Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Sturm und Drang

Frost and fire. Back garden at breakfast time...

In what is practically the only photo-book review of any seriousness that I can recall seeing this year in the Guardian (Landscape and Industry, by Michael Collins, Dewi Lewis 2014, reviewed 27/12/14), Ian Jack quotes the photographer on why he insists on a naturally soft, diffused light in his photographs: that "pale, English light" helps avoid "any impression of sentimentality or drama that would be created by saturated colours or stark shadows."  Later on he quotes Collins on how photography is "the visual art par excellence because it is wholly about looking.  There is no mark-making.  Everything is observed."

This is a very familiar credo.  I think Jem Southam (a photographer for whom I have the highest regard) may have been its original British practitioner, back in the 1980s, and he has had many followers and imitators since.  In its way, it's our native version of the arguments of the New Topographic movement in the States.  Obviously, I respect the impulse to avoid "landscape porn" for whatever reasons, especially when it allows for -- in Collins' words again -- the intrusion of "unsolicited, unimagined and unwelcome" details.  Photography "can show you the things you couldn't make up."  All true.

And yet...  I do wonder about this phobia for sentiment and drama, this dismissal of "mark-making" and simply making things up.  Poor old painters, eh? Such fools!  No wonder so many of them have chucked the brushes for concepts and video installations.  But, after a good run of 30 years as one of several art-photo orthodoxies, I'm afraid I'm now seeing a doctrinaire puritanism at work there, one that is reflexively and rather pointlessly self-limiting and self-deprecating and which can be, dare I say it, rather drab.  I am reminded of a previous Christmas post, A Day Like Any Other Day.  Is it really such a very superior strategy to stand aloof from the playpen where other so-called "artists" are splashing about with paint, making marks with pencils and charcoal, and hanging out some all-too-human emotions where everyone can see them, for contrast and comparison?  What once seemed necessary now seems a bit tired, a bit timid.

For a contrary view, here's Duane Michals:
...the essential point being that photography is an art but by and large as it is practiced by most photographers, will be remembered as a minor art because it lacks the essential ingredient of all major arts which is invention. Photography is essentially an act of recognition by street photographers, not an act of invention. Photographers might respond to an old man’s face, or an Arbus freak, or the way light hits a building—and then they move on. Whereas in all the other art forms, take William Blake, everything that came to that paper never existed before. It’s the idea of alchemy, of making something from nothing. I feel the more a photographer intrudes into the photograph, the more he creates. But people expect less from photography than they do from the other arts. They’re quite happy to simply reproduce someone’s face and they assume that that represents the person and if that person looks attractive, so much the better. It’s the most democratic of all the arts in that anyone can take a photograph or has had their picture taken; so accessible that we don’t demand as much and that’s what makes me angry.

Duane Michals, interviewed in Bomb Magazine, 1987
This is clearly an argument that will never be won, either way, but the pendulum is always swinging, and I sense it swinging towards Duane at the moment.

Now, as it happens, my new toy this Christmas is a wireless Wacom "Pen & Touch" graphical tablet, which is superbly responsive to variations in applied pressure, enabling one to gratify that pesky impulse to make expressive marks and muck about with paint and pencils, but without any concerns about cleaning up, leaving the tops off tubes, or running out of paper.  Crikey, pleasure without compensatory pain...  To what decadence might it all lead?  However, pace my more photo-purist readers, I fear there may be rather more of "making stuff up" around here in future (visually!) than heretofore.

Besides, avoiding a bit of Sturm und Drang at this time of year is close to impossible, and why on earth would you want to?

None-too-quiet sunset at Blackpits Copse

Friday, 26 December 2014

All The Way

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years!  Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy

There's a nice discussion of this poem, written by Hardy during WW1, by Adam Newey of the Guardian  here.  Somehow, the fact that it was composed in 1915, when disillusion with the war had begun to set in, and the casualties to mount, adds another layer of depth.

On a different but not unrelated seasonal note, here's one of my favourite Wondermark strips, from 2011:

The current one is pretty good, too.  To get it, you'll have to have heard "Winter Wonderland" enough times without blocking your ears or screaming to know the lyrics intimately...  A Big Ask, I know.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Certain Poor Shepherds

We're shutting down for a few days, but will be back, probably some time around the New Year. 

Having played one several times in primary school nativities, I have always strongly identified with those "certain poor shepherds", watching flocks or washing socks by night, depending on which authority you follow, to whom the angelic Annunciation is made.  What a story, and what a night to remember, though I imagine the poor guys had trouble getting anyone to believe them...  No, really!

Talking of authorities, it seems the exact wording of the angelic message as recorded in Luke's gospel is disputed, and hangs on a single Greek letter.  I'm surprised either angels or shepherds spoke Greek, but there we are.  Pedantry aside, I think I much prefer the (possibly) erroneous version, familiar from the King James Bible: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men".  I'm never sure why supreme beings seem to have such a need for praise, worship, exclusivity contracts, etc., but some of that peace and good will would go a very long way just now.

To all readers of this blog, may I wish you the very best for 2015!   Special thanks to those of you who have taken the trouble to comment, on or off blog: it's very much appreciated.

Monday, 22 December 2014

For External Use Only

I was looking through some digitised local newspapers dating from the early part of the last century, and was struck by the amount of every page taken up by advertisements, seemingly randomly mixed into the columns. To a modern eye, accustomed to more varied typography and clearer conventions alerting the reader to the different kinds of content on a page, it was very confusing.

In particular, I kept coming across advertisements for a medicinal product called Zam-Buk, cunningly disguised as news articles -- "Man replaces own head after unfortunate sawmill incident, using ZAM-BUK embrocation alone!" -- the sort of thing that, nowadays, is required to have the word ADVERTISEMENT (or, better, MADE-UP NONSENSE) printed prominently along the top.

I had never heard of this substance before, but a quick excursion onto the Web showed that a lot of people have.  In fact, it would seem that, for a certain subset of the population, it has long been an indispensible part of the British way of life.  Apparently people have been reattaching severed heads with Zam-Buk (or, more commonly, healing cuts and grazes and soothing sores) for 100 years or so.  Who knew?  I certainly didn't.  It's basically an all-purpose antiseptic ointment (or "embrocation", to use its own evocative term), a commercial version of the sort of pre-NHS hedge-witchery that might once have got your granny burned at the stake.  In fact, one of the original ingredients, sassafras, is now banned by the EU, which is sort of the contemporary equivalent of burning at the stake.  This brand of medicated goo is still in production, and can be bought in most chemists, but (psst!) if you want the hard stuff with the original formulation, you can still get it in South Africa.

It's the real thing!

This made me think: how brand-loyal families tend to be!  And also: how much these brands depend on that loyalty for their survival, passed on from generation to generation, like a religious denomination or a football team. When it came to magic embrocations, liniments, and the like, we were a Germolene family.  Others swore by Savlon, or by TCP, but I think you would rarely find more than one such over-the-counter salve in any single family medicine cabinet.  And cough remedies!  Veno's, Vicks, Zubes, Benylin, Collis Browne's, Hacks, Fishermen's Friends...  Endless choice, but once a path is chosen you tend to stick with it, and other paths become, in effect, invisible. In illness and affliction, there is comfort in familiarity.  Zam-Buk?  What the hell is that?

