Saturday, 31 October 2009

Autumn Watch

Autumn seems to have come on sooner this year, and to have taken a deeper grip much more quickly, at least on certain species of trees. I don't recall seeing such heaps of leaves on the ground in October; the planes at Mottisfont this afternoon had dumped huge loads, although the oaks are still fairly green.

On the other hand, the trout there seem to be hanging around in greater numbers than usual and are still in their summer haunts, although some of the bigger specimens that dominate the choice spots by the bridge are looking distinctly worse for wear. I've no idea where they go in the winter months -- do the older generation die out? -- but they're usually much less obvious by now. When I first came to Southampton in the mid-80s salmon were still coming up the Test in November in numbers, and had to negotiate a salmon leap built into a mill-weir on the river at Romsey, which had been carefully sandbagged to protect them from damaging themselves on the brickwork. It was a very entertaining spectacle, and you half expected to see a bear hanging over the parapet of the bridge, to swing a speculative paw at the great fish. They've become a rare sight now (the fish, that is) and last time I looked the sandbags had rotted away and not been replaced.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Autumn Day

I'm a sucker for Autumn, it plays on my Celtic sentimental streak like a harp. I discovered I was susceptible to the lacrimae rerum in the sixth form, when we came under a steady drizzle of autumnal, valedictory poetry, for which I had been primed by an unexpected break-up with my first "steady" girlfriend: hey, Werther, c'est moi. Keats, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, Goethe, Rilke -- sometimes it was all I could do not to sob into my exercise books during double English. In self-defense I took refuge in portentous, inky marginal doodling, a habit I have continued to this day.

A poem I have always loved from this period of my sentimental education (and which, because of its juxtaposition in the Penguin Book of German Verse, I always misremember as by Friedrich Nietzsche) is Herbsttag (Autumn Day), by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Ranier Maria Rilke, 1902

As I'm at home this afternoon, with a cup of coffee and a German dictionary to hand, here's my (slightly free) translation:

Lord, it is time. That was one big summer.
Disconnect the shadows from the sundials
and let slip the winds upon the fields.

Require the last fruits to be full;
a couple more southerly days
will turn them out perfectly, and hound
that sweetness into heady wine.

Whoever has no house, won't be building one now.
Whoever is alone, will stay that way now:
wakeful, reading, writing long letters,
and restlessly tramping The Avenue, over and over,
driven by the leaves.

I enjoyed doing that. I almost wish I could submit it for approval as a piece of homework to my old teacher, Dr. Splett. But he is long dead, and our school now mutated out of all recognition and, I hear, soon to be moved to a new site. Sad, when you consider a school has occupied that site since 1558.

I wrote "The Avenue" rather than "the avenues" (Rilke's "Alleen" is plural), because a leafy thoroughfare of that name ran up the side of our school grounds, and was a favourite haunt for introspective walks and midnight fun in those far off days. It has a particular resonance, as "Alleen" is a close rhyme for "Alleyne's", which happened to be the name of our school. Sniff...

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1847

As I say, I'm a sucker for Autumn...

Friday, 23 October 2009


Well, that was a busy week -- sometimes Friday arrives sooner than you're expecting, but also not a moment too soon. Thank goodness for lunchtime -- here's something I'm pleased with from my favourite port of call, the Pentagonal Pool, taken this week. I've no idea what that irridescent substance is, but it really does catch the light.

The clocks go back an hour in Britain this weekend, and we "gain" an hour's sleep on Sunday morning -- outstanding!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


Non-British readers may find this post a little baffling, and perhaps even British readers aged under 40. I feel a bit like the aged narrator at the outset of an adventure story: "I think it my duty that I set down, while the memory is still fresh, a true account of what transpired in those long-gone events -- can it really be 40 years ago? -- so that it may be passed on to a new generation, who may find it of no little interest to learn that their elders were as susceptible to youthful folly as themselves -- nay, perhaps even more so. Etc."

To begin at the beginning. You may, at some point, have heard someone described as "a wally", or "a bit of a wally". It's an expression that had its vogue in the 70s and 80s of the last century, but may still be heard on the lips of the older sort. [Sorry, I can't shake off this R.L. Stevenson tone]. We've already discussed "minced oaths" in a previous posts (Gadzooks!), and at root "wally" is clearly a minced-oath version of "wanker", but with the added cachet (back in its heyday) of hipness and contemporaneity.

There has been a lot of discussion, over the years, of the origin of the term "wally" in the pejorative sense of "an uncool, embarrassing person, prone to impulsive acts of clumsiness and foolishness" -- in many ways, an equivalent to the "shlemiel"* of Yiddish. This discussion has been confused by the fact that the word "wally" itself has a long heritage. I remember, for example, how when I was eight we used to walk home from Cubs in the winter dark, and would stop off for a steaming sixpenny bag of chips. A few of the boys with East End parents would ask for "a six penn'orth and a wally, please"; that is, a pickled gherkin, fished with tongs from the enormous cloudy jar on the chip-shop counter, mysterious and murky as a display of preserved body parts.

