Saturday, 31 January 2009

Scroll On, Shake Down

This is an interesting one. On the inside of a window on the end of a building, someone has blu-tacked what looks like a piece of Dead Sea Scroll. It has changed the banal reflection of a tree, some car rear lights, and a traffic light into something poised and oddly graphic.

I must get inside the building and see what's on the other side. It seems a casual way to treat what appears to be a section of papyrus.

In this one, someone outside has hurled some milky drink at a window. The double image is not the result of camera shake, but the thickness of the glass that prevented the, um, shake hitting the fan.

And there are those cranes again.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

May You Never

I was going to write "in common with a lot of people," but should probably make that "in common with a select few people of my vintage" I was saddened to hear of John Martyn's death today. Although I was surprised to hear the news on the Radio 4 early evening bulletin -- which either goes to show that people like me get to draw up the running order these days, or there are more of us than I thought. It's a day that's been coming for a long, long time, but no sadder for that.

I'm probably the worst kind of John Martyn fan. I saw him live in the 70s a number of times, at least four, probably more. I've listened to Solid Air continuously since buying the first of several copies in 1973. "May You Never" will be played at my funeral, unless I change my mind and have "Spencer the Rover." But it is that 1970s Martyn I am loyal to, and the rest of his career passed me by. How sick he must have become of hearing bearded, overweight, middle-aged men calling out for "May You Never" ...

People talk of a "rock'n'roll lifestyle," but -- in Britain at least -- the folk scene was where the weirdness and wildness ran deepest. Martyn was one of many Wild Ones with a guitar, seemingly set on self destruction, and whose exploits were legendary. They weren't all men, either: Sandy Denny immediately comes to mind. Much classic British rock -- Led Zeppelin, for example -- had its roots far deeper in the folk scene than it ever did in the rock'n'roll, dance scene.

John Martyn's physical decline was, I'm afraid, part of his enduring appeal. After all, the progress from slim, sweet-faced angel to bloated, scowling demon is one a lot of us have observed taking place in the mirror over a lifetime, or even sometimes over a single evening where strong drink is involved. It's that secret sadness that gives ageing men what little dignity they can muster, and John Martyn knew better than anyone how to tap into that vein of vulnerability that runs deepest in the hardest of men.

May you never lose your temper
If you get in a bar room fight
May you never lose your woman overnight
May you never lay your head down
Without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold

Science Man

It was quite amusing, listening to BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday morning, to hear yet another pair of eminent scientists launching yet another attempt to interest schoolkids in science, this time involving "celebrities" such as Terry Pratchett (huge fan), Bill Bryson (moderate fan), and Heston Blumenthal (the man needs help), who will be debating the promotion of science at Downing Street, no less. Setting aside the largely middle-aged fanbase of these guys, I'm afraid this is all missing the point.

The intention seems to be to demonstrate to British kids that "science" is involved in pretty much everything, and that therefore they should (a) take an interest and (b) consider a career as a scientist. Dream on, guys.

Consider cars. Pretty much everyone drives one, and you'd have to be beyond stupid not to realise some science and engineering are involved in making it go. But how many people, on lifting the bonnet of a malfunctioning car, do not feel an immediate depression of the spirits? This is not an exciting or empowering moment: no amount of understanding of the internal combustion cycle will help you. No, the spell that drives your magic chariot has broken, and it has been reduced to an inexplicable tangle of grimy components.

Ditto the interior of a malfunctioning computer. Or even a broken plastic toy, infuriatingly resistant to glue ("Never mind, maybe I could become a materials scientist!"). Few things are as frustrating, as existentially humbling, as a complex man-made object that is out of order... (I think Heidegger had something to say about this, but can't be bothered to find it).

And then, of course, there is science's dirty little secret -- the mathematics. I'm sorry, guys, I have nothing but admiration for scientists and, I admit, a sense of inadequacy shading into shame in the face of the achievements of science. But nothing -- NOTHING -- would ever have persuaded me to return to quadratic equations and calculus once my exams were over.

Now, it's clear that one of the forms of idiocy from which I suffer is that I am troubled by the sort of questions that only a scientist (or possibly a theologian) can answer satisfactorily. You need to have a full spectrum of talents in your friends, ranging from the infra-red warmth of a life partner to the ultra-violet coolness of an aloof ironist. But one essential part of the spectrum is often missing, because it is rare, and that's the deep reassuring green provided by a friend who combines a general all-round competence in scientific matters with the urge and ability to communicate them. I am fortunate enough to have several such friends, but of these my old squat-mate Andy S. is the one I call on when I need the help of ... Science Man.

Here is a classic example, re-enacted live before your very eyes, an email exchange concerning a puzzle in the book The Art of Looking Sideways, by Alan Fletcher:

Subject: Is there a scientist in the house?
Mike to Andy:

I've been staring at this conundrum in a book in our downstairs loo for days -- not continuously, obviously, or I'd be looking for a doctor, not a scientist :) -- and it's starting to drive me nuts. I'm at work, not in the downstairs loo, so can't describe it exactly, but it goes like this:

There are two identical isosceles triangles drawn on squared backgrounds. The first triangle is divided internally into two large right-angled triangles (one at each bottom corner), two small right-angled triangles (together in the top corner), and two interlocking L-shapes filling the rectangular space left by the triangles. The second triangle is filled with the same shapes, but with the two larger triangles together in the top angle, and one each of the smaller ones in the bottom corners; the two L-shapes are interlocked differently to fill the remaining rectangular space again. The conundrum is that in the second version the area of the triangle seems to have increased, because all the components are the same size but the rectangular area bounded by the two L-shapes has increased -- there's now a blank area in the middle between the Ls!

Is this a well-known puzzle? I just can't get my head round it! How can the area of the second triangle not be equal to the sum of the components that completely cover the first one??

