Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Flags for Sunrise

Two views of the sunrise this week. Nothing but grey this morning, and some feeble snow in the bitterly cold NE wind, and it surely can't be long before we join the rest of the country in the chaos induced by this early onset of wintry weather.

Far away in the Australian sunshine: 517 for one. Five hundred and seventeen runs for the loss of one wicket. Extraordinary. I used to open the batting for my school team when I was very young, and know just a little of how that must feel. I won't be the only one today who finds himself thinking of John Wilson, and I send my love and warmest best wishes to any of you who are reading this. Cue up "When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease..."

Talking of long ago, when I padded up and carried my bat out to the crease, today is St.Andrew's Day, and I'm remembering how we used to be allowed to wear our Cubs and Brownie uniforms to school on the national saints' days. I don't know how widespread that was, or whether it was peculiar to our junior school. It seems as quaint now as playing the National Anthem at the end of a performance in the theatre or even, improbably, the cinema. I remember the rush to get out before the drum roll and those dreary chords struck up...

Monday, 29 November 2010

Google Me

We bloggers flatter ourselves that people visit our sites for one reason only; that is, to drink deep at the well of our wit, wisdom and learning. That , or (in the case of the more, um, self-revelatory blogs) to gawp at the pageant of our bleeding hearts, as Matthew Arnold said of Byron, probably the first celebrity blogger.

Google Analytics is there to prove us wrong. It is humbling, and sometimes alarming, to see some of the Google searches that have brought enquirers to my door. Here are a few from the last month:

bantam chickens in severe weather
"barn owl" ancestral star
being fine with something
benefits of corporal punishment in british schools
highly reflective glass walls
is me and my shadow public domain?
kd lang photos by raymond meeks
oxford chinese hat marquee
red light district mental space
what does the conversation of king edwin and the story of caedmon tell you about saint bede's spiritual views?
how to make black swan hat
jackson browne morocco explanation
why are songs like tattoos?

These range from "Uh Oh" (Edwin and Caedmon) through "Glad to be of service" (Jackson Browne) to "Well, I never" (Raymond Meeks and K.D. Lang -- must follow that one up).

The one thing I discover consistently from my statistics is that, by some margin, my most frequent source of visitors is a link to one post from one website dedicated to corporal punishment. I have been assured by the proprietor that this is in no way a forum for spankers. It is evident from the number of visitors that there is a healthy and entirely academic interest out there in tales of sound beatings at school.

Oh, and if you're reading this, David Gepp, someone out there is very interested in your Venice pinhole work at the moment. If that someone wants to get in touch with David, drop me an email and I can arrange something.

And if anyone knows how to make a black swan hat, I can pass that on, too. Glad to be of service. This is the nearest I can manage, perhaps the original Idiotic Hat:

"It shall be called Bottom's Dream,
because it hath no bottom"

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Idiotic Hat Guide to Unleashing Your Creativity

There is a minor industry in self-improvement books, encouraging you to get in touch with your frustrated inner tax exile, and to unleash the creative dynamo that is the Real You. The underlying dodgy thesis (there's always an underlying dodgy thesis) is nearly always the same one, and it's this:

Kids are born creative and free, and this innate joy is squeezed out of them by a sequence of grim, grey tyrants, of whom the most egregious and grimly grey is the schoolteacher. "Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!"

This is such bollocks, it's hard to know where to begin. It's as if the writers of these books had never been to primary school, had never encountered other children, and had been cruelly denied those most enticing of toys -- pencils, paints, and paper -- at home.

I can feel a potential Christmas stocking-filler blockbuster coming on here ("Is It Just Me, Or Are Most Kids Tedious?" or perhaps "Ignore Your Creativity And Get Back To Work!") so I'll keep this brief. It is my observation that most children are born vicious dullards who, without schooling, would torment each other into an early grave. The few exceptions -- the bright, the creative, the open-minded, the talented -- quickly learn to go to ground until it's safe to come out again later in life.

