Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016 Bonus Track: Dorset in December

The Cobb, Lyme Regis, on Christmas Day

We spent Christmas in Dorset, in a rented cottage on one of the hills above Charmouth and Lyme Regis. When the children were smaller, this area was a favourite holiday haunt: you can spend endless happy hours turning stones on the beach looking for fossils, and the unique Dorset geology has created a wonderful miniaturised landscape of steep hills and secret valleys that is ideal walking country, suitable even for little legs. And there's always somewhere for an ice-cream, a cup of tea, or a pint and a decent meal nearby.

It's rotten with archaeology, too. Probably nowhere else in the country has such a density and variety of barrows, hillforts, standing stones, ruined castles and abbeys, and all those other ingredients that add a certain "woo" factor to any walk. There's a heathy stretch of the A35 between Dorchester and Bridport that is signed "AREA PRONE TO FOG" and they are not kidding. It was swathed in low cloud as we passed through, and the glimpses of the roadside barrows were distinctly spooky. If you look at the coastline beyond the Cobb in the photo above, and compare with the one of Lyme Bay below, you'll see that the entire length of clifftop around Golden Cap is enveloped in a fat white icing of dense cloud.

Hardown Hill looking towards Charmouth 

On Hardown Hill at dusk

On Golden Cap 

Quite apart from tourists and the local population of farmers, fishers, and tea-shoppe folk, it's a spot that has long been popular with artists and other people trying to make a living from their wits and their skills. Like the areas around St. Ives or Brighton, some sort of critical mass has been achieved that attracts a steady stream of incoming talent. If you should happen to want to find a potter or an upscale joiner or even a TV chef, Dorset is not the worst place to start. So, inevitably, it has been the subject of much painting and photography over many generations. There was an exhibition of mainly Dorset landscape paintings from the early years of the last century at Bristol's Royal West of England Academy earlier this year (Inquisitive Eyes: Slade Painters in Edwardian Wessex), for example, and it seems like there is a little gallery selling art of every description around every corner in every small town. Actually, that's not entirely true: conceptual work, installations and video, say, despite their predominance in the metropolitan art scene, are very thin on the ground compared to more traditional media. But you can quickly tire of yet more views of Golden Cap, or Maiden Castle, or fishing boats, or decorative variations on the theme of the ammonite; if I thought mid-Wales was tough to portray in a meaningful way on a flying visit – even a series of flying visits extended over many years – Dorset raises the bar almost impossibly high. But, given the weather conditions in the first half of our stay, and the time dedicated to our more Christmassy activities, I was glad enough to come away with a few respectable exposures.

Talking of the challenges of contemporary landscape photography, if you saw my recent piece in On Landscape, keep an eye out for an upcoming friendly bout of arm-wrestling in the next issue between me and Joe Cornish – oh yes, the Joe Cornish! – over the views expressed therein. Should be fun.

Lyme Bay

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Best wishes for 2017!

Neutral expression? Mouth closed? Eyes open?
What? All at the same time?

I had to renew my passport this month, so had a session of self-portraiture, which is not something I do very often, not least because it involves finding a tripod. Passport photo requirements are quite specific:
Your photos must:
be a close-up of your full head and upper shoulders
contain no other objects or people
be in clear contrast to the background
Not a problem. Oh, and...
In your photo, you must:
be facing forward and looking straight at the camera
have a neutral expression and your mouth closed
have your eyes open, visible and free from reflection or glare from glasses
not have hair in front of your eyes
not have a head covering (unless it’s for religious or medical reasons)
not have anything covering your face
not have any ‘red eye’
not have any shadows on your face or behind you
You can’t wear sunglasses or tinted glasses. You can wear reading glasses but your eyes must show fully through clear lenses without glare or reflections.
Blimey: bang goes the idea of wearing a "V for Vendetta" mask, then. And red-eye is kind of my look. But, finally having got something suitable (or sort of suitable – it's not easy being neutral, especially not wearing my customary wraparound mirror shades), I decided to play around with the less suitable ones.

Thus, above we have my "Self-portrait in the fashionable tintype manner". Strange, how much older (and how much more skeptical) I look scowling for the camera than I do in the mirror... Either there's some psychological phenomenon at play here, or I must get a better camera. One that reflects my inner perception, rather than the stark reality. This is still much more like what I think I see in the mirror:

Your host, ca, 1961

Despite its defects, that school photo did get used in a passport, of sorts. Of course, passport photo requirements were less strict in those days, and the production values rather lower:

Oddly enough, I do still have exactly the same missing teeth, though I'm pretty sure they did turn up at some point between then and now. As did a lot of things that also seem to have vanished along the way: good friends, close family, even solidly familiar buildings, all have been disappearing into thin air, leaving not a wrack behind. And I can't find my bloody Kindle anywhere. This year does seem to have been particularly forgetful of some beloved public figures, though, doesn't it? I do hope David Attenborough is wrapping up warm, in these last days of 2016. If it hadn't become such a cliché, I would yet again invoke Walter Benjamin's Angel of History. But it's the right time of year to indulge in the bittersweet melancholy of remembrance, and to raise a time-honoured toast: absent friends!

Regretfully, however, I suppose I must accept that the scowly first photo is a truer reflection of reality than the smiley second. The years do pass, and our faces and demeanour change with them. Every ten years or so, this requires a new passport photo to be taken. But who knew that, 55 Christmasses later, this grizzled clown would emerge?

Ah, well. Another Christmas, another paper crown... Hey, I wonder if that counts as a head-covering worn for religious reasons? That would make for a much more interesting passport, wouldn't it? Profession? Oh, still King; on paper, anyway...

But, if you're prepared to accept 50% of my genetic material as a sort of self-portrait, then here I am looking my very best, on the beach at Lyme Regis on the afternoon of Christmas Day:

Oh, brave new world, that has such creatures in it! Though I suspect she'll never forgive me for the gift of the family nose, pretty as it is when worn by her.

So, no matter what you think of what looks back at you in the mirror each morning, or how many passports you've got through, or how many year's end celebrations you've witnessed, and despite any perfectly justified forebodings, may the coming year treat us all well!
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Nicely put, sir, nicely put. I think you still hold on to your narrow lead in the competition for "Best Opening Sentence EVER!"; and plus ça change, eh?

Sunday, 25 December 2016

The Metaphorical Pond

Some years are like that, aren't they? You think you've got the whole pond to swim in, and then overnight everything changes, and all of a sudden nobody's going swimming today. These ducks are not old enough to have seen this before: they're genuinely pissed off and confused. Hey, what happened to the water?

