Monday, 31 October 2011

The Real Thing

Today being Hallowe'en reminds me that I was deeply pissed off at one point over the summer. My daughter is studying English for one of her A Levels, and I discovered that one of the set books was, of all things, Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I'd already been annoyed by the triviality of some of the texts my kids have had to study as "literature", but this seemed to take the blood-sucking biscuit.

Never having read the book myself, I thought it would make sense to actually read it before driving a stake angrily through its heart. For all I knew, it might turn out be a brilliant classic, even if only in a camp, knowing way. Well, it isn't. It is possibly the dullest, most pointless book I have ever read. It is a Pile of Poo. It is an insult to our children, especially the girls, to make them study this drab thing as if it were "literature". As I say, I was deeply pissed off.

So, how has it come to this, that kids at this most wonderful stage in their intellectual development -- when their entire, freshly-minted sensibility and intelligence ought to be concentrated on a few well-chosen true classics, an experience that should shape them for life -- are being required to study trash?

In a way, I sort of feel it's my fault. Back in the mid-1970s, having taken a three-year stroll down Literary High Street (a.k.a. an English degree), I became interested in literary theory. Questions like "Who decides what counts as a classic?" and "What does the reader bring to the literary experience?" seemed worth asking. All a year's further study brought, though, was some puzzling and dispiriting half-answers. I had had every intention of embarking on an academic career, but suddenly I was not so sure. I knew what the problems were, but I didn't see any way forward; indeed, I suspected there was no way forward, and -- looking ahead -- all I could see was an inevitable crisis looming for the Humanities, and unemployment for me. I left the field to others, who were inventing increasingly sterile post-modern games to play.

My killer question at the time (my heuristic device, if you prefer that fancy talk) had been to ask: "Why is the pastime 'reading and writing books' sufficiently well-regarded to be studied at university, when stamp-collecting and mountain-climbing aren't?" Ask yourself that question, and the whole thing falls into place. Or rather, crumbles into dust, like Dracula on a sun-lounger.

At bottom, once you've cleared away the accidents of history and habit, and got bored with the sociological aspects, the problem is an argument over the existence and nature of The Real Thing. It's practically theological.

Before, let's say, 1965, there was pretty much universal agreement about where the Real Thing could be found. In most of Shakespeare, indisputably; in much of Keats, Milton and Chaucer; and in variously-sized bits of a whole pantheon of lesser writers. However, its presence in, say, Arthur Conan Doyle or John Buchan was small, and in the case of writers like Ian Fleming, homeopathic. The presence of the Real Thing was not something that could be objectively measured -- you just knew it was there, or accepted that people who knew better than you said it was there, so you went looking for it. Learning to recognise The Real Thing was the point of the exercise.

Hmm. The trouble is, once the challenge is made -- "Who says this is the Real Thing and that is not, and by what authority?" -- Pandora's Box is opened. There is no way to justify the preferences of a self-appointed aristocracy as the definition of "good taste"; you simply end up playing an upmarket game of "U and Non-U". And once "judgement" has been devalued to "opinion" (as in, "It's just your opinion that David Copperfield is better than Dracula") no-one can agree what the Real Thing is ever again, and never will. It's game over, and "literature" gets devalued to "reading matter".

This process has been going on for 30 years, and the result is that genuine rubbish like Dracula ends up as an A Level set text, because enough people think it is the sort of reading matter that 17-year-olds will find accessible. Hey, it's about vampires, and vampires are cool! It surely cannot be because they think it is any good? Can it? In the words of the Steely Dan song, "Reelin' In The Years":
You wouldn't know a diamond
If you held one in your hand
The things you think are precious
I can't understand
As it is, I'm still pretty sure I know I know what a diamond is, and what makes me angry is that something quite different is being pressed into our children's hands.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A Place to Stand

As the wind gusted and the light came and went on Sunday, I found myself walking away from the Twyford Down motorway cutting for a change, rather than towards it. This gave me a whole new set of views on that little bit of landscape. I can feel a set of pictures developing, not unlike Henri Rivière's Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower -- itself a conscious riff on Hokusai's "36 Views of Mount Fuji".

