Monday, 31 December 2018

Apologia Pro Ryvita Sua

What, New Year's Eve already? Yes, indeed: Christmas is done and dusted – very nice, thanks – our children have gone back to their real lives in London, and, having returned from Dorset to Southampton briefly to re-up our clothing, we now find ourselves in the Bristol Winter Palace for New Year. It does feel a little bit like being royalty, this seasonally-adjusted, peripatetic life, except royals have no clue where clean underwear comes from, don't drive themselves across several counties in fog and rain, and certainly don't stand fuming in the supermarket queue on New Year's Eve with a modest wire basket of provisions, stuck behind a log-jam of trolley-pushers, all apparently under the impression that no shops will be opening in 2019. Mind you, the way things are going, they could be on to something. It seems HMV is to be the latest vacant space on the High Street. Sad, but unsurprising: the days of flipping through racks of vinyl LPs seem as remote, now, as my father's stories of following the milkman's horse with a bucket to collect up dung for the garden. So what was a shop, grandad?

As for 2018, it has been a good, productive, and at times exciting year for me, even if it has involved rather more travelling than I'd ideally have chosen to do. Anyone who says it is the journey, not the destination that matters has never been delayed sine die and sans snacks in an airport departure "lounge". I suppose the only real disappointments have been not getting any of my truly amazing entries into either the RA Summer Show this year (may your pots explode in the kiln, Grayson Perry, you ████!) or the final hang of the RWA Open. That, and the ongoing decline in reader numbers of this blog, and the sparseness of your comments. I miss the sparky dialogue of earlier times. What is the sound of one bloke blogging?

December 2017
(no frost this year, just fog..)

It occurred to me, as I scoffed the last remaining mince pie, that New Year's resolutions are really a form of self-cancelling confession-plus-absolution package. I'm too lazy: I will join a gym. I'm too self-absorbed: I will make more of the few friends I have left. I'm fat: I will eat nothing but rye crispbread. I'm ignorant: I will find a suitable evening class. The potentially active component of these packages, though, is not the self-prescribed solution – no-one sticks to those – but the recognition and admission of a personal shortcoming. That counts for something. It may be self-knowledge of a painful sort, but can also feel good, especially after a week or two wallowing in greedy materiality. Confession is, however, potentially addictive. The problem is that the illusory sense of a new start – like most addictive things – lasts only long enough for you to crave a fresh hit. But then there are so many potential confessions to make! Especially if you set the bar for fault-finding and guilt sufficiently low. The organized churches have been in this racket for centuries. Does the Catholic Church charge for confession? I have no idea, but I expect the first few are free, at any rate, just to get you hooked.

So, racking my brain to think of some personal shortcoming to admit to and possibly even remedy in 2019 – I must have some left – I decided that I had two contradictory tendencies that could do with some attention. On the one hand, most of my life I have tended to go with the flow. If there was an easy route to take that didn't require too much by way of effort or navigation, that was the way I went. As a natural loner with a mistrust of self-appointed leaders, this has inevitably meant spending a lot of time going round in circles. On the other hand, whenever some important opportunity has been presented to me – a chance to break out of whatever circular holding pattern I was in at the time – I have usually backed away, like a fox sensing a trap. In the immortal words of Groucho Marx, "Please accept my resignation. I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member". This is hardly revelatory stuff, however: I recently found my old school report book, and it's full of repeated warnings along the lines of "he's quite clever, but not as clever as he thinks he is, and very, very lazy. I'm concerned he will never fulfil his real potential". Yes, well, you had me pegged, guys, at 17 in '71 (now that was a year!), and I don't suppose 2019 will be any different. Apart from the salutary fact that you're all dead, now, and I'm not: there may still be enough time to do something about it! Perhaps this year?

The wonderful thing about New Year is that, for a day or two at least, we can persuade ourselves that all options are now open, all bets are off, and all psychic laws and constants are in abeyance. Anything is possible in the coming year: review, restart, reset, reboot! Of course, the same possibilities of renewal exist at every other time of year, it's just that this little liminal pause, however illusory, is like stepping through a threshold bearing the opposite inscription to that over Dante's entrance to Hell: All hope is to be found beyond this doorway.  It's always worth a gamble, isn't it, another throw of the dice? As that very wise man William James put it:
For practical life at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough. No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance. The existence of the chance makes the difference, as Edmund Gurney says, between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.
Afterword to The Varieties of Religious Experience
As we step serially through that threshold in our different time zones, let us all hope for more hope in 2019! We're going to need it...

