Sunday, 27 January 2013

Frosty Bank

Posts on this blog may be a bit scarce over the next week, as I've got a very busy five days at work coming up, and may feel more like relaxing in the evenings than putting in another few hours over a keyboard. We'll see.

It's true, I do have a backlog of half-written but unposted posts, but most of them have passed their post-by date, and are in need of serious revision.  If "Heavy Metal Gates" seemed a bit stale, that's because it's an example of such a post: found in the back of the cupboard and revived with 30 seconds in the microwave.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Ice in Tesco Bay

I was late back with the Saturday morning shop today, as I wasn't going to pass up the chance of photographing the icebergs in the Tesco carpark.

Ice will hang around for ages where it has been compacted into a lump, for example where a snowman has made his last stand, or in this case where it has been shovelled aside into a heap.  With a bit of insulation, it will keep for a surprisingly long time: many stately homes used to maintain a subterranean "ice house", so that frozen desserts could be prepared in the summer. I'm told my great-aunt sold ice from a straw-covered pit in her Baldock back yard.  As she also sold coal, it must have made for an interesting combination.

Unfortunately, frozen fish doesn't keep half as well, so I felt obliged to head home sooner than I'd have liked.  But these have definitely added something to the Lord Franklin series of ice pictures.  The rarity of snow and ice in these parts means that's a set that may take a number of years to grow to a reasonable size, but that seems appropriate.

Which reminds me that I have bought but haven't yet read The Discovery of Slowness, the highly-rated novel by Sten Nadolny, based on Franklin's life.  That's probably a read for the summer, though.  I've just picked it up and opened it, and a metaphorical chill escaped from its pages, like the mist from an opened freezer compartment.  Brrr...

Heavy Metal Gates

I was sitting around a while ago, not sure whether I was yet in the mood to watch Henry IV Part 1 on the BBC iPlayer, and started idly browsing through the programme listings.  My eye was caught by a programme in the "classic albums" series: apparently Black Sabbath's Paranoid is now considered a classic. A classic? In my day -- the day when it first came out -- it was considered a bit of a joke, machine-shop riffing propping up some of the most risible lyrics you could hope to come across this side of the Eurovision Song Contest.

But I started to watch the programme with some fascination.  The unpretentious honesty of Ozzy, Geezer, Tony and, ah, the other one immediately shone through. Like a lot of "musicians" of that era, they were just unlikely lads who got lucky but, unlike most of the ones you and I have heard of, they had the saving grace of knowing and appreciating the scale of their improbable good fortune.  They have clearly never quite got over it; well, it certainly beat working for a living.

The really fascinating thing, though, was their creative method: Tony would come up with a riff, Ozzy would wail a tune with nonsense words, and Geezer Butler would get out his Encyclopaedia of Black Magick and knock out some lyrics.  "I was interested in all that mystical astral plane cobblers at the time", he said.

armchair boogie, 1973

It's easy to forget how far the level of education and information has increased since the 1950s, due in part to state education but mainly due to the mass media and, since the 1990s, the internet.  Contrary to what educational reactionaries would have us believe, the level of general knowledge back then was actually very low; much more a case of general ignorance.  Most people knew very little about anything that didn't put food on the table, and for a young man to have any interests beyond sport, music and "courting" -- especially anything involving books -- was considered downright strange.

Acquiring knowledge used to be a very shallow, dry, and colourless affair.  Deliberately so: to crave anecdotes and illustrations was regarded as the mark of a third-rate mind.  You might learn the principal exports of Brazil at school, but have no idea what Rio de Janeiro looked and felt like, or how the experience of watching Santos or Corinthians play might differ from a drizzly winter afternoon on the terraces at Anfield or Highbury. The Girl from Ipanema might as well have come from Yarmouth.

In the decades since, the knowledge base really has spread and deepened, with the amazing result that the general knowledge pub-quiz has become as entrenched in popular culture as the car-boot sale.  Thanks to TV, we all know (or think we know) the sights and sounds of the Rio carnival and the Amazon jungle, though we'd probably flounder without the helpful voiceover should we ever get to witness the real thing.  Even quite taboo areas have become common currency.  Who doesn't smile (or wince), at least inwardly, whenever the word "Brazilian" comes up?

An album like Paranoid is what you get when young people of limited opportunities and restricted access to education and culture suddenly get the chance to paint their own vivid pictures.  Like a tattoo or a comic, the result is garish, and a little crude, but full of energy and a longing for a bigger, brighter life.  It's also full of false emotions and trite posturing.  It takes more than opportunity and youth to make art.

