Friday 31 March 2017

It's On Page 56

Someone, somewhere has decided this week is National Book Week (it's part of "Declining and Defunct Media Month"– come on, don't tell me you missed VHS Day or Mix-Tape Monday?). Consequently, some other someone, somewhere has decided to spread a peculiarly pointless meme, which requires you to take up the book nearest you (I refuse to "grab" a book, as instructed – FFS have some respect, people, this is, after all, National Book Week!), turn to page 56, transcribe the fifth sentence, and then share it on social media, without revealing its source. Gosh, what wacky fun! I have no idea what numerological calculation lies behind these choices, but no doubt it is profound.

Now, there are a lot of books in this room. From where I am sitting, several hundred books are within easy reach. But, as it happens, a copy of the OUP World's Classics edition of Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne is propped against my printer – it's been there for weeks, I can't remember why – so it narrowly wins over the topmost book on the nearest pile (Bright Air Black, by David Vann) by at least six inches, horizontally, and a couple of feet, vertically. Despite having no intention of joining in the online merriment, I did do as requested, and read this:
No two birds can differ more in their notes, and that constantly, than those two that I am acquainted with; for the one has a joyous, easy, laughing note; the other a harsh loud chirp.
Exciting stuff, and thank goodness nothing by, say, Thomas Bernhard or Henry James was within reach, as finding a page 56 with as many as five sentences might then have been a challenge.

But here's the thing. I have acquired many small but useful skills over the years, and a sharp proofreading eye is one of them. And, as if it had been printed in red, my eye was drawn to a sentence on the facing page (remarkably, page 57), where I read:
The redstart begins to sing: it's note is short and imperfect, but is continued till about the middle of June.
It's note? With an apostrophe? Aha! Gotcha, OUP! And, look, there it was again, on the very same page: "it's wings"! But, having recently indulged myself in some pedantry on the blogs of two friends (sorry, guys...), something nagged, and I flicked through a few pages. Well, I never... In every case, it seemed, "it's" was the preferred possessive form of "it". Curious. Was this an inexplicable error, or perhaps an uncorrected idiosyncrasy of White's? Or was it a late 18th-century usage left as found? By and large, the spelling in this World's Classics edition (1965 printing of a 1789 text) seemed unremarkable, albeit with the occasional olde worlde touch. I spotted "pease" for "pea", and "dosed" for "dozed", for example, as well as the universal italicisation of proper nouns, but otherwise it was completely "modern" in appearance.

Now, you might think I'm supposed to know this stuff. It's true, I did study English Language and Literature at Oxford, but I am hardly what, in the Dan Brown view of higher education, would be called an "Oxford-trained linguist". IANAL, you might say. It seems a strange conception of higher education, to me, to regard graduates as having been "trained" in their subject, like acrobats, and that certain institutions have a distinctive mode of instruction that leaves a characteristic mark on its trainees.

Or maybe it's not. Obviously, there is a spectrum here. No doubt Bristol-trained biologists and Cardiff-trained chemists have a distinctive look and feel, right down to their graduation tattoo. But I studied what was probably the baggiest, least disciplined subject available in the 1970s, at an institution where the only "training" on offer was in those two essential life skills, how to bluff your way out of trouble, and how to appear normal when intoxicated. Not that these two capacities have not served me well. But there were no compulsory modules on "The Oxford Comma", "Speaking Proper", or "Definitive Rulings on Matters of Interest to Pedants". In fact, there was no teaching on language, as such, at all. "For that paper, gentlemen, you simply need to read some rather dull books, if you can be arsed (here is a list), otherwise I recommend the Encyclopaedia Britannica". You think I'm joking, don't you? Autres temps, autres mœurs...

