Friday 29 November 2013

November 2012

Late November marks the onset of the Season of Nostalgia -- books of the year lists have already been and gone -- so I thought I'd look back a year to see what I was about in November 2012.  It's easy to forget how long, subjectively, a year is, though as a friend said recently it wasn't so much the years as the decades he was losing track of. I know what he means; whatever did happen to the 1990s?

Naturally, I looked at my photographic backfiles, which I keep in directories sorted primarily by month, then year, which makes comparison easy.  Now, I think there has never been a month when I have processed from RAW more than 60% of the photographs I took, and the average is probably closer to 25%.  This means it is always rewarding to go back, periodically, to root out any overlooked images.  As I have often said, one's reactive eyes are often way ahead of one's conscious, reflective mind.  It may take a year or more to see what you saw.

It seems that last November I was mainly interested in hard-edged, contrasty, semi-abstract compositions, with quite pure colours, so typically was producing pictures like this:

Valley Garden, November 2012

This meant that quite a few softer, lower-impact images got passed over.  I found I liked these two, previously unprocessed images, variations on two very familiar views:

St. Catherine's Hill, November 2012

Car-park allotment, November 2012

My processing technique has evolved, and so has my approach.  More and more, I'm stepping back and seeing the whole view, rather than diving in and looking for telling details.  I'm also interested in a different, more subtle palette of colours. No doubt this says as much about about my stage of life as my changing tastes. I wonder what I've recorded but overlooked this year?

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Because the Night

These photographs, if nothing else, are a tribute to the capacities of even modest modern digital cameras, in this case a Panasonic G3.

I was heading home on Tuesday night, when I noticed the side doors of the Nuffield Theatre were open, the ones that give on to the mysterious under-stage world of the theatre techs.  It was already pretty much dark, and I was just hitting my stride for the 45 minute walk home, but it was such a nice image that I stopped, took off my back-pack, rummaged around for my camera, and snapped off a couple of shots.

Now, this probably won't impress anyone who is "digital native", but I thought I'd really push out the boat by setting the ISO at 1600.  SIXTEEN HUNDRED. In film terms, that's crazy talk.  Even so, the recorded data tells me this frame was taken -- hand held -- at 1/10 sec at f/4.5.  ONE TENTH OF A SECOND. Again, in film terms, it should be blurred beyond recognition, but the image-stabilized lens (Panasonic 14-45mm kit zoom at 24mm) has done a superb job.  What's more, with a bit of highlight recovery and shadow-fill in RAW processing, every bit of this image falls within the captured exposure range, from the neon lit interior to the darkest exterior shadows.

It's a small miracle, and one more image for the slowly-building portfolio of "100 Views of Mount Nuffield".  Then I turned round, and saw this:

I think I may be developing a taste for these astringent, night-time colours under artificial lights.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

The Tribute of Vice to Virtue

There are sleazy, marginal, and dangerous areas in life -- literal and metaphorical -- where "respectable" people don't go.  Or, at least, claim they don't go (celebrities mainly have people to do that for them).  The militantly-respectable, if we can call them that, would have such places cordoned off, and condemn anyone who frequents them.  We're talking about drugs, drunkenness, pornography, boxing, prostitution, cottaging, dog-fighting, gambling... All those resilient remnants of a rougher-edged world, wherever illegality is not so much a problem as an opportunity.

There is a constant stream of factitious hoo-hah in the media whenever celebrities or people in positions of responsibility are caught "visiting" these red-light districts: most recently it's been about the use of illegal recreational drugs.  The interesting thing has been how quickly and how far things have moved on.  Not so long ago, politicians were being pilloried over a few tokes on a joint when they were students; now, it seems, mayors and bank chairmen are getting high on crack on the job.  Never mind inhaling, I'm amazed these guys are still breathing at all.

I used to think I knew something about the desire and pursuit of intoxication.  For a while in my youth, the question was not whether, like President Clinton, I inhaled (don't be silly) but whether I ever exhaled.  I liked getting high, and I liked the company of those who shared this enthusiasm.  Nothing unusual there, of course: since the mid- to late-60s, hardly any young person of curiosity, character, or contemporaneity will not have felt -- and in most cases followed -- the urge to "experiment".  President Obama's "Choom Gang" back in Hawaii was just one of thousands of such bands of idiotically-giggling experimenters.

