Sunday 30 June 2013

Really Wild

Hobbies and "interests" are a normal part of growing up though, sadly, this seems less the case these days, when children's behaviour is much more closely policed by peers, parents, and -- worst of all -- multinational companies determined to move product via pester-power.  I've already described my youthful interest in "natural history", but I also had school-friends who bred pigeons or raised jackdaw nestlings, ran a stamp-dealing business, made model aircraft from scale plans, restored machine-tools, built movie-quality miniature worlds out of plaster and plasticine, and so on.  The spectrum of "normal" was very wide.  Though it's true my early-teens obsession with Australian aborigines did take me a little far out, at times.

The usual thing, of course, is for such intense interests to take a back seat in adolescence, when even more compelling interests come to the fore.  What is unusual is for them to come back to the front seat again, once the hormones have settled down.  [ Yes, I realise there's an amusing front seat/back seat joke lurking here, but remember British adolescents never own or have access to cars].  Even more unusual is for there to be a living to made out of them: it is an enviably happy person whose life-work is of a piece with their childhood hobbies.

I remember, when my son was about nine and still deep in his own dinosaurs and natural history phase, going one Saturday afternoon to our local "real" camera shop, City Photographic, probably to buy my weekly supply of film.  I gradually realised that he was rigid with focussed attention, like a pointer dog.  Following his gaze, I saw a familiar face and haircut and heard a distinctive, rhotacized voice.  It was Chris Packham, expert wildlife photographer, and one of the presenters of a favourite TV programme (and a much-watched "Dinosaur Special" video), The Really Wild Show.  It turned out he is a local boy.

Now, Chris is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. He is one of that select band of wildlife presenters who are potential Attenborough heirs, and there is a reason for that: his enthusiasm and knowledge go all the way down. You won't find many TV celebrities who can talk about a childhood spent delving for snakes in heathy tussocks in the New Forest, then going to bed unwashed, in order to keep the (allegedly) delightful smell of grass snake on their hands. Or who know a certain woman who is an authority on slugs, who says the only way to distinguish certain species is to taste them.  Such people are a precious resource.

Most of us fall by the wayside.  I remember at university meeting a guy who was studying life sciences, and discovering we had a childhood enthusiasm for moths in common. It turned out that very night he was going to be running a mercury vapour trap in his college garden -- something I'd often read about but never done -- and he invited me along.  It could have been the start of a beautiful friendship, and a revival of entomological passion.

But later on some other friends invited me to the bar, one thing led to another, and I forgot all about the light trap.  So it goes.  As in politics and all fields of endeavour, the crucial distinction in life is between those who express an interest, and those who show up.

Emmet Gowin,
 Mariposas Nocturnas. Edith in Panama (2006)

Friday 28 June 2013

Twyford Down

So far, this is the best place I've found to stand, that gives the fullest sense of the scar that the M3 cutting has made through Twyford Down.  As I've said before, I'm ambivalent about the place.  True, it is a massive act of vandalism, but it is also a rather magnificent presence in the landscape, isn't it?  And (whisper it) I do love to drive through that chalky canyon.

From here, you can see the scope of many of my recent weekend rambles.  We are looking more or less due north.  The cutting runs SW-NE.  Beyond it to the NW is St. Catherine's Hill and to the SE are Twyford Down and the Hockley golf course.  Why sliced golf balls aren't continually raining down onto the traffic I don't know.  You find them everywhere else underfoot on the downs, like toadstools.*

The Hockley Viaduct is on the extreme left of the picture, concealed by trees.  The River Itchen (which for some bizarre reason I keep referring to as the  River Test, which actually flows in a parallel valley several miles over to the West) and the Itchen Navigation canal run across the centre of the picture, within the dark green trees.  Winchester city is directly over the hill to the north.

In between rain, we've managed to enjoy several breezy, sunny afternoons, ambling across this chalk downland. It's at its prettiest now, in the early summer, when everything still holds on to its own shade of green, but is beginning to make a harmonized whole.

