Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Closed for Christmas

I'm putting up the "Closed" sign over the Christmas break, probably for the rest of the week.  I hope you've enjoyed what you've seen and read this year.  I've enjoyed your company during 2012, and hope you'll be back in 2013.

This blog generally gets about 5,000 visits each month: it would be great if a few more of you silent lurkers made a New Year's Resolution to comment from time to time!  Though not all at once...

Over the break, we're expecting more of this:

There's not a lot of hope for any snow this year, if the forecast is correct, though I'm sure it did hail in the night around 3 a.m.  It sounded like someone was emptying sacks of gravel over the house.  Sleighbells it certainly wasn't, although it might have been several bags of reindeer feed splitting, I suppose.

Best wishes for 2013!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

A Day Like Any Other Day

I have confessed several times in this blog that my understanding of history is poor, and arranged around various tropes from popular culture.  For me, there are the Pirate Times, the Age of Wigs, the Moustache Era, and so on.  In recent times (that is, Internet Times) I have attempted to address this failing, mainly through the medium of historical novels, films and TV series.  If I now have any greater understanding of the Napoleonic Wars, it is by following the adventures of Richard Sharpe and Jack Aubrey.  I am aware that this is like trying to grasp the Cold War Era by watching James Bond films, but I simply can't handle too many books without pictures and conversations any more, and it's not as if I'm going to be sitting any exams.

One thing this approach has revealed, is that popular culture has its blind spots (as does the school history curriculum).   The 17th century, for example, is quite poorly represented, even that period of turmoil known variously as the Civil War, the War of Three Nations, or the English Revolution.  This is very odd, given that the conflicts of this era and their outcomes are the crucible of our modern world.  I'm not sure whether Germans have a similar amnesia about the Thirty Years War, but I suspect they might.

It's largely to do with religion, of course.  Most modern Brits have reverted to a sort of secular paganism, our default spiritual setting, one which regards cruelty to animals as the Sin Against the Holy Ghost, and Live And Let Live (except for paedophiles) as the whole of the law.  I doubt many could point out the dogmatic differences between a Protestant and a Catholic, let alone the internecine issues that separated the Church of England from the various emerging "low church" sects in previous centuries.  These once heartfelt things are complex, and impossible to dramatize.

"So, Ensign Brown, we are agreed that rule of the church by bishops is an outrage?"
"No, colonel, I hold that all priests are usurpers of God's word!"
"Why, sir, I go further, and hold that God's presence in my soul means I am saved and therefore free to do whatsoever I do like.  And I do quite like your wife!"
[A scuffle breaks out]

Complexity is pop-culture poison, and the whole thing is as mystifying now as, in Jorge Luis Borges' words about the Falklands War, two bald men fighting over a comb.

The broader issues of liberty, democracy and freedom from tyranny are easier to grasp.  When I was a student, in the heyday of the New Left, there was a vogue for seeing the radical wing of the Parliamentarian cause -- the so-called Levellers, Diggers and Ranters -- as an alternative, dissenting strand in British history, suppressed and sublimated, but eternally bubbling under.  There is clearly a great deal of truth in this, but it is equally clearly a demonstration of the idea that we make history in our own image.  In the end, the demands for democracy, freedom of worship, and religious puritanism were as inextricably linked as a box of tangled Christmas-tree lights.

A puritan Christmas flag

Which brings me to Christmas.  Oliver Cromwell is remembered as The Man Who Banned Christmas.  Gasp!  In the Disneyfied world of 2012, what greater crime against consuming humanity could be imagined?  Unless it is closing down the TV channels, which -- if you consider the theatres as the contemporary equivalent -- is exactly what they did.  Strictly Come Dancing is henceforth banned.  Graham Norton is to undergo re-education.  The revolution will not be televised.

The first part of the TV miniseries The Devil's Whore shows Croyland Abbey under siege by the troops of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough -- the highest ranking Leveller in Cromwell's New Model Army -- on Christmas Day.  In a brave attempt to dramatise some of the conflicts within the Army, Rainsborough is shown rounding on a subordinate who suggests that shelling the Royalists in the Abbey on Christmas Day is, well, perhaps a little OTT?  Rainsborough snarls, "It is a day like any other day!"

At which point, either your inner Roundhead or your inner Cavalier is roused.  Christmas:  blessed occasion for revels and extravagance, or wasteful descent into mindless hedonism?

Perhaps, like me, you are conflicted, but take a firmer grasp of your pike, remembering Rainsborough's rousing words at the Putney Debates:
I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under.
Christmas would have seemed a small price to pay for that, wouldn't you say?  It was surely a high point in our history, but one that doesn't get celebrated much or mythologised in popular culture.

A certain number of Brits didn't like what happened next:  the betrayals, the compromises, the broken promises, the Restoration of the monarchy, enclosures of common land, industrialisation, endless repeats of  The Snowman on the TV...  Some decided to ship out to the New World, and become Americans.

Sorry about that, you Wampanoags, Pequots and all tribes west.  They meant well.  Puritans always do, but it somehow never quite works out, and always seems to end in tyranny and massacres.  History, eh?

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Greetings From The End of the World

Greetings from the End of the World

This was the picture I'd meant to use on Friday, but couldn't find it again in time.  It's one of the first test scans I made on my flatbed from colour negative film (medium format, 645 size).  I had a lot to learn about scanning, and it's not a great image (also, one of its neighbours on the filmstrip is a great image) so it got left in its raw state, complete with dust (remember dust?) and a slightly weird colour balance.  It struck me, though -- when I glimpsed it last week, looking for something else -- as having the charm of a "found" photograph.

I took it in 1994, on the Bristol Channel at Watchet, during a four-day workshop at Duckspool with one of my personal photographic heroes, Jem Southam.  In fact, he was standing just behind my left shoulder as I framed the shot on my Fuji GS 645 (can't you tell?).

I had one of those odd experiences of convergence when I first met Jem.  We both had identical cheapo surplus-store nylon camera cases hanging from our shoulders, out of which we both pulled medium-format rangefinder cameras.  His was a Plaubel Makina, however, a very superior beast.  For me (and sorry if you're reading this, JS!), I think his work using medium-format had qualities that are underutilized in his later work with the large-format camera.  There's a reason The Raft of Carrots is an unobtainable book, and it's not the quality of the binding.

Anyway, it seems we're all still here, so I'd better do some Christmas shopping after all.  Sigh.

