Sunday 29 July 2012

An Island Full of Noises

As everyone has been so effusive and enthusiastic about Danny Boyle's Olympics ceremony -- from the likes of Julien Temple at one end of the spectrum to Giles Coren at the other -- I thought I'd watch the remainder of it on BBC iPlayer last night, bolstered by a couple of glasses of pinot grigio. Maybe it did get better?  After all, most of these pundits seem to have enjoyed it despite their predisposition to sniff and to sneer.

No, I'm afraid I have to say that, for me, it didn't get better.  Sure, it was fun, clever, spectacular, and inclusive to a fault, and I did like the House of Pop projections. But is Britain really, in the end, nothing more than a ever-gushing cornucopia of pop culture?  Do we have no literary, scientific, political, commercial, or technological achievements?  Nothing to be truly proud of other than the Beatles and a tenuous multiculturalism?  I pitied poor Tim Berners-Lee -- revealed alone at his desk inside the House of Pop, like something hidden beneath a rock, blinking and mutely waving to the world under the spotlights -- the single representative of every other speccy nerd not invited to the hyper-jock party.

But I think the most irritating thing was the blithe postmodern cut'n'paste attitude on display.  Consider David Bowie's magnificent song "Heroes", played while the British athletes paraded for the cameras.  Yes, the word "heroes" does come up quite a lot in the song, and we all want "our" boys and girls to be heroes, don't we?  So what could be more appropriate?  Bowie gets a nod, everyone's emotions get tweaked (we could be HEROES, yay!), and Team GB gets a boost.  But the song is a song of defiance in the face of despair and inevitable defeat.  We could be heroes -- a pretend king, and a make-believe queen -- just for one day.  It is a spiritual descendant of Lou Reed's Perfect Day, another ironic de profundis song which is totally misunderstood as a nice, nostalgic song about a perfect picnic.

And, to cap it all, the entire show climaxed with "Eclipse", the final track of Dark Side of the Moon.  Yes, it has all the build and shape and all the right words for a hymn to the general rightness of the universe -- everything under the sun is in tune! -- but this is the final track of an album which is all about the futility and madness of modern life, and ends with the bleak cry, "But the sun is eclipsed by the moon!"  But eclipsed in a good way, eh?

But they're not concerned about any of that.  It's the general look and feel they're after.  Cut out the useful bits and stick 'em onto the collage.  Who cares what the whole song is about, just sample the good bits, the bits which are "on message", and toss the rest.  It doesn't really matter, does it, that Isambard Kingdom Brunel didn't actually kick-start the Industrial Revolution?  All because of some dream in which he, a monstrous slave to a magician, hears spectral music and sees clouds full of riches denied to him in his tormented waking life?  No, what matters are the words, "the isle is full of noises".  The rest?  Just give it some welly, Ken, and no-one will notice or care.

And it seems nobody did or does.  Arise, Sir Danny!

Saturday 28 July 2012

Britishly Odd

Cliche... or trope?

After a week of graduations, I had a double dose of community celebrations yesterday, which is more than enough for anyone.  First, we had the University's 60th Anniversary "staff party", which neatly recycled the graduation marquees, then there was the opening of the Olympics, which neatly recycled the old Teletubbies set.  As a result, I have a throbbing alienation hangover this morning, especially after hearing the more-or-less unqualified praise for Danny Boyle's production on the radio.  Eh?

The Olympics thing, it seemed to me, was the apotheosis of a bouncy-castle aesthetic, not to mention a sentimentalized travesty of British history (wot, no slavery, riots, wars, Empire, or rickets?). Above all, it was far, far too long.  I bailed out at the point that I realised yer real, actual Queen had been persuaded to go along with a fantasy about skydiving with James Bond into the stadium.  Just a bit of fun, Your Majesty!  Irony, Ma'am, it's what we do best.  Though I must admit they did "steely" quite well, too, I thought. (You saw what I did there?  That's art, that is).

If they'd stopped at the forging of the Satanic Rings, it would have been OK.  But, of course, they didn't.  Who knew that the NHS involved jiving, jitterbugging, and bouncing on beds?  And I'm still puzzling over what vision Kenneth Branagh -- in role as a top-hatted entrepreneur -- had at Teletubbie Hill, and why he then recited Caliban's speech from The Tempest as if it were Henry V's speech before Agincourt.  Odd... But Britishly odd, I suppose.

