Thursday 30 September 2010

A Treasure Map on My Hand

Like most people over 50, I stopped keeping up with what the young folk are listening to once I had heard the same old styles coming round for the second or third time, and especially since what I still think of as the "fresh, new" sounds of the late 70s recently hit their 30th anniversary. Isn't it past your bedtime, granddad?

But occasionally something shakes itself free from the all-encompassing pop susurration, and grabs my attention. It doesn't have to be something new, just new to me. Sometimes I hear something interesting playing on the PA as I stand in line to buy my sandwich at the Students' Union shop, or it might even be (whisper it) the audio-colouring to an advert I hear on the TV.

Most often it's a one off. I heard part of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" on the car radio one morning and had to write down and then Google a snatch of the lyrics to find out what it was. The album from which it is taken left me disappointed, but consistency over an entire album is a rare and neglected virtue, and this doesn't bother me -- I love the three-minute song as a pure art-form, and "Fast Car" is up there with "Waterloo Sunset" and dozens of other story-driven three-chord miracles.

Despite my highbrow inclinations, I have always been a poptastic hit spotter, and I am rarely wrong about a release's chart potential, even in those genres I never listen to myself. I can hear what is right about Whitney Houston's cover of "I Will Always Love You", for example, and what is wrong about Dolly Parton's original. I get the pop chills whenever I hear it.

But I don't really care about the charts. What really makes me sit up is hearing a stand-out song by an eccentric, clever, ironically passionate singer-songwriter with things to say. Of course, if you start your listening career with Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Paul Simon already at the height of their powers, it takes a lot of song to make you stir in your chair.

I came across Ani DiFranco playing "Hypnotized" when I was surfing the net looking for information on tenor guitars. Up popped this YouTube video of an attitudinous young woman performing live a strange song that, well, mesmerized me.* In another life, it was clear to me, she and I had endured a brief but oddly angry affair, like two confused people who have grabbed at straws but ending up grasping nettles. To let go or hold on, which would hurt least? It's not you, Ani, it's me. Actually, no, it is you.
So that's how you found me
Rain falling around me
Looking down at a worm
With a long way to go...
And the traffic was hissing by
I was homesick and I was high...
The song made me think of a series of real-life half-affairs in rainy places, in the confusing years before the Prof entered my life. I remembered endless conversations, huddled in the dark under the flyover near the old railway station, sheltering from the endless rain of 1970 sheeting down in the cinematic brightness of the streetlamps. And Heidelberg in 1971 -- a colossal thunderstorm that soaked me and my travelling companion and our rucksacks crossing a vast empty space on the way to the "Sleep-In" (do they still have Sleep-Ins in Europe?). Then a year later there was Salzburg with Norwegian hitchhiker Trinnie snug against my side, shoplifting fruit from beneath my waterproof poncho as we brushed past market stalls gleaming in the light summer rain.
I was surrounded by a language
In which I could say only "Hello"
And "Thank you very much",
But you spoke so I could understand
And I drew a treasure map on your hand.
That feeling of being surrounded by a language in which you can only smile and be polite is the rocket fuel of teenage anger and frustration, isn't it? How momentous it is, when someone just like you first steps over the barrier, listens to what you have to say, and talks to you in a language you can understand about the things that seem to matter. Even more so, if that person is also reaching across the divide of gender. If you are lucky in the kind and quality of these early encounters, as I have been, it will colour your whole subsequent life.

But sometimes -- in fact, quite often -- the most enduring of these encounters last just three minutes, rhyme, and have a catchy guitar hook and a middle eight. A good song heard at the right time is a friend for life. A good song heard at the right time can change, even save, your life. And if you think that sounds melodramatic, then you've not really been listening.

Addendum 1/10/10: I knew something was nagging at the back of my mind while I was writing this post, that would elegantly tie its various elements together: I remembered today what it was -- the song "I'm With You" by Avril Lavigne. Pure pop gold! I only heard it because my daughter liked it (she was 11 years old at the time) and I loved it immediately. If you don't know it, check it out here (good video, too). "I don't know who you are, but I -- I'm with you..."

