Friday, 24 July 2015


The front door to our house is set within a surround of tongue-and-groove wood panels and large leaded-lights of a very typical 1930s design.  Many thousands of suburban houses built in that decade will have the same or some very similar arrangement.  It lets in a lot of light, which gives a nice, airy feel to the entrance hall and staircase.  None of the panes of glass in the leaded sections are coloured, as in some houses of this vintage, but the pattern does use about six varieties of clear "pebbled" glass, which means you can't see through from the outside.

For a long time I have intended to produce a template of these three windows -- one within the top of the door, and two large ones either side.  They're made with quite an interesting sub-Art Deco design, which has a way of imprinting itself on your retina as an afterimage.  I finally got around to making this template recently and when the reality is abstracted into its basic shapes it look like this:

Producing a template was not as straightforward as I'd imagined, though, as it turned out to be tricky getting into a position where a camera could be pointed directly square-on at the door and include all three windows without distortion.  I was also unwilling to clear out of the way all the coats, boxes, and various other obstacles blocking the view.  So to get to the desired end result required much tweaking of perspective, and digital elimination and restoration of unwanted and missing elements before the relatively simple job of blacking out the solid parts and whiteing out the glass could take place.  It's not perfect, but then the real thing is not perfect either: like most Southampton houses, ours has been subject to subsidence due to the unstable underlying geology and bomb shocks from the 1940 Blitz.  Parallel lines are the exception, rather than the rule; if anything, this is an improvement on reality.

Why did I want to do this?  Because I thought it might be an evocative set of shapes to play with in Photoshop.  Using the magic of layers and "clipping masks", it is possible to combine different foregrounds and backgrounds in ways that play with ideas of interior and exterior, frame and subject, etc.  As I'm going to be away from home for the next ten days, I thought I'd schedule a series of posts of these experiments.  Make of them what you can!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

A Stately Garotte

The Ravilious (and the Samuel Palmer)
on our staircase

I was in London on Saturday to see the Eric Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, where I met up with my partner (who'd stayed in London overnight, having seen Richard II at the Globe Theatre), and our son and his SO, on their way to a comedy event somewhere else in south London that evening, which she was to review for a blog she edits.  It's a fine exhibition: if you're an admirer of Ravilious' work, which I have been for many years, it's a real treat to see so many of the original watercolours and lithographs, and get a close look at that distinctive cross-hatched, dry-brush style, and his characteristic line, teetering on the brink of faux-naive mannerism, but never quite toppling over into cartoonishness (though I really don't enjoy his aeroplane propellers).  They're a lot bigger than I had supposed, too; I had somehow imagined him as something of a miniaturist, probably the result of seeing so much of his work in reproduction in books.

Now, although I do make the odd cultural excursion to an exhibition or the theatre  -- maybe half a dozen times in a typical year -- I've never quite got into the habit.  Until I was well over thirty, I associated visits to museums, galleries and theatres with school trips -- a lively coach to central London, full of over-excited schoolkids comparing packed lunches and pulling faces at passing motorists.  It just wasn't something you did at home, as part of normal domestic life.  As a student I would sometimes haunt the Ashmolean museum, but that was because it was nearby and I found the atmosphere congenial, especially after staying up all night in pursuit of the lost chord, truth and beauty, terror and magnificence, or whatever it was we thought we were up to.  I remember it actually felt quite transgressive, enjoyably strange, to be visiting a museum alone and for no reason at all (and with no packed lunch).  There was nothing "normal" about it.

Why do I mention this?  Because on the rail trip back to Southampton we found ourselves in a carriage from Hell.  No, not drunken Saints supporters, or even the thirty voluble Italian girls from some language summer-school I had to endure on the way up, but three ultra-posh private-school teachers, a couple and a single man, who happened to notice each other as they settled into the seats across the aisle from ours, and chatted long and loud over the headrests all the way from Waterloo to (inevitably) Winchester.

As it became evident they were never going to shut up, it became really annoying.  The main problem was the single man, who clearly loved the sound of his own voice, which had that sing-song, eeyore-ish Yorkshire accent used by the likes of Alan Bennett or Russell Harty, and which was very loud.  Neither of the couple -- both possessed of that icy clarity of diction that normally expects to command attention -- could start a sentence without him completing it for them, and going off on another tangential monologue.  I began to wonder how many other passengers were thinking how gratifying it would be to garotte him -- very slowly -- with an earphone cable dropped between the seat headrests.

