Saturday, 31 October 2015

Baltic Daydream

"There is a tide in the affairs of men..."

It is estimated that something like ten percent of the population of Southampton is now made up of Eastern European immigrants, mainly from Poland and Lithuania.  Shops catering to Polish tastes have popped up everywhere, and all the main supermarkets now carry Polish staples, from kielbasa sausages to carrot juice.  I wonder where they'll get their live carp for Christmas, though?

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Rehearsal Space

I enjoy revisiting these digital collages, in a constant process of revision.   A first pass at this one was shown in an earlier post this month, but I think I like this version more.  It's the great advantage of working with layers: like theatrical scenery "flats", you can drop new ones in and out, to see what effect they have, and reposition your actors to the best advantage.  "No, sweetie, lift that left leg a little more...  That's it...  But do try not to fall over, darling."

Talking of crows lifting their legs, I hadn't really realised until recently that no tetrapod animal -- anything four-limbed, whether it be a crow, a crocodile, or a cat -- has knees that bend backwards. It's just that some have particularly high ankles and long footbones, dividing the hind limb into three sections, rather than two.  Such creatures walk on "feet" made entirely of toes.

Obvious, really, if you've ever carved a chicken.  Not so obvious, looking at a horse, but true, nonetheless.  It seems evolution, too, likes to revisit its work, in a constant process of revision.  Though, of course, that process is what evolution is, rather than what "it" does.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Shepherd's Warning

OK, look away now, if (like me) you have an extreme antipathy to photographs of sunsets.  I'm really sorry about this...  Come back another day!

It's just that our new flat in Bristol is perched on a bluff above the Avon Gorge, and you get these spectacular views all day long.  There's the river filling to the brim with the incoming tide, then draining away to a muddy trickle; buzzards and crows sky-skirmishing in their ancient tribal feud; improbably large boats and incredibly long freight-trains moving slowly along the gorge; all sorts of weather coming in and passing over; green woodpeckers and jays flashing around on the trees and lawns below.  It can be a real effort to drag yourself away from the kitchen window.  And when you do, you generally trip over something in the gloom, because your eyes won't adjust after gazing on daylight for too long.  Maybe I should substitute "I" for "you", there... Is this an age thing?  I don't remember it being a problem before...  Anyway,  this all culminates on most evenings in the sort of extended crepuscular lightshow that you only really get to see from an elevated viewpoint.

Generally, of course, a sunset is too extreme a phenomenon to be rendered photographically.  The hot core of the show -- the sun! -- is far too far off the scale to pull back into any kind of satisfactory range, which is why nearly all sunset photographs are false representations of what could actually be seen at the time.  They show us what could be photographed at the time, which is not the same thing.  The kind of "awesome" sunset image people seem to like is generally a radically under-exposed image, with lurid, harsh colours bunched at the hotter end of the spectrum, and the land reduced to an ugly, sooty silhouette, like a Hawaiian shirt from hell.  I suppose if you're a habitual wearer of very dark sunglasses you might actually have seen something of the sort, but -- in British latitudes, anyway -- a remarkable sunset is a far more nuanced spectacle, with plenty of residual visibility in the landscape.

Sunset, by Georges Seurat, with added, overexposed sun
(no need to thank me, Georges, it's what I do)
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Obviously, a better approach is to photograph the effects of the sunset, rather than the sun itself setting.  But, even then, you're likely to find yourself in the sort of extreme exposure range situation where some sort of bracketed HDR technique may be useful (though I've never tried anything like that myself -- I believe something called a tripod is involved).  Call me lazy, but I usually find my interest waning when a potential picture is pushing the "technical challenge" needle too far up the dial.  It's the simplicity of photography that attracts me, not its difficulty, and if a bit of exposure compensation doesn't get the shot, I walk away.

The only problem with our flat is that it's on the top floor, without a balcony, and the windows are hinged at the top edge, only opening about eight inches at the bottom -- I presume so that only extremely thin people can jump out -- so getting a decent angle on the scene is restricted to sticking one arm out, composing obliquely on the rear LCD through the double-glazing, and hoping not to drop the camera.  This is not a technique to be recommended if you like your photographs "tack sharp", whatever that means.  Or, indeed, if you have no insurance against accidental damage.

The Prof is cross with me at the moment, as a lens-hood popped off as it brushed against the window-frame -- curse you, Fuji! -- and ended up in the gutter of our downstairs neighbour's balcony roof.  Where it is BOUND to cause a blockage.  I am investigating the possibility of finding some kind of whippy, extendable stick, about ten feet long ("And that is how, Your Honour, I came to be on that roof with binoculars and a telescopic pole...").  It's a shame I no longer have my old fishing rod, made from a tank radio-aerial by my brother-in-law, back in the days when stuff was not cheap and we were poor, and clever improvisation was the thing.  I wonder if I could find a tank parked in a quiet street...

