Saturday, 28 February 2015

How Big Was Titanic?

Civic Centre fountain (empty)

I had intended to go to Oxford yesterday, in order to see the William Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean before it closes on Sunday.  It hadn't occurred to me to book a ticket in advance, though.  I mean, people have had plenty of time to see the show, it's a weekday in late February, and I had expected to be able to buy one at the door.  Luckily, I did check ticket availability on Thursday night, only to discover that there were no tickets left for Friday, and that Mr. Blake has proved so popular that extended late opening hours had been provided on Friday and Saturday.  Last chance to see!  But the earliest I could have got in would have been 17:00 on Saturday. Forget about it...  The man was a lunatic, anyway.

So, instead, I followed the prompting of Graham Dew, and visited our own outstanding local City Art Gallery, where painter Kurt Jackson has a major exhibition, Place.  The exhibition has an organising concept: 32 "contributors" were invited to share a written description of a place of special personal significance to them, which Jackson then visited and painted.  These contributors are very much a Who's Who of contemporary landscape writing -- the likes of Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, and Alice Oswald -- with special guests like Michael Eavis of the Glastonbury Festival.  I'm not sure how far this concept has really motivated Jackson's work, beyond getting him to places he might not otherwise visit, but a theme is always handy, if only to give the hyper-critical something obvious to chew on.

It's a very good show, though, with some strong pictures, which you can see on Kurt Jackson's website.  You will get quite a false sense of the work there, however, as some of the pictures are very large indeed, and some are tiny, and many of them make use of collaged natural materials and bold impasto painting effects. I enjoyed the smaller pieces a lot -- his sense of the dynamics of colour within our landscape is very much to my taste -- but felt the large-scale canvases did rather expose the limitations of his technique, which tends towards the formulae of "spontaneity" used in much popular landscape painting, with lots of expressive splashes and dribbles, and bold brushwork.  A dribbly tree looks great at sketch-book size, less so at garage-door size.  Faced with a huge painting, I like to be able to get in close, as well as stand back; the "granularity" of a big image is important.  In a contemporary gesture more to my taste, he also inscribes text onto the paintwork, sometimes in a naive, child-like script which, oddly, reminded me of Anselm Kiefer.  In fact, these paintings are technically quite reminiscent of Kiefer's work, but without any of that Germanic angst, torment or portentousness, and with rather nicer colours: he's basically a very English pictorial painter of landscape, whose main anxiety seem to be to avoid any accusation of "prettiness". Well, we can relate to that.

It's an intriguing "Desert Island Discs" type of question, though: where, if you had been asked, would you have nominated as your place of special personal significance?  At the age of 61, I now have so many "special" places it's hard to know where to begin.  But -- having so recently re-imagined it -- I think I'd be tempted to propose that virtual space, fifty or so feet above the ground, where my teenage bedroom looked out so commandingly from our now vanished fourth-floor flat.  It seems to be where all paths lead, and, if nothing else, it would have presented Kurt Jackson with an interesting easel-location challenge.


As I was in the neighbourhood, I thought I might as well visit the newish and not uncontroversial SeaCity museum, dedicated to Southampton's maritime history.  Oh dear.  I never enjoy museums where the acreage of interpretative panels and interactive displays vastly exceeds the actual exhibits on show -- very much the contemporary style -- and Sea City is a classic example.  It also has an unbalanced obsession with the Titanic story -- which is, in the end, just one ship that sank.  I was in and out in a matter of minutes, and can't think of any reason I would ever go back.  Which is a shame, given the richness of this city's maritime heritage, and its key relationship to Empire, trade, migration and immigration.  Inevitably, I think of Amsterdam's Tropenmuseum, which impressed me so much two weeks ago; unfortunately, there's really no comparison.

For the avoidance of doubt...

Thursday, 26 February 2015

My Back Pages

I like February, in principle.  It's my birthday month, and it does make you feel a bit special, as a kid, to have been born in the most eccentric, short and shape-shifting month of the year.  I associate it with clear, crisp blue-sky days, with the anticipation of waking up to an overnight snowfall and another day off school; February 1963 was definitive.  But, this year, February has been a truly dull month, weather-wise, down here on the south coast.  Weeks of cloud, rain, and nothing in particular, broken only by the occasional frost, a single feeble snow-shower, and a hailstorm of great intensity that briefly buried our garden with what looked like polystyrene packing beads.  It means there has been little disruption to normal life, but it has also made for an uninspiring month, photographically.  I looked with envy on the images from the Middle East this week, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem blanketed in snow like Christmas cards.  Though after some initial fun snowballing I expect it got old pretty quickly for refugees from Syria camped out in makeshift tents in Jordan and Turkey.

I've also been trying, with mixed success, to overcome the inertia induced by some surgery in late November which restricted my mobility until very recently.  Once you get into the habit of mooching about indoors, reluctant to test the boundaries of your new comfort zone, it's awfully hard to break out of it.  Dull, dull weather doesn't help.  A brief morning outbreak of sunshine, or a pretty frost would get me out in the back garden at breakfast-time, but it was generally gone by the time I was ready to think about going out.