Andy to Mike:

your description works fine. The puzzle feels familiar and I've got the sense of having seen an explanation somewhere. If you don't mind I'll let it fester until something turns up. I bet there's some odd symmetry being broken somewhere, but it's hard to see where with an isosceles triangle.

Mike to Andy:

Cheers. Please don't blame me if your mental well being suffers ... It's starting to feel like I've found a basic flaw in the Laws of the Universe.

I'm completely calm. (I need to be, I'm 50 tomorrow ...)

Andy to Mike:

Happy birthday!

Check that the sides of the triangles do actually meet in a straight line. It's easy to convince yourself that they do. A bit of convexity (or concavity) could be releasing the missing area. I was in doing an odd days work at the local sixth form today and mentioned it to a mathematician. He said some students had had a similar or the same puzzle and found that what looked like perfect alignment of the sides in fact wasn't.

Mike to Andy:

I don't think this is an illusion - I could try drawing it on paper. You don't even need the L shapes: basically, swapping the "inner" triangles creates rectangles of different areas ... Which -- I think! -- means that "sum of the areas of the four small triangles" subtracted from "area of the larger triangle" is not a constant value, which I find spooky. It's like the geometrical equivalent of cold fusion -- something for nothing! There has to be an explanation ...

Andy to Mike:

I've just had a look at the details of your triangles. Remember tangents?
Well, 13/6 is not equal to 9/4. Hence it's not really a straight line,

i.e 13/6 = 2.166666 and 9/4 = 2.25

The angle with a tangent of 2.1666 is 65.225 degrees

The angle with a tangent of 2.25 is 66.038 degrees

Hope this helps!

Mike to Andy:

I do vaguely remember Tangents, weren't they a bit like Juicy Fruits?

I've just drawn the thing on paper and, by Pythagoras, you're right! I will now track this Alan Fletcher down and perform some serious geometry on him with a compass ...

Thanks, Science Man! You've saved my sanity!

So, you see, there's a world of difference between knowing there's a lot of science about, and being able to apply it. And it usually involves maths.

One of my favourite sayings is that "to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." There is, unfortunately, another sort of "science-inclined person" (let's not call them scientists) for whom everything can be explained with a very limited toolkit, usually acquired at school, and lashed together with "common sense." These people give science a bad name.

These are the same guys who wrote the geography textbooks -- the ones which explained how rivers start off flowing small and fast in the mountains, then gradually get bigger and slower in a sort of river "life cycle," until the things became so sluggish in old age that they have to be practically pushed into the sea. Makes sense, doesn't it? Then some bright spark -- yer actual scientist -- came along and actually measured the speed of flow in various rivers, and discovered that -- crikey! -- rivers get faster and faster, not slower and slower. Well, um, that makes sense, too. But the maths proves it.

Anyway. Lots of luck with your campaign, Lord Drayson (Science Minister), with its catchy "street" title Science: So What? So Everything. But, hey, maybe I should put him in touch with my very own Science Man? It can only help.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Don't Ask Me

I have always liked the idea that the Buddha regarded certain questions as unanswerable: the so-called "Undetermined Questions." That is, when asked these particular questions, he simply said ... nothing. Depending on which tradition you listen to, there are either fourteen or ten such questions, but to a hyper-logical Western mind there seem at root really only to be four questions, which have been expanded -- in what seems like an anticipation of the user-satisfaction questionnaire -- by the addition of supplementaries, so that "Is the world finite? Or not? Or both? Or neither?" counts as four questions. If you added "At weekends?" I suppose there'd be five.

But the core questions are:

Is the world eternal?
Is the world finite?
Is the self identical with the body?
Does an enlightened being exist after death?

All good questions, but you can see why the Buddha might choose to stare meaningfully into the distance at that point. In many ways, this is a more helpful response than the wheel-spinning scholasticism of the Christian church grappling with such questions, or the linguistic nit-picking of philosophers in later centuries. It's not quite "Don't know, don't care" but you can imagine a certain amount of serene finger-tapping going on whenever those questions came up.

At the risk of offending the adherents of one of the world's senior religions, I have some Undetermined Questions of my own. That is, questions I have asked myself to which, I am now satisfied, there is no useful or meaningful answer. I'm sure you have some, too.

1. Why, uniquely amongst canned goods, are tins of tomatoes almost always dented? No-one seems to know (or, at least, my letters and emails on the subject are never answered). I have speculated that perhaps -- for some obscure, historical reason of tradition -- they are meant to be dented. Perhaps it is someone's job to put a ding in each can, and the undinged ones are, in fact, the aberration? Undetermined. The Man From Del Monte, he say Nothing.

2. How is it that folly may be expressed using exactly the same language -- using precisely the same rules of grammar and even the same logical constructions -- as wisdom, to the extent that the two are indistinguishable, linguistically? Or, as Noam Chomsky once wrote:

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

You would have thought -- language being as much a part of the evolutionary heritage of humans as two fully-fitted feet, both pointing the same way -- that some evolutionary mechanism would have implanted Idiocy Checks into language. At the very least, you would have expected that the first fool who insisted "There is absolutely no reason not to believe eating all red berries is safe: all the evidence points that way" would have been beaten to death with his own digging stick, thus removing one species of idiocy from the gene pool. Perhaps he was, but maybe we're just too amused by famous last words stories, thus needlessly preserving and re-infecting the language with fatal linguo-memes.

But language, regrettably, has no such safety checks. It's all very well for William Blake to pronounce "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees", but they both use the same words equally as convincingly and, of course, it's usually the plausible fool who gets the job as Tree Inspector. Perhaps humour is our only defense against this sort of thing. Indeed, it may be the closest mechanism we've yet evolved to a linguistic idiocy check.

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana
Groucho Marx

3. What ... No, I'll save that one for a future post. It's a tricky subject.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Another Day, Another Window

This window appears to have propellers and pyramids. It's one of the special "impossible to clean" curved windows the architect designed personally for our Library refurbishment project a few years ago.