But did I hear someone out there say, "selfie stick"?

Monday, 26 October 2015

Not Just Me, Then

Narrow Quay hoarding, Bristol

Talking of ancient music and tribes, which I was a couple of posts ago, one phenomenon I could never understand was the cult of the Grateful Dead.  This may be a peculiarly British blindspot or prejudice, although I have known a few fervent Brit "deadheads", including an otherwise very admirable friend who arranged for "Box of Rain" to be played at his own memorial service.  Younger readers may not know the cult whereof I speak, so I direct their attention to this video on YouTube.  Ignore the dire animated intro, and then marvel at this live recording from 1974.  Not at the band, but at the audience.  Honestly...  All those hysterically-grinning, hand-waving fools...  Yes, if you're American and under 40, those may well have been your parents.  It's nothing but Billy Graham Beatlemania shifted into a different groove.

Obviously, the idea of the Dead had a certain appeal.  To have been the house band at Ken Kesey's "acid tests", to have ingested such prodigious amounts of various illicit substances and yet still manage to find their way on stage (never mind figure out which way up a guitar goes), as well as having acquired such a fanatically loyal fanbase, who would travel to the ends of the earth to be present at any Grateful Dead manifestation...  It's a legend to match those of the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan, or The Who.  Apart from one thing.  The music.

Oh, man, the trees ... They're just ... machines!
(Millennium Square, Bristol)

Oh, that music.  I suppose if you like homogenized, chug-along, boogified blues, with all the edges smoothed off, and with some portentous grab-bag lyrics about nothing in particular floating on top, all sung in the same limp harmonized vocals, with plenty of directionless guitar noodling ladled over everything, then you might not turn it off if it came on the radio.  But I have never been able to understand how anyone ever experienced a Damascene moment by listening to that feeble whining noise with its pasted-on ain't-we-got-fun rictus, however stoned they might have been at the time.

Why, you might justifiably ask, is there then no similar cult around, say, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (come on, they all had to be on something to remain so relentlessly upbeat), or any other outfit of inoffensively bland toe-tappers?  Though, on reflection, I believe it's true that muzak-meister and "party king" James Last did have a devoted and multitudinous following (Hansi-heads?).  I suspect in the case of the Dead it's a "sizzle vs. sausage" thing: like that other storied outfit from a rather different corner of the USA, the Velvet Underground, it seems the myth-making, publicity and back-story far outshine the "product", and will probably outlast it, too.  Rather like Swinburne or Byron, with their eternally fascinating "life and legend", and unread, mostly unreadable poetry.

Which means I was gratified to read this post on veteran music journalist David Hepworth's blog.  So, not just me, then!  Let the hate-mail commence...  I do not stand alone!

Mind you, I do feel very much the same about The Smiths.

Millennium Square, Bristol: giant mirrored ball

Saturday, 24 October 2015


The Moscow State Circus had been in town last week, camped out on Bristol's Clifton Downs. Early one morning, as they were packing up to hit the road, I walked through the remaining trailers and caravans, drawn up into a ragged circle around the yellowed patch of ground where the big top had been.

It must be a strange life, being circus folk.  In and around the encampment I could hear not just Russian but a rich mix of various other languages, as performers and stagehands did what presumably they spend most of their time doing: hanging around, getting ready, arguing, and moving on.  A glamorous trapeze-artist looks pretty indistinguishable from the girl who runs the ticket office, when kitted out in a hoodie, jeans, and trainers, though I doubt the ticket-office girl does quite such elaborate stretches in the morning.  Various semi-feral kids were running in and out of caravans, apparently trying to kill each other.

A long time ago I did once work as a "casual" for a couple of days with a visiting circus, hammering steel stakes into the ground for the hundreds of guy-ropes that hold everything up.  The cash was good, but it seemed a pretty seedy, hand-to-mouth sort of life, and needless to say I was not remotely inclined to run away with them, in the traditional style.  Though I suppose in meaner, leaner times the temptation must have been stronger, and something of the sort must have given young Will Shakespeare his chance to break out of a dull, predictable life of making gloves in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Friday, 23 October 2015


Another week mainly spent in Bristol, but as I have now bought myself a proper Windows laptop I have been less out of touch with the world than before, though I'm not yet ready to do full-on image editing on it.  Talking of Windows, it's interesting to see how many of you are Mac users, if Google Analytics can be trusted, which probably speaks volumes about the elegance and sophistication of my readers.  But for those who have stuck with Big Bill, I recommend the upgrade from the egregious Windows 8 to Windows 10 -- it's fairly painless (just a few drivers to download, in my case) and well worth it, if only to get the Start menu back.  For once" free" doesn't mean "rubbish", and I presume what it really means is "sorry about that"... Needless, to say, I still use the "desktop" mode, and don't think I'll ever go for the Windows "apps" approach.

