Thursday, 30 January 2014

This is Not the Pipe of My Aunt

I have often had the strong feeling that I and my contemporaries experienced the very last gasp of an older England.  Behind us, it seems, certain immemorial doors were firmly and finally closed.

Take the teaching of Latin in state secondary schools.  Like generations of grammar-school pupils before us, we were drilled in Latin from the age of eleven. Conjugations of verbs, declensions of nouns: we recited them aloud together in class in the time-honoured fashion.  Amo, amas, amat...  Dominus, domine, dominum...  But, times were changing.  By the time we reached the run-up to O-level exams in 1968, it was decided Latin-teaching would be discontinued.  We had become a comprehensive school, and it was no longer considered relevant.

Now, in those days, although the compulsory requirement had been abandoned in 1960, it was still felt that your chances of entering Oxford or Cambridge university were far greater with an O-level Latin pass.  The abandonment of Latin was, in effect, a declaration that pupils from this school would probably no longer be aspiring to Oxbridge entrance.  That immemorial door was creaking shut.

Remarkably, the response of a couple of teachers was to put a foot in the door.  They took a small group of potential Oxbridge candidates, about eight of us as I recall, and got us up to O-level standard by giving us intensive extra-curricular sessions in our lunch hour.  It worked:  every single one of us passed, a year early, all with the top grade.  It was also probably unnecessary -- we'll never know -- but I have always been grateful for this last chance to slip under the barrier and jump aboard the classics train just as it was leaving the station.

Of course, the possession of a little elementary Latin and no Greek at all does not make you a classicist, and I am certainly not one.  I am acutely aware of my ignorance in that respect, not least because of the special place the classics hold in elite western culture.  The ability to recognise and respond to an epigram by Callimachus or a poem by Catullus has acted for centuries as a combined shibboleth, letter of introduction and secret handshake.  Amusingly, but not untypically, in 1940 lance-corporal Enoch Powell -- a grammar-school boy from Birmingham -- was selected for officer training when he answered the question of a Brigadier, inspecting the army kitchen where Powell was working, with an apt Greek proverb.

As a committed barbarian, this exceptionalism is something I have ambivalent feelings about.  The charge of elitism cannot simply be airily dismissed by advocates of the classics, and yet classical studies could be regarded as the test case for the continuing value of all of the Humanities.  If the classical literary and linguistic heritage is no longer a rewarding area of study, then why not, what else is, and to what purpose?

In terms of difficulty, cachet, and influence, the study of Latin and Greek has traditionally stood where advanced theoretical physics stands today; that is, its pre-eminence was held to be self-evident, but at the same time beyond the capacity of ordinary mortals to judge. Once, to have insisted on measures of utility, on "outcomes" and "impact assessments", would have been to be dismissed as a bean-counting vulgarian.  No longer; despite the popularising efforts of dons like Mary Beard at Cambridge, the study of Latin has expired at state schools and at university level is dwindling, and is now pretty much the preserve of the privately-educated. Does this matter? 

I think it does matter, because there is no better grounding for a linguist than the proper, extended study of a "difficult", fully-inflected language.  That state-educated children are now denied that experience is an unfortunate but probably irreversible state of affairs.  The cursory study of "classical civilisation" with translated extracts, supplemented by cheat-sheets of Latin sound-bites, is no substitute.  But then, the experience of learning a modern language (there is rarely more than one on offer) at state secondary level is itself now a pretty inadequate affair.  My daughter was awarded the top grade in French GCSE a few years ago, and yet does not understand and cannot use tenses of verbs or adjectival agreement, for example, simply because these basic things were neither required nor taught.

Some knowledge of "classics" also matters in the same way that basic knowledge of the Bible matters: you cannot understand western culture without some acquaintance with both. The shortfall can be made up by explanatory notes but, at the point the notes themselves require footnoting and occupy more space than the text, any allusively "inter-textual" literary work may be said to have died.  Much pre-twentieth century poetry is looking pretty poorly, with its shorthand references to classical mythology, and Pope and Milton are probably beyond resuscitation.

But it's forty years too late to worry about this.  The idea of a lance-corporal in an army kitchen with a ready command of both classical languages was always a bit far-fetched, but is now absurd, like something out of Dan Brown.  Such knowledge is beyond what could be expected even of a humanities academic, if aged under 60 and state-educated.  Certainly, no cultivated person will ever again be assumed to know Latin.  That door is shut, and nothing will ever open it again.

I think of the image -- familiar from novels like The English Patient -- of a young British or German scholar-soldier, someone like the egregious Powell or Patrick Leigh Fermor, pulling a battered edition of Herodotus from a pocket in a quiet moment between battles in the Mediterranean region, and reflecting on the ironies of history.  Carthago delenda est *, perhaps. That young man has surely now become a figure, a trope, as historical and as obsolete as the pipe he is filling with tobacco.

Herodotus? A trope? A pipe? Tobacco? See the footnotes.

* Grammatical footnote:  This Latin phrase, which means "Carthage must be destroyed," employs the gerundive (verbal adjective) of deleo "to destroy" ( i.e. delendus, -a, -um). The gerundive is used as a future passive participle ("which is to be destroyed"), and when combined with parts of the verb sum ("to be") adds an element of compulsion or necessity: delendus est therefore means "must be destroyed".  Carthago, -inis (Carthage) is a feminine noun, therefore the feminine gerundive delenda is used.  What is, or was, Carthage, and why did it have to be destroyed?  Look it up.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014


I've got an exhibition coming up this year, which means I've been going back over my prints, my books, this blog, and my backfiles, looking for images that I both still like and which I think others will find rewarding to look at, printed, framed, and hung on a big white wall.