Young people, too, probably think this is the WORST. YEAR. EVER. I don't blame them, but they're wrong. I'm old enough to remember the Great Plague of London of 1665 (actually, I'm not, but it feels like it this morning – I never learn, I don't even like the sound of "mulled wine"), which was swiftly followed by the Great Fire of London in 1666 (and the Great Insurance Claim Backlog of 1667). Now those were bad years. Getting older is all about perspective, getting things in proportion, remembering to breathe.

This time of year is about many things, but for those of us who agree that the year ends around now, and especially for those of us in northern latitudes where daylight has just shrunk to its minimum, and is just starting to expand again (please remember to breathe, planet Earth!), it's a time for reflecting on the year that is passing into history and anticipating the year that is about to start.

So, being a bit of a contrarian, that's exactly what I won't do. I did have some seasonal thoughts a few years ago (A Day Like Any Other Day) which still seem appropriate, so I'll simply refer you there. As for the rest of it, my best advice is: remember to breathe. And go easy on the seasonal refreshments; remember you're not as young as you once were.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Jingle Bells

I was walking home down our street on Wednesday morning, when I heard little bells jingling overhead.  Nah...  But I looked up anyway, and there was a hawk being pursued by a crow, jingling all the way.

It may have been an escaped falconer's bird, I suppose, though it might also have pounced on someone's Christmas decorations and either made off with them or somehow got its feet entangled. I've heard of "belling the cat", but this was something new. You can just imagine the barracking it was getting from the crow...

"Oi, Rudolph, where's Farver Chrissmuss, then? Eh? Tell you what, give us a bell when you get 'ome! Oi, Tinkerbell! Twinkle Toes! Yes, you!!"

It takes a lot to embarrass a hawk.
Bells will do it, though.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016


Illustrated London News, 9 Jan 1915

This is a modified and expanded re-post of an item from 2014. I thought it would be good to revisit it, not least because I am now able to show the image that prompted it in the first place, which I had been asked not to use at the time, but also as a sort of historical sidelight on the "Brexit" débâcle.

In December of that year I had written a post about blog statistics in which I said that, in contrast to my own self-indulgent ramblings, my father's reminiscences of his experiences at Dunkirk, as well as in the Western Desert and Burma attract a lot of interest from military historians specialising in vox pop accounts of WW2, and have led to some interesting correspondence. Very remarkably, something similar then happened, on the very next day.

I never knew my paternal grandfather. He died at the age of 59 in 1953, the year before I was born. By all accounts, he was a lovely man; my mother clearly had a soft spot for him, and she would often invoke his memory whenever I had given her cause to feel proud of me. Which, sadly, was not as often as it might have been. My post about his service in WW1, and the Victoria Cross won by his friend and comrade-in-arms Frank Young (Remembrance Sunday) is one of my more frequently-visited posts. In it, I reproduced two postcard-sized photographs of the two of them that I have, both taken in France, one after the other, posed at attention with a Lee-Enfield rifle in front of a canvas backdrop. Fortunately, my grandmother had been an obsessive collector of family photos and I inherited her hoard. Not neatly arranged and labelled in an album, however, but entirely filling an old canvas holdall in tight-packed wads, like ransom money.

In 2014, that post was seen by a student researching the Hertfordshire Regiment in WW1 for his dissertation. Nothing remarkable there. But – and this is remarkable to the point of improbability – in the course of his researches he had previously seen some private family papers belonging to an officer of E Company of the 1st/1st Hertfordshire Regiment. That is to say, my grandfather's company, recruited from the men of Letchworth, Royston, Baldock, and Ashwell in North Hertfordshire. Among these papers were some photographs, showing men from E Company at work constructing defences at Rue-du-Bois near Neuve Chapelle in France, during December 1914. Incredibly, he was struck by the resemblance between the sergeant in one of these and the photograph of my grandfather he had seen in my blog post, and emailed me with an attached scan of the Rue-du-Bois image: did I think this might be Douglas William Chisholm?

"Herts Guards" F.E. Young VC and D.W. Chisholm

Unquestionably, it is. I was originally asked not to publish the image, as it is owned by the officer's family and the copyright situation was unclear, so I described it instead, as follows: six cheerful-looking men in uniform – boots, puttees, 1902-pattern field dress, and peaked caps – are sitting atop a fresh earthwork, taking a break from their labours, posing for the camera in a tight group. From their expressions, it looks like someone has just made a wisecrack. Seated front and centre is my grandfather – his face and prominent ears are unmistakable – legs planted wide apart with arms resting on his knees and hands hanging loosely in-between, with a pipe dangling roguishly from his mouth, beneath a small, military-style brush moustache. This photograph was used in an exhibition about the Hertfordshire Regiment in WW1 at the Hertford Museum earlier this year, and I'm able to use it publicly now. Here it is:

"Building a Redoubt on the Rue-du-Bois, December 1914"

For his time and social class, he was quite a big chap – five foot eleven inches – and the others are clustered around him in various relaxed seated postures. "These are my men!" declares the picture; he may be three months away from his 21st birthday, but exudes all the natural authority necessary in an infantry sergeant. Behind them stands another NCO – the quality of the photograph is not good enough to count his stripes – grinning broadly. He's either the regimental idiot, or the enemy is reasonably far away. The landscape behind them is not yet a waste of mud, wire, and water-filled shellholes, but looks the way agricultural fields look anywhere in northern Europe in December, divided by rows of leafless pollarded trees.

