Saturday 27 July 2013

In Town

I went up to Brixton, London, this week, to see an old friend who emigrated to the USA back in the late 1970s, briefly back in the country with her family in tow.  As with people, it's salutary to revisit a place after a lengthy period of time, if only to remind yourself that it hasn't been standing still in the meantime.  London is not so much a "place" as a city state, of course, constructed out of interlocking statelets like Brixton.  You can be intimately familiar with one corner -- say, Islington, Camden and Hackney -- but have only the vaguest idea of what goes in remote fiefdoms like Hampstead or Hendon, let alone in fabled places south of the river like Bromley or Dulwich.

The last time I visited Brixton, not so very long ago, I was advised not to walk back to the tube station alone after dark.  It was not an outright dangerous area, but unpredictable -- "sketchy", as my friend's American son put it.  The famous riots of the 1980s were, seen one way, race riots, but might just as accurately be seen as anti-police riots (like the St. Paul's Riot in Bristol in 1980, at which I happened to be present).  Single-race enclaves are rare in London, and those that exist are quite small, but Brixton has always been strongly associated with the Caribbean community since the days of the pioneers of the Empire Windrush, as has Notting Hill north of the river.*

The first thing that struck me as I emerged from the tube onto Brixton Road was the elevated mood. Admittedly, it was an idyllic, sunny day, but it seemed nearly everyone, and not just the rastas in the park, was smiling contentedly.  The second thing was the greater mix of ethnicities and classes -- lots more young professionals, student types, and a big admixture of what our young niece used to call "shepherds" i.e. Islamic women of assorted origins with their various styles and degrees of head-covering.**  The third thing, not unconnected with the other two things, was the degree of "gentrification" the area has undergone.

Gentrification is an odd term for a common process of urban transformation.  Around 1980, I lived in several squats in Dalston and Clapton, then the most run-down part of East London's most run-down borough, Hackney.  Entire streets of houses had been "tinned up" by the council as unoccupiable; that is, their doors and windows had been sealed with sheets of corrugated iron.  It was a dismal spectacle.  Even on a sunny day, no-one had much to smile about round there.  But a few years after I had moved on, ambitious young professional couples began buying up the run-down properties in places like Dalston and Stoke Newington, as neighbouring Islington had become mega-gentrified, and therefore mega-expensive.  These middle-class pioneers lived separate lives, by and large, from the poor white, black, and other ethnic communities that surrounded them, swapping competitive tales of street shootings and bank robberies with their guests at dinner parties.  So authentic.  I haven't ever been back, but I'm told the area is now highly sought-after.

The problem with gentrification is the squeeze it puts on those in the middle and at the bottom of the pile.  Sure, nobody wants to live in a crumbling, cold-water bedsit in a high-crime area, but people with minimal resources -- financial and social -- have got to live somewhere.  London property prices are now so absurdly high that even a professional couple with both earning "normal" public-service salaries could never contemplate buying a house.  A 2-bedroom flat in Dalston will now set you back somewhere between £400,000 and £800,000.  You want a 3-bedroom house? What kind of dreamer are you?

Where the teachers, nurses, and street cleaners of that great city state are supposed actually to live is a mystery.  Not to mention the young, who might have found a congenial squat in years past.  First rob your bank, I suppose.  Or, more likely, let your bank rob you, in the form of a massive loan that amounts to indentured servitude.

Of course, the process also works in reverse.  A 4-bedroom terraced house bought in 1980 for less than £100,000 is now worth around £1,000,000.  Sell up, and you have enough money to buy somewhere comfortable virtually anywhere else in rural Britain or Europe, and live out the rest of your life in modest idleness on the change.  You meet such people everywhere, ex-Londoners with a permanently bemused sense of guilty good fortune.  Not so much trustafarians as equity hippies, pretending to paint or make pots.

Though, since 2008, the ones who tried to play double or quits with their chunk of change in the boom years by gambling with it (a.k.a. "investing" it) rather than simply banking it may be feeling rather less lucky, these days.

*  I have always enjoyed the fact that, on the ubiquitous and wonderful London Underground map, Notting Hill is the only confluence of red, green and yellow lines, the Rastafarian colours.