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Look It Up

It is arguable that Christmas Tree gangs should be banned
from attending the Edinburgh Christmas Fair

Don't look now, but Christmas is coming. Help! It's the same every year, though, isn't it? An entirely predictable, non-wobbly calendrical event (unlike that big tease, Easter) that somehow always manages to take you by surprise, as if somehow, if only you ignored it with sufficient conviction, this year it might not happen. Because, however you look at it, and whether you "celebrate" it or not, Christmas is always  a bit of a challenge, unless you're seven years old or the sort of adult male whose seasonal domestic contribution is restricted to keeping out of the way and staggering home late more often than usual. I recall the frustration of our many overseas students, for example, paying substantial fees and yet locked out of all university facilities from Christmas Eve until after New Year. So much for the Wise Men from the East... Sorry, guys, we're closed. Put the gold through the letterbox, but leave the frankincense and myrrh on the step [1].

In the Days of Analogue, one way of alleviating the tedium of those long, dark nights confined with your extended family was to play games. Ever had to chase cut-out paper fish across the living-room carpet with a rolled up newspaper, or tried to play hide-and-seek in a house with no hiding places worthy of the name? Only then can you fully appreciate the pure solitary joy of reading a book or, as an adult, quietly getting drunk and pretending to be unconscious. Of course, as well as the more lively, physical games there were also board games, ranging from the moronic to the baroque in their demands on your intellectual faculties. But there is really only one reason for most board games to exist at Christmas, and that is to corral hysterically over-excited young relatives, unfamiliar with the festive domestic layout, into a single location where the damage to furniture and fittings can be minimised. Mind that tree, you little ... cousins!

Personally, I've never really been turned on by games or puzzles. Even as a child, the idea of a round of Monopoly or snakes and ladders was never my idea of a fun way to spend the evening. I was always rather more interested in the look of the board and the gaming pieces than the game itself, and have certainly spent rather more time admiring the curves, planes, and moulding of chessmen than actually playing chess, which, frankly, I found and still find utterly baffling. The very idea of thinking several moves ahead, including the anticipation of your opponent's counter-moves, stimulates some part of my brain that, far from exciting me, gives me a profound headache. It's not something I'm proud of, I simply know my limits. Oh, look, you win again: I'll put the kettle on. Do we have any paracetamol?

I have attempted to master a few card games which are more complex than snap (difficult enough, if your attention is constantly snagged by the elegance and intricacies of playing card design). Poker and bridge, for example, simply because it seems antisocial to spoil the fun of others by refusing to play, however badly, and, naturally, there's nothing a decent card player enjoys more than to point out the idiotic way you have just lost a winning hand to their fistful of rubbish. You're welcome! I spent one memorable holiday in the late 1970s touring France and Spain trapped in a car with three keen bridge players. Rarely has anyone filled the role of "dummy" so well. Listen, you play out the hand, I'll get the drinks in [2].

Solitary games don't hit the spot for me, either. Sudoku? Forget about it! And the challenge of, say, a crossword has never been one to which I have felt the need to rise. Although, recently, I have taken a reluctant interest in the full-on cryptic crossword, which – with its traditions, explicit and implicit rules, and austere satisfactions – is a peculiarly British institution, not unlike our unwritten constitution, or the game of cricket. The civil servant who can finish the Times crossword during the morning commute, casually leaving the paper with its pencilled-in solutions on the train seat, is a figure of legend. But, as with chess, the mindset required to solve a cryptic clue is deeply alien to me. I love language: truly, madly, deeply. To regard words as assemblages of letters, to be chopped up and re-arranged to form other words, is like regarding a person as a fascinating but interchangeable assemblage of organs. Which, I suppose, is precisely how a surgeon must come to see people: in Eliot's memorable words, he sees the skull beneath the skin.

Which, dammit, now sounds to me like a moderately cryptic clue... A spider sees the skull beneath the skin (7 letters). Why? Because recently an old friend who is a crossword enthusiast has inveigled me into helping him out with some of the clues in the Times Literary Supplement crossword, under the mistaken impression that I have advanced knowledge of literary matters. Whereas I am, in reality, a retired professional metadata surfer. As Samuel Johnson said, "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries." [3] Well, I suppose I do have a little literary knowledge, but what I really know is where and how to look for more.

