Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Itchen Navigation

I've been trying to crank myself up to get on with the long-postponed task of editing my photographs from the Hockley Viaduct, St. Catherine's Hill, and Twyford Down.  I've been visiting that tight little triangle of landscape most weeks since 2010, so there are quite a few of them.  At the end of the editing process, of course, there will probably prove to be just about fifty that are both excellent images in their own right, and which will work in concert with the others in a sequenced series.  On the other hand, I will undoubtedly discover some overlooked gems.

The thing that is easily missed -- here and throughout England -- is the extent to which ours is a thoroughly man-made landscape, and one which has been continually made and re-made over several thousand years.  Take these two views of the River Itchen.  Or, rather, the Itchen Navigation, a canalised waterway developed in the 18th century to bring goods from the docks at Southampton to Winchester.  The "natural" Itchen itself threads its way through multiple, non-navigable channels in the nearby meadows, although these are not "natural", either.  Those meadows are water-meadows, full of carefully-planned "carrier" channels and sluices, designed to irrigate the fields and ensure an early and continuing grass supply for livestock.

I took both of these photographs this weekend.  The first view looks rather bucolic, but in reality it shows a canal running beneath a railway viaduct.  What's more, to take it, I stood beside the roaring M3 flyover at Hockley, so it's practically an industrial landscape.  The second view is less than fifty yards from the first, on the other side of the M3 flyover.  It looks much more like the canal it is but, far from being a toxic sump full of supermarket trolleys, fat trout swim in its clear water, and swallows dart back and forth above it; they actually nest under the flyover.  A little further down herons and the occasional kingfisher haunt the banks.

This mix of pastoral, infrastructural and industrial elements is what makes the area so fascinating, and it's a quality I intend to bring out (and use thematically) in the edit.  Like almost anywhere in Britain, it's a place of thousands of years of layered, compacted history, but which also happens to be a transport bottleneck beside King Alfred's Saxon capital, and at the western edge of an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Brighton II

Seaside towns come into their own, visually, in brilliant sunshine, and Brighton more so than most.  The architecture and "street furniture" are self-consciously decorative, as in most holiday towns, but there is an extra, improvised overlay provided by the residents that probably drives the local council planners nuts.  "Seedy" always used to be the adjective of choice for Brighton -- it was where you went to spend a night with a paid "co-respondent" to give legal grounds for a divorce -- but the current generation have really taken "seedy" and run with it.  From a photographic point of view, the sunlight really does bring out the best in the grime and the grafitti and the peeling paint.

I like a bit of delapidation, myself, and I've never been one for "neat and tidy".  The inhabitants of Brighton evidently enjoy it even more, given how much they themselves contribute, whether actively (by covering every available surface with spraypaint and flyposters), passively (by overfilling their bins and failing to carry out minor repairs), or in person (by hanging around in public to show off their tattoos and the uniforms of their various subcultural affiliations).  It feels as if the town is permanently in the aftermath of some vast ongoing party, which no-one can ever bring themselves to tidy up.  Why bother?  There'll only be another party tomorrow...  And, besides, today it's sunny...

Friday, 26 June 2015


I've been in Brighton for a few days, helping my daughter move from one house to another.  The heat and humidity have been quite oppressive, and not ideal weather for the dusty, weary work of packing and transporting stuff.  It's been a while since I felt the salty sting of free-running sweat in my eyes; probably since the last time I helped move stuff in the back of the car.  But never mind: we had an excellent meal out one evening when things cooled down, and I got some time to wander the streets, and explore that uniquely Brighton combination of grimy delapidation, seaside architecture, and inventive grafitti.

