Thursday 30 December 2010

Football Considered as One of the Fine Arts

I found this post under the cushion on the blog sofa. I can't even really remember why I wrote it now, but here it is. The title, obviously, alludes to Thomas De Quincey's essay "Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts", but not in any constructive, useful or even amusing way.

My rant back in November about "project proposals" (it's OK, thanks, I'm feeling better now) made me wonder about the widespread uneasiness with "elitism" and "craft" in the fine arts and, by contrast, their complete acceptance in the realm of sports. How odd, ironic even, that the over-educated middle classes should agonize about the unfairness of unevenly-distributed talent in the aesthetic realm, while the mass audience for, say, football is completely untroubled by it. Such is ideology.

However, it is clear that the arts are ahead of the game here, so to speak, and some useful changes could be made to sport that echo some of the progressive moves made in the arts in recent decades. Here is the text of a speech I propose to make to the Football Association at the earliest opportunity.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Football needs to change. Here's how:

1. The top teams are unashamedly elitist, drawing team members from a very narrowly-defined segment of the population, and this needs to be challenged. There is no justifiable reason to restrict a career in football to fit young men with an affinity for sport. Footballing talent is quite likely evenly spread across the population: we'll never know until we look. I suggest it be made mandatory that teams are assembled using a process similar to jury service. Eleven people must be easier to find than twelve, after all.

2. Community involvement is traditionally strong in many football teams, but over time some have indulged the appeal of a rootless cosmopolitanism (yes, we're looking at you, Man Utd.). I suggest all teams, players and fans are henceforth strictly "localized", i.e. drawn from local electoral rolls. Serious consideration should be given to compulsory attendance at matches, to foster community spirit.

3. It is unarguable that the Premier League has wrecked the wider game, financially. I suggest we adapt the model current in the arts, i.e. reverse the cash-flow by making players pay to play. Gate money could be distributed, in part, as compensatory tips, perhaps allocated on the basis of a spectator ballot. Professional aspiration should be restricted to in-house "residencies", retained primarily for training and outreach purposes, usually on a two-year non-renewable contract.

4. There is an unhelpful and vulgar emphasis on success through playing and winning games. I think we need look no further than events like the Booker or the Turner prizes to see that pre-selection of a shortlist of teams from which celebrity pundits can select a "winner" is a far more efficient way of deciding "success". This would also free up much valuable broadcasting time.

5. Football is radically under-theorized. Noting that even the driving test now has a theory component -- a progressive move we can only applaud -- I suggest that no match should be played without a properly-qualified theorist available to evaluate, challenge and generally deconstruct the referee's decisions. The theorist's decision will be final (if protracted).

6. I worry about the expression, "the beautiful game". Beauty is a contested category, and there are significant and under-represented sections of the community for whom football is far from "beautiful". However, once these proposed measures are in place, I think we will find ourselves naturally referring simply to "the game".

Thank you.

Monday 27 December 2010

Not Boxing Day

Did you get some nice presents this year?

We're a bit odd in our family, in that we never ask for, or receive, anything of substantial monetary value. Even our kids have never wanted anything particularly large, though I'm sure we would have bought it for them if they had. Instead, we go in for lots of small and "moderately priced" items! It's a lot more fun, though it does make wrapping a bit of a chore.

My favourites this year were these:

The knife is a paring knife from Swiss kitchenware designers Kuhn Rikon -- a lovely thing, razor sharp with a non-stick coated blade and a plastic sheath, costing all of £4.50. I have no idea who designed the Amazing Flygun, but can't wait to try it out. I had a lot of fun last summer taking out flies with one of those wooden repeating rubber band guns -- amazingly accurate and effective over anything up to ten feet. I hate flies. Hunting them down one by one is far more satisfying -- and somehow more honourable -- than using flypapers and sprays.

Talking of design, if anyone knows the address of the person who designed condensation boilers with external condensate pipes (or of the person who made their use compulsory in Britain) do let me know, as I'd like to pop round and have a word...

Our condensate pipe froze yesterday, causing the boiler to refuse to work. I discover this is the commonest cause of boiler "breakdowns" in Britain. I spent a morning up a ladder applying a hot-water bottle to the pipe, to no effect. I gave in, and summoned a British Gas engineer. We spent the rest of the day without central heating or running hot water.

Inevitably, when the engineer turned up this morning, the pipe had thawed overnight and the boiler came on without a problem. Don't you hate it when that happens? Never mind, I expect he's been happily earning Bank Holiday overtime all day, tutting over condensate pipes that were definitely frozen yesterday. You'd think, wouldn't you, if they were going to make it compulsory to use these boilers, they'd also make it compulsory to insulate the external pipe... Call me a malcontent, but a heating system that is inclined to halt in cold weather seems somehow flawed to me.

Today, incidentally, is not Boxing Day. That was yesterday.

Saturday 25 December 2010

The Idiotic Christmas Address

[Drum roll; dingy opening chords of National Anthem; sound effect of screeching gramophone needle]

No, please, sit down, sit down! Sorry about that. Yet another scratch on the National Anthem disk. One day, someone is going to play that thing at the proper speed, and realise that's it's actually a bit of a thrash.

Record playing speeds are a thing of the past, of course. I remember an amusing letter to the editor of the Guardian early in 1978, which went something like this: "I was born in '45, and am now 33 in '78. Is this a record?" Well, OK, you had to be there. It used to be a way of passing a wet afternoon, playing Elvis Presley 78s at 45 rpm. It was also not a bad way of learning the guitar riffs, of course.

By the same token, you have to wonder why that screeching noise is still universally understood as "a recording halted prematurely, perhaps terminally". I wonder how many people under 50 have ever heard that sound in real life? In fact, I wonder how many people over 50 have ever heard it in real life? I'm not sure that I have. Maybe it doesn't really sound like that at all -- perhaps it's just a sound effect that everyone uses, because it sounds like a record getting good and scratched ought to sound.