I love that word "experiment".  It adds a flattering air of solemnity and respectability to getting thoroughly wasted.  "Experiment" is what the upper middle-classes do behind the bike sheds at Harrow.  But, back where I learned the necessary lore and craft, we had no such pretensions or defence:  we simply enjoyed getting high, as often and as intensely as we could afford, and paid the full, non-negotiable price if caught.  Scuzzy little New Town longhairs don't "experiment", they break the law.

The Harrowing of Hell
in a church in Banganarti, Sudan
(from livescience)

Nowadays, of course, I need my sobriety just as much as I need a good night's sleep.  How anyone can hold down a job -- any job, let alone a prominent position in the public eye -- with multiple competing rushes from alcohol, crack, amphetamines, and God knows what else surging through their metabolism, I simply do not know.  It is hard to understand the urge to risk that sort of damage to your body, mind, or career, though it does often seem that risk itself, pure or cut with self-delusion, has claims to be the most addictive drug of all.

Self-delusion shades easily into hypocrisy -- the recent eye-stretching case of the Reverend Paul Flowers springs readily to mind -- and this and the related media sport of hypocrite hunting are major obstacles to clear thinking on a number of subjects, none of which, in truth, has a simple political or moral dimension.  Some of the most puritanical people I have ever known were on the outer extremes of the revolutionary left*.  In contrast, consider the case of Paul Staines, better known as the ultra-conservative blogger Guido Fawkes:
His politics, however, could hardly be described as toeing the Party line. In an article published by the Libertarian Alliance in 1991, Mr Staines wrote enthusiastically of his experiences with LSD and ecstasy, saying: "I have fond memories of taking LSD and pure MDMA, trance-dancing and thinking that I had turned into a psychedelic, orgiastic wisp of smoke – it was the most staggeringly enjoyable, mind-warping experience I have ever had. The only word to describe it is WOW!"

He suggested that many Tories "would benefit from taking drugs, particularly Thatcherites", adding: "Couldn't we put acid in the punch at the Young Conservatives ball and then really have a party?"

As a father of two daughters aged four and two, he has since changed his views, admitting: "I don't want my daughters to do that kind of stuff."

From an article in the Daily Telegraph, 19/4/2009
That Rave Scene generation took their "experimentation" to a whole new level, qualitatively, quantitatively, and demographically.  There's a cohort of people of all political stripes in public life, now in their 40s, whose idea of a good time resembles the kind of interrogation-by-disorientation techniques that even the CIA would disown.  Will civilisation be safe in the hands of these brain-addled monsters?  We'd better hope so, as they are next in the queue for high office.

Krazy Kat, by G.J. Herriman

But, to get back to hypocrisy.  It was François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-80) who proposed that "hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue".  Very nice, your lordship.  But, 500 years on, fear of being hounded by the media has led to a paralysis of public discourse that goes way beyond any clerically-induced hypocrisy.  There's a strategic, fearful political silence on many subjects where rational debate is badly needed.  The foolish, expensive, unwinnable "War on Drugs" is just one of the more obvious cases.  Is it not ridiculous that policy-makers with a "past" (i.e. most of them) should be afraid to argue, let's say, for the legalisation of cannabis, simply out of fear of what the Daily Mail might dig up and how its readers might react? Is a vote-winning "zero tolerance" policy on assorted human weaknesses worth the consequent price in organized crime, exploitation, alienation, and wasted tax-money?

Perhaps what we need is a National New Start Day, when every politician and public figure who has a harmless little secret in their past -- an affair or two, some minor expenses fiddling, that unfortunate misunderstanding with the goat -- can own up en masse and be granted amnesty from media witch-hunting.  Let's get it all out in the open, and let the disinfectant of sunlight do its healing work.  Let's make this minor stuff deeply boring, and let the media concentrate on the heavy-duty bad stuff that happens on those darkest city streets where depravity accosts liberty at every turn.

I'm sure Chris Huhne would back the idea. In another of La Rochefoucauld's maxims, "Most of our faults are more pardonable than the means we use to conceal them".  Sound about right, Chris?

"Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I will meet you there."
Jalal al-Din Rumi
"... And don't be late"
Jimi Hendrix

* FWIW, I think a "puritan" is someone who regards any spectrum that goes from "depravity" to "virtue" as a slippery slope, rather than a bell curve.  To a puritan, the only safe answer to, say, habitual drunkenness is abstinence.  To a more radical kind of puritan, the difference between, say, prostitution and conventional patriarchal marriage or slavery and waged labour is not so much one of degree as of semantics.  Sometimes puritans have a point.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Cats and Dogs

I read a review this morning in Saturday's Guardian of Geoffrey Hill's new collected poems, Broken Hierarchies, by Nicholas Lezard.  Like Woody Allen, Hill made some accessible early works -- I'm a fan of Mercian Hymns -- then went off down his own personal rabbit-hole.  He's clearly a great poet, but why or what about is hard to say.  It's a big book -- 992 pages! -- and this comment made me laugh out loud (that's LOL for younger readers):
From the word go, Hill gave some of his readers problems with his style, which, to use the most boring word about it, is "difficult", and there was some small, perplexed part of me that hoped one of the reasons this book is so big is that the answers are printed in the back.
As did this:
The editor of the 1960 Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, Kenneth Allott ...  said of the poem finally chosen: "I understand 'Annunciations' only in the sense that cats and dogs may be said to understand human conversation, i.e. they grasp something by the tone of the speaking voice, but without help I cannot construe it".
In conversation I have something of the same problem, these days.  My partial deafness and tinnitus mean that, in less than ideal conditions, I only have the vaguest impression of what anyone is saying.  I had a great evening out with friends on Wednesday night, and we ended up in a rather fine restaurant called Fish! in Borough Market (I recommend the sausage and mash); but it was full to capacity, and there was a cacophony of voices simmered in that enclosed space to a perfect white-noise jus.

In answer to the question "Why do you favour images over words, these days?" (at least, that's the question I heard), I said it was because it accessed an important, non-verbal part of my mind which had been given short shrift in my education.  Boys with a talent for taking exams were not encouraged to pursue other talents, especially of a hands-on, non-academic kind.  If I have any degree of visual originality, this may be because it has never been educated out of me.

But another answer might have been that I have a taste for difficulty, and visual difficulty is more accessible and less off-putting than verbal difficulty.  Many people will find themselves liking a work of visual art without feeling a need to understand it and, without realising it, hanging the equivalent of a Geoffrey Hill poem on their wall.

Thursday 21 November 2013

The House of Details

 I went up to London yesterday, to visit an old friend, Leo Amery, who has opened an exhibition of his work this week at the Menier Factory Gallery.  It was a day of contrasting weather: at one point in the late afternoon the north bank of the Thames was brightly sunlit while the south bank lay in shadow.  This gave some interesting opportunities to see the one reflected in the other.  Here, St. Paul's Cathedral is seen shimmering within the foyer of the Globe Theatre.

Leo is based in the Dordogne these days, where he has his workshop.  He works in stained glass, which he had to pack and drive all the way from Martel to Southwark.  Carefully.  If you've ever driven off a cross-channel ferry, you'll know that dreadful lurching jolt as you move off the ramp, that rattles your duty-free bottles alarmingly.  It appears everything arrived safely.

My friend has two sons, and the eldest, Joey, is severely autistic.  Leo comes from a distinguished political family, and has become a consummate activist on behalf of autistic children in France, where attitudes and standards seem to lag behind those in Britain.  He has some shocking tales to tell about arrogant and dismissive officials and medical staff.  That curious greenhouse-like structure, The House of Details,  is his attempt to interpret and convey something of the autistic experience of the world.  As he writes:
For some people, the first time they enter The House of Details there is momentarily an invasive or overwhelming feeling at the quantity of visual information that is not easy to take in and/or make sense of. This may be a permanent part of perception for some people on the autistic spectrum.
We took the opportunity of this exhibition to arrange a mini-reunion of some college friends, with the result that we were in need of somewhere to eat.  While nosing around  the backstreets of Southwark looking for a restaurant, the so-called "Shard" building is inescapable -- all  1004 feet of it.  Apparently it costs £25 to ride the lift to the top and see the view.  Um, no thanks.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Steam Variations

One of the side-effects of working fixed hours at a fixed location is that you incorporate quite unlikely places into your spiritual/artistic life. Unable to seek out sites where beauty and inspiration might be found, beauty and inspiration must seek you out, instead, in their own time and on ground of their choosing.  This is by no means a bad thing, I have found.

November 2013

This car-park, for example, with that fence, that wall, those chimneys, and that towering plume of steam: for me, it has become like starting each day with a view of some grand mountain-range, or a mighty work of architecture, on which the light and weather play daily variations.  I'll miss them when I retire next year, and become free to seek, rather than be sought.  But this, too, will be no bad thing.  At least, I hope so.

