Friday 27 July 2018

Long Hot Summer

Here in the UK, as in much of the Northern Hemisphere, it has been an exceptionally long, hot, and dry summer so far. We've had our share of wildfires, too (fires on dried-out, peaty moors are especially difficult to extinguish, once started) but have thankfully escaped the catastrophic loss of life and property we have seen elsewhere: I sincerely hope none of you have been affected by this.

For once, I have even bothered to dig out and wear my shorts and sandals, a foolhardy act which would normally guarantee a break in the weather. Not this year, however; maybe writing about my shorts and sandals will bring some welcome relief, at least in the form of rain. Probably the nearest comparison would be 1976, memorably the year I endured my university final exams, clad in the regulation, ridiculous "subfusc": for men, a dark suit, white shirt, white elasticated bow-tie, black shoes, plus academic cap and gown [1]. If I recall correctly, for English Language & Literature finalists that year there were two three-hour exams on Thursday, two on Friday, one on Saturday morning, two on Monday, and another one on Tuesday. By the end of it, I don't think anybody cared about the actual result; finally to be free to laze in or out of the sun in minimal, non-fusc clothing was reward enough. School was finally out. For ever.

One of my regular walks in Southampton takes me through the municipal Sports Ground, which lies below the municipal Golf Course, in a swampy hollow of sand and gravel riddled with underground streams and seasonal springs. On an autumn morning, the mists there can be spectacularly all-enveloping. At the moment, however, even this damp spot resembles the Dordogne, with yellowed, straw-like grass baking under harsh sunlight. As I looked across it from an elevated spot, I could see new herringbone-patterned markings across the football pitches, and was speculating what strange new game the pitches could have been marked-up for, until I realised that the overlay of lines actually marks the course of underground drainage pipes, installed to keep the pitches playably dry in winter. All around the country, "crop marks" like these are revealing sub-surface features of varying antiquity, from unsuspected Neolithic henges to Tudor garden layouts; it's the traditional archaeological bonus of a dry summer. The trees, of course, stay green, with their deeper roots, but at grass level it's not deeper roots but the differential presence of moisture over vanished banks and ditches and buried walls and floors that parches some grass into golden straw and allows other grass to remain relatively green, revealing the hidden inscriptions of history below the level turf like invisible ink over a candle flame.

1. For women, the garb was / is similar. However, one of my friends, lacking a suitable pair of black shoes (indeed, much by way of shoes at all), painted her feet black. No-one seems to have noticed or, if they did, chose not to make a fuss about it.

Wednesday 25 July 2018


The discovery of an unknown folding triptych attributed to Fra Angelico would be a remarkable event under any circumstances, but the fact that this piece, concealed beneath several layers of wood-effect Fablon®, had been used for decades to support the dartboard in a Southampton pub only adds to the sensation.

Sophie Artex-Orlova, an acknowledged expert on pub interiors, said, "It has clear marks of the master's hand, not least those oddly squinty eyes, and, look, that's his name along the bottom edge there, which is pretty conclusive. I know it says "B. Giovanni Angelico", but that's his proper name, in Italian, which of course he was at the time."

Bob Butterburr, landlord of The Prancing Pony, which has been on its current waterfront site for at least 300 years, will be calling last orders for the very last time this week, following a third and final unsatisfactory You're Welcome To Southampton! audit by the City Council's Friendly Welcome Unit. Bob said, "I had no idea what was inside the bloody thing. It's been there on the wall since at least the 1950s. It was only when we were taking down the dartboard and it it fell off the wall that the sticky-back plastic split, and it swung open like the [redacted]. If I'd known it opened up like that, we could have painted it over with blackboard paint and kept score on it. Shame. Obviously, there's no point in me forking out for a proper dartboard cabinet now. People keep telling me I'll be able to buy my own pub for what this thing's worth, but I can't see it. Since the likes of those [redacted] Grayson Perry and Damien Hirst rocked up the bottom has dropped out of the Early Renaissance religious art market like a [redacted], hasn't it? Brexit won't help much, either, but don't get me started on that [redacted]. Eh? 'Course I want to remain! Like Guinness, do you? Fancy any of my Polish bar staff? And where do you think these posh Belgian beers come from? Barnsley? And another thing..."

