Monday 28 May 2018

Heads Up!

Uh oh. It appears Google is making some "exciting changes" to Blogger, which is never good news.

One of the tasks that used to justify my exorbitant salary was running periodic upgrades to our library management system, or to its underlying database and operating system. Even, every seven years or so, managing a complete migration of our data and procedures to a shiny new management system. Few things are more stressful. Where "success" is nobody noticing anything has happened, and "failure" is days of downtime and ad hominem recriminations, anything workable in between is an acceptable outcome. I suppose "exciting" is one word for it. However, the difference between our various library system suppliers and Google is that no money is involved; Blogger being free and, as far as I can see, having – as yet, anyway – no way of generating income for Google. Moreover, dialogue between Google and the end-users of its blogging product is non-existent, and consequently the guys at Google don't need to give much of a damn if things go wrong.

Inevitably, things are going to break. Already, I've stopped receiving email notifications of your comments, so it will take longer than usual for me to spot them, publish them and to respond. Not that, ahem, I'm getting that many at the moment... In case this affects you, note that OpenID sign-ins for comments will no longer be acceptable in future. Also, "third party gadgets" will no longer be supported, so that will break anything I've added that is non-standard. Right... Like I can remember which bits they might be, after ten years.

Isn't that exciting?

Leave it alone, Google,
or the kitten gets it!

Saturday 26 May 2018


It'a a curious business, anatomy. I've just come back from a visit to my dentist, where she showed me an X-ray of a tooth I'm going to have to have extracted (noooo...) and I am struck by the cognitive dissonance resulting from the familiarity of what's on the outside my head (that's me!) and the mystery of what's on the inside my head, which is also me, and probably essentially much more so. A taxidermied "me" in a museum would be recognisably "me", whereas my prepared skeleton would not (although my dentist might differ on that, given access to my skull). In either case, the "I" would actually be long gone, an elusive construct it's impossible to bottle. You need the whole combo in proper working order – or must at least have a workable majority of it – in order to exist. See Hamlet, Act V, scene i (Alas, poor Bonehead). But, fortunately, a tooth either way seems to make little or no difference at all.

I find skeletons fascinating. Some creatures are easily imaginable from their skeletal underpinnings – a horse is clearly a horse, and a tiger is clearly not a huge rabbit, although it could just as easily be a lion – but most are not, to the untrained eye. Whales, for example, have evolved into something so contradictory, internally and externally, that I would defy anyone who had never seen a whale (or a picture of a whale) to envisage the creature that wraps its blubber around those bones. Which does raise the issue of palaeontological reconstruction from bony remains: has it ever struck you how much like dessicated corpses, with skin and muscle shrunk to fit around a skeletal armature, most dinosaur reconstructions are? It's as if we have imagined the Mesozoic as Zombie World writ large, inhabited by wizened undead monsters of skin and bone. I wonder if archaeologically-inclined members of some future species will be wondering why humans spent so much time lying on their backs in form-fitting boxes of various sorts, grinning like fools? Some behavioural adaptation, no doubt, to avoid those four-wheeled predators with the metal exoskeleton that seem to have dominated the planet.

Birds, I find, are particularly problematic [1]. Ignore the tell-tale beak, and the skeletons of an owl and a chicken look remarkably similar. But only one of those scaffoldings supports enough meat to make for a good meal (AFAIK, anyway: if you know a restaurant that serves owl, do let me know). The extra length of a bird's neck is particularly deceptive: reduced to its skeleton, virtually every bird looks like it might be some sort of swan. OK, you're not going to mistake a heron for a hawk, but if you can tell a pigeon from a partridge or a plover your Bird Anatomy badge was well-deserved.

