Sunday, 30 May 2010

A Miracle of Deliverance

Seventy years ago, my father was rescued from the beach at Dunkirk. In his words:

At high tide there were bodies being washed ashore so I gave a hand to drag them above the high tide mark. There were some explosions on the beach even when there was no air attack in progress - they must have been artillery or mortar shells. Again most of the time all they did was scatter the sand around.

Two torpedoes suddenly hurtled up the beach, clear of the water, their propellers sending up cascades of sand and water, several of us stood and watched for a while until somebody said "Perhaps their explosives are on timers!" - we backed well away until I suppose the compressed air in their motors ran out, then they just lay there, like a couple of stranded fish.

A rumour went round that we should make our way to the East Mole at dusk, so I thought I'd give it a try. It was dark when I got to the Mole and we were marshalled by a group of sailors into single file and then told to move along, there seemed to be hundreds of French soldiers just standing there watching, it was very eerie. Once on the mole we realised why we were in single file, great holes had been blown in the concrete and these had been bridged by planks about two feet wide and we could hear the waves about twenty feet below. When we got on a solid piece of mole we were told "wait, make way for wounded". Some were on foot others on stretchers, when they passed we moved on again. Finally some more sailors helped us on to a slide made from planks and we slid down quite a distance and landed on the deck of a ship, we were told to spread ourselves round the ship. I got my back against a rail of some sort and sat down. I woke up to the fact that we were moving so dozed off again. I vaguely remember hearing a machine gun on the ship firing, and thought that everything must be under control, so went back to sleep.

At dawn I got up and had a look round and realised that although it was a civvy ship it was manned entirely by the Navy, then I was amazed to find that it was the ship in which I had sailed from Southampton to Le Havre - the "Tynwald". I think we docked at Dover and were surprised to see flags and banners waving and women offering us tea and sandwiches. We were hustled quickly on to a train waiting in the docks (we were not a pretty sight!), and off we went. If we went slowly through a station people ran alongside the train offering food and cups of tea, we were puzzled by all the flag waving and cheering, having just been chased out of France. We arrived at Winchester station and were lorried to the Kings Royal Rifles barracks, given two blankets, shown into a barrack hut where I got down on the floor and sank into a peaceful sleep.

At this distance in time, and with my father now dead, I can both look back at our family's spear-carrying role in a famous national drama with some pride, but also with a sense of the way "history" swallows up human-scale reality, like a vast whale gulping down tiny krill to no more purpose than to make yet more whale.

The men in the pictures on this page from my father's photo album are visibly having quite an adventure, I would say. These citizen soldiers had recently been rescued from great peril, and now find themselves on a glorified scout camp and motorbike scrambling trials in Yorkshire. The captions on the reverse of the photos say things like "Lovely Grub!" and "Wot, no bath?" They have no idea that their unit is shortly to ship out for the deserts of North Africa, and then to the hills and jungles of India and Burma, where they will do whatever they are asked to do, grumpily but unquestioningly, and if necessary die in the process. Several do.

After Dunkirk
uniforms not designed by Hugo Boss

My parents, after they realised they were getting too old to look after themselves, moved from Hertfordshire to Norfolk, to live in a mobile home in my sister's back garden. For the sake of some company, Dad joined the local branch of the Dunkirk Association, where men of like age and with a shared, unique experience could swing the lamp a bit over a cup of tea (men in their eighties tend not to drink pints).

He found himself at the epicentre of one of the darkest chapters in the Dunkirk story, the massacre of captured British troops of the Royal Norfolk Regiment by the SS at Le Paradis. The terrible story can be read here. Talking with these men, I think, shifted something in his perception of his own wartime experiences, rather like realising -- 50 years after the event -- what a close-run thing it had been at times, not just nationally, but personally.

For the first time, he began reading accounts of the war and attending Remembrance Day parades in chilly churchyards in Norfolk. And he asked me to find him a copy of this painting by Charles Cundall, which he'd seen on TV:

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940, by Charles Cundall

I bought a print of it from the Imperial War Museum, which he framed and hung over his bed. Shortly before he died, he said to me, "You know that painting of the beach at Dunkirk? It's not quite right, you know. Those great big clouds of black smoke? They were blowing the other way."

