Thursday, 30 June 2016

Et tu, Gove?

Got my mojo workin'... It may not work on you, but it sure as shit seems to work on Westminster. Crikey!

Enough political chaos for you yet?  Do tell me when you want me to stop...

Monday, 27 June 2016

Endless Rain Into a Paper Cup

Barrow on Old Winchester Hill, August 2014

There I was, at midday on one of the longest days of the year, skulking indoors with the light on, would you believe. Perfectly normal, of course; plenty of summers in recent years have been washouts, and there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that the rich layabouts at Glastonbury are having a crimp put in their glamping. It was particularly annoying to hear that some local children were late for their GCSE exams because of the festival traffic snarlup; some school bus drivers even decided to turn back, judging the situation hopeless. Apparently some less-than-happy campers were stuck in the queue for twelve hours. Twelve hours! Frankly, nothing – except perhaps flight from imminent genocide – is worth twelve hours in a traffic queue, and I wouldn't even cross the road to hear Coldplay whining in a wet, muddy field.

Anyway. Following on from a previous post, I've been looking at some more of those unprocessed Fuji X-Pro1 files from summers past, and found some pretty ones (not necessarily "pretty good", mark you, but "pretty" will do) from August 2014. I'm intrigued by their quality. The processing innards of the X-Pro1 and the X-E1 being pretty much identical, what I'm noticing must be the quality of the XF 35mm f/1.4 lens that came with the second-hand X-Pro1 body, and which I quickly set aside in favour of the more versatile "kit" zoom that arrived with the X-E1. That 18-55 lens is very good, but I'm finally seeing why the 35mm has the reputation it does. I did keep it, so maybe I will be using it more. Assuming the rain ever stops.

Old Winchester Hill, where these photographs were taken, is a wonderful place to visit, in dry weather. As it happens it's nowhere near Winchester, and is about as far to the ESE of Winchester as Southampton is to the south, so it's rather like calling the docks "Winchester Waterfront". It's a high chalk escarpment with a promontory leading out to a hill, topped by Bronze Age barrows lying within the ramparts of a very large Iron Age hillfort. It's now a Site of Special Scientific Interest, due to its "unimproved chalk downland" flora and fauna, though it was also once used as a training ground for small arms and mortar-fire during WW2. I have several times come across the brass casings of .303 rounds thrown up by burrowing moles, and some areas are still officially out-of-bounds, due to the risk of "unexploded munitions". You can't help but watch the sheep grazing those parts of the hillside with unusually close interest, in anticipation of one vanishing in a Python-esque puff of pink smoke.

Old Winchester Hill, August 2014

Friday, 24 June 2016

A Tale of Two Islands

So, we're to leave the EC. Not the result I was hoping for. Or expecting – I was in Winchester yesterday afternoon, and saw almost exclusively "remain" posters and campaigners, which surprised me. The barricaded feel of the assemblage above is more what I associate with the Tory heartlands. Here in comparatively poor and grimy Southampton, banners for either side are conspicuous by their absence, but immigration has been a long-standing issue (one tenth of our population is East European, mainly young, many with children in local schools), and I'm not surprised, if disappointed, that 54% voted to leave. Weirdly, even bigger "leave" votes came from areas like Wales and the North-East, major recipients of EU regional aid funding, and relatively unaffected by the free movement of labour from EU countries. From here, that looks like desperate political self-harm.

Where do we go from here? Who knows? I'll let you know when I find out. Depressing, isn't it? Especially for the young, whose future is at stake, and who mainly voted to remain. The infuriating thing is that this referendum was totally unnecessary, a foolish gamble by David Cameron to outflank UKIP and settle a long-standing civil war within the Conservative Party. And yet, as it seems to have turned out, it was not so much the Tory voters who swung the "leave" vote as disaffected Labour voters, allegedly rebelling against the metropolitan certainties of the political class. If true, that is a very bad sign indeed. I have shared my thoughts on these issues before, and this does nothing to change my mind.

And, while we're still on the subject, the plural of "referendum" is "referendums". I'm surprised at the number of faux-posh types in the media who insist on "referenda". Look it up, guys.

Traffic island
(that's King Alfred's traffic island)

Wednesday, 22 June 2016


Mottisfont, June 2015 

As I'm sure I must have said more than once before, summer is not my favourite season. That said, I don't mind having a bit of summer, and we haven't had much at all so far this June. It's been grey and overcast, with squalls of heavy rain, and the occasional steamy half-hour of sunshine. Photographically, it's been a bit of a bust, either too dull, too wet, or horribly contrasty.

So I was looking in my backfiles to see what June was like last year, and was surprised to find some unprocessed raw files from a Fuji X-Pro1 I used to have but sold, preferring to keep the X-E1; an unexpected taste of summers past. Looks like it must have been quite hot last June, despite the clouds, and I doubt I'd have been sitting indoors all afternoon watching the rain, and wearing a jumper.

Incidentally, talking of cameras and annoying things: I've currently got a loaner Ricoh GR. It's one of those intriguing, niche cameras, that makes you wonder how it ever got past the design stage: APS-C sensor, fixed 28mm equivalent lens, no viewfinder, but as small and as light as a compact. I love its size and operation – it really is pocket-sized and has a brilliant "snap" focus facility, which means you can pre-focus at something approximating a hyperfocal distance – but I can't get a decent shot out of the thing. This is almost certainly a "perfect storm" combination of the unaccustomed wide angle, low light levels, and the lack of any anti-shake functionality, compounded by my inability to hold a camera still with the "praying mantis" stance. But, whatever the reason, it's deeply annoying. Anyone got any experience with the GR, and any tips?