The uni staff party was a dull but authentic affair by comparison, though there were some half-hearted attempts at a bouncy-castle aesthetic, up to and including a bouncy castle.  It was rather reminiscent of a village fete, with lots of people wandering about and mingling for an hour or two, more out of a sense of duty than any expectation of pleasure.

I did meet the vicar Vice-Chancellor, but only because I was standing next to my colleague Linda, the librarian at the Winchester School of Art, who has interviewed him for her blog (they share an interest in knitters, knitting and knitwear).  I think it's quite difficult being a top dog at occasions where people are officially encouraged to be informal and, let's be honest, where 80% of "your" staff haven't a clue who you are, anyway. You never catch the Queen dressing down, or acting all ironically chummy with the proles, do you?

Silver machine...

Friday 27 July 2012

Stephen Knight at CB Editions

Do you remember the poem by Stephen Knight I featured back in March?  Well, it is contained in Stephen's new publication from small publisher CB Editions, now available here.

I have just done the right thing, and bought a copy.  And so should you.

Thursday 26 July 2012

Alas, Poor Lisa!

I hope you'll forgive another quick reaction-piece, bashed out as my summer blog-break approaches.

One of my daily reads is the Archaeological News from Archaeology Magazine.  I'm something of an armchair archaeology enthusiast, and this website gives a fascinating daily insight into the life of trowel-wielding folk by digesting the latest extremely old news stories from around the world.  But one story that has baffled me is this: Skeleton Unearthed in Hunt for Mona Lisa.

It's a story so ludicrous that it must say something profound about our culture.  Or at least something about what's wrong with it.  Let me get this straight: archaeologists have dug up the floor of a convent in Venice, and are sifting through the remains in its graveyard, in the hope that one of the women buried there will turn out to be Lisa Gherardini, the woman who may -- or may not -- have been the model for Da Vinci's Mona Lisa?

In the hope of establishing what, exactly?  That a real woman was the subject of a famous portrait, and is now just a heap of bones?  No, no: THIS heap of bones!  THESE are the bones of the Mona Lisa!

And?  As always, Mr. Shakespeare got there first, and a mere 60 years after La Gioconda hit the dirt:

HAMLET: Let me see.
(Takes the skull)
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times; and now -- how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?  Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come.  Make her laugh at that.
Well, she may not have laughed, but Leonardo did capture an intriguing little smile.  And to that favour she did most certainly come:  but soon we will have proof of it!

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Not Flying Ant Day

I was amazed to hear, early this morning on Radio 4's Today Programme, today being declared Flying Ant Day.  How something can go from being a private observation/observance to the New Bloomsday in a year or so is a matter for no small wonder.

Anyway, pace Jim Naughtie and the biologist with the terrible phone line (and presumably the misleading press release), today is not Flying Ant Day, in these parts, anyway, though it certainly was last year.  Really, they should know better: Flying Ant Day is very much what they call a moveable feast.  Shame: I was looking forward to seeing a few squadrons of the critters getting in amongst the gowned graduands and their over-dressed families.

Maybe tomorrow.  Though I'm beginning to wonder whether, like Olympic security, the manufacture and delivery of new wings have been outsourced this year...

Monday 23 July 2012

Restoration Comedy

Uh oh.  See that blue, top right?  That's scaffolding, that is.  The Hockley Viaduct is finally "closed for repairs"...  Looks like I got in there just in time, as I have no interest in photographing a restored edifice.

If past experience is anything to go by, they'll "make it new", as well as making it safe, and in the process sterilize it.  But, never mind, it means no-one else will ever be able to get the set of images that I have built over the past couple of years.  All I have to do is summon the will to finish printing and sequencing them.

Saturday 21 July 2012

London in the Rain

I was up in London this week, at a meeting in the London School of Economics library.  The longer in the tooth I get, professionally, the less I enjoy this sort of thing. It is annoying, in the company of ambitious young people on whom the Terrible Truth has not yet dawned, to find yourself forced to play the grey-bearded, seen-it-all skeptic.  Someone has to do it, though, and I am perfectly cast in the role.  I have not only seen it all, I have seen it all twice.

