Thursday, 15 November 2018


Approaching Axminster

Long shadows by the Axe

We spent last Christmas in a cottage not far from Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. As I described at the time, we had driven there in our venerable (2002) Renault Scenic, which had suddenly begun to have a crisis of faith in its ability to go up the slightest incline, never mind Wessex-scale hills. Fortunately, a small local garage in Axminster specialising in Renaults was able to sort out the problem. The guy so obviously knew and understood the psychology and physiology of Scenics that I made a mental promise to ours that, when the time for its next service came around, I'd drive it back down to Axminster. That time was this week, and so – mad as it may seem – that's what I did. While its innards and peripherals were being tweaked, calibrated, and wotsinated (I know nothing about the mechanics of cars) I stayed in a nearby B&B and took advantage of the garage's loaner vehicle to have a little R&R myself.

Axminster is one of those places that has an indelible (but usually long gone) manufacturing association, like "Sheffield steel", "Staffordshire pottery", or "Dagenham Fords": in this case, Axminster carpets. It is said that the church bells were rung each time a carpet was finished, which says a lot about the laboriousness of the process, and probably helps to explain why there's not so much carpet-making going on there any more. I doubt the factory hooter goes off in Delhi, or wherever they're made these days, every time one rolls off the line. In fact, the area's association with Hugh Fearnley-Wotsisname's River Cottage brand is probably of greater economic significance. River Cottage being the monetized apotheosis of the urban hippie's Escape into Rural Self-Sufficiency fantasy. I ate in the River Cottage Deli & Canteen, and it was very good. In fact it was better than good, as the free-range airheads working there had lost my order and I had a bit of an extended wait before eating, with the result that they waived payment, despite my protestations (I always worry these compensatory freebies get taken out of someone's wages, as in my observation hip entrepreneurs seem to frown on trade union membership). Free beer, too.

Lyme Regis skips

Black Ven & Golden Cap from the Cobb

I did make the obligatory excursion down to the coast at Lyme Regis – one of my favourite places, packed like a bucket of sand with memories of holidays with our kids – hoping to see the remnants of the annual November 5th beach bonfire and fireworks, but it had all already gone the way of all beachworks. There's something poignant about any holiday resort in winter, even one as ready for all seasons as Lyme Regis: no photograph ever quite captures the ringing and rattling of mainbraces spliced against bowlines in the bitter wind (I know nothing about the mechanics of boats), or the heads-down fortitude of dogwalkers tossing chewed-up tennis balls on the beach. By the end of the afternoon I was glad that the light had failed sufficiently to justify heading back inland.

I also had a productive walk along the River Axe, which by some strange coincidence runs past Axminster in the Axe Valley and down to the sea at Axemouth. It's an idyllic spot, only slightly spoiled by the incessant and industrial levels of noise coming from some housing developments on the edge of Axminster. Apparently, or so the B&B owner told me, they're filling in an entire little valley with rubble so that the estate can be extended further over this natural obstacle. As a New Town boy I'm far from opposing the building of much-needed new housing, but it does look a bit of an unsympathetic eyesore, and I think you can be pretty certain this will be at best "affordable" housing, rather than council housing.

Over the lush meadows on the rural side of the river I spotted a marsh harrier, a birding first for me – it looked rather like a buzzard trying to do an impression of a red kite – and, looking away from the town and the building sites, it all felt incredibly timeless. But I also saw a lot of improvised "KEEP OUT" and "KEEP TO THE FOOTPATH" signs on the gates of fields with livestock which suggested there was already an unwelcome level of encroachment from townsfolk, particularly those with frisky dogs and no "countryside sense". On the other hand, "Git orf my land!" is the timeless, traditional refrain of the farming community on encountering the non-farming community. Sadly, though, I suppose ever more dogwalkers and "recreational" countryside users may yet see harriers and other wildlife retreating ever further away from town, unless they can adapt to disturbance and living on scraps and refuse. It's what we do best, isn't it?

Meadow outside Axminster

Along the Axe

But why make them white?

Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Guardians

Like some home-brewer performing heady alchemy with the fruits of a long summer, I have bottled and corked yet another book, and racked it on the shelf. This time, it's The Guardians, a selection of those composites I have been making this year out of various bits of statuary. It's less grandiose as a bookwork than Puck's Song, at a mere 8" x 10", but every bit as ambitious in its picture-making. There's more of it, too: 56 pages.

As always, I am offering it to readers of this blog first, via this link. This time there are three versions: a hardback at £34.99, a softback at £24.99, and a PDF at £6.49. As always, I'm not holding my breath when it comes to sales. So, go on, please do have a look (there's a full preview there at the link) but feel free to keep hold of your hard-earned cash. As it says in all the best bookshops, you are welcome to browse with no obligation to buy. To be honest, I'd rather hear what you have to say than count your money, although I wouldn't mind both.

For those who have asked, yes, there will be a wasp book, as well as a rather special little crow book, but I want to do my absolute best by those before releasing them into the wild. In other words, I'm still having too much fun with them to let go of them just yet. Soon, though, soon.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Night Flight

As we like to say in northern latitudes, now that the clocks have "gone back" an hour from British Summer Time, the nights are drawing in... That extra hour in bed on one Sunday is no compensation for the sudden lack of light in the late afternoons, when I tend to be out of the house walking with a camera in summer. Time to adjust habits, as well as clocks.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

New To You, or: TL;DR

I seem to be going on about the nature of getting older rather a lot on this blog recently. Which, for readers of various ages, is probably boring, annoying, and anxiety-provoking in equal measure, but there we are. Let's put it like this: I may only be 64, but like any good driver I like to keep my eyes on the road ahead. Not too far ahead, obviously, as this road only goes to one place but, although the destination may be absolutely certain, the hazards and roadside attractions on the way are worth remarking upon, and even worth the occasional detour. Plus, being a good driver but a terrible navigator, there is always the chance that any detour I make may become an instructive dérive. As Chet Baker said, let's get lost. Or as my partner says, try not to get lost this time.

Some hope. I drove into deepest darkest East Sussex recently, to collect four of my pictures from a gallery in Ticehurst and, after following what I thought was an obvious route, realised I was lost in a labyrinth of unsignposted sunken lanes Somewhere in England. I knew I was off-course somewhat when a posh woman on a large horse rode up the lane and, on being asked how to get to Ticehurst, said, "Where??" Luckily, she was able to consult her smartphone and benevolently guided me out of the maze. I think I may have a naive faith in such guardian angels turning up at the right moment which is rather stronger than my sense of direction.

So, um, what was I going to say? Something about getting older... Oh, yes: Old MacDonald. There is a type of song, often "traditional", in which the chorus gets progressively longer, as a new element is added with each verse. I though this genre might have a nice name, but it seems they're simply known as "cumulative songs": Old MacDonald Had a FarmThe Twelve Days of Christmas, and There was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly (no, I have no idea why she swallowed a fly, these things happen, it's no biggie, and there's really no need to make a doctor's appointment... What? No, of course she's not going to die, you idiot) are all examples. The thing is, increasingly, I am struck by the extent to which our collective life is paralleled and parodied by these cumulative songs.

