Wednesday, 29 July 2009


It's odd to reflect that for very many years, until about the age of 40, I had never actually held an umbrella. Somewhere along the line, I had absorbed the idea that an umbrella was not something a proper man of our background could ever use. If it rained, a working man sought shelter, adjusted his hat, or simply got wet. As our gym teacher used to shout, when any boy seemed reluctant to turn out in the rain for a cross-country run or an afternoon of rugby: "You're not going to melt, lad! What are you made of, meringue? " Once the days of hats had passed, even to pull up an anorak hood was an admission of wimpishness, if not an act of Bowie-esque gender ambiguity.

Of course, because a degree of calculated campness was allowed and encouraged in "gentlemen," an accessory like an umbrella used to have a certain liminal potency. Experimenting with such things marked you out as an aspirant to the condition of a gentleman. Or as homosexual: it is almost impossible to exaggerate the bafflement and suspicion British men of working and lower middle class extraction once displayed towards the manners and behaviour of British men of upper middle class and aristocratic origin, and especially popular entertainers who adopted the gentlemanly manner. "But he can't be married with kids, he's obviously a poof!" This unsubtle attitude to sexuality in the British male went alongside (but never hand in hand with) an astonishment that women might prefer a well-spoken, clean, attractively-dressed individual over some hyper-masculine oaf with a horror of mirrors and soap, a blind spot much exploited by cads and bounders over the years.

But, back to the umbrellas. When I started to tire of either wearing an unseasonal coat or arriving at work soaked to the skin, I gradually began to see the possible benefits of a device designed both for portability and keeping you dry. (I think "Duh!" is the appropriate response). The first time I took one out for a spin was a revelation. The thing was alive. Far from being some static appendage, it lifted and tugged at your hand like a kite. In gusty conditions, it could take considerable effort to keep it under control. You also had to be alert to the direction and angle of the rain, not to mention oncoming pedestrians. But, well handled, it actually did keep you dry.

Some of my pre-umbrella attempts at keeping dry
were, in retrospect, a little OTT

So, I became an umbrella enthusiast. I own a number of them now. My prize umbrella is a golf-sized storm-proof item, which won't turn inside out in the strongest winds, due to its cunning construction and ultra-strong materials. Unfortunately, due to my lack of height and its capaciousness, it does make me look rather like a stripey mushroom. Also, in a strong gust the wet safety panels tend to blow out with a spectacular farting noise, which can be startling. My backup for emergency use, permanently stowed in my backpack, is an ultra-feeble collapsible job which I won in a raffle, and which will turn inside out if I breathe on it too heavily, never mind in a moderate wind.

The River Test in Early Summer Rain

But there's more to umbrellas than keeping dry, of course. They create their own style. You can't help but look a bit of a fool with a half-collapsed folding umbrella dangling from your wrist like a dead bird, and you certainly can't walk down the street with three foot of pointy stick under your arm or slung over a shoulder without adopting a certain atavistic swagger. If you're even a little bit of a fantasist it easily becomes a sword or a rifle, and your stroll down the high street morphs into "cheery tommies march whistling up the road to Ypres" or a scene from, say, The Duellists.

Back in 1980 I lived for a year in London, and I'd often pass James Smith & Sons in Bloomsbury on my way to University College. Check out that venerable umbrella maker's window, which also advertises "life preservers, dagger canes, and swordsticks"; the association of umbrellas and weaponry is not entirely fantasy. In my pre-umbrella days, I used to wonder what would happen if you crept up behind a City gent and yelled, "On guard!" Now I think I know. Please don't do it.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Silly Season

I'm not sure how this works in other countries, but in Britain a sure sign that you have "arrived" is whether or not you have to turn up for work between July and September. Needless to say I do, so clearly haven't. But all the top politicians, judges, academics, BBC presenters and so on are now quietly vanishing for a couple of months, leaving the country to stumble on without their lead. I expect we'll manage somehow.

I think originally it had something to do with clearing out of London at the height of the Stink / Plague / Riot season, but that excuse has worn pretty thin. Like the recent furore over MPs' expenses, it's yet another privilege that looks increasingly dated and indefensible. Frankly, the only people who need that much of a break over the summer are secondary school teachers, for whom nothing is too good.*

But, apparently nothing worth mentioning ever happens to anyone worth writing about in the summer (and no doubt all the top reporters and all their top connections are out of town), so the newspapers traditionally descend into the Silly Season. The paper still needs filling (but they do get thin at this time of year, don't they?), so the UFO reports, items tenuously based on statistical research, and "man bites dog" stories acquire a seasonal prominence. As someone who enjoys a good crop circle story, this is not all bad news, as it were.

