Friday 27 January 2017

Bike Tyre in a Tree

Life can get very surreal at times. I was up at 6:00 this morning, to help get my partner up and out the front door, where a taxi awaited to ferry her down to BBC Southampton, en route to the railway station. Then, 90 minutes later and back in bed, I heard her voice on the radio, being interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme about some academic work for which she had no responsibility and which, in the customary fashion, the Today presenter was trying to misrepresent into something a little more newsworthy than the balanced but nuanced presentation of the bleedin' obvious that most worthy academic work turns out to be. It was all a bit unusual, to say the least.

Although I suppose this is pretty much a regular experience for those in that notorious metropolitan liberal elite, the ones who operate the media and who provide 80% of its content. "Saw you on Newsnight, darling... I thought Evan was being jolly unfair, and I shall tell him so on Friday at Kirsty's. Will you be there?" Which may explain how they (don't think I need to start saying "we" just yet...) end up stuck in a feedback loop / echo chamber / Westminster bubble (choose your favourite metaphor) and, as a consequence, have become so radically out of touch with the populace at large that the idea that Brexit / Trump could ever actually happen was unthinkable. Unthinkable? They should have read my blog! Read it and believed my non-metropolitan words of wisdom! Yeah, right...

Meanwhile, back here in the real world, I hear my desktop has been fixed, and is ready to collect. Yes! It's been a bit of a trial, trying to edit raw files on an uncalibrated laptop, without most of the little plugins and other such helpful stuff I've installed over the years. As someone once said, don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til Windows 10 refuses to boot, and you discover your RAM board has totally failed?

Tuesday 24 January 2017


[N.B. my desktop is in for repair at the moment, so I'm using an uncalibrated laptop. If the photographs look like they have a colour cast, that's because they probably do. I'll revisit them if necessary when the desktop comes back.]

At this time of year a meteorological phenomenon known as an "inversion" can happen, when cold air is trapped by high pressure at ground level by a layer of warmer air above: typically, this leads to fog and, in suitable locations, interesting phenomena such as hoarfrost. We've had such conditions this week, and it's been worth getting out of bed early for.

Well, almost. The fog was actually rather too dense to get the best out of the hoarfrost, which needs a bit more sparkle from sunlight. In places visibility was down to 25 yards or so, and it was like looking through one of those fine sheets of tissue that used to be bound into a book in order to protect the illustrative plates.

Saturday 21 January 2017


[N.B. my desktop is in for repair at the moment, so I'm using an uncalibrated laptop. If the photographs look like they have a colour cast, that's because they probably do. I'll revisit them if necessary when the desktop comes back.]

I was in London this week, primarily to deliver a birthday present to my partner in the form of a visit to the Edward Ardizzone exhibition at the House of Illustration. Ardizzone's distinctive work will be familiar to many older British readers, even if they have forgotten his name, as he was a prolific illustrator of books, particularly children's books, in the second half of the 20th century. His book covers and characteristic line illustrations were part of the flavour of many a post-war childhood.

Assuming, of course, that your childhood was richly-saturated with contemporary children's books, which mine was not. Not through any neglect or deprivation – I'm sure if I had asked to read, say, Stig of the Dump, such books would have found their way into my Christmas stocking – but simply because my parents had no means or reason to know about such books and pass them my way, unasked, and I had no particular inclination to read them. Like so many boys, I preferred my reading matter to be either fact-based (natural history was my thing), heavily-illustrated (comics), or tales of adventure channeled serially through reassuringly familiar figures like Biggles. It would have taken an unusual determination to be different to have joined the girls huddled around the fiction in the primary school library. My favourite books in that library, which I recall reading and rereading many times, were W. Ben Hunt's Indian Crafts and Lore and Simple Heraldry, Cheerfully Illustrated by Iain Moncreiffe and Don Pottinger, both very nicely illustrated.

If I'm honest, I probably thought back then that Ardizzone's pictures were poor, scribbly stuff, though I have to say nowhere near as bad as those of that later go-to kids' book illustrator, Quentin Blake. How he has attained National Treasure status as an illustrator is a mystery to me. However, what I did find interesting at the House of Illustration was Ardizzone's "adult" work, especially his depictions of British low-life in the period between the 1930s and late 1950s. Whether vignettes of punters in pubs, prostitutes, or simple street vistas, he captures something essential of the atmosphere of an older, rackety Britain that was rapidly disappearing in the 1960s and 70s. When I was living in London in the late 1970s, you could still turn a corner and find yourself in an environment that belonged in earlier decades; even, if you ventured into the grimy, industrial backstreets clustered around the docks and central railway stations, in a previous century. If you know the photographs made by Marketa Luskacova in and around Brick Lane, you'll know what I'm talking about. Ardizzone's work is deeply rooted in this world, with its seedy glamour, smoky, coal-fired fug, and secret vices. In the layered shadows of our great cities, bohemia, poverty and criminality made common cause against the respectable world.

