Wednesday 30 March 2011

Diagram Awards

You've probably heard of the Darwin Awards, awarded posthumously to those idiots who have successfully and often spectacularly removed themselves from the gene pool simply by exercising their own poor judgment. Funny as these can be, there's something more than a little adolescent about revelling in tragic mishaps, however, and after a while it simply becomes depressing.

Other awards are available, of course -- the Ig Nobel prizes "for improbable research" are a Silly Season fixture beloved by hard-pressed media editors everywhere, and the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award always attracts a lot of attention, for obvious reasons. But for something a little quieter and more sophisticated, you might want to know about the less well-known Diagram Award from The Bookseller magazine, awarded to the book published in the previous year with the strangest title.

The contemporary taste for ironic or deadpan humorous titles in recent times has somewhat taken the wind out of the Diagram Award's sails. For an odd title to be truly noteworthy it has to be unintentionally funny, obviously. On the face of it, for example, The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification is a real contender, but is actually an artist's book, disappointingly short on the kind of taxonomical identification marks that might have founded a new hobby of "trolley spotting". The attention-grabbing title of A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian served merely to bring the attention of likely readers to what is actually a good comic novel. The spoilsport authors of such titles have shot the Diagram's fox, so to speak.

Previous winners of the prize have included Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, How to Avoid Huge Ships, and Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes. But few can compete, to my taste, with a mere runner up from last year, Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich. Simply superbly strange. And all of these have the added spice of being sober books on genuine subjects.

Monday 28 March 2011


Have you got a smartphone? I don't. I don't particularly want one either -- I think I'm probably too old, now. I like having separate devices for separate jobs, in the same way I like getting my gas from a company with "gas" rather than "electricity" in its name. I know, I know, convergence, convenience, interoperability, mash-up, blah, blah. But, listen, if you do have a smartphone, have you any idea how much trouble you're causing me, with your frivolous desire to twirl data around with a fingertip, or flip through apps like someone trying to get something nasty off the screen?

Let me explain. As I enter the final straight (strait?) of my employed life and can see the finishing line marked "retirement" approaching, I begin to realise I have lived through an extraordinary period in human history. Well, sure, OK, who hasn't? But, just as our grandparents were born into a world without aircraft and ended up having bombs dropped on them from a great height, so those of us who were not "born digital" are entitled to feel things may be getting out of hand.

When I was at college in the 70s, it goes without saying that no-one had a personal computer, but -- get this, kids -- no-one had a phone, either. No, really! If you wanted to know if someone was going to be around at 9 o'clock tonight, you either had to plan ahead, or simply go round to their house and find out. I would make one phone call a week, back home to my parents from a payphone next to the college bar. Now, when I cross the campus, I seem to be walking through a permanent all-day mass telephone conversation, with students at every turn talking on phones and gesticulating like TV news correspondents rehearsing a piece to camera.

Well, apparently, with the coming of these new-fangled smartphones, a lot of students now want to use them as well as (or even instead of) their laptop as their primary platform for communications of all kinds. So, because the university likes to see itself as responsive to the "student experience", and feels that we may have fallen behind in this respect, I and various other substantially better-informed techno-types have been summoned from our dark, cabled caves to put a smartphone offering together in a hurry.

As an English graduate with linguistic and artistic tendencies, I do not have the typical profile of a person with IT responsibilities, especially nowadays when you can actually take a degree in Computering. But, back in the day, almost anyone could find themselves in charge of a "system", and a roomful of green screens. Libraries have been in many ways pioneers in the adoption of automation, and I found myself in such a position in the mid-1980s.

Those were exciting times. The first micro-computers had begun to appear, but most serious computing involved "dumb" terminals (text only, typically green or orange on black, no graphics, no mouse, no software, no memory, no nothin') permanently connected to a host computer which performed all the heavy lifting. I remember sharing an office with our library mini-computer -- a steel box about the size of a large refrigerator, with a row of incrementally blinking lights and fans loud enough to inhibit any conversation, connected via two permanent leased telephone lines to a VAX mainframe in Bristol. The only souvenirs I now have of it are the two tiny padlocks that prevented any idiot trying to make a call with the telephone handsets that sat on top of the cabinet. Oh, and tinnitus.

In those days you could get a long way with not very much. I got the very first IBM PC in the library, a twin floppy disk model with no hard drive and 640K of RAM (640K!), a completely freestanding item of equipment like a typewriter, with all the hi-tech design flair of a 1970s caravan. Having grappled with WordPerfect and the like, I decided on a whim to teach myself to program with GW-BASIC.

You could get a wonderful little hand-lettered, spiral-bound guide from Cambridge University Press by Donald Alcock called Illustrating BASIC that told you everything you needed to know. It was very reminiscent of those hands-on, can-do alternative lifestyle manuals like John Muir's How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, if you remember them. To my surprise, I discovered I had an aptitude, and got stuck in. My life changed.

Without a graphical interface, of course, programming was both very simple and very free of constraints -- you made it up from scratch every time. You didn't use vast ready-made libraries of handy routines written by experts, you had to figure it out and write it yourself. If you wanted to sort data, hey, you wrote yourself a sort subroutine. It was very empowering, and a lot of fun. The association with alternative lifestyles was not misleading -- a lot of misfits found their niche via IT, and the early days of the Web in the 1990s, especially, were like a second coming of the late 60s. It didn't last of course, once the graphical dead hand of Microsoft Windows and the Apple Mac imposed businesslike conformity on everything. The "open source" movement is a last vestige of that pioneer impulse.