Sometimes these TLS clues are not so much cryptic as oblique: it's just a question of spotting the allusion. For example: "Clergyman's legendary pseudonym (9)". Answer: INGOLDSBY. Now, I doubt that even very well-read people, these days, would get that one unaided by Google. Who today, for heaven's sake, has read The Ingoldsby Legends? Or is aware that "Thomas Ingoldsby" was the pseudonym of a clergyman, Richard Harris Barham? It reeks of a stuffy kind of literariness – all pipe smoke and tweed jackets – that was already obsolete by the 1960s. But, as a clue, it's still little more than a look-up job: the most challenging clues are those that deploy a fiendish ingenuity that rips language apart and stitches it back together into a Frankensteinian simulacrum.

Consider this recent TLS clue: "Service area crossed by Follett's drunken agent (6)". Now, as a sentence, it makes superficial sense. We know what a "service area" is, we can guess that thriller writer Ken Follett is being invoked, and that one of his books may well include an agent who is a drinker. Much googling ensues, but with little result. There are no obvious Follett novels with an alcoholic protagonist, no useful synonyms for "service area". But the experienced solver will have been alerted by the words "crossed by". Such innocent formulations often indicate a mashup of some kind; an anagram, a concatenation, a topping and tailing, or some other piece of word butchery.

So, now consider the answer: it is ... KERNAN. Your considered response to this may be WTF?, as was mine. But here's how it works:

"service" = RN (abbreviation for the Royal Navy, the Senior Service);
"area" = A (a standard algebraic abbreviation);
"Follett" = KEN.
Now apply scissors and paste.

"Kernan", as you may or may not recall, is the drunk who falls down the stairs in "Grace", one of the short stories in James Joyce's Dubliners, and who also features in Ulysses. He is a salesman, thus an "agent"; well, kinda sorta, maybe. So it seems there is no "service area", and the "agent" is not Ken Follett's at all. [4] Which I find less than satisfying. Indeed, what baffles me most about this kind of puzzle is that the treasure chest, after all that map-reading and all that strenuous digging, is often empty. To successfully reverse-engineer the clue may reveal absolutely nothing at all about anything: it has merely demonstrated that your ingenuity is commensurate with that of the setter. Unless of course you managed to get there without resort to the Web or a decent reference shelf, smugly pencilling in KERNAN as the train pulled into Waterloo station, in which case what it reveals is that you have an improbably well-stocked mind as well as quite possibly some kind of personality disorder.

Which, as a retired professional metadata surfer, leads me to some melancholy thoughts on the decline of the printed reference book. If retail shops are struggling in the face of the competition from online shopping, the traditional, well-researched and authoritative work of reference has all but vanished beneath the wheels of the Web juggernaut. Where once there were shelves of atlases, dictionaries, concordances, bibliographies, companions, and encyclopaedias to accompany fields of study as broad as "everything" or as narrow as "Frisian folklore", now there is simply a blinking cursor in the box marked "Search". Which is fine – more than fine, it's fantastic – apart from the fact that it might as well be labelled "Pot Luck", given that most people have no idea how to frame a question which will deliver the answer they need, and must settle for the first few answers that a search engine's algorithms push to the top of an impossibly long and unsorted list of vaguely relevant results. Worse, the popular search engines discourage enquirers from applying any rigour to their search, as offered by the use of filters, wildcard characters, stemming, and the like. You press the button, we do the rest; trust us! Google, for example, doesn't exactly encourage the use of its "advanced search" (try finding it, for a start) or conventional search logic: yes, Google does offer Boolean-style operators, if you know how to use them.

One of my most treasured Christmas presents was a large dictionary, given by an uncle when I was about twelve. I hadn't asked for one, but it turned out to be just what I needed at just the right time. I sat poring over it for hours, finding it as hard to put down as any page-turning thriller. Rather like the multi-volume encyclopaedia I had begun to accumulate on my eighth birthday, it set out, in a systematic and authoritative way, an entire field of knowledge. I didn't need to know every word in it, I simply needed to know how to use it and, above all, when to use it, which meant activating those invaluable twin faculties: the desire to know – curiosity – and the willingness to acknowledge my ignorance.