I can feel a metaphor building here, something about real life and the way its representations and shortcuts increasingly lose touch with reality over time. "Three sheets to the wind" would be an appropriate example, right now, I suspect. But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it's Christmas Day, it's after lunch and I've got a literal goose to cook -- I'll let it go.

I hope it's been a good year for you, your families, and your friends. Above all, I hope you've found some fulfilment through photography, writing or some other expressive activity (cooking, or even some clever swearing counts, but shopping definitely doesn't).

May I wish you the very best of everything in the coming year. I have some rather fine bottles of single malt whisky nearby (proper Scottish whisky, that is --The Macallan Fine Oak, Laphroaig and a Jura) and will be toasting you all later this evening for your comments and encouragement over the past year:

Slàinte mhòr!

(Gaelic for "Great health" or, allegedly for Jacobites, "health to Marion" i.e. the king over the water. Pronounced: slanj-uh vorr)

Thursday 23 December 2010

Shoot Out The Chandelier

I find computer games baffling -- I can never find a way in. I stare at the scenery, move things around, but it all just remains a mystery. I'm too easily distracted by the quality of the graphics, and get absolutely nowhere. My son will sigh, grab the mouse or controller, knock over some trivial object or shoot out the chandelier, and hidden depths are revealed. How do you do that?

The world is like that, too. It's full of hidden riches, invisible to the uninitiated. Everywhere there are unanticipated, unexplored depths, any of which might turn out to be someone else's obsession and enthusiasm. I was once treated to a half hour effusion from a builder on the subject of bricks, their kinds, colours, sources and qualities. I had no idea!

Back in March, a friend mentioned a song, "Desperados Waiting for a Train", on his blog. I'd never heard of it or its composer Guy Clark, but then the world is not short on songs, especially country and western songs. I gave it a listen, and didn't give it another thought. Last week, I was tooling around on the Web and -- I can't even remember how -- bumped into it again. Oh, it's that song, I thought.

Somehow, I then managed to accidentally shoot out the chandelier, so to speak, and it was game on. I had stumbled into a whole new vortex of enthusiasm, centred on a single song. It became obvious, very quickly, that to an "alt country" music enthusiast this song I had never heard of is a benchmark, and has been since the 1970s. It also became clear that I had completely missed the emotional impact of the song in my original perfunctory hearing. Now I have begun to hear it, it evokes my last visits to my dying father so strongly that I tear up at that final spoken line, "Come on, Jack, that son-of-a-bitch is comin'".

I found myself watching various YouTube videos of performances of "Desperados", some by names I knew, most by names I didn't (of them all, this one by Irishman Freddie White grabbed me the most -- it's deceptively unpolished, intense, very intimate). By following links and googling, I began to open up a whole field of musical Americana I had only had a marginal interest in before.

As always with such "chandelier" moments, the links scattered in all directions. For example, Steve Earl's presence as recovering addict "Walon" in The Wire became more poignant. I finally disambiguated Townes Van Zandt from Steven Van Zandt. I began to grasp why guitar genius Bill Frisell thought "Americana" a fruitful musical territory worth exploring over a number of albums, starting with Nashville. I ordered a DVD of the film Heartworn Highways, which I've never seen. An alternative, parallel history from the 1970s to the present had revealed itself; musical and cultural, with its own heroes, villains, great deeds and betrayals.

I have always liked the way "country" refreshes its metaphors -- from cowboys to truckers -- and enjoy the way it turns its wit in on itself, reflexively. Indeed, without getting all lit-crit on its ass, the whole point of "Desperados Waiting For A Train" is that a young boy has heightened his relationship with an ageing, then dying, oil-well drilling drunk by re-imagining it in "western" terms -- it's a song about myths and reality, the passing of time and outliving one's moment, and the gritty glue of sentiment that holds it all together.
I'd play "The Red River Valley",
He'd sit in the kitchen and cry,
Run his fingers through seventy years of living,
And wonder, "Lord, has every well I drilled run dry?"
We were friends, me and this old man,

Like desperados waiting for a train,
Desperados waiting for a train
Now, although "country" harmonies and chord sequences can give me the chills*, I shall never be a real fan. Like American whiskey, it hits certain familiar notes a little too frequently and emphatically for my taste, and I can only take so much wittily-engineered sentiment delivered in verse and chorus form. And, let's face it, professional Texans are about as inherently funny as professional Yorkshiremen.**

But that's not the point: what matters is that what had previously looked like a blankly familiar wall turns out to have a secret door, and what lies behind it is worth exploring. This is what the Web is for and if, like me, you are endlessly discovering that you have been ignorant about something that matters a great deal to other people, you can so easily have the pleasure of putting that right, these days.

Though I think I will never get the hang of the Nintendo DS, the Wii, or the Xbox... It seems my thumbs have been put on the wrong way round. Oh Lord... Does this mean I am, in my turn, becoming an old man, "drinkin' beer and playin' Moon and Forty-two"? Inevitable, I suppose. Fetch me those dominoes...

* And "Desperados" has those two descending bass notes -- C B -- between the D major chord of the first line and the A major and B minor of the second. Such a simple but effective hook.

** Apologies to my loyal readers in Webster, TX and Seabrook, TX (not to mention Sheffield, Yorks and Leeds, Yorks). You know it's true...

Sunday 19 December 2010

In The Bleak Midwinter

Is there anything bleaker than a ploughed field under snow in December? Yes, there is; the prospect of having to go out and work in one in inadequate clothing for little material reward. When people tell me there has really been very little objective improvement in social conditions in Britain, I have to beg to differ. I think of my ancestors and imagine I can hear them cheering the warmth, comfort, full plates and leisure their genes are currently enjoying.