The same goes for foodstuffs: we ate Heinz beans, never Crosse & Blackwell, always drank Brooke Bond tea, and never Typhoo, Tetley, or any of the other half-dozen major brands regularly stocked.  Frozen foods?  Birds Eye, always, never Findus or ... whatever other brands there might have been. In fact, unfavoured brands or untried products might as well not have existed.  Most families are built on habit, and unexamined habits are only a short step away from blind prejudice.  Remarkably, my father had never tasted Marmite in his entire life until I developed a liking for it as a student (what is university for if not this sort of reckless experimentation?).  I brought a jar home; he found it truly disgusting.  And, as I have written before, I have yet to encounter one of the elusive, but presumably numerous, households that keep the likes of Fray Bentos in business, with their tinned pies and processed meats still stacked on shelves in every supermarket.

Of course, since the 1960s there has developed a significant counter-culture of supermarket "own brand" rationalists.  "It's the same thing!  You're just paying for the name!  It's all made by the same people, anyway!"  Oh, really?  What can you say about such people, with their insensitive, incurious palates, and reductive inverted snobbery?  As a child, I could tell proper Heinz beans from their own-brand travesty in a split second, even when my poor cost-conscious mother had secretly resorted to spooning them from a Sainsbury's can into an empty Heinz can in advance of heating them up.  Similar skirmishes were fought with my own children over various cola and soft drink substitutes.  I know... It is out of the spurious sophistication of such spoilt-brat choices -- between subtly different chemical brews of sugar, inverted syrup, stabilisers, flavour enhancers, E numbers, modified cornstarch, wotsinated glooperol, etc., etc. -- that our consumer culture is made.  We are the sultans of sweeteners, the gourmets of goo.

It all somehow reminds me of the thread in that strangely Homeric film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where George Clooney's character, offered Fop brand pomade, repeatedly insists he is a Dapper Dan man (Dapper Dan being a fictional but entirely credible hair-care product).  This culminates in the surreal moment when the Mississippi floods, inundating the landscape, and saves the key characters from a lynching; dozens of tins of various brands of hair pomade swirl by in the floodwater, suddenly irrelevant, now the single remaining choice is death or survival.  Our heroes survive, clinging to an empty coffin.  I expect the Cohen Brothers were trying to tell us something.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Stitch in Time

Needlework is a bit of a lost art since nimble-fingered girls found a thousand and one better ways of passing the time, and patching clothes and darning socks went the way of washboards and boilers.  I rather like this cartoonish mermaid with her mirror, a detail on one of the many old embroidered "samplers" kept in the Goodhart Collection at Montacute House in Somerset.  Getting a useable photograph was quite tricky, hand held, as the faded threads and fabric are kept behind glass in very subdued lighting, for obvious reasons of preservation.  This one is 17th century, I seem to recall.

Inevitably, some extraordinarily skilful examples of embroidery have turned up in the Ring Hoard.  This one -- rather faded, scuffed and threadbare in places now -- must once have been a feast for the eye, and displays stitchwork of a quality that is practically supernatural.  Very small, very nimble fingers would have been essential to create the elaborate, finely-worked patterns, not to mention superhuman patience and concentration.

A modern restorer's colour reconstruction of a segment of this intricately-worked piece looks like this:

"Intricate" is barely adequate as a description.  It positively invites pareidolia, the brain's irrepressible tendency to find significant forms (such as faces) in random patterns, especially where a high degree of repetitive symmetry is present, as here.

In the days before TV or Nintendo, a pleasant winter's evening might have been wiled away, sat near a fire with a pipe of something stimulating, exploring the endless figurations and recombinations revealing themselves in the flickering candlelight.  Though a restless night, broken by disturbing dreams, may well have followed too close an examination.  There is a distinct sense that those tiny nimble fingers may not have been altogether human, not entirely benign.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Dear Me

My eyebrows were raised, when reading a piece by John Berger in last Saturday's Guardian Review section ("Language can't be reduced to a stock of words...", 13/12/14, p.17).  In it, he makes several quite debatable points about the nature of translation and of linguistics, but what really stood out was this assertion:
Consider the term "mother tongue".  In Russian it is rodnoy-yazik, which means "nearest" or "dearest tongue".  At a pinch one could call it "darling tongue".
Now, I revere John Berger, whose TV series Ways of Seeing on BBC2 in 1972 blew my young mind.  But this is utter bollocks.  The Russian expression rodnoĭ yazyk  (in a more conventional transliteration) does not mean "nearest" or "dearest tongue", as he suggests. The various Russian words with the common stem rod have as their primary meanings "family", "birth, origin", or "sort, type". The verb rodit', for example, means "to give birth"; rodina is one's native land; rodinka is a birth-mark. So, rodnoĭ yazyk is one's native language, the language one is born into, or your "mother tongue" in our gendered idiom.  In fact, in grammatical terms, rod is Russian for "gender".

So, where on earth did he get this from?  Maybe there's a Russian idiom for "family" that is  conventionally translated as "nearest and dearest"?  Looking it up in the dictionary, I see there is an idiomatic usage of rodnoĭ which is given in English translation as "my dear".  But the dear-ness here is illusory; it's surely kinship that's being invoked, and the expression (which is probably as dated, if not as camp, as "my dear!") is perhaps more like addressing someone as "Bro!", or even "Blood!" ...  But I'm out of my depth here.

Ironically, this is exactly the point that Berger wants to make, that language "cannot be reduced to a dictionary or stock of words and phrases".  Quite so.  And high-end translation is never a two-way process: once a poem has been reworked into a set of functioning approximations and equivalents in another language, it can't simply be reverse-engineered back into the original.  Though you can have a lot of harmless fun in Google Translate doing exactly that.

I did email the Guardian, pointing out the error, but it seems they have no time for such pedantry.  But, please, let's stamp out this bizarre factoid before it escapes into the wild.

[The illustrations are from a bound book of fortune-telling cards in the British Museum, which can be seen here]

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

December 1914 / December 2014

In Monday's post concerning blog statistics I wrote that, in contrast to my own self-indulgent ramblings, "my father's reminiscence of his experiences at Dunkirk is of great interest to military historians specialising in vox pop accounts of WW2, and has led to some interesting correspondence".  Remarkably, something very similar has just happened, and on the very next day.

I never knew my paternal grandfather.  He died at the age of 59 in 1953, the year before I was born.  By all accounts, he was a lovely man; my mother clearly had a soft spot for him, and she would often invoke his memory whenever I had given her cause to feel proud of me.  Which, sadly, was not as often as it might have been.  My post about his service in WW1, and the Victoria Cross won by his friend and comrade-in-arms Frank Young (Remembrance Sunday) is one of my more frequently-visited posts.  In it, I reproduced two postcard-sized photographs of the two of them that I possess; taken in France, one after the other, posed at attention with a Lee Enfield rifle in front of a canvas backdrop.  Fortunately, my grandmother had been an obsessive collector of family photos and I inherited her hoard.  Not neatly arranged and labelled in an album, however, but entirely filling an old canvas holdall in tight-packed wads, like ransom money.

