Monday, 31 December 2018

Apologia Pro Ryvita Sua

What, New Year's Eve already? Yes, indeed: Christmas is done and dusted – very nice, thanks – our children have gone back to their real lives in London, and, having returned from Dorset to Southampton briefly to re-up our clothing, we now find ourselves in the Bristol Winter Palace for New Year. It does feel a little bit like being royalty, this seasonally-adjusted, peripatetic life, except royals have no clue where clean underwear comes from, don't drive themselves across several counties in fog and rain, and certainly don't stand fuming in the supermarket queue on New Year's Eve with a modest wire basket of provisions, stuck behind a log-jam of trolley-pushers, all apparently under the impression that no shops will be opening in 2019. Mind you, the way things are going, they could be on to something. It seems HMV is to be the latest vacant space on the High Street. Sad, but unsurprising: the days of flipping through racks of vinyl LPs seem as remote, now, as my father's stories of following the milkman's horse with a bucket to collect up dung for the garden. So what was a shop, grandad?

As for 2018, it has been a good, productive, and at times exciting year for me, even if it has involved rather more travelling than I'd ideally have chosen to do. Anyone who says it is the journey, not the destination that matters has never been delayed sine die and sans snacks in an airport departure "lounge". I suppose the only real disappointments have been not getting any of my truly amazing entries into either the RA Summer Show this year (may your pots explode in the kiln, Grayson Perry, you ████!) or the final hang of the RWA Open. That, and the ongoing decline in reader numbers of this blog, and the sparseness of your comments. I miss the sparky dialogue of earlier times. What is the sound of one bloke blogging?

December 2017
(no frost this year, just fog..)

It occurred to me, as I scoffed the last remaining mince pie, that New Year's resolutions are really a form of self-cancelling confession-plus-absolution package. I'm too lazy: I will join a gym. I'm too self-absorbed: I will make more of the few friends I have left. I'm fat: I will eat nothing but rye crispbread. I'm ignorant: I will find a suitable evening class. The potentially active component of these packages, though, is not the self-prescribed solution – no-one sticks to those – but the recognition and admission of a personal shortcoming. That counts for something. It may be self-knowledge of a painful sort, but can also feel good, especially after a week or two wallowing in greedy materiality. Confession is, however, potentially addictive. The problem is that the illusory sense of a new start – like most addictive things – lasts only long enough for you to crave a fresh hit. But then there are so many potential confessions to make! Especially if you set the bar for fault-finding and guilt sufficiently low. The organized churches have been in this racket for centuries. Does the Catholic Church charge for confession? I have no idea, but I expect the first few are free, at any rate, just to get you hooked.

So, racking my brain to think of some personal shortcoming to admit to and possibly even remedy in 2019 – I must have some left – I decided that I had two contradictory tendencies that could do with some attention. On the one hand, most of my life I have tended to go with the flow. If there was an easy route to take that didn't require too much by way of effort or navigation, that was the way I went. As a natural loner with a mistrust of self-appointed leaders, this has inevitably meant spending a lot of time going round in circles. On the other hand, whenever some important opportunity has been presented to me – a chance to break out of whatever circular holding pattern I was in at the time – I have usually backed away, like a fox sensing a trap. In the immortal words of Groucho Marx, "Please accept my resignation. I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member". This is hardly revelatory stuff, however: I recently found my old school report book, and it's full of repeated warnings along the lines of "he's quite clever, but not as clever as he thinks he is, and very, very lazy. I'm concerned he will never fulfil his real potential". Yes, well, you had me pegged, guys, at 17 in '71 (now that was a year!), and I don't suppose 2019 will be any different. Apart from the salutary fact that you're all dead, now, and I'm not: there may still be enough time to do something about it! Perhaps this year?

The wonderful thing about New Year is that, for a day or two at least, we can persuade ourselves that all options are now open, all bets are off, and all psychic laws and constants are in abeyance. Anything is possible in the coming year: review, restart, reset, reboot! Of course, the same possibilities of renewal exist at every other time of year, it's just that this little liminal pause, however illusory, is like stepping through a threshold bearing the opposite inscription to that over Dante's entrance to Hell: All hope is to be found beyond this doorway.  It's always worth a gamble, isn't it, another throw of the dice? As that very wise man William James put it:
For practical life at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough. No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance. The existence of the chance makes the difference, as Edmund Gurney says, between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.
Afterword to The Varieties of Religious Experience
As we step serially through that threshold in our different time zones, let us all hope for more hope in 2019! We're going to need it...

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Look It Up

It is arguable that Christmas Tree gangs should be banned
from attending the Edinburgh Christmas Fair

Don't look now, but Christmas is coming. Help! It's the same every year, though, isn't it? An entirely predictable, non-wobbly calendrical event (unlike that big tease, Easter) that somehow always manages to take you by surprise, as if somehow, if only you ignored it with sufficient conviction, this year it might not happen. Because, however you look at it, and whether you "celebrate" it or not, Christmas is always  a bit of a challenge, unless you're seven years old or the sort of adult male whose seasonal domestic contribution is restricted to keeping out of the way and staggering home late more often than usual. I recall the frustration of our many overseas students, for example, paying substantial fees and yet locked out of all university facilities from Christmas Eve until after New Year. So much for the Wise Men from the East... Sorry, guys, we're closed. Put the gold through the letterbox, but leave the frankincense and myrrh on the step [1].

In the Days of Analogue, one way of alleviating the tedium of those long, dark nights confined with your extended family was to play games. Ever had to chase cut-out paper fish across the living-room carpet with a rolled up newspaper, or tried to play hide-and-seek in a house with no hiding places worthy of the name? Only then can you fully appreciate the pure solitary joy of reading a book or, as an adult, quietly getting drunk and pretending to be unconscious. Of course, as well as the more lively, physical games there were also board games, ranging from the moronic to the baroque in their demands on your intellectual faculties. But there is really only one reason for most board games to exist at Christmas, and that is to corral hysterically over-excited young relatives, unfamiliar with the festive domestic layout, into a single location where the damage to furniture and fittings can be minimised. Mind that tree, you little ... cousins!

Personally, I've never really been turned on by games or puzzles. Even as a child, the idea of a round of Monopoly or snakes and ladders was never my idea of a fun way to spend the evening. I was always rather more interested in the look of the board and the gaming pieces than the game itself, and have certainly spent rather more time admiring the curves, planes, and moulding of chessmen than actually playing chess, which, frankly, I found and still find utterly baffling. The very idea of thinking several moves ahead, including the anticipation of your opponent's counter-moves, stimulates some part of my brain that, far from exciting me, gives me a profound headache. It's not something I'm proud of, I simply know my limits. Oh, look, you win again: I'll put the kettle on. Do we have any paracetamol?