Friday, 21 December 2012

The Avocado

When I first moved into a shared house, in my third year at university, I was a complete beginner at cookery.  I didn't have a clue.  But, as the expectation was that we would all take our turn at the stove, I did what any student would do: read a book, and take it from there.

Actually, it was worse than that: I was a complete beginner at food.  My mother had been going out to work since I was about 6, and was a reluctant and unimaginative cook (sorry, Mum, if you're reading this over my shoulder from the spooky ether somewhere, but you know it's true!).  To make things worse, I was a fussy eater: no onions, no vegetables other than peas or sweetcorn, that sort of thing.  So, frozen foods like beefburgers and fish-fingers, which were new on the market back then, were a godsend for her.  Tasty, child-friendly food in minutes! *  It is an interesting question, what impact my prodigious consumption of MSG over the years must have had.  Perhaps, like Alf Tupper's fish'n'chips, it is the secret of my super-human powers.  Or my delusional nature.  Or both.

Things were changing in Britain, food-wise, in the 1970s.  If you bought into the alternative-lifestyle package, then "whole foods" were a big part of the deal.   Brown rice and pulses sat around in sacks on the bare-board floors of whole-food shops (in those days, often run by a commune) which had been stripped back to their Victorian essentials.  Actually, a lot of the "alternative" 70s was about stripping out the false fronts and facades installed in the 50s and 60s, literally and metaphorically, in search of a buried authenticity.  As if truth were a decorative cast-iron fireplace concealed behind plasterboard.

Actually knowing what to do with any of this dusty stuff was rare knowledge, spread out into the community via various self-styled Earth Mothers and Macrobiotic Shamans.  Quite often they got it badly wrong, but you were usually too gratefully stoned to complain much about eating the flavoured mud served at their tables, and learned not to mock or to suggest a takeaway.  Other times, other manners.

A new sophistication about food was happening, too.  Exotic things like red and green peppers began to appear in greengrocers, and ordinary folk began eating out.  This was the age of prawn cocktail, scampi, chicken in a basket, and Black Forest gateau, all washed down with Liebfraumilch.  Mostly disgusting and badly cooked, but when you're acquiring new tastes you have to learn to push through the Disgust Barrier, a bit like a sword-swallower overcoming his gag-reflex.

Which reminds me of a story.

One day, one of my housemates (whose upbringing was rather more sophisticated and metropolitan than mine) returned from the shops looking particularly pleased with himself.  "Look what I've got!" he said, and removed a bulbous, warty light-bulb-shaped thing from a paper bag, that was the most hideous dark green in colour.  "Um, syphilis? Blood poisoning? A dragon's egg?" I wondered.

"Look, this is the most delicious thing in the world...  An avocado pear!"

Now, I'd heard of avocados -- they crop up in Gerald Durrell books -- and knew that "avocado" was a very now finish for bathroom fittings.  I'd never seen one before, though.  Why anyone would want a dark-green sink covered in warts like a toad was beyond me, but then I didn't much fancy prawn cocktail either.

With much ceremony, my friend prepared vinaigrette, and sliced the pear in two, revealing an enormous stone sticking out of one half, like a dead lizard's eye, and a corresponding hollow in the other half, surrounded by yellow-green, putrid-looking flesh.  "They taste way better than they look!" he promised, pouring vinaigrette into the hollow, and offered me a spoonful.  Aah! It was possibly the most distressingly awful thing I had ever tasted.  Not since I was blindfolded and had cloves placed on my tongue in a  "guess the taste" game in Cubs had I felt so violated by a food item.  I retched, and spat it out.

With disbelief, I watched my friend wolf down the whole thing, as if were the most delicious thing in the world.  I think he thought I was being perverse and theatrical, but it might as well have been monkey's brains he was spooning out of that satanic green egg.  I have never eaten one since.

Sometimes, the Disgust Barrier is simply set too high.

Not an avocado...

* For some reason, this reminds me of a favourite joke from Mad Magazine.  A man in the desert is contemplating a packet labelled "Instant water -- just add hot coffee".

We're All Still Here

Haiku by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)

Haiku by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Haiku by Yosa Buson (1716-1784)

Monday, 17 December 2012

White Sands

It seems to me you used to get a better class of grafitti when I was a young man, or maybe I simply used to get around more.  The loos in the old British Museum Reading Room were an epicentre of original and off-centre wit, a place where scholars and cranks (there is a difference, though admittedly the overlap was larger in those days) could offload barbed little aperçus about life, the universe, and the library staff.  But interesting stuff could appear pretty much anywhere, or so it seemed.

The Situationists had raised the bar with their witty daubings in Paris 1968, of course.  They ironised and sensitised the street as a canvas for ephemeral political art. I remember passing under a railway bridge on which someone had painted, in big block capitals, MAN UNITED!  It took me several beats to realise this probably referred to football, and not political philosophy.  Ah, well.  The early, pre-gallery Banksy gave the French a run for their money, it's true, but the internet has now become the new, virtual "street", and returned the real ones to the "taggers", endlessly repeating those overweight personal logos that are as boringly sclerotic, stylistically, as heavy metal music.

One piece of grafitti which I read around 1974, written in a careful hand on the formica partition of a college lavatory, has stayed with me ever since.  No, not the much-copied one written above the loo-roll dispenser ("Sociology degrees: please take one") and, no, not the even more factitious two-hander that joined the plaint  "My mother made me a homosexual!"with the retort "Cool! If I get her the wool, will she make me one, too?"  No, this one was to all appearances a quotation from a poem.  It went:

On white sands     sands
Scottish pipers run      run

Whole movies flowed through my imagination when I read those simple, evocative words.  It has the feel of a lament, not a triumph.  These pipers are surely men out of place, far from the highlands and the streets of Glasgow, fleeing for their lives under a tropical sun.  It makes me think of Zulu, not Chariots of Fire.  For decades -- in a casual sort of way -- I have been attempting to find their source.

Now, there is a place called Mersa Matruh on the North African coast, which is famous for its white sands.  It is also famous as the site of a battle in 1942, where Rommel's Afrika Korps routed British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops, before the tide of battle turned at El Alamein.  When I noticed that, it seemed like it might be just the sort of place where Scottish pipers might have been running on white sands.

Not least because there also happens to be a piece of pipe music, a solemn march, called  "The White Sands of Mersah Matruh", composed by Major David H.A. Kemble, of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards.  I felt very close to a solution when I discovered that.  But: that regiment was stationed there in 1940, leading up to the Battle of Sidi Barrani, which was an early Allied triumph against the Italians.  As far as I know, no Scottish regiment was at the Battle of Mersa Matruh in 1942.