**  In Britain, children representing the flock-watching / sock-washing shepherds at a school Nativity play traditionally wear similar but home-made headgear.  Look very closely at the top photograph, btw.

Monday 22 July 2013

You Wear It Well

I don't normally post pictures of people (or, indeed, take that many) but couldn't resist these two.  Not many can carry off the idiotic academic hat look, but this pair certainly do.

Congratulations, Dr. Dreads...

Flying Ants at 12 O'Clock

Flying ants spotted on the Highfield Campus today at noon, on my way back from an unpleasant dental appointment.

Conditions at 12:15 pm:

29° C
Humidity 42%
Wind SSE 2mph
Barometer 1014.0 mb rising slowly

These were large black critters, about 0.75 cm long. As there's a degree ceremony today, I will shortly be heading out to look for ant/graduate interaction.  As soon as I can feel my face, that is...

Friday 19 July 2013

Cattle Grids of Dartmoor

Listening to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, I have realised, is not the ideal way for me to wake up in the morning.  I'm not talking about John Humphrys' toe-curling attempts at whimsy, Evan Davis' eternal benign haze, Sarah Montague's head-girlishness, or even James Naughtie's helium-quality windbaggery.  No, those I can tolerate.  They are familiar background noise, easily ignored, like the sound of the gas boiler kicking in at 06:30.

I'm talking about the way certain out-takes of information lodge in my subconscious, as it grumpily and somewhat clumsily swaps places in my head with my waking mind, like two local-radio presenters negotiating a changeover at the top of the hour. For example, for 20 or more years I have been haunted by the image of a wet cricket pitch being dried off by hovering helicopters.  Did this ever really happen?  Apparently so.  But in my mind it has acquired that portentous, archetypal feeling that belongs to a persistent dream.  It's tricky enough having to live with one's own, self-generated dream-life, without the BBC dropping its contribution into that murky pool.

Worse than this, though, is to be roused to wide-awake indignation from a sleeping start.  By, let's say, a presenter's determination to treat a serious issue as mere light-hearted "human interest" filler between the heavy stuff.  "Come on, Humphrys," my mind yells as it roars into life, "This is the ONLY opportunity this man will get to raise national awareness of Restless Leg Syndrome this whole YEAR, and you're using him as a straight-man!"  Or there's the unquestioning veneration that is ladled over people who actually deserve the sort of merciless verbal thrashing unleashed on politicians and spin-doctors. The other morning, it was a bunch (a clang?) of "sound artists" who were getting the unwarranted easy airtime.  Though it must have been a toss-up in the pre-programme conference whether they'd get the pious or the piss-take treatment.

Sound-artists... I'm very wary of formulations like that.  Not just because it sounds like a roundabout way of saying "musician", though there is that.  Is David Hockney a "paint-artist", or would that apply more appropriately to Jackson Pollock?  In the end, though, "artist" is just a job description, not an honorific term, or a state of mind, or an aspiration. It means "someone who makes a living from making art".  What counts as art is up for grabs, of course. So I suppose it does help to say what kind of artist you are, or hope to be.

Obviously, if someone wants to sample sounds in an interesting way, and produces compelling work that people want to listen to, then good luck to them.  For example, I admire the work of Richard Skelton:  I actually buy it myself.  But as I listened to these sound-artists describe their "practice", I knew that sooner or later -- here it comes! -- it would turn into a sermon on the need for us all to pay closer attention to our surroundings, which is never anything more than a presumptious, preachy moralism disguised as aesthetics.

John Cage never intended 4'33" as an opportunity for Thought For The Day sanctimony.  Any more that Marcel Duchamp intended L.H.O.O.Q. to leverage the market for "appropriated" art.  I am so fed up with hearing what I think of as the Gospel of the God of Small Things. This has nothing to do with the novel by Arundhati Roy, though it has a lot to do with what people who have never read that book imagine it must be about (a classic example of a Takeaway Title).   It's annoying to hear work (including my own) damned with the faint praise that it helps open our eyes (or ears) to the little things we fail to notice in our everyday lives.  Grr.  As I say, from a sleeping start to cold fury in five seconds.  Thanks, BBC.

