Sunday 31 January 2010

Square Story

Twyford Down

University Campus, Southampton

University Campus, Southampton

Old Winchester Hill

University Campus, Southampton

... The End.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

The Radio

Do existential questions trouble you? Do you lie awake in the small hours worrying about the nature of existence and the consequences of death? I used to when I was a kid, but not now. Or perhaps I should say not yet. It's hard to know whether this is a sign of enlightenment, contentment, or simply that I have become an Alfred E. Neuman tribute act ("What-- me worry?").

This may partly be because I have looked Death in the eye on several occasions. Not boldly, but sheepishly, as each time it was due to my own stupidity. Most memorably, aged sixteen, I was walking along a rocky peninsula called Punta de n'Amer in Majorca, head down, dazed and dazzled by the heat and lost in my own thoughts, when I nearly stepped straight over a cliff. I still recall the shock of gazing between my feet at the waves lapping jagged rocks seventy feet below. I particularly recall the dramatic change in the ambient acoustic: one second it was all shrill insects, up close and intimate like tinnitus, the next it was the vast echoing antechamber of a painful death, narrowly avoided. A true "Musée des Beaux Arts" moment: out to sea a fishing boat was chugging by, and one can imagine the fishermen remarking (to paraphrase Auden) "something idiotic, a boy walking over a cliff", then sailing on...

But then, who knows how many other times a chunk of suspiciously yellow ice has fallen from an airliner and crashed harmlessly into a nearby bush, or how often Death (in Terry Pratchett mode) has murmured, "HMM, NICE TRY... BUT LATER!" and passed on? Even setting aside world-historical conspiracies and ironies -- say, being ordered to walk repeatedly across muddy fields into machine-gun fire, surviving against all odds, and then dying of the flu in 1918 -- the line between existence and non-existence is always very fine indeed, and easily crossed when your mind is on other things.

Of course, as an intelligent, questioning person, you'll be aware that "the problem of consciousness" is one of the big issues that troubles the sleep of philosophers of a materialist bent. That is, if everything is just a stack of atoms then what the hell am I doing here in the middle of it all? It's the ultimate tease. After grappling with the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" comes the stinger: "Yes, all right, but why me?" Wrestling with the literal self-evidence of that one can be an experience of such overwhelming paradox as to approach a religious ecstasy. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it's very difficult to imagine the world carrying on without you at the centre of it. What would be the point, after all?

I had an interesting experience some years ago. At 8:45 am on Friday the 28th of November 1997, on the Victoria Line of the London Underground at Brixton station, to be precise. I had spent the night at my friend Andy's house, and was on my way to attend a course on Unix and shell scripting. I got on the tube at Brixton, which was packed with people travelling into central London to work -- standing room only, which can be an intimate and challenging experience for us shorter folk.

For some reason, the train did not start up, and then the motor was killed by the driver. A silence descended upon the carriage. The few conversations died, and everyone sat or stood, packed close, in an expectant hush. It being late November, everyone was wearing cold-weather gear, and a sort of swishing sound was generated as people's coats rubbed together as they shifted their stance, or simply breathed in and out. The muffled cymbals escaping from a few personal stereo headphones added a complex rhythmic top note. Multiplied and blended together in a confined space, the sound became like the soughing of wind through a forest, or the urgent whispering of many small voices in a language I couldn't quite understand.

After this had gone on for a few minutes, I was suffused by a great sense of peace and warmth. This enforced, silent mass hug of strangers had somehow resonated with my slightly hung-over consciousness, and I became acutely aware of the proximity of many other centres of consciousness, just like mine, each one occupying a separate, enclosed, hot space about the volume of a small loaf of bread. To hear that multi-layered whispering was to eavesdrop on the inwardness of these other beings, and it induced a feeling of deep happiness. It reminded me of that blissful point in falling asleep, when I was a child, when I would finally yield to the distant voices calling me to play.

Then, of course, the train started up again with a jolt, and it was over. But the feeling stayed with me, and a record of it still sits in a corner of the notes on Unix shell-scripting I made later on and still use to this day. I smile any time I thumb past that page. I felt I had been given a privileged glimpse, a massive hint about the true nature of our lives. That, or I had taken one more giant step towards a career as a gibbering derelict.

