Monday, 29 June 2009


Warning: this post contains BAD LANGUAGE!

Our swearing is a barometer of the sensibilities of our culture. Yesterday's blood-curdling oath has become a meaningless comic noise in a children's cartoon. I doubt anyone today would be much offended if I exclaimed "God's blood!" when I hit my thumb with a hammer, although they might be startled. It would have been a different matter in the seventeenth century, and I could easily have found myself with my ears nailed to a post. I suppose in the USA, where the alignment of Christianity and respectability still seems (to European eyes) anachronistically close, taking the Lord's name in vain (not to mention other attributes or body parts) is still quite offensive to some people. Though they've probably got over the ear-mutilating thing by now. 'Snails, I hope so.

Fondness for one's ears led to the evolution of so-called "minced oaths" -- mild swearwords used in place of offensive swearwords. The classics are those musketeerish ejaculations like "Gadzooks!" and "Zounds!", but we're still at it. For obvious reasons, they usually start with the same sound as a "real" oath. For example, all those strange exclamations like "Cripes," "Crikey," and"Crivvens" are clearly substitutes for "Christ!". Not so long ago in Britain "bloody" was a genuinely taboo adjective, though no-one seems sure why -- I have seen various explanations, including the suggestion that "bloody" is itself a minced-oath version of "by Our Lady". Hence the abundant use of adjectives like "blinking", "blooming", or "blasted" in the everyday speech of people averse to full-on vulgarity. By the same token, I suspect the relative paucity of exclamations beginning "sh..." betrays the relatively recent adoption of "Shit!" as an all-purpose expression of dismay. "Sugar!" is the only one that comes to mind (though "Surely not!" was a personal favourite when our kids were small).

Of course, any true puritan finds even a minced oath offensive, because it points pretty directly and transparently at the real thing. But then, the ability to find offence where none is intended is the hallmark of the puritan down the ages, from Cromwell to the Taliban. By contrast, a true innocent will happily use some of the merrier minced oaths, completely unaware of the big sign pointing at the taboo word they have, apparently, narrowly avoiding saying (and which, once upon a more genteel time, they might never actually have known). Oh, fudge and fiddlesticks!

I have never quite understood the contemporary fondness for using "language," especially the claim that it is hypocritical or prissy not to do so or, worse, to find it offensive. But, coming from a respectable working class / lower middle class milieu, I will concede that I am not best placed, instinctively, to understand it. I literally never heard my parents or the parents of any of my friends swear. Not once. It would have been utterly unthinkable, in the 1950s and 60s, for a halfway-respectable adult knowingly to swear in front of children, even if they habitually used "effing and blinding" at work (which, before women entered the workplace, most men did). Similarly, we kids would never have sworn in front of (never mind at) an adult. I did once tell my grandmother, at the prompting of a friend, to "buzz off" (a classic minced version of "bugger off ," I now realise), and she chased me down the street, incandescent with rage. I received a rare smack that evening for my impertinence.

No, the true traditional swearers are all-male communities and the upper classes. Naturally, you expect a barrack-room to swear like troopers; that the likes of Winston Churchill also did and do when at their ease can come as something of a surprise. But, as Terry Eagleton points out in a recent review of Isaiah Berlin's letters, elite establishments like Oxford tend to "mistake a snobbish contempt for the shopkeeping classes for a daring kind of dissidence." What better way to underline your distance from and contempt for the genteel classes than a judicious sprinkling of witty vulgarity? On the positive side, the words "Well, wasn't that a fucking débâcle?" impeccably enunciated after a meeting establishes that -- in the ambassador's view -- everyone left in this room is an honorary equal, and indubitably on the same side.

Having slipped over the years into inadvertent and unnecessary swearing, I decided to wean myself off it once we had children. Other friends had gone down the opposite route, which was to inoculate their kids against a wicked world by freely sprinkling the taboo words (or a PC selection thereof) into the family conversation. Call me old-fashioned, but I wince when I hear an under 10 say, "But I don't want any fucking cornflakes, Mummy!" I guess if you live in London, such precautions may be necessary. Not in my house, though.

In the initial phase, I was substituting the strongest kid-friendly oath I could think of, which did have some odd results. A 40-year old man roaring "Oh dear! I've hit my silly old finger with the silly old hammer!" does make for an amusing spectacle (for the spectators). But I am now largely oathless, and I must admit it feels good. I would never carry myself physically in the sort of swaggering, bullying way that intimidates others*, and I can see no reason to behave differently in my language. If there is one thing the world could do without, it is people who revel in repeatedly rubbing their own strength and inviolability in the face of all comers. A society which is careless of the feelings of the vulnerable or the old is a malformed society, simply. Even the prissily genteel deserve consideration. A little, anyway.

However, one argument against swearing that I can't accept is the assertion that it reduces one's ability to express oneself, by constricting the habitual swearer's vocabulary. Take, for example, these words, which I once heard booming from the pit of a car maintenance garage: "Fucking fuck it! This fucking fucker's fucking fucked!" Meaningless? Inexpressive? A unique example, surely, of a single word's protean power, when used with the proper conviction.

* Sources close to this Blog have pointed out the unlikeliness of this scenario, despite my imposing height of 6' 5" (OK, other way round, 5' 6").

Friday, 26 June 2009

Who Do You Think You Are? Part 2

I hit the "publish" button by accident on yesterday's post, and couldn't figure out how to un-publish it without deleting it. I hadn't really wanted to finish on quite such a glum note, so here's a final thought on family history and the Grand Guignol theatre of history. Consider this remarkable family snap from my collection:

The picture was taken in 1946, in rural North Hertfordshire. The man standing at extreme right is my father, returned from six years at war, rescued from Dunkirk to fight in the Western Desert and Burma. Next to him is my mother, pregnant with my sister; she has been a sergeant in the ATS, commanding an ack ack unit, including service overseas at Antwerp. Next to her is an ATS comrade on a visit. The man on the left is my uncle, returned from a truly gruelling war as an 8th Army infantryman -- El Alamein and the invasion of Italy. Next to him is his wife, my mother's sister, who has also served in the ATS, mother of the little girl in the front row, my cousin, the very first baby boomer.

Moving to the front row. On the left is my maternal great grandmother, born in 1872. Her first husband and father-in-law, both labourers in a local brewery, were killed in the same drey-cart accident in 1902, when my grandmother, seated next to her, was five years old. She was a devout Baptist and, according to my mother, used to wash and lay out bodies for burial. Two of her brothers-in-law and a cousin were killed on the Somme. On the right is my great aunt Alice, born in 1885 to a woman who was disfigured in a fire, but married a retired soldier who fathered six children and promptly died aged 50, leaving her (my paternal great grandmother) to raise them all on a charwoman's income. Daughter Alice went to London to work as a servant, and was made pregnant by a man who abandoned her. She returned home to raise the child as a single parent.