Inevitably, Metal was the music of choice of East European youth when the Iron Curtain came clanging down in 1989.  It is a strange thought, that the supernova of energy released in a place as quotidian as England's Black Country would burst open the massive iron gates of Heavy Metal, and that grotesque, rough beasts would be slouching out of there, without pause, for the next 40 years.

Surely some revelation is at hand!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Letter to a Complete Beginner

People seem to have a gift for making things more confusing by the simple act of trying to explain them.  I think that this has to do with the way figurative language can take on a life of its own. Although the tail may be said to wag the dog, it is a figure of speech; there is no point speculating how often or how far the dog's feet leave the ground. There is no dog.

Here's my attempt to confuse people about exposure, in a helpful way, which I wrote some years ago.  It has been used by photographic educators in several contexts, with reportedly good results.  The current snowy conditions in Britain make it seem timely.

Dear Complete Beginner,

A camera is a very simple device: a light-tight box with a hole in the front that can be open or shut (but not both) and a light sensitive medium held flat inside against the back will do it. If you want to get fancy, you can put a lens in front of the hole to improve the optical qualities of the captured image. And a means to make the hole bigger and smaller and another to open it faster or slower are definitely an advantage.

I know some modern cameras give an impression of scary complexity, but that's an illusion. The only meaningful choices are (a) how long the hole is open, (b) how big the hole is, and (c) how sensitive to light the chosen medium is. That's it. Everything else is packaging.

So, setting aside the business of sensitivity*, the technique of photography, if not the art, boils down to "exposure" i.e. choosing combinations of (a) and (b) above.

From a technical point of view, there is no difference between a "good" and a "bad" exposure. Both happen in the same way. The "correct" exposure is simply a matter of judgment: the one you prefer. However, most people tend to agree that a picture that is completely black is "underexposed", and one that is completely white is "overexposed". Pitching it somewhere in the middle, so that only the darkest dark is black and only the brightest bright is white, with a good spread of tones/colours in between, is generally considered the way to go. Achieving this is quite simple, but infuriatingly difficult to explain.

The root of the problem is that light meters are very stupid. It is well said that "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." A light meter is like a man with a hammer, except that to a light meter, everything looks like it is made out of grey wool. Imagine a world knitted out of grey wool, and you're thinking like a light meter. A certain quantity of light enters the light meter, and it thinks: "Today, this much light is being reflected from all that grey wool".  It then interprets that into camera terms, as an "exposure" that will perfectly render the grey-wool world outside.  Say, "At ASA 100, use shutter speed 1/125 at aperture f/16".

Of course, as well as grey wool, the world is made of black tarmac, white snow, faces of various colours and reflectivities, and so on. But the meter is a one-trick pony; it simply interprets a quantity of light as if it were reflected from grey wool. That's what it does.

So, when it receives light reflected off the proverbial black cat in front of a black wall, it thinks, "If a grey wool cat against a grey wool wall is reflecting so little light it must be very dark out there! Let in more light! Make the hole bigger! Or shut it more slowly!" But it's not as dark as that, it's just that our subject is very dark and reflects much less light than grey wool, and so we close the hole (aperture) down a click or two smaller than the meter says we should (or choose a shutter speed a click or two faster).  Because it's brighter than the meter thinks.

Similarly, when the incoming light is reflected off a white dog playing in perfect white snow the meter thinks "Well, if a grey wool dog playing in perfect grey wool snow is reflecting so much light, it must be very bright out there! Let in less light!  Make the hole smaller! Or shut it more quickly!" But it's not really that bright out there, it's just that our subject is very light and reflects more light than grey wool would, and so we open the aperture up a couple of clicks bigger (or choose a shutter speed a couple of clicks slower).  Because it's not as bright as the meter thinks.

This is very counter-intuitive: it takes a real effort to remember that bright white snow needs MORE exposure, not less.  Generally two to three whole stops more.  Every instinct screams, "It's too bright!  Shut it down!".  But not making this "exposure compensation" means that the snow ends up grey, not white, in your picture, and anything darker than the snow ends up black (the image is "underexposed").

Now here's the clever part: all cameras are made so that each stop ("step" or "click") of faster/slower shutter speed lets in or shuts out exactly the same amount of light as each stop of smaller/bigger aperture. So you can use either: two stops of slower shutter speed is the same as two stops of bigger aperture. Or both: one stop of slower shutter speed plus one stop of bigger aperture has the same result as the previous two: two stops more exposure. You have choices!

