Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Quiet Fun

One of the pleasures of spending time in libraries is the discovery of the weird and wonderful lurking in the margins of the dry and dusty. Indeed, if you are so-minded, these incidental, accidental pleasures can easily become your main reason for browsing the shelves. One of my earliest posts (Wake Up and Smell the Ozone) described what may have been the onset of this condition in my own case. I am, I confess, no scholar, and someone who probably spent much far too much time at university that should have been spent reading Dickens and Milton reading instead the likes of Carlos Castaneda and Erich von Däniken. But, where entertaining wonderful-weirdness is concerned, Castaneda & Co. are the plump, low-hanging fruit; the true discoveries are always made in the more arid places where no-one else has bothered to look.

Some of these discoveries are so wonderful (and/or so weird) that you keep them to yourself for as long as possible. Just thinking about these little bizarreries can warm you up on a cold day, give you a little inner boost when you're feeling down, or start you off laughing in highly inappropriate circumstances. More to the point, sharing such stuff always seems to diminish its potency. For example, incredibly, it seems that no-one else cares that King Arthur had, in addition to that attention-hogging sword Excalibur, a modest but steadfast spear called Ron. I find that wonderful, and try not to let the discovery that others don't reduce the pleasure I am able to derive from it. Ah well, "Lean On Me" is the wisdom-song of Reliable Ron.

So, with a certain deep sigh of self-sacrifice, there is one such secret from the dusty archives that I have kept to myself for close to 50 years, and which I will share with you now. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

In the long-ago days before Google and Wikipedia, school homework used to involve a lot of looking things up in books. Yes, that's right, in actual books. Given the essentially book-free environment at home, this meant regular evening trips to the local public library. This was not a burden, however, as it turned out girls were set homework, too. As a consequence, the reference section of our local public library functioned as a sort of rather hushed youth club for the bookish minority of the town's population, cruelly sundered by attending single-sex grammar schools. Or perhaps it might best be seen as an analogue prototype of Facebook, where gossip could be whispered and assignations arranged in real, actual face-time. Those sweet, teenage faces! I still remember most of them as they were then, although I suppose, like me, they will by now have aged 50 years. I'm sure they all wear it well, though.

Anyway. Sometimes you had nothing more urgent to do that evening than hang around the shelves trying to look cool. Pulling the odd random tome off a shelf and thumbing through it was all part of the look, but did occasionally lead to some interesting discoveries. One enchanted evening, across a crowded room, my eye was caught by, of all things, Palmer's Index to the Times Newspaper. After a minute or two's scrutiny, all thoughts of girls and/or homework had vanished from my mind. Nothing is quite as cool as buried treasure.

Hmm... Even now, I'm hesitating to share this. Once, I had thought I might get a book of some sort of out of Palmer's Index. A PhD thesis, even [1]. And the chances are that most people will care no more for this wonderful secret of mine than they do for Arthur's Ron. But, it's time. If you don't enjoy this, it's your loss. I'll always have Palmer's.

So, Palmer's Index, as I encountered it, was a staid-looking set of battered, slim, brownish, leather-bound volumes, produced quarterly from 1790, indexing the contents of The Times newspaper. Take a volume off the shelf, and bits of leprous, perished leather would fall off the spine; open it, and there'd be a knuckle-crack of snapping Victorian glue. An index? Dull as ditchwater, you might say. But, to quote G.K. Chesterton, "Is ditchwater dull?  Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun". You need to look closer.

Most of Palmer's is indeed very dull.  The index is broken into broad sections of interest – some of which are super-tedious, like "Bankruptcies" and "Civil Actions" – and within each section there are alphabetically-ordered lists, some of which are merely names, and some of which are a terse précis of an article, followed by a code denoting the day, month, page and column of the article.  These summaries can nonetheless be intriguing.  For example, randomly in the volume for Winter Quarter 1869, under "Leading Articles", we read, inter alia:
Liverpool ----- Fight in a Menagerie at, between a Wolf and the Monkeys, 9f 5b
Loss of £100 by a Lady from the High Wind in Edinburgh, 2f 7f
Lunatic Killed by a Lunatic at Birmingham, 10m 5f 
Curious, but not compelling.  But then, right at the very front of every quarterly volume you will find a section called "Accidents", and this is a vein of pure gold.  Never mind Chapman's Homer, when I first looked into the Accidents section of Palmer's Index to the Times,
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien. 
Or, more appropriately, "laughing, in a library in Stevenage".

So what is so good about these "accidents", then? Bear in mind that I have an odd, slightly cruel sense of humour, which was probably odder and crueller back then. But, in the spirit of "show, don't tell", here is a small, not quite random selection from the year 1847 [2]:
the Emperor of Russia, from his Carriage in Passing over the Ice of a River Sinking and Barely Allowing the Emperor Time to Escape.
Smart and Smith, two Young Men, Suffocated by Burning Charcoal in their Bedroom, at Basenhall.
the Grand Duchess Olga, and her Husband, from the Horses of their Sledge taking Fright, at Stutgard.
Henry Fowler, Roasted to Death while Drunk on a Lime Kiln, at Uplyme.
Levi Watson, a Lad, who Fell from a Barrow on which he was being Rolled into a Flaming Blast and Burnt to a Cinder, at the Bowling Iron Blasts.
Mr. Wallop, near Winchester, who in Clearing a Steep Fence fell into a deep Chalk Pit, but Providentially Escaped Harm.

at Rugby Station, the Horses of a Carriage with Three Ladies in it, taking fright were Miraculously Saved by a Young Man to whom they Offered Sixpence.
a Priest, in the Madelaene Church, in Bruges from the Marble Head of an Infant Jesus Falling on him Killing him.
Mr. Gypson, from the Model of the Royal Exchange attached to his balloon being burnt and narrow Escape of the Balloon.
at Mr. Turner's, the Baker of New Cut, from the Flooring of his Shop giving way from the rush of Customers and their Falling into the Bakehouse below.

