Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Industrial Sublime

I'm feeling generous (I've just been up to the Almeida Theatre in Islington, London with my son to see a brilliant production of Measure For Measure) and in the mood to point you at other people's websites. If you have any taste for the photography of the industrial sublime, you must check out the work of Jamey Stillings, on show at the Photo-Eye gallery. Simply stunning.

Meanwhile, here's a coat rack.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Unhappy Hipsters

My attention has been drawn to the hilarious website Unhappy Hipsters. I've always loved the way new captions can mine new meaning out of pictures: the Punch caption competitions used to be achingly funny, and the New Yorker competition sometimes approaches that standard.

The lifestyle portrayed and sent up in these "unhappy hipster" photographs (presumably extracted from architectural magazines) is one so alien to me that I cannot actually believe in its reality. Come on, surely no-one really lives like that? Or even aspires to live like that?

I couldn't resist putting up a couple of lifestyle pictures of my own. Captions welcome (probably).

The uncluttered look is about knowing when to stop

Exhausted, after clearing a space to sit down

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Joking Aside

I sometimes think that everything important -- philosophically, spiritually, socially -- could be learned by paying proper attention to jokes. Jokes are perhaps the last living vestige of an ancient method of teaching wisdom by means of an oral tradition of tales and parables. The stories of Zen priests or the tales of "Mullah Nasruddin" seek to instruct at the same time as they amuse or astonish, as perhaps do some of the parables of the Gospels -- puns about passing a camel through "the eye of a needle" (the name of a gate into Jerusalem) have that same faint glimmer of a worn-out joke that the cartoons in ancient copies of Punch now have. Rabbi Lionel Blue in his heyday was, of course, a practitioner of this tradition. It's easy to imagine that much of the philosophical writing of Wittgenstein or Derrida is intended to be hilarious.

Personally, I have always collected jokes which seem to contain insights that bypass rational thought. One of the more surprising items I found in my home-town public library was a two-volume tome entitled The Rationale of the Dirty Joke, by Gershon Legman. The book recounts, classifies and analyses hundreds of filthy jokes, most of which are very American, totally unfunny, and entirely baffling to an innocent 16-year old mind. I am ashamed to say I was too ashamed ever to borrow the book, but spent many hours thumbing through it in a private corner of the library. If nothing else, it planted the seed of an idea that there might be more to jokes than making people laugh.

Of course it does help if a joke is funny. But tastes and contexts differ, and what is hilarious with port and cigars in a Vienna drawing room in 1910 may well not work over a cup of instant coffee in the office of Spare Rib in 1972. And humour is clearly subject to historical change, like everything else. Freud, in his outstandingly unfunny Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, gives this example of a joke that he has decided is simply silly (or, in Freud's words, "idiocy masquerading as a joke"):
A man at the dinner table who was being handed fish dipped his two hands twice in the mayonnaise and then ran them through his hair. When his neighbor looked at him in astonishment, he seemed to notice his mistake and apologized: “I’m so sorry, I thought it was spinach.”
Time has had its way with Herr Doktor Freud's ponderous analysis, and this is now just about the only funny joke in the entire book. Though on the rare occasions I tell it I tend to substitute "custard" for "spinach".

The sad thing is that no-one tells jokes any more, not even most professional comedians. They've gone the way of grand narratives: it's true, after all, that history is short on punch-lines. And jokes for adults have forever been blighted by a nervousness about the "appropriateness" of the reflexes that trigger our laughter.

I have to admit that most of the jokes that stock my personal repertoire were heard before I went to university, and are now completely unrepeatable. At university, I discovered pretty fast that telling jokes was about as tragically unhip as wearing a vest. But, I have to say, as a learning experience it was second to none: there's no quicker way of discovering the meaning and acceptable boundaries of "sexism" and "racism" than telling a favourite joke and watching the appalled expressions on the faces of people you would quite like to have as friends.

But here is a joke for children, that always makes me laugh:
This is the story of the Brown Paper Cowboy. He had brown paper boots, and brown paper trousers, a brown paper shirt, and a brown paper hat. He even rode a brown paper horse with a brown paper saddle. But one day the sherriff had to arrest him. Why? For rustling.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Spring Stain

In the contest between the human project to impose cartoonish ideas of regularity and order on the world and the infinitely higher orders of organization available to natural forces, there can only ever be one winner. But it's always worth watching.

Oblique Claims to Fame #7

I mentioned the photographer David Gepp yesterday, and who should ring me this evening but David? Although he lives in deepest mid-Wales, where mobile phone connections are merely a rumour, David is originally from Belfast, and a Van Morrison fan (no surprise there). Before we hung up, it struck me that there was a question I had to ask.