Now, you, like me, will often have presumed to know something – the meaning of a word, say – and passed over it often enough subsequently for that presumption to have solidified into "knowledge". We are, understandably, not always curious or willing enough to question our own easily-won certainties. There's a nice passage in Aldous Huxley's first novel, Crome Yellow, in which a poet at a 1920s house party explains his misunderstanding of the word "carminative":
"It's a word I've treasured from my earliest infancy," said Denis, "treasured and loved. They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold–quite useless, but not disagreeable. One poured it drop by drop out of narrow bottles, a golden liquor, fierce and fiery. On the label was a list of its virtues, and among other things it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. I adored the word. 'Isn't it carminative?' I used to say to myself when I'd taken my dose. It seemed so wonderfully to describe that sensation of internal warmth, that glow, that–what shall I call it?–physical self-satisfaction which followed the drinking of cinnamon. Later, when I discovered alcohol, 'carminative' described for me that similar, but nobler, more spiritual glow which wine evokes not only in the body but in the soul as well. 
But then, having used the word in a poem ("And passion carminative as wine...") he decides finally to look it up. Only to discover it actually means "makes you fart" (or, "a small English-German dictionary" having been the only reference source readily to hand, Windtreibend).

It happens. I'm fond of asking people what colour they think a "livid scar" is (go on, look it up), not least because I myself felt betrayed by that word when I finally had cause to look it up. But, once you have recovered from your embarrassment – and assuming you are not that strangely well-informed man on the morning train to Waterloo – such epiphanies are an opportunity to acknowledge, if not necessarily achieve, the sort of humility before the Unknown that is the hallmark of the great enquiring minds. In the famous words attributed to Isaac Newton (not a man noted for his humility in everyday life):
I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Or, as that other far-from-humble man, Samuel Johnson, responded, when asked how on earth he could have defined "pastern", wrongly, as "the KNEE of a horse" in his dictionary: "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance."

I am shortly to depart for our own little house party in Dorset over Christmas, where the carminative properties of various traditional festive consumables, not excluding wine, will doubtless be thoroughly tested. Games may well be played, too (my son is unaccountably keen on board games), so I may yet have to pretend to be unconscious, or at least too absorbed in a book to be worth disturbing. It is unlikely that I will not be posting again before the New Year but nonetheless possible, rural Wi-Fi being what it is. A lot also depends on how unconscious or absorbed I become. So, just in case, allow me to wish you a very enjoyable [insert Solstice Celebration of choice] and many good things to look forward to in 2019! Here in Brexit-bound Britain, sadly, Things can only get more Interesting... I'm afraid April 1st could be a very strange and very foolish day indeed, this coming year.

A reminder of winters past...
A Hind's Daughter, by Sir James Guthrie (1883)
Scottish National Gallery

1. Equally predictably, every year some comedian will demand, rhetorically, "But what the hell is myrrh, anyway?" Really? So why not ask Santa for a dictionary next year, dimwit?
2. A task I enjoyed, as a large part of that holiday was spent in the Basque Country, where I often found – to my unaccustomed delight – that I was the tallest man in the bar.
3. That quotation (from Boswell's Life)  has an oddly anachronistic feel, as if Johnson is talking about popping into the local public library and scanning the summaries and blurbs printed on the back of the books, but of course by "back" he means "spine" and by "library" he means either someone's personal collection of books or that of some private institution like a club.
4. Here is an expert's account: The surface of  this clue suggests a story about the author Ken Follett and his inebriated (and/or hopefully non-litigious) literary agent on a motorway journey, perhaps. Cryptically, however, it is a charade within a container, with the clear definition, "drunken agent" – a reference to Joyce's character, KERNAN, the answer. The charade is RN = Royal Navy ("service") + A ("area" -- maths) and that is contained within KEN, the author Follett's forename. The containment is indicated by the word "crossed". RNA is 'crossed' by KEN. The "'s" at the end of Follet is the link word between wordplay and definition. Cryptically, it stands for 'is': [this wordplay] is (the same thing as) [this clear definition], while in the surface it is a possessive marker. So the structure of this clue is: contained charade / link word / definition.