Of course, Scottish troops had been deployed along this coast before, in WW1.  But there are plenty of other places in the world with white sands where Scottish pipers may have had cause to run, the British Empire having extended over so much of the globe, and Scottish regiments having so often found themselves at the "sharp end" of imperial blundering.  But, so far, I have failed to identify the source.

Assuming, of course, there is one, and these haunting words are not just the spontaneous effusion of some poetic Scot with a biro and five minutes to kill.

Sunday, 16 December 2012


One side effect of having the photography habit is that you are your own phenologist (phenology: "The study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, esp. in relation to climate and plant and animal life").  It helps, of course, if you keep your files in some sort of chronological order, which I do.

As I think I've said before, the end of the year is a genuine marker in the cycle of life on our planet, especially if you live away from the tropics, and experience well-defined seasons.  In the North, the shortening of the days until the Solstice on 21st December and then their gradual lengthening is a fact, not an opinion or a construct. Saints days and such are comparatively random, but tend to coincide suspiciously well with seasonal markers -- the rhythm of the year (especially the farming and hunting year) is too insistent to ignore.  Although it can be pretty faint, heard deep in the air-conditioned, air-freighted depths of a supermarket, like the bass in a car stereo two streets away.

The variations are fascinating.  In 2010 we had snow and deep frost:

In 2011 it was bright and clear, with no ice on the ponds:

This year, after a cold start, it looks like we're headed for another bright, mild year's end:

Though rumours of large numbers of waxwings and redwings on the East Coast might suggest otherwise.  In 2010 we had redwings in the copse behind our house, frantically tossing fallen leaves about, as if they'd dropped their car keys.  The most notable anomaly so far has been the behaviour of the goldcrests. These beautiful, tiny birds have been coming right up to the house, foraging in the creepers on our shed, giving me an eyeball to eyeball view through the back-door window.  Normally, they skulk about at the far end of the garden.  Something has changed, or is about to change, but what?

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Please Dispose of This Container Thoughtfully

As I sit here, struggling to open the cellophane wrapping around my lunch -- which looks so flimsy yet appears to have the tensile strength of steel (whatever that is) and to have been welded shut by some alien technology -- I realise that, far from sleigh-bells roasting on an open fire, my main association with this time of year is battling with packaging.

It is a modern curse, packaging.  It is almost impossible to buy anything unpackaged. Although fruit and vegetables are still an honourable exception (they come self-packaged, unlike soup), you will nonetheless see some fruit shrink-wrapped onto a foam tray in any supermarket, as if it were something rare and precious:  "Behold, other kings bring frankincense and myrhh, but I bring... a particularly large orange!"  Talking of oranges, I am deeply suspicious of those convenient net bags of just too few oranges: somewhere out the back is surely someone whose job it is to sort at least one fruit from the "almost rotten" crate into every bag, possibly the same psycho whose other tasks are to dent the cans of tomatoes and smash the top three biscuits in the pack.

I can understand the need.  Some substances, like sulphuric acid and Wotsits, needs special packaging to protect people from them. Other stuff needs protecting from people.  One reason I succumbed early on to the siren call of Amazon was the delight of receiving a pristine copy of a book, rather than having to choose the least-thumbed copy off the bookshop shelf.  Other stuff, like the aforementioned soup, really does need some kind of packaging to render it portable.  A handful of soup in a paper bag is no good to anyone.

But why do electrical accessories and children's toys, in particular, seem to be regarded as falling into all three categories, i.e. toxic, vulnerable, and soup-like?  Those full-spectrum-protection rigid-plastic hang-it-from-a-rack bubble-packs will be kicking around in the radioactive rubble, unopened and intact, for eons after any nuclear disaster.  You can imagine aliens arriving on earth, thousands of years from now, and mistaking these bubble-packed action figures for entombed earth-people, presumably of high status, given that they were buried along with their weapons and personal-care items (not to mention the occasional spare head).

This, my fellow Gaxians, is clearly a high-status Earthling,
buried with weapons and a companion ...

It all just leads to anger and frustration.  Somewhere, there is probably a Taxonomy of Packaging-Related Anger Syndromes.  Bubble-pack rage, styrofoam fury, sticky-tape tantrum, cling-film conniptions, video-wrap vexation, polythene-bag pique... I've known them all. The sunny pleasure of a new purchase can be eclipsed in seconds by any of the above syndromes, often in combination, when confronted by its packaging.  Just last week I broadcast an entire jar of instant coffee across the kitchen floor, struggling with a new designer jar-top.  It would have been too simple, wouldn't it, to make it screw off?  Instead, it required a subtle-but-firm, wrist-driven twist'n'lift.  Unfortunately, I gave it too much torque, and our floor looked like the aftermath of a barista's initiation rite.

It's not all bad, of course.  Now that there's a lot less hunting and smiting to do, it gives us men something useful to do around the house, in between putting up shelves.  "Here, little lady, let me undo that jar for you!"  "Stand back, kids, this bubble pack may explode!"  It's one of the last refuges of the macho male, though I suppose we'll always have bug smiting.

But back in the days of proper packaging, we all used to suffer the urge to keep well-made packaging, not drop it straight down the rubbish-chute to Hell.  It was the rational end of the string-saving spectrum.  Tobacco and biscuit tins, film canisters, ice-cream tubs, etc.  They were all so useful; entire sheds and larders could be fitted out with recycled packaging.  We still have four of those giant sweet jars that used to sit unreachably high on the sweet-shop shelves, those blue-remembered acid-drops and blackjacks.  They're brilliant for storing rice and pasta and pulses, except that those goods all come so packaged-up now, that there's no real need to decant them, and the beautiful jars stand empty.

... Whereas this low-status Earthling  companion has been decapitated.

But if a rigid bubble pack is packaging hell, then packaging heaven must be the artisanal packaging practices of those poets of the parcel, rare-book sellers.  If you have never bought anything mail-order from a proper bookseller, then you should do so immediately, simply to savour the way the activity summarized as "post and packing" can be raised to an art-form.  Forget your calligraphy, your Zen doodling, your tea ceremony!  A proper bookseller will encase a book in successive, carefully-folded layers of tissue paper, then a glassine envelope, then fine bubble-wrap, then a taped sandwich of corrugated card (with corrugations running in opposite directions for total rigidity), then more, coarser bubble-wrap, then brown paper, taped at all points of stress with duct tape...  Opening the parcel is like undressing a geisha kitted-out for combat, and must be done with appropriate ceremony, and a very sharp pair of scissors.

