Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Nice One, Cyril

I've always found that the unexpected Christmas gifts are the best ones. When I was small, even though I would have spent several over-excited nights in anticipation of receiving a train set or a tape recorder from my parents, I usually ended up spending the days following Christmas Day entranced by a knitted soft toy from my godmother, or a battery-operated torch from a grandparent, or, as I recall with great fondness, a fat grey "Home Study" dictionary which became a beloved companion, given to me by my uncle Colin who, sadly, died in the week before Christmas this year.

As I think I've already mentioned, in recent years my partner and I have endured a series of deaths that has removed most of the senior generation from both of our families. Apart from the customary sadness and a slightly grim sense that we have ourselves now entered the front rank in the losing battle with mortality, one of the main legacies of this has been piles upon piles of boxes upon boxes of inherited stuff. And, as I think I've also already mentioned, we're not good with stuff.

We are barricaded and corralled by stuff. No door, no cupboard, no passageway is unobstructed. We are constrained and constricted by tottering piles of paper, bubble-wrapped objects, and stacked crates and boxes. Substantial surplus items of furniture loom like the proverbial elephant in the room, presences so large as to have become invisible. You think I exaggerate?

This is our entrance hall, front room, and dining room
(after the pre-Christmas tidy up...)

Sigh. My partner is the main conduit of most of this stuff; I don't exaggerate when I say that I took my legacy home from my father's funeral in a carrier bag. She, by contrast, has filled several vans with hers. Her family has comprised people of substance for several generations, and the stuff of people of substance, it seems, is peculiarly sticky. Quantities of letters, diaries, photo albums, books, jewellery, pictures and furniture that have passed and snowballed through several generations are now stashed away in unlabelled boxes or propped up in every available nook and cranny of our modest house. It's as if History came to visit one weekend and decided to stay.

Whilst attempting to make enough space to shift the marble-topped washstand that traditionally bears our Christmas tree from one room to another, I happened to stop and take a look through a box of books inherited from the Prof's grandfather, Cyril B., who had been a classics don at Oxford. Scholars' copies of books can be fascinating (to other scholars, at any rate) for their annotations and inclusions. As a librarian, I know only too well what bizarre objects can serve as bookmarks, so I flipped through a few with some curiosity. As expected, various objects emerged -- ranging from schoolmasters' letters querying points of grammar to bus tickets -- as well as the usual pencilled notes. But one book, a small volume neatly bound in leather with gilded edges like a prayer book, made me gasp with astonishment when I opened it.

If I say that the first thing I noticed was the age of the paper and the publisher's device, a dolphin curved around an anchor, you may guess where this is going. The name Aldus Manutius may not mean much to most people, but to students of books and printing it is a name to conjure with. Working in Venice in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Aldus was one of those Italian humanist scholars who, in effect, invented the Renaissance. He set up one of the first publishing houses, with the express intention of gathering together the best manuscripts of classical sources, and making them widely available in printed form. Amongst other achievements, it was Aldus who created the first italic type. In my hands, in our own house, I was holding an octavo Aldine edition of Lucretius, in perfect condition, printed in 1515, and beautifully rebound in red leather. OMG. WTF. LOL.

My son, who is a budding historian, was stunned. FIFTEEN FIFTEEN! That's, like, before Luther's theses, that's before Henry met Anne Boleyn, that's impossible! Unlikely, yes; impossible, no -- not in a house where History is a tolerated house guest, camped out in cardboard boxes.

I think I can feel a new year's resolution coming on... A spot of exploratory archaeology may be in order. After all, also in the box was the Baskerville edition of Lucretius of 1772, which I'd noticed before (but almost boring after the Aldus Manutius, of course...)

Sunset & storm over Southampton Water,
from Old Winchester Hill, Boxing Day

Just to lower the tone a bit, I discovered recently that in Ireland those ubiquitous plastic bags caught in the branches of trees and thrumming in the wind are known as "witches' knickers". Isn't that perfect?

Afterthought: Is it just me, or does the Aldine dolphin bear a strong resemblance to Roadrunner and/or Sonic the Hedgehog?

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Eve

Two shop window displays in Hungerford, photographed earlier this week, before snow and ice made travel (and yesterday even walking) difficult or impossible in the South of England. Luckily, our Christmas goose has been sitting in the boot of the car for several days (house too warm, goose too big for the fridge, and way too tempting for foxes). I've resisted the temptation to put a speech balloon in the top picture.

Back in a few days!

Friday, 18 December 2009

The Idea of Order at West Quay

A lot of people are secret aristocrats. I don't mean that they are really titled folk, who choose not to make a fuss about it. I mean they believe that certain Truths offer a hotline to reality, and that these Truths -- though they can and should be learned and respected by everyone -- are found in their purest form ready-made in the hearts of an Elect.

For example, consider this slightly bonkers, boy-scoutish view of aristocracy:
I believe in aristocracy, though — if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos.

The aristocrats, the elect, the chosen, the Best People — all the words that describe them are false, and all attempts to organize them fail. Again and again Authority, seeing their value, has tried to net them and to utilize them as the Egyptian Priesthood or the Christian Church or the
Chinese Civil Service or the Group Movement, or some other worthy stunt. But they slip through the net and are gone; when the door is shut, they are no longer in the room; their temple, as one of them remarked, is the holiness of the Heart’s affections, and their kingdom, though they never possess it, is the wide-open world.

E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy, “What I Believe” (1938)
You might say, there are a minority of people who have discovered -- reluctantly, perhaps, and with an appropriate level of humility -- that they already know everything that matters. The rest is just information. It's like the difference between inherited and acquired wealth. You're simply starting from a different point, and this brings with it certain privileges and responsibilities. Like, say, running the world. Or even running away from it.

As a lapsed member of the Elitists' Club (motto: "Tell Me Something I Don't Already Know"), I am not immune to this madness. I feel it most acutely at weekends (and especially in these weekends in the run up to Christmas) if I go shopping in the shopping mall in Southampton known as West Quay. The sensation that I am walking like a delegate from another planet through so many people's idea of Heaven sends me into an inner rage. In the face of so much negative sensory input I enter a kind of trance state, an ecstasy of disdain for this Bosch-like spectacle of idiotic purchases and hollow desires. Needless to say, this can be quite fun.

Now, if you recognise the allusion in the title of this piece (West Quay? Key West?), you and I have already exchanged an aristocratic wink. Wallace Stevens is not for everyone. But then neither is cage fighting. The problem is, that those of us who read Wallace Stevens (or at least know who he is and what he represents) believe in our hearts that this civilisation is ours, just as those who live in the swankier postcodes of a town believe that the town really belongs to them.

Delusional, obviously, in both cases. Cage fighting may belong in the grimier neighbourhoods of the broader culture, but has as much of a claim on its participants' hearts as poetry does on ours. And, of course, it forms its own parallel aristocracy (something Lord Byron, for one, would have understood). Indeed, the overlappings, frictions and negotiations between the various aristocracies -- the "players" -- is, in this aristocratic view of the world, the true engine of society. Everyone else is just a spectator or a consumer or a victim -- mere "civilians".

