Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Voyages of Discovery

Same old song...

Motorway driving is generally a dull business, punctuated by moments of madness, so you need something to help you to stay alert.  One of our little stay-awake pastimes is spotting the best straplines on the sides of vans and lorries.  You know the sort of thing: "Billy Smith Logistics: get ahead of the competition with BS"; "Tinpot Packaging -- Yes, we can!".  A lot of people have remarked on the inanity of these bits of verbiage, but nonetheless companies clearly feel the need to have one, and presumably have paid good money to some PR merchant for theirs ("Strapline Solutions -- does what it says on the van!").

I suppose the impulse behind this is similar to the politician's urge to come up with dog-whistle soundbites.  It's a very modern mix, this desire to get a message across to a target demographic, combined with a contempt for the intelligence and attention-span of that very same group of people:  "Buy our product, you morons!  Yes, you!"

All this terse attention-grabbing has produced a specialist vocabulary, where words like "solution", "excitement", and "delivery" have to do more work than they are really being paid for.  Sometimes a strapline can seem to be merely a selection of such words picked out of a hat; perhaps those ones are cheaper ("delivering exciting logistics solutions", and so on).  In the end, box-ticking and demographic-tickling are not really exercises in creativity, no matter what PR industry "creatives" might claim.  The first van-side straplines were an inventive and effective idea; the next million or so were just copycat "me too" efforts.

In an earlier post I complained about the appropriation of the words "passion" and "passionate" by the corporate world.  Nothing sucks the life out of a word like power-dressing it in a suit, or writing it continually on a flip-chart until it loses all meaning.  "Excitement" and its cognates had already been turned into dry husks by overuse ("We're really excited to announce the latest revision of Accounting Standard BRS-4353B"), so I suppose "passion" and "passionate" had it coming.

"Passion" has always been a fairly slippery word covering a very wide field, from a serious interest in stamp-collecting to the crucifixion of Jesus, with sex and football somewhere in the middle.  But it has now become part of that cynical vocabulary that encourages a view of wage-slavery as adventure; you don't just have a job, but are following your dream, and that job is not just a way of paying your bills, but a pathway to fulfilment. It is now obligatory to be "passionate" about whatever field of employment you happen to find yourself in: sausage-making, widget-bashing, paper-pushing, cold-calling...  To declare yourself as anything less ("I am not terribly interested in burger-flipping, as such") is to fail to have signed up wholeheartedly for the voyages of discovery skippered by our self-styled buccaneering captains of industry.  Which is to find yourself walking the plank, matey.

The recent competition for leadership of the Labour Party has been exemplary.  You can expect this factitious attitude-striking from the likes of Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham: their political souls have been sold so many times over that they must have a tough job remembering who they are in the morning.  Like all career politicians, you would expect them to be excited and to be passionate about whatever might deliver an election logistics solution.  But even Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Excitement himself, used the words "passion" and "passionate" so frequently in the first paragraphs of his victory speech that I began to suspect he'd forgotten his reading glasses and had resorted to making it up.  By Kinnock and by Keir Hardie, it was dull stuff, wasn't it?

So I think I may have formulated a law, that goes something like this:

In rhetoric, the real intensity of a speaker's emotion is in inverse proportion to the number of times any specific emotion is invoked by the speaker.

In other words -- as in all good writing, we are told -- it's a case of show, not tell.  The more you tell us you're passionate about solving all our problems, the more we will suspect you're just another lying, posturing hypocrite.  On the other hand, if you can find ways to solve all our problems, we really don't care how deeply you feel about it.  Be as casual as you like!
But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

Monday, 28 September 2015

On Forgetting Stuff

Bristol City Museum as a Palace of Memory

There's an engaging poem by Billy Collins called "Forgetfulness", which has been nicely animated, and which I've linked to before (but had to check, because I couldn't, uh, remember).  As you get older, the experience of forgetting takes on a troubling significance, like a persistent cough, or those aches in the joints that paracetamol won't quite soothe any more.  No-one looks forward to the infirmities of age, and most of us try to pretend it'll never happen.  Hope I die before I get old...  You should be so lucky, son.

In her last years, my mother suffered some form of dementia.  My parents lived in a mobile home in my sister's back garden, so she had to bear most of the burden of their final decline, for which I will be eternally grateful; I'm not sure I could have.  On my last visits, my mother did not know who I was, though she kept insisting that her son would really like me, if we were ever to meet.  I'm not so sure about that, but you had to look on the funny side.  One time, she gestured out of the caravan window and exclaimed with such conviction "Is that an elephant out there??" that I actually looked.