December 2005

Of course, such places have history.  The decorative walls are a hint that the ground that is now a car-park was, within memory, once covered by delapidated old dairy buildings, and next to that nest of five steel chimneys was the magnificent brick chimney of a boiler room that fed hot water to the entire campus.

January 2010

And beyond the fence, in a hollow squeezed between a street of houses, the car-park and the campus boundary, was a set of allotments, on which seldom-seen gardeners played out yet more seasonal variations, with their improvised shelters and defenses against birds.  Now the university has bought the land, the gardeners have gone, and someone is no doubt laying up plans to build over it.  More history, more variations.

April 2009

Sunday 17 November 2013

Another Roadside Attraction

I have a particular liking for minor country roads, and what can be seen on and from them, whether along the roadside verge or through gaps in the the hedges that -- in most of southern England -- bar access to neighbouring farmed fields.  Such roads are the nowhere that is everywhere.

NE from Twyford Down across Morstead Road

I grew up in a New Town plonked down into an agricultural, mainly arable, part of the country, where what lay on the other, farmed side of the hedge was generally regarded as off-limits.  Not that anyone was much bothered -- the attractions of a ploughed field in heavy clay soil country are zero, unless you're a crow.  You can trust me on this: at school, we were required to go on wintry cross-country runs through a particularly sticky one.  There must be hundreds of gym-shoes lost in the deep mud of that field, a puzzling find for future archaeologists ("We think it's a ritual deposit -- some kind of Shoe Cult").

In such intensively-farmed areas, a "country walk" generally means a walk down a country road.  In these days of constant heavy, high-speed traffic, of course, this is not to be recommended, but I enjoy it anyway.  There's something revelatory about seeing all that road-furniture that you normally whizz past in a car -- signs and kerbs and barriers and so on -- up close and at walking speed.  Not to mention the intriguing road-side debris, ranging from hub-caps and bits of body-trim to roadkill in various states of flatness, and the piles of fly-tipped rubbish.  As people say nowadays, what's not to like?

Though you do have to be careful.  Wandering down the verge of the A3057 between Southampton and Romsey, I nearly stepped into a deep storm-drain, the cover of which had been removed and left lying by the side of the road.  Another time, I thought for 30 spine-tingling seconds I had come across a human skull  in a lay-by.  On closer inspection, it turned out to be a disposable nappy, balled up, taped shut, and swollen with rain.  Phew.

Saturday 16 November 2013


A Valediction : forbidding mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
    And whisper to their soules to goe,
Whilst some of their sad friends doe say,
    The breath goes now, and some say, no:                  

So let us melt, and make no noise,
    No teare-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
'Twere prophanation of our joyes
    To tell the layetie our love.

Moving of th'earth brings harmes and feares,
    Men reckon what it did and meant,
But trepidation of the spheares,
    Though greater farre, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
    Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love, so much refin'd,
    That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
    Care lesse, eyes, lips, and hands to misse.

Our two soules therefore, which are one,
    Though I must goe, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
    Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.

If they be two, they are two so
    As stiffe twin compasses are two,
Thy soule, the fixt foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if th' other doe.

And though it in the center sit,
    Yet when the other far doth rome,
It leanes, and hearkens after it,
    And growes erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to mee, who must
    Like th'other foot, obliquely runne ;
Thy firmnes makes my circle just,
    And makes me end, where I begunne.

John Donne

Friday 15 November 2013

Fair Enough

Those who, in Peter Mandelson's immortal words, are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich tend to accuse those who are not so relaxed about it of "the politics of envy".  This is a curious accusation, if you stop to think about it.  It says, "You are not criticising the wealthy from a moral standpoint or any systematic egalitarian political analysis; you're just jealous!"  It's as if someone were to justify bullying by saying, "You don't really care about people getting hurt -- you just wish you were big and strong, too, so you could push everyone around!"

Now, clearly, we'd all like to have enough money, and then some.  Few of us, given any choice in the matter, are inclined to select the hair-shirt from the rack, or to ask whether cold gruel is on the menu today.  The problem is, who decides what counts as "enough"?  Enough to buy the kids nice new winter coats is one thing; enough to fund a private jet quite another.  Crudely, your politics are defined by whether you think the ownership of private jets by a few enables or prevents the purchase of winter coats by the many.  There are arguments on both sides, but the harsh truth is that most people don't have any politics, as such.  What they do have is a fairly pragmatic sense of social justice, of what is fair enough in an unfair world.

