Friday, 31 October 2008

My New Toy

Our household is made up of a librarian/photographer (who is naturally both a rabid collector of photobooks and also unable to part with any book, especially unread ones), an academic, and two children who are both avid readers. As a consequence, we have a book problem. I read somewhere that the average UK household has about 10 books, excluding the phone directory. I estimate that -- despite a massive and traumatising clearout last year -- we still have somewhere nudging 6,000 books. On that statistical basis, our house alone accounts for the entire neighbourhood. Hey, we buy them so that no-one else need feel obliged. It's a social service. They're everywhere.

In an attempt to stem the inward flow of this paper torrent, I decided to buy myself an e-book reader. After the usual consumer speed-dating exercise with potential purchases, I settled on the Cybook from Bookeen, a French company (though it does sound like an Irish company making illicit spirits out of used books). The main advantage seemed to be that the Cybook uses the Mobipocket e-book setup, which -- on the face of it -- seemed to have the widest and best selection of titles. The Sony e-reader is a nice thing, too, and very popular, but sometimes I simply get the urge to be different. The Iliad looks very good, but too expensive for a toe-dipping exercise. Maybe later...

The missing player in the UK, of course, is Amazon's Kindle, which sounds wonderful, but which I suspect may never appear here with quite the same seamless integration it has in the States because of technical differences in the way mobile phone networks work in the UK and Europe. Prove me wrong, Amazon, please!

Le Cybook

The main disappointment so far has been the discovery of how much Mobipocket content is restricted to use in North America. Doh! Penguin, for example, seems to make itself available via Mobipocket in the USA, but via the EPUB format in Britain. (Oh God, not Format Wars again ...) All is not lost, however: it's been a long time since I bought my books in W.H. Smith, but I was very grateful to discover their UK-oriented e-book store, delivering in all formats available.

The plan, obviously, is to buy my "disposable" reading in electronic form. The idea of taking a literal trunkload of books on holiday, for example, is very appealing. Imagine: you could even finally read The bloody Da Vinci Code and no one would know! I can see "indispensable" getting in there, too -- being able to satisfy the urge to read John Donne right now when on a train journey, say.

The problem is going to be availability: Donne, yes, Ted Hughes, no. And there's the question of the screen: so-called e-paper is a brilliant thing, but they've concentrated so hard on making it usable even in bright sunlight! that it's a little dim in a normally lit room. A reading light and glasses will be a necessity (getting old? Who, me?).

I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

La Nuit Americaine

Our family has had a barrage of bereavements over the past two years. It's been a very strange time. Part of my response has, naturally (narcissistically?), been photographic.

I've been working on a set of photographs which are considerably more "manipulated" than anything I've ever permitted myself before. It's odd how you can internalize the rules that other people have set for themselves, or have proposed as a standard to which everyone should aspire, especially when these have a puritan austerity. (OK, fair enough, substitute I for you in the previous sentence). "No cropping", or the whole "previsualization" thing, for example, are part of photography's original push to establish its legitimacy as Art -- "I saw it, I captured it, I didn't fiddle around with it; this is my vision, not the camera's ..." So last century...

One of the photographers I most admire, Thomas Joshua Cooper, set himself a rule of "one camera, one lens, one exposure," which worked magnificently for him from 1969 until he broke the thing in 2004. However, as most creative people learn, the constraint of choosing a restrictive form pays dividends that the freedom to do anything never does.

These photographs have the working title In Darkness Let Me Dwell. The title belongs to a song by the English composer John Dowland (1563-1626), written in the spirit of the Elizabethan cult of melancholy (for a contemporary interpretation I recommend the ECM recording John Dowland / In Darkness Let Me Dwell featuring John Surman on saxophone, ECM New Series 1697). Some, but not all, of these images are not what they seem, but this is part of their point. The clue, as ever, is in the title.

These ones were taken early yesterday, looking across the allotment gardens next to the car park at the university.

Monday, 27 October 2008

One Thing After Another

Photographers who have learned their stuff post-digital must find the persistence of the terminology, habits of mind and even units of measurement of the Film Era slightly baffling. Why on earth do we still refer to 35mm lens focal lengths, for example (as if "28mm" had a more natural relationship to "wide angle" than "17mm") or, even more weirdly, refer to darkroom techniques such as "burning" and "dodging" in image processing software, when 99.9% of film photographers had never so much as stepped inside a darkroom? Now, there are quite good commercial reasons for this persistence, but at heart we are dealing with a phenomenon that is understood by archaeologists and cultural historians, and has even been given a stupid-looking name.