Around the same time, my partner's mother and aunt were also dementing.  Our phone would regularly ring at 3 a.m. and it would be her aunt -- a rather posh and formidable woman who had once been the village schoolteacher -- demanding to know why the village shop wasn't open.  That, or it would be some villager, woken from deep sleep by Susan's insistent knocking on their door in the small hours, demanding to know when we were going to have her put into a home.  It was a testing time, and none of it was a great advertisement for old age.

But there's more to forgetting than a fear of dementia.  One of the more appealing traditions in those religions that believe in a final judgement of human souls is the idea of a Recording Angel, whose task it is, continually and authoritatively, to write up the ultimate diary of humanity's daily doings (and, perhaps more troublingly, our thinkings and non-doings).  Deep down, I suspect even the most aggressive, unsentimental atheist has a yearning for the existence of an irrefutable record -- like an infinitely-faceted and relativistic CCTV tape, which can never be conveniently lost, or tampered with -- to which final appeal might be made.  There!  I told you it happened!  And that was exactly how it happened!  Now do you believe me?  Hah!  Our instinct for justice is closely bound up with the idea that The Truth exists, even it can't always be established forensically.

Sadly, of course, there is no such record.  Which can be distressing, when the only witnesses to the key events in your life are, in your view, mistaken, or have forgotten all about those events, or are even, so unfairly and inconveniently, dead.  But, unless at some far distant point in the future it is discovered that time can somehow be stopped, rewound and replayed -- perhaps there is a backup universe somewhere?  -- the fact is that the past is not reeled up like a tape but is burned away like a fuse as the present sparks into being, at least as far as we humans are concerned.  We remember what we remember; we have forgotten the rest.  Maybe the owls know better?

The owls are not what they seem
(Twin Peaks, in case you've forgotten...)

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Horses of Instruction

In Bristol City Museum, a jackdaw and a sparrow-hawk debate William Blake's assertion that "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction", illustrated with selected exhibits from the museum collections and architecture.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Selfie in a Convex Mirror

With apologies to John Ashbery.  One of these days I'll get around to finishing "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror", but I can never get past that elementary error about the "right hand" in Parmigianino's painting.  At least, I presume it's an error.  Maybe it's a false trail laid to entrap and infuriate us lefties.  If so, it works.

Anyway.  I was in Bristol most of this week, and revisited the City Museum for the first time in thirty-five years.  It has both changed a lot and not changed at all, in that paradoxical way of cash-strapped public museums.  I used to pop in there once or more a week in my lunch break, when I worked at the university library in the late 1970s, as it's right next to what used to be the refectory.  It still houses mostly the same old stuff, but re-arranged, re-mounted and re-interpreted for newer generations who clearly need things explaining to them in what even the eleven-year old me would have regarded as patronising detail.   I know what an amphibian is, thank you very much.  No, and I don't want to stroke some feathers or handle a chunk of fossilized "dinosaur poo", either.

Museums do have my sympathy, though, especially the civic variety.  It's vitally important that someone holds comprehensive, well-displayed and interpreted collections of real artefacts produced by historic local industries, but jugs and plates and glassware are dull stuff to the typical museum-goer compared to dinosaur skeletons and shrunken heads.  Especially when the typical visitor is a member of a school-party of bored kids fizzing with cola-induced ADSD.

But you can't beat a stuffed mandrill, can you?  I was very taken by the prescient, meditative posture chosen by some taxidermist, decades before The Lion King; thank goodness some crowd-pleaser hasn't given him Rafiki's stick.  Mind you, there really aren't that many mandrills in the Bristol locality.

Except in the zoo, of course, which I also visited, but wished I hadn't.  Not least because Bristol Zoo holds a special place in the hearts of those who were TV-watching children in the 1960s and 70s, as it was the home turf of the programme Animal Magic and its presenter Johnny Morris.  It's always been a small zoo, being tucked away in a tight corner between the open Downs and the Georgian terraces of Clifton, but in our more humane times it clearly now has acute space problems.  Despite having done away with various bear pits, elephant enclosures and other Victorian abuses, and focussed its efforts on endangered species in the same way as its more spacious cousin at Marwell, there's still a sad air of freak-show clinging to the place.
There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