Radix malorum...

Now, I was amazed to learn that, if I were working full-time, my income would put me in the top ten percent of earners in the UK.  In a country where my full-time annual earnings would be seen as a pretty disappointing Christmas bonus by many this seemed unlikely, but statistics do have a way of concealing reality, rather than revealing it.

According to a 2008 report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies ("Racing away? Income inequality and the evolution of high incomes"), these are the facts on top earnings in the UK:

                             Top 10%-1%     Top 1%-0.1%       Top 0.1%
Number              4.21 million              421,000             42,000
Minimum value       £35,345             £99,727         £351,137
Average value         £49,960           £155,832        £780,043

In other words, if you earn as much as / as little as * £10K more than the national average of £25K p.a., then you should probably stop thinking of yourself as "about average" in the earnings stakes, and start thinking about where to moor that yacht, not to mention hiring some security to protect you against the envy of the 90% earning less than you.  Though, I must say, when I look at those figures I think there must be an awful lot of undeclared earnings up there at the top end.  In the final analysis, it's all about distribution, not averages.

To return to envy, though.  It is impossible -- even, ahem, for those of us in the top ten percent -- to be envious of the stinking Mandelsonian rich, because we have no idea of what it must be like to live like that.  It is even pretty difficult to imagine the life of a bottom-feeder in that top 0.1%, with an individual entry-stake income of a mere £350,000 per annum.  We cannot see these people; there is no fast-lane checkout queue in Tesco, no heliport on the roof of Kwik-Fit.  They might as well be a separate species, with different needs and imperatives, passing unseen through our lives like the Fair Folk of legend. If anything, we should pity them: what must it be like, to live sated, gated lives in moneyed quarantine?  As the song asks, who wants to be a millionaire? A country estate?  That's something I'd hate! **

So, let us save the hyper-wealthy from themselves.  In a fair enough world, no-one would have an income of less than £25,000, and no-one would earn more than £250,000.  And why not?  As multi-millionaire tax-exile John Lennon once put it,  imagine.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,
where moth and rust doth corrupt...
Matthew 6:19

* delete according to taste
** Though a large house in a choice part of Central London could be tempting...

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Not Dark Yet

There's a light, a certain kind of light ... (No, no, start again, let's not invoke the Bee Gees).

There's a special light at this time of year, that sometimes spreads over everything in the last half-hour or so before dark.  It falls after the famous Golden Hour, beloved of landscape photographers, and just before dusk and the gathering shadows; an eerie, even kind of pale fire that seems to emanate from the landscape itself.  It's a moment of sober intensity, suitable for making solemn vows and clear-eyed judgements:  "Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late...".

We were up on the western remnant of Twyford Down on Sunday, looking across at St. Catherine's Hill, when that cold radiance of the dying light fell across the land.  I grabbed a few quick shots, in the full expectation I was wasting my time.  Hand-held low-light photography is never more than an act of faith.

But I must have accidentally pressed a previously-undiscovered [GLOAMING] preset, as I got one shot that -- with a little help -- is as close as I have yet come to capturing that elusive luminous quality.  "It ain't dark yet, but it's gettin' there".

Monday 11 November 2013

Armistice Day

A reminder, in the week that saw the announcement that ship-building is to close in Portsmouth, that war is not only about soldiers, and not only about fighting.

Charles Pears
Transport by Sea: Maintaining Forces Overseas, 1917

This is another example from another one of the sets of prints made by War Artists for the Ministry of Information during WW1.  Complete sets are held by the Tate, and can be found on their rather fine website.

My grandfather, who had been an infantry sergeant in WW1, joined the Home Guard after he had moved to a new printing job in Southampton in 1939.  He was assigned to guard the docks during the Blitz, and then joined one of the still somewhat mysterious "auxiliary units" of the British Resistance Organisation.  The idea was that, in the event of a German invasion (something that seemed highly likely in 1940), these units would harass and sabotage the invading forces.

Luckily, and mainly thanks to Soviet Russia, none of this was necessary.  According to my uncle, after the War his father showed him a secret bunker under Southampton Common from where the unit would have operated.  As far as anyone knows, it's still there.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Remembrance Sunday

Eric Kennington
from the lithograph series "Making Soldiers"

Q:  Wot's a soldier for, Dad?
A:  Why, to 'ang things on, son!