Mottisfont, June 2015

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Luigi Ghirri

Brighton, June 2015

I've recently come across one of the best blogs I've ever read and, even better, it's written by one of the greats of photography, even if one not well-enough known in the English-speaking world. This "blog" is not online, however: it's a book, The Complete Essays 1973-1991 by Luigi Ghirri*, recently published in English translation by Mack. I urge you to buy a copy while you still can.

I've mentioned Ghirri several times before in this blog. If you don't know his work, and don't mind coping with (or ignoring) a little spoken Italian, there's a nice YouTube video about a recent retrospective exhibition at Museo MAXXI in Rome here. Ignore the commentary – it's mostly just Italian curators doing artspeak, anyway – and look at the pictures. Splendido! There's something unique about his way of seeing that resonates with me (his first book Kodachrome, published in 1973 and republished in 2012, also by Mack, is a fresh revelation to me every time I open it) and now I find that his writing about photography is quite special, too.

I say it's a blog because many of the pieces are short and, although they range widely over international photography and art (and it is hard not to feel parochial when reading an Italian photographer who references Scottish poet Edwin Muir, or our American friend Wallace Stevens, not to mention Peter Handke or Bob Dylan) they're generally written from a personal perspective and many are "occasional" pieces in the old sense of the word, beginning "Last Thursday..." or "When I saw So-and-So's recent exhibition..." As a bonus, most are accompanied by one of Ghirri's wonderful photographs. There is also, inevitably, a degree of repetition; we all have our favourite examples and comparisons, after all. One of Ghirri's appears to be "Tom Thumb's stones" – a trail of stones left to show the way home – which mystified me at first, until I realised the reference was to a folktale better known in English as "Hop-o'-My-Thumb". Tom Thumb, as I recall, is all about being swallowed, spat out, and baked into pies. I suspect this is a translator's error. Anyone own a copy of the Italian original, published as Niente di antico sotto il sole (nothing old under the sun)?

By the way, if you do own a copy, would you like to sell it? I'm visiting Italy for the first time in forty-three years this summer, and I've found that the quickest way to an enhanced reading knowledge of a language is to read something of interest which you also have in translation. I picked up most of my Spanish, such as it is, by reading Carlos Castaneda's Teachings of Don Juan in Spanish translation in the summer of 1979, while exploring the post-Franco, pre-EEC Basque Country. Although I admit the vocabulary acquired that way can be a little specialised (brujos were thin on the ground). I learned Russian primarily from cataloguing academic texts, and thus have a suprisingly good vocabulary in the higher reaches of aesthetic theory and geophysics, but couldn't order a beer, decipher a menu, or ask for simple directions to the railway station. Or rather, I could ask the question, but not understand the reply. Although, of course, these days the response would most likely be in English, anyway. What was I saying about parochial?

Brighton, June 2015

* Pronounced "Girri", not "Jirri".

UPDATE: A reader has pointed me at an online version of Niente di antico sotto il sole and, yes, the original text has "i sassi di Pollicino" which the translator has rendered as "Tom Thumb's stones". Pollicino is the Italian version of Le Petit Poucet in Perrault's tale, usually known in English as "Hop-o'-My-Thumb" or "Little Thumbling". The tales of Tom Thumb are a different set of stories, and rather more scatological, in the English manner.

Friday, 17 June 2016

First First

My baby's all growed up an' savin' China...

I've just heard that my daughter has been awarded a first (BA in Film Studies, Sussex University), the first first in our family, as it happens. She's done so well: she worked hard, and got the reward she richly deserves. I couldn't be more proud of her, though I have no idea where she gets the self-discipline and application. Certainly not from me or her mother, who tended to rely on last-minute cramming and what one of my old teachers would call, dismissively, "native wit". There'll be dancing in the streets of Brighton tonight, I'll warrant.

So now may be the right time finally to tell the much-postponed story of how I failed to secure a first, way back in the hot, dry summer of 1976. It goes like this:

As I have already confessed several times, I did very little actual work at university. At least, until some point in the third, final year. I did enough to meet the requirements, but at the "ancient universities" in those days these were not onerous. The route leading to a "theatrical third" was an accepted and well-trodden path for those who, having proved whatever they had to prove by getting admitted (also easier in those days, women being excluded from direct competition), decided to concentrate on things other than boring old homework. Typically, things like theatre, sketch comedy, sport, politics, getting totally wasted, sitting up all night listening to records, talking profound gibberish, and various combinations thereof. I majored in all-nite Stoner Studies, a very popular option in those days which I understand has, inexplicably, vanished from the curriculum in recent years. O tempora, o mores!

A simple version of the story might end right there.  And that, children, is how your father ended up with a third-class degree, before learning to straighten up and fly right. But, without boasting, I am better than that. In fact, I have a gift – let's call it fluency in Old High Bullshit – which enables me to conjure much out of little. Obviously, this is not much use in the physics lab or a tutorial on the constitutional history of Bulgaria, but my chosen subject was English literature (I know...), specifically poetry wherever possible – nice 'n' short –  all the way from Anglo-Saxon to Eliot. A bit of reading, a bit of staring into space, and I would have interesting things to say. Interesting enough, in fact, to put me in the running for a first.