Here is the regiment's War Diary for that period (as edited and annotated by Steven Fuller):
17-11-14. We were shelled in the morning and had to leave the farm shortly after had one man killed and two severely wounded. In the evening we went into the trenches again & took over from the 1st Royal Dragoons and 10th Hussars 1 mile S.E. of ZILLEBEKE. Had 4 Companies in the trenches, 1 in support, 1 in reserve, remaining 2 at KILO 3.
18-11-14. Remained in trenches. Corporal Boardman [2270 Ernest Arthur BOARDMAN] killed and one man missing. [Comment: Missing man was Private 2238 Frederick James DARLOW of Royston who was found to have been killed in action]
19-11-14. E Company was heavily shelled and lost 3 men killed, 19 wounded, 2.Lieut C.M. Down [Charles M. DOWN] wounded. In the evening we were relieved by the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards and marched back to our own former bivouacs. Slight fall of snow. [Comment: Killed in action today - Privates 2504 William BUTTS, 2747 George Haslear CATLIN, 2518 George Edward ELLIS, 2426 Walter William FLANDERS, 2428 Joseph William JOHNSON, 1911 Frank PULLEY, 2636 Phillip James ROBINSON, 2746 Henry WEST]
20-11-14. Marched at 11pm to METEREN, about 18-20 miles. Had tea at OUDERDAM. A very cold night. Joined our Brigade 4th (Guards) Brigade for the first time.
21-11-14. Arrived at METEREN and went into billets.
22-11-14 to 21-12-14. Bn remained at METEREN refitting and training. [Comment: Private 2598 Walter George WALKER of Hertford died in England from his wounds today]
22-12-14. Brigade marched from METEREN to BETHUNE and billeted there the night.
23-12-14. The Brigade marched to LES LACONS FARM and spent the day there. In the evening the Bn moved forward to Cross Roads - RUE DE BOIS and RUE L'EPINETTE in support of 2 ½ battalions of the Brigade in the trenches.
24-12-14. The Bn moved back to LES LACONS FARM and in the evening went into the trenches south of RUE DE BOIS taking over from 6th GHATS. 6 Companies in the trenches, 2 in support close to Headquarters.
25-12-14. L.Sgt Gregory [2301 Thomas Edward GREGORY] and Private Huggins [2701 Percy Henry HUGGINS] killed.
27-12-14. One Company was removed from the fire trenches to support. Each Company had 36 hours in support in rotation. 
So it would seem that they'd had a rough, cold time of it during November and December, being marched around Northern France, being deployed in and out of the front line, and periodically shelled. They arrived in Rue-du-Bois, the location of the photograph, on 23rd December, just before Christmas 100 years ago. As one of the few territorial regiments in the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, the Herts were keen to make an impression, surrounded as they were by regular soldiers, mainly elite guards regiments. By 1915 they had managed to distinguish themselves, and earned the honorary nickname, "The Herts Guards".

Photographs of men on active service during WW1 are very rare. Cameras were officially banned from the front line in 1915. That's why the same few images pop up again and again in documentaries. So, that one should have survived in which I have a direct personal interest; that a researcher should be sharp-eyed enough to spot a resemblance between one grainy image in an archive and another published on my blog; that he should be sufficiently motivated to contact me about it...  This was an astonishing thing. Not least because it created a fresh link between grandfather and grandson, exactly 100 years apart in the run-up to Christmas: you might say this was the ultimate Christmas card.

Now, an intriguing question-mark hangs over this story. Although the centenary commemorations have moved on to the Somme this year, in 2014 a lot of attention was focussed on the so-called "Christmas Truce" of 1914, and the fraternisation and games of football that did or did not take place in No Man's Land between the newly-established lines of opposing trenches. At Christmas 1914 the Great-War-to-be was still a very different kind of conflict to what it would soon become. The ground was still firm. Even the idea of cavalry charges was still lively in the minds of High Command. The men of the BEF were all professionals or volunteers, and many of the latter – like my grandfather – had served before the War as "territorials", fully-trained weekend soldiers. It had not yet become the cynical war of attrition of popular imagination, with the mass mechanical slaughter of conscripted cannon-fodder, floundering in muddy trenches.

So, might there have been a kickabout in the frozen fields somewhere between Neuve Chapelle and Fleurbaix on Christmas Day 1914? Certainly, if anyone would have been up for a game, it would have been sergeant Douglas William Chisholm of Letchworth, bookbinder, conceived in Edinburgh and born in the Elephant & Castle in London, pioneer Bermondsey Boy Scout, and keen all-round sportsman and athlete. It's a nice, romantic idea, isn't it?

Wot, no snow?

Sadly, it is highly unlikely to be true. The War Diary is silent on the matter – not surprising, as "fraternisation with the enemy" is a serious military offence – and does not indicate which companies had moved back into support, and which were in the fire-trenches. However, it does record that two men of the regiment were killed on Christmas Day. If there had been a temporary truce on that part of the Western Front, it can't have lasted very long, and if there was a football match, it clearly got out of hand. No: this article, and this one, which I have since discovered and which describe the death by sniper-fire of two men from D Company, suggest that any seasonal shows of goodwill, unfortunately, didn't quite make it to that part of the Front Line. The cheerless "professional discipline" of the guards regiments seems to have been a major factor, so it seems that the "Herts Guards" moniker was bought at a price.

This, of course, is the self-same Christmas that has subsequently become synonymous with self-deluding political and military optimism. "It'll all be over by Christmas!" Oh, no it won't. But, despite those ensuing four years of misery and senseless slaughter, there's a deeper truth lying beneath what happened in France that frosty late December, isn't there? An uncynical truth – a Christmas truth, perhaps – of hope and faith in humanity. Those British, French, German, and Austrian men who took the risk of stepping out into No Man's Land, disobeying every military statute and command and the very instinct of self-preservation, created a myth worth celebrating, re-telling, and passing down the generations in Europe, didn't they?

It's hard not to feel that we in Britain have let them down, this year, with our foolish rejection of what did eventually grow from the spirit that produced those spontaneous and courageous leaps of faith. It seems that we have decided to join the others; the ones on both sides who skulked in the cold safety of their dugouts, either out of discipline, or fear, or actual contempt for the "enemy", even taking the occasional deadly potshot at each other on Christmas Day. Well, I bet most of them came to wish they had taken that leap of faith towards international brotherhood, not least when their own sons were made to put on uniforms and pick up the same rifles twenty-four years later. Though perhaps never quite as much as those who did take it will have regretted that they ever put the football and the brandy away, shaken hands one last time, and retreated back into those bloody trenches. It could all have been over by Christmas, couldn't it?

Well, no, not really. A few hundred, perhaps a few thousand defiantly disobedient men at the sharp end of the massive, unfeeling wedge that is an army, could never have withstood the courts-martial, the exemplary executions, the tabloid outrage, the white feathers, the whole orchestrated shit-storm of shaming that keeps even the most sensitive, sensible men quiet and compliant in the face of the suicidal insanity of warfare. Armies know well enough how to deal with mutiny, and have been doing so since Roman times; consider the origins of that much-misunderstood word "decimation".

Resistance always finds a way, however. Of all the many recent works about WW1, the best, in my opinion, is the BBC TV play written by the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, about the subversively funny trench newspaper The Wipers Times. * I won't describe it, just recommend it to you. It's brilliantly witty, funny, moving, and best of all completely true. A more British-yet-universal story about the power of the pen versus the power of the sword (or, in Wipers Times argot, the wallop of the whizz-bang) would be hard to find.