Having spent more hours in Europe's leading anatomical museums than is necessary or normal, I now have quite a collection of photographic raw material to work with, and the collaged images here are the latest fruits of this particular obsession. I have no particular agenda with regard to comparative anatomy: I may have a master's degree in comparative literature, but it's not really the same thing and, although I'm pretty sure I do know a hawk from a handsaw [2], I can't even remember, now, what species most of my photos actually are. I really should take more notes. I suppose, if pushed, I could make some metaphorical claims for this "project" being about the fragility of life, mass extinctions, "nature" as spectacle, Frankensteinian hubris [3], and the like – and if I ever have to write an accompanying artist's statement I probably will, too – but, really, I just like the way they look. Aren't they amazing? And isn't it extraordinary, the skill with which some anonymous museum technician has assembled a heap of dry bones into something so spookily lifelike? Unheimlich, even. Ah, yes, the Uncanny! Now there's another paragraph for that statement...

The conjuror triptych

Galerie de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie comparée, Paris
(Hey, don't I know you, Bonehead? And what's the big joke?)

1. In the process of writing this post I've just come across this book – The Unfeathered Bird, by Katrina van Grouw – and couldn't resist ordering myself a copy.
2. Hamlet, Act II, scene ii: "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." The "handsaw" is thought by some to be a variant of a dialect word for a heron (heronshaw), though as a "hawk" is also a plasterer's tool, you can take your pick: he is able to tell one bird from another, or one tool from another. Either way, he's just pretending to be mad. Or ... is he?
3. Once, a long time ago and in an advanced state of intoxication, I briefly attained satori looking at some sausages in a butcher-shop window. Some time, I should write a post about that.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Blue Suburban Skies

Hill Lane

On some days, the light, the weather, and my mood find a perfect alignment, and pictures are everywhere I look. Luckily, this camera [1] was in the right mood, too. Trust me, cameras are capricious devils, and may decide not to be co-operative on the nicest of days. Half of the art of photography, IMHO, is keeping your cameras sweet, which – assuming you have more than one (polycamerous?) – means taking each of them out regularly, in an equitable rotation. They notice these things, cameras, and are prone to sulking.

Pewsey Place

Such blue, suburban skies... Now, if forced to choose a side of that peak-Beatles double-A-sided single of 1967, my preference would always be for "Strawberry Fields", but whenever I hear the piccolo trumpet solos on "Penny Lane" I am transported back to the summer months of 1967, which is a pleasurably bittersweet sensation. There were some perfect, baking-hot days with pure blue skies that year, and I was free to do pretty much whatever I wanted, but I was also very lonely. A couple of years earlier we had moved away from the part of town where I had spent my first decade; this, combined with the transition to secondary school, meant that I had no friends living nearby. Then my much-loved older sister left home under a bit of a cloud, and my parents – both of whom were at work all day – seemed suddenly to age [2], and became rather unavailable, emotionally. 1967, as it turned out, was also the last summer we were to spend in a house with a garden. Stevenage council used to be quite flexible about tenants moving around within the New Town, especially if it freed up family-sized houses, and so – this latest house now having become both too large and rather blighted by unhappy associations – we moved to a two-bedroom flat. Which would, in fact, be my fifth, final, and probably happiest address in town.

So, that trumpet's shrill perfection – so reminiscent of swifts and swallows exulting high over the rooftops in a clear blue sky – evokes one 60s latchkey kid's long summer holidays, pottering about or simply wandering the streets, free but alone, with a door-key and a half crown in his pocket to buy a chip-shop meal at midday, or maybe get a bus into town. Just some ordinary boy, checking out the passing scene, noticing things, invisible as a cat or a crow. Which, now I think of it, is still pretty much how I like to spend a day, whenever I get the chance. Minus the pie and chips, of course, and with a camera for company. Talking of which: Now, let's see, whose turn is it today?

Hill Lane

1. A Fuji X70, a very nice camera and something of a rarity, as Fuji stopped producing them quite soon after they were introduced, apparently because Sony suddenly stopped manufacturing the sensor used in them.
2. They weren't yet 50, though a sixties 50, which was rather older than 50 is now... I was amazed (and alarmed) to discover that no male forebear of mine had lived to see 60, although reassuringly Dad did make 89. It is one of those paradoxes, that one never seems to become older than one's parents or teachers.

