Friday 27 May 2011

The Impossibility of Playing The Piano

Awesome. I heard part of an amazing new recording of Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata Wednesday morning on Radio 3 (Piano Sonata No.21 in C major, Op. 53, played by Martin Roscoe). There's really nothing quite like a Beethoven piano sonata, and the first movement of the Waldstein has an almost cartoonish sense of fun and dynamism. Composed in 1804, it makes you wonder whether we're really trying any more. "No more heros, No more Shakespearos..."

I have always loved the sound of a piano. It is one of the great regrets of my life that I never had access to a piano or lessons as a child. Who knows, perhaps by now I could have been Keith Jarrett, effortlessly spinning improvisational magic before rapt audiences, or at the very least that bloke down the pub who can vamp his way through Roll Out The Barrel and Whole Lotta Shakin'.

I did have trumpet lessons, briefly, at school. It didn't work out, as there was a monumental clash of assumptions. The peripatetic tutor who visited the school was a dry old stick, who had never heard of, never mind listened to, Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. He liked scales, proper posture and embouchure, and sight reading.

We played tunes which were supposed to be helpfully familiar, but which I had never heard in my life. "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes", for God's sake! I was an eleven-year old whose exposure to music was limited to the BBC Home Service on the radio and my father's taste in jazz. Plus my mother's cousin happened to be married to Ivan "Buzz" Trueman, a trumpeter with the Edmundo Ros orchestra, a popular combo in the 1950s and 60s, who played Latin American dance music. To me the trumpet was a hot instrument, but trumpet lessons were dull, dull, dull. I gave it up.

My mistake, really. It is one of the misperceptions that a generation of self-taught popular musicians has brought about, that true music-making is a spontaneous, expressive thing, a million miles from the academy and those baffling black dots and squiggles on paper. I am a moderately competent self-taught guitarist, and capable of making a thoroughly pleasing and convincing noise on pretty much any instrument. But I am no musician.

As consumers of music, we tend to be obsessed with music's expressive power, and worship the musicians whose improvisatory skill and individuality of voice goes beyond the bounds of "mere" musicality. But, at heart, all music is about learning complex patterns which you can repeat, again and again, reliably and accurately. The basic key to music-making is sticking to the plan.

A musician is someone who has thoroughly learned to play the patterns on their instrument, can understand and remember (or read) the precise patterns they are asked to play for a particular piece of music, and is able to stick to the plan. The plan may be very rigid (A Beethoven sonata) or it may be quite loose ("ten bars in we shift to A flat, Miles solos until he lifts a hand, then McLaughlin does that crazy guitar thing he's been working on") but the plan is what makes music out of merely pleasant noises.

Ever been in a music shop, where a 14-year-old is sat in the corner "shredding" a guitar? Up and down the neck, lick after lick, very fast, very impressive. But try asking him (it's usually a him) to play Happy Birthday in D major. The kid's not a musician.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that a decent musician is a form of computer. You feed them a program in the form of musical notation, and out comes music. Same every time. It's a marvel. One of the people who works in my office used to be a music teacher and can sight read: put sheet music in front of him and away he goes, "Pom pom-pom POM pom-pom POM!" Makes me laugh out loud with admiration every time.

Some years ago I was offered a used electric piano at a bargain price -- a proper 88 key job -- and snapped it up, ostensibly to give our kids the chance to figure out whether or not it might be something they'd like to learn. But my secret plan was, finally, to learn to play the piano. I would be Keith Jarrett, or more probably that guy down the pub.

What I discovered was quite disturbing. In a word: playing the piano is impossible. The idea of using one hand to play one set of notes and the other hand to play quite another set of notes is ludicrous. It can't be done -- I know, I've tried. It doesn't help being left-handed, I'm sure, but even so... The sheer improbability of being able to split yourself into two independent halves, each performing different, complex finger-wiggling moves at the same time... It's self-evidently impossible.

This discovery led to some dark thoughts. Had some world-historical fraud been perpetuated on us, and how? Multi-track recording? Mirrors? Invisible accomplices? Surgery? Hypnotism? It seemed unlikely. Besides, I've seen (or thought I'd seen) people playing a piano. It appeared that, effortlessly, these magicians did one complicated thing with one hand, whilst doing another with the other. The image of Russ Conway's evil smile and wink to camera, as he tinkled away on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, haunted and mocked me. The bastard didn't even have a full complement of fingers!