Jefferys, a Fisherman, from a Fish Darting into his Larynx and Suffocating him, at Bognor.

William Rawson, Worried to Death by a Bear, at Newtown, near Carlisle.
Henry Ford, Sawn Asunder by a Circular Saw at St. Pancras Steam Saw Mills.

the Captain of a Vessel in London who Awaking from Sleep threw himself from a Railway Carriage near Birmingham but Escaped Unhurt.
All of Victorian life is there, from the highest to the lowest. People of all stations die or suffer injury from freak accidents, acts of stupidity and bravado, or the perils of everyday life, many of which seem to involve carriages, furnaces, and dangerous animals. There must be something in that small selection that tickles you? Talking of which, how about this classic from 1848:
a Man, who Searched the Sewers for Money, &c. having Lost his way but Happily Saved by Mr. Tickle, of Berwick Street, Hearing his Cries for Help.
Who knew that the Mr. Men were out and about and doing good in the sewers of Victorian London? Or how about this, also from 1848:
a Coal Porter, Killed from Burns Caused in his Carrying a Red Hot Poker between his Teeth.
Wait, what... Why? Why would anyone – however stupid, drunk, or susceptible to dares – even consider carrying a red-hot poker between his teeth?  Much less the esteemed composer of "Kiss Me, Kate" and "I Get a Kick Out of You"? The index is full of these little vignettes of hazard, so many of them unnecessarily detailed, stylish, and even literary. I mean, "Sawn Asunder by a Circular Saw at St. Pancras Steam Saw Mills"? "Worried to Death by a Bear"? This is the poetry of peril.

As you read on, compulsively, certain themes emerge. Men are endlessly falling into lime-kilns, women setting their clothing on fire, children being flung from carriages and trains. But one theme in particular started to catch my eye. Travelling zoos were clearly highly accident-prone, and in particular a certain Wombwell's Menagerie was an itinerant death-trap. Here is a selection of Wombwell-related accidents (inevitably partial, as these are merely the ones thought worthy of report in the Times, our national newspaper of record):
John Johnson Severely Lacerated by a Lion, at Wombwell's Menagerie at Bristol.

Wombwell's Menagery at Hastings by the over-turning of Two of the Vans.

at Wombwell's Exhibition in Woolwich from a Lion Tearing a Boy's arm and Hand.
at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Midlent Fair from a Mr. Martin in Stroking a Tiger's paw was Caught by him.

at Wombwell's Managerie, while at Stamford, from the Lion Biting the Face and Back of the "Lion Queen".

at Wombwell's Managerie, at March, to a Little Boy from the Bear Seizing his Hand.

Ellen Bright, Killed by a Tiger while Performing as "Lion Queen," at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Chatham.
a Youth, at Durham from touching the Paw of an African Lion, in Wombwell's Menagerie and Fearfully Lacerated by the Lion.


at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Chatham from the Lion Seriously Injuring its Keeper.

Samuel Harrison, Keeper of the Elephants of Wombwell's Menagerie, who Sleeping in their Den was severely Crushed by One of the Animals Lying down on him.

at Holywell, North Wales, from Three of the Vans of Wombwell's Menagerie Falling over from the Wind, Killing the Keeper and Three Boys.

Sophia Moorshed, Seized by a Lioness at Wombwell's Menagerie when at Kingsland.

to the Keeper of the Leopards at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Hertford.

Mary Jane Butterfield, by having her Scalp Torn away by a Lion during a Panic in Wombwell's Menagerie, at Bolton.
at Wombwell's Menagerie at Wrexham from the Lion Tearing off the Arm of an Attendant.


James Smith, Employed at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Edinburgh, Bitten by one of the Tigers.
If ever there was a case for an urgent Health & Safety inspection, Wombwell's Menagerie was surely it. And, ladies, should you ever see the job of "Lion Queen" advertised, do not even consider applying for it, however tempting. In fairness, I should point out that other travelling menageries were available, and also not entirely accident free.  A quick list:
at Redruth, at Hylton's Travelling Menagerie, from a Report that the Lion had Broken Loose whereby over 200 People where Injured more or less.

at Batty's Menagerie, Exhibiting at Huddersfield from one of the Tigers Seizing a Young Woman by the Hair of her Head.

to Mendee's Menagerie, from the Elephant Caravan Capsizing on a Horse and Crushing it to Death.

in the Reittenbash Menagerie, by a Panther Seizing the Manager's Daughter.

at Pearson's Menagerie, at Bradford Fair, from the Lioness attacking the Lady Lion Tamer.
It's a jungle out there!