Winter Work 1883

This painting and the one below are quite remarkable. They were painted in 1882/83 by Sir George Clausen. You may notice that the same woman, with her antique headgear, features in both. This is because Clausen based these paintings on sketches and photographs he made on visits to the Hertfordshire countryside in the early 1880s. Not deepest Brittany, or picturesque Provence, but Hertfordshire. And note the word "peasant" in the title of the portrait; North Herts was less than an hour away by train in Clausen's day, but a century or two distant in historical time. These people are my ancestors. Yours, too, if the words "Ag Lab" feature heavily in the census records of your family.

Portrait of a Peasant Woman 1882

Look, here are those women again in their quaint clothes -- Hertfordshire straw-plaiters snapped furtively from behind a window in the 1890s, probably in Hitchin. Two of my great grandmothers could easily be among them. If they look a bit troublesome, that's because they are: I recently found a court record indicting one of my female ancestors for attacking another woman with a spade. I expect she deserved it, though.

In comparison, even the prospect of driving nose-to-tail on black ice seems OK. We really have come a long way in the last 100 years. There's still quite a way to go, but don't let the pessimists tell you nothing has really changed. Yes, we're importing fresh supplies of peasants from Poland, and yes, we need to change our wasteful ways to stop things going backward, and yes, we need to spread this well-being more evenly around the world. But these things can be done.


Saturday 18 December 2010

Mirror Man

Another one gone. Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) died yesterday; he'd been incapacitated with MS for some years. I've never quite understood the cult of that pretentious and baggy monster Trout Mask Replica (impossible to imagine a mainstream label releasing it now) but Clear Spot is one of my favourite albums. "Crazy Little Thing", "Big Eyed Beans From Venus" and "Long Neck Bottles" hit a rackety groove that I find irresistible.

DVV had a strange talent for a unique kind of poetry -- his gritty psychedelia was grounded by a blend of rootsy elements with a heavy dose of voodoo hedgerow mysticism. People always talk about him coming from another planet, but that other planet is earth, revealed in its strangeness when seen from a completely different angle. Obviously, LSD helps, but that undertow of Howlin' Wolf and snake oil salesmen is essential to the brew. That he and Frank Zappa (that most far-out of puritans) went to the same school must prove something.

Distant cousins, there's a limited supply.
And we're down to the dozens, and this is why:
Big Eyed Beans from Venus! Oh my, oh my.

Boys and girls,
Earth people around the circle,
Mixtures of man alive.
Big eyed beans from Venus,
Don't let anything get in between us.

Beam in on me baby,
and we'll beam together
I know we always been together,
but there's more.

Mister Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note,
and let it float.

Men let your wallets flop out,
and women open your purses,
Cause a man or a woman without a big eyed bean from Venus
Is suffering with the worstest of curses
Yeah, you're suffering, with the worstest of curses.

Put 'em out in the sun, and when the night come
You don't have to go out and get 'em
They'll glow with you
They'll go with you
They'll show with you
Ain't no losers
Cause they're on the right track
Cause they're on the right track
You can be on the right track, woman,
Of course, of course

Ain't no SNAFU, no fol-de-rol

Check these out, Big eyed beans from Venus
Oh, let a few out, let 'em pass in between us

Distant cousins, there's a limited supply.
And we're down to the dozens, and this is why...

Don't let anything get in between us!
Big eyed beans from Venus
Big eyed beans from Venus.

Gimme dat harp, boy ...

Friday 17 December 2010

Honourable Breaches

Right. That's it. I'm going to tell you this just once, world, and I expect you to pay attention.

I have just read, for the thousandth time, someone using the expression "more honoured in the breach than the observance", but failing to understand what it means. Listen: it does not mean "this is a rule or law which people break more often than not".

The phrase is a quote from Hamlet (a play by the well-known playwright William Shakespeare, which admittedly can sometimes seem to have been composed by someone using the cut-up technique on a dictionary of well-known phrases and sayings) .

Here is the context:

HORATIO: Indeed? I heard it not. It then draws near the season
Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk.
[A flourish of trumpets, and two pieces go off.]
What does this mean, my lord?

HAMLET: The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swagg'ring upspring reels,
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.

HORATIO: Is it a custom?

HAMLET: Ay, marry, is't;
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduc'd and tax'd of other nations;
They clip us drunkards and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform'd at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.

It doesn't take much effort to realise that what Hamlet means is, "This is a bloody stupid custom, and people would do it and themselves more honour by not keeping it. We Danes have thereby acquired an unfortunate international rep as piss artists. Sigh."

I really don't understand this urge to decorate writing with tired, half-understood quotes and allusions to texts the writers have clearly never read. "It just grew, like Topsy?" anyone? "Goodnight Vienna"? "A bit of a curate's egg?" The odd thing is, if the kind of people who tend to use them did know the sources of many such boilerplate expressions, they'd probably stop using them. Why would some tough-guy entrepreneur want to allude to some prissy 19th century cartoon in Punch? Why would some self-styled moral guardian use the punchline to a truly filthy joke?

But here's an interesting one. When, in Animal Farm, the commandment on the barn is altered to
Does "more equal" mean "inferior" or "superior"? Most people think "inferior", but are they right?

Tuesday 14 December 2010

The Big Hole

I listened to a priest this morning, in the "Thought For The Day" slot on Radio 4's Today Programme, earnestly reminding us that this period is not only the run up to Christmas, but is also the period of Advent, when our thoughts should be turning to the Last Judgement, in anticipation of Christ's Second Coming; something which the priest said he couldn't quite believe in himself, literally, but without which nothing really made much sense, did it?

Well, make your mind up, mate. Despite the best efforts of hyper-rationalists, and the poor faith of such priests, many of us do seem to have an ongoing concern with a "God-shaped hole" in human life. For some it's a void that, unfilled, does have the potential to unravel the fabric of everything. It is as if we had evolved to crave a flavour that has never existed, or no longer exists -- a spiritual umami.