If my stats are anything to go by, blogging appears to hit a summer lull, too. It's conceivable that most of my readers are top drawer folk even now throwing open the blinds of their Tuscan villas, but I suspect it's more a case of the general Northern Hemisphere holiday season casting its benign blight over anything requiring more effort than spreading a beach towel. So, my response will be to reduce the frequency of posting a little. Again, the stats tell me that people rarely go back to read old posts so, just like the papers, you'll have to forgive me if I save up the Good Stuff until the days start to shorten noticeably.

*Any judges reading this need to have tried at least two terms teaching classes of 30 15-year-olds before I will accept their exculpatory whinings.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

A Perfect Dordogne Read

In a recent review in the Guardian, a novel was described as "the perfect Dordogne read," a very Guardian expression and sentiment. The Dordogne being that part of France favoured as a holiday destination by the British lettered middle classes (who, moi?), and reading being what such folk like to do on holiday. Or at least, intend to do. Reflecting on my own holiday reading, I realise that I rarely end up reading the books I take away on holiday. Sometimes because I simply prefer gazing into space to squinting at a sun-blasted page, but quite often because I am ambushed by some unexpected book left behind by someone else, found on those curiously random bookshelves you find in holiday lets.

Dordogne readers

A book, especially an unexpected book from an unexplored corner of the reading world, can colour your mood for an entire holiday. Sometimes, I have found myself anxious to return from a pleasant real-life excursion just to re-engage with some story, like an old man fretful of missing "my programme" on the TV. One year a discarded Andy McNab thriller, of all things, had me gripped by the throat most of one whole holiday week. As well as a bracing immersion into a single-minded world of Glocks and gollocks, its compelling simplicity convinced me that I could sit down when I got home and write a bestseller myself. I would become rich, and then lead a life of my own leisurely choosing ever after. This was actually a more exciting fantasy than the book itself.

Now I come to think of it, such infantile musings are often the stuff of my vacation reveries. After all, the most powerful side-effect of any decent holiday is to cast a strong, unflattering light onto the other 95% of your year. It's a tantalizing glimpse of your "if only" life. I suppose that's why France is full of farmhouses, converted but unoccupied most of the year by British owners who have let such fantasies get the better of them.

Auvergne Nintendo player

The most curiously reflexive form of holiday fantasy reading is, of course, travel writing. There you are, sprawled somewhere moderately exotic, filling your head with someone else's thoughts about somewhere even more exotic. I find this too confusing to cope with. My partner, being a practical person, does like to gather and read local guides, and make notes of possible outings, but for some reason I find this confusing, too, though I do enjoy reading those tourist pamphlets which have clearly been translated into English by the local Head of Tourism's ten-year-old daughter. However, last year I did find myself reading someone's abandoned copy of Bill Bryson's travels in Australia towards the end of the holiday. I discovered that Bryson can make me weep with laughter, and the episode with the dogs in a Sydney park nearly hospitalised me.

But I've never yet found out what happened to Bill further North, as I had to abandon the book half way through when the time came to go home. It is one of the unwritten rules that, although you may leave your own books behind, you should not take "native" books home. I usually leave my more boring unread choices behind, especially if this is their second or even third outing (a W.G. Sebald, for example, that I finally abandoned in France), mainly to relieve the burden on our own shelves and to save myself the trouble of ever reading the thing, but also to add a touch of mysterious tone to the rack of thrillers and bodice-rippers. Indeed, given the ongoing accommodation problem with books in our house, I'm beginning to wonder whether it would be worth filling a couple of boxes with books to dump wherever we go next, maybe replacing them with a return cargo of wine, like ship's ballast.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

All's Well

I went up to London yesterday with my son and my partner to see All's Well That Ends Well in Marianne Elliott's outstanding production at the National Theatre. I'd never see All's Well in the theatre, and must admit I thought of it as just another of those slightly odd plays WS cobbled together out of his bitbox of play parts -- a wrong righted by a roundabout route, an unfunny clown, some swaggering soldiers, a mocked misfit, the ever-popular bed trick ... What, no twins? ... but it turns out it's an extraordinary play and one with a lot of strong female roles and, most amazingly, written out of a proto- feminist viewpoint. Shakespeare's sister, indeed. Marianne Elliott brings out its fairy tale elements in a very compelling way, with a set that at times turns into Arthur Rackham-esque tableaux. An exhilarating afternoon in the theatre, much recommended.

