Sunday 28 April 2013

Ashes Time

According to Robert Bly, the poet who became more famous as a thinker about the "crisis of masculinity" with his book Iron John, young viking men would often enter a permitted period of lassitude, when they would simply lie around the hall doing nothing much, maybe listening to Bj√∂rk or more likely Burzum, and often sleeping in the warm ashes of the fire.  This was known, apparently, as "ashes time".

These would presumably have been young noble vikings, and not the sons of working-stiff vikings (and certainly not anybody's daughters).  "Hey, there may be no daylight today but wood needs chopping to make fresh ashes for his lordship to wallow in, you lazy git -- get out of bed right now!"

One of the great advances of modern society since the 1970s has been the democratisation of ashes time. In the absence of any actual work to do -- not even any wood seems to need chopping -- whole sections of the population have nothing better to do than stay in bed.  For the first decade or two, this can seem like an extremely fine idea.

Unfortunately, as the Nouveau Idle do not stand to inherit the Great Hall or the dragon-headed ship, and will not by right of birth lead raids or steer great enterprises of state, this period of wool-gathering, day-dreaming and daytime TV amounts to nothing more than an extended false start to life.

Ashes, indeed.

Someone has been busy making ash piles up on St. Catherine's Hill.  The view is gradually opening up, as trees and scrub are felled and burned, in an attempt to recreate "proper" chalk downland.

However, I suspect that the scrub will be planning its counter-attack right now.  Thorn and brambles never sleep.  They know the weakness of our species, with our fondness for permitted or enforced periods of lassitude.  They'll be back.

Friday 26 April 2013

Path to Nowhere

Found myself out by Hockley Viaduct and St. Catherine's Hill last weekend.  Looked up, saw a Red Kite.  Ho hum.  No starlings, though.

It's strange, the way they have "renovated" the viaduct.  As I must have mentioned before, one of the reasons it is a remarkable thing is that it was one the first ever poured-concrete structures, made in 1888.  The fancy brick exterior is merely a cladding. Yet all that seems to have been done is that the brick parapet has been repaired (you can see the repointed brickwork in the photograph) and the old railbed cleared and given a tarmac surface.  I suppose someone must have checked the structural integrity of the edifice -- is the underlying concrete sound?  -- but there is no evidence of it.

It has now become a rather pointless but safe (?) elevated path to nowhere, popular with parents with buggies and small children on trainer-bikes.  This is fitting, in a way, as the viaduct was originally constructed because one of two railway companies which were building competing lines from London to Southampton went bust when it reached Winchester.  To save the truncated line to the east of St. Catherine's Hill becoming a highway to nowhere, a link was made from that line to the one to the west of the hill -- hence the viaduct, built to get the linking track over the River Test.  Now that only the successful line survives, the viaduct is a large brick-clad anomaly in a field next to a motorway slip-road.

View (much cropped) from St. Catherine's Hill, over the Hockley 
Viaduct and M3 motorway towards the Winchester Park and Ride

Thursday 25 April 2013

I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down

I have been reminiscing with old schoolfriend Zouk about our former lives as deadly ninja warriors in training.  Which is to say, like thousands of small kids tired of being jumped on by larger kids, we once did a bit of junior judo.

Judo had a strange, almost magical aura in the 1960s.  It was seen as the uncanny Japanese art of throwing improbably large opponents across a room, effortlessly and elegantly.  Secret agents like James Bond and Emma Peel did judo, but in that careful-but-spectacular way that only a willing or exceptionally stupid victim (and a suitably-placed safety mat) will allow.  Ah so!  Judo was a metaphor, as much as anything: the triumph of cunning over brute force by using an opponent's own weight and fury against him. Although more deadly and aggressive martial arts like karate were already part of popular culture, judo was usually the only game in town if you wanted to learn one, especially if "town" was a small provincial backwater.

I attended classes once a week from about age 10.  For the first few years this was in a slightly dingy local community centre.  The tatami mats were kept in a large wall-cupboard, and our first task on a Saturday morning was to assemble our own dojo floor, placing the mats side by side, putting wooden stretchers around the perimeter, and then hauling and lashing the canvas covering into place.  The sense-memory of bare feet stepping out of dojo slippers (a.k.a. rubber flip-flops) onto a canvas pulled taut over tatami mats is still an exciting feeling.