I think we all sense the inability of religion to deal with this deep yearning. Religion is merely society's way of putting a solid safety rail around that God-shaped hole. If you have ever been to church -- increasingly unlikely in Britain (though I'm speaking out of a "Christian" tradition, here) -- it must have struck you how empty that experience is at its core. It can be beautiful if you like that sort of thing (I don't), and its rituals can be comforting to some, but even when -- especially when -- it manages to be electrifying, you are left with that feeling that your willingness to self-deceive is the real Main Act. The religious would say that's not the point, but they're the ones sitting in empty churches. That Big Hole is still there.

Another fence around the hole is humour. Humour is a way of accepting gracefully the danger signals that things like an absurd coincidence, or a sudden fright, or an inexorable and unpleasant fate set off. Whoah, mind that hole! British gallows humour has seen our ancestors through some difficult times, but in the end "You've got to laugh, haven't you?" is not much of a philosophy, really, is it?

More and more people are ignoring the imperative not to look into that Big Hole. They are home-grown seekers, who crave the sublime, not the comfort of the familiar. They want to experience transcendence, not hear ancient travellers' tales about it. When told that they could never withstand the unmediated presence of divinity they say, "I'll be the judge of that -- do you actually know where can I get some?" People climb mountains, surf waves, take drugs, paint pictures, buy crystals ... All in pursuit of that elusive extra dimension to their lives. You'd think, though, given that the desire for it seems to be built in to human life, it would be rather easier to find.

Even the more timid, if pushed, will admit to a desire for "something more", which easily mutates into a vague belief that there must be something more.

Perhaps as a legacy from childhood, perhaps not, there is also a common desire to be watched over:
Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?
But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.

Luke 12:6-7
Good to know, given the price of sparrows.

This craving for a truly universal surveillance system is one of the faces of the profoundly human desire for and belief in justice. It is a wish that the perpetrators of unspeakably evil acts will have been observed, no matter how secret or dark their torture chambers; that their acts and motivations will have been noted, and that they will finally be held to account, judged, and suitably punished.

The other face of justice is the hope that humility, goodness, self-sacrifice and playing by the rules will eventually get the rewards that they so rarely do in life. In the absence of a Second Coming and a Day of Judgement (in which even the priests seem no longer actually to believe), however, and on the evidence so far, it's not looking too good, is it?

Not surprisingly, decent people can experience despair when they bring to the forefront of their mind the improbability of their most secret hopes. "All my life, I paid deposits of Goodness into this insurance scheme I was sold by the priests, and now they're saying it may not pay out anything at all!". It makes all those dodgy financial instruments look pretty small beer, doesn't it?

Increasingly, perhaps as an antidote to that despair, I think we are all becoming Epicureans, which has probably been the real default setting of intelligent human minds for thousands of years. With Epicurus, we hold that, if the gods exist at all, which seems unlikely, then they are very far away and care nothing whatsoever about us. Most of us think that death, unfair as it may seem, is the end of our personal stake and interest in the universe. And, if we believe anything, it is that fellow-feeling, endurance, moderation and simplicity are virtues that, with a bit of luck and a lot of mutual toleration, will lead to freedom from fear and pain, which is about as good as it gets.

So, perhaps "You've got to laugh, haven't you?" is not such a bad philosophy, after all.

Seeing as I'm in Rabbi Lionel Blue mode, here's a favourite religious joke, which I'm sure you've already heard:

A man prays to God to let him win the Lottery. God ignores the man's prayers. But the man is insistent: day after day, year after year, he prays and prays and prays: "Dear God, please let me win the Lottery!" God ignores him. But, eventually, God gets fed up, and decides to answer the man's prayers. "OK, OK," God says, "I'll let you win the Lottery. But, on one condition!" "Thank you, Lord! And what is your one condition?" "Meet me half way -- this time, BUY A BLOODY TICKET!"

Sunday 12 December 2010

Hats Off to Christopher

One of the odd things about getting older is the way old enthusiasms suddenly resurface, like submarines returning from some long-forgotten mission. Two of these popped up in my life in recent weeks, and they're not unconnected.

First up was Roy Harper. It was the snow that did it, I think. I associate listening to Roy Harper with those snowy winters of the early 70s, sitting in my bedroom in our council flat, doing homework or simply gazing at the view over a snow-covered recreation ground towards the motorway, with Flat Baroque and Berserk or Lifemask playing on the Dansette.

Perhaps it was also thinking about an old friend from way back, an habitual fabulist, whose postcards back from his ever more lengthy trips into the land of the fairies could be instructive, alarming, and enchanting by turns. A very Roy Harper kind of guy. "Whatever happened to Roy Harper?", I found myself thinking. As he shared with John Martyn the distinction of having fallen off his stool at a gig I once attended, utterly wasted, the answer seemed fairly obvious.

It turns out he's a survivor, however; alive and well, and taking control of his legacy from Ireland. He has an informative website, where you can buy all his records, which he has wrestled back from the recording companies. Way to go, Roy. If you don't know his albums, and you want to hear some of the best work of Jimmy Page, Dave Gilmour, and other giants of British rock, what better place to start?

There was one side of one Harper album that I particularly wanted to hear: the 22 minute epic "The Lord's Prayer" from Lifemask. At college, I used to inflict this track on friends late at night, when they were too stoned to move or protest, really the best state in which to listen to it. I was doing them a favour, really. It's a wonderful audioscape which is an early and sophisticated use of the electronic resources of a studio, a meditation on the nature of humanity's journey from the Stone Age to the present day, largely in the form of a long series of 100 or so repetitive attributes,

whose message is must
whose excuses are holy
who passed it down to me
whose enemies are landmarks
whose fear is himself
whose hope is just
My LP copy mysteriously vanished years ago -- I suspect someone took direct action against having to hear it again -- and I hadn't heard it since. A chance to buy it again direct from the Harper Encampment was too good to miss.

