Tuesday, 27 February 2018

A Magic Shadow-Show

Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.
Now, that's the way to open a poem, isn't it? A noose of light! Words well worth memorizing, words to declaim at suitable (and unsuitable) moments, sound-patterns and word-pictures that roll off the tongue and embed themselves permanently in the mind. But, somewhere along the line, someone decided that because the world is often drab, disillusioned, and prosaic then "good" poetry ought to be like that, too. Which is a shame: it seems we're too sophisticated and worldly-wise today to make the effort to put heightened language in a worthy stage-setting.

Like millions of others, I have enjoyed Edward FitzGerald's rendering of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam since first encountering it, in my case as a teenager in a cheap paperback reprint with the ink-sketch illustrations by E.J. Sullivan reproduced very inkily indeed. And yet, like a lot of very popular things, the poem has had a low profile, academically, and I doubt it even counts as a "guilty pleasure" for most professional critics; they simply won't have read it, or won't admit to having enjoyed reading it.

It seems to have been the equivalent of Coleman Barks' renderings of Rumi in its day. That is, a massively popular blend of accessible-yet-contemporary verse with the vague-yet-visceral teachings of the more relaxed, mystical strain of Islam found in Persia and other non-Arab parts of the Islamic world, generally trading under the name Sufism. "Persia" of the 11th and 12th centuries is not modern Iran, of course; while we in the north-west were struggling out of the Dark Ages the Middle East was having its great flourishing of science, architecture, and poetry. I am not remotely qualified to comment on any of this, however, unlike an old college friend, who has turned into one of those improbable characters that populate the TV series Inspector Morse [1], and is now a Professor of the Art & Archaeology of the Islamic Mediterranean. As far as I know, he has not murdered or been murdered by anyone, but if Morse, Endeavour, and Lewis are to be believed [2], it is only a matter of time. It has been a while since I heard from him, it's true.

What I can safely say, however, is that the Rubaiyat has attracted some of the worst illustrations of any text, ever. Back in the 1970s, when I first started to haunt them, second-hand bookshops were still full of the cast-offs from the domestic bookshelves of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Certain texts were particularly abundant, and would appear in multiple versions, sometimes in lavishly-bound "gift" editions (there was a peculiar taste for limp suede bindings at the turn of the century, for example). Often there would be illustrative plates, and in the case of the Rubaiyat, these were uniformly awful, generally sub-art nouveau or Beardsley-esque exercises in pure turbanned and pointy-slippered orientalism, that must have reduced someone like Edward Said to a perfect ecstasy of vexation (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he had been a secret Rubaiyat collector, taking a peek every now and then to top up the level of his outrage). Even Arthur Rackham's version is unspeakably bad. I believe there have been something like 300 illustrated editions of the FitzGerald version, and I have yet to see one that didn't make me want to throw it across the room. Not out of any anti-orientalist discomfiture, but out of revulsion at the vein of twee sentimentality most illustrators seem bent on extracting from this Epicurean text. But, no thanks, I'm not intending to have a go at it myself.

By far the rarest edition of  The Grate Booke of Idiocie, 1564
(much rebound)

Second-hand bookshops, though? I have mourned their vanishing from our High Streets before (Book Abuse), but an aspect I hadn't considered is the way this limits a young person's view of the bibliographic past. Once, if you were a bookish type, and had the good fortune to live near a decent second-hand bookshop – one that covered the spectrum from well-read paperbacks to antiquarian rarities – you could form a pretty fair impression of the changing tastes of your forebears in both reading matter and in the various manners in which it could be presented. As in so many ways, my generation was poised at the tipping point between two worlds: one which had valued self-education through the medium of books (and, let's be honest, no other kind of education was on offer to most before 1945) and made inexpensive but robust hardbound editions of "classics" from the approved canon available to the mass market (think Everyman's Library, or Oxford World's Classics), and another which increasingly viewed books as a disposable medium for entertainment, like TV's dull-but-worthy older brother, competing ever more desperately yet unsuccessfully for attention. You could see all this bibliographic history arrayed before you on the shelves, in a full range of sizes, print-quality, and bindings, all aimed at attracting their different readers: centuries-old leather tomes, cheap pamphlets on brittle paper, gold-embossed full-cloth works of reference, novels wrapped in the distinctive dustjacket designs of earlier generations [3], not to mention the luridly erotic paperback cover-illustrations in the "three for a shilling" trays outside. To browse and handle the stock was to receive an education in literary and bibliographic taste, good and bad, and its close relationship with standards of education and the evolving mechanics of book production. As well as the occasional surprise, like the set of Edwardian pornographic photographs that fell out of a very well-thumbed edition of Swinburne in Thornton's, Oxford in 1973.