Not so very long ago, there wasn't a great deal for the average person to know. You had to know how to get out of bed, find your way downstairs, make gruel, and stagger down the lane to whatever field or workshop you were working in today, then reverse the process once it started to get dark. Your work was probably traditional, repetitive, and dull. You probably couldn't read or write. News came in the form of gossip and broadside ballads. Singing The Twelve Days of Christmas was probably the most rigorous workout your memory would get in a twelvemonth. After all, even the most advanced scholars of the day had yet to hear of pretty much everything we now presume to be common knowledge. Bear in mind that Bishop Ussher's rigorous calculation, based on the best available data, that the first day of creation fell upon October 23rd 4004 BC was made in 1650, not 650 AD; that is, around the time young Isaac Newton was learning his long division. So you might not have known everything, but you could be across most of it before plague, war, famine, or various lethal combinations of stupidity and ignorance wiped your slate permanently clean.

Today, you don't need me to tell you, is rather different. It's arguable that it was young Newton, in fact, and his uncanny ease with long division that started off the snowballing complexities of modern life. Simply making breakfast and getting to work today requires more knowledge than was possessed by an entire village in 1718, and quite possibly 1918, too. Balanced, of course, by an ignorance of world-historical proportions. I mean, who, thumbing their way through the night's crop of trivia on the morning commute, has the faintest idea of how a smartphone actually works? Worse, what you knew last week may not be enough to get you through the day. It only takes a few ill-considered legislative changes, or some new contradictory nutritional advice, or, ulp, yet another unasked-for Windows upgrade to throw your whole understanding of the world into chaos. But here's the thing: unlike a Windows upgrade, an awful lot of the new stuff doesn't replace the old stuff: life is not just a long song, it's a cumulative song.

This is especially true in science and technology. Newtonian mechanics still apply, and you can't skip that verse and go straight to the wacky stuff about string, although it's also true that you can't include alchemy or astrology and still be taken seriously. The Science Song may be long and cumulative, but you've just got to buckle down and learn it. This is a bit more of a problem in the realm of culture. People might debate who's in and who's out, but no-one can dispute that the list of candidates just keeps getting longer and longer, without really getting anywhere. In music, Bach wasn't replaced by Mozart, who wasn't replaced by Beethoven, who wasn't replaced by Mendelssohn, who wasn't replaced by Mahler, who ... Well, you can probably hum the tune by now, even if you don't know all the words. There has always been more and more to listen to, to read, to see, to appreciate, until – probably somewhere in the mid-20th century – there was finally too much, and "culture" broke into pieces. We call that event "post-modernity". Keats may have had good reason to hope that his name was not, after all, "writ in water", but then he knew who the competition were, and had probably read them all, often and with close attention. A contemporary Keats could spend a lifetime catching up before actually getting around to writing anything, but, given she's probably never heard of Keats, and is a 12-year old wannabe rapper living a precarious life in Los Angeles or Lagos, this hardly matters any more. There are any number of different cumulative songs, each invoking its own list of players. No-one is conducting the cultural song any more.

Which brings me to my main, grumpy-old-man point. Isn't it annoying, when some sparky youngster announces the discovery of some old hat in the cultural attic, as if no-one had ever seen or worn it before? Yes, yes, young 'un, that was your grandfather's hat: I'm sick of the sight of it, frankly... That's the only reason why I, ahem, nailed it to the rafters, rather than taking it to Oxfam. Which reminds me that some second-hand shops have taken to describing their stock as "new to you": a good label for most culture, really, it being both well-used and always new to somebody.

On Hallowe'en, for example, I was at the Ashmolean Museum's exhibition Spellbound, which brings together lots of material associated with witchcraft and popular magical thinking. No, I was not an exhibit myself, although I must admit I felt a bit like one. I've had an on-again, off-again interest in witchery since I was a teen [1], and – apart from some rather half-hearted art installations – there was disappointingly little there I hadn't come across before. Witch hunts, witch bottles, apotropaic devices, astrology, black mirrors, crystals, and mummified cats ... It was all a bit shop-worn, and also pitched at that "school project" level that museums seem to have adopted universally, so that it was spookily like being trapped inside a copy of a book like Dorling Kindersley's Witches & Magic-Makers [2]. I will admit it was good finally to see actual copies of classic texts like The Discovery of Witches, and also some manuscript depositions from witch trials, but the lighting levels and displays were not attuned to ageing eyes or prolonged scrutiny, if faded 17th-century secretary hand is not as immediately legible to you as it might be to some. But it seems you're not expected actually to read the things. It's a spectacle, grandad: move along, please...

Self-evidently, the young don't know – cannot know – what to us oldies is basic stuff, and yet we are obliged to assume (or pretend) that they do. Anything else would be tiresome and patronising. Of course you know who Harold Wilson was, and why he's standing in that photo with the Beatles. The Beatles? Of course you know who the Beatles were... Similarly, to have presumed that we knew, or would quickly come to know, everything our parents' or grandparents' generations knew was never more than a polite fiction. Of course I know who Benny Goodman was... Not so sure about Dan Leno, though... The communal cumulative cultural song is always falling apart, always starting again. In pre-literate societies, of course, you could make a decent living as an itinerant bard, recounting the interminable history of a people and the genealogy and heroic deeds of its rulers in epic eight-hour recitals, but these sessions were hardly singalongs. Today, as the chorus not only gets longer and longer, but also wider and wider, and spreads out into completely new and unknown dimensions, something has to give, and that seems to be personal memory. The ability to memorise and retain and recall is vanishing. In the title of a book I saw recently: why learn history when it's already on my phone?

So, ironically, in an age of information overload the typical individual's knowledge-base may be returning to something like its pre-modern village level. You need to know how to get out of bed, find your way downstairs, make breakfast, and stagger to whatever hot-desk, cash-till, or call-centre you are working in today, then reverse the process once your shift is over. Your work is probably scripted, repetitive, and dull. You probably don't read or write much. News comes in the form of social media chat and infotainment. Singing The Twelve Days of Christmas is probably the most rigorous workout your memory will get in a twelvemonth. And, curiously enough, this is pretty much exactly what Marshall McLuhan (who?) really meant by the Global Village.

1. Which has NOTHING to do with those objects nailed to the rafters. NOTHING.
2. Dorling Kindersley have pretty much trademarked a style of presenting reference works aimed at children that is big on white-background illustration and light on text, which is often reduced to the status of sidebars and labels.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018


I was talking to a friend recently, and the subject of e-readers came up. He claimed he had an uneasy relationship with his Kindle, because of its exclusive linkage to Amazon. A lot of people, I know, are unhappy to use Amazon, partly because of its domineering position in the digital marketplace, and the negative effect this is having on traditional retailers, and partly because of the appalling working conditions in its warehouses. Frankly, I am a complete hypocrite in this regard. I have been an Amazon customer forever, since it was just a novel way of buying books and I experienced the pleasure of receiving a pristine, shrink-wrapped copy of a book that would, in a most regular bookshops, have suffered so much "shelf wear" and been so well-thumbed by previous browsers that it might as well have been a second-hand copy. I suppose I think of Amazon as a wicked but wealthy and well-connected uncle who sends the most brilliant birthday presents.

However, did my friend not know about other, alternative e-readers, such as Kobo or Nook, I wondered? Or, given he already had a Kindle, did he not know about Project Gutenberg?

I thought everyone knew about Gutenberg, but apparently not. If you don't, and might have an interest in almost 60,000 free e-books, which are proof-checked, transcribed texts of classic out-of-copyright material [1], then I suggest you check it out. Less surprisingly, it seems that even among those who do know about Gutenberg the business of how to get a Gutenberg book onto your Kindle is not common knowledge. Well, Amazon do not exactly advocate the practice. So let me revert to my former profession and turn you on.