"The Lord's Prayer" in turn caused the second resurfacing. Those frequent immersions in its hypnotic repetitions had pre-prepared me for an encounter in my college studies with the poem Jubilate Agno ("Rejoice in the Lamb"), the demented but spell-binding work by Christopher Smart. On cue, up it duly bobbed again.

Only 32 pages of the manuscript survive -- written by Smart between 1758 and 1763, while confined in a lunatic asylum -- but they shine with a mad light that is both very funny and deeply moving.
Most lines in one lot of the surviving pages begin with the word "Let" and most lines on other pages begin with "For." Quite a few link "Let" and "For" lines neatly together thematically, and there was clearly intended to be a sort of call and response structure:
Let Zurishaddai with the Polish Cock rejoice -- The Lord restore peace to Europe. For I meditate the peace of Europe amongst family bickerings and domestic jars.
Let Hagar rejoice with Gnesion, who is the right sort of eagle, and towers the highest. For I bless God in the rising generation, which is on my side.
Let Libni rejoice with the Redshank, who migrates not but is translated to the upper regions. For I have translated in the charity, which makes things better and I shall be translated myself at the last.
The bathos of such connections between the obscure and the everyday, the sublime and the ridiculous is somehow the source of the poem's power. It is as if someone had slipped Edward Casaubon a tab of LSD. The poem is most famous for a section contemplating Smart's cat, which lacks any "Let" lines:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.

This, and a selection of other lines, forms the basis of Benjamin Britten's choral work, "Rejoice in the Lamb" which (in the way of these synchronicitous things) someone happened to mention on the radio yesterday morning. There are several online texts available, for example here.

Who knows why these connections should appear, and whether there is any purpose to them? It gives me something to think about, I suppose, and a certain factitious coherence to my life. After 30 years, it must be getting a little crowded down there in my subconscious mind. By next week, those submarine voyagers could have submerged again for another 30-odd years. If so, I hope I'm still around when they break surface again.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Black Lagoon

[Impossibly deep voice] From the people who brought you The Adventures of Space Salmon ... Another two chapters in the ongoing saga of ... The Frozen Staff Club Pond!

Now it really is winter. In fact, now I come to look at the calendar, it's practically Christmas! Oops... I hear Amazon calling.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Ridgeway Roadside

I wonder if my kids know it's not normal to pull off to the side of a busy major road in hazardous driving conditions, just to take photographs of a hedgerow? If they do, they conceal it very well.

As I drove to Oxford and back today to collect my son, I was overwhelmed by the sheer absurdity of the landscape near the Ridgeway. Everything had been spray-canned with rime frost, like a stage set, where freezing fog had settled onto every twig and blade of grass. It was breath-takingly weird.

On the way back, I was determined to get a few photographs. Unfortunately, there was nowhere safe to pull over in the most spectacular stretches, so I made do with a little layby where we were reasonably safe from the lorries thundering by in the mist. As soon as I got out and was on foot, of course, one sort of magic -- the broad sweep, picture-window magic of a train journey or motorway ride through a landscape -- turned into another -- the detailed, close-up magic of a frost-locked landscape.

I have rarely felt the lack of a ladder, a tall tripod, warm clothing and lots of time so acutely. And gloves, really warm gloves. Never mind, I got a few reasonable shots of a hundred yards of frozen roadside, and my son got to watch from the warmth of the car his peculiar father doing what he likes to do best.

Friday 3 December 2010

How Idiotic Are Birds?

The university is shut today because of the snow, and quite right, too. We have so many overseas students from the Far East these days, it's only fair to give them a chance to discover what it feels like to lose all sensation below the wrist after an hour or two's snowballing and making snowmen. Indeed, "Earth has not anything to show more fair" than a half-dozen young women from South Asia, who have never seen snow before, shrieking and gambolling in it like eight-year-olds. It warms a man's heart, especially watched from the comfort of an office window.

So, as I'm actually at home, I've just been out into the garden to clear the snow off the bird table and put some food out. Our robin was looking at me very reproachfully at breakfast, as if to say, "Get your act together, matey, we're hungry out here, too!" Yes, yes, I know, birds do not really have cutesy speech bubbles over their heads. But something is clearly going on inside whatever is the avian equivalent of a "mind".

My feeling is that "our" birds probably have no way of deducing that I put the food out in the garden for them. But they're clearly aware that something unusual has happened, and the word spreads fast. There is probably a spectrum of reactions to this unexpected bounty.

I imagine the smarter, watchful birds -- the robins, say -- think something like, "That idiot has just put his food out in the open in the garden! Quick!! Grab some before he comes back!". However, the very smartest birds -- the magpies, say -- probably suspect a trap, and hang back to see what happens to the robins before wading in. But the majority just barrel through the garden hoping to bump into something to eat, shriek to a halt like cartoon characters, and gobble up what they can before the resident robin tells them to clear off.

My favourites, I have to say, are the hyperactive flock of long-tailed tits, so cute, and so reminiscent of young South Asian women bundled up in fashionable snow-wear.

Thursday 2 December 2010


We awoke to a substantial covering of snow this morning, about eight inches, drifting to a foot or two, sufficient to maroon everyone's car in the drive and to make walking fairly treacherous. Schools and colleges declared themselves closed.

Typical -- I'd booked the day off to paint the bathroom ceiling. Oh well, suppose I'd better get on with it. Though I may sneak out later to watch the cars sliding backwards down the hill.

Harry Callahan? Never 'eard of 'im, mate

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Flags for Sunrise

Two views of the sunrise this week. Nothing but grey this morning, and some feeble snow in the bitterly cold NE wind, and it surely can't be long before we join the rest of the country in the chaos induced by this early onset of wintry weather.