Perhaps you remember that in the post "G-L-O-R-I-A" I wrote, "
Can you imagine what it must have been like hearing Them improvise Gloria in those legendary extended sessions at the Maritime Hotel in Belfast?" It had struck me that David was of an age, inclination and origin for this not to be a rhetorical question. And, as it turns out, it wasn't: he had indeed actually stood outside the Maritime Hotel, drinking, while Them played "Gloria" inside.

On oblique claims to fame, some other time I may reveal how Harold Macmillan, sometime Prime Minister, once had to complain about the late-night noise from my stereo. Oh, and when we once saw Tommy Cooper checking out the shoes in a shop window in Luton.

But enough of this celebrity gossip!

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Distant Thunder

I travelled up to London today to attend an "executive briefing" on "Resource Description and Access" (RDA) -- the soon-to-be-unveiled (but frankly, IMHO, doomed) attempt at a new, universal code for library cataloguing. I won't bore you with my thoughts on that subject. What was blog-worthy was that the briefing took place in Bloomsbury.

A long, long time ago, I lived for a year or so in Hackney, East London, and travelled in on the No. 73 bus to Bloomsbury on most weekdays. I was a postgraduate student at University College, London, studying to qualify as a professional librarian. I was at that panicky stage of young adulthood when the realisation dawns on you that a living must be earned, but you have not yet totally abandoned the idea of living off your wits or talents. One's mid-twenties are probably the worst of times, beset by such high levels of self-doubt and anxiety, something it is easy to forget. A lot of people train as teachers under that pressure; but I knew very well that, however badly things turned out, that would never suit me.

If you put the first and the second paragraphs of this post together, you will conclude, rightly, that my wits and talents never did put any money in the bank. The "alternative" course charted in Bloomsbury in 1980 has, in the end, seen me through to the present day, without deviation. Whatever you may think I am, or whatever I may have wanted to be, the HSBC Bank knows that I am paid a decent monthly salary by my university to be an expert in, well, certain essential but narrow areas of library stuff. Ah, well.

But, being in Bloomsbury again today reminded me of some paths not taken; of how -- when you stand at a crossroads in your life -- nothing is written. For example, I was at that time a keen student of the Russian language. At school, I had been inducted into the rudiments: the alphabet, some basic vocabulary and grammar. It was just a bit of fun for the brighter kids (ah, we made our own entertainment in those days!) laid on by a teacher who was an enthusiast. But, by one of those life-changing chances, in 1977 the University of Bristol needed someone -- anyone! -- to catalogue Russian books at just the same time my girlfriend moved there to qualify as a teacher. No qualification necessary. How convenient!

After a couple of years' daily grappling with the mysteries of Soviet book-publishing my Russian had improved to the point where a few years of serious study might get me up to a respectable standard. Russian is a beautiful, difficult, expressive language. Unless you've studied a highly-inflected, highly irregular language -- especially one sealed off behind an unfamilar alphabet -- you probably have no idea what an all-involving passion it can become. So, while I studied librarianship at UCL, I had also signed up for Russian evening classes with Peter Norman at the School of Slavonic & East European Studies. We read our way, painfully, slowly, through Chekhov short stories. I was still young enough to memorize declensions and conjugations without much effort, and every new idiom mastered seemed a fresh step towards a slightly fuzzily defined goal.

But, for whatever reasons, it never happened (whatever "it" was). I ended up working professionally at a university that had dropped Russian as a subject of study the year before I arrived in the 1980s. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. I began to discover other aptitudes which felt a little less like doing homework, such as photography. I taught myself to program. We had children.

I never did visit Russia, and may never do so. But walking through the elegant canyons of Bloomsbury this afternoon, I recalled some beautiful words I once memorized from a poem by Anna Akhmatova:

Uslyshish' grom i vspomnish' obo mne,
Podumaesh': ona grozy zhelala

(You will hear thunder, and you will remember me.
You will think: she wanted storms.)

Then -- perhaps to counter the wave of unruly emotion these words unlocked -- I remembered another sonorous phrase I discovered in a Russian-English Dictionary:

Znat' tri yazyka nenuzhnaya roskoshch'

("To know three languages is an unnecessary luxury" -- Chekhov)

Monday, 22 March 2010

A Lump of Sugar in Hot Tea

On my morning drive into work I've taken to listening to Radio 3 (the BBC's notoriously highbrow classical station), largely because it more usually complements my driving mood than the combative self-satisfaction of Humphrys and Naughtie on Radio 4's Today Programme* or the relentlessly upbeat Radio 2. It also helps fill the enormous gaps in my musical education.