Our teacher was a stout moustachioed man who had not progressed beyond a blue belt, and was given to retreating outside for a cigarette while we practised our breakfalls.  He was a kind and patient teacher, though, and good with kids, but his own lack of progress was bound to be a brake on ours.  Well, what do you expect for half-a-crown a week in a New Town community centre?

A lot of children start judo classes, but not many last more than a few months.  It's hard work acquiring the necessary techniques, and constant, boring repetition is required to train your "muscle memory".  It quickly transpires that there is no magic or secret knowledge involved.  Also, there is no hitting and, at junior level, no strangling, choking or arm-twisting, which some find a disappointment. But I was reasonably good at it, and really liked the sense of a cultural hinterland behind the Japanese names and rituals, so I stuck with it.

A lot of myths about the irrelevance of size and strength are attached to judo.   Being short and stocky does give you a low centre of gravity, and certain throws ( morote-seionage and hip-throws like o-goshi, for example) play to your strengths.  Others, especially those requiring long legs and crane-like leverage (say, o-soto-gari or harai-goshi) do not.  At competition level, contestants are weight-matched, just as they are in boxing.  Trust me, a good big 'un will flatten a good little 'un, every time.

Once a year we'd travel all the way from Stevenage to Luton for grading sessions, which in those days required actual combat, and usually came back with a new red stripe or mon on our belts. Somewhere, I still have my British Judo Association license, a little black booklet with my advancing grades filled in and signed off like a school report.  There was always something a little thrilling about being licensed to perform judo.

Of course, the irony is that being known to practise judo only serves to attract more, not less, attention from bullies.  You soon learn to shut up about it -- a valuable lesson in itself.  The zen-like art of keeping a low profile is the natural protective colouration of the school playground, and this chameleon-like attitude is the essence of what is meant by the expression "street-wise".

Alas, in a wicked world, the truth is that judo is pretty ineffectual as a form of self-defence.  Setting aside the problem that our streets are not populated by co-operative partners, barefoot in "angry white pyjamas", the sad fact is that judo is essentially a sport, with careful rules and restrictions precisely aimed at not maiming or disabling your opponent.  Faced with a bad man with a bad attitude, possibly armed with a weapon, stepping in close enough to pull him into a dance-like embrace is never going to be a good move. As sports go, I would recommend athletics -- sprinting and middle-distance running, ideally -- as the wisest choice for self-defence purposes.

Where judo does come into its own is in falling over.  If you've ever been a fan of any form of intoxication, or are just clumsy or unobservant, you'll have tripped or simply fallen over from time to time.  I know I have.  Constant practice of breakfalls in my youth, however, means that cat-like muscle memory takes over as I head for the floor, and serious injury or embarrassment is generally averted.

Few things are as impressive as a middle-aged man tripping over his suitcase, going into a forward rolling breakfall, and ending up straight back on his feet again.  Hooray!  Do it again, daddy!

Ah, OK, so that WAS a gun in your pocket...
(image borrowed from

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Rotten Smoke and Heavenly Alchemy

Shakespeare's probable birthday today.
Sonnet 33

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
 Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
 Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.

Sonnet 34

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
'Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak
That heals the wound and cures not the disgrace:
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender's sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence's cross.
   Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
   And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds. 

I am an admirer of poet Don Paterson's interpretations of the Sonnets.  Annoyingly flippant and matey in tone, at first sight, you slowly realise the true depth of his engagement with each poem and its place in the whole sequence.  This is quite some achievement.  As he says
"The problem with reading Shakespeare's sonnets is the sonnets themselves, by which I mean their reputation. Much in the same way as it's almost impossible to see the Mona Lisa as anything but a parody of itself, or hear Satie's Trois Gymnopedies without the feeling that someone's trying to sell you something – a bar of chocolate perhaps – it's initially hard to get close to the sonnets, locked as they are in the carapace of their own proverbialism. "A Shakespeare sonnet" is almost as much a synonym for "love poem" as "Mona Lisa" is for "beautiful woman". When something becomes proverbial, it almost disappears; and worse, we're allowed to think we know it when we really don't."
He is in no doubt that Shakespeare was gay or bisexual, and describing a real emotional and physical relationship with another man, complicated by a shared affair with the so-called "dark lady": it is extraordinary how long this obvious reading of the sonnets was resisted.  Evidence?  The poems themselves... In 2013, it is impossible to read them closely and in sequence without reaching any other conclusion.  In 1613?  Who knows? The sheer reckless boldness of this may have been its best disguise, of course; hiding in plain sight, as we say.

