Tuesday 29 April 2014


The bird's eye view is one I like a lot, so I tend to find myself inexorably attracted to the edge when I find myself in high places.  Some people find this alarming, so I tend to do it when no-one is looking.  It may have something to do with having grown up in a fourth-floor council flat with a balcony the size of a dining table.

Here, the views are from the top of the keep of Stokesay Castle in Shropshire and the steep north-east descent of Castle Bank near Llandrindod Wells.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Radnor in the Rain

We returned from our traditional Easter break in the Welsh Borders yesterday.  Easter being so much later this year, and the school holidays having finished the week before, we noticed some major differences, not least the abundance of birds and the scarcity of people.  From the comfortable vantage point of an upstairs window I was able to observe, in addition to the usual residents like red kites and buzzards, migrant species including redstarts, pied flycatchers, tree pipits, chiffchaffs and/or willow warblers*, house martins, and swallows, all busily nesting, displaying, singing, and feeding.  Naturally, we'd forgotten to bring a single pair of binoculars (I think we have six, at last count).

On a particularly rainy walk on a hill known as Castle Bank we heard three cuckoos, out somewhere in the mist.  Castle Bank is one of our special places, where we customarily start the steep climb with a furious row about something or other -- this time it was parking the car -- but end up at the top out of breath but with harmony restored.  I have no idea why or how, that's just the way it is.

Often at the very top it is too windy to stand**, but the views are wonderful: this year it was almost windless and the view was obscured by low cloud and rain.  The rain does do nice things to the colours, though, and as my waterproof's hood has a large, wired peak I was able to snatch a few pastel-hued pictures up there.

On the single unambiguously sunny day we visited Stokesay Castle near Ludlow.  Allegedly I have been here before, but have no memory of it at all, and it's the kind of place you remember. Not least for the questionable, not to say alarming, state of the 13th century roof-timbers in the Great Hall.  One word, English Heritage:  Ronseal.  It doth what it sayeth on the firkin.

There are actually swallows nesting in most of the upper rooms, flitting in and out of the unglazed windows, oblivious to any floor-bound visitors.  It's hard to decide whether English Heritage is taking a "light touch" approach to conservation, or is asleep at the wheel.  The castle does have some of the best carved timberwork I've ever seen, and it would be criminal to let it deteriorate through neglect.  The massive carved fireplace in the panelled "solar" room is a thing of wonder, but too dimly lit to photograph without a tripod.  I felt some affinity with this gnarly, bearded old dude, propping up the gatehouse's upper floor with the sort of resigned patience you acquire after 370 years doing the same job.

* These two "small brown jobbies", as the twitchers call them, are so indistinguishable that you have to catch them, buy them a drink, and persuade them to sing, in order to tell them apart.  At which point, the clue is in the name.

**  I have toyed with the idea of requiring my ashes to be scattered here, on some hopefully far-off day.  If you have ever had to dispose of "remains" you will know that this is not a practical joke, but a final act of goodwill.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Oddly Normal

Are you bothered by language?  Is it troubling to you that a word can never quite convey reality, that you can never really mean exactly what you mean to mean?  Does the arbitrariness of the relation between Signifier and Signified give you sleepless nights? Are you completely confident that the poetry of J.H. Prynne is not an elaborate leg-pull?

No?  Me neither.  To that extent, sadly, we will never be players in the artistic or philosophical A Team.  After years of study, contemplation, and creativity, we stumble at the threshold.  I have tried to feel this rupture (ouch!), to experience the hall-of-mirrors mise en abîme of Deriddean différance (oo-er!) but, like someone sold a vitamin pill in place of something more interesting, I gave up waiting for anything to happen after an hour or so.

Now, I do have the normal quota of odd impulses, anxieties and irrational fears -- long-term readers will know all about El Tiburón -- but words are my trusted friends.  When I say "dog", I mean "dog".  It doesn't bother me that there may be ambiguities there; I love, embrace, and enjoy those ambiguities.  Context is all.  For me, language works.  It has always bothered me, however, that there are those, cleverer than me, who think it doesn't, and -- more importantly -- can't work.

I can accept that this may be because I am the dreaded middle-class Anglo-Saxon protestant-heritage heterosexual white male.  It doesn't get any worse than that, does it?  Downpressor Man, c'est moi.  So it may well be that "my" language seems a good fit to the world simply because it was forged over centuries in a society where people like me wrote the script; language is a play in which I am cast as Mr. Oddly-Normal.  But I can't pretend to hold beliefs that I don't feel, just to secure admission to an elite, black-clad secular priesthood.  Though my suspicion is that many do and have done, just as priests have always done down the ages.