So, look on the bright side. The forces of darkness may be gathering, and the bad guys may be winning, but that surely also means we're about to enter a golden age of satire. Cheers!

from The Wipers Times

* It's available on UK Netflix, and may be elsewhere on the Web. It can also be bought as a BBC DVD. Maybe a last-minute present for someone with a sense of humour and a sense of history?

Friday, 16 December 2016

Mister Unsafe

I'm pretty sure you will have heard of J.S. Bach, and quite possibly C.P.E. Bach, too. If you're a real student of the Baroque, you'll know about J.C.F. and J.C. Bach as well. There are others. But I'm pretty sure I have just encountered a new member of that talented and multi-initialled family: M.R.I. Bach.

I was in the hospital on Thursday afternoon having an annual MRI scan, a follow-up to some surgery I had a couple of years ago. If you've never had an MRI, you've missed out on a truly unique experience. There's nothing quite like it, especially if you've ever been an aficionado of "altered states". It's rather like the sort of thing they would put you through in order to assess your suitability for astronaut training. Although, regrettably, there are no rewards for stoical displays of the Right Stuff, beyond knowing you won't have to do it again for another year. Phew.

First, you must submit to interrogation: do you have any piercings, any non-permanent dentures, any metal body parts, any embedded shrapnel or metal splinters – basically anything that might rip your body apart when exposed to a powerful magnetic field? Do you now, or have you ever had one of the following list of bizarre medical conditions? Don't just laugh, please say yes or no. Yes, we know you're unlikely to be pregnant. So, have you had an MRI before? Good, then I don't need to tell you what to expect. Did you react to the muscle relaxant or the intravenous contrast substance with the unmemorable name? Sign here. Now get your kit off, and put on two of these ridiculous gowns, one on the front, one on the back. Ha ha, no, never heard that joke about feeling like a shepherd in the school Christmas Nativity play before. So how are you with needles?

Now, they do know that undergoing MRI is a deeply unpleasant and disorientating experience. In fact, they place a panic button into the hand on the end of the arm that does not have a tube on a needle sticking into it. Why? Because they are going to slide you head-first into a narrow, enclosed receptacle, not unlike a mortuary cabinet, which some people, lacking the Right Stuff, find intolerable. The morbidly obese may well find it impossible; there's not much wriggle-room in there. Deliberately so: you're not expected to wriggle at all, or even twitch. Make the slightest shift, and they'll start all over again. It's like getting a portrait done in a Victorian photographer's studio. Except the exposures are much longer.

You are also given earplugs and a pair of headphones, because MRI is noisy. Very, very, very noisy. And very, very, very, very repetitive. And occasionally it gets much LOUDER, followed by a profound silence, then it SUDDENLY gets more bleepy, like a car alarm, followed by an intense grinding sound...  It's all a bit like some 1960s sci-fi film, or a Marvel Comics scenario. You half expect to emerge bullet-proof, like Luke Cage, or endowed with some other bizarre superpower. Tinnitus Man! No loud noise can ever startle him!

You can choose to listen to music through the headphones, something which in the past I've declined – I like to take my torture straight – but this time I thought, why not?

"What have you got?", I asked.
"We've got everything!", they said.

Oh, really... I decided not to ask for the rare but exquisite first album by The Bhundu Boys (you do have to lie very, very still for half an hour, and jit, whilst jolly, is not very calming) so I opted for Bach. J.S. Bach, obviously.

As my ordeal by magnet began, something that sounded quite like the first Brandenburg Concerto started to trickle through my spongy earplugs. Now, not surprisingly, everything with a metal component in it kept within the MRI suite has a red "MR UNSAFE" sticker on it. (Great name, no? "They call me ... Mr. Unsafe!"). Clearly, proper headphones, being essentially metal'n'magnet affairs, are not "MR safe". I suspect these special MR-safe headphones must work on a similar principle to a yoghurt pot on the end of a taut string, or pressing an ear to the party wall to hear what the neighbours are saying listening to. The sound quality was abysmal: it was like being on the worst telephone on-hold service ever.

However, once the beeps, buzzes, and rhythmic grinding of the machine got going, it suddenly all became incredibly interesting. I was listening to a demented but compelling mashup of distorted Baroque orchestra and industrial electronica. I know the Brandenburgs backwards (well, not actually backwards, but you know what I mean) so the various interruptions and overlays of the MRI machine's robotic grunts and warblings were interweaving intriguing aleatory counterpoints across the over-familiar music, like interference patterns in a pond. Or perhaps more like Robert Rauschenberg rubbing out that drawing by Willem de Kooning, or even those naughty Chapman Brothers defacing Goya prints. I found I was actually enjoying myself; in fact, I was dipping in and out of some sort of trance state, accompanied by vivid eyelid movies. Talk about the Right Stuff! John Cage would have been proud of me.

Occasionally, the music would stop, and a muffled, faraway voice with a heavy Belfast accent dribble through the headphones and earplugs.

"Wiff-waff nibble nork?"
"Wha'? Can't hear!"
"WIFF-WAFF NIBBLE NORK? Doughnut movie egg!"
"Um, OK!"

And off we would go again. On and ON and on and ON ... You get the picture. By the end of my session, and the fourth electro-magnetically "prepared" Brandenburg, I was convinced M.R.I. Bach was a bankable proposition, even if a suitable cocktail of intravenous muscle relaxants and a lengthy period of enforced immobility might be a necessary precondition. I could even start a club – MR UNSAFE? – although it's true that MRI machines are notoriously and prohibitively expensive.

When they finally wound me back out into reality, I was almost tempted to ask for another go. Maybe next year. It seems like an appropriate way to start the festive season.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Reaching Out About Reaching Out

Words change, and their meanings change, too. That much is obvious; or, not so much obvious, as undeniable. I sometimes imagine some 1500-year-old guy, who habitually sits on a wall somewhere in southern England (let's say on the dock of the bay of Clausentum / Hamwic / Hamtun / Southampton), who has witnessed the gradual change in the language from a few flavours of Anglo-Saxon through various shades of Middle English to the sleekly expressive noises we currently use. How slow or how sudden, for example, was the Great Vowel Shift? Did everyone wake up one Wednesday morning in or around March 21st 1550, with all their long vowels irreversibly altered? Or was there a period of infuriating chaos ("You say tomato...").