Now, sadly, the good local second-hand bookshop is yet another of those experiences that belongs to the past, and will most likely stay there. An online bookseller is simply no substitute. I was in Bristol over the weekend, and I was reminded of how, when I worked at the University Library in the late 1970s, a couple of times each week I would make a lunchtime circuit between three or four used-book outlets within a few hundred yards of each other near the University, ranging from the grand academic emporium of George's Bookshop (now a Jamie's Italian restaurant) to an upstairs treasure-trove of boxes and improvised shelves in a leaky loft above a shop on The Triangle. Today the only bookshop of any sort near the university is a tiny Oxfam charity shop, and nearly everything it has postdates the 1980s. You can learn nothing of bibliographic interest from this sad collection of chuck-outs other than that books are no longer a highly-regarded resource. Even (whisper it) by many libraries. A collection of e-books, of course, will leave not a rack behind, when the owner's little life is rounded with a sleep, and the house is cleared. Those texts are merely rented.

And yet, as it happens, the Oxfam Bookshop in Bristol's Clifton Village is one of our habitual visits when in town. After a mandatory takeaway sausage-and-fried-onion bap from Clifton Deli – they are so good, believe me – we generally wander in to see what has turned up since our previous visit. For a charity shop it's unusually well-sourced (lots of hardback review copies and a steady supply of poetry, for example) and we usually end up coming away with a few worthwhile purchases. Last time, I found hardback first editions of Geoffrey Hill's Tenebrae and Seamus Heaney's Field Work; not valuable, but much more satisfying to read than a paperback "selected". This time, I bought an Oxford World's Classics anthology of Modern Verse 1900-1950, full of the sort of rhymed, rhythmic poetry that has gone the way of tweed jackets and pipe-smoking. I'm reasonably well-informed about 20th century British poets, at least so I thought, but had never heard of most of the "thirty younger poets" thought worthy of being added, in 1955, to the enlarged second edition of an Oxford University Press anthology originally published in 1940. Sidney Keyes? Harry Leonard Shorto? Derek Stanford? Nicholas Moore? Michael Greening? And so on. All, in Browning's phrase, people of importance in their day, but distinctly minor also-rans as seen from 2018. But, as a fan of the Rubaiyat, I thought I'd give them a second chance. Why not, for £1.99?
For in and out, above, about, below,
'Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play'd in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

1. I'm not sure whether Inspector Morse is known outside of the UK. Based on detective novels by Colin Dexter, as a TV series it pioneered the middle-brow, 100-minute-episode police drama with high production values, but became slightly notorious for portraying Oxford as the murder capital of Britain, with yet another academic or student dying and/or murdering another academic or student under bizarre circumstances every week.
2. "Endeavour" was the prequel series to Morse, and "Lewis" was its sequel, featuring Morse's Geordie sidekick, Sgt. Robbie Lewis. I'm a fan of "Endeavour", with its excellent attention to early Postwar period detail.
3. My birthday treat to myself this year was "The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970", by Martin Salisbury, a lovely production from Thames & Hudson that I found in the National Portrait Gallery bookshop.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Travellin' Light

OK, sorry about this: photo-gear post alert.

I know, I know... You really don't care about the means, just the end results, and you don't come here for annoying techie chit-chat (well, you must be rather disappointed if you do; listen, why not go and help Mike Johnston with his tedious GAS issues? Jesus...). But, as this is kind of an anti-gear gear-post, you can probably safely read on without compromising your standards too much. Although you may equally well be one of the 50% or so of my honoured guests who come here for the craic and the crows, not the photography. In which case, nothing to see here today, move on. Come back later.

I've just been clearing out a bunch of unused kit, mainly lenses, and shipping it up to Ffordes Photographic near Inverness to sell on (whom I recommend, by the way). It's slightly shaming, the way expensive bits and pieces can accumulate, bought during various short-lived enthusiasms, and end up unused in a cupboard; and I'm not even a compulsive kit-buyer. Despite tooling up at some point in the past, I never did get into macro-photography, or pinhole / Holga / LensBaby distortions, for example, and I abandoned the micro 4/3rds system pretty much permanently once I discovered the joy of X (Fuji's system). It's silly to hold on to those remnants of personal evolutionary dead-ends, especially when they're worth a few quid and could be of serious use to someone else.

But, in the process, I came across my Fuji X-M1 body, patiently sitting in a corner. Now, I originally bought it, second-hand and absurdly cheap, because it uses the same X-system lenses and batteries as my main cameras, has the exact same 16 megapixel sensor, but is tiny and light, especially when coupled with the 27mm f/2.8 "pancake" lens. Despite the lack of a viewfinder, I thought it would make an ideal travel camera, and was impressed by the quality of the images the combination of that body and that lens delivered, effortlessly. Put it on "auto" and simply fire away; every one a coconut. However, despite that,  I don't think I've used it since returning from our trip to Amsterdam in February 2015.

Why not? Well, unless you're on some kind of prime-lens hairshirt mission (which I have been, admittedly, from time to time) you really want a standard zoom when you're travelling (OK, when you're on holiday, let's bring things down to a sensible level). But, attach one of those to the X-M1, and all its advantages evaporate. Suddenly, despite its image quality, it's just a plasticky attachment on a big, heavy metal lens, without a viewfinder. Even the "cheap" XC 16-50 zoom (originally created, I think, as the XM-1's "kit zoom", and actually a fine lens) is rather too chunky. So I ended up buying a used Fuji X20, despite its much smaller sensor and ridiculous "optical" viewfinder, and happily accepted its "good enough" image quality as a holiday camera. The X-M1 had therefore lost its primary purpose, and ended up in the cupboard next to the Panasonic micro 4/3 stuff.

