Monday, 28 November 2011

Winter Palette

The main photographic challenge at this time of year, even on the south coast of England, is finding enough light. Even a sunny afternoon is pretty dim in the shade, and come 4:00 p.m. it's all fading fast into darkness. The contrasts are extreme, and can make for ugly photographs. A little cloud helps, diffusing the light nicely, but that also brings on the late afternoon gloom a lot quicker.

This Sunday I was chasing a variety of afternoon light conditions all round St. Catherine's Hill. It just never stopped changing. I was also taken by surprise by the extremity of the change of the sun's angle to the SSW since my previous visit a couple of weeks ago; all illumination was cut off to the west face of the viaduct, and the rays of the setting sun were not beaming straight up the Twyford Down cutting as I had expected. Too bad: photographers in the landscape are like hunter-gatherers, and must interpret the situation on the ground to their advantage.

After criss-crossing the road next to the viaduct for a bit, and dodging the constant stream of returning Christmas shoppers in their cars, I opted for height and decided to climb St. Catherine's Hill the steep "back way". On the way up I met a work colleague, who occupies the office next to mine, jogging effortlessly down the track in shorts and a tee shirt. He lives nearby in Winchester, and has that enviable light build that (presumably) makes cross-country running a pleasure and not a leaden-legged torment. I have to say I could never understand running for pleasure even when I was young, fit, and two stone lighter.

I can walk though; once up high, the rich warm light of the setting sun was raking the tree tops, and was very pretty, but close to unphotographable. The case for some kind of "high dynamic range" procedure -- merging multiple identical images in software, made at different exposures -- was compelling, but I didn't have a tripod so that was that. One of these days I must give HDR a try. Done with restraint, it may be the answer to the "white skies and purple twigs" syndrome that disfigures so much digital landscape photography.

In allen Wipfeln spürest du kaum einen Hauch...

There is some detail in those shadows, honest, but probably not much in the JPEG you're seeing. In fact, the range of dark and golden tones in there is very subtle, and makes for a very pleasing print. I'm getting quite a taste for those rich, dark, blended colours setting off glowing, warm highlights, like fruit-cake or pumpernickel. It's a true winter palette.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Four Dawns

Once upon a time, I was a quasi-nocturnal creature, getting to bed in the small hours and rising in the late afternoon. Thirty years of work and twenty years of parenting have put a stop to that way of life, and these days my alarm is set for 6:00 am.

There's not a lot to be said for early rising (I can't say I've noticed any great accumulation of the proverbial health, wealth or wisdom) but one compensation at this time of year is that I get to see the sun rising, an event that usually puts the world into photo-opp mood.

These four were all taken this week, as the cleaners and the early staff were exchanging greetings going home and coming in, respectively. As any office worker knows, it's vital to have a good understanding with your cleaner, or you'll come in one morning to discover your papers neatly rearranged into irretrievable tidiness, and your whiteboard scrubbed clean.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Snails In A Bucket

Many years ago, aged 18 or so, I was home from university during a vacation, and went for an early evening drink in a town centre pub. By any standards, my appearance had changed since I was eight years old. Apart from the fact I had grown (a bit, anyway), I had a full beard and shoulder-length hair. I was therefore taken aback when another lad came up to me and said, "You're Mick, aren't you? Do you remember me? I'm Garry, from down the road. I used to help you collect snails in a bucket!"

It seems that our true colours shine through, no matter how heavy the disguise. Inside, I suspect, I will always be that boy from down the road that collects snails in a bucket. And not only snails. Everyone -- neighbours, schoolfriends, relatives -- knew that I was mad about "nature". No-one minded if I strayed into their gardens in pursuit of caterpillars -- we kids were like cats, anyway, liable to turn up anywhere -- and a steady procession of moribund bits of the natural world found their way to our front door. "Dad found this and wondered if your Michael would like it!"