Trust me, I know. As a moderately talented child, I watched in horror as less wary contemporaries had their "show-off" tendencies relentlessly hacked down to playground level, not by our wonderful and encouraging teachers but by our predatory peers, whose "creativity" expressed itself in ensuring that everyone who was not "normal" was policed into dull, watchful conformity. Few of these monsters went on to become teachers, though some do seem to have gone on to careers as stand up comedians.

So, here is my ten point path to fulfilment through creativity:

1. Stop being so dull. Take a walk on the wild side, and see whether it's for you. Ideally, why not try being gay, or left-handed? It seems to work for a lot of artists.

2. Stop worrying about what people might think about you. Instead, find out what they actually do think about you -- probably nothing -- then work ceaselessly at giving them scandalous new things to think about you. See (1).

3. Self-reinvention is the name of the game. Don't like who you are? Neither do we. Stop it. Become someone more interesting. It's easier than you think, see (2).

4. Wear an idiotic hat.

5. Follow your dream. Find out where it goes during the day. Be there waiting for it next time, introduce yourself, and buy it a drink.

6. Think outside the box. Think inside the box. Think round the back of the box. Imagine you are a box. Make a box, and put it inside a box. Learn to box on Boxing Day. When the word "box" finally becomes absurd through repetition, you will have escaped the prison-house of language, and will briefly be outside the word "box", if not the actual box. Does that feel good, or bad?

7. Steal other people's work and ideas shamelessly. Try them on for size. Art is a charity shop.

8. Remember that it is easier to buy a book about creativity, and fund someone else's lifestyle, than it is to read that book. And it is easier to read about writing, than actually to write oneself. A writer is a person who writes. But preferably not a book about how to write.

9. Be positive. Work hard. Stick at it. Work 9 to 5, every weekday. Bring as much of yourself to it as you can. Society depends on your contribution: be proud of that. This is your proper job I'm talking about, dreamer, not some idle fantasy of becoming an artist.

10. Be nice to your kids, and give them plenty of paints, pencils and paper. Be unstinting in your praise and encouragement of their efforts, no matter how dull. Then, just maybe, they'll stop bullying that funny little kid who is so good at drawing, and realise just how freakin' awesome he or she really is. And, one day, maybe they'll even buy one of his pictures to hang on their wall!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Colour Limbo

There were some particularly bold lighting effects today as the sun came up on a freezing cold morning with clear skies and a steady northerly wind.

I should say I'm utterly confused, colour wise, at the moment.

I've just replaced my venerable Epson Stylus Photo 1270 printer (which I've had for seven or eight years, I think) with an Epson Stylus Photo 1400. Yes, that's right, I chickened out of getting a pigment ink printer, and have stuck with dyes. I thought long and hard about going the pigment ink route so I'd feel comfortable about selling prints. But, I like the way dye prints look. Still, the claim is that Epson Claria ink prints will last 200 years if kept properly i.e. in a locked lead-lined steel box in a dark, humidity- and temperature-controlled room, preferably in Switzerland... (Joking!! The 200 year part is true, however).

To compound the confusion, my equally venerable Dell monitor has given up the struggle, so I've stolen my daughter's HP flat screen. I'm now in Colour Management limbo. If anyone has recommendations for colour managing the Epson 1400 with standard Epson papers, I'm more than happy to hear them.*

So, I think these two pictures look pretty damn good, but I can't be sure! The only thing I know is that the on-screen and printed versions are different...

* I've calibrated the screen (HP w1907v) with a ColorVision Spyder 2 Express ("produce stunning photos like the pros!"), and I'm mainly printing using the supplied ICM profile for Epson Premium Glossy paper, with Photoshop Elements controlling the colour management, as recommended by Epson. It's not great. I suspect I'd get better results giving control to the printer, and using the sliders to adjust the CMY settings. Anyone got a favourite combo?

Wednesday, 24 November 2010


Around this time of year, as the shops really start to crank up the Christmas machine, I am often struck by the decline in the standard of our public imagination. Christmas, of course, is entirely built out of inauthentic cliches, mainly borrowed ones. When, for example, did "red ribbon tied in a bow" come to signify "a Christmas gift" in this country? Angrily twisted sticky tape would be nearer the mark. I suppose it's no worse, as a signifier, than "snow". Do you remember the excitement when your favourite comic would arrive in the week before Christmas with the masthead topped with snow? And the baffling sense of anti-climax, when it never did snow before New Year?