This is harder work than you might think, and not particularly enjoyable.  I have tried to regard myself as a species of artist, rather than just some bloke with a hobby, and the main point and pleasure in that has been the constant exploration and the sense of going forwards.  To look backwards is to see nothing but a pile of failed attempts, lost opportunities, and contrived, pretentious fumblings after significance.  It's like the worst morning-after ever.  Did I really do that, say that?  Oh, God, what was I thinking?

Still, it has its rewards, too.  In the last year or so I've learned a lot about the mechanics of image-processing and printer output, and am a far better printer than I ever used to be.  Rediscovering overlooked older work, and re-processing it from the original RAW files (the "digital negatives") to my current standards has redeemed this tedious and humbling task, at least enough for me not to get on the phone: "Sorry, I'm an impostor, you've confused me with someone else -- the show's off".  So far, anyway.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Crow's Last Stand

Crow's Last Stand

           there was finally something
The sun could not burn, that it had rendered
Everything down to -- a final obstacle
Against which it raged and charred

And rages and chars

Limpid among the glaring furnace clinkers
The pulsing blue tongues and the red and the yellow
The green lickings of the conflagration

Limpid and black --

Crow's eye-pupil, in the tower of its scorched fort.

Ted Hughes

Sunday, 26 January 2014

H.W., A.H., and the Death of T.E.L.

I think it is common knowledge that Henry Williamson, best known as the author of Tarka the Otter, was an active fascist, and admirer of Hitler.  The association of ultra-conservatism and a ruralist, roots-patriotic frame-of-mind has long been a distinct but tricky current in British culture (there's a very interesting, if tendentious, essay "The Hangman's Ancient Sunlight", which should be compulsory reading for all folkies), but one which was conveniently blurred-over by the events of the Second World War.  Support for Hitler's ideas had been quite widespread among the aristocracy and upper-middle classes in the 1930s, but this was trumped by a more deep-seated, gut-level patriotism when Nazi Germany threatened invasion of these hallowed shores.

What is perhaps less well-known is that Williamson's support for Hitler in the 1930s was, in effect, responsible for the death of T.E. Lawrence.  The story goes like this:

In the mid-1930s, Williamson believed that Hitler could be appeased, at least in his intentions towards Britain, by appealing to the spirit of the legendary Christmas Truce in the trenches of 1914. For him, it was clear that Germans and Britons were brothers, as symbolised by that game of football among the turnips and frozen corpses, and should never again fight each other. You see, by one of those odd turns of events, Williamson had actually been there that Christmas, in the London Rifle Brigade, and had been deeply affected by it.  Crucially, he was convinced that Gefreiter Adolf Hitler had been there, too, and that they had almost certainly met that day in No-Man's Land.

In fact, although Hitler's regiment was there at the front, Hitler himself was not -- he was in reserve, several miles away, and as an atheist of the Scrooge persuasion resolutely not celebrating Christmas.  His view, recorded later, was that such open fraternization was disgusting, and showed a distinct lack of honour (that word again) on the German side.

To bring off the appeasement overture, Williamson thought that what was needed was an intermediary, a bona fide war hero and free-thinker, with whom Hitler could feel an affinity.  So he wrote to Lawrence in May 1935, proposing that they should meet, although it is not known whether the true agenda for this meeting was declared in advance.  Lawrence immediately sent Williamson a telegram, agreeing.

Now, to say that Lawrence was a complex, conflicted man is to state the bleedin' obvious.  Quite what his political views or ambitions were in the 1930s is hard to say.  His attempt to retreat into anonymity as a humble serviceman in the RAF and the Tank Corps seems to have been both genuine and constantly undermined by his gift for "backing into the limelight" (did you know, by the way, that the RAF recruiting officer who interviewed Lawrence was W.E. Johns, later the author of the Biggles books?).  It is known that Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists had approached him; as a hero-worshipped radical with authoritarian leanings, Lawrence would have been a highly-prized asset.

Anyway, it was on the way back to his cottage at Clouds Hill in Dorset, after sending the telegram to Williamson on 13th May, that Lawrence skidded his motorbike* -- either avoiding two boys on bicycles, or after being deliberately run off the road by secret agents in a black van which sped from the scene, according to your taste -- and died of his injuries six days later.

What Lawrence's response to Williamson's proposal would have been, we'll never know.  Just as we'll never know how Hitler might have responded to Lawrence, had the two of them agreed to meet.  Though if the subject of a Germany vs. England football fixture at Christmas 1914 had come up as an ice-breaker, I expect things would have got as frosty as a frozen turnip rather quickly.

Lawrence's Brough Superior
(Imperial War Museum, London)

* Incidentally, for bike fans, Lawrence's ride was no ordinary motorcycle.  He owned a succession of eight powerful Brough Superiors, hand-built to order in Nottingham by George Brough himself.  He died on the one named by him "George VII", 1000cc, which can be seen on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.  I must admit, I was surprised to learn that any pre-WW2 "touring" bike existed which was capable of exceeding a "ton".

Friday, 24 January 2014

Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?