But recently Fuji have announced a "pancake" 15-45 zoom, which – if the specifications are to be believed – will be no larger and not a lot heavier than the 27mm pancake with a lens hood attached. So, rather than send the X-M1 body up to Ffordes with the rest of the unused equipment, I thought I'd hang on to it for now. If the new zoom really is that small, and the optical quality is up to Fuji's customary standards, it would make an ideal holiday combination. I very rarely buy new stuff, but just one of the more heavyweight lenses I'm selling on would pay for two of these new mini-zooms.

Also, I think I'm finally over the idea that a camera without a viewfinder is less than ideal. More and more, I find myself using the rear screen to compose, even when using a camera like the X-T1, with its superb electronic viewfinder. Not least because, being left-eyed, I have always had a problem with jamming my right-hand's thumb-knuckle into my right eye when using a viewfinder (try it), with resultant blurry vision after any lengthy squinting. I suspect the day when I could even be persuaded that a smartphone is an acceptable substitute for a camera may not be so very far away. We're not there yet, but the direction of travel (the holiday destination?) is obvious. I can't possibly afford or justify a current top-end smartphone, but give it a few years and everyone will be walking around with a pocket Hasselblad that also tells you the weather forecast and plays music.

So I took the X-M1 out for a couple of walks with the 27mm attached (I love that lens), and was once again mightily impressed by the quality of the images. As a piece of equipment, the body may feel plasticky and insubstantial, and it may be all of five years old, but there is really nothing to distinguish the photographs you see here from those taken with my X-T1; absolutely nothing. Besides, other than the 100g saving in weight, there is the crucial difference – especially when hanging around touristy places – between brandishing an aggressively professional-looking black camera with a heavy, expensive-looking lens and the invisibility granted by walking around with what looks like a charity-store remnant from the last days of film hanging round your neck. A few bits of duck-tape and, voilà, one-two-three, where's your breakfast? [1]

OK, that's quite enough about gear. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

1. See Kipling's Just-So story, "How the Leopard Got His Spots".

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Ice-Burner Saga

The Hearth of Ice

In a tale told long ago, while winter winds blew bitterly cold, and the snow lay deep and crisp and even, and good children were already fast asleep, it is said there was once a hearth in a hall that burned with a cold, cold fire, kept heaped with glowing ice by unseen elvish hands. Which is pretty damned weird, even for a fairy tale.

Yes, yes, I know: why would anyone want a cold fire? And, sure, generally speaking, ice doesn't burn. Absolutely, undeniably true. But, suspend your disbelief, and stop fidgeting, and I'll tell you the story. Or some of it, anyway, as it's really time you were asleep. All will become clear. Clear as the pure, crystal ice of the far frozen north, where the Northern Lights play over the ceiling of the world like, um, the gods have left the fridge door open, or something.  Brrrr...

[Notes from Editor: Is this a story for children? If so, I think you should moderate the language? Just a bit? And must they be ravens, or crows, or whatever they are? Rather scary, I feel... Robins would be nicer! Or – here's a thought – what about cats? Everyone loves cats, and cat stories sell! Oh, and the publisher says that anything to do with matches is simply verboten where kiddies are concerned... I know, but... Other than that, it's simply marvellous!]

Uh oh! I think that's Old One-Eye, the Dangling Man, Frigg's Delight, Lord of the Fjord, Raven Ripper, Beard-Needs-a-Trim, Yule Fool, Skin-Smith, and many other evasive-but-chillingly-evocative pseudonyms! Now there's going to be trouble!

What's "flayed", daddy?
Um, skinned alive, darlin'...
Oooh, gru-u-uesomely grisly!
I know, and it gets even better, but I'm afraid that's all we've got time for. Lights out, now... Sleep well! Sweet dreams!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Drake's Drum

Fifty-five years ago young boys in Britain still routinely wore shorts, year round – grey flannel in winter, khaki in summer – until that rite of passage into adolescence when they donned their first "long trousers". This didn't happen simultaneously in any particular cohort – there was no mass re-bagging ceremony – but case by case. The first year classes at secondary school would start with mainly bare knees and gradually transform. It was a personal metamorphosis that required tact and good judgement: made too soon or left too late and you would risk mockery. Then again, you risked mockery for pretty much anything that marked you out as odd. The playground police never sleep.

Inevitably, this important sartorial transition was closely associated with that physiological change in the adolescent male known as the voice "breaking". For some boys this can be a rough ride, getting pitched unpredictably and treacherously from high to low from one end of an utterance to the other; a golden opportunity for more mockery. I was spared this torment, myself: never having really occupied the glass-pure treble register, my voice didn't so much break as erode into a sandy light tenor, where it has stuck ever since. Unless I have a bit of a cold, when I am gifted with an octave drop in vocal range, which is always fun until over-exploitation renders me completely voiceless.