But Christmas is not the only stimulus for my glumness, however. It really starts with the lead up to Remembrance Sunday. I think the concept of "the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier" is a piece of public imaginative theatre so brilliant and so moving that it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. We used to do it so well, didn't we? How could a country -- once capable of such an original, appropriate and unsentimental act of therapeutic symbolism -- sink so low?

Look around you at our civic, industrial and retail architecture. Everywhere, flat-pack buildings with all the aesthetic appeal of a carpet tile, all the pride and permanence of a closing-down sale; mere factory farms for the incubation of "imaginative and innovative solutions" that are nothing of the sort. Worse, look at these huge new national institutions we've had wished on us, like the National Lottery or Children in Need. How tacky, how predictable, how unworthy they are!

And then, this year, the Ashes series is about to be contested in Australia. Never mind the cricket, what an amazing idea that little urn of ashes was, what a focus of imagination and engagement it represents! Especially looked at from this era, when the iconic trophies and contests of sport have become mere brand vehicles for the highest commercial bidder. We have gone from stripey-blazered Corinthians to shell-suited chameleons in a couple of generations.

The private imagination, though, does seem intact. We're actually living through something of a Golden Age of the Arts. It's the public domain that seems to have atrophied; we're no longer giving it our best attention. Everything is now measured by "good enough", "just in time", "one size fits all", and above all, "value for money". That is, "bad", "late", "too small", and "cheap". It seems we're now prepared to sit back and watch hard-won public national treasures -- our Health Service, our Civil Service, our schools and universities, council housing, trades unions, legal aid (this list could get appallingly long) -- abolished, sold off, or irreversibly cheapened.

"Privatization" doesn't just mean flogging off the national family silver; it describes a nation retreating mentally and physically from the public arena into the private realm, watching comforting but unimaginative rubbish on TV while real rubbish blows uncollected in the pot-holed streets outside. Imagine!

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Competition

Lately, like a lot of other people, I've been thinking about taking my urge to write more seriously -- as seriously, say, as my urge to take photographs. Inevitably, this poses the question: write what, exactly, and for whom? And, how many other people are thinking the same thing?

Perhaps as a way of avoiding any actual writing, I decided to look at the figures on the latter question. It sometimes seems like every third literate person in the country is either writing, contemplating, or putting off writing a novel (first man at party, "I'm writing a novel"; second man, "Hey, neither am I"). So, what is the competition really like, statistically?

It's harder to get good figures than you might think, but estimates of how many books are published in the UK each year vary between 70,000 and 100,000, of which about one tenth would be regarded as proper "fiction". So, between 7 and 10 thousand British novels are published, every year. Say, 8500.

We can apply the sound general principle that "90% of anything is rubbish" in two directions. First, of those 8500 published novels, let's say only 850 are really worth reading. I don't know about you, but identifying, getting hold of, and then reading 15 or more brand new novels every week is a little beyond my capacity. I'm just not keeping up -- last week I only read three! And none of those was published this or even last year!! Let's face it, even if only 85 are really worth reading, I'm never going to get round to reading them all. I still haven't read any Jane Austen.*

But, going the other way, let's assume that only 10% of submitted manuscripts get published (that's probably wildly over-generous). That's 85000 completed and submitted manuscripts. We could probably go further, and say that only 10% of aspiring novelists manage to complete and submit a manuscript -- that means there are probably 850 thousand dreamers out there, who have actually put pen to paper, but so far failed to complete and submit. God knows how many there are who haven't, but they don't count.

So, good news! If we accept a literate population in the UK of 52 million (80% of 65 million) then my initial impression (that every third literate person was attempting a novel) was completely wrong: only every sixtieth literate person in the UK seriously hopes to publish a novel.

Now we've got that sorted, only one thing remains to be determined. Have I actually got anything to say? The numbers on that seem to be harder to calculate.