Saturday, 15 December 2018


North Bridge from Calton Hill

Brown Street and Salisbury Crags from The Pleasance

Edinburgh, like any sizeable city, has many faces. As well as the Festival, the Scottish Parliament, the galleries and museums, and the upmarket shops of Princes Street, it is also the city of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus crime novels, and of course the film Trainspotting. In between those extremes there is the usual acreage of suburban streets, with no doubt the usual accompanying vanities of small differences. So, a long weekend visit is not going to yield any more insight than, at best, some of the basic geography of the city centre: and even so I'm still confused about which is the Old Town and which is the New Town.

I do feel a slightly tenuous connection with the place, as my paternal ancestors lived in Edinburgh for several generations during the 19th century: they were "pocket-book makers", a sort of low-level bookbinding trade, having left behind a life of shepherding in the Borders in the early 1800s. However, my great grandparents moved the family down to London's Elephant and Castle in the 1890s, where my grandfather was born and grew up. Quite why is unknown. Their last Edinburgh address was a tenement on South Bridge, then a warren of artisans and tradesmen's families crowded into single rooms. But their accommodation in London was, by the look of it in the 1891 Census, far worse. Certainly, two of their five children died in Camberwell in 1891: hardly the best start to a new life. My father recalled his Scottish grandmother as a stern, humourless woman, with an impenetrable accent and vocabulary. He clearly had far fonder memories of his Hertfordshire-born gran. So, apart from some genetic material and possibly a few inherited behavioural traits, I'm about as Scottish as a Toronto resident descended from a family evicted and transported in the Highland Clearances. Indeed, I have a surprising number of Canadian namesakes: politicians, ice-hockey players, businessmen, you name it. It's them, I suppose, and the thousands like them around the world who keep the tartan regalia shops of Princes Street in business, when they eventually make the journey back to the ancestral "home".

Rather than offer any startling insights into a city I barely know, here is a little gallery of things that caught my eye. I must say I did like the place very much, and hope to be back. Although I was rather shocked by the number of homeless people sitting at intervals on most city centre pavements, listlessly begging in the cold and damp. There is a nation-wide homelessness problem, clearly, but it seems so much more acute when you imagine having to spend your nights on the streets of Edinburgh in winter, as the wealthy tourists pass by, heading for their hotels.

Waverley Station from Market Street

View towards the Castle from Salisbury Crags

Ramsay Lane

Christmas Fair from the Mound

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Cockburn Street

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

How About Over There?

 Scottish National Gallery
(in front of a large Chisholm canvas)

To portray John Byrne and Tilda Swinton standing in front of a bland cafe counter seemed somehow inadequate, so, in the best traditions of portraiture, they have been encouraged to pose for me, virtually, in some more congenial surroundings.

 Milne's Court steps grafitti

Scottish National Portrait Gallery library
(in front of scary dead white men)

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Tam Lin, Starstruck

North Bridge, Edinburgh
from The Scotsman's Steps

My partner had academic gigs in Scotland either side of the weekend, so I flew up to Edinburgh (in a plane, obvs: I am not really a crow) so we could spend a long weekend there. I expect I'll post a little about that lovely city in due course, with a gallery of photographs, but first I have a story to tell.

On Saturday we had enjoyed a visit to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which is truly an amazing collection set within an extraordinarily beautiful building. As well as classic Ramsays and Raeburns, there's a good selection of contemporary work, too, from the chilling "Three Oncologists" by Ken Currie to engagingly quirky portraits by John Byrne, among which I was pleased to see his sketchy and unglamorous pastel portrait of Tilda Swinton, which I've admired for some time, but only ever seen on the Web. On Monday, the Prof had departed for Glasgow, and I had a morning to kill before flying back to Southampton (in a plane, etc.).

It was a beautiful, sunny-but-brisk morning, so I went for a walk up onto Calton Hill, where I admired the views over the city, took a few touristy photos, and inspected the police cordon around the spot where a body had been found over the weekend. Coming back down onto Princes Street, I remembered seeing a poster for a John Byrne exhibition in the Royal Scottish Academy, so, having had that recent reminder of his work, decided to head there, battling through the crowds thronging the Christmas market and fairground that has been installed in the gardens around the Scott Memorial, and which seem to have attracted half the population of Europe.