Which brings me to wrapping Christmas presents, possibly my least favourite chore EVER.  Have you ever had to wrap several asymmetrical, bulbous, bubble-packed child's toys on Christmas Eve, having already used most of the paper on the rationally-shaped items?  With the sellotape twisting onto itself like a flypaper, and the scissors hiding under the paper offcuts somewhere?  Of course you have.

Wrapping rage at midnight!  The quintessential Christmas experience, and enough to make even a bookseller rend his garments, if only he could get them out of the bloody rend-proof packaging.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Antler Headbands

It's a strange time, the run-up to Christmas in our "Christian-heritage" country.  When you are a child, it all makes sense.  The tree, the decorations, the food, the blurring of doctrine and folk-tale, the hysterical, combustible mix of material greed, anxiety, nostalgia and religiose hypocrisy...  That's simply what Christmas is.  It happens all around you like the weather.

As you get older, naturally, you have the choice of dropping out or taking part: you make Christmas happen.  Or not.  An increasing number of people are opting out altogether, simply taking advantage of the time off work.  There's a certain moral superiority to be had by not taking part, especially if you use the time to feed the homeless, rather than sunbathing in Tenerife, or counting all the money you've saved by not buying presents.  Not so easy, of course, if you have small children.

The University does "do" Christmas, but it's all a bit half-hearted, and carefully neutral.  Some lights in the campus trees, some decorations, reindeer antler headbands in the Student Union Shop, turkey and mince pies on the canteen menu.  Pagan is apparently OK -- everyone does a midwinter  "festival of lights and piggery"! -- but Baby Jesus is for enthusiasts only.

But the fact is, most of the students are long-gone by this time.  The teaching staff get pretty scarce, too.  Apart from those of us contractually-obliged to occupy our offices until the very end (hey, someone has to lock up and turn off the lights), the only ones left on campus are the overseas students from far, far away, who tend to have no great interest in Christmas.

As their numbers increase, year on year, it's getting more and more difficult to explain to them why all the vital (and warm!) facilities like the Library, the canteens and the Students Union are shut down for a solid week or more, rendering a university campus one of the loneliest places on earth.

I wonder if the Salvation Army turns up to feed and entertain them, while we're all gone?

Sunday, 9 December 2012


Alcohol...  It's a topic very much on our minds in December, as the Binge Season approaches.  Even the abstemious will have cause to notice, stepping round frosted pools of vomit on a winter's morning, or evading erratic and agressive drunks at night.  For those of us in Northern Europe, a relationship with strong drink is very much part of our heritage.

In English, the verb "to drink", unqualified, means "to drink alcohol".  You may be an obsessive tea or coffee drinker, you may imbibe gallons of fruit juice or mineral water, but "to drink" or to be "a drinker" means only one thing.  When Father Jack Hackett (in Father Ted, surely the funniest TV series ever) shouts "Drrink!!", we know it's not Ribena that's on his mind.

I drink very little, nowadays.  Much as I like beer, wine, and spirits, I now find the after-effects too unpleasant, even if drunk in moderation and in the correct order.*  My doctor raises a skeptical eyebrow when I tell him that, on average, I drink rather less than three "units" a week, but it's the truth.  I look like a street-person because of my genes, Doc.

Cat?  What cat?

This wasn't always the case, it's true.  It is a time-honoured rite of passage that a young person must learn to love drink, and one's education used to start early.  Back in the 1970s ID checks were unknown, and I and my school-friends became regulars at certain trainer-pubs around age 16 or 17.  This was normal, traditional, even.  By my 20s, a day without at least one visit to a bar was incomplete.  Again, totally unexceptional.

Of course, rather than the unpleasant industrial gin-palaces they have become, pubs used to be cosy social spaces where folk of all ages could nurse a pint or two through the evening.  The Prof and I used to drink in a hostelry called The Phoenix where the elderly regulars would spontaneously start communal singing as the drink took hold.  I doubt there is a pub left in the land, today, where 10 or more voices are raised together to sing "Delilah" or "The Lambeth Walk".  In fact, I doubt whether two people could be found in the same bar who both knew all the words to the same song.

I am not the only one whose drinking has reduced dramatically.  Not so long ago, work and drink overlapped in ways that are inconceivable now.  Journalists were famously bibulous, with long, liquid lunches that shaded far into the afternoon.  But to be able to hold one's drink and continue working was a badge of honour for men born before WWII in most occupations.  My first boss kept a bottle or two of sherry in his office, and wasn't slow to bring them out. Now, however, the workplace is far more puritanical, and I suspect that to be found drunk in charge of a flipchart would be followed by summary dismissal.

My nanna C., Hemsby, 1956

There's still an awful lot of drinking going on, however. With few opportunities to drink at work, and with more and more pubs closing or becoming effective no-go areas for anyone over 30, the supermarkets are pushing a wide choice of cheap booze to an ever-expanding domestic drinking market. I am sometimes amazed by the number of bottles of cheap spirits going onto the checkout belt from pensioners' trolleys.  But recently concern has been voiced by the medical profession about the drinking habits of -- gasp! -- the middle classes.

Apparently, it is not uncommon for middle-aged, middle-class couples to polish off a whole bottle of wine most nights -- if not every night -- with an evening meal.  Not in our abstemious house, of course, where to open a bottle is an event in itself and will keep us going for several days (and where guests have been known to express disappointment at the paucity of alcoholic refreshment), but this is certainly the case in quite a lot of households.  It seems the good doctors are starting to think half a bottle or more a night is rather a lot.**

Be warned, though, medics: it's one thing to stigmatize the White Lightning drinkers, quite another to take on the posh piss-artists.

* One of the most useful things I learned on a school German exchange was "Bier auf Wein, das lasse sein!  Wein auf Bier, das rat ich dir!"  i.e. Putting beer on top of wine is an ill-starred practice; putting wine on top of beer is the way to go.

**And that is why it is for your own good, AW, that there is never enough wine with a meal at our table.  Same reason you have to smoke in the rain...

Saturday, 8 December 2012

December Shades

December in the northern latitudes is a time for subtle shades and subdued colours.  Everything in the natural world seems to shrink and slump, and the bones of the land show through.

It always puts me in mind of these lines from one of John Donne's great poems:

TIS the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
  The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
  Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
    The worlds whole sap is sunke:
The generall balme th'hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunke,
Dead and enterr'd; yet all these seeme to laugh,
Compar'd with mee, who am their Epitaph.

John Donne, A Nocturnall Upon St. Lucies Day, being the shortest day.

