Monday, 30 November 2015

The Ship of Who?

As regular readers will know, my partner is an academic, and recently took up a new post in Bristol University.  As we are still mainly based in Southampton, this has meant the purchase of a flat, and a life divided between two cities.

This is not unwelcome: Bristol is where we (mis)spent the last years of our carefree extended youth, before somehow managing a late transition into parents and citizens.  During those years, 1977-83, I worked in the university library in a fairly humble capacity, mainly cataloguing Russian and German books.  But I liked it enough to take a professional qualification, and ended up spending the rest of my working life in academic libraries.  I know, but these things happen.  Besides, the 1980s and 90s were a good time, professionally: we were pioneering the use of computers in "information science", and a little aptitude could take you a long way.  I became one of that first generation of librarians who were also self-taught programmers and system designers and implementers.  I experienced that lucky thing: a working life of important fun with a decent salary and an index-linked pension attached.

So it seemed a natural and obvious thing to ask for an external reader's ticket at the Bristol University Library, if only as an excuse to drop by and say "hello".  I checked the staff list, to see who might still be working there that would remember me.  Well, actually, no-one, it seemed; there was not a single name that I recognised.  Obviously, I knew that many of my main professional contacts there had retired or died, even, but that there would be no-one at all still working there after -- what? -- 30 years came as a surprise.  You can't throw a book in Southampton University Library without hitting someone who has been working there longer than me.  I know, I've done it often enough.

But there was a bigger surprise to come.  Having no reason now to drop by, I applied for a ticket online, ticking the box for "ex-member of staff".  A day or so later, I received an email thanking me for my application for an external reader's ticket, but saying there seemed to be no record of my ever having worked at Bristol.  Did I have any documentary proof?

I resisted the "don't you know who I am?" response, as the answer was clearly "no"; I was, after all, never that prominent in the profession, and 1983 is a long time ago.  But I was very puzzled and -- really as a joke -- replied, well, in that case I wonder if there's any record of Jane S., who was a junior dogsbody at Bristol at the same time as me and who, after a much more eminent career, ended up as our chief at Southampton?  Nope, nobody by that that name on our database.

I was really quite taken aback by this, and it kicked off two trains of thought.

First, I think most of us assume that we have left some kind of documentary trace behind us as we pass through various institutions, whether it be schools, jobs, the NHS, unemployment, prison, whatever.  We're so paranoid about being watched by "them" that we imagine fat files of data filling up, as "they"  track and collate our every move.  I know several people who are sufficiently bothered by this that they have used multiple identities and deliberate techniques of evasion to break the imagined paper trail.  However, it seems this may have been a waste of imagination, after all, and in fact my guess is that, ironically, digitisation has probably been their friend here.  Simply, the task of scanning and indexing millions of old records is so daunting and so expensive that it just doesn't get done.  As a consequence, these paper records disappear, either effectively -- "You mean I've got to leave my desk to look it up? Forget about it!" --  or actually, dumped under cover of darkness into recycling skips (um, don't ask how I know about this).  Those born into a "digital native" world, of course, may have a different experience awaiting them.  That selfie at that crazy party you posted on FaceBook forty years ago?  Yep, still there...

Second, it revealed the more eternal truth that all institutions rapidly outlive and forget the people who made them what they are.  Senior management make pious claims such as "our main asset is our staff", but staff are always replaceable and disposable; they're not called a "human resource" for nothing.  Sure, there may be a "roll of honour" of ex-bosses somewhere, and their careers may have been celebrated by a festschrift, a portrait, or even a marble bust, but -- as anyone who has ever worked anywhere for any length of time knows -- those people come and go like the weather; the true character of a workplace is built by the mailroom guys, the secretaries, and all the junior staff who do the actual work, the ones who have jobs and not careers, and who start to be forgotten as soon as they walk out the door for the last time with their personal coffee mug and an oversized farewell card.

I suppose it's a corporate version of "the ship of Theseus": the abstract institution sails grandly on, but every human timber, rope, and nail has been replaced several times over.  Or, increasingly, dispensed with, as some new broom or bean-counter decides the ship was over-engineered in the first place.  Let's hope they are right in that asessment, as it seems the original paper plans and manifests have gone overboard, too.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Rook Wood

You want a piece of this wood?  Then you need to deal with me!  Who am I?  I am the corvocratically-elected president of the Nest Committee of the Rook Council, mate.  None other.  And him up there behind me is our Policy Compliance Enforcer.  This is an orderly and safe place for the raisin' o' rooks!  Well, safe, anyway...  Chick-killin' predators will not be tolerated!