An ordinary story of ordinary human lives, with perhaps a little more tragedy than is strictly necessary in one family, but constructed from the same elements as a million others. A great war has just finished. Food is short. Friends and family and neighbours have died, and not just in the fighting overseas: houses in the village were destroyed by jettisoned bombs. So why do they all look so happy? Because, despite everything, life is good, and in 1946 it had probably never looked better. They are healthy, with much to look forward to, and (above all) alive.

And the unseen photographer, making everyone laugh so cheerily for the camera? That would be my grandfather, I suppose, the subject of the previous post, the abandoned orphan in a tale of Victorian melodrama. Though quite how he turned up in rural North Herts, where the soil is good for digging, and the women are handsome (and all the children are above average) is a mystery I have yet to solve.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Who Do You Think You Are?

I've mentioned before that I've been researching some family history, if that's not too grand a word for "looking stuff up on the internet". It's astonishing how this once tedious pursuit has been transformed by the web. Not so long ago, this would have been a retirement project, requiring fruitless trips to distant graveyards and long afternoons pulling indexes from shelves in record offices. But now, for Britons at any rate, tracing a family tree back into the mid-nineteenth century is usually a matter of a few evenings in front of a keyboard, given a reasonably sure knowledge of the name, age and birthplace of one's parents and grandparents. Oh, and a credit card.

Even more astonishing is that it's become a mass pursuit, encouraged by popular TV programmes like "Who Do You Think You Are?" Genealogy used to be about questions of aristocratic succession -- like, "How good is my claim to the throne?" -- but now it is increasingly about "ordinary" people discovering that we, too, have ancestors that go all the way back to Adam and Eve. Or, more accurately, to that single tribe of wanderers who squeezed out of the north-east corner of Africa 85,000 years ago and then went on to populate the rest of the globe.

Unfortunately, the documentary trail does not go back quite that far. For most of us, it starts to get thin around 1800, and pretty much vanishes for everyone in the 16th century. But, personally, I have never regarded "getting as far back as possible" as one of the main aims of my researches, and a fat stack of birth, marriage and death certificates tells a pretty thin dynastic tale.

For me, there are two primary areas of interest. First, there is the technical challenge of overcoming obstacles in the paperchase; to triangulate a missing forbear until they shuffle out shame-facedly from behind a census return form can be satisfying, occasionally exciting. But, second, where it gets really interesting is filling in the social and historical detail. There may be no biographies written of any of your great-grandparents or of mine, but there is plenty of research into and resources for local history, some of it very local indeed, and much of it online. For example, I can look at Charles Booth's poverty map of London, and read his handwritten notes on the state of the kids playing in the very street my grandfather grew up in.

Where these two interests come together, however, the chase can get obsessive. Also, the light shone into dark, forgotten corners can cast strange shadows. I had long known for example, that my other grandfather was illegitimate, and born in Liverpool. But he was a particularly tight-lipped specimen of that taciturn WW1 generation, and that was about all I knew. After months of false leads, I finally turned up a birth certificate, then some census returns, and his story began to emerge. Born illegitimate in a Liverpool workhouse infirmary in 1896 to a woman who claimed to be a widow, he was abandoned, along with his three-year old brother, into the care of the Poor Law Union, and placed into one of the "cottage homes" for destitute children in Fazakerley, Liverpool.

So, not a great start in life for Grandad. Though I have to say he turned out fine, a quiet if slightly taut family man, who liked nothing better than digging the garden. My mother adored her father. His brother turned out fine, too, a career soldier for 30 odd years, an NCO in the 7th Dragoon Guards, a top-drawer regiment. But the obsessive, dark part began when I tried to track down their mother.

Now, on one level, I knew what to expect. Children were not born and abandoned in workhouses in Liverpool in 1896 by "respectable" women. Elizabeth was almost certainly a prostitute or a drunk or perhaps (in the contemporary idiom) "feeble minded", possibly all three. What emerged quite quickly, though, was that she had effectively made herself invisible to the online paperchase. A few deliberate, drunken or confused untruths (her name, her age, her marital status, her address, the names of friends and relatives) -- recorded in ledgers in careful Victorian ink and transcribed (rather less carefully) into databases 100 years later -- is all it took.

It didn't help that she had a name -- or claimed to have a name -- that turned out to be surprisingly common in late 19th century Liverpool. The censuses and birth/marriage/death databases turned them up everwhere: wives of dockers with football-team-sized families in two-room terraces, seamstresses and dressmakers (occupations traditionally claimed by prostitutes) in crowded slum lodging houses, servants stashed in the attics of the mansions of prosperous merchants, spinster schoolteachers, and even a few nuns, but no-one who matched my elusive great-grandmother on every point, or not enough to follow up thoroughly. At times, it felt like I was being given the Ghost of Christmas Past's tour of Victorian Liverpool, and that what I was seeing was, in some strange way, existentially important.

Madly, I think I began to believe that "finding" her-- that is, conclusively identifying her in the papertrail, if only to establish when and where and in what condition she was born and died -- would in some way redeem the act of abandoning her children. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I presumed that she would really have wanted to be "found". In the end, I realised that to do this some proper research into the Fazakerley Cottage Homes files (held in the Liverpool Record Office) was needed, and employed a proper researcher.

The story that emerged -- pieced together from evidence, hints and informed guesswork -- was unedifying, as you might expect. Following up the new leads, I found myself opening doors onto dark, disturbingly Dickensian scenarios. If "my" Elizabeth wasn't in the room, I would quickly shut the door again. You don't have to believe in ghosts to acknowledge the possibility of being haunted, not least by the wretchedness that can exist in the world.

Indeed, once you step back and contemplate the true horror of life for a "fallen woman" in the Victorian underclass, those despised Victorian Values -- the values that compelled the wealthy Liverpudlian Charles Booth to devote his life to improving the lot of the poor -- start to seem like the only force for good in a world that had taken a serious turn to the Dark Side. And it's also a lot easier to understand the motivation of a woman wilfully covering her tracks, erasing herself from the record, and in the end writing herself out of the script of her children's lives. Easier to understand, but still terribly, terribly sad.

Mater dolorosa, ora pro nobis...

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

There's Always Lunchtime

I've been preparing for and then, today, running a major software upgrade on our test server, so there's not been much time for reflections on Life, The Universe, And Everything. But there's always lunchtime, which means there's always (or nearly always) an opportunity for photography.