And this is an early morning scene in the car park allotments, with the rising sun falling on a poly tunnel, that sort of rhymes:

And, putting the two together, this mysterious object is an impossible-to-clean curved window that is a poly tunnel! Actually, it's an inflatable bubble, which the same architect thought would be a really cool way of filling a hole in the roof (where more conventional souls would have put a "window" or "skylight"). It has to be kept pumped up or it will leak, and, yes, it is filling with water ... I call it the Belly of the Whale.

We're standing underneath the thing, btw. Let's step back a bit: nope, it doesn't look any less ominous. And, yes, someone has thrown something up inside the horizontal fabric blinds that had to be installed to cut down the heat gain from this enormous air- and increasingly water-filled lens.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Bandit King

Yesterday's comments from Jack and Maggie got me to thinking about the way the world looks from inside our heads (as opposed to through our eyes). I expect everyone knows Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover:

Yes, the main joke is that -- to a New Yorker -- everything West of 10th Avenue is Injun Country, but isn't it interesting, how much the rest of the US looks like Krazy Kat's Coconino County to Steinberg? That is, not simply "unknown and strange" but "as seen by George Herriman."

My own inner picture of the wider world is still heavily influenced by the kind of stuff that was produced for British kids in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Empire was still a strong echo, and "racism" a word with no meaning (perhaps something to do with Stirling Moss and Vincent motorcycles). Peoples of the World featured heavily in books and cigarette cards, almost as a form of stamp collecting or bird spotting -- just as you could tell a Robin by its diagnostic features, so you could tell a Mexican or an Eskimo or a Sikh by their diagnostic apparel. There is an amazing set of oil sketches in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Queen Victoria's summer retreat, done in India at her request by Rudolf Swoboda. They are the ultimate cigarette card collection -- portraits of all the "types" of people to be encountered in India -- an orientalist's feast of beards, saris, turbans, and jewellery. Highly recommended.

As I discussed in an earlier post (Is There Gas In The Car?) I'm fascinated both by stereotypes and the liberal urge to deny them, especially when this takes on a moral character. I think of it as the Central Casting problem. For example, if Hollywood wanted to cast, say, a much-feared Brazilian bandit, I doubt anyone would be asking for the phone number of Woody Allen's agent. But check this out:

That, my friends, is not an accountant with a weekend interest in historical recreation, but the notorious Lampião, a cangaceiro bandit of Northwest Brazil, and something of a Robin Hood figure. Doesn't look much of a handful, does he? Here are his friends:

Nice hats! I won't show you the picture of how they ended up, it's a bit gruesome. But you can see Hollywood's problem (sorry, challenge -- I'm never going to get that one right). There's a really great story here (look! there's even a part for J. Lo!) but the "look and feel" is clearly going to need a little tweaking before it is convincing to an audience that knows what dangerous bandits are supposed to look like...

I really wanted to see a film about Lampião starring Woody Allen and Rhea Perlman when, as a junior librarian, I catalogued Chandler's book 30 years ago. It'll never happen, but -- if it did -- it would star Antonio Banderas and Jennifer Lopez, the hats would go, and the whole point would be lost. But I suppose, wherever you live, the world will always wobble between the way it is and the way we imagine it to be, a constant tussle between gritty TV news and the movies. Contrary to most opinion, imagination is a very limited faculty. It is a wonderful thing (and one of the many wonderful things about photography) that the reality can so often be so much more surprising than the imagined version.

But there is a special pleasure when reality and fantasy meet. It has always been a key part of the survival fantasies of the British labouring classes, ploughing fields in the rain or plodding home from the pithead, that -- out there in cigarette card world -- colourful people still wear pretty homespun clothes and do exciting things in faraway places. Every Christmas, a band of Otavalo indians from Peru appear in our drab town centre, playing pan pipes and selling ponchos and wonderfully-coloured knitwear*, the men still sporting their traditional thick plait of hair. It's somehow more festive, more true to the spirit of the season than any number of neon reindeer and snowflakes. I have no idea how we look through their eyes, but I hope we're not as much like a grim, grey post-modern sludge as I often feel. And I do hope they weren't expecting bowler hats and bearskins...

* N.B. those Peruvian hats, suddenly being worn as an indie fashion all over the UK (and looking truly idiotic), are called chullos

Saturday, 24 January 2009

What, More Windows?

All the indications are that my preoccupation with university windows is boring you rigid (at least, I'm assuming that's what accounts for the recent dramatic fall off in readership ...) but -- guess what? -- here are some more. Come on, you've got to admit those are rather fine. Talking of readership, I seem to have about twenty or so "regulars," of whom I can account for only about ten. It would be nice to know who you are (Hi there, Brampton and Moose Jaw! Hola, Tuxtla Gutierrez y Madrid!). Blogger's statistics only resolve to "city" level -- so you may be relieved to know that your anonymity is assured. But if you feel like getting in touch with me you'd be very welcome. And if you're finding this blog interesting, why not tell your friends? One reason to get in touch is that I will soon be having a clearout of postcards, etc., that I have made, and am thinking about some kind of "postal art" project that might make this more fun. To do that, I'll be needing a good selection of terrestrial addresses.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Weird Windows

Excitement: this lunchtime I came across some truly bizarre windows on campus I'd never seen before. These may look like constructs but, trust me, they're not.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

57 Varieties of Fog

Will this fog never end?

Congratulations, America, by the way. We've been watching live coverage, as valiant BBC anchorfolk fill the endless, freezing hours before the Big Moment ("Yes, Hugh, I can ask -- along with this vast crowd -- perhaps the largest crowd ever to freeze its collective butt in the open air in Washington in January -- when, if ever, will I feel my fingers again?").

Loved the hat, btw, Aretha. ("Hey, nineteen, that's Aretha Franklin ...")

Maybe the fog is a metaphor for the Last Days of Bush ... Let's hope BHO really does have something up his sleeve, metaphorical-weather-wise.