* Shocking, but true. Talking of Jane Austen, if you want to see how blog comments can take on a life of their own, check out these comments on a very brief post "The Austen Kerfuffle" on the Language Hat blog (no relation) 18/11/2010. I have rarely seen so many evidently intelligent people making utter arses of themselves. Brilliant!

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Reflective Coda

Without intending to, I seem to have started to add a coda to my "Mirrors, Windows, Walls" series, which I thought I had finished with/off some while ago. Actually, this is quite useful, as I never got round to sequencing those images into a proper final book, and there's nothing quite like rediscovering the original impulse behind a set of images for motivating you to look at them with fresh eyes, and finally do something substantial with them.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Scrap Book

Jules Guerin, The Sphinx, 1908
(illustration from Robert Hitchens, Egypt and its Monuments)

In the main, I try to restrict the images on this blog to my own photographs. Copyright and "intellectual property" theft is a serious issue, and too many people on the Web take the view that stealing and republishing other people's images or words is not really wrong. Oh, yes it is.

Proper acknowledgment softens the blow, but using someone else's work without their permission is theft, pure and simple. Every harmless blogger who believes "content wants to be free" simply emboldens those giant corporations (naming no names) which would love to take our "content" for nothing, and then exploit it for massive financial gain. Content may want to be free, but content providers want to eat.

Having said that (ahem) I do keep a digital scrapbook of images that take my fancy, in the same way that people have always done a literal "cut and paste" job with bits of magazines and ephemera. It's one of the best ways of refining your own eye, and also of remembering things, which is more important to the eye-refining process than people think. Just as a diary can remind you of who you were and what you used to think, a scrapbook reminds you of what has pleased or intrigued your eyes. Memory is intrinsic to learning.

Ernest Ashton, Evening at the Pyramids
photogravure, 1897

Of course, kids these days rarely have to learn anything, in the true sense of committing complex and difficult things to memory. Us over 50s had to learn "by heart" whole poems and dramatic speeches, conjugations and declensions, multiplication tables, mathematical proofs, geographical names, etc., etc. Getting these into your head, where they would form the rich raw material of intelligence, was once a large part of the schooling process.

Indeed, before the advent of cheap printed books, the ability to memorize improbably vast chunks of information was the chief skill of the scholar. No longer. We've let ourselves off the hook of rote learning -- no more tears, no more boredom! -- but the analgesic gain will never balance the mnemonic loss. Wikipedia is not there when you sleep. You know how your phone battery fails if it's not repeatedly emptied and fully recharged? That's your brain, that is. Harumph.

Anyway. For a change, all these images are from my digital scrap book. If I have infringed anyone's copyright, do let me know.

A Kodak No. 1 circular image, Sphinx and Pyramids

The Nebra Sky Disk

A Christmas Ghost

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Ivory Tower

There were foghorns this morning out on Southampton Water, and the fog was so dense I could barely see the other side of the street as I scraped the ice off the car windscreen. The deep booming of foghorns is such an evocative sound. At midnight on New Year's Eve all the ships in harbour let them off together, and you can hear them for miles. Today, I was put in mind of the opening track "Gibraltar" on the album Black Market by Weather Report, one of my all-time favourites, and I've been humming and whistling the screechy Joe Zawinul parts all day.

By lunch time the fog had lifted, leaving a slight veil which diffused some brilliant sunshine in an interesting way. Damned if I didn't stumble across an actual ivory tower, round the back of a building I'd somehow not explored before:

I have no idea what it is, or what it's for. You have to wonder whether a princess is imprisoned in there, behind those fairy-tale windows. Then there were these spectacular specular reflections on the side of the library extension:

Very pleasing, and perhaps the best photograph I've yet taken of my own ivory tower / prison / place of work.

Humming Humument

Readers of this blog will already know that I am a fan of the eminent British artist, Tom Phillips, perhaps the most outstanding example of an obsessive project-led artist alive on planet earth. Tom's long-standing (44 year) project to mine aleatory significance from that most unlikely but almost preposterously fruitful I-Ching -- the Victorian novel A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, chosen at random from a second-hand bookshop -- is already the stuff of legend. If you don't own a copy of at least one edition of A Humument, you don't know what you've been missing.