Saturday, 28 November 2015

So Close, So Far

Three views of the Avon Gorge in Bristol, on a squally November day this last week, more or less from the same place on Clifton Down.

  First looking SSE towards Brunel's Suspension Bridge.  Picking your moment is everything on a day and in a place like this.  The detail of the river and the mudflats vanishes in a dazzle of reflections and lens flare if the sun is visible, but once it's gone behind a dense bank of cloud, everything goes flat.

Turning to the WSW, there is this lovely wooded ridge in Leigh Woods on the opposite side of the Gorge, between the deep scoops of two old quarries, where the strontium-rich mineral celestine was once mined.  One day soon I intend to get over there, but the Gorge is wide and I cannot swim over, and neither have I wings to fly, to paraphrase "Carrickfergus".  It's tantalisingly close, but a car drive and a hike away.

Finally, looking NW, the Portway runs along the river to the busy port of Avonmouth, with its giant cranes.  Those are the mountains and valleys of South Wales looming darkly on the horizon across the Bristol Channel, not so long ago the home of proud coal-mining and steel-making communities, but – since Thatcher's government and the National Union of Mineworkers faced off in the 1980s, and the fateful discovery that there was more money to be made in financial prestidigitation than actually making stuff – now a blighted post-industrial area, struggling to come to terms with the realities of a Britain that has turned its face away from heavy industries and, tragically, those who made their lives working in them.  It could have been very different; again, so close, but so far away.  History, geography, economics and politics...

I tend not to bang on about current events and politics in this blog, as I think my views are fairly obvious, my shouting and banner-waving days are over, and I have little of originality or urgency to declaim from this particular rickety soap-box.  But I think this short recent article in N+1 is worth a read, and a mild antidote to the sentimental, short-term, kitten-based clicktivism encouraged by the social media.

Oh, and a particularly good Wondermark currently.  Anyone who says Americans don't do irony is an idiot.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Crow Country Book

Christmas is coming, and if you're thinking of buying something special for someone this year, or even for yourself, you might want to consider my latest book offering.

As regular readers will know, I've been moving out of "straight" hunter-gatherer photography into a more deliberate, constructed form of photo-collage (yes, it's the photo-Neolithic Revolution, before your very eyes).  Off the back of the work which has resulted in this year's calendar (sorry, folks, these are strictly for distribution to friends and family) I have brought together 18 of the "Crow Country" collages, and produced a very limited edition book.  Or perhaps it's more of a portfolio?  Or a portfolio-form book?  Never mind, but some people worry about these things.

Whatever it is, it is a 30cm square hardback, bound in black linen, without any titling on the exterior.  I currently have five copies, only three of which are for sale.  If demand is sufficient, a maximum of another five will be produced.  Thus, this privately-distributed edition will be limited to ten copies.  The paper stock is a heavyweight, semi-glossy paper, and the images have been reproduced superbly. Typically, they are about 23cm x 17cm, or 18cm square, and centred on the 30cm x 30cm page.  All the page spreads are reproduced below.

I should probably ask considerably more – I'm robbin' meself, lady! – but the eight copies are for sale at £75 each, which includes postage and packing to anywhere in the UK; add £5 for anywhere else in the world.  Each copy will be numbered and signed, and inscribed to the purchaser (if desired).  If you are interested, please contact me directly using one of the email addresses in my Blogger Profile (see top right).  PayPal will be my preferred method of payment.

If this is a bit more than your budget, I also have three copies of a smaller "Crow Country" selection, similarly bound as a hardback in black linen but sized 20.5cm by 16cm, and containing fifteen of the pictures from the series (including two not in the selection above).  This version is also only for private distribution, and each copy will be signed, though in this case I won't put a limit on the number available if the demand is there.  Although, frankly, if I sell more than the original three, I'll be amazed.  They cost £25 each, including postage to anywhere in the UK; add £3.50 for anywhere else in the world.  Again, contact me via email if you're interested.