If you have an iPad, the Sonnets app from Touch Press is a must-have.  You get the texts, in modern and facsimile 1609 folio versions, readings by actors, plus the full commentary from the Arden edition and interpretations from Don Paterson's book, all interactively and contextually linked together.  You can get happily lost in there for hours.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Mock Tudor

On Saturday, the first truly sunny spring day we've had, I walked along the road that divides the railway from the docks (yet another place where a portable stepladder would come in handy). I'd hoped to get some shots of a massive cruise liner that had been docked when I drove by earlier that morning, but it had already gone.  Well, there's not a lot for cruise passengers to see or do in Southampton docks, unless they have a deep interest in very large cranes, shipping containers, or oil refineries.

But I had never noticed this mock-Tudor block of flats (?) before.  It looks rather like the rear view of an Elizabethan playhouse.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Afternoon

To misquote Robert Frost, whose woods these are I have no idea, lovely, dark and deep as they are.  Given the sudden advent of spring-like conditions this morning, I think these are probably the last of the Easter snow pictures I will show.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Holy Grails, Batman

Two follow-ups to the previous post.

First, something I would have mentioned, except that that I didn't want to set you too much homework, was a certain resemblance of the "A.D. Harvey" case to that of "T.J. Wise".  The Wise affair is a touchstone in the (admittedly small and specialised) world of historical bibliography; that is, the study of the history of the physical means of production of books and other printed matter.

The year of my life that I endured studying for a master's degree in library and information studies at University College London was greatly enlivened by a course on historical bibliography given by Nicolas Barker, then at the British Library.  It struck me after a couple of his lectures that here was a man who should immediately be given a TV series; Nicolas Barker is the David Attenborough of bibliography.  Flamboyant, entertaining, vastly knowledgeable, and keen to inform, from the moment he removed his cycle clips and dumped a bicycle-basket filled with tatty leather-bound tomes onto a table, dramatically ripping one of them apart, I was spellbound.

Bear in mind that bibliography is potentially dull, dull stuff.  It's all about how printers work, how books are constructed from printed sheets, how type founts (note that spelling, pronounced "font") are developed and used, how paper is made, and ultimately how that knowledge can be used to reverse-engineer a historical book, and thus decide whether it is an earlier or subsequent printing than another, almost identical printing of the same text.  The holy grail, of course, being to establish the precedence of various printed editions of, say, Shakespeare's plays (quartos, folio, etc.).  Nicolas Barker had the gift of making all this dry stuff seem compelling.

One of the most fascinating bibliographic tales is the way the relatively new systematic study of book production uncovered a particularly cunning fraud, whereby T.J. Wise, a respected bibliographer (in the literary sense), seeded his catalogues with "rarities", some of which (mainly those by 19th century authors) did not actually exist, but which he then proceeded to have manufactured and to sell at a good price to collectors.  These items were freshly printed, but others were incomplete copies "made up" using leaves removed by Wise -- a trusted authority -- from items in the British Museum's collection.  The book published in 1934 exposing the skulduggery, An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets, by John Carter and Graham Pollard, is a classic of investigative procedure.

The second thing, on "mad but somehow compelling quests" in general, was this cartoon by Max Beerbohm which I thought was highly relevant:

The Sole Remark Likely to Have Been Made by Benjamin Jowett about the Mural Paintings at the Oxford Union:  "And what were they going to do with the Grail when they found it, Mr. Rossetti?"

Illustration by Max Beerbohm from "Rossetti and his Circle" (1922)

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Fake For Fake's Sake

The subject of fakes, forgeries, and hoaxes is a fascinating one, and if you have any kind of anti-authoritarian streak it does have a certain appeal, but it also has a depressing side.  It is one thing to forge a million pounds-worth of perfect banknotes or to knock out fake Vermeers, but to carefully insinuate works by minor (or fictional) artists into the art market, backed up by false documentation, or to seed academic journals with false data to prop up an otherwise unsupportable case is quite a sad sort of enterprise.  Rather than boldly challenging the greed of the market (and making large sums of real money in the process), that second sort of activity simply undermines confidence in accepted processes of verification.  Its psychology is not so much criminal as adolescent:  See, so-called expert? You thought you were so clever, but you're not!