You may not be aware of John Byrne. British readers of a certain age are likely to be aware of him, even if unknowingly. He was part of that post-War Glasgow working-class eruption of talent that included Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty. In fact, Byrne painted the distinctive LP covers for Connolly and Rafferty's band, the Humblebums, and for all of Rafferty's subsequent albums. He also wrote the outstanding TV dramas Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin' Heart, and had a long relationship with the young star of the latter, Tilda Swinton. You can get a good flavour of the man from this BBC feature. I like his painting, not least because of his dogged, contrarian pursuit of a decorative, street-level figurative art, against all prevailing fashions: Peter Blake might be a useful point of comparison.

Anyway, I went to the Academy, and had a look round the show. I was astonished to see the prices – £12,000 for a small painting, £6,000 for a print – and by the fact that nonetheless every single item had a red dot on it, indicating a sale. Even allowing for the gallery cut, I calculated that Byrne must have cleared roughly the value of a semi-detached house in Southampton – our house! – from a single show. At which point, I became aware of a growly smoker's voice emanating from a tall, bearded, bushily-mustachioed elderly fellow in a long overcoat, talking confidingly with the woman behind the desk. Yes, it was John Byrne himself.

Now, I am not one to be intimidated by celebrity, but I'm reluctant to presume upon a man's time and patience. This was not the opening of the show, after all, which would have been back in November, where he could expect to be interrogated, glad-handed, and selfied by all and sundry: presumably he'd just dropped by to see how things were going and count the red dots. So I simply kept an eye on him, and waited for an opportunity to grab a snap. Which came when he moved to look at one enormous painting, where he was joined by a very tall, elegant woman. As she turned her head to speak I realised it was, unmistakably, Tilda Swinton. A full-on art-world paparazzo moment if ever there was one.

So, having got a couple of pictures, I went off happily to the Academy's cafe for a coffee, still with an hour to spare before I'd need to catch the bus out to the airport. I managed to find myself a table, and sat there nursing an Americano, collecting my thoughts about the weekend, and watching the Christmas market action outside the window. I then became aware of that rumbling voice again, behind me. I turned, and there were Byrne and Swinton, standing in the queue for coffee. He's an old man now, and she was clearly looking for somewhere to sit him down. So I did the obvious thing: I caught her eye, and offered them my table, for the small price of a photograph.

Call me naive, but I don't expect to see the likes of Tilda Swinton standing in a gallery cafe queue, in full public view, simply to buy a paper cup of coffee. I also didn't expect her to look so pleased to be offered a table, or to engage me so readily in conversation – I said how much I'd enjoyed The Seasons in Quincy, her video portrait of John Berger – or to end up warmly shaking hands all round after they'd posed for me. It may be that I had succumbed to the magic dust of celebrity, after all, but I truly felt as if I, wee Tam Lin, had had an encounter with the undisputed Queen of the Fair Folk. If nothing else, it was the perfect seal to set on a fine weekend away.

Taken with the Fuji X-20...
Shame to use the B-list camera on an A-list subject!

Wednesday, 5 December 2018


The reference in the previous post to unharvested mistletoe reminded me of something I'd meant to mention earlier in the autumn, but somehow forgot: all the uncollected conkers. For non-Brits I should probably explain: "conkers" are the seeds of the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum); large, as glossy brown as a polished shoe, irresistibly tactile, yet strictly inedible, unlike those of their distant cousins the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) of which there are a limited supply in this country [1]. When I was a boy – in the middle of the last century! – conkers were much sought after. Large horse chestnut trees are widely found in British suburban avenues, city parks, and on many village greens, and on autumn days these trees would be constantly attended by children gathering up the conkers. If the pickings were sparse, the bigger kids would throw heavy sticks into the branches to bring more conkers down, still freshly-packaged in their spiky, spongy capsules. If you didn't keep your wits about you, one of those heavy sticks could easily bring you down, instead.

Why? Because we used to play a game with them, also known as "conkers". This involved boring a hole through a conker, and threading it onto a knotted string. You would then take turns in whacking your opponent's conker with yours – not as easy as it sounds – until one or other was sufficiently damaged to fly off its string in pieces. Some rogues would attempt to harden their conkers by various alchemical techniques – typically, soaking or boiling in vinegar – but, if detected, this was denounced as despicable cheating. Some conkers which had grown as twins within a single capsule would have one flat side with an acute edge, not unlike a fat axe. These were known as "cheesecutters", and prized by some as particularly effective conker-smashers: a false theory with its origins in sympathetic magic, rather than empirical observation. The game, taken seriously, had various arcane rules which I can't be bothered to recall or explain ("stringsies", "stampsies", and so on). If nothing else, it gave a certain seasonal excitement to the playground.