Anyway. Since those years I have noticed what seems to be a characteristic experience of modern technological life. That is, every few years you discover you've not been paying attention, and have missed out on some crucial new development, and then have to spend a week or two catching up in a hurry. It happens to everyone -- we're all such specialists these days -- but no-one likes to admit it. That's why sales of books with titles like "Teach Yourself Utopian Turtletop 3.0 in 24 Hours" are so healthy. A true geek will always prefer to read a manual or handbook in private to the humiliation of attending a course.

This time, for me, it's "Web Services". The use of XML as a lingua franca for web commerce (WSDL, SOAP, and all that) had passed me by, until now. In the library world, we get by pretty well without it -- we have long-established standards for data exchange which have suited us very well, and regular HTTP/HTML/CGI has been a pretty good platform for public interactions. That is, until those pesky students decided they'd like to look things up and get notices about their overdue books on their darned smartphones.

Never mind. From my perspective, it does seem like an appalling diversion, to have to read several 200 page manuals just so that information which is perfectly freely available on the Web can be pumped out to some rich kid's smartphone. Not least because the estimate is that only 25% of students have smartphones, and also because there are multiple, different smartphone platforms to accommodate. But, as always, the alternative is to be left high and dry by the crowd moving on to the next Big Thing. It doesn't do to wish things away. I remember, when I was being trained in the use of HTML, being told not to use graphics in webpages -- according to the instructor they were a distraction and an unnecessary burden on bandwidth. Oh, really?

Ignoring the trends can have very negative consequences. The supplier of that original, VAX-based library management system failed to spot the trend towards Unix as an operating system for platform-independent systems, and as a direct result went out of business. My office wall is furnished with the beautifully-produced manuals of various obsolete systems, services and languages I had to learn to love in years past. Who now remembers the McDonnell Douglas version of the Pick operating system, hubristically named "Reality", with its clever, data-dictionary-driven, programmable enquiry language, equally hubristically named "English"?

If nothing else, a life in IT teaches you that all things will pass. Plus the knowledge that, underneath even the glossiest, whizziest user interface, it all comes down to pages and pages of plain text coding in the end, laboriously entered at a keyboard in an office somewhere. Writ in water, unfortunately, all of it.

Sunday 27 March 2011

Why A Duck V

A nice Sunday afternoon in late March, what better time for a walk underneath the 33 arches of the Hockley Viaduct? The air was pretty filthy with dust, mist and smoke from a nearby bonfire, but close up it made little difference (and probably improved the third one):

And here's something that happened the other day, a true astronomical harbinger of Spring -- the sun finally made it round the corner into the kitchen, and hit the side of our stainless steel kettle, decorating our as-yet undecorated kitchen wall:

Friday 25 March 2011

The Waiting Area

One way or another, I've spent a lot of time sitting around in hospitals in the last decade. This is a shame, as I hate hospitals; truly, madly, deeply. But both of our kids have the misfortune to have a chronic condition (Crohn's Disease) that has required periods of hospitalisation and regular checkups with their consultant, so we have had an enforced intimacy with the interior of our local hospital.

This week, for example. My daughter had a checkup scheduled, in that oh-so-amusingly precise way that hospitals use, for 16:20 pm. Effort was expended to uphold our end of the deal honourably. For once, I left the office the second I stopped being paid at 15:00 pm, drove across town to fetch her, dumped our things at home, arrived at the reception desk at 16:19 precisely, and handed over the paperwork. But, as usual, now that we were entirely in its hands, The Hospital seemed to lose any feelings of honour towards us, or the other thirty or so other parents with squirming babies, rampaging toddlers or sullen teenagers already crowded into the "waiting area". We had simply to wait.

At first -- for about twenty minutes -- there were no chairs free. Everyone was hot, fed up, bored, irritable, not least at having to endure the hell that is other people's sick children. Medical staff came and went. Then a name was called, and an enormous tattooed woman who had been spread impressively over two chairs gathered up a child from the "play area", and we got to sit down. Then my daughter was called to be measured and weighed. Another 30 minutes passed.

Now, our consultant is a decent bloke. An affable Pakistani with a dry sense of humour and a genuine, personal interest in "his" kids, the ones like ours that he has been seeing year in, year out since they were first admitted to his care. He constantly pops in and out of his consulting room, badgered on every side by nurses, junior doctors, and administrative staff. He is the walking definition of a Terribly Busy Man. But he seems blissfully unaware of the fug of frustration, as thick as pipe smoke, that is building in the "waiting area" (and presumably thickens every day), and the daggers looked at him every time he emerges and fails to call the next patient. We are, it seems, mere materiel, until our brief moment in the sun.

Hospitals seem to function on the (false) assumption that time is elastic. But, the only elastic element is our time, those of us who have been waiting an hour or two for our appointments. Today, as it turns out, was a good day -- only an hour's wait for a ten minute review, followed by a 40 minute wait for blood samples. Other days have been bad -- it only takes a mislaid form, or an emergency elsewhere in the building, and it can end up feeling like you have been forgotten. And, sometimes, you have been.

I've never been good at anything involving blood. Some years ago, I had to give a blood sample and came over faint and dizzy. The nurse hauled me into an ante-room for a lie down on a bed, and said she'd be back, and not to try to get up before. After a bit the feeling went away, and I began to enjoy the feeling of deep relaxation that follows a dizzy spell. Not being a watch-wearer, I had no way of judging the time that had elapsed. I supposed that I had better wait, as instructed.