Recently, that post was seen by a student researching the Hertfordshire Regiment in WW1 for his dissertation.  Nothing remarkable there.  But -- and this is remarkable to the point of improbability -- in the process of his researches he had previously seen some private family papers belonging to an officer of E Company of the 1st/1st Hertfordshire Regiment.  That is to say, my grandfather's company, recruited from the men of Letchworth, Royston, Baldock, and Ashwell in North Hertfordshire.  Among these papers were some photographs, showing men from E Company at work constructing defences at Rue-du-Bois near Neuve Chapelle in France, during December 1914.  Incredibly, he was struck by the resemblance between the sergeant in one of these and the photograph of my grandfather in my blog post, and emailed me with an attached scan of the Rue-du-Bois image: did I think this might be Douglas William Chisholm?

"Herts Guards" F.E. Young VC and D.W. Chisholm

Unquestionably, it is.  I have been asked not to publish the image, as it is owned by the officer's family, so I will describe it.  Six cheerful-looking men in uniform -- boots, puttees, 1902-pattern field dress, and peaked caps --are sitting atop a fresh earthwork, taking a break from their labours, posing for the camera in a tight group.  From their expressions, it looks like someone has just made a wisecrack.  Seated front and centre is my grandfather -- his face and prominent ears are unmistakable -- legs planted wide apart with arms resting on his knees and hands hanging loosely in-between, with a pipe dangling roguishly from his mouth, beneath a small, military-style brush moustache.

For his time and social class, he was quite a big chap -- five foot eleven inches* -- and the others are clustered around him in various relaxed seated postures. "These are my men!" declares the picture; he's three months away from his 21st birthday, but exudes all the natural authority necessary in an infantry sergeant.  Behind them stands another NCO -- the quality of the photograph is not good enough to count his stripes -- grinning broadly.  He's either the regimental idiot, or the enemy is reasonably far away.  The landscape behind them is not yet a waste of mud, wire, and water-filled shellholes, but looks like agricultural fields look anywhere in northern Europe in December, divided by rows of leafless pollarded trees.

Here is the regiment's War Diary for that period (as edited and annotated by Steven Fuller):
17-11-14. We were shelled in the morning and had to leave the farm shortly after had one man killed and two severely wounded. In the evening we went into the trenches again & took over from the 1st Royal Dragoons and 10th Hussars 1 mile S.E. of ZILLEBEKE. Had 4 Companies in the trenches, 1 in support, 1 in reserve, remaining 2 at KILO 3.
18-11-14. Remained in trenches. Corporal Boardman [2270 Ernest Arthur BOARDMAN] killed and one man missing. [Comment: Missing man was Private 2238 Frederick James DARLOW of Royston who was found to have been killed in action]
19-11-14. E Company was heavily shelled and lost 3 men killed, 19 wounded, 2.Lieut C.M. Down [Charles M. DOWN] wounded. In the evening we were relieved by the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards and marched back to our own former bivouacs. Slight fall of snow. [Comment: Killed in action today - Privates 2504 William BUTTS, 2747 George Haslear CATLIN, 2518 George Edward ELLIS, 2426 Walter William FLANDERS, 2428 Joseph William JOHNSON, 1911 Frank PULLEY, 2636 Phillip James ROBINSON, 2746 Henry WEST]
20-11-14. Marched at 11pm to METEREN, about 18-20 miles. Had tea at OUDERDAM. A very cold night. Joined our Brigade 4th (Guards) Brigade for the first time.
21-11-14. Arrived at METEREN and went into billets.
22-11-14 to 21-12-14. Bn remained at METEREN refitting and training. [Comment: Private 2598 Walter George WALKER of Hertford died in England from his wounds today]
22-12-14. Brigade marched from METEREN to BETHUNE and billeted there the night.
23-12-14. The Brigade marched to LES LACONS FARM and spent the day there. In the evening the Bn moved forward to Cross Roads - RUE DE BOIS and RUE L'EPINETTE in support of 2 ½ battalions of the Brigade in the trenches.
24-12-14. The Bn moved back to LES LACONS FARM and in the evening went into the trenches south of RUE DE BOIS taking over from 6th GHATS. 6 Companies in the trenches, 2 in support close to Headquarters.
25-12-14. L.Sgt Gregory [2301 Thomas Edward GREGORY] and Private Huggins [2701 Percy Henry HUGGINS] killed.
27-12-14. One Company was removed from the fire trenches to support. Each Company had 36 hours in support in rotation. 
So it would seem that they'd had a rough, cold time of it during November and December, being marched around Northern France, being deployed in and out of the front line, and periodically shelled.  They arrived in Rue-du-Bois, the location of the photograph, on 23rd December, just before Christmas 100 years ago.  As one of the few territorial regiments in the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, the Herts were keen to make an impression, surrounded as they were by regular soldiers, mainly elite guards regiments.  By 1915 they had managed to distinguish themselves, and earned the honorary nickname, "The Herts Guards".

Photographs of men on active service during WW1 are very rare.  Cameras were officially banned from the front line in 1915.  That's why the same few images pop up again and again in documentaries.  That one should have survived in which I have a direct personal interest; that a researcher should be sharp-eyed enough to spot a resemblance between one grainy image in an archive and another published on my blog; that he should be sufficiently motivated to contact me about it...  This is an astonishing thing.  Not least because it creates a fresh link between two blood relatives, exactly 100 years apart: you might say it's the ultimate Christmas card.

Now, an intriguing question-mark hangs over this story.  A lot of attention has focussed on the so-called "Christmas Truce" of 1914, and the fraternisation and games of football that did or did not take place in No Man's Land between the newly-established lines of opposing trenches.  By Christmas 1914 the Great-War-to-be had not yet become the cynical war of attrition and mass mechanical slaughter of conscripted cannon-fodder floundering in muddy trenches of popular imagination.  The idea of cavalry charges was still lively in the minds of High Command.  The ground was firm.  The men of the BEF were all professionals or volunteers, and many of the latter -- like my grandfather -- had served before the War as "territorials", fully-trained weekend soldiers.

So, might there have been a kickabout in the frozen fields somewhere between Neuve Chapelle and Fleurbaix on Christmas Day 1914?  If anyone would have been up for a game, it would have been sergeant Douglas William Chisholm of Letchworth, bookbinder, conceived in Edinburgh and born in the Elephant & Castle in London, pioneer Bermondsey Boy Scouts member, and a keen all-round sportsman and athlete.  It's a nice, romantic idea.

The War Diary is silent on the matter, and unfortunately does not indicate which Companies had moved back into support, and which were in the trenches.  It does record that two men of the regiment were killed on Christmas Day, however.  This is unlikely to have involved football.  So, if there was a temporary seasonal truce on that part of the Western Front, it didn't last very long.

Of course, this is the self-same Christmas that has become synonymous with self-deluding military optimism.  "It'll all be over by Christmas!"  Oh, no it won't.

* One of the great disappointments of my life was failing to get DWC's "tall" gene, and getting indomitable Nanna C's "short and squat" gene instead.  Of their three sons, only one got it -- not my father -- and he went on to become a policeman.

