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