Today's word is: skeuomorph.

It's a useful, if ugly, word for something we've all noticed: the way a stylised picture of a 1950s dial phone still says "phone", or the way a sound recording of a motor-drive is added to a digital camera. Obsolete, yet somehow familiar. Functionless, but somehow reassuring. The concept is quite well discussed in Wikipedia, so I'll just give one of the OED's illustrative quotes:
T. SHAW Unearthing Igbo-Ukwu 15 When something is originally made in one material and is then translated into another, but by its form and decoration reveals the original model which it imitates, this is called a ‘skeuomorph’, and the object in the new material is said to be ‘skeuomorphic’. Thus the bronze pot described is skeuomorphic of an ordinary pottery vessel.
It's the kind of thing that makes your full-on "truth to materials" Modernist want to scream.

The Mottisfont herms (see the post Batting below) are kind of skeuomorphic -- 18th century decorative reinterpretations of functional classical objects. The picture below is unusual, in that -- in a complex dance of two-steps forwards and one-step backwards -- I have overcome my Film Era prejudices and allowed myself to transform the unconvincing colours of the original in PhotoShop, only to produce a retro-looking result that looks like it's been hand-tinted.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

What I Don't Know Isn't Knowledge

For some time I have meant to put some thoughts together on the subject of underachievement, a topic dear to my heart.

Now, I have already conceded that I am an idiot (the clue, as they say, is in the title). But I suppose I ought to divulge what sort of an idiot I am. I was born into a perfectly ordinary working class family (my mother worked in a shoeshop, my father in the local engineering factory) in possibly the most perfectly ordinary town in Britain (Stevenage) in the middle of the most perfectly ordinary decade in history (the 1950s). I went to perfectly ordinary state schools (though there was a buzz about state education in the 1960s that is hard to imagine now) and -- as no-one in my family had stayed at school beyond 14, never mind been to university -- bore no burdens of expectation beyond doing my best at school and not getting into trouble out of it. I was a happy boy, loved school, and -- it quickly emerged -- was very good indeed at learning stuff and passing exams.

Curiously, not far away in Enfield, North London, another little boy called David was growing up in very similar circumstances, and, after his family moved to Stevenage, we became close friends and -- remarkably, and to cut to the chase -- were both admitted to Balliol College, Oxford in 1973, perhaps the single most prestigious educational establishment in the country. At the time, the scale of this achievement seemed unremarkable; in retrospect, it is astonishing.

Mike et Dave vont en bateau
Balliol 1973

My idiocy consisted in failing to realise that a secret door had been opened for me, which -- had I chosen to step through it -- was supposed to lead into the enchanted fairyland of glittering prizes and privilege. Maybe. Instead, almost literally, I spent three years in bed catching up on my sleep.

If the truth be told, we recoiled in disbelief at what we found in Oxford. We simply had no idea what to make of it, and it had no idea what to make of us. A professional job with a final-salary pension was still the ultimate horizon of our world; it seemed a good trade for three good A levels and an English degree. I became a librarian, Dave became a teacher. I suspect we were probably a generation away from being ready to have greatness thrust upon us. Still, nice try. And I had a great time.

This week, as always in late October, the Balliol College Annual Record thudded onto the doormat. In reality, the Record is just a school magazine, complete with a headmaster's letter, reports on exam success, the sporting exploits of various "muddied oafs", some sixth-form poetry, obituaries, and a sort of non-interactive Friends Reunited section, where anyone who cares to can report on their Effort and Progress. But, Balliol being a superior sort of school, the effort and progress tends to be of the superior kind. "Still Ambassador to the United States", "My standard textbook went into its 25th edition, and was translated into five more languages", that sort of thing. Absent are any reports from the 95% plus of old members with, um, nothing much to report. The Record is a little annual reminder to that 95% that you haven't quite lived up to your early promise. As if we needed one.

Now, the self-mythology of Balliol, and the readiness of the wider world to buy into it, is ludicrous. I have thoughts to share on the idea of aristocracy in a future post, but Balliol is keen to foster the idea that its fellows and students form some kind of aristocracy of the mind, whose common characteristic is an "effortless superiority." No issue of the Record fails to work this formulation in somewhere, in that ironic, patrician, double-bluff kind of way ("We don't really mean it, but actually we do"). At Balliol, so the story goes, brilliance comes as standard.