I have attempted to master a few card games which are more complex than snap (difficult enough, if your attention is constantly snagged by the elegance and intricacies of playing card design). Poker and bridge, for example, simply because it seems antisocial to spoil the fun of others by refusing to play, however badly, and, naturally, there's nothing a decent card player enjoys more than to point out the idiotic way you have just lost a winning hand to their fistful of rubbish. You're welcome! I spent one memorable holiday in the late 1970s touring France and Spain trapped in a car with three keen bridge players. Rarely has anyone filled the role of "dummy" so well. Listen, you play out the hand, I'll get the drinks in [2].

Solitary games don't hit the spot for me, either. Sudoku? Forget about it! And the challenge of, say, a crossword has never been one to which I have felt the need to rise. Although, recently, I have taken a reluctant interest in the full-on cryptic crossword, which – with its traditions, explicit and implicit rules, and austere satisfactions – is a peculiarly British institution, not unlike our unwritten constitution, or the game of cricket. The civil servant who can finish the Times crossword during the morning commute, casually leaving the paper with its pencilled-in solutions on the train seat, is a figure of legend. But, as with chess, the mindset required to solve a cryptic clue is deeply alien to me. I love language: truly, madly, deeply. To regard words as assemblages of letters, to be chopped up and re-arranged to form other words, is like regarding a person as a fascinating but interchangeable assemblage of organs. Which, I suppose, is precisely how a surgeon must come to see people: in Eliot's memorable words, he sees the skull beneath the skin.

Which, dammit, now sounds to me like a moderately cryptic clue... A spider sees the skull beneath the skin (7 letters). Why? Because recently an old friend who is a crossword enthusiast has inveigled me into helping him out with some of the clues in the Times Literary Supplement crossword, under the mistaken impression that I have advanced knowledge of literary matters. Whereas I am, in reality, a retired professional metadata surfer. As Samuel Johnson said, "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries." [3] Well, I suppose I do have a little literary knowledge, but what I really know is where and how to look for more.

Sometimes these TLS clues are not so much cryptic as oblique: it's just a question of spotting the allusion. For example: "Clergyman's legendary pseudonym (9)". Answer: INGOLDSBY. Now, I doubt that even very well-read people, these days, would get that one unaided by Google. Who today, for heaven's sake, has read The Ingoldsby Legends? Or is aware that "Thomas Ingoldsby" was the pseudonym of a clergyman, Richard Harris Barham? It reeks of a stuffy kind of literariness – all pipe smoke and tweed jackets – that was already obsolete by the 1960s. But, as a clue, it's still little more than a look-up job: the most challenging clues are those that deploy a fiendish ingenuity that rips language apart and stitches it back together into a Frankensteinian simulacrum.

Consider this recent TLS clue: "Service area crossed by Follett's drunken agent (6)". Now, as a sentence, it makes superficial sense. We know what a "service area" is, we can guess that thriller writer Ken Follett is being invoked, and that one of his books may well include an agent who is a drinker. Much googling ensues, but with little result. There are no obvious Follett novels with an alcoholic protagonist, no useful synonyms for "service area". But the experienced solver will have been alerted by the words "crossed by". Such innocent formulations often indicate a mashup of some kind; an anagram, a concatenation, a topping and tailing, or some other piece of word butchery.

So, now consider the answer: it is ... KERNAN. Your considered response to this may be WTF?, as was mine. But here's how it works:

"service" = RN (abbreviation for the Royal Navy, the Senior Service);
"area" = A (a standard algebraic abbreviation);
"Follett" = KEN.
Now apply scissors and paste.

"Kernan", as you may or may not recall, is the drunk who falls down the stairs in "Grace", one of the short stories in James Joyce's Dubliners, and who also features in Ulysses. He is a salesman, thus an "agent"; well, kinda sorta, maybe. So it seems there is no "service area", and the "agent" is not Ken Follett's at all. [4] Which I find less than satisfying. Indeed, what baffles me most about this kind of puzzle is that the treasure chest, after all that map-reading and all that strenuous digging, is often empty. To successfully reverse-engineer the clue may reveal absolutely nothing at all about anything: it has merely demonstrated that your ingenuity is commensurate with that of the setter. Unless of course you managed to get there without resort to the Web or a decent reference shelf, smugly pencilling in KERNAN as the train pulled into Waterloo station, in which case what it reveals is that you have an improbably well-stocked mind as well as quite possibly some kind of personality disorder.

Which, as a retired professional metadata surfer, leads me to some melancholy thoughts on the decline of the printed reference book. If retail shops are struggling in the face of the competition from online shopping, the traditional, well-researched and authoritative work of reference has all but vanished beneath the wheels of the Web juggernaut. Where once there were shelves of atlases, dictionaries, concordances, bibliographies, companions, and encyclopaedias to accompany fields of study as broad as "everything" or as narrow as "Frisian folklore", now there is simply a blinking cursor in the box marked "Search". Which is fine – more than fine, it's fantastic – apart from the fact that it might as well be labelled "Pot Luck", given that most people have no idea how to frame a question which will deliver the answer they need, and must settle for the first few answers that a search engine's algorithms push to the top of an impossibly long and unsorted list of vaguely relevant results. Worse, the popular search engines discourage enquirers from applying any rigour to their search, as offered by the use of filters, wildcard characters, stemming, and the like. You press the button, we do the rest; trust us! Google, for example, doesn't exactly encourage the use of its "advanced search" (try finding it, for a start) or conventional search logic: yes, Google does offer Boolean-style operators, if you know how to use them.

One of my most treasured Christmas presents was a large dictionary, given by an uncle when I was about twelve. I hadn't asked for one, but it turned out to be just what I needed at just the right time. I sat poring over it for hours, finding it as hard to put down as any page-turning thriller. Rather like the multi-volume encyclopaedia I had begun to accumulate on my eighth birthday, it set out, in a systematic and authoritative way, an entire field of knowledge. I didn't need to know every word in it, I simply needed to know how to use it and, above all, when to use it, which meant activating those invaluable twin faculties: the desire to know – curiosity – and the willingness to acknowledge my ignorance.