Among the prizes donated by neighbours was a Privet Hawk-Moth, a magnificent creature, wonderfully large compared to even the biggest moths that settled on our windows on a summer night, with a pink and dark chocolate hooped body, white cabled antennae, and business-like wings swept back like a fighter plane. Even dead, it looked like it might zoom across the room if carefully launched like a balsawood glider. I kept mine in a polythene bag sellotaped to the wall. I used to love comparing its numinous reality with its picture in the Observer's Book of Larger Moths. To be its custodian gave me an enormous sense of privilege.

I also had a terrifying black and yellow wasp, about 1.5" long, with a sting almost as long as its body. Luckily, like the hawk-moth, it had been found dead, or else someone would surely have smacked it flat with a rolled-up newspaper. Again, I had the deep satisfaction of matching it, unmistakably, against its image in an identification book. It was a Wood Wasp, which -- despite the name -- is not a wasp but a sawfly, and uses its preposterous "sting" to lay eggs deep in rotten tree trunks. As a user of protective mimicry, you can't help but feel the Wood Wasp has gone over the top, being waspier than the waspiest wasp. I used to keep it in the matchbox it arrived in.

For years I wanted to be a naturalist, until it gradually dawned on me that I would never make it as a scientist. Not just because "science" was too hard (which it was) but because I clearly didn't get any science which didn't involve using coloured pencils to draw things. I'm sure you have heard the cliché, "I must have been away from school the day X was explained." Well, cliché or not, I'm pretty sure I was off sick the day they explained the point and purpose of chemistry, at least as taught in my school (and assuming the point wasn't to try and secretly fill another boy's blazer pocket with water from a lab squeeze bottle). I also found that I lack the component in the human brain that enables mathematics to take place there.

Still, there was always one sort-of science in which an ability with coloured pencils was an asset. One of the themes that has developed in this blog is "paths not taken", and this is yet another one: I might once easily have become a geographer. Even at 6th form level, entire geography lessons could be taken up happily copying elaborate coloured chalk drawings from the blackboard, which explained climate patterns, mountain formation or population distribution in graphical form.

Even better, there were field trips into the landscape, where terminal moraines and hanging valleys could be rambled over, fossils collected, and the strike and dip of strata pondered. There is no question that my two years studying geography enhanced my later life just as much as studying literature or languages. I think there are few greater pleasures than being out in a striking landscape on a bright, frosty winter's day, properly dressed and in good company, with a pub meal or even just a good hot cup of tea in prospect.

Unless it is, on such a walk, to come across a freshly dug quarry yielding museum-quality fossils to stuff your pockets with, like the one we found in mid-Wales a couple of years ago. Once a collector, always a collector. Or even just to see something, some perfect alignment of landscape and light, and to photograph it, hoping as always that what you've got will not just be a pale reflection of what you saw, but a transmutation of it into something rich and strange that will convey something of the depth of what you felt to others; the magical reverse of the pretty pebble collected on the beach that turns into a dull stone as it dries.

November 2009

Friday, 18 November 2011

You Can All Join In

Do you know that famous tease by Virginia Woolf, that "on or about December, 1910, human character changed" (Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown)? Well, on or about, let's say, December 1968, I think something similar happened. Amongst other things, British pop and R&B mutated into "rock", and a brave new world began. Or so it seemed at the time.

I remember the moment well: it coincided with that snowy winter 1968/69 that followed the release of the Beatles' White Album, their failed attempt to come to grips with the new "progressive blues" paradigm. Next thing you knew, the Beatles were gone, and the likes of Led Zeppelin were shaking the stage. Personally, I never really liked that twee, psychedelic phase that dominated British pop in the mid-1960s, but as soon as I heard the new, riff-driven, "heavy" blues, I felt that thrill you only get a few times in a lifetime, when something sets up an overwhelming sympathetic resonance in your soul. Well, you're only 15 once, and if ever there was a music for 15-year-olds (15-year-old boys, anyway), this is it.

If you are of a similar age to me, you will probably remember those "sampler" albums that the new rock-oriented labels started putting out: most significantly, for the nascent British Prog Blues generation, You Can All Join In and Nice Enough To Eat from Island. These were loss-leading prospectuses aimed right at YOU; it was clear that someone really wanted to get their hands on your pocket-money.