The common ground between them, it quickly emerged, was choral music.  They had clearly once been in the same choir, quite probably at Cambridge, and had multiple links, professional and familial, within that curious world where, it seems, everyone is known to everyone else.   Over the course of a journey of more than an hour they did not exhaust their gossip about mutual acquaintances, each others' children, ex-pupils and their musical and academic achievements (suspiciously linked, involving choral scholarships at Cambridge), not to mention cathedrals, musical administrators and choir conductors ("SUCH a lovely man!" "Oh, yes, yes...  Although..."), and private schools and teaching colleagues ("SUCH a lovely man!" "Oh, quite, quite... Although...").  It was infuriating, but also enlightening.  It is curious to learn how such high-grade networks of connection, influence, and patronage can hide in plain sight from the rest of us.

Lead water-butt outside Dulwich Picture Gallery

Of course, we're all guilty of gossip on the train.  Somehow, the ambient white noise of the train combines with the semi-privacy of the seating arrangements to give the illusion that you cannot be overheard.  But you can.  I learned my lesson many years ago, travelling up to London for some trades union event with a colleague who was an ex-Wren (women's branch of the Royal Navy).  We fell to gossiping, and she revealed that her brother, still in the Navy, was in effect a real-life James Bond, based at a highly-secret establishment, H.M.S. [redacted] in [redacted].  I was suitably impressed -- she was a very level-headed person, and not given to fantasy -- and encouraged her to share as much detail as she could.  Which she did.  A few weeks later, she was both amused and mortified to receive a communication concerning her recent indiscreet disclosures, and reminding her of the consequences of loose talk.  It didn't actually say "remember, we know where you live", but the threat was clear, and delivered, ah, with the icy clarity that expects to command attention.

However, to get back to the train.  It was clear that these three were not your run-of-the-mill consumers of culture: these were prime specimens of that unseen stratum of society that makes culture happen.  Choirs and orchestras don't form spontaneously, and top performers don't emerge fully formed out of nowhere.  Just as Premier League football depends on large numbers of dedicated but invisible support staff, and a long tail of less prestigious leagues and school and amateur teams, so the less commercial musical and artistic life of the country depends on the efforts of people like these.  But, listening to them talk -- oblivious to their seething captive audience -- it's clearly not just a case of selfless, unpaid dedication to the promotion of Bach, Britten, and Eric Whitacre, with the prospect of an MBE at the end.  It is yet another of the many ways the upper-middle classes can exercise their "soft power", carefully positioning their children, their own careers and those of their favoured friends by cultivating connections and networks, maximising the payoff from an investment in piano lessons, choir practice, and school fees.  It suddenly occurred to me that, when you step back and look at it, the entire edifice of classical music -- with its unchallengable position within the wider culture, and profound links to the traditional seats of power -- might be viewed as resting on a conspiratorial network of exclusive unpaid internships and patronage.

I'm sure there are people within that network who genuinely regret the lack of wider "access" to proper music education, which is pretty much non-existent in state schools.  But classical music is, effectively, becoming a closed shop for the privately-educated, as the price of entry, in terms of commitment, effort and expense, is set so high, relative to any likely material rewards; "cultural capital" pays no bills.  It is also surrounded by an offputting, semi-ecclesiastical force-field of solemnity and decorousness, optimally designed to keep the uninitiated out.  I mean, who knew that eating your crisps during the slow movement was frowned upon?  Where does it say that in the programme?

At primary school, my daughter was offered cello lessons -- take it or leave it, a spare cello was all they had left in the cupboard -- on a once-a-week basis from an uninspiring peripatetic teacher.  After a few weeks she chose to leave it.  I didn't blame her: there was no school orchestra to join, after all, and at seven she had no real idea of what a cello was, or where it fitted into the musical scene.  Having had no background of joyless piano lessons myself, I couldn't see the point of forcing her to endure the pain of learning such a recalcitrant, niche (and expensive!) instrument.  I did play her a couple of Bach's cello suites on CD, but they somehow didn't hit the same spot as whatever was hot in the charts that year (Bob the Builder, possibly).  So I allowed a door to shut which a "tiger parent", I suppose, might have forced open.  But thankfully my kids seem to have done alright, without me clearing a path for them and insisting that they follow it...  As if I knew how.

