Sunday 30 July 2017


Before the War
(bike: probably a Phelon & Moore Red Panther)

Following Christopher Nolan's film, there has been a lot of interest recently in that curiously mythic event of the summer of 1940, the evacuation of Dunkirk, perhaps the "hardest" Brexit imaginable, and the epitome of the British love of a magnificent defeat. As it happens, my father was at Dunkirk, and in his final years I managed to persuade him to commit to paper his vivid memories of this and the rest of his military service as a Royal Signals despatch rider, which spanned the entire war, from France, through the Western Desert, and finally to India and Burma. As an independent agent, criss-crossing the landscape from unit to unit, an observant DR necessarily got a wider-perspective view of the war than the average soldier. I have extracted here the chapter describing his experience of Dunkirk in its entirety.

Chapter Four (Dunkirk) from: Memories of a WW2 Despatch Rider, by Douglas Chisholm.

Got back to base one evening to find Bill Asher had got a fire going with a dixie boiling ready to brew some tea. I took off my gloves and respirator and hung them on a gate post - suddenly there was a loud whooosh and a big bang, the fire and dixie went up in the air in a cloud of ashes and steam. I dived into a ditch on top of someone who beat me to it - there were twigs and leaves falling from the bushes on to my face, presumably from bullets or shrapnel. After a short while it quietened down and I went to get my gloves and respirator; the gloves were stitched to the gatepost by splinters of wood and the respirator was cut to ribbons - the haversack was in shreds and the carbon granules were dribbling out of the canister. I had to find the Quarter Master to sanction the issue of a new respirator; I don't think he was very pleased, it probably meant a lot of paper-work! I kept the gloves as a souvenir.

Riding through a village I caught up a convoy of French horse drawn vehicles, guns, etc., when we were jumped by several Stukas who started bombing and strafing. Soon there were dead and wounded horses all over the road, some trying to gallop away with overturned wagons.  The noise was horrendous, the screams from the planes as they dived, bombs, machine guns, horses screaming, French running in all directions. I was in a ditch trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, when a Frenchman joined me saying over and over "Oh, mon dieu!"; he had a nasty gash on his wrist and had no field dressing so I bound him up with mine.

Another time I worked my way to the front of a column of vehicles to discover they were stopped by level crossing gates. I sat there for what seemed hours, keeping a watch for unfriendly planes; I folded my arms along the handlebars and rested my head on them. I felt so tired, the next thing I knew I was lying on the road with the bike on top of me. I had fallen asleep!

Riding through places that had been bombed was hairy, there was broken glass, wooden door frames with large nails sticking out, roof tiles, bricks, all very unstable and liable to cause punctures.  I soon realised that being on a bike was not the best way of knowing what was going on all around, it was difficult to hear any but the loudest and closest noises and impossible to see what was happening behind, so I began to stop occasionally and listen; I also watched carefully the actions and reactions of anyone, especially if they were paying close attention to the area behind me. If there was any sign of unwelcome activity I got off the road as soon as possible, parked the bike, and  moved swiftly off the road at right angles to the direction of approach of the problem.  I fully agreed with the lesson rammed home by the instructors at Prestatyn: "the safety of the message is the most important thing", as that also implied my safety!

One raid resulted in me being covered in white dust which I assumed to be chalk.  It did not come off very easily, so I must have looked a strange sight. Later I caught up with some of the section just after dark. Occasionally it became as light as day, someone was firing parachute flares which hung in the sky for quite a while. I went into a small room at the rear of a building and in the dark managed to find a vacant space between some of the lads already asleep on the floor.  I thought the floor felt a bit bumpy, but a chance to get some sleep was most welcome. At first light I went outside, to discover that the room was a coal shed, and I was now covered in a mixture of chalk and coal-dust.

Refugees heading west away from the Germans were a big problem, they came in cars, buses, horse-carts, on horse-back, bicycles, prams, wheelbarrows, just walking, all spread right across the road going in the opposite direction to what we were going, and threading through the crowds was hard work. They were a sitting target for German bombers and fighters who just flew up and down the roads unchallenged. So some of the sights along the way were not very pleasant. Gradually, mixed in with the civilians I saw occasional khaki uniforms, they had no weapons or steel helmets, just mixing in with the crowds. Sometimes as the result of a raid there would be groups of bodies, men, women and children pulled off the road, perhaps under some trees and left there. After a time I suppose we just got to the stage when it became the norm and no longer felt involved in something over which we had no control.