But what? The problem with such glimpses and hints is that unless you are a collector or connoisseur of such fragments -- let's say, a poet -- you need either to construct something useful out of them or to ignore them. Most people's lives are littered with abandoned insights. As Winston Churchill said of his struggles with mathematics:
I had a feeling once about Mathematics, that I saw it all—depth beyond depth was revealed to me -- the Byss and the Abyss. I saw -- as one might see the transit of Venus or even the Lord Mayor's Show -- a quantity passing through infinity and changing its sign from plus to minus. I saw exactly how it happened and why the tergiversation was inevitable: and how the one step involved all the others. It was like politics. But it was after dinner and I let it go.
And we homespun philosophers and secular mystics lack training and context. We're like those jaw-droppingly bad contestants on the X Factor whose self-delusion is teflon-coated kevlar: non-stick and bullet-proof. To have one's own Theory of Everything is to flirt with derangement (or burning at the stake -- do you know the book "The Cheese and the Worms", by Carlo Ginzburg?).

But I'm beyond help. So...

The simplest, most obvious insight was a reinforcement of something we have all always known, but all always seem to forget: that the mutual recognition of the reality and authenticity of each other's consciousness is the bedrock of human society. But this is tricky territory, and quickly leads to an unhelpful sentimentality: "We must love one another or die", yadda yadda*. As if there were a choice; as the man said, no-one here gets out alive. Speculation about how to live is fun and worthwhile -- plenty of evidence, plenty of chances to experiment. Speculation about what life is, and what it means to die is pretty futile, but somehow seems one of our most important tasks (apart from getting on with one's life and postponing the dying bit as long as possible).

However -- and here we enter the territory of derangement -- I also had the suspicion of a theory that -- somehow, maybe, perhaps -- we have evolved as biological receiver sets for a signal which is "out there" but which cannot manifest itself other than through a suitable receiver. Rather like a broadcast radio programme: so long as the set is on ("alive") the signal gets received and interpreted by our circuitry as self-awareness. But, turn it off ("die") and it doesn't. On or off, on or off: it's on a toggle switch; but crucially the broadcast signal is always there and always the same, though our individual receivers may handle it differently.

For whatever reasons, making use of this signal has proved useful to us, and has given us a real evolutionary edge. The signal probably, in itself, means nothing. But then electricity doesn't mean anything, either, but here I am, using it to communicate with you.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to The Radio... Thought for the Day: We must love one another, then die, perhaps.

[Cue up "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Öyster Cult, fade to "Calling All Angels" by Jane Siberry]

And now, the weather...

* The words come from Auden's poem "September 1, 1939". Auden himself quickly recognised the problem when, reading the poem shortly after its publication, he pondered that line:

"I said to myself: 'That's a damned lie! We must die anyway.' So, in the next edition, I altered it to 'We must love one another and die.' This didn't seem to do either, so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty—and must be scrapped."

Sunday 24 January 2010

Foggy Dew

This week we had fog on several days which started out very dense, just hovering above freezing point, and then lasted throughout the day as a luminous veil over everything.

For some reason this always reminds me of a hangover, something to which I have become increasingly prone as I get older. These days, I drink alcohol infrequently and in small measures, but always seem to pay a disproportionate penalty the next day. When I was a young man I drank frequently and in large measures, and paid no penalty at all. This makes me reflect that young people are, in effect, a separate species.

For example, yesterday the Guardian gave away a little pamphlet of the poems of John Keats. Reading them now -- forty years after I first read and fell under their spell -- I was struck by the narrowness of their world view: these are the poems of a very young man. It's almost embarrassing, to read so much constructed on so little. "The Eve of St. Agnes", for example. The beadsman is a cartoon of an old man. His fingers were numb? I'd say his fingers were more likely burning with the agony of arthritis, young 'un! He walked bare-footed through the freezing chapel? What is this -- Scooby Doo?

It's no wonder so many folk songs begin with the words, "Come all ye young men, and listen to me..." Once, the old had useful things to say about press gangs, the dangerous attractions of fairy princesses, and a mysterious substance called "foggy dew" often found at the scene of the crime. Remarkably, very few of them begin with the words, "Shut it, grandad, and listen to me" (or "Roll over Beethoven", effectively the same sentiment).

