Tuesday 30 September 2014

Time, Waves, etc.

Back in August, while this blog was having a break, we had a week down in Dorset.  What with the intervening ten-thousand things, I'd pretty much forgotten about that.  It was not the sunniest of weeks, but we had a good time, nonetheless.  I've always enjoyed kicking along a beach on a blustery day, looking for fossils and watching the waves. It puts things in perspective; sub specie aeternitatis, as the philosophers say.  Though getting your boots flooded by an unexpected wave puts things in perspective, too.



The end of the Cobb, Lyme Regis

It was interesting to discover that the association of the Cobb at Lyme Regis with the film of The French Lieutenant's Woman has finally faded.  Absolutely nobody was doing a Meryl Streep selfie out at its windblown end.  You'd probably struggle to find anyone who'd heard of the book's author, John Fowles, either, despite his long residence in the town.  I certainly struggled to explain to my daughter why, long ago in the 1970s, his novels were thought to be quite significant.  Time does its inexorable work.

The most striking thing about the Cobb is the level of real danger it represents to the unwary.  Not only is there no parapet or railing to prevent you falling off into the sea, and not only does it also slope laterally quite severely, so that you have to counter gravity's attempt to steer you into the harbour as you walk along, but there are solid trip hazards all along its length in the shape of mooring rings and bollards.  To venture out to the very end, on a dark and windy night without a torch, as we did, is idiotic indeed, but fun.

Sunday 28 September 2014

Lovely on the Water

If Austria has a problem with a superabundance of natural beauty (see previous post) then the area immediately around Southampton docks might be said to have the opposite problem.  Hundreds of years of shaping and reshaping the waterfront for the convenience of docking, boarding, lading and unlading large ships has pretty much eliminated any natural anything.  It's a man-made space with all the architectural splendour of a multi-storey carpark.

And yet, Southampton Water itself has the silvery, ever-changing mystery of all large estuaries.  It is continually polluted, not least by the Fawley refinery, but twice a day the sea reaches in via the Solent, and pulls out much of the crap we put in.  Two splendid rivers, the Test and the Itchen, constantly feed fresh water into the brackish mix, too; it's not (yet) toxic enough to act as a barrier to salmon making their way from the sea up the Test each autumn, though numbers are dwindling.  I remember, 30 years ago, joining a small crowd watching salmon leaping a weir on the Test in Romsey, one every 30 seconds or so.  I don't think anyone much bothers to turn up now, and the sandbags which used to protect the fish from the stonework have been allowed to rot away.

I went for a walk on Friday along the western shore of Southampton Water, just down from the tide-mill at Eling, where the New Forest leans into the estuary.  Although not spectacular, the view of container-ships being serviced by giant cranes and a constant stream of specialised vehicles is quite engrossing.  The water is only about 500 metres across at this point, and from amongst the trees you can clearly hear amplified supervisory voices booming across from the docks, punctuated by the echoing boom of empty containers being dropped or bashed like gongs.

Friday 26 September 2014

The Dressing Up Box

Austria, without doubt, is a country blessed with abundant natural beauty, to the extent that it must be a real problem for anyone concerned with representation.  Frankly, I'd hate to be an Austrian photographer.  Surrounded by all that "senseless beauty", whaddaya gonna do?

Nordkette viewed from the Muttereralm

So, I found that one of the most interesting and ironically self-aware displays in the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum in Innsbruck is a reconstruction of a early 20th century photographer's studio, where real Tyroleans could dress up in folksy Tracht as fantasy "Tyroleans", just like grandma, to be photographed against painted Alpine backdrops.

The fantasy...

The naked truth...

The Scots will be familiar with this dilemma of identity, though in their case in more interesting patterns and colourways.  Doubtless there is a similar display in an Inverness museum.  If there isn't, there should be.

Of course, the truth lies within.  The camera may lie about your appearance, but it knows what goes on in your soul.  Amusingly, inside the bellows of an 8x10 view camera within the Volkskunstmuseum photographer's studio, someone has placed this pair, lit by an eerie red glow:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity...