When Magritte inscribes "this is not a pipe" under a picture of a pipe, I get it. But it doesn't rock my world, any more than those annoying meta-fictions do that insist on foregrounding their fictionality:  "Hey, look, this is just a novel...  I made it all up!!"  Well, yes, I knew that.  I realise there are people who send birthday cards to soap-opera characters, but those people are fools, not philosophers.  My world is a construct, no doubt, but it's been over-engineered to a very high specification and seems to hold up pretty well.  Yours may not.  I honestly hate to think how that must feel.

But let's stick with dogs.  If I say, in conversation, "I make my staff work like dogs", then it is clear, at least to another native British-English speaker, what I mean, even though neither of us may have any idea what employment conditions dogs tend to enjoy. In fact, if you have ever watched the tail-wagging, tongue-lolling bliss-fest that is a sheepdog at work, or admired the saintly poise of a labrador guide-dog, that is pretty much what I don't mean. These currents of uncertainty, ambiguity, metaphor and even intertextuality released by the proximity of the words "dog" and "work" might lead to some entertaining wordplay, or they might not.  But I'd be more than amazed if they caused my interlocutor any distress: "I don't know what you mean! What kind of dog? How can you know how dogs work? I'm afraid!  Help me!"  And so on.  It's never going to happen.  At least, not if that tablet really was a vitamin pill.

Maybe I have just mixed with the wrong company; straight-up linguistic dullards like myself, happy to figure-skate on the surface of language, and lucky enough -- or stupid enough -- never to have fallen through into the freezing waters below.  Or maybe (whisper it) a lot of the wordage written around the genuine and acknowledged inherent instability of language is just so much factitious posturing, a single good egg worked up by a thousand super-clever hands into a vast soufflé, a self-sustaining rococo filigree as insubstantial as a soap-bubble.  Or perhaps "as insubstantial as a collateralized debt obligation" would be a more apt contemporary comparison.

Mind you, I read that upbeat TED Talks and massively-popular MOOCs are the highroads to academic stardom, now.  Austere, difficult Theory, communicated via conference papers with beyond-parody titles, is so last century.  Somewhere in a drawer I have the black, academic polo-neck that I earned back in 1977, which I never did feel comfortable wearing.  It's a couple of sizes too small, these days, anyway, and I never did like that priestly look.

Tuesday 22 April 2014


An exemplary contemporary kerfuffle happened recently.  It has to do with the wording on a memorial to the victims of "Nine Eleven", as we call it even here in the UK, where "Eleven Nine" would make more sense.  We ignore the irrationality of American date numbering in deference to the solemnity of the occasion commemorated.  I don't recall where I was, or what I was doing on 22/11/63,  the day Kennedy was shot, but I certainly do remember 11/9/01.

It seems a new National September 11 Memorial Museum will open in New York in May.  It seems an odd move, to me, and one does wonder what such a "museum" might contain.  But one thing it certainly will contain is a repository of the remains of the unindentified victims, behind a large, bare concrete wall, on which there is mounted -- in fifteen inch letters made from steel recovered from the Twin Towers site --  a quotation from the Aeneid:  "No day shall erase you from the memory of time".

It is this rather dull and awkwardly-translated quotation that has caused the kerfuffle.  Now, I am no classicist, and my acquaintance with the Aeneid is limited to the single book we had to study in Latin O-level, and a cursory skim-read of various translations over the years.  I am curiously immune to classical mythology, and can never remember who was who or who did what to whom, never mind why or when, or in what order.  Therefore the names Nisus and Euralyus mean nothing to me.  I'd be amazed if they meant anything to most readers of this blog.

However.  It seems that, to those to whom those names are not just empty signifiers, the quotation chosen for the Memorial Museum is not just dull, but shockingly inappropriate.  Virgil's words, apparently, are his elegy for a pair of exiled Trojan warriors, bonded by mutual love in the not-at-all-gay Greek fashion, who carried out a surprise night attack on a tribe in Italy -- a terror raid, in effect -- spearing and slashing dozens of warriors in their sleep.  You can read a summary of their story here.  As classicist Helen Morales told the New York Times, "If we take into account its original context, the quotation is more applicable to the aggressors in the 9/11 tragedy than those honored by the memorial".

