Thursday 28 September 2017


Tropical birds are ridiculously colourful, aren't they? It's not as if jungle vegetation is any colour other than standard-issue green, and tropical tree-trunks are much the same sober shades of brown and grey as any oak, ash, or thorn. A European robin's "red" breast (actually, more the ochre-ish russet of tinned tomato soup) is, allegedly, the splash of colour in the dreary frozen wastes that promises the return of summer. Possibly; if we're lucky. Up here in the north we regard a goldfinch as, well, a little over-dressed, but tastefully so. The green woodpecker (possibly my favourite non-crow bird) has a slightly daft but dapper get-up. But parrots are the flamboyant Hawaiian shirts in nature's wardrobe. They're not hiding from anything or anyone; parrots are out there, loud, and proud, baby! Pay attention, check the feathers, it's showtime!

Monday 25 September 2017

Nothing Can Be Done

Lynne Truss (she of the semicolon, Oxford comma, and wry humour) has published one of the best tributes to Joni Mitchell I've yet come across. It's particularly good because it's a view from down here at fan ground-level, and hits the spot for me because – being English and 62 and state-educated – it seems she could easily, with a little bit of geographical adjustment, have been one of the grammar-school girls I knew back in the 1970s who turned me on to that sublime oeuvre in the first place. The actual BBC broadcast (linked in the written piece) is even better. Go on, give it a listen.

Ah, those girls! If there's one thing I regret, and would change if I could, it is the way we boys, so often, behaved towards them. I imagine adolescent boys have covered their yearnings and softer feelings with casual cruelty since the dawn of time; certainly, we did. Though never with the studied, sustained intensity we reserved for each other. All the same, I am appalled, now, when I think back to some of the ways we behaved, and some of the hurtful things we said. And, what may be worse, some of the kind things that went unsaid and undone.

It's too late now, of course, and nothing can be done. A good many will be grandmothers, now, with a lifetime of experiences that far outweigh any ancient memories they might retain of the smart-mouthed, loutish teenage boys they once knew, who were always more interested in entertaining their mates and establishing pecking orders than in reaching across the gender divide. Which was, it must be conceded, a more considerable barrier in those days of customary single-sex education.

This came home to me recently, when I lit upon the website of a "girl" I once knew – now a woman of 62, of course, hard as that is to imagine – who, like me, has made a late-start career in art-making. I was going to email her just to say, "Hi, remember me?", but then realised that, even if she did, it would be a 17-year-old me that she remembered, and she might not necessarily be delighted by the memory. I'm not that keen on him myself. Better to leave it alone.

What idiots we can be! I think about this any time I see some young fool tormenting a girl whose attention he craves, but can think of no better way of getting it than to be persistently annoying, like a wasp at a picnic*. I suppose, as Joni Mitchell says, all we ever really wanted was to come in from the cold. But what strange, self-defeating ways we boys have of asking to be let in. Age may bring wisdom, but how much better to have had just a little more of it back then.
Must I surrender
With grace
The things I loved when I was younger
Must I remember your face
So well
What do I do here with this hunger

Oh I am not old
I'm told
But I am not young
Oh and nothing can be done
Don't start
My heart
Is a smoking gun
Oh and nothing can be done

Joni Mitchell, Nothing Can Be Done

* As I recently pointed out to a friend, wasps are not unfriendly, as such, just socially awkward and quick to take offence. Plus, of course, they are equipped with a ready capacity to hurt. Repeatedly. Not unlike adolescent boys, then.

Saturday 23 September 2017

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Tales of the Riverbank

Hearing that the Soviet Union was developing miniature submarines, someone in the Royal Navy's top secret Weaponized Wildlife Unit* decided to start a programme to train kingfishers to identify and attack them. Only when the person responsible was informed that (a) "miniature" submarines were not that small, and (b) were unlikely to turn up in the freshwater situations favoured by kingfishers, anyway, was the programme quietly abandoned, and the birds released back into the wild. As a result, in the south Hampshire rivers near Portsmouth there is now a strain of unusually aggressive hunter-killer kingfishers, with a peculiar urge to attack the thermos flasks and drink bottles of riverside picnickers.