Monday 21 May 2018

Cultural Quarter

Southampton Guildhall Square
(seen from within the new Hansard Gallery)

A lot of time, effort, and money – really lots of it, £30 million is the usual quoted figure – have gone into developing a new "Cultural Quarter" for Southampton, which is now pretty much complete with the opening of the re-located John Hansard Gallery. We have always had an outstanding City Art Gallery (that's it, in the picture above, or rather, it's within that collonaded building, the Guildhall and Civic Centre), but it seems to have been felt that something more needed to be done to counterbalance our reputation as the Shopping Centre and Clubbing Capital of the South Coast. You know, raise the tone a bit. So, some of the town-centre blight created by the West Quay shopping mall around Guildhall Square has been tidied up and opened out, and on a sunny day you could almost be somewhere ... other than Southampton. [1]

The new Nuffield Theatre was opened back in February: we went to see the specially-commissioned opening production, Howard Brenton's Shadow Factories, about the distributed manufacture of Spitfires in Southampton during the Blitz. I wish the theatre well, but its subsequent productions have not tempted me back. Facing it is the new John Hansard Gallery, also originally located on the University campus, where it occupied a building hidden away in an obscure corner that had been built to house a large tank of water modelling the tidal movements of Southampton Water. In fact, the Hansard had initially been a photographic gallery, where I saw four exhibitions that had an enormous influence on me (by Thomas Joshua Cooper, Josef Koudelka, John Goto, and Richard Ross) and where I even showed some of my own early work in a group exhibition of local photographers.

Director Stephen Foster developed the gallery away from its narrow photographic brief into a major space for contemporary art but, being on a campus miles from the city centre where parking is next to impossible, it never got the "footfall" it deserved. I used to know Stephen, as we sat on some committees together (he also took a polite interest in my work, several times giving me some useful advice [2]); the move into Guildhall Square was both his pet project and a major source of frustration. It has taken many years of headaches and false starts to bring off, and Stephen has now finally retired. I made my first visit into the new gallery – new location, new management, new everything – on Saturday.

It is certainly a wonderful improvement in terms of space, with four large, high-ceilinged galleries, not to mention media suites and workshop spaces, although it is all a bit South Bank, beige and white and chrome in the classic modernist gallery style. Regrettably, they've decided to open with a show of Gerhard Richter, than whom a more rigorous test of one's sympathy with the outer reaches of contemporary art practice it would be hard to imagine. I confess I don't "get" Richter at all, and didn't get the impression that any of the other visitors that afternoon did either. It's baffling, emperor's-new-clothes stuff, but his reputation and standing in the art world couldn't be higher, so what do I know? Other than the fact that his work bores me, with its repertoire of charmless signature moves. But: visitors there were, nonetheless, in a steady trickle. It was hardly like the sharp-elbowed crowds around the Andreas Gursky photographs at the re-opened Hayward Gallery in London back in February, but compared to the echoing void of the old gallery it was very encouraging. I sincerely hope they've got some real crowd-pleasers in the pipeline, so as to establish the new venue in the local mindset, but – knowing something of the way gallerists think about their curatorial mission – I fear there will instead be a series of rebarbative, mainly conceptual shows that will simply serve to reassure the local populace that art, after all, is not intended for them.

 Yep, it's meant to be blurry

It seems to help if you wear the right hat

These are actually woven tapestries (not woven by Richter himself, obvs).
I don't know about you but I find their facile mirrored symmetry
deeply annoying... Same with Gilbert & George's recent work.
Such a lazy use of digital tchnology.

1. Although any long-term Southampton resident standing within "Studio 144" (holding both the theatre and the gallery) will always also be standing within the ghost of the old Tyrrell & Green department store.
2. I wish I could say this included "Don't give up the day job", but I don't think that possibility even occurred to him.