But, of course, you only really have choices if you stop using your camera in fully-automatic mode.  The next step is to become aware of the pictorial consequences of your available choices of aperture and shutter speed, but that's another subject.

A lot of words to explain something so very simple...  In summary, always try to remember (a) there is no dog, and (b) a snow scene requires 2-3 stops more exposure.

* Sensitivity:   this operates on the "no free lunch" principle.  A "slow" (i.e. less sensitive) film or sensor setting will give higher image quality, a "fast" (i.e. more sensitive) one will give lower image quality.  This assumes your definition of "quality" implies that "less grainy/noisy" is better, which it may not do if you are photographing fast moving objects like footballers on a dull winter's afternoon.  These days, digital cameras give much better results at "faster" speeds than film ever did.  400 ASA film was regarded as "fast" (with a marked increase in graininess over 100 ASA).  A modern digital camera will go up to at least 800 ASA with little decrease in quality.  To an ex-film photographer like me, this is as difficult to understand as Twitter.

Sunday, 20 January 2013


Now that the roads are relatively clear, but the snow is still lying, it seemed sensible to get over to the Viaduct and St. Catherine's Hill, even though the light was fairly dull.  As expected, it was worth it to get an unfamiliar perspective on some familiar scenes.

However, remember my plea a few posts back that the citizens of Winchester not turn the Hill into a recreational park, now that it's easier to get to?  Too late.  I had not made allowance for the entitlement of the middle-classes, who had arrived en masse to cull the weaklings among their offspring by encouraging them to slide down this registered Ancient Monument and Site of Special Scientific Interest on their well-padded arses.

Just look at the damage:  that's bare earth, now, on the side of the hill.  No doubt the grass will grow back, but really...  There is no point in asking for a little more respect from people who regard the earth as their playground.

And, yes, that is a staircase going up the hill: put there to stop precisely this kind of erosion in wet weather, not to ease the re-ascent of vandals on plastic toboggans.

A Comment on Comments

It's probably the case with all blogs that the proportion of regular readers who comment is tiny.  Mike Johnston's The Online Photographer gets around 30,000 hits a day, but typically far fewer than 50 comments on any post.  It's the same with following links: I recently got a very flattering mention on TOP, complete with a link, but only 300 people followed it.  There seems to be a "One Percent Rule" at work.

Anyone who has given a seminar or a workshop will know the problem:  a few voluble individuals can silence a group of 20 or 30 other participants, unless the seminar leader takes steps to ensure full participation.  The majority of people need time to develop their thoughts, which may be uncertain and provisional, and quite often need to be asked a direct question before summoning the courage to speak.  In a situation where one-to-one interaction is impractical (for example, I'm hearing of so-called "seminars" in our university with 200 participants) strategies must be adopted that at least recognise the problem.

Now, I'd like more people to comment -- there are regularly 200-300 readers every day, after all, occasionally more -- but I suspect I need to set out some clear guidelines about what may be said, primarily to establish a "clean, well-lit place" (in Garry Trudeau's formulation) where the shy will feel emboldened to speak up and the voluble won't scare them off.

OK, so here we go:

1. Obvious "spam" or sales-pitches will be deleted on sight.

2.  Comments must be in English.  I make exception only for gallery people wishing to offer me an exhibition (Hi, Rupert und Manfred!  Wie geht's?).  Don't worry if your English isn't great: you might even want to try using Google Translate.

3.  Comments must be relevant to the post.  "Relevance" is a flexible term, and can accommodate irony, humour, and tangents (remember those?  a bit like Spangles, but sharper), but attempts to steer the conversation away from the topics addressed in the post will be frowned upon.

4.  Comments must be addressed to me, or to the world at large.  Comments may certainly take up ideas or threads introduced by other commenters, but should not be addressed directly to other commenters.  As in any well-run meeting, you must speak "through the chair".  I have thought hard about this, and I think it's the best way to enable the sort of civility that will encourage the timid or uncertain-of-mind to speak up.

5.  Comments must be civil.  I'm prepared to be taken to task over my views, but not to be abused.  The same goes for other commenters.  Trolls (i.e. "someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion")  will not be tolerated.