* That DiFranco video has since disappeared, but if you don't know the song you can hear the (inferior) album version here, or watch a video of another excellent song from the same show here. This one is pretty good, too.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

I Think I'm Going Back(wards)

Everyone knows that you should "never go back", just as everyone knows you can never step into the same pop-psychological cliché twice. But re-reading is a special sort of going back that is thought, by and large, to be a good thing, if only because it gives you a chance to adjust your rear-view mirror.

For example, Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals was recently dramatised on BBC Radio 4. I was given a copy of that book as a school prize in 1965, and read it many, many times, cover to cover, at bedtime for years. As a keen collector of moths, fossils and any natural historical debris that came to hand I was Gerald Durrell, in my dreams, at least. When they were of a suitable age, I gave copies to my children, fondly anticipating having to retrieve the book at night from across their sleeping faces, as my parents had.

But: they found it unreadable. Hearing it again on the radio, I can now understand why. The archness of Durrell's writing belongs to another era; what was once a model of imaginative writing handed out as school prizes has become irretrievably class-bound, its voice toe-curlingly patrician and smug. Just like the real Gerald Durrell, in fact. I am glad my kids didn't pretend to like it just because I thrust it at them, and I have adjusted my rear-view mirror accordingly.

This last week, I have been re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I first read at university in 1974 and hadn't read since. No, it wasn't a set text. It was one of those cult books that everyone read and which, now I come to think of it, did form a sort of alternative reading list.

Setting aside weighty off-piste items like Feyerabend's Against Method, I'm thinking of books like Alfred Watkins' The Old Straight Track, Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- that sort of thing. I also had a soft spot for popular nonsense like Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods -- that mix of pseudo-scholarship and far-out speculation was very much to my taste. I suppose you could say there was a strong anti-rationalist (or at least anti-positivist) streak running through the early 70s. Plus an awful lot of dope was getting smoked.

I saw the best minds of my generation...
Destroyed by reading Erich von Daniken

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (let's call it ZAMM) caught the mood of the time, and seemed to point to a constructive alternative to that idiotic anti-materialist reflex that loathes the positivist certainties of the school chemistry lab, but still demands paracetamol for hangovers. There was -- is -- a general unease that, somehow, scientists had got science wrong and, left unchecked, would accidentally freeze and rigidify the wider culture, like Vonnegut's "ice nine". Science was too important to leave to the scientists.

But it was my turn to find a book unreadable. I hardly recognised the ZAMM I thought I knew. In its place, I found a poorly-written, turgid, plot-free essay describing a mental breakdown and a bizarre case of child cruelty, that could have been usefully condensed into about 40 pages, but instead sprawled over 400 (actually, here it is, digested by John Crace into rather less). It was as if I had never really read the thing; perhaps I hadn't.

This was particularly frustrating as I had just taken delivery of my brand new, super improved Kindle, but -- as ZAMM is not available for the Kindle -- was reading it on my old CyBook. In a classic case of neurotically-deferred gratification, I made myself finish the book before starting another. It was tough going, but in the end I did finish it, though not without thinking, "Well, what was that all about?" I have rarely put a book down with such a sense of release. Rear-view mirror radically re-adjusted.

One thing I did take away from the book, however, was Pirsig's description of the ancient Greek view of time: "They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes". I don't know whether from a scholarly point of view this is accurate, but it resonated with me. It generally does feel like life goes backward or, rather, that we go forward with the past spread out patchily before us. Then I remembered that famous passage where Walter Benjamin describes the "angel of history":
"A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
Of course, Benjamin's Illuminations was one of the few of those "alternative" bookshelf items that did eventually make it onto the official curriculum. Obvious, really, with hindsight; Walter Benjamin's speculations clearly have depth and pedigree and insight, where Erich von Daniken's clearly do not. Pirsig is situated somewhere wobbly in between.

But, at the time -- especially when we were young and impressionable and breaking free of the received wisdom of a previous generation -- it was quite hard to tell the difference between the "rich and strange" and the simply strange, between the nutritious and the meretricious. As they say: only time will tell. Not, as I begin to realise, because we are passing through time, but because time is passing through us, like the view passing through a rear-view mirror.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Pumpkin Journey

[Cue Sir David Attenborough]

As the days shorten, and the winds from the north bring a chill to the upland farms of Hampshire, a very special event brings an unexpected touch of colour to the dull brown fields. For now is the time of one of Nature's great spectacles: the migration of great herds of pumpkins across these gently rolling hills.