Wednesday 24 September 2014


I have led a reasonably productive creative life, but I still have quite a few long-postponed, half-abandoned, or never-started projects -- some photographic, some not -- and now that I've got the time I intend to get on with a few of them.  But the problem, as always, is where to start?

I've generally found that the expression "to sort things out" taken literally is the best way to, well, get things sorted.  Few things are as daunting as a large disordered heap.  I'm not a tidy person by nature, so large disordered heaps are my customary environment. But, if I need to break a log-jam and get on with something, I've found that the simple act of putting like with like is a quick way of reducing a large pile to a number of smaller, more manageable piles, and is at the same time a process that is both clarifying and empowering.  It's a way of thinking that requires little thought.

One project I've been cumulating over the years has involved photographing the allotment next to the university car-park and also the so-called Valley Garden, once the university's Botanic Garden.   Curiously, these two green spaces have parallelled each other, entropically, if that's the right word for the human imposition of order balanced against the more chaotic processes of the natural world.  Our garden, for example, shows a high degree of entropy when compared to our neighbours' clipped and tended gardens.  We like it that way; it's also a lot less work.

When I arrived at the university 30 years ago, the Botanic Garden was a delightful secret.  Hidden away in a forgotten corner of the campus, it was in an advanced state of abandonment.  A couple of greenhouses were still in use, but several others were in the process of falling down, winter by winter.  The grounds of the slope-sided valley site -- a couple of acres, or thereabouts -- had once been planted systematically, to illustrate plant taxonomy and to provide specimens, but had been running riot for years.  Badgers and foxes had made it their home. Through the bottom of the valley runs a stream, and it had eroded its bed into a deep channel, exposing the gravels and clays that sustained the former brickpit on the site, and requiring rickety, improvised footbridges to cross.  Most delightful of all were an abandoned apple orchard, where I would take my children on lunchtime rambles when they were at the university day nursery, and a pond where frogs would gather in great numbers to spawn in February.

I used to visit the place daily -- it was a veritable temple of wabi-sabi -- but a few years ago a decision was made to close the valley, clear out its tumbledown greenhouses and jungle of vegetation, and turn it into a nice, safe, park-like space where staff could spend their lunch hours.  In retrospect, I think it must have been around then that I decided the University and I might need to part company.

By contrast, the small allotment adjacent to the car-park was once a showcase of gardening know-how, where a few green-fingered vegetable growers kept nature at bay, but with that improvisatory, low-tech light touch that distinguishes those whose instincts and sympathies are in the right place.  I think the idea of an "allotment" is fairly universal: it's a space where small plots of land are rented out by the local authority for non-commercial gardening and vegetable growing.  It's a way of enjoying the benefits of small-holding without owning any land, particularly within cities and suburbs.  However, a few years ago the university bought the land, and a steady decline set in: right now, the former allotments are little more than than a bumpy, weed-covered field.  Doubtless, it will become a car-park in due course.

So maybe it was then that I made my decision to go.  The university has made its choices, and I have made mine.  "It's not uni, it's me..."  Anyway.  Whatever.  The fact is I have been photographing these two complementary places for some years.  It seemed that a "quick win" book project might emerge if I engaged in a bit of sorting magic.  Just put like with like.

Now, I organise my files primarily by camera, then by month and year (e.g. "Fuji_X100\Aug14\DSF0123.RAF"), which might seem a bit perverse, but it suits me.  Given the nature of my photography, I'm far more likely to remember the camera I used to take a particular photograph, and the time of year it was taken, than to remember the year itself.  I also resist the pre-categorisation that insists, "This image is a landscape, this one an abstract, etc."  To build a themed project I create a new folder, then browse the monthly folders of RAW files under each camera, copying target images into the new project folder.  It's labour-intensive, but serves a useful secondary purpose of refreshing my awareness of all the images sitting unused in my backfiles, and the relationships between them.