I read the TLS most weeks, so it's no surprise to me that it publishes readable articles by experts on subjects of significance and interest.  But one of the articles in last week's issue (10th April 2013) has attracted an unusual amount of attention on the Web, and has come as close as a piece in a scholarly weekly is ever likely to come to "going viral".

Rather than repeat or summarise a complex and entertainingly-written piece, I invite you to read it yourself.  You'll be away for some time, so I will now go and make a cup of tea.  Meanwhile, here's a (genuine) picture.

Welcome back.  A curious case, no?  You do encounter such people if you work in a university.  I'd say barely a week goes by without the unsolicited gift of a work of "independent scholarship" arriving in the library, or an emailed invitation to purchase some self-proclaimed (and self-published) work of overlooked genius.  Nearly all of these, of course, are perfectly genuine, although many are clearly the product of an unquiet mind with a weakness for conspiracies. But it got me thinking about some other some unresolved cases of, uh, enigmatic origins that keep the private scholars and alternative theorists busy.

One such is the Voynich Manuscript.  If you have never come across this intriguing object before, and have a taste for cryptographic mysteries or truly weird pictures, then this may be of interest.  Again, rather than rehearse a story that others have told better, here is a link to a recent article that may or may not shed some light on this curious case.  Time for another pictorial interlude.

Welcome back again.  I think the most telling paragraph in that article is this:
Kircher was not up to the task, and neither was Friedman, who never published anything on the Voynich save a footnote to a paper on Chaucer that he and his wife wrote for Philological Quarterly. The footnote was anagrammed (in the tradition of Galileo’s repudiation of Ptolemy), with its solution provided in a sealed envelope for later disclosure, when Friedman believed he would have solved the cypher. The anagram, which reaches the limit of Friedman’s sense of humor, reads, “I put no trust in anagrammatic acrostic cyphers, for they are of little real value—a waste—and may prove nothing.—Finis.” Readers wrote in possible solutions, some delightfully reprinted in an editor’s note (“To arrive at a solution of the Voynich Manuscript, try these general tactics: a song, a punt, a prayer. William F. Friedman.” Or “This is a trap, not a trot. Actually I can see no apt way of unraveling the rare Voynich Manuscript. For me, defeat is grim.”) Friedman never managed to solve the Voynich, and after his death, the editor of Philological Quarterly opened the envelope bearing the solution to the anagram: “The Voynich Manuscript was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the A-Priori type.—Friedman.” A synthetic language, rather than a cryptogram, was his best guess.

What I find telling is how brilliantly apposite the attempts to solve the anagram are.  Yet completely wrong.  Even in a case where there is a known cipher, addressing a known problem, in a known language, you simply step into a bewildering hall of mirrors with no exit.  That way, surely, madness lies.

Talking of Hamlet, all this clue-hunting and code-breaking reminds me of the eternal hunt for secret messages concealed in Shakespeare, clues to the "real" identity of the author of the plays.  One of the best demonstrations of the futility of such quests is the astonishing fact that the words "To be or not to be: that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" are -- outrageously -- an anagram of "in one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero Hamlet queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten ..."

As the man says, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Especially if that idiot has been faking the evidence all along.

Monday 15 April 2013


The Thatcher Thing has inevitably re-awakened some old memories.  I do try to keep away from nostalgia if I possibly can, though it does make for an easy blog-post.  This is partly because my memory has started to resemble that Caspar David Friedrich painting, "The Wanderer Above the Mists".  Certain events stand out like islands, whilst everything else has disappeared beneath a fog of forgetting.  I remember what I remember, the rest is silence.  Especially where the Thatcher years are concerned.

Where did I put those keys?

But it's also because every time I venture down Memory Lane, someone emerges from a house and starts shouting abuse at me over the hedge.  I'm sure they must have me muddled with someone else, but...