In my observation, scholars are rarely "brilliant", despite what they may say about themselves. "Extremely clever", yes; "brilliant", no. Brilliance is not a quality that sits well with careful research and peer-reviewed publication in a narrowly-defined field of interest. Neither are leading politicians or senior civil servants usually well-served by brilliance. It always seems to end in resignation.

Today I read a review in The Guardian of the new book by Chris Patten (Balliol 1962), called What Next? The reviewer (John Gray) makes the point that, despite its scope and ambitions, What Next? "is conventional wisdom of the most elevated kind and, like all versions of the genre, it avoids unmentionable realities" and that "An integral part of conventional wisdom is the conviction that all reasonable people subscribe to it, and this faith lies at the heart of Patten's view of the world."

Now that is the real Balliol hallmark: a "conventional wisdom of the most elevated kind." Eminent, clever, reasonable people -- united by a shared belief in their own natural eminence, cleverness and rationality, and selected by virtue of their common mind-set and experiences -- engaged in public service (a.k.a. "running the world") because it is their duty and privilege to do so. Other views of the world do exist, and these views must be taken into account, even if they are deeply irrational, but -- in the end -- the Higher Conventional Wisdom will prevail. Because it is right. How dumb and how dangerous is that?

Balliol people love to quote this rhyme, but I think they rarely stop to think about what it means:

First come I. My name is Jowett.
There's no knowledge but I know it.
I am the Master of this College,
What I don't know isn't knowledge.

Enter Sarah Palin, stage right.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Wake up and Smell the Ozone

Here is a sad tale of disillusion, misunderstanding, and downright disinformation.

I found Chemistry to be one of the more mystifying and terrifying subjects at school, second only to Woodwork. Mystifying because, simply, I failed to understand it (I think I must have been absent on the day it was explained why anyone cared about titration). Terrifying because there was constant dog-eat-dog harassment between bench-mates, ranging from a blazer pocket surreptitiously filled with water from a squeeze bottle to a satchel set ablaze by a piece of magnesium. Happy days!

Seeking some meaning among all this hocus pocus, a friend and I pored over our text book looking for innuendo, surreal ambiguity, or ideally, a previously-overlooked illustration of "a girl in a tattered lab-bikini." (I can't now recall why "a tattered lab-bikini" particularly, but you try existing in the hormonal fug of an all-boys school without developing such obsessions). One day, however, I surprised myself by discovering, instead, a found poem.

In the section on Oxygen, the chemical fog of words lifted, and I read:

"There is no ozone by the sea, only the smell of rotting seaweed"

Angels sang. It was Truth. It was Beauty. It (almost) scanned. It was the perfect expression of a poised, materialist disillusion in the face of phlogistic old wive's tales. I had found my mantra, and my life changed from that of a standard-issue sixties schoolboy to that of an ironist, a text miner, and all-round Smart Mouth (although this latter would cost me my front teeth). As a career path, it couldn't really have been worse.

Naturally, in years to come, I would share my discovery with friends, in intimate or profoundly intoxicated moments. Or would try to; most people thought I was mad or making it up. Most people didn't get it. They didn't care that some people thought there was ozone by the sea (or that carrots helped you see in the dark, or that if you ate your bread crusts you'd get curly hair). One friend that did get it, however, was Phil, now a GP in Glasgow. I think it helped that he was and is both a scientist and an enthusiast for Old Norse. That tone of poised resignation in my ozone mantra has a distinct smell of the North Sea. The Anglo-Saxon poets of The Seafarer and The Wanderer would have embraced it.

Some years later, when he stumbled across a copy of Clynes & Williams' General School Chemistry, Phil realised it was the "fat green textbook" of my ravings, found the right page, confirmed my discovery, then tore it out and mailed it to me. I still have it: kept like a winning lottery ticket.

But then, quite recently, I received an email from Phil's brother John (proprietor of Walton Street Cycles), directing me to this:
"If you do like to be beside the seaside, it might be best to avoid beaches near major ports. The mix of sea salt, ship fumes and city smoke leads to a chemical reaction that encourages the formation of ozone smog, adding to the pollution that forms in cities"
New Scientist 12/04/08
John added that "Phil thought that we might all have been living a lie."