As a consequence, I've been reading a lot, drawing a lot (once I've got my hand-eye-brain mojo back I may show some here), and browsing through my image backfiles, like a soothsayer looking for hints of the shape of the year to come.  But, as the financial advisers are required to say, "past performance is not necessarily a guide to future performance".  I'll say.  I came across these next two pictures looking at Februaries past, and liked them for their clarity, and the fact they weren't taken in the back garden.  Both from February 2012.

Hockley Viaduct

M3 motorway from the B3335

And, despite my declared reluctance to revisit the past, I've spent a fair amount of time there in recent days, having broken out some old notebooks and read about the acts and opinions of some strange young man whose terrible handwriting seems uncannily similar to mine.  If nothing else, it's been a useful reminder of the value of writing things down.  For, dear reader, whatever you think you remember about your past, you're probably wrong.  And so is everybody else.  But in your case you probably don't have written (or drawn) evidence to the contrary.  In the absence of which -- and assuming you have no belief in an omniscient Recording Angel, whose revelatory notebooks will eventually be opened to us all -- your life is indeed writ in water.  Which may, of course, be just the way you like it.

Ah, but I was so much older then...

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You To Sadly Die

Southampton Common cemetery

I think I am going to start a campaign against an annoying formula that has established itself in the writing of even the more sensitive journalists and commentators:  "to sadly die".

Now, death and dying do present the writer with a number of difficult issues of tone and vocabulary: you don't necessarily want to upset or insult anybody (other than the recently rigidified themselves, who are beyond all that).  Death has often been described as the the "last taboo", which is just silly.  There are plenty of taboos left.  I find, to my surprise and embarrassment, that toenail trimming in restaurants (even with proper nail-clippers!) is still generally frowned upon, for example, just to start at the milder and more obviously absurd end of the taboo spectrum.  There are also any number of subjects which it is forbidden to discuss, but we won't talk about them here.

But "to sadly die" is a curious construct.  Typically, a sentence will read:  "Joan McGloan, who sadly died last month, was perhaps best known as a virtuoso on the Ettrick nose-harp".  Now, what work is the word "sadly" doing in that sentence?  Was Joan sad to die?  Did she die in a sad way? Is the writer sad that Joan died?  Is it sad, in particular, that it was Joan who died?  Perhaps we are being invited to admire or share the writer's sensitivity to Joan's death?  Or is the word merely acting as a sort of soft buffer before the dread word "die"?  Is there perhaps a feeling that to write, plainly, "Joan McGloan, who died last month..." is somehow a bit too brutal, a touch "inappropriate"?  Or is it even that to name, um, Mr. D out loud and unqualified is a form of tempting fate, so that "sadly" performs an apotropaic function?

Whatever.  It's still annoying.  But I think I can help.  I have some alternative suggestions, for those who blink at plain old "died":

to gladly die (for evangelical Christians)
to badly die (for those who make a bit too much fuss about dying)
to madly die (for candidates for the Darwin Awards)
to radly die (for grunge band members)
to tadly die (for those who die surprisingly quickly)
to fadly die  (for those who die from dieting or self-medication)
to plaidly die (for Scots nationalists)

These could be used in combination, too.  For example, "Joan McGloan, who gladly madly plaidly died last month" would indicate in an efficient way that Joan was a Scottish Nationalist evangelical who died in some risibly stupid way; for example, while attempting to prove the Ettrick nose-harp could be played by ear.

Of course, the judicious use of some commas ("Joan McGloan, who, sadly, died last month...") might rescue the situation, and turn an annoying verbal tic into a mere cliché, but where's the fun in that?

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Time-Traveller's Dream

Look away now, any photo-purists.  There's nothing to see here.  Move along, please.  Come back later.

By means of the triptastic, far-out magic of Photoshop, I have cunningly combined two photos from the previous post into one, resulting in an image that invokes a certain recently-mentioned virtual space, with its vanished entrances and exits -- not to mention its walls, floor and ceiling -- a time-traveller's dream of a faraway time and place, forever lost in the early 1970s.

Well, you had to be there...  If nothing else, that would have made a great album cover.  Oh, what?  Like this, you mean?

Or possibly this:

Cult albums, both of them, marking the transition of The Tryptolytes from psychedelic folk-rock -- songs like the plangently pungent "Lost in Woolworths", and the pungently plangent "Time (To Buy Another Packet)" -- to proto-punk space-rock, exemplified by the fervently frantic "Get Off My Face (No, Really, Get Off My Face)" and the festival favourite, the 15-minute free-form thrash "Metal Iron Jelloid Tin" (described by the New Musical Express as "Hawkwind meets Gong in an industrial cement-mixer, but with attitude", and by Melody Maker as "a crowd-pleaser, in the great British tradition of public executions and machine-breaking").  Heady days, heady days.

So, take that, Hipgnosis!  What a shame I could never actually have done this in the early 1970s...  But at least no stuntmen were set on fire in the making of these album covers.