The Lion and Albert, by Marriott Edgar (delivered by Stanley Holloway)
For all the brightly upbeat publicity, the sight of bored gorillas slumped like stoners in a particularly bare and squalid squat, or neurotic Asiatic lions pacing endlessly back and forth behind glass and wire are at odds with the progressive image the zoo would like to project.  I came away feeling quite negative about "survival in captivity" as a strategy, when human destruction of ecosystems is the real and inescapable issue.  Crows will adapt to and survive anything, obviously, including a McDiet of discarded takeaways, but the giant panda and other borderline species seems pretty hell-bent on going extinct, if they can't have things just so.  I don't see a concrete enclosure with idiotic humans tapping constantly on the glass ever becoming any creature's environment of choice.

To compound matters, the zoo managers have concluded -- like the museum, and perhaps rightly -- that their typical visitor is about ten, has the attention span of a goldfish, and would actually rather be in an adventure playground.  No problem!  We have one of those, too -- right this way!  And please don't poke the lions with that stick.

Hey, kid!  Interpret THIS!

Oh, and a completely unrelated warning:  if you own an iPad 2 (or presumably the original version) DO NOT attempt to upgrade it to iOS 9.  Repeat:  DO NOT attempt to upgrade it to iOS 9.  You'll be sorry if you do.  Mine is OK now (I think) but it's been a long road to recovery.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Light as a Feather

This rook is pushing its luck, mucking about like that in a guitarra player's apartment in Lisbon.  There's going to be a very expensive accident, and rooks very rarely have insurance.  Neither do struggling musicians.  Although I see this one has been able to afford the insanely expensive guitarra azul.

Stringed instruments are often surprisingly light, when you pick them up.  A good violin can seem as weightless as a balsa-wood model aircraft.  Birds, on the other hand, generally seem heavier than they have any right to be.  Every Christmas I wonder at the weight of our goose when I collect it from the butcher.  It could have flown between continents, and yet stripped down and oven-ready it's still as heavy as a bag of tools.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Deer? What Deer?

 Now that I'm a complete Fuji fanboy, I have accumulated a number of camera bodies and lenses, mainly bought second-hand.  Given their stellar quality, it's surprising how quickly the older model Fuji bodies become undervalued in the second-hand market.  Not the lenses, though, unfortunately.

I think my favourite purchase has been a very cheap, barely-used silver-and-black X-M1, which I couple exclusively with the "pancake" 27mm f/2.8 lens.  Together, they are negligibly light, and the combination looks like a cheapo tourist film camera of yesteryear, which is unobtrusive and goes nicely with the rest of my customary outfit (no more "Say, why is that tramp carrying a hugely expensive camera?").  There is no viewfinder on it, true, but there is a tilting LCD, and the exact same 16 megapixel X-Trans APS-C sensor as used in its flashier siblings.  Even better, it uses the exact same batteries as the X-E1.

If I'm out for a walk and don't feel like carrying the X-E1 around, I find I'm favouring the X-M1 over the X-100.  I've recently done something rather painful to my lower back (probably from lugging crates of stuff to Oxfam -- "no good deed will go unpunished") so lightness was a factor when I hobbled over Twyford Down yesterday.  We spotted some roe deer crossing a field, and one posed obligingly on the horizon.  Obviously, the 27mm lens's angle of view is not ideal for distant wildlife (equivalent to a 40mm lens in 35mm lens terms) but its resolution is such that at a 100% crop you can make it out quite nicely.  And I love the front-to-back depth of field at f/5.6.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

September Song

It's mid September, the leaves are beginning to turn, and a rook has been overcome by a pleasantly Wordsworthian melancholy up on Twyford Down.
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
I was amazed to discover that, in the wild, rooks have a typical lifespan of 15-20 years, and in captivity might live as long as 60-70 years.  Plenty of time to build up a store of nostalgic memories.  No wonder they're always muttering to themselves.

Used t' be a really nice tree just 'ere.  I used t' like sittin' in that tree.  We 'ad some good larfs in that tree, we did.  Bloody great wind blew it over.  'Course, we 'ad a proper feast o' grubs an' such in the big 'ole its roots made in the ground, din't we?  It's an ill wind, innit, eh?  I'm 22, you know...  Soon be food for the crows meself.  Funny birds, crows...