When Were You Happiest?

In recent years there has been a regular filler feature in the "lifestyle" supplements of even the quality papers which takes the form of a celebrity questionnaire. This was no doubt originally borrowed in a spirit of irony from the celebrity magazines but, as things do, it has developed a momentum of its own. If nothing else, I suppose, these invitations to self-exposure have given some insight into that worldview which divides the world into celebs and "civilians."

One of the usual questions is: "When were you happiest?" After in-depth, week-on-week research I have concluded that -- in whatever celebrity boot camp or induction session these people attend -- the current teaching is that the only acceptable answer is the evasive yet vaguely hip formula: Right here and right now.

Obviously (or presumably), the respondent doesn't literally mean "Right here, sitting with my agent, concocting suitable answers right now to this stupid questionnaire (how many papers did you say this was going in? Just The Guardian? But isn't that a communist paper?)" No, this is language borrowed from the celebrity therapy session, where evasion masquerades as enlightenment, and emotional cosmetic surgery is carried out not to cure but to cover up the needy, greedy tics and traits of people with that inexplicable, bottomless and insatiable hunger for Fame.

They may say "Why, my inquisitive friend, since you ask, I am happiest right here and right now!" but what they mean is:

a). I don't know what it would mean to be happy;
b). My therapist tells me that "living in the here and now" means I don't have to confront the issues and behaviours that have caused so much unhappiness for me and those around me;
c). I badly need you to believe that I'm a sussed person with an all-over emotional tan;

and also possibly

d). An honest answer to this question could mean expensive legal proceedings and possible imprisonment.

Anyway, that's my little civilian rant done with. What I really wanted to say was that, in the unlikely event I ever have to answer such a silly question, then I actually have quite a precise reply. Although I could name other occasions of greater happiness, I would still probably nominate: "Around 12:40 pm on my 17th birthday in 1971."

I was then in the lower sixth form of an ex-grammar school, recently turned comprehensive, but still drearily single-sex. At around 12:30 I was hanging around the sixth form common room. It was the usual noisy, hormonal lunchtime hubbub. However, gradually I became aware of a quietening, a tension, and then whispers of "Where's Mike? Where's Mike?"

I turned around, not a little apprehensively, only to see three familiar grinning girls, dressed in the uniform of the Girls' Grammar School and standing in a line, each holding a chocolate cupcake with a lit candle in it. It was my girlfriend, Jane, and her two best friends. They proceeded to sing "Happy Birthday" and then each gave me a birthday kiss, right in front of the astonished, envious, open-mouthed sixth form, before muttering a few words of explanation, and scampering off. It was a coup de théâtre that left me feeling, well, very happy.

I should explain. In an operation worthy of the SAS, these three girls had broken school rules by leaving the school premises, crossed from one side of town to the other on public transport, entered the grounds of an unfamiliar boys-only school, found the 6th form block, entered into its inner sanctum, found the lucky boy whose birthday it was, performed the ceremony described above, and then reversed all the previous steps without mishap, detection or detention. I'm not sure, being a typical 17-year old emotional klutz, whether I ever expressed an appropriate degree of gratitude to Jane, and Pat, and Anne, or even how far I believed I was worth all that trouble. But I'll never, ever forget that day.

Of course, unless you've been to a single-sex school, you won't understand the almost surreal hunger that can develop for the opposite sex. Indeed, there were times when simply seeing the word "girl" in print was mysteriously mood-altering. Sadly (and sometimes alarmingly), most pupils of single-sex schools enter the wider world with the mystery of gender still wrapped inside its enigmatic packaging, but I had discovered that I was one of those lucky boys who found girls easy to talk to, and delightful to befriend. Luckily for everyone concerned, I was too short and too ugly to over-exploit this facility but, in truth, I have usually found the company of most women preferable to that of most men.

But what was especially gratifying at around 12:40 on that birthday in 1971 was having this demonstrated unambiguously in front of all the tiresome rugby-playing jocks who had kicked the proverbial sand in my face for the previous five years. Hah!
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Recently, after my father's funeral, I was staying with my old friend Dave (who was present on that long-ago day), and we fell to discussing old times, as you do. When I mentioned Jane, a faraway look came into his eye. "Jane, she was quite something, wasn't she? I wonder whatever happened to her?" he mused.

Only good things, I hope. And -- for what it's worth after all this time -- Thank you for that wonderful birthday present.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Hanover Point

Of all my film cameras, the Fuji GS645 was my favourite by a mile. I still have it, but can't afford the film processing any more. Or rather, since going digital, the savings I have made in not processing and contact printing an average of three or four rollfilms per week seem mysteriously to have found other outlets (primarily photobooks, I fear). The combination of medium-format negatives in a highly-portable rangefinder body with a beautiful medium-wide lens, plus the reassurance of that lens-protecting rollbar, is a real winner. I used to own the folding version with a standard lens, too, but sold it to someone whose lust exceeded his judgement, and who made me a ridiculous cash offer for it. They are very desirable cameras.

Of course, my previous "walk around" medium-format rangefinder had been a Koni Omega Rapid, weighing slightly less than suitcase full of concrete. Weight aside, the main contrast was between the perky snick of the Fuji's shutter and the head-turning kerschlunk of the KO's unique pump-action film advance (not inappropriate, I suppose, in the combat situations I believe the camera was originally designed for -- certainly, I'd trust a KO to stop a bullet).

I recently rescanned this image, taken with the Fuji: a New Year's Day photograph of Hanover Point on the Isle of Wight, and my single Greatest Hit (that is, I sold three copies of it from a group exhibition at the ArtSway gallery in the New Forest).

Hanover Point is famous as a fossil-hunting location, with Iguanodon footprints visible at low tide on the beach. I used to take my dinosaur-fanatical son over to the Island quite often as a treat, though I'm afraid it was more often than not a character-building lesson in the contrast between expectations and reality. Good stuff is always turning up, though, as the rate of erosion is alarming: those blocks in the foreground are not rock, but the remains of the clifftop carpark.