Our culture seems to be undergoing a profound struggle at the moment, one which may be much more important than any "war on terrorism". It's a battle for control over our values, over our history, and nothing less than an attempt to disempower the majority by encouraging us to despise the very people -- teachers, public servants, politicians, artists and writers -- who would seek to empower us. A neat trick. The nature of the struggle is heavily disguised as a shrink-wrapped celebrity-worshipping consumerism, a false democracy in which you need not feel uncomfortable if you settle for lowest common denominator choices, or guilty if you opt to spectate rather than participate, or foolish if you have come to believe that, in essence, life is a lottery.

Indeed, the whole point of a celebrity culture is to create a shop-front aristocracy whose very superficiality is their primary value: when the content of aspiration has been hollowed out, peddlers of aspirational values (those boring teachers, those dull politicians, those unreadable writers) end up with nothing to sell that anybody wants to buy. Who needs to concentrate, or to pay close attention, or to learn any history, when we all already are, in essence, celebrities-in-waiting, simply minus the cash? There's nothing to learn or achieve -- just spin the Wheel of Fortune, and keep your fingers crossed! Life is a lottery, isn't it?

But, oddly, no-one seems to be baffled or troubled by the cornucopia of improbably and disposably cheap goods that is emptied over us daily like animal feed in our shopping malls. No-one asks, "What have I really done to deserve or to earn this bounty?" No-one wonders, "Is someone else, somewhere else, paying the true price of these cheap clothes, this abundant food, this ceaseless churning of brands and colourways? Can it go on forever like this?" Too many questions! Perhaps, like the girl in the haircare adverts, we simply feel entitled because "we're worth it."

Maybe it is just the way of the world. The Wheel of Fortune has spun, and it happens to be our turn on top. But have you also noticed how in the background, well behind the ephemeral celebs and the steady shower of fool's gold, the same old aristocrats -- the ones with wealth, with control, those with something to lose -- are securing their grip on power ever more tightly, invisibly and with the active encouragement and participation of the majority, by the simple device of dressing down? No conspiracies, no tanks on the corner, no manifestos, no burnings at the stake... No smoke, just some conveniently-placed mirrors -- simple!

"Down with a world in which the guarantee that we will not die of starvation has been purchased with the guarantee that we will die of boredom."
Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution Of Everyday Life

Whether you celebrate it, tolerate it, or simply can't avoid it, do have an endurable Christmas, and may I wish you a happy New Year! And, if you meet the Buddha on the road, you know what to do.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Newsflash: Return of The Revenants

I'm pleased and surprised to say that it appears that I'm going to be having a sort of after-shock exhibition, at the Kunstraum Café Mitterhofer, Innichen, which is situated in that interesting, mainly German-speaking border area in the Dolomites of North East Italy. Manfred Mitterhofer, the director, has said that they will show the single sequence The Revenants, which he describes as "a very intimate and elegant work", something I am not about to disagree with. Thanks, Manfred! The show will run from 13th March to 7th May 2010. I'll keep you posted about any developments.

I have to say, it seems singularly appropriate that this work -- which is, amongst other things, about the way one thing turns into another -- should be shown in that Alpine borderland where North meets South, perhaps slightly out of breath from the climb, and languages and peoples shade into each other in border-defying fluidity.

In case you're stuck for a Christmas present, my Blurb book of The Revenants may be seen and purchased by following this link. Here's a little reminder of the work:

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Time Passes

Kent's comment on WW1 in my previous post ("Hard to believe that war is almost one hundred years in the past") reminded me of something I have had in my (rather overstuffed) back pocket for a future post. Through my professional life, I came to know a man -- let's call him Michael -- whose family has an odd trait: all the men have their children very late in life.

This was once not uncommon: unmarried seafarers and soldiers might only return to these shores in later life, often with more wear and tear than was normal even for those more abrasive times (those eyepatches and wooden legs are not imaginary*), and thus not prime candidates in the marriage market. It might take a few years to find a woman willing to take on a particularly salty old seadog or vinegary old sweat. My own great-grandfather Henry Mabbitt was one such, a Victorian soldier who returned to his home town from overseas, and married a kind-hearted younger woman who had been disfigured in a domestic fire but had a winning way with home-brewed beer and wine (see the post Stick It In The Family Album, Part 1).

But to return to my colleague's family. What was unusual was how very late in life his forebears had left it to start families, and how this had been a serial occurrence. Michael was the son of a man of sixty plus. So was his father, and his grandfather before him. In other words, Michael was born in 1954, his father was born in 1894, his grandfather around 1834, and his great-grandfather perhaps in 1774 ...

Those dates are astonishing, aren't they? For comparison, a more typical sequence (where, let's say, the father is aged 30) would run 1954, 1924, 1894, 1864. Michael is a man of exactly my own age, but his father had fought in WW1, and his grandfather had fought in the Crimean War -- the Crimean War!

Now that is a long time ago.

* A favourite joke:

Q: Why are pirates called pirates?
A: Because they "aarrrrr!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Good Morning

When I was younger, I had a prodigious appetite for bed. If there was no compelling reason to get up ("getting on with one's life" or even "eating" just didn't cut it) I simply didn't. As a student, I became a nocturnal creature, going to bed in the small hours, and often only getting up around 4:00 in the afternoon. In the winter, I could easily miss daylight altogether.

My daughter seems to have inherited this propensity, and it's hard work getting her to school in the morning. I am not troubled by the hypocrisy of my semi-feigned rage when she falls back into a doze for the third or fourth time: life has its phases, and I am now a light sleeper and early-riser who has come to enjoy the view from the (admittedly shaky) moral high ground endowed by parenthood. We have to take our pleasures where we find them, especially on weekdays when staying in bed is no longer an option.

Of course, what all true late sleepers know is that you don't so much sleep during those hours as enter a trance state, in which you drift in and out of dreams and reveries. Like intoxication, this is a state which most people try to avoid, but which a minority find extremely compelling -- you become a shape-shifter, a shaman of daydreams and dozing. The Beatles song "I'm Only Sleeping" has the feeling of purposeful lassitude exactly right -- "Keeping an eye on the world going by my window".

The details of one's bedside environment become deeply imprinted by those hours of close-focus gazing. This ragged curtain, for example, in our bedroom. It's an early example of man-made fibres from the 1950s, inherited by my partner from her grandparents' house. It is covered with mysterious glyphs and graphical gestures (mainly in the direction of leaves and domestic utensils), in that sub-abstract style that passed as rather sophisticated in those days. I have meditated on its mysteries for many years. Now, that little arrowhead-shaped tear is what tells me it is morning, and time to make the visit to the bathroom I have been postponing for several hours.

Where I will encounter this east-facing blind, and these rather sophisticated faux-batik fish that will no doubt look every bit as quaint as the curtain's Picassoid leaves, pots and pans in 50 years time.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Thoughts From An Anechoic Chamber

Pascal famously wrote in the Pensées, "J’ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre" (I have discovered that all of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room*). This has never been my problem. Especially if the room contains a bed. You might say I have done my bit for global peace and harmony by keeping a low profile.
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy serenity and people become just.
I do nothing and people become wealthy.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
That's what I tell my staff, anyway, when they ask why they haven't had this year's appraisal yet.