Like Phil, I was heartbroken, confused, angry. I mean, science has to move on, obviously, but this...  It was like waking up to the Today programme and hearing Jim Naughtie intone, "Scientists have determined -- contrary to the smart-arse belief that there is no ozone by the sea, only the smell of rotting seaweed -- that idiots who choose to live near the sea, and especially in major ports such as Southampton are, in fact, in mortal danger simply by breathing. Sorry about that."

As I say: disillusion, misundestanding, and downright disinformation. The thing about the carrots is still wrong, though.

But here's a possible successor that I found in a photographic journal:
"There is no colour in nature, only various energies of electro-magnetic radiation which the brain differentiates as colour sensations to help object recognition and so avert danger."
Nah... Too depressing, and it doesn't even remotely scan.

Another Perfect Day on Southampton Water
(fetch me a respirator)

Friday, 24 October 2008

Sketch Club #1

When I was a kid I used to think I would become an artist because I could draw better than anyone else in my class. Looking back, I think it may have been precisely that skill that prevented me from becoming one. A narrow, if ironic escape. I still draw from time to time though. Here's one of my life partner of 34 years, Dr. G. :

Gemma at Titchfield

You see my problem? Put a pencil in my hand and I become an illustrator. Illustrators are only one up from painter/decorators in the order of things. However, I love most "illustrations" much more than most "art", and I flatter myself that I could have made half a living that way (but would probably have ended up doing headpieces for short stories in magazines ...)

Actually, my main outlet these days is doodling in the margins of meeting agendas: I was amused and impressed when Tom Phillips (an artist whom I much admire) published a book of his own doodled agendas under the title Merry Meetings. For such a successful artist he's something of a "best kept secret", but one of the most relentlessly creative people on the planet, and the supreme master of the "ongoing project."

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Light on Britain

It's pretty obvious that the most important, all-enveloping aspects of our lives are the ones we take for granted, don't notice at all, or for which we have utterly mad explanations. Where the birds that visit our garden think the food on the bird-table comes from I have no idea, but they're almost certainly laughably wrong. Step back a few conceptual clicks, and of course I have no real idea, either; for all I know, angels deliver it in golden skips to the back door of Buckingham Palace.

As a photographer, I'm acutely aware of light -- its presence, absence, its effects and qualities. And yet, it's only when I leave our shores that I realise something really strange is going on with our light. It's all around us, but we don't see it. Foreign painters, of course, have always noticed it straight away. Consider the paintings made by Canaletto in London or, more extremely, Monet by the Thames. Now, I know London was notorious for its fogs, but Monet appears to have been painting on a particularly smoky day in Hell. Perhaps he was expressing his reaction to the food. Turner, of course, spent most of his life saying "Look, look!" but did exaggerate the effects just a little.

It's clearly something to do with the varying moisture content of the atmosphere, and the acute angle of the sun's rays at northern latitudes. It's like living under a translucent blanket, which usually diffuses, softens and spreads the light, but also sometimes acts like an enormous lens, or celestial stage lighting. I quite often find myself thinking, "Hang on, that tree on the horizon has grown..." or, "Just a minute, where did that building come from?!" It's very theatrical.

I remember coming back on the ferry from France at the end of the summer of 1990. It was the first of those dramatically hot and dry summers that made people think, "Hmm, climate change." As the South Coast came into view, I was transfixed: it was the first time I'd seen a Turner painting in real life. A layer of lurid oranges and yellows was squeezed down over Portsmouth by a black smog, just like the German flag. So different from the usual pearly view of nothing much. It was clear something apocalyptic had been going on; My God, someone has stolen our atmosphere while we were away!

These last few months have been different in another way -- constant blanket cloud cover and grey even light for week on week. So unvarying and so dull... Like living in a box made out of tracing paper. Some photographers like it like this: it means there's no need to worry about blown highlights, and it also means no-one's going to accuse you of indulging in any kind of choc-box pictorialist nonsense. I don't: I love the Sturm und Drang of clouds, shadow and shifting light. Thankfully, it seems to have lifted, just in time for the autumn colours, and the misty walk to work.

October Winds at Mottisfont Abbey

October sunshine (finally) in the Botanic Garden
(N.B. those bizarre plants are Gunnera manicata:
I may yet do a project on them!)