The second image here was one of those where you think, "This is going to be so good, if only I can just keep this thing steady, and have got the exposure right." Oddly (stupidly), I rarely take "insurance" exposures -- it's partly superstition, partly a habit from years using a Fuji medium-format rangefinder -- just 15 shots per film concentrates the mind, though admittedly not as much as using colour film in an 8"x10" view camera.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Is That a Mju in Your Pocket?

Although I'm not really a kit freak, nobody interested in photography can help but be aware that there's a buzz around Olympus at the moment, and their recently announced "micro four thirds" compact, the EP-1. The concept is quite exciting -- a large (DSLR sized) sensor inside a compact camera, designed to deliver top quality results in a pocket-sized package. It's a whole new market, and the first company to crack this one will probably make its shareholders very happy. However, the EP-1 looks like it's aimed at a rather different part of the marketplace from where I do my shopping (too expensive, for a start) and I'm happy to wait for the other companies to make their move. Hey, I'm over here, Panasonic!

I'm predisposed to like Olympus, however. My first SLR was an OM-1N, followed by an OM-10, then a Mju (Stylus in USA) and a Mju II compact (two of the best cameras I've ever used) and finally an incomparable C5050 digital. I still have all these cameras, because I enjoyed using them so much (not a kit freak, eh?). Now, although I have never forgiven them for dropping the OM series to concentrate on mass-market compacts, I do like the Olympus gestalt with its emphasis on innovation and design, and I admire the company's willingness to go out on a limb, again and again taking risks that no other camera manufacturer would dare.

So, all this recent hoo-hah about an as yet unavailable camera got me to thinking about cameras, specifically Olympus cameras, that I had desired but never acquired. And all the bloviating about whether or not a viewfinder is needed in the EP-1 reminded me how, about five years ago, I admired a row of jewel-like, curvily-asymmetrical digital cameras glimmering in the window of my local camera shop, each in one of six different metallic colours. Six colours! Clearly a "gendered" product, designed to slip into an elegant handbag, but weatherproof, metal, tiny, easy to operate, and very desirable... But, my wallet is ruled by a puritan heart (though one which does enjoy flirting with temptation) and, at the time, the absence of an optical viewfinder seemed even more outrageous than a choice of six colours, so it was "no sale" for the Olympus Mju mini Digital. But, in retrospect, the lack of a viewfinder is yet another Olympus design innovation that has now has become the norm.

My desire was reawakened. Next stop, E-bay. A quick search, a bid and a short wait, and a used, pleasingly-battered red mini-Mju was mine for £25. Clearly, at 4 megapixels, the largest native print size it will produce is a "mere" 20cm x 15 cm, and I'm also stuck with JPG files, and rudimentary (but adequate) controls over exposure, etc. I suppose if I'm unlucky the camera may give up the ghost before long, but Olympus have always delivered a quality product and, at that price, the thing is practically disposable anyway.

But I'm seeing possibilities here: I have a tiny but robust, splash-proof camera that fits forgettably into a jeans pocket. Obviously, there's no point in duplicating the sort of things my existing cameras can do much better, but the Mju will do things neither my Canon 35oD DSLR nor my Panasonic LX3 will do. For a start, it can be in a pocket in some quite unusual situations, and (with all its bells and whistles and flash turned off) extremely unobtrusive. Above all, it is capable of some extreme close-ups with its "Super Macro" mode. I'm not sure where this might go yet (graffitti in the lavatories of the world's great establishments of learning?) but this could be photography as fun, and that's something I'm all about.

N.B. On the subject of desired but unacquired Olympus cameras, whatever happened to all the C8080s? I hardly ever see one for sale, even on Ebay. Did they all self-destruct, or have they become treasured companions, to be pried from a cold, dead hand?

Saturday, 20 June 2009

I'm Your Fan

Longer-serving readers of this blog may recall the post I wrote back in December 2008 about Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" (Hallelu-you, or, Look What They Done To My Song, Ma). In it, I proposed that the song inoculated itself against appropriation because of the way the rhyme with "hallelujah" insisted on "do ya," "to ya," "outdrew ya," rather than "do you," "to you," etc. I thought it was a subtle but telling argument, and I admit I was rather pleased with myself.

Well, wouldn't you know? Last night the BBC4 TV channel had a bit of a Leonard Cohen night, and showed several bits of Cohen-iana, including Leonard Cohen Live in London -- a 17 July 2008 gig at the O2 Arena (sorry, it'll always be the Millennium Dome to me) from his recent, pension-plan restoration world tour. It was really very good, even though I was continually struck by how much the elderly Cohen has started to resemble not so much a ladies' man as a raffish cousin of William Burroughs (the hat may have had something to do with it). "Suzanne" and "Bird on a Wire" were predictably moving, and I was impressed all over again by the prescience of "First We Take Manhattan." Is it really 21 years old?

But the thing was, when it came to "Hallelujah," he crouched forward and, grinning at the front rows, sang "But you don't really care for music, do you?" Not "do ya" but "do you." I was amazed. No doubt every other fan was stunned, too. All the way through, too. Every verse; no accident; absolutely intentional. Well.

It's almost as if he knew what I was going to write just four months later, and decided to have a little fun. Well, thanks a lot, Leonard.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Turning Up

This week my local trade union held its AGM, but I didn't attend. Partly because I forgot, and partly because it was a nice day and I chose to do my usual thing, wandering around the campus looking for things to photograph. This hardly makes me unusual: out of a membership of around 1000, I don't think I've ever seen more than 100 at a meeting, and more typically the number would be 25 or fewer.

But I have a long history as a trade union activist, so my absence may be counted as more significant. For 30 years I have picketed, been on strike, marched, leafleted, attended national Councils and innumerable interminable meetings, and held various positions on our local committee. I like to think a few older members, at least, will have noticed I wasn't there.

As a student, I found myself in a hotbed of political radicalism and factionalism, where a single word (say, "Kronstadt") was enough to start an argument that could last all night. I never had much time for the detail of the politics,* but the activism was very much to my taste, and I was easily persuaded to take part in two notorious (and in retrospect utterly pointless) occupations of university buildings which could easily have ended my university career if I had not been fast and strong enough to evade arrest (the first and last time I was grateful for my school's insistence that I play rugby as a wing forward).

When I first started work in 1978, it seemed only natural to become involved in the union. Indeed, my grandmother had been Mother of the Chapel at the Temple Press in Letchworth (it all sounds so churchy, doesn't it?), so there was a family tradition to live up to. As this was the cusp of the Thatcher Years, it made for interesting times. Strikes, marches, demonstrations, meetings. Endless meetings. It is well said that power and influence belong to those who can be bothered to turn up. You may recall that this was also the period of so-called Trotskyist "entryism" into the Labour Party: their strategy, frankly, was simply to turn up.