Oh well, famously, youth is wasted on the young. Some of them, anyway.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!--then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

John Keats

Sunday 17 January 2010

Eric Kennington

Here are two more favourite pictures. These are both pastel sketches by Eric Kennington from WW1. Kennington worked as a war artist in both World Wars, but his First War work is (in my opinion) far superior to the rather formulaic, slightly sentimental portraits of airmen, Home Guards, and the like he did in the Second. He had fought on the Western Front, was wounded, and then returned as an official war artist in 1917. Like the poets of that war, he used skills learned in the studios of bohemian Chelsea to describe and delineate Hell.

Raider with a Cosh, 1917

If you have read the fiction of Andy McNab you will recognise this man. Here is someone who has discovered his capacity for stealth and sudden, improvised violence, refined it into an artform, and put himself, temporarily, at the service of officers who fear and despise him. Look at those hands. Look at the bayoneted rifle shrouded in sacking, and that home-made club. But also look at the frown of concentration in that face clenched around a cigarette.

The Duke of Wellington's words (alleged to have been said before Waterloo) spring to mind: "This army is composed of the scum of the earth. I don't know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God they terrify me!"

Signaller Off Duty, 1916

This, by contrast, is someone captured in a moment of escape. My father was a despatch rider in the Royal Signals in WW2, and he became a specialist in the art of "getting your head down", that is, grabbing opportunities for sleep when they presented themselves. Signals units were very mobile, and despatch riders especially so. After riding a motorbike or driving a truck for several days in stressful conditions, getting "forty winks" under a table somewhere was a necessity. The matching skill, of course, is to wake instantly at a pre-determined time, ready to go.

Kennington, at his best, has a way of capturing the inwardness and the mystery of "ordinary" male faces that is compelling. Most war art is either grandiose or merely expressive of the artist's own reaction to war ("It's horrible!"). These sketches and some of Kennington's more considered work (for example, the painting "Gassed and Wounded", or the wonderful series of prints "Making Soldiers") seem to express something of the experience of the men pictured: they are portraits of men in uniform, rather than sketches of objects known as "soldiers". Remarkably, that is quite an unusual accomplishment.

Apparently, one of my grandfather's favourite jokes was this:

Boy: What's a soldier for, Dad?
Dad: To 'ang things on, son.

He had been an infantry sergeant in WW1, so would have known. One of my father's was this:

Private 1: That General Montgomery spoke to me the other day, you know!
Private 2: Cor, really? What did he say?
Private 1: He said, "Get out of my fuckin' way, soldier!"

Friday 15 January 2010

A Change in the Weather

Somewhere a key was turned, and the freeze has begun to unlock. It seemed to happen on Wednesday. I drove our son up to Oxford in the morning, and it was Winter Wonderland all the way from Winchester: although the main roads were clear, there was an unbroken white blanket of snow from horizon to horizon. The trees were particularly pretty, their branches traced out in snow against the dark of the woodland interior like a photographic negative. Then as I drove back in the afternoon the rain started, and it all began to turn into grey slush.

Talking of frozen wastes, I saw a report that some of Frank Hurley's abandoned camera kit may have been found in the Antarctic. Hurley was a remarkable photographer, an Australian and an adventurer in that classic "Edwardian" mould, who was a member of Shackleton's staggeringly heroic expedition of 1914-16.
After they abandoned the debilitated Endurance, Shackleton ordered the crew members to pare their personal possessions down to two pounds each. Hurley had to leave his precious cameras behind, but Shackleton allowed him to keep a selection of photographs and motion-picture footage. Stripped to the waist, Hurley dove into the icy waters to retrieve his treasured images from the sinking wreck of the ship. Together, Shackleton and Hurley chose 120 glass plates to keep and smashed about 400; Shackleton feared that Hurley would endanger himself to return for them later. Hurley sealed the plates in metal tins with improvised solder, along with prints he had developed on board the ship. Hurley documented the remainder of their odyssey with only a handheld Vest Pocket Kodak camera and three rolls of film.
PBS/Nova, Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure
A lot of Hurley's work is available on the web, and repays viewing. That it was taken in such extreme conditions with a glass-plate view camera on a heavy wooden tripod beggars belief. You can buy scans of images from his albums from the Australian National Library -- here's one I couldn't resist:

The caption reads:
"This photograph, taken by the light of the midnight sun, shows the bows of the Discovery wending a way through floes and brash ice off the coast of Kemp Land, Antarctica"
Self-evidently, it was taken from the top of one of Discovery's masts with a wide angle lens. On a glass-plate view camera by a man in an extra-thick woollen jumper and three pairs of socks. Talk about "f/8 and be there"...