Today, as I negotiated a particularly tricky roundabout, I found myself half-listening to a half-familiar string quartet which gradually hijacked my undivided attention, as only the very greatest music by the very greatest composers can. A classic car park moment was unfolding.

As the music developed I found myself thinking about the way the past relentlessly melts and shape-shifts into the present on its way to the future, and some words of John Ruskin came into my mind that I had read in a Guardian review at the weekend -- "The rate at which Venice is going is about that of a lump of sugar in hot tea"**.

I found myself reflecting that the impulse behind conservation is only a noble one if it stays within bounds. To preserve everything is as idiotic as to preserve nothing is reckless. I saw elaborate snow crystals, melting. I saw Cnut on the Solent shore, wrecking his boots and the varnish on a portable throne with salt water, just to make a point which no-one ever quite understands. I resolved to sell all my possessions, and live a life of uncluttered simplicity.

I had been listening to the third movement of Beethoven's String Quartet 15 in A Minor, Opus 132, generally reckoned one of the great achievements of the human spirit. Beethoven wrote a heading for this movement: "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" (A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode***).

I don't know what the Supreme Being made of it, but I was transfixed; once more, I was slightly late for the office, but wearing a mysterious A Minor smile.

* I actually finally sent an email of complaint to the BBC which, in essence, said I was fed up with Humphrys and Naughtie treating their guests and interviewees as mere stooges on the John and Jim show. They seem to feel free to complete or cut across any guest speaker's thought if they think they can anticipate where it is going. They haven't yet actually said, "Yadda yadda yadda, Secretary of State, BOR-ING!" but it can't be long.

** Venice -- somewhere I have never visited -- is such an obvious metaphor for the magnificent vanity of human endeavours and their slow (and sometimes not so slow) reclamation by the agents of time that it's easy to forget it's a real place. A friend, the photographer David Gepp, made a wonderfully other-worldly series of images of that city ("Venezia Stenopaeica") using a pinhole camera, the making of which was featured in a BBC documentary, An Italian Dream. I understand the problem with Venice is the crowds. David simply made them vanish with his very, very long exposures: it's a neat trick.

*** I quote from an article by Masumi Per Rostad: "It is interesting—and unusual—that he employs use of the Lydian mode because of its nod to ancient church music. The mode itself is basically a major scale with a raised fourth. With a strange and somewhat futuristic sound, it has been used popularly as the mode for The Simpsons’ and The Jetsons’ cartoon theme songs."

Sunday, 21 March 2010

One of Those Days in England

I went for a walk up a stretch of the A3057 this afternoon, where it passes along the Test Valley with Mottisfont on one side and a chalk escarpment on the other. It's a favourite spot, and if anyone has £800K to spare, my favourite house situated in it is up for sale at the moment. Sigh.

It's a good spot for hedges and fields, and that's what grabbed my attention. You can just feel the sap rising through those stiff twigs (yes, yes, stop giggling at the back).

Hey, £200K each for these prints and I could be moving house. Any offers? Any size you like! No time-wasters, please!

Saturday, 20 March 2010


Today, we have twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness. Tomorrow, the days start to be longer than the nights. It's all to do with the fact that the earth leans on the universe like a bicycle against a wall (or "the obliquity of the ecliptic", about 23.5 degrees).

These pictures have absolutely nothing to do with the Vernal Equinox.

Or do they?

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Brilliant Corners

The early morning sparkle intensifies as the days lengthen and and the sunlight strengthens.

And, talking of Brilliant Corners (you saw this one coming, didn't you?), have a look at this. It's the beta version of Blurb's new BookShow widget, designed to showcase and link to your own Blurb books in your webpage or blog.

Monday, 15 March 2010


Today was a good day for mysterious but compelling shapes and colours. A Thelonious Monk kind of day.

Sunday, 14 March 2010


I must admit I'd forgotten all about it, but today I received an invitation to join the free version of Spotify, which may perhaps best be described as an on-demand online radio service. The idea (if you choose the free version) is that you can listen to anything you want, instantly, in full, and free of charge, for the price of the occasional advert. No worse than Radio Caroline, really, even in its "Loving Awareness" days (what was that all about?). However, you do have to apply for an invitation to join the free service, and then wait...*

I've just spent a happy couple of hours trying to probe the outer limits of what is and isn't available, and I'm impressed. Pop and rock, of course, are as thoroughly covered as you'd expect. I tried a few tests. For example, an old friend has recently started a blog, and he mentions a song as being a little hard to find these days: "Desperadoes Waiting For A Train" by Guy Clark. On Spotify there are versions of the song by Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Mallard, The Highwaymen, and even Topi Sorskakoski & Reijo Taipalo (no, really).

