Monday, 30 December 2019

Post-Christmas Christmas Post

 View from Morecombelake

Approaching rain in Lyme Bay

One of the little post-Christmas pleasures is coming back into the house after a few days away and finding a slew of cards on the mat, often from the sort of friends and relatives who don't really "do" Christmas but who – perhaps having been given a nudge by the receipt of one of my own cards (I try to send them out early enough to give people a chance to react with dignity), or perhaps just being in the habit of leaving things to the very last minute – managed to get something in the post, often with a few scribbled updates on their state of health and wellbeing. As I say, it's a pleasure to receive them; if nothing else, it's nice to know at least some of these people are still alive. As the years progress, this is increasingly less of a given.

Rainbow over Morecombelake

Lyme Regis, Boxing Day

We're back now from a week in Dorset, where for the past few Christmases we have rented a cottage in Morecombelake, situated close to the sea and some magnificent countryside, and spacious enough to accommodate family and partners without the tension and verbal skirmishing that can accompany too-close proximity (well, too-close proximity with me, anyway: nobody seems to mind if I often retire to the kitchen, in order to read [1]). The absurdly mild but changeable December weather this year has meant that the past week has been a warm, wet, westerly mix of wind, rain, and fog, which is not ideal from most points-of-view, but a few dry and bright interludes ensured that everyone got out of the house often enough to ward off cabin fever.

On Hardown Hill 

Fog near Upcot

Personally, I don't mind "bad" weather – I have wellington boots and an idiotic but warm and waterproof hat – and the erratic mood swings of the atmosphere resulted in an interesting bag of photographs. The "Jurassic Coast" is the sort of area where you can more or less point a camera at random and find a view worth recording, and such crazy, mixed-up weather just adds another element to the the mix. Longer-term readers will know my ambivalent views on "pure" landscape photography, however, and also on the challenges of periodically dropping into a scenic area for all-too-brief periods of time. Resident artists of all stripes are thick on the ground in the Lyme Bay area: it must be tough, trying to find a fresh angle on scenes and settings of such outstanding beauty. In fact, to be honest, I have yet to see much, if any, work on display – locally, at least – that does so. There's simply an awful lot of the same old same old. However, I'm content just to convey something of the exhilaration of striding through muddy lanes, onto rain-swept hills, and down to wind-battered shores in a landscape where the sea is always a restorative presence, not least when tempered by the prospect of a cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake.

On Chardown Hill

1. I've been addictively reading my way through Mick Herron's "Slough House" series of thrillers. I was also given copies of  Isabella Tree's "Wilding" by two different people... I'm only intending to read it once, though.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Goose for Dinner

OMG, when you said let's have a goose for dinner this Christmas, I though you meant to eat, not as a guest... You keep her entertained, and I'd better go and quietly dispose of what has been in the oven for the last few hours... Do you think geese like beans on toast? Because I think that's about all we've got. And hide that pâté somewhere!

What do you mean, animals don't do Christmas? Of course they do. At least they do, down here in Dorset. At midnight, all the cattle in the barn sing, and at dawn all the birds kneel (I think I've got that right). If you, too, do do Christmas, have a great one; if you don't, sorry about all the inconvenience. Normal service will be resumed all too soon.

sotto voce at the door:
Don't worry, babes. I'll sit him in the back with a frisbee
in his hands, and he won't know the difference...

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Abandoned Cars Revisited

We're now away in deepest, darkest Dorset, which has become our Christmas destination of choice in recent years.  Not exactly off-grid, but close to the edge. Which will be swiftly followed by New Year in Bristol, another relatively recent innovation, so it's unlikely I'll be posting much for a while.

In response to popular demand, however, I am putting up the latest revisions of those "abandoned cars" composites I showed earlier. I hope you'll agree they've improved. If you don't, too bad, and you might as well keep your opinion to yourself, as I probably won't be posting any comments for a while, either. Surely you, too, have got better things to be doing?

I don't know if you've heard, but apparently we here in Britain are about to enter upon a national Golden Age... Yeah, right. For the few, not the many, perhaps, to coin a phrase. We'll just have to wait and see how that one pans out for the rest of us. So, best wishes for 2020, and buckle up for a bumpy ride!

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Incident II

Do we live in a meaningful universe? Is there a plan lodged somewhere? Or competing, contradictory plans? Do coincidences open a window onto the underlying architecture of subjective experience? And is there any point whatsoever in asking such unanswerable questions? Well, probably not, and even if there is, I am not remotely qualified to supply any answers. But then, who is? The Pope, perhaps, or Richard Dawkins, or (possibly my favoured candidate) Joni Mitchell? But how would we even recognise the correct answers, given humanity's track record so far? [OK, that's quite enough stupid questions! Ed.].