A large part of the theology of the Gospel of the God of Small Things is the belief that "everybody is an artist, and everything is art"; all we need is a little help to see it. Well, I disagree: no they aren't, and no it isn't.  That's why some artists can make a living, and most can't.  Is everybody a plumber, and everything plumbing?  No.  Such people need a serious dose of some hallucinogen -- preferably something spiky and unforgiving like LSD --  to teach them that to notice more is a problem, and potentially a nightmare.  There's an awful lot going on out there: be grateful for pragmatic simplifications*. Noticing less but in a more interesting way is the thing.  Good artists do that.  But it's not so much what they notice, but how they notice it and what they make out of it that matters.

Actually, that spot on Today bothered me in another way, too.  Somewhere in that brackish area of my mind, between the ebb and flow of the conscious and unconscious tides, the information was floated that a sound artist called John Drever has a CD out called Cattle Grids of Dartmoor.  What?

That had me thinking involuntarily about cattle grids all day, when I had other things I needed to think about. There was the one where I rescued a lamb, trapped inside it like a cage.  The one that had rolling bars that made it impossible to walk over.  The one where the pit underneath was so full of stones and rubbish that even cattle wearing high-heels could walk across it.  Oh, and the one which some local cattle-grid artist had painted gaudily in candy stripes.  And so on.  But, Cattle Grids of Dartmoor, what a great title for a CD!

Though I would probably have had something loud, guitar-driven, and kind of post-punk in mind.  The sort of thing that emanates from my daughter's bedroom.  But, you know those satisfying zzzzing! or brrrrrat! noises that cattle grids make when you drive over them?  Well, apparently John Drever has been systematically recording them.  All over Dartmoor.  And he's made a CD.  Go on, treat yourself!

*  I like the quote usually attributed to physicist John Wheeler, that "Time is what prevents everything happening at once.  Space is what prevents it all happening to me!". Though Wheeler himself attributed it to "graffiti in the men's room of the Pecan Street Cafe, Austin, Texas".  Yeah, I can hear that, sung -- Guy Clark style -- to a guitar accompaniment...

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Heads Up

Sometimes a walk in the woods is just a walk in the woods, sometimes it's not ...

Found this picture from 2007, looking for something else.  Don't know if they're still there, but try looking in the woods of the Chateau de Marqueyssac, in the Dordogne.

Monday 15 July 2013

Cats With Wings

I was pulling into my favourite parking space one morning last week when I spotted a couple of birds flying strongly but erratically over the campus.  If you're a halfway decent birdwatcher, you'll know the birds you see most frequently by their characteristic size, shape and behaviour, what in twitchers' argot is called a bird's jizz (hey, don't blame me).  The merest glimpse is usually enough to know whether it was, say, a Robin or a Wren that just flew into a nearby bush.  By the same token, you just know when you're seeing something rare or unfamiliar.

These two were distinctly unfamiliar.  Hawk-ish? Yes.  But maybe just a bit pigeon-like?  Yes but no, definitely hawks.  But not Sparrow-Hawks, and not Kestrels.  Well, if it looks like a hawk but makes you think of a pigeon, then by common consent it's a duck Peregrine Falcon.  Surely not...  Without binoculars I couldn't say for sure, but as I watched them sparring, swooping and gliding, the conviction grew.  I have seen Peregrines before, but still retain an idea of them as romantic, rarely-seen aristocrats of the wild places, despite knowing they have taken to nesting on inner-City tower blocks, where the pigeon-pickings are easy.

Later in the morning, I heard an insistent mewling sound through my open office window, and looked out.  There they were again, high up, rolling and tumbling together.  This time I shoved my camera out and took a shot of a lot of sky and two tiny bird-specks somewhere in it.  No doubt about it:  Peregrines, probably youngsters.