Eric Kennington
from the lithograph series "Making Soldiers"

Saturday 9 November 2013

Reelin' in the Years

I'm a fan of 70s beat combo Steely Dan, the creation of the dystopic duo, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.  Or maybe a partial fan; I've never been a completist, and see no point in following the downs of any career that has plenty of ups.  I also don't listen to their albums very often, these days, but then I don't really need to. In common with a select shelf of recordings like Dark Side of the Moon or Blue, every bar, every solo, and every inflection of every word on two of the earlier discs in their recorded oeuvre is permanently engrooved on what remains of my brain.  I can play them, at will, on my own private, internal jukebox.  If there's a swing to my step as I go down the road, it's because "Bodhisattva" or "Black Friday" is on the mental deck.

I'm sure you feel the same about some music, too; though most likely some other music.  Being a fan is a curious condition, and much more common than it used to be.  Enthusiasms used to be encouraged in the young, but you were expected to grow out of them: only the lonely continued to collect stamps in adulthood. In one view, the established canons of literature, music and art -- "official" culture -- existed to channel the dangerous energy of enthusiasm into safe, approved outlets.  Ironically, perhaps the true outcome of the "revolution" of pop culture in our lifetime has been to burst the levees of official culture, only to turn us all into fans, "kidults" indulging in the narcissism of small differences.

On the other hand, admiration is the precondition of emulation and achievement. It seems that Donald Fagen -- the dark star at the heart of Steely Dan -- is a fan, too.  I'm reading his recently-published book, Eminent Hipsters, and it's a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an über-fanboy.  This is not a straight-ahead, 12-bar rock autobiography.  Well, what would you expect from Donald Fagen? In large part, it's a series of honest and self-aware insights into his New Jersey suburban roots and influences.  What other rock musician would discuss the hipness of Henry Mancini?  Or insist on seeing the full picture of Ike Turner's career, the man who dismissed Jimi Hendrix as a second-guitarist because he was a "big show-off" who "wouldn't stay inside the lines"?

It's nicely written, too.  So far, my most amusing takeaway has been the expression "herbal mood augmentation" (as in, "All this provided me and my droll companions with a lot of great material for after-dinner analysis, with or without herbal mood augmentation").  For fans, there are also many quiet little revelations:  Lonnie actually exists ("Boston Rag"), and the whole situation at Bard College, where Fagen and Becker met, clearly underpins much of that greatest of great albums, Countdown to Ecstasy.

Fagen defines his "hipsters" as "artists whose origins lie outside the mainstream or who creatively exploit material from the margin or who, merely because they live in a freaky space, have enough distance to see some truth".  I'll drink to that.  Mind you, that doesn't mean he appreciated his Bard room-mate listening to Albert Ayler's Ghosts at 1 a.m., and I'll drink to that, too.

Thursday 7 November 2013

A Carving in Space

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.
Midsummer Night's Dream 5,i

A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur --

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of.  It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter.  The grass is full

And full of yourself.  The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone --
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

Wallace Stevens

Rabbit moon

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Tree Ghost

I've mentioned  before my attraction to translucent or reflective surfaces that, in the right lighting conditions, will yield a kind of indirect image that is a kind of metaphor for the photographic process itself.  Naturally, I have a repertoire of such surfaces that I revisit, to explore seasonal changes in the intensity, angle and direction of light, not to mention wear and tear on the surfaces themselves.

A lot of the recent building on campus (and there has been a lot of it) has been highly suitable.  The architects all seem to have decided that a nautical, slightly Mediterranean look is appropriate (Southampton, home of cruise liners, geddit?), so there are rather more white exterior walls than anyone familiar with the British climate might think appropriate.  Unsurprisingly, the architectural "artist's impressions" never show the water stains and algal growth that become a major feature, several years on.  But, obviously, this suits my purposes rather well.

To those of us who have -- for whatever mad reasons -- set ourselves the task of finding fresh ways of looking at the same old things, autumn poses one of the greatest challenges.  It's just so good to look at, it's impossible to see.  This oak tree, for example, is beginning to blaze with colour.  But you've seen all that before.  Here it is reduced to a fog of spectral layers receding into one of those white walls.  The green tint in the shadows belongs to the eggshell "white" surface, not to the tree.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Alien Intelligence

Imaginary planet no. 17

In the week India -- India! -- launched a rocket to Mars, my own thoughts have also been concerned with space travel.