But never mind, I love central London.  Even on a day of torrential rain, the romantic power of the Thames is inescapable.  To walk from the South Bank over Waterloo Bridge to the Strand and beyond, is like stepping onto a stage.  Other cities are grander, or more picturesque, but none is more multi-layered, more mysterious, more full of life, than London.

It is too overwhelming for the infrequent visitor to understand, though, much less photograph. I always have the feeling, in the streets of central London, that I am an innocent outsider, a beginner who understands nothing, a traveller with no destination. Once, that was true.  Now, rather less so.  But it's a good feeling to have, and it was fun to stand on a street-corner opposite Bush House, eating a takeaway lunch, just watching the people and the traffic pass by in the rain.

South Bank backstreet

Friday 20 July 2012

Lives of the Poets

Poets can be unusual people, worrying and losing sleep over matters that are -- as yet -- barely blips on the radar of more prosaic folk.  Take Alice Oswald, for example.  I have admired her distinctive approach to landscape poetry since coming across Dart a couple of years ago, and I have both it and A Sleepwalk on the Severn as e-books on my phone: emergency reading for dull moments.  She seems the linguistic equivalent of Susan Derges or Garry Fabian Miller, photographic artists whose innovative work with landscape and rivers in Devon I admire very much.  Consequently, I read this interview-cum-profile in the Guardian by Madeleine Bunting with some interest.

Assuming you have now returned from following the link to the interview, you will probably be as bemused as me.  In principle, I agree with nearly everything Oswald has to say, but it is clear from Bunting's description that their "talks-walking" encounter by the river was, shall we say, a little edgy.  Now, I am by no means saying that Alice Oswald is odd or strange, but I do think there is a point where principle and practice have to diverge -- in the interests of conviviality -- or people will tend to think you are odd or strange.  You may be convinced that "meat is murder", for example, or that "property is theft", but -- if you want to lead a life unconfined by bars -- some allowance has to be made for those who think differently on these matters.  Oswald does seem to have moved beyond this point, somewhat.  One can easily imagine saying something unconsidered like, "Hey, lighten up, Alice Oswald!", and ending up neck deep in the Big Muddy.

Ah, angry poets! As it happens, I have slept in the bed of a prominent, prize-winning contemporary angry poet, whom I will not name, not because I am a gentleman (yeah, right), but because she was not in it at the time, and because she was bitterly and extremely vocally discombobulated when she discovered that Goldilocks had been visiting.  A few posts back, I was saying how interesting it is, when someone is made unexpectedly angry by something.  This was a case in point.

Back in the day, it was perfectly normal to be offered the bed of an absent housemate, when the last bus was long gone and one had lost the capacity to walk home. It probably still is.  In the late 1970s a good friend lived in a large squatted house off the Caledonian Road in London, and when I came to live in Town it was a convenient stopover en route from Bloomsbury to Hackney, where I, too, lived in a squat.  Not a few times I found myself unable to continue the onward journey, and simply crashed out, as we used to say, on a convenient stretch of floor.  But, one time, The Poet was absent, and I spent a blissful night in her comfy bed.

I should have known better, as I was by then a connoisseur of the poetics of domestic space.  The environments created by young women living in single rooms, though intensely personal, often had a certain generic character.  You would see the same posters and pictures, the same Victorian fireplaces and mantelpieces ironised with ornaments and objets trouvĂ©s, the same paperback books on improvised brick-pile shelves, the same inevitable potted spider-plants. In the days when spending an evening listening to music and sharing a joint or two with a circle of friends was the height of sophistication, such rooms often fulfilled a social as well as a private function.  Most men's rooms, by contrast, might as well have been bus shelters.

But The Poet's room was clearly not a social space: it was very much A Room of One's Own.  I recognised the scribbled loose pages and notebooks of an active writing mind, and admired the unusual and extensive collection of books.  She was incandescent when she discovered a stranger had been allowed in there. I had never before heard the words "invasion", "personal", and "space" used in meaningful juxtaposition, and barely understood the cause of her anger; I beat a hasty retreat.

