Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Steppeth Not upon My Shoes of Blue Suede

I'm normally allergic to Simon Schama, I find his twitchy bitchy style a bit too self-satisfied, and I generally go along with the prejudice against any bespectacled man over the age of 40 who affects a leather jacket. But last night I watched his programme on John Donne on BBC2, initially with gritted teeth (why call it "Simon Schama's John Donne"?) but with a gradually relaxing jaw. It was actually pretty good, and having the watchable Fiona Shaw speak the poems and engage with them together with Schama in a sort of rumpled celebrity tutorial was an inspired idea.

I have a soft spot for Donne, as I studied him in that extra term that state school students aspiring to Oxbridge used to have to put in at school (after first gaining a suitably impressive set of A Levels in the summer) in order to take the Oxbridge entrance exams in December. But what was unsettling was discovering how deeply I had absorbed the poems, but how very little I had absorbed about the man and his times. Now, I have never really studied history so I've never properly aligned the various poorly-understood timelines I carry around in my head, where hats and fashions tend to stand in for dates -- the Blackadder School of historiography, perhaps. I tend to find myself asking questions like "I know William Blake is definitely after the Pirate Times but is he after or during the Highwayman Times?" So it had never occurred to me, for example, that the "Elizabethan" Donne might easily have lived into the Age of Wigs.

In fact, as taught in schools in the late 60s / early 70s, any such historical placement was utterly irrelevant. Sensitive and ingenious close reading of the poetry was the name of the game, and close reading did not require scruples such as "this poem was written after the poet's dubiously-motivated conversion to the Anglican Church, but this one in his libertine, Catholic youth." It is astonishing (and embarrassing) to realise that, at the time, I had absolutely no idea of the significance of being born Catholic in Elizabethan England. No, really.

At Llwynburvach

I think this is why shows like Schama's and in particular Sunday evening TV costume dramas are such a popular way of "doing" literature. It's not just that it's Lit Lite for people too idle to open a book. It's that, like me, most of the population cannot enjoy reading, say, Jane Austen simply because we can't put the right hats on the right people. We don't understand the cues that say "this woman is an arriviste snob with the amusing remnants of a rural accent" or "this man is a pure soul with the manners but, alas, not the means of a gentleman". We also don't know, for example, the significance of the different modes of transport a person might use, no doubt a matter of similar characterological import in its time as taking a train vs. a private plane or, more subtly, choosing to drive a Porsche rather than an Audi. On TV, such things are made reassuringly plain by the costume and props departments and, of course, the actors.

Nuance is one of the first dyes to fade in the historical picture; after all, how much longer will it be before "blue suede shoes"* or "leopard-skin pill-box hat" require explanatory footnotes, just like the "spangled breastplate" or "busk" in Donne's To His Mistress Going To Bed? In a directorial decision of pure good taste, however, Schama's programme did not show us any ample bosoms being freed from Jacobean lacings, or any other illustrative re-enactments ("batter my heart" in a fish and chip shop, maybe?). Instead, we had Fiona Shaw's ironically raised eyebrow and mocking smile, on a sofa in an enormous room which looked like an Oxbridge tutor's room straight from central casting. Oh, and John Carey trying not to be annoyed at being talked over by Simon Schama.

But they still got him slightly wrong, I think. It's been a while since I really got down with the Songs & Sonnets or the Elegies, but I still hear a man whose voice sounds intimate but is raised just enough so that his sophisticated friends in the next room can hear how cleverly he does intimacy. Someone who knows how to out-manoeuvre you by a perfectly-timed display of vulnerability or self-deprecation. Not someone you would trust, and probably not someone you would welcome -- as both Simon Schama and John Carey weirdly claimed they both would -- as a son-in-law. Good poet, though.

* Footwear can be very confusing. I kept reading about "cordovan wings" in the novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross Thomas, but had no idea what these might be. For many years I didn't even realise they were shoes.