To use a Project Gutenberg e-book on your Kindle, you first need to find your Kindle's email address. (I know! Who knew your e-reader had a private life?) To do this, open Amazon in your Web browser and go to "Your Account" and then "Manage Your Content and Devices".

You will be asked to sign in, and you will see what is, in effect, your Kindle management page. Go to the "Devices" tab, and you'll see your various Kindles and Kindle apps. If, like me, you've acquired several Kindles and set up numerous PCs and phones and tablets to read Kindle books [2] the list may be quite long. However, click on the "Actions" icon to the left of the one you regard as your main device, and – behold! – you will see it does indeed have an email address. Make a note of it.

Now click on the "Preferences" tab. Scroll down, and click on "Personal Document Settings". You'll see various things, but what you want to check is that your own preferred email address is listed under "Approved Personal Document E-mail List". If yes, nothing need be done, If not, simply add it.

You're all set. Go to the Project Gutenberg page and look for something: the search facility appears antiquated, but it works. Click on a book's icon -- for example, this one -- and you'll see the available download choices. A quick read in the online version is always a good idea, just to check it's what you really want. But, to get it onto your Kindle:

Click either "Kindle (with images)" or "Kindle (no images") in the download options. In the random example I've chosen, you'll see that the file with pictures is bigger, but in most cases you will probably want the pictures. This will download the book as a Kindle-compatible file onto your PC. Alternatively, if you use a "cloud" application like Dropbox or Google Drive and prefer to download stuff there, click the relevant icon over on the right. Dropbox (which I use a lot: please don't tell me they're evil, too) will automatically create a special "gutenberg" folder for you under "Apps".

Now, this is the bizarre part: send an email to your Kindle's email address with the Gutenberg file as an attachment. Shortly thereafter, you should see it either in your "Docs" (on more sophisticated devices like the Kindle Fire, where you can use "Send to Kindle" to add it to your Kindle Library) or in your library of books, ready to read. That's all there is to it.

However: please do respect your Kindle's privacy, and refrain from reading its email correspondence... Mind you, as Wittgenstein might have said, if an e-reader could email, we could not understand it.

Early prototype e-reader

1. In the USA, that is. Copyright is a complex business, but I'm not aware of any reported difficulties using Gutenberg material anywhere else in the world.
2. You do know that is possible, without even owning an actual Kindle, don't you? E-books look great on  tablet.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Crow Crockery

Look, if a man can't design his own crow-themed dinner service, then what is the point? Srsly!

What more perfect way to eat crow pie? Go on, have another slice!

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Rook Takes Hare

One thing you start to notice, once you start regularly showing work in group exhibitions, is how truly awful so much self-styled "art" really is. I'm not talking about conceptual work here, which wears its truly-awfulness as a badge of pride; I mean the conventional paintings and prints and sculptures that meet with the approval of the gatekeepers – judges, curators, selection panels, gallerists, and the like – and populate the walls of a typical "open" exhibition or curated group show.

There'll be good stuff there, too, of course, and even one or two really outstanding things. But, once you've walked the floor of  a few mass artistic outings, and got over the indignation of seeing truly bad efforts on the wall, you start to realise how dull even most competent artwork is, repeating the same old subject matter and the same old techniques that have signified "art" for decades. You'd be forgiven for thinking the Bloomsbury Group or Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden were all still around and active. As, in effect, they are: people are still copying their much-admired moves and putting them up on the wall as original contemporary artwork. Again and again and again...

I don't mean to sound arrogant, here. Certainly, I like my own work well enough, and others seem to like it, too, but I am under no illusions about its quality or originality, or about my status as an "artist". I actually prefer to think of myself as a sort of illustrator; a good one, to be sure, with a strong personal style, and some clever home-made digital "secret sauces", but playing a different game in a different league to those of our contemporaries who will figure in the art histories and fetch awe-inspiring sums in the auction houses. Mind you, most of their work is crap, too.

In a recent post (Snake Oil) I wrote:
It may be unfair, but I'm reminded of those bargain "Can You Tell The Difference?" LP compilations of current hits that were popular in the late 1960s, made by what we would now call tribute acts. For every innovator there are 100 imitators, and each imitator is followed by 1000 impersonators. Can you tell the difference? Does it make any difference who made two more-or-less identical pictures, with what motivation, and with what level of creative innovation?
I was mainly thinking about photography then, but the same steep innovator-imitator-impersonator gradient applies in all art forms. Photographers are constitutionally inclined to feel inferior to more hands-on art-forms, but there's really no need. The effort and skill involved in producing a perfectly competent lookalike linocut in no way redeem the end result: its creator is an impersonator, not even an imitator, and certainly not an innovator. Especially if the subject matter is one of those lazy clichés of middlebrow taste that grace the walls of small but upscale galleries in so many small but upscale market towns.

Honestly, if I see another faux-naive, graphical rendering of a hare or of seed-heads or of upturned boats in tasteful "Farrow & Ball" colours I will ... Well, I won't be surprised. It seems there are legions of self-styled "artists" out there (presumably partnered to wealthy lawyers, dentists, or accountants) living a facsimile of the Good Life in the more desirable parts of the countryside, with their sights set no higher than the greetings-card market and the passing souvenir trade. You can't really blame anyone who actually wants to sell work for narrowing their scope like that (although one might rightly be suspicious of any poet who restricted their output to greetings-card verses) but you certainly can accuse them of complacency. I confess that I particularly dislike anything featuring hares. Hares are threadbare glove-puppets that say, "I'm a bit of a pagan, in touch with folkways, and the feel and flow of the land and its seasons. I'm earthy and yet spiritual. My kitchen is filled with the smell of baking bread, and the laughter of friends and children..." What could be more annoying? Crows, on the other hand, are just fine. Crows may be glove-puppets, too, but they say "Get over yourself, big ears!" to moonstruck hares.

If the recent Banksy kerfuffle showed anything, it is that the market for art is both irrational and vastly asymmetrical. At one end there are the bottom-feeding hordes creating disposable birthday cards and pleasant pictures to enliven the mantelpiece and the wall above the sofa, chosen in the main because the subject matter is benign, the "colourway" matches the curtains, and the price is right. In the middle there are hard-working professionals like Kurt Jackson, who have developed a style sufficiently distanced from greetings-card banality – but not too far – to attract a following and enough income to support a cottage industry, but who will nonetheless never warrant so much as a footnote in any account of 21st century British art. And then there is the stellar and stratospheric realm, thinly populated by a relative handful of canny practitioners, aided by their teams of assistants and other "people", who can sell a single picture for the yearly income of a High Court judge (but who to, I often wonder? they're generally too enormous to fit over even a High Court judge's sofa), about whom reverent TV documentaries are made, and whose places in the histories seem pre-booked. Although time does have a way of cancelling such bookings, it's true. If nothing else, Bansky has re-confirmed his own reservation by arranging a spectacle that enacted, simultaneously, quite how disposable vast surpluses of disposable income really are, and then how yet more burgeoning surplus value can be created out of nothing. Even out of the shreds of a flat piece of paper with some marks on it in an ugly frame. It's got "art history" written all over it.

Ooo, look at me bein' a moonstruck hare!