Yesterday, I was doing my best to sit quietly in a large room -- having my morning coffee break in the Staff Club -- when something unusual happened: a young woman came up to me and asked if she could talk. It turned out she was a Belgian art student on an exchange visit, who was running a project which involved getting people to sit in an anechoic chamber for 15 minutes, allowing whatever altered state that might induce to occur, and then photographing them in the immediate aftermath of the experience. She had noticed me sitting there, and wondered if I would volunteer to be a subject?

After sorting away this novel ice-breaker in my memory for possible future use, I agreed. I've always been a fan of altered states, and this sounded intriguing. So, this morning I found myself being led to a chair in what must be one of the odder rooms in the University. An "anechoic chamber" is a sort of large padded cell, in which the walls are covered with protruding wedges of cloth-covered foam, quite pleasingly arranged, with the intention of suppressing all echoes and ambient noise. As -- in this one at any rate -- the wedges are nicely irregular and organic looking, it's a bit like sitting inside an installation by Louise Bourgeois. Or being digested by some gigantic predatory soft toy.

I was shown the panic button, and the padded door was shut, rolling slowly forward on its rails. I sat there quietly for 15 minutes. I clicked my fingers a few times to check what it sounded like: it was rather like being underwater. The deadness of the sound reminded me very much of one summer in France when my ears became completely blocked with wax. After a while I noticed with pleasure that the acronym "ISVR" (Institute of Sound and Vibration Research) had been picked out in 10 foot high capitals by placing black wedges among the beige ones. Nice touch. I found my tinnitus was being less intrusive than I had anticipated. I noticed the remnants of previous, scientific uses of the chamber, in the form of dangling wires, bits of string, and chalkmarks on the floor. There were no scattered human bones, or scribbled appeals for mercy that I could see. It was entirely benign; with a book, I'd happily have spent the morning in there. I did wonder whether I was being secretly filmed, so refrained from doing anything that might embarrass me in years to come on You've Been Framed. As I'd been told to do whatever I wanted or felt like, I did consider lying down, but didn't want to get chalk all over me.

Then the door rolled back, and I was led -- wordlessly and non-directively, apart from a whispered "You OK?" -- to another chair, this time in front of a plain white backdrop, and a medium-format Bronica on a large tripod. It was at this point I realised the project was doomed. Not only was the anechoic chamber not remotely disorientating or upsetting or exhilarating or anything much, but the photographic setup was so stiffly restrictive and formal that it was obvious the poor girl was going to get nothing more interesting than passport photos. I had expected something rather more Avedonian, where a subject's involuntary whole-body language and expression would get a chance to betray inner turmoil, or deep peace, or something. Instead, I was sitting on an uncomfortable plastic stool, and being asked to turn my head a bit more to the left, look down, focus on something -- hold it. It was about as spontaneous as getting an x-ray at the dentist.

I filled out and signed the model release form (which, oddly, asked for my union representation), exchanged a few pleasantries -- I'd revealed I was also a bit of a photographer - and went back to work. I felt slightly sorry for this student: she'd come all the way from Belgium to study at Bournemouth University, devised a project and arranged access to a scientific facility at Southampton University, plucked up the courage to approach complete strangers to take part in the project, and come away with -- well, what? Some headshots of random people sitting in front of a blank backdrop, by the look of it.

Now, if there is one thing photography is not very good at, it's seeing inside another person's head. It can be quite revealing of what is in the photographer's head, and it's extremely good at reflecting back at us whatever we project onto its subjects. But, I would bet a large sum of money that a posed photograph of me (having sat in an anechoic chamber for 15 minutes) is pretty indistinguishable from a posed photograph of me (having sat in a dark cupboard for 15 minutes) or me (having listened to 15 minutes of white noise) or me (having listened to 15 minutes of amplified insane laughter). I'd go further, and say that any differences between them could in no way be attributed to the experience that had preceded their creation (unless that experience had been 15 minutes in the ring with a heavyweight boxer).

It's why we pay actors large sums of money. They can "do" pretend feelings on their faces, which we can read, provided we share a common cultural background. But the cues that, in real life, tell us a person is upset, ecstatic, or bored are very subtle, are not in the main visual, and don't translate well into the two dimensions of still photography.

I'm no educator, but I'd say this project was flawed in its conception, and whoever is supervising this student should have spotted that, and done something about it. Given that art is about lies (hey, ask Plato) you'd have thought it would be just as (un)interesting to fake the whole damn thing: set up a set of bland portraits and tell the viewer, "These people were previously waterboarded for 15 minutes in the name of art -- check the suppressed anguish in their faces!" How could anyone tell the difference?

The caption game is very interesting when played with photos. You can create whole new layers of interest and meaning with them. I'll never forget being at a critique session where someone showed a series of large-format views of slightly run-down and deserted playgrounds in an overcast, wintry light -- forlorn swings, puddle-filled potholes, odd bits of debris here and there, and so on. The collective yawn was transformed into electrified attention when the photographer announced: "These playgrounds are all in Bosnia, taken on a visit in 1994, mainly around Sarajevo but also in Banja Luka, Mostar and Tezla..."

I suppose the lesson was that although some photography is about "location, location, location" all photography is about "projection, projection, projection". For all I know, the bit about Bosnia was a lie, but it did engage our attention on what turned out to be some quite interesting photographs. We were suddenly pleased by what we could construct for ourselves, from the echoes the images were reflecting back at us from our own minds. But if they hadn't been interesting pictures (to look at) the effect would have been short-lived.

The problem with the "conceptual" diet art students seem currently to be digesting, is that the caption (in other words, the devising and description of a clever-sounding project) seems to have taken over from the picture. It's all sizzle, no bacon. Or, perhaps I should say it's the very opposite of the anechoic chamber -- all echo, no sound.

* Actually, I have just discovered that, in contemporary French, "faire un malheur" means "to be a smash hit" (as in "son dernier album a fait un malheur" -- his last album was a smash hit). I doubt Pascal had this in mind, but it would be interesting to know how much smirking goes on when a French teen reads this particular bit of sententiousness.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Let It Bleed

I often read the online version of the New Yorker, mainly for the mystifying cartoons and the caption competition (this one makes me hurt with laughter any time I think about it). However, I do read the odd article, too, and a paragraph from a recent review article by art critic Peter Schjeldahl ("Let it Bleed: '1969' at P.S.1", New Yorker Nov 16 2009) made an impression on me. He wrote:
"The embitterment of right-wing politics today isn’t a patch on that of leftist temperaments in 1969—an alienation so deep as to resemble indifference, but scintillant with rage. The art world, or community, became a destination of internal exile. Art works became tests of initiation. If you wondered what they were about, it meant that you would never know."
An alienation so deep as to resemble indifference, but scintillant with rage ... That's Miltonic, isn't it? I love the use of that archaic word "scintillant", with its suggestion of dark brooding cinders and spitting sparks. It's also a good definition of "cool" (as an attitude or lifestyle, that is, before it became a simple synonym for "good"). Schjeldahl knows this, of course -- his last sentence alludes to the famous answer (variously attributed to Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller or Miles Davis) to the question, "What is jazz?": "If you have to ask you'll never know". Which, in its coolness, barely conceals an anger which is equal and opposite to the disdain expressed in that other famous answer, "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it".