Monday, 15 December 2014

An Incomplete Picture

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

One of the more frustrating things about running a blog (at least, if you use Google's Blogger service) is getting a reliable count of how many people are actually visiting your site, and which pages they are viewing.  Blogger's own inbuilt statistics are deeply flawed, because
  • They don't show a total for people who land on your "root" page -- i.e. the latest posts, which is the vast majority of visitors -- only for those who hit a particular post
  • They include visits from "bots" and automatically-placed malicious links posing as visitors
  • They exaggerate the numbers of visits to each named post by a factor of at least 2
The result is (a) an unhelpful inflation of the visitor numbers, and (b) unrealistic totals for some posts which are actually rarely visited by real people but which have somehow got themselves attached to malicious links and bots.

If you install Google Analytics, the statistical picture is a lot more accurate, if also quite humbling -- far fewer real people visit your site daily than Blogger would have you believe.  Weirdly, though, if I look at my all-time Top Ten most visted posts, the totals are greater in Google Analytics than in Blogger, which would indicate that Blogger's inbuilt stats are even wonkier than they seem.  Here's a comparison:

According to Google Analytics:
Way out in front is "/" i.e. visitors landing on the current page of posts, and not any particular post, at a cool 91,497.  Setting that aside, the Analytics Top Ten for those landing on a single named post (usually via a keyword search or a link) looks like this:

  1. Slip Sliding Away                   2,176
  2. Whatever happened to Donkey Jackets 1,487
  3. A Miracle of Deliverance            1,447
  4. Tears In the Stop Bath              1,427
  5. Remembrance Sunday                    838
  6. White Crows, Black Swans...           742
  7. Songs are Like Tattoos                511
  8. The Next Village                      490
  9. Flying Ant Day (2011)                 483
 10. BSA M20 Motorbikes                    405

According to Blogger:
There are no figures for "/" in Blogger.  The Blogger Top Ten looks like this:

  1. Whatever Happened to Donkey Jackets 1,681
  2. A Miracle of Deliverance              989
  3. Slip Sliding Away                     781
  4. Remembrance Sunday                    757
  5. Old Stuff                             683
  6. Pigeon Post                           627
  7. Peter Goldfield                       587 (#18 on GA)
  8. Flying Ant Day (2011)                 559
  9. Red Trousers                          466 (#16 on GA)
 10. Walking the Dead                      357 (#14 on GA)

Unfortunately, only the Top Ten are shown in Blogger, so I cannot say where a post highly-placed in Google Analytics but missing from Blogger's Top Ten, e.g. "Tears in the Stop Bath", is ranked in Blogger.

So, there's a broad overlap, with generally higher counts in Analytics, but some intriguing anomalies, most of which are certainly due to robotic non-visits inflating the counts in Blogger -- "Pigeon Post" and "Old Stuff", for example, neither of which even makes the top 50 in Google Analytics.

But the main (and, I suppose, obvious) lessons are, first, that the biggest numbers for individual posts happen where the subject matter is of quite specific interest to certain constituencies of search-engine users, and, second, that many of my posts will not have satisfied the seeker.  Donkey jackets, for example, are clearly an item of current interest, but my wistful post about my nostalgia for old coats must have been of zero interest to most of the 1,500 people who stumbled over it, presumably trying to find where to buy one.  By contrast, my father's reminiscence of his experiences at Dunkirk is of great interest to military historians specialising in "vox pop" accounts of WW2, and has led to some interesting correspondence.

However, still at Number One by some margin in the most reliable statistical source is the post from 2009 "Slip Sliding Away", which happens to contain some mild incidental accounts of canings in my primary and secondary schools in Stevenage, and is linked to by a site specialising in the history of corporal punishment, in all its painful manifestations.  Oh, well...

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Saturday, 13 December 2014

(Not Yet) Five Gold Rings

Something for the tree...

Generally, people react favourably to my "rings", even if they are sometimes puzzled by their purpose, or troubled by these departures from "straight" photography.  For me, they're a welcome excursion into the world of graphic design, a congenial place where I probably should have spent more of my life.  This year, I produced a (very) limited run of a calendar featuring twelve rings, and it has been well-received by the lucky recipients, I'm glad to say.

People who have come late to this story (or who have not been paying enough attention!) ask me about the "What?", "Why?", and "How?" of these images, so I'm putting in this post the account that will feature on my (forthcoming) revised webpage.

Here it is:
High fever, hallucinogens, and penny-plain imagination can all reveal the demonic visages and intricate patterns that seem to lurk just beyond everyday reality, grinning and gurning at us from behind the one-way mirror of our perception.  Our minds make faces where there are none, and delight in complex, repetitive, interlocking patterns.  These are the universals of folk art and decorative culture.

I have always felt ambivalent about the appropriation of "folk traditions" by suburbanites.  Like any suburban adolescent since the 1950s, I learned to swim in the deep post-modern waters of inauthenticity.  Is it really any less authentic for a British teenager to sing about Route 66 in an accent borrowed from Muddy Waters (via Mick Jagger) than about Ratcliffe Highway in an accent borrowed from Bob Copper (via Martin Carthy)?  I wonder. Advocates of “authenticity” tend to be reactionary.  The appeal of natural materials, the fit and finish of the hand-made, these all invoke a way of life pre-dating the industrial "mass" culture that released most of us from relentless toil into suburban comfort (released us, too, from the oppressive "idiocy of rural life").

And yet, obviously, even the inhabitants of wired suburbia have ancestors. Local cultures persist, despite globalisation.  The obliteration of minority languages is surely as tragic as the extinction of animal species.  The idea that certain cultural traits and combinations "belong" to certain peoples is a powerful one, but at the same time a dangerous one; the attraction of the “authentic” needs to be balanced by an awareness that we are formed by our social and economic lives far more than by our biology.  Otherwise, that way nationalism and racism lie.

All this to explain a simple fact: in an idle moment in 2004 I began to take my images of the natural world and the landscape and run them through a series of digital manipulations and symmetrical repetitions, rendered into a variety of shapes.  I found circles and hollow "rings" were the most satisfying of these.  Invariably, I found a kind of pagan, decorative imagery emerging, replete with grotesque inversions, couplings and transformations (the smiling faces that became demonic backsides), and exciting colour patterns.  Many cultural boxes were ticked -- Saxon jewellery, Tibetan mandalas, North American medicine wheels, African baskets, Mayan calendars, etc.

A narrative started to tell itself around these objects.  I amused myself by imagining and elaborating the discovery of a hoard of magical, impossible objects by a detectorist, the back-stories of how they got there, and their subsequent conservation, analysis and display.  Some rings were clearly artefacts manufactured by ordinary, if highly-skilled, craftsmen, wrought from recognisable materials, worked with familiar techniques, and used and well-worn over long reaches of time. Many are now in need of conservation and care, but some are as indestructible as a steel hubcap.

Others would seem to be the work of magicians, conjuring impossible, other-worldly things.  For example, a torus of bright, mobile water in which two miniature trout swim, eternally.  There's one cabinet in the museum that won't need hydration, at least; just a supply of fruit-flies, to encourage the trout to leap periodically into space and fall back into their watery domain, to the delight of younger visitors.  In another case, a ring contains a roiling furnace of crystalline, cold fire, full of shape-shifting faces and figures:

   In what distant deeps or skies
   Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
   On what wings dare he aspire?
   What the hand dare seize the fire?
   William Blake, The Tyger

To paraphrase Ted Hughes' Crow, "Mine, evidently".  [Cue maniacal laugh...]