It's no wonder we feel the need to brighten things up with animated lights and sparkling decorations.  Not to mention eating and drinking too much.  Yes, folks, Christmas is coming...

Friday, 7 December 2012

Posh Woman Having Baby Shock

This post has been gestating for a while, but in view of the Big Yawn News,* I thought now would be a good time to, um, deliver it.

A couple of weeks ago, I had to give one of those little "Farewell, for now" speeches, in front of a gathering of colleagues, as one of my cataloguers was about to embark on a year's maternity leave.  Like all women three short weeks away from giving birth for the first time, she looked simultaneously radiantly healthy, and truly, madly, deeply fed up.

For what it was worth, I had five tips to share:

1.  Book a place in the University Day Nursery now
2.  Don't try to be Perfect Parents, it never ends well
3.  Don't let anyone persuade you not to use disposable nappies
4.  Don't let your partner off the hook: nobody likes to change nappies in the middle of the night
5.  Forget about the Himalayas, the Antarctic and the Sahara: those are "adventures" for boys in flight from reality.  This is the Real Thing.

After the little potlatch ceremony had concluded, and we returned to our offices, I wondered, what would I be like now, if I hadn't had children?  It wasn't an attractive proposition.

It is one of those empty cliches (particularly empty when mouthed by celebrities with live-in staff or those parents who pack their children off to boarding school ASAP) that you have no regrets, that your children are the best thing that has ever happened to you.  Speaking purely selfishly, though, I think this does happen to be true, in my case.

Selfishly, because, without that ongoing twenty-year reality check, I would probably have wasted most of my adult life, and remained a self-obsessed adolescent at heart.  I might have "achieved" more, but I doubt it.  Children can survive all but the very worst parents, but few people can achieve adulthood without children to guide them.

It is curious to me, therefore -- I won't put it any stronger than that -- to encounter more and more people who are choosing to be childless.  Now, I can easily understand why a lot of people -- particularly women -- are choosing not to share their lives with a partner. I can't blame them.  It has been very disappointing to see the rigid re-gendering of society in recent decades, and men have, if anything, become more uselessly child-like than they have ever been.

But even committed couples seem to have plenty of reasons for not having children.  Why bring children into such a bad world?  Population growth is overwhelming the planet.  We both want a fulfilling career.  We can't afford it.  He won't pull his weight, I know it.  I'm not the Mumsy type. It's not the right time. I don't like children.  We'd rather spend the money on holidays.  I'm afraid I won't cope. I'm afraid, full stop. All good reasons, but I think one of the funniest and saddest lines I ever heard in an American sitcom was,  "Damn!  I don't believe it! I forgot to have children!"

Sigh. You really don't have a clue, do you?
(they don't come with an Owner's Manual)

It is a fact that all European populations are, demographically, in decline.  As Günter Grass put it, "The Germans are dying out".  There is now no European country where the fertility rate is equal to or greater than the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.  Surprisingly, it seems Italy, Spain and Greece have the lowest rates of all (1.33, 1.32, 1.29 respectively -- Eurostat 2004 figures).  However much this may be a good solution at a personal level, it has to be seen as a problem at national level.  It's almost as if we have collectively lost our belief in the future.

But the real puzzle to me is what I think of as "militant childlessness", people who have not so much made a choice, as taken up a position on the matter.  In particular, they seem to resent society's attempts (inadequate as they are) to reconcile child-rearing with the world of work and the injustices of poverty.  "Where's my maternity leave?", they cry, as if a typical maternity leave was spent on the beach in Tenerife.  "Why should I pay taxes for schools, when I have no children? Where's my child benefit?" You can imagine their reaction to the upcoming proposals to allow female and male partners to share "maternity" leave between them.  Outrageously unfair!

So, perhaps I should have given my cataloguer an extra, sixth tip:

When people suggest that becoming a parent is a lifestyle choice into which you have chosen to channel your income -- which they will -- you should reply:  "And why should my children pay taxes to support you in your lonely, infirm old age -- which they will, I promise -- when they only have two parents?" 

* For non-Brits:  a potential 3rd-in-line-to-the-throne has been announced.  The big news is that it will no longer matter whether it's a boy or girl, or wants to marry a Roman Catholic.  It will still have the right to be Principal Drone.  Actually, although instinctively anti-royalist, I find myself wondering whether having a hereditary, ceremonial Head of State isn't a bad system.  It does spare us from having to elect a President, and all the political conflicts and confusion that ensue.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A Golden Temple

Southampton has been a major port since Roman times.  It's where Henry V embarked for France, where the Titanic and all the big ocean liners sailed from, and where the troops gathered for D-Day.  You'd never guess, however, just by wandering the streets; the place was bombed to pieces in the Blitz, so the planners took the opportunity to make as much of the city as possible just like everywhere else, with identikit 1950s and 60s houses, and above all to expand and modernize the docks whilst sealing them off from everyday life.

Occasionally, however, you get forcibly reminded of quite where you are.  I was coming out of Tesco this afternoon around 4:00 pm and, as I crossed the carpark, caught sight of what appeared to be the construction of a vast golden temple, glinting beyond the rooftops.

It was, of course, just the huge container derricks and cranes, gleaming in the setting sun.  I had completely the wrong lens with me, so this was the best I could do.  But there's a project there, which I probably owe to the city that has been my home since 1984.

Like most such projects, it's mainly a question of finding suitable places to stand.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Stones in my Passway

Fifty years, and still no-one can find that portrait of Mick Jagger, hidden in an attic somewhere, and tear it into shreds.  Don't get me wrong, I'm a lifelong fan, but really...  It ain't natural.

I say "lifelong", but that needs serious qualification.

For me the story starts in 1964 in my friend John B's house.  His father's blue-sparkle drum kit is set up* in the front room, and John also has a harmonica and a plastic toy guitar, with pictures of cowboys on the sound-board.  On the family Dansette record player we have stacked several 45s, including  "Not Fade Away" and "It's All Over Now".  John takes the drums, I take the harmonica, and friend Barry takes the guitar.

One, two, a one-two-three-four...  Pandemonium.  It is great.

After a bit Barry and I have stopped pretending to play, and are simply jumping up and down in an ecstasy of exuberance.  Now this is "Music and Movement"! John keeps bashing the drums and we can barely hear the music (until you have stood in front of a drum kit in a small room, you have no idea how LOUD drums are) but it doesn't matter.  It is like that famous first high: the rest of one's life is spent chasing it.