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Caedmon's Hymn, Slight Return

If there is such a construct as "the curve", and assuming that getting ahead of it (to become a stray, outlying dot on a graph) is a desirable thing, then I have evidence that I may have pulled a nose clear of it. Here is Exhibit A, the photo-finish:

That, my friends, is page 4 of this week's TLS. Does something about that illustration look familiar? And if I tell you that the subject matter of the article by Tom Shippey is the Old English translations of Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae, and that it includes some amused and ironic comments on the Anglo-Saxon character, as betrayed in certain telling mistranslations, do you have a certain feeling of déjà vu? Well, suit yourself, but I certainly did.

Here is my favourite bit:
"Wisdom is the highest virtue", says one of the OE version's additions, and the view conforms to both what Asser says of Alfred and to Anglo-Saxon preoccupations generally. But they had their own views about wisdom, and sometimes failed to recognize other people's. There is an OE version of The Distichs of Cato [...] but the translator repeatedly failed to understand his Latin text, or rejected its counsels as evidently unwise. For example, he reacts oddly to the familiar advice to "seize Occasion by the forelock, for she is bald behind". Perhaps unable to grasp the image, he writes, truthfully but inappositely, "many a man has plenty of hair but goes bald suddenly".
OK, I'm not really claiming that the TLS represents the cutting edge of contemporary thought, and I accept that, on one level, this is rather like saying, "Last week I was whistling Beethoven's 5th and I'm damned if this week Radio 3 didn't play Beethoven's 7th! Call me Mr. Zeitgeist!" But, even so...


Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Unsolicited Testimonial

I was surprised and delighted to see one of my Blurb books (Mirrors, Windows, Walls) featured on the estimable Wood s Lot site this morning, plus a link to this blog. Within the diminishing circle of bookish, black-clad malcontents, flâneurs and flim-flam artists like myself that is a kind of fame (or, "fame"). I've been unusually approachable all day, despite the weather.

The only thing that would make me more content today would be taking the phone call from Manfred Eicher this evening begging me to prostitute my art for ECM Records. Hah! As if! (I'm in all evening, sir).

Five leaves left... *

* It has been pointed out to me that younger readers may not get this reference. Once upon a time, the makers of Rizla hand-rolling cigarette papers used to insert a little printed sheet of paper that emerged as you got towards the end of the packet: it read "Five leaves left". Towards the middle of the 1970s, this was replaced by the more literal instruction "Time to buy another packet". A little bit of poetry had gone from the world.

Needless to say, Nick Drake's album of that name (yes, that's right, the yearningly beautiful Time To Buy Another Packet) is yet another of those nudging references to Reefer Culture that were so prevalent at the time. It is always astonishing to me that so few people worked out that the attractively typographic name "Rizla" placed alongside a rather large cross was, in fact, a play on the name of the manufacturers, La Croix (Riz La Croix? Rizla + ?).

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Something Fine

I recently felt the urge to listen to Jackson Browne again. It's funny, how much the relationships we make with music are like the friendships we make, especially those we made in our youth. They seem so much a part of who we are that -- whether we cultivate them, abandon them, take them for granted, or simply forget about them -- it is a shock one day to discover that they are no longer what we thought they were, and have been utterly transformed by the simple passage of time. Even though not a note or word has changed, songs that once seemed as profound and as beautifully wrought as a Shakespeare sonnet have become clunkingly adolescent, amusingly maudlin, or simply plain bad. They have not changed, but you have.

So, at first I dismissed that urge to listen to Jackson Browne. After all, it had been so long since I listened to those albums -- perhaps 30 years -- that I only had them on vinyl. It was obvious this would be an error of judgement similar to attending a school reunion or trying to squeeze into an old pair of jeans. I don't need more ways to feel middle-aged.

But then one of my work colleagues said she was going to Morocco, which made me smile, and the song "Something Fine" flooded back into my mind. I got a strong feeling that, in the words of the song, there might still be something there for me. Given I now have access to Spotify, there seemed no harm in it. So I gave in, and did it.

Once I'd got over the instant rush of nostalgia -- 30 years is a long time, after all, and it was rather like opening a long-forgotten photo album -- I was struck by several things. The first thing was how intimately I could recall these songs, as soon as the opening notes of each sounded. Once upon a time, it quickly became apparent, these songs had been more important to me than I now realised. Like a favourite coat I used to wear in all weathers, or my tobacco tin. My, how I used to love to smoke!

The second thing was what a good guitarist Browne is, in an understated but effective way -- if I'd paid more attention back then, I might be a better guitarist now. And what a clever wordsmith: "The world outside is tugging like a beggar at my sleeve / Ah, that's much too old a story to believe". That's good writing.