Oops.  But, as James McQuade revealed in his post on the excellent Melville House blog:
It may come as a surprise, then, that those representing the 9/11 Memorial were not unaware of the quotation’s objectionable context. Speaking on the contentious inscription, museum director Alice M. Greenwald says, "In selecting this quote, our focus was not on the specific narrative of the classic story or its characters. What resonated with us, and with everyone who reviewed its use in the context of the museum, was the reference to a single day not being able to erase the memory of those we love." Seems like whoever was put in charge of compiling a list of potential quotes just googled "Important Things Said by Latin Poets," and didn’t bother to research it any further—because, you know, who reads epic poetry anymore?
It's a curious modern disease, this shallowness, what we might call second-order source-blindness.  Primary source-blindness is not yet a serious problem.  If Google had turned up a perfectly apposite quote in Mein Kampf, for example, someone would surely have stamped on it.  Something in Trotsky or Lenin?  Reject!  Some of the more fascistic musings of Henry Ford or Ayn Rand?  Nix!  But the Aeneid?  Excellent choice! Nothing lends more gravitas than the classics.  We'd better have it in translation, though: the days of e pluribus unum are long gone.

But what about the second-order source of any quotation, its context?  As I have noted on this blog before, context increasingly counts for very little in our sound-bite culture.  I recall my rant against the London Olympics opening ceremony (An Island Full of Noises) where Bowie's "Heroes" and Pink Floyd's "Eclipse" were filleted of meaning, in the service of mere illustration.   But, surely, context is everything?  The recognition of the significance of context is 90% of what we call intelligence.  "All red berries are good to eat" was never a good survival strategy.

I admit, I have a thing about context-checking, where quotations are concerned.  It's a basic principle of humanities scholarship, after all.  You should never recycle a quotation found in a secondary source without first checking the primary source.  Not least because beating up another scholar on grounds of misquotation or quotation out-of-context is a large part of the fun.  So, if you're going to sling quotations around yourself, you'd better make sure your own backside is well-protected.  Especially with quotations in translation from languages you don't know, from books you've never read, by authors you've never heard of.

There is an alternative, of course. If you have great contemporary wordsmiths available to you, why not ask one of them for a few choice words, rather than rummage through Bartlett's Familiar Quotations?  The First World War covered no-one in glory, but the post-war grieving was deftly and tastefully handled.  Kipling's words on the anonymous tombstones of the War Graves Commission did the job nicely: A soldier of the Great War -- known unto God.  You don't have to believe in any particular god, or any god at all, to grasp the meaning and intent of those words.  You don't even have to know that Kipling's own, only son, John, was killed by a shell at Loos, and his body never identified in Kipling's lifetime.  Though context, as always, will add poignancy.

Sunday 20 April 2014


For those of us of a Christian heritage, today is a day of profound significance, much more so than Christmas, though you could be forgiven for not knowing  that, or why.  Christianity is very bad at explaining itself to grown-ups, I find.  I have lost count of the "Lent talks" I have listened to on the BBC where a sophisticated speaker gets hopelessly lost somewhere in the wilderness that lies between literal truth and metaphor.

Without the resurrection, the story of the crucifixion is meaningless, they say.  OK.  We have Paul's word on that:  "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain."  Fine; got that.  But the Resurrection is not to be taken too literally, they also say.  There's a lot of metaphor in there.  Uh, OK, but confusing.

The crucifixion is easy to grasp: great story, great scenario, wonderful images, if terribly, brutally tragic, with no punches pulled.  I'm amazed children are allowed to listen to it.  The resurrection...  less so.  "With a single bound he was free..." It's no wonder modern religious sensibilities reach for the metaphors.  Or that most of the population goes with the chocolate eggs and rabbits on Easter Sunday, instead.

Anyway, don't look at me, I'm a lapsed-Baptist Zen pagan pantheist agnostic, with an unfortunately skeptical nature that takes absolutely nothing on trust, even if printed in tiny print in numbered paragraphs in double columns on india paper.  If it's theological debate you want, try the Archbishop of Canterbury (he seems generally less busy at this time of year than that Pope fellow).

We'll be in Wales for a few days from tomorrow, but I'll schedule some posts to keep you company during the week.