It seemed odd, to me, to expect privacy in a squat, but then it was an odd and highly-strung household: one member was an aficionado of psychotherapy, who would famously declare one day that he had realised he didn't feel like paying the communal "rent" any more, you know? Such people, egotistical outliers, hyper-sensitive to society's bat-squeaks, are often straws in the wind of changes to come.  We were on the cusp of the 1980s, when the communitarian impulse would seek refuge in therapy and privacy from that unseemly orgy of privatisation, house-price inflation, and swaggering conspicuous consumption.  Obvious in retrospect, I suppose, but not at the time.

Of course, there will always be something deeply annoying about the self-righteous and the self-obsessed, however correct or prescient their divinations and obsessions turn out to be.  As a commenter says on the Guardian site of Alice Oswald's refusal of the language of "beauty" as a form of "colonization":

Much as I admire Alice Oswald, I find it somewhat disingenuous that, while refusing to use certain kinds of language, she lives in, and draws inspiration from, what most ordinary language-users call a beautiful, idyllic, pastoral spot. Were she to find herself living in, say, a landscape of intensively farmed monoculture, I daresay she wouldn't have the luxury of engaging in this linguistic pettifogging.

More to the point, I doubt she would ever consider living in such a place: true artists, it seems to me, are often experts in having their cake and eating it, too.  Unlike those more lowly writers who talk up the attractions of the "unspoiled", as a way of making a living, then complain that the influx of new, vulgar visitors is completely wrecking the place, many contemporary artists denounce the way we misunderstand and corrupt certain places by imposing our wrong-headed and nostalgic notions of "beauty" on them, yet quietly go and live there themselves.  You might say, without too much irony, that it's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

And remember, you may not now concern yourself with the way the colonization of the natural world by human language may lead us to environmental disaster, but you will, Oscar, you will.

Sunday 15 July 2012

Swithin Swithian

HENRY:  This day is called the feast of Crispian ...
AIDE:  Hold, my liege, a word!
HENRY:  What?  Eh? Hold on, sirrah, can't hear a thing with the rain beating on this bloody helmet!
(Henry removes helm, bends, Aide whispereth in the royal ear)
HENRY:  The feast of Swithin?  Are you sure?
AIDE:  Most assuredly, sire. And what is more ...
(Aide whispereth further unto the King)
HENRY:  Forty DAYS?  Is that really what they do say?
AIDE:  Indeed they do, my lord.  They do say:
  St. Swithin's day if thou dost rain
  For forty days it will remain
  St. Swithin's day if thou be fair
  For forty days 'twill rain nae mair.
HENRY:  Are you Scottish, son?
AIDE:  No, sire, 'tis merely the jingle-jangle necessity of this rough clownish rhyme.
HENRY:  I hate bloody clowns! Forty days?
AIDE:  Forty days, sire.
HENRY:  Bugger.  Gentlemen in England this day abed have made a good call, methinks.  Gloucester!
GLOUCESTER:  Aye, my liege!
HENRY:  Call the French herald, and tell him the match is off, sine die.  What call they that place over there?
AIDE:  'Tis the Agincourt Wine Superstore, my lord.
HENRY:  Perfect.  (Draws sword)  Drink, anyone?

Thursday 12 July 2012

The Lake in the Ceiling

Before we settled down, got a mortgage and had kids -- the whole nine bourgeois yards -- my partner and I lived the semi-bohemian life typical of that part of our generation that had embraced political activism and alternative lifestyles. It was simply normal to live in collective squalor, usually in the poorer parts of town, mainly in squats or delapidated "houses of multiple occupation", often with a transient household of friends, friends of friends, and sometimes out-and-out lunatics.

In those years I lived in some memorable places, apart from those usual squats and house-shares. For a while I shared a flat with a couple, Daphne and Floriana (no, really) who were into mild but theatrical BDSM. I also briefly had an entire house to myself in the shadow of the motorway flyover in the soon-to-be-notorious St.Paul's district of Bristol. On Sunday mornings, I could listen to the singing and electric guitars from the nearby Jamaican Pentecostal church.