Now, those ancient universities still operate a system for negotiating boundary cases known as the "viva". After sitting finals, most candidates' class of degree is clear-cut: a few thirds, a lot of seconds, and a few firsts. But a further few are felt to be hovering between classes: there is a sense that perhaps a paper or two had gone more badly than it might, pulling down an otherwise more representative result. The examiners agree a list of candidates for a further viva voce examination; in other words, some get a chance to talk themselves up a grade. I found myself on that list.

They don't tell you which class you are aiming at. It could be third-to-second, it could be second-to-first. I was pretty sure I was borderline first; the possibility of a third hadn't even crossed my mind.  My tutors were somewhat less sure. They had seen plenty of "theatrical thirds" in their time, and I rather fitted the profile. It was even hinted that a viva at the fail-third boundary was not out of the question.

So, one morning in June, I found myself sitting at a long refectory table, facing the examiners, about ten English dons from a variety of colleges, none from mine. I was told by the man in charge of the special paper on Wordsworth and Coleridge that I had given the best account of Coleridge's theory of the imagination he had ever read. Congratulations were in order. However. The paper was Wordsworth and Coleridge: I had rather avoided answering any questions on the former, hadn't I? Um. Well.The fact that the man in charge of that special paper was Jonathan Wordsworth, direct descendant of the Boring Bard's brother, put me in a tricky position. Nonetheless, I fought my corner, and I could sense the mood round the table was positive. They asked me to come back again that afternoon.

What? Two vivas? My tutor had meanwhile seen my marks, and confirmed that, yes, getting two papers over the "alpha" threshhold would deliver a first. This was unusual, but the examiners had clearly liked the cut of my jib. As I say: fluent in the Old High Bullshit. However, I felt in need of a break from all this, and headed down to the bar for a pint of Hook Norton. Probably a mistake.

That afternoon we reconvened at the same table and, considerably refreshed, we started in on Shakespeare. I was then asked what seemed to me a very odd question. It went something like, "So, you answered a question on the history plays. It was a good answer, but your chosen examples came from only three of the plays in the second tetralogy. Why not all four?" My answer was simple. Because the question, printed on that there paper, said "Using examples from three plays..." My interrogator, who had presumably set the the damned paper, said, "Does it?!", and reached for his reading glasses. Everyone around the table looked, and had to agree, well yes, it does say that.

This might have gone OK, had I not smirked at his obvious discomfort. I don't think I laughed out loud, but to any observer it was clear that, inside, I was having poorly-suppressed hysterics. Curse you, Hook Norton! At which point, sensing a threat to the honour of Team Don, they all rounded on me, and I got a good, thorough, Shakespeherean kicking.

Ah, well. So close. It was rather like losing a cup final to Germany in a penalty shoot-out. Regrettable, but somehow inevitable, and another Noble Defeat in that great British tradition. But now the daughter has scored, putting an unstoppable strike in the back of the net for our team! Yay!

Grrrl... Some of us prefer to stay inside the car!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Nearly Nothing

I think I could probably spend my remaining years quite contentedly just looking for pictures where, really, there is nearly nothing to look at. The chances are that I probably will.

If I think of nothings that are something, I usually recall the closing lines of Wallace Stevens' poem "The Snow Man":
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Many readers have considered those lines difficult, but keep the title in mind and a firm grip on your double negatives and it doesn't seem impossible to understand, intuitively, if not logically.

At least, not for us in 2016. Remarkably, though, this paradoxical, profoundly elusive poem was first published in 1921, the year before the great year of "modernism", which saw the publication of Eliot's Waste Land, Joyce's Ulysses, and a host of other foundational texts, including Wittgenstein's Tractatus. It seems that an average undergraduate can now, with a little effort, grasp texts that challenged the best minds of nearly a century ago. Time does its work.

But, hang on, it seems like only yesterday that I was an undergraduate and 1922 was just fifty years ago! How did that happen? How quickly everything becomes nearly nothing.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Ten Out Of Ten

As is probably abundantly clear, my educational path took me down Humanities Main Street with few diversions until I found myself, as we all eventually do, standing at the edge of Education City with not much clue where to go next. Although, having gone through the grammar school curriculum of the 1960s, I did also study maths, physics, chemistry, biology, and even geology to a level that makes the "triple award" science GCSE studied in many of today's schools look like the inadequate and muddled gesture it is. We have much to be ashamed of in our current education system, but the decline of proper science teaching in state schools is very high on the list.

However, the path I followed thereafter into academic libraries took me into some interesting places, where I discovered aptitudes I didn't know I had. For example, I became a self-taught programmer, starting out with GW-BASIC in the mid-1980s. In those days, if you wanted a sort routine, say, you simply wrote your own. You learn a lot about logic, clarity, and the need for proper sequence that way. Then in the 1990s we bought into a library management system called URICA, supplied by McDonnell Douglas and based on the rather wonderful Pick operating system. The underlying philosophy was, "Our system doesn't do what you need? Hey, write it yourself!" So I did, and discovered a whole new world of fun. By the time I retired, I was spending much of my time doing what most proper, professional programmers would love to do, but can't: just tinkering around, finding problems to fix, and writing Perl scripts to fill gaps in the functionality of our latest, Linux-based library system. My proudest moment was writing an entire suite of CGI programmes that managed the transfer of 50,000 books from one library to another, in the process automatically reclassifying each item's Dewey Decimal shelfmark into its Library of Congress classification equivalent, printing a new spine label, and carrying out various other tweaks (changes of loan period, deduplication of stock, etc.).  It reduced a massive task to a simple matter of barcoding trolley-loads of books in at one end of town, hauling them over in a van, barcoding them out, printing and attaching the new labels, and getting them swiftly up to the shelves. Hey presto!