The words/images balance has been a little out of kilter this week. The weather's been dreary, the light's been dull, and it's been one of those weeks when I just seem to be repeating myself. Now, I'm more aware than most that "repeating yourself" is an essential part of the process that ends in not repeating yourself, but that doesn't stop it being frustrating. I just try to get out there every day and see what happens. Luckily, I don't depend on bringing home the Good Stuff to make a living.

In compensation, I've been going through old film contact sheets, and scanning (or in some cases rescanning) anything that grabs my attention. It's curious how you can overlook a gem for years, and then suddenly see it there. Your brain finally catches up with what your eye saw a decade ago.

This first is a rescan, and an image that has fascinated me since I took it on a cold Easter day in 1995, just before a major snowstorm near Llandrindod Wells in the Welsh Borders. It wants to be part of a sequence: it may yet get its wish.

This second is a "new" discovery: it was so dark on the contact sheet that I had never noticed it before, but I could see that the negative looked interesting when I scanned a neighbouring frame. I do remember taking it, though: we were staying on a farm near Crewkerne in Somerset in 2000, and I went out for a night walk, armed with a Fuji GS645 and a flash. This haycart, parked on a hillside above the lights of Crewkerne, was barely visible in the dark, but loomed promisingly beside the path.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Creative Destruction

I think I must have nodded off in front of the radio last night. I dreamed there was a broadcast on Radio 4, given by a hedge fund manager, arguing for the strengths of the theories of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, as a sort of anti-Keynesian, entrepreneur-friendly remedy to the current financial crisis. The expression "creative destruction" figured largely (something my subconscious had clearly devised with the intention of winding up Paul Butzi over at the Musings on Photography blog ...)

Things got whacky when, in this very realistic but utterly boring dream, I heard that the Librarian at Schumpeter's university had challenged him to a duel, with swords, because he and Schumpeter had quarrelled over students' access to books. Thank you, Dr. Freud ... Like that would ever happen!

Anyway, as I'm sure you realise, this all turns out to have been true, which just goes to show (well, I'm not sure what). I confess the idea of duelling as a way of managing the excessive demands of academics on our library services has a certain appeal. I may advocate to my boss the appointment of a Library Champion for just such a purpose. ("You have a problem with our policy on the late return of short-loan books? Step this way, please ... May I introduce Dr. De'Ath?")

I have no opinion on Schumpeter whatsoever, though I read this in Wikipedia:
In the same book, Schumpeter expounded a theory of democracy which sought to challenge what he called the 'classical doctrine'. He disputed the idea that democracy was a process by which the electorate identified the common good, and politicians carried this out for them. He argued this was unrealistic, and that people's ignorance and superficiality meant that in fact they were largely manipulated by politicians, who set the agenda. This made a 'rule by the people' concept both unlikely and undesirable. Instead he advocated a minimalist model, much influenced by Max Weber, whereby democracy is the mechanism for competition between leaders, much like a market structure. Although periodical votes from the general public legitimize governments and keep them accountable, the policy program is very much seen as their own and not that of the people, and the participatory role for individuals is severely limited.
I'm confused: isn't that the way it works now? Have I missed something?

Stop Press: Actually, the duelling may not be necessary, at least as far as the paying customers are concerned: in the Times Higher Education annual Student Experience Survey, our library has scored very highly (Ahem. In the top ten of 100 odd universities). They love us, they really love us, after all! [sobs incoherently]

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Impossible Things

"Playing a musical instrument is easy: all one has to do is press the right key at the right time and the instrument plays itself."
Johann Sebastian Bach

Yeah, right. The Monty Python team once worked that ironic little quote into a sketch parodying Blue Peter (a British children's TV programme, featuring low-cost and improving DIY activities):
"How to play the flute..." (presenter picks up flute) "Well here we are. You blow there and you move your fingers up and down here." (presenter throws flute aside)
It's interesting, you don't immediately associate JSB with humour, but like that other joker, Beethoven, a profound sense of amusement is definitely at work in his music. You don't find Beethoven funny? Listen to Stephen Kovacevich's acclaimed new version of the Diabelli Variations, and try not to think of Chico Marx (The Fiorello Variations? "Hey, whatsa matter for you?")

The Python joke, of course, is not simply that playing the flute may look easy, but is actually about as far from easy as it gets. It's also that -- in essence, and without going into tedious detail -- that is about all there is to it: "You blow there and you move your fingers up and down here." Sorted! There's also an undercurrent relating to the breezy "can do" spirit in the upbringing of the British aspirational classes ("You can be anything you want to be, darling").

But, let's be clear: in fact, some things are not just hard: they are actually impossible. Playing the piano, for example. You may not have realised this, but a pianist is expected to play totally different, really complicated things with each hand. At the same time! That's impossible!!

The list of allegedly possible but clearly impossible things is quite long. Running 100 metres in 10 seconds, or running a marathon; Learning to speak Chinese (my Dad's favourite joke: "How hard can it be? Even the kids can do it!"); making a watch; selling worthless debts at vast profit; oh, lots of things. Face it, even making a list of impossible things is impossible.

So where does Bach get off, mocking our inability to play, never mind compose, the Goldberg Variations? Both of which are clearly beyond impossible. If even beginning to approach the high peaks of our culture is laughably out of reach for most of us, does this matter? Or, is that the whole point? As Robert Browning has his glove-puppet Andrea del Sarto say:
Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?

Well, what indeed? It's kind of a "trickle down" theory of culture but, hmm, we know how little of the economic stuff actually trickles down as advertised.

So, looked at one way, the music of Bach is a perpetual rebuke to the majority of the population: you're ignorant, you don't care enough about the right things, you have never tried to excel, you don't see the beauty I place before you, you can't even read music, you ignorant, sinful, complacent, bourgeois PIGS! (The people yawn, "Get over yourself, Fat Boy...")