Friday, 20 February 2015

A Chair in the Sky

Entrance lobby, Chauncy House flats, 1970

This week, in order to resolve yet another "partial memory" dispute  -- they seem to be getting more frequent -- I ended up looking through various boxes of old notebooks and diaries, searching for the ur-notebook, the one I started in 1971, shortly after breaking up with my first serious girlfriend.  There's nothing quite like a dose of teenage misery to get the attention of the diary-muse.

Having found it, and deciphered the relevant pages -- written during a hitchhiking trip a schoolfriend and I took through Holland and Germany later that same year, aged 17 -- I was able to establish The Truth: that he and I were both mistaken about various things we thought we could recall with certainty -- but rather differently -- after 44 years.  Those battered pages did confirm, however, that we were both correct in remembering a lift in Germany from the driver of a car with only second gear, who liked to roll himself cigarettes, one foot up on the dashboard, while my friend steered us down the autobahn from the passenger seat.  You do tend to remember that sort of thing.

Naturally, I ended up reading the whole notebook.  People, events and feelings I had utterly forgotten about came bobbing back up into memory.  Although, according to this irrefutable primary source, some occasions I thought I remembered well had in fact been played out rather differently, or with a different cast-list, and some others might as well have happened to someone else, as they had utterly gone from my mind.  I was a little appalled to see what a casual -- or, more likely, ignorant -- view I took of various risks and dangers, but I found myself experiencing an acute nostalgia for the intensity of life at that age, when the slightest thing -- some unusual weather, an encouraging smile from a girl, a difficult day at school -- was fretted with the hot Shakespearean fires of flaming youth, only to be doused by a wet blanket of adolescent bathos.

The trouble with such documents is that they are themselves a very partial account.  Sadnesses and setbacks are meditated upon with greater zeal than simple joys and successes.  The everyday goes unrecorded, and the exceptional is described in depth and at length.  The life of a 17-year-old -- this 17-year-old, anyway -- is apparently a life lived for the weekends, in a small-town soap opera with a cast of about a dozen close contemporaries, sporadically disrupted by invasions from the outer space inhabited by parents and teachers.  Seeing myself seeing myself, as it were, was a real hall of mirrors: "You're wrong, you little idiot... Don't do it!" I wanted to shout down the years.  Though I know only too well what I'd shout back.

Time-travel is bound to have unpredictable consequences. The main fallout for me was that I started obsessively mentally reconstructing my bedroom in the fourth-floor council flat we had lived in since 1967, from the dark blue I had painted my walls right down to the carpet I butchered, by cutting up hardboard sheets for paintings with a Stanley knife and steel ruler on the floor.  That block of flats, where I spent some of the most intensely lived years of my life, became emblematic of all my subsequent personal and private griefs and losses when it was demolished a few years ago, something I only discovered when taking a memory-lane detour through town on the way to my mother's funeral in Norfolk.  It was one of those ludicrously symbolic moments -- I had to pull over to the side of the road, gaping in utter disbelief -- when you think, Really?  Who writes this stuff?

And it's very odd to think that this intimately-known room, fifty or so feet above the ground, with its window hooded by our little balcony, looking out over a playing field and the town centre towards the motorway -- the stage-set for all my teenage hopes, fears, dreams and ambitions -- is now just an empty space somewhere in the air above the new houses built on the site.

The alchemical bedroom 1972

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

It Never Happened

Nope, still don't remember...
(Amsterdam junkshop)
I was mentioning an unforgettable incident from our shared, misspent youth to an old chum, recently, when it transpired that he couldn't remember a damned thing about it.  Now, when herbal mood enhancement may have been involved, it's perhaps not surprising that memories differ and fade, but you'd think, if you had been ejected from an exhibition of kinetic sculpture with the immortal words, "Please leave now, this is an art gallery, not an adventure playground", you'd probably recall the occasion.  But no, not a glimmer.

I am increasingly intrigued by this "partial memory" syndrome.  The recognition that there are differing perceptions of the same event is nothing new, of course.  The fable of the blind men describing the elephant is ancient, and well-known, though it would be interesting to know whether any of them, forty years later, had managed to forget all about ever having handled that elephant.  Especially in the case of the unfortunate guy -- rarely mentioned -- who discovered that an elephant was very like a heavy shower of evil-smelling rain.

But that entire notable events can be forgotten -- not just recalled differently, but erased from the memory bank -- by one or more of the participants is strange, and not a little sad. This is especially the case when that particular event is of significance or emblematic to someone.  I was puzzled, for example, not to be able to recall an occasion, early in the relationship with my Significant Other, when, apparently, a pigeon flew into a department store window directly in front of us, stunning itself -- thunk! -- and falling to the pavement, leaving one of those ghostly "feather dust" impressions on the plate glass.  Ah, talk about yer coup de foudre...  Such a shame that, in my mind, it never happened.

Worse, though, is to be the subject of stories -- much retold by others and polished to a deep shine -- which, as far as you can recall, either never happened at all or, if they did, were perpetrated by somebody else, someone completely unlike you.  Me?  I would never say or do something like that!  Admittedly, there can be a certain level of Jeckyll and Hyde in my behaviour; like anyone, beyond a certain level of intake -- even of fresh air -- I may switch into a different personality, and say or do things I may come to regret.  Or forget.  Or even choose to forget.