During one of these strafes I felt a thump on my right leg just below the knee. That night when I took off my boots the right sock was caked with blood,  whatever hit me had gone through the very thin skin on my shin almost to the bone. Luckily I had a spare pair of socks and the wound was not painful and it healed quite quickly.

During the early days we were riding quite deep into Belgium, but slowly it seemed that we were not going so far, and units were moving west. We recrossed the French border near Poperinghe. As we moved back deeper into France I was detached from the Section, to work with a captain with several trucks with wireless and other equipment. The captain seemed to be in a bit of a flap, got his map out and said, "Go and see if we can get to this location along these lanes". I went and took a look, and told him, "We can get the lorries through, and there is no sign of enemy activity". Off we went, it was a bit tight in places, and when we arrived at the spot pointed out by the captain I got a roasting because the overhanging trees and bushes had scratched the paint on some of the lorries!

Soon the columns of refugees thinned out and there were practically no civilians, but more and more uniforms, some I didn't recognise, all without rifles. They took up the whole width of the roads, so it was easier to get up on the verges and have a bumpy but quicker journey. For the first time there were lorries heading in a northerly direction packed with British uniforms and looking lost. I kept getting asked, "Is this the way to Dunkirk?", and when I'd helped they went off in a hurry.

We began to see mixed groups of men from various regiments and different arms walking in the same direction as the lorries had gone, a fair number still carrying their rifles.

I was attached to a major with a wireless truck. As the messages came in we'd go off to find a unit, occasionally on return to our starting place someone would be waiting with a new map reference, always further north or north-west. The fields alongside the roads (which were on raised banks) were becoming covered with water, to make it more difficult for Jerry tanks. If bombs or shells landed in the fields up went fountains of mud and water.

One night we slept on the edge of a field under a hedge with the bikes out of sight from aircraft. We were woken at first light and told not to start the bikes, but to wheel them to the edge of a railway line, then at intervals carry the bikes over the tracks without any metal touching the lines, wheel the bikes a considerable distance, before being allowed to start up. We never found out why. Up to that time I had been wearing over my battle-dress a Barbour suit, it was warm and waterproof and although it was fraying on one leg from battery acid spillage caused when I'd fallen off a few times, I liked it because it was ideal when sleeping outdoors. But about this time an infantry officer advised me to stop wearing it because, being a greeny-grey colour, some of his chaps might mistake me for a Jerry and take appropriate action, so I dumped it.

While riding it was difficult to be aware what was going on all around - apart from the engine noise, trying to ride against the flow of men and trucks took a lot of concentration. I found that watching the column coming towards me gave early warning of a bombing or strafing attack; the column peeled off the road on either side like earth off a ploughshare. A Jerry fighter came towards us at ground level followed by a Spitfire. To stop the Spit from firing the Jerry flew straight along the road just above our heads - to our delight the Spit got his propeller under the Jerry's tail and slowly pulled up, forcing Jerry to climb or have his tail cut off. They climbed, one under the other until Jerry levelled out, the Spit followed, a short burst of machine gun fire, the Jerry tipped on his nose and crashed into a flooded field, burying the plane well past the cockpit. A great cheer went down the line of men who were by now back on the road, heading north.

Our next move was to the house of a smallholding just off the road. We could now see the cloud of black smoke hanging over Dunkirk and watch bombing raids on the town. The columns of men no longer needed to ask the way, all they had to do was head for the smoke. They were by now very ragged looking; occasionally a company of infantry would march by in good order, but not often. There was abandoned equipment everywhere, in fields and side roads.  I was amazed to see a field full of artillery and big ack-ack guns, it looked like hundreds of them, many of them had their barrels pointing to the sky, but the barrels had the ends blown out like the petals of a flower.