Tuesday, 21 October 2008


Returning to the dictionary thing. Having demonstrated convincingly, I hope, that some words are being done an injustice by most of us, who presume to know their meaning because, well, we just do, I will now demonstrate that even the greatest dictionary of the greatest language contains surprising gaps.

Another of my long-term projects has been to photograph the grounds of Mottisfont Abbey, a wonderful National Trust property near Romsey in Hampshire, which I have visited most weeks in open season since 2001. Although I have mainly photographed the River Test, which flows through the grounds, I have also been interested in various other "changing constants" in the ornamental landscape -- the chalk spring, the trees, and various bits of statuary. Of these, a set of four "herms" are a particular favourite.

The herm is a curious beast. They turn up in many 18th century ornamental gardens, and are ultimately descended from Ancient Greek boundary markers associated with the cult of Hermes, taking the form of pillars which taper downwards and have a head at the top and a phallus halfway up. In the inventory of Mottisfont made by the Historic Monuments Commission, they are described like this:
"4 thermae, C18 stone, male & female heads standing in front of box hedge set on large radius, set 10m apart and 2m high. On low moulded plinth, foliage to front, batted, tooled finish to sides, 2 male & 2 female busts."
Apart from the use of "thermae" rather than "hermae", the word that caught my attention was "batted" -- what does it mean? Naturally, I looked it up in the OED. It wasn't there. I was amazed. I looked again. It still wasn't there.

The next stop, obviously, was Google. It took a bit of effort, but I eventually found discussions of "batting" on specialist masonry websites. It turns out that a "batted" piece of stone is one faced with decorative parallel grooves, carefully done with a chisel. You can see it here:

(Note how the "foliage to front" occupies the same p0sition as the phallus on the original herms!)

Why is this respectable and long-standing sense of "bat" absent from the dictionary? It's a little odd. Other similar mason's terms are absent ("dragged", for example -- stone finished with a metal comb, or "drag") while others are present ("pitch-faced" -- "having a rough face but an arris that is cut true"). Obviously, the OED relies on published printed sources, but you would have thought a routine pass through a few trade dictionaries would have thrown up these terms as candidates for admission. And let's set aside some kind of anti-Masonic thing as just too weird.

If nothing else, it's a good reminder that no authority is comprehensively authoritative. As a good citizen of the language, I've let the OED know about this lapse -- we'll wait and see how long it takes to make it into the online version.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Time and Space

"There is an old riff I have always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy ... who had been struggling through Kant's abstruse account in his Critique of Pure Reason of the barely comprehensible categories of time and space, and decided that all of this could be put much more simply. It goes as follows:
'Time exists in order that everything doesn't happen all at once ... and space exists so that it doesn't all happen to you.'"
Susan Sontag, At the Same Time

"Being looked at by a baby gives a curious sensation of heightened reality, an existential rush, like suddenly being seen by everything."

Hugo Williams, Times Literary Supplement 17/10/03

At Swanage, around 1960, when it all still
seemed to happen at once, and to me.
A snapshot of Paradise.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Through A Glass, Darkly

More adventures with leaves & glass

"I have five pebbles, not too different in size and weight, yet a randomness about them. If I drop them on the carpet they will scatter. Now we could run an experiment and we would find that we cannot put these pebbles in shapes that would be as elegant and as nicely related and with as great a variety as every time they fall. It is better than anything we could do. I have great respect for the way I find things. Every time something falls I look. I cannot believe the relationships. The intricacy. You hear a noise and you say "What is that?" Respect for the affirmation of the unexpected."

Frederick Sommer (message for Doug P.)

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Pentagonal Pool

Last year I finally finished off (in the mercy killing sense) one of my longest-standing photographic projects. There are many Fine Lines in life, which divide X In a Good Way from X In a Bad Way -- genius/madness, endearing/infuriating, laid back/laid off, etc. Well, I have learned that there is a fine line between "ongoing project" and "obsessive compulsive disorder."

The word "project" has acquired a certain negative connotation in recent years, due to its overuse by celebrities as a synonym for "money spinning venture" or "a way to render my idleness endurable." I expect they borrowed it from their artist chums, for whom The Project is a tool of the trade. Some artistic projects are pharaonically grandiose (James Turrell's Roden Crater springs to mind), and some are borderline criminal (example removed by my legal team), but all are a way of (a) getting work done, and (b) giving that work at least a superficial coherence. It is a very useful device for that large proportion of us "art workers" who do not and cannot earn a living wage from our artistic production.