And remember our Idiotic Hat guarantee of satisfaction:  if you are not absolutely delighted with your purchase, we will be very disappointed!  Seriously, though, folks: I will take every possible care that your book will survive the hazardous journey through the world's postal system intact.  I know everything there is to know about posting and packing books, believe me, not least as a customer of booksellers worldwide.  No padded bags will be involved.

If, however, a book does get damaged I will replace it, but will require the return of the damaged original, not least to preserve the integrity of the edition and numbering.  If you simply don't like it, however, that's tough: I think it's clear what is on offer here – see above – and what you see is what you get.  And what you get is pretty unique.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Balls From Outer Space

OK, so now, obviously, I'm just squeezing the last drops out of my all-too-brief, all-too-cold hour on the South Bank on Friday...

Nocturnal blur is not mandatory, of course.  A degree of hand-held "sharpness" is always possible at night, if that's what you want.  A lamp-post, a railing or a solid pillar are your friends, in this regard.   But on a cold, haily, windy night at slow shutter speeds, things are going to be moving around, even if you lug a sack of ready-mix kwik-set cement around with you, so as to mount your camera to something really solid.  Anything to avoid carrying a tripod!

But, talking of unnatural devices, look... What is that?  No, not the London Eye!  Look, some sort of spherical alien pods are glowing ominously in the foreground...  It seems that when they emerge, these cosmic strangers pass among us, grey, unseen, oddly flat.  Who knows what they are seeking?  Do they crave the warmth and colour of humanity?  Or just a ride on the merry-go-round?

And somewhere, presumably, they have parked their mothership, improbably difficult as that may seem in central London, even for a modest family hatchback.  It's hidden in plain sight somewhere, no doubt, if only to avoid a ticket. Whoah, what's that, lurking in the shadows beneath Hungerford Bridge?  Quick, get me Captain Jack Harkness of the Torchwood Institute on the phone!  Or if he's busy, the Alien Parking Section of Southwark Council...

Ah, of course...  Thanks... An excellent plan, Jack.  When you're 2,000 light years from home and in urgent need of facilities, a trap is easily laid...

London is saved.  For now...  But do keep an eye out for those weird flat aliens, folks, and remember: they always seem to come in breeding pairs.  The truth is out there...

Monday, 23 November 2015

Further Tales of the Riverbank

A few more from Friday night's pre-concert ramble along the Thames embankment.  Not a bad haul for an hour's work, but then the South Bank is the sort of place you could set a camera on self-timer, swing it round your head by its strap, and still get a great shot.  In fact, I might even try that, sometime.  But I would still like to think it's the way I swing it that gets results.

Of course, it helps if you're not fussy about photo-phetishes like sharpness, and such.  I actually like the blurriness of hand-held night shots, which seems to give a diffused, inner warmth to the shapes and colours that always reminds me of happily stumbling around town on a cold night in a state of profound intoxication.  Now there's something I have tried -- oh, just once in a while in my youth -- but no longer practise, endorse, or recommend. Srsly!

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Melody At Night, And Me

Last night, at the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank, I had the great pleasure and privilege of hearing Keith Jarrett improvise for two hours on a very well-tempered piano, in front of an enthusiastic but suitably attentive audience.  In fact, Keith commented on how attentive we were, and how much that aided his improvisational flair, which made everyone purr and got a round of applause.  But, hey, I bet he says that to all his audiences... [simper... as the Beano used to put it in the days before emoticons].  Although I think what he really meant was that we didn't cough too much -- he is known to walk out of concerts over such distractions, as he did last year in Paris -- and he did get a bit testy about "cameras" at several points, by which he probably meant mobile phones, which is more than a little unwordly, not to say precious.  But then if I could play like that I'd be so freakin' precious you wouldn't believe it.

If you don't know who Keith Jarrett is, he is the man Geoff Dyer recently dubbed, a touch hyperbolically, "our greatest living musician" in the Guardian.  What do you mean, who is Geoff Dyer?  How did you get in here?  Anyway...  Jarrett may not quite fit that description, but he is so far beyond good at what he does, an improvisational high-wire act of breathtaking facility and inventiveness, that for the right audience on the right night it can approach a level of communion for which the only, inadequate word is "spiritual". Which, in a way, is his music's weak spot, as a constant pursuit of the sublime and the lost chord can, frankly, become a bit tedious.  Are we there yet?  What really lit up this audience was when he relaxed into a bit of bluesy boogie-woogie.  As one of my companions said, Jarrett has a driving left hand that could power the lights of London.