Hey, fancy guitar!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

On Twyford Down

Looking SE from the "dongas" trackway

Looking N from the golf course

One thing that has impressed me as I collate my photographs of the St. Catherine's / Viaduct / Twyford "triangle" is how diverse the landscape of Twyford Down is.  Although at heart a typical square mile or two of chalk downland, the different types of land use -- grassland, cultivated fields, wooded slopes, a golf course, and various "edgelands" where road and rail routes pass through -- mean that a very different prospect lies before you, depending on which path you have followed, in which month, and in which direction you are facing.

Looking S over the golf course

Looking W across the London mainline and the M3 sliproad

Friday, 17 July 2015

Submarine Tank

A tank of well-chosen tropical submarines makes for an interesting conversation piece.

I was a huge fan of the German TV series Das Boot when it was broadcast back in the 1980s, and  I can never see a submarine without internally hearing those ASDIC pings and the dramatic theme tune of each programme's opening sequence.  Although those who lost relatives to submarine action in WW2 probably found Das Boot unwatchable (a friend was telling me recently how her father survived torpedoes, twice) I found it absolutely compelling to share the agony of being depth-charged, or the cluttered, intimate claustrophobia of the submariner's everyday life.

Last year's Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy had a giant vitrine full of his signature lead U-boats in the courtyard, and the mental pings were particularly loud.  I suppose my submarine tank above might be best seen as my own response to that, though this has only ocurred to me in the writing of this post.  Funny how submerged our motivations and influences can be.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Skate

I was in Bristol for a few days last week, and was walking along a street in the early evening when the decorative overnight display on a fishmonger's marble slab brought me to a sudden halt.  There, before my very eyes, was a skate.  Now, the skate is a sort of edible ray that is quite scarce these days, a protected species in fact, but once, in the form of "skate and chips", it formed a staple of the British diet.  Not as downmarket as "rock and chips", or as bland as "cod and chips", it was something of an adult, acquired taste.  But this skate was a plastic skate, which made it doubly covetable, for reasons I will try to explain.   I wrote down the name and address of the fishmonger, just in case he was open to cash offers, and went happily on my way.

There is a certain creativity that seems to come easily to the young.  It's generally not the Real Thing, but a precursor, an instar stage in the metamorphosis which may, eventually, see the emergence of the Real Thing.  But probably won't: it is the fate of most youngsters setting out in pursuit of dreams of excellence to fall by the wayside, stalled in some intermediate state; good, but never good enough to stand among the best.  Athletes, artists, musicians, magicians, scientists, scholars, cooks, comedians, and criminals: many are called, but few are chosen.  True originality, in particular, does not recognise concepts like democracy and equal access, unfortunately, no more than it bows to privilege and wealth.

In the adolescent years, though, every field always appears empty and wide open, the rules seem to be few, and there is much fun to be had ignoring them.  A little talent goes a long way at sixteen.  What's more, wiring talents together can have an amplification effect out of all proportion.  The Beatles, collectively, were a world-changing force; individually, less so.  I'd guess that in any school at any time there has been a tight little gang of friends who make each other feel like Lennon, Lenin, and Lenny Bruce all rolled into one, with their private banter, obscure enthusiasms, and exclusive in-jokes.  Regrettably, these years are also the time of shifting alliances and treacherous Best Friends Forever.  As a parent, you quickly lose track of who's in and who's out, and learn not to ask, "Whatever happened to So-and-So?", when for a year or two So-and-So had seemed virtually to be a part of the family.

A long time ago, I had a medium-term BFF with whom the inventive spark was very strong.  For a few years we were the closest of friends, spending long hours in each other's company, amusing ourselves with what we took to be the reach and depth of our originality, whether it be novel ways to destroy plastic aircraft, creative scatological wordplay, or the malicious pleasures of lampooning teachers and classmates.  As a fixture I suspect we were tolerated, but not much liked. Nobody loves a smart-arse, especially two wired together in parallel.

In the summer of 1970, shortly before the sudden decay of our friendship, we spent a week camping in California.  California, Norfolk, that is, just north of Great Yarmouth (I described this formative trip in a previous post).  For reasons I cannot now recall, one of our joint obsessions was the possibility of making plaster moulds from real fish and casting replicas in rubber.  The idea of possessing a rubber skate was a particularly enticing and amusing holy grail.  So, given the prevalence of fishmongers in Yarmouth, we thought we'd make some enquiries.  How much would a whole skate cost?