Popular music has always been a business, naturally, but 1968/69 marks the point when music tipped over from being an accessory to social life to becoming a lifestyle package, a brand you could adopt and live inside. For a while, the word "alternative" was loosely stuck on the front of "lifestyle" as part of the packaging, but that label fell off somewhere in the early 80s. There's nothing alternative about getting your lifestyle off the peg in a High Street shop.

It suddenly seemed normal for youngsters from any background to imagine themselves as leading characters in a far more exotic and colourful narrative than the one lived by their parents, or even their older brothers and sisters. A sort of mass permission was granted, by some mysterious sprinkling of Zeitgeisty fairy dust, that allowed thousands of us to fantasize about becoming poets and vagabond musicians, rather than teachers and chartered accountants. It was as if, having unprecedentedly more choices in our lives, we had decided to add the powers of flight and telepathy to the list. Hey, why not? (Well, lots of reasons why not, but that's another post).

It was the spirit of the times, of course. Primary schools at the cusp of the 1950s and 1960s were all about free expression, play, and the untrammelled development of personality. We were encouraged to grow, imaginatively, and not to limit our horizons to a dull job at the nearest shop or factory. Typically, there was a dressing up box in the corner of every classroom, full of oddments of adult clothing and accessories, bags and scarves and hats. If you had the imagination and inclination, you could dress up and go anywhere and be anything between the morning milk break and dinner-time. See Emily play!

The new music was, in a sense, an extension of that dressing-up box attitude into adolescence. It might have been assembled from off-cuts of blues, folk, and R&B (with maybe more than a bit of Black and White Minstrel Show "blacking up" thrown in), but joining in didn't require anyone to become a musician. There was a symbiosis, a "scene", between performers and fan-base that created a new paradigm for popular culture.

Getting into the music, adopting the look -- and no-one should underestimate the aggro it caused back then simply to let one's hair grow long -- was to be more than a "fan". It was an elective affinity, a freemasonry of youth that crossed boundaries of class and geography, whose clandestine handshakes were the LP record sleeve tucked under a great-coated arm and the packet of Rizla papers with the mysteriously missing top.

The essence of that era is nicely captured by the cover of You Can All Join In. All the musicians on the album are herded together in a group photograph, like a school outing with a hangover, dressed in the DIY surplus-store uniform of early prog rock; smirking, scowling scruffs in donkey jackets and army greatcoats, with unstyled, grown-out thatches of unruly hair. Sandy Denny, the only girl, wears a charity-shop fur coat, and the cheeky boys from Jethro Tull are pulling faces at the back. It wasn't a difficult look to aspire to, and very low-maintenance -- we could all join in!

Ever since, fresh generations have revelled in those feelings of conspiracy and solidarity, of having a delightful shared secret, that being part of a Scene engenders; I suspect the 1980s "rave" scene may even have taken it further and done it better. But, we wrote the book or, if you prefer, we opened Pandora's dressing-up box.

Just another teenage dirtbag...

So far, so nostalgic. But there is a down-side to all this.

When he was 12 or so, my son became interested in those fantasy-gaming models branded as "Warhammer", and sold in Games Workshop stores. If you don't know them, they are miniature versions of those grotesque creatures that populate Heavy Metal album cover-art, all spikes and fangs and improbable armour. It's a phase many boys go through, but they seem to pass unscathed out the other side (though one of my younger colleagues did tell me of her dismay at discovering boxes and boxes of the stuff under her 30-year-old boyfriend's bed).

So, there I am, in about 2003, standing for the first time in a Games Workshop, doing some Christmas shopping. A bunch of kids in Heavy Metal tee-shirts are sitting round a table, dabbing paint onto models, and nodding their shaggy heads rhythmically. The muzak is loud and, I notice, oddly familiar. My God, I realise: that's Black Sabbath... These boys are listening to Paranoid! This music is thirty three years old!!

It was as if we, in 1970, the year of that album's release, had been listening without irony to music by Glenn Miller or Fats Waller. Very, very weird.