Deep relaxation shaded into reverie, which faded into sleep. I was woken, an hour or so later, by a new nurse demanding to know who I was, and why I was there, snoring on the ante-room bed. Apparently the original nurse had forgotten I was there. At the time it seemed unique and amusing, but I now know that hospitals are like vast three-dimensional video games, where the staff are made almost randomly to follow multi-tasking paths that branch off constantly into fresh, more urgent or interesting realities, until the original reason for stepping out into the corridor has been long forgotten.

Meanwhile, in the "waiting area", unhappy people are slowly twisting in the wind, waiting for a call that has begun to seem as improbable as a lottery win.

Thursday 24 March 2011

The Pond

Now this is compulsory viewing. John Gossage talking to Toby Jurovics of the Smithsonian about his landmark photobook The Pond. Look and learn, my friends, look and learn. It's 51 minutes long, so you'll have to set the time aside, but it will be time well spent, if you want to understand the thinking and the process behind what is probably one of the most significant photobooks of the last 20 years. I insist that you watch it.

As it happens, I own two copies of the first edition of The Pond. I was in Hay-on-Wye some years ago (despite being in rural Wales Hay is famous as a centre for second-hand books -- a curious story) and stumbled over them, sitting forlornly on a shelf in one of the back rooms of a bookshop. I'd never heard of John Gossage at the time, and both copies had torn dustjackets, but I was so bowled over by the contents and the graphic appeal of the cover that I bought them both. At £10 each, how could I not? You may hear a reference to the value of these books in the introduction to the Gossage interview. I doubt mine, with their damaged dustjackets, are quite that valuable to a collector, but they are definitely "pension fund" items.

my pond -- the Pentagonal Pool

Talking of pensions, I have been on strike today. Our union, the University and College Union, is trying to bring the employers back to the negotiating table over changes they are unilaterally trying to make to our pension scheme. Grrr. So, I spent 8:00 - 9:30 am this morning standing on a picket line, propping up a placard, and handing out leaflets and waffles.

Waffles? Yes, I was surprised about that, too. But Heidi, one of our colleagues, is Norwegian, and she had made several trays of waffles filled with cream and jam -- apparently in Norway you simply can't have a strike without waffles. Obviously. It does sort of take the militant edge off the occasion ("Care for a waffle, you strike-breaking scab? No, I insist, have two!").

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Richard Skelton

Another week, another new musical enthusiasm. I came across references to Richard Skelton on Andrew Ray's consistently excellent blog Some Landscapes. Skelton seems to be the musical equivalent of a "land artist" like Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy, making site-specific musical works captured from and inspired by the landscape, using instruments that have been allowed to weather outdoors, with some ambient sounds, although the music is actively composed / constructed rather than passively captured "soundscapes".

If it sounds a bit hippyish, well, it is. And none the worse for that, from where I'm sitting. If you have a taste for long-form, minimalist, solemn, ambient, modal music which really does seem to emanate from a very British engagement with landscape, you should give him a listen. Think "the Third Ear Band meet Michael Nyman on the way over the moor to Thomas Tallis's house". A bit over-dependent on drones, repeated figures and some favoured harmonic effects, perhaps, but I found this music strangely capable of returning me to the root of why I love landscape and why I feel impelled to make art from it. Another time I must post about the deep, awe-inspiring drone I once seemed to hear emanating from the mountains in the Picos de Europa in Northern Spain, which I have always called "El Tiburón" (the shark).

Skelton records under various names: Broken Consort, Heidika, and Clouwbeck, for example, and self-publishes what look like exquisitely-made books and recordings. His imprint Sustain-Release can be found here, and samples of the music can be heard there and on a blog relating to a recent release Landings here.

My instinct, whenever I come across someone like this -- creating single-minded art that flies in the face of every commercial imperative -- is to offer the only support that means anything, i.e. buy something. For £15 via PayPal you can have a copy of a 250 copy limited edition signed booklet and CD of Landings. Now that's what I call an impulse purchase.

No doubt, like the music of Guy Clark in an earlier post, this will turn out to be a rabbit-hole into a previously unsuspected parallel universe of enthusiasm. The walls between musical genres and allegiances, in particular, do seem to be remarkably soundproof. But I've started to glance nervously at The Wire magazine, also a new discovery (for me), and I'm already getting that vertiginous feeling...

Monday 21 March 2011

House and Garden

I have no idea who lives here, but their taste in low-maintenance "wild gardening" is to be admired. The mixed flock of tits and finches that flew through as I was taking the photographs certainly seemed to think so.

Sunday 20 March 2011


Is Spring the light at the end of the tunnel, or the oncoming train? For me, it's the train, as Summer is my least favourite season. Look out, here it comes. I keep quiet about it, though, as I know it's a minority view. Most people, it seems, can't wait to rip off their togs and show off the new tattoo.

This field is always remarkable, as despite many year of ploughing, it still shows clearly the abrupt change in soil colour from the chalk uplands to the rich black river deposits of the Test Valley. In fact, I doubt whether the "brown" sloping parts were ever ploughed until recent years, when EC subsidies became available for converting upland grazing into arable. We were shocked, a few years ago, to see whole hillsides in Wales that had been ploughed up (quite a feat, given the angle); it won't take long for all that soil to find its way to the bottom of the hill.