As a source of amusement and bemusement the "Accidents" section of Palmer's Index is probably bottomless. No doubt you might find a different focus for your interest in those 100 years and more of mishaps and misadventures: flaming petticoats or acts of astounding stupidity may be more your thing. Curiously, no other section of the Index is anywhere near as fulsome in its descriptions, or as superfluously generous in its details as the accidents. There really is something there for everyone. One of these days I suppose I might actually get around to reading some of the articles referenced so tantalisingly, but what would be the point? Every one of the best index entries is a complete and perfect work of art in and of itself. To read that in 1847 Henry Ford was sawn asunder by a circular saw at St. Pancras Steam Saw Mills is to share a moment of pure alliterative Schadenfreude with an anonymous 19th-century clerk. To learn that at least one man in the history of the human race has attempted to carry a red-hot poker between his teeth, or that a priest was once felled by a marble head of the infant Jesus is ... well, I'm not sure what. Magnificent? Ironic? Tragical-comical-historical-pastoral? Certainly (I find it) hilarious. And if you don't, then my secret has been shared in vain, and I can't imagine what you're doing reading this blog.

1. In the 1990s I did once submit a book proposal to a publisher specialising in "artists' books", but never heard back. Perhaps they thought I was making it all up? I wish I were that inventive... Or perhaps they thought I was, you know, a little too far ahead of the curve...
2. I've omitted the date/page codes, which are baffling unless you know in which quarterly volume they are contained ("m" = March in "Winter", but May in "Spring", for example).

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Signs and Portents

After weeks of downpours, and overcast, unseasonably mild weather (does the word "unseasonably" really have any meaning now, I wonder?), a sudden burst of January sunshine yesterday afternoon revealed some oddities and anomalies wrought under cover of wetness. Streams and pools of water that have appeared where there were none before, rain that has seemingly permanently etched itself into a plate-glass window, and – perhaps the most alarming portent so far – a tree that appears to have given its shadow the slip.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Container versus Content

The Buddha's First Sermon
Chinese, 1422-36

In my former existence as a descriptive-bibliography guru, I would teach a key, initial lesson to young seekers after enlightenment who had found their way to my coenobitic retreat, whether by design or by malign fate: ignore the content, and concentrate on the container. You don't need to have read The Glass Bead Game, much less understood it, in order to make it available to those whose desire is to read it or, above all, to make manifest to those who wish to know what versions of it exist within your monastic walls. Perhaps the original German edition, published in Switzerland in 1943, or the latest English translation in paperback? Or even, in the future, a streamed Netflix adaptation (how about Game On!, starring Charlie Hunnam as Joe "Game Boy" Knecht?). But to be able to do that you do need to be very clear about the conventions of publishing, and about what bits of information go where, when, and why. Remember: concentrate on the container. There is much to learn there, Grasshopper!

So, for me, one of the most intriguing things about the British Library's Buddhism exhibition was to see the variety of containers from a non-Western tradition on display. Besides, the doctrinal content was entirely inaccessible to me, anyway, being written in various scripts about which I know nothing beyond how beautiful they look. It is actually a curiously enlightening experience, to be rendered as illiterate as some mediaeval peasant. On the one hand, you realise just how far the medium can be the message, and how the superficial, decorative appeal of the material is really a supplementary, subliminal, standalone rendering of the content. On the other hand, you also understand how the persistence of priestly power resides in jealously guarding the secrets of literacy from the populace. Not to mention keeping the sacred texts for as long as possible in some difficult-to-learn dead language.

Buddhas of previous world cycles
Burmese, 19th century

The Heart Sutra
modern calligraphy by Miyamoto Chikkei

The Flower Garland Sutra
Korean, c. 1400

Perfection of Wisdom Sutras
North-Eastern India or Nepal, late 12th century

Book of the Buddha's Names
China, 9th or 10th century

To get back to those containers, however. I was fascinated to learn how a palm leaf would be prepared into a writing surface as a single long, narrow "page", and how these pages were compiled, unbound, in a box, rather like a pack of cards. We did speculate how such, um, loose-leaf pages could be kept in their proper order, or whether, in fact, they needed to be. With the development of paper this curious medium evolved into the concertina-book format, which nonetheless retained for quite a while the traditional long, narrow size and shape of the palm-leaf page: a classic example of a skeuomorph. There were even palm-leaf-page sized wooden plaques, pierced so that they could be laced together like a doctrinal Venetian blind. Other formats on show included various types of scroll and wall-hanging and, of course, eventually the classic, edge-bound codex, or "book" as we generally know it. Among the later examples of books I was intrigued to see a modern Japanese eight-volume series of manga (graphic novels) by Osamu Tezuka, telling the Buddha's life-story. Indeed, at the risk of coming back in my next life as a fly, or worse, I have to say I was struck by the many connections between Buddhism and a Japanese pop-culture phenomenon like Pokémon, with its obsession with iterative transformational states, inventories of properties and powers, and so on. But perhaps, as seen from the outside, western popular culture is equally permeated by its Christian heritage.