Wrapped trees on the South Bank
(Part of "Walking in My Mind" by Yayoi Kusama)

In the foyer of the National there is a show of the photographs of James Ravilious. These were, frankly, disappointing, and a reminder of how poorly even the best 35mm black and white photography is served by over-enlargement. I'll admit that I'm a bit of fetishist for finish, and that nothing puts me off any piece of 2-D visual art quicker than a sense that the artist was rather more interested in the content than the look of the thing. But 35mm negatives are tiny things and, like printing on a balloon, the more you blow them up, the thinner and less visually satisfying becomes the result. There's a very sweet spot around 8" wide where any well-exposed negative looks great. Then there's a final point around 15" wide where only a very well-exposed negative on fine-grained film looks good, but most images are beginning to lose visual appeal -- the grain is spread out too far and the blacks are not black, the out-of-focus areas look smearily grey, and highlights are pure paper white. If you want to print BIG, don't choose 35mm.

The worst experience I ever had like this was in a rather magnificent French chateau now given over to the arts, La Roche Jagu in Britanny. They were showing a travelling show of the Magnum agency's "greatest hits" and the quality of the prints was jaw-droppingly bad. They might even have been photocopies, I suppose, or poorly-printed scans -- it can be surprisingly hard to tell behind glass -- but I doubt Magnum would put its name to anything like that. They were simply very poor prints, that vaguely resembled the famous originals, so familiar in print. But I have seen and salivated over real Josef Koudelka prints, for example, and these versions were travesties. Mystifying.

Talking of mystifying, this week has seen the start of graduation, an occasion I can never fathom. At last count I had four degrees (well, three and a half --I was in a position to buy one of them from a certain overrated English degree factory) but I have never yet attended a graduation ceremony. I suppose I am at heart one of life's Quakers, and abhor any occasion that inclines men to wear suits and women to wear idiotic hats. It may be the primary reason the Prof and I have never married, after 35 years together -- the embarrassment would have been too much.

The most mystifying -- indeed, semi-mystical -- aspect is the transformation of yet another cohort of students, for God's sake, into swaggering Masters and Mistresses of the Universe, trailing colourful gowns and camera-toting parents (or, in the case of some overseas students,what look like entire extended families plus film crew). Though I suppose this may simply be the mass emergence of precisely the ones who were least evident around campus during the rest of the year. They worked hard, they got their good degrees, and now is their moment in the sun, idiotic hats and all.

Get tickets here, collect idiotic hats in the next tent

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Downward Skies

I have mentioned a number of times the special relationship I have built up over more than a decade with that idyllic chunk of rural Hampshire occupied by Mottisfont Abbey, and in particular with the stretch of the River Test that runs through it. Until recently, it had been something of a default setting. Not sure where to go this Sunday? Drive over to Mottisfont. Not sure what to photograph? Why not the river at Mottisfont?

The whole estate is in National Trust ownership, but most people go to visit the house and formal gardens. This suits me fine as, even at the busiest times of year, it leaves the broader landscape of the estate (an enormous acreage of river, woodland and farm) virtually unvisited. Away from weekends, especially, you can guarantee solitude, but still be within easy reach of a friendly teashop. There is even a second-hand bookshop within the Abbey, which has a mysterious propensity to stock photographic treasures -- for example, I found a first edition hardback of David Bailey's Goodbye, Baby, and Amen a few years ago (not a book I'd normally have sought out), and Marketa Luskacova's wonderful Pilgrims (a book I'd been seeking for years). I keep half-expecting copies of The Decisive Moment or The Solitude of Ravens to turn up.

For several years I worked intensively at a series of pictures of the river, mainly but not exclusively using an old Agfa Isolette II folding camera (bought for £15, and which turned out to be fitted with the sought-after Solinar lens / Compur shutter combination). I got to know the Trust's estate manager, and as he liked my work he gave me access to the grounds during the winter closed season, and then very generously part-funded an exhibition of some of the work in 2003 (The Colour of the Water), which stayed up for 18 months. It was the closest I have yet come to feeling like a "real" artist.