*  You may have heard of their "navy seals", or the controversial and lethal "blue blistering barnacles", now outlawed by international convention.

Sunday 17 September 2017

Lost Causes

Back in May, we visited Hinton Ampner, a local National Trust property, where I came across this out-of-place Roman-style bust on a plinth in a nondescript little structure like a bus-shelter in the grounds. It is not labelled or protected in any way, and I assume it is just a piece of low-value garden furniture from the NT's central bric-a-brac store.

At first, it was the incongruity that attracted me, but when I looked closer I became intrigued by the androgynous weirdness of the lop-sided face, with its odd hairstyle, apparently broken nose, and blank stare from a pair of mismatched eyes (onto one of which someone seems to have attempted to pencil an iris and pupil). Depending on your inclination, you might even say she or he is what the French call une jolie laide or un beau laid (literally "a beautiful ugly person"), expressions which lack an English equivalent, but which mean something like "an attractive person who defies conventional notions of beauty". A magnetic minger, maybe?

Of course, it could also simply be an atrocious and talentless bit of sculpture, on a par with a shop-window mannequin or that recent hilarious rendering of Diana (which, for me, does nonetheless seem to open a window onto that strange woman's blank soul). Naturally, I have been using this oddly compelling face in my picture-making. It seems to suit a certain sort of iconic presentation: Our Lady of the Squint, perhaps.

Like so many card-carrying pensioners, I am also a card-carrying National Trust member, although I find I am increasingly out of sympathy with that organisation. I could just about live with the gift shops, with their tea-towels and souvenir pens, and even the genteel volunteer "guides" lurking in every room like pub bores, but the NT's urge to restore, tidy up, interpret, and make "accessible" the historic piles of the aristocracy has started to destroy the very things that made a visit to such places worthwhile. For me, anyway, but then I am an incurable romantic with a taste for picturesque dilapidation.

All may not be lost. Apparently, Dame Helen Ghosh, who has been Director General of the NT since 2012, is to step down from that role, as she has been appointed as the new head of Balliol College Oxford, a slightly more exclusive club, of which I also happen to be a member. (The person in that role is formally known as the Master of the college; it'll be interesting to see how that plays out with its first female incumbent.) Who knows, it may be that her successor at the NT will share my taste for elegant disrepair, cracked windows and weed-grown pathways, but somehow I doubt it. As far as I'm aware there is no group that lobbies for heritage disrepair, no Campaign For the Dilapidation of Rural England.

My lost-cause relationship with the NT is exemplified by my dealings with their property Mottisfont Abbey, near Romsey. Back in the late twentieth century, in what proved to be the last hurrah of my film photography, Mottisfont was a wonderful place to explore and document, especially its grounds surrounding the river Test, which were full of unexpected nooks and crannies as well as, admittedly, life-threatening trip-hazards and pitfalls. I developed a close relationship with the place and its management, resulting in an exhibition of my work, The Colour of the Water, that ran from March 2003 to November 2004 (described here).

Then, there was a change of philosophy at the National Trust, and of management locally. No doubt money needed to be made, targets needed to be met, boxes needed to be ticked; anyone who has worked in a large organisation will have been there, and suffered the clipboards and flipcharts of outrageous managerialism. No doubt, also, there were urgent repairs to be done. I have no problem with that: I've just had our leaking roof fixed, too. But then the improvers moved in, clearing out the nooks and crannies along with the trip-hazards and pitfalls, followed by the interpreters with their signage and primary-school-level history lessons, and then came the adventure trail and playground installers, and eventually the public-works artists, recruited by competitive submission for site-specific works emphasising the need for relevance to and engagement with the specified target audiences. More boxes to be ticked.

A few years ago, having revisited my Mottisfont material, I sent in a proposal for a new exhibition. Now, when I approached the previous estate manager he had invited me in for a chat, looked at some work, gave me out-of-season access to the grounds, and finally provided me with exhibition space and, very generously, offered to cover my costs. I like to think it was a win-win situation; not many exhibitions remain on show for over a year and a half, and I let them keep the takings from sales of a little catalogue I had made. In contrast, though, the new manager didn't reply at all until I prodded her for a reaction after six months' silence, and even then she merely explained that exhibitions in the new dedicated exhibition rooms were organised centrally and circulated to various properties by the Trust, and she had no autonomy in that respect. You would have thought that response would have taken ten minutes, not six months.