This particular rook is actually over 200 years old, though: I carefully extracted him from Bewick's A History of British Birds, volume 1, published in 1797.  As it happens, the year before Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Tyger

There was a social media uproar recently when an American dentist shot a lion, disarmingly dubbed "Cecil", which had been lured off a reserve into an area where "hunting" is permitted.  I write "hunting" in quotes, as the orchestrated execution of a beast by high-powered rifle (or even crossbow, as in this case) hardly seems the sort of contest of cunning and matched skill implied by that venerable word.  Suburban animal-lovers world-wide were quickly demanding an end to the killing of all "big game".

However, I heard an interesting, alternative scenario on Radio 4, put forward by seriously-engaged conservationists in southern Africa, that without the income from properly-controlled hunting, the conservation of lions would cease.  Reserves would fall into disrepair, fences would come down, and the lands turned to agricultural use; the whole ecology upon which lions as top predator depend would topple.  It seems the pressure from local inhabitants is a far greater threat than that from any number of wealthy dentists with a crossbow and a Hemingway complex.

This does make sense, even if it is distasteful to the kind of person who delights in videos of cute cats, but would happily see a dentist tortured to death.  Big cats are terrifying creatures, not even slightly cute, and I would certainly not want to share my landscape with them, any more than the farmers and villagers of southern Africa do.  I think it was Bruce Chatwin who speculated that some sabre-toothed cat with a taste for hominid flesh was the original "enemy of mankind".

I was reminded of this at Marwell Zoo, when -- as photographers will -- I followed my nose and the light to a half-illuminated, condensation-covered window around the side of one of the enclosures. What I saw was the image above.  In a darkened chamber, a recumbent tiger the size of a large motorbike was luxuriously stroking its tongue, back and forth, along the length of an antelope carcase.   It was a scene as intimate and as primal as if I had inadvertently opened a curtain onto an axe-murderer and his victim.  Cute it wasn't; frankly, it gave me the shivers.  I did feel a pang of sorrow for the great beast's imprisonment, but felt a greater sense of gratitude for the solidity of the barrier between us.  As William Blake -- who probably had seen tigers similarly confined in various London menageries -- once asked: Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Monday, 14 September 2015

Shadow Detail

The photograph from 1985 in the previous post reminded me, in turn, of another from the same period.  In this case, an indirect portrait of the man whose course of tuition in photographic and darkroom skills turned me from a bloke with a camera into a photographer, Mike Skipper.  I wrote a short appreciation of Mike when I learned he had died in 2010.

Even though I gave up film and the black and white darkroom years ago, many of Mike's words still pop into my head whenever I look through a viewfinder, or evaluate a photograph.  "Take a reading from the shadows, and stop down twice -- shadow detail is important!"; "Always look for a strong black and a strong white: avoid scenes which are just mid-tones"; "Who needs a tripod when you've got two hands and a forehead?"; "Drop my EL-Nikkor lens and I will kill you"; and so on...  The standard stuff of a thousand photography evening classes, but memorably conveyed with real commitment and infectious enthusiasm*.  Mike was the first person I met who lived photography.

The mid-1980s were something of a heyday for the fully hands-on monochrome image, though in retrospect it was more of a last hurrah.  New materials like Ilford Multigrade and Galerie papers were still coming onto the market, because supplying the millions of three-colour-films-a-year camera owners was still profitable enough for the big players to keep "niche" materials in development for an important but tiny minority of three-monochrome-films-a-week enthusiasts.  Not to mention a thriving global village of cottage industries making darkroom gizmos -- ever-better enlargers, more efficient print-washers, convenient paper-safes, etc.

In 1984, most of the prominent "art" photographers were working in black and white, producing archivally-processed prints on fibre-based, silver-rich papers, often toned with selenium -- a ridiculously hazardous substance -- to lock in the permanence and give those characteristic purple-brown shadows.  Unlike, say, learning to make etchings and engravings, learning the skills to produce fine prints in the darkroom still seemed a very contemporary thing to do; you felt you were joining a living, growing tradition.  But not for much longer.  Within a decade, most notable photographers were working in colour and rapidly going digital, and monochrome film users had become the backwoods holdouts of photography, perpetually on the defensive about "craft", with their lines of supply always threatening to dry up.  Rather like etchers and engravers, in fact.   And you can't give those state-of-the-art darkroom gizmos away, now.

Warm, neutral, and cold-tone Skippers

* I nearly wrote "with real passion", but I have come to loathe the contemporary uses of that word, as in in "We are passionate about shelf-stacking at Tesco".  A post is underway...