Monday, 25 May 2009

High Key

On a blazing blue-sky afternoon in late May, walking in classic English chalk downland, what more typical sight could there be than a vineyard basking on a south-facing slope? A what?? Seriously:

Climate change, diversification, EU subsidies, sheer agricultural lunacy -- whatever the reason, it gave me one of those vertiginous moments when it's not quite clear what the hell is going on here ... True, I did assiduously lay the chemical groundwork for such moments in my youth... My partner is always amused whenever I ask whether something is "really there" as, on one famous occasion in France, "Is that really a monkey on a tricycle over there?!" (I'm not going to say what it actually was). But that actually is a vineyard on a chalky hillside in deepest Hampshire, visible from the hillfort on Old Winchester Hill.

I'm celebrating the receipt of an artist's proof copy (oh, yes!) of the latest Raymond Meeks book Doctrine of an Axe, direct from Mr. Meeks himself. I think Ray Meeks is one of the most interesting artists using photography and the photographic artist's book working today, and if I could afford it I'd buy everything he has to sell as someone once described buying manuscript poems from Dylan Thomas, "like packets of cocaine straight from his wallet."

He has a way with delicately toned high key black and white that is magical, and repays repeated viewing. By way of tribute, here is a recent high key image of my own.

I know why the cast-resin bird scowls...

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Getting a Grip

These two photographs are both from the same morning this week, on the short walk from the car park to my office. I was an hour later than usual so got the full benefit of the sparkling spring sunshine, which I normally have to watch wistfully from my wage-slave's cell window, wondering how bad it would look if I sneaked out for a wander round campus with a camera. I was feeling lucky, as I'd managed to find somewhere to park at 9 o'clock -- astonishing.

Of course, this is where a quality "pocket" camera like the Panasonic LX3 comes in handy. At least you're likely to have it with you when you turn the corner and walk into an unexpected photo opportunity with a parking ticket machine or a builder's scaffolding. These were both taken at 4:3 ratio and cropped square.

I put "pocket" in quotes above, because I have a bee in my bonnet about the way manufacturers always show these cameras turned off in their publicity shots. They look great like that, don't they? Just like proper cameras with proper lenses, but sleekly pocket-sized. Then you turn the thing on and ... meeep ... the lens is extruded like a mini Tower of Babel and the camera is no longer pocket-sized. In fact, it feels quite vulnerable to knocks and, worst of all, finger marks. Finger marks are a big problem on tiny lenses. Don't believe me? Look at the statue between the two trees in the top right of this photo:

What statue, you say? Exactly. That little local cloud of fog was the result of just one tiny greasy fingermark that wrecked any of that afternoon's images that couldn't be successfully cropped.* On 35mm SLR lenses or medium format this was never really a problem -- it can be very instructive to see how large a piece of a Post-It must be stuck onto a lens before it interferes with image quality. Not so with these tiny digital lenses: I strongly advise you to (a) check the lens before shooting, and (b) to carry a lens-cleaning pen at all times, and don't be afraid to use it.

One advantage in this respect the LX3 shares with my old favourite, the Olympus C5050, is that it can be "armoured" by the addition of a screw on metal extension tube (intended for supplementary lenses) which, if need be, can be further protected by the addition of a clear filter. The vulnerable little lens tower is thus encased in a sturdy metal safety cage. This is also ideal for gripping, acts as a lens hood, and -- despite the increase in size -- the camera becomes "pocketable" again, as you're not worried about damaging or marking the lens by shoving the thing into your pocket when turned on.

Get a grip!

* There's a very good post currently on Struan Grey's blog Twiglog, "Providence", which contains a phrase I have taken to heart and must act on:
"Arthus-Bertrand, for example, seems incapable of shaking off an invisible little camera club judge, and habitually places a dollop of human interest exactly where the rule-of-thirds would dictate."
Hmm, guilty as charged more often than I'd like to think (just look where that invisible statue has ended up...) Maybe I'll turn on the LX3's handy grid showing the intersection of thirds, so I can avoid them ...

