Friday 30 November 2018

Putting on the Style

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

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

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

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

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

Degraded, or improved?

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

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

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

Tuesday 27 November 2018


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

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

Sunday 25 November 2018

The Same Stream Several Times

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

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

The outlier 

The headless man

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

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

Thursday 22 November 2018

Lost in Translation

Innsbruck 2014, going on 1904

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innsbruck 2014, going on 1954

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

Monday 19 November 2018

Remembering to Remember in November

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the trench magazine The Wipers Times

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

Thursday 15 November 2018


Approaching Axminster

Long shadows by the Axe

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

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

Lyme Regis skips

Black Ven & Golden Cap from the Cobb

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

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

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

Meadow outside Axminster

Along the Axe

But why make them white?

Saturday 10 November 2018

The Guardians

Like some home-brewer performing heady alchemy with the fruits of a long summer, I have bottled and corked yet another book, and racked it on the shelf. This time, it's The Guardians, a selection of those composites I have been making this year out of various bits of statuary. It's less grandiose as a bookwork than Puck's Song, at a mere 8" x 10", but every bit as ambitious in its picture-making. There's more of it, too: 56 pages.

As always, I am offering it to readers of this blog first, via this link. This time there are three versions: a hardback at £34.99, a softback at £24.99, and a PDF at £6.49. As always, I'm not holding my breath when it comes to sales. So, go on, please do have a look (there's a full preview there at the link) but feel free to keep hold of your hard-earned cash. As it says in all the best bookshops, you are welcome to browse with no obligation to buy. To be honest, I'd rather hear what you have to say than count your money, although I wouldn't mind both.

For those who have asked, yes, there will be a wasp book, as well as a rather special little crow book, but I want to do my absolute best by those before releasing them into the wild. In other words, I'm still having too much fun with them to let go of them just yet. Soon, though, soon.

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Night Flight

As we like to say in northern latitudes, now that the clocks have "gone back" an hour from British Summer Time, the nights are drawing in... That extra hour in bed on one Sunday is no compensation for the sudden lack of light in the late afternoons, when I tend to be out of the house walking with a camera in summer. Time to adjust habits, as well as clocks.

Saturday 3 November 2018

New To You, or: TL;DR

I seem to be going on about the nature of getting older rather a lot on this blog recently. Which, for readers of various ages, is probably boring, annoying, and anxiety-provoking in equal measure, but there we are. Let's put it like this: I may only be 64, but like any good driver I like to keep my eyes on the road ahead. Not too far ahead, obviously, as this road only goes to one place but, although the destination may be absolutely certain, the hazards and roadside attractions on the way are worth remarking upon, and even worth the occasional detour. Plus, being a good driver but a terrible navigator, there is always the chance that any detour I make may become an instructive dérive. As Chet Baker said, let's get lost. Or as my partner says, try not to get lost this time.

Some hope. I drove into deepest darkest East Sussex recently, to collect four of my pictures from a gallery in Ticehurst and, after following what I thought was an obvious route, realised I was lost in a labyrinth of unsignposted sunken lanes Somewhere in England. I knew I was off-course somewhat when a posh woman on a large horse rode up the lane and, on being asked how to get to Ticehurst, said, "Where??" Luckily, she was able to consult her smartphone and benevolently guided me out of the maze. I think I may have a naive faith in such guardian angels turning up at the right moment which is rather stronger than my sense of direction.

So, um, what was I going to say? Something about getting older... Oh, yes: Old MacDonald. There is a type of song, often "traditional", in which the chorus gets progressively longer, as a new element is added with each verse. I though this genre might have a nice name, but it seems they're simply known as "cumulative songs": Old MacDonald Had a FarmThe Twelve Days of Christmas, and There was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly (no, I have no idea why she swallowed a fly, these things happen, it's no biggie, and there's really no need to make a doctor's appointment... What? No, of course she's not going to die, you idiot) are all examples. The thing is, increasingly, I am struck by the extent to which our collective life is paralleled and parodied by these cumulative songs.

Not so very long ago, there wasn't a great deal for the average person to know. You had to know how to get out of bed, find your way downstairs, make gruel, and stagger down the lane to whatever field or workshop you were working in today, then reverse the process once it started to get dark. Your work was probably traditional, repetitive, and dull. You probably couldn't read or write. News came in the form of gossip and broadside ballads. Singing The Twelve Days of Christmas was probably the most rigorous workout your memory would get in a twelvemonth. After all, even the most advanced scholars of the day had yet to hear of pretty much everything we now presume to be common knowledge. Bear in mind that Bishop Ussher's rigorous calculation, based on the best available data, that the first day of creation fell upon October 23rd 4004 BC was made in 1650, not 650 AD; that is, around the time young Isaac Newton was learning his long division. So you might not have known everything, but you could be across most of it before plague, war, famine, or various lethal combinations of stupidity and ignorance wiped your slate permanently clean.