A few years ago, on holiday in the Pyrenees, I had a summer cold, and kept catching myself singing "On the Road to Mandalay", in a ridiculous faux-baritone voice. Or, at least, as much of it as I could remember. The blog post I wrote at the time (Mandalay) linked Kipling, the popular music of the Time Before Rock, and various other themes I have often returned to in this blog. It's a good piece of writing and, re-reading it, I suspect there may have been a falling-off in standards around here in recent times. Although I think we all experience this sensation any time we look at some piece of our own work which is old enough to be seen objectively; that is, as if it had been made by someone else. Hey, he's pretty good! Whatever happened to that guy?

It happened again a while ago, around New Year. The voice, I mean. This time, it was fragments of another song that entertained me, one which had an even trickier tune than "Mandalay", but suited the growly register.  "Slung a'tween the roundshot, in Something Something Bay"... "Captain, art thou sleeping there belo-o-ow..." But why did I even know this song? "Drake's Drum", wasn't it? Then a memory rose up from the depths, of a hand-written, blue-duplicated song sheet, with "captain" spelled "capten", immediately followed by an even stronger memory of my fourth-year class lined up, each of us with a hand held out, while a furious gowned figure went down the line, whacking each extended palm with a ruler. It may sound terrifying, but nothing is more gratifying to a class of boys than a mass punishment for some individual's witty, well-timed transgression, owned collectively. I am Spartacus! No, I am Spartacus! Or, more likely, Fartacus in this case. The energy from the suppressed giggles could have powered all the lights in every classroom for a week.

Well, it was asking for trouble, expecting us to sing these stupid old songs. I think the idea was that they would be as familiar to us as they were to our more elderly teachers but, for boys born in 1954, they were as utterly alien as the oeuvre of Noël Coward or Gracie Fields. It was the same when I tried to learn the trumpet at school: the peripatetic music teacher assumed a tune like "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes" would be as familiar as, say, "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep", and thus act as an aid to reading musical notation. Wrong! Few things expose the gulf between generations as radically as the failure to find common musical ground. I expect there are teachers today amazed at the ignorance of a class that has never heard or even heard of Bob Dylan or the Beatles, and couldn't care less about their stupid old songs. Happily, they are now banned from beating children with rulers on that account.

In my time, however, the real generational gulf that was exposed was the idea that you could appeal to intelligent boys through wholesome, boy-scoutish stuff, whether it was songs about the likes of Francis Drake, tales of derring-do in the Empire, or even compulsory participation in team games every Wednesday afternoon. To the dismay of our elders, many of us had gone over to the dark side, and despised and mocked the tropes of manly fortitude. We found hilarity, not inspiration, in the very things that had stirred the would-be hearts of oak of previous adolescent generations. Our sympathy was for the Devil, it seemed; we rooted for the indians and not the cowboys, and took more pleasure in dumb insolence than in due deference.

It was partly, but by no means wholly, a class thing. A very old grammar school in a very small town on the Great North Road, one that had educated the boys of the local squirearchy for generations, had been overwhelmed by the building of a New Town and the much larger numbers of children from its newly deracinated working-class inhabitants, admitted purely by academic ability, not ability to pay. But, like so many such schools absorbed into the state system, it had also been confused by the social upheavals that followed WW2, further exacerbated by the change to comprehensive, non-selective schooling, which was happening during my secondary years. Suddenly, no-one was singing from the same songsheet any more, because no-one on any side – government or staff or pupils or parents – could agree what the song was supposed to be.

Most parents, however, were pretty sure that Drake's Drum, should it ever be beaten again, would simply mean more slaughter and pain for the many, yet again dressed up as national "sacrifice", and we weren't having that song again, now were we? And you might say the clatter of Keith Moon's much-abused kit was the ragged opening drum-roll of a whole new attitude among the young. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. We won't get fooled again.

But, no, these four pictures have absolutely no connection whatsoever with the ramblings above. I'm still just having fun with the Sketchbooks project, and felt like sharing a few more. There's no better way of exploring the potential of Photoshop [1] than to take some pencilled scribbles and then to see what can be done with them. Which is clearly rather more like making jewellery out of polished pebbles picked up on the beach than kicking your drums off the stage. But at my age, a few more steps back into the place where the light is brightest may not be a bad move.

1. The cut-down Photoshop Elements 10, in my case  I'm too tight-fisted to pay for the whole thing, and besides there is absolutely no way I'm going to sign up for Adobe's inertia-selling subscription model.

Sunday, 18 February 2018


Those of you who had the good fortune to receive one of my 2018 calendars (and, be warned, my agents are at large checking whether or not these are on display and in use) will know that one of my innumerable-and-ongoing "projects" is loosely named Sketchbooks. That is, scribbles from my multiple-and-ongoing sketchbooks, digitized on the flatbed scanner and turned into something rich and strange (strange, anyway) on my computer.