It's also true, and something I hadn't really thought about before. I was still a kid of 15 in 1969, but in the mid-70s I kicked around in the ashes and embers of that rage as a student activist. There was little choice: it was pretty much the only game in town. You could hardly sit down for a coffee in Balliol JCR without becoming embroiled in a prolonged, often shouty debate over the "degenerated workers' state" or the finer points of The German Ideology. The smoke of May '68 (or maybe it was just Christopher Hitchens' cigarettes) seemed still to hang in the air, and the likes of Alex Callinicos and David Aaronovitch held snarling matches over pint mugs of tea.

As a member of the Howard Marks Tendency I was tolerated, just. Despite making myself useful, I never truly belonged to that scene, because I had to ask, and would therefore never know. I was too interested in unserious things (such as myself), too clearly a hedonist, something I could tell was considered deeply suspect. My working class origins did make me an object of curiosity to some of the public-school educated revolutionaries, but not that much. I was a clown, a tourist, a Useful Idiot.

I think I've used this before, but some pictures deserve a second showing

For all its ideology of universal love and peace, the Left I knew was fuelled by a shared sullen anger, the source of which was obscure to me. It was quite depressing to be around, like living with someone in an all-encompassing chronic sulk. The movers and shakers were continually cross about a whole shopping list of issues, causes and grievances, and expected fools like me to give them regular opportunities to vent their crossness; indeed, they were clearly disappointed if you didn't. It was a mystery to me, then and now, how anyone barely out of school could have arrived at such deeply held, radical opinions about events -- often obscure, historical events -- in countries I could scarcely point to on a map. I was amused, but also impressed: you have to acknowledge a class act when you see it.

In the late 70s, when I was living as a squatter in Hackney, you would still encounter members of the elite special forces of rage: muttering back numbers of the Angry Brigade, and smouldering, pseudonymous Germans from the fringes of the RAF. But, by then, the anger had gone mainstream and downmarket; these semi-fugitives seemed like kids playing hide and seek who hadn't heard that the game had been called off. The sudden, unexpected assault by punk music -- all that snarling, spitting, self-harming posturing -- was probably their worst nightmare come true: it was the appropriation of sham political "attitude" by pop culture. Welcome to The Society of the Spectacle, indeed.

Things could only get worse (or better), when the Thatcher government was elected. Everyone fully expected the pervasive sense of grievance to achieve critical mass and explode, which it did, briefly. The cool facade of indifference finally gave way to hot, angry defiance. But it was not led or fomented by a disciplined Marxist vanguard, however; it was a spontaneous eruption of the much talked about but much ignored lower orders, fed up with the police interfering with their hedonistic pursuits. Another time, remind me to write about how the Prof and I were present at the St. Paul's Riot in Bristol in 1980, probably the most exciting party I've ever been to.

By the late 1980s, it was all over. Despite ever-increasing and systematic social inequality, some truly oppressive government legislation, and the gradual break-up of the welfare state and the political consensus that had built it, it seemed no-one could be arsed to do anything much about any of it. I was a trade union activist at local level for that whole decade, and the frustration was at times overwhelming. Even the Miners' Strike in 1984/5 was only half-heartedly supported by the wider trade union movement and membership: we had moved into the era of power-dressers with flipcharts, and those dreary miners wanted to take us back to the era of flat caps and shaken fists ... so 1930s! The attendance at meetings and demonstrations steadily dwindled. Academic "Marxists", with careers based on readings of Althusser or Walter Benjamin, were rarely, if ever, seen at union meetings, and were even spotted crossing picket lines. The anger had dissipated, and the action was elsewhere (in career development and home improvements, it seemed).

Your blogger assembles the People's Flag, ca. 1980
(I seem to have spent my life attached to a bag)

The Poll Tax Riot of 1990 was an event most of us watched on TV, perhaps with a sense of nostalgia, but with no great inclination to join in. After the astonishing events of 1989 everyone and everything had gone all ironic and post-modern in a punch-drunk kind of way. Political protest seemed to become simply an extreme sport, defined by and restricted to special interest groups, mainly youngsters with time on their hands. Spectacular, but quickly contained and easily ignored. It looked like fun, compared to endless meetings, but... Like the rave scene in music, I looked on with the envious eyes of middle youth. No more acid for me, thanks, I've got work in the morning.
I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Meanwhile, those movers and shakers had moved onwards and upwards. Familiar names would flash in the news -- rising journalists, barristers, politicians, professors -- as yesterday's disdainful, angry comrades took up their rightful, ordained places in the order of things. Occasionally one would refer to his or her past life as a mere interlude spent as a "revolting student". Some moved steadily rightwards. I began to feel real sympathy with those nutters I'd met hiding out in Hackney, like those Japanese soldiers who used to emerge from the jungle on Pacific islands, long years after the War had ended, still ready to die for the Emperor.

Twice on marches in London against Thatcher's rounds of cuts in higher education I bumped into guys whom I had once counted as friends, covering the event as journalists. Both times we said "Hello!", but then they quickly moved on when it became clear I was a mere foot-soldier. Well, of course: they were working, and I was not the story, just local colour at best. We could hardly have popped over the road for a pint. And I had one end of a banner to carry. But those incidents and others like them bothered me: no matter who I had been, no matter who I might have become, I was now -- actually, relatively, effectively (perhaps "objectively", as we used to say) -- nobody, it seemed. It was not a good feeling.

A great truth struck me around that time. That is: It really does all come down to social class (duh!). Most left-wing activists were, are and probably always will be bright young middle-class kids with an optimistic view of the world mixed in with an understandable sense of guilt at the privilege of their upbringing. It's an explosive cocktail for a while, but -- like all bright young middle-class kids -- there is no way they are not going to achieve their ambitions, once the fizz has gone out of that brew.

They work hard at making connections, getting feet on ladders, setting themselves goals: those simple secrets of achievement are known to them (is it something they learn at school?) and they work that knowledge hard -- competitively, even ruthlessly sometimes. The disdain of my old comrades for my ignorance of the situation in Nicaragua or Namibia was not "essentialist", I realised. It wasn't that they thought that by nature I was an ignorant piss-artist. It was that I hadn't done my homework. To their way of thinking, I had chosen to be an ignorant piss-artist. In the middle-class worldview, what greater condemnation is there?

By contrast -- and this is something Left activists will probably never understand -- the standard-issue working class worldview is, basically, that of a cargo cult. "I'm entitled to my share, too! You bastards are so lucky! Can't wait until it's my turn!" Activists pretend to sympathise, but they can't; they believe in analysis, in actions that set in train processes that will have results. The last thing an activist would do is buy a lottery ticket, punt a week's wages on a horse, or wish upon a star. Activists don't believe the wealth of the world is distributed by a system of luck, magic, and entitlement; they believe that their parents created it by exploiting the labour of others, then converted it into cash, and put it in the bank.