* And the wind shall say "Here were decent godless people;
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls."
T.S. Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

Wednesday 26 June 2013

My Brilliant Career

As you get older, there are certain days when you can see the shape of your own life.  It may not be a pleasing shape but, like the face you see in the mirror, it's the only one you've got.  Today was such a day.

Today we had a farewell lunchtime "do" for our Chief, who is retiring.  It went as well as these tribal things can, with warmly awkward words from people unaccustomed to public speaking, jokes, a presentation, and lots of familiar, semi-historic faces whose associated names have somehow evaporated from one's mind. The Ur-Chief was there, the one before the current one, the one who appointed me.  His opening salvo ("What, are you still here?") I took in good part, as he was looking frail and, after all, he'd given me the job 30 years ago on the understanding I'd be moving on to greater things in five years.  Old enough to appreciate my reference to the "pram in the hallway",* he is nevertheless of a generation that will never understand why any man's career would be halted by the arrival of children.  He, after all, had six.

Looking forward, the shape of my employed life -- a.k.a. my brilliant career -- is about to take a curious twist.  For the Chief's successor will be a woman who was once a trainee at the same time and place as me, and whose boss I was for about a year, before she did move on to better things.  That's going to be interesting.

But only for a short while.  I have now told enough people that I intend to take early retirement next year when I turn 60 to overcome any degree of cold feet when the time comes.  It will simply be too humilating not to have gone.  What, are you still here?

I must admit, I recoil at the prospect of one day having to stand up there, having the shape of my life described by a virtual stranger to people who have only the vaguest idea who I am. I have often said that the problem with retirees is that there's never anyone left, by the time they go, who remembers them when they were good at their job.  It may already be too late, but I intend to be moving on before that happens.

Who was that masked man?

* It comes from a once-famous essay by Cyril Connolly, "The Enemies of Promise", describing the life-factors and choices that work against the realisation of early "promise" in a career.

Monday 24 June 2013

Water Meadows

All along the Rivers Test and Itchen are water meadows or, strictly speaking, the remains of what used to be intensively-managed water meadows.  They were an important part of the agricultural scene, pasture that was deliberately flooded to encourage grass growth, using a system of side-channels known as "carriers", from which water was flooded over the meadow using a series of sluices and hatches.  Down by the river near Twyford you can still see them, little brick arches half-buried in the lush grass, like hump-backed bridges in some Beatrix Potter fantasy of trouser-wearing rabbits.

Although their agricultural importance has diminished, they are important habitats for wildlife.  What you can't see in these photographs are the dozens of swifts, martins and swallows skimming the grass at improbable speeds for insects in a mesmerizing aerobatic display. The Prof and I like to lean on a gate and watch them together for what seems like hours.  It seems incredible that so much energy can be generated from eating insects.  Insects! It also seems so unfair that the laws of gravity have been suspended just for them.

If you're lucky, a kingfisher will zip by, a blue spark sensed more than seen.  Not this weekend, though.  On a casual walk on Sunday we did see several herons, reed warblers, water voles, and various other species of what are technically-known as "brown jobbies" -- those small, furtive brown birds that are impossible to differentiate without binoculars (we'd forgotten them, again), an identification guide, and years of dedicated watching.  At times, you can appreciate the Victorian naturalist's approach to identification:  just shoot the bugger and take it home.

The highlight was a large, chestnut brown raptor that went up as we entered some trees -- not a buzzard, not a kite.  "Marsh Harrier" were the words that sprang to mind, but it was gone before I could get a good shot at of it.

Friday 21 June 2013

Chain of Fools

People of a certain age and inclination may recall Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention's satirical (and, um, inventive) album of 1968, We're Only In It For the Money, deliberately mocking [gasp!] the then not-yet-inviolably-iconic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and its knees-up psychedelia.  Younger folk may not realise that the whole hippie thing (not to mention the whole Beatles thing) was already ripe for parody by 1968. I cringe when I am asked, as if it were a matter of membership of a club, "Were you a hippie, old fellow?"  No, young 'un! I was a small-town stoner with a mistrust of vegetarians, a love of certain narrowly-defined currents of rock and folk music, and a taste for extreme-left politics and dressing like a tramp.  I realise this is the vanity of small differences, but these things matter.  Hippie?  Pah!