The picture is complicated by the spread of various "Englishes" around the world. Curiously, around the time specimens of Solanum lycopersicum were crossing the Atlantic one way, a subset of Brits with shaky pronunciation skills was crossing it the other way. It was the beginning of a confusion that could only get worse with time: as Oscar Wilde was already putting it in 1887, we really have everything in common with America these days, except, of course, language.  You say /təˈmeɪtoʊ/ but you are so wrong.

Of course, differences in meaning are more profound than mere pronunciation. It was recently pointed out to me that to "frown" is, to an American, an expression primarily involving the use of the corners of the mouth, whereas in Britain it is all to do with the eyebrows and forehead. Which is weird, to say the least. Which brings me to my real point. Back in 1966, when songs were songs and trousers were trousers, the Four Tops had a hit on both sides of the Atlantic with "Reach Out (I'll Be There)".
Now if you feel that you can't go on
Because all of your hope is gone
And your life is filled with much confusion
Until happiness is just an illusion
And your world around is crumblin' down
Darling, reach out, come on girl, reach on out for me
Reach out, reach out for me
I'll be there, with a love that will shelter you
I'll be there, with a love that will see you through.
The passionate soul-shout of lead singer Levi Stubbs is full of desperate yearning, as if he's shouting through a wild storm to a drowning girl: reach out, come on girl, reach on out for me! Like so many of those mid-sixties Motown hits, it's a little jewel, where all the parts – words, music, performance, and, yes, even the trousers – just fit, perfectly.

So imagine my amusement, the first time I called an American customer support line, to be told that the relevant engineer would reach out to me that very afternoon. I was well aware of the taste for hyperbole in the language of business, Stateside, but this was genuinely OTT. The image of myself floundering in the waters of Unix confusion, waiting to be saved by the extended hand of a software specialist dangling perilously from a cable lowered from a rescue helicopter, was truly hysterical. I went around telling colleagues about it, the way you do.

Until someone said, no, that's just American for "get in touch". What, really? No stretched-out arms, no desperate measures, no heightened emotional pitch? You mean Levi Stubbs is just saying: get in touch, preferably during office hours, I assume you have my number? I don't believe you!

But I've seen it used so frequently now, in so many different contexts, that I have to believe it. I suppose it may hinge on the preposition: reach out for, versus reach out to. But this is, uh, reaching out for straws. It really does seem that "to reach out" is American for "get in touch". Or, at least, it is now. Which makes me frown, English-style...

So, help me out here, my American friends. Is "reach out" a standard usage of long-standing, or is it some absurd, voguish hyperventilation, similar to "leverage" or "out of the loop", perpetrated by the business community on our beloved language? I'm reaching out to you!

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Diving Bell Experiment Continues

An intrepid wolverine writes a new chapter in this submarine mammalian folly. But why, wolverine, why?

Tuesday, 6 December 2016


People are nothing if not slaves to fashion, the more idiotic the better. I'm not sure when the thing about fastening a padlock onto certain bridges and tossing the key into the river as a token of terminal sentimentality began, but I first noticed it a few years ago, and wondered why so many bikes were getting stolen from such a visible place.

It quickly got out of hand, however. Last year, locks weighing 45 tonnes were removed from the Pont des Arts in Paris. Forty-five tonnes... On just one bridge! The damned things were accumulating like brass and steel barnacles and actually causing structural damage.

We were up by the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol on Sunday, and the padlock plague is clearly spreading. For some reason the railings near the Observatory are favoured. I hope this means none are being attached in any numbers to the bridge itself; I doubt very much that Brunel had factored this in when working out the stresses and strains on the cables.

I noted that, typically (and, frankly, pathetically), it seems starry-eyed couples are now able to buy specially engraved padlocks for the purpose, which further cheapens and commodifies the whole soppy business. In my day, young fools would climb all the way up to the highest accessible point of the Vatican and scratch their names onto the bums of rooftop statues, or descend after midnight into the cellars of ancient colleges equipped with a suitable selection of spray-paints. Or, ah, so I am told.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Tell It Slant

I knew I'd forgotten something that linked the previous two posts (regular readers may have noticed my formalist tendencies, expressed as a liking for an echo of the preceding post in most new ones). Here it is: in the TLS, novelist William Boyd's Book of the Year is The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945 (Thames and Hudson ISBN 978-0500518250).
“Tell the truth but tell it slant”, Emily Dickinson advised. The validity of the statement is enshrined in the astonishing book that is The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939–1945 (Thames and Hudson) by Laurence Ward. The book is made up of hundreds of pages of detailed street maps, colour-coded to show the extent of bomb damage in London in the Second World War. Colours such as yellow for “Blast damage – minor in nature”; to black for “Total destruction”. These maps, at first glance, are like beautiful works of abstract art: meticulous mosaics of clustered hues. But then the slant truth seeps in – streets obliterated; one house “seriously damaged – repairable at cost”; a neighbour spared; and you realize exactly what awful testimony is precisely gathered here. It’s a book for Londoners – almost every district, every street you know, figures – but from this bombed city you inevitably think of all the others: Dresden, Caen, Manila, Tokyo – Aleppo.
If I were a Londoner (which I'm not, though I did give it a try) this would certainly be on my Christmas list this year.

An Ice-Cream War
(see what I did there?)

Thursday, 1 December 2016

General Ludd and Captain Swing

Something I hadn't known when I moved to Southampton  in 1984, following a new job, was that my grandparents had also moved here in 1939, also following a job. Unfortunately for them, the outbreak of war and the blitz of the Southampton Docks and surrounding area meant that they were bombed out of both their first home and that new job (my grandfather was a bookbinder, as was my grandmother, and his new employer, the Shirley Press, was an early casualty of the bombs). Their skills were still in demand, however, in the urgent business of constructing Spitfire fighter planes. So, when my father was evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, it was to their new home in Hamble – a bit further down the Solent – that he returned, and not to Letchworth in North Hertfordshire from where he had left to enlist.

Now, Southampton is a major port, for both cruise liners and cargo ships, although once you are a few streets from the actual waterfront you might never guess this. Modern containerized ports don't employ anything like the size of labour force they once did: ironically, Southampton survived as a port because the unions were weak here in the 1960s and could not resist the move to containerization and the associated job losses. In a sense, a modern port is a taster of the automated, job-free future that awaits us, or at least awaits our grandchildren. Behind fences and security cameras great wealth is being moved around, but is not being shared around much in the locality.