However, the game has now fallen by the cultural wayside, not least because many schools have banned it from the playground on safety grounds. The main legitimate risk was getting a hard knock on the knuckles as you held your conker dangling at arm's length, but it was also not unknown to get sneakily "conkered" on the head from behind. Which really fucking hurts, I can tell you. I suppose a lot of playground energy did seem to go into finding ways of injuring each other, it's true, but what a shame it is when such only very slightly risky links with the past get thrown into the same bin as cock-fighting and bear-baiting. Even if they're not actually as ancient and venerable as we imagine: according to Iona and Peter Opie, those historians of the playground, the first reference to such a game using horse chestnuts was in 1848. Like so many "traditions", it may well be a Victorian invention.

The result, of course, is large quantities of uncollected conkers lying unregarded in the grass and gutters beneath every horse chestnut tree surrounded by the remains of their protective capsules, which seem to biodegrade incredibly rapidly from a tough, green, spiked, alien jewel-case into mere wind-blown brown dust. Sic transit gloria aesculorum... I may be 64, but I can never resist picking out a few prize specimens to keep in my coat pockets. They can stay there for years, polished by my fingers into increasingly knobbly "touch pieces" as they dry out, until the outer shell finally separates from the kernel, and starts to disintegrate into sharp little bits of conker shrapnel.

Talking of unregarded treasures, I'm surprised to discover that I also forgot to write about some photos I found residing in the same "October 2018" folder as the conker shots. I suppose the blog's tenth anniversary and my various publications did turn October into a bit of a meta-month [2]. Anyway, a few years ago I posted some photographs of the Moscow State Circus, which was taking place on Bristol's Clifton Downs. This year, as if to restore the geo-political balance, the Downs were hosting Circus Vegas, of which every available square foot was plastered with the Stars and Stripes or some other icon of popular Americana, up to and including Elvis Presley. It was giddily, hyperventilatingly American, positively Trumpian in its vulgarity.

Although quite how American "Circus Vegas" actually is may be questionable, despite all the hoo-hah and flag-waving, as the name appears to be under license to the distinctly un-American sounding European Entertainment Corporation Ltd. I suppose "American", in this most reductive sense, is more a state of mind – one composed entirely of faux-chauvinistic show-biz clich├ęs – than any actual nationality. Which, if I were American, I would find more than a little annoying; it's as if a particularly gaudy Texas rodeo had elbowed its way to become, in effect, the purest summation of my great and diverse national culture. I wonder if anywhere has a British Circus, where the big top is a gigantic bowler hat plastered with the Union Jack? And the clowns are endlessly bumping into inanimate objects and saying "sorry"? Somehow I doubt it. We may be many culpable things, we British, and may have lost touch with much of our conkering heritage, but at least we've kept a reasonably firm grip on our brand.

1. Those of you who recognise "sativa" from certain other plant names may not realise it is a common botanical designation, meaning "cultivated". The phrases "distant cousins" and "limited supply" may also have prompted some of you to wonder, like me, whether conkers are the original big-eyed beans from Venus... Certainly, in America the equivalent Aesculus "nuts" are known as "buckeyes".
2. The blog is still in a bit of a meta-sulk about the surprising lack of acknowledgement of its significant birthday. No, no: too late now! It has been slightly cheered by a recent uptick in readers, though.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Strange Fruit

I was walking near a large block of flats in Shirley, Southampton, when I noticed there was something odd about one of the trees along the side of the road. Hanging from the branches were a dozen or more pairs of shoes, presumably tied together by their laces and flung up there by passing schoolkids, either as a bit of bullying or perhaps as some kind of ritual to mark the end of the school year, or some such occasion.

Curiously, the trees in the streets around those flats are also very susceptible to mistletoe: I've never seen so much of the stuff in so many trees in such a small area. I took the photo below in February this year, just before a massive hailstorm. Why nobody "harvests" it I don't know, but it's clearly been there, untouched, for a very long time. Perhaps the shoes and the mistletoe indicate the survival of some atavistic druidic cult in Shirley? Perhaps not.