But, it seems quite a transformation has been taking place. The House of Illustration is situated north of King's Cross, in a region around the Regent's Canal once notorious for its prostitutes, crime and dereliction. Back in the 1970s the place was so enclosed and overshadowed by crumbling industrial architecture that you could be forgiven for not even knowing the canal was there. A friend used to live in a squat off the Caledonian Road, and I must have walked there from King's Cross a hundred times without ever really noticing the canal as I passed over it. But now... Now the waterway is the centrepiece of some extensive and ongoing urban rejuvenation, which has turned it into a mini-Amsterdam, all houseboats and canal-side apartments and shops and restaurants and galleries, thronging with young tourists and teams of construction workers in hi-vis jackets. Never mind the sturdy 19th century warehouses and rail-sheds, even the gasometers are being transformed into incredibly expensive studio apartments for Chinese and Russian billionaires to buy as investment assets. And where are the previous residents meant to live? You may well ask. London's council tenants are being shipped out of town as far afield as Wales and Manchester.

Royal birds we may be, but this is all we can afford round here...

While I was in the area, I was determined to make a little pilgrimage to what is said to be one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in Europe. If you're on Euston Road, and head north between the British Library and the newly renovated and expanded St. Pancras International station, you will eventually find St. Pancras Old Church sitting on a little hill opposite some blocks of flats (and I mean "flats" rather than "apartments"), surrounded by a large, walled churchyard.The longevity of the site is fascinating, but was not the reason for my pilgrimage. I wanted to see the so-called "Hardy Tree". Read the signs below if you're curious. Now I've seen it, though, I doubt I'll feel the need ever to see it again. I'm not even much of a fan of Thomas Hardy.

Let the pictures do the talking...

Monday 16 January 2017

One Wellington

If you want to feel like you have the world all to yourself, you can't beat a wet walk through some marshy ground down by the river on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Even the dog-walkers are giving it a miss – go on, shit in the garden, see if I care.

There has clearly been some flooding higher up the Itchen; the slower parts of the river are clogged with torn up weed, which has trapped various bottles and balls, presumably washed out of riverside banks and gardens. Some banks have been seriously eroded, too. I know some of you have been missing the signature safety netting, so I was pleased to find this little installation. The abandoned wellington is a nice touch.

Incredibly, a favourite pollarded willow is still standing in the water-meadows, despite the continual loss of limbs and everything the laws of nature can throw at it. Gravity? Hah!

Thursday 12 January 2017

Mirror Man

There are very few mirrors in our house, and the ones we do have are small, bathroom cabinet-style affairs, I did buy a full length mirror for our daughter, with every intention of hanging it on the back of her bedroom door, but there it is, still lurking in the entrance hall, still swathed in its protective wrap. I'm just not a great one for the DIY. Occasionally my partner will prop it against something to check her ensemble before leaving the house, but through the clear plastic it returns a rather misty, rippled reflection, more like polished steel than a mirror. I suppose on the positive side you could say we're not particularly vain.

However, a while ago I was in Marks and Spencer, buying a shirt.  I thought I'd better try it on, as the fashion for close-fitting tops, whilst looking superb on whip-thin youngsters like my son, has made anything smaller than XXXXXXL impractical for the middle-aged man with a liking for food and largely sedentary habits (like, um, eating). So I went to the fitting room, took off my shirt and saw myself in the multiple mirrors. Oh dear. Not a pretty sight. Multiplied to infinity.

I resolved to lose weight. Lots of weight. I might not be vain, but there are limits.

Now, nutrition is one of those areas where the word "science" really has to be said with scornfully ironic, heavy quote marks, as in nutritional "science".  Every few years, it seems, nutritional "science" reverses its polarity and recommends the complete opposite of what was being urged on us shortly before. There's a nice scene in Woody Allen's Sleeper where he is woken from cryogenic storage, 200 years after the early 1970s, and his progress is being monitored by two doctors:
Dr. Agon: For breakfast he asked for something called wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger's milk!
Dr. Melik: Yes, those were the charmed substances that, some year ago, were felt to contain life-preserving properties...
Dr. Agon: You mean,,. There was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?
Dr. Melik: Those were thought to be unhealthy, the precise opposite of what we now know to be true!
But weight loss, unlike longevity, has an obvious, objective, short-term metric against which to be measured. Have you or have you not lost weight? As they say, it's not rocket science (although it seems rocket has recently fallen out of the superfood category); kale science, maybe?