Talking of which, Rivière's Thirty-six Views book is back in print, and well worth buying if that japoniste woodblock print look is to your taste. Long an expensive rarity, it's now been republished in semi-facsimile in connection with an exhibition in San Francisco at an extremely reasonable price. Get it while you can.

Just think, 100 years ago, even the Eiffel Tower was a half-constructed novelty! I find the meeting of japoniste exoticism, the industrial-modernist "shock of the new", and traditional pictorial values in Rivière's work very sympathetic. It's a very French moment -- no wonder those Edwardian Brits escaped to Paris at the first opportunity. So poignant, to know that A War to End All Wars was shortly about to put a stop to it all.

Saturday, 22 October 2011


David Hockney has this thing, explored at length in his book Secret Knowledge, about the use of optics by the Old Masters. When you look at his evidence, it's obvious that he's right. Lenses and projected images have been around for a long time, and it would be an odd artist who wasn't intrigued by them or who refused to take advantage of them.

At this time of year in northern latitudes, as the low angle of the rising sun comes later in the day and coincides with the rising of those of us lucky enough to have jobs to go to, projected images are everywhere. It makes you very aware of how photography must have been prefigured, in principle, for hundreds of years before anyone figured out how to do it.

Talking of optics and old masters, if you know the poem "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror" by John Ashbery, and the painting by Parmigianino on which it is based, consider the poem's opening lines:

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose.

Now consider the painting:

Um, right hand?? It strikes me someone should have had a quiet word with Mr. Ashbery before the poem was published. Too late now.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Stage Sets

Since the start of the new academic year, I've begun doing two "old" things again: walking to work, and carrying the Panasonic LX3. These are not unconnected, obviously -- even compared to a GF1, the LX3 is so light I can forget it's round my neck, but it's right there when the bright, low autumn light transforms the scene at around 8:00 am into a stage set.

The LX3 also has a way with colour and tone in contrasty scenes that is quite special and can sometimes seem a little supernatural. The camera does have a Leica lens, of course. It's certainly not my impeccable technical mastery that is capturing that full range of tones from deep shadow to bright highlight -- I'm simply underexposing a bit, and taking my reading from the brighter part of the scene. Simple stuff.

I also like the way three different image aspect ratios can be selected by a simple twist of a switch on the lens barrel. A curiosity of the LX3 is that all three ratios are crops of the "full" image sensor: you get your 10-ish megapixel image cut out of an 11-ish megapixel sensor ( 3968 x 2232 pixels at 16:9, 3648 x 2736 pixels at 4:3, and 3776 x 2520 pixels at 3:2). The idea is that the same angle of view is maintained, with each ratio getting a much more similar overall pixel count than you'd get from a crop of a "full sensor" image. Brilliantly eccentric. You just have to wonder how they got it past the marketing guys ("Um, explain that bit about the angle to me again?").

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Curriculum: the E-Book

OK, this is unknown territory for me. Blurb has started offering an e-book creation service, which is exciting, but it's Apple Only (for iPad, iPhone, iPod) which is annoying. Not least because I own none of those things, and therefore can't see how well it works.

I have set up the final version of Curriculum as an e-book download, at the low, low price of £3.49. If you go to my Blurb Bookstore you should be able to see it as a purchase option there.

What happens when you have bought it (I think) is that you get the option to download it. These are the instructions:

You can view your ebook on your iPad by manually transferring it to iTunes.

* Download the epub file
* Open iTunes on your computer and then drag the epub file to your iPad folder, under Devices
* Connect your iPad to your computer
* Click Sync
* On your iPad, open iBooks and you should see your book.

You may also be able to find it in an Apple bookstore somehow (via iTunes?).

Does that make sense to you Apple people? If anyone out there wants to give it a go (come on, just £3.49!!) please let me know how you get on. Does it work? Does it look good? Any hitches or gotchas? Can you see it on an Apple Mac, even if you don't have an iThingy?