Anyway, on that album, there is a doo-wop parody, "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?"

What's the ugliest part of your body?
What's the ugliest pa-art of your body?
Some say your nose
Others say your toes
I think it's your mind...
I think it's your mi-ind...

A good joke, but also a profound one, at least to a know-nothing teen.  That one's mind is just a part of one's body -- and not the most attractive part, either -- is a "disruptive" thought, to say the least, and you may wonder how it occurred to a musician with no formal education to speak of beyond high school.*  Well, one of the uglier mind-forged manacles is certainly intellectual snobbery.  If pop culture has taught us anything, it is that creativity and fresh thinking rarely flourish among the highly-educated; indeed, the wrong sort of "education" is a prison from which few escape.

Is NOTHING original? (see bottom right)

William Blake (whose coinage "mind-forg'd manacles" is) was nothing if not original, yet entirely self-educated.  Perhaps if his work had been less profound, he would be regarded as the great-great-grand-nobodaddy of all those "outsider" artists, obsessively painting out their personal demons, assembling miniature Sagrada Familia accretions out in the desert, or developing their very own theories of everything.  Come to think of it, that's exactly who he is.

Blake (or, at least, the Blake of the Songs of Innocence and Experience) was an important figure to the Beat Generation (who, when it comes down to it, set the agenda for the "alternative" 1960s).  He is as close as English poetry gets to the condensed, gnomic, portable work of those Eastern poets writing in the Zen and Taoist traditions.

In particular, Blake's poem "Ah Sunflower!" seems to have been a key work for them, as it had been for a previous generation of English modernist-romantics (Nash and Britten, for example).  I really couldn't say why, but it clearly struck a resonating chord.  It was famously the subject of Allen Ginsberg's "Blake vision", and was even a track on The Fugs' first album, sung by Ed Sanders.
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Songs of Experience, 1794
It's been all over the place in the last 60 years.  So it was with some astonishment that I read that a children's poem by Nancy Willard, which riffs on Blake's poem, is being disseminated on the Web -- and even taught in some American schools -- as a work by Blake himself.  What?
Two Sunflowers Move in the Yellow Room

"Ah, William, we're weary of weather,"
said the sunflowers, shining with dew.
"Our traveling habits have tired us.
Can you give us a room with a view?"

They arranged themselves at the window
and counted the steps of the sun,
and they both took root in the carpet
where the topaz tortoises run.

(from A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, 1981)
How anyone in a position to teach poetry, even at primary school level, could mistake this for a poem written in the late 18th century is a mystery to me.  It's true, intellectual snobbery may be one mind-forg'd manacle, but blissful ignorance posturing as expertise is surely its partner-in-chains.

* You may also wonder how that same school, Antelope Valley High, produced both Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, not to mention ethnobotanist psychedelitician Terence McKenna.

Monday 17 June 2013

Scuffing, Slapping and Thudding

There was a  review by Terry Eagleton of Paul Morley's new book, The North (And Almost Everything In It), in this week's Guardian.  It's worth reading, especially if you still calibrate your sense of humour by the Monty Python benchmark, and have a suspicion of the Competitive Cult of Authentic Origins.  If the dismissive cry "Luxury!" brings a smile to your face, you'll know what I'm talking about.

I, and a select band of my contemporaries at university, once sat at the feet (occasionally literally) of the esteemed Dr. Eagleton.  We formed the vanguard of a literary Marxist-Deconstructionist revolutionary cadre that, like the intergalactic invasion fleet in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, prepared for war, only to vanish into the yawning maw of the small dog we call Real Life.  Ah, well.  As the other Marx pointed out, inside of a dog it's too dark to read.