So, Hiroo Onoda, almost the last Japanese soldier to surrender after WW2, has died, aged 91.  Not so extraordinary, you might think, unless you know that Onoda finally surrendered his sword to the President of the Phillipines in 1974.  For younger readers, WW2 ended in 1945.  For innumerate readers, that's a period of twenty-nine years in which a lone Japanese officer refused to believe that the war was over, and Japan had lost.

Tales of Japanese soldiers emerging in tattered uniforms after hiding in the jungles of the Pacific for years after the official end of WW2 were once the stuff of popular culture, what has come to be called a trope.  In the 1960s, comics like Mad Magazine could raise a knowing laugh by portraying cartoon Japs hidden behind an office aspidistra plant.  It was behaviour utterly incomprehensible to our modern Western minds, and thus best defused by humour.  The equivalent today, I suppose, would be Osama bin Laden -- now you see him, now you don't.

Why did they do it?  Why spend decades surviving in a state of constant predatory alertness, watching your few comrades die off one by one, raiding and occasionally slaughtering hapless villagers, and ignoring all attempts at persuasion to go home, including  leaflets dropped from the air?  Simple:  they had been ordered not to surrender, and it was a matter of honour to follow that order.

"Honour" of that robotic, idiotic sort is not something we should feel we have lost in most of modern Europe, but which we have grown out of -- transcended, even -- like a belief in an all-seeing, judgmental deity, or the mystical sanctity of the Monarch.  In this first year of what will become an inescapable four-year commemoration of the First World War, we are being reminded of the improbability of hundreds of thousands of contemporary young Brits following the orders of their social "betters", and walking, running, or crawling into the jaws of a certain, painful death.  We can take the prospect of mass mutiny for granted, I think.  That's if any significant numbers could be persuaded to wear a uniform in the first place.

This is not decadence, this is progress.  When I was young, it was assumed that, like my father and grandfather, I would face conscription into the latest sequel in the "World War" franchise and -- in between games of "army" in the woods, playing with toy soldiers, and learning elementary drill in the Cubs -- I gave some serious thought to how I would react to that prospect.  I was conflicted: Vietnam and draft-card burning gave one alternative model, but Paris in May '68 gave another.  Was I a pacifist, or merely in the process of choosing sides?  Life as a bearded partisan holed up in the woods with Mollie the Red certainly appealed to me rather more than regimented square-bashing.

It has been with a mix of relief and disappointment that I have never had to face that choice.  For this, we have unmilitary institutions like schools, universities, supermarket supply-chains, and the European Union to thank.  It seems sensible people in business-wear with flip-charts, mission statements and a bottomless appetite for jaw-jaw have saved us all from the bloody alternative.

This disinclination for mass slaughter does leave us vulnerable, of course.  Honour-bound idiots are lurking in our midst, like those Japanese soldiers behind the rubber-plant, and wish us principled harm.  In the main, and despite genuine concerns about civil liberties, I think I am happy for the intelligence services to monitor the doings of anyone who has, or is in danger of developing, that robotic frame of mind that places an idea -- honour, religion, nation, political ideology, whatever -- above common humanity, and who would rather spend angry decades alone in the jungle than say, "Sod this for a game of soldiers, boys, let's all go home!"

PRINCE HENRY: Why, thou owest God a death.


FALSTAFF: ‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg?  No.  Or an arm?  No.  Or take away the grief of a wound?  No.  Honour hath no skill in surgery, then?  No. What is honour?  A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?  He that died o’ Wednesday.  Doth he feel it?  No.  Doth he hear it?  No. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why?  Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part 1
Close the wall up with our English dead, you say?  Nah, been there, done that.  Fill it yourself this time, mate.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Foggy Morning

On a foggy morning such as we had yesterday, I miss the foghorns.  Those deep, visceral booming notes were a nice reminder that, just down the road, great ships were inching their way down Southampton Water, laden with containers, oil for the refinery, or cruise passengers.

I don't know why the foghorns stopped, whether it was legislation, or better GPS-based navigation aids, but they did.  At midnight on New Year's Eve all the ships in dock used to let off a continuous blast, rattling the cups on the draining-board; it was a good tradition, a reminder that you were living somewhere a little out of the ordinary.  But it came to an end about four or five years ago.  Now, all we get is fireworks, like everyone else.

It certainly isn't the ships that have stopped.  Any day, you can look out from one of the elevated car-parks in the city centre, and see these vast floating structures, more like office-blocks than boats, moored down in the docks.  They are an improbable sight; apparently too top-heavy, too boxy-bulky even to float, never mind sail across oceans, allegedly crewed by about five mariners (one for each corner, and one in the middle).  But virtually everything you can buy in our shops and showrooms has come into the country in one of those stacked steel containers.  If it says "Made in China" (and it usually does) then that's where it has come from, after spending many weeks in transit at sea.

You'd think they'd let them let off a foghorn or two, just to celebrate arriving safely in port.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Under the Boardwalk

Under the promenade that runs along the seafront at Brighton, there are "arches", hollow spaces of varying depth, height, and weather-proofness.  Some of these are used for storage (mainly, it seems, for portions of the wrecked pier), some are occupied by permanent shops and galleries, and some give temporary shelter to stalls selling handicrafts, souvenirs, and the like.  Generally, as in these two images, what goes on behind these stalls is rather more interesting, visually, than what goes on at the front.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Popular Pots

I like this one from our Brighton weekend, despite the excessive contre jour and lens flare...  A little "reality versus representation" metaphor for you sophisticates to appreciate!  Nine out of ten for concept; five out of ten for execution.