One day there will be a book, possibly an exhibition, but I’ve been playing around with these for a decade, and feel no need, yet, to stop.
Of course, the exact "how" will have to remain something of a trade secret, but anyone with a degree of skill in Photoshop will see no great mysteries there.

Mr. Blake's clocks

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Various Small Fires

In the course of Neil MacGregor's recent series on Germany, there were several references to the Nazi book burnings of 1933.  Given what was to happen subsequently, this may seem relatively low on the scale of Nazi-era atrocities, but, as Heinrich Heine, a German Jew, wrote in 1820: "Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen" (wherever they burn books, they will also in the end burn people).  Naturally, Heine's works were amongst those tossed onto the bonfires; the list of authors condemned as "un-German" is a very distinguished one indeed.

However, I'm not about to give a history lecture, or a literary analysis -- these grotesque events are well-known, and there are plenty of places you can read about them, if you're curious.  What interests and troubles me is the parallel with today.  I find myself wondering: if a government came to power that wished to control the curriculum in a centralised, ideological way (imagine that!), and enacted a law to destroy all books that were even vaguely off-message, how far would we comply, those of us whose professional duty it is to defend culture and ensure its transmission to future generations? I'm thinking primarily of librarians, archivists, academics and teachers; how far would any of us resist?  What price would we be prepared to pay, what personal risks would we be prepared to undergo?

It's a question that goes to the heart of any understanding of that perennial conundrum:  how could the Germans have allowed the events subsequent to 1933 to happen?  My suspicion is that very few of us living in luckier countries who need not carry that historic guilt would have behaved any better then, or will do so in the future, if challenged to do so.  I say this, because I have seen the evidence.  I have watched senior managers comply with distasteful directives, that went contrary to their professional ethics or personal beliefs, because it was the responsible thing to do.  Yes, people will lose their jobs, resources will be slashed to unsustainable levels, client groups will suffer...  All very regrettable, it's true, but necessary (it says here).  It's the law.  Anyway, the alternative would be career suicide.

Increasingly, over the last forty years as I have stood on picket lines or helped carry a union banner on demonstrations, I have been dismayed by the steady decline in support from the very people whose presence would count for something in the eyes of those whose attention needed to be got.  For example, senior academic staff who stay away from campus on a strike day, yet claim to have been working from home, and thus lose no pay, or influential administrative staff who hide behind claims of higher loyalties to the service.  The nadir came for me when a woman who had been a stalwart of our union, and with whom I had sat for the best part of a decade on our local executive -- she had been both secretary and president -- breezily walked past our picket line on a day of action on the way to her office.  Now a very senior administrator, she simply had too much work to do, it seemed, to be mucking about with strikes over pay.  I was dumbstruck, which was probably just as well.

It occurred to me at that same moment, very forcefully and, almost with the power of a revelation, that we were probably wasting our time, and engaged in an activity whose practical and even symbolic utility was absolutely nil; just a handful of the "usual suspects" gratifying an urge to be seen to do something, and eminently ignorable.

Inevitably, one thinks of the famous, if possibly apocryphal words of pastor Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
Of course, next time it won't be books and bonfires.  But, whatever it is, it'll be happening to people next, unless...  Well, unless we all resolve that it shouldn't be happening, and are prepared to take the consequences.  One day, I'm going to research the careers and fates of senior German university librarians in the years following 1933.  I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised, but am not counting on it.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Goblin Gobelins

Christmas is coming, and there's shopping to do.  Today we will visit, ah, Gobelin Market, to pick up some rich tapestries manufactured by the Not-So-Fair Folk...

Some kind of propeller theme going on there.  The first one reminds me of the dense showers of sycamore keys that have been descending on us recently from a couple of nearby trees. Most years we also get inundated by those little flying-saucer birch seeds -- they constantly turn up in the bath like spiders, and in a bumper year you find drifts of them between the rafters of the roof space, like dry handfuls of breakfast cereal -- but I've seen far fewer of those this year.

The Gobelins, of course, were a grand family of French manufacturers of spectacularly ugly upscale carpets and tapestries.  Goblins, on the other hand, though small and quite often spectacularly ugly themselves, know how to weave a thing of beauty out of the neglected natural debris of wayside and woodland.
One began to weave a crown
Of tendrils, leaves, and rough nuts brown
(Men sell not such in any town)
Goblin Market, Christina Rossetti

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Which One's Pink?

I did these two while listening to David Gilmour (a member of a revered but antique musical group called Pink Floyd, which my daughter refuses to listen to on principle) being interviewed for an hour on BBC Radio 6 Music by Tom Robinson, and I think it probably shows.  I'd be happy to supply your next album cover, David. Get your people to speak to my people (probably not the daughter, though)...

Friday, 5 December 2014

Not So Much

I'm still pretty much stuck indoors, and fiddling around in Photoshop is my adult equivalent of settling down with a box of crayons and a drawing book.  Though I may yet reach for the crayons and pencils...  There are plenty lying around the house still and, unlike felt pens, biros, and gel pens, they will survive a decade of neglect and still start up first time (unless someone did not follow my strict instruction never to use pencils as drumsticks...).  In a digital age, it's easy to forget what a wonderful, wonderful thing a good-quality pencil is, coupled with paper of a decent weight with a nice "tooth".

Inevitably, more half-finished rings are emerging from the workshop. They are the "blanks" out of which I will fashion something a bit more interesting, a bit more weathered and characterful.  But, personally, I like them in this purer state, too.  This one is not so much a ring, as a cosmic eye:

This one, not so much a ring, as a cosmic echinoderm:

Echinoderms (sea urchins, starfish, sea cucumbers, and the like) are unique in the animal kingdom for their five-fold bilateral  pentameral symmetry.  As you may recall, I am a bit of a collector of fossil sea urchins (see This Old Heart of Mine).

By the way, if you're looking for a present for a photographer friend (or for yourself) why not have a look at the One Year for Japan 2015 charity calendar, produced by photo-book blogger Laurence Vecten (One Year of Books)?  He has persuaded some real "name" Japanese photographers to contribute, including Rinko Kawauchi and Daido Moriyama.  There are only 500 copies, and proceeds go to National Parents Network to Protect Children from Radiation, in Japan, a post-2011-tsunami charity.

(image from One Year of Books blog)

Wednesday, 3 December 2014


Stuck at home, like a kid off school with something contagious, I'm reduced to mooching about looking for things to point a camera at.  Today, the sunlight trying to break through our wonderfully gnarly garden fence caught my attention.

Then, as the light went, it was back indoors to conjure more rings out of nowhere.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword

I'm still working on this new Ring Hoard ring, but thought it was already worth sharing.  It's roughly based on the idea of an impresa, an emblem and motto painted on a pasteboard shield for (symbolic) use at a joust.  These were prestige objects, produced by the leading wordsmiths and painters of the day for aristocrats, and generally embodied some riddle or cryptic message. Shakespeare himself is known to have designed one for the Earl of Rutland to use at the King's Accession Day tourney in 1613.  One spectator complained on that occasion that
Some were so dark, that their meaning is not yet understood, unless perchance that were their meaning, not to be understood.
Sir Henry Wotton
Interesting use of "dark" there, where we would probably say "obscure".  What a very post-modern comment, too...  May I commend Master Hirst or Mistress Wearing for your lordship's next tilting ensemble?