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Zoo Quest

For some reason, I recently had a very strong memory of a dream-like photo I took around 1985, so I looked it out and made a scan of it.  The original photograph was made on film that I developed in the bathroom and printed myself in an improvised darkroom that was, essentially, the corridor of my flat, and only really suitable for use in the hours of darkness.  As I have written before, I do not miss working in the darkroom at all.  I particularly do not miss occasionally putting my foot into a tray of developer left on the floor when getting up for a pee in the early hours, after I had printed myself into exhaustion and neglected to tidy things away.

I thought this slightly mysterious monochrome image would combine well with some of the digital colour photographs I brought away from my visit to Marwell Zoo this week.  It had been a beautiful, early September weekday, with warm afternoon sunlight bathing everything, and the zoo was half empty, all the kids now being back at school.  The only other visitors seemed mainly to be women with rather more than the usual number of infants in tow, which made me wonder whether the weekday zoo is a favoured resort of childminders, in the same way it is the divorced father's "custody day" outing of choice at weekends.

The interesting thing, though, is how much more satisfying this digital monochrome version is than the original.  I was never a great "analogue" printer -- far too unsystematic, way too impatient -- but subtle tweaks to contrast and so on are simplicity itself to achieve once you've got a decent scan, compared to the repetitive, time-consuming and wasteful process of making a series of "wet" test prints from a negative.  And people say there's no such thing as progress...

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Zoo Time

I was feeling a bit short of crows, or rather, pictures of crows.  They are wary birds, so getting them to pose can take a little effort, and I've used most of my best ones several times over in those "Crow Country" collages.  But I know one place where -- if they're in the mood -- they can be downright co-operative, and that is Marwell Zoo.  It's where I took my Google ID image, over on the right there, many years ago, now.

Being smart birds, they like to hang out in those places where humans put out feed for other animals, as well as dropping bits of their own tasty human foodstuffs at picnic sites.  Lovely grub!  A zoo is a perfect place in that regard, and a well-fed crow is not disinclined to have its portrait taken, provided a respectful distance is maintained.

This fine fellow is a rook, probably the smartest of the crows in Britain.  If you get close enough, you can hear a rook muttering to itself, in a small, gruff, hollow voice that sounds almost as if it is being produced electronically through a cheap loudspeaker:  Wot's 'e up to, then?  'As 'e got grub?  No? Wossat in 'is 'and, then?  Oi, not so close, matey, or I'm off!

As well as talking to themselves, rooks have a touching belief in the beauty of their own song.  This one was in fine form.  In the old joke, not so much bel canto as can belto.

Just before he took off, I noticed something had changed.  What the...

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Little Boxes

Break on through (to the other side)

These days, pretty much anyone with an interest in art and aesthetics will be aware of Walter Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction".  Quite a few will even have read it.  It's become a classic, though one which is much misunderstood, for the simple reason it is a pretty incoherent mish-mash of half-baked ideas, developed by someone whose sensibility was formed on the "wrong" side of a crucial historical divide in the development of what would then have been termed "mass culture".  Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Group in general, were like Dylan's Mr. Jones, aware that something was going on, but fated never to know quite what it was.  I know how they felt: social media are doing much the same thing to me.

The main takeaway that people get from Benjamin's essay is the idea of the difference between a reproduced work of art, which can have many contexts and uses, and the "aura" of the unique Real Thing, hanging on one particular wall somewhere.  John Berger picked up this and other ideas inchoate in Benjamin and ran with them in his TV series Ways of Seeing, broadcast in 1972 and perfectly timed to blow my teenage mind.  Overnight, aesthetic theory became cool and edgy, though I think I would more likely have called it "far out" at the time.

One major effect of growing up in a New Town like Stevenage, entirely populated by working and lower-middle class families and without any galleries or museums to speak of, is that you get all your "culture" from the town library, or from Sunday colour supplements.  Until I travelled to Europe in 1971 at the age of 17, and despite an intense interest in visual art, I had never actually been inside an art gallery until -- like some barbarian entering Rome -- I visited the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  Until then, every famous picture that I knew I had only seen in book or magazine sized reproductions.  That a Rubens painting might be bigger than the kitchen of our flat had never occurred to me; that a Dürer engraving might actually be smaller than its reproductions was equally a revelation.  But I found something else, too: that I was curiously immune to the "aura" of the Real Thing.  In many ways, I preferred a reproduction, and still do.