Actually, Jarrett could have played "Chopsticks" and got an ovation, once he'd really warmed up, and started to weave his pianistic magic.  And actually, thinking about it, he may have done, just for fun, in the middle there for a spell.  I'm pretty sure I also heard snatches of Gershwin, and Abba, and Bill Evans (lots of Bill Evans, actually), and Satie, and there was an extraordinary piece that used a Middle-Eastern modal scale that left even Jarrett drop-jawed with amazement...  "Where did that come from?" he wondered out loud.  Paris, perhaps, would be my suggestion.

Before the concert, I wandered up and down the gaily-lit South Bank for an hour or so doing my thing.  Despite the surprisingly chilly temperature and biting wind, the embankment walkways were crowded with people checking out the Christmas lights and the fairground rides and the fast-food stalls, and somehow this made the quieter, darker corners richer and more resonant.  As always, I am impressed by what you can get away with, hand-holding a Fuji X-M1 in such ludicrous lighting conditions.  It's one of those cameras that just wants to help -- set everything on auto, lean on a lampost, and pop away.  It was bloody cold, though, and I was glad in the end to meet up with some very old friends for a pre-concert meal and a drink -- party of ten -- where I could warm up, and then shuffle into the RFH auditorium for a truly memorable experience in what turned out to be some of the best seats in the house.*

* Thanks, Andy B.!

Friday, 20 November 2015

So So

So I'm thinking about this "so" thing.  So it's hard to establish when it began, and whether it's just a tasty Americanism that feels nice and hip to use, like "no way" and "rip-off" and "reach out" in their day, or something more.  So it's incredibly irritating, wherever it came from.

So the new "so" does seem different from the old uses of that handy, shape-shifting conjunction, "So, ..." when used at the beginning of a sentence.  So these old usages are nicely analysed and illustrated in the online Cambridge English Dictionary:
Used at the ​beginning of a ​sentence to ​connect it with something that has been said or has ​happened ​previously:
So, there I was ​standing at the ​edge of the ​road with only my ​underwear on ...
So, just to ​finish what I was saying ​earlier...

Used as a way of making ​certain that you or someone ​else ​understand something correctly, often when you are ​repeating the ​important ​points of a ​plan:
So we ​leave on the ​Thursday and get back the next ​Tuesday, is that ​right?

Used to refer to a ​discovery that you have just made:
So that's what he does when I'm not around!

Used as a ​short ​pause, sometimes to ​emphasize what you are saying:
So, here we are again - just you and me.

Used before you ​introduce a ​subject of ​conversation that is of ​present ​interest, ​especially when you are ​asking a ​question:
So, who do you ​think is going to ​win the ​election?

informal Used to show that you ​agree with something that someone has just said, but you do not ​think that it is ​important:
So the car's ​expensive - well, I can ​afford it.
So ... No!  Enough of that!

This new "so" is interesting to think about in comparison to those examples.  For a start, it is clearly not followed by an implicit comma.  It is most frequently heard used by academics and experts under mild interrogation on the radio, and it does seem mainly to be a modish throat-clearing let's-kick-off noise that sounds more contemporary and fluent than "Well...", "Um...", or "OK...".  But the fact is that "so" has never previously been a conventional response to a question not beginning with "how" or "why" (even if it now emphatically is), and this may mean that something else is going on here.

Now, "so" may not have previously been used to introduce an answer, but it did frequently start off a question.  See usage (2) above ("a way of making certain that you or someone else understand something correctly").  Tentatively, might it be that a new question-and-response formula has evolved?  That is, from
"So how old are you, professor?"
" I'm 61"
"So how old are you, professor?"
"So I'm 61"
Perhaps the aggressive, nicety-free style of questioning developed by John Humphrys and his ilk has stimulated the "so" response?   So it's a theory, but an unlikely one, I think.  But I have a feeling that it is not unconnected.  You might say that the new "so" implies the use of "so" at the beginning of the question, even when it's absent ("How old are you, professor?" "So I'm 61").  The second exchange above does have a certain symmetry to it, and the second leading "so" seems to grab back some initiative from the questioner, in a semi-sarcastic, passive-aggressive, mirroring kind of way.  "So please let's remember that I'm the expert around here, mate", it seems to say.