Thursday 17 May 2018

Riparian Ramble

I'm in Bristol at the moment, having delivered some pictures for an exhibition in the Deepest Cotswolds; more about that later. I thought I'd get some odd looks, handing over a well-wrapped package from one car boot to another in the car park at Gordano Services, but that's the sort of place a motorway service station is, isn't it? A classic post-modern nowhere place, where everyone is in transit, and normality is in permanent suspension.

I took a walk this afternoon along Bristol's Portway towards, beneath and beyond the Suspension Bridge, another liminal place, where the constant traffic fills the air with noxious fumes. I've probably shortened my life by a whole ten minutes, but it's an interesting stretch of road, with some incredible Georgian and Victorian riverside architecture marooned by the needs of modern transport, and it's the best place to see Avon River mud when the tide is out.

For some reason crows like to play along the muddy banks; I expect they're just curious about what has washed up today. This one had a go at pipe-walking, but had a tumble halfway along. Argh!

[N.B. I've edited these on my laptop, which is why the colours, etc., may look a bit odd].

Saturday 12 May 2018

Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan

I almost forgot to say: on Sunday evening last week BILL FRISELL was playing at the Turner Sims concert hall on the Southampton University campus and, naturally, I was there; in fact, the Prof bought our tickets in our favourite seats (left of centre, four rows back) way back in January as a birthday present. Accompanied by just Thomas Morgan on upright bass, he was playing what looked to be a standard Telecaster, plus an array of foot-operated effects; it's the first gig I've been to where audience members went down to the front during the interval simply to gaze reverently upon a single guitar and a set of pedals.

Obviously, it was brilliant. I've written about Frisell before, and have nothing much to add to what I wrote there. But, not having seen him play live before, I was struck once more by his Jekyll and Hyde personality. For a Guitar God, he might easily be mistaken for a particularly reticent music-shop assistant when not actually playing. Whereas the likes of, say, Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page look and dress the part (I bet they even wear leather pyjamas), Bill Frisell ... does not. But once he straps on that guitar he becomes an avatar of whatever deity supervises and inspires supreme musicality and effortless invention. Wow!

In one particularly spellbinding passage in the set played after the interval, they moved through Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" to, of all things, the "Goldfinger" theme. Actually, "Goldfinger"  – once you disassociate Shirley Bassey's voice from it, which is not easy to do – is a wonderfully restless melody, with some unmistakable hooks and just the sort of scope for verging-on-parody twangy guitar that Frisell loves to play around with. In fact, there's another, nicely sleazy version by Dave Douglas (on his album A Thousand Evenings), where Guy Klucevsek's accordion really brings out its histrionic cocktail of tango and gypsy flavourings [1].

If you need an introduction to the man and his music, I see a video by Emma Franz, Bill Frisell: A Portrait, has recently been released (there's a nice trailer at the link), but there's plenty available free on YouTube and many of his albums are available on Spotify. My personal recommendations would be Blues Dream or Good Dog, Happy Man, but if you like inventive interpretations of familiar tunes, then Songs We Know (a jazzy "standards" collaboration with pianist Fred Hersch) or All We Are Saying (his John Lennon covers album) are hard to beat. And if you really want to challenge your ears, why not try his venture into modern classical, Richter 858? This is a musician with range, with depth, with mastery and an unmistakable personality, but with absolutely no leather trousers and a truly lamentable taste in jackets.

1. No, not that sort of Tango, idiot. Though I'm sure there must be some Tango-based cocktails.

Thursday 10 May 2018


Berlin: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Since my visit to Berlin in March, the subject of antisemitism has been on my mind, not least because the Labour Party's woes in this regard have been figuring so prominently in the news. I've also been watching Simon Schama's thought-provoking Story of the Jews on BBC TV. This is difficult territory, not least for a Baptist-heritage goy like me. Frankly, and despite – yes! – some of my best friends being Jewish, I have very little idea of what it means to occupy one of the wide range of identities included within the definition of "a Jew". I am sufficiently naive in this regard – "ignorant" may be the better choice of word – that I have generally been unaware that any particular person might be Jewish unless they chose to tell me as much. Whether such ignorance counts as lack of prejudice is an interesting question. The witty title of Steve Cohen's booklet from 1984, That's Funny, You Don't Look Anti-Semitic, is apposite, I think.