Pace Mr. Butterburr, How far the picture is a religious piece is an interesting question. The gender of the central figure is highly ambiguous, and it lacks any halo or any of the other conventional iconography of sainthood or divinity used in the period. There is what appears to be a halo superimposed on the beautifully rendered figure of a hawk in a side panel, but there is also a square "halo" lower down on the same panel which is without precedent, and could mean anything or nothing. It is possible it is one of Fra Angelico's notorious jeux d'esprit (cf. his bonkers "Mocking of Christ"); it is also possible it has been "made up", that is, assembled out of disparate elements at some point in the past. The piece comes up for auction in September, and keen international competition to secure it is anticipated. There is no expectation that an export license will be denied on grounds of national importance. "Fra who?" said the Secretary of State's secretary, when asked for a statement.

Sunday 22 July 2018

Slightly More Fabulous

A few subtle revisions to yesterday's St.Petersburg / Krylov composite have improved it, I think.

Saturday 21 July 2018


In the Summer Gardens in St. Petersburg there is a large monument which, unlike most statues in most big-city parks, seems to attract a lot of attention. When I was there a few weeks ago, Russian visitors, in particular, were constantly arranging selfies in front of it; so much so, I had to wait quite a while just to get a clear shot of it. The inscription simply says, "To Krylov". So, I wondered, who the hell is this Krylov guy, anyway?

The clue is in the crowded, wonderfully detailed bronze panels surrounding the statue's plinth, depicting animals in various unlikely combinations and peasants doing unsettling things with ladles of soup. We are clearly in the land of fable, that faux-folksy genre where speaking animals with peculiarly human motivations encounter and outwit each other in tales that convey an easily-digested (and usually quite conservative) form of wisdom. Ivan Krylov, it turns out, is a much-loved fabulist, often referred to as "the Russian La Fontaine".

When Wittgenstein declared, "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him", he probably had such fables in mind. By the same reckoning, if a fox could speak, I'd be amazed if a crow could understand him, either. No need, really: a fox's intentions are pretty straightforward to grasp. So, obviously, the various creatures acting out these exemplary tales are not representatives of their species, but people in disguise. Foxes don't eat grapes, sweet or sour, much less mutter memorable aphorisms about them as they scamper off. At least, not that we could understand. Famously, Isaiah Berlin borrowed the fable of the fox and the hedgehog to characterise human thinkers into two categories: foxes who know many small things, and hedgehogs who know one big thing. Personally, I prefer the mind-blowing version of this aperçu that fell out of my Christmas cracker in 1973: "There are two kinds of people: those who believe there are two kinds of people, and those who don't". No talking animals required.

Despite the success of the likes of Animal Farm and Watership Down, not to mention the oeuvre of Beatrix Potter, the fable has never really established itself as a genre in the English-language literary tradition, except in a defanged version for the consumption of children. It seems to be a very European thing, drawing on classical sources but recast in the image of the rural life of an all-purpose Euro-peasantry. You might say the fable is the literary equivalent of Marie Antoinette dressing up as a milkmaid. I suspect our early industrialisation and urbanisation put paid to the fable as a useful means of expression; talking animals are few and far between in English literature, post-Chaucer. Indeed, I suspect very, very few literate Britons will actually have read any Aesop or La Fontaine or Hans Christian Andersen, or even heard of Krylov. Whether the likes of Kafka are urban fabulists is an interesting question, but not one I'm inclined to pursue further without the prospect of a degree or a substantial cash payment at the end of the process.

Anyway, I couldn't resist extracting Krylov from his sunny park setting, and putting him in front of a more evocative St. Petersburg prospect, where he becomes a bloke absorbed in a book, oblivious to whatever is going on around him.

Tuesday 17 July 2018

In Sibyl's Cave

Deep in the face of that Euboean crag
A cavern vast is hollowed out amain,
With hundred openings, a hundred mouths,
Whence voices flow, the Sibyl's answering songs.
While at the door they paused, the virgin cried :
“Ask now thy doom!—the god! the god is nigh!”
So saying, from her face its color flew,
Her twisted locks flowed free, the heaving breast
Swelled with her heart's wild blood; her stature seemed
Vaster, her accent more than mortal man,
As all th' oncoming god around her breathed :
“On with thy vows and prayers, 0 Trojan, on!
For only unto prayer this haunted cave
May its vast lips unclose.” She spake no more.

Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 6, translated by John Dryden
The core of this picture is one of several busts I photographed in the Summer Gardens in St. Petersburg (a delightful place, incidentally, and clearly very popular with the locals for a shady Sunday stroll in hot weather). When I started to play around with it, it seemed to want to lead me in certain directions, and I ended up inside this imaginary cave twinkling with watery reflections. I had genuinely forgotten (if I ever bothered to notice) who or what the bust represented, but when I decided to check, I found to my surprise that it is, in fact, a sibyl. The Erythraean Sibyl, to be exact, and not the Cumaean Sibyl (the one that Aeneas consults before descending into the underworld), but still very appropriate. I suppose my subconscious must somehow have noted the identity [1], and encouraged me to go with it. Although, as I have taken care to point out several times, I am no classicist, and I'm afraid to say that the name "Sybil", for me, primarily evokes Fawlty Towers, and not any cave-dwelling fortune-tellers.

There do seem to have been quite a few sibyls and practitioners of allied oracular trades hanging out around the Mediterranean; I suppose it must have been quite a good racket, sitting around inhaling the vision-inducing gases, and dispensing cryptic ambiguities to superstitious alpha males. Although sitting perched on a tripod does sound distinctly precarious, unless it was more by way of a bar-stool ("Of all the ethylene joints in all the caves in all the world..."). It's been interesting, though, reading up on the sibylline lore. I had no idea that the word "acrostic" was originally applied to the prophecies of the Erythraean Sibyl, for example, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters of the leaves formed a word, in a kind of oracular Scrabble. I wonder how often the word was some appropriately offensive reference to the gullible recipient?

This will not be news to any proper classicists out there, but I was very taken by the story of how the Cumaean Sibyl marketed her books of prophesies to the last Roman king, Tarquinius: it's become a true classic of bookselling technique, used by publishers' reps everywhere. Apparently, she offered Tarquinius a set of nine books of prophecies at a ridiculously high price, but the king turned her down. So, she burned three of them, right there, and offered the remaining six to Tarquinius, still at the same crazy price. Again, he refused. So, she burned another three. Just three left, now; but, to you, sir, still at that same high price. Anyone got any more matches? Tarquinius, the superstitious alpha male, panicked: who knew what useful prophesies might be lurking in those pages [2]? So he bought the remaining three at the full, original price and, over the centuries, they were resorted to whenever some intractable problem presented itself. Plague? Floods? Catastrophic military defeat? Break out the Sibylline Books!

The solutions offered by the books do seem distinctly odd, however, such as when in 216 BC Hannibal annihilated the Roman army at the Battle of Cannae. The books were consulted, and as a consequence, two Gauls and two Greeks were buried alive in the forum. Um, sorted... Maybe. But that's what happens when you entrust the nation's fate to the ravings of some gas-happy soothsayer. Although the real problem may have been the failure to invest in the complete set of such an invaluable part-work. As anyone will attest who has bought into the cumulative monthly issues of, say, The Wacky World Encyclopaedia of Prophesy, the best bits are generally in the early volumes, and the contents of the last few gets progressively thinner and less reliably sourced. And I bet Tarquinius didn't even get the binders or the index.

Summer Gardens

 1. Though what it would have made of "Сивилла Эритрейская" (Sibilla Eritreiskaya) I'm not sure: it's hard to imagine why or how the Ancient Greeks would have consulted a sibyl located in Eritrea.
2. I haven't checked whether the Sibylline Books were actual books, as such, or – heh – more of a loose-leaf affair.

Saturday 14 July 2018

The Good, The Perfect, And The Ugly

There are many "life lessons" out there to be learned and passed on, most of which turn out to be the self-evident BS that falls out of a Christmas cracker. People were fed up with this sort of sententious nonsense even in Shakespeare's time – see Polonius in Hamlet – but it seems we have an insatiable appetite for bite-sized wisdom. However, for those diligent souls who care about their work and are prepared to take pains to get it right, there is one essential lesson I can pass on which can be reduced to this convenient takeaway sound-bite: nobody cares how hard you worked to get it right. When something – whether it be it a device, a project, some software, a submarine, whatever – just works, nobody will give a tuppenny damn quite how it was made to work, even if it might just as easily not have worked, or how much effort and ingenuity went into making it work so well. That's what we pay you for, isn't it? Of course, if that something doesn't work, or work as well as it might, people will care very much, and they'll know who to blame.