Of course, after the failure of the Miners' Strike and the anti-union legislation (that Labour, shamefully, has failed to reverse) and the purges of Militant from Labour, everything changed. We white-collar unionists became the majority, and the spirit, the sense of solidarity and continuity and history, just vanished. Being a trade unionist was like being at work, right down to the managerial language and the flipcharts.

So, what does it mean that I've started not turning up? I think it means I'm finally bored with giving up my time to sit in draughty rooms to listen to arguments I've heard a hundred times before, on behalf of other people who can never be bothered to turn up -- to the extent they will spend a day on strike at home, for the sake of appearances, but working and consequently refusing to lose a day's pay -- and who are sitting outside in the sunshine, blithely unconcerned that the pay, or pension, or even continued employment of some of their colleagues may be hanging by a thread. Ironically, by becoming a little more like the majority of union members, I feel rather less like representing them.

* Although I have maintained an affection for the likes of the Trotskyist Posadist tendency, who (completely rationally, if you ask me) posited that -- given the Marxist analysis of the historic inevitability of Socialism -- that UFOs must by definition be (a) visitors from a more advanced "future" society and therefore (b) socialist. Welcome, little green brothers and sisters!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Blue & Green

"Blue and green should never be seen" -- traditional advice on colour combinations to avoid that seems to ignore the fact that these are the two most predominant colours of the natural world in summer. This one was probably cooked up by the same people who insist red-headed girls can only ever wear green... I seem to have become a connoisseur of barrier-tapes and fences. A few years ago I made a sequence called The Mysterious Barricades, featuring various ineffective or odd barriers encountered in the landscape. I stole the title from a harpsichord piece by Couperin which, I confess, I first came across and appropriated after reading its description in William Wharton's novel Last Lovers. Wharton, by the way, is a very good writer whose work seems to have vanished from view: Birdy was once famous because of the film, but if you're looking for something new to read I'd recommend Dad or A Midnight Clear.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Sunday Playground Sermon

The DNA Windows

Often, in the day to day business of getting along with each other, we make amusing but "boilerplate" responses to situations, which pass as jokes. In fact, most of us most of the time reach for a one-size-fits-all response when the occasion demands levity or lightness of heart. We can't all be Oscar Wilde. And it can be very endearing (not to say funny) to know that a certain colleague, under certain circumstances, will reliably murmur "How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen..."

As well as punchlines or catchphrases that have become detached from their original set up, there are formula jokes where the wit resides in filling in the blanks. I notice that a new formula joke has evolved in recent times: "In a fight between X and Y, who would win?" X and Y can be people (say, Phil Woolas and Joanna Lumley) or creatures (say, a shark and a tiger -- funniest answer: Depends on who gets the first home match), or anything, really. It's playground stuff, but the playground is a Petri dish of viral innovation.

On the grown-up playground, it seems the question is increasingly urgently being posed: In a fight between God and Darwin, who would win? Once, even to ask such a question would have landed you in hot water (or fire, or any number of ingenious torments -- the contribution of the Christian church to the technology of human misery has been outstanding). The battle lines at the extremes are pretty well defined: religious and Darwinian fundamentalists are squaring up to each other: "Yeah?" "Yeah!" "Yeah?" "In your face!". Somehow, the playground never seems far away.

But I think most people lost interest in an omnipotent deity with worryingly human characteristics when they first saw the "blue marble" photographs of Earth seen from space in 1972. The sad, lonely, scary, bleak truth was obvious, as soon as you saw that vulnerable little thing, like a baby in a pram abandoned at night on the hard shoulder of a motorway. It was a sobering moment, a time for humanity to "put away childish things."

And then came the images from the Hubble Telescope of the appalling grandeur of space. By retreating from literalism into humanistic metaphor, the intelligent, liberal wing of the Christian church had been able to hold on to the spirit, if not the letter of the Law. But no metaphors of love or sacrifice, no improbable analogies with lions and lambs can possibly apply out there in the seething nuclear dustfest of the Horsehead Nebula. Like the final jeopardy in the story arc of a thriller, it looked like Game Over for God.

But, wait... It seems that people are not going to accept that verdict. An old man with a beard and a thing about beetles? Clearly not. But there are still a million unanswered questions, loose ends, funny feelings and intimations. There's always that nagging feeling that there's more to all this than meets the eye, that peculiar sensation of "What am I doing here?" You have to wonder whether our urge to botanize supernatural beings and forces is in some way profoundly connected with our vaunted ability to explore and explain the Unknown. And then there's the utter weirdness of science at the quantum level, stuff like "entanglement" and "non-locality", and the quasi-theological speculations of cosmology... Those three dots trailing off at the end of the sentence are a typographic embodiment of the unresolvable problem. The god-shaped hole. Dot dot dot.

Annoyingly, some of the most aggressively closed minds seem to be on the hyper-Darwinist end of the spectrum. I have no religious convictions but I don't feel much in common with anyone who wants to live way over there. The hardest hardliners would dismiss those funny feelings and intimations that everyone experiences as mere affect, with an as yet undetermined evolutionary function. After all, if you stick an electrode in the right part of someone's brain, they will have a religious experience. God knows why, ha ha! But what if those feelings are the very foundation that supports our increasingly long and wobbly extending-ladder of knowledge?

I mean, only a lunatic -- armed with the knowledge that "tastiness" is ultimately just an indicator of edibility -- would decide to subsist on taste-free food supplements, and ignore messy, inconvenient real foods, wouldn't they? It would be as if artists were to create affectless art that explores interesting ideas, but leaves the viewer emotionally unengaged (hey, just a minute...). I do wonder whether to hold such reductively dry views might affect a person's ability to sustain an icky-sticky relationship with another real human being, and thus to reproduce... Now that would be ironic, in a Darwinian sense, wouldn't it? Perhaps that explains the otherwise inexplicable enthusiasm for research into cloning in an overpopulated word.

Of course, the hyper-Darwinist mode of argument will be familiar to anyone who hung around the Marxist left in the 1960s and 70s. There are few things as infuriating as a smug bastard with a one-size-fits-all Answer to Everything (or as satisfying as being one). It's the very opposite to the social oil of a boilerplate joke. But, as the hotdog vendor said to the Buddhist monk (who had demanded "Make me one with everything" and then handed over a ten-pound note), "Change has to come from within."