Led by lowing bull pumpkins [sound effect], thousands upon thousands of these strange orange creatures make their way from their breeding places deep in the forest, spread out in straggling lines, guided by the white sheets the farmers have thoughtfully spread out across the fields.

No-one knows the purpose of this great migration, but as October approaches the extraordinary journey of the pumpkins begins. But little do they know, a great obstacle lies ahead: the A3057, a rushing torrent of traffic.


Friday 24 September 2010

Embarrassing Moments

At college, as an ice-breaker at an introductory meal given at his home by our tutor, we were asked to recount our "most embarrassing moment". No matter how hard I thought about it, no anecdote suitable for what used to be called "mixed company" at the dining table came to mind. I had a fund of red-faced stories, but they all involved drink, drugs, sex or bodily functions (or combinations thereof, though never yet at that stage of my life, I'm glad to say, "all of the above") .

Luckily, one of our number was a gifted and garrulous comic in the self-deprecatory mode; hilarity ensued, and my turn never came. Phew! There is probably a Greek word for something which turns out to be a perfect example of itself; for example, that my most embarrassing moment (up to that point) was being asked to think of my most embarrassing moment.

Subsequently, though, I did have a real hot-cheeked humdinger, which I do not expect to surpass; precisely the sort of story one is said to "dine out on". As I don't get invited to dinner parties these days, though, my first thought was that I'd share it with you. It is a very funny story. No drink, drugs or sex were involved, though "bodily functions" of a sort certainly were.

But then my second thought was: this is probably the single funniest thing that has ever happened to me, in a slightly cruel, self-lampooning sort of way. If I ever do get around to writing a novel (hey, I'm still only 56), this will surely make a brilliant scene. Why would I simply give it away? What is it about blogging, that compels one to empty one's metaphorical pockets for no gain?

So, I think I'll hold on to that one, for now. Sorry! But if you ever read of a novel in which a side-splittingly funny scene occurs, involving a man writhing on the floor of an enormous darkened room, that'll be mine.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Moth and Rust

If his recent visit is any measure, the Pope seems to have a bit of a thing about us Brits and our ungodly ways. Still harping on Henry VIII after all these years... Get over it, the Pope! (though I think he was probably mainly thinking about Professor Dawkins, and may have mistaken Christopher Hitchens for an Englishman).

It is true that secularism has made enormous inroads into our national culture. My children are utterly ignorant of even the barest shreds of Christian worship: the Lord's Prayer, for example, is not now taught at school (unsurprisingly, when a fair proportion of their classmates came from Sikh, Hindu, or Muslim families). By contrast, when I was at school, a compulsory morning religious assembly meant that even the most resolutely church-avoidant children (the fathers of several of my friends were communist trade unionists, for example) got a thorough steeping in the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible, and Hymns Ancient and Modern. No bad thing, linguistically.

The main legacy of those years of early morning indocrination is a stock of sonorous phrases, and reflexive associations. At work, I often find myself saying things like "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" and "Let thy yes be yes, and thy no be no"; the younger folk probably think it's Shakespeare. I have no idea why anyone would cast their bread upon the waters, other than to feed the ducks, but the phrase is branded on my subconscious mind, along with all those exotic names our Puritan ancestors used to lift from the Bible and inflict on their children -- "Oi, Abednego and Shadrach, stop tormenting Meshach!"

But, if this is any comfort to the Pope, it is not just Christianity that has faded from the national consciousness. I'm acutely aware that the Western, for example, with all its handy references and tropes, is becoming an unknown genre. On Sundays, when my mother and sister were off at the local Baptist church, Dad and I would settle down to Bonanza, Bronco, Gunsmoke, High Chaparral, Boots and Saddles, Cheyenne, Laramie, The Lone Ranger, Rawhide ... It is astonishing, in retrospect, quite how many Western series were shown in the limited broadcasting time available in the 1950s and 60s.