I think I have shared before various of my own Polonius-like insights into management, but one in particular bears repeating, and it is this: in any organisation, most people are passive onlookers, little more than passengers working their passage on a journey whose reward is a monthly salary and whose destination, in the short term, is the weekend and, in the long term, retirement. Therefore, to ensure the success of any enterprise, whether it be a voyage of discovery, a zoo, or a university, two unusual personality types are necessary: people who make things happen, and people who make things work. These are two very different and equally rare sets of characteristics, hardly ever embodied in a single person. Such people often hold each other in contempt, openly or secretly, but, when brought together – by force, if necessary – they can generate an awesome transformative energy. The inner secret, however, is this: People Who Make Things Happen must never be given a complex task to see through, and People Who Make Things Work must never, ever be put in charge. I could give chapter and verse – indeed, there's a  bestselling book in there for some wannabe consultancy guru – but I think the truth of this will be self-evident to anyone who has ever worked for a living in a corporate setting, at least now that I have pointed it out.

The crucial thing is to figure out is who you are, and not to kid yourself. After all, you're almost certainly a passive passenger. "This ship's going to India? No problem, just tell me what to do! And when is my lunch break?" You may want to make things happen, but probably lack the people skills, love of meetings, and sociopathic ruthlessness to achieve this. If you wore the captain's hat, would the ship ever leave dock, never mind get to India? No, I thought not. Similarly, you may want to make things work, but probably lack the compendious attention to detail, the resourceful creativity, and the unforgiving work ethic that makes lunch breaks an unwelcome distraction. If you held the chief engineer's oily rag, what are the chances of the ship drifting helplessly in mid-ocean at the first mechanical setback? Quite. No, step back, do whatever you're asked to do, and let those rare creatures – they know who they are – do their thing. That way, we'll all get to India in one piece. Why are we going there? As if you cared. Lunch for your team is from 13:00 to 14:00. Carry on.

But, to return to my original "life lesson": one thing People Who Make Things Work need to learn and accept is that all the praise and rewards will go to the People Who Make Things Happen. It's the way of the world: nobody cares how hard you worked to get it right. It's just a fact. Nobody ever got a knighthood for ensuring the ship of state didn't stop, hit a rock, or run out of rations. That honour goes to the person who stands on the bridge, declaiming, "Plot me a course to India. Did anyone remember to bring a map? Full steam ahead! And make sure those engine-thingies don't break!" Even if where you all end up turns out to be America. People Who Make Things Happen are also People Who Make Things Up, when it suits them.

Of course, by the same token, an important life lesson for People Who Make Things Happen is not to grab all the credit: you'll get it, anyway. A few quiet, grateful words, some fulsome praise where fulsome praise is due, maybe even a recommendation for a lesser gong or a generous cash reward; these things win loyalty and, let's be frank, make you look even better. And yet, in my observation and experience, this is a lesson that those preening bastards on the bridge – with never a drop of oil or sweat on their dress uniforms – hardly, if ever, bother to learn, as the ship glides gracefully into port, on course and on time, to general acclaim. Well done, captain!

So, me hearties, just be content that a job well done is its own reward, and repeat: nobody cares how hard you worked to get it right, nobody cares how hard you worked to get it right... Got it? Expect nothing, and you won't be disappointed. Now, lunch break's over, you worthless dogs: get shovelling that coal! Pass me my oily rag!

Thursday 12 July 2018


You'll be relieved to know that I have nothing whatsoever to say about the weather or the football, both of which have become pretty boring. Instead, here are recent examples of something I've been doing with my extensive collection of photographs of statuary of various sorts. I really like that jolt of the uncanny you get from giving these human representations a new context, especially when they're fairly hermetic to start with.

