Monday 30 August 2010

Notes from a Holiday

The Heat

As the captain lowered the belly of our aircraft to skim the thick layer of cloud which obscured our view of England's south coast the frame of the thing shuddered with turbulence, but it felt like a shiver of cold. When we had boarded at Bergerac 90 minutes ago, the temperature was in the low 30s Celsius; at Southampton, we were told, it would be 16 degrees. Welcome home!

The heat was a major feature of our recent holiday in the Pyrenees and in the Dordogne. Avoiding it (long drives in our air-conditioned hire car to spend lingering visits in cool museums and chateaux), studying it (figuring out when "Le Méteo" would be broadcast, and trying to pick useful nuggets out of the weatherwoman's gabble), and enduring it, mainly.

Musée d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux

Looking at France, from Spain

The Flies

In the Dordogne, particularly, we were under daily assault by insects and allied trades. Large wasps of several species were working the old masonry of the house, finding their way in through the shutters and cruising the internal airspace like French teenagers on mobylettes. At night, enormous spiders and sensationally ugly leaf-shaped centipedes came out of the cracks in the stonework. At any hour of the night, the cry "Dad!!" would get me out of bed to despatch yet another of these monsters menacing my children from the wall. I ended up sleeping on a hair trigger, which led to interesting dreams but little relaxation.

Oh, and mosquitoes... My eyesight and concentration are not at their best at 4:30 am, so pursuing these little blood-sucking bastards round a high-ceilinged farmhouse was a nightly challenge. Give me a spider the size of a saucer any day.

The Birds

Southwest France and the Pyrenees is a good spot for birds. One morning, we stepped outside to see a "kettle" of 50 or 60 table-sized Griffon vultures stacked up over our garden. Large raptors of many species are commonplace, but as we only had a "travel weight" bird book and had omitted to pack any binoculars identification was speculative; you began to understand why Victorian naturalists reached for a shotgun as a way of eliminating uncertainty. "Yup, that's a Short-toed Eagle alright! Shall we leave it for the vultures or have it stuffed?"

My favourites were the Honey Buzzards, rather shifty raptors with a clear admiration for crows, who hang around on the ground in ploughed fields, hopping from clump to clump looking for tasty invertebrates. A previous visitor had seen a Hoopoe in the garden (one of the more memorable Latin names, Upupa epops), but we didn't. At night various unfamiliar owls screeched and whooped in the trees.

A tradition of our family holidays is the Owl Incident (see The Wol of Minerva), and this time it occurred on a Pyrenean backroad returning from a trip to San Sebastian in Spain. We had a French left-hand drive hire car, and I have never driven such a vehicle before. I found it to be a major exercise in overcoming reflexes and muscle memory: in tight spots, I would find myself grasping the window winder rather than the gear stick. Also, a diesel Peugeot 207 "estate" is not, shall we say, my car of choice, but it is what Mr. Hertz chose to loan me. Luckily, French and Spanish roads are virtually empty most of the time. (It occurs to me that the treble shock of driving on the left in a right-hand drive car and nose-to-tail at 80 mph in a traffic density greater than a car park may account for the comparative paucity of foreign visitors to our own fair country).

Anyway, the Owl Incident. Somewhere on a sequence of tight and narrow hairpin bends that, in the darkness, put one in the state of mind appropriate to a challenging but repetitive video game, I dipped the headlights in courtesy to an oncoming driver, only to find that when I undipped them they went out: I was driving in complete obscurity on a mountain road with a failed electrical system.

The only way I could get the lights to work was to pull the lever onto "full beam flash" and hold it there with one hand, thumb hooked around the steering wheel, and steer and change gear with the other. I am a good man in a crisis, and I felt like Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III as I eventually glided us safely into a layby. No need to cheer, folks, just doing my job. I felt rather less heroic when I discovered that there had not been a catastrophic failure of the Peugeot's electrics, but that I had simply turned off the headlights when I dipped them. Doh!

As I turned the lights back on, they lit up a Barn Owl standing on a road sign, turning its head from side to side as it checked us out. We checked it out in return for some while, before getting into gear and heading for home. Of such incidents are family memories made.

My beautiful children...
I hope they remember who chased away the spiders when I get old.

The Basques

The Basques are an all round curious bunch of people. Occupying the French and Spanish western borderlands since possibly the last Ice Age, they speak a non Indo-European language with no known relatives. Or, at least, some of them do. A few, anyway, allegedly. It's a damnably difficult language to learn: I know, because I bought Le Basque pour les nuls ("Basque for Idiots") to entertain me in the evenings. I quote from Wikipedia:
A Basque noun is inflected in 17 different ways for case, multiplied by 4 ways for its definiteness and number. These first 68 forms are further modified based on other parts of the sentence, which in turn are inflected for the noun again. It has been estimated that, with two levels of recursion, a Basque noun may have 458,683 inflected forms.
Forget about it! People say that when a language dies, so does a whole universe. Well, if Star Trek is to be believed some universes are terrible places with monsters (like 458,683 inflected forms of a noun -- can this really be true?) and it's not surprising nobody wants to go there any more. Few languages look quite so much like they have been made up by a committee of Vogon poets, either. My book Le Basque pour les nuls gives some splendid examples:

Txoria ibilten da elurrean ("the bird walks in the snow")
Maitek artoa txoriari eman dio ("Maité has given the maize to the bird")
Non da Donibane Lohizuneko hondartza handia? ("Where is the main beach at Saint-Jean-de-Luz?")