Naturally, all these mysterious but eye-pleasing exhibits turned my thoughts to new possibilities for my own efforts. I was particularly attracted by the various beautiful examples of the accordion-fold book, a.k.a. the orihon in Japanese or, more technically (in Biblish, the language spoken by descriptive-bibliography gurus), a leporello. I did make a few leporellos myself, back in the late 1990s, when I first became interested in the idea of the hand-made "artist's book", but found them unsatisfactory. They're easy enough to make, but very hard to do well, both technically and aesthetically. Frankly, most accordion-books end up looking like school craft projects, a mess of poorly-judged folds and glue smears, and even the better ones tend to have perfunctory content that doesn't really match or make the most of the format. Which is hardly how one would describe, say, the Flower Garland Sutra above. So I've been looking again at this mode of presentation, and in particular at what could be created out of several sheets of A4 paper, or even a single sheet of A3. Which led me to create these two templates:

Template for 84cm x 21cm, 12-panel folded book, from 3 sheets of A4

Template for 70cm x 15cm, 10-panel folded book, from 1 sheet of A3

Which in turn led me to dummy up what one of my triptychs might look like as an orihon-style booklet:

I think something like that would actually look pretty good, similarly folded and partially spread out, and displayed in a deep box-frame to allow its 3D-ness to be apparent. So, if that's the container sorted, then what I now need to do is give the content a bit more attention. The Crow Gospel, maybe? It's a shame Faber are so reluctant to allow use of Ted Hughes' work: illustrated extracts from his long poem-sequence Crow would be ideal. Or might a Crashed Car Sutra be the thing, perhaps, using sections from the Highway Code or an insurance schedule as text?

However, I doubt I'm going to be the only one to have visited this exhibition and come away with such container-stimulated thoughts about content: so be on the lookout for a lot of false prophets and mountebanks peddling their bogus wares in the near future.
For in his bag he had a pillowcase
The which, he said, was Our True Lady’s veil:
He said he had a piece of the very sail
That good Saint Peter had, what time he went
Upon the sea, till Jesus changed his bent.
He had a latten cross set full of stones,
And in a bottle had he some pig’s bones.
But with these relics, when he came upon
Some simple parson, then this paragon
In that one day more money stood to gain
Than the poor dupe in two months could attain.

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, modern version by J.U. Nicolson
(Description of the Pardoner, General Prologue)

Saturday, 11 January 2020


Senate House from Russell Square

We were up in London this week to celebrate my partner's birthday. It would be ungallant to say which birthday, but the bingo-literate among you will already have guessed. We had a superb meal in the company of our children at Michelin-starred Scandi-restaurant Aquavit, stayed overnight near Russell Square in Bloomsbury, then visited the Buddhism exhibition at the British Library. It was an enjoyable and memorable couple of days.

Russell Square: Lime-tree archway

The area around Russell Square is an enchanted space, packed with cultural touchstones – quite apart from the British Museum and the various flavours of London's distributed collegiate university, blue plaques turn up on building facades everywhere, celebrating the residence, however temporary, of luminaries from Lenin to T.S. Eliot – and after dark the lighting adds a sprinkling of fairy dust, even on a damp January night. Although I suppose that could partly have been the drink, too.

If you get a chance to see it before it closes on 23rd February, the BL's Buddhism show is a must. Naturally, it is heavy on texts, but what texts! Ranging from fragile birch-bark items dating from the 1st century CE to a multi-screen video of a contemporary calligrapher inscribing Japanese characters onto a paved area with a brush the size of a broom, it encompasses a wide range of languages, traditions, and mediums. In fact, that was the main takeaway lesson for me: that, as a religious and social institution, Buddhism is just as diverse as Christianity, ranging from the austerity of Zen to the full-on golden-pagoda gorgeousness of South-East Asia. Well, that, and the story that Prince Siddhartha's horse, Kanthaka, died of a broken heart when Siddhartha became Gautama Buddha and renounced the world, ordering Kanthaka and his loyal servant Channa back to the royal palace. But, never mind, the faithful horse was reborn as a Brahmin, and achieved enlightenment. Hooray! In Buddhism, there's always the next life to look forward to (although not necessarily with pleasure...).

 The Flower Garland Sutra, Korean, c.1400

Incidentally, my interior and night-time photographic efforts have been helped considerably by one of my more practical Christmas presents, a simple vertical grip that screws into the tripod socket of whichever small black camera I happen to be using. It may look a bit weird – I believe they're used a lot by "vloggers" in one-handed selfie-mode – but it's amazing how much a substantial fistful of rubber and aluminium can improve the handling and stability of a tiny camera in the most challenging circumstances. I reckon it has at least doubled my hit rate.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Jul Knäcke!

One of the pleasures of spending Christmas in Morecombelake, Dorset, is the proximity of Felicity's Farm Shop, which occupies a barn-like structure immediately next to the A35. It's one of those places that thrives by stocking the kinds of food and drink you just can't find in a supermarket, from extremely locally-sourced cheeses and cured meats, to exotic seasonal treats from overseas. This year, the surprise hit for us was the discovery of Swedish Jul knäcke.

My partner had noticed them on our first Farm Shop visit, and I was instructed to pick up some of "those round Scandinavian crispbreads" when I next walked down that way. At first, I couldn't see any. There was a large range of biscuits and crackers on the shelves, but nothing corresponding to that description. Then I spotted a tottering pile of what looked like family-packs of frisbees, wrapped in brown paper. Surely not? But yes: the things were fully 30cm in diameter, the size of an LP record, but weighed virtually nothing.

On opening the pack, I was astonished to find a stack of what amounted to a rendition of one of my "ring" images, a foot across and baked in Ryvita, complete with a hole in the middle. Sadly, the remaining knäcke haven't survived the journey home unbroken, so my photo is a bit of a jigsaw with some pieces missing. I imagine in Sweden these things are about as exotic as a mince pie in Britain [1], but I'd never come across them before and, as well as being hilariously huge, they are rather tasty. They are supposed to contain a special aromatic Christmas spice mix, but none of us could detect anything much beyond the usual rye crispbread flavour and smell. It seems you can get a special tin to keep them in – I have a weakness for tins – but this is also a seasonal, designer item that sells out quickly. Maybe next year!