Anselm Kiefer is back in town (he has an exhibition at the White Cube Gallery) and I found I had taken an Anselm Kiefer tribute photograph yesterday. I have resisted the temptation to scrawl references to Elgar, Churchill and the British Empire on it.

Friday 18 March 2011


A couple more page spreads from the ongoing "mirrors / windows / walls" book:

I have reached the point in this project where I need to put it away for a bit, so that I can see it again with fresh eyes in a few weeks. I can't decide whether it's a work of outstanding originality or just a bit dull and repetitive, really. Ah, the borderline between "outstanding" and "a bit dull" can be very fine! (actually, no, it never is, really, is it?).

By the way, great news for anyone out there I've turned on to Blurb: the new release of their (free, downloadable) book-making software BookSmart contains two much-anticipated new features.

First, you can now resize a book project, which (assuming it works without complications) is something I've felt the need for several times. You start out making a 7"x7" square book, say, then realise it should have been landscape 8"x10" all along. It's been such a pain starting all over again. This new facility looks like a real time-saver.

Second, you can now drag and drop your photo into an image box that spans a whole double page-spread. This is less obviously brilliant... Yes! You, too, can now make annoying photobooks where part of the image disappears into the centre gutter-fold! But, if you're into that "full-bleed" look where the image is printed right to the edge of the page it could be just what you need. I might give it a try.

Thursday 17 March 2011

The Remains of Ben Gunn

I always enjoy reading poet Hugo Williams' "Freelance" column in the TLS, though it's hard to believe anyone can lead quite such a haplessly charmed life, or get away with being quite so self-consciously hopeless. This week's installment of the Adventures of Hugo made me laugh out loud (that's right, LOL!):
Does anyone seriously consider pre-heating their oven before throwing in some horrible ready meal? You'd think Tesco's Beef Cannelloni was a finely tuned piece of culinary art from the way they insist on exactly fourteen minutes' cooking time on Gas Mark 4, rather than what it tastes like -- a rolled-up piece of parchment containing the remains of Ben Gunn.
This is a man whose relationship with food and cooking is clearly under stress. You'd probably have to be British to fully understand his comment that "My antipathy to food goes back to my childhood in the 1940s when people were naturally thin because the food was so awful". Austerity Britain lasted officially until 1954, when rationing was abolished, but its spirit lived on well into the 1970s. Even the good times always had something irredeemably cheap and meagre about them, like the filling of a baker's shop sausage roll.

The true awfulness of much British food is one of those legends that happens to be true. Hugo mentions the Vesta range of instant Chinese and Indian meals, and unless you have attempted to eat a Vesta Chow Mein you have no idea how criminally low our expectations of food once were. I have eaten quite a few such simulacra of food in my time, as the child of working parents left to my own devices through most of the school holidays. The term "meal solution" had not been coined back then, but would have been very appropriate; I suppose they did seem an excitingly modern approach to malnutrition at the time. Rickets à la mode.

Unbelievably, Vesta meals are still made and sold in all the major supermarkets. Indeed, there is a special aisle in every supermarket which sells the Great British Convenience Foods: tinned pies and stews, jellies with chunks of fruit, tinned fruits and rice pudding, Camp Coffee, instant custard and Angel Delight -- a 1960s cornucopia. Who buys this stuff? How is it possible brands like Ambrosia, Fray Bentos, and Birds are still in business? I can only imagine they are in receipt of subsidies from the National Lottery, to preserve part of our tinned, boiled and stewed British Heritage.

We are most exposed as a nation, gastronomically, in the area of "treats". Although -- having grown up with the stuff -- most of us retain a fondness for the waxy compound sold as "chocolate" by the likes of Cadbury, there is no revelation quite like the moment a Brit first tastes European chocolate. Now, obviously, something like a Mars Bar is a sort of apotheosis of industrial confectionery -- it defines its own category of sublimity -- but no-one who has once tasted Lindt Excellence 70% Cocoa chocolate is ever going to eat Cadbury's Bourneville again. And is there any more depressing sight than a High Street baker's window, filled with greasy, misshapen jam doughnuts, "buttercream" pastries with a perfunctory grafitti of icing, and bulbous apple turnovers crusted with sugar and filled with nothing but apple-scented air? It says a lot about our tolerant national character that we can still put up with this roadkill patisserie. "Mustn't grumble"...

Amusingly, we have started to pat ourselves on the back as a nation of gastronauts, in recent years. So many top class restaurants, so many cooking programmes on TV, so many celebrity chefs! So many new ingredients, and a hundred different microwaveable ready meals! It's all so much better than it used to be. Have you tried these new Red Leicester Cheese and Caramelised Onion crisps?

And yet, how many simple, nutritious meals get prepared from basic ingredients in British kitchens most nights? The guy who installed our kitchen last year told me only old people and hippies use ovens these days. Have you ever heard that famous and profound remark by Sir Thomas Beecham, that "The British may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes"? I think the truth is that something of the sort applies to food, too. We may not like cooking, but we absolutely love filling our supermarket trolleys with meal solutions.

If British comedians wants to make thumbnail sketches of social stereotypes, especially about class and pretension, they reach for food items; I must admit I am always very amused whenever I remember the joke about Peter Mandelson, as aspiring parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool, mistaking mushy peas for guacamole in a chip shop. But can anyone explain why "the remains of Ben Gunn" is so funny? It's a long time since I read Treasure Island, but I don't recall Ben Gunn ending up as spag bol.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Viaduct IV

Of course, when an object is 2,014 feet long, and consists of 33 fancy brick arches, it is quite hard to convey its presence in the landscape in a simple photograph. Sometimes it's better just to hint than to attempt to represent.