I was reminded of this when I went up to London to see the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy on Saturday with an old college friend.  It was incredibly crowded -- something I'd not expected at 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon in early September, in the last weeks of a show's run.  Gallery-going does seem to have become a very popular activity in recent years.  The problem is that contemplating works of art is hard to do over someone else's shoulder, or with an impatient queue building to your left.  Next!  You tend to gravitate to the less popular items, just to be able to spend a reasonable amount of time with them.  This is not ideal.

I've known about Cornell's boxes for a long time, but only ever seen the same few items regularly reproduced.  Small and in two dimensions these assemblages of cut-outs and bric-a-brac have an indefinable, intimate magic, not unlike the covers of the Junior World Encyclopaedia I posted about some years ago.  But at full size and in three dimensions -- for me, anyway -- a lot of the magic is lost.  It doesn't help when they're displayed behind multiple layers of reflective glass, or you are feeling under constant pressure to move on.  I was expecting to be enchanted; in fact, I was bored.

Oh, well; they still look pretty good in the catalogue.  And, ironically, some of the best items, it turns out, are two-dimensional, after all.

The same message twice: for Joseph Cornell

Sunday, 6 September 2015


Sorry, this is a long one.  Sometimes I make a picture, and then wonder what on earth I meant by it, or at least what I have to say about it, directly or indirectly.   A picture may not always be worth a thousand words, but you're going to get them, anyway.  No need to read them, of course.

The shadow cast by the Second World War is a very long one; my generation, born within a decade of that conflict's ending, will perhaps never quite escape it, despite not having experienced the War directly.  In some ways it's harder to escape from a shadow than from the thing itself; the Battle of Britain lasted for less than four months in 1940, but has been replayed and re-interpreted constantly over the succeeding seventy years.

We grew up in an environment saturated with representations of the battles our parents had fought, and played with toy versions of the weapons and materiel they had fought them with.  Dinky, Corgi, Airfix, Matchbox, Britains...  Toy manufacturers vied with each other in the variety and accuracy of the die-cast models and plastic-assembly kits we could buy with our pocket-money.  Field-guns that fired matchsticks devastated ranks of plastic soldiers on living room carpets across the country, while trucks and tanks advanced through the mown grass of suburban lawns.  In the streets, woods, and fields, children ambushed and charged, armed to the teeth by Lone Star.  You might be forgiven for thinking that a fresh generation was being made war-ready.

I was thinking about this as I watched the Ken Burns seven-parter, The War.  The Ken Burns formula will be familiar to anyone who has watched at least one of his other productions.  His signature style is based on clever rostrum camera work, panning across archival images and zooming in on a significant detail -- often an expressive face -- or zooming out to give context.  The other key elements are a resonant voice-over; a focus on the stories of a limited number of representative participants; intercut "talking head" interviews with witnesses and experts; and, crucially, the use of evocative musical leitmotifs that tie the parts together, emotionally.  It really does work, although one can feel manipulated at times.

Britons often bemoan the Hollywood tendency to rewrite WW2, recasting and slanting events to maximise American agency and to caricature the role of others.  Burns' series shows the other side of the coin: the War as experienced in the USA.  It's both instructive and a useful corrective.  In particular, we tend to regard the Pacific War as the stuff of comic books.  A veteran of dozens of TV histories, I found I was shocked anew by its brutal insanity; the absurd slaughter of hundreds of thousands of young men fighting to the death over useless atolls and tiny volcanic islands.  The sheer wasteful folly of warfare is laid bare, looking at footage of Iwo Jima.  There's really nothing else to see.

Which made me wonder how often combatants must have had intense moments of clarity:  "This is INSANE.  We're all going to DIE.  I've had ENOUGH.  I don't UNDERSTAND what we're doing here..."  Fairly often, I'd have thought, especially in the case of young Americans drafted from some Californian demi-paradise straight into hot hell.  In this regard, the Burns interview with historian Paul Fussell, an infantry lieutenant at the Battle of the Bulge, is enlightening.  Fussell later wrote extensively about men at war, and the gulf between the romantic myth and the grisly reality; in his own words he made a "career out of refusing to disguise it or elevate it".  Yet even he identifies the fear of shame in the eyes of one's peers as, in most cases, outweighing the fear of death or personal injury.  I suppose the mythicised version of that fear goes by the names of "duty" and "honour", old-fashioned ideas most of us have come to regard with deep suspicion, but which may run deeper than we think.

