Friday, 29 March 2019

Goto, Goto!

Southampton Water

Drained pool, Southampton Sports Centre

Theresa May's notoriously robotic assertion, that "Brexit means Brexit", will have struck most as a bit of rhetorical tautology: "east is east, and west is west", etc. To those of us who have written the odd program, however, it was clear that the Maybot was simply indulging in the deprecated practice of giving a constant and a variable the same name. Or, at least, her programmers were.

Worse, she / they committed the further sin of failing to declare the variable ${brexit}, assign it a type, and, ideally, initialise it with a value. Even worse, and fatally, she / they then compiled the program and ran it, without any testing or beta phase. Amateurs!

The Development Team have now spent the best part of three years trying to debug this fundamentally flawed program, and the Maybot is stuck in a classic infinite loop. Someone is going to have to do something as crude and as deprecated as stick in a simple "goto" here, before the stack overflows.

Meanwhile, here are some pictures of the real world in March.

St. Cross, Winchester

Cricket pitch, Southampton Sports Centre

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Waterloo 2.0

River Itchen at St. Denys, Southampton

I've always been interested in the nuances of voices and accents. That is, British voices and accents, of which there are many. Very many, in fact: at every intersection of region with age, gender, class, race, education, aspiration, affiliation, sexuality, and general world-view, there is a distinctive mode of speech. Given that a region can be as small as the next village or the other side of the river, that makes for a bewildering array of distinctions and gradations. Some of these differences are quite striking, although most, I assume, are inaudible to the foreign ear, even when instantly recognisable to the native. I imagine this is pretty much the case everywhere. To my ear, an accountant from Frankfurt sounds much the same as a Bavarian smallholder, but I am sure they are immediately, mutually identifiable.

But, Britain being such a class-conscious society, even today, there are special nuances to the spoken language which make us particularly sensitive to the intersections of accent. On walking into a strange pub or bar, the first thing any streetwise person does, after a quick appraising glance, is to take the temperature of the local linguistic micro-climate and quickly decide whether to stay, leave, or perhaps just keep a low profile.

George Bernard Shaw (an Irishman) famously declared in his preface to Pygmalion:
The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen. The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play. There have been heroes of that kind crying in the wilderness for many years past.
Shaw's unfavourable comparison of English English with German or Spanish is quite odd, really. Certainly, consistency of orthography is a great help in learning a language, but in itself is hardly capable of preventing any major regional or class differences in pronunciation. The idea that phonetic spelling reform (based on some single version of "correct" pronunciation, presumably) would somehow helpfully homogenise English English is hilarious, as if anyone had ever learned to speak their mother tongue from a textbook. The passage is most famous, of course, for that third sentence ("It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him"), an observation which is much quoted out of context, probably because, as a sound-bite, it seems as true in 2019 as it was in 1913.

Why? Well, the persistent diversity of British voices is not an innocent fact of geography. It is profoundly tribal; jealously preserved and beset with booby-traps for intruders. Although I'm a pretty good mimic, I wouldn't attempt to copy another person's regional accent to their face. That's a mistake I've made in the past, and seen others make, and it rarely ends well. People don't enjoy being the object of what amounts to a personal parody, however well-intentioned. Not least when it amounts to an implicit assertion of superiority: "Hear how well I can mimic your delightfully quaint accent!"[1].  This needn't be as incendiary as an Old Etonian attempting Glaswegian in a Glasgow pub (yikes, someone call an ambulance): the current presumption of the privileged that by knocking the sharp edges off their speech – usually by adopting a flattened "mockney" mode, randomly spattered with glottal stops – they have rendered themselves invisible as they move among the common people is as laughable as it is insulting. See: any number of public-school educated pop stars, actors, artists, and that Harry bloke, Meghan Markle's husband.