Interestingly, I find that keeping half an eye open for digital collage components has freed up my photographic judgement.  Instead of thinking, no, that's too simple, or no, that intrusive bit of poster wrecks the composition, I take the picture anyway.  Frames, backgrounds, textures -- it's all useful.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015


Charmouth, Dorset

In theory, it's the time of year when holiday postcards start arriving from friends and relations, but with each new year these seem to grow more infrequent.  Email and social media have pretty much replaced that pleasant and venerable custom.  Not surprisingly -- an old friend is currently travelling in South East Asia, and his blog and Facebook posts are considerably more current, informative and entertaining than any dog-eared, hastily-scribbled bit of card could be that has survived weeks, sometimes months, of travel through the world's postal services.  What's more -- given the difficulty of getting a decent phone signal or internet connection in not-so-far-flung places like Bristol, and the impossibility of getting any at all in mid-Wales -- I am amazed to discover that buses in Vietnam have free wifi.

St. Catherine's Hill and St. Cross,

But I do still like the postcard as an object, and hope that they will continue to exist as a cheap, portable souvenir, even when so few of them now get inscribed, stamped, and entrusted to the mail.  In the age of the smartphone and the selfie, though, this really can't be taken for granted; if no-one buys them, no-one will make them.  Yet another good reason to ban all photography in museums and art galleries...  What would really seal the postcard's fate, I suspect, is if souvenir shops started offering an instant upload of an image from your phone to produce a real, personalised postcard, delivered anywhere in the world, in a street-level version of a service like Touchnote.  Perhaps they already do in Vietnam.

Artist Tom Phillips has had a long fascination with the photographic postcard, and has amassed a unique collection which he donated to the Bodleian Library a few years ago.  This was generous and public-spirited, but as an ex-cataloguer my heart sinks when I contemplate the scale of the task that will have landed on someone's desk.  Library directors love quirky and munificent gifts; library staff dread them.  They've clearly been getting on with it, however, and Tom and the Bodleian have already published various themed selections from this card cornucopia.  To get a free taste you can see a regular selection on a Twitter feed called "We Were The People" (you don't need to have signed up for Twitter to see them).

Monday, 22 June 2015

Father's Day

Majorca 1970

Yesterday was Father's Day, and today would have been my mother's 92nd birthday, so naturally I've been thinking about them both.  No matter how happy your upbringing was -- and mine was very happy, in the main -- there inevitably comes a stage in your life when you realise that your parents were less than perfect, and may even sometimes -- whisper it -- have been idiotic or irresponsible.  As Loudon Wainwright III put it in that great tearjerker Your Mother and I, "your parents are people, and that's all they can be".  Crazy people, maybe.  Well, the past is a crazy place, and that's where they met.

All fathers are weird, I think; it's a weird job, believe me.  Though it was considerably more weird back then.  It took me years to realise my father was, under his easy-going manner, a wary, frustrated man.  You could never quite take him at face value, particularly when he expressed an opinion or made a joke.  Often, when he said one thing, he meant quite another, but he was so fond of certain well-worn ironies that you would eventually not notice their intended obliquity.  Take bourbon biscuits.  I will now never know whether his pronunciation of "bourbon" as "berben" in the American style was one of his little jokes, or a slightly mistaken bit of Besserwisser one-upmanship.  Whatever, within our family "berben" was the Authorized Version.  So I will never forget the day one of my partner's parents requested a bourbon biscuit, pronounced slightly pedantically in the full-on French manner, and I got a severe, spluttering case of the giggles.  Thanks, Dad.

Until you could spot and step past these multiple barriers of irony, he would keep you at a safe distance.  Few people ever made it through, and as a consequence he was a man with few friends in adult life.  In fact, in retrospect, it seems that this was a feature of male adult life in general.  You simply stopped having friends when you acquired a family; to have friends was somehow juvenile. The oddness of this didn't strike me until I was well into adult life myself.  When he died, admittedly at an advanced age, I couldn't think of a single living person to invite to his funeral not related by blood.  I understand this is not uncommon, and there have been cases recently where social media appeals were made to recruit potential mourners for some lonely old man who died with no friends or relatives left in the world.