My idiotic project (one of many) involved repeatedly photographing the same pool of water at the same time of day from one of two possible vantage points, ten feet above the water. As the pool is on the university campus where I work, I could visit it more or less daily during my lunch hour. I found that the resulting themes and variations were so endlessly changing, so beautifully suited to mixing and matching, and so rewarding to create, that the act of repeatedly making the same, different photographs genuinely transmuted into a life-enhancing form of meditation. Seriously: it's a great way to spend your lunch break.

Not surprisingly, I didn't want (or need) to stop, and didn't. The original "project" began in 1999, with a self-imposed brief of "only one camera and lens (Mamiya C330 + 65mm)". An early version of Pentagonal Pool was shown on the Southern Arts Fotonet South website in 2001 -- my first proper exhibition. I carried on.

In a moment of crazy liberation, I released myself from the "only one camera" restriction. A new version of the sequence was exhibited in 2004 in the university library's gallery as Dry Light. I kept going. I had become such a part of the landscape that people had even stopped shouting "Don't do it!" as I hung perilously over the rail, gazing into 18 inches of water.

In 2006 I self-published a book Pentagonal Pool using the excellent Blurb on-demand publishing service. Even then I wasn't quite ready to give it up, but last year I began to think that the point of diminishing returns had finally been reached (after nine years!) and made myself draw a line.

It can be tough, knowing you never quite got that shot with the oily wintry sheen on the water, and the reflection of a tiny aircraft deep below in the blue-green depths, cruising between a couple of beer cans and a fluffy cloud. Of course, no-one else will ever know or care (unless there is a God of OCD, which would be really bad news), but ...

I still visit the pool, of course, but now we're just good friends.

Some Pentagonal Pool images, as framed for exhibition:

Want to buy a copy of the book? Just click on the cover below!
(It's worth it just to see the flashy book preview Blurb provides)

It Makes Me Livid

I am a great fan of dictionaries. In my idiotic opinion, they are among the most underrated works of the human spirit, and should be up there with the late quartets of Beethoven, the plays of Shakespeare's final years, and Greene King Abbot Ale. The Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest of these great works, though bloody inconvenient if you just want to know how to spell "ceiling."

Dictionaries do have two side effects, however, about which I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they encourage that humbling sense that one knows so little (and that much of that little is incorrect), and on the other that disabling sense that authority is fixed, "out there", and irreproachable.

On dictionaries, as on most things in life, there is a progressive and a conservative view. The progressive view might be summarised as "Language is an evolving, social practice between human beings, therefore current usage will always determine current meaning"; the conservative view as "Look it up and learn, you ignorant peasant." Both views are necessary, I think.

A classic example is the word "gay". When, somewhere around the year 1380, Sir Gawain is pestered in bed by a "gay lady", we need not find this any more confusing than he did, though it may make us smile more. The history of the word "gay" is described, with examples, in the Oxford English Dictionary, and fascinating it is, too. I'd never have guessed that gay people were being unambiguously referred to as, um, "gay" in print as early as the 1940s. Or, even more surprising, that the use of "gay" as meaning "lame" (i.e. "foolish, stupid, socially inappropriate or disapproved of" rather than "crippled through injury to, or defect in, a limb") dates back to the 1970s. So, both conservatives who claim a "perfectly decent word" was hijacked by queers in the 1980s and progressives who wince at the insensitivity of using of "gay" as a modish pejorative are just SO WRONG (as my daughter would say). I say "Look it up and learn, you ignorant peasants, and see quite how much language is an evolving, social practice between human beings ... etc."

But to my point: I have a good test of the extent to which a person's command of language is based on ignorance (or "usage" if you prefer). Here it is:

You will, no doubt, often have read that someone's face or body is disfigured by a "livid scar". My question to you is: What colour is that scar?

Now go and look it up in a dictionary, and I reckon 90% of you will thereafter walk more humbly before our great, but much misused, language. I know I did.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Outside Looking In

Hinton Ampner, Hampshire

At the weekend we went for a walk round the grounds of Hinton Ampner, a National Trust property out in deepest Hampshire (a different world from the "South Coast Conurbation" where we live). Sometimes, the opulence of the contents of a stately home is best viewed from the outside.