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Money Money Money

Golden Wasp Game #7

Perfectly nice people can be strangely hesitant, not to say ungenerous, where parting with their own money is concerned. Someone who will happily invest thousands in a car, clothes, or, dare I say, in photographic equipment, will balk at the token cost of supporting another's artistic endeavours, whether this be buying a busker's CD, an interesting-sounding novel, or the modestly-priced painting of a young, unknown talent. Yes, you may like what they are doing, but probably best to wait until they fill a concert hall, get on the Booker shortlist, or have a retrospective at the Tate. There's no point in encouraging a loser, is there? Some people even make a virtue of their tight-fistedness. I remember being at a charity gig many years ago – it must have been Rock Against Racism or something like that – where my companions demanded their entrance money back, as the bands playing (for nothing, remember) were so hopelessly bad. "The Left should not be exploited like this", was their rationale.

Without wanting to sound too jaded, I was mindful of this when I recently launched my Puck's Song book and PDF. Obviously, I would never expect more than couple of people, at most, to spend £50 on a book, beautiful as it is. I wish it could be cheaper; I have to buy my copies from Blurb, too. But I trust nobody thinks I make anything like £50 profit? In fact, unless and until I bump up the price of the book from its current slightly rounded up "production cost", I make precisely £3.41 from each sale. Which is actually less than the profit from each sale of a Puck's Song PDF from Blurb. But (and seeing as we're talking about people's reluctance to part with their money) I won't embarrass anybody by saying how many PDF sales there have been so far. Except to say that, as Blurb won't reveal buyers' names, I can't thank, uh, both of you personally [1]. To be honest, I think I was more surprised that there were so few comments on the tenth anniversary post.

Some of my most instructive experiences in this regard came when "fulfilling" sales of the prints I made for the 2017 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. As you may recall (I think I may have mentioned this once or twice before), I was pleased to get two of my digital images into that prestigious show, one of which sold out its edition of 50 more or less instantly. That is, by the end of the first day of the private view, so-called Buyers' Day. I was astonished. In fact, for the next couple of months I was being badgered by people who'd been to the show and wanted a copy, despite being told by the RA that both editions had sold out. There was actually a waiting list for cancelled purchases. A waiting list! I have no idea what particular magic those two images held, but I have been unable to repeat it since.

It may sound cynical, but I suspect that a large element in their charm was their price. You get to be invited to next year's Buyers' Day by buying something this year. On walls covered by works with price tags in the thousands, a nice-enough little print at a mere £75 must be very tempting; a bit like the postcards in a museum gift-shop. And once the little red dots (indicating a sale) start to stack up under a picture, a certain "me, too" effect kicks in: next thing you know, the edition has sold out.

However, there's "selling" and then there's actually getting the money into one's bank account. A Summer Show buyer pays a 30% deposit plus 20% VAT to the RA, which in effect is their cut of the selling price. On a twenty thousand pound painting, this is a not inconsiderable sum. On a seventy-five pound print, it's small change. The RA having taken their cut, it then becomes the artist's responsibility to "fulfil" the purchases: contact the buyers, invoice them, chase the recalcitrant ones, collect the outstanding sums, and deliver the artwork. Out of my ninety-four buyers, I found a significant proportion failed to respond to my first round of emails asking for payment, sometimes because they'd gone away for the summer, sometimes because the details provided by the RA were inaccurate, and sometimes because they simply had better things to do than fork over £48 for some bit of paper they'd bought on impulse back in June. Consequently, the admin took up most of my summer; in fact, it took until November to finally extract the last payments. I became a familiar face at the local Post Office, clutching armfuls of A3 mailers for despatch [2]. What with that and keeping track of the invoices, it was all a bit too much like being back at work, and not very "fulfilling".

The demand for one of the two "Golden Wasp Game" prints was particularly great ("No. 7"). Some buyers had bought the other one ("No. 3"), I realised, simply because they couldn't have the one they really wanted. So, I decided the fair thing to do was to identify the subset of buyers who had bought GWG No. 3, and only No. 3, and offer them the chance to bid for the two copies of No. 7 I had intended to withhold for my own use. If nothing else, it would help me establish a benchmark for the true market value of my work. Enough of those I approached were grateful for another chance to get hold of the print to make the auction a success. More admin for me, but a lot more fun. Not everyone wanted to put in a bid, however, and one guy actually accused me of money grubbing. I quote: "Please remove me from this email list. I'm not interested in your continued pursuit for money and negative views of the RA. You should just be pleased your prints where [sic] choose [sic] in the first place." Quite right, sir, and I expect you, too, give away your labours for nothing more than the honour and pleasure of it.

Then there was the couple from Diss in Norfolk (I'm tempted to name and shame them, they annoyed me so much). Having seen No. 7 at the RA and discovered it was already sold out, they asked me for a "proof" print, on the grounds that these were what they really collected. I explained the difficulty of this concept in the digital context, but said I'd see what I could do when the administrative dust had settled. Although I was slightly bemused when they said they would usually expect a proof print to be much cheaper than one from the edition. Um, no... By the end of that busy summer I had forgotten all about it, but then they contacted me again. Again, I explained that I had no "proof prints" as such, but would sell them a copy of the "friends & family" hors de commerce edition I had made (identical, but slightly smaller and on an A4 sheet, unnumbered, and signed with my red Japanese-style seal) at the very good price of £50. I attached an image of the print to the email. They agreed to buy it. Only to send it straight back for a full refund because they were "disappointed" with it. The only people to do so out of nearly 100 buyers, and this after two people had made bids over £300 for the two auctioned prints of GWG No. 7 [3]. This was my (not unreasonable) reply:
I am taken aback: you *did* see the print at the RA, didn't you? Apart from a very slight difference in size, in what way does this differ from what you saw there? What were you expecting? I even sent you an image of what you would receive. I don't see how you can be "disappointed" with what you have received.

Frankly, this is annoying: you asked for a proof copy originally, and as I couldn't supply one I thought I was doing you a favour by letting you have a copy of this edition at a very good price. I am not running a mail order company here.

Anyway. If you want a refund, you'd better give me your bank details.
Should I ever pass through Diss, I may seek them out, if only to admire their collection of satisfactory (and presumably cheap) proof prints.

There were other strange and amusing things, too. There were the people who had to have a particular number from within the edition of 50. There was the guy who pretended he'd never received the print, and the print that "disappeared" inside an architect's office, despite having been irrefutably recorded by Royal Mail as "signed for" in both cases. There were the people who felt that buying a print entitled them to some kind of ongoing relationship with me, including arranging possible meetings, and inviting me to visit their houses. There were the ones who wanted to offer swaps with their own work in lieu of payment (David Hockney, maybe; you, no). Oh, and the mysterious vanishing Norwegian businessman and the ditzy Asian actor who were both the very first to buy and the very last to settle up, in November. In the latter case by cancelling the deal, after months of studiously polite emails and answerphone messages from me. Although this did allow a very grateful and surprised person on the waiting list to get print number 3 of "Golden Wasp Game #7". Which would have infuriated the woman who had demanded to be given the lowest possible number in the edition, had she known.