Now, incredibly, Tom has made A Humument available as an iPad app. Not having an iPad, or any prospect of owning one, I'll have to give this edition a miss (unless there's a way to view iPad content on a PC? Anyone know?). But what a great idea -- and cheap, too!

We salute you, sir. Long may you run.

Tom Phillips at 50 (1987)

Thursday, 11 November 2010

It's That Picture Again

Some pictures seem eternally topical. Forgive me for showing it again.

That's (part of) me, top left. That's the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change with the battering ram (apparently "the tenth most powerful minister in the new government", no less).

I took the day off yesterday, half -intending to go up to London to add my voice to the crowd opposing the Coalition's policies for higher education, half-intending to redecorate the mouldy bathroom ceiling. The ceiling won, I'm afraid.

The Prof was there, however, and reports that the best chant was "Nick Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue!". Apparently the route chosen was a little odd, and created long periods of crown immobility, which may have contributed to the eventual outcome.

Does the Coalition start to crumble now, imploding under the stress of Lib Dem hypocrisy and Tory condescension? We'll see.

Your blogger assembling a union banner in ancient times

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

I Am But Mad North-North-West

Most of us, these days, at least pay lip service to the idea that culture is primarily a construct, something put together out of custom and practice and, above all, language. We accept that cultures can construct things differently, and that language both reflects and determines different world views. It's Humanities 101, these days.

If you have grappled with multiple languages you will be acutely aware that it is quite often impossible to translate directly and mechanically from one language to another. Consider the fact that some languages, for example Russian, have no definite article ("the man") or indefinite article ("a man"). Then consider how fundamental, practically and conceptually, that distinction is in English. Yet, somehow, the Russians seem to muddle through without much confusion. Why, they might even one day put the man on a moon!

But the radicality of this idea is such that we can accept it without living it, just as we accept that the relatively small earth goes round the relatively immense sun but persist in seeing the daily journey "across" the sky of a small bright object. Plus, certain concepts are so fundamental -- up/down, hot/cold, open for business/closed for lunch -- that we might assume that all languages and cultures must have them in common, and not need to express them in roundabout ways.

But then you come across something like this discussion of the subject, including these observations about the way certain Australian aborigines orient themselves, and your head is done in all over again:
Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like "Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."

Lera Boroditsky, How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think? (Edge, 6/12/09)

As someone with a poor and much-mocked sense of direction, I confess this revelation induces a mild sense of panic.

Of course, there are constants which are the same across the entire known world, in all cultures and languages, and throughout history. One of them is the failure of writers to acknowledge or cite their sources. Read this reassuring article in the New York Times, for example, discussing those self-same aborigines. In an uncertain world, it's good to know that some things can be reliably unreliable.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Look Here, Upon This Picture, And On This

A few times recently I have mentioned that distinction between photographs which are pictures made "of" things, and those which are pictures made "from" things. It's pretty self-evident what I mean by this but, hey, these blog posts don't write themselves.

I sometimes make a similar distinction, in my work life, between "people who make things happen" and "people who make things work" -- both essential, but often co-existing in mutual suspicion. The art of project management, is to make sure you've got strong exemplars of both, and then make sure they can work together. If you can find them, of course: both varieties are rare and precious. Most people, in my observation, are simply useless dorks who stop things happening or manage to break them.

In photography, people tend to have a strong preference for one type of picture over the other, but there's no reason why they should ever be persuaded to agree or co-operate. Indeed, trying to bring about harmony between the extremes -- let's say, the sharpness obsessives vs. the toy camera crew -- is futile. What would it achieve? For some, photography is an essentially documentary activity, for others, it's an art medium.

Obviously, a camera is just a tool, and can be used for different ends. If you're documenting an archaeological dig, it's no good using the remains in front of you as material for self-expression or experiments in motion blur. "Yes, but it's how I felt about the skeleton" won't save your job. But, equally, obsessive attention to the accuracy and precision of a camera's ability to record is an activity for trainspotters.

