Thursday, 26 February 2009

Clever Clogs

We have had one of those evanescent media bubbles here in the UK media in the last week. It has centred on a long-running TV series called University Challenge, which is in essence an inter-university general knowledge competition, in which the universities put up teams of four individuals to compete in a superior pub quiz. It has been running since 1962, and has entered the national consciousness at a number of levels. If nothing else, it is a gauge with which to measure the nation's interest in and view of higher education (for example, the programme was cancelled between 1987 and 1994 ...)

The hoo-hah has centred on a young woman called Gail Trimble, who has attracted attention to herself and her college (Corpus Christi, Oxford) by steering her team to victory over Manchester University in the final, along the way making a disproportionate personal contribution from her own amazingly well-stocked and well-ordered store of general knowledge. So what's the problem?

The problem is that certain parts of the UK population -- let's say that modish, moderately well-informed but often disaffected stratum that haunts the blogosphere, and in particular the male part of it -- have "issues" with (a) cleverness, (b) social class, and (c) women. Put all three together, and a nasty, hypocritical, anti-intellectual, misogynist sneerfest ensues.

Now, I couldn't care less about University Challenge. And, beyond admiring her composure and breadth of knowledge, I don't much care about Gail Trimble, either. I don't think we'd ever have been friends, to put it mildly. But I do care about higher education, and I care a lot about certain regressive tendencies I see at work in our society. So I'm simply going to get on my soapbox here, and have a rant:


One of the more dismaying trends of recent times has been the extension of the school playground mindset into adult life, especially in the entertainment world, and particularly in the comedy scene. This sets the tone of the blogosphere, where, after all, people are trying to be entertaining. Comics who ought to know better, and who have often emerged from the "alternative comedy" scene, get cheap laughs by exploiting easy caricatures and stereotypical views. Except that the targets are not black or Irish or gay -- that would be unacceptable -- but the "uncool."

The clever, the "nerdy," the unfashionable, the serious-minded, the aspirational -- these have been declared uncool, and therefore easy targets for a collective, playground laugh. Harmless enough, you might think, and when was it ever different? But laughter is very powerful: nothing is more calculated to turn off the ablest children in school, or to depress levels of achievement among minority and white working-class kids, than making these things the easy, automatic object of ridicule. Adults who earn a living by cultivating these toxic attitudes should be publicly flogged. I have names, if anyone wants them.

Another dismaying trend has been the rise of the "post feminist" woman -- women who, allegedly, have taken advantage of the victories of feminism to choose to obsess over shoes, leg shaving, makeup and appearance in general. I suppose these same women must also be choosing to subordinate their wishes and ambitions and domestic role to those of the unreconstructed men they choose to associate with, and choosing to be good sports relative to the "harmless" and "empowering" things their menfolk induce them to try like lapdancing and pornography. Damned strange choices, with damned strange consequences.

It seems to me we are experiencing a revival of oppressive gender stereotyping on a level that has not been seen since the 1950s. Everywhere you look, it's "Men are like this, Women are like that." Oh, really? Add to that a degree of hyper-sexualisation that poisons the well of gender relations (and is a form of socially-sanctioned bullying), and we really do seem to have gone into reverse. Who does any of this serve?

I suppose that leaves social class. That "elites" exist is surely not in itself a bad thing; after all, few people seem to have a problem with elite football teams. In education, however, the nagging suspicion persists that educational privilege can be bought*, and therefore cannot be truly earned in a meritocratic way. And, of course, that is true, and truer today than it was when I was at school.

Just look at language teaching: it seems almost incredible that I, at a typical state "grammar" school, learned French, German and Latin as a matter of routine, with a side order of Russian, taught by dedicated, highly-qualified linguists. My own children, however, have had to make do with one language each, poorly taught to a level of bare competence. I somehow doubt this is the case at Eton.

So the "chippy" view (I do hate that word) has triumphed: down in Cool World academic ability is not something to be admired and cultivated like athletic prowess, because it smells a bit posh -- it's a marker of social ambition, getting above yourself, not knowing your place. Uncool. And thus under-achievement doth beget under-achievement, for ever and ever, amen.

Who'd ever have thought that "knowing your place" would re-emerge in Britain, not as a repressive ideology, but as an own goal of the working class against its own best and brightest? Or that a clever, slightly posh, slightly arrogant-seeming young woman can become the object of a barrage of leering, sexually-aggressive put-downs, simply by doing well on a TV quiz show?

OK, rant over. But somehow I'm not feeling better ...

* I'm aware that elite status for a team can be bought, too, but you don't see many public schoolboys in the Premier League, do you? Are there any, despite the scale of the financial rewards?

Tuesday, 24 February 2009


I'm not sure how general the expression is but, where I come from, if a new-born baby shows unusual interest in its surroundings (for example, looking around for its car keys), then the Wise Women nod and say, "She's been here before..." It's been a while since we had an interesting word, and you could say that this is an example of anamnesis. Or, at least, an example of the most interesting variety of it, as it's a word with curiously different meanings.

At root, it's just a Greek word simply meaning "remembering" or "to call to mind," and is used as the name of that figure of speech, where the speaker brings to the audience's mind things from the past ("Do you remember the days when bankers were a byword for probity?") But it has some more technical uses.