But Eagleton knows his stuff, and his strictures -- sometimes good-natured, sometimes not, but always apposite, always amusing -- are worth attending to.  In this case, he shows two yellow cards to Morley.  First, over-writing:
This affectionate piece of anthropology is marred by a tiresomely rhapsodic tone. "I found it, my north," he gushes, "smoking and babbling, battling and loving, scattered and glittering, lush and brisk … rickety and plush, conspiring and crackling." Reticence is not this author's strong point. There is a compulsive use of the couplet: "brilliance and persistence, acceptance and slyness, dirt and glamour". There is also a reference to northerners who speak "with a certain sort of tough, scuffed and striven fluency", preferring the "slap, twist and thud" of their own speech to "the slur, sting and snap of near neighbours". There is certainly a glut of scuffing, slapping and thudding in these extravagantly overwritten pages, in which Ian Brady and Myra Hindley become "charred, trapped scraps of frustrated northern will". It makes them sound even worse than serial killers. Liverpool, predictably, provokes Morley to a bout of severe verbal flatulence: "Liverpool, passion. Liverpool, moving, Liverpool, moving cotton, sugar, slaves, invoices, music, ideas here, there and everywhere …"
 Second, self-obsession:
Yet if some of it suffers from a rather slipshod lyricism, the auto-biographical sections are too flatly naturalistic. It is interesting to know that the Beatles were turned away from the restaurant of Manchester's Midland hotel for being inappropriately dressed, and that Les Dawson was able to pull such grotesque faces because he broke his jaw in a boxing match, but not that Morley used to catch the bus at five past eight so as to be at school by a quarter to nine. He grew up in a part of Stockport called Reddish, and the book's obsession with the place is so relentless that one begins to wonder whether it is meant to be self-parody.
Of course, what Terry doesn't know is that this portentous over-writing is the house-style of music magazines.  Paul Morley bought his media access-all-areas pass with his purple prose in the New Musical Express in the 1970s, but he seems not to have twigged that writing, like people, needs to grow up.  That self-consciously rhapsodic, allusive, swooning style works in small doses, done well, but it's far too much like hard work at book length.  What can possibly be being said that is worth that much of a reader's attention?

Also, Morley, like so many media types today, really does need to get over this obsession with the minutiae of his own upbringing, as if they were the seal on some sort of certificate of authenticity.  No-one cares about bus-stops in bloody Reddish, Paul.  You're a journalist, mate, not David Bowie.

But, hmm, purple prose and self-obsession?  We know all about those things -- and forgive them -- in Blogland!  But if the blogging money's not good enough, here's a thought, maybe he should write some songs of his own...
Vernacular, verbose; an attempt at getting close to where he came from.
In the doorway of the stars, between Blandford Street and Mars...

Ian Anderson, Baker Street Muse
The Barricades of Heaven are as easily found in Reddish as in the hills of Orange County.

Saturday 15 June 2013

The O-Filler

I was sure I had already posted this poem, but it seems not, so here it is. I was a bit suspicious of the text I found online -- rightly so, as it turned out -- so I went downstairs on Friday into the paper periodicals crypt, and found the original issue of The Atlantic Monthly (needless to say, it's a great privilege and very convenient for a curious mind, to work in a university library). I love looking at old periodicals: the adverts, typography and layouts in the pre-digital age can be truly appalling. Standards and expectations have risen, not fallen, in the last 50 years. Though this poem is an exception. It has been set in a box on a whole page within a border of text with filled-in Os. Nice.

The O-Filler, by Alastair Reid

One noon in the library, I watched a man --
imagine! -- filling in O's, a little, rumpled
nobody of a man, who licked his stub of pencil
and leaned over every O with a loving care,
shading it neatly, exactly to its edges,
until the open pages
were pocked and dotted with solid O's, like villages
and capitals on a map. And yet, so peppered,
somehow the book looked lived in and complete.

That whole afternoon, as the light outside softened,
and the library groaned woodenly,
he worked and worked, his O-so-patient shading
descending like an eyelid over each open O
for page after page. Not once did he miss one,
or hover even a moment over an a,
or an e or a p or a g. Only the O's --
oodles of O's, O's multitudinous, O's manifold,
O's italic and roman.
And what light on his crumpled face when he discovered --
as I supposed -- odd words like zoo and ooze,
or -- joy! -- oolong and odontology!