But one of the strangest was a flat at the very top of a semi-derelict four-storey Georgian townhouse within sight of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. It was like the proverbial bad tooth in an elegant terrace-row of very desirable properties mainly converted to upscale flats, a remnant of Clifton's skid-row years. By the time I moved in, inheriting the flat from friends, the landlord was emptying the place in anticipation of redevelopment, and there was only one other occupied flat in the building. This was lived in by a couple of smack-heads with two sweet but permanently bewildered children and a large alsatian dog.

The house being enormous but empty and run down, the once stately stairwell was unlit, and -- the other adult occupants often being semi-conscious -- on many winter's evenings I had nervous encounters in the dark with the alsatian, which ran freely up and down the stairs, the door of the other flat never being shut. The kids would appear in their doorway and assure me he never bit, but his bark was quite bad enough for me. Actually, the mere skittering of his claws on the ancient lino was more than bad enough for me.

1979 was the fourth coldest winter of the last hundred years in the UK. Bristol, in the mild south west, was blanketed in snow for months, and vast aggregated icicles hung down from the gutters and overflow pipes of those elegant Georgian terraces. In an unheated attic flat in an unheated, unoccupied building, the penetrating cold made itself felt. One morning, I found that the water in my lavatory bowl had frozen solid in the night.  And, in the early hours of one stormy night, the downstairs bell-push somehow stuck got permanently in the "on" position, so that I had to rip the bell and its antique wiring out of the wall to stop its incessant shrilling.

But it wasn't until the spring thaw that the hard winter's secret legacy made itself known. As I was sitting in my living room one evening, I noticed a curious rounded lump on the ceiling I had not noticed before. When I returned from making a cup of tea, I realised that the curious rounded bump had grown to a bowl-shaped protuberance about six inches across and an inch deep. Before my eyes, it gradually swelled to eight inches wide, one and a half inches deep: something was inflating the ceiling paper like a balloon. As it continued to swell, a drop of water appeared, grew, and dripped to the floor, swiftly followed by another.

Uh oh.

I ran to get whatever bowls and buckets I could muster, and returned just in time to see the paper rip open and a cascade of water pour from the inverted volcano on the ceiling. I collected gallons of water and poured them down the sink, going back and forth. Where was the Sorcerer's Apprentice when you needed him? Miraculously, this wasn't a burst pipe, but merely a small lake of meltwater where snow and ice had accumulated in the roof space. Eventually the flow subsided to drips, and then even the drips stopped.

But that was it for me with that particular flat. I shortly moved out, and we began to look for our very first flat together.  I sometimes wonder what happened to those two kids.  I try not to think about the dog.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Commenting Policy

One of the chores associated with running a blog is weeding out the comments. Compared to most, I've been very fortunate in the quality, civility, intelligence, and relevance of the comments I receive; my readers may not be numerous -- somewhere between 100 and 200 most days -- but you certainly make up for it in quality. Thanks!

However, I do have to delete some comments, mainly of the "purple ink" rant variety. There are people out there who seem to page randomly through Blogger, pasting in angry little essays about various global conspiracies and suchlike. Then there are the "spam" comments -- you must have seen them on various blogs, repeated bland messages from people with improbable names. I assume that when you click through to see who "Hans Spambender" is, or why "Harriet Woolstenhulme" can't speak English ("Blog is good!! Perhaps you learn me blog myself??") you end up on a website you really wish you hadn't visited.  The Blogger Spam Filter nails a lot of these, but not all.

I get these comments, of course, because I don't moderate comments, and will even accept anonymous commenters. Up to now, I've been happy with this policy. However, in recent times the volume of irrelevant spam comments has been increasing and this is tedious to deal with, so I'm moving my setting up one notch from "Anyone may comment" to "Registered users only". From now on, I'm afraid, you'll need to be registered with someone to be able to leave a comment (registering with Google is easy, but it needn't be Google, and Open ID is acceptable). As most of you "frequent commenters" are already in this category, I don't think this will be a problem.  If it is a problem, I'll change it again.

The big plus will be that I can probably turn off that increasingly frustrating anti-robot "captcha" check.  On which subject, you might find this an interesting read:  The Evolution of Those Annoying Online Security Tests.

