Saturday, 31 March 2018

Mighty Museums

I've never been very good at doing my pre-travel homework. I'll probably buy the relevant Rough Guide and a map, but won't actually read anything about my destination until I get there. As a tourist, I am an improviser, rather than a planner. Having arrived, though, if there's one thing I always do, it's to check out whether there's a natural history museum in town. And – if we may be allowed to indulge in some national stereotyping here – if there's one thing we like to think about Germans it's that if there's a thing to do, they're going to have done it right. No half measures, no sloppy specifications, no stinting on effort or funding. Although it's true that as well as the BMW and the Leica it was also Germans who came up with the Trabi and the Praktica, not to mention cheating on VW diesel emissions; national stereotypes only go so far. But Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde turned out to be everything I'd hoped for. I spent a happy morning there, wandering about in a similar state to the parties of over-excited children, though with rather less squealing. It is simply terrific, or as the Germans appear to be saying a lot these days, super.

Seriously: it makes our own Natural History Museum in London look pretty second-rate. For a start, there are no apologies for the state of the taxidermy. No need: everything looks as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as if it were an entrant for Best of Breed (which, in certain ugly cases, must be a tough call). Then there's presentation. I doubt if the Museum für Naturkunde gets significantly fewer visitors than the NHM, but it doesn't have that tired, scuffed-up look so prevalent in the big British museums, with their peeling laminates, chipped edges, fingermarks, and temporary, sellotaped signs. Admittedly this museum is in an ongoing process of refurbishment, like pretty much everything else in Berlin, but every exhibit is well-chosen, properly lit, and uncrowded, except where plenitude is the point. And it also doesn't have that awful, patronising attitude to "interpretation": I'm still seething about seeing invertebrates labelled as "Creepy Crawlies" in the NHM.

You want stuff in jars? We got stuff in jars...

Also awesome, in a more literal sense, is the Pergamon Museum, located on Museuminsel ("Museum Island") in the middle of the River Spree. Typically, I had no idea that there was a "Museum Island", or what was on it, and at first took it for some sort of theme-park. You know the sort of thing: "Willkommen! Bienvenue! Ve-elcome... to Museum Island! In here, even ze orchestra is bee-oodifully taxonomized!" Anyway, I'd had mixed recommendations on the Pergamon from friends, ranging from "Wow!" to "Meh...", but as I'd wandered close by on one of my initial dazed-and-confused dérives I thought I'd have a look, and was mightily impressed.

To be honest, I think my friends think I'm smarter and better-informed than I really am: "Babylon", for me, I'm afraid, primarily conjures up images of reggae, not ancient Mesopotamia. It's that homework failure, again... So I simply wasn't expecting the sheer scale of the Pergamon Museum's contents. The Ishtar Gate alone, as reconstructed, is a blue-tiled edifice 46 feet high and 100 feet wide. It's BIG! "Awesome" doesn't do it justice. We Brits enjoy giving ourselves a hard time over our orientalist looting activities – the Elgin Marbles come to mind – but, blimey... Even to contemplate excavating and shipping back to Europe any one of the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, the Ishtar Gate, or the Mshatta Facade, never mind all four, and then to reconstruct them all under the same roof is a feat of cultural imperialism and archaeological ambition that could surely never now be contemplated by anyone, anywhere.

As a bonus, there is a separate Museum of Islamic Art upstairs, containing some of the most beautiful objects I have ever seen in a museum. I was particularly impressed by the large tiled "prayer niches", which have a hallucinatory level of detail and complexity, but there are any number of smaller objects whose craftsmanship and aesthetic qualities repay the closest attention. Again, my ignorance of Islam is boundless, but I know skill in the service of beauty when I see it, and it always stirs in me the desire to do a certain amount of post-travel homework. Although, as I also know, if wishes were hours of research, then beggars would be profound scholars.

[N.B. I'm away most of next week. I'll moderate any comments when I get back.]

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Stubborn Stains



Like a water-stain on a ceiling which is impossible to paint out, it seems the past will leak through pretty much any attempt to obliterate it. Perhaps especially in a city like Berlin, where terrible, terrible things have happened within living memory, some carried out in secret, some in plain sight, and others inflicted indiscriminately upon the entire population. It's as if the more destruction is heaped upon a place, the more insistently the past tries to return, like the photinia weeds that apparently sprang up all over the rubble heaps after 1945. Later in the year I may be visiting the spot on the planet known serially as St. Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad / St. Petersburg, which must be the test case and type specimen of such a theory. The infernal twinning by transformative obliteration between these two cities is not entirely accidental, of course.

Since reunification and the re-establishing of Berlin as Germany's capital, an amazing amount of rebuilding and re-configuring has taken place, and the character of entire city quarters has been changed. Although often, it seems, these transformations are merely the latest phase in a history of dramatic changes. Take the current glitzification of Potsdamer Platz, not so long ago a dead zone between East and West with the Wall running straight through it, and yet not so long before that one of the busiest and most iconic traffic intersections in Europe. And yet Berlin has done the right thing, surely, in leaving its most ghastly secrets exposed to public scrutiny, rather than attempting to ignore or hide them. I will write about the Jewish Museum and the various memorials to victims of the Nazis in a separate post. But certain plots of prime central real estate have been left barren, acknowledgement that these bore stains which could never have been painted over, such as the former headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS on Wilhelmstrasse, now an expanse of ground simply covered by grey stone chippings, and occupied only by an unsensationalised yet unflinchingly informative museum and library, with the oddly non-institutional name The Topography of Terror.