6.  Comments should be meaningful or amusing.  Mere noise such as "nice pics!" or "Great post!" will be ignored, and may even be held up for ridicule (by me only, however:  droit de seigneur).  That's a joke, by the way, except for the "ignoring" part.

Those seem reasonable to me.  Established commenters, please take note.  In future, I will draw the attention of any new commenter who breaches these guidelines to this post, and then delete their comments if they persist. A comment which breaches these guidelines in part only may be deleted even if the rest of the comment is sensible or even brilliant. Obviously, I reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason I see fit, guidelines notwithstanding.  If I feel the need to add more guidelines, I will edit this post.

Addition 11/2/2013: 

7.  Bear in mind that comments are indexed by Google.  It may feel like a private space, but it isn't.  If I think a comment will attract unwanted attention, I may ask the commenter to delete it and resubmit a revised version.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Snow on Snow

It would be a shame to have a winter without any snow.  So it was a pleasant surprise to see that rather more had fallen overnight than the sprinkling promised by the forecasters.  I'd intended to walk to work, but a neighbour needed to get to the university by 8:30 to invigilate an exam, so I agreed to give her a lift.  Of course, it soon became evident that no car was going to leave our valley any time soon -- multiple cars had slid downhill and blocked each of all three exit roads by 8:00 -- so we had to walk anyway.

I was glad, naturally, because it meant I could take my time walking the scenic route and get a few photographs on the way.  There was also that warm feeling of self-righteousness to savour, strolling past the stationary motorists, unaware that their day at work was already over.

Of course, some people have never seen snow, though they seem to know all about it.  It's always a delight, watching gaggles of overseas students shrieking like 5-year olds, as they do all those snow things it seems they've dreamed of doing all their lives.  This lot were at it outside my office window for several hours:

Otherwise, it was "snow as usual".  I expect I took exactly the same pictures in the last big snow in 2010.

But that's enough snow now, thanks.  The university had to close at 1:00, and will be closed over the weekend, creating havoc for the poor devils psyching themselves up for exams.  In a country which may not see more than a few days of snow in a year, it's a beautiful disruption and distraction for which we are never quite prepared, rather like young Asian women playing snowballs under your window.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Get in the Queue

Sometimes, some interesting stuff on a blog happens in the comments, but subsequently gets overlooked.  I was revisiting a post from a couple of years ago, and saw that I had made a surprisingly full response to the question, "What makes someone a photographer?"

Now, I'd be the first to admit that I do not have the key to success dangling from my keyring, unless it's that funny little padlock key I seem to have been carrying around most of my adult life.  (Anyone know where the door to success is?  We should talk).  But blogging is about opinions, not expertise, so here is that response again, slightly updated:

It's the same as writing. A lot of people want reassurance that they are "really" writers before they commit, but in the end "a writer is a person who writes". Whether someone is a good or a bad writer is a different matter.

So, "a photographer is a person who photographs" -- that is, someone who uses a camera every day or most days, simply because they have a hunger to see what the world looks like when it has been photographed by them.

By that definition I have been a photographer since about 1985, though I've used a camera since I was about seven. It's only in the past few years, however, that anyone has paid any attention to what I do, although I did put on some solo exhibitions and showed work in open submission shows before that.

If my work is of any interest, that is not because I am an intrinsically interesting person, or a "natural" artist, but primarily because I have taken the trouble to acquaint myself with what has already been made and has been highly-rated in my chosen medium, and -- above all -- have a high level of "reflexive self-criticism". Truly creative people will have those last two traits dialled up to 11.  I'm a 7, I'd guess.

That "reflexive self criticism" is the key. You have to have (or learn to have) that restless urge to improve, coupled with a truly ruthless eye for why your work is not as good as it could be.

Sustaining a high level of commitment over decades is what, eventually, makes the difference. It's like writing those first three novels that never get published.  It's that famous, all-important "10,000 hours".

Not much to argue with there.  Basic common sense.  The only things I'd add now are these:

You have to be your own severest critic, and you have to be prepared to fail.  Face it: you may be the only serious critic you ever have.  It takes courage (and, dare I say, a special kind of love) to tell another person their work isn't as good as they hoped it was.  It really isn't wise or fair to trust anyone's judgement other than your own.  If you're running the risk of failure, let it be on your own terms.

People talk up self-belief as the key to achievement ("follow your dream!"), but self-belief is merely the ticket-price of creativity.  Clearly, if you lack belief in your own ability you're wasting everyone's time.  Consider the thousands of people out there craving approval, all of whom seem to be waiting for permission just to start something (in extreme cases, it seems, even starting their own life).