Of course, there were reasons.  Like most of his generation, he had left school at 14 despite abundant academic ability.  In the 1930s it simply cost too much to stay on at school beyond the statutory leaving age.  That was tough for him, I think.  He was easily bright enough to have managed university, but that was so far out of the question, socially and financially, as to be unthinkable.  Then, after just a few years of apprenticeship and employment, he was required to spend six prime years of his life in the systematic limbo of active military service, with the occasional enforced descent into the chaos of active military hell.  By the end of the war, he was pushing 30.  Not exactly past it, but no longer young in those days.

Now, a conscript "citizen" army teaches good men the arts and habits of "dumb insolence" and a passive-aggressive, veiled hostility towards lesser men given unchallengeable disposal over their lives.  You do what you're told, sort of, but make sure in the doing that the teller realises you think he's an idiot, quite possibly by sabotaging the outcome by following the letter, not the spirit of your orders.  Anyone who seeks an explanation for the craziness of industrial relations 1945-1975 need look no further.  After the war, back in civilian life, ambitious and able men of my father's age found themselves blocked from significant advancement at work; at first by those very same lesser men, with their schooling and their connections, and then by a more highly-qualified, leap-frogging post-war generation, for whom free higher education came up with the rations, as they would have said in the army.  After rapid promotion from the shop floor, Dad spent his entire working life in the lower reaches of middle-management.  Again, this was typical for that frustrated generation, and a resigned, sometimes cynical, self-defending irony was the natural response.  The genius of someone like Spike Milligan was to find another, new and more creative way forward.

But I suppose the main culprit was what sociologists would call the "performance of masculinity".  Dad's generation was locked into possibly the most constricting, mutually-policed version of maleness ever known in Britain.  Any scope for flamboyance, emotionality, self-expression, or any other suspiciously feminine forms of behaviour was strictly channelled into acceptable modes of dress and conduct.  The gulf between the pre- and post-war male was very, very deep, and rarely crossed.  Even a good, intelligent man like my father found the post-68 appearance, behaviour, and beliefs of his son hard to accept.  Which, I suppose, was the point.

Now these guys in the photo below are performing their masculinity really well.  But that little one at the front is pushing it a bit with that tie...  And isn't that suit a bit ...  Italian?  Ah well, he's just become a father, and that'll soon sort him out.

Burma Reunion 1947

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Crow Country III

So you thought you were pretty far out, huh?  Read this and you might change your mind.  Ow.  Not to mention Whisky Tango Foxtrot...

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A Ducky and a Horsie

I have always had a strong tendency towards pareidolia, the ability to see meaningful images within random patterns of line, shape and shadow.  In some ways, this is merely the flipside (or perhaps a precondition) of the ability to draw.  What is a drawing, after all, other than patterns of line, shape and shadow contrived and intended to evoke a significant image within the viewer's brain?

Exactly a year ago, I was in front of a TV camera in the Fotoforum gallery in Innsbruck, Austria, trying to explain the nature of my work being exhibited there to a charming young interviewer who, luckily, spoke better English than I speak German (not unusual in the German-speaking world, I am ashamed to say).  Now, I tend to take a certain level of pareidolia for granted, so drew her attention to this image from the Boundary Elements series:

I said something like, "This photograph is of a corroded metal box attached to a door and, although I really like the delicate balance of tone and colour here, what I mainly see is a Japanese-style horned dragon whipping its head round, with its snout now pointing to the left, don't you?"  She looked puzzled, then an expression of childlike delight crossed her face, "Oh, yes!  A dragon!"  Now, being English, and maybe having watched too much Graham Norton, I was on the alert for irony and sarcasm, but detected none.  She simply didn't see what I saw until I pointed it out.  Which made me think.