Inside the Topography of Terror

Museum Island

Osloer Strasse

Everywhere you look, there are cranes; everywhere, buildings are swathed in protective sheeting and undergoing refurbishment. Like central London, the plate-glass temples of global capital are dominating the skyline, in what seems like a similarly unplanned, unregulated free-for-all. But each new building project in Berlin does require, in one of those wonderful German compound words, a Kampfmittelfreiheitsbescheinigung; that is, a certification that the site is kinda-sorta free of explosives. Seventy years on, there are still an estimated 2,000-4,000 tons of unexploded ordnance buried beneath Berlin, a stratum of the past that continually leaches into the present in small but deadly doses: even now around 10-15 bombs a year, plus the smaller stuff that was shot, lobbed, and abandoned in the intense street-battles of 1945. You might say that Berlin is like a concentrated compound of London and Northern France: a few square miles that have been intensively bombed, shelled, and then fought over, house by house. With the result that by 1946 the city was largely a heap of rubble, haunted by the gangs of so-called Trümmerfrauen ("rubble women"), pulling down, breaking, sorting, and clearing up the ruins.

Apparently, the highest place in Berlin is the Teufelsberg, a hill rising 80 metres above the surrounding Grunewald forest, and entirely constructed out 75 million cubic metres of rubble and debris, dumped on top of an indestructible former military academy designed by Albert Speer. Such rubble hills, known as Schuttberge or Trümmerberge, exist outside most major German towns that suffered bomb damage: Berlin's just happens to be the biggest by far, partly because – owing to the containment of the Western sectors by the Soviet Zone – it all had to be dumped within the boundaries of West Berlin.

This raises an interesting question of perspective that I often encountered in my short three-day visit. Descriptions of the pre-1989 division of Germany often talk as if those in East Berlin were trapped behind the Berlin Wall. Whereas, obviously, in fact they were free to move anywhere within East Germany, and if anyone was "trapped" behind a wall it was surely the West Berliners. Yes, there will have been those in the East who yearned for a different lifestyle, or to re-unite arbitrarily divided families, and to them West Berlin must have appeared like a tantalising portal, but travel between West and East was possible and in both directions, even if under certain constraints.

I am not surprised that Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East) is now a thing. The social benefits of life in the GDR were not altogether illusory – full employment, equality in healthcare, childcare and education, subsidised food and transport, even if the, ah, Neighbourhood Watch arrangements had got completely out of hand – and the downsides of consumer capitalism rarely feature on the glitzy billboards of the new Potsdamer Platz. That some of the most intense anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist activism once took place in the shadow of the Wall, but on the Western side, in the run-down areas that are now being intensively gentrified, is ironic, to say the least. And perhaps just another one of those stains that will eventually work its way back to the surface.

Checkpoint Charlie

"Hands off Wedding!"

Monday, 26 March 2018

Where Are We Now?

Berlin Wall remnant at Niederkirchnerstrasse

In another life, I broke up with my girlfriend in 1980 and, abandoning the safe, career-oriented track I had begun to follow, went off to spend a decade among the squatters, activists, writers, and musicians of Kreuzberg in West Berlin, in the process polishing my schoolboy German into fluency. I was there, a face in the crowd, when the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989, and this turned out to be one of the peak experiences of my life. It could all so easily have been that way.

However, in this life, none of the above happened, and I have just returned from three days and four nights in Berlin, my first ever visit to that city, and now have a lot to digest and to process, including over 350 photographs, which, for me, is a lot. Suffice to say, the Berlin of 2018 is not the Berlin of 1989 and, not being remotely an expert on either version of Berlin, any reflections I have to offer are ill-informed, speculative, and almost certainly wrong. It seems my spoken German is not as good as it might be, either.

Notably, I spent a lot of time poring over the map looking for and failing to find the Bösebrücke mentioned in David Bowie's song "Where Are We Now?", Bösebrücke being the first border crossing to be opened under popular pressure by the East German guards on 9th November 1989. I had wrongly imagined it to be a river bridge somewhere in the city centre (there's a lot of water and a lot of bridges over it in Berlin). But, as it happens, we were staying on Osloer Strasse, in the slightly scruffy, largely Turkish area north of the centre known as Wedding. And it turned out that Bösebrücke was the name of the bridge over the railway lines at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, which was just a short walk down the street from our hotel. It also turned out that it was not called "Evil Bridge" (the literal translation) but had, in fact, been named in 1948 after Wilhelm Böse, an anti-fascist executed by the Nazis.

Oh, and while we're with Bowie's song, there's also KaDeWe. Now, that's just the locals' initialism for Kaufhaus des Westens ("Department Store of the West") and, well, it's just a shop. A very big one, but no more special, to my eye, than, say, a large branch of John Lewis. For example, I needed a fresh SD card, and – to my amazement – they only stocked one brand. I mean, really? But then, I'm probably not the constituency for judging the merits of a department store. I expect their range of underwear is just wonderful. Unlike Bowie, I was not so much lost in time near KaDeWe, as lost in space; for some reason, I found Berlin incredibly confusing to navigate, and found myself engaged on a number of unintentional Debordian dérives.

So much to learn, so little time... I enjoyed myself a lot, but three days is no time at all to explore a major city. Like London or Paris, getting to know Berlin is probably a lifetime project; it has changed, and is still changing so much. I do have some tentative things to say, however. But, meanwhile, here are some pictures.



Wall remnant beneath Bösebrücke

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Shelf Wear

I like to think of myself as resistant, constitutionally and by choice, to the constant barrage of temptations paraded before us by those trying to part us from our money and at the same time keep us politically, socially, and spiritually sedated, like crocodiles slumped on the sofa after a particularly heavy gnu-feast. My consumer footprint on this world has been relatively light, and I have also tried to be careful on what (and on whom) I have been stepping. Call me Mr. Fairtrade Nologo! Actually, don't.