Saturday 19 April 2014

A Walk in the Woods

The Fuji X100 blows me away with its sheer quality, every time I take it out for a walk.  Which is quite often, recently, as it slips so easily into a shoulder bag, is forgettably light and such a pleasure to use, despite -- or perhaps even because of -- its quirks.  Above all, its image quality, straight out of the camera, is breathtaking.  I think I see a Fuji "X" system in my future, once I've got a little more cash in the bank.

It's always nice to discover a new piece of ground to explore, and I came across one just yesterday.  We had headed out towards Mottisfont Abbey, forgetting it was Good Friday. The place was packed out, with cars parked  end-to-end on the roadside verges for several hundred yards beyond the official car-park.  Forget about it!

Luckily, the Prof remembered a tract of woodland a bit further on, where she had once taken the kids when they were small.  There was no problem parking, and the dappled light falling onto the woodland floor was very enticing, with bluebells in drifts among the crisp brown beech and birch leaf litter.  We had a lovely exploratory ramble along the network of forestry paths, swishing, prodding, and pointing at things with our sticks.

Of course, the problem with pretty woodlands is that they tempt you to take pretty woodland photographs.  On the drives out and back we spotted several guys in roadside copses, hunched over tripods and working at getting the magazine-perfect "bluebells in dappled spring sunlight" shot.  They probably do it every year.  Maybe this year they'll get it right.

What you need is a genuinely strange and mysterious intrusion, to add the necessary disruptive presence.  I was amazed and delighted to discover this surreal object, a single sheet of corrugated iron, curled up organically like a gigantic dead leaf, a headless sphinx among the trees.  Perfect!  Though I don't think it will get into Hampshire Life magazine...

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Run-Time Rhino

Ever met Ronnie*, the psycho-psychedelic Run-Time Rhino? Why run-time?  Well, for whatever reasons, Ronnie hates hackers, and lies in wait in the foyer of the School of Electronics and Computer Science, artfully-camouflaged as a fairground attraction built out of recycled hardware.  Very hard, in Ronnie's case.

When he spots his unmistakably-dressed hacker prey he makes his move.  It's time to run.

* Do you think Ronnie Cray would be a pun too far?

Tuesday 15 April 2014

What Summer Term?

Deserted campus...

It was with some consternation that I learned that my daughter, a first year university student, would be coming home for the Easter break and not returning to university, other than to submit some assessed coursework.  It's the kind of thing that causes dark thoughts to crowd in on a parent. Is she unhappy?  Is she unwell?  Or is she still not capable of reading a calendar properly?

But, no.  It seems most of her friends have already gone home, and will also only be returning to take exams or hand in essays.  Their summer term will be very short --a single month -- and is an "assessment period", in which no teaching takes place.  For them, the academic year is effectively over.  Really? And all this for a mere £9000 p.a.!

After I'd made a few enquiries and done a few comparative sums, it emerged that quite a few universities are quietly shrinking the teaching year from the traditional three ten-week terms to an Oxbridge-style 24 weeks, sometimes split into two longish 12-week terms, sometimes spread in a complex overlay of two "semesters" over three terms.  In the process, it appears that some are abolishing the summer term.  At those institutions the student year, as a communal experience, now simply fizzles out in April.

I have to say I am amazed.  The 1970s, when I was a student, may be slipping into history -- incredibly, 1974 is as far in the past now as 1934 was back then -- but I still recall those summer terms vividly.  When people talk of the Student Experience (and they do, incessantly and anxiously, within university circles*) it is surely that sequence of year-end terms they ought to have in mind.   Whether it was the compression of a few years of neglected study into a month of cramming in the run-up to finals, or the bliss of a couple of summer months without the pressure of exams, those weeks from Easter until mid-June were an intensely-lived experience. It was, traditionally, a time when undergraduates -- mainly destined for worthy but dusty careers in public service -- got to behave, briefly but memorably, like the decadent idle rich, in a sort of swot's heaven.  I think I even once went punting in a Laura Ashley dress, though I may be making that up.

By contrast, a sort of alienated, lonely drifting-away in April is not the stuff of fond memories.  We seem to be moving towards an industrial efficiency in graduate throughput that may, I suspect, presage a move to intensive two-year degrees.  I'm not sure what the actual benefit of a factory-farmed, leisure-free degree would be: it seems like an academic version of the bean-counter's fallacy that 100 men can dig the same hole 100 times faster than one man.  My vision of the Degree-in-Pill-Form starts to seem less satirical.  It's yet another step down the road that leads to Ant World, where any moment not spent on achieving carefully-aligned national, corporate and personal goals by approved methods is a wasted moment. Possibly, eventually, a criminal moment.