After hours tramping the busy streets and seafront, it was nice to spend some quieter time in the City Museum and Gallery, situated next to the Royal Pavilion.  Provincial museums can be an unsatisfying and incoherent mixed bag, but this is one of the nicer ones I've visited.  It has recently been refurbished and, without doubt, the most interesting items on display are in the Willett Collection of Popular Pottery.

If you have a taste for vernacular ceramics -- the kind of commemorative and decorative knick-knacks that have adorned the mantelpieces and dressers of ordinary homes for centuries -- then this collection is a real treat.  It's a tabloid history of Britain fired in clay and glaze, and covers subject matter ranging from royalty through popular sporting events to notorious murders.  One of the attendants seemed particularly keen to share with us the story of the Red Barn Murder of 1827, a true tale of murder most horrid which culminated in the flayed skin of the perpetrator being tanned and used to bind an account of this gruesome but popular true-life story.

Henry Willett was a true collector, using his brewing fortune to purchase a wonderful assemblage of objects, which are thematically displayed in a room of nicely-cluttered but well-arranged and lit vitrines.  His basic motivation, apart from simple collector's mania, was a desire to show that "the history of a country may be traced on its homely pottery" and he accordingly gathered together what could be found "on the mantelpieces of English cottage homes, representations of what its inmates or their forefathers admired, reverenced, and trusted in a kind of unconscious survival of the Lares and Penates of the ancients."

That reference to the Lares et Penates -- the household gods of the Romans -- got my attention. One of the earliest photographic sequences I began, but never quite completed, had that very title, and involved photographing the constructs of toys and objects that could be found lying around the house, generally but not always placed in various nooks and crannies by our children, like little domestic altars.  Maybe I'll return to it some day, but this was all before the days of digital, and would involve much searching through files of film negatives, and interminable, tiresome scanning.  It is remarkable, though, the way the objects we bring into our homes -- even a simple pot used as a repository for other items like keys or pencils -- acquire an invested power and presence in our lives.

Classic Delft plate.
I'm intrigued by Queen Mary's Picasso-style bosom.
 Has someone accidentally -- or deliberately -- applied
 nipples to what was intended to be a bare shoulder
and a decorous hint of royal cleavage?

Sunday, 19 January 2014


We returned the daughter to her studies yesterday, but rather than drive all the way back again decided to make a weekend of it, and stayed overnight in a hotel, gambling on good weather.  The gamble paid off, and today was one of those bright, blue-sky winter days that are made for a day at the seaside.

On top of being an intensely attractive shabby-chic Regency town and a magnet for creative types and wannabes, Brighton has become known as something of a centre for photography in recent years, and is probably one of the most intensively photographed places outside London.  It must be hard to find an original angle.  I was happy just to potter around like any tourist, banging away with my camera.

That edifice in the background is the Grand Hotel.  If it looks familiar, that may be because you saw it on the news in 1984, when an IRA bomb very nearly killed the entire Conservative government of the day, including Margaret Thatcher, attending the party's annual conference.

I was surprised how few actual photographers there were around.  Yes, smartphones were ubiquitous and various people were setting up tripods on the beach to photograph the pier (yawn), but the bustling carnival of folk enjoying the sunshine was mainly going undocumented, which seemed a pity.  I guess you get bored with it, if you live there.  I have rarely seen so many dreadlocked, pierced or tattooed people in one place.  I have also rarely seen so many young children:  it seems Brighton is where hip young London goes to breed.

I was pleased with that one, though.  It makes a nice companion to the "St. Paul's in The Globe" image from a few weeks ago.  It seems that no matter where you go, there you are.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Millefiori Ring

This ring, evidently, is an object of extraordinary craftsmanship.   Close examination reveals it to be constructed out of thousands of clear and coloured glass rods, fused together in a furnace into a "cane", not unlike a stick of seaside rock, which was then cut and polished in transverse sections.  This technique was known in ancient times, then lost until the late 18th century, when it was rediscovered by glass-makers in Italy and acquired the name millefiori ("thousand flowers").

The Romans and later the Venetians created crude but beautifully-coloured "mosaic" beads in huge numbers for trade purposes.  Literally tons of these beads were manufactured, enough to be used as ballast in outbound Venetian ships.  Unlike the pure millefiori disk from the Ring Hoard collection shown here, these beads were made by applying sections of a soft ceramic millefiori cane to a core, which were compacted by rolling before firing, producing a characteristic squashed mosaic effect.

Beads from

These chunky, black-cored beads are still plentiful today in North Africa, and in flea markets around the world.  I have some very pretty examples I found in Paris back in 1972.  More sophisticated pieces of millefiori glass were much prized, for example those incorporated into various exquisite pieces found in the 7th century Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo ship burial, such as the purse lid.

Like all good forgers, I may need to "distress" this ring before it finally goes on display, or even break it up a bit, despite the hours of careful work that have gone into its creation.  Few things are as suspicious, or as boring, as perfection.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

A Cautionary Tale

In a reply to a recent comment, I mentioned my tendency to send "purple ink" emails to my Member of Parliament.  In fact, both I and my partner are subject to periodic fits of outrage, generally on different subjects, which can only find relief by offloading an angry but incredibly well-argued diatribe onto The Tory Woman, a.k.a. Caroline Nokes, MP.  Her replies are, considering the political distance between us, remarkably patient, polite and accommodating.  They also generally come in the form of a proper letter, on House of Commons stationery.  Our long-suffering postman must wonder what we've been up to.

