Thursday, 29 April 2010

Going to the Stake

At Llwynburvach, April 2009

Because everyone seems to have decided it's a benchmark of quality in the contemporary middlebrow novel, I have been reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. No, wait, don't go! This isn't going to be a book review!

It's odd how this benchmarking happens. By an unspoken consensus among columnists, reviewers and commentators, some author or title will emerge periodically from the unstoppable tide of new publishing and briefly become a shorthand for some perennial concern or talking point. As Dan Brown becomes the new Jeffrey Archer, so Wolf Hall becomes the new White Teeth.

Now, apart from its rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell (no, not Oliver, the Tudor one), Wolf Hall seems to me a good but unremarkable book. I imagine it's a fairly typical "historical novel" (this is not a genre I've explored much before), an act of ventriloquism using some rather familiar puppets -- oh, that Henry VIII! As so often, there is an element of hype at work here. But it has two features I found intriguing.

The first is its title. I love it when the title of a book strikes a note of mystery every time you pick the thing up: you ask yourself, so why on earth is this book called Wolf Hall? My background alertness is primed for possible clues and I find this has an effect on my reading, like keeping half an ear open for the doorbell to announce a visitor. Only about halfway through does the name get mentioned, restriking the title's note in an oblique, intriguing way. It creates a sense of absence, a sense of yearning that is very effective. I suppose the invocation of "Rosebud!" of Citizen Kane comes inevitably to mind.

The second is the way the book emphasises the cautious impatience of the practically-minded with the hypocritical domination of the religiously-inclined, but also the strength of the desire of influential parts of the populace to read the Bible and worship in English. Both feel right. I was brought up in a Baptist-cum-Cheerfully-Agnostic household, so my take on the Reformation may be a little skewed, but there's no doubting that this combustible mix of religion, commerce, and national interest fuelled the furnace that forged our subsequent national history and character.

But I suppose the really shocking thing is to be forcefully reminded that once there was a time when you could be ritually disembowelled or burned alive for your beliefs. And the slightly shaming thing is that this grisly fate was, at that time, simply insufficient to discourage dissent, or at least the dissent of people with an unshakable belief that there was but one correct route to salvation for their immortal soul.

I don't know about you, but I don't think there's anything -- no belief, no loyalty, no fear, no consequence -- that would lead me to endure death at the stake as a preferred option to betrayal. Luckily, I'm unlikely ever to find out.

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century...

Both ends of the Bike Shed

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Cave of the Winds

Again, no story, just some pictures from various odd corners of the campus. The curve of that tank behind its grille -- rather like a harem screen -- is very sweet, I think.

I usually try not to photograph objects intended to be regarded as aesthetic objects (sculptures and the like) -- it makes me feel too much like I'm illustrating a National Trust brochure -- but the mysterious black grilles that have recently been placed around this item outside the John Hansard Gallery have transformed into something rather different -- a hint of fretted harem screens again, perhaps.

The back entrance to the R.J. Mitchell Wind Tunnel. Want to test the aerodynamics of your Formula One racing car? This is the place. There's something deeply mysterious and transgressive about a building where it can be guaranteed to be windier inside than outside. A man-made Cave of the Winds.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Blackbird Days

As I mentioned in a comment the other day, spring and summer are not my favourite seasons. I dislike hot weather unless I'm on holiday and it's not humid, and there is no pressure to do anything. I suffer from the usual ailments of northern folk -- hay fever, easily sun-burned skin, and heat rage (like road rage but more seasonal and much more random). I don't like cold food; I don't like flies. I especially don't like the combination of flies and cold food, therefore a picnic can bring me close to an existential despair. I have also reached that point, physically, where keeping one's clothes on is a public service.

But of all the varieties of spring and summer weather, what I hate most are those still, humid, overcast days which always seem to be full of the song of blackbirds. The poem "Adlestrop" by Edward Thomas, written in 1915, captures the mood well:
Yes, I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

A lovely, atmospheric poem, justly famous, but I always think there must be a missing, final verse, which describes how -- in a sudden fit of heat rage -- he punched the guy with the irritating cough and then leapt from the carriage and set fire to the station. "It was that damned blackbird that sent me over the edge, Your Honour..."

We had an early blackbird day yesterday. I knew it was a waste of time going out in such weather, but felt the urge to get out of the house. I ended up slumped in my car in a layby for an hour listening to the Radio 4 adaptation of John Le Carre's Smiley's People. Perfect. Then, just for the sake of form, I trudged up and down the verge of the A3057, peering over hedges and into fields. The light was rubbish.

