to be found beyond this doorway.  It's always worth a gamble, isn't it, another throw of the dice? As that very wise man William James put it:
For practical life at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough. No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance. The existence of the chance makes the difference, as Edmund Gurney says, between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.
Afterword to The Varieties of Religious Experience
As we step serially through that threshold in our different time zones, let us all hope for more hope in 2019! We're going to need it...

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Look It Up


It is arguable that Christmas Tree gangs should be banned
from attending the Edinburgh Christmas Fair

Don't look now, but Christmas is coming. Help! It's the same every year, though, isn't it? An entirely predictable, non-wobbly calendrical event (unlike that big tease, Easter) that somehow always manages to take you by surprise, as if somehow, if only you ignored it with sufficient conviction, this year it might not happen. Because, however you look at it, and whether you "celebrate" it or not, Christmas is always  a bit of a challenge, unless you're seven years old or the sort of adult male whose seasonal domestic contribution is restricted to keeping out of the way and staggering home late more often than usual. I recall the frustration of our many overseas students, for example, paying substantial fees and yet locked out of all university facilities from Christmas Eve until after New Year. So much for the Wise Men from the East... Sorry, guys, we're closed. Put the gold through the letterbox, but leave the frankincense and myrrh on the step [1].

In the Days of Analogue, one way of alleviating the tedium of those long, dark nights confined with your extended family was to play games. Ever had to chase cut-out paper fish across the living-room carpet with a rolled up newspaper, or tried to play hide-and-seek in a house with no hiding places worthy of the name? Only then can you fully appreciate the pure solitary joy of reading a book or, as an adult, quietly getting drunk and pretending to be unconscious. Of course, as well as the more lively, physical games there were also board games, ranging from the moronic to the baroque in their demands on your intellectual faculties. But there is really only one reason for most board games to exist at Christmas, and that is to corral hysterically over-excited young relatives, unfamiliar with the festive domestic layout, into a single location where the damage to furniture and fittings can be minimised. Mind that tree, you little ... cousins!

Personally, I've never really been turned on by games or puzzles. Even as a child, the idea of a round of Monopoly or snakes and ladders was never my idea of a fun way to spend the evening. I was always rather more interested in the look of the board and the gaming pieces than the game itself, and have certainly spent rather more time admiring the curves, planes, and moulding of chessmen than actually playing chess, which, frankly, I found and still find utterly baffling. The very idea of thinking several moves ahead, including the anticipation of your opponent's counter-moves, stimulates some part of my brain that, far from exciting me, gives me a profound headache. It's not something I'm proud of, I simply know my limits. Oh, look, you win again: I'll put the kettle on. Do we have any paracetamol?

I have attempted to master a few card games which are more complex than snap (difficult enough, if your attention is constantly snagged by the elegance and intricacies of playing card design). Poker and bridge, for example, simply because it seems antisocial to spoil the fun of others by refusing to play, however badly, and, naturally, there's nothing a decent card player enjoys more than to point out the idiotic way you have just lost a winning hand to their fistful of rubbish. You're welcome! I spent one memorable holiday in the late 1970s touring France and Spain trapped in a car with three keen bridge players. Rarely has anyone filled the role of "dummy" so well. Listen, you play out the hand, I'll get the drinks in [2].


Solitary games don't hit the spot for me, either. Sudoku? Forget about it! And the challenge of, say, a crossword has never been one to which I have felt the need to rise. Although, recently, I have taken a reluctant interest in the full-on cryptic crossword, which – with its traditions, explicit and implicit rules, and austere satisfactions – is a peculiarly British institution, not unlike our unwritten constitution, or the game of cricket. The civil servant who can finish the Times crossword during the morning commute, casually leaving the paper with its pencilled-in solutions on the train seat, is a figure of legend. But, as with chess, the mindset required to solve a cryptic clue is deeply alien to me. I love language: truly, madly, deeply. To regard words as assemblages of letters, to be chopped up and re-arranged to form other words, is like regarding a person as a fascinating but interchangeable assemblage of organs. Which, I suppose, is precisely how a surgeon must come to see people: in Eliot's memorable words, he sees the skull beneath the skin.