Both the original scribbling and the subsequent alchemization process are activities that reliably induce an intensely pleasurable state of concentration. It's a form of that solitary disengagement-by-engagement that is wisely regarded as essential to mental well-being. Some like the challenge of a crossword or sudoku puzzle, or to read in bed, or to slump for an hour or two in front of the TV, or even – unfathomably – to go for a run, but at the end of a long day, I like to cover some good-quality paper with pencil marks. The nice thing is that this is one no-mind activity that leaves a useful legacy, one that can be worked on further or transformed multiple times into something that might even end up enlivening a space in someone else's house.

Incidentally, why do Americans use the word "sketchy" to denote an unsafe, run-down part of town, or the kind of people who might inhabit it? Is this a long-established usage, or a recent coinage? I was completely baffled when the son of some visiting American friends referred to Brixton in London as having been pretty sketchy the last time they had visited. Huh? It had always seemed pretty convincingly real to me.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Dim and Dimmer

 Looking towards Twyford village

I love the light you get in England in February (and, to be fair, in November, which is February run in reverse): it's like someone is playing around with the solar dimmer switch. One minute, it's so dim you can barely see; then, wham, it's so bright you can barely see; then suddenly the cloud and sun action has moved on, and you get extraordinary combinations of different weather sets happening simultaneously across the landscape. Blimey, look, is that a hailstorm coming our way? Put the hat back on!

 Looking towards Twyford Down

Of course, you need to be somewhere sufficiently open to both weather and sky to get the full effect, and the Itchen water-meadows are perfect for this. When we there on Sunday the sky was giving us the full Martin Creed treatment [1], although the resident cattle had clearly seen it all before, and had more important things on their minds.

Looking towards the M3 motorway

Perhaps everyone has a fondness for the meteorological trappings of their birthday month? I think us February folk can't help feeling a little bit special, though, with our uniquely cranky month – shorter than the rest but standing tall(er) every four years – mixing up the seasons with its tricksterish weather. We might yet wake up to a covering of snow. Or blazing sunshine. Or driving rain. Or all three in one morning. So glad I ain't a cattle.

1. Martin Creed's infamous Turner Prize entry, "Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off", solemnly and hilariously described here if you've never come across it.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

"Send Me a postcard, Drop Me a Line, Stating Point of View..."

Gated entrance to the Idiots 'R' Us compound

As the nation finally calms down after a long weekend of celebrations to mark my 64th birthday – No, really, you needn't! Please, enough, you're embarrassing me! Sit! Sit! – I need to have the security staff shoo the last revellers and TV crews away from the compound gates and take stock of what to do with the next 64 years. In the immortal words, what a long, strange trip it's been!

I was particularly flattered that the brand new Nuffield theatre in town had commissioned a play by Howard Brenton to mark the occasion: how they knew that my grandparents had spent the war years in Southampton working on the construction of Spitfires (which had been distributed around town in various locations, following the destruction by bombing of the Supermarine factory early in the Blitz) I don't know, but someone had clearly tipped them off, as that was the subject of Brenton's play, Shadow Factory. Why, thank you, Howard! How very appropriate! I suppose I should review it, but when people have gone to that much trouble, you don't want to seem ungrateful or give offence. It was nice just to get out of the gated compound for the evening.

Some events were less successful. An old schoolfriend whom I had not seen for very many years had disguised himself as an aged hermit – planning to surprise me on the South Bank, where I was visiting the Andreas Gursky exhibition at the Hayward Gallery – but had so successfully concealed his identity that he was very nearly taken out by the rooftop marksmen that always accompany me to London. Also, and ironically, an unexploded German bomb from WW2 was uncovered that very morning by workmen, thus closing the City Airport all day, and preventing Gursky himself from flying in and escorting me around the show, which caused him no little embarrassment. As for poor old Banksy, he was hacked off to discover that his extensive birthday tribute in my favourite underpass, which had taken him most of the night, had literally been hacked off by unscrupulous collectors within hours of completion. We will all laugh about these mishaps later, no doubt! I will, anyway.

Hey, no pictures!

So, OK, I may have misinterpreted or misunderstood or even made up some or all of the above. I'm 64, dagnabbit! I'm entitled. But, talking of misinterpretation, it's at such moments that a man should consider the measure of his achievements, not least his blog statistics.

Unfortunately, it is increasingly the case that Blogger's own stats are completely corrupted by robotic click-bait. According to a sample I took last week, for example, I had already had 1,829 pageviews in the previous 24 hours. Yeah, right. Somehow, these robotised multiple "pageviews" are able to masquerade as genuine viewers, with the intention of getting you to visit some dodgy site or other, quite often a "boost your pageviews" site, offering the very service I'm complaining about. I suppose if you want advertising revenue based on traffic then false readers are as good as real ones, but it's basically like buying yourself a degree in medicine to hang on the office wall.

Blogger Stats

Google Analytics Stats

Much more reliable are the figures from Google Analytics, which are – sigh – significantly but realistically lower. As in, a mere 89 pageviews for roughly the same 24-hour period. But we don't weigh our readers around here; we value each of you as an individual! Which is not so difficult, obviously, with these kinds of numbers.