But, look, here are some random questions for any open-minded religious people. For the sake of argument, let's accept the existence of something we can call "deity". And let's accept we know absolutely nothing about it/him/her/them/x. Let's not pretend that this is an area where anyone has any direct experience (other than those funny feelings and intimations) or knowledge (other than the humane, practical, pastoral sort).

What if "deity", like us, is still evolving? I once had a terrible dream, in which our world was created and directed by a deity, a being simultaneously infinitely more powerful than a human, but considerably less intelligent, like a Mighty Baby. It persistently misunderstood everything, as it had no sense of humour, no sense of irony, was totally literal minded, and confused by figurative language. You did not want to attract its attention.

What if the outcome of our story is not known, and will never be known? It seems essential to the appeal of religion, at least in its popular guise, that outcomes will be known: that everything will have been recorded and finely, fairly judged, that everyone's story will get the five star treatment. No blank tapes, no arbitrary decisions, no unmarked homework, no child left behind. That "deity" will be standing at both ends of the ride of the universe, like a parent despatching then collecting a child on a fairground adventure. But what if "deity" doesn't stick around for, or doesn't make it to, the end of the ride? Does that mean there is no story to tell?

Sophisticated religious people reject the "childish fairy tale" accusations of the anti-religious as a straw man, a distortion of true religious belief. But they underestimate the power and attraction of those fairy tale elements. Listen: you guys really got our attention with all that talk about an afterlife, judgement, heaven and hell, miracles, and all. For, like, centuries. What do you mean, you never really believed it yourselves? So what does a "grown up" religion look like? Is it Thought For The Day on Radio 4, for example? It surely can't be those happy clappy churches that try to write tragedy out of the human script and replace it with groundless optimism, and prayers for business success? Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz...

It was once feared that, without some kind of religious policing, society would descend into libertine anarchy. But ordinary humanist shared self-interest seems a sufficient brake on the day-to-day sins of humanity, and nothing -- religion included -- seems to have had much effect on our worst excesses. In general, people are surprisingly good, even if they are also appallingly selfish, lazy, tasteless and poorly read. If no-one other than fundamentalists is still offering the payoff of an afterlife with points for good behaviour, then -- no matter what else is true -- why should anyone buy what you're selling?

OK, that's all for today. In a minute you can all go back into the playground. Wait! When the bell rings, Dawkins! And don't think I can't see what you're doing there to Rowan Williams...

Postscript (postpost?):

Since writing this post, I read a review in Saturday's Guardian of what sounds like a very interesting book, "Sum: forty tales from the afterlives" by David Eagleman. It says
"he imagines 40 different versions of our post-life existence. These are by no means all pleasant. Eagleman's mission is to unnerve."
As one of the 40 ways is one where "you discover that your creator is a species of small, dim-witted, obtuse creatures" who keep asking you "Do you have answer?" this is clearly my kind of book, and I intend to order a copy as soon as I've hit the Publish Post button.


Damn, I forgot to sneer at Pascal's Wager.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

The Bigger Picture

I doubt that I am alone in sometimes making photographs which I know to be good, but which I don't much like, or at least, not yet. I know enough now to see this as a good sign -- my eyes have seen something through the camera that I can't yet recognise as "mine", which means I'm still learning. That orange on those steps, for example, and that stray bottle... It was the price I had to pay for the barrier tape, the vast propeller, and the knotted curtain. Not so long ago, I might have said "No, thanks," and moved on (or cropped the image square), but this week I didn't.

Or this open window, like an Advent calendar, reflecting a nearly blank sky in its upturned glass. I really just wanted the reflected trees in the tinted windows, but had to accept that blank to get the shot. Perhaps I'm almost ready to accept that overexposure is not always a sin against photography. Oh, and the bicycle handlebar, too.

Similarly these spindly shrubs, teetering on the brink of overexposure, seem to work as a sort of balletic stage set, pushing the original intended subject (the subtly greenish tones of the fence and wall, and that graphic slash of blue cable) usefully into the background. After years of simplifying, getting closer, cutting things out of the frame, I've started pulling back, letting things breathe in a wider, more inclusive frame. I'm not sure why, but I find that I keep doing it.

Who knows where this is going, or whether I'll like it when I get there? I'll let you know.

Thursday, 11 June 2009


A few years ago our neighbours of fifteen years decided it was "job done" on the family thing, and resolved to sell up and move somewhere smaller and a little more upmarket. People's idea of the perfect neighbour vary (I've often wondered whether or not I'd enjoy living next door to myself), but we liked these ones a lot. For a start, they had been quiet. Indeed, once their kids had grown up and left home they were so quiet we sometimes speculated whether they'd died or been abducted by aliens.

It was the height of the UK property boom, and they made a good price -- nearly three times what we'd paid to move in next door at the peak of the previous boom. The sad thing was, it turned out that the new owner had no interest in living in the house: it was a case of "buy to let." Even sadder (for us) was the inexorable logic of buy-to-let. Even though the government has given tax breaks to people buying property with the intention of renting it out (presumably as a fig leaf for its failure to restart a programme of building affordable, rentable council housing), it makes no financial sense for an amateur landlord -- seeking to recover the cost of a mortgage and also make some profit on top -- to let a property to a single family. After all, if they could afford to pay that much as rent, why wouldn't they buy their own house? Inevitably, such houses become "multiple occupancy" residences, which means transient neighbours, which means the character of a neighbourhood starts to change. And change quicker than you might think possible; once people see which way the wind is blowing, the "for sale" boards soon start to appear.

At first things weren't too bad. We live very near a major hospital, and the first tenants were an agreeable collection of nurses recently arrived from the Philippines. True, they kept odd hours, returning from shift at 3:00 a.m. and would sometimes let off a little steam. It might wake me up, but I would think fondly of the contribution they were making to our national well-being, and go back to sleep.

Now, if you have never lived in the UK, you might be slightly shocked at the shoddiness and meanness of our housing stock, particularly the ranks of "semi-detached" houses thrown up in the 1930s. As one builder said to me, "We Brits like to build a perfectly decent family house, then split it down the middle." Size apart, the problem (at least for those, like me, who are hypersensitive to noise) is the absolute lack of sound insulation: you can literally hear your neighbour cough in an adjacent room, never mind their TV or ground-shaking sound system.

When the Philippinos moved out, there was a period of uneasy silence while the house stood empty with a "To Let" board outside. Then a group of Poles and Lithuanians arrived. Between nine and twelve of them, all under 30, packed into every room in the house, and with three elderly Ford Transit vans parked outside. It started quite well, with hellos, handshaking, "Welcome to our country, hope you settle in, the bins are emptied on Wednesday, etc." But it seemed the house was being used as a dormitory for youngsters working on some semi-legal rag-picking scam, so the turnover was high, and after a few months none of the original faces were still in residence.