I can then alert the wider (Apple using) world to this development. Thanks.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Pit Droids

Over the summer I had a bit of a clear-out of of some of our stuff, a project which is ongoing. At times this feels like trying to empty a swimming pool with a teaspoon, but the journey of a 1000 miles starts with a carrier-bag full of old bits of bubble wrap. Is bubble wrap the new string, I wonder? Just as the previous generation had a thing for string, saving it obsessively in drawers and boxes, so we seem to be incapable of throwing away protective packaging. It looks so useful.

A major delaying factor in this domestic archaeology is the discovery of buried treasure, or at least buried treasure maps. You can be merrily tossing old paperwork into a rubbish bag, when you encounter something -- a child's drawing, a letter, a scribbled note, a bill, even -- that stops you in your tracks, and causes you to make a coffee and sit for a while, lost in the past.

I was surprised to discover, for example, quite how many rejection letters I had accumulated in the period 1995-2005. I had forgotten about all those rounds of developing a project, putting together a proposal, applying for funding or an exhibition or publication, waiting for a response, and the inevitable disappointment of a rejection letter. Back to square one. In those days, in my 40s, I had the fantasy of finally escaping from my "day job", and launching a late-start career as an artist -- all it would take was hard work, a few exhibitions to establish a reputation, maybe a book or two, and I'd be part of the international art circus. Yeah, right.

A more positive moment came when, rattling through a stack of old CD-ROMs containing software that used to entertain our kids when they were small, I found our copy of Star Wars Pit Droids. My son was just the right age to be caught up in that second round of Star Wars fever that accompanied the release of the "prequel trilogy", starting with The Phantom Menace in 1999. If you didn't raise your children in the 1990s or after, you probably don't really understand the impact of brand marketing on family life. The confluence of branded products aimed at children (generally based on a film or TV series), the advent of home computing and video, and the realisation that children were an untapped market was remarkable to witness, and impossible to resist. Think Jurassic Park, Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, above all, Star Wars. I expect PhDs are being written right now about all this.

Most of this flood of merchandizing was bubble-packed ephemeral junk -- action figures, weapons, bits of costume and insignia, and the like -- but some was a brave attempt to slip a little developmental or even educational content into the mix. Lego got on board the Star Wars branding gravy-train very successfully, for example, and not a few ten-year-old brains will have benefitted from constructing a Lego Death Star or Millennium Falcon. Certainly, the business of shopping for Christmas and birthdays is vastly simplified when your offspring can cite exact product codes downloaded off the Web for the precise items they want, or when you can wander through the aisles of Toys'R'Us and spot when the bubble packs and boxes change to the particular branded colourway you're looking for.

But a few products launched on the back of these enthusiasms were outstanding, and Star Wars Pit Droids was one of them. If you're not familiar with the Star Wars universe (lucky you) then you need to know that a "pit droid" is a tireless, multi-tasking robotic grease-monkey, fixing up dented starships and hunting out spare parts in the breakers yards of dusty, faraway planets. The pit droids "game" is well described by Children's Software Revue:
An amazingly strong exercise in logical thinking, the program presents a series of successively more difficult puzzles all housed within graphically rich Star Wars settings. The overall goal of the game is to lead a group of robots called Pit Droids through various obstacle courses until they reach their final destination, The Podrace Arena. Kids have to figure out how to program the Droids so they'll move the right way through each puzzle. They do so by manipulating tiles that have varying functions. For instance, a red arrow makes red Droids turn a certain direction, while a 1:2 ratio tile divides a column of Droids in two directions at the ratio of- you guessed it- one to two. As players correctly navigate each puzzle, they rack up points and can open up deeper levels of the game. Why is this so engaging and educationally robust? First of all, the Droids are downright cute and pretty funny as well. Kids and adults naturally take to these creatures and want to help them reach their goal. Second, the challenge levels are designed so that each hurdle is just a little bit tougher than the last- doable, but tricky.
In a word, it is a brilliant and totally praiseworthy use of a child's brand-stimulated attention. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that playing Pit Droids on the PC raised and reinforced my son's (admittedly already high) intelligence. Frankly, schools should be using Pit Droids to teach logic and creative lateral thinking. It's fun, too. Needless to say, I have kept our copy.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Funeral Music