But what really struck me was how world-weary, how glum some of the best songs on Browne's first two albums are. Obviously, he'd packed a lot of living into his second decade, but he was only 25 when For Everyman came out, and at times he sounds at least 60. Or, at least, he does to my 56-year-old ears; to my 18-year-old ears he sounded plangent, worldly and wise. It's an odd feeling, revisiting a youthful enthusiasm, only to find middle-aged regrets were lying in wait for you all along. "So, you finally showed up. Where have you been all this time?"

But "Something Fine" is a stand-out song. Its mood of wistful, vicarious pleasure is the mood of a parent seeing a child off on a big adventure. To hear it in the live, solo acoustic version recorded in 2005 is best. Browne's age finally matches the age of the song, his voice has matured, his timing is impeccable, and I'd love to know where I can get one of those guitars. Of course, in 1971 in Britain you couldn't name Morocco without invoking "Moroccan", that ubiquitous khaki-yellow cannabis resin that must have been smuggled into the country daily by the ton. "Something fine"? Well, hardly. But by 2005 the knowing smirk has gone, and the innocence of the song shines through.
But you said "Morocco" and you made me smile
And it hasn't been that easy for a long, long while
And looking back into your eyes I saw them really shine
Giving me a taste of something fine.

They've just had a taste of something fine
(Blenheim Palace 1974; photo: Fiona Thompson)

Thursday, 20 May 2010

White Crow Telescope

I have been putting together several new Blurb books. They are in the small, square 7" x 7" format, which I rather like. In recent times I've fallen out of love with the over large, sumptuous, limited edition photographic books that publishers have been producing. I own several that are simply too big for any bookshelf in our house -- preposterous items that lounge around collecting dust and dints and waiting to be damaged by the hoover (not a huge risk in our house, it's true).

A curious thing has been happening in the photo-book world, that sort of parallels the bubble in the financial world. Now, it is a fact that some photo-books published in the 1970s and 1980s have become both highly desirable and extremely scarce. This makes them valuable in the only meaningful sense, i.e. that someone, somewhere is desperate to get hold of them and will pay good money to do so. Several books that I acquired for rather less than £20 in the days before the bubble are now listed at over £500, and a couple at over £1000. Virtually none is worth less than twice what I paid for it. Compared to my savings account, that's one hell of an interest rate.

The curious thing that has happened, though, is that the "scarcity + desirability = value" equation has had the tacit "time" element in "scarcity" and "desirability" artificially removed. In other words, it can now take just weeks for a new book to become unobtainable, and its desirability will by then have been so hyped by the Web as to make the Emperor's New Clothes look positively undersold.

Take the case of Paul Graham. I have mentioned before that I used to live in the flat above Paul Graham, and bought his earliest self-published books when I came across them mainly out of a sense of amusement that the publisher's address was also mine. Only later did I realise how ground-breaking they were, and how lucky I was to have them. I think the cover price of A1: the Great North Road in 1983 was £14.95. I see that today there are 20-odd copies listed on AddALL Rare Books, ranging from £450 for an ex-library paperback copy to £7000 (yes, seven thousand pounds) for a fine signed hardback. Well, OK, it's a good and important book and quite scarce, though who would actually pay that much for a copy I simply don't know.

Paul Graham's mid-career books have been less sought-after. Copies of Empty Heaven or End of an Age -- both remarkable books -- go for £30 or less, for example, though New Europe is quite highly-priced for an edition of "only" 3000 copies. But in 2007 the publishing house Steidl put out a fancy multi-volumed slip-cased Graham publication, A Shimmer of Possibility, which was trailed by so much overexcited hype that it was almost instantly out of print in its original "limited" 1000 copy edition, and is now already only obtainable at prices over £1000. Whether these prices will be sustained (along with Paul Graham's reputation) is anybody's guess.

The Steidl / Nazraeli approach is to produce books by fashionable names with high production values yet low print runs at a price that is high enough to discourage most buyers, but low enough to attract the buyers who see these books as a form of investment. The whole run sells out quickly, and copies instantly reappear on the market at inflated prices. Don't believe me? Check out Ebay. "Buy short, sell long" is the only rule that seems to apply to these items, most of which have really not been published long enough to have established a solid reputation. Todd Hido, Michael Kenna, Pentti Sammallahti, John Gossage, Stephen Gill, Alec Soth ... There is a long list of good photographers whose new but unweighed books are being traded like dodgy financial instruments.