This works both ways, of course. Despite any amount of education, intelligence, and talent, it is next to impossible for a person from the accented classes to pass as posh, should they so wish. The "posh" voice (a.k.a. "received pronunciation", or "RP") having, in its various versions, long enjoyed its self-declared status as the norm from which "accents" and dialects deviate, and – by a neat sleight of hand – as the vocal embodiment of the aforesaid education, intelligence, and talent. Back in the early post-1945 years, when state-funded higher education first offered its escape route for bright kids from stifling working-class lives, one of the first things abandoned at the local railway station was their local accent, a rite of passage that amounted to an act of self-harm, one that marked them for life. To get on in the world, it was assumed, you had to mimic the speech patterns of your social superiors. Inevitably, this stranded them in the sad "scholarship boy" no man's land described in Richard "Death Cab" Hoggart's book The Uses of Literacy. But, through the 1960s, new role-models of worldly success were evolving, and people like David Bailey or John Lennon or Michael Parkinson seem never to have got the memo about losing that dreadful accent. By the time I went to university in the 1970s, the idea of changing your manner of speech over the course of Freshers' Week had become as ludicrous as wearing a tie [2]. To be honest, I think my parents were quite disappointed.

Nonetheless, despite decades of social mobility, the confident, articulate, public-school-and-Oxbridge RP voice has retained its stamp of authority. Yes, diverse voices are now heard at all levels of society (although I have yet to hear an RP bin-man or corner-shop owner), but to this day nothing commands instant, reflex obedience, deference, and respect quite like That Voice. It's somehow more reassuring when your doctor or lawyer seems to have descended from some higher realm, isn't it? There has always been the sense that we plebs and nobodies could merrily get on with our lives – just having fun, earning a living, raising a family, or arguing about bullshit things like Bake Off or the Premier League – while the grave, power-dressed, well-spoken grown-ups kept the national act together, doing the boring, necessary things. That is, until now. Because why? Because Brexit.

Put simply, I think the Brexit debacle has revealed to everyone – anyone, that is, who has bothered to follow the news over the past gruelling two years but who, naively, still believed otherwise – that very posh people can be very stupid, too. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Dense, dull, and dim. Fatuous fuckwits. If it wasn't self-evident before, it is now abundantly clear that being the product of privilege does not automatically make you the effortless embodiment of education, intelligence, and talent it has for so long, and so conveniently, been pretended. Far from it. Despite possession of That Voice, senior career politicians with the sort of in-depth poshness only money can buy have revealed themselves as quite stupid enough to declare a referendum with potentially catastrophic national consequences – a referendum winnable by a simple majority, FFS! – like some drunken idiot betting his house on the toss of a coin. Daily, we hear transparent nonsense uttered in That Voice by puffed-up fools incapable of thinking beyond tired sound-bite rhetoric; unwilling to seek necessary compromises; unable to predict the consequences of their own actions; and prepared to inflict as-yet unknown damage on the nation in the pursuit of self-enrichment and nineteenth-hole prejudices, mis-sold on a prospectus of "exciting new opportunities" and "taking back control". Above all, these people are deluded about Britain's place in the world:

BRITAIN: Put that EU trade deal on hold, China – UK PLC is coming!
CHINA: What's that funny little squeaking noise?

All led by a Prime Minister (admittedly only fake-posh) who, in a fit of hubris, voluntarily trashed her inherited majority, failed to see the strategic implications of leading a minority government – choosing to placate the extremists in her own party at every turn rather than seeking parliamentary consensus – and who has now succumbed to that proverbial definition of insanity: repeatedly trying the same course of action, and expecting a different outcome. Faced by a Leader of the Opposition (admittedly only fake-pleb) who has a Cunning Plan so secret that everyone in his party feels able to come out publicly with their own different version of it. Broadly speaking, however, the Plan seems to involve winning the next General Election, which is just another kind of delusion.

Madness in high places! I suppose we have been here before. But where is Napoleon when you need him, to distract and unite the people? Behave, child, or Boney'll getcha! Wait, what's that you say? You think the EU is Napoleon by other means? Heh! But, no, you're serious, aren't you? Finally, it all makes sense... Send for the straitjackets!