This year, as it happens, I failed to get anything into the RA Summer show (cheers, Grayson!), and once again got selected but not hung in the Royal West of England Academy's Open Exhibition in Bristol, which was frustrating, and although I did get three pieces of work into a show in the Cotswolds and four into another in East Sussex I sold nothing at all at either, despite keeping my prices modestly low. And now, as I say, my CD offerings have fallen rather flat. It's a funny old game, trying to exchange art for cash, and I'm glad I've never tried to earn a living this way. But, looking on the bright side, I suppose I have as a consequence ended up having an easy summer of it, free to bask in the unaccustomed sunshine, unsullied by any unworthy money-grubbing or foisting of unsatisfactory prints onto people, and above all without testing the limits of my reserves of patience, tact, and endurance. I should be grateful, really. And, besides, I notice the local Post Office branch has now closed.

Golden Wasp Game #3

1. That "both" joke never gets old, except that it's not an exaggeration in this case. I have to say that PDF seemed like a bargain to me, compared to a £50 book, offering the exact same content in a high-quality portable digital format for less than a sixth of the price. As I never tire of saying, the most sincere form of flattery is not imitation but cash purchase. But, so far, precisely two people have felt that flattery is appropriate in this case, which I suppose is fair comment.
2. The cost of which, a rigid A3 mailer sent as "First Class Signed For" mail, knocked yet another dispiriting chunk off my £48 "profit". I was glad to have chosen "Signed For" postage, however, as it enabled me to prove delivery, which sadly turned out to be necessary in a few cases.
3. These winning bids were so much higher than the nearest runners-up that I actually reduced the final sale price to them by quite a bit. I'm a fool, really.

Thursday, 18 October 2018


Enough, Heraclitus! This may well be a profound insight into the nature of reality, but we're too high, going too fast, and – oh, stinking Hades! – Socrates has just been sick...

Monday, 15 October 2018


She don't say so much, these days, do she, ship-mates?

So, I hear you say, it's all very well, hiding behind Todd Hido, and his assertion that "As an artist I have always felt that my task is not to create meaning but to charge the air so that meaning can occur". But your Puck's Song stuff is clearly about something, isn't it? You can't invoke Kipling and then stand back looking all innocent, as if you had merely mentioned one of your colleagues at work, or the milkman.

OK. It's a fair cop. Let me venture into explicatory territory.

On one level, this series of images simply illustrate, stanza by stanza, one very partial account of the English national story, as told to children by Rudyard Kipling, through the character of the Oldest Old Thing in England, Puck, in Puck of Pook's Hill. If you don't know the book, or its companion, Rewards and Fairies (neither of which I'd read until quite recently: children's books were never my thing, even as a child) they're worth a look, if only to discover how "England" looked to a fairly unusual but prominent Englishman in the Edwardian high summer of 1906.

Now, looking a little deeper, many of us rightly regard with suspicion and dismiss as dangerous nationalism any concern with nativist narratives of nationhood, especially when coupled with an unexamined exceptionalism. In the (ironic) words of Flanders and Swann, "The English are moral, the English are good, and clever and modest and misunderstood". Oh, yes. We have also preferred to forget the Empire ever happened, or at least draw an imaginary line between "us" and "them". But I like this quotation from George Orwell:
But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
George Orwell, England Your England
They are us, we are them, the same but different. Having been branded as an imperialist, a nationalist, and even as a racist, a writer as full of brilliance, empathy and insight as Rudyard Kipling can be conveniently forgotten, too. But it's no good, as a way of moving forward, to pretend the past never happened. Especially if your past has had serious negative impacts on the present of others. And the fact that a subject is dangerous in the wrong hands should not put it off limits for art; quite the opposite.

But, actually, if you take the trouble to read him, Kipling's version of "England" is not some chest-beating fantasy of racial purity and superiority: it is the story of a serial multicultural mashup, ever-changing, endangered, defended, conquered, transformed, volatile, yet with a base-note of continuity symbolised by the imagined anima loci Puck. England is a place, not a "people" or an idea, and yet it is a place where different ideas and many peoples have been layered into something as solid as geology. Had Kipling lived an improbably long life, Puck's Song would (and, in a sense, does) have verses that include Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, the "Windrush Generation", Ugandan Asians and, more recently, an infusion of young families from Eastern Europe. To Puck, we're all newcomers, all English, and to align Kipling with the likes of UKIP is to profoundly misunderstand him [1].

Also, although in a sense it's a case of the part standing for the whole, Puck is the spirit of a very particular place, the Weald of Sussex and Kent. I'd never visited the area until very recently, driving some of my pictures to hang in an exhibition in Battle, near Hastings. Kipling's house, Bateman's, is located nearby, and I'd meant to pay it a visit. But, having gone astray once too often in the Wealden maze of lanes and B-roads, I headed for the safety of the A27 and Brighton; another time. However, I couldn't help but get a strong sense of the layering of history that had so clearly impressed Kipling. This, after all, is where the original Stormin' Normans came through in 1066, upturning everything, including the language. It's also one of those places with a secret industrial past: guns were cast here for the Navy. The Weald had all the necessary ingredients to be a major centre for iron-founding from Roman times until coal replaced charcoal in the late 18th century. Located on the Channel, close to the shortest crossing routes, the Weald has always been among the first to experience the latest breaking wave of change.

So much for Kipling: what about me? What attracted me to this odd and clunky little piece of verse? Well, when I was building my photographic sequence based in the area around the Hockley Viaduct and St. Catherine's Hill near Winchester (self-published via Blurb as the book England and Nowhere) I had a very similar experience to that of Kipling in the the Weald: everywhere I looked there was evidence in the landscape of layer upon layer of occupation and industry, converging on a natural transport "pinch-point" into south Hampshire. Rather than repeat myself, here is a link to what I wrote at the time.

Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn –
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born!

I had come across that penultimate stanza of "Puck's Song" somewhere on the Web, and it seemed to encapsulate much of what I was trying to convey. So, even if I may have had nothing more profound than that to say, it still seemed worth expanding upon. It led me to read Puck of Pook's Hill, and to review my ideas about Kipling, and then subsequently to devote many hours to creating a suite of interpretive photo-collage illustrations that were originally intended as a sort of coda to England and Nowhere, but have actually become what is probably a more substantial and personal piece of work. Hopefully I have managed to "charge the air" a bit, too, so that more meaning can occur in the receptive viewer's creative mind.

1. If you've never read any of Kipling's work, you might  be surprised by it: why not try "Kim", or a few of the "Barrack-Room Ballads" (my favourite), or perhaps "Plain Tales From The Hills"? He is not what, perhaps, you have been led to believe: an orientalist, a racist, a proto-fascist, and a blinkered apologist for Empire. He is more multi-faceted than that, less dogmatic, more open to conflicting points-of-view, gifted with what Keats called negative capability: "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason". Even at his very worst, he is not simply or uncritically any of those bad things. "White saviour", certainly; "racist", no. Never forget that it was Kipling who wrote, after WW1, "If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied" ("Epitaphs of the War"), and it was Kipling who insisted on properly acknowledging the contribution of Indian and other Empire troops to the war effort.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Charging the Air

I found this slightly androgynous person hanging around a local cemetery, and decided to appropriate her/him/it/them for my own purposes. Step one was to remove a slightly cumbersome pair of wings. Step two was to decide, on closer inspection, that she's anatomically female, no matter what angelic non-binary identity she may claim. I know, I know... I can't help it. The whole idea of gender fluidity makes me feel old and irritable.