In Christian theology, the word refers to the "remembering" part of the Eucharist -- "This do in remembrance of me". Theology is an incredibly well-analysed and labelled field of study, which can be a goldmine of useful words for those half-grasped concepts you feel ought to be new but were, in fact, thoroughly turned over by scholastics in the Middle Ages; this is not one of the more useful or entertaining ones, though. [ A note from our Well I Never! Department: Did you know that "total depravity" is not just a clichéd expression for "rather naughty", but a quite precise theological term? Well I never!]

The most interesting use of anamnesis is, I think, in the philosophy of Plato, where it is Socrates' answer to the question: "Sir, Sir! If what you are looking for is really new and unknown, Sir, how will you recognise it when you find it, Sir? Well, Sir, how can you, Sir?" Socrates, of course, being Plato's glove puppet perfect teacher, does not react to such annoying interruptions to his chalk'n'talk by throwing the blackboard rubber with deadly accuracy*.

Without going into philosophical questions which I am unqualified to pursue, the view of Socrates and/or Plato seems to boil down to: We have all been here before, and what we call "learning" is really a process of remembering what we have forgotten. That is, what we have forgotten about the truths we learned in previous lives, especially those truths recovered from the true, deep eternal knowledge of which contingent "real world" beliefs are a mere distorted reflection.

These are curiously attractive ideas, especially if you are of a conservative bent of mind. A lot of Western art and culture is "neoplatonist" in spirit, without necessarily knowing it. You could even go so far as to say the emphasis of traditional science on "discovery" versus "invention" (i.e. Newton is said to have discovered, rather than invented, gravity) is a form of anamnesis, and that post-modernism is/was the attempt of the disillusioned and sidelined Humanities to turn the tables. I don't think science has really noticed, though ("What's that funny little buzzing sound?").

There is yet another meaning to the word. Have you ever had that mildly annoying thing happen to you, when waiting to see a doctor in a hospital: a medical student sidles up and asks whether they can ask some questions while you're waiting? And it turns out they're practising taking a medical history of your ailment? Well, the technical term for that is anamnesis and, believe it or not, I discover that the mnenonic used by British medics for the process is SOCRATES ... (Site, Onset, Character, Radiation, Associations, Timing / duration, Exacerbating / alleviating factors, Severity). I wonder how many medics these days know quite how apt that is?

* I realise this portrayal of a classroom is at least 30 years out of date, not least in the idea that any child today would resort to something as subtle as a clever question in order to annoy or divert a teacher. Plus any teacher resorting to assault with a pedagogical weapon would quickly end up in court.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Pattern Under the Plough

I have several times mentioned that I have a taste for the old, the used and weatherworn. Nothing unusual in that. As I mentioned in the post Closing Time in the Gardens of the West, the Japanese have a whole formal aesthetic (wabi-sabi) based on these characteristics, and I'm only too aware these are staple photographic cliches. In my case, this taste for the old may simply derive from growing up in a town where most buildings were no older than me, all made from the same dull industrial materials, and where everything was ageing at the same glacial pace.

I remember the exciting discovery one summer that the poorly-primed paint on the metal poles supporting our front porch had begun to bubble. We kids would flake it off with glee as we span round on them. They looked so much better. However, my father, never a wabi-sabi man, was not impressed (not least because we council tenants were not allowed to carry out external decoration to our houses).

However, a compensatory master stroke of the town planners was to name our town's streets and landmarks using the names of the fields, lanes and woods that had been overlaid by the New Town. Once you became aware of it, it became a form of archaeology: to live in Half Hyde, Broom Barns, The Glebe or Peartree Spring was to inhabit a real landscape, with names that had often survived intact from mediaeval times. Moreover, the streets were allowed to follow the contours of that landscape, and flowed with and around ancient copses and single standing oaks. I would sometimes imagine that the whole town could somehow be levered up like a paving stone, leaving behind just trees, grass and mud, exactly as it had been before.

Real archaeology turned up, too. Clay pipe bowls and stem fragments, discarded by field labourers, were common in the soil of our gardens, and in a back garden not far from ours an entire Celtic bronze shield had come out of the ground (the finder had initially thought it was the usual builder's rubbish he had put his fork through).

Later, when I discovered that -- unlike almost everyone else at school, mainly Cockney and Irish "blow-ins" -- my family was 50% native to the area, I realised that this subterranean history was not just there, but also mine. My ancestors had laboured for generations and tossed their clay pipes away in exactly similar fields just a few miles to the North.

developed an interest in folksong and folkways, read the books of George Ewart Evans, and tracked down the sites of local legends like the giant Jack O'Legs or the Hermit of Redcoats on my bike. This all coincided neatly with the late-sixties electric folk boom. After cutting my teeth in the local folk and youth clubs, I became a devotee of the likes of Pentangle and Fairport Convention*. I think I have never been more content, never felt more full of connections and directions. However pre-packaged and fake, the past always seemed a more solid road to the future than the present.

In later years, when building newer estates the council reverted to the dull street-naming convention of random themes -- explorers' names, British towns, Roman emperors, etc. -- and the density of housing went up, packed into grids that ignored the underlying patterns. It seemed such a betrayal of that strong foundational vision, so ignorant, and above all so uncaring, a form of disrespect to the inhabitants.