A style like Heavy Metal crystallised out of the primal progressive blues soup quite quickly, and has been with us, essentially unchanged, ever since. This is astonishing. And it's not just Heavy Metal: I can't remember the last time I heard something and thought, "Hey, this is new..." Even rap is 30 years old. Something odd is going on, wouldn't you say, when the latest musical scene for the style-conscious teen is yet another retread of musical styles established 30 or 40 years ago? In some weird way, 1968 has become the Year Zero of pop music -- anything before is "retro", anything after is "contemporary".

Seeing those 14-year-olds nodding along to Black Sabbath in 2003 made me think: this music has infantilized so many of us. We are stuck, unable to grow out of the sounds that intoxicated us before we had our first serious affair, before we had raised children, before we had experienced the full range of adult emotions. We have mistaken nursery rhymes for poetry. It's no wonder so many of us have a problem choosing music for a funeral.

As serious as your life...
John Coltrane, by Roy DeCarava

Part of the problem, of course, is that an alternative is hard to find. Unless you enjoy visiting those musical museums called "classical" and "jazz" (I do), there is very little accessible, serious contemporary music being broadcast. It doesn't help that screeching monsters like Harrison Birtwistle are blocking the way -- "serious" has become synonymous with "unlistenable".

A handful of listenable pieces by the likes of Arvo Pärt do get played to death as background (amusingly, there is a campaign on BBC Radio 4's Feedback programme to stop Phillip Glass's haunting Facades being used as "atmosphere" more than twice a week), but, infuriatingly, such pieces are rarely identified and as a consequence it's hard to put a name to these attractive, oddly familiar sounds. It's a real challenge, trying to break the rock/pop stranglehold, and find contemporary music by and for adults.

But let's not get too gloomy. Music isn't everything. And I find I never tire of seeing the parade of ageing geezers wheeled in as talking heads on rock nostalgia TV shows, one-time rock-dandies now looking like welders or accountants. Who'd have guessed that Nick Mason, Pink Floyd's drummer, was going to turn into Dennis Healey? Or that the elfin John Martyn of 1970 would become a one-legged, bloated Falstaff before he died in 2009? You may be forever 15 in your head, but your body is telling a very different story.

Surely, though, if only for the sake of preventing the human race from dying of boredom, we're overdue for another change? On or about December 2011, perhaps? By definition, of course, at 57 years old I will hate it; but even so I really, really look forward to it. Come on, kids, let Dads' Music be Dads' Music! Get your own groovy noise!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Tree Encounters

Three very different encounters with trees and autumn light from today; just after dawn, mid-morning, and early afternoon. The yellow spire in the middle one is not a church, but a spectacular gingko tree, seen through the mulberry tree outside my office window.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Golden Planets -- Final Result

For those of you following the story of the 200 million golden planets, I have added an Addendum to the post When This Old Hat Was New (posted on 10/11/2011).

To save you the trouble, here is the quote that sparked the enquiry:
A few years before Franklin drafted his will, philosopher Richard Price rhapsodized in a sober treatise on the national debt, “One penny, put out at our Savior’s birth to 5 percent compound interest, would, in the present year 1781, have increased to a greater sum than would be contained in two hundred millions of earths, all solid gold. But, if put out to simple interest, it would, in the same time, have amounted to no more than seven shillings and sixpence.”
My challenge was this: "That's surely the 18th century equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson-esque 'gonzo journalism' -- too much coffee and snuff, probably. Can anyone out there do the maths?"