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Orangey Bit In The Middle

The past few weeks have delivered a number of images featuring a combination of green with orange accents. I should say I dislike Jaffa Cakes, and am only one eighth Irish, so nothing programmatic should be read into this. But there is a kind of poetry of form interlocking all four -- notice the plastic chairs in the top two, for example.

Allotment at St. Catherine's Hill, Winchester

Building site of the new Biomedical Sciences building,
Highfield Campus

West Quay underpass and the old City Wall, Southampton

Interesting use of orange barrier tape,
allotment in Highfield, Southampton

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A Falling Off

Two things have been stuck in my head recently like flies buzzing at a window. In some odd way they seem connected.

The first thing is one of those tragedies that strikes a particular resonance that gives me the giggles. Sorry, I can't help it, I'm just made that way. As Oscar Wilde said, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

Recently, at Seaton in Devon, a Polish man fell 300 feet to his death, having decided to pose for a photograph clinging on to the sheer cliff edge by a tuft of grass. I think what makes me shake with suppressed laughter is the idea of a man feigning for the camera the terror of a man clinging to a cliff by a tuft of grass, when he actually is a man clinging to a cliff by a tuft of grass. Or not so much feigning as parodying that terror, a split-second before experiencing it in reality, as the ironic quotation marks fall away from the situation. It's sort of an inversion of Edgar and Gloucester's scene in King Lear.

Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipitating,
Thou'dst shiver'd like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed'st not; speak'st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life's a miracle. Speak yet again.

But have I fall'n, or no?

From the dread summit of this chalky bourn.
Look up a-height; the shrill-gorged lark so far
Cannot be seen or heard: do but look up.

So it goes. Oddly, on the very same day, a Russian man also fell 300 feet from another cliff near Folkestone. It doesn't seem to be known whether he was also larking about for his friends' cameras.

The second buzzy thing is a remark I saw quoted in a review in the TLS of the historian Brian Harrison's new book Seeking a Role, an account of Britain in the years 1951-70, a period of great interest to me if only because it contains my own life to the age of 16. The reviewer (Peter Hennessy) opens with these remarks:
Brian Harrison has a special gift which historians prize. He can turn the grains of history into fascinating and convincing patterns. How about this as an example of his grasp of the granular? From a journal to which I was hitherto a stranger, Heating and Ventilating Engineer, he has gleaned that in the UK, the "average living room was over 5° Fahrenheit warmer in 1970 than in 1950". In terms of what one might call the softening of Britain, this is hugely significant. Those of us on the rim of middle and old age can vividly remember living in homes with but one warm room enlivened by a coal fire and, on winter nights, leaping into bed and hoping to fall asleep before the chill bit, and waking up to patterns of frozen condensation on the window panes in the morning. I have been a weaker man since the winter of 1966–7, when the underfloor heating of St John’s College’s new Cripps Building in Cambridge corrupted me for ever.
I have given up describing to my children how we used to wake up to find frost on the inside of the windows, and how one winter the water froze solid in the lavatory bowl of my Bristol flat. Or the sheer unpleasantness of getting into a bed made up with sheets and blankets in a cold, damp room. It's not their world. Or not yet, anyway -- we're probably going to have to lose at least a couple of those five degrees.

But it wasn't that observation that stuck in my mind. It was this:
This fine book goes a long way to answering the question posed in the early 1970s by the great French historical sociologist Raymond Aron when he wondered how it was that Britons had gone from being Romans to Italians in one generation.
"From Romans to Italians in one generation"... It's the sort of remark that perhaps only a right-wing Frenchman could make (casually denigrating both Britons and Italians in the same breath) but it has haunted me since I read it.