As an example of what I mean, here are two postcards:

This first one, I think we can agree, is pretty dull. By any standards. Photographs do not get any more utilitarian, scenery more pedestrian, than that. But it is a classic photograph "of" something. For that is the stage set of my childhood, and thus fascinating and evocative to me. Such purpose-built rows of neighbourhood shops were scattered all over our town -- it was part of the theory of the "new town". You have to smile, though, that -- in the brave new world of the late 1950s -- six random little shops would constitute a "shopping centre". But that curiously innocent and ugly scene is the Eden where our sweets, our broken biscuits, our toys and our comics were bought with pre-decimal pocket money.

This second postcard is something quite different. I've never been to Ashridge, though it is in God's own country, the chalk hills of Hertfordshire. But this is a picture artfully made "from" what is little more than a partial view of some trees on a hill. Every time I see it, I get that thrill that a perfectly-seen image can give. Quite apart from the picture itself, with its bold composition and beautiful tones, I love the letterbox shape of the frame and its placement on the card, and the writing along the bottom. There's something perfect about it as an object. And yet it's a picture of nowhere and nothing in particular.

But sometimes both types of image do come together, and that's when you often end up with a masterpiece. Here is a photograph that combines "of" and "from" elements into a masterful, compelling image of an historically compelling subject. For this wonderfully mysterious, high-vantage viewpoint shows barricades at yer actual Paris Commune of 1871. It was taken by Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg, about whom I know nothing, other than that he did a nice line in plump Victorian nudes, too.

Quite amazing. Both "of" and "from", with a bit of "by", "with", "to" and "for" thrown in for good measure, and endlessly fascinating. That one man, for example, standing transfixed: might he perhaps be thinking, "Mon dieu! Sous les pav├ęs, la plage!!"?

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Project Proposals

In a number of previous posts I have mentioned the value of "the project" as a way of both getting work done, and ensuring that the resulting work has a level of coherence. I don't think anyone who has worked this way would doubt its value. However, there is another kind of project which, in my experience at least, is rather less benign.

From time to time, galleries or arts organisations will request a "project proposal", either directly from selected artists, or by open submission. Before I came to terms with my fate as an Eternal Also Ran, I would usually respond to these invitations, because I thought it might open a magic door into a new life. Ha!

Now, it is a fact that my mental metabolism seems to work somewhat faster than the norm. If my interest is piqued by a subject, by the next day I'll more or less know what I'd like to do about it. By the end of the week, I'll know what I need to know about it. By the end of the month I'll have come out the other side of my enthusiasm and be looking for something new, unless it's really got its hooks in to me, and has joined the ongoing party of my resident obsessions. Conga! So, I'm a sucker for a project proposal.

For example, back around the year 2000 I was approached directly by a gallery: they liked my work, would I be interested in submitting a proposal for a Year Of The Artist project and exhibition? I explained that I was in full-time employment and anyway did not go in for the kind of work that would tick the "community outreach" box or indeed any of the other bien pensant boxes the Arts Council would require to be ticked in exchange for their cash. No problem, they said. They really, really liked my work.

So, being an idiot, I said OK, and I gave it the full-on treatment. It was quite an exciting prospect. The gallery in question was in a town in the south of England with strong and historic military connections. Hmmm. By the next week I had a fully-fledged project in mind, that could be carried out in the time I had available. It was brilliant, though I say it myself.

It had long puzzled me that, in any town of any size and of any greater antiquity than the New Town I grew up in, certain street names would always be found, especially in those older parts of town where rentable accommodation was to be found. If you are British, and have been a student, I'd bet you knew people who lived in or near Alma Road. Or possibly Inkerman Terrace. I gradually realised that there exists a connection between them -- the Crimean War of 1854-6. This half-forgotten conflict, overshadowed in memory by the Great War of 1914-18, was immensely important in the history of Britain and Europe.