Now, although I speak a bit of Russian, I've never actually ventured east of the old Iron Curtain, so the manners and customs of Eastern Europe were an unknown to me. And, clearly, the manners and customs of southern England were an unknown to them. I'm aware the English have a reputation for liking their drink, but the drinking habits of our new neighbours were a revelation. I had never before seen anyone habitually kick off a weekend breakfast by opening a can of beer, and then drink beer and spirits steadily through the day until the small hours. I had never encountered anyone already swaying and glaze-eyed drunk at lunchtime on a Sunday, nor had I ever witnessed anyone in such an inebriated state attempt to drive or fail -- repeatedly, and to the hilarity of his housemates -- to reverse a large van onto a front drive. Perhaps I need to get out of the house more.

But it wasn't the drinking that alienated me. It was the noise. One of the several subtle ways in which Eastern Europe lags behind the West is in their belief that smoking is a mandatory activity for adults, particularly when drinking (or is the other way round? Hard to tell). Now you may think that smoking is not an inherently noisy practice. But landlords are obliged by their insurance companies to ban their tenants from smoking inside the premises. So, where do they smoke? Outside. In the back garden, around a communal table, drinking, smoking and shouting until the early hours on weekdays, all night at weekends, right under my bedroom window.

Oh, and listening to music. Not Chopin nocturnes, either, but the worst kind of Euro-porno-disco-pop, a kind of bastard child of house music and the Eurovision Song Contest. Boom crash Boom crash Boom crash, or Duff Duff Duff Duff, endlessly percussively repetitive, but with teasing little breaks in the industrial rhythm that trick you into thinking, "Has it finally, finally finished?"... Played loud, sometimes with speakers on a bedroom windowsill turned out into the garden.

It was no comfort to know we were not alone. Indeed, at the height of this influx, one in ten of the population of Southampton was Polish or East European. One in ten. When we finally cracked and I called the Council's "Noise Nuisance" hotline one night at 2 a.m., they more or less finished my sentences for me, they'd heard it all before so often. This repeated itself for 18 months or so, as new batches came and went.

Then one day, we saw them loading everything into the vans, and they were gone. A beautiful silence descended, but we waited anxiously for whatever would come next. A circus troupe? An orchestra? We waited, and waited. We were like troops on the Somme, half wishing the next barrage would just start and get it over with, and half wishing the silence would never end, but knowing it couldn't.

Then, a shy East Asian couple with a small child appeared next door, and the silence continued unbroken. It was bliss. We hardly ever heard or indeed saw anyone next door. Lights went on and off with regularity, though, and we could hear the odd door or cupboard being closed: it was like a second coming of our original neighbours. We unclenched, and got on with our lives. Our new neighbours were clearly keeping themselves to themselves, and that suited us just fine.

If you're British, you may already have guessed how this story develops. Eight months later and two weeks ago, we had a visit from the police. Did we know anything about our neighbours? Did we often see them? Might they be sort of Chinese-looking? It appeared one of our other, nosier neighbours seems to have thought the lights were going on and off a little too regularly. As in, on a timer. Then, last week, several police vans rolled up, and began dismantling the cannabis growing factory that had been installed next door.

Quite how they ever delivered and installed the quantities of gear -- fans, batteries, industrial ventilation pipes, wiring, mysterious wooden boxes -- that were being slung by the police into the back of a truck, all without arousing anyone's suspicions, I cannot imagine. It took all day to take apart, with lots of crashing and banging, and filled two trucks. And then, because the occupants had bypassed the electricity meter to run all this kit free of charge, it took most of the night for the power company to restore the house to safety. Apparently houses taken over in this way have been known to catch fire because of the load on these improvised electricals...

So, now we wait again with a degree of anxiety mixed with resignation to meet whoever turns out to be our next new neighbours. This used to be a "quiet family neighbourhood, close to the hospital and good schools." No longer quite so much, it seems.

Of course, this has been happening all over the country. We -- in our educated, left-liberal way -- have naturally tried to condemn the sin but love the sinner. Though I confess I could cheerfully have decked the noisy sinner with a pickaxe handle at times (mainly 2 a.m.) -- another couple of months of full-on euro-pop and I suspect I could have been writing this blog from jail. But we do understand the economic, social and political forces that cause migrations like this, and realise that national characteristics cannot be generalised from the sort of person who travels across Europe in search of fortune in the form of a ragpicking scam, or halfway round the world to babysit cannabis plants in a suburban loft. We also realise that nothing can or should be done to prevent people coming here to look for work or a better lifestyle, so long as we share membership of the European Union, which is on the whole a Good Thing. And all this may make us a little untypical.

Which brings us to the EU election results... Two seats for the racist British National Party and thirteen for the UK Independence Party in the European Parliament is not just some sort of temporary, tactical response to the scandal of MP's expenses. The mass abstention of voters, especially Labour voters, has exposed something normally submerged but which has been steadily growing for some time.

Without getting portentous, it's clear the political class needs to wake up to the reality of the changes that are being lived out at street level, especially in the parts of town they generally choose not to live in. The working-class community is in crisis, and has been ever since "Thatcher" (a convenient shorthand for the neo-con consensus widely shared in the political elite, including the Blairite Labour Party) decided heavy industry did not figure in our future, and that anyone who didn't fancy office work was a backward-looking Neanderthal with no real place in the workforce of UK PLC. There is a perfect storm of despair and anger brewing in those neglected parts of the country that lost their way when the docks, the steel furnaces, the coal mines, the car factories and the shipyards shut down in the 1980s and 90s.

Parties like the BNP and UKIP like to channel this anger and despair into xenophobia and its uglier cousin, racism, partly because it's a ready source of political energy, and partly (unpalatable as this may be) because a lot of people are actually very angry and do actually believe the accounts peddled by these parties, both as an explanation and a solution. Yes, it's a form of magical thinking which mistakes correlations for causes ("A man with a turban moved in next door, and I lost my job; send him away, I'll get it back") and oversimplifies ("We joined the EU, ignored the Commonwealth, and lost control of our national destiny"). But it can't be ignored by politicians or, worse, airily dismissed as an unsophisticated misunderstanding. What better solutions are they offering which people can understand and vote for?

It's easy to dismiss the likes of the BNP across Europe as merely the ignorant politics of an underclass of unemployables -- alienated, tattooed, violent, foul-mouthed and hedonistic -- who resent the arrival of successive waves of the eminently employable; most recently, le plombier polonais. But the rise of this new underclass is really the bewildered, self-harming response of a vital stratum of our society to its perceived abandonment, and it's a shocking development to anyone who grew up in the working class of the 1950s and 60s. It didn't used to be like this.