One night I was riding through a small village and was slowed down by an M.P. with a torch: there were hundreds of infantry men lying in the market place in orderly rows as if on parade - three ranks in perfect lines. I could only assume they were one of the Guards Regiments taking a rest before marching on.

I had scrounged a mug of tea from the crew of a Bofors gun when a twin tailed plane came into sight from the north, they got off several clips of shells before the plane veered away and disappeared. I said "I reckon that was a Lockheed Hudson, one of ours". They said for them every plane is unfriendly.

In training, Sherwood Forest (no, really)

In France
(bikes: BSA WD M20)

By now the journeys were getting shorter and more frequent, so every opportunity was taken to get a few minutes sleep. Petrol was obtainable by syphoning it from abandoned vehicles, the bikes stood up to the rough treatment very well. During one trip along a cinder track I suddenly found myself on my back, the bike several yards away. I hadn't heard a bang or seen a flash so I stayed where I was. Nothing happened so I checked myself over, my right elbow was very sore and the battle-dress sleeve torn and frayed a bit. Just below the elbow was a large graze, so I checked the bike - just a bent footrest and brake lever and that was that. I saw some RAMC blokes, they had a look and told me that I'd live and asked if it hurt?  I said no, and they said, "It will now", and they rubbed some sort of gel into the graze and I was sent on my way.

Digging a slit trench one day we unearthed boxes of .303 rifle ammunition in very good order, but dated from WW1, just about eighteen inches below ground.

A group of Artillery men stopped for a rest on the verge near us and I saw they were concerned for a young officer who had his great coat slung over his shoulders and looked "all-in". I went across and asked if I could help and noticed that a piece of shrapnel triangular in shape, each side about an inch and a half long was wedged vertically in the brim of his steel helmet, just in line with his eye, so I said, "That was close".  He said he wasn't worried about that, then showed me his right shoulder which was a mangled mess of blood and bandages. There was nothing I could do, and after a while they resumed their trek to Dunkirk. Later I wondered if they were the survivors of a group of four Bofors guns I had watched being bombed, machine-gunned and knocked out in a field earlier that day.

The sound of gunfire was gradually coming nearer and we seemed to be increasingly inactive, then one day the major said we had finished our job, we were to destroy the wireless sets and vehicles and make our own way to the beach at Dunkirk. I didn't fancy walking what seemed quite a way to the smoke cloud, so I rode to the outskirts of the town, then drained the oil out of the engine, set the throttle to high rev's, kick-started the engine, and set fire to the petrol tank and walked away.

It was evening by the time I got onto the beach, there were groups in trenches dug in the sand, others seemed to be wandering around aimlessly. Some were wading out to sea hoping to get on one of the small boats that came in as close as possible.  I took off my boots and hung them round my neck and got to the water's edge, realised it was low tide and decided to wait until the tide was right in, then I wouldn't have so far to wade in order to get on a boat.

I walked up and down the beach for a time wondering if I would see anyone I knew, but no luck. There were lorries that had been driven out as far as possible at low tide, so at high tide they formed a jetty which gave easier access to the boats. I made myself a hole and tried to get a few minutes sleep, but air raids on the larger boats waiting well out to sea made it difficult.  I watched one raid and was sure I saw one bomb go right down the funnel of a destroyer which seemed to explode in slow motion. When the smoke cleared there was nothing left.

At high tide there were bodies being washed ashore so I gave a hand to drag them above the high tide mark. Two torpedoes suddenly hurtled up the beach, clear of the water, their propellers sending up cascades of sand and water - we backed well away until I suppose the compressed air in their motors ran out, then they just lay there, like a couple of stranded fish.

A rumour went round that we should make our way to the East Mole at dusk, so I thought I'd give it a try. It was dark when I got to the mole and we were marshalled by a group of sailors into single file and then told to move along, there seemed to be hundreds of French soldiers just standing there watching, it was very eerie. Once on the mole we realised why we were in single file, great holes had been blown in the concrete and these had been bridged by planks about two feet wide and we could hear the waves about twenty feet below. When we got on a solid piece of mole we were told "wait, make way for wounded".  Some were on foot others on stretchers, when they passed we moved on again. Finally some more sailors helped us onto a slide made from planks and we slid down quite a distance and landed on the deck of a ship. We were told to spread ourselves round the ship. I got my back against a rail of some sort and sat down. I woke up to the fact that we were moving so dozed off again. I vaguely remember hearing a machine gun on the ship firing, and thought that everything must be under control, so went back to sleep.