These newly laid poly-tunnels were almost enough to raise my spirits beyond the "Eeyore" end of the spectrum, but not quite. I'll come back another day -- maybe after some lovely rain -- and try again.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

The Parallels

With nothing particular to say, and no story to tell (except that I forgot to mark Shakespeare's birthday yesterday) here is a little gallery of some square "obstacular" images from this week. I know the square thing is causing some unrest, but it's not as if you can't get your fill of rectangularity elsewhere.

Sorry about the birthday, Will...

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
Crooked elipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Sonnet 60

Thursday, 22 April 2010

3 a.m. Eternal

I drove my son back to Oxford yesterday, and as it was a pleasant day (in contrast with the treacherously snowy day at the start of last term) I took the opportunity to revisit some old haunts from my own student days. Pointless, really. That now quite remote past -- a time before personal computers, mobile phones, the internet, and even before such old-fashioned things as CDs and mixed-sex colleges -- seems almost as irretrievably historical as the 13th century when the college was founded. Just one day after another and, gadzooks, suddenly everyone is wearing shoes!

But some things seem eternal, and here is one of them.

That chunk of green glass set into a worn flagstone -- battered and chipped like a flint -- lies in the library archway that links the front and back quads of my college. It looks like the crudest lens you ever saw, and allows some dim light into the cellars below. It's one of my favourite things, and I am glad to have finally photographed it. Those cellars were sometimes a venue for illicit adventures in the small hours, and hopefully still are, but as I am not obliged to incriminate myself I will remain silent on that subject.

It was a rather sad visit, too, as one of my old playmates from those days -- who seemed a force of nature and with whom I had sat in the back quad only last year, and had hoped to do so again this year -- is now very unwell, bravely fighting a brain tumour. Just as time cannot be turned back, so can the future suddenly seem more uncertain than we had imagined. In the words of an old joke, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

And, talking of uncertainty and impermanence, here is a shot I took this lunchtime of the Faraday Building, slated for demolition, which I mentioned in the previous post.

Scary, or what? It is equally unsupported on the other side, too. Why it hasn't blown over in a strong wind, or collapsed on a day when the teaching was all happening on one side of the building, is a mystery. To walk in its shadow is to feel the need for a hard hat.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

New Starts

For a few weeks, this season will be all about the astringent greens of new leaves mixing with and eventually covering over the ruins of the previous year. Every year the sheer improbability of the palette is a fresh surprise.

The neat pile of rubble here is where one of the oldest buildings of the original University College has been demolished and fed through a grinder. It has been very entertaining observing the effortless deconstruction of the building by just one man controlling a powerful digger, aided by an assistant with a hose trying to control the clouds of dust. The mix of raw power and grace in the driver's use of the hydraulic arm and crushing jaw has been astonishing to watch, rather like an animatronic dinosaur scavenging for tasty scraps among the bricks and plaster.

The orgy of demolition and building that has taken place in the University over the last few years will reach its climax when the improbable and terrifying Faraday Building -- a gigantic office block on a stick designed by Sir Basil Spence, now standing empty -- will (somehow) be demolished. One digger and a man with a hose is not going to do it. Air traffic may be disrupted for weeks by the dust...

The Faraday featured on a 1971 stamp

Monday, 19 April 2010

Liber Mundi

Back at work, back to wandering the campus at lunchtime.

The image from the window of the British Legion in Presteigne in the previous post sparked a desire in me today to look for "illuminated books" emerging, or trying to emerge, from the background noise. It's the sort of thing that can provide a useful focus when wandering about with a camera: even if it doesn't survive as a theme that generates its own series, it can provide a new angle on over-familiar surroundings.

Ideas such as the mediaeval "world as a book" or the "book of the world" (liber mundi) and, visually, the lead books of Anselm Kiefer are clearly lurking in the background here. Although when it comes to making actual books I'm pretty conservative, the idea of images of book-like forms lying in wait out there in the world, full of illegible wisdom, does appeal to me.

Photographs of books (real books, that is) have to try quite hard to avoid being merely inferior reproductions of the real thing. Although I suppose you might say that is true about any photograph, it seems more the case where books are concerned. Two photographers who have pulled this off are Abelardo Morell and Doug Keyes. I recommend their books "A Book of Books" and "Collective Memory".