1. There is an internet "meme" out there concerning an American cookery show on TV that attempted to follow a mince pie recipe using minced beef rather than, um, mincemeat.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

NYD 2020

Clevedon Pier, New Year's Day

 The view from Clevedon Pier...

I've never really been able to get into the factitious revelry of New Year's Eve – the last one I can remember truly enjoying was the transition from 1971 to 1972, as an underage drinker in a packed Stevenage "old town" pub, when "Maggie May" was still fresh on the juke box – and most years since I have managed to avoid it, whether by accident or design. In recent times this has meant retreating to our Bristol flat, with perhaps a midnight excursion to the viewing area at the top of the Avon Gorge, weather permitting, where fireworks may be admired bursting over the city.

My own little end-of-year / start-of-year tradition is a New Year's Day excursion in order to take at least one New Year's Day photograph, whatever the weather, and when in Bristol this has usually meant a trip down to the Bristol Channel at Clevedon. This year the dismal Dorset Christmas fog had followed us, but its effect at north-west-facing Clevedon was delightful: a pearlescent shimmer that endowed everything with a liminal sense of mystery and insubstantiality. A very suitable beginning, I think, to a new decade in which the hollow sound of empty promises hitting the solid wall of reality, like birds flying into a windowpane, looks to be the likely keynote.

Round the back of the seafront houses and cafes, we stumbled across the yard of a curiosity shop, full of the most wonderful, grotesque garden statuary I have ever seen. If I had a decent-sized garden, a few grand to spare, and a lorry, I'd have bought the lot. Whoever makes these – they appear to be castings made in some sort of stone-dust and resin mix – is a genius of taste. In better light on a longer afternoon I could happily have spent hours in there. Come the summer, I probably will.

On New Year's Eve we had the bizarre experience of seeing a number of vintage Yoko Ono videos from the 1960s – including the famous "Cut Piece", in which a passively-seated Ono has her clothing cut away with scissors by the participants – which were looped on TV sets on pedestals, one plonked in each of the rooms of the Georgian House Museum. Than which a more unlikely combination of aesthetics it would be hard to conceive. A fitting end, I suppose, to a year of conflict, cunctation, conspicuous cowardice, and confusion.

My attention was drawn by one of the samplers on permanent display in the museum, carefully stitched by a girl housed in a Bristol orphanage in 1794, the year of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, as it happens:

Mary Ann may be long gone, but her needlework lives on. Let's hope her hopefulness was properly rewarded in life. And may I wish you all a happy and, yes, a hopeful New Year!

Monday, 30 December 2019

Post-Christmas Christmas Post

 View from Morecombelake

Approaching rain in Lyme Bay

One of the little post-Christmas pleasures is coming back into the house after a few days away and finding a slew of cards on the mat, often from the sort of friends and relatives who don't really "do" Christmas but who – perhaps having been given a nudge by the receipt of one of my own cards (I try to send them out early enough to give people a chance to react with dignity), or perhaps just being in the habit of leaving things to the very last minute – managed to get something in the post, often with a few scribbled updates on their state of health and wellbeing. As I say, it's a pleasure to receive them; if nothing else, it's nice to know at least some of these people are still alive. As the years progress, this is increasingly less of a given.

Rainbow over Morecombelake

Lyme Regis, Boxing Day

We're back now from a week in Dorset, where for the past few Christmases we have rented a cottage in Morecombelake, situated close to the sea and some magnificent countryside, and spacious enough to accommodate family and partners without the tension and verbal skirmishing that can accompany too-close proximity (well, too-close proximity with me, anyway: nobody seems to mind if I often retire to the kitchen, in order to read [1]). The absurdly mild but changeable December weather this year has meant that the past week has been a warm, wet, westerly mix of wind, rain, and fog, which is not ideal from most points-of-view, but a few dry and bright interludes ensured that everyone got out of the house often enough to ward off cabin fever.

On Hardown Hill 

Fog near Upcot

Personally, I don't mind "bad" weather – I have wellington boots and an idiotic but warm and waterproof hat – and the erratic mood swings of the atmosphere resulted in an interesting bag of photographs. The "Jurassic Coast" is the sort of area where you can more or less point a camera at random and find a view worth recording, and such crazy, mixed-up weather just adds another element to the the mix. Longer-term readers will know my ambivalent views on "pure" landscape photography, however, and also on the challenges of periodically dropping into a scenic area for all-too-brief periods of time. Resident artists of all stripes are thick on the ground in the Lyme Bay area: it must be tough, trying to find a fresh angle on scenes and settings of such outstanding beauty. In fact, to be honest, I have yet to see much, if any, work on display – locally, at least – that does so. There's simply an awful lot of the same old same old. However, I'm content just to convey something of the exhilaration of striding through muddy lanes, onto rain-swept hills, and down to wind-battered shores in a landscape where the sea is always a restorative presence, not least when tempered by the prospect of a cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake.

On Chardown Hill

1. I've been addictively reading my way through Mick Herron's "Slough House" series of thrillers. I was also given copies of  Isabella Tree's "Wilding" by two different people... I'm only intending to read it once, though.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Goose for Dinner

OMG, when you said let's have a goose for dinner this Christmas, I though you meant to eat, not as a guest... You keep her entertained, and I'd better go and quietly dispose of what has been in the oven for the last few hours... Do you think geese like beans on toast? Because I think that's about all we've got. And hide that pâté somewhere!