Last year, I had cause to complain about Southern Water, the privatized utility monopoly that supplies our water and sewage services.  Our street had recently had water meters fitted, which, as fairly "green" types, we welcomed, in principle.  As we never wash our cars, only bathe once or twice a week, have no dishwasher, and allow nature to achieve its own low-maintenance balance in our small front and back gardens, we fully expected a reduction in our water rate.  Instead, it more than doubled.  We were, apparently, despite our frugal ways and according to the objective measure of the water-meter, high-level water users.  Really? Cue surprise, outrage, and an email to our MP, demanding to know what Southern Water -- a privatized monopoly, paying dividends to shareholders -- was actually doing with all the extra cash it was presumably milking from its "customers".

In response, we drastically reduced our water consumption.  Toilets were only flushed after "solids", bath-water levels were reduced, and, most helpfully, both children left home for university and to find gainful employment. Last week, we received a letter from Southern Water informing us that our monthly payment would need to be more-or-less doubled again.

Now, by remarkable coincidence, there was a "File on Four" programme on Radio 4 on Tuesday night about the way the privatized water utilities have got themselves into hock to multiple tiers of greedy financial pirates by borrowing vast sums of money, using the same sort of dodgy financial instruments that did for the banks back in 2008.  The main claim of the programme was that ensuring cash-flow from customers -- to service these debts and to pay out shareholders' dividends -- had to be their main priority, well above customer service.  Southern Water was singled out, as a particularly egregious example.

OK.  I summoned my full reserves of calm, and phoned Southern Water.  According to the woman I spoke to, it seemed we had been using the equivalent water supply of a particularly water-happy family of five.  I said this was not possible.  She said, perhaps you have a leak?  I said, how would I know?  She said, let's do a tap test.

A "tap test" simply requires you to turn off all water-using devices in the house.  You then inspect the meter in the street and, if the disk indicating flow is still turning, you probably have a leak inside your grounds somewhere: which, of course, is not their problem.  Ours was absolutely still.  As we live in a semi-detached house, and the meters are under hatches in the street, I also looked at our neighbour's, which was merrily spinning.

A radical thought occurred to me.  I read our meter and asked the helpful woman on the phone what the latest reading was.  Now, these new meters are smart: they are read electronically in a drive-by van -- no human meter-reader ever actually comes by to pop the hatch as I had just done.  It seemed the reading on record for our address at Southern Water was more than twice the number I had just read off.  So I then asked, is there any way of identifying which meter is being read for which house?  She said, sure, your serial number is printed on the top of the meter, and the one for your house is this -- she read me a long code.

I checked again.  I looked at both meters.  My radical suspicion was correct: the wrong numbers had been recorded by Southern Water's sub-contractors when the meters were installed, and we had been receiving bills based on next door's usage -- a household of five young professional types -- and they had been receiving bills for us, a couple of smelly old lefties with filthy cars and unflushed toilets.  Result!  I now look forward to our revised bill and, hopefully, refund.  Our neighbours, whom I have alerted this morning, not so much.

So, if you, too, are puzzled by the size of your water bill since meters were installed in your street -- either too big or too small -- I suggest you would do well to check which meter your utility company thinks belongs to you.  Unless, of course, you are a family of ten living next door to a wealthy old couple who are "too posh to wash", have no car, no central heating, and a concreted garden, in which case I'd keep very quiet about it.

In the meantime, I'm trying to decide whether our MP would find this cautionary tale an amusing follow-up to last year's rant.  It's been a while since she heard from me, after all.  Hey, Caroline!

Monday, 13 January 2014

Ring Time

Another wet and windy afternoon, and a few more rings emerge from the workshop.

Some rings are 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. Some 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.  In this case, a torus of bright, mobile water in which two miniature trout swim, eternally.  That'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.

And in this third case, the 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?
To paraphrase Ted Hughes' Crow, "Mine, evidently".  [Cue maniacal laugh...]

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Life with the Lions

I can't get enough of those lions from Nineveh.  Here's another one I photographed on Friday:

Whoever carved that into stone in 650 BC knew lions, the way we think we know lions from watching so many TV wildlife specials, all shot with very long lenses by expert cameramen.  I expect the artist had a dead one to work from, but even so, that image is bursting with vitality, and exudes the pain, fear and panic of a fearsome predator fleeing for its life.  Just look at those forelegs, packed with muscle and sinew, like a heavyweight boxer's arms, or that magnificent gasping profile, or the tension in the beast's loping stride.  It's just amazing.

By contrast, here is an illustration from a book I have owned since I was 10, A Hand-Book to the Carnivora, Part I: Cats, Civets, and Mungooses, published in Allen's Naturalists' Library in 1896 (AD):

Oh, dear.  Clearly, this artist has never truly seen a lion, much less attempted to inhabit its soul, and has merely put a lion wig on the family labrador. And, just to play fair, here is my own closest encounter with a real (plastic) lion, some six inches away:

Grrrrr....  Still, it has a certain something, I think.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Nineveh Revisited

I was up in London yesterday -- another sixtieth birthday -- and spent a couple of hours in the afternoon wandering around the British Museum with my daughter.  She is very keen on all things Japanese, so that's where we headed, to gaze at the prints and giggle at the netsuke.