It's been a poor week for photography, though, starting out with filthy, dull air trapped near the ground by a "decaying high pressure system", then becoming wet and windy as low pressure moved in from the Atlantic, a classic meteorological sequence in these parts.  Have I ever mentioned I studied geography at A-level?  Back in those days, English, German and Geography was the sort of "irrational" combination that, the conventional wisdom claimed, would damage one's chances of university entrance, though not as much as the German, Art and Geography combo I had originally proposed.  It was an acceptable compromise on both sides, and I did love geography with its boots-on-the ground, pragmatic attitude to the world.  We regularly used to play a classroom game called Hunt The Climate, which involved pinpointing a location on the planet based solely on its meteorological data -- not as hard as it sounds, once you've grasped the basic principles of climate patterns.  Although it's probably a much harder game to play in these days of dramatic and unpredictable climate change.

Nevertheless, I had some productive outings, including a lengthy stroll around the waterfront area, which is where the Arnolfini Gallery and Watershed arts centre are, and which used to be one of our main haunts when we first lived in Bristol back in the late 1970s.  I'd forgotten how much like Amsterdam these parts of Bristol are, with narrow cobbled streets running alongside canalized waterways, in the shadow of tall warehouse buildings.  Viv Stanshall -- every English eccentric ever rolled into one -- used to live on a boat moored in the docks then.  I don't know who lives in the houseboat in the foreground of the picture above, but that is one fancy paint-job!

But, my, how things have changed...  Like so many post-industrial cities, Bristol has invested much time, money and effort in recent decades into transforming its legacy of picturesque and capacious dockside buildings into arts, entertainment and educational facilities.  As a result, there are many upmarket bars, restaurants and clubs packed into what was once a moderately squalid area of mainly derelict and abandoned industrial buildings.  Although it seems these new businesses and activities have brought their own squalor, in the form of casually-dumped consumer rubbish, much of it gathering in mini-versions of the Great Pacific Rubbish Vortex.  People can be hard to love, can't they?  I mean, sure, the trees have made a hell of mess, chucking their leaves carelessly all over the place, but they'll sink and rot in time.  But those bottles, cans and takeaway boxes will be bobbing around until some poor devil is assigned the job of fishing them all out.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Being There

A musician

There's an excellent satirical show on BBC Radio 4 called The Now Show.  For an all-too-short six-episode season it broadcasts on Friday evenings in summer with a Saturday lunchtime repeat, poking gentle fun at the figures and issues in the news of the preceding week.  One of the show's most reliable regulars is Mitch Benn, who generally contributes two topical songs in an appropriate pastiche style; he's a gifted mimic, as well as writing genuinely funny comedy lyrics.

My only problem with Mitch Benn is that he was born in 1970.  Why is this a problem?  Because Mitch recently had his own series aired on Radio 4, in which he explored the music and legacy of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Elvis Presley.  And why is that a problem?  Well, because the series is very much about the impact of these artists on Mitch himself, and by any reckoning their golden years were pretty much over by his fifth birthday.  It seems that, in these days of instant access to everything, anyone can "own" anything, as if they were there at the time.  It shouldn't annoy me (Bach's golden years were over two centuries before I was born, after all) but it does.

Being there at the time used to be important, when it came to pop culture.  I mean, I have always regarded myself as a little too young to really be into Bob Dylan, despite the fact that Blood on the Tracks came out while I was at university.  He "belongs" to the generation that came of age in the mid-1960s.  Bowie, on the other hand, started out belonging in an ironic kind of way to my generation -- giving a cohort of students an excuse to glam it up like drag queens for a few years and bounce around to "Jean Genie" -- but he really belongs to the next wave, who saw "Starman" performed on Top of the Tops in 1972 aged 12 and came into their own college years synchronously with Bowie's "Berlin" phase.  Musical generations used not to be matter of choice, but of destiny, and were separated by as little as five years.