Now, you, like me, will often have presumed to know something – the meaning of a word, say – and passed over it often enough subsequently for that presumption to have solidified into "knowledge". We are, understandably, not always curious or willing enough to question our own easily-won certainties. There's a nice passage in Aldous Huxley's first novel, Crome Yellow, in which a poet at a 1920s house party explains his misunderstanding of the word "carminative":
"It's a word I've treasured from my earliest infancy," said Denis, "treasured and loved. They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold–quite useless, but not disagreeable. One poured it drop by drop out of narrow bottles, a golden liquor, fierce and fiery. On the label was a list of its virtues, and among other things it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. I adored the word. 'Isn't it carminative?' I used to say to myself when I'd taken my dose. It seemed so wonderfully to describe that sensation of internal warmth, that glow, that–what shall I call it?–physical self-satisfaction which followed the drinking of cinnamon. Later, when I discovered alcohol, 'carminative' described for me that similar, but nobler, more spiritual glow which wine evokes not only in the body but in the soul as well. 
But then, having used the word in a poem ("And passion carminative as wine...") he decides finally to look it up. Only to discover it actually means "makes you fart" (or, "a small English-German dictionary" having been the only reference source readily to hand, Windtreibend).

It happens. I'm fond of asking people what colour they think a "livid scar" is (go on, look it up), not least because I myself felt betrayed by that word when I finally had cause to look it up. But, once you have recovered from your embarrassment – and assuming you are not that strangely well-informed man on the morning train to Waterloo – such epiphanies are an opportunity to acknowledge, if not necessarily achieve, the sort of humility before the Unknown that is the hallmark of the great enquiring minds. In the famous words attributed to Isaac Newton (not a man noted for his humility in everyday life):
I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Or, as that other far-from-humble man, Samuel Johnson, responded, when asked how on earth he could have defined "pastern", wrongly, as "the KNEE of a horse" in his dictionary: "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance."

I am shortly to depart for our own little house party in Dorset over Christmas, where the carminative properties of various traditional festive consumables, not excluding wine, will doubtless be thoroughly tested. Games may well be played, too (my son is unaccountably keen on board games), so I may yet have to pretend to be unconscious, or at least too absorbed in a book to be worth disturbing. It is unlikely that I will not be posting again before the New Year but nonetheless possible, rural Wi-Fi being what it is. A lot also depends on how unconscious or absorbed I become. So, just in case, allow me to wish you a very enjoyable [insert Solstice Celebration of choice] and many good things to look forward to in 2019! Here in Brexit-bound Britain, sadly, Things can only get more Interesting... I'm afraid April 1st could be a very strange and very foolish day indeed, this coming year.

A reminder of winters past...
A Hind's Daughter, by Sir James Guthrie (1883)
Scottish National Gallery

1. Equally predictably, every year some comedian will demand, rhetorically, "But what the hell is myrrh, anyway?" Really? So why not ask Santa for a dictionary next year, dimwit?
2. A task I enjoyed, as a large part of that holiday was spent in the Basque Country, where I often found – to my unaccustomed delight – that I was the tallest man in the bar.
3. That quotation (from Boswell's Life)  has an oddly anachronistic feel, as if Johnson is talking about popping into the local public library and scanning the summaries and blurbs printed on the back of the books, but of course by "back" he means "spine" and by "library" he means either someone's personal collection of books or that of some private institution like a club.
4. Here is an expert's account: The surface of  this clue suggests a story about the author Ken Follett and his inebriated (and/or hopefully non-litigious) literary agent on a motorway journey, perhaps. Cryptically, however, it is a charade within a container, with the clear definition, "drunken agent" – a reference to Joyce's character, KERNAN, the answer. The charade is RN = Royal Navy ("service") + A ("area" -- maths) and that is contained within KEN, the author Follett's forename. The containment is indicated by the word "crossed". RNA is 'crossed' by KEN. The "'s" at the end of Follet is the link word between wordplay and definition. Cryptically, it stands for 'is': [this wordplay] is (the same thing as) [this clear definition], while in the surface it is a possessive marker. So the structure of this clue is: contained charade / link word / definition.

Saturday, 15 December 2018


North Bridge from Calton Hill

Brown Street and Salisbury Crags from The Pleasance

Edinburgh, like any sizeable city, has many faces. As well as the Festival, the Scottish Parliament, the galleries and museums, and the upmarket shops of Princes Street, it is also the city of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus crime novels, and of course the film Trainspotting. In between those extremes there is the usual acreage of suburban streets, with no doubt the usual accompanying vanities of small differences. So, a long weekend visit is not going to yield any more insight than, at best, some of the basic geography of the city centre: and even so I'm still confused about which is the Old Town and which is the New Town.

I do feel a slightly tenuous connection with the place, as my paternal ancestors lived in Edinburgh for several generations during the 19th century: they were "pocket-book makers", a sort of low-level bookbinding trade, having left behind a life of shepherding in the Borders in the early 1800s. However, my great grandparents moved the family down to London's Elephant and Castle in the 1890s, where my grandfather was born and grew up. Quite why is unknown. Their last Edinburgh address was a tenement on South Bridge, then a warren of artisans and tradesmen's families crowded into single rooms. But their accommodation in London was, by the look of it in the 1891 Census, far worse. Certainly, two of their five children died in Camberwell in 1891: hardly the best start to a new life. My father recalled his Scottish grandmother as a stern, humourless woman, with an impenetrable accent and vocabulary. He clearly had far fonder memories of his Hertfordshire-born gran. So, apart from some genetic material and possibly a few inherited behavioural traits, I'm about as Scottish as a Toronto resident descended from a family evicted and transported in the Highland Clearances. Indeed, I have a surprising number of Canadian namesakes: politicians, ice-hockey players, businessmen, you name it. It's them, I suppose, and the thousands like them around the world who keep the tartan regalia shops of Princes Street in business, when they eventually make the journey back to the ancestral "home".

Rather than offer any startling insights into a city I barely know, here is a little gallery of things that caught my eye. I must say I did like the place very much, and hope to be back. Although I was rather shocked by the number of homeless people sitting at intervals on most city centre pavements, listlessly begging in the cold and damp. There is a nation-wide homelessness problem, clearly, but it seems so much more acute when you imagine having to spend your nights on the streets of Edinburgh in winter, as the wealthy tourists pass by, heading for their hotels.

Waverley Station from Market Street

View towards the Castle from Salisbury Crags

Ramsay Lane

Christmas Fair from the Mound

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Cockburn Street

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

How About Over There?

 Scottish National Gallery
(in front of a large Chisholm canvas)

To portray John Byrne and Tilda Swinton standing in front of a bland cafe counter seemed somehow inadequate, so, in the best traditions of portraiture, they have been encouraged to pose for me, virtually, in some more congenial surroundings.

 Milne's Court steps grafitti

Scottish National Portrait Gallery library
(in front of scary dead white men)

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Tam Lin, Starstruck

North Bridge, Edinburgh
from The Scotsman's Steps

My partner had academic gigs in Scotland either side of the weekend, so I flew up to Edinburgh (in a plane, obvs: I am not really a crow) so we could spend a long weekend there. I expect I'll post a little about that lovely city in due course, with a gallery of photographs, but first I have a story to tell.