But the advent of the usage under discussion can be dated, and accounted for, fairly precisely. It all started at one of those chaotic early 70s open air rock festivals (Weeley? Bickershaw?) when a group of friends somehow lost contact with one of their number named, um, Wally. Easily done, in the Somme-like conditions. What distinguished this group from others, however, was that they loyally spent the gaps between acts wandering the grounds calling out, ever more disconsolately, "Wally? Wally! WALLY??" They even got one of the on-stage announcers to ask over the PA, "Wally? Has anyone seen Wally?", and the "Wally" refrain was taken up by the crowd. For a time, to call out "Wally!" in a random quiet moment was considered the very pinnacle of wit, and hilarity would reliably ensue.

Naturally, people brought this novelty home with them, including some of my own friends, who gleefully explained the whole thing the next week at school. It seemed to have been the best bit (indeed, the only good bit) about sleeping in a wet field, in unsanitary conditions, occasionally subjected to a poorly-amplified, wind-blown barrage of music. Sure enough, at the next season of gigs in our little town, someone would reliably shout "Wally!" in a quiet moment, to gales of laughter and the bafflement of visiting bands. It was a kind of in-crowd, "I was there" gesture. I imagine the same scenario was repeated all round the country.

It didn't take long for the novelty to wear off, however. It just stopped being funny. In the end, the only ones to call out "Wally!" at gigs were the kind of attention-seeking, over-excited twits, impervious to their own tragic unhipness, who couldn't possibly ever have "been there" and who, naturally enough, came to be referred to as "Wallies".

Date? 1972. Around the same time as young suburban things in Britain started exclaiming "No way!", using air quotes, and decrying the "rip-offs" which they (alright, we) couldn't "get our heads round", probably later than ultra-cool urbanites but a decade or more before any of these cult-ish new speech mannerisms entered the mainstream.

I have to say, even if shouting "Wally!" stopped being funny in 1972, it still amuses me mightily to hear the likes of cabinet ministers talking solemnly about "Rip-Off Britain" or exclaiming "Higher taxes? No way!", like the small-town head-bangers which, of course, a few of them might once have been. Like minced oaths, it's one of the pleasures of language-watching to see which subcultural currents rise to the surface, and how long it takes for trash talk to emerge from the mouths of the respectable.

And perhaps you can also see the roots (conscious or unconscious) of Martin Handford's mystifyingly popular Where's Wally? books of the 1980s -- the main point of which is trying to find a bespectacled fool named Wally hidden in a vast crowd of tiny people. Sounds familiar? What I hadn't realised is that this very British "Wally" went on to become "Waldo" in the USA, had a bit of a makeover, and found massive commercial success. Who knew? It's Fleetwood Mac all over again.

* Not to be confused with a "shlemazel", a habitually unlucky person. Definition according to The Joys of Yiddish: the shlemiel is the one who spills the soup over the shlemazel.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Put Out More Flags

I'm not sure whether this set of flags spells anything ("England expects...", maybe, or more likely "Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance"*), but I'm running them up the mast anyway.

Once you start looking, you can't help seeing them everywhere. Stand by!

* Explanation added on 20/10/09 for non-British readers:

It is a (hopefully) apocryphal story told about the British army, that an urgent signal was sent from the front: "Send reinforcements, we're going to advance". This was misinterpeted at HQ as "Send three and fourpence**, we're going to a dance".

** "Three and fourpence" = three shillings and four pennies = about 16.6666666666 new pence.

Thursday, 15 October 2009


Once you've got enough life under your belt to have a personal "history", it's sometimes very enlightening to work out some simple timelines. If nothing else, it gives you a real sense of the way subjective time differs from objective time, and personal time differs from historical time. It may be a well-worn cliché to say that time goes faster as you get older, but it is also simply true. This may be due to the fact that five years is half of a ten year old's life but a mere tenth of a 50 year old's life, but the sweet carelessness of our youthful years also makes for more intense experiences compared to the routine and anxiety of later life.

An acute sense of time passing and time wasted can be panic-inducing, though. This is perfectly expressed in Pink Floyd's superlative piece "Time", on Dark Side of the Moon:
Tired of lying in the sunshine
Staying home to watch the rain
And you are young and life is long
And there is time to kill today
And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun...
I had a jolt of this kind recently, when I realised that not only had I lived in our current house longer than anywhere else in my entire life -- twenty years -- but also that this was two years longer than I had kicked around in my "home" town, and that the whole stretch I had done in this town -- twenty five years -- was not far short of half of my age. What had started out as a young man's temporary, career-oriented move to a city I didn't especially want to live in, has become my life.