I first tried giving up wheat, as there are various theories about "wheat belly" out there, and it seemed painless enough, especially compared to vigorous exercise. To my surprise, it worked! By switching to rye bread, oat-based muesli, and various other substitutes, I quickly lost about 5 kilos. This was largely, I suspect, because rye bread, though tasty enough, is never going to tempt you to pop another couple of slices in the toaster, or saw off another six inches of baguette, the way wheat bread does (might as well finish it, it'll be stale by tomorrow!). Rye is quite filling, less "more-ish", and I was simply eating less. But then it stopped working, and I was stuck at my new weight.

Now, I'd been keeping the "5:2" or "fast" diet in my (still over-tight) back-pocket as a next step. This is the one where you fast for two days a week, and eat normally for the other five. I'd heard good things about it, but the idea of fasting seemed a bit drastic. Still not as drastic as vigorous exercise, but nonetheless on the demanding side. But when I looked into it, I realised it would actually be far from painful. When they say "fasting", what they really mean is eating a quarter of the amount of carbohydrates needed by a person of a particular gender, age, height, weight, and activity level to sustain basic life processes, twice a week. Typically, you need around 2000-2400 calories to keep soul firmly attached to body, so a quarter is – fetch me a calculator! – around 500 to 600 calories. It doesn't sound much, but a two-egg omelette with mushrooms plus some green vegetables is only around 200 calories, and a bowl of soup even less. Forget breakfast (or have a couple of rice crackers with your morning tea) and a fast-day doesn't look so bad.

Suddenly, all that "nutrition information" printed on our food packaging made sense. Especially once I'd realised that "kilocalories" are the "calories" everyone is talking about, and not a thousand of them. Aha! I'd become ... a calorie-counter! Also, inevitably, I became a calorie bore, going on about the relative calorific merits of various foods. But: it works. After six months another ten kilos have gone, relatively painlessly, and assuming it continues to work I can see no reason to stop until I've actually disappeared or attained the weight I had when I was in my twenties, whichever is the sooner. Or more realistically, perhaps, my thirties, around the time I gave up smoking and took up biscuits.

Slim's Christmas visit home, ca. 1978

In the interests of full disclosure I should add that, although my aversion to any exercise more vigorous than running up the stairs continues, I also decided it was time to counteract 30 years of sedentary occupation, and start walking everywhere again. I've always walked a fair bit, but with the help of Google Maps I've worked out some handy circular routes – for example, 1.5 miles to Sainsbury's and back, 3.6 miles to the university campus and back, 5 to the university via the Sports Centre and back – and try to do one of these on as many afternoons in the week as I can. It's quite addictive, and the benefit of the loss of weight is very noticeable going up hills.

Now, in recent years I've been in and out of the consulting rooms and clinics of GPs, consultants, and physiotherapists with a series of complaints, as a result of which I have been X-rayed, had my circulation checked, made to lie rigidly immobile in MRI machines, given various samples, and submitted to a range of inconclusive tests and observations ("Hmm, you've got a bit of a funny walk..."), and so far not one medical practitioner has ever said to me: "Listen, porky, you could stand to lose a few pounds". Not one. And yet, for example, the agonizing "shin splints" that actually prevented me from cycling and eventually even walking to work have now simply gone away. Coincidence? Possibly, but I doubt it.

No, I suspect the latitude medics are allowing themselves before declaring a patient "obese" has become rather too generous; not surprising, I suppose, given the competition from the human mountains of adiposity that waddle into the surgery these days. But a short man – even one genetically built to carry weight, like me – who can afford to lose 20 kilos is surely a man who is a long way from a healthy weight.

Some men set themselves the challenge of attaining their "wedding suit weight". Never having married, never mind possessing a suit, that would be a problematic target. However, hanging deep in a wardrobe is a paint-spattered, brown corduroy jacket I bought when I was seventeen, and which accompanied me on many adventures over many years, and I would dearly love to be able to wear it again, even if only on ceremonial occasions. Intriguingly, when I had a rummage through its pockets, among various items of ancient curiosa to emerge, I found a slip of paper on which an attractive French girl I met at a party at a German exchange-partner's house in Easter 1971 had written her address. It seems the old slim me had something good going for him. Ah, well, too late now... I may not be married, but I am most definitely spoken for. C'est la vie!