On Saturday we had enjoyed a visit to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which is truly an amazing collection set within an extraordinarily beautiful building. As well as classic Ramsays and Raeburns, there's a good selection of contemporary work, too, from the chilling "Three Oncologists" by Ken Currie to engagingly quirky portraits by John Byrne, among which I was pleased to see his sketchy and unglamorous pastel portrait of Tilda Swinton, which I've admired for some time, but only ever seen on the Web. On Monday, the Prof had departed for Glasgow, and I had a morning to kill before flying back to Southampton (in a plane, etc.).

It was a beautiful, sunny-but-brisk morning, so I went for a walk up onto Calton Hill, where I admired the views over the city, took a few touristy photos, and inspected the police cordon around the spot where a body had been found over the weekend. Coming back down onto Princes Street, I remembered seeing a poster for a John Byrne exhibition in the Royal Scottish Academy, so, having had that recent reminder of his work, decided to head there, battling through the crowds thronging the Christmas market and fairground that has been installed in the gardens around the Scott Memorial, and which seem to have attracted half the population of Europe.

You may not be aware of John Byrne. British readers of a certain age are likely to be aware of him, even if unknowingly. He was part of that post-War Glasgow working-class eruption of talent that included Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty. In fact, Byrne painted the distinctive LP covers for Connolly and Rafferty's band, the Humblebums, and for all of Rafferty's subsequent albums. He also wrote the outstanding TV dramas Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin' Heart, and had a long relationship with the young star of the latter, Tilda Swinton. You can get a good flavour of the man from this BBC feature. I like his painting, not least because of his dogged, contrarian pursuit of a decorative, street-level figurative art, against all prevailing fashions: Peter Blake might be a useful point of comparison.

Anyway, I went to the Academy, and had a look round the show. I was astonished to see the prices – £12,000 for a small painting, £6,000 for a print – and by the fact that nonetheless every single item had a red dot on it, indicating a sale. Even allowing for the gallery cut, I calculated that Byrne must have cleared roughly the value of a semi-detached house in Southampton – our house! – from a single show. At which point, I became aware of a growly smoker's voice emanating from a tall, bearded, bushily-mustachioed elderly fellow in a long overcoat, talking confidingly with the woman behind the desk. Yes, it was John Byrne himself.

Now, I am not one to be intimidated by celebrity, but I'm reluctant to presume upon a man's time and patience. This was not the opening of the show, after all, which would have been back in November, where he could expect to be interrogated, glad-handed, and selfied by all and sundry: presumably he'd just dropped by to see how things were going and count the red dots. So I simply kept an eye on him, and waited for an opportunity to grab a snap. Which came when he moved to look at one enormous painting, where he was joined by a very tall, elegant woman. As she turned her head to speak I realised it was, unmistakably, Tilda Swinton. A full-on art-world paparazzo moment if ever there was one.

So, having got a couple of pictures, I went off happily to the Academy's cafe for a coffee, still with an hour to spare before I'd need to catch the bus out to the airport. I managed to find myself a table, and sat there nursing an Americano, collecting my thoughts about the weekend, and watching the Christmas market action outside the window. I then became aware of that rumbling voice again, behind me. I turned, and there were Byrne and Swinton, standing in the queue for coffee. He's an old man now, and she was clearly looking for somewhere to sit him down. So I did the obvious thing: I caught her eye, and offered them my table, for the small price of a photograph.

Call me naive, but I don't expect to see the likes of Tilda Swinton standing in a gallery cafe queue, in full public view, simply to buy a paper cup of coffee. I also didn't expect her to look so pleased to be offered a table, or to engage me so readily in conversation – I said how much I'd enjoyed The Seasons in Quincy, her video portrait of John Berger – or to end up warmly shaking hands all round after they'd posed for me. It may be that I had succumbed to the magic dust of celebrity, after all, but I truly felt as if I, wee Tam Lin, had had an encounter with the undisputed Queen of the Fair Folk. If nothing else, it was the perfect seal to set on a fine weekend away.

Taken with the Fuji X-20...
Shame to use the B-list camera on an A-list subject!

Wednesday, 5 December 2018


The reference in the previous post to unharvested mistletoe reminded me of something I'd meant to mention earlier in the autumn, but somehow forgot: all the uncollected conkers. For non-Brits I should probably explain: "conkers" are the seeds of the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum); large, as glossy brown as a polished shoe, irresistibly tactile, yet strictly inedible, unlike those of their distant cousins the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) of which there are a limited supply in this country [1]. When I was a boy – in the middle of the last century! – conkers were much sought after. Large horse chestnut trees are widely found in British suburban avenues, city parks, and on many village greens, and on autumn days these trees would be constantly attended by children gathering up the conkers. If the pickings were sparse, the bigger kids would throw heavy sticks into the branches to bring more conkers down, still freshly-packaged in their spiky, spongy capsules. If you didn't keep your wits about you, one of those heavy sticks could easily bring you down, instead.

Why? Because we used to play a game with them, also known as "conkers". This involved boring a hole through a conker, and threading it onto a knotted string. You would then take turns in whacking your opponent's conker with yours – not as easy as it sounds – until one or other was sufficiently damaged to fly off its string in pieces. Some rogues would attempt to harden their conkers by various alchemical techniques – typically, soaking or boiling in vinegar – but, if detected, this was denounced as despicable cheating. Some conkers which had grown as twins within a single capsule would have one flat side with an acute edge, not unlike a fat axe. These were known as "cheesecutters", and prized by some as particularly effective conker-smashers: a false theory with its origins in sympathetic magic, rather than empirical observation. The game, taken seriously, had various arcane rules which I can't be bothered to recall or explain ("stringsies", "stampsies", and so on). If nothing else, it gave a certain seasonal excitement to the playground.

However, the game has now fallen by the cultural wayside, not least because many schools have banned it from the playground on safety grounds. The main legitimate risk was getting a hard knock on the knuckles as you held your conker dangling at arm's length, but it was also not unknown to get sneakily "conkered" on the head from behind. Which really fucking hurts, I can tell you. I suppose a lot of playground energy did seem to go into finding ways of injuring each other, it's true, but what a shame it is when such only very slightly risky links with the past get thrown into the same bin as cock-fighting and bear-baiting. Even if they're not actually as ancient and venerable as we imagine: according to Iona and Peter Opie, those historians of the playground, the first reference to such a game using horse chestnuts was in 1848. Like so many "traditions", it may well be a Victorian invention.