It seemed a simple enough question, but it drew us some very dark looks, and the sort of curt dismissal that says, "Go on, sling yer hook, and take the piss out of someone else, you cheeky little sods".  Which was mystifying.  Until one fishmonger saw the funny side, and told us that bringing whole skate ashore was actually illegal.  Why?  "Because fishermen, ah, sometimes use them, if you know what I mean?  Are you with me?  The skate's mouth is not unlike, um, a woman's part..."  We were astonished, revolted, and, if anything, even more highly amused by our doomed quest.  A rubber skate had taken on a whole new layer of in-joke nuance.  We couldn't wait to get back and start spreading the news.

Such adventures get burnished, in time, into anecdotes.  In my university years, my speciality became delivering tall, dark tales in the darkest hours to a receptive, if somewhat captive, audience.  But, until I learned the New Manners of political correctness, I had a tendency to step over certain lines and find myself suddenly knee-deep in taboo areas.  Who knew that stories about the perils of having sex with cartilaginous fish was not something to discuss at the progressive dinner table?  Why, Frank Zappa had made the subject positively au courant with "The Mud Shark"!  What, that's unmentionable, too?  Jeez...  I had such a lot to learn.

But the skate thing obviously stuck in certain impressionable minds.  It is rather unforgettable.  So about a decade later a recent issue of a small culinary history journal -- Petits Propos Culinaires 27 -- arrived in the post, with a covering note from an old friend.  She wrote,  "It seems you were right after all!  See page 46."  And there, under the title "A Further Tale of the Skate", the writer described a very similar series of baffling encounters with fishmongers, culminating in the information that "sailors on long, lonely voyages ... would nail a skate to the mast and gratify themselves by fornicating with it".  Which is probably why cooks use the "wings" only.

A further interesting sidelight on this sordid matter is shed by the sometimes rancorous rivalry between the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, and in particular the supporters of their football teams.  To fans of Pompey, the residents of mercantile Southampton are "scummers", a naval term for the merchant marine.  Whereas the followers of the Saints know their naval-base rivals as "skates", for reasons that should now be obvious.  Apparently, Portsmouth women would reject the advances of sailors on shore-leave with the words, "I ain't no skate bait, mate".

Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Offering

The Offering

I'm out of town for a few days.  But, look, I found an overlooked crow and another owl.  One is stuffed, and the other just looks stuffed.

Owl Dream #1

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Day and Night

 Flags for Sunrise

I'm starting to run out of usable crow pictures, and have begun to diversify into gulls and even plastic owls...  I need to get out there with a long lens and stalk some more, but for such a common bird they're oddly elusive at this time of year.  Do crows take holidays?  I wouldn't put it past them.

The Night Watch

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Wasp Waste

Going through a pile of old papers, I came across two unfinished scraperboard pictures of wasps.  I'd completely forgotten about them; not surprising, as I must have abandoned them about fifteen years ago.  As far as I can recall, these are the only two forays into that medium I have ever made.

I used to be an admirer of woodcuts and wood engravings; as I write this, I am sitting beneath three framed Clare Leighton engravings -- pages from The Farmer's Year -- that I rescued from a secondhand book shop.  My recollection is that I thought scraperboard might be a way of getting to the attractively crisp end result of engraving without going through the tedious and messy process of actual printmaking, something I know a little about.

For years, I used to make linocuts and woodcuts.  When I was about 17 I actually dared to venture into the premises of printmaking suppliers T.N. Lawrence, when it was still located up an external staircase in Bleeding Heart Yard in London.  Old man Lawrence was notorious for chasing away anyone he didn't like.  Luckily, he did like the cut of my jib, and helped me choose some wood-engraving tools.  However, much as I enjoyed cutting away bits of lino and plank, the process of working up the ink on an old mirror with a roller, inking up the block, and taking an impression on paper (using the back of a spoon in the absence of a press) -- not to mention subsequently cleaning up the whole inky lot -- was a messy business and not really suited to a two-bedroom council flat.  My mother would despair when ink found its way into the crazed enamel of our kitchen sink.

Two-colour linocut, 1979

I kept up the printmaking into early adult life, though, and later on I thought etching might be worth a try, so signed up for evening classes.  I managed a few completed test-pieces -- all featuring wasps -- before deciding that this elaborately ceremonial "intaglio" process elevated the fussiness of printmaking to the pitch of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, if not beyond, and gave it up.  It's no wonder that most "name" artists employ a specialist studio to do the actual skilled, repetitive, dirty work of making editioned prints for them to sign and number.  It's one of the guilty secrets of art.  Making some nice marks into a wax-covered sheet of metal is one thing; etching it in a tray of acid to just the right degree of "bite", then inking it, wiping off just the right amount of ink, and then experimentally adjusting the blankets in the press to find just the right pressure to yield a perfect impression on a carefully pre-soaked sheet of (very expensive) paper is quite another.  However, in the process of exploring etching I did discover the darkroom, which is another story.