But I do have a fatal weakness for books. Where another man's balance of mind might be disturbed by a pretty face, or a bottle of whisky, or even just the prospect of a large bag of chips, I find I cannot resist a good book. "Good", in my case, having a fairly broad definition, as I am an incorrigible book-chaser, turned on by anything in a dustjacket. Although I have never abused or disrespected a book in my entire life.

In a typical working- or lower-middle-class home in the 1950s, books were uncommon. Like, say, the possession of a dinner jacket or a set of golf-clubs, books were an accessory to the lifestyle on another planet. A recreational reader might borrow books from the library, but the idea of buying and accumulating your own "library" was as pretentious and as alien as, say, taking a taxi or drinking wine. The occasional book might come into the house at Christmas or on birthdays but, like jam-jars or cereal-boxes, a read book was a used-up thing, an empty vessel; to accumulate them went against the ethos of the clean, modern home. Books and dust were as strongly associated as crumbs and mice. Get 'em out of the house!

My parents were quite aspirational, however. They had bought into the idea that, post-1945, everything was now changing, and that any reasonable goal might be achievable, including inter-planetary travel between social classes. It might be too late for them, having left school at 14 in the 1930s, but things were looking good for their children. Also, although I was unaware that both my paternal grandparents had been bookbinders (in those days grandparents didn't have first names, let alone jobs), a certain respect for books was clearly latent in the family, even though neither of my parents was much of a reader [1]. So, to discover they had a son who instinctively loved books was like discovering he had a natural gift for playing football or the piano: who knew where it might lead, given the right encouragement? He might even become a teacher!

So I was encouraged to read, read, read, and allowed to keep all my "used" books, along with the birds' nests, skulls, insects, and other natural history detritus that I assembled in my bedroom. My maternal grandfather, who liked to haunt auction rooms, found me a bookcase and a glass-fronted cabinet for my personal museum and library. So, being in a position to read and re-read, and to compare and contrast, I began to construe the true nature of books as objects of manufacture and commerce, the way another child might study the minutiae and mechanics of cars or aircraft, parsing out the mysterious clues that, like the labels inside clothing or the small print on a cereal-box (which I also read and re-read), hinted at a larger, interconnected World of Books – a world of authors, publishers, designers, printers, typefaces [2], paper, bookshops, and libraries – of which every book was an avatar. That world, it was fairly obvious to me, was destined to be my world.

You may well have a similar tale to tell. "Bookish child from humble origins" is, after all, one of the foundation myths of our culture, even if, regrettably, it has become rather less of a cliché and more of a forlorn hope in recent decades. But, no matter by what route you arrived at your bookishness, this probably means you, like me, inhabit a semi-permanent book crisis, unless you have the good fortune to live alone in a ten-bedroom mansion.

A key reason for this is that books, unlike almost every other consumer product (except those books-by-other-means, records and CDs), have been designed to be kept and displayed, in a satisfyingly compact, robust, and aesthetically-pleasing form. They start out furnishing your mind, and end up furnishing your home. If books have been important to you, your bookshelves are a statement of that fact; as well as being a subtle display of your "cultural capital" they constitute your personal multi-volume Bildungsroman. To dispose of any but the most trivial of your books is, in effect, to decide that the part of your life they embody has also become disposable. Which happens: last year, I finally gave away some lit-crit books I had last used when a postgraduate student in 1977. It was an acknowledgement that I no longer cared that I might once coulda-bin a contender on the academic scene. But note that "some": to part with my Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes volumes would still be a step too far.

My real problem, however, is my collection of photo-books. I've got a lot of them; far too many, really. Hundreds, in fact, all accumulated since buying my first heady fix in 1985, Fay Godwin's Land, having suddenly found myself with the modest but real disposable income that went with a professional public-service career. After all, even expensive books are cheap, compared to, say, cars or guitars. Crikey, I could afford any book I fancied! But the simple cumulative, quantitative result of my acquisitiveness, 30 greedy years later, has been compounded by other factors. Put simply, too many of my photo-books are now worth too much to give away to a charity shop, but also worth far more than any bookseller would ever give me for them.

Now, I have been a long-term supporter of Oxfam, and we pay our monthly tithe to them by standing order, and will continue to do so, despite their recent troubles. We'll probably increase it, too, to compensate for all those fair-weather friends who have abandoned them. Whenever I have filled some boxes with our disposable paperbacks, I have taken them straight to the Oxfam Bookshop. Those books are used, empty vessels, like, um, jam-jars or cereal-boxes. Get 'em out of the house! But, every time I pick some of my less-loved photo-books off the shelves to make a bit of room, it turns out they are incredibly valuable, sought-after collector's items. My taste and judgement are just too good. I'm a freakin' connoisseur, and have been, it seems, from the get-go. And it just doesn't feel right, that such choice items should end up on some wobbly shelf in a charity shop, squeezed between Holiday Snaps the Hedgcoe Way! and Knit Yourself A Life, gradually acquiring "shelf wear", "bumped edges", "chipping and small tears to dustjacket", "loose hinges", and all the other imperfections that an honest bookseller must declare in their catalogue, to warn the slavering bibliophile that this particular book is pretty damned far from fine [3], and has been around the block a few too many times.

I suppose the obvious solution is to set up as an amateur online bookseller, trading through Abebooks or Ebay, but the prospect of cataloguing, listing, pricing, invoicing, and mailing out books – especially to the kind of whinging perfectionist who buys books at ludicrous collector's prices – is, frankly, rather too much like going back to work. So, I give up, for now. Let them all sit there, gathering a little dust, but acquiring no further "shelf wear", "bumped edges", etc. Besides, I do always enjoy the look on anyone's face, on entering our three-bed semi-detached Palace of Books, gradually subsiding under the accumulated weight of paper and ink into the soft alluvial deposits beneath a suburban Southampton street. Not least if they have to negotiate the book-bound passage to the downstairs loo. Hey, mind those dustjackets!