Despite the fact that, according to the evidence of my ears, virtually no-one speaks Basque in public in either the "French" or "Spanish" parts of the Basque homeland ("Euskal Herria"), the limited degree of autonomy won by the separatists in Spain mean that many road signs there are in Basque. It really does help to know that San Sebastian is called "Donostia" in Basque, for example. A hot foreign man driving a hired Peugeot 207 could easily get lost and very cross indeed.

Long-standing readers may recall my post "The Italian Job", in which I discuss the way awkward bedfellows are brought together by nationalism. The Basque Country is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

In "France", Basque-ness seems pretty much entirely cultural. A uniformity of custom and practice is found that is almost disturbing. Everything -- but everything -- is coloured green, white and red, the Basque colours. All farmhouses conform to the "traditional" regional design to the extent of all facing in the same "traditional" direction, like churches. Every village has a pelota fronton, like a shabby drive-in cinema. Above all, there's that ubiquitous bloody Basque typeface. Does any other cultural group have its own typeface? It would drive me mad (or French) to have to live with that depth of branding.

In "Spain", by contrast, Basque-ness is deeply political. Although joyous and inventive Spanish typography is everywhere, and the houses and farms look like houses and farms anywhere in southern Europe, the terrorist separatist campaign of ETA rumbles on, and in the back streets of San Sebastian you will find pro-ETA sentiment without looking too hard.

For example, this wall of posters appealing for amnesty for ETA convicts is next to a bar called, ominously, The Belfast Irish Pub. I didn't hang around.

The Cameras

I've never seen so many digital cameras around as I've seen this holiday. Not just point and shoots, but mighty top-end Nikon and Canon DSLRs with battery packs and heavyweight zooms, toted by family guys for holiday snaps. The chiropracters must be rubbing their hands.

I settled on the Panasonic GF1 with the 20mm plus the collapsible Olympus 14-42mm. Bright sun, tourist traps and unfamiliar landscapes are not my territory, photographically, so I didn't expect to use them much. However, the scruffy street furniture and graffiti of Pamplona, Bayonne and San Sebastian proved so compelling that I filled several cards (about 500 images, an awful lot by my standards).

Pamplona fountain I

Pamplona fountain II

Pamplona fountain III

Paradoxically, when I started processing the files, I also rediscovered a taste for the monochrome image, which may or may not be a passing fad.

Pamplona doorway

Wall in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Bayonne doorway

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Junk Jungle

A little mild excitement today, when I turned an unfamiliar corner behind the engineering buildings, and found a tangled dump of discarded, rusting metal and what looks like dismantled student engineering projects. So much picturesque junk, so little time!

No time at all at the moment, as I'm off on holiday for the next couple of weeks, but I've scheduled a selection of recent pictures (all taken with the Panasonic GF1 / 20mm / viewfinder combination) to appear every few days. For no particular reason, I've called this little exhibition "Pale Fire", and there will be six installments.

Saturday 7 August 2010

Dude, Where's My Boot Button?

A certain level of apparent "psychic" ability runs in my family -- in an old-fashioned phrase, my mother was sometimes referred to by friends and relatives as "a bit of a gypsy". This didn't mean she had a yearning for the itinerant life, or a flair for wild dancing with a tambourine, but that she seemed to know things she had no means or business to know. I have inherited something of this gift of insight, and have a particular talent for finding lost things.

A classic instance occurred this week. When I arrived at work on Thursday morning, I parked the car and went through my usual routine: check the windows are closed, get out, shut the door, lock the car, walk round the back, test the boot is shut and locked, walk away from the car. But when I reached for the release button on the rear hatch (we have a Renault Scenic -- great car) it wasn't there.

The hole where it had been was there, but the button which operates the catch wasn't in the hole. Some bastard had clearly tried to force the boot during the night, and failed, but damaged the release button and probably thrown it away.

When I got to my office I rang home. Could someone look around the front drive for an oblong-ish green plastic button? There was no sign of it. Could it have just, you know, fallen off? This seemed unlikely to me, but I trudged back over to the car park to look around. As a habitual early arriver, I tend to park in roughly the same place every day, so I crawled around looking around and under cars. No luck. Though you'd be surprised how much car-related debris accumulates in a typical car park.

At that point my "psychic" logic circuits kicked in. Alright. OK. Let's say it did fall off. What would make it fall off? Maybe going over a bump. Had I driven over any noticeable bumps? Why, yes -- yesterday evening before going home I had driven slightly too fast down a road that passes through the campus on the way to get a birthday card for my daughter, and taken several of the "traffic calming" bumps in over-dramatic style. Worth a look? Why not?