Although I did self-publish a little booklet to sell with the exhibition, I have since struggled to do justice to the images in book form. I'm not really sure why. I think it has something to do with trying to negotiate the gulf between a stranger's perception of what are, in reality, many quite similar images of "just" water, and the meaning that these images and their small variations have acquired for me, not to mention their emotional significance in my own life. Although I strongly believe in taking pictures without regard to any third-party opinions, to make a book is different: it is an act of communication, and you have to meet potential readers half-way. This can sometimes be a more demanding task than it might seem.

Another problem has been doing justice to the film originals. The Agfa camera is simplicity itself, a superb optic mounted on a bellows on a light-tight box, with controls restricted to manual focus, aperture and shutter speed. It produces subtle, rich 6x6 negatives (generally on Fujicolor 400 ASA film), which I then proceed to travesty by scanning them on my Epson flatbed scanner. I'm sure that -- drum-scanned by a sympathetic expert scanner -- these would make superb wall-sized prints; as it is I can't print them larger than 12" square anyway, but even at book size the (poor) quality of the scanning shows, to the expert eye at least.

But I keep working at it, and here is the latest interactive version of a book called Downward Skies which I have put on Issuu, and which is the closest I've yet come to a satisfactory presentation of this work. Your comments would be much appreciated. Please note that although this PDF "dummy" is fitted out with all the bells and whistles of self-publication, it is not yet available to buy, though you are welcome to download the PDF.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Briggflatts & Tutti Frutti

Two very different recommendations:

First, there is an excellent new book and CD/DVD package from Bloodaxe of the poem Briggflatts by Basil Bunting (ISBN 978-1-85224-826-0). As well as the text, there are biographical and critical notes, plus a DVD of a 1982 Channel 4 documentary on Bunting and, best of all, a CD of Bunting reading his poem in 1967 in his gloriously archaic but precise Northumbrian accent, which raises the rolling of Rs to an artform : to hear him enunciate the lines "rut thud the rim,/crushed grit" is a rare pleasure. Basil Bunting and this poem in particular occupy a special place in the history of British poetry, straddling friendships in the 1920s and 30s with Ezra Pound and Louis Zukovsky and the birth of the British "alternative" scene in mid-60s Newcastle at Tom Pickard's Morden Tower.

Second, I was amazed and excited to learn that John Byrne's Tutti Frutti -- screened on BBC TV in 1987 and never seen since, neither as a repeat nor as a video/DVD release -- is finally to be released on DVD on 3rd August, and Amazon is taking pre-orders (Region 2 only, I suspect). This incomparable series was one of the peaks of British TV drama, by turns comic and tragic, and its virtual disappearance and unobtainability for 22 years (allegedly because of rights disputes over some of the rock'n'roll classics used) has been a scandal. If you've never seen it, I think you will find you have a rare treat in store. In my memory, it's a rare instance of the Real Thing -- it will be interesting to see what effect those 22 years have had.

Very different recommendations, but both 100%.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Mirrors, Windows, Walls

Being a competitive but essentially realistic guy, I avoid competitions. Like the Lottery, they promise so much, but never deliver anything. But for the same reason, I find it hard to ignore them, like Charlie Brown with that football. For example, I had resolved not to go anywhere near this year's Photography.Book.Now competition, or even Paul Butzi's SoFoBoMo.

The Photography.Book.Now competition is run by Blurb, an up-market, relentlessly hip, web-based "publish on demand" company, who have clearly realised that their core market is not aspiring cook-book writers, but photographers like me. Last year, they launched P.B.N as a fairly typical competition, in that the costs of prizes, judges' fees, etc. -- plus no doubt some profit and some publicity -- are covered partly by sponsors but mainly (I presume) by entrants paying an entrance fee. I don't really go along with the cynical response that describes this as a scam, but -- like any competition with the prospect of winning 25,000 dollars (!) -- I suspect most entrants do try to second-guess the judges and produce a book that they think will win, rather than a book that they like. Interestingly, though, last year I did pick and vote for the eventual winner, Beth Dow.