At dawn I got up and had a look round and realised that although it was a civvy ship it was manned entirely by the Navy, then I was amazed to find that it was the ship in which I had sailed from Southampton to Le Havre - the "Tynwald". I think we docked at Dover and were surprised to see flags and banners waving and women offering us tea and sandwiches. We were hustled quickly on to a train waiting in the docks (we were not a pretty sight!), and off we went. If we went slowly through a station people ran alongside the train offering food and cups of tea, we were puzzled by all the flag waving and cheering, having just been chased out of France.

We arrived at Winchester station and were lorried to the Kings Royal Rifles barracks, given two blankets, and shown into a barrack hut where I got down on the floor and sank into a peaceful sleep.

After Dunkirk

Dad died in 2008. He was never one for going on about the war, but he had a terrific album of photographs that others in his unit had taken and which lived in the bottom of a bedroom wardrobe, which I used to pore over as a boy. I would insist on knowing all about the who, where, and what of those mainly benign images, and Dad would reluctantly revisit the past, no doubt redacting his memories somewhat for my childish ears. For boys of my age, born in the 1950s, WW2 occupied a similar place in the imagination to that held by Star Wars, say, or Lord of the Rings for later generations. It must have been hard for our fathers to have reality and fantasy brought together in a potentially explosive way, daily, in the form of comics, toys, and children running around the streets playing "army".

When they realised they were getting too old to look after themselves, my parents moved from Hertfordshire to Norfolk, to live in a mobile home in my sister's back garden. For the sake of some company, Dad joined the local branch of the Dunkirk Association, where men of like age and with a shared, unique experience could swing the lamp a bit over a cup of tea (men in their eighties tend not to drink pints). In this way he found himself at the epicentre of one of the darkest chapters in the Dunkirk story, the massacre of captured British troops of the Royal Norfolk Regiment by the SS at Le Paradis. This terrible story can be read here. Talking with these men, I think, shifted something in his perception of his own wartime experiences, rather like realising – 55 years after the event – what a close-run thing it had been at times, not just nationally, but personally.

For the first time, he began reading accounts of the war and attending Remembrance Day parades in chilly churchyards in Norfolk. And he asked me to find him a copy of this painting by Charles Cundall, which he'd seen on TV:

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940, by Charles Cundall

I bought a print of it from the Imperial War Museum, which he framed and hung over his bed. Shortly before he died, he said to me, "You know that painting of the beach at Dunkirk? It's not quite right, you know. Those great big clouds of black smoke? I'm sure they were blowing the other way."

Thursday 27 July 2017

Sell Your Cleverness

It struck me recently that it has now been three years since I retired, and I haven't written any programs, scripts, or HTML pages in all that time. Not one. In a sense, of course, that is precisely what retirement means: you have stopped working, your accounts have lapsed, your administrator passwords have been terminated, and all the accumulated, undocumented knowledge you carry around in your head has been retired, too. Access denied! I can almost feel the empty space in my head where it used to be. But, still, I'm surprised: I had come to think of my modest code-cutting adventures as a core part of who I had become, and fully expected to continue them into retirement, perhaps even writing some apps for smartphones that would make me stinking rich.

But, no. Of course, I also haven't done any meetings, seminars, appraisals, training sessions, or conferences in that time, either. But I was never going to miss those aspects of a working life; who would? Conferences abroad are fun for a few years, but air-travel, hotels, and tedious afternoons in sunless seminar rooms quickly pall as you get older, particularly if you have to juggle childcare arrangements. I do miss the people, mostly, but then almost all of "my" people have moved on or retired, too. I think what I most sorely miss is the daily craic on the smokers' table* in the Staff Club at morning coffee-time, but then that pleasure had already come to an end years ago as the number of smokers (and "honorary smokers") declined, and then finished off by a ban on smoking indoors. Somehow, skulking in a corner out of the wind and rain is not conducive to life-enhancing gossip and banter.