The cowboy obsession went way back to my Dad's youth, and seemed eternal, a rival set of metaphors to those Biblical ones. The advantages of the Navy Colt over the Buntline Special or the Derringer was the stuff of heated playground debates. Lone Ranger silver bullets and sherriff's badges were given away free in Puffed Wheat, and we collected bubble gum and cigarette cards of prominent cowboys and indians. You could have predicted the nascent hippies because we admired the indians more than the cowboys; I had a deep admiration for the apaches, at least as portrayed in High Chaparral. In later years, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Black Elk Speaks were among my favourite books.

Then sometime in the 1970s someone influential somewhere important got bored with Westerns, and science fiction and police serials took over that important moral low ground where showdowns and roundups had once taken place. My children, whose moral framework and inner arsenal of weaponry have been supplied by Star Wars, not High Noon, do not realise why Han Solo wears that waistcoat or carries his holster laced to his thigh. Does this matter? Times change; the message is much the same. Perhaps someone should have a word with Benedict XVI.

To every thing there is a season. Head 'em up, move 'em out!

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth
where moth and rust doth corrupt

(Matthew 6:19)

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single,
thy whole body shall be full of light.
(Matthew 6:22)

But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness.
If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

(Matthew 6:23)

Thursday 16 September 2010


Winners and Losers

The Photography Book Now results are in and, can you believe it, I didn't win again! Not even an honourable mention! OK, there were 2300 entries but... Sigh. I could have used that $25,000.

Now I remember why I hate competitions. It's because I never win. And I especially hate competitions where the winners simper in their statements about the wonderful validation this win has given to their work; true, but what about the approximately 2290 people feeling pretty much the exact opposite, hmm? How come there are never any losers' statements?

It's a very odd thing, being a winner. Winners may mouth self-deprecatory sentiments about "the luck of the draw" but validated is precisely what winners feel. I won because I'm the best! Winning is proof of election, in the religious sense; winners very rarely seriously question the motives or wisdom of judges, who usually bear an uncanny family resemblance to their chosen ones. Being a winner -- especially if you are a serial winner -- can seriously affect your grasp of reality.

For most of us, the unspoken truth is that life is about learning to manage disappointment. Damn it, this life really doesn't live up to its billing in so many ways, does it? But to concede that has become a bit of a taboo. Like the insistence that the word "problem" must be substituted with the word "challenge" (or, worse, that what matters in life is to "follow your dream") there's an ideology of compulsory optimism abroad which is as irritating as being told to "Cheer up!" when what you want is a good moan about how unsatisfactory and unfair it all is.

A mature adult is not someone who has ruthlessly overcome the challenges that stood between them and some idiotic, selfish "dream", but someone who has learned to accept defeat gracefully. A lot of unhappiness is caused to a lot of people by living in a culture that endlessly talks up the best bits of life until they appear to offer a bogus form of transcendence. Eventually, even the Real Thing is never quite good enough: romantic love is the obvious example, but virtually every good thing suffers from relentless hyper-marketing. I suppose the constant disappointment does sell a lot of chocolate.

The name of one of the PBN winners did give me pause. Most people will never have heard of Arthur Tress, but anyone who has followed photography for a few years should have come across the name. The PBN judges certainly will have. Mr. Tress was once Almost Famous.

He belongs to that interesting sub-category of artists who use photography to make whacky, surrealistic narratives, usually in the form of self-published books. Names like Les Krims (The Incredible Case of the Stack o' Wheat Murders), Bea Nettles (Mountain Dream Tarot), and Duane Michals (Take One and See Mount Fujiyama) come to mind. Tress' amusing and inventive book Fish Tank Sonata features in my own collection. The weirdness and sheer nuttiness of such productions would, you might think, be a conscious strategy to subvert "success". Such artists can surely never have had their eyes on the prize. If they did, then they are genuinely deluded, but in that same noble way that William Blake was deluded.

So what is Arthur Tress doing even entering such a competition? Perhaps, like me, he could really use that $25000. You have to wonder how many other Almost Famous (or even Very Famous Indeed) photographers entered the competition, perhaps pseudonymously? And how did they feel when they didn't win? Disappointed, probably, and puzzled that their winner's story was no longer running to script.