I've been thinking ever since.  What I have been thinking is this:

My favourite kind of photography involves the creation of a picture by isolating evocative shapes and colours from the real world.  You might say these are the semi-abstract paintings I'd make if I wasn't too lazy to make them, in the well-established vein of Klee, Kandinsky, and Rauschenberg.  I am sometimes mistaken for a practitioner of the Gospel of the God of Small Things -- best summarised as "He draws our attention to the small, everyday things we are too blinkered and busy to notice" -- which I find annoying.  I don't care whether you notice small corroded metal boxes or not.  No; if I draw myself up to my full height of pretension, I prefer to consider myself more of the Blakean tendency:
What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight I look thro it & not with it.
William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgement
A ducky and a horsie be damned, Sir!

And yet, without cues like a nudging title ("A Ducky and a Horsie Go Boating #5") or my personal presence behind the viewer's shoulder to point them out, it seems that my intended points of reference are never as obvious as I had thought.  Of course, this is a general issue with abstract or semi-abstract art.  Take this print from Matisse's late "cut-out" phase, published in his wonderful book Jazz:

Les Codomas, Henri Matisse, 1947

Lovely, isn't it?  But how obvious to you is it (or was it when you first saw it) that the image shows two trapeze artists above a safety-net, surrounded by spectators?  It probably doesn't matter if you can't see it without prompting, but Matisse had an intention here, which the nudging title makes clear -- he hasn't called it "Untitled Abstraction #47", after all, but the equivalent of "The Flying Burritos".  The fact that our first take might "see", let's say, tadpoles in a pond surrounded by stylised weed, beams of light, reflections, and even a lurking octopus is not to mistake the image, but to engage with its nature.  The realisation of the "correct" interpretation gives a focus to our other responses, but it doesn't invalidate them; they can all fruitfully exist at the same time.  But this is like explaining how to bowl a cricket ball:  if you're going to be able to do it at all, you can probably do it anyway.

But the path this led me down was this:  If my intentions are not clear, why not make them clearer?  Why be inhibited by the photographic "facts on the ground"?  Why not make intentional pictures sourced from multiple photographs, or bits of photographs collaged together with bits of drawing, in the same way Matisse assembled pictures from his cut-up pieces of painted card, rather than relying on pictures presenting themselves whole and ready-made to my camera?  Despite the many precedents -- Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté, for example, or more recently John Goto's under-appreciated work -- this still feels heretical, and calculated to lose what little audience I have gained over the years for my work.

But consider a photo like this, which I took last week, strolling behind the big-barn retail outlets of West Quay in Southampton:

Not brilliant, but a good example of the kind of thing I do when working in an "abstract" vein.  Yes, it does happen to be another corroded metal box attached to a door, but I am not a "photographer of corroded metal boxes" in the way that Bernd and Hilla Becher are photographers of grain elevators and water towers.  It's nice enough in itself, but what makes it compelling to me is that it suggests a large, weighty, telephone-box-shaped object plunging down into deep water trailed by a stream of air-bubbles, or, rotated 90 degrees, a shotgun cartridge discharged into a blue sky.  There is dynamism in those accidental marks.  Your mileage may vary, as they say, but I took the photograph because I saw and liked the pictures that my mind conjured from those superficial elements.

So, it seems to me that one way to use my hyper-pareidoloid tendency to good effect is to exploit it as a means of drawing, using the real world as my palette, and Photoshop as my canvas.  I'm having a lot of fun discovering techniques to do this, and I'm very pleased with some of the early results.  But if you do come here because of the photographs, don't despair -- I have no intention of giving up "straight" photography.

(But, hmm, that bit on the right will make an excellent milky-blue summer sky crossed by vapour trails...  Just add a few crows...)

Monday, 15 June 2015

Clumsy Guitars

A good musical instrument is a wonderful thing to handle.  You don't need to be able to play it to appreciate the aesthetic and haptic qualities of its build, fit and finish, or even to get a sense of its acoustic properties.  A good instrument declares itself to your senses in the same way as a well-made, ergonomically-sound camera does.  It is fit for purpose.