"This" needs to be taken seriously. Very seriously. Above all, there has to be meaningful, decently-paid work (skilled and unskilled manual work, for the most part) for the legions of young, strong, not particularly bright people born in this country, or there will be trouble. Lots of trouble.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

It's Crow Time

I've mentioned before my liking for crows (see White Crows, Black Swans, Half and Half Sheep) . Well, here are a couple more, edging into the picture, so to speak.

Actually, these are both rooks, named "the food-gathering crow"(Corvus frugilegus) by Linnaeus -- what other sort is there? One of the smarter creatures on the planet. One of the things I love about rooks is the way they shape-shift from muttering derelicts, picking over waste ground for scraps and curiosities, to sleek aerobatic ninjas in co-ordinated squadron attack on any predator that appears in the sky overhead, with the emphasis on individual acts of daring. I have seen a rook pluck a feather from a buzzard's wing, like a Plains Indian warrior counting coup.

N.B. A "buzzard" in Britain is a medium-large raptor, Buteo buteo, not a vulture, a bird which has become increasingly common in urban settings. I first saw one in Southampton on my daughter's fifth birthday, circling directly overhead as she and her little friends partied in the back garden. Now I often see one from my office window, soaring high above Southampton Common.

But that was not as surprising as the sight of a pair of Red Kites (Milvus milvus) dipping and gliding over Reading railway station, as I travelled between Oxford and Southampton. Not so long ago, this bird was close to extinction, and my partner and I would count it a red-letter day if we glimpsed one of these beautiful birds in a remote corner of Mid-Wales. A reintroduction programme has seen them spread out of Wales and into the Midlands, and I've glimpsed them recently from motorways in Hampshire and Wiltshire.

Kites were once as common as crows, even scavenging the streets of London in Shakespeare's time. Their party trick is snatching up scraps from the ground while remaining on the wing, then acrobatically flipping the food from talon to beak. As Chaucer writes in The Knight's Tale:
We stryve as dide the houndes for the boon;
They foughte al day, and yet hir part was noon.
Ther cam a kyte, whil that they were so wrothe,
And baar awey the boon bitwixe hem bothe.
At Gigrin Farm, near Rhayader in Wales, you can get a real sense of how this must have been, as the farmer now runs a Red Kite Feeding Station, where every afternoon he chucks bucketfuls of dead chicks onto a field. The sky fills with (presumably) salivating kites, buzzards and ravens, just as they must once have congregated over a mediaeval battlefield:
Ravens, crows and kites
Fly o’er our heads and downward look on us,
As we were sickly prey: their shadows seem
A canopy most fatal, under which
Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, V,1
Then they descend, the aerobatics begin, and for an hour or so it's Show Time!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

A Steady Hand

Two pictures from mornings this week: a campus window reflecting the hoarding around the building site of the new Biological Sciences building, and the hoarding around the building site reflecting some windows.

While trying to hold the camera steady for the second image (which, the data tells me, was taken at 1/3 sec at f/4.5, ISO 200 -- proof of the efficacy of good technique and image stabilised lenses) a campus security guard came up behind me and wanted to know why I was photographing a bin. I ignored him, but he persisted. I don't think he was reassured to be told that I was actually photographing a chalk mark, but I look sufficiently mad (especially when I smile with my newly extracted front tooth) for him to go away.

I do hope this isn't a straw in the wind, though. It's bad enough that real police are developing a bad attitude towards photographers, without dorkish overweight jobsworths dressed up in stab jackets and flat hats joining in. If this happens again -- as a hobbyist contrarian and just to be provocative -- I might just be tempted to start photographing them... What would one call such a series? "The Thick Blue Line?" "A Few Fat Men?" Hmmm...

Friday, 5 June 2009

Endless Rain Into a Paper Cup

A little while ago one of my oldest friends sent me an email, which said simply "I wanted to tell you that my mother died on Sunday morning. I will communicate again when I have something more measured to say. It was not sudden, not filled with pain, at home and with her children all around. Than which we don’t get to do much better, I sometimes think, in the end."

And he added a poem by Adrian Mitchell which I hadn't seen before, a response to Philip Larkin's famous but uselessly cynical "This Be The Verse":

They tuck you up, your Mum and Dad
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

They were tucked up when they were small,
(Pink perfume, blue tobacco-smoke),
By those whose kiss healed any fall,
Whose laughter doubled any joke.

Man hands on happiness to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
So love your parents all you can
And have some cheerful kids yourself.

I made the mistake of reading this mail at work. A mistake, as my office was not the ideal place to revisit some of the feelings around my own parents' deaths, or to become acutely aware of the upwelling sadness I can feel as my children grow daily more independent.

Then even more recently I heard that two even older friends from my school days are to become grandparents. Impossible. Amusing, even. And I'm thinking: I'm not ready for any of this, I never was, and no-one ever is. And, just as you're starting to get the hang of it, it's all over.

Before you cross the street,
Take my hand,
Life is what happens to you
While you're busy making other plans.

John Lennon, Beautiful Boy

"Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup..."

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The Darkroom for Bluffers

I had an unprecedented number of visitors yesterday, due to a mention of the previous post in Mike Johnston's esteemed blog-cum-water-cooler spot The Online Photographer. Thanks to those of you who left comments (and thanks to Mike -- it's nice to know that [some] people realise when I'm trying to be funny).

I should say to any new visitors who might choose to come by again that this is a photography-led but not photography-driven blog, in that I write about whatever I feel like writing about, which quite often has a photographic angle, but quite often doesn't. I couldn't care less about the cameras or lenses you use, and anyone referring to the latter metonymically* as "glass" will be banned.

I put a fair number of my own photographs up, simply because I like to, and very few of anyone else's because I believe in copyright. Sometimes I don't feel like writing anything at all, and just put up a few recent pictures. At least eleven people seem to have found this a congenial arrangement, and that's fine by me. Frankly, I don't think I have enough chairs for MJ's alleged 30K readers.

Anyway. I thought I'd return briefly to yesterday's subject of the darkroom, in a less satirical mood, and mention a couple of outstandingly interesting books. These were published way back in 1977 during the second Heroic Age of Photography by Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press, and are entitled simply Darkroom and Darkroom 2. The format is simple but effective: leading photographers are asked to describe their darkroom activities and techniques, and they do exactly that. It's totally absorbing. I can't imagine anyone not being enlightened or entertained by Emmet Gowin's use of contour maps (who knew?), or Larry Clark describing "Walter Sheffer's formula for a dynamite developer" in this way: "you can see sheffer's a good poker player (that's aces over sixes) ."