Were we once Romans? It's true that we once had an empire, and now we don't. Did certain character traits and social attitudes go along with Roman-ness, which we have since lost? Did my generation experience any such changes? Yes, we probably did, but I think we thought we were getting in touch with national realities, and casting off imperial illusions. Empire and its stiff, stuffy trappings were amusing, in an ironic way, but no-one was ever seriously going to wear a bowler or top hat ever again after 1968. Indeed, the abandonment of idiotic hats in general was one of the symptoms of the profound changes that happened in Britain in that period. But -- even while railing against the evils of our own colonialist past -- I suppose we may not have realised how deeply and how finally the branch on which we were sitting was being sawn off the tree. It wouldn't have made any difference. So it goes.

Yes, I can see what you're thinking, and you may be right. Did we post-war generations -- just like that foolish Pole at Seaton -- seize on and ham up the irony of our situation to amuse ourselves ("Oh look, we're cutting off the branch we're sitting on! Oh no!! Help!!!"), only to find that there was a lot further to fall than we'd thought, and that it might be going to hurt rather more, too?

Hmmm. I will be returning to this topic (which, in my private shorthand, I refer to as "the dressing-up box of Empire") in a future post. So hold this thought: At what point on the spectrum does authenticity cross over into make-believe, and vice versa?

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Sunday by the Sea

When you live near the sea, it's easy to take it for granted. Especially, if you have no interest in getting it all over you, whether by swimming in it (in the Solent? Are you mad?) or sailing on it. However, several of my colleagues live here for precisely that reason, and even do certifiably mad things like sailing across to France at night, which -- given the English Channel is the busiest commercial sea lane in the world -- is about on a par with running across a motorway at night.

But today was a classic sea-watching day: strong south-westerly winds, plus some spring-time sunshine and showers. We went down to a favourite spot, Hill Head on the Solent, with fine views south across to the Isle of Wight, west to the Fawley oil refinery, and east down the coast to Gosport and Portsmouth (enemy territory for native Southampton people, and inhabited by so-called "scummers"). The tide was high, and the whole Solent was moving around in a lively way. Indeed, despite our best efforts, we did get some all over us: a choppy Solent has the churning unpredictability of a slopping bath.

As it happens, Hill Head and nearby Titchfield have a generally unremarked Shakespearean connection. This is where Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, had his estates. He was Shakespeare's first patron, the dedicatee of The Rape of Lucrece, and a front-runner for the "young man" of the Sonnets. It is quite probable that Shakespeare visited Titchfield and may even have written some of the Sonnets here. In Elizabethan times it was a proper small port, but shifting gravels and serious competition from further up Southampton Water finished off this trade.

Sonnet 80

O! how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,

My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wrecked, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building and of goodly pride.
Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this: my love was my decay.

The Swan of Avon at Titchfield Haven?

Amazingly, in recent years, submarine archaeologists have discovered evidence of human settlement on the bed of the Solent which dates from the Mesolithic period, just before the post-glacial inundation that separated Britain from Europe. Flint tools and the bones of Ice Age fauna are frequently dredged from the North Sea, where a land bridge referred to as "Dogger Land" once lay, but this is somehow more extraordinary, as you would have imagined the strong currents, shallow water and frequent passage of large cargo ships would have scoured away anything so ancient a long time ago. It's strange to think of the remains of those prehistoric settlements still rolling around under the Solent waves.

The main thing missing from these images of our afternoon at Hill Head is the sheer noise. Not just the crash of the waves, but the incessant ringing, clanging and banging from the rigging of the yachts moored in Titchfield Haven marina, rattling in the wind. It has an aeolian, aleatory musicality that adds an extra element to the experience, rather like the cow bells that would reliably send me into an afternoon trance on our holiday in the Auvergne last summer.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Downright Sinister

Like me, Barack Obama is a member of a persecuted and misunderstood minority, one which is disproportionately represented in the creative arts and politics, but which can inspire horror, revulsion and cruelty in sections of the majority "normal" population. But then, surprisingly, so were four of the previous six US Presidents, although apparently Churchill and Callaghan have been the only British Prime Ministers to be inclined this way, ever. I mean, of course, we are both left-handed.