This is not even to mention the prospect of bored young adults hanging around the parental home for four long summer months -- heh, as if that were even a problem! -- or trying, hopelessly, to enter the job market temporarily which so many long to join permanently.  Once upon a time, of course, as well as there being full, serial maintenance grants, all students were entitled to sign on for Supplementary Benefit (a.k.a. The Dole) during university vacations.  No, really: I remember those weekly Giro cheques with great fondness.

Ah, the world we have lost...  And all because nobody wants to pay taxes any more.

* The hope is to make the Student Experience at your institution so compelling that (a) school-leavers choose you, rather than the competition, and (b) graduates (sorry: alumni) remember you with such fondness they feel inclined to bestow regular gifts of cash (to make up for those taxes they don't want to pay).

Sunday 13 April 2014

Easing the Spring

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
          And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
          Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
          Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
          They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
          For to-day we have naming of parts.

"Naming of Parts", by Henry Reed

Thursday 10 April 2014

March Past

I haven't been over to the Hockley Viaduct for some weeks, mainly due to the weather, so here's a suitably spring-like image from late March.  This is one of those shots I have taken repeatedly over the past few years.  I like the way that trunk obscures the view of the viaduct, and gives an ambiguous sense of discovery, revelation, and concealment to the picture.

This is as much a necessity as an aesthetic choice.  To get this shot, I have to push through a gap in the shrubs and saplings lining the road, and balance on a very small, often slippery piece of level ground, above where the bank shelves steeply down into a culvert, heavily overgrown with thorns.  The tree is just there -- large, close (but out of reach), and in the way -- so it's a simple case of use it or lose it. Or lean waay out over to the right.  I have generally decided to use it.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Kiosk Collage

On a wet, drab Monday lunchtime, there is a pleasing, diffused lighting-effect to be found inside a telephone kiosk, rather like a large, vertical light-table.  It's nice and dry, too.

I like the palimpsest of stickers and posters that builds up on the more prominently-situated kiosks.  It's an effect reminiscent of those modernist and Dada collages that were first made, incredibly, 100 years ago.  Whatever did happen to that scissors-and-paste modernity?

Sometimes -- in fact, most of the time -- it seems impossible to imagine what comes next, as if we were stuck in an eternal present, facing helplessly back towards the past watching it pile up, as in Walter Benjamin's famous description of Angelus Novus, a monoprint by Paul Klee that he used to own.  The knowledge that things are, in effect, changing radically in unimaginable ways behind your back is either exhilarating or terrifying, depending on your mood, age, and frame of mind.

Today, after a successful upgrade to our library management system software -- probably the last I will ever oversee -- it all seems perfectly benign.

Sunday 6 April 2014

A Tourist from Mars

It was once suggested that, in the end, there are only two stories:  A Person Goes on a Journey, and A Stranger Comes to Town. As an analytical tool, this is pretty feeble. You might as well further reduce those two to their lowest common denominator, and say there is only one story: When People Get Around Stuff Happens. True enough, but even more useless. So what about stories where people turn into giant beetles? Or lament the impossibility of even travelling to the next village?

But there is a truth there. Far down in the archaeological layers of the human spirit, there's an urge to move on, to see what lies over those hills. Much of civilization comes down to ways of persuading the young that this might not be such a good idea. Why not stick around and do something useful, instead? That washing up won't do itself! But the gene pool urges a different, deeper story: listen, why not go and see if the girls in the next village are as pretty as they say? Hmm? Otherwise we'll probably all end up as giant beetles. Hey, is it your turn to feed Ugly Franz, or mine?

Over on another blog I occasionally frequent, the topic of travel vs. tourism often comes up. You know, proper travel: running out of cash after six months – ideally somewhere that doesn't have running water, electricity, or use the roman alphabet – and trusting to your native wit and the kindness of strangers (plus a supersized, western-style helping of luck) to avoid ending up robbed, raped, and dead in a ditch.  It's scary stuff, independent travel, at least in retrospect. Travellers' tales so often seem to be hymns to blissful ignorance, near-miss horror stories that usually hinge on the tolerance and forbearance of the resident population.