"Being there" is clearly still important when it comes to live music.  Anyone can listen to the recordings of past years, and increasingly they do  -- I posted some years ago about my amazement at hearing Black Sabbath's Paranoid playing to 14-year-olds in a Games Workshop outlet -- but to have been in the audience at significant performances is the thing that really knocks those character-forming dents into your soul (and also, unfortunately and less figuratively, your eardrums -- curse you, Hawkwind!).  Obviously, a significant gig needn't be a stellar performance by a big name.  The occasion that turned me from a mild-mannered swot into an idiot-dancing degenerate was a tiny set played in a community centre function room by a local blues-covers outfit, Vinegar Tom (no, not Vinegar Joe)*.   They were probably awful, or at least no more than competent, but I had never been within concussion range of 100 watt amplifiers and a drum kit before, and went home with my ears ringing and my soul truly on fire for the first time.

Even today, you don't just happen to be at a gig, the way you might catch something interesting on the radio or on Spotify: you have to know about it, it has to be happening within a convenient travel radius, you may even have to get hold of a ticket; but most importantly you actually have to turn up, and you have to fit in.  All of which means you may have found yourself a tribe.  Finding a tribe is one of the transformative experiences of youth, and not everyone is lucky enough to find one.  If you do, though, for a few heady years you may experience a completeness of being and belonging that will mark you for life, though not necessarily in a helpful way.

All the young dudes (Knebworth 1974). image © Martyn Cornell

The best thing is to form your own tribe, or to join a loose coalition of local tribes with a strong identity.   Think of the Canterbury Scene of the late 1960s, or the Bromley Contingent of the punk era.  Those few years of intense fun will store up enough nostalgia to see you well into your anecdotage.  Not so good, though, is to have joined an off-the-peg tribe, one of those with a strict dress-code and which encourage life-time membership.  Teds, bikers, heavy metal, punk...  These are tribes with some seriously senior members.  No doubt somewhere there will eventually be retirement homes for rockers who have finally banged their heads a gig too far, with the muzak turned up to 12, and a relaxed policy on in-house intoxication.  But it is a grim sight, to see grey-beards and grannies still rocking the tribal uniforms of their youth or, worst of all, to see youngsters aping the youthful getups of their elders and betters, especially when it's my youthful getup.  It is simply not true that you are only as old (or as pretty) as you feel.  If only...  Get a mirror, old dudes, and hey, you young 'uns, get offa my cloud.

But to get back to Mitch Benn, and other slightly nerdish enthusiasts like him...  I suppose the annoying thing is the sense of having your old clothes stolen (even if they don't really fit you any more), but I do think that this pick'n'mix attitude towards music which is actually the partial fossil record of long-extinct "scenes" does do a disservice to popular music.  You can't form a new scene around pop antiquarianism.

It all adds to the feeling that pop is now stalled in a perpetual revival of styles that are forty, fifty, even sixty years old.  Yes, Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan and Bowie were great, but they were also new.  I seem to have heard nothing substantially new for the last thirty years, not since rap and the various forms of techno first crunched into the airwaves, and neither of those was much more than a rhythmic recycling machine, musically-speaking.  Perhaps we're now in a post-pop world?  In the words of "Kansas City", have we gone about as fer as we c'n go?  What do you mean, kid, you've never heard of Oklahoma?  That -- and all the music like it -- is the reason why rock'n'roll exists!**

It weighs pop down to be handled with the kind of semi-scholarly reverence that forgets that it is primarily throwaway music for young people to dance and have fun to -- nothing more, nothing less.  A book like Ian MacDonald's much-praised Revolution in the Head has added nothing to my enjoyment or understanding of the Beatles.  Worse, to regard the soundtracks of previous teen generations as a library of models to copy -- right down to reproducing the sound of a particular guitar or studio ambience on a particular record -- is not just uncreative, it is to put on voluntarily the constricting straitjacket of classicism.

Unfortunately, the Web means that this is now a permanent and universal condition, rather than the private vice of the kind of person who used to read and remember the credits on album covers.  Everyone now will "always already" have heard it on the grape vine, and done the Locomotion while dancing in the street with Maybelline and Lucille, the girls from Ipanema.  It's all just one big musical grab bag.  You've got to feel sorry for creative young musicians who live with the burden that their task is to match or improve upon, say, the mighty works of Motown or Atlantic Soul.  R-E-S-P-E-C-T to anyone prepared to give it a try, though.

But remember, kids...  As we used to say in 1971:  be here now. And, no, that has absolutely nothing to do with bloody Oasis...

Some tribes are for life...