So, anyway, having scored high marks in my Bluff Your Way Out Of Trouble viva, I looked up the matter of "it's v. its" on the modern equivalent of the Britannica, Wikipedia, and it confirmed what I had long suspected: originally, and logically, the possessive form of "it" was "it's", which makes perfect sense. The de-apostrophised possessive "its" only came into play once 'tis had become archaic as the contraction of "it is", and yet another someone, somewhere decided something had to be done to clarify the ensuing, sanity-threatening confusion between "it's" and, um, "it's". Confusion, naturally, has reigned ever since.

My suspicion is that they left all those it'ses "as is" (as 'twere?) in White's Natural History just to torture pedants with the repeated, tiny shocks of outrage. As for the rest of the confused and confusing business of English possessive pronouns, you can look it up for yourself, or even read a rather dull book, if you can be arsed. Personally, I feel a need to revisit the notes I made for my Looking Normal When Intoxicated exam.

Wednesday 29 March 2017

Where Shall We Go Today?

The New Forest – just lots of trees, right? Well, although there are plenty of trees in the New Forest, it's primarily an area of open heathy badlands; sand, gravel and thin acidic soils left behind by the titanic rivers that flowed at the end of the last Ice Age. Basically, the Forest is the gritty sludge at the bottom of the British Isles tank, and nothing much thrives in it except gorse, heather, snakes, deer, and scrawny semi-wild ponies. Oh, and caravan and camping sites. For some reason a lot of people favour the New Forest as a holiday destination.

I don't know why, but – despite its attractions and despite being situated just the other side of Southampton Water – it's just not an area I've visited much in recent years. Perhaps it's because we visited so often when the kids were small. There are various child-oriented wildlife centres in the Forest, and it's full of quiet corners where you can spend a relatively safe but adventurous afternoon among the trees and heather-covered dips and rises. I suppose I ended up thinking of the area as little more than a handy recreation ground, despite the occasional somnolent snake, one strewn with natural sandpits and climbing frames, and threaded with shallow streams to dam and paddle in, watched over by huddles of sullen ponies.

Looking towards Bolton's Bench, Lyndhurst

But last week I had reason to visit Lyndhurst, the administrative centre of the Forest, where curious bodies like the Court of Verderers and the gender-fluid Queen's / King's House are situated (the name of the latter changes, depending on the reigning monarch). It was a beautiful day so, while I was there, I thought I might as well take the opportunity to further break in my new boots, bought to replace a venerable but now leaky pair in anticipation of a visit to an old friend living in the Scottish Highlands in May.

I was reminded of how fortunate we are, to live within a short drive of holiday destinations like the New Forest, the South Downs, the Hampshire and Dorset coast, not mention the Isle of Wight, another place we used to visit frequently – mainly on fossil-hunting expeditions – but now never do. Providing small children with a memorable and instructive childhood is a wonderful stimulus to getting out of the house. I resolved to recapture some of that spirit – two parts fun to one part duty to one part desperation – that got one poring over the map and thinking, where shall we go today?

Sunday 26 March 2017

Elective Affinities 2

Recently, while driving somewhere or other, I heard a song – one of those radio-friendly, kit-assembly MOR rock numbers that used to dominate the charts. But this one, unusually, grabbed my attention. As so often these days, the babbling DJ failed to identify it, so I had to google the lyrics later on. It turned out to be "Photograph" by Nickelback, a band I had never heard of, but which, I am informed, it is de rigueur to mock. However, "Photograph" is a good song, and captures the spirit of this second batch of pages from my imaginary Elective Family Album.

A long time ago, in a small town where nothing much happened, there was a little gang of friends, largely from the same school, all devotees of various denominations of the church of rock'n'roll. I think it is a truth universally acknowledged that the longest, most intense years of your life – if you're lucky, which not everybody is – are often the five years from 16 to 21. They can be hell, they can be heaven – often both on the same day – but rarely anything in between. These few years (in my case, 1970-75) are best savoured with a generous sprinkling of idiotic risk-taking, and the scars and the memories acquired will last a lifetime. Another song, Jackson Browne's "The Barricades of Heaven", evokes the bitter-sweet nostalgia of time spent with other seekers-in-training, "trying to hear your song". These are among the closest friends you will ever have and yet, having finally found your voice and left home to see where it will take you, you may well never see them again.