Cut to 1968. The Stones have been rubbish for what seemed ages. To this teenage boy, anyway, psychedelia was one big yawn. Then, suddenly, there were revolutions, riots and assassinations on the TV news and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man" came in on the soundtrack like a cymbal crash.  It was John B's front room all over again, this time with added hormones and new improved parental disapproval.

Jump to the early 1970s.  A girl I have just met likes the single "Honky Tonk Women".  She also appears to like me.  I could listen to that cowbell and bump-and-grind guitar riff intro again and again on her stereo, but she just wants to dance.  Come on! The penny finally drops that dancing is not foolish but fun.  Big fun.  Music is the theory, this is the practice.

In my college years my musical tastes were broader, but I had an unshakeable belief that the albums Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers were as essential as Hamlet.  But the story suddenly ended for me with the release of Goats Head Soup in 1973.  Meh.  I saw the Stones live at Knebworth, 1976. Triple meh.  Forty years later, and they're still going at it but, really guys, why bother?  You can stop now.

The theory and the practice... 
(Ferdinando Scianna, from PhotoEphemera)

People who have come late to the the Stones party tend to focus on the personalities, rather than the music.  This is the legacy of decades of rock journalism (it sells more papers to write about Keef's habits than his innovative guitar-playing), and the ubiquity of pop videos, haircuts frozen in time.  Yes, on stage Jagger is a preening prat whose act can veer close to "blackface", and who has pressed the public's homophobia button so often it has finally broken.  And yes, off stage Richards is a mumbling, wheezing old geezer who embodies all the romantic lies of self-destruction -- as if to outlive a life of excess on a private jet is an achievement on a par with surviving a Chicago Housing Authority project.  All true, but, but...

The point is that -- despite what musicians think -- recorded music leads its own life, independent of its originators.  We listeners make it our own; we use it. When you hear the opening bars of "Gimme Shelter" and get the chills, as I always do, you are not inviting those two grotesques into your life, but allowing the magic of the music they wrote and recorded to do its work.

Do you make allowance for the fact that Beethoven was deaf and none too keen on changing his underwear when you listen to a late quartet, or put down Great Expectations unread when you discover how shabbily Dickens treated his own wife?  Of course you don't.   The work is the work, the life is the life, and these are completely different things.  As D.H. Lawrence put it, "Never trust the teller, trust the tale".

And those were such great tales, too, 1962-72...  We can forget about 1973-2012.  As someone once said, 90% of anything is rubbish, so 80% is pretty good.

Now, if only we could find that Jagger portrait...  Unless, of course, Keef is the portrait.

* I was insanely jealous of this.  Both my father and grandfather played the drums, but I think my Dad was under a triple-underlined veto from the highest authority (i.e. Mum) NEVER to teach me to play the drums.  I think she thought it would make me neglect my schoolwork, and she was probably right.
N.B. on the subject of drummers, we are convinced in our family that Keith Moon was the drummer in the group that played at my cousin's wedding in the early 1960s.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Sunday Leftovers

A couple of other images from the V&A, plus one from my Pan-Focus excursion earlier in the month.

(Julia Margaret Cameron portrait)

Eyes front, that man!

Josef Sudek territory

Friday, 30 November 2012


I was up in London on Wednesday, for a meeting in the library of the Natural History Museum.  If, like me, you had an abiding childhood interest in all things "natural history", or, again like me, had a child with an abiding interest in all things "dinosaur", then the NHM is probably a very familiar and special place to you.  I have to say it's fun getting to go behind the scenes, which is all a bit Harry Potter-ish, then emerging from one of those mysterious doors marked "private" and becoming just another visitor again.

However, I had a couple of hours to kill before my meeting, so I decided to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum first (or "V&A" as it brands itself these days) which, amazingly, I have never visited before, despite the fact it's just on the other side of the road from the NHM.  Once inside, I was tempted to give the meeting a miss, as I could have happily spent the rest of the day there.  Wonderful things, wonderful things.

Stately pleasure dome


The Hereford Screen as a shadow theatre

I fell for this sculpture in the "glass" gallery,
but it was too heavy to get under my coat

Outside, a pavement artist had abandoned Big Ben

The NHM all dressed up for Christmas
(there's an ice-skating rink out the front)

Currently, there's a free exhibition at the V&A, Light from the Middle East: New Photography.  It's worth a visit, if you're in Town before it comes down in April.  It's an interesting look at the ways photography is being used by documentarists and artists to examine the "social challenges and political upheavals" in that part of the world.  There's some good work, though I'm afraid to say the ubiquitous trustafarian art-worldview has established itself, even there.  I won't go on about that now, except to say that if you have to explain to me using text why your pictures are worth a look, then it's you, not me, that needs to question some assumptions.

Amongst all the shouty giant colour images, I was most taken by the series "The Imaginary Return (Le retour imaginaire)", a set of tiny, quiet, monochrome pictures shot with a box camera:
Atiq Rahimi is a writer, film director and photographer who fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1984, seeking political refuge in France, where he is now based. He returned to Afghanistan in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban. Confronted by the ruins of Kabul, he decided not to photograph the city with his digital camera. Instead he chose a primitive box camera normally used to take identity portraits in the streets of Kabul. The unpredictable process resulted in dreamlike photographs. They convey the nostalgia and brutal feelings of loss that Rahimi experienced when revisiting the war-wounded city.
I don't know whether it's the result of handling so many pre-1960s family snapshots recently, but I find I really like the "production values" of such small images.  It seems more "photographic" to me, more connected to the true social function of the technology in most people's lives.  Anything printed larger than, say, 12" x 16" (and that's pretty enormous, by snapshot standards) seems to reveal the weaknesses, rather than the strengths, of the medium.

Paradoxically, the famed illusion of reality created by photography evaporates when super-enlarged:  the fractal-style interest of a pencil line or a painted mark (the closer you get, the more interesting its complexity becomes) is not there when looking at photographic grain or pixels, especially on an unpleasantly glossy or mechanically-textured plastic paper.  It's generally either too blandly smooth or not grainy enough, rarely "just right", and rarely visually compelling.  At larger scales, I think I prefer the simplified colours and shapes but more suggestive lines and textures of the graphic arts to photography.