* An interesting sidelight:  the name "Vinegar Tom" can be found on a 17th c. engraving relating to the activities of Witchfinder-General Matthew Hopkins -- it's the name a witch under interrogation gives to one of her familiars, a hound-like creature with a bull's head.  The name was used by Caryl Churchill for the title of her 1976 play about witch-hunting, and I presume that engraving is also the source of the band's name (ca. 1969), though I recall speculation at school that, you know, "vinegar" equals "acid" and, like, "Tom" is short for "Tom Mix", rhyming slang for a fix, obviously.  Which just goes to show how a little learning can turn you into an idiot.  Quite how the originators of the band Vinegar Joe latched onto the formula is an interesting question.

** Yes, I am beginning to repeat myself.  See these posts: G-L-O-R-I-A from 2010 and You Can All Join In from 2011.  I'm 61, you know....

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Goat Gulley

A couple of weeks ago when I was in Bristol, I decided to go for a scramble down the Avon Gorge.  In places, the Gorge is sufficiently rocky and vertical to be a worthy challenge to those lunatics, rock-climbers.  There are hundreds of established routes with typically bizarre names -- Atmosfears, The Trembling, Dark Crystal, and The Enchanted Gordon, to pick a few at random --  pegged at every level of difficulty*.  I should say that I have never embarked on a proper rock-climb in my life, except once or twice by mistake.  I like steep rocky places, but try to stick to the paths.  I always have in my mind the example of someone I once worked with who was confined to a wheelchair. A keen climber, he had tried to take a shortcut up an Irish cliff on his way to a wedding.  He never got there.

I decided to go down a steep little gulley which is allegedly populated by wild goats.  There are signs at the top which inform you of this fact, and which warn you not to go to the aid of any goat apparently in distress.  As if I'd fall for that old trick!  It was a lovely, bright, early autumn day, and once I'd dropped into the Gorge on its south-facing side the microclimate kicked in, and it was immediately as if I were somewhere in the Dordogne; dry and sunny, steep limestone and light scrub above, dense trees and a river gorge below.  I had fun negotiating the narrow, descending tracks, and allowed myself the small risk of walking down a scree slope and a 35° bare rock "slide", polished smooth by generations of backsides.

What I hadn't expected was the little tower in the photograph.  As I descended it came into view, dramatically backlit by the afternoon sun.  Being of a literary bent, I immediately thought of Browning's poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came".  It's a great poem, the subject of much psychological speculation, but best understood, I suggest, as the paranoid ravings of a rambler who has overdone the magic mushrooms, and is passing through a perfectly ordinary rural landscape.
There they stood, ranged along the hill-side, met
 To view the last of me, a living frame
 For one more picture! in a sheet of flame

I saw them and I knew them all. And yet

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,

 And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”
Seeing the protective grille on top, however, I realised -- in an un-Rolandish moment of clarity -- that it was one of the ventilation shafts for the Clifton Down railway tunnel, and marked as such on the map.  To add to the bathos, I hadn't seen a single goat, either.  But they could probably tell from my slug-horn that I was wise to their brigandish tricks.

The Gorge from Goat Gulley (aka Walcombe Slade)

* I hadn't realised until writing this that climbing grades vary internationally, and need a conversion table!  Should you care, there's an interesting summary here.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Essex Is Not The Only Fruit

Upstart crows

For a change, I have been way out east, rather than way out west for a couple of days this week, and took the opportunity to see a very old friend, Rob, a musician normally resident near Nîmes in the south of France, but briefly back in the rather less enticing Essex Riviera to sort out his affairs after the death of his father.  We hadn't met in a very long time -- thirty-five years really is "long time, no see" -- but we've stayed intermittently in touch, and the friends you make in your youth are a sort of elective family, aren't they?

In fact, those ties are often rather stronger than the ones we have with our "real" family.  Certainly, in my case, the family bonds are pretty feeble by comparison.  I was always an easily-overlooked and ignored oddity and outlier in our family.  A late second child, a decade younger than most of my familial generation, and an uncle by age 11, I was only interested in mysterious, useless things like nature, books and art.  A bit of a changeling, in fact, if not quite a black sheep, whose birthdays and achievements usually went unremarked by the wider family.  Perhaps it was felt that I was an annoyingly precocious little so-and-so; perhaps I was.  Perhaps everyone was too busy raising and cooing over new babies; undoubtedly. Or perhaps it was that we were a scattered and uncommunicative family; that, too.  But, as a consequence, and like many bright but introverted children from families with modest expectations and aspirations, I was profoundly lonely until I finally met other members of my real tribe at secondary school.  A couple of whom were teachers.  But mostly they were oddballs like me, and a few who aspired to be "mad, bad, and dangerous to know".