A couple of times now I've started to write a post about the music that people choose, or have chosen for them, at their funerals. But I kept putting it off as the subject was a little raw, there having been a spate of deaths that were too close for comfort – six relatives, two friends, the child of two friends, two work colleagues, and two three* mentors. But it is an interesting subject, and there's no point in being stand-offish with Death. He/she/it does what he/she/it pleases.

Once upon a time, of course, this wasn't much of an issue, at least in nominally Christian Britain. The Book of Common Prayer does a poetic and workmanlike job of steering grieving relatives and friends through the grim business, and a couple of favourite hymns would give everyone something useful to do with their voice. Job done. But the exponential secularization of our culture means that people are increasingly thrown back onto their own resources at a very difficult time. It reminds me of the arguments in favour of school uniforms – the lack of choice used to mean social and cultural differences were smoothed over in a helpful way. You might have been a culture-free, violent and bigoted old sod in life, but in death you finally acquired a touch of class. The freedom to do what you like comes at a price, and a non-Christian funeral is often a confusing and unsatisfactory affair, one where the lack of purpose, belief and – above all – taste in many people's lives are mercilessly exposed.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the business of choosing music. Mawkishness and a near-universal inability to hear or understand song lyrics come to the fore, closely followed by a breathtaking lack of tact and sense of occasion. John Cleese truly (hilariously, appropriately) broke the mould with his eulogy at Graham Chapman's funeral; but the choice of the "Chinese version" of Jerusalem ("Bling me my spiel, Oh crowds unford," etc.) and "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" equally truly set the bar for puerile evasion of grief so low that we're still tripping over it. 

So... OK, pop pickers... [cue up At the Sign Of The Swinging Cymbal]... A poll of 5000 Brits, carried out in 2006, delivered this Funeral Top Ten:

1. Goodbye My Lover - James Blunt 
2. Angels - Robbie Williams 
3. I’ve Had the Time of My Life - Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medley 
4. Wind Beneath My Wings - Bette Midler 
5. Pie Jesu - Requiem 
6. Candle in the Wind - Elton John 
7. With or Without You - U2 
8. Tears in Heaven - Eric Clapton 
9. Every Breath You Take - The Police 
10. Unchained Melody - Righteous Brothers

And here, from the same year, is the Co-Op Funeral Service's Top Ten: 

1. Wind Beneath My Wings - Bette Midler 
2. My Heart Will Go On - Celine Dion 
3. I Will Always Love You - Whitney Houston 
4. Simply The Best - Tina Turner 
5. Angels - Robbie Williams 
6. You'll Never Walk Alone - Gerry And The Pacemakers 
7. Candle In The Wind - Elton John 
8. Unchained Melody - Righteous Brothers 
9. Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon And Garfunkel 
10. Time To Say Goodbye - Sarah Brightman

[Sound effect of skidding record player needle] 

 Good grief. I mean, honestly. You can see why – faced with a difficult choice at a difficult time – someone's family or friends might reach for some of these, but how would you like to be played out to a song about an obsessive stalker (The Police), the implication that you were the stairway to someone else's success (Bette Midler), or best remembered by your smell (James Blunt)? I doubt any of these songs have been chosen by the, um, "loved one", however. A shame, really: one's funeral is a last chance to play Desert Island Discs, isn't it? I suspect there are a lot of people (alright, men) of my age out there constantly refining their own Funeral Mix. I don't have a problem with this, provided it's a short and well-chosen list. However, I don't want to sit through both sides of anyone's P60 tape on a hard bench, however tastefully thought out.