But that thing with the monkey on a tricycle in that carpark in France?  It never bloody happened, as far as I'm concerned.  Though oddly -- in the words of the song -- I remember it well.  Just don't ask.

The horse that wasn't there...
(Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam)

Monday, 16 February 2015

Postcard from Amsterdam 3

When visiting museums and galleries, one of the things that probably marks me out as a suspicious oddball, and an obstructor of the orderly flow of visitors, is my inconvenient interest in the building itself and its infrastructure, especially the windows.  How I love windows.  Like Mullah Nasruddin under the lamppost, I'm looking for my keys pictures there, because that's where the light is.

I'm pretty confident that a thousand snaps will have been taken of The Nightwatch on the Friday I visited the Rijksmuseum -- and even quite a few ironically reflexive Thomas-Struth-alike shots of the crowd photographing The Nightwatch, like the one in Postcard from Amsterdam 1 -- but I doubt whether many visitors, if any, will have brought home images quite like these.  Everyone else will have been looking in the right place!

For me, it's the difference between the camera as a simple aide-mémoire and the camera as a medium.  It's also why, used thoughtlessly, a camera can become an obstacle to experiencing the moment but, used well, is a way of creating a more permanent "moment", one that might just be permanent enough to make its way back inside the gallery one day, as an object of contemplation in its own right.  Besides, I think they've already got enough pictures of The Nightwatch.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Postcard from Amsterdam 2

It is well known that holiday postcards only ever arrive long after the sender has returned home.  "Wish you were here" and descriptions of balmy weather and languorous leisure always have more than a little calculated irony, when inscribed into the allotted 4" x 3" area of a postcard.  I was in Amsterdam for just three days, but you should imagine that I managed to post these four cards, which have just arrived.

It is a cycling city, Amsterdam.  Bikes are everywhere, rattling over the cobbles, and stacked together in great clumps on every available railing.  Cycleways are not painted on as a gesture but built into the fabric of pretty much every street.  If you come from a country that drives on the left, and where speeding cars are the main predator of pedestrians, crossing the road is hazardous: you're simply not expecting a swarm of bikes to swoop round the corner out of left field.  An elderly man was floored dramatically when descending from our airport shuttle bus: the driver didn't have time to call out, "Watch out for ...  Oh dear!"

The Dutch bike is a sturdy thing: long in the frame with backswept "sit-up-and-beg" handlebars, which encourages an upright riding posture that looks very comfortable, and seems especially favoured by women.  Bikes with multiple baskets and trailers are common: the school run and shopping trips look very different here.  Next time, I'm definitely hiring a bike.

"Real good for free"...  As readers who read my Innsbruck posts will know, I like street musicians.  This guy, sitting in a tunnel behind the Rijksmuseum, was exceptional.  He was playing Bach toccatas from memory on a piano accordion that he had somehow adapted to sound like a church organ.  It was amazing.  It was also very cold.  How he kept his fingers working I cannot imagine...  I stood and listened for as long as I could bear to stand still, gave him some money, and went in search of a hot drink.

WTF.  It appears that cameras can have flashbacks, too.  Look carefully at her arm and her ear: isn't that the weirdest thing you have seen this year so far?  I'm not sure whether explaining what is going on here would help.  In fact, I'm not entirely sure what is going on, and what little I do know won't help.  Visit the Tropenmuseum for yourself -- she's always there.

A lot of the older buildings in Amsterdam are distinctly wonky, leaning on each other in a companionable way.  Ground subsidence must be a constant problem.  I saw several buildings with mind-bogglingly trapezoid or parallelogram-shaped door- and window-frames -- fitting replacements (not to mention buying blinds and curtains) must be a challenging business.  The generous size of the buildings is a clear indication of the trading wealth that has flowed through the city.  Our hotel in the west of the city had once been an orphanage, and was built like a palace: our room had a 20 foot ceiling, with a window to match.  That's either a lot of air per orphan, or a lot of orphans per room.

I rather like the European preference for apartment-dwelling; it does make for more convivial city centres.  People can live together in higher densities and, as the ground floor of most buildings is allocated to shops with the apartments on the floors above, you don't get that feeling of isolation that blights our own attempts at high-density living.  Though whether Europeans might equally admire the typical British suburban terraced or semi-detached house-with-a-garden, with curving streets full of trees and green open spaces I don't know: sometimes the allure is simply the attraction of difference.  From the air, though, as your plane loses height and banks towards the airport, the contrast is quite striking. Even in winter it can appear that Hampshire's towns and villages have been lost and overgrown within a forest, whereas coastal Holland is strikingly geometrical, outlined with drainage ditches twinkling in the sun, and as treeless as an East Anglian agri-desert.