Now, I've never been a big fan of science fiction.  I've read the obligatory Philip K. Dick and a few others, but their work doesn't excite me as a genre in the way that, say, crime or thrillers do.  This is not to condemn those for whom "skiffy" is the favoured absorbing read.  The whole point of genre fiction is that it's a reliable form of entertainment with fixed-but-flexible boundaries and conventions that you happen to find agreeable.  Publishers know their markets, and, personally, I'll try anything that comes in a promising cover (anyone who believes you can't judge a book by its cover doesn't read enough).  How else would I have discovered what good writers Lee Child, Ross Thomas or Tony Hillerman are, for example?

The same goes for speculative fiction on-screen, even the "classics" of the 1970s and 80s.  There are some acknowledged masterpieces, like Alien, Blade Runner or even Solaris, that anyone should get to see.  However, I have sat through 2001 three times (I get drawn in by the brilliant opening sequence with the ape-men, the bone and the space-station) and each time I have concluded it is one of the worst films I have ever endured (though I do always enjoy the lengthy list of operating instructions on the zero-gravity toilet wall).  On TV,  Star Trek and Dr. Who left me cold, despite the enthusiasm they inspired in others; I preferred westerns and secret agents.  In the end, I found sci-fi and fantasy to be genres with built-in problems of credibility and unintended hilarity that it takes near-genius to transcend.

Craft abandoned outside the Engineering Block

However, as any parent will attest, having children changes all sorts of things.  Mine were just the right age to catch the second wave of Star Wars movies, and I dutifully sat through so many hours of astonishing effects and no-less astounding dialogue ("The Force is strong with this one!") that I acquired a certain inoculation.  It was all a darned sight more entertaining than Postman Pat and Power Rangers, after all.

I found this exposure re-awakened certain long-forgotten memories, potent engrams of childhood reading.  An image of an alien craft in a blue sky, flying over the heads of astonished Dark Ages-style tribesmen, drawn in a comic-strip style, for example.  This turned out to be from The Trigan Empire, an ambitious series that ran in The Ranger comic in the 1960s, those ancient days when space exploration seemed an imminent reality, and no-one had yet done the maths on getting anywhere worth going, or how much it would all cost.  Space, I remembered, had once been interesting, and not intrinsically ludicrous.

One evening recently, I surprised myself by settling down to watch the pilot of Battlestar Galactica on Netflix.  I was instantly gripped. Two and a half series on, and I'm still watching, fitting in episodes of that cult space-western Firefly in between as, um, spacers.  Yes, I'm having a personal space odyssey.

Firefly is fun, but shallow: if it had been allowed to run beyond that first establishing series, I suppose the characters and plot might have deepened, but that whole "American Civil War and Wild West in space" metaphor seems, ultimately, a bit juvenile.  Wot, no slavery?  I do like the always-unseen but feared Reavers, though; space Comanches, humans gone cannibalistically feral out in The Black, the furthest outer fringes of the re-settled star-system.

Galactica, though, is quite a grown-up space-opera.  It deals with issues of moral choice and compromise, of betrayal and loyalty, of what it is to be fully human rather than a sentient machine, and doesn't overdo the hokey pseudo-mythological elements (at least, not yet -- that difficult 4th series is coming...).  Characters have proper inter-locking story arcs and suffer emotional and physical damage and loss, as the clash of humanity and their rebel robotic creation, the Cylons, works itself out.  Shakespeare it isn't, or even The Wire, but it is very entertaining.

I find that this rich diet of rockets, jump-drives and space-suits has also provoked various questions that have lain dormant in the back of my mind since I was an impressionable youth, like forgotten paperbacks discovered at the bottom of a trunk.  Are there really UFOs out there?  Could we possibly communicate with alien intelligences?  Will we one day leave this planet behind?  Was God an astronaut? (hey, how did that one get in there?).  But as this is already a long post I'll save those for another day.

Imaginary planet no. 26

Monday 4 November 2013

Evening Cloud

I was struck by this wisp of cloud in the eastern sky over the car-park as I left for home this evening.  My car roof made a suitable support.  There's a certain quiet, story-book mood to this image that I rather like.  Cue the crepuscular tones of the Twin Peaks theme...

Sunday 3 November 2013

This Old Heart of Mine

Talking of old stuff...  Whenever I'm out for a walk among the chalky fields up on Twyford Down, I always have half an eye on the ground for sea-urchin fossils.  I found these two this morning, which was very gratifying.