And just for contrast, here is Inside Looking Out:

Dust sheets in our bedroom
as the new boiler is installed

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

A Simple Twist of Fate

In one of my innumerable little notebooks, I find I have written "The fortunate believe in virtue, the unfortunate believe in fate." As there is no author credited, I suspect I must have made this up myself, in oracular mode. And no less idiotic for that: every man his own aphorist.

Recent events in the financial world will have given everyone cause to reconsider those two default settings of the human brain: "I am fortunate because I'm good, and you are unfortunate because you're bad," balanced by "I am unfortunate because it is my destiny, and you are fortunate because you're a lucky bastard."

Successful and/or wealthy people, smarting at envious accusations of the latter kind, are fond of quoting variations on that infuriatingly priggish retort: "Yes, and the harder I work the luckier I get." (These would probably be the same people whose business and house value have just gone through the floor and -- I'm guessing here -- will come home this evening to find a small asteroid has crashed through their roof, incinerating nothing but the box of share certificates they happened to leave out on the table last night. How lazy do you have to be to get that unlucky?)

Unsuccessful and/or poor people, of course, watch TV, write blogs, drink too much, and brood endlessly about alternative universes in which they Got A Speaking Part. Accused of being bad and lazy by the successful, we might reply: "Yes, and yet it seems to me that the harder I work the luckier you get, my friend." But we rarely do -- it's a sort of world historical esprit de l'escalier. We're more likely to snarl or sulk.

To mix up luck, chance, desserts, reward, effort and agency is the kind of glorious Comedy of Category Errors that gave us the world we have today, not to mention some of the world's leading systems of belief. But here is something else I wrote down in a notebook some 36 years ago, which literally fell out of a Christmas cracker on Boxing Day 1972:

There are two kinds of people in this world: those that believe there are two kinds of people in this world, and those that don't.

The irrefutable profundity of this affected me very deeply at the time. Pretty much everything did -- I was 18 and a Jethro Tull fan. For decades I believed this was a truly anonymous piece of folk wisdom, delivered to me by chance, and thus my personal property. Then recently I discovered it is actually Robert Benchley's Law of Distinction. Just my luck: that lucky bastard found it first...

Monday, 13 October 2008

Snail trails in Heaven

Botanic Garden Greenhouses

We have been cursed with slugs in our kitchen this year. I have to get up at 6:30 am to get our son onto a train in the mornings, so it's usually quite dark. When I turn on the kitchen light, several of the loathsome creatures have usually been surprised cruising the lino. Dealing with them really takes the edge off my breakfast. We may, however, have discovered the magic answer: copper tape. The theory is that it gives slugs electric shocks, so they won't cross it: it seems to be true. I have covered the threshold of the kitchen door with it, and the outside step shows the evidence: slug skid marks where they have done handbrake turns back into the garden.

Snails, by contrast, can seem positively benign, and I have always admired the wavy trails they leave as they dither across the algae-covered glass of a greenhouse. They have a decorative quality they share with the beautiful suture lines found in ammonite fossils. "Taking a line for a walk", as Paul Klee would say.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

What We Did On Our Holidays

Renaissance wall painting & modern graffiti,
Montaigne's Tower, Perigord

Friday, 10 October 2008

Sunsets at Dawn

As a keen photographer with what I like to think of as an advanced sense of style and a post-ironic sensibility, I have a difficult relationship with sunsets. If you don't, you probably should. Your average Canon-fodder photographer, of course, cannot see the problem. After all, a sunset is Nature in celebrity mode offering a photo opportunity: "There, get a load of that. Now take your photos and clear off, I'm going to bed." A thousand little flashes going off in the auditorium, while the Big Act is up on stage. It's what cameras are for, right? Sunsets, kittens, flowers, and bland girls with improbable chests. My inner grumpy artist wants to have nothing to do with it.

But it does take great strength of character to pass up a particularly gaudy sunset, and the technical challenge of making it work can be sufficient to mask the disabling blush of self-consciousness. So, yes, I have photographed the odd sunset. Because it (or I) was there. In fact, despite my reluctance, I actually have quite a number of sunsets burning holes in my contact sheets and backup disks, whispering "Print me, print me! You know you want to!". After all, even Richard Misrach -- until then probably the coolest photographer on earth -- gave in and published a book of sunsets. All right, Golden Gate has images artfully taken from the same viewpoint at different times of day, which gives it a certain conceptual angle, but there are a lot of big skies and sunsets, and it's the only Misrach book you can buy for less than the published price on Ebay.