Well, here is the answer, provided by old friend Andy S., a.k.a. Science Man:

1d invested for 1780 years at 5% would yield 1 x 1.05^1780 = 5.2 x 10^37 d

Price of gold was fixed by Isaac Newton in 1717 at £4 8s 9d per Troy ounce (it stayed this way for about 200 years)

1 Troy ounce = 31.03g

Therefore price of gold = 4x240 + 8x12 + 9 d/Troy ounce = 1065 d/Troy Ounce

1065d/31.103g = 34.32d/g = 34,320d/kg

Therefore 5.2 x 10^37d could buy (5.2 x 10^37)/(34320) kg of gold = 1.52 x 10^33 kg

The Mass of the Earth is about 5.978 x 10^24 kg (OU Science Data Book 1978)

Therefore 1.52 x 10^33 represents (1.52 x10^33)/(5.978 x 10^24) Earth Masses = 2.54 x 10^8 Earth Masses

i.e. about 250 million Earth Masses (at 1780 Gold Prices)

How about that? Thanks, Science Man! Seems it wasn't the snuff talking, after all.

Small Ads Dept.

Anyone out there want a Panasonic GF-1 body? Last year I had some "funny money" and decided to spend it on a second GF-1 body, but it turns out that I have barely used it. It's the silver version, and as you would expect it is boxed, with all accessories (charger, manuals, etc.) intact and mainly still sealed in their polythene bags.

I've got it for sale on Amazon at £225, but I will sell it to any regular reader of this blog for £195 plus post & packaging to wherever you happen to live. Email me to do the deal (PayPal would be fine).

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remembrance Sunday

Two friends, photographed one after the other in front of an improvised sheet backdrop, somewhere in Northern France, probably Noeux-les-Mines, 1914. Both recently promoted to sergeant in the 1st/1st Battalion, Hertfordshire Regiment, a territorial regiment that went over to France in the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, the so-called "Old Contemptibles" who fought at the retreat from Mons.

This is my grandfather, Douglas William Chisholm, a bookbinder, who moved from Edinburgh to the Elephant & Castle in London, and then to Letchworth in Hertfordshire to work at the Temple Press of the publishing firm J.M. Dent.

This is his friend, Frank Edward Young, also of North Hertfordshire. Eventually, as the army ran out of proper gentlemen, Douglas and Frank were both promoted to 2nd Lieutenant -- "temporary gentlemen", as such promotions were known. Amusingly, the form for admission to officer training asks, amongst other things, for "Schools or Colleges at which educated" and "Whether able to ride". Grandad's answers were "Sayer Street, Southwark" and "No".

Frank won a medal, in the last year of the war. His citation reads:
On 18 September 1918 south-east of Havrincourt, France, during an enemy counter-attack and throughout intense enemy fire, Second Lieutenant Young visited all posts, warned the garrisons and encouraged the men. In the early stages of the attack he rescued two of his men who had been captured and bombed and silenced an enemy machine-gun. Then he fought his way back to the main barricade and drove out a party of the enemy assembling there. Throughout four hours of heavy fighting this officer set a fine example and was last seen fighting hand-to-hand against a considerable number of the enemy.
The medal was the Victoria Cross. Frank died, aged 22, and is buried at Hermies Hill British Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais.

Here they are, waiting for the train at Letchworth station at the very start of the war (the woman in the white hat is my grandmother, the amazing Daisy, also a bookbinder and an active trades unionist). It looks like a renactment club outing, doesn't it? Funny how the "real thing" can look so banal. Even the caption is misspelled (or perhaps it's a feeble pun).

Apparently grandad (who died the year before I was born) would never talk about Frank's medal, except to say, "He earned it, boy, he earned it". Like my father after him, he had no patience with the sentimental, militarist aspects of Remembrance Day. Perhaps it sounds odd, but I always don't wear a poppy, in remembrance of him, Frank, and all the other poor devils, British, French, German, Austrian, Italian, Russian, and whoever else, who set out in uniform from stations at little towns all over Europe. It seems the least I can do.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Modern Classics

"Not for the first time I find myself thinking what a privilege it was to grow up in a house without books — or art. Those Penguin Modern Classics did not have the allure of drugs or under-age drinking; there was nothing illegal or subversive about them (except insofar as the constant infusion of knowledge steadily undermined parental authority), but consuming them was an expression of independence and discovery. Let’s put it as modestly as possible: acquiring and reading them provided an opportunity to accomplish what every adolescent craves — going somewhere and doing something without one’s parents."