Should you be interested:  I decided to take only a Fuji X-M1 with a 27mm pancake lens.  I bought mine second-hand, and they're a real bargain, especially now that a second wave of Fuji X models is coming through, and the firm seems to have lost faith in the idea of a small, viewfinder-less option for the X sensor.  If you can manage with just the LCD and are happy with a single standard focal length it's a perfect travel combination.  I keep mine in an Op/Tech neoprene pouch, and it lurks unobtrusively in my shoulder-bag.  Sufficiently so, in fact, that I occasionally forget whether or not it's there, not something that has ever happened with the X-E1...

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Postcard from Amsterdam 1

Souvenir shop landscape

My partner had very much wanted to see the fabulous "Late Rembrandt" exhibition, when it was on at the National Gallery, but with one thing and another she managed to miss it.  But the show has now shifted to its natural home, the re-opened and renovated Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, so what better excuse for a few winter days in one of the more exciting European capitals?

I have been to Amsterdam twice before, but that was back in 1971 and 1974 when the town was in an advanced state of disrepair, and mainly famous for its White Bicycle anarchists, a relaxed attitude to cannabis, and an exotic Red Light district. It was a magnet for the thousands of us seeking the fullest expression of Youth Culture, primarily by getting helplessly intoxicated, and trying to live in a major capital city on a tiny budget, thus becoming vulnerable to the more streetwise and predatory inhabitants, and putting a massive strain on the municipal budget.  Amsterdam has been seeking to improve its louche image ever since, and the city I visited this week has been transformed, by and large in a good way, though I doubt my 17-year-old self would agree.

The "Late Rembrandt" exhibition is, indeed, fabulous.  Paintings, prints and drawings from collections all over the world have been assembled in what is probably a never-to-be-repeated experience.  We had booked our tickets for the second day and, even with time-slot allocation,  the inevitable level of interest meant shuffling through crowded galleries with sharp-elbowed scrums forming around the choicer items.  It's surprising how competitive the bespectacled classes can be in such circumstances.  As it happens, I have a taste for prints and drawings, and these draw rather less attention than the blockbuster self-portraits. Being able to compare four different "states" of the same etching on the same wall -- seeing the masterful additions, subtractions, and rethinkings by flicking your eyes back and forth, as if in one of those "spot the differences" competitions -- was, for me, deeply instructive and rewarding and worth the discomforts and annoyances of the travel several times over.

One of the bad decisions they have made is to allow photography throughout the museum, including the Rembrandt show.  Few things are as irritating as an assemblage of fools with iPhones, all attempting to get to the front of a crowd in order to get a clear shot of the same painting; photographs which will inevitably be blurred and worthless (most galleries are dimly lit, for obvious archival reasons).  I kept hearing someone muttering, "Buy a fucking postcard, you fucking idiot...", then realised it was me.

Of course, the Rijksmuseum has plenty of early and middle-period Rembrandts, too, hanging in the permanent galleries, not to mention Vermeers and any other Dutch or Flemish artist you have or haven't hear of.  I loved the mediaeval galleries: for sheer eye-candy, you can't beat those generally nameless painters of jewel-like altarpieces, full of excruciating martyrdoms and characterful crowds, all evenly lit by the clear blue sky of a summer's afternoon in heaven; not something often encountered in the Low Countries.

Although, the day before, we'd seen plenty of blue skies, not to mention martyrdoms and characterful crowds, when visiting the Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum), a brilliant examination of Holland's imperial trading past, with some truly clear-eyed displays about the nature, benefits, tragedies, and mixed legacies of the colonial enterprise.  I wish there was something similar in Britain.

Yep, that's "The Night Watch": buy a postcard...

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Winter Grasses

There are some impressively steep and deep earthworks on the north edge of Twyford Down, where it looks like relatively recent chalk-mining has underscored the lines of some Iron Age hillfort defences.  I've always presumed these are the famous "dongas", a word brought back as a souvenir from South Africa in the late 19th century, and appropriated by the Dongas Tribe of road protesters in the 1980s.  In the right light, they can look like giant waves breaking on a geological timescale.

On the parallel south side, there is a curious little "dry valley", of a sort typical of chalk downland, which has that watchful, haunted feel that abandoned places of habitation tend to have, although it's hard to imagine anyone living in such a sunless pinch in the landscape.  The gravelly track running through it is full of fragments of old brick and tile, which adds to the melancholy impression of desertion, but these have probably been dumped here to improve the going for the occasional farm vehicle.

Such quiet, layered places bring to mind a famous haiku of Bashō, composed in summer 1689:
Ah, summer grasses!
All that remains
Of the warriors' dreams.

trans. R.H. Blyth
There's an interesting gloss on this poem in a book by Jane Reichhold, which takes a slightly different tack to most interpretations:
It seems that Bashō, looking over a former battleground now covered with grass, felt that he was seeing the old soldiers hurrying towards battle and victory.  Another element is the old poetic exp0ression "pillow of grass", which signifies "being on a journey" in Japanese poetry.  The grass cut and folded for pillows for the poorest soldiers would still contain a trace of their dreams, perhaps enough to make the dream of war rise up and grow again.  Sora wrote in his diary that after writing this verse, Bashō sat down on his hat and wept.  Bashō wrote the same in his account.