By then, of course, I had gone out into a wider world, but it seemed that every time I came back something important had been changed or destroyed, or another friend had left, until it simply wasn't my town any more. The "right" for tenants to buy their council houses introduced by the Thatcher government and the post 70s slump in manufacturing sent the town into a downward spiral.
Then my parents moved away, and that was that.

In such ways, biography and history combine. In one respect, I was simply experiencing the disorientation of "post post-Imperial Britain," the 60s hangover, and the spiteful, brittle new certainties of the Thatcher years. Who wasn't? But -- from inside -- it felt as if everything in the world was conspiring, actually or symbolically, in that Expulsion From Paradise that is the end of childhood. I knew all about the "pathetic fallacy" and "objective corellatives" from my literary studies, but it still felt very personal, and I began to dream of knocking on the doors of houses where I was no longer known.
How does it feel
To be out on your own,

With no direction home,

Like a complete unknown?

(Bob Dylan, Like A Rolling Stone)
But luckily at that point the other 50% of our family story -- the restless, roving Liverpudlian and Scottish blow-ins -- made its timely contribution. It wasn't so bad, really. Because the only correct answer to Dylan's question is, of course: "It feels just fine; and what other way is there, anyway?"

I saw the "Full House" Fairport lineup play a benefit gig in a hilly field just down the road at Little Hadham in 1970, the significance of which you either appreciate or you don't.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Square Second Chances

Look, don't tell anyone I said this, but I'm a great believer in recomposing a shot at the editing stage. I even (I know I'm going to regret saying this out loud), I even change the shape of the frame. Sometimes quite a lot. There.

For years I followed that purist "no cropping" mantra. I even felt slightly annoyed that my enlarger would shave off a tiny part of the frame edge, and gave serious consideration to filing out the film holder's window (as purists used to do) to get that "black edge" look from the unexposed clear emulsion that says: bread with nowt taken out.

But it slowly dawned on me that I was rejecting pictures that could have been saved by cropping, and that there was nothing natural or morally upright about sticking to the "native" image ratio of any given film/camera combination. I had also absorbed a belief that it was "wrong" to mix images from different cameras or film stocks in the same sequence, because they were in differently shaped rectangles, or had different degrees of graininess. And as for mixing colour and black and white ...

It's a peculiar hangup, really, perhaps dating from those macho days when reportage and "street" photography were the benchmarks of photographic rectitude. Wildlife and sports photographers would laugh at the idea ("Oh no, I got that crucial shot of Maradona handling the ball, but most of the frame is useless out-of-focus crowd detail, so no-one will use it"). Photojournalists rightly get into trouble for faking photographs, but it's rare for any news photograph to make it into any publication uncropped. I suppose the fetish of "uncropping" in art photography may be in part a reaction to this indignity experienced at the hands of picture editors.

My downfall from the True Path, ironically, was after I had developed a taste for the uncropped square medium-format frame. Oddly, most people have always happily cropped their squares into rectangles, but I liked them just as they were. I enjoyed the challenge of composing in that difficult space. But when I moved to digital, I still wanted to use square frames, and thought, "Why not?"

I even started adding square-cropped digital images to sequences originated on film, most notably the set I have built over a number of years on the River Test at Mottisfont Abbey (variously called The Colour of the Water and Downward Skies). Not to have done so would, I concluded, simply have been evidence of neurotic tendencies, and not of "artistic integrity" (actually quite a hard distinction to make -- I have discussed to the way the "project" can shade into "obsessive compulsive disorder" in the post Pentagonal Pool).

The River Test at Mottisfont
Image scanned from square 120 film negative, Agfa Isolette II

The River Test at Mottisfont
Digital image cropped square, from Olympus C5050

This led to the obvious discovery that cropping gave you a second chance at a really tight composition (a "Duuh... Moment", perhaps, as opposed to an "Aha! Moment"). At your leisure, moving a cropping marquee over an image in an editing program, there's no excuse for not getting it right this time, or finding something interesting in an otherwise dull frame. And, after all, as someone once said, the real "decisive moment" was when Cartier Bresson looked at his contact sheets and decided which frames to print.

With scanned medium format negatives you have lots of scope for interesting crops, because you have a lot of real estate to start with. For a while, I liked to make "panoramic" shots this way.

Approaching snow storm, Llandrindod Wells
Image scanned from "6x4.5" 120 film, Fuji GS645

To illustrate my point, here is a new version of an image from a recent post (Dominus Illuminatio Mea) recomposed into a square. I think it's more economical and I prefer its balance this way. For whatever reasons, I'm in love with this image at the moment. It's something to do with the dark chair, and also the way it reminds me of the community hall where I used to do judo -- the illuminated shapes on the floor conjure tatami mats. As usual, it's a "conservative" crop, as I still prefer to preserve the full height of the shortest dimension (a) to give the biggest possible square print (a practical judgement), and (b) because I don't like to put pictures together which are visibly at radically different resolutions (an aesthetic judgement).