Southampton Water from Mayflower Park

1. I once knew a fellow student who was from the North-East of England, and had a strong NE accent. His favourite record was "Noah Woman Noah Cray", by Bob Marley. I am embarrassed to admit that those of us from the south of the country found this hilarious. He, needless to say, didn't. Sorry, Murph!
2. Indeed, the pendulum had swung so far the other way that certain public-school types with political ambitions had, it was said, taken de-elocution lessons to help them feel less conspicuous. Reverse Pygmalion? Heineken once made an amusing advert on this premise.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

March Past

It's a crazy month, March. Anything can happen, weather-wise. Here are the most recent five:

 March 2015
(IKEA, Southampton)

March 2016
(The Mizmaze, Winchester) 

March 2017
(Twyford Down) 

March 2018
(Allotments in Bassett, Southampton) 

March 2019
(Southampton Water)

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Who Was That Masked Man?

One of the more curious exhibits in Edinburgh's Scottish National Portrait Gallery was this cabinet of life and death masks, most of which are not remotely Scottish. Look, there's Blake, Keats, Wordsworth and, blimey, that's Voltaire (his is not perfect, but good enough). They're there because they were assembled by the Scottish Phrenological Society and, well, they're just fascinating, aren't they? Before photography, I suppose this was as close as you could get to a 1:1 likeness, though the discomfort of the procedure in life led to some rather squashed, miserable-looking faces. Apparently Blake (top row, third from left) looked nothing like as grumpy as that in life (his hair got pulled out by the plaster) but I like to think he looks like he's getting down to some seriously heavy music in the celestial headphones.

I thought Keats (bottom row, first on the left) might go well with my "burning man" collage, so I've produced a second version which works quite well, I think. Again, he looks like a man blissed out to some music only he can hear. As he put it in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
  Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
  Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone...
"Ditties of no tone", though... The more I read Keats, the more I think he really could have done with a tough-love editor, prepared to wield the blue pencil. Look, I'm sorry, John, but "ditties" just doesn't work... And what kind of rhyme is that meant to be, anyway, might I ask? With just a bit more work, this could be really good... But FFS go easy with the "thees", "thous", "wilts", and "werts"! Nobody talks like that any more: this is 1819, mate!

Writ in water

Thursday, 14 March 2019


Regular visitors to London's Natural History Museum may recognise the statue at the heart of this new "Guardians" picture: it's the imposing marble rendering of Darwin, enthroned at the top of the staircase in the main entrance hall. Although positioned and unveiled there in 1885, from 1927 until 2009 it had been usurped in that prominent spot by a bronze of the museum's founder, Richard Owen. Owen was a complex Victorian figure, a gifted comparative anatomist, able to taxonomise, reconstruct, and predict the appearance of a creature from a few bone fragments, an ability which led him to identify and name the dinosaurs as an extinct group of lizard-like creatures. However, despite broadly accepting the principle of evolution, he fell out with Darwin over the central idea of natural selection, favouring a more creationist view, and became a spiteful establishment enemy of Darwin and his allies. As Darwin said, "It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me." It is quite surprising that it took the museum so long to re-right that wrong, if only symbolically.

But what strikes me is the excellence of that statue, carved out of solid marble by Sir Joseph Boehm. Is there anyone alive today who could achieve such a vivid likeness? On the evidence of the few statues that have been erected in recent decades, the answer is emphatically no. Setting aside abstract sculpture, or semi-figurative work like Antony Gormley's endless series of casts made from moulds of his own body, when it comes to statuary we seem to be stuck with kitschy stuff like the St. Pancras station monstrosity (The Meeting Place), or well-meaning but pedestrian efforts like this statue of that alternative Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace. I mean, seriously, if that were a six-inch plastic figurine it would be pretty good – I can easily imagine a series of Great Naturalists action figures, with switchable nets, hats, cleft sticks, and other collector's impedimenta – but at seven feet tall and cast in bronze it surely lacks any real sense of weight, volume, texture, or presence, doesn't it?