This one is a rhetorician's impresa.  There are conventionally eight "parts" of speech: the verb, the noun, the pronoun, the adjective, the adverb, the preposition, the conjunction, and the interjection.  When you learned a language the old-fashioned way -- with lots of rote-learning, group chanting and occasional beatings -- you absorbed all of this without really noticing.  It must be tough acquiring a new language cold from textbooks without already just knowing what a pronoun or a preposition is. My niece's son (great-nephew?) is embarking on the study of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic languages at Cambridge, and I suspect an unaccustomed hard grind awaits him.  The allegedly "immersive" audio-visual language teaching at our state secondary schools carefully avoids an analytically-tabulated approach to the "parts" of speech (I always thinks of the "exploded" assembly views in a Haynes manual for a vehicle).  Obviously, this is something which a native speaker does not need, and neither does an immigrant undergoing a true linguistic "immersion", but neither experience is really available for Old Norse, even in Cambridge.

The (probably unreadable) text around the perimeter of this ring goes as follows:
In making a speech one must study three points: first, the means of producing persuasion; second, the style, or language, to be used; third, the proper arrangement of the various parts of the speech.
Aristotle, Rhetoric
In other words, the trivium of the mediaeval university curriculum -- rhetoric, grammar, and logic -- which you may recall I used as the organising principle in my book sequence, Curriculum.

Whether you can win a joust by rhetoric is probably not, unfortunately, debatable; the ability to "talk a good fight" has never been much of an asset in the tilt yard.  History does not record the fate of the end-user of this particular impresa.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Black Friday

Black Friday?  Where did that suddenly come from?  Two years ago, practically no-one in Britain had heard of this sinister-sounding event. This year, it's everywhere.  Many are pointing the finger at Amazon, but it's shameful how quickly we have succumbed to the viral spread of this opportunity for consumer hysteria.  It's American, of course.  First their orange'n'black-plastic-pumpkin Hallowe'en came along to displace Guy Fawkes Night, now this.  Mind you, I have now realised that for decades I never actually understood the Steely Dan song "Black Friday" on the Katy Lied album.

It's one of the more depressing aspects of the Web, at least as encountered in English (you mean -- gasp! -- the Web exists in languages other than English??), that far from spreading international multicultural understanding it has merely served to confirm the presumption that the customs and practices of the United States are the default settings of humanity.  Entirely American occasions like Veterans' Day, Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl tend to be used as temporal references without explanation or apology as if they were global markers of the year.

Although we British have been guilty of many wicked things, I don't think we have ever been inclined to regard ourselves as the norm but rather as a nation apart, and have preferred it that way.  Even if you chose to believe that, as an Imperial Brit, you had won "first prize in the lottery of life" (Cecil Rhodes), that was a view generally leavened by a fascination with the details and differences of creed and culture that made an empire such a fun thing to have.  And if Canadians didn't want to play cricket, or drink tea, or drive on the left, so be it.

Obviously, if you are a non-Christian non-European living in the tropics or the Southern Hemisphere, this sort of hegemonic annoyance has been going on for a very long time.  Why, of course the year is 2014, and of course the year is divided into seasons, with summer in August and winter in December, when naturally all children are looking forward excitedly to Christmas.

Sorry, everyone.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Call it a Loan

I had always understood the acronym TWOC to refer exclusively to stealing cars, i.e. "taking without owner's consent".  I discovered today that, in medical circles, it also stands for "trial without catheter".  Without straying too far into the realm of too much information, suffice it to say I had some surgery last week, and today was TWOC day.  No cars were involved.  If you've ever experienced -- or can imagine -- the discomfort and indignity of living, even for just a week or two, with a catheter installed, you'll understand why posts here have been a bit thin recently.

The timing of all this was unfortunate.  A couple of friends had provided me with a spare ticket to see Charles Lloyd play at the Barbican on Sunday, something I was looking forward to, but I had to pass up that opportunity.  Had I but known Jackson Browne -- Jackson Browne! -- was playing the Royal Albert Hall this week, I might well have booked some advance tickets for that, too, and my annoyance would then have been complete.

Ah well.  My first brush with surgery since I had my tonsils removed ca. 1960 is a salutary reminder that there are more important things.  Or, at least, things which must take a higher priority.

N.B. for the time being, I have turned off the comments.  Normal service will be restored at a later date!

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

It All Fits

Purely formal resemblances don't explain much, except in a pre-scientific, mediaeval-metaphorical sort of way (you know the sort of thing -- walnuts resemble brains, and must therefore be good for brains in some way) but, faced with these two photographs, I find I can't deny the satisfying way the luminous wedge-shaped hollow beneath the motorway bridge at Hockley echoes the illuminated brick wedge formed by the arches of the Hockley Viaduct on the other side of the road, forming the two components of a dovetail joint.  It doesn't mean anything, but is very pleasing.

Obviously, I didn't see this correspondence at the time I took the photos, about five minutes apart.  In fact, I didn't see it at all until I put one image above the other in the process of drafting this post, which was originally going to be about the rise of UKIP, and how regrettable it was that no-one would ever risk their neck to climb up under there -- thirty feet above the river Itchen and three feet below the thunder of heavy traffic -- to scrawl "VOTE LABOUR" (we'll ignore the various other graffiti...).

But the dovetail match looked so obvious and intended, that I felt obliged to explain that it wasn't. Although, on second thoughts, false correllations -- one unrelated thing appearing to cause or explain another -- may not be so far off the UKIP mark, after all.  It is exactly the kind of magical thinking that is the stock-in-trade of all populist politics.

The regret remains, however.  Yes, it's a bloody silly place for a slogan, and, yes, it was probably put there by a 14-year-old.  Hardly anyone will see it, and most of those who do will disapprove or sneer.  When it comes to publicity, the major parties would settle for nothing less than a banner page in a national daily paper, paid for by contributions from wealthy supporters.  And therein lies the entire problem.  Politics is about joining the raw "grassroots" energy of a kid with a piece of chalk seamlessly to the glossy superstructure of governance.  When the two halves of that joint lie on opposite sides of the road, you've got a structural problem that is not merely metaphorical.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

More Attention

As the rain and gloom set in again, here's another view from the golden afternoon walk I had down by the Itchen Navigation canal on Tuesday.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014


A late afternoon walk along the Itchen Navigation canal.  A reminder that photography -- or, at least, a certain kind of photography -- is all about the quality of the light (and, of course, "f/8 and be there").  I confess that I'm starting to wonder whether I'm gradually turning into a "landscape porn" practitioner, if one working at the softer end of the spectrum.  Worse, I'm not sure I really care too much about that accusation any more.

Still, on the other side of the motorway, at the Hockley Viaduct, I did find this sinister little puppet theatre of shadow play going down...

I like to think that far fewer people would have noticed that, much less given it the same quality of attention that the first two scenarios obviously command.  In between "quality of light" and "f/8 and be there" falls the more difficult and idiosyncratic matter of "seeing".