No, I had to come to the humbling conclusion that -- unlike, say, becoming Home Secretary -- playing the piano required years of dedication, effort, and -- yes -- practice, practice, practice; ideally reinforced by a degree of talent, and merciless lessons given at a young age by either a saint or a sadist (opinions seem to differ). And, yes, sometimes a dog is too old to learn new tricks.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that the world shrinks when we judge and limit others by our own capacities, and that a lowest common denominator society would be one without the Waldstein sonata. "Don't bother with that, mate, it's impossible!" There's also a useful lesson here when passing judgement on the artistic productions of others, who may (whisper it) be more talented, more committed, more advanced in achievement than we are. "It's rubbish -- my ten -year-old could it!"

We must do everything we can to make this world a safe place for Shakespearos.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Me and Bob Dylan, Slight Return

I remember now. I remember why Dylan seemed less than essential when I turned 14 in 1968. Two simple lists might do it:

Dylan releases:

1967 John Wesley Harding
1969 Nashville Skyline

World events:

1967 list here
1968 list here
1969 list here

From those lists, I suppose I would highlight the escalation of the Vietnam War and anti-war protest, the dangerous nuclear face-offs of the Cold War, race riots in the USA, the events of May '68 in Paris, the RAF (Baader-Meinhof), the "Six Day War" in the Middle East, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shootings of Rudi Dutschke and Andy Warhol, Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Days of Rage, British troops in Northern Ireland ...

It was a turbulent, angry time. People who focus on the "Summer of Love" have no idea what they're talking about. Dylan's turn to quiescent Americana and away from politics at that precise moment in history seemed merely to underline his irrelevance. Radical left politics was on the upturn, and a singer who had formerly seemed a spokesman for radical youth was recording in Nashville with Johnny Cash (not then the apotheosis of Cool he has somehow subsequently become).

I rest my case. I also note that those Wikipedia lists record the first performances of Fairport Convention and Led Zeppelin. One might also note the launch of Island Records' "pink label", surely a defining event in anyone's chronicle of World Events.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Me and Bob Dylan

The media are all over Bob Dylan this week, for obvious reasons. But, in case you haven't been paying attention, he turns 70 today. Seventy!

And in case you really haven't been paying attention, Bob Dylan is a highly-rated but controversial popular music artist, a self-described "song and dance man", who emerged in the New York folk scene in the early 1960s, and came to rapid prominence, partly on the coattails of the Civil Rights movement, and partly due to his uncanny ability to channel the Old Weird America into something poptastically new and strange. Once in the door, though, they couldn't chuck him out, even when he lost interest in being a "protest singer", and he spent the next 45 years annoying, frustrating, enchanting, intriguing, entertaining and generally mystifying everyone and anyone. Yes, that Bob Dylan.

I took the opportunity of watching the second part of Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home the other night, as it's there on the BBC iPlayer. It's a superb piece of work, but fails, I think, to explain the Dylan phenomenon, simply because it's an insider's picture (you have to wonder how often the likes of Joan Baez, Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson can stand to repeat their well-honed reminiscences of "Bobbie" to camera one more time). It also reminded me of how viscerally I dislike Pete Seeger. I'd cut his power line with an axe any day. "Green corn, green corn..." Thwack.

Neither, at the other extreme, does the portrait of extreme head-case Dylanologist A.J. Weberman (Tangled Up With Dylan, also on iPlayer) tell us much about the phenomenon, though I think this does get closer. Few, if any, artists have attracted creepy obsessives as much as Dylan. No, the best thing I've heard recently was the BBC Radio 4 programme in the Saturday night "Archive on 4" slot, Bob Dylan and Me, in which performers, writers and even academics who have been influenced by Dylan spoke of their relationship with the music.

This is the whole point, surely: the vast mass of Dylan fans never got to know "Bobbie", or stand on a stage with him, or even shout "Judas" at a concert; they simply knew his albums, inside out, back in the days when a vinyl LP was a statement, an item of contemplation, an event. For every Baez or Weberman, there are a thousand ordinary folk in their late middle age who have had an intense relationship with at least one Dylan album, probably more intense than their early relationships with girl- or boyfriends.