Dominus Illuminatio Mea
Digital image cropped square, Panasonic LX3

For an example of someone else who likes to crop digital images square, it's worth taking a look at Mark Hobson's blog The Landscapist. He puts up a series of what he refers to as Ku images, which at first sight look like they've come from a 120 camera, but are in fact digital. Mark writes:
"I crop to square from digital files - almost always from dead-center on the frame. The frame being primarily the 4/3rds format (Olympus E-3) although I also use an APS-C format camera (Pentax K-20D). I crop to square for basically the same reasons you do - I have always liked the square/medium film format because I just like the shape - it "fits" my way of seeing."
He goes one step further than I would choose to, and also routinely burns in the corners to give that vignetted look that comes with the fall off in light intensity you get with older / cheaper square format film camera lenses. Interestingly, "burning in the corners" was a routine procedure in the black & white darkroom, as it was thought to concentrate both the image and the viewer's attention, but you see little evidence of it in most contemporary digital images, perhaps because the effect is rather more noticeable in colour.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Peter Goldfield

I discovered today that Peter Goldfield has died. I imagine this sad event will be marked on many British photo blogs, perhaps to the mystification of readers in other countries. Peter, though a photographer in his own right, and an early advocate and pioneer of what he liked to call "digital on the cheap," was best known and much loved as an educator and enabler through the residential photographic workshop he established at Duckspool, a converted farmhouse and barns tucked away in the Quantock Hills in Somerset.

Others are better placed to describe Peter's progress from pharmacist to photo-materials supplier, through the Damascene experience of a Charles Harbutt workshop at Paul Hill's Photographers' Place in Derbyshire, to the founding of Duckspool. If there's not a proper obituary in the broadsheets then quite a few of us will want to know why. Because anyone who attended a workshop at Duckspool knew they had found a place where all the photographic ley lines converged. Peter knew, and was known by, everyone who mattered. And everyone knew that, at Duckspool, nothing much mattered more than photography.

The workshops, which lasted at least several days, always had a major practitioner in residence. I stumbled across a Duckspool prospectus for 2000 just the other day: for that one year it lists 26 workshops, including Fay Godwin, Judy Dater, John Blakemore, Mari Mahr, Lewis Baltz / Slavica Perkovic, Charles Harbutt, Pradip Malde, and John Davies, to name just the international "faces," plus such names well-known in Britain as Steve Pyke, Eamonn McCabe, John Goto, David Gepp, Mark Power and Andy Earl. And by 2000, things had already started to wind down, as (I think) the sums had stopped adding up, and Peter was increasingly looking to his own work (Paul Hill's pioneering venture also came to a close in the late 1990s). In its 1980s heyday, a list of Duckspool workshops was a Who's Who of contemporary photographers.

I used to tell Peter that Duckspool was my art school; long weekend workshops with Thomas Joshua Cooper, Jem Southam, Martin Parr, Zelda Cheatle / Sue Davies, and Paul Hill taught me what I eventually realised was the same lesson. That is: Stop imitating bad models and learn from good ones; look for your "personal truth" but be ruthlessly self-critical, and get into the virtuous circle of "fail again, fail better." Above all, keep making new work. As George Clinton of Funkadelic would say, "Free your mind, and your ass will follow."

Time at Duckspool was something special. Sleeping (for men) was on a communal mezzanine in a converted barn, above the main workshop (after a couple of workshops, however, I was banished to a caravan, as my world-class snoring had become notorious). The food, often prepared by the assistants Peter took on as "interns" and eaten communally at the farmhouse table, was always astonishingly good. A suitably-lubricated session could go on into the small hours. I remember Zelda Cheatle sitting up drinking and talking with us until 3 a.m. or so, then getting up at dawn to drive to the Bristol Channel for a swim before breakfast.

Some workshops could approach the intensity of a therapy session, especially in the portfolio reviews. I recall Thomas Joshua Cooper's stinging and prolonged assault on a camera club type who had foolishly brought along a portfolio of slick club competition material. Sometimes you wondered what people had been expecting: I still remember with bafflement discovering on a Jem Southam workshop that I was one of only two participants who had actually seen his work before. Most people soon learned to shut up about their lenses, though, and even actually started looking at each other's work. Peter would often sit in on sessions -- usually, it seemed, for the simple pleasure of it, though he could be quite a diplomat, steering some of the flak away from his paying guests.

When the story of British photography comes to be written, the years between the late 70s and the turn of the century will be seen as a high point, one marked by the glory years of the journal Creative Camera, the Photographers' Gallery, and the photography course at Trent Polytechnic, and one which saw both the culmination of craft-based black & white (Fay Godwin, John Davies and John Blakemore), and the British discovery of colour (Paul Graham, Martin Parr, Jem Southam). I think the residential workshops in Derbyshire and Somerset have an important place in this story; not because any major photographers will have come to prominence through learning their art at a place like Duckspool, but because any developing art requires a bedrock of practitioners and appreciators who have been educated to recognise good work.

Peter Goldfield was able to bring artists and audience together in a creative exchange that had ramifications way beyond "a nice way to spend four days". In common with the many other photographers who spent time at Duckspool, I felt Peter was a friend even though I hardly knew the man. That is a gift, and we have reason to be grateful that he chose to use it in the cause of photography.