American writer Carl Sandburg, in his poem "The People, Yes" (1936) wrote, "Sometime they'll give a war, and nobody will come". This spoke out loud a possibility that the Peace Movement of the 1960s seized on and turned into a rhetorical question:  what if they gave a war and nobody came?  The verb "to give" implicitly compares a war with a party, attendance at which is purely optional.  Why the hell would anybody choose to dance on that killing floor?

Choice, of course, is not usually an option, when it comes to war.  Ironically, perhaps, Sandburg's phrase was taken up in post-war Germany, and often re-attributed to Bertolt Brecht: "Stell dir vor, es kommt Krieg und keiner geht hin" (Imagine, war comes and nobody goes).  However, some cynic, at some point, added a new line:  "Dann kommt der Krieg zu euch!" (then the war will come to you!).  And then some genuine lines of Brecht were appended:
Wer zu Hause bleibt, wenn der Kampf beginnt
Und lässt andere kämpfen für seine Sache
Der muss sich vorsehen: denn
Wer den Kampf nicht geteilt hat
Der wird teilen die Niederlage.
Nicht einmal den Kampf vermeidet
Wer den Kampf vermeiden will: denn
Es wird kämpfen für die Sache des Feinds
Wer für seine eigene Sache nicht gekämpft hat.

Who stays at home, when the fight begins
And lets others fight for his cause
Should take care: for
He who does not share
In the fight will share in the defeat.
You won't even avoid the fight by

Not fighting.  Since
Not to have fought for your own cause
Is to have fought for the enemy's cause.
All true enough, but a little odd, coming from a blowhard dramatist who spent most of that war in exile in Hollywood.

Luckily for us, my generation in Britain never, in the end, had to face such a choice, except metaphorically.  Pacifism is easy, when no-one is dropping bombs on your street, or packing your relatives off to camps to die.  Struggle is easy, too, when no-one need get hurt beyond a bloody nose at a demonstration, or need fear "disappearance" merely for having taken part in one.  Both are easy, when you have the luxury of picking and choosing who your enemies are, or whether to have any at all.

It all becomes a lot more complicated when someone else decides that you are the enemy.  So unfair!  At that point, "something worth fighting for" stops being a metaphor and, awkwardly -- if your self-appointed enemy decides to force the issue -- mutates into "something worth dying for".  Inevitably, I think we're all beginning to wonder, as the world changes chaotically around us, what we'd be prepared -- and not prepared -- to do, if such a time were to come again.  Or, more to the point, what we'd be prepared, or not prepared, for our children to have to do.

Watching Burns' footage of the Pacific slaughter I came to understand more viscerally the motivation behind the dropping of the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  How much more senseless butchery of their children was anyone prepared to endure to bring about the surrender of Japan?  Why not at least try this new-fangled weapon, and see whether it would finally put a dent in Japan's will to fight on to the bitter end?  Perhaps it would be a simple, less costly alternative to what we have learned to call "boots on the ground"?  Even with hindsight, it is hard to characterise that decision as absolutely mistaken.

Of course, the victims of those bombs were primarily non-combatant civilians.  Even without the current news focus on the mass movements of populations fleeing conflict and oppression worldwide, the most striking thing about WW2 was the impact on non-combatant, civilian populations.  The figures speak for themselves.  France alone lost around 390,000 civilians; that's about the same figure as the British military deaths.  To prepare the way for the invasion of Europe, French cities were carpet-bombed.  As Antony Beevor writes in D-Day:
The British bombing of Caen beginning on D-Day in particular was stupid, counter-productive and above all very close to a war crime. There was an assumption, I think, that Caen must have been evacuated beforehand. That was wishful thinking on the part of the British. 
That's one way of looking at "liberation", I suppose.  Then come the big numbers: Poland lost 5.5 million civilians; the Soviet Union somewhere around 9 million; Germany, around 2 million.  It takes a real effort of imagination to imagine all those invisible civilians hidden somewhere in that familiar footage of soldiers fighting over cities reduced to rubble; dead, injured, terrified, hungry, and huddled in cellars.  Or on the road somewhere fleeing the carnage, and inconsiderately blocking the free flow of military transport, a strategic factor that fools like Montgomery failed to take into account, and which contributed to the disaster at Arnhem.