As I posted a while back, "Box of Rain" by the Grateful Dead was played at a dear friend's memorial, and – despite the fact that I generally loathe the Grateful Dead – it was very moving. It was his choice, and all about him, and damn near rendered two hundred people helpless with sobbing. When it comes to my turn, if I think about it, I'm torn between reducing everyone to gratifying tears ("May You Never", by John Martyn, perhaps?) or posthumously kicking off a wild baccanal (free whisky all round and The Pogues?). I'll let you know.

As far as I can see, there are only two up sides to dying young. First, vastly more people are likely to turn up for your funeral, and they are far more likely to know (and care) who you actually were. Second, they're more likely to share your taste in music. The scenario of a memorial where the careful choice of music – made years earlier by the deceased party – is played to a three-quarters empty room of uncomprehending, indifferent strangers is a tragi-comic one, reminiscent of a Chekhov short story. Luckily you'll be dead.

* The mentor count went up by one after I started this post. R.I.P. Geoffrey Ford.

Monday, 10 October 2011


The sea is always present in the Basque country. Even miles inland in the Pyrenees its influence is felt as fog and rain; the greenness of Atlantic Spain makes a remarkable contrast with the arid landscapes just a little further south.

It also affects restaurant menus: fish, fish, and more fish. Fresh sardines, squid, bacalao (salt cod), merluza (hake)... It's all good. Though I've never convinced myself to try a plate of angulas (elvers), a disconcerting popular delicacy available in bulk packs, fresh or frozen, at the supermarket ("like short spaghetti with eyes"). Unfortunately, my daughter is not keen on fish, and had to stick to duck or chicken whenever we ate out.

Lighthouse at Getaria

From Itziar

At night we would look out onto the blackness of the sea from our hilltop vantage point near Itziar, and see lines of fishing boat lights (presumably fishing for squid) arranged like streetlamps on the vasty deep.

The Basques are legendary sailors, whalers and cod-fishermen, venturing way out into the North Atlantic and Newfoundland fisheries, and crewing the ships of the Age of Exploration. But the Basque coast has a more refined history, too, of summer seaside resorts for royalty and the bon ton of Europe. Nowadays, though, it's the surfing aristocracy that turn up in the summer, as some of the wave breaks can achieve monster proportions. I, of course, have nothing but envy contempt for these waddling body fascists in their wetsuits, clutching their absurd hi-tech planks.


Friday, 7 October 2011

Holiday Snaps

Getaria, N. Spain

So, the summer... Where did that go? Suddenly it's October, Fresher's Week has come and gone, and I'm removing cobwebs from the wing mirrors every morning when I wipe the condensation off the car windows. I'm not bothered -- summer is not my favourite time of year.

My favourite time of year is coming up, as the days shorten and we start to roll down the solar hill, straight through Bonfire Night and on towards Christmas. Some people like spring, with its new beginnings, but, if you've been a bit of a swot and have the school year in your blood the way peasants used to have the farming seasons, the real fresh start is now. New teachers, new exercise books and that sense of chaotic communal purpose, like a ship setting out on a voyage.

Of course, if you hated school and love getting your shirt off in the sun then you probably loathe this time of year. Never mind, I expect you've had your fun in the sun, and now it's my turn. Mind, despite our all-round busy-ness, we did manage a two week holiday in the Basque Country. I love Atlantic Spain, with its mix of landscapes and climates, and find the Basques an engaging bunch.

Near Itziar, N. Spain

This year, I discovered the uniquely Basque object known as an argizaiola. There was one on the wall in our holiday let, but until I saw the collection of them in the San Sebastian museum and the penny dropped, I had assumed it was a piece of African wood carving, around which -- for whatever bizarre reason -- someone had wound a length of TV aerial cable.

These things are strange, a real bit of folk-culture weirdness. The "cable" is actually a very long, flexible candle. A Basque family may possess an argizaiola that has been passed down through many generations (some are very old indeed); it is used to represent their ancestors at a special mass, when it is placed flat on the floor of the church, and the end of the long candle is raised up vertically and lit. Yes, folks, ancestor worship in the EEC. I'd love to learn more, but most of the information is concealed behind that impenetrable barrier known as the Basque language.