More strangely, there can sometimes be a slippage in the relationship between relative time and objective time in the opposite direction. I remember a few years ago going into one of the Games Workshop stores, where black-clad youths were hunched over tables, painting tiny models of trolls and dragons, heads bobbing simultaneously to the in-house heavy metal muzak. Hang on, I thought, I know this, this is Black Sabbath ... And the penny dropped: these kids are listening to music that is thirty five years old! It was as if I and my 16-year old chums might have been sitting around in 1970 listening, without irony, to 1930s big-band swing, rather than something newly-minted that year like, well, Black Sabbath. Somehow, rock has torn a hole in the fabric of the fashion-time continuum, through which anyone is now free to pass back and forth.*

Talking of which, I listened to Dark Side of the Moon again recently for the first time in a very long time, and stepped straight back in time to 1973. I'm happy to report that part of me is still there, staying home to watch the rain, with time to kill.

Every year is getting shorter,
Never seem to find the time

Plans that either come to naught or
Half a page of scribbled lines

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say...

Very 1973... The "monocle" is the lenscap of a Fed 3

* Afterthought at 5:30: It suddenly struck me that, of course, that is exactly what some of us, at least, were doing, in our enthusiasm for the Blues -- Robert Johnson was recorded in 1936, though obviously most people came to Johnson via Clapton...

Monday, 12 October 2009

Kindle, Schvindle

Way back last year I described my purchase of an e-book reader (My New Toy) and how the missing player in the UK market was Amazon's Kindle. Anyone who uses Amazon regularly will have noticed that, finally, a UK version of Kindle was launched this week. Except, it isn't.

What is being made available is the new "international" version, sold to us in the UK via Amazon in the USA, and which makes available not a new UK Kindle store but (for now, anyway) the existing USA Kindle store. Not only that, but the price per item is going to be 40% greater in the UK ($13.99) than in the States ($9.99). Not only that, but the connection to the Amazon store will be achieved by "roaming" on various 3G phone networks, which immediately puts a question mark over availability (ever tried ringing home from a train? Check out the Ofcom "3G coverage maps"). Hmmm. I ordered a Kindle in the initial excitement, then almost immediately cancelled it. Wait and see, I think.

However, the fact is that I'm encountering two problems with my current e-reader, which even the advent of a full-blown UK Kindle would not address.

1. The first is good old "digital rights management" (DRM), which will be familiar to users of music downloads. They simply don't want you to use your purchased books on more than a couple of nominated machines, don't want you to use rival DRM formats on the same machine, don't want you to buy "US only" books in the UK, and sure as hell don't want you lending your books or dropping them off at the Oxfam bookshop when you're done with them. Sure, there are "open" and portable formats like PDF, but even these are sold in DRM-ed versions for in-print items, so an "Adobe PDF" can't be used on your Mobipocket e-reader, even though it can read Mobipocket PDFs and non-DRM PDFs. Oh, and not all e-books are available in all formats. It's pretty tiresome.

2. There are quite a few e-books available, but you simply can't get the books you actually want. Example: I recently came across Charles Portis -- one of those cult writers you can't quite believe you've never heard of before, about whom people rave, and whose best-known books were first published decades ago, but are still in print. Although repeatedly frustrated by previous "dead cert" searches (John Le Carré? Nope) , I really did fully expect to hit paydirt this time. But none of his books is available as an e-book, not a single one.

Now, I'm perfectly happy with my current device as a piece of technology. Yes, it could be a lot easier to buy and upload the e-books. That's where the Kindle would score mightily with its promise of instant gratification: find a book, and download it directly to your device in 60 seconds (unless, of course, you're looking for Charles Portis or John Le Carré). Yes, it would be nice if the pages turned instantly, and navigation were simpler and quicker. Yes, it would be good if the contrast (and, for the sight-impaired, colour) of the "electronic paper" could be adjusted. But, the thing works well enough for a simple, linear, page-turning read in good light. I wouldn't want to use it to study a student textbook, though.

What I object to is that the availability of e-books is making my reading choices for me. I wanted to read more Robert Stone, but all I could get were his memoir of the sixties, Prime Green. I wanted to read Larry McMurtry or Dee Brown on the pioneer days in the American West, but ended up reading Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides instead -- a good read, but not where I wanted to go.

One day, of course, none of these things will be problems. I'll let you know when that happens. Until then, unless you're a first order gadget freak and/or a book fiend in search of an urgent space solution, I wouldn't bother to buy any of them. Though the new Sony Pocket e-reader does look very tempting...