I grew up in the artificially white, working-class environment of Stevenage New Town, where the Jewish community was, to the best of my knowledge, very small. Indeed, I think I'm right in saying that there was no synagogue in the town until 2009, and that even now it is not a permanent building, more of a community organisation. Which is strange, when you consider that the bulk of the initial population was made up of Londoners displaced by the bombing of the East End in World War II, where the Jewish community was large. I don't think the situation in other New Towns like Harlow or Crawley was much different, either; no doubt there's a thesis there for someone ("Antisemitism, self-exclusion, or self-improvement? The missing Jews of London's New Towns"). Certainly, the names in our classroom roll-calls were relentlessly Anglo and Irish, and the number of children excused morning assembly on religious grounds – it was a compulsorily full-on Christian occasion in those days, with bible-readings, prayers, and hymn-singing – was negligible.

Consequently, amongst us children, such antisemitism as there was existed pretty much as an "empty signifier". Lacking any obvious representatives to lend it substance, "Jewishness" was reduced to some unpleasant expressions around meanness ("Oi, don't jew those sweets") which, on the racism spectrum, were on the same mildly thoughtless level as the use of, say, "wog" to mean "steal" ("Who's wogged my pencil?"). The word was just playground patois, and might as well have been spelled "joo", though it was doubtless derived from real anti-Jewish sentiment in families back in East London, and hurtful and confusing to any Jewish children who did happen to be around. However, it is also the case that these were expressions never used at home, if your parents were as liberal-minded as mine. I was roundly told off if I brought them into the house, and instructed never to repeat them. But ditto "ruddy" (does anyone say that any more?), "bloody", "shit", and the rest; in a respectable household you maintained two parallel languages, home and away.

The home environment was clearly the key. The lad who for a few years was my closest friend at secondary school was, I later realised, a racist, and a well-versed one, too. As well as the tune, he knew all the words to the racist song, so to speak, and it was, I'm ashamed to say, fun for a while to sing along. After all, few things are as enjoyable as an intense friendship in early adolescence, especially if you have previously been a bit of a loner, as I had, and friendships create their own inward-looking parameters. It's no excuse, but in the absence of any actual black people's feelings to be hurt, it seemed harmless enough to improvise entertaining wickedness together on the endless set of formulaic racist tropes my friend was able to supply. It was only later, when I was more aware of the dark places I had been exploring so thoughtlessly, that it occurred to me to wonder where on earth he had been getting this stuff from. In those pre-internet days, race-hate material was as difficult to come across as pornography. The suspicion had to be that, whereas my parents had steered me severely away from any hint of prejudice, his had not only encouraged it, but must have educated him quite thoroughly in its ways. Bigots are not born, I'm sure, but made.

To return more specifically to antisemitism, it is obviously a more complex syndrome than racism, pure and simple. No-one, as far as I know, has ever accused Jamaicans or even the Japanese of anything as baroque as being self-indicted Christ-killers, of murdering children in sacrificial rites, of running the secret financial backing of a centuries-long conspiracy aimed at global domination, or any of the rest of the persistent, prefabricated nonsense that informs systematic antisemitism. Having watched Simon Schama's TV series, it's hard to know which is the more interesting and urgent question: why Jews, quite specifically, have attracted such unwelcome attention, or why this virulent persecution across time and space has had such perennial appeal to so many varieties of non-Jew. Again and again, since ancient times, Jews have been expelled from some temporary home, then invited to form a community within someone else's borders, have flourished for a century or two to mutual benefit – despite exclusion as less than top-drawer citizens – only to find themselves persecuted and ejected yet again when their host's mood and politics changed. As someone points out in one of Schama's programmes, it's not paranoia when people really are out to get you, and the impulse behind Zionism is easier to grasp and sympathise with when this world-historical cycle of enforced uprootings is laid before you as the case for the defence.