Growing up left-handed is a lot easier than it used to be, but it's still a challenge. Once, left-handed children were persecuted and punished into adopting right-handedness, with predictable developmental consequences. This may seem trivial and even necessary to the right-handed majority, but I would say it is at least on a par with the socially-enforced denial of one's sexuality.

As someone who is completely left-sided, I have got used to my daily encounters with rectitude. Indeed, I have never knowingly bought or used a "left handed" product, not so much as a pair of scissors or a computer mouse. You just learn to turn yourself inside out: writing with an ink pen is a classic problem with a classic cack-handed solution, but just try opening a penknife, for example, or to cut with precision using scissors (if you're right-handed, you probably had no idea there might be a problem). If nothing else, being left-handed pre-disposes you to sympathy with other invisible minorities who are daily inconvenienced, or worse, by the unthinking majority.

I even learned to play guitar on a borrowed, "normal" instrument, and as a result play left-handed but upside-down i.e. with the bass strings at the bottom. This actually makes some "difficult" chords easier, but it's not ideal. Jimi Hendrix did the same, but had the sense to restring his instrument, which is almost certainly the only reason I'm not as good as him. I'm not sure how lefties fare in the military, but I don't think mixing "handednesses" sits well with the tidy military mind. Hendrix would have known, as he had been in the US Airborne (briefly, as an alternative to imprisonment); maybe he fired his weapon upside down, too. I have read stories of at least one left-handed M16 user getting a hot ejected shell casing inside his shirt collar and inflicting "friendly fire" on his comrades in the ensuing panic. That's why they call us sinister, baby.

Sinister, as well as gauche, cack-handed, maladroit, etc., etc. -- the cultural prejudice about left-handedness is universal, and almost totally negative, despite the eminence and disproportionate contribution of southpaws to cultural life. Let's start at the top... Beethoven, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Nietzsche, Tom Stoppard, Charlie Chaplin, half of the Coen Brothers ... The list, as they say, is endless, although oddly smudged along the edge.

One of the culprits has a finger missing all but the top joint

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Not Known At This Address

Elter Water, August 2006

Last year around this time Cumbria Tourism (the body whose job it is to encourage and facilitate tourism in the Lake District) launched on an astonished world "The Wordsworth Rap", a reinterpretation of the poem "Daffodils" in an, ahem, urban style, accompanied by a video of someone dressed as a red squirrel named MC Nuts, doing vaguely urban things in front of a Lake District backdrop. Their website says:
"Wordsworth's Daffodils poem has remained unchanged for 200 years and to keep it alive for another two centuries, we wanted to engage the YouTube generation who want modern music and amusing video footage on the Web."
So worthy, and yet so wrong. So very wrong. Of course, to a tourist board, Wordsworth (or Shakespeare, or Hardy, or Jane Austen, or John Constable, or any household name) is just some famous person from around here. Writers and artists, people we have all heard of, provide a convenient brand: Bronte Country, Hardy's Wessex. Though it does give you pause for thought when you drive into Norfolk to be told you're entering Nelson's County. Say what?

The Hardknott Pass, August 2006

You can't blame them for milking it, and you can't blame them for targeting the cream tea and tea-towel crowd rather than sophisticates like you and me, although it does rankle when they impose a prissy gentility on artists whose claim to fame is precisely the challenge they posed to the sensibilities of their own time. Actually, for all its silliness, Cumbria Tourism were clearly coat-trailing by putting out that video, and they got the response they wanted from the likes of the Daily Telegraph ("Wordsworth turning in his grave", etc) who seem to have forgotten who and what Wordsworth once was. Of course, whatever he was, "culture" is what he has become, and to the Telegraph reader, "culture" demands piety.

Let's set aside any vision of coachloads of youngsters from inner London descending on Hawkshead and Grasmere in search of the "modern music and amusing video footage" they can't get at home, and let's assume that 95% of visitors to literary hotspots have neither read nor have any inclination to read any of the local superstar's books or poems. All they want is a nice cup of tea and a bit of Heritage, preferably in edible form. So the strange ones are you and me, lurking like shoplifters, waiting for the room to clear to experience the vibes. And the motivations behind literary and artistic tourism really are quite strange. What does anyone expect to find? A lost sonnet behind the radiator? A lingering whiff of Jane Austen's last pipe of tobacco?