Hypocrite lecteur...

[NOTE: I am away from home for a few days. I may not get around to "moderating" any comments until Tuesday, but don't let that put you off.]

1. Not entirely true. My father was capable of enjoying a good book, but my mother disliked being in a room alone, and resented being "ignored" by someone reading in the same room (only later in life did I realise she was not a confident reader herself), and so watching TV together was the only permissible relaxation.

2. Penguin books usually identify the type used in a book on the back of its title-page: "Set in Monotype Garamond" or "Linotype Pilgrim", for example. I suppose this is not information that every 10-year old notices, much less finds as fascinating as I did. It was a revelation to me that my Penguin Gerald Durrell books, for example, ostensibly uniform, were all set in different typefaces, giving very different results in the density and readability of the words on the page. It's a shame more publishers don't share this information, especially now everyone is so much more "font aware".

3. Naive book-buyers often fail to understand the jargon of bookselling. If a book's condition is described as "good", as opposed to "fine" or "near fine", then it is probably in pretty poor shape. Not as bad as "fair", "poor", or the dreaded "reading copy only", but on its way...

Monday, 19 March 2018

Total Depravity

Originality: it's hard to achieve, tricky to authenticate, but also very overrated. Most celebrated "original" things are actually versions of other less-celebrated things, and most genuine novelties fail to inspire that most sincere tribute, imitation. Innovation, like evolution, is wary of freakish outliers; four legs good, five legs ridiculous. I've lost count of the number of times, writing these blog posts, that I've come up with some amusing expression, some twist on a familiar phrase, that I was sure must be a first. In the main, Google instantly assured me that it wasn't.

Sometimes I do manage something new, for what little it's worth (there's one in the previous paragraph, for example, much to my surprise). You may also recall a post from 2015 (The Song Lines) in which I came up with a number of somewhat creaky coinages to describe "people who don't care about song lyrics" and their counterpart, "people who care rather too much about song lyrics". These included "mondegroid" and "lyriquarian", neither of which, unsurprisingly, has ever been taken up by anyone else. I suppose it is quite nice, though, to have your own private niche in the hyper-populated Google indexes.

Whenever I think of "originality", though, I have a flashback to an upstairs classroom around 1968, where one of my secondary-school English teachers – a gaunt, eccentric, elderly man, a figure from an earlier age and perhaps the very last teacher still to wear an academic gown in a state-school – is striding between our rows of desks, declaiming:

I want to do something original
But I don't know where to begin
For there's nothing original in me
Except an original sin...

Which, as I now discover, is a misremembered (possibly by me, probably by him [1]) but more rhythmical rendering of some occasional verse,  "To a Young Lady, Who Asked Me to Write Something Original for Her Album", composed in 1840 by the now largely-forgotten, but apparently once well-known and influential Scottish poet James Campbell. Why I remember this so vividly I can't now recall, other than the fact that this man was given to random corporal punishment for real or imagined transgressions, and something in his tone, and the way he was whacking his fist into his palm to pound out the metre, implied an ear-clipping for someone was imminent. Frankly, I doubt whether any of us had the faintest idea of what "original sin" might be, though we knew well enough when to shut up and look innocent.

Which in turn – thinking of young ladies and their albums – further reminds me of the incorrigibly sinful originality of a friend from those long-ago schooldays. One afternoon, we found ourselves in the home of another, female friend, and were amusing ourselves by reading her autograph book. This is something I doubt anyone does any more, but it was once a thing: you'd have a special little book, into which friends and relatives would be encouraged to inscribe something suitably inane. We were provoked to hilarity by contributions like "By hook or by crook, I'll be first in your book! Uncle Jim", or "Hey diddle diddle, I'm here in the middle! Auntie Jean". I was working on something amusing to rhyme with "back", when my friend quickly came up with his own deeply inappropriate rhyming couplet, ending "I'm here at the front!", something which I'm afraid to say still makes me snort with suppressed laughter whenever I think of it, nearly 50 years later. Well, we were just kids and my memory is that, luckily, we couldn't find a pen.

By the way, did you know that "total depravity" is a technical theological term, related to the Calvinist version of original sin? Well, now you do. Look it up, if you like. The pointless yet fastidious complexity of competing religious dogmas is, I find, fascinating, but also as baffling as the rules of some elaborate game one is glad never to have to play again (cricket comes to mind), or the legal code of some nightmarish regime one is grateful to have fled. Incredibly, people have persecuted, tortured, and burned each other alive over quite small differences in these speculative projections into the mindset of some imagined, rule-obsessed supreme being. Now that – Calvinist, Catholic, Cathar, or whatever – is truly totally depraved, isn't it?

[1]  An original something, fair maid, you would win me
      To write—but how shall I begin?
      For I fear I have nothing original in me—
      Excepting Original Sin.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Print and Process

For some reason yesterday morning I recalled a brief conversation I had last summer with one of my ex-colleagues, when I had dropped by the university library: she'd said that one of my books would probably be used in a forthcoming exhibition in the Special Collections gallery. As I was in the middle of all the excitement of having two pictures in the 2017 Royal Academy Open Exhibition this didn't make a great impression at the time, but yesterday I wondered: Did that ever happen? If so, I'd better add it to my CV. So I had a look at the Special Collections webpage to get the exhibition details, and was amazed to find that it's on right now, from 1st March to 8th June.