And therein, it would seem, lies Labour's problem, and also the intractable problem facing the Jewish community. That is, the existence and real-world behaviour of an actual Israel, an embattled Zionist nation which, having tasted serial military victory over its neighbours, took a reactionary lurch in the direction of the religious right, morphing in the process from eternal supplicant to sand-kicking regional bully, a far cry from the secular socialist idealism of its early years. Or, if we look at it another way, the Left's long romance with the plight of the oppressed and dispossessed Palestinian people has had unforeseen real-world consequences, not least some awkward alliances with uncompromisingly radical Islamic groups who wish to see Israel wiped from the map. On the Left, it is conventional, and convenient, to distinguish carefully between being pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, and – perish the thought! – anti-Jew. And yet, infuriating as it can be when even the BBC covers the fraught issue of "antisemitism in the Labour Party" without ever mentioning members' principled opposition to illegal Israeli land-grab "settlements" or their support for the self-evident justice of the Palestinian cause, it's hard to know what sort of real-world political position Left anti-Zionism really represents today, now that Israel has been a political and geographical fact for 60 years. Which makes it so much easier for various Jewish groups to elide any anti-Israeli sentiment or talk of a powerful "Zionist lobby" into accusations of simple antisemitism.

It is equally infuriating that Labour now has a leadership that appears hamstrung by its own heritage of oppositional idealism – dare one say its shibboleths? – and which is consequently forced to shoot itself repeatedly in the foot, for fear of pointing the weapon at its dubious friends and allies elsewhere. I can't imagine Jeremy Corbyn really is an antisemite (although that title, That's Funny, You Don't Look Anti-Semitic, does pop into my mind again), but he appears not to see that he seems to have an awful lot in common with some people who clearly are, and unless he does something positive about this, the entire Labour Party – the Labour Party, FFS! – can and will be tarred with that brush until, oh, let's say, he is forced out of office, there is another Militant-style purge of the party membership, and the Blairites regain control of "their" party. Which some might see as a Zionist-inspired conspiracy scenario (uh oh...) but is surely just a demonstration of precisely the sort of cynical opportunism that real politicians must engage in if they want to win, rather than merely signal their virtue to the like-minded.

Does Jeremy Corbyn want to win? I'm not so sure that he does. To show automatic solidarity with the oppressed – the famous opción preferencial por los pobres of Latin-American Liberation Theology – becomes a guiding reflex after a while, a way of making sense of the world, as well as a confirmation of one's own sense of secular moral justification. To be in power in the West is, by that definition, to be one of the Bad Guys. To be in opposition is, similarly, to be on the side of the angels. It's a reflex that can blind one to appearances, however,  (a.k.a. "the optics"), and makes it impossible to engage with the sort of dirty Realpolitik that forges strategic partnerships with unpleasant but useful oppressors. So, does an unbreakable habit of opposition to Israeli policies and their supporters in the West make Corbyn look sympathetic to real antisemites? Does this bring his party into conflict with some powerful currents of influence? Might this lose them the next election, and might this outcome suit the purposes of certain ambitious people within his own party very well? Quite possibly, I imagine him concluding, but so be it: principles are at stake!

But, as Winston Churchill is reputed to have said when Stalin joined "The Allies" in 1941, following the Nazi invasion of the USSR, thus changing the course and outcome of WW2,  "If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons". Corbyn, I suspect, could never bring himself to do that. Which makes him a good man, but an awful politician.

Jewish section of Southampton Old Cemetery

Sunday 6 May 2018

Crow Spotting

It can be frustrating to find yourself in front of a good picture, but without the kit that would render it to best advantage. This has often happened to me, as I have always preferred to walk about with as little impedimenta as possible. I've never been one of those guys with a hundredweight of "just in case" gear slung over a shoulder, and increasingly I find I'm inclined to take just one lightweight fixed-lens camera out with me on speculative walks, which in my case usually means a wide-angle "28mm" equivalent. Inevitably, this means missing (or at any rate having to "re-see") any shot where a longer lens would be more appropriate. Too bad: my hit-rate is high enough to live with it.