Bashō: the Complete Haiku, translated with an introduction, biography & notes by Jane Reichhold
I'm not sure of the significance of sitting on one's hat...  Is this like Zen master Joshu placing his shoes on his head, I wonder, or merely a practical way of keeping your backside dry?

The translation of haiku is a fraught business: most Western enthusiasts are unaware of the real differences between the Japanese originals and the familiar English versions, or the strict poetic conventions at work in the genre, although the idea of "seventeen syllables" arranged 5:7:5 is well known.  Perhaps, for us, the close association of haiku poets with Zen combined with the popularization of Zen via the American "beats" of the 20th century post-War period has caused us to see these poems through a hepcat's dark glasses as simplisticly imagistic, loose and spontaneous word games, deceptively easy to imitate.

Here's a commentary on some issues in translation, from a brief piece by John Carley which focuses on the Bashō haiku quoted above:
Haiku, like the hokku before them, are written in Japanese as a single line (or column). Excepting some cases where the calligraphy itself is a central feature of the art, there are no spaces between characters of groups of characters; so words and phrases are distinguished by the reader from an otherwise undifferentiated text. There is no capitalisation. Such punctuation as there may be is in the form of verbalised (and therefore written) interjections which are considered as words in their own right.

The following poem is a hokku (haiku) by Basho. I give it in its generally accepted original, followed by the same text entirely in Japanese phonetic script (i.e., without ideograms) - this is separated out into individual words with the metrical phrase boundaries shown by a double line. Then comes an approximate phonetic transliteration in the Roman alphabet. And lastly there is a crude word-for-word rendering.


なつくさ | や || つわものども | が || ゆめ | の | あと

natsugusa | ya || tsuwamonodomo | ga || yume | no | ato

summer-grass | !/:/? || warrior | 's || dream | 's | mark/remainder
The Japanese word "ya" is the so-called "cutting word", indicating the break in the poetic logic, rendered by Carley as "!/:/?" (i.e. any of these punctuation marks might serve), and the words "ga" and "no" indicate the equivalent of a genitive (rendered by Carley as "'s").

The gulf between Japanese and English language and poetics is quite steep and deep, widened by our very different cultures and histories, and quite difficult to cross.  Rhyme, rhythm and patterns of stress, not syllable counting, are our poetic traditions -- our Way (though syllabic poetry is the norm in French). In both Britain and Japan in February, however, it's generally best to keep your shoes on your feet, and your hat on your head.

Sunday, 8 February 2015


One of the nicer things about Southampton is the existence of the Common, a massive green wedge driven into the city.  Seen from above on a satellite view, central Southampton looks like a pie-chart or perhaps a Pac-Man, about to gobble up Eastleigh and Winchester to the north.  The Common is a strange and varied space, with a magnificent and overgrown Victorian cemetery at the southern sharp end, and various ponds and paddling pools, ditches and streams scattered around, but most of its 360-plus acres are covered by stretches of open grass and scrub divided up by woodland and impenetrable thickets.

There is also a complex network of paths which it takes many years to understand.  It is very easy to take a wrong turning, especially at night -- there are no lights on the Common -- and you can end up following a path that exits a mile or two from your intended destination.  In fact, most sensible people avoid the Common at night.  At best it's rather spooky and at worst it's quite a dangerous place to be alone.  Bands of medieval brigands who took a wrong path back in the 13th century still live on in the deepest thickets.

Obviously, it's a boon to dog-owners, joggers, and others in need of a convenient open space (not to mention those in need of a convenient bit of dense cover).  Crossing the Common on the way to work, I would encounter the same people at more or less the exact same time and place walking their dogs, or chatting in groups as they waited for their dogs to return from some exuberant squirrel-chasing foray.  One night, cycling back in the dark, I collided with a dog.  I went head-first over the handlebars, saved from injury only by the thousands of repeated judo rolling forward-breakfalls practised in my youth, but was seriously dazed and confused.  The dog's owner found me with her torch, which was doubly confusing -- she was running the beam over me, lying on the ground, and babbling continually, "Are you all right?  Oh Shit!  Oh Shit!  Are you all right?"  Meanwhile her yelping hound ran around in confused circles somewhere nearby in the dark.  Remarkably, dog, bicycle, and rider were undamaged by the incident.

Nicest of all, the council takes a low-maintenance approach to the woodland and thickets.  In many places, trees have fallen, but have merely been sawn away where they blocked a footpath.  It's invertebrate heaven, and the only place I have ever seen stag beetles.  As a result, it is something of a wildlife haven, with herons and buzzards overhead, and everything from deer on down lurking in the undergrowth.  The night our daughter was born, I drove our son over to sleep at a friend's house on the other side of town.  I must have seen twenty foxes in my headlights, criss-crossing the road running along the top of the Common, as they ripped and raided the bin-bags arrayed along the kerbside for the morning collection.