I suppose one of the motivations behind my "Guardians" series is precisely that uncanny sense of presence that inhabits so many pre-20th century sculptures, often of dignitaries whose names have long faded from history, but whose likenesses still gaze across museum galleries and civic spaces. Biologists are always at pains to point out that evolution is not teleological: it is not a process of refinement towards some ultimate end (maybe you, possibly even me), but an endless series of adaptations to changing environments and the niches they offer or cease to offer to life-forms. I'm not sure most of us believe that in our hearts, but then we also don't really believe that the sun only appears to go round the earth, do we? Or, for that matter, that the entropic heat death of the universe is inevitable. Somehow life and entropy seem to be fighting different battles, don't they? Something that, I now realise, my new Guardians image might be seen to express.

Similarly, when it comes to the art of sculpture, I suppose there are perfectly valid sociological and economic reasons why no-one today has the time or skill or motivation to release a truly lifelike simulacrum from within a block of cold marble. For one thing, quite apart from its sheer difficulty, it's too bloody expensive: even that oversized bronze Wallace action figure cost its commissioners £50,000. So our current lack of skill and sophistication ought not, in theory, be seen as a backward step, just as a new way of making public art, appropriate to the prevailing socio-economic conditions. But, come on, it really does feel like a falling off, doesn't it? And it's something I feel acutely in nearly every exhibition of contemporary work of any sort I visit: I'm tired of seeing the easy shortcuts, the lack of finish, the ironic promotion of calculated ineptitude over skill and craft, and the universal elevation of idea over execution. But then, as I am beginning to realise, I'm just a dinosaur...

Darwin in Berlin
(Museum für Naturkunde)

Sunday, 10 March 2019

REPOST: A Ducky and a Horsie

[For some reason this post from June 2015 has been attracting a lot of hits lately. This probably means nothing more than that some click-bot has locked onto it, randomly, in the hope I'll click through, see the commercial potential of having my page-view count artificially boosted, and sign up. Um, no thanks... Some more real visitors would be nice, but buying fake ones to attract more advertising revenue seems pretty low to me. Quite apart from the fact I don't run any adverts. But I thought I'd have a look at the post, anyway, as I couldn't remember a thing about it. It turns out to be an excellent manifesto for What Happened Next, so I thought I'd repost it, as a sort of "previously on Idiotic Hat..." style explanation of how on earth we ever ended up here for newer visitors.]

I have always had a strong tendency towards pareidolia, the ability to see meaningful images within random patterns of line, shape and shadow. In some ways, this is merely the flipside (or perhaps a precondition) of the ability to draw. What is a drawing, after all, other than patterns of line, shape and shadow contrived and intended to evoke a significant image within the viewer's brain?

Exactly a year ago, I was in front of a TV camera in the Fotoforum gallery in Innsbruck, Austria, trying to explain the nature of my work being exhibited there to a charming young interviewer who, luckily, spoke better English than I speak German (not unusual in the German-speaking world, I am ashamed to say). Now, I tend to take a certain level of pareidolia for granted, so drew her attention to this image from the Boundary Elements series:

I said something like, "This photograph is of a corroded metal box attached to a door and, although I really like the delicate balance of tone and colour here, what I mainly see is a Japanese-style horned dragon whipping its head round, with its snout now pointing to the left, don't you?" She looked puzzled, then an expression of childlike delight crossed her face, "Oh, yes!  A dragon!" Now, being English, and maybe having watched too much Graham Norton, I was on the alert for irony and sarcasm, but detected none. She simply didn't see what I saw until I pointed it out. Which made me think.