The great paradox of travel is that, as temporary, uninvited and marginal guests – often in tradition-bound, dictatorial and corrupt societies from which the locals themselves would dearly like to escape – we act as ambassadors for the hard-won comforts of our liberal, technological democracies back home, advantages dismissed by most hardcore western drifters as inauthentic. Like players in some global game of trust, the abandon with which we cast ourselves adrift is seen as a measure of personal integrity. The bragging rights of travel are earned, not by wisdom ("I decided not to wade into the crocodile-infested waters"), but by dumb luck ("As luck would have it, the crocodile that swallowed the bag containing all my cash and documents was caught downstream, and I was able to buy my passport back from the local police, three months later, with the cash I earned by [censored]".

Much-despised tourists, by contrast, are welcome guests everywhere. They spend lots more money, and are perfectly happy to be corralled, herded and milked as a seasonal resource, risking nothing more irksome than a room with a view blocked by the hotel next door. The local businessmen must beam upon those glistening hides, as they bake in the sun, like farmers admiring a prime dairy herd.

I am unusually stirred by this subject at the moment, because I have a little adventure of my own coming up. In June, I will be having another exhibition at the Fotoforum in Innsbruck, Austria (thanks to Rupert Larl). This time, I have agreed to attend and give an opening night presentation, and have been asked to stay on and do a short photo-project in the Tyrol (double thanks, Rupert!). As you can imagine, this is both exciting and terrifying, partly because I am prone to attacks of Impostor Syndrome, partly because my spoken German is pretty rusty, but also because of the tourist / traveller thing.

Although I have travelled in the past, I am, at heart, a native. It has taken something in the order of a decade of constantly photographing a very few, very local beats to emerge as a photographer with some small degree of originality, preceded by another decade in which the clichés and false steps were worked out of my system, not by avoiding them but by making them. I cringe when I look back at my contact sheets from, say, 1995. But that's just how it works – the 10,000 hours, and all that.

Now, if anything worthwhile (photographically) is to come of my time in the Tyrol, I need to compress that 10-year process into about 10 days. I think I can probably bypass the worst clichés – we all know what they look like, whether perpetrated by tourists or landscape-porn professionals – but the Austrian Alps are hardly photographic terra incognita; it's ground that has been thoroughly worked over since the invention of photography. Heard of Heinrich Kuehn, the pioneer of autochrome in the 1900s? He was an Innsbruck resident. There is also no shortage of contemporary Austrian photographers: wherever you look, wherever you go, it will be someone's well-trodden personal turf. That is not even to mention the thousands of tourist snaps that must be taken every year.

Heinrich Kuehn, 1912

The hope, and the challenge, of course, is that dropping a keen-eyed stranger into such thoroughly pre-visualized territory (one is tempted to call it a hyperreal space) will deliver a fresh perspective. Well, let's hope so. I intend to be a tourist from Mars, combining the curiosity of a traveller with the voracity of a tourist, and avoiding the crocodiles wherever possible.

It may even be – and this is just a thought – that the best subject may not be the magnificent landscape, or the "real" Austria, but the tourists themselves, and the industry that surrounds them. I have, after all, been there, done that. But not for a very long time.

Near Tarrenz, Tyrol, summer 1966

Saturday 5 April 2014

You Again

Marina Abramović is back in the news.  She is the ne plus ultra of performance art, the test case, working at the borderline where narcissism, obsession, insanity, sheer daftness, and that nebulous thing called "art" ebb and flow.  She is the self-styled "grandmother of performance art", with the stories and the scars to prove it.

I'm not much interested in her work, as such, but the story of her relationship with fellow nutter-cum-artist Ulay is deeply fascinating to me.  They met in 1976, and formed an intense folie à deux that found expression in some (now) famous performance pieces:  breathing mouth-to-mouth until they both pass out from lack of oxygen, alternately slapping each other in the face until one or other is unable to continue, bellowing incoherently at each other for hours -- just the usual stuff of any intense relationship, no?  We've all been there, though not generally before a public audience...

In 1988, after several years of tense relations, Abramović and Ulay decided to make a spiritual journey which would end their relationship. Each of them walked the Great Wall of China, starting from the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle. As Abramović described it: “That walk became a complete personal drama. Ulay started from the Gobi Desert and I from the Yellow Sea. After each of us walked 2500 km, we met in the middle and said good-bye". Abramović conceived this walk in a dream, and it provided what she thought was an appropriate, romantic ending to a relationship full of mysticism, energy, and attraction. She later described the process: “We needed a certain form of ending, after this huge distance walking towards each other. It is very human. It is in a way more dramatic, more like a film ending … Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do.”
(from Wikipedia's Abramovic article)
The thing is, having decided to end their relationship as a grandiose piece of performance art, they never met again.