Think now. In that limitless library,
all round the steep-shelved walls, bulging in their bindings,
books stood, waiting. Heaven knows how many
he had so far filled, but no matter, there still were
uncountable volumes of O-laden prose, and odes
with inflated capital O's (in the manner of Shelley),
O-bearing Bibles and biographies,
even whole sections devoted to O alone,
all his for the filling. Glory, glory, glory!
How lovely and open and endless the world must have seemed to him,
how utterly clear-cut! Think of it. A pencil
was all he needed. Life was one wide O.

Anyway, why in the end should O's not be closed
as eyes are? I envied him. After all,
sitting across from him, had I accomplished
anything as firm as he had, or as fruitful?
What could I show? a handful of scrawled lines,
an afternoon yawned and wondered away,
and a growing realization that in time
even my scribbled words would come
under his grubby thumb, and the blinds be drawn
on all my O's. And only this thought for comfort --
that when he comes to this poem, a proper joy
may amaze his wizened face, and, O, a pure pleasure
make that meticulous pencil quiver.

(Atlanric Monthly, February 1960)

Of course, we have a special re-education cellar for anyone caught O-filling our stock, or worse. I was down in The Crypt a while ago looking for something in the Strand Magazine and discovered that someone had been busy, razoring out the Sherlock Holmes stories. I know! Flaying alive is too lenient. You may be interested to know that the worst razorers of academic journal articles are Law students. Figures...

Thursday 13 June 2013

Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?

The chances are that, if you're interested in photography, then you probably read Mike Johnston's The Online Photographer blog (or TOP, as it has come to be known).  And if you read TOP, then you're also likely to recognise the name Ken Tanaka.  Ken is a regular commenter and occasional contributor, and one of his signature high-viewpoint views of Chicago was offered as a print sale a while back.

So it was with interest that I saw that a video by Ken Tanaka was featured in the "Daily Video" slot on Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury site.  I hadn't realised that he was also involved in video production.  It turns out to be an amusing take on ethnicity, visible and invisible, called What Kind of Asian Are You?  So I thought I'd check out some of his other videos on YouTube.

Now, it's at this point you have to make allowance for my idiocy.  I only share these foolish things with you because I find my own stupidity interesting.  I suppose a more sensible person would simply brush such stuff under the carpet.  However...

After viewing a couple of the videos I discovered, to my amazement, that Ken Tanaka is a very unusual person.  I had always assumed he was, in the American style, a "Japanese-American".  But he is, in fact, a "caucasian male", as they say on the cop thrillers, who was adopted and raised by Japanese parents in Japan.  An "American-Japanese", no less.  To see him on one of his videos is to experience serious cognitive dissonance, as he is a very caucasian male (large, ginger-haired, coarse-featured), but one who speaks imperfect English with a major Japanese accent.  At first you think he's hamming it up, but he clearly isn't.  It's hard to take in, and sometimes quite hard to understand, too.

Then, of course, the penny dropped.  Just a minute, I've seen Ken Tanaka on TOP and he doesn't look at all like that.  This must be ... another Ken Tanaka.  As indeed it is.  There are one, two, three, many Ken Ts!  Sixty-four on LinkedIn alone! And let's not mention the fictional character "football coach Ken Tanaka" in the egregious TV series Glee.

OK, so Lesson One For Idiots is that an apparently unusual name is not enough to identify someone. I should know better:  I have a moderately unusual name myself, but nonetheless have dozens of namesakes in Canada, where people of Scottish descent are like highland midges in August.  After all, comedian Dave Gorman made a career out of finding other Dave Gormans.

But Lesson Two is more interesting.  The "other" Ken Tanaka's accent is a vivid demonstration of something that shouldn't need demonstrating, but does: that culture trumps essence pretty much every time.  The Japanese stumble over certain English sounds, not because they are Japanese, but because they have learned to speak Japanese, with its distinctive set of phonemes.  In a world still strongly divided by "race", this is not as obvious as it sounds.  To believe the opposite, that essence trumps culture (in other words, that attributes like gender, race, and class are in and of themselves determining factors in a person's relative intelligence, athleticism, and so on) is to be, well, an essentialist, of which one extreme version is racism.