The wonderful thing is that life does offer moments of transcendence; pleasures and other feelings so intense you fear you might actually be dying, or briefly capable of flying. Precious and strange as they may be, these moments are oddly easy to forget, and to undervalue. They are rare and unpredictable and -- crucially in a culture that has an almost religious belief in cause and effect -- there is no entitlement or certain route to such fulfilment; these "prizes" are awarded seemingly at random.

There is a lot to be said for life's lesser but more dependable pleasures. Chocolate, anyone?

Saturday 11 September 2010

Health and Safety

A few more pictures from my lately-discovered heap of rusting metal.

People often talk about the courage it takes to do street photography* but it takes a certain resolution to photograph junk, too, especially when the occupants of nearby workshops and offices fear you may be a health and safety inspector.

It helps to have a good line in repartee, and not to look like a health and safety inspector. And, in general, people have a superstitious fear of fast-mouthed lunatics with missing teeth, and that works for me.

* Have you ever seen this Youtube video of Garry Winogrand at work? It's a revelation. Yeah, OK, so the commentary is in German, but it's what he does that is so interesting. Notice how he continually seems to be checking the camera ("Is this thing really working?" -- remember, it's a film camera, what's to check??) and looking off to the side and smiling. In between those tics the picture gets made.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Twenty Flight Rock

It takes a lot, these days, to get me to run up five flights of stairs, though I'm pleased to say I can still do it. It seems I'm fitter than some people think.

I've run up a lot of stairs in my time. For many years my home was a fourth floor council flat in a block so ugly that every year I used to see kids from my school down on the ground below sketching -- for some reason the art teacher would assign "draw the ugliest building in Stevenage" annually as homework. A tough call, given the competition, but the smart ones knew Chauncy House was the place to go. Easy to draw, too -- a housebrick made a decent template.

I liked living in that flat. My friend Alan and I used to fill balloons with water and toss them from the balcony. For some reason the grass always grew thicker and greener wherever the balloons had exploded. Happy days! One snowy night when my parents were out I swear we saw someone drive a small herd of cattle through the grounds. No, no-one else believed us, either.

In a way, our block of flats was the fons et origo of the New Town. It was pretty much the first new building erected, and it was where the architects and construction people lived during the first stages of "Silkingrad"* as it was known to the ungrateful locals whose fields had been bulldozed to make homes for heroes. Planes heading for Luton Airport appeared to use us as a landmark: you could hear them change down a gear (or whatever it is planes do) as they went overhead. On summer nights the sounds of the nearby A1(M) motorway came in on the west wind into the small hours, something I found very restful and miss to this day when I am wakeful at 3 am.

But I digress. Why did I run all the way to the top fifth floor of the library yesterday morning, as soon as I got in the back door at 7:50 am? Because I had caught a glimpse of what was going on in the basin of the Itchen River to the east:

Bitterne Park is melting in the rain...

I was concerned that if I didn't hurry, the steamy action over the river would be over before I got to a suitable vantage point. As it turned out, it was worth getting a little puffed out for, I think.

*Lewis Silkin was the Labour minister responsible for the New Towns programme. The name "Silkingrad" was thought by the local Resistance to be jolly funny, implying both personal vanity and Soviet-style social planning.

Monday 6 September 2010


I've recently been reading 17 Watts? : the Birth of British Rock Guitar by Mo Foster. Through an entertaining assemblage of anecdotes from that initial post-War generation that went from Meccano to home-made pickups and amplifiers to filling stadiums in a single decade, it tells the story of the birth of our national obsession with guitar-driven pop.

The stories are great, but I think the best bit is the series of late 1950s back garden photographs showing nascent rock gods, aged 12, proudly cradling cheap guitars which are bigger than they are. Who could have guessed what riches the world would shower on some, or how badly it would end for others?

As I mention in my profile (over on the right there, next to the crow), I was born in 1954 and so never knew life in The Land Before Rock'n'Roll. Indeed, some of my earliest memories are rocking out, as only a 4-year old can, to Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele on seaside caff jukeboxes, to the deep embarrassment of my "proper" boomer sister, eight years older. My Dad had to endlessly improvise guitars for me out of sticks and rolled up newspaper -- anything would do, so long as I could go "Dang-a-dang, dang, DANG!" to that rocking music. I was an appalling little show-off.