Now, some people regard the likes of Blurb as little better than a Web 2.0 version of vanity publishing, but I think that's unfair and also misses the point. Having spent many years making low-tech books of my own photography, I was very excited by Lulu and Blurb when they first started up. Unless you have struggled with printing and binding your own books, whether it be a "simple" concertina-style presentation of a few words and images or a full-on attempt at imposition and sewn binding, you have no idea what a simple joy it is to lay up an elaborate book in software designed for the purpose, and receive through the post a nicely-produced approximation of what Blurb calls (slightly generously) "book-store quality." However, the down side has turned out to be very variable quality control -- it seems to be impossible to guarantee that one print run will resemble another. But it's a parallel experience to digital photography: old hands who have struggled with film and the darkroom are blissed out by the sheer ease with which unprecedented quality can be achieved, newcomers tend to be like spoiled brats for whom nothing is ever quite good enough.

The one good thing about competitions is that they can push a procrastinator over the edge into actually doing something. For example, finishing off a series of photographs, putting them into sequence, making a book, even if only in the form of a "book dummy" or a PDF. This is a very worthwhile thing to attempt, and the free BookSmart software package from Blurb simplifies the process a great deal. It's simply a lot of fun to play with. In the past, I have not needed this stimulus, and have produced a number of books, self-published under my own imprint. But I've lost some impetus over the past couple of years, and finally conceded that a stimulus and a deadline were precisely what I needed. The prospect of winning 25,000 dollars had nothing to do with it.

I have several potential books bubbling under, but I decided the simplest and quickest would be the "campus windows" images, sequenced in a simple chronological order. I also decided that this would be a one-off, an infeasibly expensive item for my own shelves only, so I went for the new 30cm x 30cm format, on the best paper -- nearly £50 for one copy at 78 pages in hard covers... That may sound expensive, but compared to the cost of even a limited run of a small, cheaply-produced paperback from a conventional printer (thousands, trust me), it really is peanuts. Plus you don't end up with stacks of boxes of unsellable copies. Two evenings later, I had gone as far as I wanted with Mirrors, Windows, Walls, a provisional, de luxe version of what will eventually be a smaller but "properly" published book.

Here is a PDF version, courtesy of Issuu:

The bad thing about competitions, of course, is that you never win. Which is, of course, why I don't like them. What was I thinking?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Wattie Surprise

As well as poverty, melodrama and secrets, the pursuit of family history can turn up some more unexpected surprises. Such as, for example, a relative with an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Following back my Scottish paternal line has been very easy, by and large. The Scots being a businesslike yet sparse people, the records are thorough, well-maintained and, amazingly, almost entirely online, including most parish records. I was able quickly to trace several generations of Edinburgh artisans, crammed into tenements around and on South Bridge, back to a carpenter who had sought the city life around 1800 but not, as I had presumed (as do most people with Scottish ancestry and a "clan" surname) escaping from the Highlands, but from the Lammermuir Hills in the Borders, where his father was a shepherd.

My ain folk at Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford,
near Melrose, Scottish Borders, August 2006

Now, the Scottish diaspora has meant that the former colonial world is full of descendants of Berwickshire shepherds, and there is clearly a deep hunger for "roots" in places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia. You have only to visit a few websites and bulletin boards to discover you have boatloads of distant relatives, descendants of cousins of cousins who once watched sheep in the hills near Westruther, Longformacus, and Cranshaws. It was one of these antipodean cousins who informed me that I was related to Walter "Wattie" Chisholm, the peasant poet of Berwickshire. Here is his DNB entry, in full:

Chisholm, Walter [pseud. Wattie] (1856–1877), poet, was born at Easter Harelaw, near Chirnside, Berwickshire, on 27 December 1856, the son of James Chisholm, a shepherd, and Janet, née Brodie. In 1865 he left school in order to assist his father, who was then shepherd at Redheugh, a farm in the eastern part of Cockburnspath parish. It was probably while tending sheep on the western borders of Coldingham Moor that Chisholm first attempted composition, for by the time he was about sixteen or seventeen the neighbours were already talking about Chisholm's verses. At Whitsuntide 1875 his father moved to the neighbouring farm of Dowlaw, and during the summer of that year Chisholm, having hired himself out, was shepherding in the Yetholm district, by the side of the Bowmont. In the winter he returned home, and attended for a short time his old school at Old Cambus. By this time some of his poems, with the signature of Wattie, had found their way into the ‘Poets' corner’ of the Haddington Courier, and were copied into various local papers. Others appeared in the People's Friend, and in the competition promoted by the People's Journal his lines entitled ‘Scotia's Border Land’ gained the second prize at Christmas 1876. In the spring of 1876 Chisholm went to stay with some relatives in Glasgow, where he worked as light porter in a leather warehouse. While visiting his parents at the new year of 1877 he was seized with a severe attack of pleurisy, from which he never recovered. He died at Dowlaw on 1 October 1877, three months before his twenty-first birthday. He was buried in Dowlaw churchyard. His collected poems were published in 1879.