I've been thinking ever since. What I have been thinking is this:

My favourite kind of photography involves the creation of a picture by isolating evocative shapes and colours from the real world. You might say these are the semi-abstract paintings I'd make if I wasn't too lazy to make them, in the well-established vein of Klee, Kandinsky, and Rauschenberg. I am sometimes mistaken for a practitioner of the Gospel of the God of Small Things – best summarised as "He draws our attention to the small, everyday things we are too blinkered and busy to notice" – which I find annoying. I don't care whether you notice small corroded metal boxes or not. No; if I draw myself up to my full height of pretension, I prefer to consider myself more of the Blakean tendency:
What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight I look thro it & not with it.
William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgement
A ducky and a horsie be damned, Sir!

And yet, without cues like a nudging title ("A Ducky and a Horsie Go Boating #5") or my personal presence behind the viewer's shoulder to point them out, it seems that my intended points of reference are never as obvious as I had thought. Of course, this is a general issue with abstract or semi-abstract art. Take this print from Matisse's late "cut-out" phase, published in his wonderful book Jazz:

Les Codomas, Henri Matisse, 1947

Lovely, isn't it? But how obvious to you is it (or was it when you first saw it) that the image shows two trapeze artists above a safety-net, surrounded by spectators? It probably doesn't matter if you can't see it without prompting, but Matisse had an intention here, which the nudging title makes clear – he hasn't called it "Untitled Abstraction #47", after all, but the equivalent of "The Flying Burritos".  The fact that our first take might "see", let's say, tadpoles in a pond surrounded by stylised weed, beams of light, reflections, and even a lurking octopus is not to mistake the image, but to engage with its nature. The realisation of the "correct" interpretation gives a focus to our other responses, but it doesn't invalidate them; they can all fruitfully exist at the same time. But this is like explaining how to bowl a cricket ball:  if you're going to be able to do it at all, you can probably do it anyway.

But the path this led me down was this:  If my intentions are not clear, why not make them clearer?  Why be inhibited by the photographic "facts on the ground"? Why not make intentional pictures sourced from multiple photographs, or bits of photographs collaged together with bits of drawing, in the same way Matisse assembled pictures from his cut-up pieces of painted card, rather than relying on pictures presenting themselves whole and ready-made to my camera? Despite the many precedents – Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté, for example, or more recently John Goto's under-appreciated work – this still feels heretical, and calculated to lose what little audience I have gained over the years for my work.

But consider a photo like this, which I took last week, strolling behind the big-barn retail outlets of West Quay in Southampton:

Not brilliant, but a good example of the kind of thing I do when working in an "abstract" vein. Yes, it does happen to be another corroded metal box attached to a door, but I am not a "photographer of corroded metal boxes" in the way that Bernd and Hilla Becher are photographers of grain elevators and water towers. It's nice enough in itself, but what makes it compelling to me is that it suggests a large, weighty, telephone-box-shaped object plunging down into deep water trailed by a stream of air-bubbles, or, rotated 90 degrees, a shotgun cartridge discharged into a blue sky. There is dynamism in those accidental marks. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but I took the photograph because I saw and liked the pictures that my mind conjured from those superficial elements.

So, it seems to me that one way to use my hyper-pareidoloid tendency to good effect is to exploit it as a means of drawing, using the real world as my palette, and Photoshop as my canvas. I'm having a lot of fun discovering techniques to do this, and I'm very pleased with some of the early results. But if you do come here because of the photographs, don't despair – I have no intention of giving up "straight" photography.

(But, hmm, that bit on the right will make an excellent milky-blue summer sky crossed by vapour trails...  Just add a few crows...)

Wednesday, 6 March 2019


In 1839, Paul Delaroche, a French portraitist and painter of historical scenes, saw some early examples of the daguerrotype, and is famously alleged to have declared, "From today, painting is dead" (except in French, obviously [1]). He was wrong, evidently, but you could see his point. The process of making lifelike representations of people and things in paint – until then pretty much the whole point and purpose of painting – requires genuine talent, skill, and a major investment of time and effort to achieve. Painting might have been regarded by its patrons as a trade, but it was a pretty exclusive one, and thus attracted a high price tag. The commissioning of, say, a portrait was something reserved for the very wealthy or major institutions: its very costliness was, in a way, the whole point. To see the prospect of this profitable, well-respected business de-skilled into a trivial, mechanical matter that any idiot capable of saying "watch the birdie!" could perform, with results of truly astonishing fidelity (and, worse, that could be turned round within a couple of days) would have been concerning, to say the least.