Somehow, I can feel the adjacency of this abandoned viaduct, the busy motorway cutting through Twyford Down, and the looming presence of St. Catherine's Hill with its joggers and dog walkers becoming a "subject". If nothing else, it will give me a reason for some enjoyable walks over the coming weekends.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Viaduct III

Talk about two peoples divided by a common language. I suppose I may have muddied the waters by naming a post "Viaduct" which actually shows an image of a road cutting.

This is the Hockley Viaduct:

The point is, I have finally got to stand on top of it (where the railway used to run), in order to look over at the mighty cutting where the M3 motorway runs through Twyford Down.

Viaduct II

Here's a pretty one from Sunday's walk:

You'll need to click on it to get the full sense of it, but it's a good example of why I like an elevated standpoint (even if another 50 feet would have been handy), and also why monochrome is here to stay. The colour version is too pretty.

Monday 14 March 2011


There was better light, this Sunday, when I visited my current favourite metaphorical landscape. Bright, but diffused by cloud; just the thing. For the first time, I went up onto the old viaduct, only to discover that you'd have to be 7 feet tall to see over the parapet (or, yet again, have remembered to bring an inflatable ladder). Previous frustrated photographers had obviously demolished sections of wall, however, so I was able to find the proverbial place to stand.

For those who do not follow these things, that cutting was driven through a unique and historic landscape in the teeth of protracted and inventive opposition from environmental groups in the 1980s. Despite what it represents, I have come to like it, and it always denotes "nearly home" when I drive through it. You would have thought a tunnel would have been the obvious solution, though, even if only one of the "dig and fill" sort.

An elevated position really opens up the forms in the landscape, and a good light means the monochrome treatment can open them up even further. This is nothing more dramatic than a riverside path on the Itchen running towards the viaduct. The long lens has compressed the perspective, too, giving a little drama to those simple shapes.

Sunday 13 March 2011


Talking of the news, there's an interesting discussion on Mike Johnston's TOP, which picks up on the funny-if-it-wasn't-so-tragic reaction in PhotoWorld to the realisation that, my God, Sendai is where the Nikon factory is...

Another mirrors/windows/walls pair

The Big Squash

On a weekend of appalling news, I thought this extra image from a long ago Saturday morning when boys met girls in healthy pink-cheeked endeavour might cheer up some of you. It was certainly the most enjoyable "collapsed scrum" I have ever been in.

Watch out, boys, she's getting away with the ball! But whose? (That's enough of that! Ed.)

Friday 11 March 2011


I mentioned in a comment to an earlier post that, for selected sixth formers, our school used to provide an alternative to compulsory games on Wednesday afternoons called "Perambulation". This involved driving out into the countryside with our favourite English teacher (dear old Roy Cross, a cricketing pipe-smoker / pipe-smoking cricketer, whose policy was always "smoke 'em if you've got 'em"), walking around for a bit, then stopping off for a pint on the way back. As I said in the comment, this was probably a more realistic preparation for our prospective lives as teachers and weekend ramblers than chasing balls across grass.

I have always had an ambiguous relationship with "games" as understood by the British; that is, competitive team sports, preferably involving a real risk of physical injury. Despite being a small chap, I have always been improbably strong and foolishly unafraid of bodily harm, and have the sort of natural hand-eye coordination that makes for a decent sportsman. So, unlike many bookish types, I found myself a regular fixture in school sports teams, if mainly low down in the order. But also, unlike most sporty types, I took a fairly ironic and laid-back view of things like "winning".

Chasing girls...
Boys vs. Girls Grammar, 1971
. You'd have to have
known me a long time to even think I'm in in this picture

Although I did play in second-string teams as a rugby wing forward and a close fielder in cricket, my main sporting distinction was that, from the age of 11, I was the goalkeeper of the hockey first XI. Idiots with the kamikaze instinct required by a hockey goalkeeper are hard to come by, and I was talent-spotted early on. "Look, that boy there doesn't seem to mind if larger boys hit hard balls towards him at high velocity -- is he very stupid?"

Goalkeepers are a breed apart in any sport. You dress differently, and you spend most of the game leaning on a goalpost, watching the seagulls flocking over the playing fields or thinking about girls, until there's an urgent shout and you're ON! Muddied oafs (oaves?) are charging towards you, and you have to stop them and/or stop the ball flying past you into the net.

Luckily, in hockey, you're armed with a stick, and have stout pads on your legs and padded kickers over your boots (not to mention a cricket box in your pants). You're damned near invulnerable, so it's "Charge!!" into the oncoming enemy. My speciality was fouling the forwards (preferably stepping on and occasionally breaking their sticks) and then deploying my secret weapons: left-handedness and cat-like reflexes. I could hold a stick in my right hand and save a penalty flick with my left 9.9 times out of ten. It's very gratifying, for a swot, to be pounded on the back and cheered by the sportiest, coolest boys in the school.

But that was only in the Spring term. Come the sixth form, I began spending the Winter and Summer terms with the Perambulators. I recall those outings with great pleasure. Numbers were restricted to about ten, drawn from both upper and lower sixths, so it was a pretty exclusive club. I can't remember how the membership was decided, but it pretty much amounted to that self-selecting handful of boys whose idea of a good time was a walk in the woods with a schoolteacher (hmm, that doesn't quite sound right). The smoking and drinking part was not widely advertised as a feature of the activity, obviously.