Well, as you can imagine, my first instinct was to try and find a copy of that 1879 collected poems, but it's a scarce item. That whole "peasant poet" thing (James Hogg, John Clare, George Heath, et al.) was pretty old hat by the 1870s, and I doubt more than a handful of copies were printed. But, by the same token, even rare books can be pretty cheap if rich collectors are not looking for them, so I kept checking the likes of AbeBooks.

The next surprise in store for me for was when I recently carried out my routine periodic search for Wattie's poems in AbeBooks, and found listed for sale ten copies of "Poems by Walter Chisholm, a Berwickshire Shepherd Lad (1879)"... TEN copies! On closer inspection, it became evident that these were "print on demand" items, made by direct scanning of an original copy, which was, if anything, an even bigger surprise. Think about it: an obscure volume by an obscure Scottish shepherd boy is available for scanning somewhere (or a copy has already been scanned, probably in the USA) and listed on a premium second-hand bookselling website as a candidate for printing on demand, by ten different suppliers, all for a mere £10 or so. A convenient [book]worm-hole seemed to have opened up in the space-time continuum between me and 19th century Scotland.

Unfortunately, I am not in a position to announce the existence of a hitherto unknown genius of world literature. Wattie's poems and range of reference are very impressive ... for a Berwickshire shepherd who died age 21. Some are in dialect, some are in "standard" poetic English. They are neither William Wordsworth at one extreme, nor William MacGonagall at the other, but something boringly inbetween. Here is his sonnet to that other shepherd, James Hogg (author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner):


Shepherd of Ettrick! thou who oft hast sung
Of Love and War; and all their forms displayed,
And brought to light old legends long decayed:
Cold in the grave now lies thy Doric tongue --
The wizard harp is silent and unstrung
That shewed the scenes the pure Kilmeny saw,
When, borne by fairies from the greenwood shaw,
She sojourned long their blissful realms among.
Yet dead thou art not; for thy name is still
Green as the banks of thy famed Yarrow stream;
O'er Scotia wide, by heathy dale and hill,
Thy songs and ballads are the shepherds' theme.
Rest thou in peace! thy country owns thy claim
To wear the poet's laurel-crown of fame.

Yawn. Though the astonishing thing, really, is that this actually is a sonnet, in yer actual iambic pentameters (and "Doric," which strikes such an odd note, refers to Hogg's Scottish dialect, not classical Greece). The education system in mid-19th century Scotland must have been doing something right or perhaps the opportunities for self-education must have been greater than one imagines. After all, strong feelings recollected in tranquillity do not overflow spontaneously into sonnet form. When he writes in the dialect, it does swing a bit more:

I wander alane o'er the muirlands sae dreary,
Where blythesome an' canty I've mony a day been,
Nae mellow-toned mavis lilts love to his deary,
Amang the broon brackens, that ance were sae green.

(from "I Wander Alane")
But not a great deal more.

One last little surprise was to discover the book was originally published in Edinburgh by James Thin, of 55 South Bridge. Given that the branch of the family to which I belong was living there in the 19th century, and has a long tradition of working as bookbinders and pocketbook makers, it's not impossible that one of my direct ancestors handled and bound up the sheets of cousin Wattie's volume.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Dark on Dark

Although the main thrust of my photography is in colour, I do keep returning to a combination of monochrome tonality and the glimmering, chaotic abundance that seems to happen at various kinds of boundary. Black and white can make a virtue of the kind of highlights that rarely seem to work in colour, unless you go in for that "high dynamic range" look i.e. combining three or more different exposures into one image using software. HDR is something which very few people can pull off with dignity, and which presumably requires the use of a tripod (thanks, but no thanks).