The result, of course, is large quantities of uncollected conkers lying unregarded in the grass and gutters beneath every horse chestnut tree surrounded by the remains of their protective capsules, which seem to biodegrade incredibly rapidly from a tough, green, spiked, alien jewel-case into mere wind-blown brown dust. Sic transit gloria aesculorum... I may be 64, but I can never resist picking out a few prize specimens to keep in my coat pockets. They can stay there for years, polished by my fingers into increasingly knobbly "touch pieces" as they dry out, until the outer shell finally separates from the kernel, and starts to disintegrate into sharp little bits of conker shrapnel.

Talking of unregarded treasures, I'm surprised to discover that I also forgot to write about some photos I found residing in the same "October 2018" folder as the conker shots. I suppose the blog's tenth anniversary and my various publications did turn October into a bit of a meta-month [2]. Anyway, a few years ago I posted some photographs of the Moscow State Circus, which was taking place on Bristol's Clifton Downs. This year, as if to restore the geo-political balance, the Downs were hosting Circus Vegas, of which every available square foot was plastered with the Stars and Stripes or some other icon of popular Americana, up to and including Elvis Presley. It was giddily, hyperventilatingly American, positively Trumpian in its vulgarity.

Although quite how American "Circus Vegas" actually is may be questionable, despite all the hoo-hah and flag-waving, as the name appears to be under license to the distinctly un-American sounding European Entertainment Corporation Ltd. I suppose "American", in this most reductive sense, is more a state of mind – one composed entirely of faux-chauvinistic show-biz clichés – than any actual nationality. Which, if I were American, I would find more than a little annoying; it's as if a particularly gaudy Texas rodeo had elbowed its way to become, in effect, the purest summation of my great and diverse national culture. I wonder if anywhere has a British Circus, where the big top is a gigantic bowler hat plastered with the Union Jack? And the clowns are endlessly bumping into inanimate objects and saying "sorry"? Somehow I doubt it. We may be many culpable things, we British, and may have lost touch with much of our conkering heritage, but at least we've kept a reasonably firm grip on our brand.

1. Those of you who recognise "sativa" from certain other plant names may not realise it is a common botanical designation, meaning "cultivated". The phrases "distant cousins" and "limited supply" may also have prompted some of you to wonder, like me, whether conkers are the original big-eyed beans from Venus... Certainly, in America the equivalent Aesculus "nuts" are known as "buckeyes".
2. The blog is still in a bit of a meta-sulk about the surprising lack of acknowledgement of its significant birthday. No, no: too late now! It has been slightly cheered by a recent uptick in readers, though.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Strange Fruit

I was walking near a large block of flats in Shirley, Southampton, when I noticed there was something odd about one of the trees along the side of the road. Hanging from the branches were a dozen or more pairs of shoes, presumably tied together by their laces and flung up there by passing schoolkids, either as a bit of bullying or perhaps as some kind of ritual to mark the end of the school year, or some such occasion.

Curiously, the trees in the streets around those flats are also very susceptible to mistletoe: I've never seen so much of the stuff in so many trees in such a small area. I took the photo below in February this year, just before a massive hailstorm. Why nobody "harvests" it I don't know, but it's clearly been there, untouched, for a very long time. Perhaps the shoes and the mistletoe indicate the survival of some atavistic druidic cult in Shirley? Perhaps not.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Putting on the Style

In May, I was out walking on Southampton Common. The day was glorious: an early hint of the unusually long, hot summer to come, with clear air, fair-weather clouds, and strong sunshine casting bold shadows from trees that were just coming into leaf. As you would expect, I took a few photographs. The one above is fairly typical of the set.

It's a nice picture. The Fuji X-70 is a superb little camera, and I'm a pretty reliable photographer these days, even when working on autopilot with unremarkable subject matter: there's always a picture there, somewhere. The photo is sharp enough, with good depth of field; the colours are reasonably accurate (although I've partly de-saturated the colours: those famous "Fuji greens" are really over-excitable yellows); the exposure is good, and I've managed to avoid my technical bête noire, white skies and blown-out cloud highlights; and the composition is interesting, in an unassuming sort of way. But, as you probably realise by now, I have become restless with "straight" photography's ability to achieve, well, whatever it is I'm trying to achieve with picture-making.

Now, that photograph is doubtless a passably accurate and objective way of showing what that scene at that moment in time looked like from where the camera was positioned: those rays of light were actually reflected off those actual objects, gathered by the lens in its characteristic way, focused onto the array of little light-bins at the back of the camera, and then snapped off by slamming the bin-lids shut quickly enough to make a clean break and keep the tiny bits of light-ray fresh. Or however it is that a digital camera works. But, for me, it is not an entirely satisfying way of showing how it felt to be there: what is actually missing from the scene is me.

Some would say the absence of the photographer is photography's core strength; others would say that "style" is how a photographer inhabits a photograph. To an extent, the latter is true, or can be true. Photographic style exists, but is elusive. Sure, a good photographer makes many choices in the act of photographing, the sum of which may amount to a style. But, even in the days of film, "style" was really a product of second-level selection – choosing exactly the right frame from a contact sheet, for example – and skilled darkroom work [1]. It's worth checking out the book Contact : Theory (if you can find a copy: it was published in 1980 by Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press); seeing the contact sheets of some big-name photographers quickly demystifies any self-serving nonsense about "decisive moments" and such. Style is a set of choices you apply to your raw material rather more often than it is some inherent quality of your unadorned photographs.

Curiously, one effective way of putting yourself in the picture seems to be to degrade it, to make it less photographic, but at the same time more expressive. How this is done is an entirely personal business – I have a favoured set of steps which suit my purposes, but probably no-one else's – but that is precisely why it can get closer to the way you felt, as a sentient participant in that scene, rather than as a robotic observer of it. If that's what you want. Also (and I think this may get to the root of a key difference between "straight" photography and other forms of visual art) by taking away detail and adding visual ambiguity you are giving the eye (or, strictly speaking, the brain) work to do. And it seems to be the case that the eye/brain combo takes pleasure in being asked to do this work, which it does whenever it looks at some ambiguous surface. Hence "pareidolia", our tendency to make faces and other meaningful patterns out of random marks and splotches. This may be one reason why so many people favour bad paintings over good photos to hang on their walls. Like a poor teacher, an unambiguous photograph, by giving the illusion of being a clear window onto reality, directs your response so firmly that there's nothing much left for your sensory apparatus to contribute to the transaction [2]. Even a bad painting is more generous, in the sly way of a good teacher, in the amount of work disguised as optical recreation it encourages your brain to do.

Degraded, or improved?