But, I'm thinking, what about non-pop? I looked for the song by John Dowland "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" (or "In Darknesse Let Mee Dwell" if you prefer, which I do). It turns out there are multiple versions, including stunning renditions by countertenor Andreas Scholl and a Renaissance music ensemble named Virelai. OK, so what about contemporary music? Say, the "Three Studies After Couperin" by Thomas Ades I heard on Radio 3 the other day? No problem. So, what about jazz? I keep meaning to explore John Surman's past recordings. Looks like I won't need to put that off any longer. "The Road to Saint Ives" starts here. If nothing else, Spotify could save me a lot of money.

But, I'm pleased to say it did fail the ultimate test. If you've ever watched the film Nosferatu, directed by Werner Herzog, you will have heard a particularly haunting, astringent piece of choral music. Once heard, never forgotten. As I first saw this film in pre-digital days, I spent years trying to track it down. I followed false trails to the group Popol Vuh, and to Fauré's Requiem; tantalizingly, I even heard it sampled, unacknowledged, on a track by Kate Bush.

Eventually, I identified it as the Georgian folksong "Tsintskaro", recorded by the Vocal Ensemble Gordela on an old Soviet-era Melodiya recording. As far as I can tell it is now unobtainable, though other recordings of the same piece by other groups are available (see here for a detailed account of another person's identical quest). If you've never heard Georgian or Bulgarian polyphonic choral singing, you should: you have a spine-tingling treat in store for you. Start where everyone starts, with the album Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Vol. 1.

* Reminds me of that old joke about how to go about buying a Lockheed Starfighter in Germany -- buy an acre of ground, and wait (they used to crash a lot, inexplicably). There's an album "Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters" put together by the Hawkwind crowd which is a rare example of a concept album that (a) has a concept and (b) works. It includes the immortal line (uttered by a member of the maintenance crew, discovering a loose bit from a Starfighter engine), "Well, I found it in me trouser turn-ups".

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Midweek Miscellany

The weather has been one of my favourite kinds this week -- bright spring sunshine scoured by a deep-chilled northerly wind. This has so far made for a series of "lucky lunchtimes" with the camera. Sometime soon I'll need to think about putting some kind of order onto the images from the last year or so, but for now I'm still in the happy hunter-gatherer phase, filling the sack with anything that comes to hand.

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Italian Job

For anyone who happens to be within striking distance of the top right-hand corner of Italy in the next couple of months, there will be a show of my sequence "The Revenants" in Innichen / San Candido from 13th March to 7th May 2010 at

Kunstraum Café Mitterhofer
Peter-Paul-Rainer-Str. 41
39038 Innichen

Nice invitations -- Thanks, Manfred!

The observant among you will have noticed that the above address (apart from the word "Italy") appears to be in German. The linguistic and tribal politics of Europe can be complex, deep-rooted, and occasionally explosive: the question of the "South Tyrol" is no exception. (I expect perfidious Albion will have had an interfering finger in the pie, somewhere. We usually do). I refer you to the Wikipedia article on the Province of Bolzano-Bozen for some clarification.

I don't think my pictures are likely to stir anyone's nationalist pot, though.

Take a test drive of the book...
Fancy a copy? Buy one from my Blurb bookstore here!

A while ago I was talking with my son about the way causes like nationalism tend, temporarily, to unite some very odd bedfellows, who then wake up one morning to discover that they despise each other even more than whatever it was they originally mutually loathed. It's a very common phenomenon, and I expect it has a name.

One day the Romantic Lover of Local Folkways and the Political Radical find themselves united in common cause against a common oppressor -- perhaps, a wicked colonial power seeking to eliminate inconvenient and inefficient differences between its subject peoples ("Look, why don't we all just speak English, OK?"). After a period of struggle (in which the Radicals do some struggling and the Romantics write some agitated music and poems in the local dialect) there follow some token concessions from the weary colonial power ("Alright, alright, you say tomato and I say tomato. WTF, I am, after all, condemned by History... How about we change all the road signs, OK?")

So, the Romantics finally get their Craft Centre, Gift Shop and Performance Space and their precious language is inflicted on the local schoolchildren, and they are perfectly happy (the Romantics, not the schoolchildren). But the Political Radicals (whose agitations provoked the compromises in the first place) are nowhere nearer the utopian separatist state of their dreams. And they could care less about speaking some stupid, unlearnable dead language with twenty words for "frying pan" but no words at all for "unreconstructed hegemonic masculinism". Anger and marginalisation ensue, with perhaps a futile but increasingly desperate terrorist campaign sputtering on for a decade or two.