A caged peacock...
I can imagine ways of presenting this as a comment on Iran,
but actually it's just a small, gorgeous, "found" photograph

that I really, really wish was one of mine.
(from the Foster Collection of found photographs)

But that's the whole point of the V&A.  It's set up to enable you to do an extended "compare and contrast" across media, materials, styles, approaches, and time periods.  In places it's a bit too "interpreted" for my taste (the displays on 20th century design beg so many questions I got quite annoyed), but it's worth getting annoyed about something worth getting annoyed about, for a change.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Every Translation is Terrible

In the afterthought to the previous post, I had wondered what Google Translate would make of those first six lines of Dante's Inferno, and was impressed.  Imperfect, to be sure, but pretty sound for a freakin' machine.

So I wondered, what would it make of some equally famous lines of poetry, but lines written in a more difficult language, and of a certain inherent difficulty?  The poem that sprang to mind was Rilke's first Duino Elegy, simply because I have been grappling with Rilke, on and off, over the past couple of years.  Here are the first seven lines:
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.
Again, an awful lot of people have attempted a translation of these words or, more often, a "version" i.e. a poetic rendering of a literal translation by a German speaker.  Here is my effort at a literal translation:

Who, then, if I were to cry out, would hear me from among the Orders of Angels?  And, even assuming one of them were suddenly to take me to its heart: I would die by its stronger being.  For Beauty is nothing other than the beginning of a terror which we can only just bear, and we admire it so, because it calmly disdains to destroy us.  Each and every angel is terrible.

Here is Google Translate's first attempt:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
Orders? and self-imposed, it would take
a me suddenly against his heart: I would be his
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
the beginning of terror we can just barely endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
Again, not bad, but it misses some important points of sense: for example, "gesetzt selbst" (something like "even assuming") becomes "self imposed"*, and  "I would die by/of" is crucially misunderstood as "I would be"**.  It also comes up with the comic "take a me" by mistakenly associating "einer" ("one of them") with "mich" ("me").

It seemed some of this might be to do with the disruption of word order by poetic line breaks, so I fed it a concatenated version without breaks. Curiously the only differences this made was to change "Orders" into "hierarchies" (good), and to change "I would be his stronger existence" into "I would of his stronger existence" (weird):
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies? and self-imposed, it would take a me suddenly against his heart: I would of his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
But definitely a 7 out of 10 for Google Translate, with a red "see me" against lines 2 and 3.

Pre-Raphaelite psycho-angel
(seen yesterday in the V & A Museum)

*A question for native German-speakers out there:  what exactly do you make of "und gesetzt selbst"?  It strikes me as the most difficult bit of the extract to translate, often passed over by translators as simply "even".

** Another: what is the difference, if any, between "vor  etwas vergehen" (the normal, expected preposition), and "von etwas vergehen"?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

In A Dark Wood

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Those are some of the most famous words ever committed to paper: the opening lines of Dante's Inferno.  Amazingly, given they were written in the early 14th century, they are immediately understandable to anyone with a bit of basic modern Italian.  Chaucer's English?  Not so much.

Longfellow did a decent translation:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

But you'll notice the "music" of the Italian has gone, as well as the rhyme scheme ("terza rima", ABA BCB CDC, etc.), which was Dante's own invention.

Many have tried to render The Inferno into English, but most have failed.
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like
(Seamus Heaney)

Oh dear, Seamus, Seamus....

Robert Pinsky's version is highly rated by some:
Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.  To tell
About those woods is hard -- so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
But, in the end, Italian is a very different language from English, with many times more rhymes.  You would go mad, trying to translate the sense as well as sticking to the rhyme scheme.

Which makes me wonder whether photographs have national identities, too, even though on the face of it they don't need translating.

Addendum at 17:30:  

Thought I'd let Google Translate have a go:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah, how to tell what a thing it is hard
this forest savage, rough, and stern
that in the very thought renews the fear!
 Not at all bad!   Scarily so, in fact.  I wonder if it's been pre-primed to be "Dante ready"?

Sunday, 25 November 2012

BSA M20 Motorbikes

My father was a motorbike enthusiast. Here he is in 1937 in the yard of the engineering firm where he was an apprentice, Geo. W. King in Hitchin. He's sitting on what I think must be a BSA M-series, probably an M20, 499cc single-cylinder (I'm no expert, does anyone out there know)? [corrected: it's a "Red" Panther 1938 249cc OHV single Model 20]. I suspect there have been some modifications made: the tank looks non-standard, compared to other photos I've seen.

If I'm right about the model, it was good preparation for the war years, as Dad became a despatch rider in the Royal Signals, and the BSA M20 was the model used by the military.  It's a lot of bike for a 19-year old.  Don't you love the fishtail exhaust pipe?  Nice shoes, too --  Dad was a bit of dandy in his day.

Here he is again, five years later in Calcutta, outside a requisitioned house, Tivoli Park.  Still looking sharp, Doug.  Note my mother's name painted on the rear mudguard.

And here are a couple of the other guys in his section, giving a better view of the bikes.  Is it obligatory, do you think, for DRs to look ultra-cool?

Standard issue BSA WD M20, I think? Not long after this, the army decided to replace the BSAs with American-made Indian bikes, and the DRs were not happy.  Dad wrote in his memoir:
Our next surprise was the arrival of a lorry-load of timber crates all with American markings. On opening them they contained American-made Indian motor-bikes in knocked-down condition, which we were obviously supposed to assemble, and use, instead of our BSAs. They had "cow's horn" handlebars, plus foot-boards instead of foot-rests, a long hand-change gear lever, foot clutch, an immense leather saddle, sprung from the front, and coil ignition! The engine was a V-twin, and altogether we were not too happy with the idea, as on wet roads the very long wheel-base would be tricky to handle. Our worst fears were realised, and in wet weather they were very difficult to start and skidded out of control on bends unless we were very careful. We soon found out that the enormous leather saddles did not dry out during the monsoon, so we always started off with a wet seat.

It was around this time that my genes had one of several narrow war-time squeaks:
Whilst we were not using our bikes I took the chance to strip mine down for a good overhaul. I undid the bolts holding the two halves of the petrol tank together and when I took them off I found tucked up between the two halves a stick of bamboo about six inches long. One end was the large knot which formed an effective seal, the other end had been plugged with some sort of cement, from which protruded two wires - one was earthed to the bike frame and the other was supposed to be on one of the spark-plugs, but it had come adrift. Had it been connected, as I kick-started the bike it would have exploded and I would have had a lapful of burning petrol.

The British Army was not universally popular in the last days of the Raj, of course.  Having survived Dunkirk and the North African Desert, that unit of DRs had a number of very close shaves in the "friendly" environment of Calcutta.  I think they were glad to ship out to Burma.

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Lunchtime Jungle Line

Rousseau walks on trumpet paths
Safaris to the heart of all that jazz...