However, when I had finished this initial rough-cut selection last night, and had resorted the resulting folder by date, and finally sat back to see what I had, I discovered there were over 1,500 image files in the folder.  Which was a surprise.  Even allowing for 70% duplication and duds, that means there's a whole new level of selection needs to be applied, before I've got down to the fifty or so pictures that will define a new series or book.

So much for a quick win.  But at least I've got the time to do the work, now, and I'm pretty sure I won't be adding any more photographs of value from either of those particular two sites.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Speech! Speech!

I'm aware that many of you reading this blog may not be terribly interested in the big change I have recently made in my life; that is, to take early retirement.  Some may even resent the fact that I am in position to do so.  Well, tough.  The fact is that, despite showing early promise as a slacker, I have dedicated over thirty continuous years to public service in a back-room, technical-managerial capacity, and the prospect of a substantial, index-linked pension was always a major motivator in getting me out of bed in the morning.  That, and the example of my parents, subsisting into old age on state benefits alone.

So, before I drop the subject, I thought I'd share with you my parting words for my ex-colleagues.  In the bad old days, retirees would be required to undergo that dreaded rite of passage, the Leaving Ceremony.   I think, like public executions, the intention was to discourage others from following suit until or unless absolutely unavoidable.  Thankfully, we now live in more enlightened times, and I was able to leave the building quietly, unencumbered by the University's famously useless engraved crystal bowl.  Instead, I sent everyone an email, with this attachment -- the speech I would have given on the retirement scaffold:

The problem with retirement is that, by the time it happens, there are few people left who can remember the retiree when he or she was actually quite good at their job, or why on earth we employed them in the first place.  Their former bosses and most co-workers will have retired or moved on, and their sad fate is to become that curious grey-haired figure with an unknown past who seems unable to remember anybody’s name.

I am very conscious of belonging to a species passing into extinction.  Born in 1954, the year food-rationing ended, I grew up in an all-too-brief post-War utopia where excellent state education was a national priority.  For the first time, children from “ordinary” families at state schools could aspire to progress to the top of the educational ladder.  In my case, I eventually found myself at Oxford University studying English, an achievement which required some effort from me in passing exams, but did not cost my parents a single penny.  I had a full maintenance grant, and in the vacations was able to "sign on" to collect Supplementary Benefit (a.k.a. The Dole).  It gets worse.  After graduating, I was awarded full grants for two further periods of postgraduate study.  Unimaginable now, but perfectly normal in the 1970s.

In those days universities did not regard themselves as being in the business of equipping graduates for the world of work.  Indeed, they did not see themselves as being in any business, as such, at all.  Higher education was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, reserved for an “academic” minority.  So, facing the grim reality of finding employment in the late 1970s, I chanced to see an advert for a trainee post at the University of Bristol library.  They chose me simply because I was able to read the cyrillic alphabet: they had a massive cataloguing backlog of Russian books.  All cataloguers were expected to be linguists, then, with two modern European languages as a minimum.  Imagine: at my very ordinary state school, we had routinely studied Latin, French and either German or Spanish, and in the Sixth Form could choose Russian rather than endure "General Studies".  Again, this was typical, then, but how things have changed: my own children, at their Southampton state schools, only had the opportunity to study one language, badly taught.

Having realised that I liked working in an academic library -- where else could you meet such strange and interesting people? -- I decided to qualify professionally, at University College, London.  UCL, in those days, was obsessed by indexing and classification.  We studied every classification scheme in depth, researching multiple essays on each, with the requirement that all students would choose two subjects of interest and criss-cross London visiting specialist libraries, to compare how cataloguing, classification and indexing were handled in each.  It was a lot of work.  I think there were seventeen assessed essays: a number that had recently gone down from twenty-one.  The plus side was getting to know some grand libraries, like the British Museum Reading Room, and some obscure ones, like the Royal Geographical Society, which in the late 1970s was still an Edwardian gentleman’s club for explorers.