But one thing I particularly enjoy is looking at your geographical locations, which Google Analytics claims to be able to narrow to a town or city (although I suspect, in many cases, this probably means the nearest "node" on the Web from where your broadband service is provided). And, I have to say, you guys are gratifyingly widespread. Here is a map for a few week's worth of pageviews:

Not much going on in the frozen north, there, but a nice global scatter otherwise. And here is the "Top Twenty" listing for the same period:

All of those towns have one or more viewers who, in aggregate, made more than 12 pageviews over the weeks in question, plus a tail of 100+ visitors who made fewer visits than that; most of them, it's true, giving just a single glance before slamming the door shut. Not everyone is curious about what goes on behind this Green Door [1]. Interestingly, it's a picture that, at the top end, varies only slightly from month to month. I know who quite a few of you are, because you email me or comment on the posts, but I'm very curious about my unknown regular Top Twenty visitors from, say, Belgrade (really?), or Écublens (a suburb of Lausanne, Switzerland, apparently). I suppose it's not impossible that some of these are merely hungry libel and copyright lawyers, watching and waiting... Not so much "ambulance chasers" as "blog lurkers".

Of course, this Google Analytics list will have excluded those truly faithful readers among you who have signed up to "follow" this blog by email; unless you choose to click through to see the latest post in context, you don't register as a visitor. I actually have no idea of how many such readers I have, as neither Blogger nor Google Analytics seem to record that information. It could be one, it could be a hundred; my guess is fifteen.

So, unless you are enjoying the thrill of "lurking" silently down there in the bushes (bush? saguaro desert?) of Canberra or Auckland or Tucson, or wherever you really are, why not drop me an email to say who you are? You might even want belatedly to join in the 64th anniversary celebrations. Though, please, no more cash (oh, all right, go on then: PayPal is fine), but definitely no more interview requests, and do keep away from those gates.

Twyford Down from the Itchen water-meadows, February 2018

1. "Green Door" was one of the strangest hits of the late 1950s. As it says on Wikipedia, "The lyrics describe the allure of a mysterious private club with a green door, behind which 'a happy crowd' play piano, smoke and 'laugh a lot', and inside which the singer is not allowed." My favourite lines are:
Saw an eyeball peeping through a smoky cloud behind the green door
When I said "Joe sent me"
Someone laughed out loud behind the green door
Ah, those Green Door folk appreciate the irony of a classic trope when they hear one! I'm glad to say that in my 64 years I have spent some good times on the other side of that door.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Watch the Birdie!

Having said a few posts ago that "portraiture is not really my thing", for the last week or two – inevitably – it has become the central focus of my activity. You can tell a true contrarian because they will evade even their own categorisations, once stated. Not my thing? I'll show you, matey! Don't hang your sign on me!

Of course, the problem with portraits is that they require someone to portray, an actual person who is willing to submit to portrayal. Such people are in short supply around here. My partner, for example, is one of those who freezes into an unflattering rictus at the sight of a camera lens, and who has a talent for blinking at precisely the same instant and for exactly the same duration as the opening of the camera shutter. I keep reading that the important part of photographic portraiture is creating a rapport with the subject in the minutes leading up to the snap. It seems forty-four years of acquaintance are not enough to build a rapport with certain subjects. Or maybe there's a curve here: I suspect peak rapport may have been achieved somewhere around 1996.

So, what does the aspiring portraitist do, when starved of willing live subjects? Regular readers may recall my little adventure last year into the business of constructed portraiture, with my "Elective Family Album". It seemed an obvious route to take again. After all, I have decades of photographs of friends and family: why not recycle some of those? Even when blessed with such camera-shy subjects, I have managed the odd success. Generally either by pretending to be doing something else, or by being totally relentless. Honestly, it's been like photographing elusive wildlife... Maybe I should have installed motion-sensor activated cameras around the house?

Anyway, so that's what I've been doing (making constructed portraits from family snaps, not installing CCTV). Obviously, the "straight" photographs I have been choosing to work with have to be compelling enough in themselves, but I think recontextualizing them and adding a little decoration – all right, quite a lot of decoration – so as to give some hint of the interior life developing, say, behind the engaging smile of a chubby ten-year-old is not superfluous. After all, it's precisely what a portraitist using paints would do.

Admittedly, when it comes to the painted portrait, I incline more towards the Tom Phillips school than, say, that of Francis Bacon. It is a curious business, though, portraiture, and one calculated to expose the true nature and limits of your art appreciation. I recently went up to the National Portrait Gallery to see the "Cézanne Portraits" exhibition, allegedly a five-star, once-in-a-lifetime, must-see show. But, if I'm honest, the Cézannes did little for me: I find it hard to get excited by the systematic reduction of your wife's head to a characterless ovoid block. Clearly, this says a lot about Cézanne's views on the nature and development of painting, but it also speaks volumes about his developing view of his wife and, indeed, all his sitters. Are people just more shapes and smudges in a carefully arranged field of other toned and coloured shapes and smudges? Apparently so. Is that revelatory? I don't find it so.