I was trying to think of what other mechanical innovations there have been that stand in the same disruptive, democratising relationship to some other hard-won craft or profession as photography does to representational art. That is, that, as a result of that invention, something that had previously required the services of an expensive professional had come within the grasp of everyone: you could now just do it yourself (or hire a much less expensive pro), often with even better results (assuming that, in the case of portraiture, an accurate likeness is the main measure of success). But most mechanisations I could think of have instead either replaced far humbler occupations – the vacuum cleaner, for example – or have industrialised some time-consuming, skill-based craft like making furniture. Although, ironically, many middle-class households do still employ someone else to operate their vacuum cleaner, and buying a flat-pack wardrobe from IKEA is really not the same as making it yourself (however much it can bloody well feel like it).

Printing suggests itself as an example – bye-bye, you scribes and scriveners – but that was hardly a DIY business, either: in fact, a whole new, even more highly-skilled profession had entered the scene. I also considered the typewriter, but that, too, merely ended up creating a new, more humble but still quite skilled occupation (can you touch-type seventy-five words per minute?). Back in the 1960s, a newspaper editorial office would resound with the clatter of typing, and be shaken by the thunder of hot-metal presses in the basement. But both, however, were supplanted by the advent and imposition of the personal computer and word-processing. Older, trade union-minded readers will still recall the ensuing period of industrial unrest in the mid-1980s, summarised by the one word, "Wapping".

I remember being the proud but somewhat perplexed recipient, in 1985, of the first PC to be unboxed in our university library [2]. There it is, I was told: see what it will do. What it did, of course, was to make redundant our entire typing pool. Which caused some upset, as "typist" was one of the few occupations compatible with the sort of part-time hours that suited the complex, multi-tasking lives of many women, then and now. The advent of the PC was nothing if not "disruptive" in the workplace. Suddenly, professionals had end-to-end control of their working lives. With the advent of the internet, email, spreadsheets, desktop publishing, and the Web, your entire focus, day in, day out, became the screen on your desk; no typing pool, no secretaries, a much-depleted mail room, and whole new ways of looking busy. But, again, with the exception of certain trades doomed by automation such as the typesetter and the draughtsman, the expensive professionals had not been replaced by some new-fangled DIY gizmo, just empowered to do more, with fewer support staff to pay.

One interesting innovation of recent years, though, which may bear some comparison with photography, is on-demand self-publishing. Just as any fool can take a photograph, so anyone can now design and "publish" their own book. That is, if "publish" is taken to mean putting in your hands a single book, with the somewhat illusory, but nonetheless real prospect of selling more via an online shopfront or even on Amazon. It's not vanity publishing – you don't pay thousands in order to end up with boxes of unsold and unsellable copies around the house – but it's not "publishing", either, in the traditional sense of a business model which includes editing, design, publicity, distribution, and production, with all the economies of scale. It's a genuinely new thing that meets a real demand. I don't suppose any publisher has said, on seeing the products of Blurb or Lulu, "from today, publishing is dead", but, like painting, the nature of publishing may yet be changed in unforeseen ways by these Web-based upstarts which cut out the middle-man.

However, the example that strikes me as most comparable with photography is machine translation, of which the most obvious example is Google Translate. A friend, knowing my interest in such things, pointed me at a recent article, by the eminent Douglas Hofstadter [3], in which he pooh-poohs the quality of Google Translate's efforts. Now, I know how difficult good translation is. I know all about the pitfalls, the "false friends", the tricky equivalence of idioms, the problems of inflection, tone, dialect, and voice. I have suffered a pedant's wrath for my failure to translate "Ger-doing!" and "Kerplunk!" into German. A good translator is a highly-skilled individual, with superb language skills backed up by a broad hinterland of appropriate technical and cultural knowledge that is kept bang up to date. I mean, jeepers creepers, you don't want your, like, business proposal or legislation to sound as if it were gabbled over the phone by some ditzy teen from the 1950s, or – oh, wow, heavy! – intoned by a prog-rock muso. Unless, of course, that's exactly what is required in, say, a novel. As a consequence, good translators are in demand, busy, and expensive.