That's an interesting looking cabinet...

Naturally, I wandered over to the library that afternoon to take a look. It turns out it's a very nice exhibition indeed, called Print and Process, basically exploring all the various printing techniques used in art and book production, from woodblock to digital, using prints from the University Art Collection, artist's books from the Winchester School of Art, and various items from the Hartley Library's Special Collections. As it happens, two of my books are on display as exemplars of the digital artist's book (The Colour of the Water and The Revenants, both self-published under my Shepherd's Crown imprint), and it's really quite a privilege to be sharing space with the likes of William Blake and Max Ernst in the vitrines, not to mention Howard Hodgkin and Edward Bawden on the walls, just to drop a few names.

Oh look, The Colour of the Water, my first book!

 And that's The Revenants, my greatest hit...

Wow! Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté, his greatest hit

I have to say this cheered me up no end, as I had also discovered later that same morning that neither of my submissions to this year's Royal Academy Open had made it to the final round. So, it looks like this year's Open is going to be rubbish, then... Well, it is being curated by that ████ [redacted] Grayson Perry. I hope his stupid pots explode in the kiln.

By the way, if the various processes involved in the printing of illustrated matter over the centuries are a subject of interest to you (and how could they not be?) you should try to get hold of a copy of The Printed Picture, by Richard Benson. Sadly, it seems to be out of print now, and used copies are ridiculously expensive (I can't see one under £100), but it is pretty definitive, fascinating reading, and even more beautifully illustrated than you might expect. Also, if you'd like to take a look at (or even buy!) the Blurb incarnations of those two books of mine, full previews are available; The Colour of the Water has evolved into Downward Skies (although I do still have a few copies of the original stapled booklet – contact me by email if you'd like one), but The Revenants is still The Revenants. It's old work now, but still holds up well, I think.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Tallest Short Man & the Shortest Tall Man

A shaky construct

I wrote most of this post some while ago, but concluded I really had nothing to contribute on the subject, and should probably just shut up. Reading it again, it seems more coherent than I had thought at the time and, even if I still have nothing terribly original to say, writing these posts with the awareness and intention that they may be read by others is the best way I have of getting my thoughts in order. I suppose I'm just one of those people who doesn't know what they think until they say it out loud.

So: there was a lot of fuss a while ago about the politics and practicalities of elective identity, or what some might dismiss as the pursuit of wishful thinking. Frankly, I'd never heard of Rachel Dolezal or Caitlyn Jenner before those social media kerfuffles, but the issues their cases raise are interesting and very much of the moment. Attention spans being what they are these days those Twitter storms will have long passed on, but I have a few belated reflections to offer.

When I was an impressionable lad, the two lessons I learned at university from the brightest, most forward-thinking people I knew (which, it has to be said, didn't include any of the actual teaching faculty) were these:

First, in addition to social class, that one of the main enemies of progress is essentialism i.e. the insistence that any person has a "natural" essence which is generally derived from their biology – particularly gender, race, or sexual orientation (though as a short left-handed person I always wanted to add height and handedness...) – which determines who they are and what they are capable of. Those of a conservative, reactionary cast of mind really like essentialism in the same way they really like class, not least because of the way that, put together, they explain and justify the existing order of society, with the "natural" result that the right people (them) come out on top, for all the right "natural" reasons.

Second, that most, if not all, of these so-called essential qualities are actually as much social constructs as social class itself i.e. they have been invented by humans, generally by imposing rigid frameworks of categorisation onto fluid, complex realities. These categories get embedded into a society's way of doing things, generally giving a significant power advantage to one constituency in its relations with all the others. The job of ideology is to disguise this constructedness, and make the categories and power relationships seem, again, "natural" or, even better, invisible. But, being social constructs, they can be changed by society, given the will, generally by some political means aimed at redressing the imbalance. Thus, just as trade unions give workers collective strength in negotiations with employers, so legislation can make discrimination on various grounds not just bad manners but illegal. Impossible?  No!  Ideological...*

Simple! In fact, although these ideas can be (and often are) dressed up in some truly appalling, impenetrable academic jargon, they amount to little more than debating the scope of "nature vs. nurture", which anyone can understand, combined with a fair-minded and democratic rejection of "making generalizations about" or hanging limiting labels on people. Even those people we find odd, baffling, or even distasteful (Conservative voters, for example).

However, a more extreme version of these arguments seems to have evolved in subsequent years, an explosive combination of some Frenchified academic prestidigitation, an assertive politics of identity, and a trans movement which has taken to its extreme logical conclusion the idea that "biology is not destiny". Now, obviously, if the idea of, say, race is really a construct, then we can and should arrange society in such a way that superficial characteristics such as skin colour are never an impediment to equitable treatment. But the new, extreme position goes further. If a category does not exist essentially, then it does not really exist at all: a person's race is nothing more than an arbitrary label imposed on them by society, and thus – in the most controversial version, that reverses this logic – a matter of choice.

Ah. You don't have to be James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates to see that we have a problem here with the dodgy use of words like "real" and "choice". There is a fallacy here. You can no more choose to be white than I can choose to be tall. (Yet, anyway; who knows what consumer choices lie ahead for humanity?) Race and height may be constructed categories, but to grow up black within a white majority society is a real social fact, and is an experience and a heritage that cannot be faked, bought, or appropriated at will. Well, that's not quite true: the long history of white appropriation of black culture is both hypocritical (my, how beautifully you express your oppression by me!) and piratical (gimme!). But, hey, it's what we do best.