Sunday, 11 October 2009

I Can't Go On. I'll Go On.

This weekend sees the first anniversary of this blog, and that means it's time to decide whether to stick with Plan A, which was to spend a year checking out the Blogging Experience -- finding out what it was like having a public shop window and whether anyone would like what they saw in it -- and then maybe moving on to to something else. I always had the example of photographer Alec Soth's blog in mind, which ran a brief but exciting arc from September 2006 to September 2007.

I was unsure whether I could sustain regular written content of sufficient interest and variety to entertain both myself and anyone else who happened to read it. That has not turned out to be a problem, but it has been difficult finding a consistent tone and subject matter, and (perhaps not unconnected) impossible to boost the regular readership into three figures. I've noticed I get the most visits and the most comments when I attempt humour, and when I get into the territory of family and personal history. But it's also clear that most people, understandably, prefer their content to be predictable: the people who arrive here because of an interest in Panasonic cameras are not going to stay to read about Joni Mitchell, and the ones who like blogs to operate in non-stop confessional mode are not going to be turned on by donnish jokes about obscure words.

So, what to do? The thing is, I've got used to making the effort: it's like keeping a diary that I happen to leave open for others to read. It concentrates my attention on what I really mean to say to know that even as few as 50 people may read what I write. And, of course, it's useful being able to give new photographs an informal outing, before new sequences and books take shape. The reactions to them can be quite instructive. I'm enjoying this too much to stop.

So, in short, I am going to carry on for now, but perhaps at a considerably more leisurely pace. I may also try to write less, as in "write fewer words" -- I'm appalled, looking back at what I've written, at how pompous and portentous I can become, once I get going and the word count goes up. So I'll stop now, having undertaken to carry on.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Northam at Noon

I had a day off work today, and decided to take a camera over to a part of Southampton I rarely visit these days: down by the waterside in Northam, one of those mixed light industrial and residential areas that is a palimpsest of successive waves of development and demolition. I particularly wanted to scout some locations for a later, more considered shoot of some gorgeous Victorian gasometers and a spectacular scrap metal yard. The light was not ideal for a late morning photographic session -- rather too bright and too harsh in contrast for my taste -- but perfect for an autumn walkabout, and I had a good time. Here's a little gallery of first selections.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

A Chair in the Sky

I keep seeing chairs which people have left in odd corners, presumably to enjoy the autumn sunshine. This puts me in mind of Joni Mitchell's adaptation of the Charlie Mingus tune "A Chair in the Sky" on her 1979 Mingus album, which I bought last year in an attempt to catch up with those lost years between Hejira and Night Flight Home. Maybe I'll listen to it this afternoon.

Or maybe I won't. We've got to pack up the son's things ready to drive him to "uni" (as I must learn, reluctantly, to call it) tomorrow and won't need any encouragement to lachrymose retrospection. Later for that.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

My Tribe

In the wake of the Innsbruck exhibition, I've found myself explaining myself and my motives a lot, mainly to the kind of intimate stranger you meet via a blog -- kindred spirits who live on the other side of the planet and who may or may not be using a pseudonym. It's been a bit like a little taster session or homeopathic dose of fame, and as a consequence I've been reading the kind of things writers and artists say to journalists with a new sympathy. No-one wants to be boring, but it must be a royal pain to have your throwaway remarks jump out of a press cutting to bite you half a lifetime later.

As so often, I don't really know what I think until I've said it out loud, and the most interesting and surprising thing I've heard myself say, is that I feel quite European these days. I had been listening to an interview on BBC Radio 4 with the self-taught Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and had experienced an enormous sense of fellow-feeling. That's my tribe, I thought. I've been a long time ECM records listener (not hard to guess, perhaps) and Garbarek is central to that project. As a label, ECM is highly distinctive; not just cerebral Euro-jazz but all kinds of multicultural crossovers such as Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble's surprise hit Officium. Many people will own that recording and classics like Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert or Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa without realising their common denominator.

Of course, one thing ECM is famous for is its record sleeves. They are an education in good taste and photographic excellence. If I could name my dream job, it would probably be supplying images for ECM recordings. In fact, as soon as I've finished this post, I may well sit down and draft a job application: it's not far from Munich to Innsbruck, after all, and maybe Manfred Eicher needs a nice day out...

[Talking of which: If anyone has a copy of the book ECM: Sleeves of Desire (basically, an illustrated catalogue of all the ECM sleeves from 1970 to the mid-90s) which they are prepared to sell at a sensible price, please do get in touch. I do have a copy of the more recent book Horizons Touched (still available and which I recommend to any ECM fan) but Sleeves of Desire has attained the cult status of an unobtainable classic. By "sensible price", I'm afraid I mean less than 100 Euros...]