I only ask as, having recently raised the subject of joyriding and abandoned vehicles, it seemed quite appropriate, if not inevitable, to come across the scenario above on Sunday afternoon, in a quiet corner of the Southampton Sports Centre. At first sight, it looked like an accident, but the multiple muddy tracks gouged into the grassy verges, the rifled contents of the pannier, and the missing registration plates soon told the true story. Yes, the incident may well have ended in a terminal skid (or simply an empty fuel tank), but it started with a stolen motorbike. A Yamaha Diversion 900, as it happens, which appears to be a fairly serious, but unflashy set of wheels.

So far, so normal. What happened next, however, rather raised the spookiness quotient of an everyday coincidence. You may recall that earlier that same day I had also, quite frivolously, conjured the idea of travel through space and time in Southampton, via the soon-to-be-notorious Shirley Stargate, which I had located near a prominent tower-block in an area unusually dense with mistletoe. So, this was the sight that greeted us in a puddle next to the abandoned motorbike:

Yikes! No trickery involved, I promise, and it gave me quite a start when I saw it for what it was, having thought it to be a crumpled plastic bag. Whether it came out of the bike's pannier, or arrived there independently, I couldn't say. But it's precisely the kind of thing that causes the susceptible mind to ask idiotic and unanswerable questions. Like: Do we live in a meaningful universe?, etc. However, on reflection, I think I'm more inclined to infer that there is some as yet unidentified force at work in the universe, that has a sense of humour. Or rather, a force which is chiefly detectable by means of the adaptation we have come to call our "sense of humour". What we might call the Weak Pun Force.

Anyway, by whatever means it got there, why it should be me that came across it, and whether any derivable "meaning" resides entirely in my own (very susceptible) head, I'm sure I might be able to find a use for it in future. So, thanks, Weak Pun Force, for that little moment of insight into the unreason of rhyme.

Sunday, 15 December 2019


Incident 14/12/2019:
It seems that a naked, Welsh-speaking man found in a distressed condition near the Shirley Towers tower-block, Southampton, yesterday, is claiming to be a druid who, on waking from a nap taken while collecting mistletoe, was startled to find himself in 2019, not 209 AD. He is receiving psychiatric help.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Abandoned Cars

It's curious, how quickly a new thematic obsession can take hold. One of the galleries I showed work in last year ago recently announced a theme, "Hinterland", for next year's open submission. I'm not sure whether I will be entering work or not, but sometimes just the suggestion of a theme is enough to kick off a new round of picture-making, like the nucleating particle around which crystals form out of a saturated solution. In this case, the word "hinterland" suggested the idea of abandoned cars in constructed "edgeland" landscapes, something that I imagine will resonate with a lot of us, on this morning of a Boris Johnson landslide election victory. I suppose it is what Thomas Joshua Cooper would call a premonitional work.

But, good grief. People, people, what were you thinking? Well, nothing much, probably. Or, at most – if you've listened to any of the surprisingly idiotic vox-pop interviews over the past few weeks – repeating whatever bite-sized tabloid factoids have successfully been lodged in the public brain, which is much the same thing as thinking nothing. Repeat after me: But where's the money for all this going to come from? (so where do you think any money comes from?). They're trying to block the people's will! (as expressed in a narrowly-won, advisory, non-binding referendum? Fuck off). Get Brexit done! (it will barely even have started, you tosser). They're taking our jobs! (I look forward to seeing you and your kids, next year, out in the fields picking crops, or unblocking a hospital lavatory). Say what you like about his sociopathic personality, but that Boris has got a lovely cheeky grin! (I think you've got that one back-to-front).

If the disadvantaged populations of South Wales and the de-industrialised North can be persuaded to believe that voting against their own interests is in their best interests – largely, I fear, out of some inchoate but visceral mistrust of interfering foreigners and metropolitan elites – then there's not a lot that can be done. Biased and personality-obsessed media coverage hasn't helped, and if the BBC now lose the license fee under a right-wing Tory government, they only have themselves to blame. Although I expect they'll try to blame Jeremy Corbyn, and his wicked plans to fund the persecution of Jews out of the public purse. What, you hadn't heard? The man is positively Hitlerian in his antisemitism, according to the tabloid press and many interviewees regularly hosted by the BBC, not to mention more Stalinist than Stalin in his unhinged desire to re-nationalise and thereby ruin everything in sight. What a monster: close call!

To return with some relief to picture-making... One of Martin Parr's early black & white projects, made before he became famous for his trademark lurid colour work, was "Abandoned Morris Minors of the West of Ireland". Such cars used to be scattered all over rural Britain, alongside the rusting agricultural machinery blocking holes in hedges or marking boundaries. But, now that agriculture is so much more industrialised and "efficient", they seem to be disappearing, along with the weeds and wildlife that thrived in the scruffy rural chaos. I suppose it might even be those darned Poles, scavenging up "scrap" metal wherever it can be found, such as the iron railings round the park or the bronze sculpture within it. Or so they say... However, TWOCking is still a popular urban pursuit [1] – in Southampton the abandoned remains of stolen cars often turn up in quiet city corners, or driven out into the New Forest car parks, usually with a "Police Aware" sticker already in the window, if any are left intact – so, if this particular theme persists, I should have no problem finding new subject matter.