But there is an obvious contradiction here. Do races exist, or don't they? I suppose the answer is that they both do and they don't, like any category. Once created, however arbitrary, a category has real-world effects. In a variation of Parkinson's law, consciousness shrinks to fit the boxes it finds itself in. Take height. What if there was a simple medical procedure  – a pill, say – that would transform your physical appearance overnight?  Go to bed short, wake up tall. Yay! But would you then be tall, in anything but a superficial sense? No matter how much you'd always wanted to be tall, or resented the oppression of tall people? Of course you wouldn't. Your entire physical and social being would have been formed as a "short" person. It would take a complete recalibration over many years to acquire the self-image, reflexes, and attitudes – not all of them positive – that go with a significantly different height, even though this is theoretically merely another random point on the same spectrum. How much more complex, then, if a similar pill could transform one from white to black, or black to white?

Which brings us to gender. Cards on the table: I am a straight, white, grey-bearded male who, despite left-libertarian leanings and a complete commitment to gender equality, finds recent developments on the LGBT scene much more challenging than younger folk do. Which is probably exactly as it should be. Men of my generation were brought up by fathers who feared and did their best to eliminate any signs of gender-wobbliness in their sons. We may have gone on to grow our hair long and flirt with androgyny, but – as any woman or homosexual man who grew up in those years will tell you – this had considerably more to do with male peacockery than feminism or gay rights. But I'm afraid my comfort zone was set in those years, and does not include anything that involves piercings, tattoos, elective surgery, ostentatiously transgressive sex, or even rather too much pink. I concede that I am now, sad to say, The Man. But then so are Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel.

But life, lived properly, is not all about comfort zones. I also happen to have a good friend in the States with a trans-gender child, whom I met last summer for the first time in 15 years, and who had recently undergone gender reassignment. The levels of courage and commitment involved in that – not to mention self-knowledge and sheer, determined optimism  – are not to be dismissed lightly. There is nothing frivolous about it. I was impressed, and felt my ready-made opinions shifting.

Sure, everything I have written above still applies. I just don't know how a wannabe trans-gendered male can ever really identify as a woman, for example, without first having been brought up as a girl; my sympathy is with those feminists of my generation who resent and resist the self-declaration of former "men" as "women", only to find themselves "no platformed" at universities by virtue-signalling zealots. So much for sisterhood! But here we are adrift in that liminal territory where "identity" and "essence" and "biology" and "social construct" and "ideology" all overlap confusingly. And it's hard for us older folks to understand why gender fluidity has become a chosen battleground for so many young people who are, presumably, personally unaffected by the issues. Although I suppose it's not so very different from all the privately-educated radicals from wealthy families agitating for proletarian revolution in our day.

Besides, it's really none of my business. In the end it is the realities we make for ourselves and our contribution to what we might grandly call the Human Project that really matter. My life has been straightforward: pretty much every step along the way has been signposted, approved, supported, and rewarded. Even allowing for my class origins, my height, my handedness, my introversion, my lack of interest in sports, and a certain indefinable arty oddness, as a straight white male I have only rarely felt the sting of rejection or systematic exclusion simply because of who or what I am. Others will have had quite the opposite experience in their lives, whether because of race, gender, disability, or some acute internal hurt or confusion that does not yet have a name. Why on earth should my comfort zone take precedence over theirs, and why would I feel entitled to sit in judgement over them, simply because of who and what I am?

Though I have to say that I'm still not comfortable around those Conservative voters. Especially the tall ones. What is their problem?

A male spectrum, plus outlier...

* Sorry, but I will never tire of that idiotic joke.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Be Here Now

Q: The first ten years of rock songwriters were students of the music that came before – but from about 1970 on, all the new rockers knew was rock, maybe a little blues. What was lost?
From 1970 till now there’s been about 50 years, seems more like 50 million. That was a wall of time that separates the old from the new and a lot can get lost in this kind of time. Entire industries go, lifestyles change, corporations kill towns, new laws replace old ones, group interests triumph over individual ones, poor people themselves have become a commodity. Musical influences too – they get swallowed up, get absorbed into newer things or they fall by the wayside. I don’t think you need to feel bummed out though, or that it’s out of your clutches – you can still find what you’re looking for if you follow the trail back. It could be right there where you left it – anything is possible. Trouble is, you can’t bring it back with you, you have to stay right there with it. I think that is what nostalgia is all about.
Bob Dylan in interview with Bill Flanagan
As the venerable joke has it: Nostalgia... It's not what it was. But then, nothing ever is what it used to be, is it? Personally, I've always tried to resist the impulse to dwell on the past, but advancing age seems to bring with it a tendency to reflect on your earlier selves and to construct something like a narrative out of the accidents and contingencies of a single life, your walk-on part in a cast of millions. It's especially easy to slip into when you were born at a propitious time and had some moderately colourful adventures in your youthful years. A bit of flattering lighting, and with the grim and forgettably routine bits edited out, and your little pleasures, interests, ups, downs, and sadnesses can seem significant. I was there! Well, of course you were, idiot; where else might you have been?

Recently, I've been reading A Hero for High Times by Ian Marchant, an account of the rise and fall of British counterculture, as embodied in the life of one man, Bob Rowberry, who actually does seem to have been present at or responsible for a surprising number of its key moments. The subject matter aside, I was also drawn to the book because Ian is based in Presteigne and Bob lives in a van in a wood near Llandegly, which, as regular readers will know, is the precise area of our annual Easter visit to mid-Wales, a pilgrimage we have been making for over 40 years now. In fact, we'll be heading up there in just a few weeks. Obviously, there's a lot of personal history embodied in those places for us now but, oddly, from the very beginning it had always seemed like a place where various pasts and roads-not-taken, personal and otherwise, were still hanging around, waiting to be revisited.