Far away in the Australian sunshine: 517 for one. Five hundred and seventeen runs for the loss of one wicket. Extraordinary. I used to open the batting for my school team when I was very young, and know just a little of how that must feel. I won't be the only one today who finds himself thinking of John Wilson, and I send my love and warmest best wishes to any of you who are reading this. Cue up "When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease..."

Talking of long ago, when I padded up and carried my bat out to the crease, today is St.Andrew's Day, and I'm remembering how we used to be allowed to wear our Cubs and Brownie uniforms to school on the national saints' days. I don't know how widespread that was, or whether it was peculiar to our junior school. It seems as quaint now as playing the National Anthem at the end of a performance in the theatre or even, improbably, the cinema. I remember the rush to get out before the drum roll and those dreary chords struck up...

Monday 29 November 2010

Google Me

We bloggers flatter ourselves that people visit our sites for one reason only; that is, to drink deep at the well of our wit, wisdom and learning. That , or (in the case of the more, um, self-revelatory blogs) to gawp at the pageant of our bleeding hearts, as Matthew Arnold said of Byron, probably the first celebrity blogger.

Google Analytics is there to prove us wrong. It is humbling, and sometimes alarming, to see some of the Google searches that have brought enquirers to my door. Here are a few from the last month:

bantam chickens in severe weather
"barn owl" ancestral star
being fine with something
benefits of corporal punishment in british schools
highly reflective glass walls
is me and my shadow public domain?
kd lang photos by raymond meeks
oxford chinese hat marquee
red light district mental space
what does the conversation of king edwin and the story of caedmon tell you about saint bede's spiritual views?
how to make black swan hat
jackson browne morocco explanation
why are songs like tattoos?

These range from "Uh Oh" (Edwin and Caedmon) through "Glad to be of service" (Jackson Browne) to "Well, I never" (Raymond Meeks and K.D. Lang -- must follow that one up).

The one thing I discover consistently from my statistics is that, by some margin, my most frequent source of visitors is a link to one post from one website dedicated to corporal punishment. I have been assured by the proprietor that this is in no way a forum for spankers. It is evident from the number of visitors that there is a healthy and entirely academic interest out there in tales of sound beatings at school.

Oh, and if you're reading this, David Gepp, someone out there is very interested in your Venice pinhole work at the moment. If that someone wants to get in touch with David, drop me an email and I can arrange something.

And if anyone knows how to make a black swan hat, I can pass that on, too. Glad to be of service. This is the nearest I can manage, perhaps the original Idiotic Hat:

"It shall be called Bottom's Dream,
because it hath no bottom"

Saturday 27 November 2010

The Idiotic Hat Guide to Unleashing Your Creativity

There is a minor industry in self-improvement books, encouraging you to get in touch with your frustrated inner tax exile, and to unleash the creative dynamo that is the Real You. The underlying dodgy thesis (there's always an underlying dodgy thesis) is nearly always the same one, and it's this:

Kids are born creative and free, and this innate joy is squeezed out of them by a sequence of grim, grey tyrants, of whom the most egregious and grimly grey is the schoolteacher. "Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!"

This is such bollocks, it's hard to know where to begin. It's as if the writers of these books had never been to primary school, had never encountered other children, and had been cruelly denied those most enticing of toys -- pencils, paints, and paper -- at home.

I can feel a potential Christmas stocking-filler blockbuster coming on here ("Is It Just Me, Or Are Most Kids Tedious?" or perhaps "Ignore Your Creativity And Get Back To Work!") so I'll keep this brief. It is my observation that most children are born vicious dullards who, without schooling, would torment each other into an early grave. The few exceptions -- the bright, the creative, the open-minded, the talented -- quickly learn to go to ground until it's safe to come out again later in life.

Trust me, I know. As a moderately talented child, I watched in horror as less wary contemporaries had their "show-off" tendencies relentlessly hacked down to playground level, not by our wonderful and encouraging teachers but by our predatory peers, whose "creativity" expressed itself in ensuring that everyone who was not "normal" was policed into dull, watchful conformity. Few of these monsters went on to become teachers, though some do seem to have gone on to careers as stand up comedians.

So, here is my ten point path to fulfilment through creativity:

1. Stop being so dull. Take a walk on the wild side, and see whether it's for you. Ideally, why not try being gay, or left-handed? It seems to work for a lot of artists.

2. Stop worrying about what people might think about you. Instead, find out what they actually do think about you -- probably nothing -- then work ceaselessly at giving them scandalous new things to think about you. See (1).

3. Self-reinvention is the name of the game. Don't like who you are? Neither do we. Stop it. Become someone more interesting. It's easier than you think, see (2).

4. Wear an idiotic hat.

5. Follow your dream. Find out where it goes during the day. Be there waiting for it next time, introduce yourself, and buy it a drink.

6. Think outside the box. Think inside the box. Think round the back of the box. Imagine you are a box. Make a box, and put it inside a box. Learn to box on Boxing Day. When the word "box" finally becomes absurd through repetition, you will have escaped the prison-house of language, and will briefly be outside the word "box", if not the actual box. Does that feel good, or bad?

7. Steal other people's work and ideas shamelessly. Try them on for size. Art is a charity shop.

8. Remember that it is easier to buy a book about creativity, and fund someone else's lifestyle, than it is to read that book. And it is easier to read about writing, than actually to write oneself. A writer is a person who writes. But preferably not a book about how to write.

9. Be positive. Work hard. Stick at it. Work 9 to 5, every weekday. Bring as much of yourself to it as you can. Society depends on your contribution: be proud of that. This is your proper job I'm talking about, dreamer, not some idle fantasy of becoming an artist.