But what about all that computer stuff? Do I miss it? All the operating systems, hardware configurations, and coding languages I learned, the systems and project management expertise built up over 35 years, or the highly-specialised data-handling expertise acquired? What will happen to the part of my brain that used to get such regular exercise? Well, I suspect it has already and quickly been occupied by another, more colourful part, suppressed for too many years, like a defunct office space eagerly turned into an artist's studio. Besides, if I'm honest, in my final years of working I found that coping with the constantly accelerating pace of change was making me anxious and unhappy. Working with IT eventually teaches you two profound life-lessons: first, that all your achievements are ephemeral, to be washed away in the next tide of change and, second, that nobody understands or cares what you have done, anyway. Instructively, after 30 years of service I received a perfunctory retirement letter from the central university administration, the main burden of which was to remember to hand in my keys before I left.

I suspect I may even be becoming a neo-Luddite. As I wrote in an earlier post, I have come to regret my role in the dumbing-down of university life, much as I enjoyed every minute it. What fun it was, to rise to the challenge of planning a major project, and what pleasure was to be had in meeting and overcoming all the technical problems thrown in our path! This, despite the knowledge that (repeat after me) your achievements are ephemeral, to be washed away in the next tide of change, and that nobody understands or cares what you have done, anyway.

But, when the basic strategic direction is wrong, all this counts for nothing. Or as the motto of my secondary school (not to mention the City of Edinburgh) has it, nisi dominus frustra:
Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it:
Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.
Psalm 127
The planning and, um, execution of Stalin's gulags may have been perfectly brilliant, but history will award no prizes to those who actually devised and carried out such massively complex programmes of bureaucracy and logistics. Which does seem a little unfair. Although, even if Stalin had turned out to be one of the good guys, I expect history would merely have sent them the standard form letter, thanking them for their contribution, and reminding them to hand in their keys.

In the end, this is probably hard but fair. Cleverness unconstrained by wisdom may yet be the downfall of our species. Think of so-called Artificial Intelligence, which we might usefully think of as humanity's attempt to outsource its own most distinctive feature, perhaps best represented by that traditional cartoon of a man sawing off the very branch he is sitting on. Over my working life I have witnessed several waves of happily-employed, good, ordinary, decent people being made redundant and their lives rendered purposeless by clever technology. It sometimes seems that technologists will not rest until the last opportunity to enjoy a meaningful life through work has been eliminated. The advent of AI, of course, will be their final ironic triumph: cleverness itself will have become redundant! When, I wonder, will it dawn on those setting our strategic directions that the pursuit of efficiency, productivity and profits by automation and the elimination of expensive, fallible "human resources" is not the point: people are the point, and not the problem!

In the words of everybody's favourite 13th century Sufi mystic, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī: Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment. You know it makes sense.

* No, not crack smokers, fool!

Saturday 22 July 2017

Perseverance and Challenge

I read this in a book review a while ago, and it struck me as an interesting insight into the way certain things have changed:
Though Hajdu doesn’t address this particular issue, he does pinpoint a subtle yet profound transformation digitization has brought about in many people’s listening habits, including his own. Consider, to begin with, what things were like in the pre-digital age:

'I remember buying the album Hejira in 1976, to use the example of Joni Mitchell […] and finding it tuneless and confusing. But, damn it, I spent a whole $7 on the thing. So I stuck with it, hoping to find a way to appreciate it and get my money’s worth. Within a few days, I did, and my taste expanded in the process.'

The situation is quite different now. With a streaming service at your disposal, you can skitter from one song to another (and not only within a single album) until something hooks you from the very start. Hajdu, by his own admission, does just that. Such an approach, he pointedly remarks, “inhibits perseverance and impedes challenge.”

review by Rayyan Al-Shawaf of "Love For Sale: Pop Music in America" by David Hajdu (LARB 16 Jan 2017)
Setting aside the totally baffling reaction to Hejira –  tuneless and confusing? Perhaps he played it backwards? –  the general point being made is sound. Those used to be the keynotes of education, didn't they: "perseverance and challenge"? Even though you might forget every poem, date, fact, theorem, constant, and equation you had encountered along the way, the main takeaway from a solid education was that sticking to difficult tasks brought rewards that far exceeded those of more easily-achieved satisfactions. And, what's more, that is a true truth, universally acknowledged, copper-bottomed, and unconditionally guaranteed.

