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...