The numbers of "urban" foxes have declined, somewhat, since the introduction of wheelie-bins, but their unearthly screams and barks still punctuate the small hours.  There is no shortage of rats and mice, after all, plus a steady windfall of discarded takeaways and other urban delicacies.  But if they want to tackle those wheelie-bins, though, they need to open a dialogue with those master thieves, the grey squirrels.  It'll never happen.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Black & White in Colour

Sometimes, despite the bitter cold, a February afternoon can be all about the warmth of the sunshine, and the blue of the sky.  Then the clouds come over again, the colours fade, and you find yourself wondering whether some of your photographs might be truer to the experience in monochrome.  It always reminds me of when people say, "the pictures are better on the radio".

I first heard the expression "black & white in colour" coined many years ago by a friend, who was trying to get at the essential difference between colour and monochrome film.  A black and white object photographed (or filmed) in colour is a far more vivid and immediate experience for the eye, he maintained:  it is truly black and white, with no hint of grey.  But then the same object photographed in monochrome can have subtle tonal qualities that have greater visual longevity.  It's as if one's eye is refreshed by pure tonality, but exhausted by colour.

Assuming, of course, it has been well printed.  Sometime, I must scan a print given to me by another friend, probably the best printer of monochrome I have ever known.  His prints -- selenium-toned on "old stock" Agfa Record Rapid, with its high silver content and an unhealthy dose of cadmium -- are astonishing, with a symphonic range of tones, including shadows split-toned between a deep plum-colour and a rich plain-chocolate black, and luminous off-white highlights.  Add to that the inimitable flat sheen of air-dried fibre-based gloss paper, and you have an object of beauty, underpinning and setting off the strengths of the pictorial content.  Especially compared with the ugly plastic glossiness of a colour paper like Cibachrome.  Until the advent of inkjet printers (or, of course, high-resolution colour computer screens), colour photography was a depressingly unaesthetic experience.  If you've never read it, and have feelings one way or the other about the heaven or hell of the darkroom, my ancient post from 2009 Tears in the Stop Bath may be worth a look.

As it happens, my walk across Southampton Common this afternoon took me past the site of the bric-a-brac shop where I bought my first enlarger, a Meopta, in 1984.  It was just along from an old-fashioned barbershop, and a corner shop that still sold loose sweets in paper bags.  I sold my enlarger and darkroom kit over a decade ago, when you still could -- I don't suppose you could give that stuff away, now -- and all the shops in that little row have now closed, and their windows have been bricked up. There's a metaphor in there somewhere.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

When Rockstars Attack

As the early lives of our contemporaries drift into the twilight zone known as "within living memory", not yet compacted into "history", the semi-official accounts of Our Times begin to emerge.  For example, I am about to embark on David Kynaston's ongoing multi-volume account of post-War Britain, not least because I'm curious to know how we're going to look to posterity.  Although I can be certain my name won't appear in the index, I can be pretty sure the name of my home town, Stevenage, will.  It's one of the stranger aspects of having grown up as a juvenile extra in a major social experiment.  We were being watched, counted, and measured, although nobody said so at the time, or has ever asked me how I felt about it or what I have made of it since; just another microbe in the Petri dish, I suppose.

One area where I always find myself at odds with the emerging narratives is rock and pop, a subject close to my heart (as it is to 88.3% of all post-War teens born 1946-1960, or so it says here).  I've been reading Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970, by David Browne.  I was intrigued by the title, or rather by the subtitle.  Or, actually, just the bit that says "the lost story of 1970".  Ah, 1970!  What a vintage year that was...  I turned 16 that year, began visiting pubs and clubs, had my first "steady" girlfriend, received the validation of some good exam results, had my first holiday without my parents...  The list goes on.  I have a vested interest in any account of that year, especially one that focusses on the popular culture of the time.  That's one of my years.  Tread carefully now!

It's not a bad book, Fire and Rain.  If you have an interest in the breakup of the Beatles, or the story behind the albums Déjà Vu, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Sweet Baby James, then you'll find it fascinating.  The trouble is, I don't, and didn't.  I never owned any of those albums, or remember hearing them much at the time, even.  In fact, I had never listened to Déjà Vu until yesterday, when I span it up on Spotify ("I Nearly Cut My Hair"?  Seriously?  This is not a Zappa-style spoof?).  So, as far as I am concerned, this is not the story -- whether lost, misplaced, damaged, or deliberately dropped behind the sofa -- of 1970.  Although, clearly, it is a story of 1970, but one compiled from the unreal, outer-space perspective of the historian.

Nonetheless, I have been finding this tale of behind-the-scenes sulks, spats and breakups entertaining.  How could you not?  What big babies these rockstars be!  And, as it happens, I have also recently watched two fascinating movies on Netflix, both of which tell a very similar story of young men behaving badly: History of The Eagles, and Beware of Mr. Baker.

Now, I only really know one Eagles album: Desperado, surely the most satisfying "concept" album ever made.  Granted, grown men dressing up as cowboys is a bit silly, but -- as I have written before -- the whole rock/pop enterprise comes out of the Dressing Up Box, so why not make a virtue of it?  Few albums can have taken a thematic metaphor and run with it as brilliantly as Desperado.  And yet, as I discovered from the film, it was a disappointment in sales terms, and got made amid some serious inter-personal difficulties and rivalries, and thus gets passed over fairly swiftly in the band's "history".  In the end, all roads lead to Hotel California, yet another album I have never heard.