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Such Watch!

It's a strange experience, living at the epicentre of a language that has gone global. "English" may be the vernacular evolved by the inhabitants of the British Isles (the mongrel offspring of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Norman French and goodness knows what else, which squeezed out the various Celtic languages like a cuckoo chick settling into a nest) but there are now many Englishes spoken and written around the world, largely by people who have never seen our green and pleasant land, and who couldn't care less about distinguishing a dale from a dingle, or a dell, or a bottom, or a glen, or a vale, or a valley. And it's a well-established fact that even visiting alien species tend to speak their own insistent variety of English, too: "ex-ter-min-ate! EX-TER-MIN-ATE!!". Never mind global, that's universal.

Faced with this viral phenomenon, it's hard not to feel proprietorial. It's almost impossible, when travelling abroad and asked "Do you speak English?" not to reply "I am English!" (to which a suitable riposte would be, "I'll take that as a 'probably', then"). But, just as we have slipped down the international league of players of our other global export, football, so we have started to lose control and influence over our own language. Ovid, no doubt, would have ground his teeth to hear Latin abused as the lingua franca of mediaeval Europe; so now must we native-born English speakers grind ours, as "our" English takes over the world.

Of course I accept, linguistically, that the rule is that usage trumps prescription. In the end, if all the speakers of dodgy Englishes out there -- the ones who spell "lose" as "loose", or confuse their "their", their "there", and their "they're" -- agree to agree on their ignorance, then in the long run there's nothing to be done about it. But, but... If nothing else, some of us have invested a lot of time and care into getting it right, and it's annoying to see such a precious tool handled so carelessly.

My father was a mild-mannered man, but he would be enraged if he ever caught me abusing a tool -- for example, levering the lid off a tin of paint with a chisel. I have inherited a similar flashpoint with regard to linguistic abuses. But where my father had only me and a handful of apprentices to provoke his ire, I have the entire freakin' internet. Increasingly, I wonder whether it's time simply to stop caring about it. What does it matter if, for whatever modish reasons, people -- English people -- have suddenly started saying "I'm bored of maths" rather than "I'm bored with or by maths"? It's wrong, but in due course it will become right. And, in 50 years, some pedant will be fuming about the new fashion for saying "I'm bored at maths."

Obsessing about the fussy details of obsolete local practices -- which is what it amounts to -- is a sure sign of a culture in decline. In 1776, I'm pretty sure George III and George Washington were not quarrelling over the preferred spelling of "favour" or "sabre", or whether you are said to "rule" or "head up" a country. No, rather more was at stake -- though the French, those perennial bad losers, would probably insist there was a linguistic angle, too. It will be an indicator of the irreversible decline of the United States when pedants start attempting to recapture American metaphors and usages which have escaped into the global wild and gone feral ("Step up to the plate", anybody? Hey, what's the beef? And where is the beef, anyway? Is it on the plate? Oh, I see, that's a whole different ball game...).

One of the wonderful (and insidious) things about English as a language is its hospitality to the delightfully incorrect and unwittingly innovative usages of non-native speakers. We love it when you talk unclean. Why, just listening to the radio news today I heard a French official talking in wonderfully articulate English (in a discussion of the clearance of the Sangatte refugee camp) who referred to people sleeping "under the rain". Why would anyone bother to correct him? It's perfectly sensible, and almost poetic. In the same slot an Afghan refugee, interviewed and asked how many times the police had arrested him at Sangatte, replied "four many".* Again, who wouldn't let it go? Iit may not be "English", but it is English-based communication.

This last example reminds me of a favourite bit of dialogue in the film Casablanca, where the Leuchtags are showing off their new language skills:
Mr. Leuchtag: Liebchen-- sweetnessheart, what watch?
Mrs. Leuchtag:
Ten watch.
Mr. Leuchtag:
Such watch?
Hm. You will get along beautiful in America, mm-hmm.
It helps if you speak German, of course, in which language the words for "watch" and "hour" are the same... Heh. Well, I thought it was funny, anyway, as did, presumably, the scriptwriters. "Hey," as Chico Marx would say, "Hey, what's a matter for you?"