Ch-ch-ch-changes 1968-72

What you don't know – can't know – at the time, of course, is that simply being the same age in the same place – having sat in the same classrooms, haunted the same playgrounds, parties and pubs, and shared the secrets, anxieties, and enthusiasms of youth – is far from unique, nor is it the basis for anything long-lasting. All over the world, similar brightly-coloured scenes are constantly coming into being and then – after a few intense years of fun, irresponsibility, occasional brushes with the law and even with tragedy – breaking up in the grey but far stronger currents of adult life.

So, although those guys are part of my "elective family" – brothers, sisters and cousins by choice – with few exceptions we haven't actually met in over twenty, thirty, forty years, although the advent of email and social media in the meantime has turned some of us into a later-life version of those youngsters who conduct the majority of their social life on a screen. But, inevitably, we've all changed, one way or another, and live in very different worlds now, with little other than a rapidly-receding and patchily-recalled past in common. There's not a lot to say, other than, "So, how was your life?"

But that's the point. After all, I haven't seen or spoken to my own much-loved sister since our father's funeral in 2009, but the nature of our relationship is permanent, if no longer close, or even, in a day-to-day sense, important. That's how it is with family, isn't it?

Thursday 23 March 2017

Blue Skies

One of my regular walks in Southampton takes me through several extensive municipal facilities: a sports centre, a golf course, and a cemetery. You are spoiling us, Southampton City Council! Why, next week our road is closed for five days for resurfacing... No more potholes! What next, recycling collection every week?

Yesterday, we had one of those early spring days, when – away from the traffic fumes – the air is still brisk and bright like a February day, yet everything is warmly lit by the sun's higher elevation. Even the golf course looked enticing, although I did resist the temptation to imprint the immaculate greens with the soles of my new walking-boots.

But it was the blue, blue sky and the stately regatta of fair-weather clouds that were dominating everything. What a pleasure and a privilege no longer to be confined to an office beneath neon lighting, and free to wander on such a day. On any day, come to that.

Sunday 19 March 2017

Elective Affinities

Forty-odd years ago now, I had to choose a "special" paper for my English degree, selected from the sort of long, and rather eccentric list of options you might expect to have accumulated, stalactitically, in one of the "ancient" universities. As it happened, one of the options was "Goethe". Not "Goethe's relation to Shakespeare", or "Goethe and German Romanticism in 19th century English literature"; just "Goethe". But, as I had studied Faust Part 1 as a set book at German A-Level – and had grown a little bored with my monolingual diet – it seemed a good choice. In fact, only one student made that choice that year, and the exam paper in finals had to be compiled and printed for a single candidate, me.

One of the works I studied was the novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften, traditionally translated as Elective Affinities, which is a wonderfully grandiloquent, mysterious, yet baffling title. I can recall little of the actual plot or characters, now, but the title refers to an old chemical theory that particular substances are driven to combine with certain other substances, as if they were "naturally" electing (choosing) to do so. Goethe extends this idea to relations between men and women, and the way certain new attractions can turn out to be, um, stronger than other, previously-sanctioned bondings. Yep, Die Wahlverwandtschaften is Goethe's attempt at a high-minded bonkbuster, bolstered by a self-serving theory of adultery.

The book has also been translated with the clunky title Kindred By Choice, which is easier to understand, but rather misses the point. However, ever since coming across this I have had a fascination with the idea of an elective family. That is, that one might have a chosen family, in parallel to one's "blood" relatives, who – in most families, anyway – generally turn out to be a dull lot, with only a minimal involvement or, indeed, interest in the Sturm und Drang of one's actual life. Such elective bonds seem to form most strongly in adolescence and early adult life; these are the friends who – even if you haven't met for decades, or have since argued dramatically and terminally, and even if a few have died far too young – are the standard against which other relationships are measured. They don't need to know they have been chosen, and they need not be contemporaries, either. Certainly, I have had several older mentors  – all dead now – whose help, guidance and example proved invaluable, and who still occupy a permanent and honoured place in my mind.