Best of all, if you read these books with the (now admittedly antiquarian) attention they demand, you will get to bluff your way in any Golden Age of The Darkroom chat, without ever getting your fingers wet. The illustrations alone are worth buying the books for.

The Lustrum Press published another short series that is well worth looking out for, especially if you want to get the full flavour of that byegone era. These are the oddly named ":theory" books, of which "Landscape : Theory" and "Contact : Theory" are particularly worth seeking out. Same formula: leading photographers are asked to talk about what they do best i.e. make photographs. Don't be misled by the "theory" in the title -- in 1977 no-one yet really knew anything about theory in the scary sense-- it's simply an attention-grabbing title. For example, "Contact : Theory" asks how the chosen photographers made use of their contact sheets ("What's a contact sheet?") which -- at the time -- was a novel and almost outrageously intimate question. As someone once said, the real "decisive moment" was when Cartier-Bresson looked at his contact sheet, and decided which frames to print.

As to Ralph Gibson's own output under his own imprint, well... Extremely collectable, but simply not my cup of tea.

* Or is it synecdoche? I used to know all that stuff... You'll still be banned, whichever it is!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Tears in the Stop Bath

Although the majority of the photography that I show in this blog is in colour, I make a lot of monochrome work, too, and always have. People who have come to photography since the advent of digital imaging have little idea of the realities of doing your own developing and printing in the days of "wet chemistry," and they have no idea how lucky they are, especially if their taste runs to colour. Don't believe the retrospective myth-making: The darkroom was a place of evil and loneliness, where darkness, dangerous chemicals and an almost comic lack of control over the uniformity of the end product combined to restrict art photography to a monastic set of pale-skinned creatures with black fingernails, or people rich enough to employ these shunners of sunlight.

Of course, there was a certain satisfaction to be had in learning to produce a good enough print, but producing excellent prints really only appeals to the kind of person who might enjoy the challenge of making their own furniture. It's a hard, painstaking craft, that takes years to learn. Don't misunderstand me: unless you've visited, say, John Makepeace's workshop in Parnham House, Dorset, you just don't know how exceptionally beautiful something as ordinary as a chair can be, or how skilful human beings can be with their hands. But then, you're probably neither much good with a bench plane nor in a position to pay £50,000 for a new table, are you?*

Similarly, unless you've seen a masterfully crafted print on a heavy, fibre-based, warm-toned glossy paper, air dried to a sexy matt sheen and with perfect tonality ranging from chocolatey blacks to creamy whites, perhaps split-toned in selenium so the shadows have the bruised purple edibility of a ripe plum, well... You just don't know what printing is about.

Most people learned to produce horrid grey shiny things that looked like poor photocopies of the world with no true blacks and no true whites and took it no further, largely because they didn't know there was any "further." But also because they had lives and every hour spent in the darkroom was an hour not spent doing something else. My own moderate skills were developed during an interval when I first moved from Bristol to a new job in Southampton in 1984 and was living alone in a flat. I did a photography course run in Southampton by Mike Skipper of the Oxford Darkroom (an excellent and passionate teacher), and set up a darkroom in trays on the floor of an easily-darkened corridor, and developed my film in the bathroom. Several nights a week for two years or so I printed until the small hours. Going for a pee in the night could be hazardous, though, if I had been too tired to empty and wash the trays that evening.

But consider this: not only did every print from the same negative have to be produced afresh (each time attempting exactly the same choreography of timing and hey presto handwaving known as "dodging and burning"), but every one had exactly the same blemishes. Usually dust or hairs too small to see on the negative, but like a white rash on the print. Dotting these out with a fine paintbrush and dyes carefully matched to the colour of the print, known as "spotting," is a torment of fastidiousness, the sort of activity best reserved for recovering post traumatic shock cases. Unless you have done your share of spotting, you cannot imagine the tedium of spotting an edition of 50 or more 12"x16" prints.

I could go on. The way you enter obsessive compulsive territory, alone in the dim red glow, rocking a tray from end to end, listening to the tap and gurgle of the print as it slides back and forth, waiting for the timer to go, counting along ("Elephant one, elephant two..."), trying not to slosh fixer out of the tray. Lifting a floppy wet print out of a tray with slippery tongs to drain it off, only to drop it onto the floor, again. Making test strips for exposure that take just as long to process as a final print. Judging the grade of paper to use. Allowing for dry down. Trying to be orderly enough in your procedures not to fog yet another entire box of paper when you turn the light on. Trying not to spoil the pH of your stop bath with the bitter tears of tiredness and frustration...

However, I never felt I had much talent for monochrome. I liked taking the pictures, but never quite got it. When I moved to colour negative, something clicked, and I noticed people had stopped yawning when I showed them my work. But, I now had a family and operating a home colour darkroom -- unspeakably vile under the best of conditions -- was impractical. I started to pay a local darkroom to "dev and contact" and proof print my work and finally made the move from time poor to cash poor. This, of course, was good preparatory financial training for going digital.

When digital came along, I experienced a state of euphoria that lasted years. I still have the first little print I made from a scanned colour negative on my first Epson Stylus Photo printer using proper Epson photo paper, after some disappointing initial results on plain paper. I can remember holding it and staring at it in disbelief: it was ten times better than anything I'd ever produced myself, or paid someone to produce, with wet chemistry. Even the paper texture was nicer. When I realised I could spot and save an image once and for all, then print a dozen copies while cooking the kids a meal, well, talk about eu-bloody-reka. Adjust contrast? No problem. A bit lighter, a bit bluer? Why not? Frankly, if you have never grappled with adjusting colour balance in an enlarger -- endlessly dialling in and testing new combinations of cyan, magenta and yellow in complete stinking darkness until you decide either to hurt Mr. Ilford quite badly or that you quite like that peculiar green after all -- you have no idea what a revolution this was.

So, show some respect, if you have never peered through a grain enlarger, trying to fine focus an image: now that's pixel peeping! But, on the other hand, when you read these idiots on various blogs and bulletins waxing lyrical about "souping" film in Rodinal in that annoyingly bloke-ish way, as if photography were a close cousin to car maintenance, just ask to see some of their prints. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, I'll guarantee, they'll be shiny plastic sheets of nothing much poorly photocopied from a world apparently knitted out of 18% grey wool, and they will simply make you yawn.

* If you are, however, and you are reading this blog, do get in touch. I've got some really rather lovely prints and artist's books you might be interested in ...