Those roads of modest-but-respectable housing built in the housing boom of the late 1850s often bore names that memorialised the battles and personalities of the Crimea. A roll call of some of those names gives the flavour: Alma, Inkerman, Sebastopol, Balaclava, Raglan, Cardigan. Note also that connection with knitted comfort-wear for cold climates -- balaclava helmets and cardigan sweaters, sometimes with raglan sleeves!

I decided my project would be to photograph in and around those streets in towns with names that derived from the Crimea, looking for ghosts of that long-ago war, that I would connect to our eternal ambivalence about our army and its role in foreign wars started by our politicians. Think Rudyard Kipling's "Tommy". I put together a killer proposal, a statement to end all statements, plus a portfolio that showed I meant business. In military terms, I was pretty sure we'd all be home by Christmas.

But, as any general knows, no plan of action survives first contact with the enemy. Despite the gallery's enthusiasm, just as I predicted, the Arts Council weren't having it -- my project ticked none of their boxes. In the end, the money went to precisely the kind of forgettable "community photography" project that gives publicly-funded art a bad name. In this man's army, at least.

There were other similar "project proposals", too, none of which came to anything, and I -- like most losers in what are, in effect, competitions -- ended up looking on both the winners and their sponsors with a jaundiced eye. Sour grapes aside, I think the problem is the way a "curator's view" (thematic, thought-through, neat, after the fact) gets superimposed on a "producer's view" and distorts it, by demanding a degree of forethought and deliberation which is inimical to the production of anything except conceptual work or community projects.

In the end, those galleries and organisations which commission new work to order by judging competitive artists' submissions (rather than looking for coherent bodies of finished work) have the same relationship to those artists as Tesco does to its producers, and it's just as unhealthy and one-sided. If Tesco wants blemish-free apples, that's what Tesco gets. At the risk of sounding like a free-market libertarian, I think a whole generation of artistic work has been corrupted by competition for public subsidy distributed by committees. If you have to spend your creative life trying to second-guess committees, you end up with no real creative life left at all.

Despite the senseless slaughter, a number of good things came out of the Crimean War, apart from the knitwear. One of them was putting an end to the corruption, inefficiency and sheer military stupidity engendered by the sale of commissions in the British Army. I'm just saying. Stand easy!

Moralistic Lightbulbs

The clocks have now gone back an hour in the UK, and the days continue to shorten, so it's pretty gloomy in the afternoons. When I get home from work, I sometimes feel the need for a little extra light, even though, technically, it's not yet actually dark. So I switch on the light.

Infuriatingly, until yesterday, nothing would happen. At first, I thought the bulb had gone, but replacing it with another identical energy-saving bulb made no difference. Logically, my next thought was that there was a fault with the electricity. But the computer was grinding away (must get a new one before that hard drive expires), so it would have to be the circuit in the ceiling, but bulbs in the next room were fine.

Eventually, I realised that it was the bulb that was the problem, but in a subtle way. The bulbs I had bought have a built-in light sensor and, as far as they were concerned, it was not yet dark enough to turn on. How about that? A moralistic, greener-than-thou lightbulb... The only way I could get one to do its job was to fool it by stumbling into a dangerously gloomy room and reaching up to darken the sensor with something. This began to infuriate me out of all proportion. I wanted to rip out that puritanical little know-all bulb, and stamp it into dust.

But, the consequences of breaking energy-saving flourescent bulbs are less than green: they contain mercury, would you believe? Here is DEFRA's advice for a broken bulb:
Vacate the room and ventilate it for at least 15 minutes. Do not use a vacuum cleaner, but clean up using rubber gloves and aim to avoid creating and inhaling airborne dust. Sweep up all particles and glass fragments and place in a plastic bag. Wipe the area with a damp cloth, then add that to the bag and seal it. Mercury is hazardous waste and the bag should not be disposed of in the bin. All local councils have an obligation to make arrangements for the disposal of hazardous household waste.
Holy shit, and lucky for you, you preachy little lightbulbs! But I've bought another lot without sensors, and they do my bidding without a thought. I'll decide when it's dark round here, thank you very much. It's very dark indeed in the cupboard under the stairs, but that's where those too-clever-by-half smarty-pants bulbs are staying. In their boxes.