So... Feel like a punt? Who knows what my latest efforts will be worth ten years from now! Maybe nothing, maybe a new car... Typically, I sell fewer than 20 copies of my books -- talk about a limited edition! Here is a first public version of one, which may yet see some more revision. I wanted to make something small, interesting and inexpensive out of some of the "crow" pictures I've been accumulating. This is it (so far):

Do try the full screen view, by the way -- it makes quite a difference.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Bunker Mentality

Despite a quarter century of trudging around the Campus, yesterday for the first time I stumbled across one of those forgotten corners that is only visited by those with an urge to remain unseen (or curious photographers). From the graffiti, I suspect an infestation of nocturnal teens.

Isn't it odd, though, how the swastika is still the symbol of choice for a moron with a spraycan? And how such morons rarely notice they've got the thing the wrong way round? At least, I think this was meant to be a swastika. And I hope it's paint.

Interestingly, perhaps ominously, the entrance to this particular Nazi bunker is also presided over by a suspiciously pagan-looking green torso, resembling something by the artist Leonard Baskin.

As you may have noticed, I've got a "white wall" theme building at the moment. Whether it will go anywhere is hard to say at this stage.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

New Heights

I knew that, on the way to do the weekly grocery shop today, I would pass that oddly Japanese field of bamboo canes, and that more than likely it would be even fuller than last week. Having long ago learned that chance favours the prepared, I fitted my 70-300 telephoto lens to the Canon 450D, and had it next to me on the car passenger seat.

I was right. The spectacle of hundreds of bamboo teepees receding into the distance on a sea of polythene was quite something. I knew that the telephoto would compress the perspective nicely. But what I also needed to come away with a decent image was height. Several large format photographers have shared their trade secret with me -- a ridiculously large tripod and a portable ladder. That bit of elevation will separate out the elements of a landscape better than any lens.

So, I stayed on the roadside bank and climbed a little way into a convenient tree, ignoring the impudent car horns passing by at speed. Et voilà!

Obviously, you don't want to take a tripod up a tree, but with an image-stabilized zoom who needs one anyway? Having got exactly what I had hoped for, I went back to the car and carried on to the supermarket. Job done!

Friday, 14 May 2010

Pillars and Trunks

For some reason I've been favouring the Panasonic LX3 almost exclusively in recent weeks. I'm hoping to receive a Clearviewer soon, and will report on its usefulness as an aid to composition and also perhaps, hopefully, steadying the camera. I still feel slightly foolish holding a camera out in front of me, and always worry about camera shake. It will be good to be able to bring the camera up to my eye, and I'm curious whether the Clearviewer will be robust enough to let me brace it against my face.

Actually, the combination of the inbuilt anti-shake mechanism and the very high shutter speeds these cameras select in "Program" mode (I don't think I've ever chosen to shoot at a speed over 1/125th second in manual mode!) means that softness due to shake is actually quite rare. I generally like a deep focus in my pictures, so have usually preferred smaller apertures, but an advantage of these small sensor cameras is that quite large apertures still give good depth of focus. According to the EXIF data, the white pillar below was shot at 1/800 at f/4.5, but both the face of the pillar and the wall a few feet behind it are acceptably focussed. Of course, if you're a fan of blurry bokeh, this must be quite frustrating.

Lichened Trunk and Blue Netting

Lichened Pillar & Repaired Stonework

Plain White Pillar

Junction Box

OK, that last one is trunk-ing but...

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Normal Service

I presume from the recent baffled silence that the Anglo-Saxon excursion wore a bit thin for some, though, oddly, my viewing figures do seem to have gone up -- probably desperate students looking for a quick essay fix. I wonder if any of my half-baked factoids and ironies will escape into the wild and even make it into the world's knowledge base? Hopefully not -- please do your research properly, guys, and stop scraping information out of blogs!

Anyway, normal service has been resumed, though be warned that more swords'n'sorcery fakery is in the pipeline.

Behind the scenes at Mottisfont Abbey

Bluebells near Timsbury

Red Skip through Green Screen Barrier

I am adjusting to the idea of a ruling Conservative / Lib Dem coalition, and also to the idea of being governed by people (actually, almost entirely men) who are rather younger than me. This may take a while. Regardless of the scale of the ensuing, world-historical disappointment (and, for some, betrayal) that was New Labour, I will never forget the exhilaration of 2nd May 1997. I had to drive to a photographic workshop at Duckspool on that sunny day, and the smile never left my face.