What do you mean, animals don't do Christmas? Of course they do. At least they do, down here in Dorset. At midnight, all the cattle in the barn sing, and at dawn all the birds kneel (I think I've got that right). If you, too, do do Christmas, have a great one; if you don't, sorry about all the inconvenience. Normal service will be resumed all too soon.

sotto voce at the door:
Don't worry, babes. I'll sit him in the back with a frisbee
in his hands, and he won't know the difference...

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Abandoned Cars Revisited

We're now away in deepest, darkest Dorset, which has become our Christmas destination of choice in recent years.  Not exactly off-grid, but close to the edge. Which will be swiftly followed by New Year in Bristol, another relatively recent innovation, so it's unlikely I'll be posting much for a while.

In response to popular demand, however, I am putting up the latest revisions of those "abandoned cars" composites I showed earlier. I hope you'll agree they've improved. If you don't, too bad, and you might as well keep your opinion to yourself, as I probably won't be posting any comments for a while, either. Surely you, too, have got better things to be doing?

I don't know if you've heard, but apparently we here in Britain are about to enter upon a national Golden Age... Yeah, right. For the few, not the many, perhaps, to coin a phrase. We'll just have to wait and see how that one pans out for the rest of us. So, best wishes for 2020, and buckle up for a bumpy ride!

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Incident II

Do we live in a meaningful universe? Is there a plan lodged somewhere? Or competing, contradictory plans? Do coincidences open a window onto the underlying architecture of subjective experience? And is there any point whatsoever in asking such unanswerable questions? Well, probably not, and even if there is, I am not remotely qualified to supply any answers. But then, who is? The Pope, perhaps, or Richard Dawkins, or (possibly my favoured candidate) Joni Mitchell? But how would we even recognise the correct answers, given humanity's track record so far? [OK, that's quite enough stupid questions! Ed.].

I only ask as, having recently raised the subject of joyriding and abandoned vehicles, it seemed quite appropriate, if not inevitable, to come across the scenario above on Sunday afternoon, in a quiet corner of the Southampton Sports Centre. At first sight, it looked like an accident, but the multiple muddy tracks gouged into the grassy verges, the rifled contents of the pannier, and the missing registration plates soon told the true story. Yes, the incident may well have ended in a terminal skid (or simply an empty fuel tank), but it started with a stolen motorbike. A Yamaha Diversion 900, as it happens, which appears to be a fairly serious, but unflashy set of wheels.

So far, so normal. What happened next, however, rather raised the spookiness quotient of an everyday coincidence. You may recall that earlier that same day I had also, quite frivolously, conjured the idea of travel through space and time in Southampton, via the soon-to-be-notorious Shirley Stargate, which I had located near a prominent tower-block in an area unusually dense with mistletoe. So, this was the sight that greeted us in a puddle next to the abandoned motorbike:

Yikes! No trickery involved, I promise, and it gave me quite a start when I saw it for what it was, having thought it to be a crumpled plastic bag. Whether it came out of the bike's pannier, or arrived there independently, I couldn't say. But it's precisely the kind of thing that causes the susceptible mind to ask idiotic and unanswerable questions. Like: Do we live in a meaningful universe?, etc. However, on reflection, I think I'm more inclined to infer that there is some as yet unidentified force at work in the universe, that has a sense of humour. Or rather, a force which is chiefly detectable by means of the adaptation we have come to call our "sense of humour". What we might call the Weak Pun Force.

Anyway, by whatever means it got there, why it should be me that came across it, and whether any derivable "meaning" resides entirely in my own (very susceptible) head, I'm sure I might be able to find a use for it in future. So, thanks, Weak Pun Force, for that little moment of insight into the unreason of rhyme.

Sunday, 15 December 2019


Incident 14/12/2019:
It seems that a naked, Welsh-speaking man found in a distressed condition near the Shirley Towers tower-block, Southampton, yesterday, is claiming to be a druid who, on waking from a nap taken while collecting mistletoe, was startled to find himself in 2019, not 209 AD. He is receiving psychiatric help.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Abandoned Cars

It's curious, how quickly a new thematic obsession can take hold. One of the galleries I showed work in last year ago recently announced a theme, "Hinterland", for next year's open submission. I'm not sure whether I will be entering work or not, but sometimes just the suggestion of a theme is enough to kick off a new round of picture-making, like the nucleating particle around which crystals form out of a saturated solution. In this case, the word "hinterland" suggested the idea of abandoned cars in constructed "edgeland" landscapes, something that I imagine will resonate with a lot of us, on this morning of a Boris Johnson landslide election victory. I suppose it is what Thomas Joshua Cooper would call a premonitional work.

But, good grief. People, people, what were you thinking? Well, nothing much, probably. Or, at most – if you've listened to any of the surprisingly idiotic vox-pop interviews over the past few weeks – repeating whatever bite-sized tabloid factoids have successfully been lodged in the public brain, which is much the same thing as thinking nothing. Repeat after me: But where's the money for all this going to come from? (so where do you think any money comes from?). They're trying to block the people's will! (as expressed in a narrowly-won, advisory, non-binding referendum? Fuck off). Get Brexit done! (it will barely even have started, you tosser). They're taking our jobs! (I look forward to seeing you and your kids, next year, out in the fields picking crops, or unblocking a hospital lavatory). Say what you like about his sociopathic personality, but that Boris has got a lovely cheeky grin! (I think you've got that one back-to-front).