The point is, having made your choices, you are stuck with them; they're family. Some of these chosen cousins may be close, frequent companions, elective uncles and aunts to your children. Some may have continued down dangerous paths where you have decided not to follow, while others may have subsided into a complacent middle-age, where you are happy to leave them. A few may have been lost to the ravages of time, but somewhere (you hope) they are still out there, somehow, doing God-knows-what. At least one or two would rather forget all about you (you know this is true). But occasionally (you trust) all will be reminded of and find themselves thinking about you. Whether they think of you with pleasure, however, is not for you to determine. As I say, they're family, not friends.

With this idea of an elective family in mind, I thought it might be fun to construct for myself an elective family album, using some Victorian carte de visite album pages I found on Ebay. Happily, I've managed to hold on to photographs of most of the candidates for such an album, even if only photo-booth shots (actually, these scan rather well) or handed-on snaps for which I can take no credit (it's called "appropriation" in the trade, I believe).This will probably remain a private, rather than a public project, unless I find it has resonances which strike a sympathetic note with others.

To protect the innocent and avoiding naming the guilty, in these initial trial album pages I've associated each portrait with a song, rather than a name. I quite like this idea: it gives a nice extra dimension to the enterprise. You may not know these people, but through the medium of song I can convey something of how I see them, or how I saw them then, or perhaps how I think they saw themselves.

Of course, eventually, if you're lucky, elective relationships lead to a brand new set of "blood" relationships, and the whole cycle starts all over again. Or at least it should: there surely have to be better examples to follow and mentors to listen to out there for my own children to choose from other than me... Or naughty old Urururopa Goethe, come to that.

Wednesday 15 March 2017

On Twyford Down

On Twyford Down some sheep get grassy banks and the freedom to harass passing ramblers, others get a muddy field full of some kind of root crop, and an electric fence. What with the woodsman's St. George wheelbarrow, and the stumpy concrete remnants of something-or-other, the place is just one big metaphor.

Sunday 12 March 2017

Old Bill

Go Outdoors, Millbrook, Southampton

There are an awful lot of guitar players out there, vying for our attention. Very few of them have a sound and technique that are instantly recognisable, however, even a sometime guitar "god" like Eric Clapton, who has become little more than just another tasteful, soulful, blues-lick broker. Bill Frisell is different, though, a proper guitar deity; at least, in my personal pantheon of musicians. Never heard of him? Well, if not, it's time you did. Check out these interpretations of two very familiar tunes:

These may not be slick, fretboard-shredding pyrotechnic displays, but no-one understands the inventive use of space, timing, and dynamics quite like Bill Frisell. His understated use of pedals and loops is also pretty unique. This is guitar-playing as an art-form, as feeling, not as ego-amplification. His people-skills and self-presentation may be lacking, somewhat (he has been referred to as "the Clark Kent of the guitar" – you can watch him don his Superbill cape in this performance), but you can tell that he just loves the way a guitar sounds. He must spend hours just playing about with the same plangent chord sequence, even just striking the same resonant note, over and over. And any guitar genius who can carry off wearing a cardigan while playing the theme from Bonanza is OK with me. Carry on, Bill.

Villiers Road, Shirley, Southampton

Interpretive creativity like this is based on – but should not be confused with – technical mastery. I could draw some parallels with certain alleged masters of and approaches to photography, but won't. Interpretive creativity is not quite the same thing as the first-order creativity that actually writes the songs in question, but a close relative. If you're interested in such things, the best account I've read recently of the nature of creativity, of what it feels like to invest time in writing or making pictures, is this article in the Guardian by George Saunders. Well worth ten minutes of your time.