This was nothing new, of course.  Something like 1 million European civilians had died in the Napoleonic Wars, and another 2 million in WW1.  But the cold fact is that more civilians died in WW2 than combatants, either as a direct result of military action, or by starvation and disease -- around 50 million, something like 60% of the overall "butcher's bill".  Similar numbers wandered the continent, or were forcibly expelled, as "displaced persons".  "This is INSANE.  We're all going to DIE.  I've had ENOUGH.  I don't UNDERSTAND what we're doing here..."  Probably a more terrible thought to be having in the ruins of your own home than in some foxhole far away.

And yet, curiously, as far as I'm aware, no toy manufacturer ever made suitable quantities of scale-model refugees, with belongings piled on carts and children carried on their shoulders, to put alongside their tanks, trucks, field guns and military personnel.  I suppose they can be forgiven for not making "mass grave of unidentified civilians", or "assorted body parts, 1:72 scale".  Which -- who knows? -- may help to explain our inability to see refugees for what they are: the principal human fallout or "collateral damage" of our well-meaning, self-serving foreign policies involving real-life games with bombs and soldiers.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015


In Britain, no-one factors in the heat of summer when planning a building.  What would be the point?  In a "good" summer, there might be two or three weeks of continuous sunshine; in a more typical year, like this one, successive weeks of perpetual gloom and rain are just as likely.  I suppose that's how you end up with a building that can focus the sun's rays onto the street and melt cars.  Oops!

Consequently, the weather forecast is a matter of intense interest to us, and an important evening and morning ritual: who knows what might be happening tomorrow?  Sure, it's August, but that doesn't mean you won't need a coat, or even, if you're very unlucky indeed, a boat.  That's why the Fast Show "Scorchio!" sketch is funny (to us): just imagine living in a country where the weather is invariably sunny, eh!

Portugal, of course, is a hot country, though the influence of the ocean means it's not always a "scorchio" country, as our chilly experience in Sintra proved.  But it's hot enough for refuge from the sun to be an important factor.  Buildings are built to provide shade, and blinds of various sorts and subtlety are installed on most windows, much more commonly than curtains.  Although it is surprising how many older small shops have the sort of noisy, free-standing air-conditioning units you associate with countries where intense heat has come as an unwelcome surprise.  As an Atlantic people, I suspect the Portuguese have an underlying phlegmatic, stoical attitude to changeable weather not dissimilar to our own.  Hot in summer?  Who'd have thought it?  Mustn't grumble...

Visually, I find the play of intense light and shadow on architectural and domestic surfaces entrancing.  I love to sit and watch the distorted shadow-play on a window-blind as it shifts gently back and forth in a sea breeze, and the strong afternoon shadows cast on baking streets and stonework by trees and street furniture became a bit of an obsession.  Fuji cameras do seem ideally suited to these contrasty situations, and even the little X-20 took them comfortably in its stride. Those annoying "blown highlights" were a rarity.

Incidentally, if you can read the traffic sign in that last picture, it illustrates something that always intrigues me.  Most languages have some aspect that strikes you as mad when you first encounter them as a stranger.  English is pretty much made out of such madnesses, of course, not least our orthography; it is a cause for astonishment how so many learn to speak it so well as a second language.  But in French, for example, the numbers are utterly baffling: how such a self-declared rational people ended up representing "99" as "four twenties and nineteen" (quatre-vingt-dix-neuf) is beyond me.  I dread dealing with money in France, and behave like a true tourist at the till, shoving large denomination notes across the counter, hoping for the best.

In Portuguese, the "mad" thing I immediately noticed was the names of the days of the week.  There's none of your good old pagan "moon day", "Thor's day", and the rest of it.  It seems that the Catholic Church in Portugal, uniquely in Europe, saw that off centuries ago.  In an act of stunning oddness, all the days of the week were given the names of the days of Holy Week -- the one week in the year in Catholic Europe when nobody was expected to work.  So, apart from Saturday and Sunday, all the days are named as numbered feiras, meaning "fairs" or "holidays".  That is, Monday is segunda-feira ("second holiday"), Tuesday terça-feira ("third holiday"), and so on.  Confusing...

Returning to that sign, it takes an effort of imagination to recognise segunda and sexta feira as days of the week, and true insight to interpret them as "Monday" and "Friday".  As with those French numbers, it's entirely rational in its own terms, but nevertheless more than a little crazy.  To read that parking restrictions apply "from second to sixth holiday" is bewildering on two levels: Monday and Friday generally being thought of as the first and fifth days of the working week, not the second and sixth, and working days only rarely counting as "holidays".

Oh, well.  It's all part of the fun of being abroad.  Unless, of  course, you get a parking ticket.