Another thing. The rectangular sample, edit, or interpretation of the world framed by most representational pictures, whether painted, printed, or photographed, is so basic to our culture that we hardly see it. It is the "normal" from which other shapes deviate. It's a good shape, no doubt about it, probably the best for most pictorial purposes. Attempts to "subvert" it usually end up looking gimmicky and attracting more attention to the unconventional "frame", at the expense of what is within it. But, being of a mildly contrarian nature, I do have a liking for the more unusual shapes and combinations: the panorama, the triptych, the arched top, the oval or circular image, and so on. The circle in particular says, now this really is an edited view, and yet everything always seems to compose itself gracefully within the even tension of its circumference. There is a satisfying harmony to the circular picture (in some contexts referred to as a "tondo") that is both highly artificial and yet somehow entirely "natural", a magical charge familiar to anyone who has been enchanted by the view through a telescope, or who has gazed down at a miniature world played out in real time on the white dish of a camera obscura. It's as if you can sense a lens-based image's essentially circular nature, out of which the rectangle has been cropped [3].

So, when I put the "degraded" version of the Southampton Common photograph into a circular frame, I think we end up with something that is much more like how it felt for me to be there on that May afternoon. Something rather like walking into the background of a Constable painting; heightened, slightly sentimental, even a little kitsch, and slightly soft... Blurry, even: the fact is that I really ought to wear glasses, these days, but never do, mainly because I find them uncomfortable and also distracting: the world was never that sharp – as sharp as an over-sharp photograph – to begin with.

1. Most people are blissfully unaware of the amount of work that goes into producing a top-quality print from a negative. Until you have watched a master printer perform the necessary darkroom prestidigitation in the dim red light, you don't know anything about top-end analogue photography. Really. Check out the first minute of this, for example.
2. I am increasingly of the view that most colour photographs are not best seen framed and hung on a wall. They look ... tacky. Whereas in a book (or on a screen) virtually any photo can look superb. I wonder if this has something to do with the inevitable "degradation" of the image by the process of reproduction?
3. I have always loved the "circle in a rectangle" photographs of Emmet Gowin, created by mounting the lens from a 5" x 4" camera on an 8" x 10" camera, so that the entire image circle is recorded on the sheet of film.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018


Mirror, mirror, in my hand, what fate awaits this marshy land?

Really, mirror? swamped and drowned? Time to move to higher ground...

Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Same Stream Several Times

On the Itchen Navigation, the canalised section of the river Itchen that enabled barges to move between Southampton and Winchester, there is a rather fine pool of clear, rushing water, where the flow of the river is squeezed through a race that, presumably, originally fed a lock of some kind, although it's hard to imagine how a barge of any useful size ever got through it. Seasonally, it goes from being a deserted pool of frigid water, as above (November this year), to a densely populated pool of slightly less frigid water when, in the summer, it becomes a favourite spot for local teens to congregate, light barbecues, and generally thrash about in the water.

One of our regular perambulations takes us past this pool, or rather across it, as there are narrow bridges at both ends that used to operate as sluice gates. It's an oddly compelling spot, one of those locations that seems to focus the landscape around it, like Wallace Stevens's famous jar in Tennessee. Naturally, I photograph it most times I pass by: something worthwhile always seems to be going on there, even if it's only the light broken and scattered on the surging water. Several of the better shots from my England and Nowhere book were taken here in summer 2015, not least these two:

The outlier 

The headless man

But sometimes the best way to conjure the spirit of place is via a ring. So here's that pool on the Itchen Navigation...

... and here's a meadow beside the Axe. I think I can feel another little project announcing itself...

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Lost in Translation

Innsbruck 2014, going on 1904

In summer 2014 I was invited to hold a solo exhibition and a ten-day residency in Innsbruck, Austria. At the time, despite my genetic distrust of good fortune, it felt like the beginning of an exciting new phase in my life; there seemed no reason not to believe that a round of similar exhibitions, opening-night parties, spots on TV and in the newspapers, and all the varieties of charmed bewilderment that attend the moderately-successful artist would not continue to be my lot, now that I was retiring from wage-slavery and free to be "at home" to any muse that cared to call on me. I know better now, of course, despite my unexpected success at the 2017 Royal Academy Summer Show. If that kind of "result" is not to be a random, once-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck, it's simply not enough to make good work and wait and hope for a fair wind: it requires persistent and time-consuming effort put into self-promotion, backed up by unwavering self-belief. This reality had been forcefully pointed out to me in Innsbruck by Rupert Larl, the gallery owner who had invited me, but acknowledging the truth of it is not the same as acting on it. I, like so many self-motivated "practitioners", simply do not have it in my personality [1] to make myself into the kind of needy, squeaky wheel that gets the oil.

Talking of personalities, the other thing I discovered in Innsbruck was how easy it is to offend well-meaning people when dealing across ostensibly similar cultures. Especially, I should probably add, for me. I have a tendency to mistake the bludgeon for the rapier, when it comes to humour. However I may come across in these considered, much-polished written pieces, in person I can be oafishly blunt. I can't help it: it's who I am. Now, I don't know whether Austrians are particularly vulnerable to personal slights of a sort that pass unremarked as friendly banter in Britain, but I was appalled when I discovered that the man who had helped me get my opening-night remarks into serviceable German had been mortally offended by an exchange in the comments to a  blog post I had made at the time. Specifically, in my little speech I had quoted George Clinton of Funkadelic ("Free your mind, and your ass will follow") and a commenter had wondered how on earth that, as well as some very idiomatic British expressions, could have been translated into German. It's a good question: how can you possibly convey the mingled notes of psychedelia and "ebonics" that, for a native speaker, flavour that particular philosophical nugget? In my reply to the comment, I said,
Well, luckily a local photographer who is also an English teacher went over my text to iron out the bumpier bits...  "Your ass will follow", obviously, is "dein Esel wird folgen".  Seriously, though, folks... We went for "Befreien Sie ihren Geist, und der Hintern wird folgen!" Kinda politer, but talk about lost in translation.
Ah, now, "lost in translation"... Again, for a native speaker, that is a thing. You might not get the precise reference (Robert Frost: "I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation") but you know what's going on there; you may not have bought the T-shirt, but you may well have seen the film. However, it seems "lost in translation" was not a thing for my native guide, and he was deeply pissed off: he thought I meant his translation was not up to much. I tried to explain, but the damage was done: I get the impression that Austrians love to hold a grudge [2].