Highfield Campus, Souhampton

Thursday 9 March 2017

Under the Influence

N.C. Wyeth, from Treasure Island, 1911

The comments this blog receives are part of its flavour. In the main, they are well-meant, amusing, and thoughtful. I realise most visitors to most blogs avoid reading comments, and with good reason: without sensible moderation, they can be as toxic as the calls on an unregulated phone-in. But I think no-one need fear the comments here. Blogger does not allow one to edit them, so it's a case of either in or out. By and large, I'm happy to choose in; I don't have enough readers to alienate regulars by suppressing their occasional digs at me or their questionable opinions. But I do reject any comment which violates any one of a dozen subjective and variable criteria. And occasionally, it seems, I lose a few, for which I apologise.

In many ways, though, some of the most interesting responses I get to the work I put out in this blog happen "privately", that is, from people who email me directly, rather than submit a comment. For example, this email from a long-term regular reader:
I’ve been reading a book I just received titled Matisse/Diebenkorn that explores the acknowledged influences Matisse had on American painter Richard Diebenkorn. And it brought up a question I’ve held back from asking you for a long time about influences that may have been important in informing your photography. I don’t mean to pry – well, maybe I do in some respect (but not in terms of “secret sauces”) – but I have always seen the vibrant color palette in your photography very much akin to painting rather than photography. For starters, there is no question that your photographic style, the way you use color, is unique and quite beautiful when compared to other contemporary color photography that I have seen.

To me, your color palette in some way relates to that of American painter/illustrator and member of the so called Brandywine school, N.C. Wyeth. I had always held his illustrations, and those of a few other Brandywine School artists like Howard Pyle (Wyeth’s teacher) in high regard. In fact I used to collect books that Wyeth illustrated. I get the same “feeling” from his colors and the sense of romanticism (some call it realism) that I do from your work. 

So, if you’d care to consider this unsolicited inquiry, I’d be very interested to know if there are influences from painting that have been important to you. Of course I won’t be offended if you reply that this is none of my damn business! 
It's an interesting (not to say flattering) question, and not one I'd given much thought to. Most of us who share work publicly probably prefer to erase all trace of "influences", mainly out of pride, but also to avoid any ensuing lawsuits in the unlikely event of hitting some financial jackpot ("where there's a hit there's a writ"). It's all very well for whoever-it-was to say "talent borrows, genius steals", but genius can generally afford better lawyers. Influences are inescapable, however, and not always as obvious as they might seem. So, if I may give myself permission to take myself a bit more seriously than usual, I have some thoughts on the matter, which you may or may not find interesting.

I've said before that I generally favour the aims and techniques of "illustration" over those of "fine art", and by far the most powerful influences I'm aware of must be the illustrations in the reading material I pored over in my childhood. There were comics; Victor and Hotspur were my weekly reads, with the occasional copy of War Picture Library and ‒ the ultimate treat ‒ American comics picked up on summer holidays. There were my sister's battered copies of Mad, weekly colour supplements and occasional magazines; the '50s and '60s were the heyday of an evocative, sketchy-but-realistic graphic style, typified by Bernie Fuchs. There were illustrated books ‒ not least natural history identification guides ‒ and encyclopaedias (see this post from 2010). When you have a hungry eye, even the "exploded view" instructions to a model kit are a feast of graphical know-how, and model box-lid illustrations were a wonderful, absorbing art-form in themselves.