It is hard to imagine now, but in those days there were no personal computers, no internet, no mobile phones.  Documents and memos were all typed by hand.  To distribute a memo you either produced carbon copies, had it photocopied, or clipped a circulation list to it; it could take weeks for a widely-circulated item to land on your desk.  Catalogue cards were originated as a hand-written draft of a "body" text, checked by a senior cataloguer, passed to the typing pool for typing up, checked again, and duplicated.  Then, the individual headings were typed on the cards, checked yet again, and finally filed into the catalogue drawers by cataloguers.  The accuracy of the filing would, of course, be checked.  As in all offices at the time, a lot of the work going on involved inspecting the work of others, and manually producing and filing documents.  It was a slower-paced, more deliberate world, where changes happened gradually after lengthy consideration, and where the human effort involved was a major factor.

Then came computers.  I won't bore you with the detail, but my career has spanned the history of library automation.  At Bristol we trained to use the new-fangled green-screen SWALCAP ("South Western Academic Libraries Automation Project") system.  I was on the design team that produced the cataloguing module of SWALCAP's integrated system, Libertas.  The first "microcomputer" in this Library landed on my desk: an Amstrad PC1640 with 640K of RAM and no hard drive.  On it, I taught myself to program with GW-BASIC.  We developed the first Southampton "online public access catalogue" in the late 1980s, and introduced the Urica library management system in 1991 and the Unicorn/Symphony system in 1997.  I recall attending the first course for Library staff on using HTML, where we were instructed never to use images on our webpages, because of the resource implications.  And so on.  We are now in a much faster world, where change happens rapidly and unevenly, and where the human factor is easily overlooked.  I suppose it’s the price of trying to squeeze the entire world into a hand-held device.

I was not supposed to be here for 30 years.  On appointment, I was told that they expected that I would move on after 5 years, and so did I.  I was young, and vaguely ambitious.  But then my partner joined me in Southampton, we had two children, I decided to go part-time, and…  Somehow another 25 years passed.  But I have no regrets on that score; I have always seen myself as the Chief Engineer, wielding an oily rag down in the engine room, rather than standing up on the bridge wearing a smart officer’s hat.

My recent exercise in identifying the poor souls who have, over the years, been chained to a bench in my department was enlightening.  So many names…  I have to confess I needed prompting to remember some of them (“Ah, the goth girl with the boots…”).  But, on the other hand, so many of you are still here, if working in different roles.  Having started out as a very “hands on” manager, full of opinions about the best way to do things, I have learned to back off, and let people get on with their work. I now believe the best manager is a “light touch” manager (that’s my excuse, anyway – sorry about the appraisals…).  But I am very proud of the outstanding staff I have recruited, trained and managed over the years, and perhaps my most notable achievement at Southampton has been getting them all regraded (upwards!), twice, wearing my union-activist hat.

However, my world is increasingly the old world.  Some of you will have been born "digital-native"; few of you will have been born into a home without a telephone, a television, or a refrigerator.  Many of you will have had your educational aspirations constrained by the changes in the nature and funding of education since the 1990s; few of you will have had the glorious free ride that I enjoyed.  Some of you will also have a very different view of the purpose of the institution in which we are working, not just because so much has changed, but also perhaps as a result of the sustained challenge to the very idea of a university from government: higher education as an end in itself now seems a hopelessly old-fashioned, even elitist idea.  As I say, I belong to a species passing into extinction, and have decided to go before I stop being a problem-solver and become the problem.

I wish you all well, and trust that you will do your best to make this library -- and any library you work in – a special place, worth the investment of 30 years of anybody’s life.  Let me remind you of Ranganathan’s deceptively simple Five Laws of Library Science, established in 1931:

1. Books are for use.
2. Every reader their book.
3. Every book its reader.
4. Save the time of the reader.
5. The library is a growing organism.