In the Langdales, August 2006

The sad truth is that going back in time is impossible, even into your own past. Last year I drove past one of my own childhood homes, and -- guess what? -- I wasn't there. As Bruce Springsteen puts it in his song "My Father's House":

I walked up the steps and stood on the porch,
A woman I didn't recognize came and
spoke to me through a chained door
I told her my story, and who I'd come for
She said "I'm sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore"
After a couple of hundred years, the trail has gone cold, everyone is long dead, there's usually nothing to see except the usual heritage tat and what's left of the distracting view from the study window. If it's the work you're interested in, your local bookshop or library or art gallery is a better place to look than the artist's birthplace or workplace. Because the work only exists if you read it, listen to it, or look at it. And, of course, when you do that then it happens all over again in a new, contemporary way in your mind because, like it or not, you're alive in 2009 and Wordsworth isn't.

So the Cumbria people may have got it horribly wrong with their Wordsworth Rap, but perhaps they are looking in the right direction. Wordsworth doesn't live in Dove Cottage any more, and hasn't done for some time. No-one does: it's become a museum selling t-shirts and gingerbread, not a hotbed of radical creativity and unconventional relationships. And let's not do Wordsworth the dishonour of lumping him in uncritically with those "famous for being famous". Lest we forget:

Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud's thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
At other times--good Lord! I'd rather be

Quite unacquainted with the ABC
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.

J.K. Stephen (1859-92)
And let's also not forget that Wordsworth and Co. virtually invented the combination of walking, wilderness and worthy musing that leads most of us literary tourists to put the boots in the back of the car. The true Wordsworth Experience is an elevated kind of souvenir hunting:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart

Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey

Hard to believe this was once a new and controversial idea, expressed in new and controversial language. It's now the stuff of holiday advertising. There's no reason why its threadbare novelty should last another 200 years, unless we continue to find it useful, or find some way to reuse it.

So, never mind where we will find the next generation of Cumbrian tourists, where should we look for our contemporary Wordsworths? Well, is anyone's unconventional behaviour raising eyebrows? A hint of incest, some abandoned children, drug use? Is anyone finding the expressive legacy of the 20th century unbearably constraining, and inventing their own? Something so new it hurts? Is anyone being reported to the authorities as agents of an overseas enemy? Terrorists, even? If so, that's where I'd look. I probably wouldn't want to live next door to them, however.

Wastwater Screes, August 2006

But a squirrel? Why a squirrel?

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Green Shade

It won't take long to get bored with it, I'm sure, but for now I can't get over all this green, suddenly everywhere. Walking down by the River Test this afternoon, the green-ness was almost overwhelming. In Andrew Marvell's famous words:
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade
That always reminds me of a question that came up in my English degree finals exams, which I couldn't answer (a shame, as Marvell was one of the few things I had thoroughly prepared). It went something like:
"Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Discuss the implications of this for the poetry of the 17th century"

Apart from the thought that Marvell was rather clumsy, possibly drunk, stumbling around in someone's vegetable patch, and the insistence of the implied rhyme with "arse," (Marvell as limerick writer?) I couldn't think of a thing to say, and still can't. The idea that such behaviour might be generalisable to the entire 17th century -- a Python-esque vision of many poets wandering distractedly through an allotment and tripping over marrows -- simply gave me the giggles. What can they have meant? Answer in less than 200 words, on one side of the paper only, please.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Spring Geometries

In northern latitudes, the return of the sunlight in spring is always cause for celebration. Unless, of course, your vacuum cleaner has been sealed behind a cupboard door for four months by a pile of dusty books... I noted with amusement the National Geographic News headline last week: "Dust Older Than The Sun Found In Earth's Atmosphere". We're saying nothing. Dust can be very pretty, though: I can sit all morning and watch the cosmic journeying of motes and specks through sunbeams. Who needs Hubble? (Hey, isn't that a kid's book about dust?)