In the end, the only advice worth having that I've ever heard goes like this:

"Get over yourself, and get on with it!  Don't let yourself off the hook -- you know you can do better than that!  Otherwise, please just shut up about it.  Nobody cares whether or not you make anything.  Really.  We don't care.  David Bowie (David Bowie!) was silent for a decade and we barely noticed.  But if and when you do make something, we'll make up our own minds whether we like it or not.  So it had better be good.  Have you seen how much good stuff there is out there?  So get to work, and when you're ready get in the queue!"

Harsh advice, but solid gold.  That'll be £500, please.  The queue's over there.  Good luck!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Crepuscule with Nellie

Did you ever watch David Lynch's TV series, Twin Peaks?  The theme tune to that programme had a certain mood to it -- a swooning, early-evening feel that is best captured by that ugly word, "crepuscular".  The French expression entre chien et loup ("between dog and wolf") is used to refer to the moment of transition at twilight, and there is no English equivalent that captures so well that liminal, dangerous, but exciting feeling. 

It's not an easy time of day to photograph: sunsets are best avoided, both for technical reasons and reasons of taste, and a good crepuscular sky is rarely accompanied by a suitably-illuminated landscape.  Getting up high can make all the difference.  This view from Old Winchester Hill is always worth a 40 minute drive on a winter's afternoon:

But for most of us, that time of day is an urban experience.  Bus stations always seem particularly crepuscular:

But it's a feeling, as much as anything, and feelings are sometimes best rendered in an impressionistic way (even if only accidentally, as here):

I swear, one day I will learn to use a tripod...

The post title, in case you don't recognise it, is a piece by Thelonious Monk, King of the Hats.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Cow in a Bush

It's a very convenient and welcome thing, to come across a fire in the middle of nowhere on a raw cold afternoon.  For whatever reason, the local livestock wouldn't go anywhere near it.  In the second picture, a cow is actually hiding in a bush.

I say in the middle of nowhere, but something dramatic has happened at St. Catherine's Hill.  The recent application of a tarmac road surface to what was previously a muddy track along the bottom of the hill running beside the Itchen Navigation canal, has increased the visitor numbers tenfold.  The opening of the cycle-way across the Hockley Viaduct hasn't helped, either.  At various styles and gates there were actually queues, this afternoon.

Obviously, most of these folk aren't going to leave the path and actually venture onto the hill, at this time of year anyway.  A lot of people claim to like the countryside, but seem reluctant actually ever to get any of it on them.  However, we did see a couple of "Fenton the Dog" episodes developing, with hapless owners chasing poorly-trained off-leash dogs up hill and down dale, as they happily harried sheep.  This may explain the cow in the bush, of course.

I'd hate to think that, come the summer, this beautiful and atmospheric couple of square miles will have become just another leisure park, with all the turf on the paths eroded away by mountain bikes, and pic-nic litter blowing around.  A little more respect, please, people, eh?

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Light is Sweet

Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:

But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many.

Ecclesiastes 11:7-8

Just sayin' ...

Friday, 11 January 2013

Ordinary Finds

A lot of people (OK, several people) have been kind enough to say that this blog is one of their first online stops every day.  That's OK, I can take the pressure, and the Full English Breakfast with an extra sausage for regulars is always available, day or night.  In fact, that's pretty much all we serve.  Apart from tea, lots of tea, in big, white, one-pint china mugs.  Bikers and coach parties welcome.

But where do I stop off to start the day?  Well, I think Ordinary Finds is the place to go.  I can't recommend it highly enough.  It is a Tumblr site run by Bent Sørensen, a Danish academic specialising in American literature, particularly The Beats (Kerouac, et al.).  The concept is simple:  most days, Bent marks a cultural anniversary or two by  putting up some relevant images and live music links -- usually single tracks from an album or two  -- to other Tumblr media sites.  The point is, his range of reference is both wide and deep: pop, opera, rock, folk, jazz, country, classical...  He covers the whole cultural gamut and every week I discover something new and wonderful that I can't believe I've never come across before.

What more do you want?  Go there, and lose yourself in the treasures he puts out for your enjoyment.  Don't forget to come back, though!  And if you're meant to be at work, look busy.