* The reference to Sangatte in the news betrays the long gestation of this post, begun way back on 10/10/09...

Saturday 9 January 2010


Beyond the back wall of our postage-stamp-sized back garden lies a mysterious expanse of trees and brambles known to our family as The Wild Place. In reality, it is an unused corner of a municipal cemetery, cut off on three sides by back walls and fences, and thus unvisited from one year to the next by humans, apart from the odd explorer seeking a non-existent shortcut. I'm sure that in the days of my childhood, when we kids roamed far and wide building camps and climbing trees, it would have been a favoured place for playing, but its lack of central heating and complete absence of electrical outlets or internet cabling means it is utterly silent these days. That suits me just fine.

The Wild Place is perfect for wildlife, of course. Even though we are close to the centre of town a wide variety of birds are regular visitors -- the hard winter has brought in this week our very first Redwings and Fieldfares. In the past I have been able to watch a buzzard sitting casually on a branch not 20 yards from my bedroom window and tearing up a pigeon for lunch, mobbed by coup-counting crows and magpies. Even the occasional deer makes its way into this cul-de-sac; a few years ago I spotted one peering forlornly over our back wall as I was doing the washing up.

But the lords of the Wild Place are the foxes. At night, their shrieking can chill your blood, as they pad up and down on the back wall. During the day, they can usually be seen sunning themselves amongst the brambles. Today I spotted these two, napping in the winter sun in a snow-free corner beneath an oak tree.

Cute, eh? It's a tribute to the lens (Canon EF 70-300 f/4 IS) that a hand-held shot taken through the unwashed double-glazing of our loft extension should come out so well.

Friday 8 January 2010


I overlooked this one from New Year's Day: as the red glow intensified, looking away from the setting sun, it picked out a red ribbon and a single red berry in a thorn tree. Strange.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Space Salmon

Now, if they looked as convincing as this, I could understand how the ancients managed to agree on the names of those various random alignments of stars we call "constellations". As it is, this fat salmon surging through space is nothing more than an equally random grouping of cracks and tiny bubbles embedded in the ice of the Staff Club pool.

I'm very attracted to those moments when the universe appears to speak -- or at least to clear its throat -- but then falls back into its protracted silent sulk again. It's a species of what theologians call the numinous (go on, look it up for yourself, I'm in bed with a cold, watching the snow fly past my window). In the end, the inescapable mystery is that there is a pulse, a systole and diastole, of meaning and meaninglessness that has led us, as a species, to propose various spiritual and philosophical palliative syntheses to that headache-inducing dialectic. But our true genius as a species, however, has been to invent Paracetamol to make such headaches go away. I think I'm due for my next dose in about 20 minutes.

Tuesday 5 January 2010


It's fairly obvious, I suppose, that if you photograph your familiar surroundings on a daily basis you will eventually find yourself standing -- at the same time of year, in the same place -- in front of something you've photographed several times before, even if that something is fairly unusual. This for example:

For a brief window of time around the new year, we are treated to the spectacle of a two-tone plume of steam billowing from the chimneys of the university heating plant. The conditions have to be just right: cold enough to cause the water vapour to be visible, clear and bright enough for the light to pick the plume out against a blue sky, and -- most crucially -- the alignment of the rising sun with the narrow alley between two Engineering buildings has to be perfect. As far as I know, this conjunction has no astrological or religious significance. It looks like this:

The other dependable seasonal phenomenon is the repeated freezing, thawing and refreezing of the pool outside the Staff Club:

Students cannot resist trying to stand on the ice, so it reliably gets broken and refrozen into strange shapes, and air bubbles get trapped in the ice. Luckily, the water is too shallow to have much of a mishap in, unless you insist on lying down.

Saturday 2 January 2010

New Year

A New Year's Day walk and photograph is a custom I have kept to for many years now. Yesterday afternoon we went to St. Catherine's Hill near Winchester, but decided to cross over the motorway (which was laid through an open chalk wound slashed into the ancient and historic downlands in the 1990s) to Twyford Down.

It was an exhilarating, frosty day for a walk, with a clear even light, even though the sun was already beginning to set. As it got lower in the sky, however, the sun took on a particularly red radiance, and cast a weird glow onto the flinty, frozen fields. A fox made its way across the ploughed ruts shortly before this photograph was taken.

New Year's Day 2010, Twyford Down