But why ... wasps?  Why, indeed.  If only I could have developed a more popular obsession -- oh, I don't know, people, maybe, or even bees -- then I might have got a more encouraging reaction than "huh..." to my efforts, and gone on to produce the hundreds of prints -- those famous 10,000 hours -- that form the bedrock of real accomplishment.  After all, people have built whole careers out of making linocuts of bloody hares for greetings cards.  But wasps just don't have that irresistible combination of mystic folksiness and prick-eared cuteness going on for them.

As it is, I don't think I've made a print of any sort -- other than photographs -- since I turned 30 in 1984, though my recent efforts at digital collage might be seen as a return to that earlier impulse.  But no wasps this time!  Although....  Those scraperboards are just waiting to be incorporated into something new.  It would be a shame to waste them.

Addendum 8/7/15:  I suddenly remembered one possible influence on my focus on wasps.  A book that shaped me more than most was The Albemarle Book of Modern Verse, an O-Level set text that included many worthwhile poems, as well as some astonishing but memorable rubbish.  An example of the latter contained these lines, much of which I can recite to this day:
There's not a rhyme to wasp in English tongue.
Poor wasp, unloved, unsung!
Only the homely proverb celebrates
These little dragons of the summer day
That each man hates.
'Wasps haunt the honey-pot,' they say,
Or 'Put your hand into a wasps' nest,' thus
Neatly condensing all report for us
By sharp experience into wisdom stung,
As is the proverb's way.

    Of many a man it might be said
    No one loved him till he was dead,
    But of a wasp not even then
    As it is said of many men.


 Vita Sackville-West, The Garden

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Moth Bling

In the week a show of Joseph Cornell's little boxes opens at the Royal Academy, I thought this piece by Simon Armitage, the new Professor of Poetry at Oxford, was rather appropriate, and an interesting read.

I really like his idea of poems as little stage-sets; if it's a commonplace idea, it's certainly not one I've come across before.  Similarly, the suggestion that, as a teaching practice, withholding a poem's title and then revealing it can be like providing the "negative terminal ... which when supplied allows a sudden emotional charge to arc across the gap" is nicely put, and applies equally well to visual works.  Armitage has a remarkably ego-free and unacademic gift for sharing the inwardness of his engagement with the work of other poets.  Not sure whether this bodes well for his period of tenure at that least ego-free and most academic of institutions, but it will be their loss if it isn't a success.  And, no, this time I didn't vote for anyone.

Talking of little boxes, these are a couple of box-type things I knocked together this week.  Perhaps I should take them along for those over-dressed vulgarians on the Antiques Roadshow to consider.  Apparently Bling & Sons are very collectable, especially their entomological range.  You say they're worth how much?  Gasp!  Suppressed leer of avarice!  No, they're not insured.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Lost Golf Balls

As hoped and expected, hidden gems have started to emerge, now I have begun to take a closer look at the backfiles, with an eye to editing a "Viaduct" sequence.  This always happens.

I think it's partly to do with the way the more declamatory, obvious images demand your immediate attention, and then -- too soon -- you have moved on to the next, fresh and exciting batch.  Good stuff -- sometimes the best stuff -- goes unnoticed.  But it's also got a lot to do with the way a sequence suggests a narrative, and demands connections.

For example, how do you show how the M3 cutting divides St. Catherine's Hill from Twyford Down, which, before 1991, were joined by a simple neck of downland?  And, having found suitable images, what else do they bring to the story?

In the case of these two, I think you also get a strong sense of the watchful way nature's resilience has started to reclaim and heal the wound opened in the 1990s.
And the wind shall say: Here were decent Godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.

T.S. Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Calling All Angels

Police were called to investigate reports of an angelic manifestation at a Brighton bus stop, just outside the Royal Pavilion.  By the time they'd arrived and managed to cross the road, however, there was just a single elderly lady in the shelter.

What happened next is a short story which you can make up to your own satisfaction.  You're welcome!  Don't send it to me, though, thanks all the same.