I am reminded of a day when I was about 8, when a friend and I went over to a nearby recreation ground, just to knock a tennis ball back and forth.  It was deeply frustrating: he had a full-sized racket borrowed from his brother, half as big as he was, and I had a toy racket, downsized for a child.  Despite its unwieldy size he seemed to be able to effortlessly whang the ball, whereas my every stroke ended in a dull, wrist-jarring thud.  I was clearly no good at tennis.  We then swapped rackets, and I experienced a moment of revelation.  I discovered the joy of the good tool: the ball sang off the taut strings of the "real" racket, and the impact was damped to nothing by the cleverly-constructed frame.  It was the same difference, I subsequently discovered, between our plastic Tommy Steele guitar with its untunable strings and weightless body and our neighbour's gorgeous sunburst Epiphone Casino.

If you do play an instrument, you absorb a whole repertoire of tell-tales that announce the quality of any particular example, even before playing it.  Take an acoustic guitar, for example.  Is the soundboard made of one piece of timber or two?  What about the back?  How deep is the gloss of the varnish?  How well has it taken wear and tear?  Are the fittings -- the bridge, the nut and the tuning heads -- solidly made or cheaply mass-produced in plastic and pressed steel?  How much care has been taken over producing the paper label pasted inside the body -- is the instrument numbered, or even signed?  Are the "binding" and the sides of the frets smooth and flush with the body?  Does the whole thing exude understated class, like an Audi, or is it the equivalent of a boy-racer adorned with go-faster stripes and spoilers?

Which may lead you to wonder why I have been drawing these "clumsy" guitars, harps, lutes, and other imagined instruments which, as I said in earlier post, appear to have been made by blindfolded luthiers wearing oven gloves and equipped only with blunt Stanley knives.  I think the trigger for my current enjoyment in drawing these odd stringed figments was a visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford last year. The instruments collected there are the very opposite of quality items.  They are the worst sort of ethnic tat from the global attic: warped, cracked, dusty, mouldered, and shedding pieces of wood and leather into the bottom of the cabinet.  They could never now be played, and probably never were played.

Such dud instruments turn up in museums everywhere.  All the musical life has slowly been dried out of them, until they have become a ghastly mummified parody of the original.  Instruments need to be played, to be loved, to have new strings fitted at least once every fifty years... I am reminded of the rubber bands our postman delivers most days, and which we cannot bring ourselves to throw away.  They hang on a hook for weeks, months, years until one day there is a need for a rubber band, and it then turns out that all the decent ones have perished, and break at the first tug.

And yet, these dead instruments have all the right bits in the right places, and somehow stand in for all the ancient music we shall never hear, but which was the fabled ancestor of all music.  Like them, these clumsily-drawn harps and guitars might be said to be playing that unheard ur-music, the song that goes on for ever, generation to generation, enchanting and holding together the universe.

Friday, 12 June 2015


If a lion could talk, we could not understand him
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Oddly, Hungarians can definitely talk, and yet I can't understand them, either.  Is that because I don't understand Hungarian, or because I can't understand Hungarians?   And does this mean they are lions?  Ah, philosophy...

Saturday, 6 June 2015


I swear, by Zeus and by Toutatis, that I have not added Monty Python-style eyes to the head on the left, although I have reversed it laterally.  It's a bust in the Ashmolean, and it really does look like that:

Classic!  And proof that moronic expressions are cultural, and not universal.  To a Roman, this man is probably conveying stoic fortitude in the face of an unfortunate toga mulfunction, or perhaps that is the standard Latin lover's longing look of lust.  Odi et amo, baby...

Moreover, the latest thinking seems to be that those classically cool and restrained marble and bronze sculptures were all actually rather gaudily painted up, so that a temple like the Parthenon would have resembled nothing so much as a fairground ride.  Next thing, they'll be telling us that togas had zips (conceivably the best explanation for our friend above's expression).