Interestingly, I've had a similar lack of response from Bateman's (Rudyard Kipling's house in Sussex, also run by the NT) when sounding them out about my "Puck's Song" work – six months now and counting – and presumably for similar reasons. Now, you get used to rejection (I've lost count of the commission submissions and exhibition proposals I have had rejected over the years) but the sheer discourtesy of such prolonged silence still rankles. It speaks volumes about an organisation's ethos, I think: nobody is so busy that they can't find time to dictate a brief letter brushing off some idiot's unsolicited enquiry about their bizarre art project. But a misplaced sense of self-importance and a blind adherence to the Mission Statement will do it every time.

Saturday 16 September 2017


I haven't had much time for writing blog posts this week, but those birds keep on singing.

Monday 11 September 2017

I'll Fly Away

You may recognise this particular bird from a photograph in a post from last year, External Topography of a Bird (Ventral Aspect), taken during a visit to London's Natural History Museum. In my little virtual workshop here nothing goes to waste, nearly everything gets used several times over. In fact, even in this apparently simple image there are twenty Photoshop layers, most of which use one of my photographs in some transformative way.

For some reason I am quite pleased with this picture. The feeling will probably wear off; it usually does. I find the best way to evaluate my work is to print it, keep it hanging around for a few weeks, adjusting it and reprinting it from time to time until it seems finished, then to put it in a stack and forget about it. If, when I come across it again leafing through the stack months later, it grabs me all over again, then I know it's a keeper. Not that I throw any of the others away, of course: nothing goes to waste, nearly everything gets used several times over...

Friday 8 September 2017

More Birdsong

Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge 
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover 
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray's edge— 
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, 
Lest you should think he never could recapture 
The first fine careless rapture!

Robert Browning, from "Home-Thoughts, from Abroad"
Appropriately, I suppose, the looming face is that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Less appropriately, the "thrush" is actually a Redwing. Well, you have to work with what you've got.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

The Shine Of Your Japan, The Sparkle Of Your China

The most shocking thing about Walter Becker's death this week, for a 63-year-old Steely Dan fan, is to learn that he was only 67. Somehow those four years seem far shorter now – dangerously shorter – than they would have done in 1973, when I first heard Countdown To Ecstasy, which is, let's face it, probably the best album by any group ever. At 19, you assume that anyone even a little older than you is entitled to be responsible for major monuments of culture; at 63, it can come to seem unreasonable and unfair. "What A Shame About Me", you might even feel inclined to complain.

I didn't know it at the time, but the great thing about Donald Fagen and Walter Becker was that in 1973 they had already passed through the 1970s, glanced with disdain at the 80s, and been gifted the X-ray spectacles of some alternative future which rendered even the shiniest and prettiest people as transparently losers in the making, eaten up by ambition, chewed up by regret, and spat out by circumstance. Hey, it's a vision, and it's a truer one than most. It's certainly truer than any amount of the coke-fuelled grandiosity or faux-naive optimism more typical of the era. We're all gonna die, kid, so go ahead, waste your time and sell your soul while you still can, if you must.

Obviously, this is not a message that is to everybody's taste, even when set within some of the most original arrangements and solos in popular music. Some have called it cynical, but "cynicism" is a word that should be reserved for those who see ugly truths and nonetheless persist in selling us their pretty, palatable lies. Disenchantment, skepticism, and even resignation are better words; it's an imperfect world and, as the song says, even Cathy Berberian knows there's one roulade she can't sing. Admittedly, there is also a gamey note of what we might call nerd's misogyny – a rather too ready identification with the romantically-challenged and the creepy – and even, dare I say, a little racism, but I doubt most listeners to "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" or even "Haitian Divorce" ever hear those songs for what they are; dramatic monologues or short stories that tell ugly truths set to a catchy beat. But there is also always questioning and rejection of privilege – I'm never going back to my old school – with just a little desperation sprinkled into the kitchen-clean mix...  Is there gas in the car? (Yes, there's gas in the car).