Having given this show-of-a-lifetime a solid fifteen minutes, I had plenty of time to stroll around the National Portrait Gallery. What I do love in the NPG are the Tudor portraits – Holbein is my kind of portraitist, especially those sublime drawings, not surpassed in 500 years – and a good many of the Victorian and Edwardian portraits, sorted by class of achievement (writers, explorers, entertainers, reformers, statesmen, etc.) rather than by artist. Surely this is the right way round when it comes to portraits, to prioritize the subject and their characteristics (including at least some aspects of their physical, external appearance), rather than dwelling on the artist's sensibility and its place in art history? "The human face as a beautiful mystery" versus "My wife as a featureless egg"?

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Representation of the People

Future first-time voters (some of them, anyway)
Part of E Company 1/1st Herts Regiment, 1914/15

There's been a lot of attention paid recently, and especially today, to the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which extended the UK franchise to (some) women. Which is great: it's a highly historically-significant moment, obviously. But is it churlish to point out that the very same act gave the vote to an awful lot more men for the first time, too? Working class men? Who? Oh, them...

Yes, women had to fight for the vote, and some suffered and even died along the way, and it would still be another decade before they truly got it. But the 1918 act was even more a recognition of the way thousands upon thousands of "ordinary" men had literally fought and died for ... Well, for what?

As the then Conservative Home Secretary, George Cave, put it:
War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.
Amazingly, the 1918 reforms meant that the electorate went from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. Ironically, one reason the vote was restricted to women of property over 30 is said to have been because so many men had died in WW1 that to include all women over 21 would have resulted in a female majority electorate. I'm not sure why, other than simple prejudice, this was thought to be a problem – too much, too soon? – but it clearly was.

One little electoral wrinkle that wasn't ironed out until as late as 1948 was that those with a university education had two votes, as they were entitled to vote in their "university constituencies" as well. Hmm, I'm not so sure that was really such a bad idea; I think I'd have four votes... Maybe we should bring it back. Or, let's go the other way, and make the vote dependent on passing GCSE Maths and English? One literate / numerate person, one vote! I wonder how that might have affected, oh, let's say, the Brexit referendum?

But: in the celebration of the 1918 Act, it's easy to overlook the fact that, when it gained Royal Assent on 6th February, the First World War was still being fought, and had nine whole months of slaughter left to run. Now, I hadn't looked closely at my scan of that quite small, dark photograph above before, but I'm pretty sure that, next to my grandfather Douglas on the left, the other sergeant is Frank Young, one of his pre-war pals. The Herts 1/1st were a territorial regiment, so the men in this photograph are volunteer "weekend" soldiers from the Hitchin / Letchworth / Baldock area. I imagine that, before 1914, it had seemed like a fun, outdoorsy thing to do, a continuation of, say, scouting. Certainly, before moving to Letchworth to work at the Temple Press, Douglas Chisholm had been in one of the very earliest scout troops in Elephant & Castle, London. His mate Frank Young was an army brat, born in India: his father was the RSM of the regular Herts Regiment.

The Hertfordshires were sent to France in 1914 as part of the original British Expeditionary Force, otherwise mainly professional soldiers, and earned themselves the nickname "The Herts Guards" at Mons and elsewhere. By 1918, both sergeants had become "temporary gentlemen", and been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant.  Luckily for me, Douglas didn't get sent back to France after his officer training. Frank did, and died in furious hand-to-hand combat at Havrincourt, in September 1918. In the process he earned the regiment's second Victoria Cross, which, however you look at it, is no substitute for having earned the right to vote, had it for seven months, but never getting to exercise it in the General Election on December 14th that same year.

They don't make ears like that any more...

Monday, 5 February 2018

Salon des Refusés

Jardin des Plantes

View from Montmartre

It is a species of idiocy to visit Paris, as I did in October last year, take some good photographs and then to completely ignore them, either because they resemble too much the paintings you've been admiring on the wall of various galleries (a bit of Monet here, a touch of Rivière there, maybe a splash of Derain), or because they're not part of some self-declared project, or simply because they're just too conventionally attractive. It's basically self-censorship motivated by snobbery and a reflex contrarianism, which amounts, as I say, to a sort of stupidity. So here's a little Salon des Refusés of my own work, rejected and then defiantly exhibited. Hah! Take that, me!

These were all taken with the Fuji X20, which has established itself as my "holiday camera". It's conveniently small and robust, feels good to use in the hand, and a feature of the images it produces that I really like is the character of the grain. These may not be the sharpest or smoothest photos you've ever seen, but they have a "painterly" quality – especially at higher ISOs – which is very eye-pleasing. It would be nice to find a replacement camera that produces larger files than 12 megapixels, but so far I have failed to find anything. I had a brief flirtation with a Sony RX100 but didn't like the results; I'm also quite interested in the upcoming Fuji XC 15-45 "pancake" zoom lens (I like the suggestion that it's not so much a "pancake" as a "muffin" zoom) but will await the reviews. But, wow, look at me doing photo-gear talk!

Pompidou Centre nocturne 


Place de la Concorde

So, go on, admit it, Mike: these are pretty good pictures! Don't be so hard on yourself... Although (uh oh, here he comes again, that self-censoring idiot) what are they pictures of, exactly? What sort of experience of "Paris" are we seeing here? Who cares about your straight white western male sensibility any more? You're just another tourist in town, stepping around and ignoring all the homeless and the hopeless, carefully framing them just out of the picture! Why not get your lazy arse out to les banlieues or over to Calais and photograph the real stories? Or better still, why not just get out of the way, and let other, more urgent voices be heard? Besides, "pretty" good is the word: what's with this beauty shit? The world is an ugly, confusing place! Why pretend otherwise?