It's curious how often it is only one or two albums. Or perhaps not, given the unevenness of Dylan's output. In my case -- and I am far from being a Dylan fanatic -- it's Bringing It All Back Home and Blood On The Tracks. I know pretty well most of the other albums released before 1980, and a few of those released after, but it's only those two that matter to me. Why? Simply because they're the ones I owned, at a time when it mattered.

I know Blonde on Blonde is indispensible to many people, or The Basement Tapes to others, and it sometimes seems that I must at some time have owned copies of Desire and Highway 61 Revisited, but I simply don't care about any of those albums. But the songs on Bringing It All Back Home and Blood On The Tracks -- their lyrics, their attitude, their irony, their wise foolishness -- are in my bloodstream. Every note, every inflection, right down to the stoned laughter that breaks up the start of Bob Dylan's 115th Dream, or the bass playing on Simple Twist of Fate.

This is odd, really, because -- if I can put it this way -- I 'm not aware, at a conscious level, that I have ever really liked Bob Dylan that much. I can't remember the last time I played a Dylan album. But I only have to hear the opening notes of one of those songs to recall the intensity of my relationship with it. Only to forget it again. I think part of it is that Dylan was over, in a sense, before I was old enough to pay attention. He belongs to the over-65s -- I have watched several highly-intelligent people of that ur-boomer generation tear up and dissolve into mumbling inarticulacy, trying to describe what those early albums meant to them. Blood on the Tracks -- released in 1975 when I was 21 -- was a comeback album, for God's sake!

The music aside, though, what is so striking in watching video of old interviews and press conferences, and what may be the true root of his significance, is how far Dylan's modernity as a personality was in advance of the times. Not least here in stuffy, stick-up-the-arse mid-60s Britain. It's embarrassing. You cringe as a pack of plummy-voiced, RAF-moustached reporters ask their wordy, patronising questions. And you wonder as Dylan, like an unflattering mirror, reflects back the absurdity of the literal sense of the words falling from their lips. He is Andy Warhol with attitude. He is a visitor from the future, fey and amused, a real-life Dr. Who.

My favourite moment like this, is that press conference in LA in 1965, featured in No Direction Home:

Reporter: How many people who labor in the same musical vineyard in which you toil, how many are protest singers? That is, people who use their music, and use the songs to protest the, ah, social state in which we live today. The matter of war, the matter of crime, or whatever it might be.
Dylan: many?
Reporter: Yes. How many?
Dylan: Uh, I think there's about, uh ... 136.
Reporter: You say about 136, or do you mean exactly 136?
Dylan: Uh, it's either 136 or 142.

Look out, kid, it's somethin' you did -- God knows when, but you're doin' it again...

Saturday 21 May 2011

The A303

If you haven't seen it, and have access to the BBC iPlayer (is it available overseas?), may I recommend a programme which went out on BBC Four TV last week on Thursday, A303: Highway to the Sun? Tom Fort does a nice, unflashy job of looking at the palimpsestic nature of the British landscape, as revealed by the journey along a road I know only too well.

Apart from its intrinsic merits as a typical example of the best of current "B list" BBC programme-making -- there's clearly something of a Silver Age happening on BBC Four, and if I had more time I'd be watching more such programmes -- I think it gives a nice insight into the world as seen from this blog. A world populated by middle-aged, white-haired enthusiasts, annoying the hell out of people by pulling off roads and parking scruffy, "characterful" cars in odd, often illegal, spots on the side of the road, just to get a particular view, or to visit an obscure monument.

Britain is full of such people, quietly pursuing semi-academic / quasi-artistic / mildly physical enthusiasms, and they are my tribe. Often retired public-sector professionals, they are the inheritors of traditions of amateurism handed down from 18th and 19th century clergymen, those diggers of barrows and collectors of butterflies and rocks. If you can understand Tom Fort's enthusiasm for one road, as a way of drilling down through the impacted layers of our history, you will understand why I spend my weekends hanging around the M3 cutting and the Hockley viaduct.

The programme was part of a BBC Four "landscape week", and I'll catch up with the others (including Alice Roberts doing some "wild" swimming, à la Roger Deakin) in due course.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Flying Ant Day

In the light of various things that have been discussed on this blog in recent times, I refer you to this piece, The Importance of Unwritten Postcards, published two days ago by Steve Himmer, and which I read this morning via wood s lot. Not to mention the piece by Jennifer Egan he refers to, published in the Guardian on May 7th. It is sometimes amusing, sometimes scary, to see how the same issues occur to different people at much the same time.