Which, dammit, now sounds to me like a moderately cryptic clue... A spider sees the skull beneath the skin (7 letters). Why? Because recently an old friend who is a crossword enthusiast has inveigled me into helping him out with some of the clues in the Times Literary Supplement crossword, under the mistaken impression that I have advanced knowledge of literary matters. Whereas I am, in reality, a retired professional metadata surfer. As Samuel Johnson said, "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries." [3] Well, I suppose I do have a little literary knowledge, but what I really know is where and how to look for more.

Sometimes these TLS clues are not so much cryptic as oblique: it's just a question of spotting the allusion. For example: "Clergyman's legendary pseudonym (9)". Answer: INGOLDSBY. Now, I doubt that even very well-read people, these days, would get that one unaided by Google. Who today, for heaven's sake, has read The Ingoldsby Legends? Or is aware that "Thomas Ingoldsby" was the pseudonym of a clergyman, Richard Harris Barham? It reeks of a stuffy kind of literariness – all pipe smoke and tweed jackets – that was already obsolete by the 1960s. But, as a clue, it's still little more than a look-up job: the most challenging clues are those that deploy a fiendish ingenuity that rips language apart and stitches it back together into a Frankensteinian simulacrum.

Consider this recent TLS clue: "Service area crossed by Follett's drunken agent (6)". Now, as a sentence, it makes superficial sense. We know what a "service area" is, we can guess that thriller writer Ken Follett is being invoked, and that one of his books may well include an agent who is a drinker. Much googling ensues, but with little result. There are no obvious Follett novels with an alcoholic protagonist, no useful synonyms for "service area". But the experienced solver will have been alerted by the words "crossed by". Such innocent formulations often indicate a mashup of some kind; an anagram, a concatenation, a topping and tailing, or some other piece of word butchery.

So, now consider the answer: it is ... KERNAN. Your considered response to this may be WTF?, as was mine. But here's how it works:

"service" = RN (abbreviation for the Royal Navy, the Senior Service);
"area" = A (a standard algebraic abbreviation);
"Follett" = KEN.
Now apply scissors and paste.

"Kernan", as you may or may not recall, is the drunk who falls down the stairs in "Grace", one of the short stories in James Joyce's Dubliners, and who also features in Ulysses. He is a salesman, thus an "agent"; well, kinda sorta, maybe. So it seems there is no "service area", and the "agent" is not Ken Follett's at all. [4] Which I find less than satisfying. Indeed, what baffles me most about this kind of puzzle is that the treasure chest, after all that map-reading and all that strenuous digging, is often empty. To successfully reverse-engineer the clue may reveal absolutely nothing at all about anything: it has merely demonstrated that your ingenuity is commensurate with that of the setter. Unless of course you managed to get there without resort to the Web or a decent reference shelf, smugly pencilling in KERNAN as the train pulled into Waterloo station, in which case what it reveals is that you have an improbably well-stocked mind as well as quite possibly some kind of personality disorder.


Which, as a retired professional metadata surfer, leads me to some melancholy thoughts on the decline of the printed reference book. If retail shops are struggling in the face of the competition from online shopping, the traditional, well-researched and authoritative work of reference has all but vanished beneath the wheels of the Web juggernaut. Where once there were shelves of atlases, dictionaries, concordances, bibliographies, companions, and encyclopaedias to accompany fields of study as broad as "everything" or as narrow as "Frisian folklore", now there is simply a blinking cursor in the box marked "Search". Which is fine – more than fine, it's fantastic – apart from the fact that it might as well be labelled "Pot Luck", given that most people have no idea how to frame a question which will deliver the answer they need, and must settle for the first few answers that a search engine's algorithms push to the top of an impossibly long and unsorted list of vaguely relevant results. Worse, the popular search engines discourage enquirers from applying any rigour to their search, as offered by the use of filters, wildcard characters, stemming, and the like. You press the button, we do the rest; trust us! Google, for example, doesn't exactly encourage the use of its "advanced search" (try finding it, for a start) or conventional search logic: yes, Google does offer Boolean-style operators, if you know how to use them.

One of my most treasured Christmas presents was a large dictionary, given by an uncle when I was about twelve. I hadn't asked for one, but it turned out to be just what I needed at just the right time. I sat poring over it for hours, finding it as hard to put down as any page-turning thriller. Rather like the multi-volume encyclopaedia I had begun to accumulate on my eighth birthday, it set out, in a systematic and authoritative way, an entire field of knowledge. I didn't need to know every word in it, I simply needed to know how to use it and, above all, when to use it, which meant activating those invaluable twin faculties: the desire to know – curiosity – and the willingness to acknowledge my ignorance.