Airfix 1:72 WW1 Bristol Fighter, artist Roy Cross, 1960s

The main legacy of this vast body of ephemeral graphical work, for anyone with eyes to see, is an appreciation of line, volume, and drama, often supplemented by the limited but subtle colour palette enforced by the mechanics of cheap printing. An illustrator is an artist who believes everything that needs to be said can be conveyed by the way someone holds a drink, who cares about the ways different surfaces reflect light, and who knows which details to leave out, and which to dwell upon.Whatever happened, I wonder, to all those people who could really draw? Can you imagine Tracey Emin (Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy Schools, 2011-13, and not an influence) illustrating a kids' book about cars or cookery? The pleasure of those recently repurposed "Ladybird" books (Ladybird books for Grown-Ups) is all about the way their innocence can be subverted with new captions, but this is only possible because of the expressive clarity of their painted illustrations.

Like my questioner, I am a fan of that "Brandywine", turn-of-the-century school of illustration; in fact, I can see a reprint of Wyeth's illustrated Treasure Island from where I'm sitting. However, I came to these artists later in life, as illustrated children's books did not figure much in my childhood. In the 1970s there was a revival of interest in this sort of "realist/romantic" illustrative work, along with British antecedents and equivalents like William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Arthur Rackham, whose particular weaving of textures and near-monotones into an English other-wordliness influenced a generation. I suspect this was because such pictures reward the sort of unwaveringly rapt, child-like scrutiny that a young adult in the grip of certain intoxicants will bring to a picture; what we might call "the stoner's gaze". I have written before about the "dressing-up box" mentality of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and these evocative and lively paintings of pirates, elves, American indians, and Arthurian figures ‒ nearly always derived from children's books and intended to stimulate the imagination ‒ were a perfect match.

I didn't want to turn this post into a simple list of "artists I have liked", so I looked for some common threads. An obvious one is Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which share that same graphical emphasis on boldness of design, subtle and pure colours, and economy of line, all held within a flattened, strongly-framed picture-plane. In effect, you might say they are comics for an adult sensibility (very adult, in the case of the notoriously erotic shunga prints), and indeed were regarded as ephemera by their native audience, to the extent that woodblock prints by the likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige were used as protective wrapping for pots exported to the West. You can imagine the delight with which these crumpled freebies were discovered by the artists of late-19th century France, and the impact of japonisme on Impressionism and subsequent movements in art was profound. I have a particular liking for "post-impressionist" colourists like Vuillard and Bonnard, with their flattened, patterned, child-like shapes and improbably gorgeous palette of colours. A photographer like Saul Leiter (also a painter and illustrator) has clearly taken these same influences on board.

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in the Bath, 1925

While thinking about this, I found it helpful to distinguish between "systematic" influences and partial ones. For example, when I came across the French artist Henri Rivière (initially, I think, on holiday in Britanny, where much of his work is set) I felt the urge to explore further, and the more I looked, the more I liked what I saw, culminating in the discovery of that fine series of prints, 36 views of the Eiffel Tower. He became a "systematic" influence, an artist whose whole body of work I found rewarding, and whose available work, especially work in print, I actively sought out. As to "partial" influences, the example of Leonard Baskin comes to mind, whose work stimulated by the poems of Ted Hughes, especially Crow, still ranks very highly with me, but whose wider oeuvre doesn't carry the same charge. Similarly, David Hockney's early prints, such as the illustrations to the Grimms' fairy tales, which blew my mind* when I first saw them in a Sunday colour supplement in 1970 and which I still find amazing. But, for me, the majority of his later work is rather less compelling.** A more recent example would be Josef Stoitzner (1884-1951), an Austrian artist who produced some very attractive Henri Rivière-like images of rural Alpine landscapes, boldly graphical with the limited colour palette associated with posters and print-making, but whose stock-in-trade turned out to be rather forgettable "genre" oil paintings. Often, of course, it can turn out to be just a single example of an artist's work that has caught my attention – usually something seen on a website and clipped for future reference using Evernote – but which then turns out to be completely untypical of the work as a whole.