These two are typical examples. In both cases, a bird was sitting on top of a gravestone, a crow and a magpie, about five yards away. Corvids are bold birds, but also cautious: get much closer than that, and they're off. In fact, the magpie was up and in the air even before I pressed the shutter. What you see here are both major crops from a much larger frame. Which is a pity, as it means that although they're fine for blog purposes they'd never enlarge satisfactorily as a full-sized print. At "native" 300 dpi resolution these are 20x15cm prints at best.

But I like them, nonetheless, and I'm sure I'll find some use for them. I particularly like the bold blur of the magpie flashing through the scene, and can you see the carved olive (?) branch next to the real vegetation on the crow's headstone? No? Try this, then:

It may be a tiny crop (about a 5x5cm section of a 42x28cm image at 300dpi) but I have no complaints about the resolution. In fact, hmm, I wonder if that might be a young rook, rather than a crow: fully-fledged, but before the characteristic "rook pattern baldness" has set in around the bill? Next time I'll remember to ask.

Thursday 3 May 2018

A Little Red

A little red goes a long way. Turner, famously, added a small red buoy to a seascape he was showing at the 1832 Royal Academy Open on "Varnishing Day", upstaging Constable's nearby work, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. Constable seethed, "He has been here, and fired a gun". Well, he painted a red dot, John, to be fair.

On one of my recent lengthy perambulations about town, I happened to encounter these three examples of "red in a picture". Like most long-established towns, Southampton's highways can get a bit sclerotic where early 21st century traffic meets early 20th century suburban road layouts. Especially around the Common and up in Shirley, where the traffic to and from the General Hospital and the Hollybrook Cemetery has to squeeze through various traffic lights, pinch-points, and blind bends, with ambulances and hearses imposing their very different senses of urgency on the flow. I'd never seen a horse-drawn hearse before, though, and managed to grab a couple of shots of the spectacle as it passed by. The, um, occupant, was in one of those new wicker coffins, so it was clearly someone with a sense of style.

A victim of the recent wave of retail closures, the Toys'R'Us outlet in the town centre has now reverted to what, I suppose, it always was: a characterless barn with a car park. Strange to think that, 20 or so years ago, it was often the site of one of my regular weekend tasks, piloting small children through its stacked, warehouse-style shelves in pursuit of something suitable to spend their pocket-money on (what, in family parlance, became known as the "weekend present"). I find it hard to imagine how this intensive (and occasionally interminable) hands-on quest could have been replaced by online shopping, but then our pocket-money hunts were in the days before children were equipped with smartphones. I used to think Toys'R'Us was a bit soulless, compared to the "proper" toyshops it was driving out of business, but ordering toys online and having them delivered to the door? That seems pretty cold to me, even if the choice is wider and the prices are cheaper, and it is more convenient for parents who are, apparently, too busy to make time to go shopping with their kids. In the photo, I like the way the touches of red in the Toy'R'Us logo have been semi-obliterated by the pink blossoming trees, ditto the red digger obscured by trees, parked in the adjacent municipal yard.

Of course, you can also have too much in-yer-face red... The decrepit Bargate shopping mall in the town centre – right next to Southampton's main, yet most baffling tourist attraction, the "iconic" Norman Bargate – has now been closed for demolition and redevelopment, and someone has decided that a nice bright red would be an enlivening touch on the site hoardings. Ouch. Not so much firing a gun, à la Turner, as letting off a broadside salvo of red.