I was reminded of this when reading a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Stuart Walton of a catalogue, Kerouac: Beat Painting, derived from an exhibition of Jack Kerouac's paintings at the MAGA Gallery [3] in Italy. The review opens with a quote from a letter Kerouac wrote to Allen Ginsberg while travelling in Mexico in 1956:
Only good thing is I started to paint — I use house paint mixed with glue. I use brush and fingertip both, in a few years I can be topflight painter if I want — maybe then I can sell paintings and buy a piano and compose music too — for life is a bore.
Now, there's a lot of concentrated flavour in that extract. Even allowing for the fact this is a letter, the syntax and choice of words is idiosyncratic: there's a voice at work there, a voice that knows its audience well, and is playing with tone and register. "For life is a bore"? That world-weary, Noël Coward-ish inflection is ironic but, I suspect, far from self-deprecating; no-one who can claim on such slender evidence that "I can be [a] topflight painter if I want" is capable of self-deprecation. Out of curiosity, I looked at the MAGA Gallery's website, and found this translation of the same passage:
Dipingo solo belle cose. Uso vernici da pareti e colla, uso il pennello e le punte delle dita. In pochi anni potrei diventare un pittore di primo piano. Se lo voglio.
E quando potrò vendere i mie dipinti potrò comperarmi un pianoforte e comporre musica. Perché la vita è una noia.
Now, my Italian is pretty poor, and I have no idea whether this translation is from a published edition of Kerouac's correspondence or some local volunteer's brave attempt, but it's interesting how the meanings and subtexts appear to have been changed. "Dipingo solo belle cose" surely does not convey the deeply theatrical sigh of "Only good thing is I started to paint", and that oh-so-casual, coat-trailing "if I want" has become an emphatic sentence in its own right: "Se lo voglio." Similarly, the grace(less) note of "too" in "maybe then I can sell paintings and buy a piano and compose music too" has gone missing. Maybe the Italian does convey the irritating smugness of Kerouac's self-satisfaction, but I don't get that impression. Lost in translation? Decidi tu!

Of course, what the Kerouac exhibition really shows (pace Stuart Walton in his LARB review) is that, despite his own estimation, Jack was never a great painter. The work is noteworthy because of who he was, who he painted, and what he achieved as a writer and cultural player, but negligible, in the same way that the earnest efforts of Chrissie Hynde or Bob Dylan are of no great account as paintings in their own right [4]. In our celebrity-obsessed culture the fast track to getting some prime-time attention to what you might consider to be your real work is to become prominent in some other field first; you can then wow the world with the multi-faceted magnificence of your talents. Celebrity Sunday painters are not uncommon, but any number of celebs seem to fancy themselves as writers – Sean Penn, Russell Brand, Madonna, and even Frank Lampard come to mind (children's books seem to be the nursery slope of choice) – and publishers, understandably but shamefully, are not as quick as they might be to disabuse them. Remember Morrissey's instant Penguin Modern Classic?

This kind of promotional brand diversification is what celebrity "side projects" are all about. Having achieved peak visibility, your name and your endorsement, all by themselves, can become a key source of revenue. Isn't it striking, then, how few household-name visual artists or novelists seem to have considered diversifying into clothing lines, cosmetics, and the like? I mean, wouldn't you want to sport a pair of Hockney™ glasses? Or invest in some HirstWear™ aquarium accessories? Or maybe glam it up this Christmas in a Grayson Perry ™ ensemble? Or evoke the inscrutable allure of Ai Weiwei™ with an underarm deodorant, or sleep the profound sleep of genius between Tracey Emin™ sheets? Well, perhaps not, especially that last one. But it's clear these serious-minded people just don't get the importance of leveraging their brand; when did you ever see them on the chat-show sofa, or debasing themselves to appear in a TV advert? Oh... Really? Are you sure? On the Graham Norton Show? For a high-street department store? OK: point taken.

So, I concede what has been obvious from the start: working and waiting and hoping truly doesn't work as a strategy. Visibility – the optics – and shameless self-promotion are everything. That is, of course, if some measure of worldly success is the aim of your gig. It's easy to get confused about that, though, and I sometimes need to remind myself of what I really think. Or what I like to think I really think. Or what I make a virtue out of thinking because, frankly, I don't have much choice in the matter. But, just out of curiosity, to whom should I address my letter of self-aggrandising puff? If I were to write one. Just asking...

Innsbruck 2014, going on 1954

1. Best diagnosis: sociopath introvert with high-functioning anxiety.
2. I'm also aware that this may be an example of "Black Sheep Syndrome" (see the footnotes to this post), but, sadly, he wasn't the only one I managed to leave nursing a mysterious grievance. As I say, I can't help it...
3. MAGA?? No, srsly! Some things really do get lost in translation...
4. It doesn't automatically follow that "celebrity art" is bad. The work of Viggo Mortensen (an actor, m'lud) is worth checking out, for example. I'm not sure what I make of Joni Mitchell's paintings, but I definitely prefer the best of them to the work of Joan Mitchell, an accredited A-list painter.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Remembering to Remember in November

Oh look, I forgot to blog about remembering the War to End All Wars. What am I like? Especially as – 100 years on – the 11th November fell on Remembrance Sunday. Perfectly predictable, of course, as a calendrical matter, but still quite satisfying on a human level. But what on earth was that business with all the elevens all about? Hey, why not squeeze in a few more hours of slaughter while we can? It's been such fun!

It has been a long, hard slog, "commemorating" the centenary of the First World War from beginning to end in what feels like real time, hasn't it? What did you do in the Great Media Commemoration, daddy? I mean, did anyone actually listen to four years of soap-style acting in Home Front or Tommies on BBC Radio 4?  If you did, then well done you – long-service medals will be awarded – but perhaps now we can all finally dump our cosplay uniforms and get on with our 21st century lives. And if I hear the Last Post played one more time on a quavering bugle I will beat myself over the head with my copy of the Up the Line to Death WW1 poetry anthology until I get repatriated to Blighty. They also serve who endure relentless bombardments of solemn sentimentality delivered by the media's heavy guns.

I reckon I've done my bit, though, with regard to the Great War. For example here, and here. You're welcome for/to my service. But I confess I have become increasingly repelled by the tacky turn our commemorations have been taking, especially since Danny Boyle's 2012 Olympic ceremonies raised the bar of meretricious show-bizzery in public life to a whole new level of awfulness. It's a far cry from the simple dignity of the Cenotaph and the masterstroke of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, perhaps the most sincere and resonant act of conceptual art ever. As Ian Jack pointed out in the Guardian recently, the broad gestures of contemporary art may be popular, but are ultimately empty and inadequate to the tragedy of 1914-18. In the end, it just gets harder and harder to distinguish between "art" and the efforts of a particularly ambitious yet shallow set-designer or window-dresser. "This is not just commemorative public art, but Marks & Spenser commemorative public art" [1]. Bear in mind that booking in advance may be necessary; the queue for your selfie-opportunity starts here.