But, should I be able to get into that jacket without ripping the seams – and in my current optimism about and enthusiasm for weight-loss I see no reason why not – I will have myself formally photographed in it for your admiration and amusement. I might even get a decent mirror in the house. Now, what was that song I used to know when I was seventeen? Something about preferring to be a thin man?

Excuse me, though, today is a five-mile day, and the sun is shining.

Thursday 5 January 2017

Ways of Seeing

It seems John Berger, the contrarian's contrarian, evaded the curse of 2016 only to kick off the obituary round of 2017, aged 90. Or perhaps we should regard these early days of 2017 as part of a "long 2016"? No, please, I think we'll draw a firm, unbroken line under 2016.

Like so many British people of a certain age, Berger helped form my young mind in the way only the best teachers can. Actually, I may well have been one of the very first to be Bergerized. When Ways of Seeing was broadcast in 1972, I was perfectly placed both to see it and to have my mind blown by it. By rights, I should have been at university that year, and nobody was watching TV at university in 1972. But – due to the requirement in those days, following acceptable A-level results, to sit a further entrance exam and undergo a round of interviews for Oxbridge entrance – I was still living at home in Stevenage New Town, and working as an art technician at St. Michael's, a local Catholic boys' grammar school. Late one night, sitting alone in the living room of our flat after my parents had gone to bed, I caught the first episode, and underwent the aesthetic equivalent of satori. Other thinkers and artists would make an even greater impression on me – I immediately think of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Josef Koudelka – but the ground was prepared by John Berger and Ways of Seeing.

Late night TV was worth watching in those days. Programmes of an intellectual and cultural reach that would be unthinkable now were shown to tiny audiences, simply because it was seen as part of the mission of broadcasting. Shows like Late Night Line-Up or even The Old Grey Whistle Test made no concessions to attention span or popularity: TV programmes were expected to educate and inform as well as entertain and, by Reith, they were going to do it. The ne plus ultra of such broadcasting was probably Voices on Channel 4, in which earnestly suave Canadian academic, writer and politician Michael Ignatieff sat in a chair discussing heavy issues with heavyweight guests. It might as well have been radio. I think I may have been a significant proportion of the entire audience some weeks, but I found it made perfect post-pub viewing in the early 1980s.

Of course, what made Ways of Seeing so special was that it could never have been radio. In those days Berger looked like Mick Jagger's serious-minded but only slightly less flamboyant uncle, and he and director Michael Dibb made creative use of the visual medium for maximum impact, beginning with Berger apparently razoring an old master painting out of its frame. It was serious, hip, political, full of exciting new ideas, and completely overwhelming to an arty, would-be intellectual 18-year-old with a ticket to university safely in his back pocket, but no real idea of what the point of going there might be, beyond escaping the confines of a two-bedroom council flat, and the small-town life that went with it. Suddenly, it seemed that ideas and study might be fun, dangerous even, and not just another dreary rite of passage made up of homework, exams, and dull teaching.

It turned out I was wrong – university was just another dreary rite of passage made up of homework, exams, and dull teaching – but I will always be grateful to John Berger for showing me another way of seeing art and the life of the mind, at precisely the time when I needed it most.

Monday 2 January 2017

New Year's Day

Clevedon Pier

I have a self-imposed tradition of venturing out on New Year's Day, whatever the weather, to take at least one photograph. This year, the weather was truly awful, so (being in Bristol) we decided to go down to the coat at Portishead and Clevedon, where the full awfulness of the weather could be experienced at its greatest intensity. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

However, when you can feel the camera thrumming in the wind in your hands, you know you may have a problem with the low shutter speeds demanded by the failing light. When you can no longer feel the camera in your hands, because your fingers have gone numb in the cold north-east wind and driving rain, you know it's time to retreat indoors for a seaside cup of tea.

Luckily, the very pretty Clevedon Pier has been restored to a very high standard indeed in recent times, and boasts a very upscale restaurant, as well as the original, wind-blasted cafe (little more than a  bus shelter) at the end of the pier. Even more fortunate, both were open.

I was intrigued to discover, in the nice little interpretive museum adjacent to the upscale restaurant, that in the the 1950s the presence of a juke box in a Nissen hut situated at the end of the pier had made Clevedon Pier a magnet for the emerging youth scene. Wild nights were had, reelin' and a-rockin' above the Bristol Channel waves surging below. I have a fascination for that period and the liminal places – coffee bars and cafes in the main, but also out-of-the-way huts and truck-stops – where jazz, skiffle and rock'n'roll broke through the post-War cracks in stiff British reserve. I have long intended to write something about it. Maybe this year...

Haiku by Buson (1716-1784)