In fact, "passive-aggressive" behaviour may be a key here, understood as a way of expressing hostility indirectly (for example by repeatedly failing to do the washing-up, or in that curious military offence of "dumb insolence").  Although the new "so" has now undoubtedly escaped into the wild, and really has become just a modish kind of phatic teeing-up noise, I suspect that lurking sulkily behind its origins is a passive-aggressive text something along these lines:
"I know you're probably going to misunderstand and quite possibly belittle what I'm about to say, because you don't have the necessary context or background reading, and I'm feeling rather defensive because I'm a fish out of water in this studio, but I think you should accept that I know what I'm talking about and you most definitely don't, and SO a radically simplified but nonetheless authoritative version of the latest thinking on the subject would go something like this..."
Or it might even shade into something a little more arrogant, rather more overtly aggressive, what we might call the new "right?/yeah?" (as in "The latest thinking on string theory -- right? -- is that all string is very long and very thin, yeah?").  Something like this:
"Pretend to pay attention now, you ignorant, preening fool, as I'm about to share some industrial-strength wisdom on a subject you can barely begin to comprehend, and -- even though I know you're inevitably going to latch onto some irrelevant little detail and worry it to death, in the process wasting this entire five minute slot in which I could be educating people on the topic rather than acting as the foil for your ponderous 'wit', Humphrys, you egregious **** -- it goes like SO..."
So -- right?  -- so "so" is so much shorter, yeah?

So it's a car-park, innit?

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Solid Air

Back in Portugal again to sort out her father's complex but, as it turned out, not very substantial financial affairs, and exhausted by the endless bureaucracy of bereavement and inheritance, Ana panicked.  Unless she left now -- right now, as soon as she could pack a bag, say goodbye to a few friends, and pick up a fresh set of strings -- the liquid Atlantic sky would set hard and become a solid, looming, cliff-sided cavern, making escape impossible forever, and darkening the rest of her days.  Run, Ana, run!

Foolish...  But she sat for a while in a favourite home-town spot in the autumn sun, reminiscing, and slowly began to imagine the way that solid sky might look.  She found herself wondering whether she had, in fact, already left it too long, and whether she might more happily stay and abandon all hope of a different, bigger life?  A wave of resignation swept through her that felt a little too much like relief.  To be off the hook of ambition, at last...

But then, barely noticing the pink submarine that had surfaced in the bay, she reached in her bag for her phone, and entered a number in England she had not dialled for years, but still knew by heart.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Late For The Party

Come back later, we're closed...

I am someone who is never knowingly early for the party.  I was early for a party once, and felt like an idiot for the excruciating hour before anyone else rocked up.  It wasn't quite as mortifying as the day I brought my packed lunch to primary school the day before our class trip to London – I can still see my green tartan duffle-bag hanging there on my peg like a decomposing albatross – but I learned my lesson.  "Fashionably late" is the thing; unless we're talking about catching a train, in which case "neurotically early" is still my preference.

However, in these fast-moving days, I often find I am so late that the party is pretty much over by the time I arrive.  Now, let's be clear: I am talking metaphorically here.  I haven't actually been to a party in years.  Do people even still have parties, I wonder?  The idea of having your house gate-trashed by a whirlwind of uninvited strangers seems like something that belongs back in the 1970s, along with Watney's Party Sevens, a "bopping" room with a stereo, and couples rolling around on the coats dumped on a bed upstairs.  That probably merely shows how long it is since I was invited to a party.  Anyway and whatever, the parties to which I am so very late these days are not that sort of party.

I'm talking about things like social media.  I think I've already described how, in my previous life as a library IT manager, an entire university was late for the smartphone party.  For all the right reasons, of course.  Before 2009 no-one in a position of responsibility owned a smartphone, or could imagine what kind of fool would want to run their life on the tiny screen of a phone, FFS, when generous quantities of full-size PC workstations had only recently been provided for students and staff to use all around the campus.  Besides, we couldn't and shouldn't be running things on the basis of what only the richest students could afford.  I mean, have you seen what those things cost?  In 2010 the ownership of smartphones among the student body was estimated at below 20%.  Above all, there was that justifiable phobia in IT circles about being an "early adopter": let someone else find the show-stopping bugs in the first release of that exciting new product.