And therein lies the lesson, historically.  To us, as consumers, the lost story of any given year, as far as music is concerned, is not a tale of hissy-fits in the studio, sales figures, clever technical feats, or how unfairly the loot got split; it's the private story of our relationship with those few entertainment "products" we happened to choose or, as it more often felt, the ones which chose us.  That was our real, lived experience, quite a different thing to the statistical reduction of a million lives. A lot of people bought and loved Déjà Vu: I didn't.  A lot of people didn't buy and love Desperado: but I did.  We didn't know and probably still don't care who walked out or who was fired or who had to struggle with demons and addictions in the process of manufacturing the songs that invoke important times and places and feelings in our own little lives.  No-one loves a song or an album because it went platinum, and they don't necessarily go platinum just because people love them.

To take an interest, retrospectively, in the production process is fine, if you want to find out how the trick was done.  But this is never such a good idea, if you want the enchantment to last. Which brings us to Beware of Mr. Baker.  That is, drummer Ginger Baker, Exhibit A in the Monsters of Rock freak-show.  I mean, really...  I knew he was regarded as a bit intense and difficult to work with, but crikey.  As it happens, Cream were never really my thing -- they were practically Dad-rock even by 1970 -- but if you harbour any precious memories of that particular rock combo, take my advice:  never, ever watch this extraordinary movie.  To anyone else, though, this is probably a pretty good insight into how the trick was done; or, in Baker's case, how the trick was thoroughly and repeatedly fluffed, muffed, stuffed and stamped on.  But do you really want to know?  I don't think you do.

Desperado, 1958

Sunday, 1 February 2015

On the Wall

It was a  cold, crisp first afternoon of February today, so we decided to drive over to Mottisfont Abbey, knowing that there is a photographic exhibition on there at the moment, which is as good an excuse as any to get inside when the cold gets too much.  So we made a perfunctory tour of the grounds -- a lot more repairs and renovations seem to be under way -- and headed gratefully for the gallery.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was amazed, on stepping inside, immediately to recognise the work of Susan Derges and Garry Fabian Miller, two of my personal favourite artists, both of whom work in the territory of "camera-less" photography, and whose books I have collected for some time.  However, the initial excitement was followed by a gradual disenchantment.  On the wall, the work was considerably less impressive than it is on the page, and for the usual simple reasons:  it is too big, and uses ugly, shiny paper.

Now, to an extent, Derges and Miller are stuck with their end-product, which is generally a one-off resulting from a unique interaction betweeen the natural world (or, in Miller's case, light sources) with light-sensitive materials, and these processes may well require the use of tough but ugly, shiny paper (I have always hated Cibachrome with a passion).  Digital technology -- scanning, for example -- could overcome this problem, but they presumably have chosen not to make use of it.  Fair enough.  But the other photographers in the show have no such excuse. Images from (I presume) medium-format colour negatives which would have had fullest impact at about 10 inches square on a semi-matte paper have been blown up to several feet across on a glossy, reflective paper stock that screams, "this is just a photograph!"  I hate that.  Especially when the price tag is £950 (so cheap!  The Derges and Miller items were £10,000 each...).

In fact, I am aware that I am feeling a certain  level of disenchantment with photography in general.  There's simply too much of it about, and too much of what gets shown (and the way it gets shown) is not to my liking.  By contrast, a small room of portraits in another room of the Mottisfont gallery, all made with pencil, charcoal, and paint, were really engaging: even the bad work (and, boy, was some of it bad -- hands are clearly very difficult to get right) has expressive, eye-pleasing qualities that reward close attention.  The fact that all the marks have been put there purposefully by a human hand and eye, albeit with varying degrees of skill and intention, counts for a lot.

Critics of photography as an art medium often say that it's too easy, and too mechanical.  There is some truth in that.  Consider either of the two images here:  taken around 3:00 p.m. today on a digital camera, with single clicks lasting 1/250th of a second, I had processed and printed the files to my satisfaction by about 7:00 p.m., and then made the small JPEG versions incorporated into this blog post, which was written this evening, and which was probably the part that took the longest.  Job done!

Frankly, I'd feel dishonest, charging £950 for a print.  Obviously, 30 years of experience and eye-training went into those clicks, and my digital processing and printing skills are excellent, drawing compliments wherever they are seen -- probably another 15 or more years of experience there.  So maybe £750 would not make me blush, were anyone ever prepared to pay that much (did I say I sold not a single print at my last exhibition?  And at a tenth of that price)...  But compared to painting or drawing the same scenes -- which I probably could not do, to my own satisfaction -- that's a very short time indeed from seeing to final product, with very little labour involved.

Which may explain why I've been fiddling around with pencils, pens and paper recently, and spending too much time gawking at stationery-porn sits like Cult Pens ...  Although I'm acutely aware that Henri Cartier-Bresson himself, later in life, after a career of unparalleled achievement in photography, hung up his cameras and returned to his first love, painting and drawing, saying, "All I care about these days is painting -- photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing".  Needless to say, HCB's paintings and drawings are awful.