So, there was a night catching up with the tribal gossip, legends and lore over red wine and whisky until 3 a.m., which is way past my habitual bedtime, these days.  As seems almost inevitable, one of those curious "degrees of separation" links emerged.  It seems that one of Rob's best friends in France is Kenneth Segar, sometime scholar of German language and literature at Oxford University, and now retired and based in Italy, but who still maintains a second home in Rob's town in the département du Gard.  This is remarkable because, although as an undergraduate I studied English, I had chosen to do a special paper on Goethe for my final year exams, and -- my college at that time lacking a suitable tutor -- it was to Dr. Segar at St. Edmund Hall that I was "farmed out" for tutorials.  He schooled me well, and I got one of my better marks on that paper.  Which, in fact -- and perhaps not surprisingly -- I was the only student to sit that year, or for several years, so the paper had to be printed especially for me.  What was I saying about being an outlier?

The next day we visited Colchester Castle, a little hung-over, as it seemed a harmless way to pass a few hours.  Within the "castle" (actually the largest Norman keep ever built in Britain) there is a substantial collection of fascinating archaeological loot, bling, and detritus, mainly from the Roman occupation and Dark Ages, all very nicely displayed and interpreted.  Confusingly, and perhaps deliberately so, there are many exhibits -- generally beautifully-made modern reproductions -- with the unusual label "Please Touch".  Eh?  This is exemplary and fun, though I can say that trying on a replica solid steel Civil War helmet is hazardous and not to be recommended with a hangover.

As for these two pictures, it was there in Colchester Castle, in a remote corner of an educational suite of rooms, that I saw some remarkable theatrical rehearsals taking place.  Or, at least, so it seems to me now.
I fear we shall outsleep the coming morn
As much as we this night have overwatch'd.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Rehearsal space

[N.B. for those puzzled by this post's title:  it's a mashup of the egregious "scripted reality" TV programme known popularly as TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex) and Jeanette Winterson's tale of her bizarre and lonely adopted childhood, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.  Though Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) might have been appropriate, too].

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Grand Designs

One of the joys of retirement is watching other people at work.  Building sites, in particular, are endlessly fascinating, and you'll always find a couple of old guys with nothing much else to do intently studying the construction process, like old fishermen gazing out to sea.  Today, I joined them.

Without so much as a by-your-leave, my favourite underpass route into Southampton's town centre has been excavated, and some grand building scheme is underway.  So, for the first time in the 30 years I've lived here, I actually climbed the steps up onto the ancient city walls, and looked down into the great basin of activity from an elevated viewpoint.  The light was good, and I thought it was time I did a little straight photography, before I forget how.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Charismatic Megafauna

A bit gothic, this one, perhaps a little too far into rock-album cover territory.  I have to work quite hard, sometimes, to avoid indulging my inner headbanger, whose tastes can be a little questionable, and who gravitates too rapidly to the cheap, easy thrills of the dark and the portentous.  As I have said before, scratch the veneer and underneath I'm still in large part an amalgam of various small-town youth-culture tribes circa 1971 (mind you, '71 was a very good year, and bound to leave its mark on any impressionable youth who had the good fortune to be there).  Occasionally, though, it's good to let him do his thing, otherwise he just sits in his room in the back of my head all day with the music on far too loud.  It's no wonder I've got tinnitus.

In reality, those imposing antlers -- about ten feet across -- are attached to a complete Irish elk skeleton in Bristol Museum, but I thought they looked better separated off and floating in space.  I've no idea what they weigh, but if they're solid and made of the same bony stuff as a red deer antler, then they are very heavy indeed.  It's hard to imagine going through life (or, more to the point, a forest or even very tall grass) with a pair of those attached to your head.  Talk about your charismatic megafauna...

The crows were scavenging for scraps at a picnic spot on top of the Avon Gorge, and thus easier to approach than is usually permitted.  Odin's ravens, Hugin and Munin, did come to mind, but I resisted the temptation to scatter runes all over the place.  Even when rocking the gothic, restraint is a virtue...

[scheduled post -- out of town until mid-week]

Sunday, 11 October 2015


Oh look, it's that hare again.  I can see it's going to become a looming presence in these composites, if I'm not careful, rather like Spiny Norman in the Python "Piranha Brothers" sketch.  Furry Harry, perhaps.  I just like his come-off-it glare.

Those Union Jack curtains are real, by the way; I spotted them when I was in Brighton last October.  Given their location in a terrace of bijou cottages in the Laines area, I imagine they are ironic, rather than patriotic curtains.  You can never be sure about this sort of camp gesture, though -- the annoying thing about ironists is that they can always have their cake and eat it.  "Oh, this cake?  No, I'm only pretending to eat it...  I'm enjoying acting as if I were the kind of person that eats cake, when clearly I'm not!  To be honest, I don't even want to have it that much.  Did you really think I did?  How sweet...  Here, do have some cake..."