I think many of us these days have a problem with words like "service" and "sacrifice", when applied to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary premature deaths, to young lives squandered like some abundant natural resource, or to men forced against their will to endure inhuman conditions and follow unquestioningly the suicidal commands of inadequate and doltish officers. It's true that my grandfather was a volunteer soldier, practically a professional as a pre-war Territorial, but after 1916 the depleted ranks were filled by conscription: young men forced by the state to offer themselves up as fuel to an industrial engine of warfare. For what, precisely? I defy anyone to explain quite how or why the Balkan problems of the Austro-Hungarian Empire so quickly became a national priority for Britain, requiring the death of 800,000 young men and the maiming and traumatising of over a million more. I suppose "service" is not an unsuitable euphemism for such indentured labour, although "servitude" would be better. But "sacrifice" is just insulting. Nobody is "sacrificing" their life when forced to walk into a hail of machine-gun bullets, or getting blown to pieces by a random shell, unless of course what is meant is that men were sacrificed by the nation to achieve some grand but ill-defined end that out-weighed the value of their disposable little lives. Which is merely insulting in another way.

There seems to be something of a revisionist move under way among historians, one which regards the "lions led by donkeys" version of the war as an aberration, conjured up by a handful of over-sensitive poets and '60s lefties like Joan Littlewood. It seems those generals knew what they were doing, after all. It is certainly true that my father, born in 1918, was not given the forenames "Douglas Haig" with any level of irony whatsoever by his father, who had served the entire duration of the war as an infantry sergeant and, towards the very end, as a 2nd lieutenant. I suppose he must have thought of Haig as something of a hero, despite everything, and a quick search on a genealogical website suggests he was far from alone in this. Although I very much doubt whether he had been made privy to whatever strategic considerations had been passing through Haig's mind (old joke: "The general spoke to me the other day!" "Cor, really? What'd he say?" "He said, Get out of my fuckin' way, soldier!"). Whatever the case, from this end of the historical telescope it's hard to see any plan of battle that amounts to "send thousands of men to certain death; repeat as necessary" as anything less than compound madness.

Did we learn anything worth remembering from WW1? In a sense, you might say that the main lesson of WW1 was WW2. That is, that if you believe your own rhetoric and end up comprehensively punishing the defeated for – well, for what, exactly? – and keep trying to squeeze the world into a series of pleasing but ill-fitting boxes – boxes with labels like Versailles Treaty, Sykes-Picot Agreement, Balfour Declaration – then you shouldn't be surprised if it all comes back to bite you in the arse as you sit on the lid. So, tragically, no, on the evidence of recent history it seems "we" (a.k.a. "they") have learned nothing much. Although, to adapt the Vietnam Era formulation, I suspect that if "they" were to give another proper war, that nobody would come. And, what's more, they know they won't be able to make us turn up, next time, either.

From the trench magazine The Wipers Times

1. A particularly smug TV advertising campaign by the British department store for its food products ("This is not just any [insert food product], this is Marks & Spenser [food product]").

Thursday, 15 November 2018


Approaching Axminster

Long shadows by the Axe

We spent last Christmas in a cottage not far from Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. As I described at the time, we had driven there in our venerable (2002) Renault Scenic, which had suddenly begun to have a crisis of faith in its ability to go up the slightest incline, never mind Wessex-scale hills. Fortunately, a small local garage in Axminster specialising in Renaults was able to sort out the problem. The guy so obviously knew and understood the psychology and physiology of Scenics that I made a mental promise to ours that, when the time for its next service came around, I'd drive it back down to Axminster. That time was this week, and so – mad as it may seem – that's what I did. While its innards and peripherals were being tweaked, calibrated, and wotsinated (I know nothing about the mechanics of cars) I stayed in a nearby B&B and took advantage of the garage's loaner vehicle to have a little R&R myself.

Axminster is one of those places that has an indelible (but usually long gone) manufacturing association, like "Sheffield steel", "Staffordshire pottery", or "Dagenham Fords": in this case, Axminster carpets. It is said that the church bells were rung each time a carpet was finished, which says a lot about the laboriousness of the process, and probably helps to explain why there's not so much carpet-making going on there any more. I doubt the factory hooter goes off in Delhi, or wherever they're made these days, every time one rolls off the line. In fact, the area's association with Hugh Fearnley-Wotsisname's River Cottage brand is probably of greater economic significance. River Cottage being the monetized apotheosis of the urban hippie's Escape into Rural Self-Sufficiency fantasy. I ate in the River Cottage Deli & Canteen, and it was very good. In fact it was better than good, as the free-range airheads working there had lost my order and I had a bit of an extended wait before eating, with the result that they waived payment, despite my protestations (I always worry these compensatory freebies get taken out of someone's wages, as in my observation hip entrepreneurs seem to frown on trade union membership). Free beer, too.

Lyme Regis skips

Black Ven & Golden Cap from the Cobb

I did make the obligatory excursion down to the coast at Lyme Regis – one of my favourite places, packed like a bucket of sand with memories of holidays with our kids – hoping to see the remnants of the annual November 5th beach bonfire and fireworks, but it had all already gone the way of all beachworks. There's something poignant about any holiday resort in winter, even one as ready for all seasons as Lyme Regis: no photograph ever quite captures the ringing and rattling of mainbraces spliced against bowlines in the bitter wind (I know nothing about the mechanics of boats, either), or the heads-down fortitude of dogwalkers tossing chewed-up tennis balls on the beach. By the end of the afternoon I was glad that the light had failed sufficiently to justify heading back inland.

I also had a productive walk along the River Axe, which by some strange coincidence runs past Axminster in the Axe Valley and down to the sea at Axemouth. It's an idyllic spot, only slightly spoiled by the incessant and industrial levels of noise coming from some housing developments on the edge of Axminster. Apparently, or so the B&B owner told me, they're filling in an entire little valley with rubble so that the estate can be extended further over this natural obstacle. As a New Town boy I'm far from opposing the building of much-needed new housing, but it does look a bit of an unsympathetic eyesore, and I think you can be pretty certain this will be at best "affordable" housing, rather than council housing.

Over the lush meadows on the rural side of the river I spotted a marsh harrier, a birding first for me – it looked rather like a buzzard trying to do an impression of a red kite – and, looking away from the town and the building sites, it all felt incredibly timeless. But I also saw a lot of improvised "KEEP OUT" and "KEEP TO THE FOOTPATH" signs on the gates of fields with livestock which suggested there was already an unwelcome level of encroachment from townsfolk, particularly those with frisky dogs and no "countryside sense". On the other hand, "Git orf my land!" is the timeless, traditional refrain of the farming community on encountering the non-farming community. Sadly, though, I suppose ever more dogwalkers and "recreational" countryside users may yet see harriers and other wildlife retreating ever further away from town, unless they can adapt to disturbance and living on scraps and refuse. It's what we do best, isn't it?

Meadow outside Axminster

Along the Axe

But why make them white?