But reading the book, looking at the pictures, and remembering the music sparked off some deep musical memories that had nothing to do with guitars. If you don't get your cultural history from Central Casting you'll know that culture is always a mixed picture, with huge time lags working their way through the system*. In the 1950s my Dad's generation were in their prime, and closer to their experience of the jungles of Burma and the beaches of Normandy than we are now to "9/11" and the Milennium Bug. To them, the "skiffle thing" was a passing youth fad, just "greasy kids' stuff" in the contemporary phrase.

Dad -- only 40 in 1958 -- had been a keen amateur drummer and motocyclist, but his musical horizons were fixed by big band swing and the sophisticated vocals of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Ton Up Boys, Little Richard and Chuck Berry simply disgusted him. He was a man of strong musical tastes -- he couldn't understand the appeal of anything that lacked polish, that invoked raw or mawkish emotions, or wasn't essentially Sophisticated Movie American in impulse. For him, it was a time of Italian-copy suits and Volare, the excitement of business travel to France on BEA Viscounts and Come Fly With Me.

But most of his generation were stuck in an older, music-hall groove. It was the twilight of the great age of novelty and variety acts -- I well remember harmonica bands and penny whistle acts on Sunday Night At The London Palladium, in between jugglers and the Tiller Girls. What played on the radio until about 1965 was intended to entertain this easily-pleased but easily-bored majority.

Although "rock" has carried all before it for 50 years, to the point where other musics now struggle for an audience, it's important to realise that at the time of its greatest original triumphs it was like those first tiny mammals, scampering around the feet of the dinosaurs -- strong on potential but low on visibility. I doubt the BBC Light Service played more than twenty "Rock'n'Roll" tracks in a week, even in the Great Age of Elvis.

It was also the Age of Dan Dare who, oddly,
crash landed on campus this week

What the BBC did play a lot of was songs and tunes from musicals, and a particular brand of British light orchestral music that has vanished from the world. The composers and players of this music are now forgotten men -- Ronald Binge or Eric Coates, anyone? And yet, if you grew up in Britain in the 1950s and 60s, their catchy, wholesome tunes were ubiquitous, in the arrangements of Mantovani and other popular orchestras. Thinking of the descending riff of Shakin' All Over, I found myself remembering with deep fondness the not dissimilar tune of Binge's Elizabethan Serenade, which instantly transported me back to a sunny, windy washday in Peartree Way, Stevenage, with my Mum pegging flapping wet sheets onto the clothes line.

And the radio in those days carried survivors from an even earlier age, like the Victorian pennies that would turn up in your change before decimalisation. Ancient-seeming music: the fifty years before 1960 seem to have been considerably longer than the most recent fifty years. For some bizarre reason, I found myself singing On the Road to Mandalay while I was away on holiday. Few things take you so thoroughly by surprise as stuff you didn't know you knew. There I was, swaggering around a French farmhouse kitchen, mentally kitted out as a Kipling-era soldier, singing in a faux-baritone,
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin' fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder,
Outta China 'crost the bay!
Strange. I doubt this was as enjoyable to listen to as it was to do, but I made a mental note to look the song up when I got home, and perhaps learn the lyric as a party piece. Or maybe not. But I was surprised and pleased by this felt connection to the Land Before The Land Before Rock'n'Roll.

And when I looked up the song, I was very taken with its final verse, a rock'n'roll sentiment avant la lettre if ever I saw one:
Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain't no Ten Commandments, an' a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea;

On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,Where the flyin' fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the bay!

Another time I must write something about Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads (the source of Mandalay), one of the great underrated masterpieces of English literature. But for now, let's all raise a thirst and sing together:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"

Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

Rip it up...

* If there is a system -- Discuss, with examples.

Saturday 4 September 2010

And the Winner is...

I have mentioned in several recent posts that I've been comparing the Olympus E-P1 and the Panasonic GF1 (the Panasonic G1 having been knocked out in the first round, on grounds of too closely resembling a DSLR). They're both very good cameras, but I'm not wealthy enough to keep both and a choice had to be made.