Hares, needless to say, don't do irony.

[scheduled post -- out of town until mid-week]

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Dim Light of Nature

Britannia commands her legion of upstart crows to chase away the predatory, aristocratic falcon.  Get him, boys!  Fetch me a feather or two for my idiotic hat!

Huh?  Well, this week I watched the film Anonymous, and -- entertaining as it is -- I have not seen such a ridiculous confection of tendentious nonsense since, oh, Braveheart, say.  The film is a dramatisation of the so-called Shakespeare Authorship Question, given a spurious dignity by the presence of those very strange people, actors Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi, and Mark Rylance.  It plays fast and loose with historical facts in order to bolster the claim that the plays were written by the 17th Earl of Oxford, and not by some self-made nobody from the Midlands.  Oh, and that Elizabeth I had at least three illegitimate children by different fathers.  Obviously.

The "anti-Stratfordian" thing seems to be motivated entirely by snobbery.  How could such a person -- the son of a glover, if you please! -- possibly have written those plays?  It's very strange: I mean, does anyone question whether Thomas Cromwell could really have been Henry VIII's chief minister, because he was a low-born chancer from Putney with an unknown, undocumented past (including some murky years spent abroad), or suggest he was just a stooge for some aristocratic genius lurking in the background? It's baffling.  Besides, the whole point of Shakespeare was always that he was a "natural" genius, who didn't write stilted, aristocratic verse, or creaky "university" plays, hidebound by their own ostentatious learning.  As Beaumont wrote to Ben Jonson:

Here I would let slip
(If I had any in me) scholarship,
And from all learning keep these lines as clear
as Shakespeare's best are, which our heirs shall hear
Preachers apt to their auditors to show
how far sometimes a mortal man may go
by the dim light of Nature
Plus Shakespeare does get things wrong, often because he leaned too heavily on the contemporary equivalents of Wikipedia. Jonson got a big laugh from Will's belief that Bohemia had a coastline (Winter's Tale -- "exit pursued by a bear", and all that) and was quite dismissive of such "learning" as was on display in the plays.  Jonson himself, of course, was the adopted son of a bricklayer, and although famously learned was not university-educated, and a bit of a jail-bird.  As far as the more established writers were concerned, Will Shakespeare (or Shagsper, as anti-Stratfordians prefer) was a mere actor who had dared to try his hand at playwriting, an "upstart crow, beautified with our feathers".  Well, some crow, some feathers...

No, if it's an entertaining, speculative film about Shakespeare you want, I recommend Shakespeare in Love.  It's a rom-com romp, with an absurd but very Shakespearian cross-dressing plot, amusingly self-aware of its own deliberate anachronisms yet steeped in Shakespeare and theatrical history, and with a sparkling script by Tom Stoppard.  And a bit with a dog for the groundlings.

Hmm, Stoppard...  Yet another of these nobodies (an immigrant, if you please!) with no real education to speak of, and yet a suspiciously substantial body of work.  Which raises the question: who really wrote Jumpers, Travesties, and all those all other clever, witty plays about matters the autodidact and journalist "Stoppard" could not possibly have understood?

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Hall of Mirrors

Lady Falco welcomes you to her Hall of Mirrors, which leads to her private enclosed garden, or hortus conclusus.  Or, at any rate, what I imagine a hawk would imagine as a private garden.  Lots of mice in there; some nice perches; not a lot of effort gone into the wall...

The curious thing about this picture is that the two foreground mirrors and the grassy background are real, and constitute the same, single photograph: they stand, like monoliths (mirrorliths?), in a tapir paddock at Marwell Zoo.  Why, I have no idea.  Perhaps tapirs are delusional creatures, or simply incredibly vain, and need regular reminders of quite how weird they really are?  Something we all need, from time to time.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Hare Today

Of all the easy cliches of graphic art, hares are up there with suns, moons and stars, and all the other symbolically-overloaded repertoire you are likely to find in combination on artisanal greetings cards, along with various decoratively stylized plant seed-heads.  The hare is a creature of mystery with strong pagan associations and, in its leaping form, seems to awaken some latent, atavistic response in the soul of the kind of person who is attracted to the folksy, home-spun appeal of faux-naive paintings and woodcuts*.  That would be me, then.

Hares -- real hares, that is -- do seem to be more common, these days.  Or perhaps it's just that I am spending more time in the kinds of places hares favour.  One can generally be seen each evening going up the grassy track that runs past our Easter hangout in mid-Wales, loping slowly along like a cat with its hind legs loosely tied together.  The long, black-tipped ears, baleful eyes, and gangly legs easily distinguish the hare from its ubiquitous cousin, the rabbit.  I believe they are more tasty, too, though I have never yet tested that.