This photo caused me some aggravation:

It was late at night, still very warm, and a thunderstorm was rolling through the valley. I went out on to the balcony to cool off, and thought I'd try some hand-held shots. I set the camera to ISO 1600, snapped away for a bit, then went back in for a beer. Unfortunately, I forgot I'd changed the ISO, and for several days was working at 1600 in broad daylight. I kept seeing the ludicrous shutter speeds and apertures in the display, thinking, "My, but the light is very bright down here..." Ah, well... I got some impressive depth of field, coupled with less impressive shadow noise.

Seems an odd place for a knitting party,
but check the size of that scarf...

In the Basque Country, you learn to expect the unexpected
around every corner. I have no idea who, what, why...

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Break's Over, Get Back to Work!

Can you hear it, too? All over the internet, I can hear the sound of blogs and websites closing down. A sort of mix of an eery silence and doors banging shut in a vast, echoing corridor.

It's hard to be sure what this means. Partly, it is simply that the action has moved on. Blog City is reverting to the muddy field it was before the circus rolled in, and now it's the turn of the neighbours in Twitter Terrace to complain about the noise. It's probably also a reaction to the fact that there are now simply too many blogs to keep track of. Who's got the time? But I think it is mainly that a generation of early adopters has finally grown weary of making content freely available while platform providers like Google and Facebook get filthy rich.

It reminds me of the situation with academic journals, where publicly-funded research is written up and published by university staff -- completely unremunerated -- in privately-owned journals which then charge truly astronomical subscription prices to the libraries of the very same institutions that employ those academics to do the research. It's a money machine!

The contradictions inherent in Web-based "intellectual property rights" are one of the hot contemporary issues. We all want everything to be freely available on the web, but we all want to be fairly recompensed for our own labour. "Information wants to be free" is a nice slogan, but only half the story. The full, original quotation goes like this:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Stewart Brand (Whole Earth Catalog guy) to Steve Wozniak (that other Apple guy) in 1984
Think about it. Let's say one person spends two hours writing a post, and 500 others spend five minutes reading it. Was it an experience worth, say, a negligible ten pence to them? If so, then £50 would be due to the writer. That would be a rate of £25 an hour, or perhaps more realistically £50 a day -- a modest but acceptable return on the writer's labour. Of course, in the case of the more popular blogs with 25 thousand or more readers, that translates to a rate of £2,500 per day.

But these financial transactions never take place; the writer's labour is simply tipped into the bottomless pit of free content that is the World Wide Web. Looking back, I see that I will soon have written 500 posts over the three year life of this blog. If we say that each post was worth that modest £50, then that's £25,000 I have lost down the back of the World Wide Sofa. Multiply that by the number of bloggers and web-site owners and you start to see where the mind-boggling wealth of Google and Facebook is coming from. "Bloggers of the world, unite..."

In case you are wondering, I don't think I am about to stop blogging on principle, however. At least, not until I reach that 500 mark, anyway. I have no illusions about the consequences of withdrawing my labour from the global pool of Web peonage. Google's share price would probably not be affected.

However, I remember back in the 1980s -- when some people were taking the expression "management guru" too literally, and the Way of the Flipchart was being disseminated in gnomic wisdom-tales about frogs, hot water, and the like -- I once heard someone compare leaving an organisation to removing one's hand from a bucket of water. See? It leaves no trace! You are like that hand: don't over-value your contribution to the corporate karma-count, grasshopper! Well, I was bored and decided to speak up and mention that Archimedes bloke and displacement; if nothing else, I learned that gurus don't like to be interrupted or contradicted.

But it's surely true, or truthier, that anything and everything makes a difference to something, somewhere? I am reminded of this demented but presumably correct effusion from the Angry Man of English Letters, Thomas Carlyle:
It is a mathematical fact that the casting of this pebble from my hand alters the centre of gravity of the universe.
Sartor Resartus, 1834
Quite so, Sir, quite so. But mind where you're chucking that pebble, please.