It turns out this was old news.  A pair had chosen to nest on a Vodafone mobile phone mast atop the improbable, unoccupied and still-undemolished Faraday Building, disrupting the signal to a large part of northern Southampton, and thereby making themselves very unpopular.  Being protected birds, of course, they cannot be disturbed until their chicks have applied to university.  This may also explain why applications from pigeons to study at Southampton have diminished dramatically in recent times.
A spokespigeon said: 

Yeah, yeah, Lord and Lady Pigeon-Killer set up home, and everyone's like, Oooh, they're so special, leave them alone!  But, a coupla hard-working pigeons try to raise a family and it's, Get the fuck outta here, you scum, you're just rats with wings!  Rats with wings? Listen, from where I'm standing, those things are cats with wings.  And I hate cats! Ooops, sorry about the upholstery...  Come on, it'll brush out...  Shall I stand somewhere else?

The pigeon's Room 101...

Sunday 14 July 2013

The Long Grass

Long grass is everywhere this year.  Not sure whether this is because everyone has taken an ecological turn, or because all the gardeners and groundsmen have been laid off.  

It's too hot.  I'm re-reading The Wasp Factory, after 30 years -- re-reading is something I rarely do -- and realising how little of what I have read I retain in my conscious mind.  I suppose it's all in there somewhere, but it's as if I had never read the book before.  Which is fine:  perhaps I'll stop buying new books and simply start all over again with the same ones...

Thursday 11 July 2013

Holy Catfish

 I was idly surfing the Net the other evening, and came across a reference to an essay by artist Paul Nash, "Swanage, or Seaside Surrealism".  Well, that had me hooked right away.  Swanage is the Dorset coastal resort where we went for our family summer holiday probably five or six years in a row, which -- when you're a child -- feels like forever.

In various contexts -- therapy, grief-counselling, pain-relief, and so on -- you may be asked to identify your Happy Place, in order to be able to go there in your mind.  For me this is very easy: I am 8 years old, walking down the hill to the beach from our hotel in Ulwell Road, on the first, brilliantly sunny day of our holiday.  As you turn a certain corner, the whole sweep of Swanage Bay comes into view spread out below you, the morning sun glittering on the waves in a complex, hypnotic dance -- a pure instance of what literary types call an objective correlative.  But Swanage and Surrealism?  It's not an association that happens in my mind.

Idiot on the beach

Looking for a text of the essay, I came across this picture in the Tate's collection:

Paul Nash, Swanage c. 1936 © Tate

It's a typical Nash production, a portentous mixed-media collage, with no obvious purpose or connection with Swanage beyond that all-purpose Modernist symbolic heavy-breathing (I blame Freud).  The Tate's description, including a blow-by-blow account of the objects invoked, is worth reading, if only because it makes a dull picture (the original is in 1930s monochrome, too) rather more interesting.  But what caught my eye, though, was this passage:
The bleached bony object to the right of the ‘Lon-gom-pa’ is a crucifix fish. Eileen Agar, who herself spent the summer of 1935 at Swanage told the compiler in conversation (4 July 1974) that she met the Nash’s through Ashley Havinden who was also staying at Swanage, and they subsequently became close friends. In a letter of 6 March 1974 she wrote ‘I also had a crucifix fish (the white object in the centre), and we used to compare notes as to who had the best example.’
A crucifix fish?  More surfing led to the discovery that a certain common ocean catfish (Ariopsis felis, or the Hardhead Sea Catfish) has an extraordinary secret.  Common down the coast of the southern United States and in the Caribbean, this fish is easily caught and tastes pretty good.  You can imagine the scene:  a pirate crew are sitting on the beach, enjoying a catfish barbecue.  One of the guys is especially hungry, and breaks open the roasted catfish head -- mmm, finger lickin' good!  When he's done licking out roasted catfish brains, this is what he finds he is holding in his hands:

© Brian W. Coad

OMG WTF??  On your knees, sinner man!  Check it out:  let a little rum-induced pareidolia run loose over that catfish skull, and it's practically like looking at a mediaeval carved ivory Calvary.  Amazing.

Needless to say, these things have attracted folklore, and (I believe) are widely sold as tourist items.  Apparently, if you shake one, there are loose bony bits inside that make the sound of dice rattled in a cup, calling to mind the soldiers gambling for Christ's garments, if you're that way inclined.

Why Paul Nash thought to include a photograph of one in a Swanage-influenced collage is hard to say.  It's a long way from Swanage Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.  In the end, I suspect he may have brought his own surrealism to Dorset, rather than found it there.  Mind you, if it's surrealism you're after, there is one very peculiar thing about Swanage.