The interesting bit about comparing cameras in use is that it's rarely the headline features that colour one's impression. In fact, in almost every case I experienced the exact opposite of the expected outcome. The Panasonic has a better LCD screen? On paper, yes, but in use the difference is negligible to non-existent, and in sunlight the Olympus is actually far easier to see. The Panasonic lacks in-body image stabilisation? True, but for me it consistently returned the sharpest images. The Olympus is a little over-stylish, a little "look at me"? Perhaps, but it seemed to become invisible as soon as I hung it on my shoulder (it has a very good strap, btw). The Olympus has no flash? Absolutely, but I have never once used the pop-up flash on the Panasonic.

In the end, my final impression was that the Olympus felt the best -- its density, size and layout suited me, and I really enjoyed using it to take pictures. It handles very like a lighter OM-1. The layout of the buttons was just right, and I loved using the combination of the exposure compensation button and the rolling thumb dial. The buttons were nicely recessed, too, so that brushing against my side didn't affect any settings. Having been driven slowly mad by the mode dial on the LX3 (which changes if you breathe on it), this plus the ultra-recessed mode dial with its stiff detents was a sheer pleasure. The thumb dial, however, was far too easily moved and annoyed me intensely e.g. by changing aperture radically between shots.

But I was sometimes let down by the images it brought home. The autofocus was slow and -- worse -- slightly off target rather too often. Backlit and high-contrast edges suffered from more colour fringing than I like, and -- despite the inbuilt image stabilisation -- there was far too much softness in the sort of hand-held moderate close-ups that are characteristic of my photography. I was losing pictures, and that's simply no good.

The Panasonic is less solid in build than the Olympus, and a little smaller and squarer. If the E-P1 is reminiscent of an OM-1, the GF1 is reminiscent of a chunkier Olympus XA. I was afraid that it would have a similarly flighty mode dial to the LX3, but it's got good solid click stops. Exposure compensation and aperture/shutter speeds are handled by a plasticky but functional control dial which is stiff and unsatisfying to use but impossible to change accidentally. However, the main buttons are not recessed, and can be pressed accidentally by rough contact. Also, in Program Mode the software has an annoying preference for the widest available aperture, resulting in (to me) mad exposures in Spanish sunshine like 2500th @ f/1.7 -- but then Aperture Priority Mode is always my preferred default.

Its photographs are consistently good, however, and that is what counts. Autofocus and exposure are almost always spot on, and there's a quality to them (a "Panasonic look") that they share with the LX3 which I find very pleasing. The consistent sharpness of the images is mystifying -- I kept wondering whether Panasonic had actually implemented image stabilisation at the last minute and forgotten to tell anyone. Maybe knowing it's not there makes one more conscious of technique? The electronic viewfinder, of course, makes a huge difference, and is the icing on the cake.

It was an easy choice deciding which camera to take on holiday, and it's an easy choice to decide which to keep. My only regret is that in selling on the Olympus I will be losing the 17mm lens, which is excellent -- better, I found, in most circumstances, than the much hyped Panasonic 20mm, which can vignette quite badly -- and the VF-1 optical viewfinder, which is a perfect match for the Panasonic 20mm lens.

Thursday 2 September 2010

A Brief History of Humanity in Pictures

Here is a little miscellany of images from the excellent Musée de l'Aquitaine in Bordeaux. Cast in order of appearance.

The Venus of Laussel
(Palaeolithic karaoke night?)

Roman memorial stones
(nice to see the locals kept their beards)

The angel restrains Abraham
(or is s/he checking the sharpness of his blade?)

Saint Somebody or Other gets it on...

From Montaigne's tomb

The shadow of slavery...

It's nice to visit a museum where photography is allowed (no flash or tripods, obviously). These were all hand held at ISO 800.

Unlike this miserably run-down chateau we visited in the Dordogne (mainly for the coolness, it's true) which contained barely anything of interest, but which forbade photography throughout. But try and stop me...

Another Venus,
Chateau Wotsit

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Dismantling My Career

Pavement in Cambo-Les-Bains

In case you haven't seen it, there's a really interesting interview with Alec Soth here:

Dismantling my career : an interview with Alec Soth

If you don't know who Alec Soth is, and why this is such an interesting interview, you have some catching up to do...