It's an odd place, the BM, these days.  It feels like it's trailing behind museums such as the Ashmolean in its attempts to display the collections in interesting yet damage-proof ways.  You get the impression that wherever possible space has been given priority over stuff.  I suppose the sheer volume of visitor numbers makes this necessary: I've never seen so many twits trying to dangle from irreplaceable statuary in pursuit of an iPhone photo-opportunity.

Back in the late 1970s I used to have a reader's card for the old British Museum Library reading room.  It was a very strange and unique place, with its circular, domed roof and rows of benches radiating out from the central enquiry desk, like a  cross between a cathedral and a steam-punk vision of Mission Control.  It had its own muffled acoustic, so that the paf! paf! paf-paf! of people shutting the huge guard-book volumes of the catalogue would echo round continuously in a whisper, which always seemed like eavesdropping on the thought processes of the assembled readers.  If you've ever seen the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire you'll know what I mean. It no longer functions as a library, but has been excavated from its accreted institutional matrix and preserved as the centrepiece of the new, spectacularly empty, glass-roofed Great Court, the ultimate manifestation of the new "space over stuff" philosophy.

Some parts of the museum's collection, however, are so massively immoveable that they will probably never be rearranged to make passage-way for parties of Far-Eastern tourists.  The Egyptian hall still looks like something out of the imagination of Central Casting at Hammer Films, with an obstacle course of gigantic sarcophagi and improbably large statues, all carved out of granite and polished smooth.  You can't help wanting to declaim, "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings..."  But what really grabbed my attention yesterday was the long relief mural of a royal lion-hunt from Nineveh (ca. 650 BC), beautifully displayed along its own inner corridor.  I could have gazed at its intricate detail for hours.  Wonderful.

Nineveh was located in what is now northern Iraq.  There are good arguments on both sides over the controversial role of an institution like the BM as a repository of global culture -- the Elgin Marbles are the ongoing test case -- but it's hard to imagine anyone who is not parti pris regretting the quiet, safe, well-preserved presence of these mural fragments in Bloomsbury.

I know nothing about the Assyrians or any of those ancient Middle-Eastern civilizations, but the name "Nineveh" is extremely evocative to me, as described in this previous post about the re-configured Ashmolean.  The words of Rossetti's poem are as almost-good and still as appropriate as ever:
In our Museum galleries
To-day I lingered o'er the prize
Dead Greece vouchsafes to living eyes, —
Her Art for ever in fresh wise
From hour to hour rejoicing me.
Sighing I turned at last to win
Once more the London dirt and din;
And as I made the swing-door spin
And issued, they were hoisting in
A wing├Ęd beast from Nineveh

D.G. Rossetti, The Burden of Nineveh
It's strange to think that such ancient and apparently immoveable objects (and those Assyrian winged beasts are truly monstrous in size) once crossed continents -- and what crates, carts, horses, ramps, levers, ropes and ships must that have required? -- then figured as a temporary street spectacle of hoists, tackle, and shouting men, by chance witnessed and recorded by a visiting poet-painter, finally to find themselves settling their prodigious weight onto a marble floor in a voluminous hall in central London.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Eminent Victorians

For some reason, my long-dormant interest in the "Victorian frame of mind" has stirred recently. Once upon a time, in what now seems like another lifetime, I was about to embark on research into that very subject, as manifested in the poetry of various bewhiskered personages.  I had been awarded a full three-year research grant at Oxford -- imagine that luxury, now! -- but I had last-minute doubts about the faith I had been brought up in (that is, the Church of English Literature), and decided to go over to the continental faith of Literary Theory, which could only then be studied at the University of East Anglia.  Yes, the Victorian Oxford Movement still had echoes in the 1970s. 

Among those bearded bards, none was more whiskery than Tennyson.  And of his poems, none is more conflictedly Victorian than the long sequence In Memoriam, written as Tennyson came to terms with his grief and shaken faith following the sudden death of his closest friend and prospective brother-in-law, Arthur Hallam, aged 22.  I've downloaded the poem onto my Kindle, and have been reading it through with interest.  Like much Victorian poetry, it can be pretty turgid, sentimental, pre-Freudian stuff, but is sporadically lit by brilliant flashes of language.  I am remembering all over again why we "moderns" have tended to prefer Robert Browning and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Tennyson, by Julia Margaret Cameron
The inscription reads:
"I prefer the Dirty Monk to the others of me"

I was partly reminded of Tennyson by the reviews of a recent biography, Tennyson: to Strive, to Seek, to Find, by John Batchelor.  He was an odd cove, Tennyson, well captured in this amusing vignette:
Batchelor’s biography is painstaking in its detail, but Tennyson was really a rather dull dog. As anyone knows from Julia Margaret Cameron’s immortal photographs, he was magnificent to look at — a big man, with charismatic presence, shaggy-haired, bearded, with a liking for wide-brimmed hats — but he eschewed flamboyance and excess in his personal life. No Lord Byron he. Both shy and incredibly self-centered, he would alternately thrill and bore the other guests at dinner parties by reading aloud his latest long poem. Once he did this with his friend the classicist Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol, who listened gravely and then said, “I think I wouldn’t publish that, if I were you, Tennyson.” As Batchelor writes, after a moment of frigid silence, Tennyson answered, “If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at luncheon was beastly.”

review by Michael Dirda of Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find, Washington Post, 25 Dec 2013
Genuine humourlessness there, I think.  But a certain playful mood ironically disguised as humourlessness was also a Victorian characteristic, again well illustrated by another Tennyson anecdote:

    Every minute dies a man,
    Every minute one is born —TENNYSON

drew from Babbage the remark that the world's population was in fact constantly increasing:

    "I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows: 'Every moment dies a man/And one and a sixteenth is born'."