10. Be nice to your kids, and give them plenty of paints, pencils and paper. Be unstinting in your praise and encouragement of their efforts, no matter how dull. Then, just maybe, they'll stop bullying that funny little kid who is so good at drawing, and realise just how freakin' awesome he or she really is. And, one day, maybe they'll even buy one of his pictures to hang on their wall!

Thursday 25 November 2010

Colour Limbo

There were some particularly bold lighting effects today as the sun came up on a freezing cold morning with clear skies and a steady northerly wind.

I should say I'm utterly confused, colour wise, at the moment.

I've just replaced my venerable Epson Stylus Photo 1270 printer (which I've had for seven or eight years, I think) with an Epson Stylus Photo 1400. Yes, that's right, I chickened out of getting a pigment ink printer, and have stuck with dyes. I thought long and hard about going the pigment ink route so I'd feel comfortable about selling prints. But, I like the way dye prints look. Still, the claim is that Epson Claria ink prints will last 200 years if kept properly i.e. in a locked lead-lined steel box in a dark, humidity- and temperature-controlled room, preferably in Switzerland... (Joking!! The 200 year part is true, however).

To compound the confusion, my equally venerable Dell monitor has given up the struggle, so I've stolen my daughter's HP flat screen. I'm now in Colour Management limbo. If anyone has recommendations for colour managing the Epson 1400 with standard Epson papers, I'm more than happy to hear them.*

So, I think these two pictures look pretty damn good, but I can't be sure! The only thing I know is that the on-screen and printed versions are different...

* I've calibrated the screen (HP w1907v) with a ColorVision Spyder 2 Express ("produce stunning photos like the pros!"), and I'm mainly printing using the supplied ICM profile for Epson Premium Glossy paper, with Photoshop Elements controlling the colour management, as recommended by Epson. It's not great. I suspect I'd get better results giving control to the printer, and using the sliders to adjust the CMY settings. Anyone got a favourite combo?

Wednesday 24 November 2010


Around this time of year, as the shops really start to crank up the Christmas machine, I am often struck by the decline in the standard of our public imagination. Christmas, of course, is entirely built out of inauthentic cliches, mainly borrowed ones. When, for example, did "red ribbon tied in a bow" come to signify "a Christmas gift" in this country? Angrily twisted sticky tape would be nearer the mark. I suppose it's no worse, as a signifier, than "snow". Do you remember the excitement when your favourite comic would arrive in the week before Christmas with the masthead topped with snow? And the baffling sense of anti-climax, when it never did snow before New Year?

But Christmas is not the only stimulus for my glumness, however. It really starts with the lead up to Remembrance Sunday. I think the concept of "the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier" is a piece of public imaginative theatre so brilliant and so moving that it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. We used to do it so well, didn't we? How could a country -- once capable of such an original, appropriate and unsentimental act of therapeutic symbolism -- sink so low?

Look around you at our civic, industrial and retail architecture. Everywhere, flat-pack buildings with all the aesthetic appeal of a carpet tile, all the pride and permanence of a closing-down sale; mere factory farms for the incubation of "imaginative and innovative solutions" that are nothing of the sort. Worse, look at these huge new national institutions we've had wished on us, like the National Lottery or Children in Need. How tacky, how predictable, how unworthy they are!

And then, this year, the Ashes series is about to be contested in Australia. Never mind the cricket, what an amazing idea that little urn of ashes was, what a focus of imagination and engagement it represents! Especially looked at from this era, when the iconic trophies and contests of sport have become mere brand vehicles for the highest commercial bidder. We have gone from stripey-blazered Corinthians to shell-suited chameleons in a couple of generations.

The private imagination, though, does seem intact. We're actually living through something of a Golden Age of the Arts. It's the public domain that seems to have atrophied; we're no longer giving it our best attention. Everything is now measured by "good enough", "just in time", "one size fits all", and above all, "value for money". That is, "bad", "late", "too small", and "cheap". It seems we're now prepared to sit back and watch hard-won public national treasures -- our Health Service, our Civil Service, our schools and universities, council housing, trades unions, legal aid (this list could get appallingly long) -- abolished, sold off, or irreversibly cheapened.

"Privatization" doesn't just mean flogging off the national family silver; it describes a nation retreating mentally and physically from the public arena into the private realm, watching comforting but unimaginative rubbish on TV while real rubbish blows uncollected in the pot-holed streets outside. Imagine!

Monday 22 November 2010

The Competition

Lately, like a lot of other people, I've been thinking about taking my urge to write more seriously -- as seriously, say, as my urge to take photographs. Inevitably, this poses the question: write what, exactly, and for whom? And, how many other people are thinking the same thing?

Perhaps as a way of avoiding any actual writing, I decided to look at the figures on the latter question. It sometimes seems like every third literate person in the country is either writing, contemplating, or putting off writing a novel (first man at party, "I'm writing a novel"; second man, "Hey, neither am I"). So, what is the competition really like, statistically?

It's harder to get good figures than you might think, but estimates of how many books are published in the UK each year vary between 70,000 and 100,000, of which about one tenth would be regarded as proper "fiction". So, between 7 and 10 thousand British novels are published, every year. Say, 8500.

We can apply the sound general principle that "90% of anything is rubbish" in two directions. First, of those 8500 published novels, let's say only 850 are really worth reading. I don't know about you, but identifying, getting hold of, and then reading 15 or more brand new novels every week is a little beyond my capacity. I'm just not keeping up -- last week I only read three! And none of those was published this or even last year!! Let's face it, even if only 85 are really worth reading, I'm never going to get round to reading them all. I still haven't read any Jane Austen.*

But, going the other way, let's assume that only 10% of submitted manuscripts get published (that's probably wildly over-generous). That's 85000 completed and submitted manuscripts. We could probably go further, and say that only 10% of aspiring novelists manage to complete and submit a manuscript -- that means there are probably 850 thousand dreamers out there, who have actually put pen to paper, but so far failed to complete and submit. God knows how many there are who haven't, but they don't count.