It's sort of what Other Ken's video is saying:  Asian-Americans may only be tenuously connected, if at all, to the cultural baggage associated with their ethnicity.  So why presume that they are?  Though, as a broad principle, this case may be overstated.  After all, some "white" ethnic identities are much stronger in their cultural persistence than the "Englishness" lampooned in the Tanaka video.  Setting aside Jewishness, Italianity and Irishry, where would Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon be without its stereotypes of Scandinavian-ness?

But there's nothing essential about these gift-shop and cook-book identities: you don't have to be "English" to be English.  The nature of English-ness changes with the nature of the whole set of those entitled to claim to be English.  A claim which few now, I suspect, would regard as having "won first prize in the lottery of life"; at least, not without a certain English irony.

If there's one lesson these islands still have to teach the rest of the world it is that mash-ups -- of race, of cultures, of classes, of music, of cuisines -- work.  It can be a bit sparky at times -- assimilating the Vikings was a bit hairy for a while -- but the resulting amalgam is usually something more useful and more durable than its constituent parts.

Well, some mash-ups don't work out, of course...

By the way, if you watch the What Kind of Asian Are You? video, do look for the out-take versions of the girl's "English stereotypes" frenzy, which are very funny.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

For a Dancer

Author Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks, if you're a sci-fi reader) died this week.  He had been "officially Very Poorly" for just a couple of months. I've always felt a certain affinity for Banks, as we are exactly the same age, and he was my first literary "discovery"; that is, a contemporary I felt I had identified and claimed for myself  from the slush-pile of books published in 1984, despite the negative reactions of the reviewers.  Easily done, as I, too, had a thing about wasps at the time.
People can be teachers and idiots; they can be philosophers and idiots; they can be politicians and idiots... in fact I think they have to be... A genius can be an idiot. The world is largely run for and by idiots; it is no great handicap in life and in certain areas is actually a distinct advantage and even a prerequisite for advancement.
Iain Banks, The Crow Road
Iain chose Jackson Browne's "For a Dancer" as his second record on Desert Island Discs, and also as an "inheritance track" on Radio 4's Saturday Live.  It's a personal favourite of mine, too; there is really nothing more to say about our existence and its mystery than Browne says in this beautiful song.  Though there's no harm in keeping on having a go, is there?

It's also the time of year when some of us remember John Wilson, and "For a Dancer" is for you, too.
Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown,
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own,
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive,
But you'll never know...

Friday 7 June 2013

Something for the Weekend

In recent years I have got into the habit of having a single, annual haircut, generally at the point in the early summer when the prospect of combining heat, humidity and the still relatively generous head of hair my genes have bequeathed me starts to become an unpleasant reality.  This week was haircut week.  I went from scruffy collar-length to neat above-the-ears in fifteen minutes.

Conveniently, there's a hairdresser located in our university's Student Union, so I use that.  I'm sufficiently a boy of the "long 1950s", though, never to feel entirely comfortable in its unisex atmosphere.  As so often, "unisex" here means "a female environment in which men are tolerated".  There are too many mirrors, smells, lifestyle magazines, and pastel colours for a graceless lump like me to feel at home.  The pounding club-style music does nothing much for me, either.

I liked the old-fashioned barbershop that closed a decade or more ago, where I used to go with my son.  It was one step up from a well-run car-maintenance garage in ambience, but only one step.  Functional, sparse, with tools laid out ready to hand, and reassuringly under-decorated.  The barber, George, knew his trade, how to match cut to head, and how to read personality.  I never had to ask to have a bit more taken off, and the question, "Would you like anything on it, sir?" was a question expecting the answer "No".  George's well-honed instincts also told him that I did not require interrogation about my holiday plans, or the prospects of England against Australia in the Ashes.  He would work in a deep, austerely contemplative silence, broken only by the snip of scissors and the buzz of the electric trimmer.  Back in the day, I imagine those ten minutes getting a trim were the longest most men ever spent looking at themselves in a mirror.  Prolonged eye-contact with oneself fosters uncomfortable self-appraisal -- no wonder most customers preferred to chat about the weather.