The town my grandparents knew only survives in parts. The modern town centre would be unrecognisable to them – it was more or less destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, then all over again by waves of planners in subsequent decades – but many of the streets of terraces and semis that radiate from the dockside are still there. I went for a long walk down through them this week, ending up near the docks at dusk. Those giant cranes do catch the setting sun rather well, and can be seen for miles dominating the skyline at the end of any street running down in the direction of Southampton Water. But where once at this hour crowds of men would have been bursting from the gates to get home in time for their tea, now there is just a steady stream of heavy traffic, and the odd dog-walker wandering the quiet dockside streets and parks. Unless certain minds and mindsets can be changed, it really is a glimpse of a future in which ordinary people (and in particular ordinary men) will have very little part to play. Even the truck drivers will be looking for something to do.

I'm beginning to think that some sort of targeted programme of assassination is the only hope for humanity. I'm not talking about the likes of Trump (though, you know, who will rid me of this troublesome president-elect, or however that one goes?). No, there are people out there who are intent on sucking out all the juice of life, who think the Smart Thing (or the thing that will best demonstrate how really smart they are) is to take away everyone else's jobs, and to simplify every skilled task to the point where it can be performed by anyone capable of pushing a button.

The main culprits, of course, are the advocates and developers of AI (no, not artificial insemination, fool, artificial intelligence; although, thinking about it, the two may not be unconnected). I find the motivation behind the drive to develop AI is at the same time both obvious and completely baffling.

It is obvious that, from a corporate point-of-view, people are expensive, unreliable, and inconsistent. Some person spends years acquiring the skills required to sew a pair of trousers to a consistent quality and size (have you ever stopped to think how complex an operation that is, even reduced to production-line efficiency?) and then goes and has a baby – what a waste! – or has some footling industrial accident, just because of some essential cost-cutting measures you introduced. From a "bottom line" perspective, a machine that can do a job – any job – 24/7 without significant breaks, faster and to higher tolerances, and without any significant recurring costs (like wages), is clearly vastly superior to any human. You know where you are with machines, and the fewer humans you need to pay, the more the money rolls in. Obvious!

What is baffling, however, is when you try to imagine what sort of world these AI people envisage. Driverless cars; robotic factories; machine-composed music; drone-delivered mail... What the hell are people supposed to be doing with their lives? Sitting around playing with their smartphones? Surely there's an app that could simulate all that time-wasting with apps rather better? I'm just reading how Adobe and University of California-Berkeley are working on an AI-powered image manipulation tool:
According to a newly published study detailing the technology, this tool involves a ‘generative adversarial neural network’ that works to modify images in near-real time. As one example demonstrated in the video below, drawing a general shape over a photo of a bag causes the software to automatically adjust the bag’s size to match the sketched shape without compromising its realistic nature. The software can also generate images based on crude user 'scribbles' – no artistic talent required.
Well, terrific. There's one more set of skills we won't be needing anyone to acquire. A machine operated by an unskilled person will be able to do it; not brilliantly or creatively, but well enough, and quicker and cheaper. Another one in the eye for those sentimental, elitist idiots who think that people find meaning in their lives by learning skills and earning the respect that goes with craftsmanship and pride in your work, whether it be laying bricks well, keeping accurate accounts, or diagnosing illnesses.

So, obvious but baffling. Other than standard drivers like, oh, greed (to enhance corporate profits), or One-Per-Cent-ism (to create an ever deeper divide between the hyper-wealthy and the rest of us), what can the motivation be? Having met some of these Techno-Enemies of the People, I suggest there may be a nerdish envy at work: "You think you're clever, with your tailoring, piano-playing, doctoring, and shit? Well, I can write software that makes all your so-called skills redundant! Now who's clever?" Hmm, make a few nerds super-rich, and make millions of decent, ordinary human beings redundant. It's a plan.

As I say, targeted assassination may be our only hope. And maybe some good old-fashioned machine-breaking!  Never mind Drake's drum – unless we play the Brexit thing very badly indeed we need never fear German bombers flying overhead again – now may be the time for General Ludd and Captain Swing finally to awake from their slumbers. Bring me my hammer of burning gold, bring me my spanners of desire...

Monday, 28 November 2016

Book Club 2016

Here we go again. Christmas is coming, and the papers are full of "books of the year" lists. Those lists can be very strange, especially in the heavyweights like the TLS, where the choices are often not so much recommendations as competitive confessions of irredeemable bookishness. Although the Le Carré and Springsteen autobiographies do get quite a few mentions this year – times have changed. Maybe that Dylan Nobel has been having an effect, or maybe it's the main symptom of the changes.

I've been trying to resist book-buying this year, which means I've still probably bought rather more than a normal person buys in a decade. In the interests of relieving pressure on shelf-space, though, I've tried to restrict myself to small books wherever possible (and Kindle books are really small). I've never really enjoyed BIG books, anyway, and can't understand the hunger for them (I think I've mentioned before how Richard Misrach's Chronologies, too big to fit on any shelf, just hangs around waiting to trip someone up).

So, for what it's worth, here are a few of my recommendations:

1. Tom Phillips has produced what he is declaring the Final Edition of his magnum opus, the "treated Victorian novel" known as A Humument. If you don't know this book in its previous editions (including a superb app for the iPad) you have been missing one of the most brilliant, sustained, amusing, and inventive acts of disruptive imagination ever committed. You simply have to buy several copies, one for yourself and a couple to give as presents. It's currently only out in hardback, I think, but very well-priced from Thames & Hudson (ISBN 978-0-5005190-3-5).

2. For something totally gorgeous at a ridiculously reasonable price, you can't beat Nick Turpin's On The Night Bus, from Hoxton Mini Press (ISBN 978-1-910566-16-9). Buy direct from the publisher: their packaging is quite something. If you've ever felt the magic of a night bus ride through a city, and that odd, dreamlike state you sometimes enter when surrounded by strangers, then this book will speak to you.

3. & 4. I very much enjoyed two books of "altered" photography from small landscape photography publisher Triplekite, Valda Bailey's Fragile (ISBN 978-0-9932589-4-7) and Chris Friel's Framed (ISBN 978-0-9932589-0-9). Both are destined to be classics, I think. You can buy them direct from Triplekite. Small, square, inexpensive, unusual, and beautiful; perfect.

5. Amusingly, given my comment about Chronologies above, one of the most interesting, innovative and smallest books I've come across this year is Baptiste Lignel's lengthy interview with Richard Misrach, published as Richard Misrach in the "Photographers References" series (ISBN 978-2-9543839-27). It's quite hard to describe the novelty of the approach in this series, so have a look at the video here. I bought my copy direct from the publisher, and had the surprise bonus of Misrach's signature on the title page. I'm not sure if this is a standard feature!