No connection...  Just polishing up the Viaduct set

Talking of Danish, if you've been watching The Killing, The Bridge, or Borgen on TV, you've probably been wondering about Danish pronunciation.  I mean, honestly...  Danish sounds like sort-of-Swedish but as spoken by someone immediately following multiple root-canal fillings, or downing an entire bottle of akvavit, possibly both.  Worse, it bears little or no relation to the way it's spelt.  For helvede! [pron. "fuh hilvl!" = Dammit!].  Well, check out these comments on the Language Hat blog (no relation) post of 4th January 2013, "The Emetic Nature of Danish".

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Walking the Dead

I seem to have reached the age where friends and colleagues have started to die without the words "tragically young" routinely being attached to the event.  I've written before about the Forever Young illusion in relation to one's teachers, but it is even more of an awakener when one's first work colleagues start dropping off the perch, aged 80 plus, after a "full and active retirement".  What?  How did that happen?

A friend was asking what I thought the expression "walking the dead" means in David Bowie's surprise (and surprisingly moving) new release, "Where Are We Now?", which seems -- on one level, at least -- to be a song about aging, loss, and the spectre of dementia.  I think if you know what it feels like to be "a man lost in time near KaDeWe" *, then you have probably begun walking the dead, yourself.  You've been rehearsing all those memories and remembered scenarios that keep missing friends, family, colleagues, comrades and acquaintances alive in your head.  It's a routine activity, like walking the dog, that re-invests the familiar world with your ghosts.  And "waking the dead" seems to require less raucous noise than it used to; the party wall between life and death somehow gets thinner every year.  It's easy to get lost with such ghosts for company.  Where are we now?

Recently, I learned of the death of someone I was at college with, a comrade and occasional antagonist, who went off to the States to have an interesting career in the world of academic anthropology.  His specialist area was, broadly speaking, shamanism and the human uses of violence, and he became known for his work on kanaima, or "assault shamanism", as practised in South America.  How far his early death was a result of his field-work is an interesting question.

Neil is one of my ghosts, if only because he and I once had a noisy set-to over the volume of a stereo, resulting in a bloody nose (mine), but rather more mutual cursing and shouting than actual exchanged blows.  Violence as ritual exchange, you might say.  I remember, back in the days when I was squatting in Hackney, East London, that I had a revelatory encounter with a German fugitive from the military draft.  "I ran away," he said, "Because I had decided that war was an out-dated form of communication".  I had never thought of it that way, but Neil clearly had.

A lot of people had an interest in shamanism back then: that blend of alternative realities, naturally-sourced hallucinogens, tribal ways, and animistic secrets was a fashionable brew, and any number of amateur "spirit journeys" were taking place in college rooms and remote cottages at that time.  Some people never came back; some returned, changed; most of us moved on, having discovered (as Gertrude Stein said of her childhood home, Oakland) that "there is no there there".  I imagine the sales graph of the Castaneda books maps the trend pretty well.

Not so many were also interested in aggression, violence, weapons and warfare, not to mention cannibalism.  But to those who combined spiritual curiosity with a radical political persuasion (Neil, for example, was a member of the IMG and active in the Troops Out movement), society's polite silence over the delegation of violence to paid professionals in the police and the armed forces was a taboo (that is, a socially-constructed, consensual spell) that had spiritual as well as political consequences.  But to combine such interests and to challenge such taboos leads down dark paths.  Whether there's any there there, either, I couldn't say.

But Berlin -- once an islanded outpost of the Western Way, a byword for division, and a living illustration of how our realities can be constructed as easily as a wall -- has come to be all about hope.  Those 20,000 people crossing the Bösebrücke in Bowie's song were those first 20,000 East Germans to cross the first checkpoint which opened from East to West in 1989.

Things change.  Suddenly, irreversibly; sometimes for the good, sometimes not.  You won't know how, or when, or why, but you'll know it when it happens, and you will have to change, too, or be left behind with your ghosts.  Do ghosts ever change, I wonder?

"The moment you know, you know you know"...

Scary monsters

* KaDeWe (i.e. the initials KDW said in the German style) is the big department store in Berlin, Kaufhaus des Westens.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Show Biz Kids

I was listening to a panel of writers on the radio discussing the state of contemporary comedy, and had one of those unsettling "alternate universe" flashes.  I have to admit that I do love to talk, and I like to make people laugh, and -- if I had been better-looking, had more talent, a more ruthless ego, and less common sense -- I might have been tempted, once upon a very long time ago, to join the entertainment business.