Now, you, like me, will often have presumed to know something – the meaning of a word, say – and passed over it often enough subsequently for that presumption to have solidified into "knowledge". We are, understandably, not always curious or willing enough to question our own easily-won certainties. There's a nice passage in Aldous Huxley's first novel, Crome Yellow, in which a poet at a 1920s house party explains his misunderstanding of the word "carminative":
"It's a word I've treasured from my earliest infancy," said Denis, "treasured and loved. They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold–quite useless, but not disagreeable. One poured it drop by drop out of narrow bottles, a golden liquor, fierce and fiery. On the label was a list of its virtues, and among other things it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. I adored the word. 'Isn't it carminative?' I used to say to myself when I'd taken my dose. It seemed so wonderfully to describe that sensation of internal warmth, that glow, that–what shall I call it?–physical self-satisfaction which followed the drinking of cinnamon. Later, when I discovered alcohol, 'carminative' described for me that similar, but nobler, more spiritual glow which wine evokes not only in the body but in the soul as well. 
But then, having used the word in a poem ("And passion carminative as wine...") he decides finally to look it up. Only to discover it actually means "makes you fart" (or, "a small English-German dictionary" having been the only reference source readily to hand, Windtreibend).

It happens. I'm fond of asking people what colour they think a "livid scar" is (go on, look it up), not least because I myself felt betrayed by that word when I finally had cause to look it up. But, once you have recovered from your embarrassment – and assuming you are not that strangely well-informed man on the morning train to Waterloo – such epiphanies are an opportunity to acknowledge, if not necessarily achieve, the sort of humility before the Unknown that is the hallmark of the great enquiring minds. In the famous words attributed to Isaac Newton (not a man noted for his humility in everyday life):
I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Or, as that other far-from-humble man, Samuel Johnson, responded, when asked how on earth he could have defined "pastern", wrongly, as "the KNEE of a horse" in his dictionary: "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance."

I am shortly to depart for our own little house party in Dorset over Christmas, where the carminative properties of various traditional festive consumables, not excluding wine, will doubtless be thoroughly tested. Games may well be played, too (my son is unaccountably keen on board games), so I may yet have to pretend to be unconscious, or at least too absorbed in a book to be worth disturbing. It is unlikely that I will not be posting again before the New Year but nonetheless possible, rural Wi-Fi being what it is. A lot also depends on how unconscious or absorbed I become. So, just in case, allow me to wish you a very enjoyable [insert Solstice Celebration of choice] and many good things to look forward to in 2019! Here in Brexit-bound Britain, sadly, Things can only get more Interesting... I'm afraid April 1st could be a very strange and very foolish day indeed, this coming year.

A reminder of winters past...
A Hind's Daughter, by Sir James Guthrie (1883)
Scottish National Gallery

1. Equally predictably, every year some comedian will demand, rhetorically, "But what the hell is myrrh, anyway?" Really? So why not ask Santa for a dictionary next year, dimwit?
2. A task I enjoyed, as a large part of that holiday was spent in the Basque Country, where I often found – to my unaccustomed delight – that I was the tallest man in the bar.
3. That quotation (from Boswell's Life)  has an oddly anachronistic feel, as if Johnson is talking about popping into the local public library and scanning the summaries and blurbs printed on the back of the books, but of course by "back" he means "spine" and by "library" he means either someone's personal collection of books or that of some private institution like a club.
4. Here is an expert's account: The surface of  this clue suggests a story about the author Ken Follett and his inebriated (and/or hopefully non-litigious) literary agent on a motorway journey, perhaps. Cryptically, however, it is a charade within a container, with the clear definition, "drunken agent" – a reference to Joyce's character, KERNAN, the answer. The charade is RN = Royal Navy ("service") + A ("area" -- maths) and that is contained within KEN, the author Follett's forename. The containment is indicated by the word "crossed". RNA is 'crossed' by KEN. The "'s" at the end of Follet is the link word between wordplay and definition. Cryptically, it stands for 'is': [this wordplay] is (the same thing as) [this clear definition], while in the surface it is a possessive marker. So the structure of this clue is: contained charade / link word / definition.