So, good news! If we accept a literate population in the UK of 52 million (80% of 65 million) then my initial impression (that every third literate person was attempting a novel) was completely wrong: only every sixtieth literate person in the UK seriously hopes to publish a novel.

Now we've got that sorted, only one thing remains to be determined. Have I actually got anything to say? The numbers on that seem to be harder to calculate.

* Shocking, but true. Talking of Jane Austen, if you want to see how blog comments can take on a life of their own, check out these comments on a very brief post "The Austen Kerfuffle" on the Language Hat blog (no relation) 18/11/2010. I have rarely seen so many evidently intelligent people making utter arses of themselves. Brilliant!

Saturday 20 November 2010

Reflective Coda

Without intending to, I seem to have started to add a coda to my "Mirrors, Windows, Walls" series, which I thought I had finished with/off some while ago. Actually, this is quite useful, as I never got round to sequencing those images into a proper final book, and there's nothing quite like rediscovering the original impulse behind a set of images for motivating you to look at them with fresh eyes, and finally do something substantial with them.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Scrap Book

Jules Guerin, The Sphinx, 1908
(illustration from Robert Hitchens, Egypt and its Monuments)

In the main, I try to restrict the images on this blog to my own photographs. Copyright and "intellectual property" theft is a serious issue, and too many people on the Web take the view that stealing and republishing other people's images or words is not really wrong. Oh, yes it is.

Proper acknowledgment softens the blow, but using someone else's work without their permission is theft, pure and simple. Every harmless blogger who believes "content wants to be free" simply emboldens those giant corporations (naming no names) which would love to take our "content" for nothing, and then exploit it for massive financial gain. Content may want to be free, but content providers want to eat.

Having said that (ahem) I do keep a digital scrapbook of images that take my fancy, in the same way that people have always done a literal "cut and paste" job with bits of magazines and ephemera. It's one of the best ways of refining your own eye, and also of remembering things, which is more important to the eye-refining process than people think. Just as a diary can remind you of who you were and what you used to think, a scrapbook reminds you of what has pleased or intrigued your eyes. Memory is intrinsic to learning.

Ernest Ashton, Evening at the Pyramids
photogravure, 1897

Of course, kids these days rarely have to learn anything, in the true sense of committing complex and difficult things to memory. Us over 50s had to learn "by heart" whole poems and dramatic speeches, conjugations and declensions, multiplication tables, mathematical proofs, geographical names, etc., etc. Getting these into your head, where they would form the rich raw material of intelligence, was once a large part of the schooling process.

Indeed, before the advent of cheap printed books, the ability to memorize improbably vast chunks of information was the chief skill of the scholar. No longer. We've let ourselves off the hook of rote learning -- no more tears, no more boredom! -- but the analgesic gain will never balance the mnemonic loss. Wikipedia is not there when you sleep. You know how your phone battery fails if it's not repeatedly emptied and fully recharged? That's your brain, that is. Harumph.

Anyway. For a change, all these images are from my digital scrap book. If I have infringed anyone's copyright, do let me know.

A Kodak No. 1 circular image, Sphinx and Pyramids

The Nebra Sky Disk

A Christmas Ghost

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Ivory Tower

There were foghorns this morning out on Southampton Water, and the fog was so dense I could barely see the other side of the street as I scraped the ice off the car windscreen. The deep booming of foghorns is such an evocative sound. At midnight on New Year's Eve all the ships in harbour let them off together, and you can hear them for miles. Today, I was put in mind of the opening track "Gibraltar" on the album Black Market by Weather Report, one of my all-time favourites, and I've been humming and whistling the screechy Joe Zawinul parts all day.

By lunch time the fog had lifted, leaving a slight veil which diffused some brilliant sunshine in an interesting way. Damned if I didn't stumble across an actual ivory tower, round the back of a building I'd somehow not explored before:

I have no idea what it is, or what it's for. You have to wonder whether a princess is imprisoned in there, behind those fairy-tale windows. Then there were these spectacular specular reflections on the side of the library extension:

Very pleasing, and perhaps the best photograph I've yet taken of my own ivory tower / prison / place of work.

Humming Humument

Readers of this blog will already know that I am a fan of the eminent British artist, Tom Phillips, perhaps the most outstanding example of an obsessive project-led artist alive on planet earth. Tom's long-standing (44 year) project to mine aleatory significance from that most unlikely but almost preposterously fruitful I-Ching -- the Victorian novel A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, chosen at random from a second-hand bookshop -- is already the stuff of legend. If you don't own a copy of at least one edition of A Humument, you don't know what you've been missing.

Now, incredibly, Tom has made A Humument available as an iPad app. Not having an iPad, or any prospect of owning one, I'll have to give this edition a miss (unless there's a way to view iPad content on a PC? Anyone know?). But what a great idea -- and cheap, too!

We salute you, sir. Long may you run.

Tom Phillips at 50 (1987)

Thursday 11 November 2010

It's That Picture Again

Some pictures seem eternally topical. Forgive me for showing it again.

That's (part of) me, top left. That's the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change with the battering ram (apparently "the tenth most powerful minister in the new government", no less).

I took the day off yesterday, half -intending to go up to London to add my voice to the crowd opposing the Coalition's policies for higher education, half-intending to redecorate the mouldy bathroom ceiling. The ceiling won, I'm afraid.

The Prof was there, however, and reports that the best chant was "Nick Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue!". Apparently the route chosen was a little odd, and created long periods of crown immobility, which may have contributed to the eventual outcome.

Does the Coalition start to crumble now, imploding under the stress of Lib Dem hypocrisy and Tory condescension? We'll see.

Your blogger assembling a union banner in ancient times