Anyway. I was intrigued by her soupy expression of awestruck wonder, and decided it needed some suitable objects of contemplation, as opposed to some invisible and abstract theistic construct "up there". Why a crow or a dormouse, though? I have no idea. They came to hand, and seemed more appropriate than, say, a teapot. Although that could work, too. As you have probably grasped by now, there is no profound message that I am trying to inculcate or illustrate. Or, if there is, it's as much a mystery to me as it is to you.

I recently noted down these words of photographer Todd Hido, from a recent interview:
As an artist I have always felt that my task is not to create meaning but to charge the air so that meaning can occur. 
I like that. I suppose it's then a question of whether the charge I have tried to create attracts anyone into its field of potential meaning. Or, of course, repels.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Ten Idiotic Years

Today – incredibly, uniquely, unprecedentedly, unrepeatably – is the tenth anniversary of this blog. Ten years! Who'd have thought it? What started out as a tentative investigation into the nature of Web 2.0 and the possibilities of social media has ended up as ... Well, I'm not entirely sure what. A sort of diary-notebook-sketchpad left open on the virtual table for anyone to read, maybe? Or perhaps, for those of you in the sophisticated seats, Bruchstücke einer grossen Konfession ("fragments of a great confession", Goethe's formulation for his autobiographical writings). Whatever it is, there is now quite a lot of it, most of which you will almost certainly not have read.

Naturally, I have had thoughts of drawing a line under the whole enterprise, or perhaps even starting a new blog (I was strangely drawn to the title "Public Pyjamas"), but concluded that I enjoy doing this too much to stop and, crucially, can't imagine doing it any differently, unless I were to attempt writing it in, say, heroic couplets or blank verse. Or maybe a classic four-frame cartoon à la Doonesbury, until I realised quite how bloody difficult that is, compared even to heroic couplets. Respect, cartoonists.

So, to mark the occasion, as mooted earlier in the year, I have produced a CD containing all ten years compiled, unedited, as individual Idiotic Hat Annual PDF files. That's it, up above. Any resemblance to a fondly-remembered record label from the late 1960s is entirely intentional. Each of the ten volumes of the Idiotic Hat Annual that it contains runs from September to August, because when I started the blog I was still employed in an academic institution, and that's how the academic world does things, and also because before retirement I was in the habit of taking a summer "blog break" when posts became very thin on the ground. As with so many illogical things, it has its own logic.

You may recall that, in the earlier post Puck's Song Revisited, I referred to the availability of an "artisanal" CD of the book distributed in a "handcrafted" container. This was simply a facetious way of describing the traditional home-burned CD hand-labelled with a Sharpie pen and mailed out in a paper envelope. However, by happy chance I then discovered in a drawer a mysterious piece of plastic which turned out to be the CD tray for my venerable Epson Photo 1400 printer. Never having used it, I had completely forgotten that printing CDs was within its capabilities. Bingo! What's more, it works. Hence the Island pink-label lookalike above, and the New Improved Puck's Song CD below. Handcrafted by me, artisanally.

Having gone to that trouble, it seemed a shame not to match the effort with proper DVD-style cases, also handcraftily artisanal. Here's Puck's Song:

And here's the one for the "Ten Idiotic Years" album:

My original offer still stands. Send me £12.50 via PayPal [1], and give me your postal address, and I'll mail you a copy of either anywhere in the world. You can have both for £22.50, and if you've already bought Puck's Song via Blurb, but would like to have this version, too, you can take £4.50 off either price.

1. My email address is in the "View My Complete Profile" gadget at top right.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

A Souvenir of Southampton Water

I'm not saying Southampton Water is polluted, but ... Well, actually, I am. Which is hardly controversial: it is. I mean, Southampton is in the national Top Ten for air pollution, thanks to the docks and the Fawley refinery, so it's hardly surprising that the body of water that separates one from the other is far from pristine, what with office-block-sized boats going up and down it all day.

I wouldn't even consider swimming in it, unless by some appalling mischance I fell in, but apparently local author Philip Hoare does most days. I imagine he has the water pretty much to himself, setting aside the ocean liners, container ships, and smaller craft that churn through this cloaca maxima of heavy-metal and fuel-oil pollution. Occasionally, when we hosted a conference or seminar, naive visitors from abroad would ask where the nearest and safest bathing beach might be located. "Bournemouth", was the only responsible answer.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Puck's Song Revisited

A couple of years ago, I put together a set of photo-collages illustrating "Puck's Song", something that will probably be remembered by anyone who has read Rudyard Kipling's version of English history, as told by the Oldest Old Thing in England to a couple of imperialists-in-training young children, in his book Puck of Pook's Hill. At the time I made the twelve core images available as that year's calendar (handily there are twelve stanzas), and also as a little booklet.

I had always intended to revisit this work in order to produce something more substantial, and have now done so. It will become publicly available later in October via Blurb as a magnificent 12" x 12" hardback book. However, even at production cost a copy of this will come in at around £50, so I don't expect to sell many (any?). It's the sort of "vanity project" that is mainly intended to leave something substantial for posterity to marvel at: why on earth wasn't this man taken more seriously in his time? Well, it worked for William Blake.

So, in anticipation of limited sales (and initially for readers of this blog only) in addition to the book I am making available a very nice, very high-resolution PDF version of the entire thing (40 pages), also via Blurb for just £7.49. Both the book and the PDF are available immediately, but for now this is an "invitation only" offer via this link. Note that it's a 21 Mb file download. Alternatively, you can pay me £12.50 via PayPal (my email address is in the "View My Complete Profile" gadget at top right), email me your terrestrial address, and I will mail you a copy of an artisanal CD containing the PDF, anywhere in the world, in its own handcrafted container.

There will be prints, too. The individual images are roughly 40cm in diameter, and will be printed archivally on a 50cm x 50cm sheet of Hahnemühle German Etching paper by the excellent theprintspace, whose services I thoroughly recommend. The samples I have look fantastic. I haven't settled on a price or an edition size for these yet, but if you might be interested, please do get in touch. I think we can safely say each print will cost more than a copy of the hardback Blurb book, however...

NOTE: If you do go for the PDF, for the best viewing experience you need to set your reader (typically Adobe Acrobat, or an alternative like Foxit) so that you are seeing a two-page view, but also with a separate cover page. This ensures the correct pages face each other. Unfortunately, this is not hard-coded into the PDF's properties by Blurb, which is annoying.

In Acrobat the settings are:
  Under the menu "View" / "Page Display" choose all of:
    "Two Page View"
    "Show Gaps Between Pages"
    "Show Cover Page in Two Page View"

In Foxit the settings are similar:
  In the menu "View" there is a "Page Display" pane:
    Click the "Facing" icon and the "Separate Cover Page" icon

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Five A.M.

Hi there, perhaps you remember me?
We met at the Royal Academy

Do you ever have one of those dreams where you wake up afflicted with a deep sense of dread, so convinced that you have committed some terrible act in your past – generally a murder, in my case – that it can take some very long half-awake minutes to persuade yourself that this is not the case? And sometimes even a bit longer to convince yourself that you have not so thoroughly buried, concealed, and covered up all evidence of the ghastly event so deep in your consciousness that you had, somehow, actually forgotten all about it? Well, I suspect the recent wave of outings of prominent men for past acts of sexual harassment and assault will have given many senior sirs similar cause for close self-examination. Did I? Didn't I?