I knew my career in university libraries was coming to its end when our profession, in its over-eagerness to please, decided to smooth away as many as possible of those little difficulties that, essentially, constitute the real, actual educational benefit of using a research library. You know: learning how to look stuff up, determine whether it is relevant, and whether it exists in your institution, and if so, where and in what form, and if not, how to get hold of it. Above all, to discover the variousness of the world of books, information, and scholarship. Yes, it's inconvenient and frustrating that different catalogues, databases, and reference works all make different assumptions, contain different materials, index them in different ways, and deliver them in different forms and to different degrees of completeness, but learning to navigate these peculiarities is all part of the art of becoming a competent researcher. It's also a genuinely transferable life-skill: how to be indefatigable in the face of systematic bureaucratic obfuscation.

Or, so it seemed, until we decided the best way to serve our students and staff was to disguise and package up these many inconvenient differences – which still exist – into a one-stop automated vending-machine, capable of delivering instant gratification. Why, kids, you don't even have to know how to spell what you're looking for: we've taken care of that! Better, you don't have to get out of bed, as all the stuff on your reading lists is online, right here, ready and waiting! We've spent hours of staff time getting hold of all those reading lists, tracking down the copyright holders, and getting it all legally scanned and digitised for you. So no more boring note-taking and queueing for photocopiers! We've even made an app, so you can "research" your essay on your phone, and it's all so damned seamless, frictionless, and flavourless that you won't know or care whether you're reading a chapter from a book, an article in a peer-reviewed journal, a newspaper column, or a website put up by a 15-year-old as their school project. Spoon feeding? You're kidding me: this is more like force-feeding geese for foie gras...

Sorry, I'm ranting. Also, I should confess: although I did eventually take myself out of that picture because I was no longer comfortable in it, it was precisely me and people like me who, like willing but unwitting atomic scientists, wrote the code and developed the systems that made it all possible. What harm could it do? We had no idea how it would end! It was really good fun! We voz only following orders!  Sigh. In my darker moments, I suspect that some combination of the drive to save time and effort with the desire to be seen to be astonishingly clever will result in the killer app that finally sees off Western civilisation. My little satire of 2010 (on humanities education delivered as a placebo pill) comes to seem less and less far-fetched.

Isn't it interesting, though, how – in the days of the tweeting president and the instant dissemination of false "news" – those of us nominally on the oppositional left should find ourselves taking up what are essentially conservative stances towards things like research skills, attention spans, and reading and listening habits? I suppose there has always been a strong puritanical streak on the Left which, let's be honest, is precisely what has turned most people off. If your idea of the good life is a lively meeting to discuss housing policy, followed by an invigorating run, some green tea and a light, nutritious vegan supper, then an hour or two's reading and an early night to bed, then you are not so much out of touch with the majority population as a separate species sharing the same planet.

But it is important to learn how to tug away at the masks worn by the would-be manipulators of mass society, as they continually assimilate good things to bad ends. Look at how managerialism has co-opted the languages of community, mindfulness, and "personal development" and yet has created a precarious ant-world where people must learn to be corporately on message and to regard themselves as flexible, disposable human resources, lucky to be in work and always needing to justify their continued employment and, if necessary, to take one for the company. Job for life? Final-salary index-linked pension? Trade unions? So last century, grandad! Similarly, the glossiness and invasive ease of use of our "devices", coupled with social media and celebrity culture, have become the lubricants for a know-nothing, "price of everything" popularism that places no value at all on those old-fashioned virtues of perseverance and challenge. TL;DR!* After all, why bother to learn, to seek out, to question, to discriminate, to overcome lazy disinclination, when you are being hosed down with personally-targeted torrents of shiny, sexy, ephemeral infotainment all day, every day? Every hour spent learning irregular verbs or practising scales is an hour that could have been spent catching up with Facebook.