Back in the 19th century, Swanage exported boatloads of Purbeck marble from the local quarries up and around the coast to London.  It is a very hard-wearing stone, well-suited to building and paving.  The returning boats, empty of rock, needed a compensating ballast, and very often this took the form of scrap metal, generally old ordnance or redundant iron street furniture. Which is why, if you check out the street bollards in Swanage, a lot of them are either old cannons or bollards bearing the name and shield of the City of London.

Oh, and there's that ridiculous Portland stone globe, carved in 1887 in John Mowlem's stone-yard (yes, founder of the building firm).  I suppose that's a bit surreal, too.  And, look, London bollards!

Globe at Durlston, Swanage
Painting by Job Hardy, 1908

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Same Old Log

Same afternoon, same log, same tree trunk, same viaduct pillar. Just facing one way, then the other.  For this kind of work you really need a view-camera, but the G3 in a steady hand does the job well enough.

The hardest thing to convey about the Viaduct is its scale, experienced close-up.  The largest arches are about 40 feet high, I'd guess, and the brick-clad pillars have a solidity of presence that is positively Ancient Egyptian.  It's a gateway -- an emphatic dotted line -- between the frantic motorway madness of the M3 and its sliproads and the tranquility of the Itchen meadows.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Borrowing Ballads

This will be old news to long-time folkies, but I've only just come across the renderings of Rudyard Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads by Peter Bellamy.  It's the main benefit of using a streaming service like Spotify, that you can explore at will corridors of the House of Music that you would not normally enter, not least because the price of entry would be prohibitively high.  True, I often find myself backing out of a (metaphorical) new room fairly quickly, but occasionally I find myself somewhere so congenial I'm amazed Ive never been there before.

Frequent visitors will know about my developing interest in Kipling. You'll know the name, obviously, but  will probably not have actually read much of his output.  I certainly hadn't.  He seems to have suffered the same sort of eclipse in the shadow of a small, over-studied modernist canon as other once well-regarded writers such as Arnold Bennett or Ford Madox Ford, never mind oddballs like John Cowper Powys or W.H. Davies.  I'd swap any amount of D.H. Lawrence for Kipling's best work.  Yes, he was an imperialist, but he's also one of our most imaginative and empathetic writers, with a positively Shakespearean gift for inhabiting the minds of others (what Keats called "negative capability", and that great headologist Granny Weatherwax calls "borrowing"). 

Peter Bellamy's story is a sad one.  I saw him once in a folk club above a pub I used to attend as an underaged drinker around 1971.  It was a startling performance from an extraordinary man.  To say his voice was very loud with a distinctive braying timbre is to put it mildly.  He also had the dress-sense and camp manner of a down-at-heel Restoration fop.  I came to own a couple of albums by his group, The Young Tradition, and had a particular liking for their raucous renderings of sea shanties like "Chicken on a Raft" and "Hanging Johnnie".

Unlike most folkies, Bellamy's interests went wider than the simple performance of songs  -- probably "collected" from someone else's album -- that had somehow emerged from a vaguely-understood "folk culture".  He had an interest in the history and culture that had given rise to broadside ballads, and ultimately this led him down a road that might be called "Victoriana".  He became fascinated by Kipling, who was himself fascinated by the lives of "ordinary" people, and made the intriguing discovery that many of Kipling's "ballads" -- often a tricky read on the page -- would come to life when set to Victorian popular ballad tunes.  Sounds obvious but, like any stroke of genius, it's only obvious in retrospect.

The problem was, not many people could be bothered to follow him down that road at the time.  His alleged masterpiece (I have yet to listen to it) was a ballad-opera called The Transports, which told the story of the first transport ship to land in Australia.  It was well-received, critically, but it was 1977 and people were looking in a completely different direction, musically.  What could have been less fashionable then than a "ballad-opera"?  Bellamy's career dried up, and he eventually committed suicide in 1991, baffled by his own lack of success.

If you know the Barrack-Room Ballads but don't know this work and I have piqued your curiosity, I recommend you listen, if you can, to Bellamy's versions of "Tommy", "Route Marchin'", and "Danny Deever".  No matter how well you know these ballads, I think you'll find that Bellamy's rendering adds considerably to your understanding and enjoyment of Kipling's work.  He has got inside them in a true act of creative "borrowing".