I suppose my real insight was that, despite a prolonged education and much exposure to middle-class people, I had retained my cargo cult view of the world. I wanted to achieve things, sure, but I thought these would and should happen because I was deserving of them or entitled to them, or because they were "intended" to happen. As a result, I did nothing about it. The idea of making things happen by hard work and shameless exploitation of contacts seemed like, well, cheating. I remember how, at the end of our three years of study, I had surprised one of my friends furtively leafing through glossy recruitment material from IBM, as if it were a copy of Hustler. "What are you doing??" I demanded. "Um, looking for a job," he said. At the time, I thought this was both sad and funny.

So, eventually, I woke up -- sort of -- after a decade or more of sleepwalking. I was like the sheep in that famous Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, portrayed achieving an herbivorous moment of satori in mid-mouthful: "Wait a minute! This is grass! We've been eating grass!" The great wisdom of that cartoon, of course, is that all the other sheep are paying her absolutely no attention at all.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Call Me Tischbein

This is one of my favourite pictures. It stands, framed, on my bedside cabinet, alongside a couple of family photos and a heap of bedside books. That's how favourite it is. It's a watercolour sketch by Johann Tischbein of the young Goethe, looking down onto the street from a window of what is now known as the Casa di Goethe, in Rome. Tischbein and Goethe were room-mates in this very chamber, on their Italian adventure in 1786.

Tischbein's other portrait of Goethe, "Goethe in an Idiotic Hat in the Campagna", is very famous, of course, but this one is far superior. I love everything about it. I love the contrast of interior and exterior. I love the simple colour washes of Prussian blue and terra cotta. But, in particular, I love its informality, the unself-conscious crook of one leg playing with a slipper, the untucked shirt, and above all that sense of the young genius craning out of the window to watch the sunlit street life below, putting together in his head the legacy of his classical learning with the reality of Rome. It's the ultimate holiday snap.

Although the focus is on that sunlit head and the hunched shoulders, there's also an innocent, mildly homo-erotic quality that shines through so limpidly that's it's easy to miss. My daughter, aged six, spotted it straight away, though: "Daddy, that lady's showing her bottom!" That hint of a smile in Goethe's breeches does put one in mind of the lines in Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo" (also, as it happens, about the afterlife of the classical legacy -- see my post "You Must Change Your Life"):
... Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

(Literally: "... Otherwise, the bow of the breast couldn't dazzle you, and -- in the gentle turn of the loins -- a smile couldn't run to that centre which bore his fertility")
But this is not a picture of sexual desire, though it is a picture of one of the oldest love stories: North meets South. It is a picture of loving admiration and friendship, and of the sheer happiness of being young, talented, and away from home, with a whole lifetime of achievement ahead. Yes, I realise Goethe was 37 in 1786, but I was 17 when I first saw this picture in 1971, and therefore so was Goethe, as far as I was concerned. I wanted, more than anything, to be the young man in that picture.

I'm happy to say, I have been there, and more than once; in a sense, my life has been measured by its "Tischbein moments". During the three summers, 1971-73, that I spent hitchhiking around Europe with a succession of friends (see the post Songs Are Like Tattoos) I had so many such moments that I began to think I might indeed be Goethe. However, the three following years as a student at Oxford put a brake on that fantasy. Goethe I was not. There was clearly more to it than leaning spellbound out of high windows.

I recall a later occasion on a tour through the Basque Country and Northern Spain, one of several I made with my girlfriend and various other couples in the years following the fall of Franco. I awoke one September morning in Santiago de Compostela, in a gigantic creaking wooden bed like a boat in an ancient hotel room without running water, that was equipped with a wooden washstand and ceramic bowls that could be filled from a tap down the corridor. It was impossible not to feel that one had gone back fifty years, if not a century or two.

Throwing open the shutters onto the morning life of an ancient city and centre of pilgrimage, I breathed it all in. The voices, the clap of pigeons, the traffic, the freshly sluiced cobblestones, the geological complexity of the architecture, and -- still asleep in the gigantic creaking wooden bed -- the complicated woman with whom, I realised in that moment (after five or so years of an on-again, off-again relationship) I was going to spend the rest of my life. I admit I had to stand there for a minute or two longer, composed in my Tischbein moment, to see what I thought about that.

Self-portrait with backpack in a distorting mirror

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Cloud Club

Next to the Pentagonal Pool is a flight of steps, leading up to a little-used back entrance to the Students Union. No doubt following some Health and Safety edict, these (along with most other steps on campus) were recently painted a peculiar shade of orange.

I have always been intrigued by the grandness of this entrance, and it has something of the feel of a discreet but magnificent club. There is a high mezzanine floor, just below a vast extractor fan in the roof, which I think of as the Cloud Club, as the glass is smoked and highly reflective, and the view inside is frequently obscured by clouds.

This week, armed with the 70-300 telephoto, I finally captured an image of the Cloud Club which does it justice. I think it will make a suitable closing image for the "Mirrors, Windows, Walls" sequence:

I opened the sequence with a quotation from journalist Sidney J. Harris ("The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows"). I'm thinking of closing it with these words from Ciceros' De Natura Deorum:
"The authority of those who claim to be teachers is often found to be an obstacle by those who are keen to learn."
Or perhaps these from Daniel J. Boorstin's The Discoverers:
"The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge".

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Long Shot

Although, as I said in a recent post, I'm most comfortable working within the short focal length range of a "normal" zoom, I think my favourite lens for when I want to have some fun is the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS. On an APS-C DSLR, the zoom range becomes the equivalent of a 110-480mm lens (in 35mm terms), which is quite some reach, but the built-in "image stabilisation" means that it's still a hand-holdable lens under most circumstances. You can really reach out and grab those interesting vignettes in a landscape that otherwise get overwhelmed by context. For example, this oak on campus has been catching my eye all week, as I take my morning coffee break in the Staff Club:

The long lens, used from a slightly elevated position, gets in amongst the branches in a way I could never achieve with my feet on the ground in front of its magnificent bulk. The foregrounding and isolation of decorative detail puts me in mind of the nineteenth century sketches of the likes of John Ruskin and Edward Lear. The flattening perspective of the telephoto lens comes in handy, too, for sculptural juxtapositions like this one:

Or it can compress the reflections in a campus window into something like a painter's canvas:

That two-dimensional look is something I always find attractive in a photograph. At heart, I suppose, I'm still a drawer and painter who uses photography.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Autumn Leaves

I've been keeping my eye open for chances to photograph autumn leaves without falling into cliché. It's not easy, but I quite like these two. I like them because they say "autumn leaves" without saying "photo competition entry".