I recently mentioned a get-together in Oxford back in the summer of 2004, one of a series of such events (three, or was it four? Ah, I remember it well ...) which are themselves slowly disappearing into that all-enveloping mist, and turning into a single, jumbled memory.  But I do vividly remember one very hot June afternoon at the Trout Inn, sat around several garden tables with a cohort of friends, comrades and, um, others.  And I particularly remember being buttonholed by a woman I thought I barely knew, now apparently something quite senior in the legal profession, despite once having had all the gravitas of Goldie Hawn.

"You were really obnoxious, you know!"
"Who, me?"
"Yes, you were always dressed as a skinhead, and were very rude to people!"
"Who, ME??"
"Yes, you always had braces on your trousers ..."
"Ah, true, sometimes..."
"... And you always wore bovver boots ..."
"Those were ordinary Dr. Martens..."
"...  And you would say the most appalling things, just to upset people!  Totally obnoxious!!"
"Guilty as charged, Ma'am.  Though I am now much reformed.  Where did you buy those ridiculous sandals, by the way?  Poundland?"

A company of obnoxious rogues.  The sharp-eyed may spot the man
 recently crowned "The Prince of Press Regulation" by Private Eye.

Well!  I'm just a soul whose intentions are good...  But, sadly, you have no control over other people's memories.  If they remember you as totally obnoxious -- truly laughable though that is -- there's no point in arguing the matter.  Obnoxious it is!

But the point is:  the past has gone.  Really gone.  You cannot revisit it, or pass through it on your way to somewhere else, or stumble into one of its forgotten suburbs.  I am especially conscious of this as much of "my" physical past has literally gone. The house I was born in:  demolished and built over.  My primary school: demolished and built over.  The block of flats where I spent my adolescence: demolished and built over.  All constructed in the utopian dreamtime of the 50s and 60s, all wrecked in the cynical aftermath.

Which is not to say that the consequences of the past do not live with us every minute of every day. But there is no Tribunal of Truth or Court of History where the accuracy of competing accounts can finally be settled by omniscient recording angels, and there never will be. I think many people find this one of the hardest childhood illusions to shed -- it's a last vestige of naive religiosity, but it's also one of the wellsprings of our innate sense of justice.

Which brings us back to Thatcher, naturally.

Now, I really am not going all the way to London on Wednesday to shake my fist at a corpse.  After all, I spent a good part of the 1980s shaking my fist, at an endless series of protests, mass demonstrations, and picket lines. A lot of people now claim also to have done so, but I don't remember seeing their faces. A lot of fantasists claim to have been at Goose Green and Port Stanley, too.  Maybe they were, maybe they weren't.

Perhaps they were all really shaking their fists at a TV screen, which is not, I believe, generally regarded as an effective form of political action. Who knows, maybe if a few more people had just turned up back then things might have turned out differently?  Perhaps a lot of the current fist-shaking, chest-beating and hyperventilating over the Wicked Witch is actually guilt and regret:  I could have done more, but chose to concentrate on my career, my family, my personal projects.  Curse you, Margaret Thatcher!  It's all a bit reminiscent of the statue of Saddam Hussein coming down.

Margaret Thatcher, as the apologists asking for some respect to be shown say, quite rightly, was merely a single human being, who rode her luck and played her political cards well. It takes the acquiescence of a whole society to bring about the sort of wholesale changes that happened in the 1980s.  Did you or your parents buy your council house? Did you or your parents collect shares in de-nationalised utilities? Did you or your parents even bother to vote in 1979, 1983, 1987, or 1992?

"Obnoxious? Who, me?", Thatcher must have said to herself, from time to time.  "I merely did what I thought was right.  I have no regrets.  How about you?"

Your blogger assembles a magic totem, ca. 1979.
"Out, demons, out!"

Saturday 13 April 2013

Mountain Memory

The hills of mid-Wales are not spectacular, but do have a quiet grandeur that is typical of British uplands.  Any aspiration to being "mountainous" was ground out of them in successive ice ages, leaving a hard core of deeply-furrowed, round-shouldered hills. They're mainly Silurian and Ordovician sedimentary rocks with volcanic "intrusions" and the consequent metamorphic rocks -- slate, most famously -- are extensively quarried.  We know at least one "hill" which is like a Potemkin village facade, utterly hollowed out on the far side.