Hum. Well, I'm not exactly in the way, but I take your point, Meanie-Me. On the other hand, us straight white western males really aren't going to go away – and go and look in a mirror, btw, bro – but we are changing, and I think you'll just have to accept that how we see the world matters to us, if no-one else. We think we have multiple "identities" worth exploring, too. And as for "beauty", if you can't see we're surrounded by it, that we live within it, even at the toughest times and in the most unlikely places, then I feel sorry for you. Though I concede central Paris is the proverbial "low-hanging fruit" in that regard. But, banlieues? Hey, I /we live in Southampton...

Anyway, ignore him, the miserable old PC puritan. Check this out, instead, which I don't think I have posted before, and which, if nothing else, must surely score highly for "original view of an over-photographed object of touristic interest". I don't think you'll find this take on the grand old beige pylon thing on Flickr or Pinterest! Yet...

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Be Yourselves

I was down in the town centre doing a bit of shopping and, as is my habit, looking at the same time for interesting bits of wall and what-have-you to photograph. The tiny inscription above caught my eye, written on the remains of a peeled-off poster stuck on a street utility box: "Be yourself, everybody else is taken". It made me laugh, but something about its concision made me suspect it was, in fact, a well-worn bit of folksy wisdom lifted out of some Little book of Empowerment, along with "tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life", "life is not a dress rehearsal", and the like. After all, as a general rule, very few genuinely original or witty folk lay their aphorisms before the public in such a discreet and inefficiently lo-tech way. You might say it did work for Martin Luther, but reading material was probably scarcer back then. Plus he had 95 theses, not just the one.

It turns out that I was right – unsurprisingly, as there is a certain vein of sound-bite, fun-sized, philosophical simpering which always says, "copycat"  – but, as is so often the case with this stuff, the original source of the sentiment proves impossible to identify. There's a good discussion of that here, if you care about that sort of thing. Which I do: it's always salutary to chase down a quotation to its original source – if necessary in its original language – and in particular to check out its context. You don't want to end up using a quote from Mein Kampf, just because you've never heard of this Hitler guy, and it sounds suitably motivational.

Hunting down quotes can be fun, like miniature adventures in scholarship. It is also almost always instructive. In one of my earliest attempts at a book-length sequence of photographs, I made extensive use of what seemed like suitable quotations to break it up a bit. I liked the idea of texts being used in a visual book in the way illustrations are used in regular, text-heavy books. One of these was a quotation from Goethe I had come across in John Berger's essay on the photographer August Sander: "There is a tender empiricism that makes itself so inwardly identical with the object that it thereby becomes true theory". Well, if you say so, Johann! Now, in fact, Berger is actually citing the Frankfurt School writer and critic Walter Benjamin who is also writing about Sander, and only incidentally quoting Goethe. But Berger doesn't identify his source, so I first had to identify the Benjamin essay: after a bit of hunting, it turned out to be his Kleine Geschichte der Photographie. OK! But Benjamin in turn fails to identify the source of his Goethe quotation. Doh! After much burrowing around in Goethe's work, it eventually turned out to be one of his collected Maximen und Reflexionen, which itself had apparently been extracted from his own novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre:
Es gibt eine zarte Empirie, die sich mit dem Gegenstand innigst identisch macht, und dadurch zur eigentlichen Theorie wird.(Maximen und Reflexionen 509)
Phew. I suppose a more thorough scholar might have (may already have) gone on to trace Goethe's source, and so on, receding into classical antiquity, but that was good enough for me; at least I knew who and what I was really quoting, where it came from, and what its context was. As I say, I care about this sort of thing.

To return to that little bit of graffiti, however. I like the way it's phrased but, honestly, "be yourself" has been recognised as sententious nonsense since at least Shakespeare's time, when he put "To thine own self be true" into the mouth of that pompous old twit Polonius in Hamlet. Again, context is crucial: how many times have you seen Polonius quoted as if this were Old Bill hisself preachin' eternal troof unto the world? Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Then I saw the latest Wondermark cartoon:

Now there's an original and witty person doing it the right way!

Thursday, 1 February 2018

A Walk in the Park

After what has seemed like weeks of drab, dull, wet weather, we have finally had some sunnier days; well, intervals, anyway. So I varied my usual daily walk to take in a sweep through Southampton Common. I was really looking for crows and rooks (I know where they like to hang out) but couldn't resist photographing the park-ness of the Common, too, as it begins to emerge from winter.

Soon, they'll be re-filling this lake, which, unlike the Ornamental Lake and Cemetery Lake, is not a "natural" pond, and is always drained during the winter months. Nominally it's a resource for the use of model-boat enthusiasts, though I suspect that's a hobby that died out decades ago. There's the plughole in the photograph. I wonder where all the water goes?