Much as I love to see its return, though, I am inevitably reminded that pretty much everything I dislike is intimately associated with summer sun, whether it be sunbathing, beach holidays, cold food, bothersome flies, or simply being too hot and/or too humid; I will also really miss wearing my favourite coat. But, don't mind me, I expect you can't wait to tear off your shirt to display your ripped abs on the beach...

If you're a photographer, there's a window of opportunity of about eight weeks when virtually every day brings a new and interesting combination of sun, cloud, mist, angle of light, and all the colours seem freshly minted. But then come the summer months of blank overhead sunshine and harsh shadows when -- bizarrely -- everyone else is blowing off the dust from the camera that they put away in September; just when I'm thinking, "Is there really any point lugging this thing into work today?"

N.B. In this last image, do you see the tiny reflected residential house crushed in the space beneath the gleaming university juggernaut? I suspect that expresses pretty well how the neighbours of the campus feel about the university.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Bad Poets' Society

Mark Woods in his extraordinary blog wood s lot is drawing our attention to the poet and critic Randall Jarrell today. In following up some links I came across this, which is one of the most humane and humbling things I've read recently. In this age of simple self-publishing and, er, blogging, these are words worth contemplating.

"Bad Poets"
by Randall Jarrell

Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle. The good and mediocre books come in from week to week, and I put them aside and read them and think of what to say; but the "worthless" books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them. In the bad type of thin pamphlets, in hand-set lines on imported paper, people's hard lives and hopeless ambitions have expressed themselves more directly and heartbreakingly than they have ever expressed in any work of art: it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with "This is a poem" scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write - a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize. If there were only some mechanism (like Seurat's proposed system of painting, or the projected Universal Algebra that Gödel believes Leibnitz to have perfected and mislaid) for reasonably and systematically converting into poetry what we see and feel and are! When one reads the verse of people who cannot write poems - people who sometimes have more intelligence, sensibility, and moral discrimination than most of the poets - it is hard not to regard the Muse as a sort of fairy godmother who says to the poet, after her colleagues have showered on him the most disconcerting and ambiguous gifts, "Well, never mind. You're still the only one that can write poetry."

It seems a detestable joke that the national poet of the Ukraine - kept a private in the army for ten years, and forbidden by the Czar to read, to draw, or ever to write a letter - should not have for his pain one decent poem. A poor Air Corps sergeant spends two and a half years on Attu and Kiska, and at the end of the time his verse about the war is indistinguishable from Browder's brother's parrot's. How cruel that a cardinal -- for one of these book is a cardinal's -- should write verse worse than his youngest choir-boy's! But in this universe of bad poetry everyone is compelled by the decrees of an unarguable Necessity to murder his mother and marry his father, to turn somersaults widdershins around his own funeral, to do everything that his worst and most imaginative enemy could wish. It would be a hard heart and a dull head that could condemn, except with a sort of sacred awe, such poets for anything that they have done - or rather, for anything that has been done to them: for they have never made anything, they have suffered their poetry as helplessly as they have anything else; so that it is neither the imitation of life nor a slice of life but life itself - beyond good, beyond evil, and certainly beyond reviewing.


"If there were only some mechanism ... for reasonably and systematically converting into poetry what we see and feel and are!" Of course, some people might think of a camera this way, but the news is equally as sad for us Bad Photographers, I'm afraid ...

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Lucky stones

Four hundred and some years after the Reformation, the religious function of icons and relics is a distant and slightly queasy memory in England. The Tudors swept the whole paraphernalia of folksy religiosity into a bin labelled "Papist Nonsense", the lid of which was banged down firmly by the business-minded puritans of the Revolution (and then sat on by the puritanically-minded businessmen of the Industrial Revolution). The kissing of bones is now about as un-English as you can get, though some (like Ted Hughes) have alleged that we have been mourning the loss of Merry Old England ever since. Possibly; certainly, a few more public holidays would not go amiss.