The one at the top is a rare example of an, um, intact classical statue. Very intact, in his case. The one below, bizarrely, is a monument in a Southampton cemetery. I have no idea what either is trying to tell us. I suppose it might be about football or the weather, but I doubt it.

Sunday 8 July 2018

A Mind of Winter

When it gets as hot and sultry as this, there's only one place to go. In your mind, at least.
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The Snow Man, by Wallace Stevens (1921)

Friday 6 July 2018

Compare and Contrast

Southampton Old Cemetery
July 2017

I like to look back through my image-file folders to remind myself what I was doing at the same time last year – where I was, what the weather was like, and so on – especially when we're having a long run of notable weather like this current uncharacteristic summer heatwave. For me, these files (arranged by camera, then month, then year) constitute a very effective sort of diary. Unlike the entries in a written journal ("Another day of fine weather. Went to the Old Cemetery. Took photographs.") a set of photographs represents a much fuller spectrum of sense data, including, paradoxically, those that are absent: I can still hear the dry rustle of a steady western breeze blowing through the dry grasses of the Old Cemetery in the photo above, as well as the shouts of a game of football on the Common, just beyond those trees. Now that I've mentioned it, I expect you can, too.

There is a strange belief, implicitly shared by many photographers, that they have been personally responsible for all the pictorial elements and the arrangement thereof that have been recorded by their camera, as if they were packshot photographers, painters, or cinematographers; a belief reinforced by critiques that pore over accidental details in the best photographs as if they were clever brushstrokes in a Rembrandt. It is a form of magical thinking, and equally delusional. Wiser photographers take a justified but limited pride in their ability to be out in the world, notice things, improvise a suitable composition, and record it. That is what "f/8 and be there" means (unless you're a "blurry backgrounds" obsessive, in which case substitute "f/1.8 and be there"). But, in a world awash with photographs, I think we're finding that to get beyond this flood of documentary, indexical photography to the foothills of art now requires more than the venerable simplicity of "f/8 and be there".

I like to think I have an uncommon ability for that reactive, observational style of photography, and it has sustained my creative impulse for the 30 years it has been constrained by work and family commitments. But – now that I am off the leash and free to do whatever I want – I find it's no longer enough. Taking many photographs, getting the chance to exhibit my work, abroad and at home, pursuing multiple photographic "projects" and sequencing the results in books... These no longer hit the spot for me. Photography as an art-form – like proper journalism, the compilation of reference works, or high-street retail – is under severe pressure from the paradigm-shifts introduced by the internet. If you wanted to exaggerate, you might even say it's "over": Bye Bye, Photography, Dear. So, increasingly, my photos are becoming the starting point in an improvisational game of associations and transformations, played out in my head and on my computer screen, a game which enables me to build something I find more personal, more completely satisfying, and more self-sufficient out of the raw materials mined from the rich seams of my image-file folders. Above all, I want to make something more expressively complex, and more intentional. It's not that I want to control your response, but that I want to give you something richer and stranger to respond to.

Whether the end results are true works of art or meretricious abominations is, in the end, not for me to judge. Doubtless, my efforts swing from one pole to the other. All I know is that I get an enormous amount of enjoyment from doing it and, for what it's worth, it seems that people are more willing to part with hard cash to own a picture like the one below than they are to buy a copy of its originating photograph above. Which is a shame, in some ways, but, although sales are hardly the only or even the best measure of artistic success, they are surely the most sincere form of flattery, and the only metric that will also keep you well-stocked with printer paper and ink.

Tuesday 3 July 2018


Woah, Polly put the kettle on... A jubilant nation makes a fresh pot of tea! The national grid's stress test is ON.

I don't really follow or even understand football much, but to be knocked out of the World Cup in a penalty shootout, ideally by Germany, is an essential and compulsory exercise in national humiliation. It keeps us honest (unlike those ungentlemanly Colombians this evening, grr). But, somewhere, somehow, something profound seems to have changed in the complex whirring gears of Fate, and ... We won. What? Oh well, there's always Sweden on Saturday.

Looks like all those St. George flags will be staying up a bit longer. They always make me nervous, walking through town, as if whole streets have suddenly gone bully-boy white nationalist, but I suppose they mean no real harm. After all, as Billy Bragg says, it's our flag and we'd like it back, please.