And then there's this one. The first couple of times I passed this logjam of Japanese acer leaves I averted my eyes and hurried past. But eventually I gave in and gave it a couple of shots. Sigh.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Best is the Enemy of the Good

I knew I'd regret getting sucked into gearhead world, but -- like Joni Mitchell and Hell in the song "Blue" -- I thought I'd take a look around it, though. Having earned a bit of spare cash (did I mention I sold thirty pictures at my recent exhibition?) I found myself in the unusual position of having the option, should I so decide, to buy pretty much anything that took my fancy, and at a time when new and exciting photographic gear seems to be emerging every week. Within reason, obviously: there was no point in even looking at the Leica M9 but, hmm, perhaps the X1?

I'm just no good at spending money, though. It gives me little pleasure. I do enjoy the thrill of the chase -- getting good stuff cheap, sniffing out, running down and snapping up unconsidered trifles at a bargain price -- but there's no fun to be had (for me, anyway) in simply looking up the good stuff in the catalogue, typing in my Visa number, and waiting for it to be delivered. It feels like cheating. So, as a compromise, I decided I'd pass up on the Panasonic GF1 or the Olympus EP1 this time round, bank most of the money against next year's crop of photo-novelties (hello, GF2 and EP2) and hunt out something tasty on Ebay instead.

I like Ebay. It reminds me of what was once my favourite magazine, the Exchange & Mart, which my friend Alan and I use to pore over together in our early teens. The Exchange & Mart -- which finally ceased in print just this year -- was a typographic and typological miracle, columns of tightly-packed classified ads expressed in a special language of categories, abbreviations, and euphemisms which you had to master to get anything out of it. We rarely actually bought anything -- that wasn't the point. As I have written before, growing up in a new town gives you a thirst for and curiosity about Old Stuff. The Exchange & Mart was a weekly dictionary of Stuff, and a practical education in the value people put on it, and indeed in what people value. Why is a used Gibson Les Paul guitar so expensive? Why is a used Ford Willys jeep so cheap? Who is this writer Henry Miller, and why are his books mixed in with thinly-disguised pornography? And why do people have such a thing about SS ceremonial daggers?

Ebay has the same attractions, but with the added delights of pictures and interactivity. There is an exciting sense of risk, but also a compensating sense of community (decreasingly so, sad to say) . It's all about strategy. There's no sense in wading in and placing an early, hopeful but modest bid. But there's also no sense in making bids that overvalue the item you're after. You need to feel out the market, bide your time -- maybe sitting out the first few times your object of desire comes up for sale, just to watch what others are willing to pay -- and then make a calculated pounce. The ultimate satisfaction, which truly gratifies one's inner market trader, is to realise that no-one else is going to bid, and that the the price is going to stick at 99p for an item without a reserve price and worth considerably more.

So, what was I going to take a caculated risk on? As I have bought into the Canon SLR system in a modest way, I thought it might be worth taking a look at "L" lenses. It should come as no surprise to long-term readers of this blog that I am a "kit zoom" photographer. Eighty percent or more of my work is done with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS zoom lens, which comes attached to the bottom-of-the-range DSLR I use, but which I have found to be a perfectly satisfactory lens, though I am not the kind of person to put it on a tripod and photograph test cards to calibrate the degree of its perfection or my satisfaction. It takes very nice pictures.

However, camera manufacturers run two parallel universes, as far as lenses are concerned. There's an affordable "consumer" range, in the main perfectly adequate assemblages of glass, but in plasticky housings and far from weather- or dust-proof, and then there's a "professional" range, with stellar optics, and robust, weather-proof housings. The main difference, of course, is weight, size, and above all price-- you can add a thousand pounds or more to the cost of your pathetic, plastic, "consumer" lens
for the pro equivalent. That's a lot of money.

In the case of Canon, the pro lenses are designated "L" (for "ludicrously expensive") and have a tasteful red line around the barrel. It's hard to avoid conflicted feelings... On the one hand, you suspect that that you may be falling short, somehow, on image quality; on the other, if like me you have arte povera tendencies, it's fun to laugh at foolish "advanced amateurs" overburdened with their collection of heavy and expensive lenses.

So, having a bit of funny money I thought I'd see what all the fuss was about. I settled on the EF 17-40mm f/4 L USM: one of the cheaper L lenses, but with a good reputation, and covering the sort of modest zoom range I like. I got into my Ebay stalker's hide, and waited, watched and pounced. For £390 I thought it was a reasonable bargain.

Now, if you are susceptible to "fit and finish", a lens like this is a pleasure to handle.
It's big, weighty, and everything is just right, from the damping of the focus and zoom rings to the feel of its heft in your hand. My little 450d practically squeaked with delight as I slotted it in. You just know it's going to take your photographs into a new dimension.

Except, it doesn't, not really. Or, at least, it hasn't. In fact, I'm losing a lot of shots I would have got before, doubtless due to the lack of built-in image stabilisation. "IS" in its various guises has been one of the real advances made possible by digital photography -- with good technique you can hand hold at shutter speeds that were previously impossible, and guarantee sharpness at more normal speeds. As you get older (or colder, or both) this is a serious advantage. And the cheapie 18-55mm zoom has it, and the "stellar" 17-40mm doesn't.*

Of course, the shots I do get are pretty good, quality-wise. Several people remarked on the "fossil marble" image in the post Fishy Rice, which was the first "L" image I've posted. There is a certain descriptive clarity which the lens brings to the image-making process which, normally, I would have to bring out in post-processing. But it really doesn't make me think, "The sheer quality of this lens is worth all the shots I'm missing because of its lack of IS". In the end, it's a lens designed for 35mm film cameras, and the game has changed since then.

This is in many ways a pleasing result. I'll stick with my nice, cheapie zoom, and recoup my money on Ebay. I've had a little adventure into gearhead world, and returned intact. But the fact that I've had the lens on the camera all week and have no pictures I really want to share with you speaks for itself. As someone (Voltaire?) once said, "The best is the enemy of the good"...

* There is an argument over whether in-lens IS is superior or inferior to in-body IS. Clearly, a camera system wth in-body IS would mean that the qualities of such a lens migh have a better chance of shining through.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Stormy Weather

In the last year or so I have been noticing a new sort of cloud over Hampshire. What I keep seeing is a downward-breaking plume, falling away from a horizontal cloud or cloud layer, as if a large object had plummeted through the the cloud, or a strong local suction had been applied to it from below. It sometimes has a bit of a twist, but is quite wispy and is nothing like as dramatic as a tornado funnel cloud, but nonetheless noticeable. This element of verticality in the sky is striking and, to my mind, new.

I saw a particularly fine example this week over Southampton as I drove to Romsey to do a Saturday morning shop. As often happens when driving, my mind went off in two different but related directions. First I thought, "Perhaps these unusual clouds are the precursors of storms, or even tornadoes", and then the words in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen sprang into the forefront of my consciousness, and repeated themselves like a mantra.

It took me a while to place the words. Is there anything more infuriating than a name or memory that stays just out of reach? Upsetting, too, if it goes on for too long: once you've watched relatives vanish into the hell of dementia all the humour goes out of memory loss. Luckily, I soon remembered that those words are, of course, one of the elocutionary phrases Henry Higgins inflicts on Eliza Doolittle in the musical and film My Fair Lady, and which figure in the song "The Rain in Spain", once a staple of light radio but now, I suspect, unheard from one year to the next.