This particular specimen is stuffed, of course, extracted and placed before a segment of an enormous oil painting of a harvest scene, itself placed in front of the side of a telephone booth.  Beneath, a particularly fine ichthyosaur fossil, also from Bristol Museum, dreams Jurassic dreams.  Why?  Because it works for me and, besides, if you can show me that combination on a greetings card I'll be very surprised.

My closest encounter of the leporine kind happened in Norfolk.  One summer, we were staying in a cottage near Swaffham, right next to a typical East Anglian agricultural field. Early one evening, a hare wriggled under the fence, and sat on the edge of the lawn.  As we watched, it keeled over, and lay there, panting.  It didn't get up again.

Having convinced the kids it was only having a nap -- hares are famous for that! -- I resolved to sneak out later before it got too dark, fetch a spade from the shed, and bury the poor creature behind the hedge somewhere.  As I approached, I was impressed by the size of the thing: it was like a small dog.  It was also, I realised, still breathing.  Shit.  Should I despatch it myself, or let nature take its course?  As I dithered, one yellow eye snapped open, and the hare saw me standing over it, holding a spade like an executioner's axe. It stood up, gave itself a shake, and ran off like, well, like a hare.  As I said, famous for it.

* Hare lore is extensively documented by George Ewart Evans in his book The Leaping Hare, published in 1972 and which is still in print.  There has also been a lot of interest in the curious phenomenon of the "three hares", see Chris Chapman's Three Hares Project, for example.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Aeolian, Aleatory

Treesong installation

I was in Bristol again this last week, and had some interesting encounters.  One of the things I strongly associate with Bristol is good art, easily accessible.  This mainly derives from our previous residence in the city during that wonderful period of the late 1970s to the early 1980s, when land art, conceptual art, radical cinema, new photography and exciting music all seemed to be bubbling up from the ground.  Even earlier, on hedonistic visits to a friend studying there, art also managed to figure: I recall that in 1972 we were ejected from an exhibition of kinetic art at the Arnolfini Gallery with the words, "This is an art gallery, not an adventure playground".  Happy days!

Thursday started out as a classic cool and foggy autumn morning, so I went for a walk on Durdham Downs, along with the dog-emptiers and fitness fanatics.  I noticed something odd was happening around a particularly magnificent beech tree: it looked as if a couple of young women were wiring it up, possibly to extract a confession or as some kind of experiment in psychokinesis.  Naturally, I wandered over.

Setting up

It turned out they were setting up a sound-art installation, Treesong, designed to transmute the movements of the tree and the passing wind into electronica -- the wooden collar acting as a pickup, augmented by 200 strings and tautly suspended stringed-instrument bows -- which would both be played through loudspeakers for the passing public and recorded by sound and installation artists Jony Easterby and Matthew Olden, lurking in a nearby hut.  The captured sounds would subsequently be composed by William Goodchild of the Bristol Ensemble into a piece to be performed at St. George's (the venue for the performance of Spem in alium I described in 2013) on 29th November.  So, no pressure, then!

Jony Easterby and Matthew Olden in the hut.
It's a serious business, this sound art...

I had a pleasant chat with Easterby and Olden, the men in the shed, and later on an enlightening discussion with an engaging man dispensing handout leaflets, who self-effacingly introduced himself as a member of the Bristol Ensemble but who, in retrospect, I realised may have been the composer William Goodchild*.  Amusingly, it seems the original intention had been to trigger the electronic sounds by the falling of beech-nuts, but nature has designated 2015 a Barren Year for this particular tree and, as no suitably-located conker-laden chestnut trees could be found, Plan B -- the Aeolian Option -- was hurriedly put into operation.

Even more amusingly (for me, but not for Jony and Matthew) a succession of those dogs who contest ownership of this stretch of the Downs evinced a yearning to pee over the pegged ground-level wires.  I wonder if Jony's enraged cries, suitably transfigured, will make it into the final piece?  Adirato, ma non troppo...

As long-term readers will know, I have form with sound-art, but I though this was an intriguing project, a nice combination of team effort, natural forces, and chance.  If I'm in Bristol on 29th November, I intend to hear the final result.  It will be a musical week; the weekend before I have been offered a ticket to hear Keith Jarrett play solo in London.

* More likely leader and founder Roger Huckle.

Friday, 2 October 2015


Although he knew they needed to be taken with a grain of salt, Mickey Mandrill always enjoyed listening to Polly's tales of her colourful social life.