But: if you've ever been abroad in a country whose language you can barely fathom, without a dictionary or a phrasebook [4] but in possession of a smartphone, you'll know how readily you can tolerate even a risibly poor translation of the menu or gallery guide in front of you, when it is offered free and on demand, right now, unlike the perfectly nuanced translation you might be able to purchase (with suitable advance notice) from a competent professional, perhaps with a bit of luck by close of business tomorrow afternoon. But I suggest the latter is about as likely as you deciding to commission a landscape painter to capture the enchanting view of the piazza immediately in front of you, rather than simply taking a photograph. Machine translation apps, these days, may not yet be perfect, but have improved massively, and are better than they have any right to be. Which is good enough, at least for the major European languages, if not all of the 100 on offer. As Voltaire once put it:
Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l'ennemi du bien
Apparently, this is his version of an Italian proverb, le meglio è l'inimico del bene. Either of which I think you'll find Google Translate will make a decent, if not perfect job of rendering into English. For a fee, I could improve either or both for you, probably by close of business tomorrow afternoon, but I think you'll get the gist.

(The inscription reads, "This tablet left intentionally blank")

1. If you insist: "À partir d'aujourd'hui la peinture est morte". It's an interesting question whether an apocryphal quotation is more authentic when rendered in the language it was never actually said in, but might have been...
2. A twin-floppy drive machine, with no hard drive. Floppies were floppy in those days, vulnerably bendy 5.25" disks in a frail plastic housing. You booted up the PC with a bootable DOS floppy in the left-hand drive, took it out, replaced it with, say, a WordPerfect disk, fired that up with a command, and then put your data disk in the right-hand drive. The total RAM available was 640K... Ah, the sheer capaciousness, speed, and convenience of my first 32MB hard drive!
3. Author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book I have never read, but which has probably been pressed upon me more often than any other.
4. I was astonished to discover, before a visit to Barcelona last summer, that no Catalan phrasebook of acceptable quality exists. Això és increïble! (Thanks, Google Translate).

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Lord Snooty's Giant Poisoned Electric Head

Some years ago now, my kids were into an American group called Death Cab For Cutie. Weirdly, the advent of iPods, smartphones, and the universal preference of the young for earphones over speakers have combined to mean that I don't have a clue what that band actually sound like. Unlike my poor father, whom I subjected to more late 60s rock than a sometime semi-pro drummer, and fan of jazz and big-band music should ever have been expected to bear. And they say there's no progress.

But that name, "Death Cab For Cutie", always rang a distant bell. It took a surprisingly long time for me to recall that it was, in fact, a track on the album Gorilla, by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, released in 1967. An album I used to know very well, but haven't heard since somewhere around 1974. In fact, it had become a minor cult when I was at university: a group of us knew it and another Bonzo album, The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse so well that we could recite every song, all chipping in at the Good Bits ("Ecstasy, Bruce, ecstasy", "On my left, Sir Kenneth Clark, bass sax. It's a great honour, sir!"). When I described this to my kids, they said, "What, you all used to sit around listening to records together?" Um, why, yes... Yes, we did. Quite a lot. Sometimes there might be a dozen or more of us, sitting on the floor, passing around smokes and drinks and having a laugh and talking nonsense and, I suppose, generally killing all that wasted time until someone finally got around to inventing the internet. With the emphasis on "wasted".