The memories flooded back. "On the Street Where You Live", "Wouldn't It Be Luverly?", "With a Little Bit of Luck", "I Could Have Danced All Night" ... I know every note, every word of those songs, although I loathe most of them. In 1964 we went on a family expedition to London to see the film, and we owned the soundtrack LP which was played constantly until the soundtrack of West Side Story took its place. Ah, more, better songs! By the time I reached Romsey I was singing "The Jets Song" and feeling very good.
When you’re a Jet,
You’re a Jet all the way,
From your foist cigarette
To your last dyin’ day.

Of course, the inevitable next thought had to be: they don't write them like that any more, do they? And the truth is, of course, they don't. The ability to write popular songs with the sheer variety, melodic inventiveness, fun, wit and narrative cleverness of those classic musicals seems to have vanished from the world.

Not only don't they write them, they don't play them on the radio, either, and it's such a shame. It made me feel sorry for youngsters brought up on an exclusive diet of beat-driven rock and pop. And worried, too: what if you never learn to recognise and appreciate these more sophisticated qualities simply because you have never learned to loathe "I Could Have Danced All Night", or laughed out loud to "America" or "Gee, Officer Krupke"? And perhaps you can't ever really appreciate beat-driven rock and pop unless you have sat through an hour of dross on Two-Way Family Favourites, yearning to hear just three precious minutes of Elvis or the Beatles.

As it happens, when I had finished the shopping in Romsey, the front page of the local paper caught my eye. It seems a mini-hurricane had torn through South Hampshire on Tuesday, leaving a swathe of mild devastation (fallen trees, damaged roofs, blocked roads) from the New Forest to Winchester. And those words popped back into my mind: In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen... Well, maybe things are starting to change. Perhaps I'd better check where the rain in Spain is mainly falling, these days, though -- if my geography is worth anything -- I doubt it ever fell mainly in the plain.

Storm passing over Llandrindod Wells, Wales

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Fishy Rice

Not so unusually these days, but perhaps still worthy of remark, I do all the cooking in our family (and I do mean all -- I cook evening meals six or seven nights a week, plus lunches at weekends for anyone too idle to make their own). When the kids were younger, this would often mean two meals every night, and occasionally three, as someone had usually decided that day that they didn't like rice / pasta / potatoes any more. As it was a rare meal that pleased more than three out of four, I have learned to cook a last-minute omelette or operate a grill whilst feeding myself with the other hand.

I'm not a good cook, understand, or even particularly enthusiastic; it's just that I can be bothered, and the Prof can't. After over 15 years of family cooking I have evolved a repetitive menu of set meals which I can cook on autopilot and with which, no doubt, I have dulled the palette and gustatory curiosity of my children. I'm as predictable as a school canteen: if it's Friday, it must be toad in the hole. In that respect, I resemble 80% of traditional Mums. Though my own mother was a deeply unenthusiastic cook, who relied on staples like frozen burgers, instant mashed potato and tinned and frozen vegetables to get us through the week. By comparison, I'm Nigel Slater.

Just to, um, vary the blog diet a bit, I thought I'd pass on a store-cupboard recipe I made up years ago in a tight spot, and have cooked ever since. It's called "fishy rice", because that's what it is.


1 tin of mackerel in oil
Long grain white rice (approx. 300 ml by vol. *)
1 heaped teaspoonful of Marigold Swiss Vegetable bouillon powder (accept no substitutes) in 450 ml of boiling water
1 onion, chopped
[optional] 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
half a red pepper, chopped
half a green pepper, chopped
two or three mushrooms, chopped
[optional] a handful of shredded white cabbage, or some frozen peas
Tomato puree
Jamaican hot pepper sauce
Salt & pepper
Random herbs (a.k.a "mixed herbs")

* I have found that one of those small Chinese tea bowls contains enough rice for one person, and contains roughly 100 ml, which makes the "one and half times by volume" calculation for the water very easy.

Pour all the oil from the tin of mackerel into a heavy bottomed saucepan. Heat the oil gently, and fry the onion and garlic until soft. Add the random herbs, salt and pepper, and the other vegetables and stir fry until you're bored with it.

Add the mackerel, breaking it up into chunks and stirring it in with your favourite spatula. If it's getting too dry, add a little olive oil. Add the rice, and stir to coat the rice with oil. Add a few good dashes of hot pepper sauce.

Pour in the vegetable stock -- this should make a wonderful sizzling sound. Stir, adding a good squeeze of tomato puree -- about 10 cm from a tube. Bring to the boil, then cover the pan with a square of aluminium foil, and press the pan lid into it to give a good tight seal. Reduce heat to the lowest you can possibly manage, and cook for 20 minutes.

Turn off the heat, and leave to stand for 5 minutes. Remove the lid and foil, stir and serve. It ain't pretty, but if you get it right it's very tasty. The secret ingredient is the oil from the tin, obviously (please don't tell me about mercury poisoning, etc.). I can report that if, under stress, you forget to put the rice in, it tastes quite good anyway with pasta. Serves two greedy adults plus two picky children.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


It's time to make this year's Christmas / New Year cards (via VistaPrint, as usual). As has become my habit, I'm doing two: one which gestures vaguely in the direction of "picturesque", and one which doesn't. If you have commented on this blog before now and would like to receive one, just email me your terrestrial address if I don't already have it.

I was heartened to see my statistics take an unexpected leap upwards earlier this week. On closer investigation, however, I discovered that this was because a website specialising in "corporal punishment" had linked to an earlier post concerning my primary school, which happens to mention the use of the cane. Be assured, you very strange people, that spankings and "severe French lessons" do not and will not figure prominently in the subject matter of this blog, so you might as well stop reading now. Unless, that is, you have enjoyed what you have found. But don't even think about asking for a Christmas card until next year.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Three Square

The challenge of working with extreme contrasts in light intensity, which you get at this time of year particularly, has almost become a project in its own right. I've been refining a set of moves during exposure and processing that work well for me and my extremely casual (almost careless) modus operandi; I don't think I could ever resort to a tripod, multiple exposures and HDR software. Nothing particularly clever or secret, merely shooting RAW, exposing for highlights, and making use of the tools within Photoshop Elements 6 like "Adjust Colour Curves". It helps, of course, if you're not afraid or ashamed of inky black shadows...

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Autumn Watch

Autumn seems to have come on sooner this year, and to have taken a deeper grip much more quickly, at least on certain species of trees. I don't recall seeing such heaps of leaves on the ground in October; the planes at Mottisfont this afternoon had dumped huge loads, although the oaks are still fairly green.