The bemusement of the last week, I am sure, will also be memorable, but it doesn't hold any of the promise of change for the better that 1997 did. A measure of the changes since -- in the world, and in me -- is that now I find Michael Portillo a fairly sympathetic fellow, whereas then I, too, exulted in his downfall and humiliation. How many Tories are thirsting for revenge in their turn and how far the Lib Dems will be able to displace or restrain them, will probably be the story of the next few years.

That, and massive, massive cuts in public service spending, carried out with the moral authority endowed by the scale of the goverment's borrowing, and with higher education standing first in line for a spanking. After all, nobody likes a smart-arse...

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Caedmon's Dream, Part III

From the series "Ring Hoard"

This whole Saxon revival thing was sparked up, initially, when I stumbled across the story of Caedmon and his dream. The source, once again, is Bede's Ecclesiastical History (Book IV, chapter xxiv) but it's a story that has fascinated many people, and -- like the tale of the sparrow flying through the hall -- you come across it all over the place. Poets, particularly, are drawn to Caedmon: he is, after all, the first named English poet. You might say that this is nothing less than the foundation myth of English literature.

"Caedmon's Hymn" is, in itself, one of the lesser items in the less than mighty Old English corpus. It sits alongside some "Mercian Hymns" and "Kentish Charters" in an unenticing section of Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader entitled "Examples of non-West-Saxon dialects". It is unremarkable, in other words, until you attach the story told by Bede to it. The story goes like this:

Caedmon was a stable hand in the employ of the abbey at Whitby, which was run by a converted Saxon noblewoman called Hilda (I'm pretty sure this was not considered an intrinsically amusing name in the 7th century). Now, in those days people had to make their own entertainment and so the possession of a party piece was more or less de rigueur. Obviously, the bar was not set high for the party piece of a cowherd, but nonetheless the ability to pipe up with an amusing song while your companions drank themselves insensible was not considered an unreasonable expectation.

This Caedmon, however, had somehow never got the hang of singing, and would always slope off home to the stable whenever it came round to his turn to sing. Bede does not record whether this coincided with his turn to buy a round, but you might wonder. Anyway, one night after he had made his customary retreat from the merry-making back to his hayloft Caedmon had one of those curious Saxon-style dreams, in which a mysterious being appears by your bed and starts issuing instructions, commands, and prophesies. Clearly, there were more angels out and about at that time than we encounter nowadays, or perhaps there were more nocturnal intruders with a good line in exculpatory improvisation.

Whatever, this one got straight down to business and -- rather spitefully for an angel -- went directly for our man's vulnerable spot. He/she/it spake thusly: "Caedmon, sing me a song".

In Bede's words:

He answered, "I cannot sing; for that was the reason why I left the entertainment, and retired to this place, because I could not sing." The other who talked to him, replied, "However, you shall sing." ­ "What shall I sing?" rejoined he. "Sing the beginning of created beings," said the other.
So he did, and very good it was, too. When he woke up he could remember it all, and it wasn't just nonsense about scrambled eggs, so he added some new bits as well. "Caedmon's Hymn" had arrived.

From the series "Ring Hoard"

Now, it's fairly obvious that a hymn of praise to the Lord of Creation was not going to raise the roof at the next cowherd's bash. Moreover, any talk of angels visiting stable lads in the night was going to raise eyebrows in the monastery, so Caedmon was brushed off, scrubbed up and wheeled in to see the Abbess Hilda herself.

Abbess Hilda (that's Saint Hilda to you) was no innocent. She had been part of the same extended, incestously intertwined pagan royal family that gave us King Edwin of Northumbria, about whom we heard in Part II. Persuaded to convert in her thirties by the same missionary, Paulinus, she went on to an illustrious career as a sort of monastic trouble-shooter, stamping out any funny stuff, imposing discipline, encouraging learning, and eventually setting up a veritable bishop-factory at her own abbey at Whitby. She died amid an appropriate son et lumière of piety, with various susceptible nuns seeing simultaneous visions of Hilda's soul ascending to heaven.

OK, so Caedmon is brought before that Hilda. Perhaps suspecting that her pious leg was being pulled, but impressed nonetheless, she sets a test. In Bede's words:
They expounded to him a passage in holy writ, either historical or doctrinal, ordering him, if he could, to put the same into verse. Having undertaken it, he went away and, returning the next morning, gave it to them composed in most excellent verse; whereupon the abbess, embracing the grace of God in the man, instructed him to quit the secular habit, and take upon him the monastic life; which being accordingly done, she associated him to the rest of the brethren in her monastery, and ordered that he should be taught the whole series of sacred history.
Nice move, Caedmon! Say goodbye, draughty stable, and get belly-up to the top table -- talk about singing for your supper! No wonder poets have found him such an inspiration over the years.