This figure, he added, was a concession to metre, since the actual ratio was 1:167. Tennyson did eventually blur his assertion to the extent of changing 'minute' to 'moment'.

Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters
I wonder if, say, Richard Dawkins ever wrote to Ted Hughes in a similar manner, perhaps to point out the inaccuracy of his account of the evolution of corvids in Crow?  It wouldn't surprise me: we are still more Victorian in our various ways of being British than we like to admit.

But, even so, I find myself wondering, why was I so interested in these odd forebears of ours, back in the 1970s?  Well, obviously, that's what the research would have been for: expanding an inchoate fascination into knowledge.  But I think, looking back, it had a lot to do with what we now know to call "post-modernism", that charity-shop, pick-and-mix attitude to the past that really started in the pre-modern 19th century.

Sure, previous generations had their own obsessions with antiquity and chivalry -- the Romans themselves were obsessed with the Greeks, after all -- but it was the industrial Victorians who really rummaged in the historical dressing-up box in a big way.  Take their rather weird obsession with all things mediaeval.  Consider the vast, all-encompassing building programme of "Gothic" public and private edifices, from parish churches, through Glasgow City Chambers, to the Houses of Parliament. Then you have Julia Margaret Cameron, literally draping friends and neighbours (Tennyson was both) in items from the dressing-up box, and posing them for her new-fangled camera.

The fascinating thing is that it is always a Victorian face that peers from the literal or metaphorical costumery, in just the same way that a 1950s face looks out from under any 19th century cowboy hat or bonnet in all 1950s Hollywood films.  The contemporary re-imagination of the past is an intriguing subject. However, I made the right choice, back then:  the Church of English Literature could never have accommodated such un-literary heresy, even though it has, in the intervening decades, become the orthodoxy of Cultural Studies 101.  I really wasn't cut out to be a priest, of any particular faith.

And was the day of my delight
   As pure and perfect as I say?
   The very source and fount of Day
Is dash'd with wandering isles of night.

If all was good and fair we met,
   This earth had been the Paradise
   It never look'd to human eyes
Since Adam left his garden yet.

And is it that the haze of grief
   Makes former gladness loom so great?
   The lowness of the present state,
That sets the past in this relief?

Or that the past will always win
   A glory from its being far;
   And orb into the perfect star
We saw not, when we moved therein?

Tennyson, In Memoriam XXIV
I wonder if Jowett bit his tongue over that one?  "Yes, yes, Tennyson, 'distance lends enchantment to the view', tum-ti-tum, and do you perchance mean 'sunspots' in verse the first?  If so, why not say so?  More sherry, sir?"

Have you done yet?
"I Wait", 1872
Julia Margaret Cameron

Sunday, 5 January 2014


I was intrigued to discover that two of my heroes from two different domains, naturalist David Attenborough and artist Tom Phillips, go to auctions together in pursuit of anthropological artefacts.  It makes perfect sense: Tom Phillips' enthusiasm for Ashanti gold-weights is well-known, and Attenborough is, well, Attenborough.  There is clearly a world above our world where such beings meet like gods on Olympus, and plan shopping trips together.

I saw a fascinating programme on TV recently where Attenborough sought to establish the provenance of a strange carved wooden staff he had bought at auction in the States.  A fake, according to its seller.  Not so, according to Attenborough's instincts.  It turned out he was right, and then some: it was a unique cult object from Easter Island acquired and described on Captain Cook's last voyage, transported to Tahiti, and later traded with the crew of an American whaling ship to end up, minus its backstory, in the USA.  I imagine chez Attenborough is a veritable treasure-house of such high-grade clutter.

It must be curious -- perhaps even a little annoying -- to be David Attenborough.  It is said that the Queen believes the world everywhere smells of fresh paint.  In like manner, for Sir David all doors are open, nothing is too much trouble, nobody's diary is too full.  He strides into any museum anywhere, in this case in Russia, is greeted by benignly overawed staff, and precious things are assembled and laid before him for inspection.  I don't suppose the TV crew and army of helpers does any harm, but you can practically read their minds: "Amazing! I'm really standing next to David Attenborough!"

He probably longs for a surly official impervious to charm, or a cabinet which must remain locked even for him; but everywhere in every country where BBC Wildlife programmes are loved, his face and voice are known, and for him the world may not smell of fresh paint, but wears instead a shy, delighted smile.  It is said there is an island in the Pacific where Prince Phillip is worshipped as a deity.  Small change to the man who is, surely, the uncontested Greatest Living Briton, enchanting us with his carved South Seas stick (which did, now I think of it, have a certain Prince Phillip-ness about it).

Anyway, the provenance of the magical object shown above is well-known to me, as I made it myself in my forger's workshop.  When I become disenchanted with my "ordinary" photographic work, I like to tinker with my Ring Hoard images.  This one has now taken on a Nordic, astronomical look -- perhaps a device to conjure navigational stars in an overcast night sky?