6. Once again, let me persuade you to buy, read, and inwardly digest Luigi Ghirri's The Complete Essays 1973-1991 from MACK (ISBN 978-1-91016-414-3) – inspirational writings from a truly great photographer. I don't recommend their Luigi Ghirri Postcards, however; it's an odd selection of images, not terribly well reproduced.

7. Finally, for something a little bit special (if you can find a copy, which may be difficult now, as there were only 800 printed): Japanese photographer Kou Inose's Complete Works was brought out in a really fine volume by Getsuyosha (ISBN 978-4-86503-024-2). If your taste runs to the Dark Side (and the Japanese really do Dark like no-one else) then look no further. Monochrome studies of autopsies, and gnarly landscapes that look like autopsies? Josef Koudelka-style panoramas of abandoned industrial and domestic clutter? It's all here, beautifully printed and bound. Be warned, though: it is very dark in places, and one of those books that you need to take a deep, calming breath before opening.

By the way, if you want to keep on top of all the new photo-book releases, and be in with a chance of scoring a copy of soon-to-be-scarce items like the Kou Inose, my two main book-pushers are Beyond Words and Photobookstore, both of which are small, committed enterprises worthy of your support, with a regular email-distributed newsletter you can sign up for. Only if you can withstand temptation, that is, and can afford the habit.

Of course, if you want something really special, you could direct your attention to the My Blurb Bookstore section over there on the top right corner... But be aware that Blurb's Christmas delivery deadlines are getting close (standard December 9th, express December 13th, priority December 14th).

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Practice Makes Perfect

Many of us, rightly, resist the use of the word "practice" when applied to the activities and output of artists. It's self-regarding and pompous, and the implied comparison with the medical and legal professions is both silly and, essentially, insecure. Those of us in the less "established" professions – teachers, lecturers, librarians, musicians, and the like – would never refer to our "practice" and, notably, it's snake-oil merchants like aromatherapists, homeopathizers, reiki-ists, and allied trades who generally do refer to their mysteries in that way. I must admit I used to wince whenever I heard my fellow librarians refer to their "teaching", when talking about instructional sessions for library users. The desire to big-up one's skill-set is, I suppose, universal, but it's insulting to arrogate the sexy-sounding vocabulary of other professions to one's own. Certain words do attract attention to themselves, though: I'm told that, if you want to be inundated by hundreds of unsuitable job applicants, putting the word "research" prominently in the advert is like putting a lamp next to an open window on a summer's night.

I suppose, when considering the output of those of us who do not earn a living from our artistic activities, even the word "work" can sound a little pretentious. Though at the same time to dismiss it as "my stuff", "my efforts", "my scribblings", "my daubs", or "my snaps" strikes a smug note of false self-deprecation, which is probably worse. "Work" is what it is, though, even if essentially playful, unpaid, unshown, and unsought, and it's my word of choice. So sue me.

My artistic work, therefore, has always included drawing. I'm quite good; there's no denying it, and always have been. But facility is not everything when it comes to the business of self-expression, and the day I discovered photography was the day I finally discovered I had both something to say and the means to say it. Before then, I had merely been spinning my wheels; action, noise, but going nowhere. In fact, before photography, for some time I had been feeling that I might as well let my expressive urge lie fallow. It had begun to seem as pointless as being quite good at some sport, but not good enough to make worthwhile the sacrifices in time and effort – that "90 per cent perspiration" – required to be really good. But, like a natural sportsman, I felt bad about letting my artistic musculature run to seed, so to speak, and photography saved me.

Two meetings 2007

Three meetings 2009

Mind you, for most of my 30 years of working life, you might say my main and most persistent "practice" was doodling during meetings. I accumulated a mighty corpus of biro-illuminated agendas, minutes, and handouts, expressing the boredom, bafflement, and suppressed hilarity so typical of professional life in a large organization. Conscious that I was regularly binning some of the best things I had done, around the turn of the century I started using A5 blank hardbound notebooks to record my bureaucratic magnum opus (plus, of course, the odd actual useful note). One day I'll scan the best of the pages from these dozen or so volumes, and the sheaf of ornamented A4 pages I brought home with me on retirement, even though it seems the estimable (and rather more talented) Tom Phillips has beaten me to it with his book Merry Meetings. With any luck, between us we may establish a whole new genre.

However, in recent times drawing has been coming back into my life. To continue the sporting metaphor, it's a bit like jogging. To sit quietly in the evening with a small hardbound sketchbook, a few pencils, and various other implements (an eraser and a paper stump are always handy) is like running for a few miles at an easy pace through a familiar neighbourhood. Fun, addictive, incredibly cheap, and a significant contribution to well-being, but nothing more serious than that. Although, like a jogger whose main sport is tennis, I'm sure the regular exercise of certain hand-eye-brain "muscles" must be having a beneficial effect on my handling of line, composition and tone in photography and photo-collage. And, occasionally, I'm getting that little thrill that says: there's something good here, have another go at finding it.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Passing Clouds

I suppose an obvious feature of all "celebrity deaths" is that although many of us will have been aware of the person concerned, to a greater or lesser extent, hardly any of us could ever actually have known them, personally. At most, we will have known the ins and outs of their legend and their works, and thus had a small personal investment in their "passing" (another of those evasive euphemisms for death and dying I dislike). If nothing else, they're a useful dress-rehearsal for the real thing.

Another, less obvious feature is that we all get to know of, say, Leonard Cohen's death at more or less the same time. It's an event, a talking point, an opportunity for reflection and self-definition. This, I have come to realise, is untypical. I recently described how, purely accidentally, I got to hear of the death of an old friend, a year later. In fact, had I not actively sought to satisfy my curiosity about her and made certain enquiries, facilitated by the internet, a whole decade later I might still be under the illusion that she was out there in the world, doing whatever it was she had found to do with her life. It was, after all, a very one-way process: I have since passed on the news of her death, but never once have I heard the sad tidings from someone else.

Similarly, I recently wondered what was up with frame-maker, tempera-painter, and all-purpose curmudgeon Bron Janulis, a frequent commenter on this and various other blogs. Commenters do come and go, but Bron had been a constant presence over the years and, to be honest, in my self-centred way, I was concerned that my posts had become sufficiently boring for someone like Bron to stop visiting, not least because he also failed to show up in my recent poll of regular visitors. But a few seconds on Google revealed that Bron had died in March 2015. I haven't summoned the courage, since, to investigate the fate of some other commenters who have fallen silent. My hope is they did simply get bored (not true: if I'm honest, I'd much prefer that they stopped reading because they were dead).