On the other hand, the trout there seem to be hanging around in greater numbers than usual and are still in their summer haunts, although some of the bigger specimens that dominate the choice spots by the bridge are looking distinctly worse for wear. I've no idea where they go in the winter months -- do the older generation die out? -- but they're usually much less obvious by now. When I first came to Southampton in the mid-80s salmon were still coming up the Test in November in numbers, and had to negotiate a salmon leap built into a mill-weir on the river at Romsey, which had been carefully sandbagged to protect them from damaging themselves on the brickwork. It was a very entertaining spectacle, and you half expected to see a bear hanging over the parapet of the bridge, to swing a speculative paw at the great fish. They've become a rare sight now (the fish, that is) and last time I looked the sandbags had rotted away and not been replaced.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Autumn Day

I'm a sucker for Autumn, it plays on my Celtic sentimental streak like a harp. I discovered I was susceptible to the lacrimae rerum in the sixth form, when we came under a steady drizzle of autumnal, valedictory poetry, for which I had been primed by an unexpected break-up with my first "steady" girlfriend: hey, Werther, c'est moi. Keats, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, Goethe, Rilke -- sometimes it was all I could do not to sob into my exercise books during double English. In self-defense I took refuge in portentous, inky marginal doodling, a habit I have continued to this day.

A poem I have always loved from this period of my sentimental education (and which, because of its juxtaposition in the Penguin Book of German Verse, I always misremember as by Friedrich Nietzsche) is Herbsttag (Autumn Day), by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Ranier Maria Rilke, 1902

As I'm at home this afternoon, with a cup of coffee and a German dictionary to hand, here's my (slightly free) translation:

Lord, it is time. That was one big summer.
Disconnect the shadows from the sundials
and let slip the winds upon the fields.

Require the last fruits to be full;
a couple more southerly days
will turn them out perfectly, and hound
that sweetness into heady wine.

Whoever has no house, won't be building one now.
Whoever is alone, will stay that way now:
wakeful, reading, writing long letters,
and restlessly tramping The Avenue, over and over,
driven by the leaves.

I enjoyed doing that. I almost wish I could submit it for approval as a piece of homework to my old teacher, Dr. Splett. But he is long dead, and our school now mutated out of all recognition and, I hear, soon to be moved to a new site. Sad, when you consider a school has occupied that site since 1558.

I wrote "The Avenue" rather than "the avenues" (Rilke's "Alleen" is plural), because a leafy thoroughfare of that name ran up the side of our school grounds, and was a favourite haunt for introspective walks and midnight fun in those far off days. It has a particular resonance, as "Alleen" is a close rhyme for "Alleyne's", which happened to be the name of our school. Sniff...

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1847

As I say, I'm a sucker for Autumn...

Friday, 23 October 2009


Well, that was a busy week -- sometimes Friday arrives sooner than you're expecting, but also not a moment too soon. Thank goodness for lunchtime -- here's something I'm pleased with from my favourite port of call, the Pentagonal Pool, taken this week. I've no idea what that irridescent substance is, but it really does catch the light.

The clocks go back an hour in Britain this weekend, and we "gain" an hour's sleep on Sunday morning -- outstanding!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


Non-British readers may find this post a little baffling, and perhaps even British readers aged under 40. I feel a bit like the aged narrator at the outset of an adventure story: "I think it my duty that I set down, while the memory is still fresh, a true account of what transpired in those long-gone events -- can it really be 40 years ago? -- so that it may be passed on to a new generation, who may find it of no little interest to learn that their elders were as susceptible to youthful folly as themselves -- nay, perhaps even more so. Etc."

To begin at the beginning. You may, at some point, have heard someone described as "a wally", or "a bit of a wally". It's an expression that had its vogue in the 70s and 80s of the last century, but may still be heard on the lips of the older sort. [Sorry, I can't shake off this R.L. Stevenson tone]. We've already discussed "minced oaths" in a previous posts (Gadzooks!), and at root "wally" is clearly a minced-oath version of "wanker", but with the added cachet (back in its heyday) of hipness and contemporaneity.

There has been a lot of discussion, over the years, of the origin of the term "wally" in the pejorative sense of "an uncool, embarrassing person, prone to impulsive acts of clumsiness and foolishness" -- in many ways, an equivalent to the "shlemiel"* of Yiddish. This discussion has been confused by the fact that the word "wally" itself has a long heritage. I remember, for example, how when I was eight we used to walk home from Cubs in the winter dark, and would stop off for a steaming sixpenny bag of chips. A few of the boys with East End parents would ask for "a six penn'orth and a wally, please"; that is, a pickled gherkin, fished with tongs from the enormous cloudy jar on the chip-shop counter, mysterious and murky as a display of preserved body parts.

But the advent of the usage under discussion can be dated, and accounted for, fairly precisely. It all started at one of those chaotic early 70s open air rock festivals (Weeley? Bickershaw?) when a group of friends somehow lost contact with one of their number named, um, Wally. Easily done, in the Somme-like conditions. What distinguished this group from others, however, was that they loyally spent the gaps between acts wandering the grounds calling out, ever more disconsolately, "Wally? Wally! WALLY??" They even got one of the on-stage announcers to ask over the PA, "Wally? Has anyone seen Wally?", and the "Wally" refrain was taken up by the crowd. For a time, to call out "Wally!" in a random quiet moment was considered the very pinnacle of wit, and hilarity would reliably ensue.

Naturally, people brought this novelty home with them, including some of my own friends, who gleefully explained the whole thing the next week at school. It seemed to have been the best bit (indeed, the only good bit) about sleeping in a wet field, in unsanitary conditions, occasionally subjected to a poorly-amplified, wind-blown barrage of music. Sure enough, at the next season of gigs in our little town, someone would reliably shout "Wally!" in a quiet moment, to gales of laughter and the bafflement of visiting bands. It was a kind of in-crowd, "I was there" gesture. I imagine the same scenario was repeated all round the country.

It didn't take long for the novelty to wear off, however. It just stopped being funny. In the end, the only ones to call out "Wally!" at gigs were the kind of attention-seeking, over-excited twits, impervious to their own tragic unhipness, who couldn't possibly ever have "been there" and who, naturally enough, came to be referred to as "Wallies".

Date? 1972. Around the same time as young suburban things in Britain started exclaiming "No way!", using air quotes, and decrying the "rip-offs" which they (alright, we) couldn't "get our heads round", probably later than ultra-cool urbanites but a decade or more before any of these cult-ish new speech mannerisms entered the mainstream.

I have to say, even if shouting "Wally!" stopped being funny in 1972, it still amuses me mightily to hear the likes of cabinet ministers talking solemnly about "Rip-Off Britain" or exclaiming "Higher taxes? No way!", like the small-town head-bangers which, of course, a few of them might once have been. Like minced oaths, it's one of the pleasures of language-watching to see which subcultural currents rise to the surface, and how long it takes for trash talk to emerge from the mouths of the respectable.

And perhaps you can also see the roots (conscious or unconscious) of Martin Handford's mystifyingly popular Where's Wally? books of the 1980s -- the main point of which is trying to find a bespectacled fool named Wally hidden in a vast crowd of tiny people. Sounds familiar? What I hadn't realised is that this very British "Wally" went on to become "Waldo" in the USA, had a bit of a makeover, and found massive commercial success. Who knew? It's Fleetwood Mac all over again.

* Not to be confused with a "shlemazel", a habitually unlucky person. Definition according to The Joys of Yiddish: the shlemiel is the one who spills the soup over the shlemazel.