Odd as it may sound, I had never been "walking" before. Working class families in the South East of England didn't (and probably still don't) "go for a walk" -- I'm aware it was different in the North. On holiday, we sat on the beach, swam in the sea, or went for a ride. At weekends, we might occasionally go for a picnic, but that primarily involved sitting and eating. Recreational walking, involving special footwear and the use of maps, was something you might do in the Scouts, but was not a recognised family leisure activity. Besides, our parents and grandparents had done quite enough of that in the Army for a lifetime, thank you very much.

I became notorious in our family for always walking everywhere (not so difficult, in a town where you can walk from end to end in less than an hour). To school, to the shops, to friend's houses, even to nowhere in particular all by myself, despite the fact that there was a perfectly decent bus service. It just added to the family sense of my oddness. On one famous occasion I walked the nine miles down the A11 from my sister's new house in Wymondham into Norwich city centre, though I did catch the bus back. I liked the sense of freedom it bestowed -- don't like it here? start walking! -- and came to love the up-close, intimate view of the landscape and roadside that only walkers get. I would often escape into the cold and rain from the claustrophobic inertia of family occasions by announcing I was "just going for a walk".

Spot the reluctant walker
(Well, it is very wet, windy and cold)

A liking for needless walking -- "perambulation" -- and a recognition that walking counted as a valid alternative to formal sports later became an entrée into a certain sort of family life rather higher up the social scale. It meant I didn't laugh hysterically when a bracing walk was proposed on Boxing Day afternoon, for example, or wonder out loud why anyone would want to book a remote cottage in Wales, 25 miles from the nearest beach, for a summer holiday? Thanks to Perambulation, I passed these simple entry requirements when I encountered the Prof's family; why, I could even use an OS map in a high wind.

But walking also has a spiritual dimension, that is harder to describe, and takes a long time even to notice. There's something about the rhythm and the physiological effects of keeping a steady pace over medium to long distances which is conducive to thought and to well-being, and which heightens a meditative combination of self-awareness and self-forgetting (unless your boots are too tight). It's a very health-inducing activity, but some would go even further. The German film-maker Werner Herzog wrote a strange little book in 1978 called Vom Gehen Im Eis, translated as Of Walking in Ice, and published in 1991 by Jonathan Cape in a small, jacketed format very reminiscent of the series "Cape Editions" mentioned a few posts ago.

In a move typical of Herzog, when he heard a friend and mentor -- 78-year old film historian Lotte Eisner -- was dying in Paris, he decided to walk from Munich to Paris, "believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot". It took, in Herzog's account, from 23rd November to 14th December 1974 (about right -- it's 450 miles). The book recounts the journey -- a sort of expiatory pilgrimage -- in the form of a diary.

Whenever I dip into it, I am reminded of the poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", by Robert Browning, in which perfectly innocent stimuli like farm animals and implements become transformed and incorporated into the narrative of his nightmarish personal quest. But much of Herzog's apparent lunacy will be familiar to any walker:
As I walk the word 'millet', which I've always liked so much, just won't leave my mind, the word 'lusty' as well. Finding a connection between the two words becomes torture. To walk lustily works, and to reap millet with a sickle also works. But millet and lusty together doesn't work.
The belief that there is something grounding, centering -- sacramental, even -- in walking is widely held, and you won't hear any objections from me: solvitur ambulando (roughly, "the answer lies in perambulation").

In beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.
With dew about my feet may I walk.
With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.

(Navajo Blessing Way chant)

Lately, though, I've had a little foretaste of old age: painful cramps up my lower legs whenever I walk at any speed above a casual amble. It seems that all those years of walking have taken a toll, not least because of my tendency to wear wellingtons rather than proper walking boots. The podiatrists think they can sort me out however, and today I had a little compensatory foretaste of heaven: two young women in white -- angels! -- manipulating my naked feet as I lay happily on a fancy reclining couch. And all on the NHS.

Thursday 10 March 2011


This week the government has announced plans to ban the public display of cigarettes and tobacco in shops. It's odd to think that fags have finally swapped places with contraceptives and "feminine hygiene" items (now openly, if coyly, advertised on TV) as the unmentionable pariah product.

It's been 22 years since I last had a cigarette. Twenty two years and a couple of months, actually, as I gave up on New Year's Eve 1989. That's 7730-odd days without tobacco, and one of the few New Year's resolutions I have either made or kept. I gave up counting the hours and minutes some time ago, so I think I'm probably pretty much over it now. I remember we were in Pembrokeshire, I had a sore throat, and we were contemplating "starting a family", as people say. The medical advice was that my partner should give up smoking, so it seemed only fair that I should, too.

The sacrifices we make for children... The worst of it was that I immediately put on two stone (12.5 kilos) which I have never managed to lose, going from a thin man with a 30 inch waist to a tubby man with, ah, a much larger one. It doesn't help, of course, reaching for a biscuit when what one really wants is a cigarette, or cancelling all squash sessions in favour of afternoons on the sofa mucking about with Play-Doh.

Just the other day, I was looking for something, and wondered whether it might be inside one of the old tobacco tins I still use for storing odds and ends. Wonderful things, tobacco tins; airtight, compact, robust, and decorative. I opened one, and got a brief whiff of Golden Virginia, ca. 1980. Now, as it happens, I have a condition known as "anosmia", which means my sense of smell is practically non-existent, but there are a few smells that can break through, and tobacco is one of them. I love the smell of tobacco.