By contrast, I very recently received an email from the wife of photographer Graham Dew, telling me that he had died. I knew Graham was dying, as he had sent an email to his contact list, more or less apologising for his lack of communication in recent months, and outlining a tragic sequence of medical discoveries culminating in an incurable cancer (Graham was just 57). But, the thing is, I barely knew Graham. He arranged my talk at the Arena Photography Group back in 2012, and we subsequently commented intermittently on each other's work and blogs and exchanged the occasional email, but we never actually met again, despite our geographical proximity (Graham lived in Winchester). My point here is that I heard about his death simply because I was on his email contact list, which he must have passed on to his wife. No contact list; no email; no news.

This made me think about the way the internet has changed things. For example, you, like me, may be wondering what has happened to Mark Woods, who runs (ran?) the estimable wood s lot blog. There hasn't been a new post on there since July 2016 (coincidentally, marking the death of poet Geoffrey Hill). Is he ill? Is he dead? Or has he just lost interest? I'm told he isn't replying to emails ("Hey, Mark, are you dead?"). Which raises the interesting point: who manages our online affairs after we are found slumped cold over a keyboard? Graham Dew managed this supremely well, but most of us won't. How could Bron's family possibly have known the identities of a scatter of people, world-wide, to whom his death was not a matter of indifference? Does anyone – your partner, say – have access to your email, or a list of your main online activities, from Facebook to your bank account, with the relevant IDs and passwords? Do you?

This could be an awful headache for executors in the future, especially now all the banks want you to go "paperless". It will be an online Catch-22: how will you figure out what accounts grandad had, without first already having access to them? How will you know you need to get access to them, without a paper-trail to show they exist? Did he forget to pass on his email password? Oh, dear...

Handling the accounts of the recently-deceased will become a major issue for all online companies, and not just banks. "Grandad just ordered a ten-foot TV, but, ah, won't now be in to receive the delivery, morning or afternoon. No, I don't know his password. No, I'm afraid I don't know the make of his first car, or the name of his primary school, either".

And all those precious family photos conscientiously stored in the cloud? That bit of the cloud just evaporated. Forever. Unless, of course, grandad is one of the minority who bothered to make a will that, these days, needs to include all those access details. Over 55? Got email, bank accounts, a blog, an Apple or Facebook account, etc., etc., all with more than a few IDs and passwords? Make a list; on paper. Just do it. And keep it up to date. If nothing else, I'm sure your friends would like to hear that you're dead.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Diving Bell Experiment

Sorry, I have no idea what this is about, it just sort of happened... Though I think we've all been there, one way or another.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Named and Numbered

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.
Matthew 10: 29-31
One of the more curious Bible passages, that, especially when viewed from 2016. Viewed from 2016 in Britain, I should say, where the farthing is long gone, as is the slaughter, sale, and consumption of small wild birds. (Though this is a vice to which our continental cousins are still prone. Ever read about the eating of the ortolan by French gastronauts? Blimey! Exterminate all the brutes! And I don't mean the ortolans...).

For example, that suggestion of some kind of quantum entanglement of sparrows with your father. Sparrow falls over, Dad falls over; and possibly vice versa? And why is the link with just one of the farthing two-fer pair? Can the other one fall down whenever it feels the need, without paternal consequence? Although it's possible the translation is lacking something. Like comprehensibility, say.

What a disturbing thought, too, those numbered hairs! I've run a sample of mine through a microscope a few times, half-expecting (like that scene in Blade Runner) to come across a maker's mark, but... Nothing visible, at least to the human eye. How short can a hair be cut, I wonder, before an angel can no longer read its unique barcode? Unless, of course, the ID runs through it, like seaside rock, rather than along it? One for Thomas Aquinas, I think.

And that "many" in verse 31... Not "most", or even "all", but "many"! You mean there are some sparrows, perhaps a significant minority, that are worth more than a human – you, specifically – either in monetary terms, or (given Jesus's tendency to stretch his metaphors) morally? And this has something to do with how many hairs you have on your head? Or their numbering? Now that's an even more intriguing linkage, and it's no wonder those appalling French bird-gobblers cover their balding skulls in shame.

Did you know there is a toll of twenty-five million migrating wild birds every year trapped and killed by "hunters" around the Mediterranean? Twenty-five million! Of course, at a rate of two for a farthing, that's a mere £13,000-worth. Although I suspect that inflation since around 30 CE, both monetary and moral, will have raised that valuation more than somewhat. But, whatever its market value, that astonishing butcher's bill must mean there are an awful lot of fathers unexpectedly falling over somewhere.

Thursday, 17 November 2016


Well, what do you know? The starlings are making a comeback.

I remember being stopped in my tracks, back in the early 1980s when I regularly used to find myself at Temple Meads railway station in Bristol at dusk, by the spectacle of tens of thousands of tightly-massed starlings pulling astonishing liquid shapes in the sky, as if controlled by a single whimsical intelligence, determined to have a bit of fun before allowing them all to drop under the shelter of the station roof to roost for the night. The first time I saw it I thought I must be hallucinating, as I was standing there, open-mouthed and amazed, but nobody else seemed to be paying the slightest attention. They never did. Then someone filmed starlings doing their bedtime sky-writing for a TV programme, and suddenly everyone had permission to notice them. I'm told you could sign up for starling-watching trips out to the Somerset Levels (despite the fact that this spectacle was happening every evening over most large city centres). People's ability to blank out the extraordinary never ceases to amaze me; mind you, I expect there are distinct evolutionary advantages in not standing around gawping at the way a charging lion's mane is catching the sunlight.

Mysteriously, starling populations crashed either side of the millennium, as did those of other very common birds, in particular the house sparrow. No one really knows why, but for many years the sight of either species – formerly so ubiquitous as to be a bit of a pest – was cause for comment. I never once saw a house sparrow in Southampton from 1984 until about three years ago, when that unmistakable monotonous cheeping sound started to be heard again in garden shrubbery. This year I keep seeing small flocks of starlings – about 50 birds – exploding out of trees as I do my regular walks across the Common and the Sports Ground. It seems they are recovering, and maybe soon those small flocks will be coalescing into one enormous flowing organism over this city, too. I really look forward to it.