In the process, I had changed from a typical humanities airhead, attracted to intangibles and mumbo-jumbo, to a notoriously hard-headed number-cruncher. Universities, surprisingly, are full of people who think that believing something is possible is enough to make it so. Few ever bother to quantify a task – the time it takes, how often it must be done to achieve a certain target, how many people it would take to do it, how much those people will have to paid – before deciding it will be done, and what's more finished by, oh, let's say Christmas. Those few that do make those essential calculations are, inevitably, never popular with senior management, and attract a reputation for "negativity". Both of which are promotion poison. But, as I think I have said before, my single greatest insight into project management was that an institution requires two key personality types: people who make things happen, and people who make things work. And, for successful projects, the important thing is that the former must learn to respect the latter, and the latter must never be put in charge. For obvious reasons: movers and shakers hate detail, and tend to despise those who focus on it; technicians have the words "if it ain't broke, don't fix it!" engraved on their souls. Left to themselves, movers and shakers leave a trail of impractical, uncompleted schemes in their wake, whereas technicians would happily hunker down in a cosy world of well-oiled stasis.

One upshot has been that I am very good at quantitative predictions. My mentor in my early career was a man named Geoffrey Ford, who passed on any number of useful rules of thumb. Two of his favourites were the "80:20 rule" (80% of loans are generated by 20% of library stock, 80% of wealth is owned by 20% of the population, etc.) and the essential observation that, to estimate the cost of a project, you must sample everything, analyse every process, quantify all costs down to the number of paperclips, and on that basis work out a best estimate of the budget, and then – double it. Consequently, I am proud to have made myself unpopular by saving my institution from several financial and logistical embarrassments over the years.

All this hard-won practical wisdom proved useful when I turned to self-publication. Unlike so many would-be publishers, I took the trouble to do some simple sums: how much would it cost me to produce a quantity of books, and how much would I have to charge per copy, and how many copies would I have to sell to recover my costs? What about the ten copies I would have to donate, free, to the copyright libraries, and the cost of getting ISBNs? Then there was distribution... Would I pay for my book to be placed in bookshops, or travel the country myself, lugging a suitcase of stock? How much of a financial loss was I prepared to bear, simply to indulge the fantasy of publication? Several thousand pounds? Forget about it! Well, you can see why such hard-nosed calculations do not endear you to the can-do fantasists who make stuff happen in this world. You can also see why I'm such a fan of Blurb.

Anyway, remember my prediction that I would sell ten copies of the Blurb version of England and Nowhere? You may have thought I was exaggerating, self-deprecatingly, for effect. It is, after all, a wonderful book which anyone would be pleased to own! And, besides, all regular visitors to this blog would be bound to buy a copy of the ludicrously cheap e-book or PDF, just to show solidarity, wouldn't they? Even if they never looked at it more that twice! But I have long been immune to wild fantasies like, say, selling 50 copies, and know only too well how this story goes.  Below are the sales for April, including the period when the book was on offer on a no-profit basis:

Ten copies – spot on! Geoffrey would have been proud of me. No sales at all so far in June. The only remaining question is what to do with my hard-earned £17.78?

Friday, 10 June 2016


From the RWA

Despite having walked past it many times, I'd never actually been into the Royal West of England Academy – billed as "Bristol's first art gallery" – until this week. I was finally tempted inside by an exhibition, "Inquisitive Eyes: Slade Painters in Edwardian Wessex, 1900 - 1914". It is a curious show, largely made up of those small, low-key, quasi-Impressionistic oil landscapes that you'd probably walk past in most large galleries on the way to see something more striking. However, the subject matter being "Wessex" – which is to say Dorset, in the main, and Swanage in particular – the show was of great potential interest to me, as this was the location of many of our family holidays in the early 1960s. Although there is an obvious difference between our bucket-and-spade adventures on the beach and the tweedy Edwardian forays of the New English Art Club into a Purbeck landscape still innocent of slot-machine arcades and caravan sites.

However, the exhibition turned out to be in a side gallery extremely dimly-lit for conservation reasons and, as a consequence, rather hard to see. This is never a good thing in an art exhibition, especially when so many of the paintings are sombre, sketchy exercises in a limited, muddy palette. That, combined with a surprisingly large contingent of visitors for a show nearing its close, meant that I spent less time in there than I had intended. But to get to it you had to pass through the main gallery, which is an astounding open space, more like a gym than a gallery, brilliantly lit with daylight from overhead, and populated with another show, "Imagined Landscapes", which I found much more interesting. In more ways than one.

I've already said my piece about contemporary landscape photography (Bye, Bye Landscape Photography, Dear) and nothing in this group show of more general contemporary artistic approaches to the landscape changed my mind on that score. Of the works I found most compelling, several had set out from a photographic starting-point, or included actual photographic images – I really liked a couple of tiny works by Paul Fieldsend-Danks, and a collaboration between artist Will Maclean and poet John Burnside resulting in a set of ten paired prints and poems, A Catechism of the Laws of Storms  – but the straight photographic work on display struck me as dull and, ultimately, rather unsatisfying. I found myself in the position of the sort of person who says, yes, very nice, but it's just a photograph, isn't it? Which, to say the least, felt a bit weird.