In fact, I used to love everything about smoking. I heard a radio programme recently where the Scottish painter Jack Vettriano was talking about his extensive collection of smoking paraphernalia, and I completely understood his obsession. Lighters, ashtrays, cigarette packets, cigarette cards, colourful adverts and shop placards from the heroic days of British typography... It's all so evocative of what was once one of life's simple, uncomplicated pleasures.

Nearly everyone used to smoke. I have a particularly vivid memory of being about four and watching my mother lighting a cigarette from a red hot cooking ring, with her eyes half-shut against the heat, before we sat down together in the kitchen for a nice cup of tea (little kids used to drink tea, too, in those days -- milk and two sugars, lovely!). She used to smoke the Guards brand, I remember, which had a particularly graphical white, black and red pack. The adverts ("They've got be GREAT to be Guards") often featured a mounted Life Guards kettle drummer which, as she often remarked, was what her Uncle Jim had been. It all seemed to fit.

Of course, in some trades, smoking was practically compulsory. Opening the door of any teachers' common room at lunchtime before the late 70s was like opening a fire-exit to Hell. A multi-branded fug from the massed ciggies and pipes would billow out in a solid toxic wall. "Passive smoking" is far too feeble a description of what must have been happening to any non-smokers on the staff. "Smokeboarding", perhaps.

I think it's true to say we were the last generation of "natural" smokers, growing up in respectable families and institutions where smoking was entirely normal, although we were all by then fully aware of the health risks. It's probably also true to say that the youthful fashion for smoking cannabis that swept the country in the late 60s prolonged the decline of smoking among the health-conscious middle classes. I'm sure I, like thousands of others, would never have started smoking tobacco if it hadn't been a prerequisite for getting high (in the UK, that is, where resin was then much more common than "herbal" cannabis). Crazy, really -- it's like using methylated spirits as the basis of a cocktail.

The best craic at work, I found, was always to be had at the smokers' table. So much so that -- even when we had finally been banned from the library common room and had to congregate over the road in the Staff Club for our morning coffee break, and our number had dwindled to three or four actual smokers -- a good number of honorary smokers would join us, to take part in the tobacco-fuelled badinage. Now, of course, it would have to be a smokers' pavement corner -- you still see sad little clusters of the poor sods hunched in the rain, but I suspect the quality of their conversation has diminished to phatic level.

I found the simple act of hand-rolling a cigarette very therapeutic. I never really enjoyed manufactured cigarettes, but the first few roll-ups from a freshly opened half ounce of tobacco were bliss. A light tobacco like Golden Virginia or A1 was my preference, using blue packet Rizla papers, of course -- thinner, and therefore requiring more dexterity to hand roll than the red or green ones, but giving you less burning paper to inhale. I did know people whose preference was for a dark, tarry tobacco, like Old Holborn, and some might even go so far as to roll it in liquorice-flavoured papers, but that, frankly, is a revolting combination, like sucking a burning Liquorice Allsort.

You're never alone with a Strand...
© 1976 Fiona Thompson

When the time came to give it up, I found that it was the rolling ritual that I missed more acutely than the actual smoking. I discovered that if I mimed rolling, lighting and inhaling a phantom cigarette, the craving could be held at bay. Unfortunately, this is not something you can do in public, without attracting the wrong sort of attention. But, at the end of a long day, it was oddly relaxing to pretend to have a couple of cigarettes. Somehow, though, I have never found that pretending to have a glass of whisky hits the spot in quite the same way.

How long will it be before smoking is made illegal, I wonder, or mothers are reported to the Social Services for smoking in the company of four-year old children? Perhaps they already are. It's hard to imagine what will then be next on the righteous puritans' checklist... Alcohol? Insufficient warm clothing in cold weather? Unwarranted pessimism?

It's enough to make you ... No, no, no, I mustn't go there. Not yet, anyway. Though getting into my old trousers again would be nice.

Monday 7 March 2011

Somewhere to Stand

I've been meaning to wander over to the south-east of the Twyford Down motorway cutting near Winchester, where there are some interesting water-meadows along the old Itchen Navigation canal. We finally got over there this Sunday and, although the Spring light was a bit harsh, I found some handy places to stand, which is half the battle with landscape photography.

I'll be back, hopefully on a day when the light is kinder. Mind you, I'm very impressed by the ability of the Panasonic GF1 with the 45-200 f/4-5.6 lens to deliver usable results, hand-held in these late afternoon conditions. If I can be bothered to lug a tripod next time, things could get interesting.

Saturday 5 March 2011

Car Park Moments

I can't remember whether I've posted about "car park moments" before. I'm sure you have them, too: you're driving to work with the radio on, and a piece of music is playing as you pull into the car park that compels you to sit in the car until it's finished. I keep a little notebook in the car for writing these down; I've made most of my best musical discoveries this way.

Last week it was the new recording of the Alessandro Striggio 40-part mass by Robert Hollingworth that's attracting a lot of attention at the moment. It's thought to be the stimulus behind "Spem in Alium", the famous Tallis 40-part motet, which is on the same recording with a novel "Venetian" colouring (jnstruments are used in place of some vocal parts). Both I and and the Head of Archives emerged from our cars at the same moment that day, and shared our stunned enthusiasm. (It's released on Monday -- be there or be square, Jackson).