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Back from the Borders

View from the track to Llandegley Rocks

Despite appearances, I have been away for the last week on our annual spring visit to Wales. It used to be our "Easter visit", but the schools have recently disassociated themselves from that vagrant fixture in the Christian calendar, in an attempt to regularise the length of the Summer term. The recent posts have been the blog equivalent of house-lights left on a timer -- not a ruse to deter blog burglars, however, but a shameless bid to keep my viewing figures up. The lack of comments show that you saw through my duplicity.

Window of British Legion, Presteigne

It was a good week but, as I have suggested before, holidays are not the best place to build a body of serious, coherent photography (which, if you hadn't noticed, is what I'm trying to do). Even though the Welsh Borders -- after 30 years of visits -- are very familiar territory, I wouldn't presume to have anything illuminating to "say" (show? see?) about an area I visit for seven days a year. Mid-Wales is rotten with talented resident artists, after all.

So, here are a few of my holiday snaps.

Quarry off the A481

Near Pen Offa

These two make an interesting pair. On the left is the doormat of our regular cottage, which puts me in mind of fossils every time I see it. On the right is a nice large trilobite tail embedded in a rock in a path we walked. The track has recently been repaired with rocks from a local quarry, and was almost literally paved in places with trilobites. The area around Llandrindod Wells was once famous as a fossil location, but has largely been collected out in most of the publicly-accessible quarries and exposures. Fresh fossils like these are a rare treat, but we weren't greedy, and restricted ourselves to a few nice specimens. After all, a walk in hill country is rarely enhanced by several pocketfuls of rocks.

More later, perhaps.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Dubious Fences

I'm always fascinated by fences, walls and the like which seem either inappropriate, ineffective, or inexplicable -- those Mysterious Barricades (relax, I'm not trying to sell you anything today). I collected these two last week.

The first is a double fence on St. Catherine's Hill, near Winchester. There is nothing obvious on the far side of it that is not also on the near side of it. A pure boundary, like a national border, complete with a no-man's-land.

The second is a much repaired but emphatic boundary crossing a stream that runs through the University campus. It doesn't seem to bother the stream much, though it does act as something of a tea-strainer. "Overdetermined" is the word that springs to mind. Or perhaps, "challenge".

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

E-books on the Cheap

I don't know about you, but I always find it pleasing if I can come up with a cheap alternative to something modish and expensive. Especially if it's actually better in some ways. We're not talking about clipping a bubblegum card into your bike's back wheel and pretending you're on a motorbike, here.

One of the problems with e-book readers is that the "Digital Rights Management" is so rigid that you can't even use more than one format on the same reader. Even those which can, in theory, read two formats (say, Adobe e-Pub and Mobipocket on the Bookeen CyBook) will insist that you choose one or the other. This wouldn't matter, if everything was available in all formats. But this is very far from the case. Not even everything available as an e-book by the same author is available in the same format.

What many people don't realise is that all the major e-book readers are available as free downloads. Kindle ("Kindle for PC"), Mobipocket and Adobe Digital Editions can all be downloaded onto a Windows PC and used perfectly happily together. In fact, the e-book reading experience is better using the PC version: you get more flexible layout, colour, adjustable brightness and contrast, instant page turns, and better display and navigation of contents using familiar scrollbars, tabs and icons.

If you want to go one step further, and free yourself from your desktop or bulky laptop, a nice little Windows netbook can be bought for about the same price as the cheaper dedicated e-book readers. Turn off the wireless connection when reading (it saves battery), and you may be looking at nine or more hours of battery life; not in the same league as the typical e-book reader, but plenty.

To take another step into e-book-reading nirvana, you can download all the software onto all the computers you use, and download all the same books. Kindle, in particular, positively encourages this, allowing you to name your various versions of the reader and nominate which one to use for downloading your current purchase. It will then synchronise all the other versions when they are next used, so that all your Kindle purchases become available to all your nominated Kindle readers. It's rather good. And free!

One tip, if you want to try this. If, like me, you're an habitual Amazon user, you'll probably be quite excited by the simplicity and instantaneity of buying Kindle books. You may not be interested in the alternatives (say, Mobipocket and Adobe). Although the differences in coverage are real, the overlap is large. But if you are, you will discover that Kindle actually uses the same file format as Mobipocket.

This will cause dire confusion as Kindle will try to be the default software for all downloaded files with extensions .mbp and .prc, whether or not they have been bought from Amazon. The only solution is to break the connection by un-nominating Kindle as the "opens with" application in "Tools/Folder options/File types". You then just have to choose which application is relevant to your current download.