Today, you don't need me to tell you, is rather different. It's arguable that it was young Newton, in fact, and his uncanny ease with long division that started off the snowballing complexities of modern life. Simply making breakfast and getting to work today requires more knowledge than was possessed by an entire village in 1718, and quite possibly 1918, too. Balanced, of course, by an ignorance of world-historical proportions. I mean, who, thumbing their way through the night's crop of trivia on the morning commute, has the faintest idea of how a smartphone actually works? Worse, what you knew last week may not be enough to get you through the day. It only takes a few ill-considered legislative changes, or some new contradictory nutritional advice, or, ulp, yet another unasked-for Windows upgrade to throw your whole understanding of the world into chaos. But here's the thing: unlike a Windows upgrade, an awful lot of the new stuff doesn't replace the old stuff: life is not just a long song, it's a cumulative song.

This is especially true in science and technology. Newtonian mechanics still apply, and you can't skip that verse and go straight to the wacky stuff about string, although it's also true that you can't include alchemy or astrology and still be taken seriously. The Science Song may be long and cumulative, but you've just got to buckle down and learn it. This is a bit more of a problem in the realm of culture. People might debate who's in and who's out, but no-one can dispute that the list of candidates just keeps getting longer and longer, without really getting anywhere. In music, Bach wasn't replaced by Mozart, who wasn't replaced by Beethoven, who wasn't replaced by Mendelssohn, who wasn't replaced by Mahler, who ... Well, you can probably hum the tune by now, even if you don't know all the words. There has always been more and more to listen to, to read, to see, to appreciate, until – probably somewhere in the mid-20th century – there was finally too much, and "culture" broke into pieces. We call that event "post-modernity". Keats may have had good reason to hope that his name was not, after all, "writ in water", but then he knew who the competition were, and had probably read them all, often and with close attention. A contemporary Keats could spend a lifetime catching up before actually getting around to writing anything, but, given she's probably never heard of Keats, and is a 12-year old wannabe rapper living a precarious life in Los Angeles or Lagos, this hardly matters any more. There are any number of different cumulative songs, each invoking its own list of players. No-one is conducting the cultural song any more.

Which brings me to my main, grumpy-old-man point. Isn't it annoying, when some sparky youngster announces the discovery of some old hat in the cultural attic, as if no-one had ever seen or worn it before? Yes, yes, young 'un, that was your grandfather's hat: I'm sick of the sight of it, frankly... That's the only reason why I, ahem, nailed it to the rafters, rather than taking it to Oxfam. Which reminds me that some second-hand shops have taken to describing their stock as "new to you": a good label for most culture, really, it being both well-used and always new to somebody.

On Hallowe'en, for example, I was at the Ashmolean Museum's exhibition Spellbound, which brings together lots of material associated with witchcraft and popular magical thinking. No, I was not an exhibit myself, although I must admit I felt a bit like one. I've had an on-again, off-again interest in witchery since I was a teen [1], and – apart from some rather half-hearted art installations – there was disappointingly little there I hadn't come across before. Witch hunts, witch bottles, apotropaic devices, astrology, black mirrors, crystals, and mummified cats ... It was all a bit shop-worn, and also pitched at that "school project" level that museums seem to have adopted universally, so that it was spookily like being trapped inside a copy of a book like Dorling Kindersley's Witches & Magic-Makers [2]. I will admit it was good finally to see actual copies of classic texts like The Discovery of Witches, and also some manuscript depositions from witch trials, but the lighting levels and displays were not attuned to ageing eyes or prolonged scrutiny, if faded 17th-century secretary hand is not as immediately legible to you as it might be to some. But it seems you're not expected actually to read the things. It's a spectacle, grandad: move along, please...

Self-evidently, the young don't know – cannot know – what to us oldies is basic stuff, and yet we are obliged to assume (or pretend) that they do. Anything else would be tiresome and patronising. Of course you know who Harold Wilson was, and why he's standing in that photo with the Beatles. The Beatles? Of course you know who the Beatles were... Similarly, to have presumed that we knew, or would quickly come to know, everything our parents' or grandparents' generations knew was never more than a polite fiction. Of course I know who Benny Goodman was... Not so sure about Dan Leno, though... The communal cumulative cultural song is always falling apart, always starting again. In pre-literate societies, of course, you could make a decent living as an itinerant bard, recounting the interminable history of a people and the genealogy and heroic deeds of its rulers in epic eight-hour recitals, but these sessions were hardly singalongs. Today, as the chorus not only gets longer and longer, but also wider and wider, and spreads out into completely new and unknown dimensions, something has to give, and that seems to be personal memory. The ability to memorise and retain and recall is vanishing. In the title of a book I saw recently: why learn history when it's already on my phone?

So, ironically, in an age of information overload the typical individual's knowledge-base may be returning to something like its pre-modern village level. You need to know how to get out of bed, find your way downstairs, make breakfast, and stagger to whatever hot-desk, cash-till, or call-centre you are working in today, then reverse the process once your shift is over. Your work is probably scripted, repetitive, and dull. You probably don't read or write much. News comes in the form of social media chat and infotainment. Singing The Twelve Days of Christmas is probably the most rigorous workout your memory will get in a twelvemonth. And, curiously enough, this is pretty much exactly what Marshall McLuhan (who?) really meant by the Global Village.

1. Which has NOTHING to do with those objects nailed to the rafters. NOTHING.
2. Dorling Kindersley have pretty much trademarked a style of presenting reference works aimed at children that is big on white-background illustration and light on text, which is often reduced to the status of sidebars and labels.