In the RWA

On the RWA

Now, I've known the work of photographer Jem Southam for a long time, ever since 1992, when – pushing my son in his baby-buggy around Reading town centre while my partner was giving an Open University tutorial there – I came across a copy of The Red River in a bookshop. A few years later I had the good fortune to do a Duckspool workshop with him, just at the point he was moving away from a hand-held medium-format camera (the extraordinary Plaubel Makina) to a more static large-format view camera, and producing the brilliant series of cliff rockfalls, river-mouths and dew-ponds that brought him to much deserved wider attention. We've stayed in touch, intermittently, and I consider myself a fan. So, it was with pleasure I spotted four Southam prints on the wall.

It turned out they were from the "Pond at Upton Pyne" series. Now, I should say I don't consider this series among his finest work, especially compared with the similar but, to my eyes, vastly superior series known as "The Painter's Pool". There's something peculiar about the composition and especially the colour balance in all the prints and reproductions of "Upton Pyne" I've seen, and they simply don't work for me. These prints in particular were very large indeed, each one roughly four feet or so across, and hung in a two-by-two grid. You can't help but get close – too close – to such large pictures and the inherent weaknesses of photography, particularly colour analogue photography, are then staring you in the face.

Chief among these are what I think of as a lack of "fractalness" evident in over-enlarged photographic mark-making. A good drawing or painting is fascinating all the way down to the smallest twitch of a pencil-point or dab of a brush-stroke. I would have loved to have got really up-close and personal with some of the pencil portraits in the "Inquisitive Eyes" exhibition, or taken a couple of the paintings off the wall and examined them more closely in broad daylight, ideally out on the terrace with a cup of coffee. But, with any photograph, there is a point beyond which enlargement simply diminishes the image by blurring and exposing the incoherence of its inherent "grain". Even a large-format negative is not best served by enlarging it to four or more feet across.  Frankly, it's an approach best reserved for hotel lobbies, restaurants, and travel agencies with a blank wall to enliven.  On the contrary, if you want to be hit in the eye by the sheer magic of photography, absolutely nothing can beat an 8" x 10" contact print from an 8" x 10" negative. And I have yet to see a purely photographic image from any size of negative or digital file that has been enlarged beyond, say, a modest 12" x 16" that gained anything from the extra size that it did not lose in the "tautness" of the image-quality and in particular that unique illusion of intimate presence that good photography endows.

I suppose these may simply be the reflections of someone who has – temporarily – fallen somewhat out of love with the medium. Or perhaps I don't love photography for the same qualities its mainstream admirers see in it. A case of it's not you, photography, it's me... But to find myself in the presence of work by one of my most admired artists and thinking, "yes, very nice, but it's just a photograph, isn't it?" was both disappointing and disturbing.

Although I will admit to feeling a compensating rush of cockiness, pleasurably close to hubris: This work is as good as it gets, I thought, and yet I don't feel humbled by it, as I might before an old master drawing or the Rembrandt self-portraits I saw in Amsterdam last year ... Perhaps I really am bloody good at this photography lark! What a shame so few people seem to have realised it so far!

Though I calmed down when I realised I'd been walking around all morning with the Fuji's exposure compensation dial accidentally set to minus two stops...  Doh! Luckily, like Jeeves, the camera seems to know what I want better than I do.

Beside the RWA

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Shake It All About

Non-British readers may want to sit this one out. Although, on reflection, as most of you are either American or European, maybe you do need to read on. Listen: in a few short weeks, democracy in Britain will be tested to destruction. Are we IN, or are we OUT? Let The People decide! Worryingly, though, we are talking about the British people here, who widely favour the return of capital punishment, conscription, and the flogging of minors with bundles of birch twigs (no, we're not talking about saunas here). All things which a patrician, out-of-touch political class have superciliously denied us for too long.

Back in 2011 I wrote a post which, among other things, pointed out that playing the piano is impossible. My point was not really that playing the piano is impossible – I have witnessed people doing it and I am convinced they were not fooling me in any way – but that I can't play the piano, and find the basic moves of piano-playing sufficiently baffling as to imagine that one might be tempted to seek explanations of alleged pianistic ability that started from the presumption that nobody else can really play one, either, in the same way one has to presume that illusionists like David Blaine or Derren Brown are not actually possessed of magic powers. In other words, that it is far too easy, and a false kind of democratisation, to set ourselves up as the only true measure of everything; that "the world shrinks when we judge and limit others by our own capacities, and that a lowest common denominator society would be one without the Waldstein sonata". Phew. Much easier to say that playing the piano is impossible, with a suitable nudge and a wink. That's irony, that is.

There is a companion error, also very common and pretty much the other side of the same coin, and one to which the educated and in particular those of a scientistic bent are prone. That is, to mistake the facts of a matter for the thing itself. Let's stick to pianos. To know the principles underlying the mechanism of a piano – how pressing the keys causes the little felt hammers to strike the strings – or how the acoustic properties of different thicknesses and tensions of piano wire relate to differing pitches of notes, and how these notes correspond to the layout of the piano keyboard... None of these will enable you to play the piano. No amount of fact-gathering, hypothesis forming, statistical analysis, or focus-group consensus-building will substitute for sitting in front of the damned thing and learning – or failing to learn – how to play it. It's a difficult, long-term, whole-body-and-mind experience, not usefully broken down into its component parts.