Well, you know how that one went.  We had to run to catch up, and in the process I had to learn very quickly about providing Web Services from our library server and how differently the various smartphone operating systems would implement the exact same "service" (Blackberry is not the only fruit, Vice-Chancellor).  Just to make things interesting, at the same time we had to migrate our operating system to Linux and our database to Oracle, in order to relocate the whole library package "virtually" onto a new remote university data centre.  It was around then that early retirement began to seem attractive.

However, one upside was that for six months or so in 2011/12 I was loaned a brand new Apple iPhone 4s, a sleek white beauty, so that I could monitor the implementation on iOS of the new university and library "app".  I was smitten, but knew I would never be able to afford or justify the ownership and upkeep of such a gorgeous, high-maintenance thing, so I made do with a series of perfectly adequate Android phones.  Until this month, when I suddenly had the urge to experiment with phone photography.  At which point, a "free with this contract" Android phone – or rather, the camera in it – suddenly became inadequate.

So, having found myself a new iPhone 4s (white, naturally, and now comparatively cheap – though have you seen what the actual latest versions of these things cost?) I'm boldly setting forth into the far-from-unexplored and probably exhausted territory of iphoneography.  Late for the party?  I'll say.

But, I promise: no selfie-stick, no grungy filters, no food.

UPDATE 18/11/15:  Looks like I'll be later than I thought...  The bloody thing was faulty, and after a very enlightening chat with Apple Support (who are brilliant, btw) I sent it straight back for a refund... Lesson learned -- don't bargain hunt for top end equipment!

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Bennett's Patch

At the bottom of the Avon Gorge, as well as the river itself, there run a major road known as the Portway and two railway lines, one on either side of the river.  It was a very stormy day on Friday, but I went for a long circular walk along the stretch of land squeezed between the road and the railway line known as Bennett's Patch and White's Paddock, which is now a nature reserve.  Between heavy showers the sun shone brightly, and brought a certain twinkly magic to the scene.

Beyond Bennett's Patch you can pass through another nature reserve, cross the Portway between bursts of traffic, and emerge down by the river itself.  I have to say, I find the mud of the river-bed when the tide is out both fascinating and terrifying.  In places, the riverside path is no more than three feet across, with no railing and a steep twenty foot drop into who knows how many feet of grey gloop.  For some reason the words "Friday the thirteenth" kept going through my mind...

It's funny, but the more I come to regard photo-collage as my main creative expression -- for now, anyway -- the less I police the photographs I take with that puritanical eye that rejects simple visual pleasures as unambitious and probably kitschy.  Even backlit "twinkly magic"?  Hey, why not...

Thursday, 12 November 2015


For some reason I can't quite put my finger on, both these photographs trigger a very similar, strong response for me.  The first is a glass enclosure at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire; the second is a view across Clifton Downs in Bristol, looking along a series of freshly-marked football pitches towards the water-tower on Stoke Road.  They share a sort of "populated emptiness" that reminds me of childhood, and not in an unpleasant way.  The football pitches are very reminiscent of a recreation ground I used to walk across to and from primary school each day.

The first photograph has already figured in a couple of "crow" composites.  In it (or not in it), more or less where X marks the spot, a golden tamarind monkey has just left the scene.  In the second, oddly enough, there ought to have been a rook more or less at the T-junction of the white lines, but it, too, evaded me.  It didn't have to try very hard: much as I like these Fuji cameras, the rapidity of the autofocus is not their most remarkable feature.  Nice clouds, though...

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Windy Estates

Hampshire and Hertfordshire (where 'urricanes 'ardly ever 'appen*) have quite similar geology.  The underlying chalk gives a smooth, eye-pleasing roll to the hills, and the valleys are lined with fertile but claggy and flint-filled clays interleaved with beds of sand and gravel, all the legacy of the last ice age.  Before the mid-twentieth century, settlements tended to avoid the chalky uplands (known as "downs") -- they're dry, exposed, and the soil is thin -- and clustered instead in the valleys, mainly along the arterial routes that have spread out from London since Roman times.  I was born and brought up close by one such, the Great North Road, which had been the main mail-coach route from London to Edinburgh.