But looked at in another way, it's an act of humble dedication and a hymn to the presence of divinity even in in the lives of those exact same ignorant, sinful, complacent, etc. There's not a lot of anger to be heard in Bach's music, but an awful lot of humanity. Most of us have lost touch with the particulars of Bach's religious beliefs: culturally, he now lives in that odd territory identified by Philip Larkin in his poem Church Going:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
But we can still sense that he very much feels himself to be "one of us," and we reach for Bach when we feel that "hunger to be more serious." Perhaps that old concept of sin -- which is something I think we feel we've grown out of -- was nevertheless a useful one, as it meant the likes of Bach could not let himself off the hook of his own inherent sinfulness, simply on the grounds of superior talent. He might be rather better at playing a keyboard, but was thereby in greater danger of a Sin of Pride.

In the absence of such a humbling device, it's much harder to get the more talented crew members to behave nicely on board our Ship of Fools, and you end up with all that intimidating Modernist huffing and puffing: "Don't like what you hear? I'm not surprised -- this is SERIOUS music!!" Hmm, yes, but serious music for which very few feel a hunger.

So, I like to think he is laughing with us, not at us. And I bet JSB couldn't shift his rotund arse into a trot even as far as the end of the street. "Impossible!"

"Photography is a medium of formidable contradictions. It is both ridiculously easy and almost impossibly difficult."
Edward Steichen

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Dinosaur Poo

Despite the attempts of the likes of Vladimir Propp to categorize stories into standard variations (31, apparently -- don't you love that precision?), it has been said that there are really only two stories: "someone goes on a journey" and "a stranger comes to town". In fact, it doesn't take much insight to see that these are two sides of the same story, and that therefore there is really only one story, something like "people do stuff in the world", which is doubtless true, but not terribly helpful as an analytical tool.

Today the 1911 Census has gone live, and what is more three years early -- how did that happen? Does someone in government know something they're not telling us? Or have we got to the point as a nation where, like parents with grown up children, there no longer seems any point in making anyone wait for a present until the actual day of their birthday? Like a lot of other people, I've been all over it today. I confess I've been occupying myself in recent years with a little family history research (no, wait, don't go!) and have noticed how that "go on a journey / stranger in town" split seems to typify the stories I have uncovered in my family, and quite likely would be true of anyone else's, too.

Typically, one branch of the family lives and works on a few square miles of countryside for centuries, breeding generation upon generation of large parallel families of cousins, all with exactly the same names (though I'm proud to say one of my female forebears bore the unusual name of Dorcas Goops). Then -- you guessed -- either a fascinating stranger comes to town, or one of the homeboys/gals runs screaming over the hill, to exercise his or her fascination somewhere far, far away. Bingo, a new branch of the family that never sends Christmas cards, but with a story worth telling.

What interested me was when I discovered that, in my family, a major source of these blow-ins was a mini-Klondike in the mid-19th century that happened on the Hertfordshire / Bedfordshire / Cambridgeshire borderlands, an area that is not now a byword for social upheaval.

Coprolite miners in Bedfordshire
(Sorry, lost the URL for this image)

It's all to do with the Greensand, the Gault and the Marl, or more precisely the beds of phosphatic nodules found in those soft rocks, generally known as coprolites. A coprolite, as any 10-year old will tell you, is fossilised dinosaur poo (though the term covers any phosphatic organic material). For a few years in the 1800s, coprolite mining formed the basis of a boom industry: they were dug out, ground up and shipped out by the waggon and trainload to make artificial fertiliser.

Pick the right field, strip off the top layers, and there it was. Numerous gangs of labourers were recruited to excavate the stuff ("a man goes on a journey"), then put the soil back so the field could get back to growing things. Some landowners grew very rich on the proceeds. Beershops and other "entertainments" opened up everywhere in Wild West fashion. There was concern in religious circles for the ensuing moral turpitude.

Then someone discovered guano, and it was suddenly all gone, and the fields returned to normal, apart from some odd lumps and bumps. The main side effect had been a fresh infusion of marriageable young men for the cousins ("a stranger comes to town"). And, 150 years later, some raised eyebrows when I discovered the occupation "coprolite miner" (and place of birth "Far, Far Away") on the mid-century census returns of my ancestors, in place of the usual "Ag. Lab."

Sunday, 11 January 2009

36 Views of Mount Nuffield

At the centre of our campus is a great lumpy prominence of sheet copper roofing, weathered to that unmistakable verdigris colour, like a huge swimming pool turned inside out. It's the Nuffield Theatre, a wonderful facility and a useful landmark.

A prominent landmark has been used as the witty device for a visual series by a number of artists. One immediately thinks of Hokusai's 36 Views of Mount Fuji and Henri Rivière's tribute to it, 36 Views of the Eiffel Tower (if you don't know Rivière, he's worth checking out, I think his graphic eye and in particular his prints of Brittany are outstanding). In photography, there is Joel Meyerowitz's series on the St. Louis Arch, and I'm sure any number of people are currently working on their "36 Views of the London Eye" series (hurry, guys!). If nothing else, it's a good way of bringing civic pride and artistic integrity within shouting distance of each other, not a bad formula for a project proposal or commercial undertaking ...

Will I start such a series myself? Not sure, but it's tempting. The thought was provoked by these two images made with the Panasonic LX3 this week, the one above cropped square from the 4:3 aspect ratio, the one below using the 16:9 ratio which I'm using increasingly often.

Here's another 16:9 Psonic picture taken this week (in the car park), that, whilst not of the Nuffield, somehow connects with it in terms of colours and shapes.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Bloody Elves!

We've started putting a tin with a lid on our doorstep, into which the milkman can put our bottle of milk (cultural note: in the UK, it is the custom -- dying out now -- for milk to be delivered daily at or around dawn by an annoyingly cheerful man with an electric van). This is because someone or something had started knocking over our bottles and making free with the milk spilled all over the step.