OK, enough about pianos. It's really the competing campaigns over whether or not the United Kingdom should leave the European Community – shortly to be decided in a simple "yes or no" referendum – that have brought all this to mind. Obviously, it makes perfectly good sense to inform oneself of the facts, weigh them one against another, and come to an informed decision. Yes or no? In or out? Sadly, there is no "shake it all about" option*, or indeed any sort of "Yes, but...", which is what I'd like to vote for. It is a huge decision, best made rationally, as all huge decisions should be; I'm sure some similarly cool assay is exactly how you chose your life partner or profession, isn't it? You gathered all the available data in an open-minded way, and measured them against your own weighted criteria, keeping an eye open for prejudice, confirmation bias, statistical outliers, regression to the mean, and all those other enemies of enlightened decision making? Didn't you?

Yeah, right. Now, if we're talking facts, it is certainly a fact that, by inexplicably failing to hitch up with a wealthy heiress, I condemned myself to 30 unnecessary years of wage-slavery. Idiot! If only I had been more fully-informed of the risks then I might have demanded, after a few exploratory dates, that any prospective life-partner open up her family's accounts for inspection. That would have been rational, wouldn't it? No time-wasters! But, incredibly, there never was any such weighing of pros and cons of any kind, no "due diligence", no audit of assets and resources, as was customary in mediaeval dynastic match-making negotiations. We just, you know, did it. So to speak. Foolishly, as is self-evident to the coolly appraising eye of hindsight, I allowed heart to rule over head, and paid the price.

So, talking of heart over head, personally – on balance, all things being equal, this being a Wednesday – I favour staying in the EC. But I couldn't really say why. Other than the fact that I look at the people who want to come out and just know: this is not my tribe. Although, confusingly, I'm pretty sure it was my tribe that used to want to leave, once upon a time. You can tell that Jeremy Corbyn (current leader of the Labour Party, elected in a prank that went too far) is still confused about this, too. After all, who was "right" and who was "wrong" about joining the Euro or the Schengen Agreement? What do "right" and "wrong" even mean in cases like this? I certainly don't know. But if it were up to me to run the "remain in" campaign there is one simple thing I would do. I would make a huge poster showing all the prominent "Brexiters" – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Ian Duncan Smith, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, the whole sick crew. The caption would be, "REALLY? YOU'RE CHOOSING TO SIDE WITH THESE DINGBATS? ARE YOU SERIOUS??"

Of course, you could try to establish the "facts on the ground", and whether they can be changed by leaving, and what the consequences would be. But facts, in themselves, can be misleading, misunderstood, or manipulated. Facts, piled together, do not make a working model of reality. Have you ever tried to explain to a child how to ride a bike? It doesn't work. There aren't enough "facts" to overcome their fear that it can't be done at all. Like playing the piano, it's impossible! Instead, what it requires is a major leap of faith. But no responsible adult should ever ask a child to take a leap of faith which is not within that child's capabilities, has not been thoroughly prepared for, or adequately safety-tested, or lacks a rescue strategy if it all goes horribly wrong. Obviously, certain facts must be respected. The bike must be the right size. Feet must reach pedals. Kids can't ride through brick walls! These are well-established, solid facts and not opinions, convenient fictions, or helpful white lies. But in a more complex situation like, oh, leaving the EC after 40 years of semi-detached membership, how the hell does anyone establish which "facts" are facts and which are not?

This is the problem with referendums. After centuries of patrician politics, politely masquerading as democracy ("Look, leave all this boring old stuff to us, we'll sort it out for you, though obviously it's your decision in the end. Yes, yes, even conscription, hanging, and the birch!") we, The People, are suddenly being asked to make a life-or-death, black-or-white political choice of enormous complexity. No greys, no process of education, no trial periods, no proofs of principle, no backup strategies, just "Oi, you! Decide! Now!" It's as if two rowing parents were suddenly to turn to their children and demand, "OK, we've got a problem. You decide whether it's serious enough for divorce or not!" In fact, given the decades of barely-suppressed euro-rage simmering within the Conservative Party, that's exactly what it's like.

There is another complication here. The public has changed in recent decades, led by the mass media down two paths which, ultimately, only suit the interests of a small political and financial elite. First, there has been an anti-intellectual infantilization. Slickness of presentation, ease of consumption, surrogate achievements, and superficial charm are now everything: "celebrity culture", in short. Second, although deference to traditional figures of authority has declined – a good thing – there has been no attempt to encourage a corresponding rise in the assumption of responsibility, political or moral, by the general public – bo-ring! Instead, we have seen the cultivation of a complacent inverse snobbery, and a self-centred sense of entitlement shading into grievance. Don't believe me? Put that book down, and watch more mainstream TV. Yes, all those programmes you never watch. And don't forget the adverts! I think you'll find it's really quite a revelation.

Put these two elements together, and you have created a malleable monster: a lazy, fickle, childish electorate, open to manipulation by the promises of smiling charlatans. The irony is that this creature is unpredictable, and won't necessarily vote for the policies or for the smiling charlatans it was supposed to vote for. Enter Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and a dozen other populist opportunists hoping to exploit an ill-informed, aggrieved populace looking for game-show answers to intractable problems. The political class has let us down: let's give demagoguery a chance! Vote Yes or No NOW, the lines are open! Votes are charged at the standard rate.