They have also been mined for metals such as lead and gold since the Bronze Age, and the remains of Roman and later mines can still be found littering the landscape.  Often, it seems, with a stolen car abandoned at the bottom.  Well, it's an ironic sort of recycling, I suppose.

Cwmystwyth, April 2005

Although bleak now, there has been inhabitation for thousands of years, mainly in periods of milder climate.  The recent snow was of precisely the right sort -- relatively dry, not too heavy, and easily wind-blown -- to reveal surface features, and aerial archaeologists had a field day (or possibly field month). From the sky, these hills are scribbled with prehistory, a veritable palimpsest, to use a favourite word of this blog.

My picture above seems to show two landscapes for the price of one: the illusion of a range of snow-covered jagged peaks -- perhaps a memory of what it may have looked like a couple of Ice Ages ago -- and a worn upland grooved with mysterious ditches and trackways.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Somehow Interrupted

Apologies in advance: what follows may come across as snarky.  Insofar as "snark" is a form of sublimated anger, the charge may be justified.  I plead provocation, your honour.

A while ago, I observed that much contemporary photography is, well, boring.  Of course, what strikes a 59-year old straight white male as dull may not be the best guide to current fashions, it's true.  I'm very aware that my mid-period boomer sensibility is gradually becoming as historic as, say, the use of a Claude glass.  But, although it is only natural that one's tastes and influences are gradually pushed to the periphery by new things, a lot of the work that gets the attention these days is pretty uninteresting, isn't it?

Why?  Well, I think photography's primary strength -- its essential passive verity -- has become its main disadvantage as a medium.  It has become a lazy way to achieve that "hands off" approach so sought after by those who -- for art-historical and philosophical reasons that have never felt convincing to me -- experience a horror at the thought of being held personally responsible for anything so unironic and downright earnest as a well-crafted aesthetic object or experience, or who reject the very attempt to express something of what it is like to be alive in the current moment.

The realisation of the existence of multiple selves within a single body and multiple realities within one world, not to mention the constructedness of our perceptions and social conventions -- gasp! -- seems to throw some people into a guilty panic.  Add in a degree of complicity with the suppression and exploitation of The Other, and various category-error confusions (speech is really a form of writing, didn't you know?!) and you have the Perfect Storm of the post-modern-lite sensibility.

The panic and the guilt need not be genuine, of course.  A show of existential, epistemological confusion is a fashionable move, seemingly taught in all the best art-schools.  "Feel the fear and get the project award, anyway", you might say.  Consider this puff for a photo-book: "Writing about X's work, distinguished art historian Z notes: 'X has learned that all observation, including the seemingly most objective, is always subjective, selective, slanted, focused, blurred, disconnected, or somehow interrupted.'”

Well, jolly well done, X!  Now you've learned that the best pictures are always subjective, selective, slanted, focused, blurred, disconnected, and somehow interrupted, you've got the all-important attention and approval of the aesthetic gatekeepers!  Milk it while you can.  But doesn't the word "illustration" springs to mind? Aren't you just making pictures that illustrate an approved sensibility?  Shouldn't they be struggling to explain you, not the other way round?

Ironically, that hands-off, affectless, non-expressive approach has become a style in its own right.  It's everywhere.  It's a look, a sort of visual executive summary of some really quite tricky philosophical territory.  Well, let's be honest: a style is something far more readily understood and appropriated by the aspiring young artist, typically someone for whom the study of boring, difficult, and contradictory texts was always going to be challenging.

Cameras are innocent: they have no ideological baggage, and no commitment to suspect grand narratives.  Excellent! With photographs you can have your aesthetic-philosophic cake, and eat it, too.  Rather than express your problematic self, you can "curate" images created at one remove by an impassive recording machine, and yet still take the credit.  The less skill the better.  Why, you can even appropriate work made by someone else.

Perfectly contemporary! But very, very boring.

Tuesday 9 April 2013


I believe it is true that, at certain designated touristic viewpoints, Kodak used to put footprints on the ground, showing you the proper place to stand to take your photograph.  These days, various tourism-oriented bodies put "interpretation boards" at designated sites, telling you the proper things to think. Sometimes there's even a handy simplified picture, in case you have difficulty with seeing what is in front of you. They mean well, I suppose.