The folk-name for this particular variety (micraster) is a "fairy loaf".  There's a rarer, more conical type (conulus) which is known as a "shepherd's crown", which is the name I gave to my short-lived self-publishing imprint.

I can't explain my fascination with these heart-and-star objects, but it always feels like a moment of significance whenever one turns up.  They're infrequent enough that I can remember the place and circumstance of every one, right back to the very first that came up on a spade in our back garden when I was about eight.  I described the finding of another in the post California Dreaming.

Of course, I also scan the edges of these fields for the glint of gold or the green of bronze, but have never yet found anything, in 40 years of looking, that didn't turn out to be a bit of old farm machinery.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Old Stuff

I suppose everyone grows up in a world that is "always already" vanishing, where the old and the new, the real and the fake are eternally changing places, but I think this may have been particularly acute for those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, in the dawning of the Age of Plastic.

Overnight, it seemed, "authentic" materials like wood, leather, metal, and ceramic were transmuted into synthetic equivalents.  The world was suddenly full of skeuomorphs; that is, objects made of the new materials that imitated, needlessly, the superseded characteristics of the old materials, with fake seams and stitching, dummy screws and rivets, and imitation wood-grain and fabric "effects".  Car interiors, radios, glassware, toys: anything that had once been made from expensive "real" stuff was now available in a cheaper, plastic alternative.

Naturally, designers soon began to exploit the new shapes, textures and colours that moulded plastics made possible: simple things like airtight plastic containers or carrier bags were a radical novelty back then.  At the same time the older materials acquired the cachet of being the real thing, inevitably more exclusive and costly, like the real wood and real leather interior of a luxury car.  Apart from being expensive, such "real" materials required care and maintenance, which went against the labour-saving, disposable, no fuss ethos of modernity. Incredibly, there was a brief period of misery in human history when nylon sheets, shirts and underwear -- drip dry, no need to iron! -- were considered quite the futuristic thing.

It wasn't long before a reaction set in.  The pop-antiquarian conviction that old stuff is real stuff was, confusingly, both a reassertion of the benchmarks of affluent good living -- can you afford to wear real wool? -- and also a critique of that consumerist "cult of the new" of the 1950s and 60s.  This ambivalence about the virtues of The New was a contradiction at the heart of much of "counter-culture", which was, despite its progressive claims and good intentions, in practice quite backward-looking, elitist and even snobbish.  That reflex counter-cultural rejection of "commercial" production values in favour of the hand-made and artisanal -- as exemplified by old stuff -- was, in a mass society, a pretty anti-democratic instinct.

Really old stuff, Bordeaux, August 2010

You didn't have to take things that seriously to embrace a fashion trend, of course.  In the 1970s there was still enough old stuff installed or lying around in kitchens and sheds for the qualitative contrast of old and new to be an everyday experience. To the discerning, the superiority of a "proper" white vitreous enamel bath over a new plastic bathroom suite in avocado green was self-evident.  The fashion-conscious rescued ornamental Victorian cast-iron fireplaces from skips, or uncovered them from behind the plywood facings of efficient but soulless modern gas fires. There was a fad for decorative old bottles and ceramic jars dug out of rubbish tips; antique mirrors and enamel Edwardian advertising placards were scavenged from pubs and shops under refurbishment.  Even jukeboxes and pinball tables from the 1940s and 50s seemed more alluring than their contemporary versions.  In retrospect, the late 60s and early 70s were remarkable for their obsession with the design-cues of previous decades.

This charity-shop nostalgia -- what would nowadays be labelled "retro" -- was utterly futile as a form of resistance to consumerism, but it did (and does) express a longing for lost authenticity and continuity that is a sort of wound in the contemporary western psyche.  It must have been around then that the words "old-fashioned" shifted from a pejorative term to a marketing strategy.  What greater guarantee of integrity, flavour, reliability and all-round goodness, could there be than "old-fashioned"? That is, apart from "traditional", "original", "farm fresh", and all the other dog-whistle phrases marketeers learned to deploy.

You might also say it was around that time that post-modernism emerged as a sensibility, and that "lifestyle" began to be seen not as a product of background and upbringing but as a modular set of consumer choices.  But, mainly, I think it marked the point where a country like Britain developed a disabling self-consciousness and began to become a fantasy theme-park museum of itself.  A skeuomorph, even, with all the old, useless bits carefully preserved.

Perigueux amusement park, August 2010