In the interests of full disclosure and general enlightenment, I thought you'd want to know that the pillars and architraves in this image are derived from the eroded yellow lines painted on the kerbside of a favourite Southampton carpark.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Free With This Issue

For some while I have toyed with the idea of creating a set of faux cigarette or tea cards, to be collected and stuck into an album that I would create using Blurb or some other POD service.  For many of us, those covetable card miniatures were our first introduction to the pleasures of visual art, not to mention the completist joys and frustrations of collecting.  They were also a last flourishing of a childhood free of the visual bullying of film and TV tie-in strategies and disneyfied branding. Like most such ideas, however, the concept of making a set of cards is more fun than the execution.  After all, it's not as if I could give away a free card tucked inside the wrapper of every blog post.

My children's generation collected stickers; not trade giveaways but sealed packs bought from a box kept safely out of the reach of shoplifters behind every corner-shop counter, usually football teams or those inescapable film and TV tie-ins.  But I was quite impressed by the innovative design of certain sticker albums where the sticker filled a gap in a whole-page illustration, rather than sitting in a conventional "album" frame.  So you might regard the picture above as a draft page from the collection Great British Roadkill, with three stickers in place.  Why not collect all fifty?

Incidentally, I noticed that the previous post was post number 1111.  That must mean I have racked up something like half a million words over the seven year life of this blog, which is the equivalent of about five novels. Admittedly four of those novels were unpublishable prentice-work, and the fifth is still going the rounds collecting rejection slips.  Apart from the fact, that is, that I haven't written any of them. Hmm...

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Stage Fright

Here's one for any performers out there.  May you never find your guitar transformed into a clumsily-drawn cardboard replica and the stage ankle-deep in water.  Though it's bound to happen sooner or later.

I haven't spent much of my life on stage, though I have often delivered an artfully-crafted PowerPoint presentation to various tough crowds, and have performed often enough to know that it is both an addictive and a terrifying experience, best left to those needy few whose appetite for applause is insatiable.  One early stage experience in particular made a permanent mark on me.  Or rather, non-experience.

At primary school we were supposed to be putting on a play.  I can remember very little about it, apart from my one line:  "No, Peleus, wait!", sternly delivered with an upheld, admonitory palm.  From that tiny piece of surviving dramatic DNA, I deduce that the play had some sort of Trojan Wars theme, Peleus being the father of Achilles, though I think I can be pretty sure that a bunch of primary-school kids were not enacting the premeditated rape by Peleus of Achilles' mother, the shape-shifting sea-nymph Thetis.  Whatever it was supposed to be, the main thing was that the play never took place.  Why, I don't know.  Our school had a strong record in dramatic productions, and as far as I can recall in every previous year there had been a well-received school play put on by the final year pupils.  It was simply something that happened with a certain periodicity, like morning assembly, Sports Day, and visits from the Nit Nurse.

My suspicion is that certain principals failed to learn their lines, or bottled out.  Whatever the reason, the play never even got to the dress rehearsal stage and was quietly abandoned, so those of us who had learned our lines -- "No, Peleus, wait!" -- were left with a nagging sense of anticlimax, and the disquieting thought that we had somehow, collectively or individually, not lived up to expectation.  That year -- our year -- there would be no school play.  Or would there?  Nobody in authority ever really settled the question.  Had we forgotten to turn up for key rehearsals?  Had we been so bad that the thing was silently euthanized?  This sort of thing bothers you when you are ten, and still haunts the milder end of the spectrum of my anxiety dreams, along with the unwritten essays, missed trains, and public appearances in pyjamas.  To this day, part of me expects to be called upon suddenly and unexpectedly to deliver my one line:  "No, Peleus, wait!"  But I'm ready, and have been for fifty years.  I need closure!

Actually, there was another similar experience around the same time, during a family summer holiday in a caravan situated within a holiday camp on the English east coast, somewhere near Walton-on-the-Naze.  But the world is not yet ready for the story of my abandoned preparations to sing "I Remember You" by yodellin' Frank Ifield at a holiday camp talent show.  That one sits slightly further up the anxiety spectrum.