So I went over to the other side of the campus and walked along the kerb, looking for an oblong-ish green button. About half way down I spotted an oddly-shaped black plastic object lying in the kerb, a little like the innards of a plastic toy. Psychic bells went off. It was not the oblong-ish green button I was looking for, but something about its shape echoed the recessed holes which I had been prodding with a key in an attempt to open the boot. I looked closer. Small shards of green plastic were lying around. I knew I had found it.

Now, I'm not a great believer in psychic powers. But I am a great believer in a power possessed in a high degree by certain varieties of the human mind which enables us to assemble cues and clues and probabilities into mental projections which are such good simulacra of real-life scenarios that they have a weird habit of matching reality. Not everyone can do this. It's a facility like hitting a golf ball with uncannily consistent accuracy, or doing complex maths in your head. No big deal, but if you have lost your keys, I'm the man to find them. No pendulums or dowsing rods required.

You may raise logical objections ("What about all the times you don't find the keys?"), but the point, of course, is that I did find the boot button, and usually do find the keys. Most people would have given up at an early stage, or considered the complexities too overwhelming -- it could have been flung down the street by a late night vandal, it could have fallen off anywhere along the 3 mile journey home or into work. Why even bother to look? But, as so often in the past, I projected myself into an imagined reality, and returned clutching the prize.

Even if it had been run over several times in the meantime...

Friday 6 August 2010

The View Finder

From the misty mountains of China...

To the far off humps and bumps of the West where the blu-tack roams free ...

From a David Hockney stage-set...

To my favourite phone-box...

The campus is full of miniature adventures, to which a Panasonic GF1 with an electronic viewfinder is ideally suited.

Although I had found a used GF1 at a good price, I had not bothered to find an electronic viewfinder on the grounds that most people seemed to regard it as a bit of failure in terms of size and resolution -- rather like looking at a neighbour's TV through a telescope, was the general view. However, I began to feel that if one was available it couldn't be that bad, and could be very useful. In my comparison of the GF1 and the Olympus E-P1, one counter-intuitive thing I had discovered, for example, was that the lower-resolution LCD screen of the Olympus is much more visible in sunlight than that of the Panasonic, despite its higher resolution and alleged viewability. Couple that with the E-P1's built-in image stabilisation, and it was becoming clear which would be, for me, the longer-term purchase. Unless the Panasonic viewfinder was better than most people were saying.

Well, "most people" are wrong, in my view. Having found one at a good price, I am smitten with the way the viewfinder transforms the usability and enjoyability of this camera. What do I care about the quality of the image seen through it? I'm taking photographs, not admiring the view. Have you ever tried to use a medium-format "Waist level" viewfinder outdoors? Never mind a TV through a telescope, that is like trying to watch football through a home-made periscope. You just get used to it, laterally-reversed image and all.

What really counts is that I can hold the camera like a camera, stabilizing it against my face with a technique I perfected long ago, and -- even better -- can see exactly what I'm framing while reading off the exposure data. If necessary, I can turn it up through 90 degrees, or press the little button and revert to LCD viewing. I'm seeing an immediate improvement in the sharpness and compositional tightness of my pictures taken with the GF1. It more than compensates for the lack of in-body image stabilisation.

I'd rather it was built in to the camera body of course, and maybe future models will go down that road. But I have to say there is something appealing about taking out and assembling my kit -- camera, lens, viewfinder, lens hood -- like a fisherman assembling his rod, reel, float and weights, then baiting the hook in high anticipation on the riverbank.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

The People's Choice

Like the idiot I am, I went and entered Boundary Elements for Photography Book Now at the last minute, having vowed not to enter any more silly beauty contest competitions I have no hope of winning. Ah, well. Next time I'm really not going to enter.

Assuming you don't have a horse in the race, you can do your bit by voting in the "people's choice" element of the competition by clicking on the orange and white shuttlecock below, if you would be so kind. Or you could, of course, encourage me not to do this again by not voting. Or you could vote for someone else!

There's an awful lot of rubbish in there this year, but also some real nuggets if you're prepared to sift through 2192 entries... I gave up after about the first 500 or so. As it happens, Boundary Elements is currently listed on the very first page, and therefore attracting some comments, which is pleasant. The pack will be reshuffled soon, though.

Vote for my Book in the Photography Book Now competition.

"Vote early, vote often" is not an option -- you have to register, and only get one vote. Use it wisely.

Another roadside attraction

Added 4/8/2010: My main contender for a winner so far? Check this out:

The Last Road North, by Ben Huff

He doesn't need your votes.

Sunday 1 August 2010

Moon over Babaluma

I went over to Romsey Abbey this afternoon, to give a close external inspection to the venerable Norman stonework, in which I hoped to discover many stories. There were plenty, but I'd mostly heard/seen them before.

The most interesting discovery was that someone -- presumably in relative antiquity, when the fabric of cathedrals and the like was treated with rather less cringing respect than now -- had engraved crude little pictures of houses and churches all round the facade, the sort a child would draw with a curl of smoke coming out of the chimney. Curious.

In the end, I found the most interesting things in the car park as I was leaving. Some very squashed dots in the parking bays made an interesting series of moons and landscapes with moons.

Soon over Babaluma

The Moon of the Twin Hamsters

The Moon of the Were-Rabbit