The week before it was "If I Were A Boy" by Beyoncé. What a fantastic, perfect song, just kept enough within the bounds of the mawkish to deliver a strong, original take on the oldest (only) theme there is in diva power pop. As I've said before, I have broad tastes.

This week, it was Red Priest playing the "Four Seasons". If, like me, you thought you could probably get by if you never, ever heard another recording of Vivaldi's warhorse -- especially holding the phone, receiving reassurances every few bars that "your call is important to us; please hold; you are 47th in the queue" -- then think again. This is something special.

Red Priest have given performances at our campus concert-hall, but I ignored them as I've always recoiled from attempts to give classical music a "pop" facade, whether it be that arse Nigel Kennedy or various doe-eyed violinists in wet blouses. I now suspect I may have missed out on something quite remarkable.

Basically, these are four talented chamber musicians with a sense of fun taking on the Baroque repertoire, in this case an orchestral piece which is over-familiar, and simply making it new again. It's wonderful: they have taken the cartoonish, programmatic side of Vivaldi and run with it. It's not often a recorder, a harpsichord, a violin and a cello can make you laugh out loud, whether at the deconstruction of Vivaldi's music, or the sheer virtuosity of the playing and arrangements. Watch out for the "Oi!" in the third movement of "Spring", played like a tight but demented gypsy dance band.

I thoroughly recommend it, and you can buy it direct from them here.

Friday 4 March 2011

The Legend of Zelda

People do have the most surprising secret sides. For example, I've just discovered today that one of my staff has been learning to do plumbing in her spare time. Well, why not? It pays a hell of a lot better than anything we can offer. Though, it turns out, she has been studying the Way of Lead just so she can rearrange her bathroom. There is a philosophical term for this level of methodological overkill, but I can't remember what it is just now.

Now, this is very much a "no names, no packdrill" blog. I think it makes everyone feel better if they know their anonymity will be respected, if that's the way they like it (your secret is safe with me, Your Majesty). I wouldn't, for example, use the actual name of my plumbing colleague, though I might use that traditional reportage formula: "Let's call her Zelda".

But, let's not call her Zelda, let's call this person Zelda:

Professor Zelda Legend, OBE MA PhD AcSS, Head of Department, Professor of Kidology and Fellow of Weatherwax College, Cambridge

Professor Legend has researched and published widely on environmental governance and policy processes, and on interpretations of sustainable development in theory and practice, particularly in the context of land use and environmental planning. She has supervised many PhD students on a range of environmental topics. Her work has also made a substantial contribution to public policy. She was a member of the standing Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1998-2008 and has served on a number of other public bodies. She is currently a
member of the Strategic Research Board of the Economic and Social Research Council and served on sub-panel H31 (Town and Country Planning) for the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. Professor Legend was awarded an OBE for services to sustainable development in 1998 and in 2000 received the Royal Geographical Society's 'Back' Award for contributions to research and policy formulation in this field. She was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Town Planning Institute in 2006 and an Honorary Professor of the University of Copenhagen in 2008. For the academic year 2008-09 she holds the King Carl XVI Gustaf Professorship of Environmental Science, hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.

Impressive, eh? That is the description of an academic mover and shaker. I have changed the names in the top line to protect her from idle curiosity, but the rest of that description is accurate, and it's not hard to put a name to such a distinguished CV. After all, there's no secret side there -- this is a public person in the full sense of the term. The title Professor Dame Zelda Legend can surely only be a move or two down the line.

Why am I telling you about this person? Well, for one thing, I/we have been banging on about grammar schools, the decline in opportunities, and state educational change'n'decay all around. But, evidence has been rather lacking. OK, I and my fellow ancients may not have become bank robbers with a crack habit but, let's be honest, neither do most of today's school leavers.

So, if I say that Prof. Legend is 57 (the same age as me) and went to a grammar school in a New Town 30 miles north of London (the very same one my sister and my first two girlfriends went to) then you may guess where this is going. You see, I know Professor Legend, but had no idea that I did until I chanced on her picture yesterday, and realised that the last time I had seen her was in 1972 on the campus of the University of East Anglia. She had a different surname, then, and was waving goodbye to the young man sitting next to me in the car as we drove off, her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, my good friend Dave.

Now there's some evidence.

But, actually, to me this says something even more salutary about the passing of time, and the way our imagining of old friends and acquaintances gets frozen in the past. Zelda, as far as I was concerned, was and always would be a rather small, intense, hippy-ish 17-year old girl, with very long, very brushed straight hair and a fondness for maxi-skirts and velvet, eternally stranded in 1972 with the label "friend's girlfriend", like an evolutionary path that led nowhere.

But -- what do you know? -- all that time she had been evolving, independently of anyone else's memory or imagination (gasp), and creating an astonishingly successful public life that has propelled her into a stratosphere where the things we have in common are as tiny and as far away as, well, 1972.

I find that an extremely cheering thought, and have nothing but admiration for Zelda's achievement. We can all bask a little in the reflected warmth of such success. Do I envy her? Not at all -- I'm very aware of what has to be sacrificed on that particular altar. But I do feel that she's scored a solid row of gold medals for Team Third-Rate Second-Rate Grammar School (not to mention Team New Town and Team Underrated University). Does she herself feel she plays for those teams, these days? It hardly matters: she did and therefore does. To that extent, no-one escapes the gravitational pull of their past. But, you go, girl!