What a shame there won't be any more. But there probably wouldn't have been, anyway.

Oh, and John Ashbery died this week, too, aged 90. One of these days I suppose I may get around to finishing "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror", but I suspect I will never get past that elementary error about the "right hand" in Parmigianino's painting. At least, I presume it's an error. Maybe it's a false trail laid to entrap and infuriate us left-handers.  If so, it worked. Give me Bodhisattva any day.

Sunday 3 September 2017

Bean Counter

Back in May I responded to a question about how many elements go into a typical collage/composite with the post Frankenstein Formula. In it, I described the typical process by which I take the raw materials (usually my own photographs) and construct something new out of them – in that case the picture above – much like a composer playing around with riffs, chords, and little bits of melody.

What I failed to emphasise was the element of time. That original version was the result of one evening's work, using photographs taken on a couple of rainy Welsh afternoons in April. But the version below was made yesterday evening, and this is an image I have been tinkering with, off and on, ever since May. It has something, but has never seemed quite right. I think it's more successful now – I'm keen on that "Georgian Navy" aesthetic at the moment – but no doubt there will be further versions.

Now, if I were to make a realistic estimate of the time invested by me into this one image, so far, it would have to include those original afternoons in Wales (say, 4 hours), and then one evening of around 3 or more hours for each of the (so far) nine saved versions: say, 30 hours. I don't want to exaggerate the value of my efforts, but my garage charges £60 per hour for labour, and I'd be happy to peg my hourly rate around there. Which means that, setting aside the cost of materials and the cumulative cost of the skill-set I have acquired over the years, a basic cost-recovery price for a copy of this picture ought to be around £2000.

Of course, that's not the whole picture, so to speak. If I were to sell it as an editioned "multiple" of, say, 50 copies, I should probably divide that price accordingly: £40. But if I actually wanted to make a living from my sales – let's say the target is a modest £25,000 p.a. – and hope to sell just five such editions of 50 prints in a year, then each copy needs to make me £100 on top of that cost-recovery price of £40: let's call it £150 per print. But that is to forget that a gallery, typically, takes 30% or more of the sale price, so I need to add that on: let's go wild and call it £250. Also, print editions rarely sell out – it may even turn out that most people hate that "Georgian Navy" aesthetic – so a substantial "failure factor" needs to be added on. I reckon a price of £350 or even £450 for an unframed, signed, limited edition print is not unreasonable. Obviously, where your prices go from there depends on the name you make for yourself and the lifestyle you want to support: but the ambition to be able to sell somewhere between 50 and 250 pieces of editioned work each year at something north of £450 each ought to satisfy most people.

Why am I being so bean-counterish about this? Mainly because I was intrigued by the price-tags on the prints for sale at the Royal Academy Summer Show. Now, I knew my own prices were ridiculously low. Calculatedly so: I had every intention of selling a few prints to cover my costs, although I hadn't anticipated the first-day buying frenzy that quickly ensued. Obviously, it's an interesting question how many I might have sold at £350 each rather than £75, although it's a matter of simple arithmetic that (taking into account the RA's "30% + VAT" cut) the pecuniary benefit of just ten sales spread over the three months of the show at the higher price would be equal to an edition of fifty sold out in one afternoon at the lower. If rather less gratifying to the ego.

In the same room as my two pictures there were about 100 other editioned prints for sale, with prices ranging from the insane (Jim Dine woodcut, edition of 6 at £16,800 each) through the expensive (Tracy Emin lithograph, edition of 50 at £1,400 each) to the affordable (I regretted not buying a copy of "The Old Deer Park" by Martyna Raczka, edition of 100 at £180, or "Collecting on the Strandline" by Neil Bousfield, edition of 50 at £300, before they sold out). But the majority seemed to cluster between £350 and £750, and not a few of these seemed to be selling well, despite being by unknowns like me.

Which, as you can imagine, gave me pause for thought, and I reached for my calculator. Next time – if there is a next time – I may put these calculations to the test. We could certainly do with a new car (that £60 an hour plus parts to keep our 2002 Scenic on the road starts to add up). In the meantime, I have some more tinkering to do.