As it happens, something similar may well have existed.  The Vikings were described in several sagas as making use of a "sunstone" to determine their direction at sea, when the sun was invisible.  It has been suggested  that a large, pure crystal of calcite (Iceland spar) has polarizing properties that render an object viewed through it as a double image unless the crystal is oriented east-west, in which case a single image is seen -- rather like the split-image focussing aid in a camera's viewfinder.  Precisely such a large calcite crystal was found in 2013 in an Elizabethan wreck off the Channel Islands, within feet of a pair of navigator's dividers.

No doubt there's also one acting as a paperweight in Sir David's overstuffed study somewhere.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Only Connect

Yesterday was a rather fine day, in spells.  See above, and below.  Today, exactly at 12:00, as I prepared to go and get some lunch, a mighty wind roared up out of nowhere, bent the trees alarmingly and drove torrential rain across the campus.  I decided to wait.  As I don't happen to keep a full set of waterproof outer clothing in my office, I ended up idly surfing the Web for a large chunk of my lunch hour.  It took me on an interesting path.  As I recall, it went something like this:

First, I visited Arts & Letters Daily, always a good starting point.

I decided to read an article from the Daily Telegraph:  "Marcel Proust -- a savagely funny genius".  It had never occurred to me that Proust was funny.  But then, I've never read Proust.  Partway through, slightly bored, my attention was grabbed by a sidebar picture of Groucho Marx, linking to "30 great one-liners".  That looked like it might be rather funnier.

However, it wasn't.  I was about to bail out after a few utterly predictable ones, when a photo of Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers appeared, showing them pretending to light cigarettes from leeks.  Non-Brits will know Sellers, but will probably not know Milligan, the "troubled" comic genius of The Goon Show, which they will probably never have heard of, either.  I was struck by Spike's "beatnik" appearance: beard, pullover, no shirt or tie!  Given this photo must have been taken in the late 1950s / early 1960s, it was a truly out there look for someone creating a career in the entertainment world.  But Spike was an out-there kind of guy.  Sellers is wearing the standard 60s jacket-and-tie combination in its "young grown-up" version.

I realised I knew very little about him as a person, so I googled him.  The Wikipedia article is an interesting read, but then I read that "From the 1960s onwards Milligan was a regular correspondent with Robert Graves".  Really? Robert Graves?  Apparently so.  So to get the other side of the story I googled Robert Graves, whose Selected Poems I just happened to have bought earlier in the week.  It seems their negative experiences of wartime (is there any other kind?) gave them a common bond.  Graves was an out-there guy, too, of course.  Their correspondence was published in 1991 as Dear Robert, Dear Spike.  I had no idea.

But, more interesting than the Milligan-Graves connection (annoyingly, a prominent American poetry website consistently misspells the name as "Mulligan" in its Robert Graves article) was the connection between Graves and Idries Shah.  Idries Shah!  I used to read his Sufi compilations -- Caravan of Dreams, Tales of the Dervishes, Wisdom of the Idiots (no, really) -- and the Mulla Nasrudin stories in my stoner-student days.  That is, before I discovered the even more entertaining tales of Carlos Castaneda.  But Idries Shah was just an exotic name on a paperback book cover.

Again, I had no idea: it's easy to forget what an appeal that whole Ouspensky-Gurdjieff "secret knowledge" scene had for proto-hippies and seekers like Graves and Doris Lessing.  Apparently Graves was eventually hoodwinked into "translating" the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 1967 from notes allegedly made from an elusive original allegedly held by the Shah family for 800 years, but which was never produced (allegedly*).  His reputation -- never exactly solid -- suffered quite a blow.

But then it stopped raining, I went to get some food, and the chain was broken.  But I wrote this down first, in case I forgot:
There are holes in the sky
Where the rain gets in
But they're ever so small
That's why the rain is thin

Spike Milligan
There was nothing thin about today's rain, however.  Those holes must be getting bigger.

* The word "allegedly" is a magic spell which wards off all legal action, allegedly.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New Year's Day

Since the mid-1980s, it has been my habit / custom / ritual / compulsion to get out of the house and take some photographs on New Year's Day, whatever the weather.  Today was possibly the worst NYD, weather-wise, I have experienced in recent years.  Strong, blustery winds, driving rain, and practically no light at all.  It took some resolve to get in the car and head out up the M3 to the Hockley Viaduct, but it's where I wanted to go.  Luckily, the traffic was light and the lorries were few, so the drive was not as hazardous as it might have been.

I think I've written before about the joys of waterproof leggings.  Once you're out in it, there's something truly exhilarating about "bad" weather, if you've got suitable clothing on.  The assurance of dry legs and dry feet completely transforms the experience: it becomes a natural high. If I'm alone (and who isn't, on a day like this?) I often find myself singing with the simple pleasure of it all.

In very wet weather, the skeleton of the old water-meadow system reveals itself.  What is normally a tightly-grazed grassy meadow becomes a series of long, rectangular islands divided by shallow channels (though deep enough to overwhelm a wellington boot, the nearer you get to the River Itchen).  The islands look quite similar in size and configuration to the acre strips of the mediaeval "three fields" system, though whether this is the case I don't know.

It's always good to start a new year with something a little out of the ordinary, so for once I had the camera set to "auto ISO", with no upper limit, and I can say with a high degree of certainty that these are the first photos I've ever taken at ISO 6400.  That the images are even halfway usable at that ludicrous sensitivity is still a matter of astonishment for me.