With his hard-edged eye and his steady hand
He paints the cellar full of ferns and orchid vines
And he hangs a moon above a five-piece band...

And metal skin and ivory birds
Go steaming up to Rousseau's vines
They go steaming up to Brooklyn Bridge
Steaming, steaming, steaming up the jungle line

 ("The Jungle Line", by Joni Mitchell, from the album The Hissing of Summer Lawns)

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Hula Hoops

I'm not sure why anyone would keep a supply of hula hoops in their office, but why not?  The spiral of leaves remaining on the tree have a certain rotary quality, too.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

La Règle du Jeu

Certain memories seem so permanent, so non-negotiable, that the rest of your mind has to arrange itself around them, like water flowing around rocks.  If that famous fast-forward lifetime review really does happen when the end of life is imminent, then I expect it is made up of such moments.

For example, I recall sitting in our doctor's waiting room, somewhere around 1961 -- probably waiting to have him peer, yet again, into my eternally-aching ear -- and seeing a small, amateurishly-printed poster for a showing of a film by Jean Renoir, La Règle du Jeu.  I was proud of my reading ability, aged 7, but here were words -- clearly important words in capital letters -- I could not render. Fascinating! I suppose it must have been put up by a local society, though nothing as interesting as a film society existed in our town when I was old enough to appreciate one.

In fact, nothing as interesting as a cinema existed by then.  Incredibly, a whole New Town for 75,000 people was built around a place with a population of 7,500 without factoring in a new cinema.  There were two ancient and tiny "Old Town" fleapits, the Publix and the Astonia, but the depradations of local youths and a presumably non-existent business model meant that the Publix closed in 1961 and then the Astonia in 1969.

I never actually entered the Publix, as by its desperate final days it was only showing X-rated films to an audience of 300 seated on benches, not stalls, and on whom water dripped whenever it rained.  Allegedly the projector beam was regularly blocked by opening umbrellas.  I did see my own first X-rated films in the last days of the Astonia (1968's Girl on a Motorbike and Witchfinder General), brazening my way in with some bolder school-friends.  The staff couldn't have cared less how old we were, actually, so long as we didn't slash the seats or add to the stains on the undersized screen by hurling ice-creams.  And they weren't that bothered about that, either; it wasn't exactly a "family" cinema.  Within the year the place had closed, and it was another four years before a proper "New Town" cinema opened its doors.  Sadly, I doubt any Stevenage cinema ever did or ever will show Renoir's La Règle du Jeu.

The memory of that little poster remained, however, a hint that the world was bigger than I thought, if only I could be bothered to look and learn. My father could speak some French, and explained how to pronounce the words, and that they meant "the rules of the game".  As I gained competence in the language myself, that stubborn memory would resurface occasionally, and I would wonder why "rules" was singular ("la règle") and not plural ("les règles")?  Did the French regard rules as a singular thing, perhaps, like "the law"?  It was an early lesson in the niceties of translation.*

By some twist of fate, I have never yet seen La Règle du Jeu. I did become a devoted cinéaste in 1976/77, stuck on the remote campus of the University of East Anglia, with nothing better to do in the evening than attend every available film showing.  Happily, there were several every week. In one year I saw all those films that no-one other than film students ever sees in real life -- Last Year in Marienbad, Breathless, The 400 Blows, Closely Observed Trains, Céline and Julie Go Boating -- but never the Renoir.

So, an important memory in my life is a poster half-buried on a pinboard in a doctor's waiting room for a film I have never seen, and -- who knows? -- may never see.  And it's fairly certain that the film, were I to see it now (even if it does live up to its perpetual critics' Top Ten billing), could never match the significance of that memory.  Talk about a meaning forever deferred through an endless chain of signifiers!  Which we weren't, but it's all very French, n'est-ce pas?

*Titles are notoriously difficult to translate.  On a  German school exchange, I was delighted to learn that the spy series The Avengers was screened on German TV as Mit Schirm, Charme, und Melone ("With umbrella, charm, and a melon bowler hat").  Germans, it seemed, either didn't see the camply veiled sexuality and the ironically cocked eyebrow, or saw through it to something they took to be as archetypically British as a double-decker bus. They may, of course, have been right. I suspect James Bond film titles have always posed similar challenges of translation.  It's interesting how many early foreign-language renderings go for "007 vs. [name of villain]", as if Bond were Tintin or Giant Haystacks.

 In a perfectly German case of "it does what  it says on the tin", Woody Allen's Annie Hall was released in Germany as Der Stadtneurotiker ("the urban neurotic").   I am not entirely convinced that Grease was really released in Spain as Vaselina (¡Vaselina es la palabra!) but allegedly it is so.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Twyford Down

Looking south towards Twyford from Twyford Down

A pleasant afternoon walking on Twyford Down today, when the sinking sun and a convenient bonfire set up this classic little landscape scenario for me.  I wasn't going to say no, was I?  Those oddly flat green surfaces are greens on the outer edge of the Hockley golf course.  In summer, this walk can be hazardous.

It's a little known fact, despite the best efforts of Winchester City Council's Tourist Information department, that Keats was staying in Winchester in autumn 1819, and wrote his Ode to Autumn (you know the one, "Season of mists and mellow fruitfuness", and all that) after repeating a daily walk along the River Test out to the mediaeval hospital at St. Cross.  In other words, he walked through the water meadows that lie on the western side of St. Catherine's Hill.

I doubt a man in his terminal condition would make an attempt on the hill itself, but it's a pleasant thought, and yet another layer on the story I'm telling myself about the area.  And did those feet...

Saturday, 17 November 2012


Of course, the reward for staying on later at work is having all of Wednesday off , which means that I can get out and have the landscape all to myself, apart from the odd dog-walker.  In this case, St. Catherine's Hill, near Winchester.

What is missing from these images is the constant white noise from the M3 motorway passing through the cutting at Twyford Down, about 10 feet behind and 100 feet below where I am standing.  It's a constant on a busy work-day, like static on an analogue radio.

I'm not quite sure what it is about this spot that keeps drawing me back, but it has something to do with ghosts; there's another kind of static hanging around the place. It has been a busy crossroads of humanity, of course, in both space and time, for thousands of years.  People have been passing through here for generations, ever since Iron Age tribes chose to settle on the hilltop.  Those salesmen and container trucks speeding up to London are just adding the latest sedimentary layer of noise.  Perhaps I simply love the encouragement to see things sub specie aeternitatis you get up here from what feel like its resident friendly spirits.