Tuesday 1 May 2018

Gigantic Arabs

One of my favourite blogs is Some Landscapes, written by Andrew Ray (a.k.a. Plinius), which should be a regular port of call for anyone with an interest in landscape and landscape-related art. Andrew is very well-informed, writes well, and is wide-ranging and generous in his discussions of current exhibitions and the work of contemporary landscape artists as well as the artists and writers of the past, not least those of China and Japan, areas in which he appears to have a special interest.

One of his recent posts concerned the heartfelt complaints confided to her journal by Marie Bashkirtseff, a talented painter of Ukrainian extraction living in late 19th century Paris, lamenting the way conventional expectations of the behaviour of a respectable young woman placed an intolerable constraint on her ability to move about freely in the locations she longed to paint. It's an interesting post, but what caught my eye was his remark that a passage from her diary entry on 20th June 1882 is rendered slightly differently in two different translations. In one, by A.D. Hall (1908), it reads:
So there is nothing to do but deplore my sex and return to dreams of Italy and Spain. Granada! Gigantic Arabs, pure sky, brooks, rose laurels, sun, shadow, peace, calm, harmony, and poetry!
Eh? In the other, by Mathilde Blind (1890), the "gigantic arabs" have been translated as "gigantic vegetation". Which is odd, to say the least. As I know a bit of Russian, I was curious to learn what word had led to this confusion. So, having established that her "real" Russian-style name was Mariia Bashkirtseva, I managed to track down an online text of what I took to be the original of her journal ("dnevnik" in Russian), here. When I found the relevant entry, I was puzzled to see that the ambiguous passage had been omitted. The entry ends, "Итак, остается оплакивать свой пол"; that is, "So there is nothing to do but deplore my sex". No dreams of Italy and Spain, no Granada, no giant arabs, nothing. Which was intriguing, and also made me begin to suspect that there might be something a little racy going on here that had been edited out, as well as perhaps clumsily bowdlerised by those early translators.

The most accessible fluent Russian speaker I'm aware of is Stephen Dodson of that other estimable blog, Language Hat (no relation). So I took the liberty of dropping him an email, wondering (a) whether he might have access to a fuller edition of Bashkirtseva's Dnevnik, or (b) if not, what Russian word might possibly be translated as either "arabs" and/or "vegetation"? Stephen replied that he couldn't help, not least because, in fact, it seemed the original text was in French, Mon Journal. Ah.

I discovered that Bashkirtseff's Journal had been through various editions and redactions, as Marie had died very young of TB, and her family had sought subsequently both to maximise the monetary and minimise the scandal value of her written legacy (not to mention falsifying her age, to make her seem more of a prodigy). This was starting to look complicated – no French edition appeared to be available online – and, to be honest, less interesting, and certainly not worth a trip up to London to visit a library with a substantial 19th century French collection.

But, as a last throw of the dice, I had a look in the catalogue of "my" library [1] and was amazed to find we had an abridged edition in French. Not only that, but – despite having shrunk from the original 16-volume job down to a single pocket-sized volume – the entry for 20th June 1882 was there. Now, I have no idea how close this edition abrégée (Paris: Nelson, 1938) is to Marie's original diary. She may well have indulged in a little exotic erotic fantasy on the 20th June, which her editors discreetly bowdlerised. Given the nature of her complaint about the treatment of young ladies in the 1880s that would be ironic, n'est-ce pas? But here is the mystery passage, as found:
Donc, il n'y a qu'à déplorer mon sexe, et à revenir aux rêves d'Italie et d'Espagne. Grenade! Arbres géants, ciel pur, ruisseaux, lauriers-roses, soleil, ombre, paix, calme, harmonie, poésie!
Which translates exactly as above, apart from the crucial ambiguous phrase, which turns out to be, bathetically: arbres géants, "gigantic trees". So it seems one translator, Blind, had a wooden ear, but the other, Hall, made a bizarre slip of the sort my teachers would have called "a howler", or possibly even of the sort we have come to know as "Freudian".

1. Despite having retired, I think dedicating 30 years to the maintenance and flourishing of an institution entitles one to a degree of "ownership". More prosaically, I do also have a reader's ticket.