I have stopped asking myself questions like, "What are the chances of my post connecting teenage backpacking with panic attacks being followed, the next day, by a piece in a national newspaper doing precisely the same thing?" This is not about chance, or coincidence. It's like that day in the summer, when all the flying ants emerge all over town, responding to some instinctive timetable or arcane combination of signals. I always note it down in my notebook as "Flying Ant Day", and always forget to check when it happened in previous years.

Despite appearances, despite the way it feels, we are not outside looking in (or inside looking out): we are all deeply and inextricably a part of the same processes. I'm put in mind of one of my favourite quotations from philosopher-photographer Frederick Sommer:

Some speak of a return to nature. One wonders where they could have been.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Cheep, Cheep

I've mentioned before my problems with getting historical timelines right (Steppeth Not Upon My Shoes of Blue Suede), and I've been having another mental realignment of "what took place when". I'm currently reading Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, and have just been reading the chapter about the first balloon flights.

I had no idea that the first experiments with flight took place in the mid-1770s. Why, that's the Age of Wigs! I don't know about you, but my perception of the Montgolfier Brothers and the other intrepid pioneers of "aerostation" has been corrupted by popular culture to the extent I believed balloon flight was pioneered in the Age of Moustaches. I blame Disney. Or perhaps Wacky Races.

I love it when scenes from two completely different movies overlap. In this case, I read that Gilbert White was quietly observing nature in his rectory garden at Selborne in October 1784, when Jean-Pierre Blanchard passed overhead in a hydrogen balloon. According to White in The Natural History of Selborne, even through a telescope it appeared to be no bigger than a large tea-urn. He had a few thoughts on the nature of the Sublime, and then returned to watching the birds. I don't suppose Blanchard realised he had just passed through someone else's story.

And how about this for insight:
I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race -- as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science. The wicked wit of Man always studies to apply the results of talents to enslaving, destroying or cheating his fellow creatures. Could we reach the moon, we should think of reducing it to a province of some European kingdom.

Horace Walpole, letter to H. Mann, 2 Dec. 1783

Plus ça change ...

Ballooning in the Age of Wigs, ca. 1785
(Snuff box, from the Penn-Gaskell Collection
of 'Ballooniana', Science Museum).

Meanwhile, back in the Age of Mobile Phones, I was walking down our street when I heard a familiar cheeping noise. Cheep, cheep. Cheep, cheep, cheep. Cheep, cheep. No, not a ringtone. I knew instantly what it was: a male House Sparrow doing his thing in a shrub in someone's front garden. I was astonished: I haven't seen or heard a House Sparrow in our part of town for 20 years. What with that, and the Chiffchaff and the Goldfinches that have appeared in our garden this spring, I'm beginning to believe that the birds believe things are looking up. Perhaps they're right.

Saturday 14 May 2011

El Tiburón, part 2 -- take 2

I think nobody enjoys their twenties. It's the worst of times. Your life is a mess, and you seem to be permanently in a state of transition, usually from something bad to something worse. I certainly didn't enjoy mine; I found that the closer I got to 30 the more I was changing from the person I thought I was into someone I didn't much like. I didn't particularly like anyone else, either, and I put a lot of creative effort into being disagreeable. Um. My apologies if you met me between about 1977 and 1984...

Anyway. One summer in our 20s, not long after the death of generalissimo Franco, my partner and I shared a Ford Fiesta with another couple we knew, and toured around the Basque country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia in northern Spain, camping out or staying in cheap hotels. Rural Spain, back then, was remarkably under-developed. No sooner had you crossed the border from France than you started to see ox-carts in the fields and peasants threshing grain by hand with flails. Seriously. It was like driving into a Breughel painting.

The disadvantages of touring a hot country in summer with four adults in a small car designed for suburban shopping don't need pointing out, I'm sure. If, in addition, one of the company is a non-driver and prickly provocateur (that would be me), then the difficulties, anxieties, and petty squabbles resulting from just co-existing at close quarters are not eased. Mild disagreements on diet, where to go next, what to do there, and how to spend the night can build the tension like a summer storm, until released explosively in a "free and frank exchange of views". Luckily, our friends were remarkably tolerant, and remain our friends to this day.