If the disadvantaged populations of South Wales and the de-industrialised North can be persuaded to believe that voting against their own interests is in their best interests – largely, I fear, out of some inchoate but visceral mistrust of interfering foreigners and metropolitan elites – then there's not a lot that can be done. Biased and personality-obsessed media coverage hasn't helped, and if the BBC now lose the license fee under a right-wing Tory government, they only have themselves to blame. Although I expect they'll try to blame Jeremy Corbyn, and his wicked plans to fund the persecution of Jews out of the public purse. What, you hadn't heard? The man is positively Hitlerian in his antisemitism, according to the tabloid press and many interviewees regularly hosted by the BBC, not to mention more Stalinist than Stalin in his unhinged desire to re-nationalise and thereby ruin everything in sight. What a monster: close call!

To return with some relief to picture-making... One of Martin Parr's early black & white projects, made before he became famous for his trademark lurid colour work, was "Abandoned Morris Minors of the West of Ireland". Such cars used to be scattered all over rural Britain, alongside the rusting agricultural machinery blocking holes in hedges or marking boundaries. But, now that agriculture is so much more industrialised and "efficient", they seem to be disappearing, along with the weeds and wildlife that thrived in the scruffy rural chaos. I suppose it might even be those darned Poles, scavenging up "scrap" metal wherever it can be found, such as the iron railings round the park or the bronze sculpture within it. Or so they say... However, TWOCking is still a popular urban pursuit [1] – in Southampton the abandoned remains of stolen cars often turn up in quiet city corners, or driven out into the New Forest car parks, usually with a "Police Aware" sticker already in the window, if any are left intact – so, if this particular theme persists, I should have no problem finding new subject matter.

So, looking on the bright side, for lovers of the wabi sabi attractions of abandonment and neglect, the next few years could be something of a treat. Besides, it's so heartening, I think, that those lazy, benefits-guzzling, EC-grant-dependent inhabitants of Wales and the North voted so emphatically to stop sitting around waiting for heavy industry to return as if by magic – never gonna happen (not without nasty old state intervention, anyway) – and start standing on their own two feet, and not spending my tax-money on enormous flat-screen TV sets and mobility scooters. We have to assume they did read the bit about Tory plans to shrink the welfare state, and "make work pay"? Of course they did! And those plans must surely imply that good old Boris will be bringing back loads of well-paid, worthwhile work for them to do, mustn't they? Of course they do! They don't call him Britain Trump for nothing. So, come on, people, let's unleash Britain's potential, and show some of that spirit of enterprise that sets us apart from our European [smirk] "friends and partners"! Or you can at least learn to serve a decent latte in the City (and I don't mean Swansea) with a friendly smile. Besides, those 40 new hospitals promised by your man Boris (it was 40, wasn't it?) won't be cleaning themselves. It's all good.

1. No, not "trial without catheter", which is nobody's idea of fun, trust me, but "taking without consent" a car for joyriding purposes (although racing round the streets at night on noisy mopeds does seem to be taking over as the urban youth's sport of choice).

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Meteor Shower

Reading the elderly going on about the travails of advancing age probably gets old pretty quickly for the young, I imagine, and there certainly is rather a lot of it about. But then, there are more of us about, these days: a lot more. When I was a kid, my grandmother – something of an activist all her life – ran the local Over 60s Club. This was a club for old people: tea, chatter, bingo, and day-trips to Clacton and Margate. Her first husband, my grandfather, had died the year before I was born, aged 59. His father died in 1904, aged 45, and her own father had died in 1896 at the age of 50. So these "over 60s" were not just old people, but lucky people: survivors. If that generation made it to 65, particularly labouring men, celebrations were in order.

Today's elderly – barely middle-aged in body and spirit when the majority of us effortlessly passed the 60 mark – are destined to explore what, for most of the history of the human race, has been unknown territory. The brutal fact is, evolution has little interest in or use for those who have lived beyond their reproductive peak, so we are entering ever deeper into the unpredictable period where breakdowns are not covered by the original guarantee. True, there are convincing arguments that humanity's progress has been aided by the advanced child-taming skills of doting grandmothers, but the continued evolutionary usefulness of grumpy, worn-out grandfathers, moaning about these new-fangled "wheel" thingies what we never had in my day, is, at best, debatable. So it is something worth thinking and writing about, even if that does seem typically self-centred for the post-War generation. OK boomer! But, more than that, all this thinking out loud may lead to something being done about it: you'll thank us for it, kids, when your time comes.