I was talking about this with my son, and we ran down the list of suspects. The milkman himself? Unlikely. A cat? Well, not unlikely. A dog or fox? Quite possibly (foxes have become a common sight in urban areas*). I mentioned the snails I had noticed making their getaway at the end of trails of milk. Hmm, probably opportunist thieves -- hard to imagine how a snail (or even a gang of snails) would be able to summon the sheer Physics involved in knocking over a bottle of milk.

It then occurred to me that we would probably not think of adding "elves" to the list, and we wondered at what point this useful explanation ceased being available to the householder. Once, I'm sure, if I had stood on the doorstep of my hovel, and shouted "Bloody Elves! They've knocked the milk over again!" the neighbours would have understood, and not called the police. Considering the amount of folklore connected with elf deterrance, this must once have been perceived as a real nuisance. Useful, too: no need to worry about mysterious losses and disappearances, the explanation was always at hand. "Bloody elves have hidden my car keys again!"

The enquiring, scientific mind has done for elves, of course (though, curiously, scientists are still fond of their gremlins). I realised a true scientist would do the obvious thing, and set up a doorstep surveillance system, ideally using movement sensors and infra-red cameras. It wouldn't take long to identify the culprit. I'm sure something adequate could be lashed up for a hundred pounds or so. But wait: a bottle of milk costs 75 pence ... Unless the culprit did turn out to be elves (in which case, the recordings would be quite valuable) the expense would outstrip the benefit by quite a distance ... I immediately lost interest.

But that is why I am not a scientist. I don't care enough about the answer to go to the trouble of doing the work involved in finding out. This struck me very forcibly when trying to identify the species of a butterfly in the garden last summer. It was a "Blue" of course, but which? All I had to do was reach for The Observer's Book of Butterflies, and look it up. One diagnostic characteristic, I read, was the number of spots on the wing. At which point I gave up: partly becase the butterfly had gone, and partly because I simply couldn't be bothered to count the spots on a butterfly's wing.

And then I thought: Once, there was no Observer's Book of Butterflies, with its handy diagnostic tips. Indeed, once, there was no such basic taxonomic knowledge. First, someone had to be bothered to care enough to count the spots on a number of achingly similar butterfly wings, notice there was a consistent difference, and wonder what that difference signified. And I thought: how much we owe to those few strange, independent-minded people who can be bothered and what a difference they have made to all our lives.

Elves are so much simpler ...

* On the night our daughter was born, I drove our three-year old son across town at about 1:00 a.m. to spend the night with a friend, so I could be at the hospital. I was amazed at the number of foxes that were padding about, criss-crossing the road in my car headlights, checking out the roadside binbags of domestic refuse for snacks. I must have counted twenty in one road. The advent of wheelie-bins has caused an observable decline in their numbers.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Pond Geology

Yesterday the pond froze over, too. As the ice gets broken by passing students and then refreezes, trapping air and ice fragments, the surface textures of the ice can get quite complex, like a geological map.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Nature Makes Art

Despite the existence of a Staff Room inside the Library, I like to walk across the road to have my morning coffee break in the Staff Club, mainly because I got into the habit back in the day when I was a smoker, and we used to have a lively smokers' table where the best conversation was to be had.

When I looked out of the Staff Club window this morning, I saw something remarkable. Despite our lack of real snow, it has at least been very cold, and this -- together with whatever other freakish combination of conditions -- has led to something I have never seen before. The goldfish pool within the Staff Club courtyard is covered by netting to fend off snacking herons, but a hole has been cut through to allow the aerating fountain to have free play. This morning, icicles had formed in a circle all around the fountain, weighing down the netting (a bit like one of those demonstrations of how gravity bends the time-space continuum). It's a Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy sculpture, thrown up by natural processes in an un-natural setting.

Extraordinary, no? The fish, meanwhile, have all congregated in a motionless grump in one corner. I don't think they're frozen ...

Monday, 5 January 2009

I Nearly Slipped!

South Hampshire awoke to the full horror of at least two millimetres of snow which had fallen in the night. Early morning traffic was proceeding slightly more slowly than normal, and pedestrians had to be really quite careful. "I nearly slipped!" declared a man in an idiotic hat, interviewed by this blog.

"Winter has well and truly arrived," said the Meteorological Office. "The snow may last well into the morning, before a cold drizzle turns it into a vile slush at lunchtime, then a more generalised wetness will persist into the afternoon. Given the coincidence with the mass return to work after the Christmas break, the responsible thing may be to consider calling in sick today."

Said a Christmas industry spokesperson, "If climate change carries on at this rate, the entire Christmas industry is in severe danger. There are children growing up now who have never seen proper snow, never mind reindeer or horse-drawn carriages, and they're simply not going to be stimulated into a Pavlovian buying frenzy by sticking snowflakes all over everything. I suppose rain drops or even palm trees might be an option, but these things take time."

Asked whether the snow presented any danger to the public, Hampshire Police clearly implied that your blogger was wasting their valuable time.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Weekend Wandering

Yesterday morning, on the way to do the weekly shop, I stopped off at the allotments at the end of our road, as the steep-angled sun was doing interesting things to the gardening paraphernalia:

I love the way patterns happen when people are busy improvising ways of doing something purposeful, like growing vegetables. It's one of the things that keeps my photographic clock ticking.

Then, today, I went for a very chilly mooch about down by the Docks. These days you can't get in amongst the ships and cargo the way you could 20 years ago, for obvious reasons. Actually, like most major ports, you'd never really guess there was anything much going on down by the waterside, until you're practically on top of it. In the "old days" (that is, before containerisation) most families in Southampton had a least one member either working in the Docks or in the Merchant Navy. Now, the workforce is tiny: the University is a bigger employer of local people than the Docks.