We had heard that the Picos de Europa mountains were worth a visit, and decided to take a look. If the coastal lowlands were a little backward, the remoter mountain passes of the Picos seemed primeval. Paved roads quickly degenerated into rutted tracks, and there was a watchful silence in the tiny, ramshackle settlements that made you feel like a visitor from outer space. The last bears and wolves in Western Europe are said to roam in these mountains.

We found ourselves camping near a strange, end-of-the-road place called Caín (no, really). Beyond it was a spectacular, steep-sided mountain gorge, the Garganta de Cares, along and through which, perched halfway up the cliff-face, some lunatic had blasted a canal before WW1, in order to feed a hydroelectric scheme. Right alongside the canal runs a precarious rock-hewn path. This path is little more than 4 or 5 feet wide in places, has no handrail, and it's a long way down. The canal runs in and out of the cliff, and where it is open to the air swallows dart along, skimming the water for insects within a couple of feet of your nose.

Most bizarrely, perhaps because of the lack of steep gradients, even back then it was a popular track for recreational walking. Occasionally, whole families would come strolling up the hazardous rocky path, wearing flip-flops and even high heels. Passing the oncoming traffic was an ordeal, not least because two of our party had serious issues with heights and steep places. I can't imagine why we even started up that track in the first place.

Eventually, the inevitable happened, and we reached a stretch of path that had been knocked out by a landslide. It was easy enough to negotiate, you simply had to drop down onto the fan of scree, and scramble across. But, due to the combination of height, slope, and real or imagined peril, D (one of our friends) froze; she simply could not, would not go any further. The family parties simply went around us, in their flip-flops and high-heels, shrieking in mock terror as they tottered over the loose rocks. But D's terror was very real: by the time we had forcibly manouevred her stiff legs one in front of the other, step by step, she was shaking with fright.

I don't think I had ever seen such raw, elemental fear expressed before, and something in D's reaction lit a fuse buried deep inside me. When we stopped for a rest later on, I climbed up by myself onto a rocky promontory, out of view of the others, ostensibly to look at the view. What happened then is quite hard to explain.

Gazing across at the opposite bluff, hundreds of feet high, I noticed it was shaped like the snout of a gigantic rising shark. The film Jaws was then still quite current, and the poster image was everywhere. I started to feel a deep, mounting terror. It was as if I had gone fishing for mackerel, and caught the world-fish on my line. There seemed to be a basso profundo roar running through the landscape like an earthquake, or a volcano humming to itself. I knew -- simultaneously -- that the bluff opposite was merely a formation of jagged Carboniferous limestone, and that it was also a gigantic shark surging out of the depths of the earth. I knew -- both at the same time -- that I was perfectly safe and in mortal danger. I was acutely aware of the utter inconsequence if I were to die at that moment. The sensation lasted only 30 seconds or so, but it was the most intense experience of existential dread I had ever endured, and I went back down the hill a chastened, not to say changed, man.

I came to call my new, terrible acquaintance El Tiburón -- the shark. My secret mantra was the quotation from Büchner's Woyzek, displayed on screen by Werner Herzog at the start of his film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser over a shot of a wheat field writhing in a blustery wind: "Don’t you hear that terrible screaming all around, which is conventionally called silence?". Being of a literary bent, I presumed I had had an encounter with a full-on manifestation of what the early landscape enthusiasts called The Sublime, or perhaps I had even had some kind of brutal enlightenment experience, a satori. There's nothing so reassuring as self-importance and up-market labels.

The next time I encountered El Tiburón I was driving a car on a busy road in Hampshire, and I was convinced I was having a heart attack. As well as the sense of overwhelming danger, I had pins and needles in my face and hands, and had to pull off the road onto the hard shoulder to recover. My doctor explained that I had not been having a heart attack, however, but a panic attack. Ah. He recommended substantial changes in lifestyle, and maybe a little therapy. The next 25 years were the story of me learning to come to terms with Old Sharkie, and his tendency to come roaring out of the floor without warning, especially, it seemed, when travelling abroad.

If nothing else, I am much better company these many years later, and rarely if ever seek to upset or alienate anybody -- I know how tough it can be when your life story has, ah, "jumped the shark", and things need to change. People don't need pointless aggression from their friends. I also know how remarkably easy it is to mistake a panic attack for some kind of satori; we are all ridiculous in our vanity, in the end.