Which – contrary to Bob Dylan's quoted view above – is an illusion. The past is gone, and any remnants of it will have been changed utterly. I think I must have described before that fantasy that many of us seem to nurture, that somewhere there is a bar, or a café, or a common room where friends from our past are still sitting around, just like they always used to, into which we will one day stroll, after the passage of 30, 40, 50 years, and spend a pleasant evening catching up. So, how was your life? Except, these fantasy friends have had no lives, in your imagining, they have been in limbo, eternally frozen in time and waiting on your return, like the figures on Keats's Grecian urn.

I had a graphic demonstration of this recently. I have a very old friend from my schooldays, someone I've been exchanging emails with for some time, but whom I haven't actually met for something over 35 years. I was in London and walking through the South Bank when I heard someone call my name. I looked, but didn't know the luxuriantly-bearded geezer sitting on a wall eating a curry. When he called again, I walked over and demanded to know who he was and how it was he knew me. As you will have guessed, it turned out to be my very old friend; I simply couldn't recognise the fresh-faced lad I knew, the one whose features were still animating his emails in my mind, in the time-weathered figure in front of me. To be honest, I'm slightly amazed he recognised me; it's not as if I haven't changed a fair bit, too. It must have been the walk. The next day, I apologized by email for not having recognised him. Being the joker he is, he admitted it was very tempting to reply, "WTF are you talking about? I was never in London that day!"

It's probably a cliché, but true nonetheless, that all old people gradually become exiles, living further and further away from the country they knew in their younger days. Buildings and streets have come and gone; friends and relatives have vanished into the solipsism of age; they no longer even speak the language like natives. Time changes everything, and the face we see in the mirror is not the face we are remembered by. I'm beginning to suspect it's not even the face we think we see there. So, sorry, Bob, you're wrong: there is no trail back, and, to be honest, I'm very glad there isn't, or too many of us would be finding our way back there, and getting stuck in our personal limbo, clinging on to whatever precious dead things we think we left back there. No; as we used to say back then: be here now.

Shadow Factories

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

What Is Meta For?

I suppose it's pretty obvious, really, but it is remarkable how the arrival of a new word (or the repurposing of an old word) can consolidate previously fuzzy and provisional areas of thought into something so convenient and easy to handle that it quickly becomes a well-worn cliché. I remember one of my fellow sixth-formers around 1971 describing his negative reaction to reading hyper-literary writers like Borges or Pynchon. He said, "It's as if this book is carrying a big sign round its neck saying HEY, READER! I AM NOT REAL! I AM JUST A NOVEL!" At the time, I thought this one of the cleverest, most astute observations I had ever heard. Which, actually, it was. Nowadays, of course, he'd simply have said, "well, it's all a bit too meta", and we'd have quickly gone back to talking about girls and music.

It may have taken several decades to get to this point, but pretty much everyone now knows what "meta" means, and can recognise it when they encounter it (although, regrettably, this has not meant that we have stopped seeing books carrying a big sign saying "I AM JUST A NOVEL!"). Such a word, once established and even if widely misunderstood, democratises thought, and resets the limits of what can easily be thought about. My friend's observation in 1971 was the result of real thought and genuine insight, expressed in a vivid way. But if a 17-year-old reads Borges today and declares, "Meh, it's too meta for me!", that barely nudges the thinkometer needle. We have moved on.

Similarly, pretty much everybody now accepts some version of cultural relativism as self-evident. Of course there is no one-size-fits-all answer to any social or cultural issue; certainly, all knowledge is a construct; obviously everything depends on where you stand, who you are, and where you come from: it stands to reason. And so say even quite conservative commentators, who definitely weren't saying that not so long ago. With all due respect to proverbial wisdom, it turns out that what's sauce for the goose may well not be sauce for the gander. Who knew? Other than habitual gander-eaters, obviously. Why they have kept silent about this over the centuries is an interesting question.

When it comes to relativism there are differences of opinion, of course, even among those in the habit of thinking carefully about things – it wouldn't be relativism if there weren't, would it? – but there are also real problems of misunderstanding and misapplication as the broad-brush concepts get taken up by those who are, um, not in the habit. It's a problem, surely, when a sophisticated and nuanced relativism gets vulgarised into a reflex mistrust of so-called, self-styled experts: "Antibiotics? Inoculation? That's just your opinion, doctor! I demand herbal homeopathy!" And quite how vigorously the more exotic outliers of, say, identity politics may have been wagging the statistical dog (the one that answers to the name of Oddly Normal) is a fraught question. Clearly, when it comes down to it, no single person is ever completely "normal" [1], although – looked at through the other end of the telescope – that is exactly what most people, by definition, are. Paradox! Speaking as a left-handed short man with impaired hearing and anosmia, not to mention a strongly bibliophile orientation and extreme social-mobility trajectory issues, I think society still has a long way to go before my personal cluster of identities have been satisfactorily addressed. Why handedness is not at least as urgent an issue as sexual orientation is a mystery to me: how dare you presume I'm right-handed!

That matters that were once the subject of postgraduate seminars or exclusive to certain secretive subcultures can become the commonplaces of coffee-bar chatter only really becomes possible when the right words escape into the wild from the realms of jargon and slang, and either find a match with some new perception emerging in the collective public mind, or create an unanticipated new niche for themselves. The internet, by enabling us to eavesdrop on so many previously private conversations, has accelerated this process, ensuring a steady flow of linguistic novelties and their associated ideas into common parlance. Sex is an obvious example. I'd bet most people didn't even know [censored] was a thing before about 1980, much less something they might be tempted to try. Once the word is out there, however, previously unexpressed desires can quickly find a local habitation and a name. I admit I felt obliged to look up [censored again – where do you find this filth? Ed.] when I read the word for the first time last week. Blimey. It seems I'm still more innocent than I thought [2].