As to those of you who occasionally accuse me of hypocrisy, inconsistency, idiocy and various other vices -- please carry on, by all means. I will only delete bona fide comments when they descend into personal abuse of me or other commenters, or if they are expressed in language which strikes me as unnecessarily coarse.  Or if they are more than usually badly spelled, of course.

I am not a politician, and I don't have to pretend to be even-handed, or fair. To paraphrase the famous WW1 cartoon, "If you knows a better blog, go to it!"

Wednesday 4 July 2012


I am always curious about the things that make people angry, especially unexpectedly angry.  This is partly the result of being a bit of a contrarian who has learned, out of self-preservation, to anticipate the wrath of strangers.  But it is also because I find those sudden surges of anger are often a very authentic impulse, rising from a deeper source than the superficial personalities and opinions we have constructed for ourselves.

Indeed, what one might think of as the Construction Wars -- revolving around the once-revolutionary, but now routine academic claim that most human activity is social activity, and therefore "constructed" rather than authentic or "essential" -- were themselves the cause of not a few angry exchanges that occasionally turned ugly.  The idea that the authenticity of your tribe or traditions might be a "construct" is still, to many, fighting talk.

A parallel flashpoint, I have observed, is the ongoing skirmish between enchantment and, for want of a better word, positivism.  There is a large constituency of people who wish for the world to be a more magical place, one where things like faith-healing, thought-transference, spoon-bending and all manner of para-phenomena are not just conjuring tricks, but real, unexplored human potentialities.  Richard Dawkins, with his unrelenting logic, makes these folk very angry indeed.  As they do him.*  He is perceived by them as a reductive disenchanter of the world; they are perceived by him as benighted peddlers of childish wish-fulfilment.  Let's party like it's 1789!

I imagine you, like me, sit somewhere between those two extremes, depending on the time of day and the weather. Getting head and heart into alignment is a task which is never simple, and also never finished, I find.

Enchanted fish tank

Photography, too, has its camps and divisions -- any one of which can make someone angry -- including its own enchanters and positivists.  For example, there are the pin-hole and toy-camera enthusiasts, who take in the world and re-express it in blurs, hints and suggestions.  These are often the same people who are in love with "authentic" (i.e. difficult, obsolete, and toxic) processes like platinum printing from self-prepared wet-collodion plates; they want the reality of emotions, a gallery show, and a book-contract from Nazraeli.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Pin Sharp crew, with their view-cameras, tilts and shifts, densitometers, spectrometers, ICC profiles, and other aids to sterility perfection. The pin-sharp reality is not so much felt as measured in lines-per-millimetre, though every blurred blade of grass is felt as a humiliating failure.  Naturally, their preferred subject-matter is stuff that doesn't move, like rocks.  I'm never quite sure what these people do with their work, other than tell other photographers how they did it.

But, to return to enchantment and its opposite: when it comes to art and photography, I always find myself drawn towards the misty end of the spectrum.  I have always liked the work of Keith Carter, for example, the king of artful blur and meaningful incongruity.  There is something energising about the concept of "mojo", native to the southern USA and something that underlies all his work, not just his book of that name.  When the mojo is working, you walk taller, feel more connected and influential, luckier, more attractive.  When it's not, you don't feel those things.

In most cultures, people have developed ways of persuading the mojo to flow their way.  To a rational mind, these methods are nothing more than idle superstition.  My head sympathises, but my heart knows that I have yet to find a rational way of feeling more attractive.

In the end, Keith Carter's mojo is just that kind of feeling, the culmination of many moments of being in a representative instant, but an instant charged with the inexplicable animating energy of the particular.  The poet Lorca tried to define his concept of duende -- the feeling that for him separated ordinary speech or stolid verse from serious poetry -- by quoting Goethe.  "A mysterious power," he called it, "that all may feel and no philosophy can explain."
Rosellen Brown, foreword to Mojo

Does that kind of talk make you angry, or make you feel like getting out there and conjuring up the mojo with your camera?

Mojo mice

*  I remember reading his "Gerin Oil" essay in Prospect in 2005 and thinking, this man is as deranged as the objects of his scorn.  If you don't know it, it's here.  In case you don't get it, "gerin oil" is an anagram of "religion".