One of the sad ironies of recent history is that one reason Southampton survived as a cargo port was because the trade unions were weak. Other ports where the unions were stronger held out against containerisation, and therefore ended up backing the wrong horse, historically. The unions had no real choice, of course: unloading cargo ships was a labour-intensive and skilled business, giving meaningful jobs and a way of life to many skilled and semi-skilled workers. I'm told it could take a week or more to completely unload the holds of a ship. A container ship, on the other hand, can be unloaded in a day by a few specialised crane drivers. Here is a glimpse of the vast stacks of containers that loom behind the dock fences:

In and around the dock area are many industrial areas with workshops and small factories of various sorts. You've got to wonder what goes on behind this garage door:

Friday, 2 January 2009

Pistachio Nuts

By the time you get to your 50s, the majority of your "life choices" have been made, evaded, or forced upon you, but one compensation (I suppose) is that, as a result, you generally start to get a proper sense of the arc of your own story. It's why even interesting people start to become bores (or, um, bloggers) around that age: you have stories to tell and, by God, you're going to tell them. Beware, you wedding guests, there's an apprentice Ancient Mariner sitting in every carriage of every train ...

But in anyone's personal history, there are often a number of "roads not taken," subplots and storylines which, like red herrings in a thriller or links in a Wikipedia article, never get played out but which might easily, if followed, have led somewhere quite different. These pseudo-stories are the hardest to tell, partly for the obvious reason that they never actually happened, but also because they can be very precious. Sometimes, these "might have beens" can constitute an important negative space in a life, like your recurring dreams; it's as if you had a backstory in a parallel universe.

For example, around 1973/4, I got the strong feeling that the world was telling me to take an interest in Iran. As described in an earlier post (What I Don't Know Isn't Knowledge), at that time I was experiencing the full rush of the transition from a life of limitations to one of great expectations. Opportunities whistled by at an exhilarating pace. Being an idiot, I enjoyed the sensation of speed rather than grabbing anything as it went by, but certain clusters of stuff would land in my lap anyway, and one of these was distinctly Persian.

For a start, one of my new instant friends-for-life had parents in Iran. His father worked in the oil business out there, as Brits did in those far-off days*. We shared an interest in the writings of Idries Shah on Sufism and the tales of Mulla Nasrudin, and he introduced me to the ecstatic, mystical poetry of Rumi and Hafez. Then another new friend turned out to be studying Persian; I had no idea such a thing was possible. Through her I encountered Persian miniatures for the first time. I rubbed my bare feet on my first Tabriz carpet, and discovered that some carpets were so valuable they were to be hung on the wall. Yes, I had fallen into a Den of Orientalists, but Edward Said's book was still four years away from publication, so I can plead innocent on that charge. And also, in the end, it was simply not my style: it made me feel too much like a cartoon hippie. I will always have a soft spot for Rumi and Persian miniatures, but it was a road not taken.**

No, the real revelation of this period, the thing that brought me closest to the ecstatic swoon of a Sufi mystic, was salted pistachio nuts. Forget your Nepalese Temple Ball or your Thai sticks, this was the real thing. In 1974, no-one from my background in Britain had any idea what a pistachio nut was. Being a sophisticated and well read bloke, I did know that in the USA it was the name of a flavour of ice-cream, and that it was also the name of a certain tart green colour, but beyond that, nothing. Then, one day at the start of a new term, as we were sitting around in his smoky room doing nothing much, my friend Gerry opened up a box, and offered it to me. It was something he'd brought back from his home visit to Iran; about the size of a shoe-box, it was full of little salt-crusted, wolfishly-grinning nutshells, that looked as if they had been left out on a beach somewhere to bleach. To cut to the chase: I very nearly ate half of the box in a snacking frenzy, even sucking the salt out of the shells. I can remember vividly that we were listening to the album Countdown to Ecstasy by Steely Dan. If there is a Heaven, it may be something like that: an endless passionate first encounter with pistachio nuts. The Apotheosis of The Munchies...

Of course, now every Christmas all the supermarkets sell giant tubs of pistachios alongside the Flame-Grilled Steak flavoured crisps, but I still get a warm feeling, remembering that afternoon in 1974, and am reminded, without regret and with much pleasure, of one of my many "might have beens".

* Amusingly or not, I could never convince my grandmother that anyone living in Iran could also be native-born English, and she always referred to Gerry as my "darkie friend." And, yes, that probably was every bit as racist as it sounds, but it still made and makes me laugh. One day, I must tell you about my formidable grandmother.

Curiously, my brief "Persian Phase" pre-dated the Ayatollah's Revolution by about five years. A later Road Not Taken was my "East European Languages Phase," when I was re-learning Russian
(I had briefly studied the language at school) in the late 70s / early 80s and working with German as part of my job. For a while, I seriously considered a change of career as a linguist. Until, oh, about 1985. Now, I'm not claiming I had anything to do with the events of 1989 and 1991, but let's just say that for a price I'm willing to pass a list of my recently- abandoned interests to any betting folk out there ... Address your query to "Mr. Zeitgeist."

Thursday, 1 January 2009

New Year's Day

Every year, I try to take a photograph on New Year's Day, usually in the afternoon. As it's effectively dark by 4:00 p.m. there's not much of a window of opportunity, and as the weather usually isn't up to much, the photos aren't usually terribly interesting. It's more of a ritual than anything -- it's an excuse for a wintry afternoon walk, and I certainly can't imagine any kind of book or project emerging from them.

Last year I was lucky: from the commanding heights of the hillfort at Old Winchester Hill we had a spectacular view of a filthy orange sunset over the Solent, with that weird fading intensity in the colours you sometimes get at dusk in winter.

This year, we made it nowhere more adventurous than the garden centre at Hillier's Arboretum, and the light was truly awful, so I just mooched up and down the lane, peering through hedges.

Same countryside, but much more of a sense of "down there" than "up here." Despite the warmth of my new idiotic hat, I was glad to get home and have a cup of tea and a mince pie.