Henri Rivière, Enterrement à Trestraou, 1891
(notice the Japanese-style red artist's stamp)

I suppose I probably am, in many ways, a print-maker and illustrative painter manqué. At primary school, my work used to be entered for – and win! – national painting competitions, but once at grammar school "art" was relegated to the level of metalwork and carpentry – something to occupy the less academically-able boys – so I was reduced to tinkering around at home. I did have vague thoughts of going to art school, but my teachers had grander plans for me, and I was hazy enough about my goals in life to be talked out of it (thankfully). Photography became my passionate interest in my 30s, but those earlier influences always made themselves felt; for example, in a liking for the flattened perspective of a short telephoto lens, or the clarity of the colours and even distribution of the tones in low-contrast lighting conditions. So it's no surprise that, when it came to the wider range of possibilities opened by digital colour photography, my eye led me in certain "painterly" directions.

In fact, I actually dislike most colour photography. There's a sort of heightened glossy verisimilitude ‒ a pure photographic "look" aspired to by many ‒ that I find unattractive, especially when applied to the landscape and portraiture, as if these subjects were just another application of "packshot" techniques. I'm tempted to suggest that the reason for this is that so many photographers lack influences other than photography itself, and generally only recent photography of the most banal sort. Obviously, if you aspire to nothing more than record-shots of scenic spots at "golden hour", and have mistaken technical business for aesthetics, your pictures will look just like those of everyone else who has made the effort to rock up at the Old Man of Storr on Skye at the "right" time. Well done, you! But if you know your art history, and have looked for interesting work across all genres and all time-periods, and developed your personal preferences and allowed them to influence your own seeing, then you're at least in with a chance of producing something a little different, but also ‒ and I now think this is very important ‒ something with a recognisable ancestry other than the pages of Amateur Photographer.

Pinax of Persephone and Hades
Locri, Calabria, 5th century BC

* Still a thing in 1970... When you're 16 and obsessed with being able to draw well, it is liberating, empowering, and  yes  mind-blowing to be given permission to draw "badly" but expressively.

** During my stint at Balliol College, Oxford, I held the elected JCR post of "Mr. Picture Fund", which gave me a small budget to spend on new artwork to add to a collection of pictures which could be borrowed by students to hang in their college rooms. Consequently, I was able to have close, hands-on, "stoner's gaze" acquaintance with an actual early Hockney etching, "Myself and My Heroes", and the original of one of Ralph Steadman's large pen-and-ink illustrations to Alice in Wonderland.

Monday 6 March 2017

Looks a Bit Wet Out There

Never mind "the best camera is the one you have with you", sometimes the best view is the one from your kitchen table, watching the driving rain with a nice cup of tea. Actually, it's not a bad view under any circumstances.

And, yes, I know the overlapping frames don't match. I like it that way.

Thursday 2 March 2017

Telling Stories

Stick it in yer family album

Nowadays, it seems everyone thinks the answer to everything is having a good story to tell or, if you prefer, a convincing narrative. From advertising to politics, both success and failure are pinned on the box-office rating of the story that was told to the public. Why did we lose the election? We failed to get our narrative across. Why is our brand a success? Because we have given it a place in our customers' personal stories. It seems as if the story-arc and character-development nostrums of Hollywood may have overflowed into real life, which is troubling.

Now, when I was little, "telling stories" was synonymous with "lying". As in, "Michael says the cup jumped off the table, but I think he's just telling stories, mummy!" (Hey! Hey! I'm just providing a convincing narrative here! What are you, my sister, or a critic?). I think there used to be a healthy presumption that stories were rarely co-extensive with the truth, and that life was seldom – for which read never – as neat as that. Or, to put it another way, that a good story needed to be better than real life, which was both the source of its satisfaction, but also solid grounds for suspicion. "Too good to be true" is a reliable metric to apply to life. Face facts, Jack: those beans are just beans, and you've just been conned out of the family cow. And Jill: exactly how did Jack come to fall down the hill? Was this before or after the ruckus about the beans? And why the hell would anyone go up the hill to fetch water, eh? It's just not a convincing story, young lady.