Art – and mainly literature, and in particular poetry – is the place where the nascent and not-yet-named most often get their first exploratory outings, triangulated by such indirect means as sound, rhythm, and metaphor. Through poetry individuals with especially acute antennae can tentatively grope their way towards something strongly felt but as yet unknown, bouncing language around the way a bat uses echo-location to "see" in the dark. That's almost a definition of what I would regard as "serious" poetry, as practised today by, say, Alice Oswald. You might say that the poet is engaged in a more sophisticated, self-motivated version of what you do when the doctor asks you to describe a pain, or the nature of your tinnitus. You know exactly how it feels or how it sounds – of course you do – but the available words are not a close enough match with your experience. You want to share with the doctor exactly how it feels, to communicate; it seems important.

But what comparisons can you reach for that capture the precise qualities of the various ringings and buzzings you hear, at different times, in different contexts, with your head held in various different positions? The steady background hum of a desktop PC? An overworked fridge on a hot day? A roadside field of crickets in August in southwest France? An idling motor on the street – probably a diesel van? – heard through the muffling and distorting extractor-fan vent in the downstairs toilet? Perhaps "that terrible screaming all around, which is customarily called silence?"[3] But I have learned that these are not questions that should be opened and mused upon in a medical context, that the consulting room is not a place for poetry, not unless you want some cruel and possibly compromising annotations to be made in your file. Too meta by half... "Intermittent buzzing" or "continual ringing" will do, you ridiculous hyper-literary hypochondriac.

1. There is the famous example of the US airforce jet cockpit designed to match "average" pilot dimensions, measurements which, it turned out, no single pilot possessed, and which were therefore leading to crashes and sub-optimal pilot performance. If you don't know about this, google "average pilot cockpit".

2. I was made acutely aware of the limits of my erotic universe when in 1973 a worldly-wise friend at university described to me what was going on in the gay clubs of New York at the time. They do what?? Good grief...

3, Part of a quotation from Büchner's play "Woyzek", displayed on screen at the start of Werner Herzog's film "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser". Trust me, never get literary with a doctor.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Beast from the East

We don't get a lot of snow down here on the Solent, so a proper wintry blast from some door left open in Eastern Europe is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, it totally messes with the transport network. Had my partner not wisely decided to stay at home, the train she would have taken back from Waterloo broke down halfway back, and the passengers had to spend the night on board, with no food, heat, or lighting. Similarly, travellers on the New Forest's A31 were stuck overnight in their cars, because of jack-knifed lorries blocking the route both ways. And my daughter has been forced to spend an extra day and a half in Amsterdam with her boyfriend, all at the expense of EasyJet, because of a cancelled flight. It's tough all over.

On the other hand, what better way to have some fun, say, than to get an unusual photographic angle on some familiar landscapes? Or, for the young and reckless with their unbreakable bodies, sliding down any available slope on an improvised sledge? I particularly enjoyed the ironic juxtaposition of the artificial ski-slope in the Sports Centre – still in action, with its clanking ski-lift – with the surrounding acres of real snow, swarming with whooping snowboarders and sledgers.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Silly Old Stupid

Leaves from Mr. Hatt's Marvellous Miscellany

I have done quite a few stupid things in my life – at least three times I have come within a whisker of killing myself, including nearly walking off a cliff in Majorca in a sun-induced daze – but I think it's the stupid things I've said that really make me cringe. There have been rather more of those, too, and for some reason they tended to occur at work.

One gem of embarrassment that I recall quite frequently occurred while I was giving some induction training to a new recruit. She had never heard of the 80:20 rule, perhaps the most useful analytical rule of thumb I know. You know the sort of thing: 80% of the wealth is owned by 20% of the population, 80% of library loans are generated by 20% of the stock, and so on. It's not so much a rule of thumb as a profound insight into the workings of society, the universe, and everything.

Anyway, this keenly attentive young lady was duly impressed. Which is always a trap for the susceptible middle-aged man; I should have sensed the danger. But, like a true fool, I began to improvise upon this idea of proportions. Yes, I said, it's interesting, how certain proportions keep coming up when you analyse stuff. There's 50:50, of course, and 60:40. As well as 80:20 I quite often see 70:30, and occasionally 90:10... At which point, I realised I had covered the entire range of possibilities without adding anything by way of insight and hurried on to the next topic.

Then there was the period when, raising small children, I had trained myself not to swear by substituting nursery equivalents, using gritted-teeth endearments in extremis like "sweetheart" and "darling" (as in, "Put my silly old camera down, sweetheart, before you break it!"). I found this started to bleed over into my work life, however, which could get acutely embarrassing when, squashing annoyance, I began to sound like some theatrical luvvie: "You've entered the wrong code again, my darling! That's why your silly old terminal has frozen!" What a relief it was when my kids started to swear like troopers themselves, and I could finally uncork. Fucking hell! Although, it has to be said, this was not so much of a relief for my staff.

Sometimes, though, it can seem as if "stupid" and "embarrassing" have been brought explosively together by some internal, malevolent imp that lives, like a comedian of genius, one beat ahead of the action. Once, in front of a visiting class of 12-year-old schoolchildren, I carefully spelled out "DICK,HARD" on a computer screen, proudly showing off how our new library system could find any book, just by entering the first four letters of the title and the author's name. I have no idea what made me choose Hard Times by Charles Dickens on the spur of the moment. I hadn't even read the damn thing; still haven't. But, what? What's so funny?? Ah!  Ff... Heh... Silly old me!