As far as what may be regarded as sexual assault is concerned, the situation has changed rather a lot since I was a young man, and with retrospective effect, too, which might seem unfair to some, and which will, as I suggest, have provoked panicky self-interrogation among ambitious men who had hoped and expected whatever bad stuff might be in their past would stay safely buried there. But, in a "post-Savile" world [1], the plea that "things were different back then" counts for very little. The point is, they weren't different, not really, and on an exculpatory scale, this objection has about the same weight as "I was only following orders". Ditto "it was just a bit of fun", "we didn't mean it", "she didn't complain at the time", and all the rest of the complacent litany of masculine entitlement.

So, despite my lack of eminence or ambition, I have carefully audited my internal files, and – unless, as in the dream, I have totally suppressed, shredded, and burned all the evidence, and served a non-disclosure order on my conscience – I can report that I have found little or nothing in there to trouble my sleep. As a monogamously-inclined guy with the same partner for forty years, I suppose this was likely to be the case. Even rummaging through the grubby files of adolescence, all I can turn up are one unwisely pinched bottom, for which I received instant and unforgettably sharp retribution, and a few snogging sessions that might have gone – but didn't go – too far. Looked at from the 1970s end of the telescope, it may look a bit dull – is that all there is? Yep, sorry, young 'un! – but, from this end, it's reassuring. I may not actually have collected signed consent forms for any of my more significant adventures, but my conscience is clear. Although quite how I could prove this many decades later is a very good question.

However. Teenage boys are, generally speaking, more interested in impressing other teenage boys than in impressing teenage girls; they are "homosocial". Boys grow up in a constant, bullying tussle over pecking orders. A classroom can be like a volatile mediaeval court: friends change, alliances shift, and he who is now Up, will later be Down, and get the kicking, real or metaphorical, he has so richly earned for himself while in favour. Girls have their own version of this, I know (something men only discover when raising daughters), but – and I may be utterly mistaken when I say this – I doubt if it thrives in quite the same salty brew of outrageously competitive, but largely imaginary salaciousness.

Again, things have changed since my younger days. Sex, back then, was an almost entirely imaginary, not to say solitary activity, even for that minority of us fortunate enough to attract girlfriends. Real pornography was also extremely hard to come by, so imagination counted for a lot. A certain respect could be earned among your peers by retailing a constant supply of dirty jokes or by the exercise of some vivid fantasy on the subject, usually with grotesque results not unlike those exotic monsters in faraway lands conjured up in early travellers' tales. It could take years for mannish boys to wade out of the swamp of their feverish imaginings, and finally meet women on equal terms on the common ground of consent. Sadly, this has probably only got worse, not better, with the free availability of pornography, which – by definition – is essentially the acting out for the camera of those same feverish, one-sided imaginings.

But the truth is that girls can still be harmed by boys without any physical contact at all. I was very struck by the savage irony of what happened to Renate Dolphin, one of the women caught up in the Brett Kavanaugh case in the USA. Having testified to the good character of the would-be Supreme Court judge, she then made the shocking discovery that she had unknowingly been "slut-shamed" by him and his crew of preppy chums in their high school yearbook, all describing themselves as "Renate Alumni". Which they probably found hilarious. And, let's be honest, at that age I would probably have found it hilarious, too. Especially so if not actually true. Things were different back then; it was only a bit of fun; we didn't mean it; she didn't complain at the time. Hmm.

This did make me wonder. Might our own group of not-so-preppy chums have said or shared or invented things – long forgotten by us and intended solely for the private amusement of a circle of friends – that caused unintended but lasting pain to some of the girls we knew back then? It's not impossible, though unlikely: the girls we knew gave as good as they got. Rather better, in certain cases. As a young lad I had a quick-witted brain and a fast mouth, and I was tormented by the usual longings and frustrations. Might I have reached into the sulphurous depths for some stinging response to fling in the face of some girl's indifference, rejection, or mockery, some corrosive riposte that left scars for longer than it should? I sincerely hope not, but I can never be sure, not least because, self-evidently, it was not important enough at the time – for me, that is – to remember now. Which, in all these historic "he says, she says" confrontations, is perhaps the core indictment to be laid before Kavanaugh and his like: they may well not remember their actions, as they claim, carried out decades ago in the pursuit of laddish laughs and what would now be called "bantz", but their victims have never forgotten. A lapse of memory is one thing, but to accuse your accuser of lying when the asymmetry of memory has itself become the issue is surely to compound the offence.

I suppose it comes down to what is at stake. No-one is going to rake up ancient accusations against anyone I knew in my youth: what would be the point? But criminal behaviour is still, largely, a barrier to high office, and I suppose truly ambitious, alpha-male types with a lot to lose are still vulnerable to their own past behaviour, and so will simply deny any accusations and take their chances in the courts, especially if rich and lawyered up. Also, although some offences are not crimes, or were not crimes at the time they were committed, they are still shameful in the eyes of mature, responsible citizens. Shame is no longer the informal regulatory force in society it once was, however, and, besides, one measure of maturity is the awareness that we, too, have been immature and irresponsible in our time. Forgiveness and repentance are essential social and moral virtues; they're the civilised way of dealing with minor transgressions. But, confronted with bald-faced denial of serious wrongdoing, and with sufficient evidence to the contrary, a fair legal hearing is the only recourse. Get it all out in the open and, if anybody has been lying or conveniently forgetting, on either side, string 'em up. That is, assuming non-disclosure settlements, bribes, intimidation, perjury, and establishment cover-ups don't get in the way of due process, of course. As if!

But at least I am as certain as I can be that I have never actually committed and covered up a murder, despite what my subconscious mind would like me to believe, when it wakes me up at 5 a.m. And if you think you know different, you're wrong, and I'll see you in court.
There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.
Fleur Adcock
Whoah, dude, you've pulled off that chicken's head!
Sure, but history will absolve me...

1. "post-Savile" is probably an exclusively British expression, relating to the fall of sex-predator, paedophile, disk jockey, and TV personality Jimmy Savile, and the "turn a blind eye" policies of the establishment, in its various guises, towards his activities. The whole sordid affair is described here.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Hinton Ampner

Having expected heavy rain, but having got autumn sunshine, we headed out to the National Trust property at Hinton Ampner on Sunday afternoon. It's a 40 minute drive from Southampton through some glorious rolling downland, and the house is set in some fine terraced gardens and parkland, so it's ideal for a not-too-strenuous Sunday walkabout.

It is a damned strange place, however. Serially destroyed and rebuilt, from a notoriously haunted Tudor mansion through various Georgian and Victorian versions, it finally had a major fire in 1960, and was restored in a faux-Georgian style by its last owner, who died unmarried without an heir, and left the property to the National Trust.

We'd never actually been inside before and, unlike the grounds and gardens, it turned out to be a fairly unrewarding experience. That terminal owner, Ralph Dutton, 8th and last Baron Sherborne, was a keen gardener and did a great job on the terraced garden and landscaping, but filled the house with a collection of that awful, gilded bric-a-brac so beloved of the landed gentry. Some of the worst paintings I've ever seen hang on the walls, and it has the drab atmosphere that reminds you of English cooking before the momentous discovery that vegetables are not inherently poisonous.

As always, however, there is enough entertainment value in the random grotesquerie to keep me occupied, and I came away with some useful potential material for photo-collage purposes. I particularly liked this Britannia, with one hand on the globe and the other grappling a sturdy book away from a cherub; even when you have a global Empire, childcare is a problem. But, wait, look at the one on the left: is he scalping some woman? Never mind the book, Britannia, really bad stuff is happening behind your back! I imagine the thing is probably some kind of parable about distracting Parliamentary oversight of the excesses of MI6 and the military. Perfect for any aristocratic mantelpiece.