There is a show-biz strand in our family.  Both my father and grandfather played drums in local dance bands, and Dad could hold a tune quite well at a microphone, in a Tony Bennett-ish kind of way.  My great-uncle had been a trumpeter in the Dragoons and, after retiring from the regular army, went on to be a Wardrobe Master at Ealing Studios in its heyday.  His daughter married an ex-Royal Marines trumpeter, Ivan "Buzz" Trueman, who became a professional musician with the Edmundo Ros orchestra.  The presence of Uncle Buzz added a grace-note of glamour to any family occasion.

For a time at college, I did rehearse with a band, but lacked the necessary sense of mission. Unlike another singer who was rehearsing at that time in Oxford with his band Ugly Rumours, two of whose members were friends of friends.  It has always baffled me why I don't remember ever meeting our Dear Leader; I'm sure he is similarly baffled*.  I'm told we were in the same smoky basement room when, on the day of release, a copy of Born To Run was ceremonially removed from its shrink-wrap and laid on a turntable, but my memory is terrible these days and, besides, everything Blair-related is smothered under a litigious blanket of silence, and I'm sure I couldn't comment, m'lud. 

My big opportunity for a show-biz career came when I was approached by a future kingmaker of comedy, Geoffrey Perkins. His name may not mean much to you, but if I say he produced The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and held Douglas Adams' feet to the fire to get those brilliant scripts delivered on time you get the idea. As a writer and producer, he was central to a whole generation of influential British radio and TV comedy.

When he died in 2008, pictures of him in his university days were shown on the news, and it all came back to me: how, one evening in 1974, the very same slightly goofy lad, wearing the very same silly tank top, had come knocking on the door of my college room.

"We hear you're quite funny," he said, "Would you like to write some stuff for the Oxford Revue?"
"Not really," I said.  It all sounded a bit establishment to me and, you know, poncy.
"Are you sure?" he said, "It could be a real opportunity!"
"Yes," I said, "Quite sure".

And that was that.

Thankfully.  It could never have worked.  By now, I'm sure, I'd be on my my fourth relationship and third course of rehab, struggling to find work, depressed and anxious about the pressure from younger, funnier, hungrier competitors.  Heard the one about the comedy writer who led a contented, productive, useful life, took early retirement, and had no regrets about the choices he'd made in life?  No, neither have I.

It is odd, the way we glamorise the Darwinian street-scuffle of show biz.  Like any conjuring trick, we are misdirected and mesmerised by the illusion (ever seen this video?), failing to see the heap of used-up lives, broken promises, and exploitation on top of which any successful performer is standing, occasionally stamping on the hands reaching up to pull him down.

I recently watched the films Man On Wire and My Architect, and it seemed to me that the lesson of both was that, if you value your ordinary life, you should stay well away from people committed to a personal vision, whether it be of high political office, grandiose architecture, wire-walking, or just the needy pursuit of laughter and applause.

Such people will hurt you without regret -- destroy you, even -- if they feel they have to.  Life has few fates more precarious than a walk-on support role in some monomaniac's personal drama.  If it doesn't seem to be working out -- not funny enough, not the right narrative arc -- they'll simply write you out of the script.

Show biz kids making movies
Of themselves you know they
Don't give a fuck about anybody else

Steely Dan, "Show Biz Kids" **

* One of those Ugly Rumours friends-of-friends subsequently became a civil servant, and tells the tale of encountering Blair in a Number 10 corridor.  He was about to high-five and wassup Mr. Tony when he realised the dignified old chap accompanying him was Nelson Mandela.

**  If you have never heard the album "Countdown to Ecstasy" by Steely Dan, you really should get hold of a copy.  For me, it is one of the supreme achievements of the 1970s.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Subtly Subversive

Here's a useful quotation, used by photographer Pradip Malde on his website.  The author is setting up a discussion of Malde's work with the platinum process, but it's an interesting illustration of how, sometimes, being a bit conservative can be the more radical thing:

Given that so much contemporary art has been styled as a radical negation of the formal conventions of artwork, it is surprising that the fine art photographic print still maintains a credibility and force. The element of craft and technical expertise can seem retrogressive in an atmosphere of fevered conceptualism and self-conscious avant-garde dissonance. Certainly the photograph has been subject to this radicalisation with the 'snapshot', the vernacular photograph, the serial study, the neutral or 'deadpan' form, the confessional abject image, the conceptual photograph all finding favour within the contemporary art world. Indeed, all of these forms have been captured by the institutions, the galleries and the academies, so that in some sense they construct the new establishment. Within this frame the photographers who remain fascinated by the metier appear both conventional and contradictory. Conventional, in that they recognise a history which remains unresolved and open to development, and contradictory, in that they oppose the measured intellectual strategies of the conceptual in favor of a subtly subversive concern with form and content.