In 2010, Abramović gave her most famous performance, "The Artist is Present", at New York's MOMA, in which she shared a period of silence with each of an endless queue of visitors to the gallery, sat opposite each other at a small table.  After their 22 year separation, Ulay simply turned up.  You can witness what happened here on YouTube.

Despite the fact that some of those present clearly knew what was happening, suggesting it was not quite as spontaneous as it might seem, it is nevertheless a very moving moment, and in a spirit quite different from the studied, stony-faced mask of the performance.  It's an undeniable moment of humanity, interrupting -- and, surely, undermining -- an art-form which can seem little more than sterile narcissism, onto which we are free to project whatever we care to or need to.  Which may, of course, have been the point all along.

Friday 4 April 2014

Derby Day

Paul Strand, Man in a Bowler Hat, 1916

I try to avoid the topic of hats on this blog, for obvious reasons.  But I was idly "researching" (i.e. surfing) the subject of bowler hats, when I came across this photograph by Paul Strand.  Does it remind you of anyone? Surely that is none other than Keith Richards?  I mean, I'm not going to suggest that Keef is one of the Undead (no need), but ...


[Little-known Keef Fact #47: Richards sang as a boy soprano at Westminster Abbey for the Coronation of Elizabeth II.  No, really.]

Thursday 3 April 2014


The shifts in light and atmosphere at this time of year can be extreme.  At 8:00 a.m. on 1st April there was a heavy, drifting fog shrouding and diffusing everything.

Then, by 12:30 p.m. the sun was bright in a clear sky.  As it raked down this bank, it caught the emerging green shoots in a dramatic, stage-lighting effect.  Rarely has the expression "blades of grass" seemed so appropriate. Or maybe "light-sabres of grass" would be better.

Without the barrier, of course, it would be nothing...

Later, as I drove home, a hailstorm pounded on the roof of my car. The hailstones were falling so hard they were invisible, and appeared to be pinging up out of the road, like popcorn.  By the time I got home, the sun was out again.  Perfectly normal April weather, of course.  However, yesterday and today things turned weird as the "Saharan Smog" enveloped the South Coast, somehow muffling everything in a blanket of smoky fog.  You can feel the soft grit on your teeth after even a short walk.  I decided not to risk scratching my lens coatings ...

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Sunshine Superman

My Becher-like taxonomical pursuit of the decorative possibilities of barrier-tape and plastic mesh fencing may be beyond the grasp of some readers (not so much "Mysterious Barricades" as "Downright Baffling Obstacles"), but these daily five-finger exercises do at least give me a reason to get off my backside at lunchtime and beat the bounds of the campus.

I don't know whether it's just that I've become a familiar loony, like the alleged sometime professor of Maths who used to wander the place shouting incomprehensible greetings and occasionally dropping his trousers (whatever happened to him, I wonder?), but I rarely attract any attention when I'm about my photographic business.  Today, however, was different.

I was hunkered down inside my favourite telephone booth, squinting at the fresh tape-marks and abrasions in the sunshine, when the door was opened.  I assumed that, by malign coincidence, the only person on campus without a mobile phone wanted to use the pay-phone.  "Sorry," I said, "I'll come out."  "No," the person said, "I just wondered what you were doing?"

Now, I suppose it's possible that, from the outside, it may have looked a bit odd, suspicious even, to see a man squatting down inside a phone booth.  But it takes a certain kind of guileless curiosity, actually to open the kiosk door and ask what's going on.  I must admit I was tempted to play the situation for laughs  -- quite a few obvious turns on telephone booth tropes sprang instantly to mind -- but instead waggled my camera, and said, cheerily, "Taking photographs!"  "But why?  What on earth of?" he said.

This is always a tricky one to negotiate.  I could see he was genuinely baffled, and perhaps even concerned for my sanity.  It's easy to forget, quite how far beyond most people's concept of "normal" any photography is that does not involve close relatives or safely-accredited subjects (sunsets, kittens, porn, etc.).  The beauty of digital cameras, however, is that you can show, not tell.  "Here," I said, "Have a look", and put the camera into "chimping" mode.  I showed him the image below.

I could see he wasn't convinced.  Which was quite disappointing, and even a little insulting, so -- with my best "Good day to you, sir!" expression -- I firmly shut the door and carried on.  There's none so blind as they that will not see.