The screen doesn't do justice to the shadow areas in these images -- on paper, they have a much greater richness of tone and detail, that might almost put a knowledgeable viewer in mind of the work of Thomas Joshua Cooper, ahem, though I do say so myself. I can't quite (yet) bring myself to fake the selenium split-toning that these images demand... Would anyone care how the shadows ended up that rich purplish black?

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The Heat, The Flies

We've had a mini heat wave this week, and it's been hard to work during the day, and hard to sleep at night. Avoiding the sun has taken me into some odd corners, but that's where the photos are. I've had some good finds this week, too. But, as Bob Dylan sings in Idiot Wind, "I can't help it if I'm lucky..."

Saturday, 4 July 2009

A Vicious Cycle

Let me get one thing out of the way here, first: I like cyclists, I approve of cyclists, I am a cyclist (though not as often as I'd like to be, and -- given the choice -- I'd rather be a pedestrian). As it happens, a very old friend runs a very good bicycle shop. Although I've never disassembled a derailleur gear, I like to think I know my way around the admirably simple but effective mechanics of the typical bike. If you get a puncture, a loose chain, squeaky brakes -- I'm your man. Yes, yes, you say, but what's the "but" going to be?

Well, the "but" is that I'm increasingly aware of aggressive cyclists. As well as a cyclist, I am a car driver (I don't much like car drivers, don't much approve of cars, but I do drive one more often than I'd like, though -- given the choice -- I'd rather be at home on the sofa). However, when wearing my car driver's hat (a legal requirement in the UK since joining the EC) I am starting to encounter cyclist behaviour which is both irritating and dangerous.

Let's start with the car chasers. Like farm dogs on a country lane, some cyclists like to slipstream at great speed behind cars, close up and dangerous. It's as if they have stopped seeing cars as several tons of independently-moving, erratically-driven metal, and are simply seeing an opportunity to explore their own grace, speed and anticipation. I have twice seen car chasers embracing the rear windscreen of a car which has braked suddenly, their bike clattering away into the traffic.

Then there are the zealots, self-righteously and deliberately cruising for a bruising, slapping cars on the roof, giving drivers the finger, pulling in front of and across cars in moving traffic. I imagine it's the next step up for the car-chaser with a grudge. I used to think the section in Richard's Bicycle Book where he recommends picking up any small, heel-snapping dog by its hind legs and dashing its brains out on the road (no, really) as a little over the top, psychotic even. But the zealots clearly demonstrate the sort of coat-trailing, smouldering anger that is begging to explode into frenzied violence. It's a long way from the District Nurse on her sit-up-and-beg with a basket.

God knows, car drivers behave badly towards cyclists. The commonest hazard, in my experience, is the car door opened directly in your path, though being deliberately ground into a roadside wall or a kerb by a large truck is pretty common, too. Overweight truckers do show an obvious collective malice towards the generally trimmer tribe of cyclists, but fat-arsed motor-cyclists have the exact same list of grievances, and experienced at several times the speed. No, pace the zealots, the problems cyclists have in traffic do not generally have a moral dimension -- for example, that drivers don't care enough about cyclists, or that a disregard for cyclists' welfare is a correlative of the planet-poisoning pollution caused by traffic. Roof-slapping and angry looks are simply not an effective corrective. The problem -- and this is something cyclists who don't drive won't realise until they do drive -- is that cyclists are invisible in heavy traffic, in the same way that your own nose is invisible, so long as you are focussed more than a few feet ahead and concentrating on the moves of other, larger, more numerous, more dangerous objects in your field of vision.

The cyclists you can't fail to see, though, are the posse kids. We live in a long straight road that is dangerously narrowed by parked cars and has a deceptive bend towards one end, just where our house is. As it's a handy rat-run to the hospital or the sports-ground, cars tend to enter at the far end, and pick up speed until they are skimming past the parked cars like a bullet down a barrel. Then, inevitably, another car appears round the deceptive bend, and there is much screeching of brakes, and sometimes alarming crunching noises. Three parked cars have been written off outside our house in this way, two of which belonged to us. So, not a safe road for kids to play in or near. But posses of early teens like to make their way to the sports-ground on their bikes in a straggling group spread across the road, all wise-cracks, no-hands and wheelies. Fuming drivers are forced to slow down to a crawl and follow them, or stop and let the pack flow around them like insolent cattle. Not a bad thing, generally, were it not for the litter shower of crisp packets and drink bottles the posse broadcasts down the street. But it is a matter of time before one of these cycle parties meets an only very slightly older youth speeding recklessly the other way.