Geoff Dyer, The Art of the Novel, NY Times, 3/11/2011

I have long been an admirer of Geoff Dyer, ever since picking up a copy of The Missing of the Somme in a Dublin bookshop. His acute but sporadic insights always dance around areas I find interesting -- we clearly have very similar enthusiasms -- and one of these days he's going to write something really good (miaow!). Actually, I think his collection of jazz stories, But Beautiful, is really good; his portrait of Thelonious Monk, in particular, is very moving.

But the quote above, from an online article I read recently, really set me thinking. The importance of Penguin Modern Classics in the formation of young minds in the 60s and 70s is beyond dispute; the attractions of under-age drinking and drug consumption are also clear (well, to a 17-year-old, anyway). But to put the two together -- to assert their equivalence -- in the context of growing up in a bookless, culture-free suburban home, really spoke to me.

It's hard to imagine being 17 again. Being 17 now is not the same as being 17 forty years ago; well, obviously, but easy to forget. My son's enthusiasm for Nintendo games like Pokemon, or my daughter's addiction to "must see" light-entertainment TV like Strictly, are a mystery to me; the way they use social media and smartphones to maintain 24/7 contact with their friends is a source of wonder. Penguin Modern Classics are still around, but I doubt many teenagers today are watching that row of uniform spines gradually accumulate on their bookshelf with any degree of fascination or satisfaction. They're just part of a much richer media mix.

But, actually, when I think back to that time, I think Geoff Dyer misses the point here. The real impact on bookish, counter-cultural teens of the 1970s was not made by Penguin Modern Classics, but by the brand new "trade paperback" sized imprints like Paladin, Picador and Abacus, with their elegant white spines and seriffed typefaces. When they first appeared in bookshops their taller size meant they were on a shelf apart from the regular paperbacks, literally and figuratively, and they immediately offered an alternative syllabus to that of those really rather staid and worthy Penguins.

The titles say it all: The Old Straight Track, The View Over Atlantis, Bomb Culture, Mythologies, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Pricksongs and Descants, The Devil's Picturebook, The Sacred Mushroom and The Cross, Black Elk Speaks, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Trout Fishing in America, First Love Last Rites ... Remember those? I owned them all and more, and I expect you did, too. They spoke to a post-60s generation looking for something a little less ponderous than Camus, a little more trippy than Huxley, a lot more far out and revolutionary than D.H. Lawrence.

Yes, our parents may not have read T.S. Eliot or George Eliot, but our teachers had. They had gone to college during the 1950s and early 60s, worn those awful stripey college scarves, puffed on their pipes, and read Sartre and E.P. Thompson. They were the That Was The Week That Was generation -- so serious, so self-satisfied, so very responsible in their engagement. They did not read Richard Brautigan or Ian McEwan, or watch The Old Grey Whistle Test or Monty Python, and had no interest whatsoever in ley lines, shamanism, or magic mushrooms. We did.

In truth, many of us wanted to differ from our teachers more badly than we wanted to be different from our parents. We had stopped believing in their story and, as G.K. Chesterton said, the problem when people stop believing is not that they believe nothing, but that they will believe anything, ley lines included. So I think there was a double move, a knight's move: a move in the direction of bookish culture that separated us from our parents, but also a sideways move in the direction of counter-culture that separated us from our teachers.

Not surprisingly, our generation was regarded by our earnest elders as a bit of a disappointment; a bunch of selfish hedonists and posturing ironists, straws in the wind, signs of a more fragmented, less community-minded consumerist society to come. They were partly right, of course, but as Geoff Dyer says, "In its provincial and limited way my formation by, faith in, and subsequent growing beyond Penguin Modern Classics reproduced the collapse of the grand narratives that is a staple part of Postmodernity 101."

In other words, in that mysterious way that 17-year-olds always are, we were already ahead of the curve, for good or ill. We knew we wanted something new, but were unable to say what it was -- in the Sex Pistols' witty inversion, "Don't know what I want, but I know how to get it..." Did we ever get it? I honestly couldn't say. Post-modernism, as a sort of academic Punk, seems in retrospect more like a terrible virus than a vital new force.