Change “book” to “resource”, and it seems that, perhaps, not that much has changed, after all.  Though I will never concede that “readers” have become “customers”, I’m afraid… I’ll get my coat…

Obviously, this is not the bitter-and-twisted parting shot all of us will have composed and refined over the years, and filed in the drawer marked "to be opened in the event of my untimely dismissal" -- we name the guilty parties! -- and is a model of benevolence.  But then I have enjoyed my work  -- the day-job that became a career -- and draw satisfaction from the knowledge that my contribution has "made a difference", as they say.

But, now, the real work begins.  Finally...  I only hope I still have time to do it.

 My coat (and an idiotic hat)

Monday 15 September 2014

You've Got To Laugh

I am now into my first weeks of retirement, and I can report that, so far, it feels just like a holiday.  Not in the fun sense of enjoying yet another day away from humdrum reality, but in the more unsettling sense that -- in the background, like the rumble of traffic -- the uneasy prospect of an inevitable return to work is lurking.  The fact that I need never return to work has simply not yet sunk in: this still feels like a temporary respite.

After 30 years or more of wage-slavery, this is hardly surprising: I still dream about taking exams, after all, and the last exam I sat was in 1980.  Who knows, maybe work will now take the place of exams in my subconscious, and I will awake from anxiety dreams at 3 a.m., only to experience the profound relief that, no, I really don't have to give a presentation tomorrow on the migration of metadata standards from AACR2 to RDA, for which I have not done a stroke of preparation.  Phew.

On the subject of anxiety, I recently had a day in hospital (a first serious brush with Old Man's Stuff -- don't ask) and spent much of the time lying around in a post-anaesthetic haze, idly listening to the conversations and exchanges going on around me.  It began to dawn on me that the British have a problem with humour.

We're famous for it, of course.  Ah, you British, with your sense of humour!  It's a coping mechanism, obviously.  It's no accident that our strongest comic traditions come out of the pressure-points of industrial working-class life -- places like Liverpool, London, Newcastle, and Glasgow.  An acute sense of the absurd expressed as blunt ironies; anger, outrage and frustration sublimated into laughter; a love of wordplay, shot through with the edgy, proletarian pleasures of double-entendre and "dumb insolence": these are the hallmarks of our humour.  Max Miller used to ask his audience:  "Listen, I've got two books of jokes here: do you want the White Book or the Blue Book?"  They always chose the blue*.

It can be confusing for foreigners.  I ran into problems with this myself in Austria.  At every turn, it seemed, I managed to offend somebody, quite unintentionally, generally by assuming that it was understood that, in pursuit of a humorous moment, one might often say the complete opposite of what one actually meant, or might even appear to insult someone as a form of friendly inclusivity.  I dread to think what they would have made of an Australian.  At any rate, several people there are no longer replying to my texts or emails.

But, in hospital, I began to feel a little like a foreigner myself.  The formulaic banter of people under stress began to drive me crazy.  Is it possible, I wondered, for an Englishman confronted by a form which asks "Sex?" not to respond, "Yes, please!"?  Or, if asked by a nurse, "Would you like anything else?", not to reply, in an apparently hard-wired reflex, "Well, it depends what else you are offering!"?  It was like sharing a ward with several shop-worn avatars of Benny Hill.  Even doctors -- pressed for time and exhausted by long hours -- in order to extract the simplest information had to endure their patients' anxious attempts to lighten the mood, serially, all without themselves resorting to sarcasm or physical violence.  I don't think I could do that.

It then occured to me that perhaps some apparently irrational acts of heroism in situations like the trenches of the First World War might have had a simple, rational cause.  Anything -- anything -- up to and including spontaneously leaping over a revetment and running across No Man's Land to single-handedly storm a machine-gun post, would be better than continuing to share a dugout with several dozen British men nervously jesting and joshing away the discomforts and indignities of war.  Enough! Stop! Not everything has to be funny, all the time, just because there's nothing you can do about it!  Which may, of course, be the exact opposite of what I mean.

* "Blue" humour, in English slang, is risqué or "off-colour" humour, generally of a sexual nature.