On the other hand, I know El Tiburón is always down there, figuratively at least, and have learned how not to be bothered by this. Some days you eat the shark, some days the shark eats you... A large part of the secret, I can divulge, is remembering to breathe at all times.

Well, That Was Weird

Blogger went down on Thursday night and didn't come back until late yesterday.  All posts and comments from Thursday night onwards were deleted and, despite Google / Blogger's claim to the contrary, mine are still missing.  A shame, as I had spent time on Wednesday writing "El Tiburon, Part 2", and posted it on Thursday evening.  Friday 13th.  Hmm.  I'm not going there.

Luckily, one of my Australian readers was able to rescue the text from his RSS feed and mail it to me -- many thanks, Leigh! I'll re-post it later on.

Anyone else lost posts?  I hope it's not just me... Maybe it's time to consider a change of host?  I  hear Typepad is OK.  Mind you, have you noticed how the blogging action has cooled off lately in favour of Twitter, or whatever it is the cool kids are doing now?  Many of the blogs I used to follow seem to be defunct, posting once in a blue moon.  Blogging is so 2006 ...

Sunday 8 May 2011


I thought some of you might be interested to see this first rough-cut of a complete book sequence, based on the "university windows" images. To organise the sequence a bit, I have revived an old idea from my first series (which tracked a stream that runs through our campus) i.e. the three parts of the mediaeval university curriculum, the so-called "trivium" of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.

This is still very much a first draft -- anything could change, and probably will. However, I'm acutely aware that there are two great and opposing vices in this sort of project. The first is the boredom induced by familarity. That is, it's very easy to chuck out good but over-familar old stuff in favour of the excitement of novelty. The second is misplaced loyalty to things that are not working any more. It's tempting to continually rework the entire book around images (and combinations of images) that can seem set in stone.

The main thing I'm working on is the rhythm of the sequence. I want the viewer's eye to be carried along, intrigued and refreshed by a network of patterns of shape, size, colour and subject, and I also want this patterning to relate to the three part "music" of the overall theme. Ambitious, but... "Fail again, fail better", as we like to say.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Unsolicited Testimonials

While I'm in the mood, here are a couple of good things to pass on:

The always interesting wood s lot blog has pointed out an interesting development:

Moscow film company Mosfilm has just made 50 Russian classics (including Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Solaris, and Andrei Rublev) available on YouTube in high definition. According to Yahoo News, Mosfilm has pledged to release five more films each week, all in HD with English subtitles, eventually bringing the total for the year to 200.

You can look over the whole list of currently available classics at Mosfilm’s YouTube channel.

I'm a huge fan of Tarkovsky, but have somehow never seen Andrei Rublev (I've got most of the others on DVD), so this is great news.

Next up: I've just taken delivery of a Pinwide from Wanderlust Cameras. I used to do a lot of pinhole stuff when I still used film -- I made myself a sweet medium-format pinhole camera out of an old bakelite Ilford Envoy camera -- but never quite got the results I was hoping for. The Pinwide is basically a Micro Four Thirds body cap modified with a pinhole, and I'm looking forward to giving it a try.

N.B. If you're thinking of getting one and will be using it on a Panasonic GF1, here's a tip: you need to go to the [CUSTOM MENU] and set [SHOOT W/O LENS] to ON. Otherwise you'll get an error "Please check that the lens is attached correctly" and won't be able to take a picture.

Friday 6 May 2011

El Tiburón, part 1

I don't know about you, but I rarely have profound, existential revelations in the privacy and comfort of my own home. On the other hand, I quite often have them when I'm travelling abroad. I don't know why this should be, but it can be a bit of a nuisance.

I was reflecting on this following Tony_C's reminder of our hitchhiking experiences as teenagers. In retrospect, it was an extraordinary thing, the way large numbers of young people -- actually, little more than children, boys and girls -- would take to the roads of Europe in a sort of mass rite of passage every summer. The queue of hitchhikers lined up on the slip-roads out of popular destinations like Amsterdam could be hundreds of yards long, back in the early 1970s.

In recent decades, I simply can't remember the last time I saw a hitchhiker in Europe, though it's true I've mainly driven in France and Spain, which were always regarded as hitchhiking limbos. As I've mentioned before, the numbers of aimless travellers were large enough to cause a logistical problem for local authorities on the main arterial routes, who would open schools and other public buildings as temporary "sleep ins" where clueless and vulnerable teens could spend the night on a hard floor and have access to basic facilities.