Actually, no, the real irony is that so many of these complacent idiots won't even bother to vote. I wonder what's going to be on TV on June 23rd? Anyone willing to bet on a turnout in excess of 60%? Plus, let's be honest: a vote to leave will gratify the left-liberal instinct to be on the losing, oppositional side so much more than a vote to stay within the European Union, an idea so few of us truly believe in, anyway, as currently constituted. How much more satisfying to bleat "I told you so!" from the sidelines for a decade or two!

* To Brits of a certain age, the words "in" and "out" inevitably conjure up a participative group dance known as the Hokey Cokey, performed at weddings and such gatherings. "You put your left [body part] in, your left [body part] out / In, out, in, out, and shake it all about / You do the Hokey Cokey, and you turn around / That's what it's all about!". Hilarity ensues.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Death of a Giant

So, a giant has died this last week. No, not Ali, though he is giant enough, but a man of a similar vintage, rather smaller stature, much nimbler fingers, and of incomparably more significance to me. I mean, of course, folk fiddler supreme, Dave Swarbrick.

I'm not going to rehearse the facts and misfortunes of his life; read the obituaries if you don't already know them. As a member of that exclusive club who get to read their own obituary in the papers while still alive, I'm sure Dave had plenty of time to fact-check it himself thoroughly. I'm not even going to review the whole of his musical career. This being my blog, I'm going to describe what "Swarb" meant to me in those heady days of the late 60s and early 70s.

I only saw him perform live twice. First, in 1968/69 in the tiny folk club in an upstairs room of the Red Lion pub in Stevenage, paired with Martin Carthy. Second, in 1970/71, in a field near Little Hadham in Hertfordshire, where Fairport Convention had taken up residence in The Angel pub, and gave a free performance in their nascent Full House lineup, that is, without Sandy Denny and with Swarbrick more to the fore, vocally and as a songwriter. The difference between those two performances, separated by a couple of years at most, defined an era.

Folk clubs in those days were undergoing a transition, not least in what did and did not count as "folk music". The older members tended to be purists, regarding anything accompanied by an instrument or consisting of less than twenty verses, collected from some old boy in a pub and shouted with a finger in one ear as greasy kid stuff, only one step up from the much-despised rock'n'roll. They might smile indulgently on a ragtime-inflected guitar whizz like Diz Disley, but frowned intolerantly on the likes of Bert Jansch or John Martyn, precisely the sort of acts the younger members hoped and expected to hear. So one night I rocked up at the Red Lion to hear Swarbrick and Carthy, not really knowing what to expect.

Damascene moments are rare in life. When you're very young, they do seem to happen more often, and yet you hardly notice them at the time. This, you assume, is how life is meant to be. My life will now continue at this pitch, you think, until I cease to be, keeling over in a final ecstasy, still resonating like a violin when the last stroke of the bow in the final medley of jigs and reels is over, and purists and young 'uns both explode with wild applause. I became, instantly, overnight, a folkie. I bought the LPs Rags, Reels and Airs, Prince Heathen, and later the brilliant Selections sampler on the Pegasus label. The combination of Carthy's percussive, open-tuned guitar and stentorian voice with Swarbrick's fluid jig-playing and expressive violin colourings filled me with joy. They still do.

Meanwhile, I had also become a huge fan of the early Fairport Convention. What We Did On Our Holidays was rarely off my turntable.  I especially loved their gestures towards "pure" folk, tracks like "Nottamun Town" and "She Moves Through the Fair". Imagine my amazement on buying Unhalfbricking later that same year and finding that Dave Swarbrick was guesting on the album. Damascene moments again: it is impossible to exaggerate the impact in 1969 of hearing the only real folk track on the album, "A Sailor's Life", with that carefully building, throbbing, sobbing combination of Richard Thompson's guitar and Swarbrick's amplified violin, topped by Sandy Denny's incomparably soulful vocal, driven on by the relentless rhythm guitar of Simon Nicol and the bass and drums of Ashley Hutchings and Martin Lamble. I don't think it has ever been surpassed. I doubt it ever will be. It is simply perfect.

And yet... That very same year (1969 may have been the longest year ever) saw Swarbrick joining the band and the release of probably the most anticipated and most exciting record in the entire history of the world, at least as understood in my bedroom: Liege and Lief. Words fail me. All folk. All Thompson and Swarbrick. All Sandy Denny. It is universally acknowledged as an utterly brilliant, groundbreaking record; and yet I don't think it ever quite surpasses the peak of excitement achieved on that single precursor track, "A Sailor's Life". "Reynardine" and "Tam Lin" come close, and the medleys of jigs and reels are joyous, but we true aficionados who knew where Swarb was coming from (even if, ahem, from only months before – as I say, it was a very long year) and already owned Rags, Reels and Airs had heard all that before. No, I think there's something darkly sexy, other-worldly and spontaneous about "A Sailor's Life" which is missing from Liege and Lief. From that point on the co-ordinates of electric folk had been drawn, and it started to become as predictable as blues and, dare I say, just as boring in the wrong hands.