I was struck by some of the observations in an article by Meghan Daum (Guardian, 17/10/19) about the perspective of older feminists on the #MeToo phenomenon (although slightly less struck, when I discovered she was only born in 1970). In particular this:
The world has changed so much between my time and theirs that someone just 10 years younger might as well belong to a different geological epoch. To a young person, someone like me is not so much an elder as an extinction. Is it any wonder, then, that older generations’ contributions to the conversation are, at best, a kind of verbal meteor shower, the flickering, nattering remains of planets that haven’t existed for eons?
Setting aside the fact that Daum is a mere child of 49, I love that image of the nattering meteor shower. Certainly, my planet is long gone. Literally so, in the case of the house where I was born, both my primary schools, the block of flats where I lived out my adolescence, and various other immemorial haunts of my younger years: all have been demolished and built over, with not a rack left behind. Less materially, but equally finally, rock-solid ideas and attitudes I grew up with have been challenged and consigned to history. From the same article:
Until 1960, the idea that women could compete with men in the job market, that men should do housework, that women had any purpose in life higher than having babies and men had any purpose higher than financially supporting those babies or going to war to protect them, was something close to unthinkable.
That we have come so far in so little time is a marvel. That we should expect all the kinks to have been worked out by now is insane.
I think I'd correct that over-optimistic "1960" to, let's say, 1980, but the point is nonetheless well made. The young have every right – a duty, even – to complain and to criticise, and to show little or no consideration for the aching shoulders on which they stand. My generation was equally ignorant and dismissive of the struggles of those who had actually created the conditions we enjoyed. Who actually set up the NHS and the welfare system, introduced free state education, or invented the juke box and the electric guitar? Not us. But with age a sense of perspective comes into play, as the fluidity of your own life solidifies: part history, part legacy, mainly rubble. The world I was born into, the world I was schooled in, the several worlds I worked in, the world I have retired into, and all the worlds to come are entirely different planets, all destined to become space junk. Once, it was possible to write:
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
Now, in 2019, soon to be 2020, we are considerably closer to 2040 than we are to 1940, and yet to anyone over 60 the world of 1940 is just the day before yesterday, the vanished, war-torn planet of our parents' heyday. Do we still "happen to be the same person", though? It seems increasingly doubtful. I'm beginning to suspect I may not be the same person this afternoon that I thought I was this morning. Ah well, tomorrow is another me. Which is far from the pleasantly reassuring thought it once was. Memory and identity are closely linked, and both, it seems, are mutable.

At some point, it seems our mental flexibility and openness begin to ossify, and we start to lose patience with the flow of endless novelty and endless change, not least because this ceaseless churning causes us – once we have tired of swimming against the tide – to drift to the periphery, away from the lively centre, where the young congregate and the action is. We have come to like our world just as it is, thank you very much; it defines who we are, and any change to it threatens the stability of our identity. Than which – as you will know if you have ever suffered mental imbalance or "experimented" with psychoactive substances – few things are more terrifying. Which introduces the unmentionable spectre that flickers at the edge of every older person's vision: the prospect of dementia. Which is an outcome of advanced age that is quite explicitly not covered by the original guarantee [1].

It's natural for the robust young to advocate radical change and enjoy the inconveniences that accompany adventure. They're still just a preliminary sketch of who they will become, have little to lose, and some vigorous, random strokes and splatters of ink may reveal exciting new possibilities. If not, they still have time to bin the whole thing, and start again. We older folk, by contrast, are pretty much at the stage where we have to start thinking of ourselves as finished works, and worry that any more fiddling about may risk spoiling the whole thing, even if the completed picture is not quite the masterpiece we had hoped. And then there is always the underlying fear that the whole thing may have been carried out with materials so unstable that it will self-destruct or get scrambled before the final finishing touches can be applied.

Self-help gurus and "life coaches" are often advocates of risk, of life as permanent revolution. To what degree anyone actually lives, or could live a whole life like that, I couldn't say. It must be exhausting. But it's a half-baked philosophy that regards a reckless, narcissistic optimism as the highest, aspirational good. Live the dream, become your best self, whatever the cost! Which is fine, if you're young, strong and/or beautiful, have a trust fund or a bankable talent, or simply tend to land on your feet. None of the above? Then a more cautious approach to life may be appropriate in your case, especially if you hope to live a long life in relative comfort. Have you considered enhancing your pension prospects, for example?

One of the most quoted and yet most stupid poems ever written is "Come to the Edge" by Christopher Logue (whose adaptation of Homer, War Music, by contrast, is brilliant):
Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It's too high!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew.
The temptation to rewrite that last line is overwhelming. Perhaps as, "And his case comes up next Friday", or maybe, "But they pushed back, and said, 'No, you first...'" I mean, nobody needs to be encouraged to be an idiot. Even someone as level-headed, mild-mannered, and essentially grounded as me took foolish risks when I was young, coming perilously close to disaster and even an early death on several occasions. Did I really believe I was invulnerable? I may well have done, but I got away with it: even if I ticked none of the other lucky boxes, I have always tended to land on my feet.

I suppose that if there is one thing that divides age from youth, it is the inability of the young to hear the spectral shouting coming from within that ancestral, nattering meteor shower: "Get away from the edge! You CANNOT fly, you IDIOT! And do up that coat! It's cold: where are your gloves? And wear a vest, fasten that seatbelt, and don't play with matches, run with scissors, or have unprotected sex with strangers, and, and, and ..." Well, it seems I can certainly hear them now, reluctant as I still am to act as their ventriloquist's dummy. Let the young make and learn from their own mistakes, I say; meanwhile there is new, scary terra incognita lying ahead for us old folk to explore. And, yes, I'm about to quote that other stupid, much-quoted, but rather better poem, Tennyson's "Ulysses":
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are...
But, listen, Ulysses, let's get a few maps and Rough Guides before we leave, this time, yeah? And, by the way, has anyone checked whether the boat insurance has been renewed [2]? And, um, have you mentioned this plan to Penelope?

1. That's right, as Chico Marx says, there ain't no sanity clause.
2. But there definitely is a Ship of Theseus clause.