The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I

was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me — light effacing my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.

from Caedmon, by Denise Levertov *
Caedmon lived out his life as a devout monk, turning out religious verse like, Bede says, a cow chewing on the cud of the sacred history he was fed. Of course, once you get used to the regular meals and the dry bedding, the monastic life is not to everyone's taste. Here is an extract from a poem by the excellent Ian Duhig which puts it in perspective:

Lord I know, and I know you know I know
this is a drudge's penance. Only dull scholars
or cowherds maddened with cow-watching
will ever read
The Grey Psalter of Antrim.
I have copied it these thirteen years
waiting for the good bits -- High King of the Roads,
are there any good bits in
The Grey Psalter of Antrim?

(text illegible here because of teeth-marks.)

from: Margin Prayer from an Ancient Psalter, by Ian Duhig
Don't you love those teeth-marks? "Hey, brother Caedmon, chew me a song out of this!"

Next:  Caedmon's Hymn (finally).

From the series "Ring Hoard"

* The Biblically-minded among you may see a reference to Isaiah 6 here, where the angel touches a hot coal from the altar to Isaiah's lips to purify him for prophesy. Isaiah 6:4 is one of my favorite bits of Biblical language: "And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke". Boom!

Monday, 10 May 2010

Kenna You Tell The Difference?

236 sticks

Why, it's almost unkenny uncanny! Just for fun, at the other end of the monochrome spectrum, here is Thomas Joshua Cooper going for a walk in the bluebell wood:

Ritual Indication: message for TJC

Just in case it's not obvious, I deeply admire [most of] the work of these two supreme practitioners of the black & white image. Cooper, especially, is a big favourite of mine (I own all his books, and once attended one of his life-changing workshops) -- he amply repays the effort required to get past the immediate response, "But they're so dark, and they're all so similar!". True. And your point is?

Sunday, 9 May 2010


I'm not quite ready to finish off the "Caedmon's Dream" set of posts, yet. Having spent a couple of days in bed, I was feeling in need of some fresh air, so headed out in the direction of Mottisfont. In particular, I had an appointment with these sticks, which I'd spotted passing by in the car last weekend. They have been extraordinarily carefully and elegantly arranged around the poly-cloches I photographed the other week.

The light was incredibly soft, but eminently useable for photography, so I headed over to the Abbey, which I haven't visited for a while. Mooching about in one of those corners the staff don't expect visitors to explore, I found this luxuriously gift-wrapped log:

The diffuse light and a slight breeze brought an agreeable softness to a lot of the pictures, such as this one of the famous Mottisfont Great Plane ("probably the largest plane tree in Britain"), putting out a new batch of leaves for something like the 200th time:

Then, on the way home, I pulled into a layby to photograph a rookery near Timsbury I had kept meaning to visit before the leaves get too dense to see the birds. As I stepped into the trees, I was surprised by the spectacle of a classic bluebell wood, one of the great spectacles of spring. I recall reading somewhere the observation that -- from the point of view of native flora -- spring goes first through a white, then a yellow, then a blue phase, and this certainly seems to be true, as small blue speedwells were also growing in the lawns at Mottisfont.

No "keepers", probably, from the point of view of any existing or potential projects, but a record of a pleasant afternoon.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The People Have Spoken

I love the way our politicians have latched onto the idea that "the people have spoken, and we must listen to what they have said". Yes, but conveniently the people all spoke at the same time. Who knows what we're saying?

So now it's Sooty & Sweep Time ("What did you say, Electorate? You want those big Tory cuts anyway? What about you, Sweep? You, too? No, you shut up, Sue, no-one likes you, anyway")

Sigh. Rarely do those those wise but futile words ring so true as in the aftermath of an election: "Don't vote, it only encourages them". Or maybe, "If voting really changed anything, they'd make it illegal".

N.B. has anyone else spotted the new phrase: "deals done in smoke-free rooms"? I can't decide whether it's ironic or a mindless update of a well-worn (but once meaningful) cliché. Probably both: a politician's joke that's already unfunny.

I've been in bed, unwell, while all this was happening. Listening to it half-awake on the radio has been surreal. I'm not sure it's any less so now I'm back on my feet.