Monday, 17 November 2014

Here Comes Everybody

James Joyce aficionados (or maybe Pogues fans) will recognise the title of this post.  For reasons I have long forgotten and have no wish to be reminded of, the pattern HCE crops up throughout Finnegans Wake, and "Here Comes Everybody" was the title of an early draft.  However, relax, this post does not concern that eternally baffling dead-end of literary endeavour (that Highly Compacted Encyclopaedia,  Heavily Concentrated Entertainment, Highly Confusing Ennui, Higher Camp Exemplified, et bloody cetera).

I'm drawing your attention to another book with that title, Here Comes Everybody: Chris Killip's Irish Photographs (Thames & Hudson, 2009).  As you probably realise, I have a bit of a photo-book habit, and buy them more readily and more frequently than is normal or necessary.  My collection would not compare with that of, say, Martin Parr (whose would?), but is substantial, and I like to think it is made up of carefully chosen, unusually interesting and valuable items.

"Value" is a relative and highly negotiable term, of course.  It is a matter of principle for me that I don't pay "collector's prices" for books, which can be extremely silly.  I either buy them new, or search for overlooked bargains, like an antique dealer at a car-boot sale.  One of the prizes I obtained quite early on was a hardback copy of Chris Killip's Isle of Man, a quietly powerful collection of monochrome portraits and landscapes of his native island published by the Arts Council in 1980, which is fairly scarce in paperback, and very rare in hardback.  In good condition, signed, copies sell for a lot of money -- sometimes in excess of £500.  I have no idea why someone would pay £500 for a book published in 1980.  Mine cost me £25.

But, at the risk of sounding pious, true value is not measured in money.  One of the books I take down most often is Killip's more recent Here Comes Everybody. Price-wise, in collector's terms, the regular hardback edition is worth next to nothing.  The cheapest copy on Abebooks right now will cost you £6 plus postage.  It clearly didn't sell well, too many were printed, and "as new" copies are everywhere.  But it's a book that I think has real magic and I recommend it to you.

It's essentially a facsimile of an album of postcard-sized prints made by Chris Killip on visits to Ireland between 1993 and 2005.  On the left-hand pages are monochrome images of the famous (and much photographed) Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, and on the facing pages are colour images of the scenery and people of the west of Ireland, many of which are among the most evocative and visually-exciting colour landscape photographs you could hope to see anywhere.

Many have complained that the images are "too small", but they're missing the point: this is photography as memory, images compiled into an album sequence as practised by everyone, but brought to a pitch of perfection by a major contemporary photographer.  It's moving, exciting, encouraging and intriguing, all at once, everything a photo-book should be.  Did I say you can pick up a copy for £6.00?

One intriguing note.  Killip writes in his introduction that
I had previously resisted going to Ireland since Markéta Luskačová, the mother of my son, and Josef Koudelka, who introduced me to her, had both photographed there, and I felt that it was not my 'territory'.
I hadn't been aware of this connection between three of photography's "celebs".  You will probably know Josef Koudelka's work (you certainly ought to), but may not know of Markéta Luskačová.  Not so long ago, I used to recommend her retrospective collection, published by Torst in 2001, as the greatest photo-book bargain currently available.  It's "humanist" photography of the highest order, in a beautifully produced volume, and could be bought absurdly cheaply, like Here Comes Everybody.  No longer.  And I see even the little paperback catalogue of her exhibition Pilgrims, held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1983, is hovering around the £200 mark.  Curse you, collectors with deep pockets!

As to the idea of "territory", it's a very real thing, and deeply felt, absurd as that is where photography is concerned.  I recall recently being down by the docks one weekday morning, and crossing the path of another photographer, who was encumbered with a tripod and some weighty "L" series Canon lenses.  Not your casual snapper.  As he checked the Fuji X-E1 slung round my neck -- also not your casual snapper -- you could almost see the thought balloon above his head, "Hey, what are you doing here?  These are MY docks!"  No, my friend, I'm afraid they're MY docks, now...

N.B. If you want a cheap introduction to Chris Killip's work as a whole, there's a decent selection in one of those cute little "Phaidon 55" books (a nice series, all of which are worth getting hold of, I think).

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Heads Up

There's something about the colours of the hedgerows, the shapes of the vegetation withdrawing into winter dormancy, and the tricksy lighting effects at this time of year that can bring out a Border Ballad sensibility in even the most stolidly rational observer.  There's an eeriness, a faint folk-memory of tales of enchantment and abduction amplified by more contemporary, tabloid anxieties; it all presses some atavistic button that puts the mind onto constant, peripheral alert.  A sudden blackbird, a falling acorn, a snapping twig...  Wait, what was that?

Usually, of course, it's nothing.  But in the photograph below a small herd of fallow deer has just run from left to right, pattering through the undergrowth like a shower of rain.  I was too busy photographing the uptorn chalky tree roots to catch them in time.  I suppose it might have been the Wild Hunt, or Tam Lin, but...

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Root and Branch

Southampton Water

It won't have escaped your notice that I have a thing about trees.  In a world where we measure everything exclusively by human standards, and where other life-forms are getting pushed hard to the periphery (unless they are good to eat, ineradicable, or highly adaptable -- crows score a laudable two out of three here), trees are a reminder that there are beings longer-lived, stronger, more essential to the ecosystem, and fundamentally more rooted than we are.  Trees are playing a longer game.

The discovery of the so-called Seahenge on what is now a Norfolk beach -- an inverted trunk buried roots-up within a wood circle -- seemed to confirm a widely-held belief that our ancestors held trees as sacred.  I'm not so sure about that, but it's clear that a tree makes a pretty good spiritual metaphor, in all sorts of ways; and wood, of course, makes pretty much anything.  It's brilliant stuff, wood, and knowing your trees and timber -- which ones burn well, which grows the best axe-handles and spear-shafts, which can be woven into baskets or carved into a bowl -- would have been essential knowledge for thousands of years.  These days, "oak" and "ash" are little more than different shades of laminate in IKEA.

Southampton Common

One Sunday afternoon recently, not feeling terribly energetic, we decided to go for a stroll around the grounds of Mottisfont Abbey.  As I have described before, I have had a long-standing relationship with this National Trust property near Romsey; it was where I held my first serious one-man exhibition, and it has been the site of two series of photographic work (you can see the resulting books Downward Skies and Water Gauge on the My Blurb Bookstore link over on the right).

However, it's been the same old story: a place that had been allowed to get interestingly ragged at the edges came under new management and all the interesting bits were tidied away, season by season.  I don't blame them: far more people visit the Abbey now, to the extent that it can be difficult to park at weekends.  "Footfall" is the measure of all things, in heritage circles.

Things can go too far, though.  It seems that the most desirable footfall at Mottisfont now comes in the smallest sizes: in the many months since we last visited, there have been artist-led interventions (uh oh!) in the grounds, designed to attract families with children in tow.  Adventure playgrounds, themed activity trails and the like have been constructed all over the place by the sort of enthusiastic Big Kids who, in more enlightened times, would have been usefully employed as primary teachers or, in extreme cases, safely quarantined in the asylum that is children's TV.