Meanwhile the world moves on. But, as the Balkans show, some grievances can run deep, sometimes even into those dark, bitter depths where cruelty to erstwhile neighbours becomes a satanic form of performance art. This sort of thing can get very ugly, and the Romantic Lover of Folkways can sometimes wonder, "My God, what have we done?".

As it happens, something of the sort happened right here, on these very islands, about 40 years ago. Forget your "I Remember the 70s" clichés from TV; the end of the 60s / start of the 70s was a very weird time. But that's a story for another day.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

F/8 and Be Square

I think I could happily spend my life composing images within a square. Or, rather, recomposing, since no-one has yet come up with a square format digital camera. Wouldn't that be a fine thing, though? What a shame, always to be throwing away part of your lens' circle of coverage, simply because most people like composing in a rectangle. Wouldn't it be fun to have a smaller digital equivalent of a Hasselblad, perhaps with a screen on top of the camera inside the traditional collapsible hood?

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Official Announcement

Don't you just hate it when that happens? You're walking in to work across Southampton Common, minding your own business and keeping an eye out for dog crap, when suddenly there -- right there at the side of the path -- is a burning bush, complete with a voice exclaiming "I yam what I yam, ug ug ug" (sorry, may be confusing my Popeye with my Bible, there).

Not so much a harbinger of spring, as a full-on press launch, with celebrity endorsement, press kit, and the Archangel Gabriel's PA and Max Clifford lurking in huddled conference in the background. Oddly -- perhaps because it was 7:45 in the morning -- I seemed to be the only one there for the photo opportunity.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

G - L - O - R - I - A

Just Kids, Patti Smith's recently-published reminiscences of her life in NY with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is being read by Smith on Radio 4 as Book of the Week this week. I've never been a big fan of either Patti Smith or Mapplethorpe, but they've both been artists you couldn't help but notice.

In summer 1976 I crashed for a while in a house where Horses rarely left the turntable. The owner of that album was not so much an enthusiast, as an evangelist. But it always struck me as hysterical art-school posturing. "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine!" Cor, really? It's instructive to compare Patti Smith's version of "Gloria" with Van Morrison's original version recorded in 1964 with Them -- hmm, which is the rawest, the most elemental?*

True, by that time I was no longer that typical small-town teenager who thought rock and pop defined the outer limits of human experience. My trajectory had begun to veer off in the direction of classical music and contemporary jazz: this was, after all, also the time of Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert. But the changes that happened in popular music around 1976/77 (often referred to as "punk" in journalistic shorthand -- a travesty of the complexity of what was happening then) did affect me deeply, because I cared very deeply about popular music.

I was an avid reader of the New Musical Express, which was in its ultra-hip, antinomian heyday with writers like Ian Penman, Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill, and Paul Morley turning out provocative and thought-provoking pieces on the emerging scene. For a few brief years, it seemed that pop music might be regenerating itself with the energy of raw creative impulse rather than stacked megawattage, and might be re-situating itself back on the streets, rather than in the stadium. And, crucially, on British streets. Finally, it seemed, singers had shaken off the compulsion to mimic an American accent. American "punk" acts like Patti Smith and The Ramones seemed somehow to have missed the point.

It didn't last, though. It can be difficult -- at the time, up close -- to distinguish between a phoenix rising from the flames, and a crash and burn situation. Despite its ongoing (and apparently eternal) half-life, what we witnessed then was the final fizzling out of pop's batteries. Sorry, young 'uns, but it's true. Pretty much everything since has been a repeat or a reworking of models established before 1980, and has aspired to nothing more than the condition of entertainment, mere background noise.**

As to Robert Mapplethorpe ... Oh, don't get me started. What was I saying about hysterical art-house posturing?

* Rhetorical question. Can you imagine what it must have been like hearing Them improvise Gloria in those legendary extended sessions at the Maritime Hotel in Belfast? For me, the song always invokes the sleazy danger of those leather-jacketed guys who operated the dodgems at fairs -- the very essence of rock'n'roll.

** I do realise that this is a bit like saying, "Look, we already had attractive young boys and girls back when I was young, so why do we need to have them again now?" or even, "I ate yesterday, why bother again today?" But the unoriginality of contemporary pop is profoundly irritating; done for the second (or third, or fourth) time around, it's like someone is trying to steal your youth (except -- even more irritatingly -- they can do it better, because instruments and studios have improved, and people have learned from all the mistakes that were made first time round ...) Grrr!