[When I can find them, I will scan some Duckspool pictures and add them to this page]

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Birthday Blues

Nobody talks about Dylan Thomas these days much, except as a cautionary tale, but the teachers that taught me when I was small (several of whom were Welsh, as teachers often were) had fallen deeply under his spell, and we would be played a vinyl LP of Under Milk Wood (as broadcast on the BBC, a couple of months after his death and in the year most of the class were born) with due reverence on the one school record player. To hear, and appreciate, the difference between "slow black" and "sloe black" was deemed the height of sophistication; for a ten year old, at any rate. We would go round the playground, intoning "Bible black, slooooe black, slow, black, crow black, fishing boat bobbing sea" as meticulously as we chanted "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Words were more important in those days.

By the time I came to study Eng Lit at college, Thomas was so deeply unfashionable that it suited my rebellious mood to reference him at every opportunity, much to the annoyance of tutors for whom Geoffrey Hill's recently published Mercian Hymns or Basil Bunting's Briggflatts were the Real Thing, and DT a mere huffing, puffing shaman (ditto Ted Hughes, another school favourite).

Whatever his merits, certain lines of Dylan Thomas are as indelibly engraved on my brain as the TV advertising jingles of the 1960s ("You'll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent"). For example:
The ball I threw while playing in the park
Has not yet reached the ground.

(Should Lanterns Shine)

This week I turned 55, and I find I have now reached the stage where every birthday is a two-way street, a CBT exercise in "half full; half empty," a scuffle between memory and mortality. I have already described the way middle age brings a sense of narrative arc to a life (Pistachio Nuts); you also become very aware of the way the arc of some of those metaphorical balls thrown in earlier life can suddenly, bafflingly end before you in the grass: game over.

One such arc came to an end this week. Some 38 years ago, I made the mistake of smart-mouthing an Irish labourer in a pub, and lost two front teeth. Well, not quite "lost": a half broken central incisor and a snapped off lateral incisor. Until you've admired your new smile in the mirror of a pub toilet, you don't really know the meaning of the words "If only..."

Ever since, I have been plagued by the replacement crowns, which fall out regularly. The most pestilential has been the lateral incisor, a complete replacement tooth on a steel post that has been cemented back in at various jaunty angles by various dentists over the years. This time, however, I discovered (on my birthday) that it was finally "game over" -- the remnant tooth had broken all the way down, and would have to be removed. It was time to consider ... a denture.

Now, I think there can be few things more calculated to make you feel old than that. Dentures are a perfect metonymy for old age, and its frailties, its indignities, and its inconveniences. One of my last memories of my father, in a hospital bed after the operation which failed to prolong his life, is helping him struggle with his dentures so he could regain a little dignity. It's so much harder to rage against the dying of the light without your f-f-fucking teeth.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night)

So, I think I'm either going with the gap, or spending a lot of money on an implant. Oh, and if any of you young 'uns out there want the benefit of my experience: if you must offer impertinence to horny-handed middle-aged men with nothing to lose and a lifetime of regrets, always take one step back.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Dominus Illuminatio Mea

Still working my way through Saturday's catch. Dominus Illuminatio Mea is the legend on the arms of Oxford University (the opening words of Psalm 27, "The Lord is my light"). Someone once made a nice anagram of these words: "I'm a don, so I mull minutiae."

N.B. I should mention that all of the pictures from Saturday were made with the Panasonic DMC-LX3. I do this, because every time I inscribe the magic words "Panasonic LX3", the hit rate doubles ... I didn't intend to use the LX3 exclusively, but my Canon 350D DSLR started giving the notorious "Error 99."

Monday, 9 February 2009

Block Work

More from Saturday's wander in the Oxford Botanic Gardens. Now that I'm out of the proverbial "zone," and in a more critical frame of mind, I'm wondering about this new pocketful of pebbles I've brought back. As always, they seemed so much more interesting at the time, wet on the beach.

The problem -- if you're hyper self-critical (and who wouldn't want to be?) -- is that sometimes photography can become too automatic, mere picture-making. More of a groove than a zone, if you like. For example, I love looking at weathered stone walls: they've got everything I need to keep my eyes happy. The range of colours and shapes can be extraordinarily subtle; it's the palette of cartography. But, frankly, you could put a frame more or less randomly on a good wall and come away with something worth looking at. But this also puts the pressure on to find something more interesting, and that's what makes it difficult, and fun, and rewarding when you pull it off.

Of course, I know a lot of people on the gallery and academic side of the art world have a problem with "formalist" picture-making of any sort, and I also know why (better than most, probably -- damn it, I did quite a few years' hard labour in the Theory Mine). The thing is, I don't care any more that they have a problem. Because I don't have one. I have discovered that one of my deepest impulses and pleasures is deciding exactly where to put that frame and finding what works within it and what doesn't. To deny that to suit the tastes of some black-clad puritan gatekeeper would be insane.

Later in the year, when the plants have stopped looking like organic electrical wiring, and start covering up the stonework, I'll lose interest. Bizarrely, perhaps, for someone who hangs around this sort of place so often, I have little or no interest in plants, as such. Flower photography makes me want to scream. However, my partner is a keen gardener, and over the years I've spent so much time amusing myself with a camera around the edges of famous gardens, nurseries, and the like, that I've developed a whole repertoire of garden-related "projects" that don't involve plants. It's the kind of compromise that can make an unmarried relationship last for 35 years.