Mid-Wales is not yet over-afflicted with such domestication, but one of our favourite sites has now officially been put on the tourist map.  Why, they've even extended the trackway and put a little car-park nearby, so you don't even have to make the ten-minute trudge up the valley to see it.  So considerate!

Luckily, the snow, the cold, and the rather dodgy iced and pot-holed track meant that we did have Water-Break-Its-Neck to ourselves.  It does seem to have shrunk, though, and its mystery somehow diminished by the provision of proper safety-conscious paths.

Mind you, it is a dangerous place:  those glassy ledges are slippery with wet algae even when they're not iced over, and if you foolishly try to climb the falls -- let's say, in search of a better place to stand for a photograph -- you will soon find yourself back at the bottom again.

Monday 8 April 2013

The Wicked Witch is Dead

Just heard the news.  No crocodile tears, no balance, no regrets... Let the dancing commence!

... And We're Back

Oddly, the thought uppermost in my mind as we return from Wales is that, like sparrows, starlings seem to be making a comeback.

Several decades ago, I remember going deep into the desolate heartland of Mid-Wales where  -- it was rumoured, if you were lucky -- on the edge of a certain field on a certain hill, you might catch a glimpse of a Red Kite, one of a handful still surviving.  Our luck was in that day, and we felt blessed to watch the dipping, slipping flight of that wonderful fork-tailed bird, as it quartered the hillside in the light spring rain.

How things change.

In June 2004 I was returning from a get-together in Oxford, and as the train pulled out of Reading station I was amazed to see two Red Kites circling high in the blue suburban skies. A reintroduction scheme has been spectacularly successful, and now they are regularly seen in the M3 and M4 motorway corridors as far south as Winchester.  It's just a matter of time before one appears over our back garden.

In the meantime, sparrows and starlings seemed to have made themselves as scarce as Red Kites.  Perhaps they felt under-appreciated.  Whatever the reasons, it has come to something when, in 2013, it is a flock of starlings that causes you to grab your binoculars in a state of excitement.  Suddenly, this Easter, lambing sheds and cow barns were alive with that unmistakable chatter, and flocks would burst out of them and barrel in tight formation over the hedges and fields.

The snow and the delayed spring, of course, were the main features of our week.  The day we arrived, my partner went for a stroll up the lane, and found a post-van stuck in a drift.  The driver, a Brummie, had driven straight into a four-foot wall of snow across the road with the over-optimistic expectation of emerging on the other side.  Not quite.  It took a tractor and a tow-rope to get him out.

The cold weather meant that I didn't sleep too well.  Not because of the cold, but because the barn conversion we use has an under-floor heating system powered by an extremely green heat-exchange mechanism buried in the hillside.  The barn was completely rebuilt from fresh-cut oak timbers in 2010 and has polished wood flooring.  It looks great, but the whole thing creaks and cracks all the way through the night as the heating kicks in.  It can seem as if several ghostly insomniacs are endlessly pacing about.  I suppose you'd get used it eventually, but it's a bit too much like being in a wooden ship afloat in a sea of frosty air.

We had a good week, though, and I'll trickle out some of the better photographs during this week, rather than laying out the whole deck now.

Sunday 7 April 2013

One Red Berry

[Last of this week's front-loaded posts]

 It is always amazing to me that there is anything left for the wildlife to eat out there by this time of year.  You'd think the cupboard would be bare after four months of constant winter foraging, but -- thankfully -- it never is, quite.  Even in an agricultural landscape like the one above (Test Valley near Mottisfont) -- systematically strip-mined of vegetation by the plough, strung with high-tension electricity cables, and planted with inedible and alien monoculture species like wheat and barley -- the remaining trees and hedgerows provide enough food and shelter.

In fact, incredibly, there are now thought to be more deer at large in Britain than at any time since the last Ice Age.  It's true, you do see them everywhere, stood in the middle of fields with ears pricked as your train rattles by.  We hear them barking at night in our suburban corner of the South Coast conurbation, and a few years ago, a female Roe Deer appeared looking speculatively over our garden wall.  Venison steaks and sausages regularly appear in most supermarkets.

Most wild creatures seem to have an inbuilt restraint that prevents them from scoffing the lot, when confronted by a hedge full of ripe berries.  They must have been pleasantly surprised about 10,000 years ago, when those greedy two-legged monkeys, with their sharp eyes, baskets and digging sticks, stopped competing for a limited supply of seasonal treats, and started planting their own.