Things changed when major public housing projects were set in train after WW2.  Housing estates began to be built on any land that could conveniently be bulk-purchased in contiguous blocks.  In the south and east of England, this land was often those high, thin-soiled, low-yield downland acres that farmers were all too ready to exchange for cash in the bank.  Many post-war generations have now grown up, like me, on windy council estates draped with varying degrees of subtlety over undulating downland topography, where knobbly flints and labourers' clay pipes -- and the occasional bit of Iron Age archaeology  -- are often turned up on a garden spade.

This geomorphological connection (plus the use of a limited range of off-the-peg architectural patterns) means that there is a distinct family resemblance between estates built in Herts and Hants during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  It's not just the houses, it's the whole approach to infrastructure, in large part determined by the landscape.  Major roads tend to be sunk into cuttings, or offset from residential areas by barriers and large areas of grass and shrubs, with the honorable intention of providing green space and separating people from traffic.  However, this also means that paths and cycleways have to run over pedestrian bridges or through underpasses, with the apparent intention of making life easier for vandals, taggers and muggers.

One of the more forgiveable failures of the estate planners of the 50s and 60s was not to foresee the current levels of car ownership, or the inflated size of some modern vehicles.  As a consequence, all those nice new roads were made far too narrow and off-road parking space was rarely provided -- for one car, never mind three per household.  The rolling land means that the houses tend to be packed tightly together in creatively-jigsawed, high-density clusters.  The resulting combination of convoluted street layouts, unexpected dips and rises, and saturation parking makes negotiating an ordinary car down some streets a challenge; to manage a refuse truck or delivery van requires either the nerves and judgement of a fighter pilot, or utter indifference to collateral damage.  Probably both.

* Somehow, these days "The Rain in Spain" from My Fair Lady doesn't seem to get the regular airplay it used to when I was a kid...

Sunday, 8 November 2015


From a Jack...

I recently read something in an essay by John Berger on Rembrandt's self-portraits that intrigued me.  He wrote:
A painter can draw his left hand as if it belonged to somebody else. Using two mirrors he can draw his own profile as if observing a stranger. But when he looks straight into a mirror, he is caught in a trap: his reaction to the face he is seeing changes that face [...]  It is the same for all of us. We play-act when we look in the bathroom mirror, we instantly make an adjustment to our expression and our face. Quite apart from the reversal of the left and right, nobody else ever sees us as we see ourselves above the washbasin. And this dissimilation is spontaneous and uncalculated. It’s as old as the invention of the mirror.
The face arranges itself ... Nobody else ever sees us as we see ourselves above the washbasin.  A troubling thought, that.  I've been trying to catch my own "real" face in the mirror ever since.

Or, at least, one or two of the many real faces we all wear.  I think of the way I must have looked in countless meetings, struggling with boredom or irritation or slipping quietly away into a rapt doodling session.  Or when giving presentations beneath the PowerPoint screen, or telling a funny story over coffee, or listening to outrageous get-out-of-here gossip.  Then there are the faces I make when driving, or playing with my children, or just buying stamps in the Post Office, or any number of public or intimate circumstances.  Face it (oops), to everyone else you are that person -- those people -- not the one you imagine yourself to be, gurning winningly at the bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand.

As W.B. Yeats put it, with a conscious level of irony:
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity's displayed:
I'm looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.
Yeah, right.  So are all those other seekers, checking themselves out in the shop window.

I presume the same observation holds true for the smartphone selfie, where the reflexive subject sees a face without reversal but with every opportunity for that face to rearrange itself before the shot is taken.  It's mirror time!  Maybe that's why selfies are nearly always so ridiculous.
O, wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!
To a Louse, Robert Burns
Thank you, Robert, but I think we'll leave dress and gait out of this for now, and stick to faces.

... to a King

Now this version definitely trumps the original; you might even say it's an ace portrait, though I suppose the joker might have been more appropriate.  The open-hand "sceptre" is a fly-swat we bought in Spain one year.  If you can read the inscriptions, the Latin words aetatis suae LIX are the conventional Renaissance portraitist's formula for "at the age of 59", and Rex stultorum is, of course, "the King of Fools".  Though it is salutary to see how much more I am beginning to resemble the Duke of Prunes...
And I know
The love I have for you
Will grow & grow & grow
(I think)
And so my love
I offer you
A love that is strong
A prune that is true! 

(Frank Zappa, Duke of Prunes)
But I do like the idea of adding a little Photoshop wizardry to portraiture.  For a suitably enormous fee, I should start taking commissions...  You, too, could look like an idiot.