Ah, well, forty years have passed, and now I'm the parent. At least my children will never be able to complain of growing up in a house without books, though I realise growing up in a house where tripping over stacks of books or being brained by falling books is a daily hazard may not be ideal, either. But, hey, kids, we like it like this: if you want to live in a tidy, minimalist loft with a flat-screen home-cinema TV, you know what to do. It's your turn.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

When This Old Hat Was New

According to our Records Department, this is the 500th post on this blog since October 2008. How about that? Where does the time go?

Of the many mysteries that surround us, the destination of time, and the reasons behind our precious but really rather miserly share of it, are probably the greatest. Personally, I favour the theory that, shortly after the Big Bang, some kind of collateralized loan obligation scam was perpetrated, and large quantities of time shares ended up hidden under a rock, resulting in the subsequent uneven distribution, devaluation and short supply of time. I can't recall whether this is my theory or Terry Pratchett's, however.

Anyway, thinking about time passing, it struck me the other day that a hypothetical very, very old man, who had been sitting on the same bench every day since the year 1011, would have heard our language change from Anglo-Saxon through Middle English to whatever it is we're speaking now (Post-Modern English?). The change would be even more imperceptible than trying to see the hour hand move on an analogue clock, but real all the same. One day, he's going to a church which is little more than a wattle and daub hut, and intoning the Lord's Prayer as "Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum", then, in the blink of a geological eye, various stone structures have been erected on the same site, and the few people who are still going to church are now thinking that "Our Father, which art in heaven" sounds incomprehensibly old-fashioned. Old English, innit?

You don't have to be 1000 years old to experience this, though. Listen to any archived radio programme and the voices are as dated (and dateable) as the graphical style of vintage adverts. When I was a child in the 1950s/60s, broadcasters were still required to affect the clipped accents of the 1930s as the price of entry into the BBC. So-called "received pronunciation" was a clear and non-negotiable marker of class and aspiration. "End nigh, the knee-ooze!" No longer, thank goodness. But I'm really not sure if that continuity guy with the preposterously fruity Caribbean baritone who is all over Radio 4 these days counts as progress.

A thousand years ago, of course, the Vikings were busily carrying out an aggressively proactive programme of linguistic mash-up on these shores. I've been watching a lot of Scandinavian thrillers on TV in the last year, and it has started to bring on a curious sensation, like the awakening of semi-dormant, atavistic elements in my linguistic brain. It reminds you how much Northern Europe is a veritable plasticine ball of languages smeared one into another. After a bit, you feel you almost, but not quite, know how to speak Danish or Swedish. But, if I watch one more series of The Killing or Wallander perhaps my immersion treatment will be complete, and I'll be shouting "Va fan?!" (roughly = "WTF") with the best of them.

I found a nice little anecdote about the cumulative effects of time when reading a piece on "Methuselah trusts" in Lapham's Quarterly (hey, I get around). The idea is that a modest amount of money placed in a "1000-year trust" and invested at compound interest could, if actually brought to maturity, trash the world economy (though I think we now have better ways to do the job on a far shorter timescale). It's rather like that proposition that if you were able to fold a piece of paper in half 42 times, you'd find that it reaches the moon. The Methuselah trust would eventually require a payout that would far exceed anyone's ability to pay it.

Apparently Benjamin Franklin started one of these mad investments in 1790, in his will. Here's the quote from the Lapham's Quarterly article:
A few years before Franklin drafted his will, philosopher Richard Price rhapsodized in a sober treatise on the national debt, “One penny, put out at our Savior’s birth to 5 percent compound interest, would, in the present year 1781, have increased to a greater sum than would be contained in two hundred millions of earths, all solid gold. But, if put out to simple interest, it would, in the same time, have amounted to no more than seven shillings and sixpence.”
Hmm, maybe. Show your working, please. That's surely the 18th century equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson-esque "gonzo journalism" -- too much coffee and snuff, probably. Can anyone out there do the maths?