Relics of the personal life are still sought after by some, however. Locks of Nelson's hair are popular, for some bizarre reason, and no visit to a stately home is complete without admiring the glass-topped cabinet of random curiosities (a shrivelled orange possessed but not eaten by Florence Nightingale sticks in my mind). Encounters with manuscripts can be seductive ("Behold the actual ink from the actual pen on the actual paper touched by yer actual Shakespeare!"): archivists have to be on the lookout for historians of impeccable credentials who might succumb to a sudden urge to get physical with a piece of vellum.

Personally, I have formed strong iconic bonds with certain bits of rock. Fossils, especially. The glaciers that ground across England came through the high chalk valley where I grew up, and dislodged flinty treasures into the soil. I made a collection, mainly sea urchins (known locally as shepherd's crowns and fairy loaves) and shells, particularly those gnarly ashtrays called Devil's toenails. One day, walking through the copse behind our house, I kicked a stone and it rolled over to reveal a fossil cockle shell, half revealed and half concealed. It was a text-book example: literally so, as it was precisely like the illustration in my book of fossils. I had rolled the dice and come up with two sixes, the sort of luck you can take for granted when you're nine years old. I still have it, forty five years later, though I no longer take any sort of luck for granted.

My father had a stone, too. It's a quartzite pebble, about the size and weight of a billiard ball, mottled with rusty reds and livid (blueish!) veins. It lived in our sideboard drawer, and always reminded me of the backs of his hands, in which slate-blue stone chippings were still milkily embedded from a war-time motorbike tumble in Egypt. The pebble was a war souvenir, too. One day in 1941, he had an encounter driving a lone truck as a Despatch Rider in the Western Desert. Here it is as he told it:
A few days later I was approaching a slope which was the only way up an escarpment which rose sheer from the desert, a few burnt-out vehicles scattered around should have warned me to keep a sharp look-out, but as I got close to the slope a Gerry fighter-plane buzzed me. I went into the Drill, hand brake on, ignition off and a running jump out and as much space as possible between me and the truck. The plane returned a few times and gave a few short bursts, but did no damage. I was tucked into the corner of the escarpment and as he came by I got off some shots with my revolver, till it was empty, he came back again and I was so angry that I picked up a stone to throw, but he turned and banked away and disappeared. For some reason I must have tucked the stone into my pocket, and later decided to keep it, which I have to this day. Much later I wondered how a polished stone shaped rather like a small hen's egg came to be in an area where everything was very hard and like slate (very difficult to dig through in a hurry, there were a few inches of sand on the surface, but underneath was a layer of hard packed shale, sometimes a pick would just rebound off it!). Near to this spot I found two graves with crosses and British steel helmets, they were two Hussars, I assume from a tank unit. The graves were well made and had large stones round the edges, with a note in German on each cross, so I assume that the Germans had carried out the burial.
I don't think anyone would have characterised my Dad's post-war life as lucky, though he was easy-going enough (and perhaps wise enough) to disagree. I doubt the stone acted as anything but a reminder. Which is why it was pretty much the only object I had to make absolutely sure that I rescued from his few residual belongings when he died last year.

The caption on the back of this photo, in my father's writing, reads "Convoy, Pyramids in back, That's me waving". I have always found this a picture of pure exhilaration: when I was small, I could imagine that my Dad could see me, and was waving to me. Somehow, knowing so much more now about the truth and the magic of photography, I can believe that again.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Slants on Spring

Yesterday lunchtime, I saw two of the dullest surfaces on the whole of the campus enlivened by slants of spring sunlight:

And this morning, doing the weekly shop, I spotted this behind-the-scenes view of the carwash at Tesco:

Evening afterthought: Actually, I prefer this version, which is what I saw when that bolt of lightning crossing the screen caught my eye. I think the mystery of the moment is better conveyed with a bit more context, particularly the massive tree trunk and the brightness beyond. I'm actually very pleased with this image.