Friday, 6 November 2015

The U-Boat Captain's Dream

Always the same dream, he says.  I wade through a shallow sea slick with oil towards a submarine -- a U-boat -- which is beached or in dry dock.  Behind it, an enormous weight of sand is heaped, rippled like desert dunes or a Baltic beach at low tide.  I know I have a choice to make.  I also know I am afraid to make that choice, or even to name it.  As I approach, I see there is a word painted in faded letters above the submarine.  When I am finally close enough, I can read the single word "Blechkoller".  Then I wake up.  Always.  Do you know this word, doctor?

No, my German is not very good, I'm afraid.

It means something like, oh, "tin-can tantrum" or "metal madness".  It was the word we used when one of the crew lost his self-control -- a violent fit of anger, of hysterical rage -- and needed restraint.  Blechkoller...  Usually, this was when we had dived deep for refuge -- refuge! -- after an attack run, and were ourselves under attack from depth-charges.  Any noise could betray us!  The tension was extreme.  Very, very extreme...  You could feel the ocean squeezing the boat in its fist.  You could hear it.  Rivets would pop like bullets.  Such a panic could happen to anyone.  I'm proud to say it was rare in my crews.

And yourself?  Did you ever feel such moments of terror?

Oh, "feel", yes...  But command brings responsibilities, doctor.  Der Herr Kaleun must be a man of steel.  Steel.  The men expect no less.  Now, may we go back to talking about my mother?

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Baking Soda

For some reason, submarines have recently started to feature in the iconography of these assemblages. I originally attributed this to having visited the Anselm Kiefer exhibition, and re-wakened memories of the TV series Das Boot, but there is probably more to it than that.  After all, a submarine is the very embodiment of an item bobbing up from the subconscious.  Though, as Freud might have said, sometimes a submarine is just a submarine.

If you are old enough you will remember those little plastic submarines that came as a "free gift" with a box of breakfast cereal -- Corn Flakes, I think, or possibly Shreddies.  The idea was that by putting baking soda into a little compartment beneath the sub, the thing would rise and fall in a bottle of water.  As we never had any baking soda in the house -- my mother was not a keen cook -- I never did get to try this out.  Besides, I thought the fat black plastic plug that sealed the compartment spoiled the lines of the craft, and usually discarded them.

As these tiny submarines were usually yellow, I have always assumed that they lurk somewhere beneath that single appalling blot on the otherwise immaculate and only truly enduring Beatles album, Revolver.  Though, oddly, no-one has ever suggested this, as far as I know.  It may be in Revolution in the Head somewhere, but I have never been able to open that tome without wishing I hadn't.  I gave it away to Oxfam last year, along with Lipstick Traces, Lights Out For The Territory, and various other unrewarding fat volumes I shall never read again.  I need the shelf space.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Flying the Flag

There's something I find interesting going on here, to do with flags, flying, and symbology.*

At one time, I had a small series going called "Flags", which -- as so many side-projects do -- came to nothing.  On one level, it was simply a matter of finding flag-like patterns in the world, and naming them as such.  Look, it's just like a flag!  On another, it had a lot to do with the nature and purposes of "flags", and all similar, purely symbolic objects around which our loyalties and hostilities are expected (required, even) to cluster.  I was also fascinated by the contrast between a flag in its "ideal" form -- as, say, set out in an encyclopaedia of vexillology -- and its real-life instantiations, frayed and tattered by wind and battle.

At that time, I was also very interested in multiple images, and this is a good example of both concerns, from 2002, sheets of polythene wrapping thrashing around in a high wind from some newly-erected lamp-posts:

Sometimes I look at my older work, and wonder whether I've gone forwards, backwards or just sideways...  I remember that camera -- an Olympus C3030z -- with great affection.  It was the camera that persuaded me finally to abandon film, even though its 3 megapixel images (not to mention its tiny rear LCD) seem laughably small, now.  In fact, I think it was the small size yet high quality of the images that, in part, sent me down the road of multiples.  Something I gradually abandoned as I realised what an easy cliché the "grid" had become in contemporary art.

But maybe sometime I should revisit that "flags" theme, assuming that most of the original image files did not vanish in my recent backup drive disaster...

* Students of culture may also find themselves inexplicably humming the  "Stop the Pigeon" theme...