The term for this sort of stone block work is ashlar: a venerable, but strangely un-English word (with a deeply-unconvincing etymology), which always takes me by surprise when I encounter it -- it's the sort of word that turns up in crosswords.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

The Zone

They say you should never go back, and it's a sentiment I generally agree with, but a lot depends on how much attention you were paying at the time. Yesterday, I was back in Oxford with Number One Son, who was at an open day. I decided to spend a few hours in the University Botanic Gardens, surprisingly, a place I have never visited before.

Oxford was still blanketed in snow, but it was a bright sunny day, and the combination was pretty breathtaking, if slightly treacherous underfoot. As the day progressed, a steady rain of thaw water was dripping and cascading off the ancient stonework and the greenhouses.

Snow Cloud

Photographers talk of getting in the zone and I certainly got in there yesterday. Fans of Andrei Tarkovsky and his film Stalker will know that The Zone is not an unambiguous place, and that being there is an essentially lonely experience (though there was a great article this week on Stalker in the Guardian by Geoff Dyer, which made me feel considerably less lonely). Getting in, of course, is no guarantee that you will bring anything of value out.

The Botanic Gardens are clearly a place of magic, where centuries of care have woven an enduring spell. The equivalent place in Southampton University, where I have spent so many years pursuing photographs, is a site of neglect by comparison. Neglect has it charms, but Magic is Magic. And if it's wabi sabi you want, you can't beat Cotswold stone.

I kept coming across the tracks of a large bird (a heron?) that had been patrolling all over the gardens in a seemingly playful way. Sometimes it walked along the edges of a bed, even following the corners, and sometimes it walked in straight lines regardless of any features. In one place it seemed either to have been joined by two companions, or to have walked back along its own tracks twice, in the same direction. It looked like it had had similar business earlier in the day as I was having in the afternoon, by indirection finding direction out.

An afternoon to remember, exploring and photographing in a new place inside an old place. I also had important things to think about. So, if you were in the Oxford Botanic Gardens on Saturday afternoon, don't be concerned if you saw a bearded middle-aged man with a camera behaving strangely. I was merely in the zone -- a place that can look pretty strange from the outside -- looking for those brilliant corners.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Colour Thaw

After a monochrome week, briefly today the sun shone and, although everywhere else was dreich and covered in grey slush, the colours seemed to thaw out in the ornamental pond, a little promise of Spring.

Talking of Spring and ponds, one of my main concerns this year will be to listen out for the return of the frogs. There has been a devastating virus about in the last few years that has wiped out a lot of our frogs. We had no frogspawn last year in our little garden pond, and neither was there any evidence of the annual February Frog, um, Frenzy which traditionally takes place around my birthday in the Botanic Garden pond.

Their Barry White croaking at night under my bedroom window has been a reliable harbinger of Spring: let's hope they'll be back this year.

February Frog Frenzy, 1996

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Lunchtime Igloo

Snow does pretty things to the blandest places, but apparently there's also been a lot of human-type Snow Art around this year -- must be all those artists failing to get into wherever it is artists normally work.

My friend Andy W. lives in London (someone has to) where, unusually, they have had more snow than the rest of the South. He told me about an amazing scene in their local park in Brixton, where someone had used their plastic lunch box to create standard sized snow bricks, with which they constructed an igloo. I'd have loved to have seen that! Hopefully it is spreading through the country even now in a massive Morphic Resonance event ...

Gentlemen, Gentlemen

I was quite surprised the other day when I discovered how much a few professorial staff are being paid. I'm not sure how this works in other countries but, in the UK, public sector institutions like universities pay our salaries on clearly defined scales. If you know what scale someone is on, you can assume they earn somewhere between "not very much" and "not as much as you might think." Unless, that is, they are on the very top "scale" reserved for professors (proper UK ones, that is, not "professors") and top administrators, which has a lower but no upper limit. In which case, I discover, someone may be earning anywhere between "only twice as much as me" and "as much as that?"

For example, I hear that -- in another university -- a recently-appointed professor, aged under 40, working in the area of social sciences, is earning £90K, if my informant is to be believed. That's a lot of money. I also happen to know that -- in the same institution -- a recently-retired professor of long standing, also a social scientist, never earned more than £65K. And I learned last week that our own Vice-Chancellor's pay has increased by 22% since 2006 to £240K. That's an awful lot of money.* Especially when you consider that the scale for a full university lecturer is £29704 - £33432 (or up to a maximum of £38757 with "higher responsibilities").

Now, I don't want to get into this whole "market" argument over the relative value of different staff, because I think it's bullshit. Worse, it's the very same bullshit -- self-serving and smug -- that delivered us into the pretty financial mess we're currently mired in. I don't know anything about financial management, but I do know a little about academics. If these "top talents" are as skittish about money as we're constantly told, then I suggest we do the right thing and let them enrich themselves in the private sector, assuming they can find somewhere prepared to give them the time and the resources to carry out their research, and can live off the sales of their publications and consultancy fees. I think they'll be back. And perhaps with a refreshed understanding of that old-fashioned but important word, collegiality.