Familiar title, 1971 edition...
Et in Europa Douglas Adams

"Clueless and vulnerable" is perhaps an understatement. The thieves and predators of Europe must have been having some fat years, back then. Everyone has their horror stories, though I and my several travelling companions were probably just streetwise enough to avoid any serious problems. But, in many ways, the whole point of the exercise was to go in search of "anxiety as fun". A few brushes with the law or the seamier side of life, plus some memorable mishaps, added spice to what otherwise could be a rather dull preoccupation with getting lifts, food and finding a place to sleep.

I mention this, because it occurs to me, 40 years later, that maybe those years laid a foundation which has sometimes given a bit of a wobble to my later journeyings. At times, I realise now, I was both more scared and in more danger than I knew at the time. Being prodded awake at 3 a.m. with a night-stick and questioned aggressively by American MPs looking for deserters, as you try to snatch some sleep on a railway station platform, is not fun. Neither is losing your passport in Rome, or finding yourself alone and incapably drunk in a back street of a town you don't know in a country whose language you can't read, never mind speak.

Don't misunderstand me: I had more than enough compensating moments of fun, even exhilaration and excitement. During my Wanderjahre I was lucky enough to suffer nothing more disastrous than a few bruises, a few moments of pure panic, and a few more character-building humiliations than I'd expected. But perhaps the unconscious mind is wiser than our teenage bravado, and there is a delayed reaction to the suppressed, scarier side of this sort of adventure. You don't have to have stared at a loaded pistol (as happened to one friend of mine) to become a young adult subject to anxious aftershocks.

Which brings me to El Tiburón. But it's late, I'm tired, and I have an episode of West Wing to watch, so I'll do this one in two parts. (Did I say I've been watching West Wing on DVD? That's why posts have been a bit thin lately...)

Monday 2 May 2011


It's odd, how some photographs can persist in your mind. Often, I suppose, this is because they are expressive in a way that is personal and goes beyond any analysis. This one is an example: it has pretty much every "fault" a photo can have, and yet it's never far from the surface of my mind. I found myself thinking of it this afternoon, as I crawled around on the shed roof on my knees putting on fresh roofing felt. Perhaps some subliminal, bituminous smell is associated by my anosmic brain with the occasion of its taking.

When the kids were smaller, we used to drive over to Lyme Regis on the Saturday nearest to November 5th, because a large bonfire is lit on the beach next to The Cobb (the curving seawall made famous in the film of The French Lieutenant's Woman) and fireworks are set off, making a spectacular display. There's something magical about being "at the seaside" on a cold November night, and watching a municipal firework display reflected in the sea. There's also something deeply atavistic about being part of a large crowd in festive mood gathered around a huge fire.

The photo above was made using my Olympus Mju II -- a film camera that, in pre-digital days, was often my camera of choice as I settled into the role of "family man". I still have it: it fits in a jeans pocket, has a sweet f/2.8 lens, and delivers results easily good enough for any purpose I could imagine.

I can remember the occasion well. After sitting on the beach in the dark for a bit, we found ourselves a good spot to stand on the promenade, as the crowds began to gather. Just before the fireworks began, I looked away from The Cobb back up the beach, and saw the moon reflected in the sea and another distant bonfire, presumably on the beach at Charmouth. I took out the Mju, braced myself against the promenade rail, and took a literal shot in the dark. The exposure must have been something like two seconds.

I like the way the camera movement has "textured" the beach, and the overall graphical effect of the blurriness. The warm, unreal colours, too, work for me in a way I can't quite put my finger on. On one level, I suspect the scene reminds me of my first holiday without my parents, aged 16, camping with a schoolfriend in a tiny clifftop place on the Norfolk coast called California. We would walk the three miles down into Great Yarmouth, get drunk, and stagger back up the coast to our campsite, sometimes not making it and sleeping on the beach. I seem to remember it all looked a bit like that, warm, fuzzy and distinctly blurred...

N.B. I believe much of California has crumbled into the sea, since, which will give Steely Dan fans pause for thought (check out the lyrics of "My Old School" on the Countdown to Ecstasy album, still my benchmark of excellence, after all these years). I keep meaning to write to Donald Fagen.