Friday 5 April 2013

Hi-Tech Windows

I found these two strays in the turn-ups of my bio-hazard suit trousers.  They both look like stills from a 1980s "the aliens are amongst us" thriller, but were both taken in the last couple of years in or near the University.

It's nice to know someone is doing the sort of work that even a man like Michael Gove can recognise as "advanced technology".  Though I imagine the Sausage Construction Laboratory at Universal Foods & Glues Ltd. looks quite similar.

That top one will some day make an interesting pairing with one of the "graduation marquee" images.  The bottom one, I'm not so sure about.  I like the way the printed circuit is emerging from behind the shattered mirror, like the shot in a film where damaged skin reveals a person to be a cyborg.  But I have no idea why it was there -- maybe it fell off a UFO, or is some alien's heads-up helmet display?  Or even an early prototype of the dreaded Google Glass?

I'd better call Torchwood...

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Pigeon Post

Pigeons are amazing birds.  They're obviously a bit of a pest, but that's because they are so successful, so robust, and so adaptable.  Where crows are smart, pigeons are persistent.  If a pigeon spots a sandwich crumb under your bench, no amount of kicking or hand-clapping is going to keep it away.  If a pigeon decides your window-ledge is a good spot for a nest, then lots of luck persuading it otherwise.

Yes, they are "rats with wings" (in Woody Allen's phrase), but such wings!  For all their apparent waddling bulk on the ground, once airborne pigeons are simply the best, exulting in their own speed and aerobatic prowess.  It takes all the swift surprise of a stooping Peregrine Falcon to take down a pigeon in flight.

They also clearly have multi-faceted social lives on a par with rooks: they communicate with each other in what appears to be a complex mix of voice, gesture, and flight pattern.  And if you've ever watched a male pigeon trying to court a female -- with much bowing, hopping, chasing, stylised spreading of wings and tail, plus time-outs for sulks and reconsideration ("Your beak she say no, but... Ah, and your tail she say no, too...") -- you'll know the true depth of a pigeon's persistence.

During the winter months, pigeons seem to develop a craving for ivy berries, and will go to amazing lengths to get at them.  If you hear a flapping commotion up in the trees, the chances are it will be a couple of pigeons hanging upside down like parrots, or wobbling out to the ends of the thinnest twigs that will just bear their weight, wings spread and waving like amateur wire-walkers.

If only they didn't regard city-centre buildings as convenient cliffs, and bury the sky-facing architecture under tons of their disgusting guano, we might feel more charitable towards them.  I have to say, they're also very tasty -- I had a delicious meal of fricasseed pigeon breasts in France a few years ago, though I doubt those were feral pigeons raised on fag ends and street debris.

btw, am I the only one to hear the Wood Pigeon's summertime cooing as "The whole world's watching, the whole world's watching, the whole world's watching ... now"?  Hmm, thought so.  But just you wait until they start up...

btw2, did you know that the publisher of Creative Camera was called the Coo Press because Colin Osman (founding editor) was also a racing pigeon fancier, and had worked for Racing Pigeon weekly?

btw3, according to his obituary, Colin Osman is alleged to have gone to Alleyne's Grammar School, Stevenage (my own secondary school) in its pre-WW2 version, something which I have my fact-checkers working on.  A decade ago I bought a lot of excellent but well-used photo-books from Grace White, who may or may not have been Colin's widow.  A number of these were signed gifts -- "To Colin from Fay", that sort of thing.

It all fits...

Monday 1 April 2013

Somewhere in France

No April Fool, this.  As an antidote to the bleakness of the current weather here in Britain, here's a little reminder of summer.  A field somewhere in France, sometime in August, with a fierce afternoon sun and a strong breeze.

Of course, you'll have to imagine the hypnotic rustling of the grasses and dessicated sunflower heads, the high-pitched assault of insect noise, the effects of the glasses of wine you had with your simple but delicious lunch, and the burning sensation of the sun on the back of your neck...

The French say that the English are buying back control of Aquitaine, which we lost at the end of the Hundred Years' War in 1453, by stealth, house by house.  Well, who can blame us, if they're so willing to sell it?