However, I do think it is a problem that we're still applying 19th century models to 21st century issues. Now, as my loyal readers will know, I am the proud descendant of a ragbag of agricultural labourers, straw plaiters, bookbinders, charwomen, soldiers, and at least one prostitute (have I not mentioned that yet?). As is most of the UK population. Others, however (and I share my life with one such) look back to prominent clergymen, Oxbridge dons, men and women of distinction in the arts, and -- crucially -- lives lived on private income. In the UK, social class is not just "the elephant in the room", it is the room.

And the thing about 19th century models is this: we still fund our universities as if they were staffed by a handful of vocational gentlefolk living on private incomes, with the leisure and choices and freedom of thought that unearned income guarantees (not to mention the time freed up by the liberal application of servants to domestic chores). But a 21st century mass education system has different demands: most academics don't have any private income, have very little leisure, and are not earning very much money. They are under pressure to deliver, deliver, deliver quantifiably "internationally excellent" results in both research and teaching on short-term timetables, but are being paid middle-management salaries, and given no time (other than the summer break) in which to do it. It's not a recipe for success.

We think of Charles Darwin, sat in Down House with his earthworms, simultaneously at leisure and as engaged as it is possible to be; or J.R.R. Tolkien, with enough time left over from his donnish duties at Oxford to write fat books about elves and orcs. But, no matter what people out there believe, there's nothing left of that privileged way of life other than its titles and ceremonies; and society is no longer getting the considered, carefully-researched, often long-withheld results slow time used to deliver, either. What remains is an under-resourced, semi-industrial process of mass higher education, in which neither giver nor receiver gets what they want.

The only salvation for individuals is to publish prematurely, to offer only popular courses which attract fee-paying overseas students, to distort their "research interests" to secure prestigious and profitable research grants, and finally -- if they're lucky -- to manoeuvre into the salary and bonus stratosphere, where it is rumoured something of the old freedoms may exist for a fortunate few. But the hope of big salaries will never buy anyone any slow time, or the attitudes that would enable them to use it once -- if -- they get it. It just means a very few profs can afford to join the Great and Good (those knights and dames who run our country as their hobby). But they will still never earn enough to play with the real aristocrats -- the entertainers, sportsmen and scam artists with enough personal wealth to fund a university single-handed, but whose abundant wealth and leisure is never regarded as a resource to improve the public good.

Talking of research grants, if I controlled the money, there is a very important research project which I would like to see done. It would involve finding out just how the artists and writers and philosophers we study as part of our national culture paid their bills. Where did their money come from? Where did it go? How much did it cost to be an A-list poet? Are there C-listers who could have made it the A-list, if only they had the income? What a very vulgar, shop-keeperish project, you sneer! But how interesting it would be ... Because it would tell a true story, one about how someone either inherits or earns the privilege to research, to read, to write, and still pay the gas bill, and how far the difficulty, ease or impossibility of that struggle has coloured our national self-image.

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood.

Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, 1751

* Actually, an outrageous amount of money to pay a public servant in a publicly-funded institution which has hit the financial rocks on his watch. I suppose we should be grateful: how much worse might it have been, if we had been led by an individual prepared to do the job for as little as, say, £150K? It doesn't bear thinking about ...

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Slip Sliding Away

I was listening to a Hertfordshire headteacher speaking up on the radio for the benefits of shutting schools during these rare spells of snowy weather, in opposition to what he described as the dreary view that shutting schools and workplaces down cost "UK PLC" too much money (I loathe both the expression and the concept of "UK PLC"). This good man said he was aware that parents could be faced with difficult childcare issues, but that people should focus on the benefits of enjoying the weather --should, indeed, grasp a rare opportunity to play with their children, making snowmen, and so on. He mentioned that at his wife's (private) school a snowball fight between staff and pupils had been arranged.

This reminded me of my own Hertfordshire primary school (the one which I have in common with Lewis Hamilton i.e. Peartree Spring Junior, Stevenage). Back in those ancient times, the headmaster had a ritual on frosty days. He would take a bucket of water outside, and sluice it down the length of the playground, to make a slide. I repeat: to make a slide. This was the official slide, down which we were free to careen if we dared, each passage polishing it into ultimate slipperiness. However, any other sliding anywhere else on or near the school premises was an offence, punishable by a summary caning. If you've never been caned, or threatened with caning, you have no idea how effective this is as a deterrent.*

That headmaster was an unusual man, and I've never quite decided whether or how often he transgressed into territory that would nowadays have ended in court proceedings and disgrace. An ex-Commando, a "professional Yorkshireman," and an odd mix of creative leader and repressive bully, he had the opportunity to found and run a new state primary school that was unusual in many ways.

For a start, we were streamed by ability -- highly unusual at primary level. Also, bantam chickens roamed freely around the school grounds, as did several peacocks; a "pet" fox was kept chained in a kennel (seriously, I'm not making this up). The school constructed its own swimming pool, with contributions from parents. Above all, we were encouraged to be competitive: our school teams were expected to win, and I myself was entered for -- and won -- several national painting competitions. We had a school song, a school creed, and were divided into four competing houses: Churchill, Bader, Hilary, and Schweitzer. Those names alone tell you a lot about the school ethos.

I can still remember vividly the day in 1965 when Mr. Anstock decided our top-streamed class (which included his own son) was not attaining a high enough standard in mental arithmetic. He took over the class, and patrolled menacingly up and down the aisles between desks, armed with a cane. He would periodically tap someone's desk, and ask a mental arithmetic question: "Six fives?"