Sunset over Fawley Refinery, Southampton Water

Then this year my friend Andy (who, I think, finds my horror of chocolate box imagery amusing), challenged me to a Duel By Sunsets. Or, as he put it: "Sunsets at Dawn". Who could resist? For several months we fired emails back and forth, each with a mini-apocalypse attached: "Take that!" "Have at you!" "Oof!" "Ow!!" It was fun, and reminded me of our stoned mid-70s college days when revelling in kitsch was a new style (or so we thought) and, in part, a way of freeing ourselves from the clutches of a drab 1950s childhood. It was also somehow liberating to work with sunsets and just not care.

But then my father died two weeks short of his 90th birthday, and sunsets stopped being fun, and started being very symbolic, and rather sad. "At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them". Indeed.

Douglas Haig Chisholm, 1918-2008,
veteran of Dunkirk, the Western Desert and Burma

Christmas / New Year card sneak preview

Where is the moon?
sunk in the sea
like the temple bell

Matsuo Bashō, 1644-94

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Underpass at West Quay, Southampton

I was surprised to find this miniature landscape, like a diorama, composed against the wall of an underpass in the West Quay shopping hell in Southampton.

After you!

Most days, as I head to lunch or my morning coffee break, I get a practical reminder of the difficulty of ethical behaviour. Through the middle of our campus runs a road; a proper road, mind you, with cars and everything. It once had proper houses, too (and even a corner shop) , but these were demolished and built over a few years back in one of the university's periodic fits of architectural grandeur. If anyone had asked me, I would have said I quite liked that the world-leading Centre for Random Robotics was based in a three-bed semi with a neglected garden, but I'm an idiot, and they didn't. The road is still used by proper cars, though, some of which are driven too fast by angry people with a grudge against higher learning and its young customers.

So, crossing this road can be quite hazardous (rightly so, imio*, as students need reminding that the Real World is out there) and the inevitable "traffic calming" bumps and lumps and pedestrian crossings have been installed. This has had the paradoxical effect of increasing the anger of the angry drivers, as not only can they not express themselves by driving aggressively at students, but now also have to screech to a halt every 50 yards at the whim of these same elitist clowns. If you are not entirely self-absorbed, it is quite disconcerting to look through a windshield into the hate-filled eyes of a motorist (whose unexpectedly disastrous GCSEs, no doubt, had put paid to his ambitions for a career in random robotics research) as you head for a quiet morning coffee. There's a whole movie, right there.

Anyway, my contribution to Let's All Just Get Along Week has been this: I don't push the pedestrian crossing button, and therefore don't activate the traffic lights, and simply wait until there is a gap in the traffic (gasp!) in the hope that if I don't make them stop, the oncoming cars won't try to kill me, and also recognise that if they don't accelerate towards the poor idiot crossing the road ahead while the light is still green then they won't scrape off their car's nether parts when they lurch at high speed over the traffic-calming pedestrian causeway that runs across the road. If only it were that simple.

The main problem is that someone usually comes along behind me as I wait, and presses the button, often repeatedly (why do people do this? Do they press light switches four or five times at home, just to be sure? Or maybe they recognise me: "Hey, there's that idiot that never presses the button! I'm going to press it FIVE TIMES!"). Thus my good intentions are overridden. I just try to keep looking straight ahead as I cross.

Another problem is that the innocent generally reap the consequences of the behaviour of the wicked. Now, some young people, particularly our overseas customers, are so nice, polite, and law-abiding that they will stand at the side of an empty road, waiting for permission from the traffic lights to cross. And, idiotic as this may seem, it does at least mean someone is actually crossing the road when the traffic light turns red. However, most British students, by contrast, are so mindlessly contrarian that they will press the button even as they cross an empty road, with the result that no-one is crossing when the light turns red 30 seconds later, and the inevitable angry trucker rolls up. The Rage Karma builds.

Being an obvious easy kill, I often end up running for it. At least then I get the satisfaction of hearing an exhaust pipe kissing the concrete behind me... My ethical conclusion? Some variation of "No good deed will go unpunished", I suppose. I will continue not to press the button, in an effort to create a better world, but will always be prepared to leg it.

* "In My Idiotic Opinion"