So, have we finally said goodbye to seriousness and difficulty? Many might hope so. As long ago as the book of Ecclesiastes, it was lamented that of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. And will the daughters of musick be brought low, and will there now never be another Hejira, in the sense of a coherent body of work from a serious artist, carefully thought through, and delivered without condescension to a minority audience? Well, of course there will! Except it won't be nine songs on a 12 inch disk of vinyl in a cardboard "gatefold" package. I look forward to it, although I do hope it won't come in pill or implant form**. But, be glad, for the song (and the making of many books) has no ending...

 * Too long, didn't read!
** ImplART ™ ... You read it here first! Just stick it in your sockART!

Wednesday 19 July 2017


Southampton Water

I have a strong association between pike and Southampton Water, or rather the marshy reed-beds where the river Test meanders into the brackish estuary, as somewhere in there is (or used to be) a keeper's cottage with a dozen or so pike "masks" mounted on the exterior wall. We passed it once on a walk many years ago, and I've been meaning and forgetting to go back there ever since. As I recall, some of them were huge.

And I knew I'd find a use for that St. George wheelbarrow, sooner or later.

Booth Museum pike, Brighton

One for the language-enthusiasts: isn't it curious, that nearly all fish names are singular in the plural? I have a hunch, though nothing more than that, that this has something to do with the names of creatures that can be hunted and eaten. Despite "rabbits", and no doubt a dozen other contradictory examples. Besides, I've a feeling that to say "there's half a dozen rabbit over there" is subtly but significantly different in intention from saying "there's half a dozen rabbits over there". Run, rabbit, run... (and, yes, don't tell 'em your name, Pike!).

Sunday 16 July 2017

The Sleep of Reason

In making this latest series of composites, I keep thinking of the words that accompany one of Goya's most famous images from Los Caprichos, a series of satirical etchings: el sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters). They somehow seem very appropriate for these Interesting Times of ours, and I might even, um, appropriate them as the title for my own series.

Thursday 13 July 2017

Forty-Seven Memory Palace

I have mentioned several times the block of council flats in Stevenage New Town, in which I spent my adolescent years. After my sister had left home we moved, in summer 1968, to a two-bedroom, fourth-floor flat in this seven-storey block, known variously as "Stony Hall, Block C" and "Chauncy House". It was the last home I shared with my parents and, in Neil Young's words, all my changes were there ("There is a place in Northern Hertfordshire..."). It was there that I went from being a lonely, obedient swot to a gregarious, rebellious swot. Well, you can't change everything!

After I, too, had left home (about as hastily as I could manage it, I'm afraid to say), my parents finally moved out of that flat in the 1980s, at first into a council-maintained old-people's bungalow then, as they grew increasingly frail, into a mobile-home in my sister's back garden in Norfolk (we were under oath never to call it "the caravan"). My increasingly tenuous connection with my home-town had finally been broken.

Driving up from Southampton to my mother's funeral in 2007, I thought I'd take a detour through Stevenage to get a look at the flats, and maybe take some photographs. To my complete amazement I discovered that the entire block had been demolished, and building work was already starting on the site. It was hard to take in: my bedroom, the theatre of so many vivid teenage dreams, fears, aspirations, and fantasies, had simply become an empty, dusty space, fifty feet up in the air. It was a scene you wouldn't dare write into a film, for fear of being accused of heavy-handed symbolism.

Being of an obsessive bent, in the years since I have continually attempted to recreate that flat as a sort of exercise in mental archaeology. In idle moments, drifting off to sleep or travelling on trains, I have carried out many walk-throughs of its layout and contents, to the extent that I could probably use it as a "memory palace"; a memory flat, perhaps, for a more modest mnemonic store of material. The door was here, it had frosted glass, no pebbled wire-reinforced glass, it was dark red, next to the wall of the kitchen which looked onto the walkway, and so on. Somehow, though, whenever I tried to put the layout on paper, it never quite fitted together. I tried working from the few photographs I had, but these were all of the front elevation, not the back where all the walkways, lifts, entrances, and rubbish chutes were. Periodically, I would carry out Google searches, to see if any new images or information would show up. Usually, I would draw a blank.