However, there was also none of the passive pleasure of having two young women -- one to wash, one to "style" -- in intimate contact with one's head.  In the mind-set of the 1950s, that would have been verging on the scandalous: positively Profumo.  Habitual segregation by gender meant that any physical contact fizzed with erotic charge.  A casual touch of the hand when passing change in a shop was tantamount to an indecent proposal, and therefore carefully avoided.  But sex did rear its dodgily-coiffed head in the barbershop.  Alongside the scissors and razors, dangling leather strops, and tubs of Brylcreem, boxes of condoms were openly on display.  The barber's famous final question, "Something for the weekend, sir?" was the cue to palm a packet of three discreetly to the customer.

Where I realise I probably differ from those men of old, and most men even today, is in a willingness to be seen with radically different lengths of hair.   It's curious how rigidly guys stick to a chosen length and style. It's a high-maintenance approach.  I lost the habit of "popping in for a trim" when I let my hair grow to chest length after leaving school, and never regained it.  Now, I enjoy the shape-shifting effect of gradually changing demographic, as seen in others' eyes, like a slow-mo werewolf.

It's curious how your tacit approval or disapproval rating shifts. You start off neatly barbered, bristly, and a little hyper-masculine.  The suit-and-tie crowd acknowledge you. The edges gradually get knocked off that look, and you become Mr. Windblown-Casual, who lives for the weekend out on his boat.  Then, somewhere around three quarters of the way through the year you pass through a barrier of respectability, and find yourself back in the fold with the sub-cultural types.

I don't know whether my body-language mirrors the hair, but I suspect it may: in the final weeks before haircut week my partner tells me I have a positively (or perhaps negatively) defiant, two-fingers vibe.

But just now I'm Mr. Respectable again!

* Adverts from the Advert Museum at historyworld

Wednesday 5 June 2013


An alert for those of you equipped with iPads:  you can now get Luigi Ghirri's Kodachrome for £4.99 from MAPP / MACK:
In 1978 Luigi Ghirri self-published his first book, an avant-garde manifesto for the medium of photography and a landmark in his own remarkable oeuvre. Kodachrome has long been out of print and on the 20th anniversary of Ghirri’s death, MAPP is proud to publish the first digital edition of Kodachrome.

This edition is published as a facsimile of the original, adopting the original design, text layout and image sequence, but using new image files scanned from Ghirri’s original film to take advantage of modern technology. Also included is an essay by Francesco Zanot, which offers a contemporary perspective on the historical impact of Kodachrome, alongside French and German translations of the original texts from the book (which were published in English and Italian).

‘The daily encounter with reality, the fictions, the surrogates, the ambiguous, poetic or alienating aspects, all seem to preclude any way out of the labyrinth, the walls of which are ever more illusory… The meaning that I am trying to render through my work is a verification of how it is still possible to desire and face a path of knowledge, to be able finally to distinguish the precise identity of man, things, life, from the image of man, things, and life.’ Luigi Ghirri
You can get the e-book onto your iPad via the iBooks store (search for "Luigi Ghirri").  MACK are also publishing Kodachrome as a conventional, physical book.

 I only came across this book for the first time last year.  It is one of those books that is so perfect, so beautiful, that has anticipated so thoroughly everything you have ever done that you thought was original, that it makes you wonder why you bother.  Or that inspires you to get out there and fail again, fail better.

Monday 3 June 2013

California Dreaming

I once saw a cartoon, with two caterpillars on a leaf,  looking up at a butterfly flying overhead.  "Yikes," one caterpillar is saying to the other, "You'd never get me up in one of those things!"

Well, the young do tend to see the old as a separate, rather unappealing species.  They don't realise they are living on a spectrum that, if they are lucky, includes old age.  The old, with more justification, also see the young as a new, alien species; call it evolution anxiety.