Tom Normand, Scottish Photography: a history (2007)

It would have been better written in plain English, of course, but academics are contractually-obliged to write in this constipated style, and it summarises recent photographic history in a neat way, I think.

St. Catherine's Hill, New Year's Day 2013

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Still King

While the subject is still vaguely topical, I thought I'd raise the issue of "round-robins".  I'm not sure how far this term is understood, internationally, so I'd better define what I'm talking about.

You know how, at this time of year, you get greetings cards from people?  And sometimes tucked inside the card there's a folded sheet of paper, printed from a generic word-processor file, but generally with a hand-written salutation including your name?  And how the sheet details all the news for the past year from the person (or more usually family) that is the source of the greetings card?  Of course you do!  Well, that sheet of paper is referred to as a "round-robin".

I'm not sure why, as the original usage of "round-robin" referred to a single document passed around between and quite often signed by a number of people.  It was a mix of a petition, a pre-email office memo (remember those?), and a chain letter.  Its circulating singularity was its point. After all, I've never seen those generic, personalised mailshots, sent out en masse by banks and charities, referred to as "round-robins".  Personally, I call those "Dear [your name here]" letters.

Anyway, these innocent family news-sheets have attracted a hate campaign in recent years.  Simon Hoggart has been campaigning against them in The Guardian for ages, and this year -- over a whole week of mornings on BBC Radio 4's Today programme -- Lynne Truss trained her not inconsiderable comic talents on them.  It was like watching a Royal Navy destroyer getting a rubber dinghy full of drunks in range of its guns, and letting rip.  Enough!  For pity's sake, enough!

The received wisdom is that round-robins are annoying because they are smug, show-offy, and often come from people you don't know or would rather forget.  All true, of course, but -- if we're talking about annoying things --  it annoys me considerably more that would-be comics trade so often in received wisdom and -- let's call it out for what it is -- playground-style bullying.

It annoys me that the social agenda can be set by means of snark.

What is "snark"?  It is a witty, mashed-up reflex of sarcasm, cynicism, and cruel and malicious stereotyping, served in an ironic wrapper of cool disengagement.  Typically, it is a young man's humour, one that sets the reassuring boundaries of what is OK and what is not OK by means of laughter.  Gays are OK, now, but fat people aren't OK.  Disability is a taboo, but there is open season on ambition and education.  FFS keep up, granny!

Even though I was once a bit of a snark-meister myself, I find I can't watch those TV comedy shows, where regular panel guests "improvise" responses to topical events, or provide snark-based amusement in the guise of a quiz.  It reminds me too much of school, where Bully or be Bullied was the law.  It's annoying that humour -- possibly the most potent means of changing minds known to humanity -- has been hi-jacked by laddish conformists, posing as iconoclasts.

Now that round-robins have been declared officially naff, it seems people have been embarrassed into the new conformity, and stopped sending them.  Which is a shame, as it's actually rather good to get those annual updates from the outer fringes of acquaintance.  Of course, my unembarrassable American friends are untouched by this trend (Simon Hogwarts? Lynne what?), but there has definitely been a falling off.

So, next year let's all go for it.  Let everyone know every excruciating detail of your operation, every last grade of every child's exams, your endless hassles with builders and decorators, your holidays, the weather, your chin-up attitude to the ordinary and extraordinary trials of everyday life...

You could even make it all up.  And while you're at it why not send a copy to Simon Hoggart and Lynne Truss?

N.B. the title of this post refers to a (probably apocryphal) story, in which a man at an up-market drinks party, unsure of the identity of his interlocutor, asks, "And what are you doing these days?"  To which the other man answers, "Oh, you know, still King".

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Year's Day 2013

It's been a beautiful day, today, with clear air and a strong, raking light.  A good day to be out, after so many dismally wet days, and a good day to start a new year.  Here are the traditional photos from the compulsory New Year's Day walk:

We were up on St. Catherine's Hill and Twyford Down, and somehow I seemed to be channelling Eric Ravilious today.  That second one, especially, is one of the most pleasing images I've made for a long time.  With any luck, a sign that the way is up from here on.

Happy New Year!.