Thursday 4 July 2013

Ant Alert

 St. Catherine's Hill from Five Bridges Road

Sunny days are here again.  For a bit, anyway.  In the interests of phenological science, allow me to pass on this appeal to you:

Dear all,

It is now just weeks to go until we are expecting flying ants on a large scale. Last year the two peaks were 24th July and 8th August, and we will be very interested to see whether we have two peaks again. Earlier sightings often come from houses, greenhouses and compost bins.

Sorry for the delay with sending out the sample tubes, but the addresses are with the printer so they will be coming very shortly.

We are ready for you to submit your records and look forward to the first sightings. Thank you for all your help, and please do spread the word to any friends and family who would be interested.

Best wishes,

Dr Rebecca Nesbit MSB
0207 685 2553
07714 594862
Follow me on Twitter @Society_Biology and @RebeccaNesbit 
Find us on facebook
Read our blog

Seen flying ants this year? Please report your sightings!

Why she wants us to send her a sample is not entirely clear -- do they need to be sure ant-spotters are drug free? -- but, whatever, I don't mind.  As soon as I get the tube the sample will be on its way, Rebecca!

St. Catherine's Hill, approached from the SW

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Demob Happy Planet

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, at the moment I'm telling anyone who will listen (and plenty who won't) that I intend to take early retirement next year, with the intention of making it too humiliating for me not to retire.  It may work.  However, I have become fairly immune to embarrassment over the years; it's the price you pay for being an idiot.

An unforeseen consequence of this is that I have already become a bit "demob happy".  That is to say, things that it had seemed important to keep on top of and ahead of at work have started to look, well, unimportant.  In less than a year they will be someone else's concern.

I like the folk wisdom encapsulated in a phrase like "demob happy".  It's far more expressive than a technical term like "dissociation".  People misunderstand it, though.  It doesn't simply mean "happy because something burdensome is coming to an end".  "Happy", in British military slang, tends to means mad or disorientated (as in "bomb happy").  In the army, soldiers approaching demobilization were a lethal menace, as their handling of weapons and machinery was likely to become sloppy.

Life on Earth

I, along with 7 million other half-awake listeners to Radio 4's Today programme,  had a sobering experience this morning.  Among the other headlines -- Egypt, Edward Snowden, child abuse, the usual temporary litany -- the newsreader intoned that scientists have predicted that, using models of the Sun's increasing heat and brightness, life on Earth will become impossible for all life-forms but "extremophile" bacteria in a billion years.

Right. Compared to the ending of a career, that's a biggie.  It may not be Bowie's Five Years ("my brain hurts a lot") but it's a definite horizon and terminus of expectations.  Beyond which, nothing.  Even not running the tap when brushing our teeth won't get us past that.

Of course, a billion years is a long time.  But long times have a habit of passing.  Just the other day I walked past my old flat and wondered whether there might be any mail for me there.  Would it be worth asking?  Then I realised I hadn't lived there for 25 years.  I bought that flat in 1984 aged 30.  If someone had come to the door asking after mail delivered to that address since 1959, when I was 5 years old, I would probably have shut the door rather quickly.

Will humanity become demob happy?  I think it's a serious question.  In times past, a belief in having a stake in an afterlife took the edge off the expected Apocalypse and, indeed, led some to anticipate it with pleasure.  Day of Judgement?  Bring it on!  Nowadays, very few people believe in an afterlife, but thankfully very many don't yet realise they don't.  They aren't continually brooding on their personal extinction, or conducting their lives in the expectation of no greater sanction than what the local magistrate might hand down, if caught. Luckily. "What's the point?" is the question that all civilisation seeks to overcome.

I suppose no-one said that knowledge would bring happiness.  There is a world of difference, psychologically, between the hope of a judgement scenario -- "No, sorry, all you spam and malware merchants go in the Red Channel queue, please" -- and the certainty of a grim, indifferent, baking, irradiated, lifeless plain, littered with melting golf balls and unopened blister-packs.

Did I mention I'm thinking of retiring next year?