If the question was answered correctly, he moved on. If it wasn't, the cane came down hard on the desktop in front of the trembling 10 year old. You can imagine how this felt. Many kids were in tears. Unforgivable, bullying behaviour. It was only in later years that I wondered how this might have felt for the teacher whose class had been commandeered in this way.

And yet, he was also a very caring man, and took an intense and genuine interest in his charges. I recall the day when, playing football, I dislocated my thumb. It's very disconcerting to find your thumb transposed into the middle of your palm. Mr. Anstock personally walked me home, chatting all the way about natural history, which he knew to be my personal passion.

I have mainly good memories of my primary school. It had suited me, and I was the sort of able child it was designed to foster. In later years, I realised that others -- in particular those in the lower ability streams, or those with a rebellious streak -- had hated the place, its all-encompassing rituals, the staff, and in particular the man (and his cane). On reflection, it's clear the school was a project, a sort of work of art, but one that only appealed to those prepared to take their part in the strongly-coloured, well-defined vision of its creator.

All gone now. Literally: I understand the school fell into a decline and disrepair, and was demolished and rebuilt ten years ago.

* Corporal punishment was common in British schools until it was banned (in state schools) in 1986. For one transgression in the secondary school woodwork shop (throwing a chisel into a benchtop, if I recall correctly) the teacher had me bend over at the front of the class, and gave me a mighty whack on the backside with a handy piece of 2" x 1" timber, which snapped, sending half of the timber spinning up the aisle between the benches. Ouch.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Snow Angels

Today, I was noticing the way the snow brings out the rus in urbe quality of the street that runs along the edge of The Common. Also, the way suburbia mixes historic themes in what is a positively post-modern way. This makes me wonder whether the post-modern impulse isn't essentially suburban, which I find unaccountably amusing.

Verily, a Tudor garage

A Viking longhouse garage

The strangest thing I saw on campus yesterday was a lanky red-headed youth, who was as over-excited as a toddler. He was one of a group of lads tossing a frisbee on a snow-covered lawn. Periodically, he would break off and run into some corner, where he would fling himself to the ground, rapidly do the "snow angel" thing, then race back to the group game. He may have been speeding, I suppose, but he just seemed to be overflowing with an intense doggy joie de vivre. The snow angels were clearly some sort of personal project.

Snow and students remind me of my experience as a postgraduate at the University of East Anglia in the Winter of 1976/77. We used to have proper snow in those days, of course, just as we used to have proper music. Idiotically, I tried to ride my bike through it, and went over violently sideways. I was convinced I'd broken my collarbone. I joined the limping, groaning queue of walking wounded at the hospital A&E. When my turn finally came, the doctor said to me, "Can you touch the top of your head?" After what seemed like an eternity of pain, my fingers found my cranium. "Not broken, then ... Good news! Next!" said the doc. "But it HURTS!!" I said. "Wait until you wake up tomorrow morning," he replied, "Then it will hurt. Take two Paracetamol. Next!"

A nice bit of suburban sprawl

Monday, 2 February 2009

More Snow Chaos

This time the snow was a bit more serious: last night we had what was officially the most snow in South East England for 18 years, and even here in the extreme South things slid to a halt. I actually walked to work -- something I always mean to do, but the time is so tight getting kids up and out of the door to school that I rarely do.

These guys finally have a reason to look so pissed off

The problem with England is that severe weather is infrequent enough that the local government and transport authorities don't feel it is worth the investment to prepare for a once in 18 year event. Consequently, no-one can ever find the spade or remember where they stashed that bag of grit. It's always chaos. But that's part of the fun: just a few inches of snow overnight and all the schools have to close because the teachers can't get across town.

Walking to work was entertaining. An unbelievable number of people were attempting to drive to work. I watched in disbelief as a car came at moderate speed round the corner that turns onto the steep descent into our valley, braked hard, lost control, and carouselled down the hill, fetching up with a crunch against the kerb halfway down. In such circumstances I always hear the withering scorn of my father, who had driven temperamental army trucks and motorbikes through mud, sand, snow and occasional shellfire.

I walked across The Common, the great green wedge that extends trees and open scrub and grass right into the centre of town. As always, the fresh snow was very pretty. And, as always, I spent far too much time photographing it. Even though I know it's pointless, I can't help it. It's like the first few days on holiday: you spend your time re-inventing every cliché anyone ever made about the place -- it's fun to do, but so dull to review later on. Did I really take that?

After all, what am I going to do with them? Precisely because the weather is so unusual these days, they never fit in anywhere -- and they're rarely even distinctive enough to serve as Christmas cards. I simply don't see enough snow to get past the obvious. They might as well be palm tree silhouettes on a Caribbean beach, for any contribution they might make to any of my ongoing photographic projects.

I found the only way to use the snow was to revisit the familiar places, and not be sidetracked by novelties. This familiar view, for example, grounded me back in reality, and I finally stopped photographing the snow, and started photographing the place. There's a big difference.

The best thing, though, was watching the shrieking delight of our substantial population of overseas students from countries where snow never falls, transformed into eight-year olds by the magic white stuff. And I don't think they were bothered by thoughts of "What will I do with this picture?" as they posed for each other's cameras in front of snow covered trees.