That mention of 7s 6d reminds me of the now long-ago pre-decimal days in Britain. I had forgotten the strangeness of doing mental "money" arithmetic when there were twelve pennies to the shilling, and twenty shillings to the pound (not to mention one pound and one shilling to the guinea). It makes me wonder whether the only reason our children are still learning the eleven and twelve times tables is because, once upon a time, we had an insane system of coinage. Do other countries make their kids learn multiplication tables up to "times twelve", or do they stop at a rational ten?

But enough ramblings about time. Happy 500th post to you all.

Addendum 14/11/2011:

As hoped, nay expected, my old friend Andy S., a.k.a. Science Man, has come up with the goods:

1d invested for 1780 years at 5% would yield 1 x 1.05^1780 = 5.2 x 10^37 d

Price of gold was fixed by Isaac Newton in 1717 at £4 8s 9d per Troy ounce (it stayed this way for about 200 years)

1 Troy ounce = 31.03g

Therefore price of gold = 4x240 + 8x12 + 9 d/Troy ounce = 1065 d/Troy Ounce

1065d/31.103g = 34.32d/g = 34,320d/kg

Therefore 5.2 x 10^37d could buy (5.2 x 10^37)/(34320) kg of gold = 1.52 x 10^33 kg

The Mass of the Earth is about 5.978 x 10^24 kg (OU Science Data Book 1978)

Therefore 1.52 x 10^33 represents (1.52 x10^33)/(5.978 x 10^24) Earth Masses = 2.54 x 10^8 Earth Masses

i.e. about 250 million Earth Masses (at 1780 Gold Prices)

How about that? Thanks, Science Man! Seems it wasn't the snuff talking, after all.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Broken Images

In Broken Images

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

Robert Graves (1895–1985)

Saturday, 5 November 2011

And Now, The Weather

The Weather

I'd like to live a slower life.
The weather gets in my words
and I want them dry. Line after line
writes itself on my face, not a grace
of age but wrinkled humour. I laugh
more than I should or more
than anyone should. This is good.

But guess again. Everyone leans, each
on each other. This is a life
without an image. But only
because nothing does much more
than just resemble. Do the shamans
do what they say they do, dancing?
This is epistemology.

This is guesswork, this is love,
this is giving up gorgeousness to please you,
you beautiful dead to be. God bless
the weather and the words. Any words. Any weather.
And where or whom. I'd never taken count before.
I wish I had. And then
I did. And here
the weather wrote again.

John Newlove (1938 - 2003)

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Mr. Stubbs Takes A Photo

There is a certain late-afternoon light at this time of year that, in the right sort of location, instantly calls to mind the paintings of the 18th century landscape tradition. There's a painterly quality to the moulding of the landforms and foliage, and especially to that eye-pleasing trick of combining complementary russet-reds and greens. My knees may no longer appreciate the autumnal mix of cold and damp, but my eyes like what it does to all that relentless green of summer.

This particular knee-taxing, eye-pleasing view is St. Catherine's Hill, Winchester, seen across the plague-pit valley from the very top of the Twyford Down road cutting. We were on our way home from a muddy Sunday afternoon walk when the sun emerged briefly over my left shoulder. I got out the LX3, leaned against the fence, and popped off a couple of auto-everything shots.

What it really needs for the full-on George Stubbs effect is a couple of improbably glossy horses up front, of course, but I'm not a bloody magician. A couple of sleek joggers in lycra might work, I suppose.

If you really want to bring out that sculptural moulding in the landscape, then a monochrome conversion is the thing. I use the Imaging Factory plug-in for Photoshop Elements.

Looks like a mezzotint engraving, doesn't it? I think the impression is enhanced by the LX3's relatively small sensor -- there's sometimes a "watercolour" effect to the pixels viewed at 100% which, under certain unpredictable circumstances, can be pronounced. I only shoot RAW, so this is not some kind of JPEG artefact, though it may be related to the sneaky in-camera lens corrections that the LX3 performs, even on RAW files. I have to say I like it.