However, there is no conflict at all with the files used by Adobe Digital Editions, and -- as there do seem to be more e-Pub items available than Mobipocket -- perhaps the simplest solution is just to use Kindle for PC and Adobe Digital Editions together. I have an investment in Mobipocket e-books because I own a Bookeen Cybook, but sensible owners of the newer versions will probably have opted for the e-Pub version anyway.

So forget about "you can read e-paper in direct sunlight". Sit in the shade and use your netbook instead.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

White Noise

Yesterday I paid a visit to the same expanse of white shuttering that yielded one of this year's Christmas/New Year cards. If anything, it's improved in the intervening period. A temporary but substantial hoarding around some building work, it was crudely painted to start with, and the weather and various human agencies have been to work on it ever since.

It's a curious (and perhaps instructive) fact that no-one has better taste or judgement than the processes of weathering and erosion constantly at work on the world around us. It's also curious that we are here to appreciate that fact. If I were feeling grandiose, I might wonder whether there is a flaw in theories of entropy that assert that the universe aspires to the condition of a uniform grey sludge. If that is our destination, however, we are clearly taking the scenic route.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Rich and Strange

Some lunchtimes -- such as today -- the rich and strange comes so thick and fast that I'm high as a kite by the time I get back to the desk. I shot about 25 images (that's a lot, for me) but these three were the obvious stand outs.

That green snake is a gift, isn't it?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Pole Post

A few more from yesterday's walk. The variations in wood, finish, and weathering of utility poles and even ordinary posts is fascinating, once you start to pay attention. All of these are situated within ten yards of each other. However, few things are as impossible (or as boring) to compose satisfactorily as a pure vertical in a square, so I don't expect this to be the start of a series.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Road Works

Another walk along the A3057 this afternoon. I was struck by the perfection of this unusual piece of road kill:

By and large, creatures killed on fast main roads are complete but rapidly reduced to two dimensions. This detached wing (a pheasant?) has the 3D still life appeal of a taxidermy specimen. I once had a thing for such discoveries, but it quickly becomes its own cliche, and others have done it better. Clive Landen has a book Familiar British Wildlife composed entirely of roadkill specimens. Some mad cove has also made himself into a minor celebrity by singing the praises of the roadside meat larder as a food source. Apparently badger is tastier than you might think.

The same roadside hedgerows from my post two weeks ago are now beginning to burst into life with catkins and leaf buds. It's a slow motion explosion. Not long now and the leaves will conceal these mysterious deep views into tangled thickets, and bring darkness to the woodland floor.

Of course, it's not only wildlife that finds itself artfully composed on the roadside. This is another kind of wing altogether: a Nissan Micra, if I'm not mistaken.

And the wind shall say: "Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls."

T.S. Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

Friday, 2 April 2010

Good Friday

þuhte me þæt ic gesawe syllicre treow
on lyft lædan, leohte bewunden,
beama beorhtost.
(It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree born aloft, wound round by light, brightest of beams)

The Dream of the Rood, Anglo-Saxon poem, 7th century

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Monsieur Shakespeare

I am very susceptible to a well-laid hoax. Today being April 1st, you'd think I would be on my guard, wouldn't you?

I'm a keen follower of the Archaeological News blog of the Archaeological Institute of America -- it's an excellent daily roundup of digs and discoveries worldwide. So I've been aware for some time of the dig planned and now underway at the site of New Place, Shakespeare's grand Stratford house. I was quite skeptical about the chances of finding anything significant -- the idea that someone would dump a discarded manuscript sonnet down the jakes is the stuff of fantasy ("Quick, Will, bring me some paper! Anything!!"). I've watched enough Time Team to know what to expect. That is, nothing, most likely, or some subtle changes in soil colour, or maybe a button or two.

But, at around 7:40 this morning, the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme broadcast a most amazing piece of news. A locket had been discovered at New Place, engraved "A mon fils Guillaume" by "Marie Ardennes", and apparently containing a locket of the hair of Mary Queen of Scots. Which suggests all sorts of things, not least that Shakespeare's mother was French, but also might be seen to reinforce the claims that our Will was a closet Catholic. There was the usual silly "human interest" angle, with various French dignitaries claiming Shakespeare for France (dream on!), but also some excited words from the Head of Education of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

"Blimey!", I'm thinking, "What about that?" Until mid-morning, when I started to Google the find and the penny finally dropped.

I haven't been so thoroughly April Fooled since the same Today Programme in the 1980s broadcast the news that the EEC had ruled a minimum permissible amount of tread on the soles of shoes in icy weather, and that policemen would be empowered to carry out random checks on Britons' footwear (like the tread on car tires, this would be measurable using the edge of a 2 pence coin). Outrage!