The other day, in one of those revelatory moments that demonstrate (yet again) how wrong-headed most cultural history is, I discovered two things you would suppose I ought to have known, but didn't. First, that the Bonzos perform "Death Cab For Cutie" on the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. Blimey! At least, apparently they do in the original TV "video" version, which I haven't seen since it was broadcast in black and white into our family living room, to universal perplexity, on Boxing Day 1967; the song doesn't figure on the MMT album. Second, and even more amazingly, that the title comes from The Uses of Literacy, a rather solemn book by Richard Hoggart about working class education and the dilemma of the "scholarship boy", stranded in an uncomfortable limbo between his class of origin and his class of aspiration. I used to own (and may even have read) this book, in its blue-spined Pelican paperback incarnation. In a moment of uncharacteristic inspiration, it seems Hoggart made up the title "Death Cab For Cutie" as an example of the sort of trashy gangster movie that typified popular culture (he didn't much like popular culture), simply because the publisher wouldn't let him use any real ones. I expect you knew this already, but my point is that I didn't; despite my fondness for pop culture trivia, this fascinating set of connected dots had passed me by, despite having lived each one of them. Real Life 1: Cultural History 0.

But, ah, the Bonzos! One of the "nearly" bands of British pop. The result of what happens when nostalgia, trad jazz, art school, music hall, pop, and a joyous sense of the absurd all come together, but never quite settle into a consistent mix. Paul McCartney's fondness for the musical styles of the 1920s can seem perverse, until you recall the nostalgia for a re-imagined version of that era that permeated the 1960s (the Temperance Seven, anybody?) [1]. The initial taking off point for the Bonzos was an anarchic art-school urge simultaneously to parody and celebrate that nostalgia, but it never quite took flight as a pop vehicle. I suppose one point of comparison would be the Mothers of Invention, but the Bonzos lacked the edge, depth, and anger of Zappa's satire. Indeed, it was their very frivolity that made them funny: I defy anyone to listen to, say, "Jollity Farm", "I'm Bored", or "The Intro and the Outro", and not feel their spirits being lifted ("nice!").

But the collective energies pulled in two very different directions that were radically inconsistent: tracks inspired by Viv Stanshall's effete, surreal nostalgia (all of those above-mentioned tracks are his) sat awkwardly with Neil Innes' leaden-footed urge to parody pop styles, most of which come across now as exercises in envy, rather than satire. Stanshall went on to become a professional eccentric and loose cannon, a sort of alternative National Treasure (huzzah!), and godfather to the likes of Tubular Bells and Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters [2], whereas Innes' strange love-hate relationship with pop led to The Rutles (yawn) and Monty Python. Both are venerable strands of British idiocy, but my personal preference is for the former: less smug, and dangerously in love with failure.

Let "My Pink Half of the Drainpipe" be the band's epitaph, a monument to what might have been:
My pink half of the drainpipe
Separates me from the incredibly fascinating story of your life and
every day-to-day event in all its minute and tedious attention to
And was it a Thursday or a Wednesday? Or, oh, no, it wasn't, though, oh,
who cares, anyway, because I do not, so Norman, if you're normal, I intend to
be a freak for the rest of my life, and I shall baffle you with cabbages
and rhinoceroses in the kitchen, incessant quotations from "Now We Are
Six" through the mouthpiece of Lord Snooty's giant poisoned electric
So theeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere

1. Talking of pop history trivia, I also didn't know that McCartney more-or-less produced "Urban Spaceman", the Bonzos' one Big Hit. It's striking, though, that 1928 was as distant from 1968 as 1979 is from today. As I have commented many times before, pop and rock seems to have been stuck in a time-warp for decades... You wouldn't raise many eyebrows by imitating the styles of Elvis Costello or The Clash today.
2. One of the great overlooked albums, IMHO, a high spot among concept albums, Hawkwind-style Space Rock meets satire, and a 1975 favourite for sitting around wasting time, waiting for the internet. It, too, has quotable Good Bits, though not as many as, say, Gong's Radio Gnome Invisible. Now there's another music post...