I did enjoy Steeleye Span's take on folk for a while – Martin Carthy's own moment in the electric sun, of course – but the last Fairport album I bought was Full House. I'd seen them play at the bottom of a hilly field that year, one of the first big-name bands I'd ever seen live, and certainly the first open-air gig I'd been to.  A friend's dad drove us over in his van and decided to stay; I'll never forget seeing his face when some stoned freak stumbled up the hill towards us and offered him a gigantic joint. But it was not the Great Experience I had imagined. In Sandy Denny's absence, something crucial had gone missing: Swarbrick was still the finest, most expressive fiddler, with a gift for fills and colouring that goes beyond the mere facility of jig-playing – his performance on the Full House track "Sloth" is rightly highly regarded – but he was never a singer to stand where the sublime Sandy Denny had once stood. Who is? And besides, I'd been listening to this really exciting band called Jethro Tull, and my tastes were changing again, but that's another story...

But, if you don't know it, give "A Sailor's Life" a listen, and prepare to be astounded as two peerless musicians improvise and invent a whole new genre right there. Dave Swarbrick will be missed, but Richard Thompson is still very much with us, of course. But I don't think I'd be alone in considering that single track as one of the very highest peaks of even his distinguished career. I'm not surprised Dave Swarbrick decided to stay on to see where the amazing journey went next.

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Last Time I Saw My Father

Recently, several old friends have been dealing with the death or – what is probably worse – the decline into prolonged ill-health and dementia of aged parents. This is an increasingly common rite of passage of late middle-age, but no less of a trial for that. The emotional stress, the financial drain, the joyless, tiring travel, the endless paperwork, the upset, the accusations, the bottomless pits of anger and guilt... There's very little of love, and much of duty in these final years.

It's a sad thought, remembering various friends' mums and dads as they were forty, fifty and more years ago, vigorous and full of the excitement of the brave new world of prosperity ushered in by the 1950s. Where are they now, I wonder, all those parents of my playmates that once lived in and around the street I grew up on? You forget how it feels to be known and automatically welcomed inside neighbours' houses whenever you knocked on the door; to be forever, as it seemed, part of each other's family story. Towards the end, though, I now know how some parents don't even recognise their own children, let alone remember the names of inseparable playmates from long ago, and how those family stories – especially the untold parts and those parts glossed over as convenient fictions – are lost irretrievably with failing memories. My mother certainly didn't know me, although she did insist that I really should meet her son, as she was sure we'd get along really well.

It was with some surprise that I realised it has now been nine and eight years respectively since my own mother and father died. And, I confess, it was also with some considerable relief. The thought that my mother, in particular, might still be alive in her care home – with her 93rd birthday coming up later this month, but her mind and sense of self totally blotted out by the cloud of dementia that had already enveloped her ten years ago – filled me with dread. How different the last decade might have been! Running the story of their declining years through my head, I lighted upon the memory of the last time I saw my father.

Dad (front & centre) at Burma Reunion 1947

For the final fifteen years of their lives, my parents had moved away from our home town and into a mobile home which my sister had provided in her back garden. It was a loving gesture and a handy arrangement that suited everybody. Everybody, that is, except me. The journey to visit them had become much longer – rather too long with young children in a hot car – and I was deeply saddened to lose the essential connection with the town I had grown up in. It broke something in our family that was never fixed, and I regret to say I became a bit of a stranger, phoning regularly but visiting rarely. So it goes.

The story of how, after various medical crises, my mother began to dement, and how my father concealed his bowel cancer until it was too late – not wanting to be a nuisance, and committed to seeing the wife he had loved so dearly through her ordeal before seeking treatment – need not be dwelt on. It all happened quite quickly, over a few years. No sooner had my father reluctantly allowed Mum to be admitted to a care home than she died. Dad finally owned up and sought treatment, surviving just one more year; he died in hospital after emergency surgery, just weeks before what would have been his 90th birthday.

During that last year he'd had something of a renaissance. Finally able to listen to jazz all day at reasonable volume, he'd dictate his latest Wants List to me on the phone, and I'd fill it via Amazon. He was astonished at what treasures could be sourced and delivered next day with such ease. He also started taking a lengthy daily walk and reading – Mum had never been a great reader and always resented anyone reading in her presence – so stout shoes, waterproof trousers, large-print books, a magnifying reading light and various audio-books all fetched up, Express Delivery, at his door.

It didn't last, however. I visited him in hospital after that final surgery. He looked the way very old men look in hospital, bleached and delicate, and somehow weightless, like driftwood on a beach. He knew I knew he'd been an idiot, ignoring his symptoms for so long, but he also knew I knew why he'd done it. There wasn't a lot to say. We'd had some good conversations in the preceding year, and he needed rest to recover his strength. I stayed for an hour or so, until some nurses appeared by his bed, and said goodbye, giving him the gentlest hug I could manage, and promising to come back next week. But I got a phone call the next day telling me he had died in the night from some surgical complication or other.

However, that wasn't quite the last time I saw him. As I was going down the hospital corridor, I realised I'd forgotten a carrier-bag with various supplies I'd bought for the drive home, so I headed back to get it. The curtains had been drawn round his bed so, knowing where the bag was by the bedside cabinet, I reached through to retrieve it. He couldn't see me, but I saw him through the gap between the curtain and the wall, getting a bed bath from the two young nurses. The old rogue had perked up, was laughing and joking, and clearly enjoying himself. Well, who wouldn't? I watched for a few seconds, then left, glad to have had a rare glimpse of the man just being himself, and not being my father. It seemed pretty clear he was on the road to recovery, and I drove the five hours home happily enough, anticipating the receipt of the next items on his Wants List.