Parish register 1782, Westruther, Scotland

Some years ago, I knew an academic whose speciality was the then emerging field of "life-writing". At the time, although I appreciated the democratic impulse behind the urge to encourage "ordinary" people to research and tell their stories, this seemed to me a curiously narrow, narcissistic, not to say voyeuristic project. History, surely, was not simply an aggregate of autobiographies and family histories and, besides, wasn't everyone these days deeply suspicious of historical storytelling, with its "grand narratives", blinkered focus on "our island story", and all that? Of course, that was before (following whatever original impulse) I began researching my own family history, and realised that, "narrow, narcissistic, not to say voyeuristic" as the project might be, it was also deeply fascinating and a lot of fun.

But family history research poses an interesting question: just how far back does one's personal "story" actually go? Does the unfortunate incident with the vicar's daughter in 1817 still cast a shadow 200 years later? Did your grandfather's terror-filled days of being shelled in 1917 somehow pass on a fear of sudden, loud noises? Certainly, your mother's suppressed anger at losing her promising career to give birth and care for you will have left some kind of mark. Certainly, your own failures, triumphs, and peculiarities will have shaped your own children's lives – some of which will be uniquely yours, and some of which will have been passed to you from your parents, and in turn were passed to them by theirs (and so on back to Adam and Eve who, according to recent studies of DNA, lived 135,000 years ago, but probably never met). This Be The Verse, indeed. In the end, though, most family history is hugely speculative and requires an awful lot of "real" history to flesh out and clothe the bare skeletons of dates, places, and occupations that are all that can be exhumed from documentary sources. It's hardly ever a "story" at all, but a simple roll call of ancestors, who will have been something rather indeterminate between, at best, the "mute inglorious Milton" of Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and, at worst, the village idiot.

1841 census, Bygrave, N. Herts
"Ag Labs" all, boy!

There is another important question. How far does not knowing one's own back-story affect one's ability to live a full, authentic life? Probably less than one thinks. Who you think you are and who you choose to be must matter more than where, objectively, you fit into any number of diachronic narratives. But, equally, how far does that ignorance render one a blank canvas, onto which politicians, advertisers and other manipulators can try to inscribe whatever narrative they find expedient? With the result that "we" – that is, people like us, people who, we are told, share our story-arc – may find ourselves encouraged to despise the undeserving poor ("benefit queens" and "dole scroungers") or the idle rich ("hooray Henrys" and "trustafarians"), or to loathe "Guardian readers" or "Daily Mail readers", or any of the other factitious tribal feuds and rivalries that give a vivid but false colouring to the news and to opinion. It takes unusual strength of character to reject the script you're being handed and start improvising your own.

Knowing and sharing our stories – personal, familial, national, cultural – may not mean that we know who we are ("I" is always elusive, always a work in progress) but it does mean we know by what different routes we each of us got here, and this may help to expand the boundaries of our sense of fellow-feeling, of who is included in "us". Which, if nothing else, is a powerful antidote to those toxic, exclusionary stories that enchant the more unreflective members of our community.

1861 census, Bygrave, N.Herts

What is more uncertain, though, is whether the daily struggle to follow so many contradictory narratives and counter-narratives is making us more or less aware that we are constantly being told stories, in the sense of being misled and lied to, and that any story is just a story, and probably too good to be true?  Or does this exhausting struggle overwhelm us, as if we were minor characters in some poorly-written serial blockbuster, with an over-elaborate plot, improbable dialogue, and too many unlikely coincidences, so that we simply resign ourselves to our incomprehensible walk-on part in this preposterous fiction? Whatever!

Which may lead the more independent-minded to that most modern moment of revelation: No, wait! Everyone is just making this up as they go along! Everyone! It seems nobody knows how the story will end, and practically no-one knows or cares what happened in the previous episodes... You just have to hope that, from somewhere in your back-story, you have been bequeathed the ability to extemporise your way to a satisfactory denouement.