Mottisfont Abbey

It got stranger, though.  There has been a circle of beech trees in the grounds at Mottisfont for some time.  Originally, they surrounded the 19th century ice-house, but were replanted next to a tennis-court, now gone, in the 1960s.  I have always enjoyed the utter pointlessness of this feature, stuck over in a corner of the grounds that most visitors never saw; I don't think the word "henge" would ever have crossed the mind of its original planters, any more than "ley line" or "earth energy".  You could sit in the middle, gaze out across the surrounding fields, and enjoy a pleasant sense of free-roaming, undirected focus (I always think of Wallace Stevens' poem "Anecdote of the Jar").

But Macedonian artist Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva has been employed to improve it.  You can read all about it here.  Basically, she has constructed a new inner circle of inverted dead trees, with applied gilded patterns derived from the main house's "Whistler Room" (that's Rex Whistler, not James Abbott McNeill Whistler).  This intervention has turned a harmless, meaningless folly into a stage-prop temple to... Well, what?  Neopaganism?  Dutch elm disease?  Ornamental inversion? The dionysiac ecstasy of publicly-funded art practice?

To me, this work (Resuscitare) seems an example of what I call "heavy breathing" -- big on promise and reference and allusion and alleged implication, but disproportionately small on actual delivered significance. It's really not so much a site-specific response to the site, as a site-specific illustration of some off-the-peg ideas.  But I suppose the same could be said of most, if not all, commissioned art.

If bodies like the National Trust are to be the new patrons of art, I wish they'd put a bit more effort into finding their Michelangelos.  They're out there, but might not be as good as regular public arts commission and competition "winners" at filling out the necessary forms and preliminary statements of intent. It's the difference between "talking the talk" and "walking the walk". Though in an environment where so much art is a self-declared confidence trick, it's always going to be tough, as emperor, choosing a new suit of clothes.


Monday, 10 November 2014

The Price of Everything

When I was a youngster, politics was all about changing the world.  Or, at least, that's how it seemed.  Best of all, politics used to be simple.  There were clever, easy to remember slogans that summed up a whole alternative worldview, and saved you the trouble of reading any tedious books.

One of the best was, "We don't want a bigger slice of the cake, we want to own the bloody bakery!"  There, in a nutshell, is your rough-and-ready, industrial-grade, trades-union activist's Marxism.  Or, if you were more anarchistically-inclined -- and the anarchists always had the best slogans -- there was "Don't vote, it only encourages them!", or its variant, "Whoever you vote for, the Government gets in!" Or, for the feminists, the mystifyingly surreal but ever-popular "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle!"

As a consequence, I still like my politics simple.  As do 99% of the population, I'd guess.  Apart from a handful of headlining names, I have no idea who currently runs most government departments, and I don't really care enough about the nuances of, say, the European Union even to read a book on the subject. I just about care enough about my ignorance to feel a certain free-floating guilt, of the same order I feel about not having redecorated the house, or cleared the junk out of the garden shed.

Caring about such stuff is the province of policy wonks.  The problem is, The Way of the Wonk is also the way to power.  Passion, sincerity and the "vision thing" can all be faked; a thorough knowledge of people, parties and policies cannot.  I suppose this has always been the case, but it seems particularly acute in an era when simple "gut" politics have mutated into a choice between managerial styles.  You need to know who your rivals are for the post of Head of Regional Sales.

This began at some point in the 1980s, and coincided with the disappearing act of the political left.  It seems that, right across the broad "centre" of the political spectrum, the current consensus took hold, which I would summarise like this:
  • We are living beyond our means
  • Demand on public spending is growing, and exceeds our ability to pay for it
  • High taxes lose electoral support; low taxes win it
  • Henceforth, we must manage scarcity, and provide fewer public services from a shrinking budget
I think that's it; have I missed anything?  The rest is just detail -- managerial wonkery.  You know the sort of thing, debating the benefits of privatisation versus "private finance initiatives" and all that Ed Balls.

Now, I was brought up in the belief that there was enough money for everything, it was just a question of setting priorities.  The business of politics, as I understood it, was persuading those in control of the national wallet that it was in their best interests to give us (for various competing definitions of "us") what we wanted. What my particular "us" wanted was nationalization and across the board state-led solutions.  What counted as acceptable "persuasion" towards that end was what defined your position on the political spectrum.  At some point in the 1980s, however, the senior ranks of the Labour Party must have seen something, read something, or eaten something (Opposition Pie?) that changed their collective mind.  The eventual abandonment of "Clause IV" as a political embarrassment was the symbolic end result.

The downfall of Militant in Liverpool was exemplary, and equally symbolic.  Their ultimate crime was not being -- gasp! -- radical socialists, or -- yikes! -- bumptious scouser scallies (though that probably didn't help), but to set an illegal council budget, in pursuit of the philosophy that services should be delivered now to the people of Liverpool who urgently needed them, and how to pay for them could and should be sorted out later.  Big mistake, it turned out.

Ever since, the electorate has been faced, every four or five years, with an unappetizing choice of "responsible" managerial styles and strategies claiming to do more with less, but actually always doing less with less.  It's a political puppet show played out against a lurid media backdrop, behind which some truly awe-inspiring self-enrichment has been carried out by a tiny group of kleptocrats.  Anyone talking a political language outside this Consensus of the Suits, whether of the left or the right, has been branded an irresponsible, ill-informed loony.  Which is why the suits are now getting bitten on the arse by the likes of UKIP, who really don't care what they are called.

But, here's the thing.  Now I'm all growed up and have stopped believing in Revolution as a one-stop solution to society's ills, I need to know the answer to a few simple questions.  In fact, one simple question, with some supplementaries.  A lot hinges on the answers.  My simple question is this:

Is it true that we can't afford to pay for excellent public services out of the public purse any more?  I mean, really true?

If it's not true, then people have a right to be very angry with our political class.  It's "string 'em up!" time, no?  But if it is true, then:
  • Is it a consequence of the Low Tax Genie having been let out of the bottle?
  • Is it a legacy of decades of unsustainable borrowing?
  • Is it a failure of political imagination, will, and courage?
  • Is it a result of choices between, say, defence spending and local council spending?
  • Something else, so terrifying that no-one dares speak its name?
I don't know the answers. I know the answers I would prefer to hear, obviously.  But I will switch off once any answer -- however worthy -- stretches into a third paragraph.  I will get impatient with answers making use of metaphors drawn from household and small business financial management (I really don't believe the nation's banking arrangements are like mine, overdraft and all -- I wonder how much HSBC charges to write a letter to the government?).  I don't want to hear about any all-or-nothing utopias -- yes, there are so many ways the world could be better if only people were better, too, but we don't have time for that any more.  And, no matter how fervently you believe it, no answer that lays off the blame onto convenient scapegoats (single parents, immigrants, benefit scroungers, the EU, freemasons, street musicians, left-handers, et al.) will be heard out; financial speculators, however, are fair game.

If the answer -- as I suspect it might be -- is "yes, to all of the above" (except possibly that last one), then maybe it really is "string 'em up!" time, after all. Perhaps it's time for a new slogan.  Let me think...

How about: "A government needs the fish vote like a bicycle encourages a bakery!"  Confusing, but in the words of that great Parliamentarian George Clinton, "Free your mind, and your ass will surely follow".  It could work...

Or we could all simply agree to pay lots more tax -- and, yes, we're looking at you, Amazon -- and stop living like selfish, miserly, status-obsessed blockheads.  Duh.

Lobby of the offices of The Economist