On the bright side: just look what happened to the BNP in Barking (and did you hear that spot on the Today Programme about the Labour campaign there? Inspirational!), and we have our first Green MP.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Caedmon's Dream, Part II

From the series "Ring Hoard"

When people reflect on the Anglo-Saxon worldview they sometimes invoke an image which has passed into the general fund of anecdote: this life is like a sparrow which flies into the Great Hall in winter -- it passes from the dark and cold through a splendid warmth and brightness, briefly, then flies back out into the dark and cold again.

Setting aside the utter unlikeliness of this scenario -- a sparrow flying straight through the hall, rather than perching gratefully in the rafters and shitting in your mead? -- it does have a certain resonance, and casts a spiritual light onto a people generally characterised by a stoic grumpiness, a love of strong drink and garish jewellery, and an inexplicable urge to die in battle (which may explain the subsequent reputation of the British abroad).

The source of this little parable is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), written around 730 AD by the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk. In Book II, chapter xiii, to be precise (read it yourself -- link here). Read in context, however, the tale of the allegorical sparrow is actually more poignant, and more comic, than it might seem.

The context is Bede's account of the conversion to Christianity of the pagan Edwin, King of Northumbria, around 625 AD.

Previously on Bede's Ecclesiastical History:

Following an encounter with a mysterious tall, dark stranger in a dream and a foiled assassination attempt when in exile with King Raedwald, Edwin has been predisposed to conversion at the hands of Paulinus, a Roman missionary who is said to have borne a striking resemblance to the tall, dark stranger in Edwin's dream, and who miraculously turns out to know the secret hand gesture revealed to Edwin in the dream.

Being a good Anglo-Saxon, however, Edwin cannot convert his people without at least a pretence of consultation (plus ça change...). So he gathers the council of wise men -- in Anglo-Saxon, a moot, or possibly a thing. The main item on the agenda -- after taking apologies, minutes of the last moot, and moot points arising -- is:

1. So, what do we make of this Christianity business? Any objections?

First up is the Top Pagan Priest. Surprisingly (at least in Bede's account) he's all for it. Indeed, he says, I knew the pagan thing was rubbish all along -- look, if it wasn't rubbish, why aren't I richer and more powerful? "I move: let's convert to Christianity immediately. Hey, I've seen the jewellery these Roman boys wear! And check that big curly stick!"

Next up is wise old warrior man, Sitting Bull with a gigantic sword and a snowy white beard. He utters the immortal parable of the sparrow. Very cool, wise old Geordie warrior. But, if you actually read it, what he is saying is this:

"There is an infinity of unknowable darkness before and after the brief span of a human life. Getafix over there has never had anything useful whatsoever to say about those dark bits fore and aft. If the new priestly boy does have something useful to offer -- and especially if it stops my Missus gibbering about timor mortis in the small hours -- then, hey, WTF?"

[A grunted chorus of "WTF! WTF!" applauds these words]

Boss Priest is back on his feet. "Through the Chair! Through the Chair!! I totally agree with my scary warrior friend from Sunderland. In fact, the old ways were such rubbish, that I'm going to ride over to the shrine ... right now ... on a stallion ... with a SPEAR and a SWORD ..."

[sharp intake of communal breath at this heresy]

"... and totally TRASH the place! Anyone else up for it? I reckon this Christianity is going to be fun!"

["Yeah! WTF!! WTF!!" Stamping of feet. They saddle up and ride out.]

As Bede wrote:

The multitude, beholding it, concluded he was distracted; but he lost no time, for as soon as he drew near the temple he profaned the same, casting into it the spear which he held; and rejoicing in the knowledge of the worship of the true God, he commanded his companions to destroy the temple, with all its enclosures, by fire. This place where the idols were is still shown, not far from York, to the eastward, beyond the river Derwent, and is now called Godmundingham, where the high priest, by the inspiration of the true God, profaned and destroyed the altars which he had himself consecrated.

Bede does not record whether item 2 on the agenda -- the Mead Fund -- ever got discussed.

From the series "Ring Hoard"

So, if nothing else, you can perhaps see the thinking behind my Ring Hoard -- the battered remnants of a sacred cache of rings, perhaps hidden in a remote corner of North Herts near the Saxon settlement of Stithenaece, just inside the Danelaw, within the lands once dominated by the Iceni...