Caged and dangerous vegetables

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Snake Oil

I was looking through my backfiles for something or other, and noticed this photograph, which was taken wandering along a little tributary stream of the Itchen a couple of years ago. If nothing else, it's quite nice... I especially like the tiny trout hatchlings chasing their own shadows in the greenish, sun-dappled water. Like most photographers of a certain disposition, I have happily spent my time looking for pictures like this, serendipitously extracting pleasing little bits of the world, rendered into the 2-D stillness of a rectangular frame. Or like this one, from the same month, April, in the same year, 2016, with the same camera, a Fuji X-E1:

They have a certain compositional, tonal, and textural similarity, and – insofar as any photographer can claim to put a personal stamp on their work – I'm happy to claim them, stylistically, as "mine". Were I ever to be invited to put on another photographic exhibition, pictures like this would figure prominently. As people seem never to tire of saying about other, similar work, it's all about "noticing the elusive, often surreal beauty that is revealed in the small, overlooked details in our everyday surroundings", and is a standing invitation to turn on, tune in, and – momentarily, at least – drop out of our habit-dulled perceptions. Blah blah, tum-ti-tum, and lah-di-dah. You read this sort of thing all the time, because there is an awful lot of other, similar work being made out there, and, in the end, you have to wonder whether, like landscape photography, it has finally become inextricably enmeshed in its own clichés. And, besides, exactly whose windows of perception are being given a wash-down, here?

I was looking at the online version of the TLS, which regularly features a Poem of the Week. This week it is by Anthony Thwaite, and (because the poem is nominally about a river) it is illustrated by a photo of broken, colourful reflections on rippled water. Seeing it, I immediately thought it must be by Jessica Backhaus, a moderately well-known German photographer who has published an entire book, I Wanted To See the World, of precisely such wave-fragmented imagery. Checking the credit, I saw that the picture was not by Backhaus, however, but sourced from the agency Alamy and by someone called Maria Galan, who turns out to be a stock-photography supplier. I imagine she saw some Backhaus-ish reflections somewhere, and thought it would be worth adding a few to her inventory. Why not? It's easy enough to do, once the idea is out there. Besides, it's no good being snobbish about someone trying to make a living from her photography.

But it does reveal something about the nature of photography, I think, that a journal like the TLS would be happy to source a nice-enough picture of some semi-abstract river-waves from Alamy to illustrate a poem (no doubt they have an account there) rather than use the work of an acknowledged artist of similar stature to the poet. After all, the only differences are pretty intangible: whereas someone like Jessica Backhaus, presumably, sees the broken imagery as expressive of some personal themes, and constructed her obsessive, book-length series out of a conviction that sequenced serial imagery can be greater than the sum of its parts, Maria Galan simply sees a gap in the stock-photo market. Same photo, different motive. It may be unfair, but I'm reminded of those bargain "Can You Tell The Difference?" LP compilations of current hits that were popular in the late 1960s, made by what we would now call tribute acts. For every innovator there are 100 imitators, and each imitator is followed by 1000 impersonators. Can you tell the difference? Does it make any difference who made two more-or-less identical pictures, with what motivation, and with what level of creative innovation?

To be clear, I don't mean to elevate Jessica Backhaus to that primary category. I own a couple of her books, which are nice enough, and have a story to tell, but are not essential. I'd place her in with the interesting imitators. But, having been reminded of her work, I decided to look her up on the Web, where I found this rather well-produced little video on her website. It's called "Wonder", a rather presumptuous title that says it all: yes, here we are, back in the presence of the same-old same-old, that "elusive, often surreal beauty that is revealed in the small, overlooked details in our everyday surroundings", which I have to admit I have begun to find quite depressing as a formula. Is this really what this approach to photography comes down to? A sort of wide-eyed evangelism for... Well, for what? Is there really a philosophical or political or religious significance to be derived from, say, noticing the play of light on a torn poster on a broken window? And does that alleged significance lie in the final photograph, or in the act of noticing itself, an act motivated by the desire to make photographs?

Perhaps we are all just recovering slackers making a virtue out of those lost hours spent idly gazing at walls and floors and out of windows. Or maybe we are aficionados of wabi sabi, aliens adrift in a world that is far too enchanted by the glossy and the new. Certainly, like me and a thousand others, in the video we see Backhaus gravitate to those shop-soiled environments where picturesque dilapidation can be found, producing pictures that could quite easily be mine, or those of just about any other photographer working in this free-floating lyrical genre that, as far as I'm aware, has no name. Which is to say they're good pictures, they're interesting, but not exceptional. That she appears to make a living from this work – she is represented by no fewer than eight galleries worldwide – is both mystifying and, I suppose, enviable. Which provokes the question: who buys such work at gallery prices when, with a little effort, they could just as easily be making it themselves?

Seriously: to believe otherwise is to invest in an illusion. The photographic boom of recent decades is a classic investment bubble. Anyone spending more than a couple of hundred pounds on a contemporary digital colour photograph is, in my opinion, a fool. Anyone asking over a thousand pounds for a single such photograph is, surely, a charlatan. Much as I love it, and depend on its practice for my sanity, photography is a secondary, mechanical, imitative art. The world will put on its photo-face whenever it is photographed, no matter who presses the button; it's simply a matter of learning how to use a camera to the same level of competence as, say, driving a car. The rest is choices. As a medium of record, photography is second to none. But photographs of puddles and broken glass that hint at (or challenge) some sort of immanence are not acts of witness to the world – here are the suffering children of Syria, here is the railway station before it was rebuilt, here is your great-great-grandmother –  but acts of personal testimony. Call me a hopeless old romantic, but selling non-transferable testimony by the yard and at top dollar smacks of snake oil to me.

I find myself coming back to my little manifesto, written some years ago:
Self-motivated photography is like writing poetry: if you are after fame and fortune, you are in the wrong game. You do it for its own sake, and the appreciation of a small, dedicated, statistically-insignificant audience, most of whom will be practitioners themselves. Even to be famous within such a small circle is to be invisible to the wider world. Martin Parr is as little-known to the general public as Paul Muldoon. But invisibility does have benefits: you're free from the expectations of paying audiences, so there's no excuse for your work not to be "as serious as your life" [jazz pianist McCoy Tyner on music] or even as daft as a brush, if that's what you prefer.
I might revise my example and estimation of Martin Parr, not least because his consummate skill in self-promotion seems to have imprisoned him, stylistically, within his own "brand" (although I have yet to hear anyone say to someone wielding a camera, "Who do you think you are: Martin Parr?", in the way people used to invoke David Bailey). I suppose I have also been surprised by the number of non-commercial "me, too" photographers who seem to have ridden the wave of the photo-boom (although I'd be curious to scrutinise the balance of incomings and outgoings in their bank accounts, not to mention their pension arrangements). But I stand by my basic proposition that the true value of whatever this kind of photography is – whether it be labelled self-motivated, lyrical, testimonial, poetic – lies in the doing of it, and the freedom to do it, and not in the final product.

Although, obviously, if you were to feel inclined to offer me a grand or two for any of my pictures, I'd be happy to oblige, even though (shhh...) seventy-five pounds is my normal asking price. PayPal is fine.