That ageing happens to us all is indisputable, though it does seem to happen at different rates and intensities.  But people do talk nonsense about the importance of remaining "young at heart", as if getting old were a lifestyle choice, or a failure of imagination or diet. Once past your breed-by date, my friends, the fact is that evolution has no use for you: the cards left in the hand dealt by your genetic inheritance will trump any amount of hours in the gym or positivity of outlook.  That's my excuse, anyway.

More philosophically,  there might seem to be a get-out clause in that good old mystical standby, "living in the now".  There is no past, no future, only the present moment!  Yeah, right.  You might be living in the moment, driving on a busy motorway, but the interest on your car loan is still inexorably mounting up.  No amount of mindfulness will stop the onset of arthritis, or prevent California from falling into the sea.

No, not that California, I mean the one about five miles north of Great Yarmouth, about 200 metres of which have already fallen into the sea since I spent a memorable week there with a friend in the summer of 1970. Those vanished 200 metres include the clifftop campsite where we pitched our tent.

Now that was a summer!  Our "O" level exams were over, and we were in that pleasant limbo that lies like a sun-baked beach between life's phases.  I had recently started what would be a year-long relationship with one of the prettiest, most vivacious girls in town.  Life was good, open-ended, and turned up to maximum volume.  The juke-box and radio hits of the time instantly bring the feeling back:  "All Right Now", "Big Yellow Taxi", "Lola", "Tears of a Clown" -- all brand new yet "always already" classics.

With our parents 120 miles away, we savoured that first, heady thrill of simple freedom.  We marauded up and down the coast between California and Great Yarmouth, drinking, hanging out in amusement arcades and the bars and discos of holiday camps and caravan sites.  Well, yes, the imagination of youth is limited in scope, but intense in application....
Last night I was reckless --
didn't brush my teeth
and went to bed tasting
my dinner all night.

And it tasted good.

Pete Brown
One evening, separate adventures caused us to stagger off on different paths.  Later, tired of the slog back up the beach, I fell asleep in the sand dunes amongst the marram grass and cigarette ends.  I awoke, hung-over, damp and covered in wind-blown sand, as the sun cleared the bleary eastern horizon far out to sea.  I found my hand was clutching a palm-sized pebble, which on closer inspection turned out to be the worn heart-and-star fossil of a sea-urchin.

Briefly alive in the Cretaceous period, between 65-140 million years ago, the creature had died, been buried in the sediments sifting down through the waters of a tropical sea, and then gradually been transformed from something as hollow and as light as a bird's skull into a solid flinty lump.  It sat out the next 100 million years or so -- while flowering plants, birds, mammals and some particularly meddlesome monkeys evolved -- locked in the chalk and slowly journeying up from the tropics to northern latitudes. Exposed by weathering, it fell out of the bedrock, and was then rolled around in the North Sea -- for, what, hundreds of years? -- then finally dumped on a Norfolk beach by a storm, to find its way into the living hand of a sixteen-year old monkey-boy. For whom it became a personal talisman, obviously.

Of course, compared to the journey in deep time and space of the elements both it and I are made of, this had been a mere excursion.  And there are still billions of years to go.  Whatever, and wherever, next?


"The past is never dead.  It's not even past" (William Shatner Faulkner).  The quote sounds good, doesn't it? It has a sort of emotional truth, but it's utter nonsense.  We are time-bound, and we're on a one-way journey.  Even the physicists are starting to think that the "laws" of physics are themselves evolving in time.  In a recently-published book, Time Reborn, self-confessed theoretical physicist Lee Smolin says:
I used to believe in the essential unreality of time. Indeed, I went into physics because as an adolescent I yearned to exchange the time-bound, human world, which I saw as ugly and inhospitable, for a world of pure, timeless truth…

I no longer believe that time is unreal. In fact I have swung to the opposite view: Not only is time real, but nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time.
Well, you don't say, professor.  Sometimes, speculative science can seem like a rerun of mediaeval theology, except that this time the secret spells are written in maths, rather than in Latin.  It puts me in mind of one of my favourite quotations:
Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.
Denis Diderot
Which is as much as to say, not for a while.  Our species seems not to have outgrown kings and priests quite yet.