Next: A Song for Hilda

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Caedmon's Dream, Part I

Periodically, I rediscover an interest in Anglo-Saxon, or "Old English". This is yet another example of a road not taken, a blue remembered hill glimmering in the distance where, almost certainly, I shall now never live. Nevertheless, I still find myself from time to time idly browsing through the travel brochures.

Anglo-Saxon is the bane of those who study English at the older universities. Back in the days when English was first established as a subject of study at university level, there was much sneering at this new, soft subject. It would be little more than the swapping of subjective opinions about leisure reading, they said, mere "higher gossip". To counter these jibes, the curriculum was stiffened with a hefty dose of philology and, above all, the compulsory study of Anglo-Saxon. There, you mocking classicists, how's about that for a "soft" option, then?

From the series "Ring Hoard" *

Now, let us be clear. Old English is not the language of the Tudors, a familiar tongue quaintly bespattered with "thee", "thou", and "wherefore". Nor is it even the language of Chaucer, a vaguely familiar face seen in a distorting mirror. It is the name given to the dialects spoken by the Germanic tribes that invaded and settled the southern parts of these islands after the Roman legions caught the last bus home in the 5th century. It's about as different from modern English as a pig is from a sausage -- it takes some explanation to see how one has become the other.

Most students of English grit their teeth and get their Anglo-Saxon over with. It's a rite of academic passage equivalent to those Teutonic duelling scars. I think it would be fair to say most find the subject difficult, dreary, and demoralising. Anglo-Saxon is an inflected language, and tables of declensions and conjugations must be learned. As far as I know, no audio-visual immersive learning package has been developed for the language, and this is a bit of a shock for students brought up in modern classrooms. There are no interactive sessions on the PC, no friendly characters with instructive adventures to follow ("Lesson 6: The Alderman's wife has a wart charmed").

There is also, unfortunately, no Saxon Ovid to discover. Very few Old English texts have survived, and those that have are either Eeyore-ish moaning about the weather and the unfair fixity of fate, or strange texts re-upholstered with Christianized stretch covers, through which pagan patterns still peep (rather like churches in South America where ancient local gods are worshipped under the names of Catholic saints). It can be a glum prospect, a bleak upland barrier to the lush valleys of Keats and Shakespeare beyond.

I wish I could say "good teaching helps", but it usually doesn't. Scholars of Anglo-Saxon tend to be specialists, and -- like all enthusiasts -- they can be engaging personally, but tend to ignore the fact that the perceived attractions of their subject are often the very same elements that others find less than compelling. Listening to a recorded reading of Beowulf -- which is rather like listening to someone trying to read the weather forecast with a mouthful of salty gravel -- is not the seductive experience it is imagined by some to be.

Unless, that is, you have some predisposition. As did the young W.H. Auden when he heard J.R.R. Tolkien recite a passage of Beowulf: "I was spellbound. This poetry, I knew, was going to be my dish". It also helps if you have studied German, and already coped with the grammar of Latin.

If you can imagine yourself wielding a spear in the battle line at Maldon, or scratching away at manuscripts in a monastery at Whitby, or if you can respond to the atavistic allure of a tribal time, embodied in the gorgeous, gaudy treasures of Sutton Hoo, then you may find much of interest in the pages of Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader and the volumes of the Early English Text Society, where the footnotes swarm over the text like ivy over ruins.

From the series "Ring Hoard"

So, I think of Anglo-Saxon as an interesting stopover in the Great Three Year Trek through Eng Lit. A place where I thought, "I could live here, if I had to. Perhaps, some day, who knows, maybe I'll come back". But then our little company crested the brow of that bleak hill, and we were gazing upon the fertile fields below, where sonnets grazed and great novels sparkled in the sun.

Next: Bede and the venerable sparrow.

* The images in the "Ring Hoard" series are my only substantial venture, so far, into digital imaging. These images are "lens-based", but clearly the result of much spell-casting in PhotoShop.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Another Good Friday

On Friday, as I was heading for the car park and home from work and passing yet another demolition site, I saw the afternoon sunlight doing interesting things in the mesh that surrounds the site. It was one of those moments when you grab your camera (in this case my LX3) and just get to work.

These three photos were taken within a minute or two of each other, in more or less the same place. To my mind, they look like three different climate zones.

Earlier, at lunchtime, I spotted this elegant bit of disrepair above my head as I passed under an awning linking some very elderly "temporary" buildings.

It's good to start the long May Day bank holiday weekend (which will inevitably be a rainy washout) feeling ahead of the game, photographically at least.