But, recently, I finally hit paydirt. It turns out that the University of Edinburgh maintains a database of UK tower-blocks, including the ones that are no longer with us. Their entry for Stony Hall a.k.a. Chauncy House was very informative, giving front and – finally! – rear view photographs taken by Miles Glendinning in the 1980s, and useful things like the name of the architects, and references to some articles written about it in architectural journals back in the 1950s, when the design of "social housing" was a hot topic, and racking plebs like battery hens was considered a decent solution to the housing shortage.

A quick check showed that "my" library did actually hold two of the journals concerned, and a descent into the basement (where disruptive and noisy refurbishment is taking place over the summer) put the relevant volumes into my hands. I couldn't believe my luck: there was a ten-page article in The Architectural Review for December 1952 that included fresh photographs, front and rear, and the thing I had dreamed of finding: an architect's plan of the layout of the flats.

The curious thing is that there is almost certainly no-one else in the entire world who cares about this in the slightest. The even more curious thing is that the perfect solution to my self-imposed problem had been sitting in my former place of work, undiscovered and patiently waiting, all along.

Friday 7 July 2017

The Grant Museum

Back around 1980 I was a postgraduate student at University College London, and spent a lot of time that should have been spent studying just wandering the backstreets of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, where the Old, Weird London was still in evidence. The area was crammed with second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, musical instrument repairers, record shops, specialists in umbrellas and walking sticks, and the kind of strange little outlets that sold sex-aids or surgical prosthetics (often hard to tell apart). It's all gone now, replaced by coffee-shops and upscale eateries. Apart from that umbrella shop.

However, in all the time I spent mooching around at UCL, I somehow failed to notice the Grant Museum of Zoology. In fact, despite searching the Web a number of times last year for potential "museology" sites, it was only a few weeks ago that it came to my attention. It's remarkable how something like this can hide in plain sight: I must have walked straight past it dozens of times. In fact, in trying to find it yesterday (not realising it had been moved from its original site in the confusing warren of buildings and infrastructure that is UCL's main site) I walked straight past it yet again on my way to Gower Street from Warren Street tube.

It was worth a bit of pavement-pounding on a very hot July day, though, even though it was dimly lit and I'd forgotten to bring my 60mm macro lens. So, despite the fact that the photographs are not optimal, I couldn't resist knocking together the two composites above last night. And, I mean to say, where else are you going to find a jar of moles? Seriously: a jar full of moles! Ah, the world we have lost...

Wednesday 5 July 2017

The Birds

I'm currently feeling enthusiastic about a new series of composite pictures I've been working on, provisionally called"Birdsong". To an extent they're just another reworking of the images I compiled last year under the theme "museology", but a bit more "meta", I suppose, in that they're pictures about pictures of birds. But I've been having fun finding different ways of framing and reframing my original photographs of stuffed specimens from various museums.

Who knows? Maybe another hit like this year's "Golden Wasp Game" is about to emerge, maybe not. Talking of which, I heard this week that both of my pictures at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition have now sold out their editions of 50. How about that? I really didn't expect that outcome (I know, I know, my son has already made pointed reference to "hashtag humblebrag", whatever that means).

Mind you, that is a lot more invoicing, packing, and trips to the Post Office than I'd bargained for. I mean, have you seen the size of a box of 100 rigid A3 envelopes (not to mention the price)? Then there's the occasional expedition to the bank, as I've actually received a few payments in the form of a cheque, which now seems incredibly quaint. That may not sound such a burden, but there is now only one – one! – branch of the HSBC bank in the entirety of the city of Southampton where such antediluvian curios can be paid in. It seems "three miles away" is now considered to be "conveniently near you" if you will insist on making us handle your gold nuggets, actual grimy cash, promissory notes, and banker's drafts.

Monday 3 July 2017

The Flying Weasels

You know summer has arrived when the weasels take to the air. Why? Just for the fun of it, it seems, the little thrill-seekers.

But, wait, is that a bubble they're floating in? And might one of those slightly odd-looking swallows cause it to burst? I think you can see where I'm going here...