The scariest, though, are the parkour kids. This seems to be a new development, in the UK at least. A new chicken challenge seems to have evolved, which involves cutting across and through traffic as if it wasn't there. You're driving towards some lights, and suddenly some kid on a bike flashes across your bow, inches away, and weaves at speed through both streams of traffic. The first time it happened to me I very nearly crashed the car, the instinct to swerve is so strong. And it's not just kids -- young men, possibly previously car chasers or zealots, have started doing it, too. I know that bike couriers in big cities like London have always been a lawless hazard, but this seems to be something new, less driven by a purpose. That is, treating road traffic as if it were just part of a broader urban landscape, across which the cyclist has the right to roam at will, free of the petty rules that bind the car user.

Or perhaps like a computer game, in which the penalty for skidding at speed beneath the wheels of a truck is merely to reset to the start of the game again, game over, perhaps something like the (brilliant) German film Run, Lola, Run. But I really, really don't want to be in charge of the ton of metal that is instrumental in determining Game Over for one of these reckless traceur cyclists.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


There are few things as frustrating as being quite good at something. When you're quite good at something, you're good enough to recognise truly outstanding work and to know why (or, really, how) it is outstanding -- but also good enough to know that you will never match it. It merely rubs salt in the wound also to be able to tell how very far from being outstanding so much highly-praised contemporary work actually is. Discerning audiences are generally made up of people who are quite good -- keen amateur musicians and artists of modest but real accomplishment.

Most observers agree that a large percentage of the difference between being quite good and being outstanding is drive, not talent. Unless you are supremely gifted (a problem in its own right) you really have to have a need to excel to the exclusion of all else. Partner, children, friends, even money and food -- all must be secondary to the work. If you're not convinced, and think this is a romantic myth, just read a few biographies. It's shocking how often, given the ultimatum, "It's either me or the writing/painting/politics/(insert chosen career) -- choose!" a high-achiever will respond, "What, are you still here?"

Above all, obvious as it may seem, you need to do whatever it is you have set your sights on, all day every day. Life, as such, has to become for you an unfortunate distraction. I was amused to read today in the TLS of one great lexicographer of the 16th century who restricted himself to just three hours of study on his wedding day. Our problem is that we think that's funny.

Talent minus drive leads to neglect. All amateurs know this feeling: in the end, it's why a lot of guitars, pianos and paints are gathering dust in the homes of the members of the discerning audience. For example, one of the nagging minor guilts in my own life is a neglected talent for wielding a pencil. Having being brought up as a Baptist, the parable of the talents (one of the stranger teachings of the Bible, with Jesus seemingly coming on as a neo-con) is never far from my mind. But although I have spells when drawing is fun, they are separated by much longer periods when I just can't be bothered. As a consequence (a) I never get much better, and (b) I have hardly any finished work to show worthy of the name.

Unfinished portrait of Number One Son, begun in 1993

Unfinished portrait of Number One Daughter, begun in 2005

I think a lot of the problem for me has been closing that gap between intention and result. Now, we all know what Samuel Beckett meant when he wrote "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." To "fail better" is the challenge laid down by any worthwhile path in life. But you have to get to the exponential part of the curve pretty quickly to believe it's worth the effort. I long ago realised that setting my sights on winning the Olympic 100 metres would be over-ambitious, not to say biologically improbable. It just doesn't figure in the list of my regrets. But, even though getting the eyes right in a portrait is only just out of reach for me, it simply doesn't matter enough for me to stay up all night wrestling with it. I do regret that.

Photography has been my saviour, in this regard. The beauty of it is that you can get an interesting result even with your eyes shut and swinging the thing round your head on the end of a string (use the self-timer!). Once "technique" is not an issue, it's all about choices, taste, selection and judgement, and those are things that can keep me up all night. As you will realise if you have been following this blog, I photograph nearly every day, and most days have something I consider worth sharing. You might, of course, ask: If you have the drive to photograph, then why are you not a better photographer? But that would be a cruel question, better left unasked and unanswered...

My other saviour has been my notebooks: I doodle and sketch while I work or endure meetings, to the annoyance of my workmates, and the absence of pressure and the cumulative practice have meant that I have become, over the years, an Olympic-class filler of margins.

Do you have any idea what she's talking about?

I do love a good meeting