So, looking on the bright side, for lovers of the wabi sabi attractions of abandonment and neglect, the next few years could be something of a treat. Besides, it's so heartening, I think, that those lazy, benefits-guzzling, EC-grant-dependent inhabitants of Wales and the North voted so emphatically to stop sitting around waiting for heavy industry to return as if by magic – never gonna happen (not without nasty old state intervention, anyway) – and start standing on their own two feet, and not spending my tax-money on enormous flat-screen TV sets and mobility scooters. We have to assume they did read the bit about Tory plans to shrink the welfare state, and "make work pay"? Of course they did! And those plans must surely imply that good old Boris will be bringing back loads of well-paid, worthwhile work for them to do, mustn't they? Of course they do! They don't call him Britain Trump for nothing. So, come on, people, let's unleash Britain's potential, and show some of that spirit of enterprise that sets us apart from our European [smirk] "friends and partners"! Or you can at least learn to serve a decent latte in the City (and I don't mean Swansea) with a friendly smile. Besides, those 40 new hospitals promised by your man Boris (it was 40, wasn't it?) won't be cleaning themselves. It's all good.

1. No, not "trial without catheter", which is nobody's idea of fun, trust me, but "taking without consent" a car for joyriding purposes (although racing round the streets at night on noisy mopeds does seem to be taking over as the urban youth's sport of choice).

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Meteor Shower

Reading the elderly going on about the travails of advancing age probably gets old pretty quickly for the young, I imagine, and there certainly is rather a lot of it about. But then, there are more of us about, these days: a lot more. When I was a kid, my grandmother – something of an activist all her life – ran the local Over 60s Club. This was a club for old people: tea, chatter, bingo, and day-trips to Clacton and Margate. Her first husband, my grandfather, had died the year before I was born, aged 59. His father died in 1904, aged 45, and her own father had died in 1896 at the age of 50. So these "over 60s" were not just old people, but lucky people: survivors. If that generation made it to 65, particularly labouring men, celebrations were in order.

Today's elderly – barely middle-aged in body and spirit when the majority of us effortlessly passed the 60 mark – are destined to explore what, for most of the history of the human race, has been unknown territory. The brutal fact is, evolution has little interest in or use for those who have lived beyond their reproductive peak, so we are entering ever deeper into the unpredictable period where breakdowns are not covered by the original guarantee. True, there are convincing arguments that humanity's progress has been aided by the advanced child-taming skills of doting grandmothers, but the continued evolutionary usefulness of grumpy, worn-out grandfathers, moaning about these new-fangled "wheel" thingies what we never had in my day, is, at best, debatable. So it is something worth thinking and writing about, even if that does seem typically self-centred for the post-War generation. OK boomer! But, more than that, all this thinking out loud may lead to something being done about it: you'll thank us for it, kids, when your time comes.

I was struck by some of the observations in an article by Meghan Daum (Guardian, 17/10/19) about the perspective of older feminists on the #MeToo phenomenon (although slightly less struck, when I discovered she was only born in 1970). In particular this:
The world has changed so much between my time and theirs that someone just 10 years younger might as well belong to a different geological epoch. To a young person, someone like me is not so much an elder as an extinction. Is it any wonder, then, that older generations’ contributions to the conversation are, at best, a kind of verbal meteor shower, the flickering, nattering remains of planets that haven’t existed for eons?
Setting aside the fact that Daum is a mere child of 49, I love that image of the nattering meteor shower. Certainly, my planet is long gone. Literally so, in the case of the house where I was born, both my primary schools, the block of flats where I lived out my adolescence, and various other immemorial haunts of my younger years: all have been demolished and built over, with not a rack left behind. Less materially, but equally finally, rock-solid ideas and attitudes I grew up with have been challenged and consigned to history. From the same article:
Until 1960, the idea that women could compete with men in the job market, that men should do housework, that women had any purpose in life higher than having babies and men had any purpose higher than financially supporting those babies or going to war to protect them, was something close to unthinkable.
That we have come so far in so little time is a marvel. That we should expect all the kinks to have been worked out by now is insane.
I think I'd correct that over-optimistic "1960" to, let's say, 1980, but the point is nonetheless well made. The young have every right – a duty, even – to complain and to criticise, and to show little or no consideration for the aching shoulders on which they stand. My generation was equally ignorant and dismissive of the struggles of those who had actually created the conditions we enjoyed. Who actually set up the NHS and the welfare system, introduced free state education, or invented the juke box and the electric guitar? Not us. But with age a sense of perspective comes into play, as the fluidity of your own life solidifies: part history, part legacy, mainly rubble. The world I was born into, the world I was schooled in, the several worlds I worked in, the world I have retired into, and all the worlds to come are entirely different planets, all destined to become space junk. Once, it was possible to write:
What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
George Orwell, England Your England
Now, in 2019, soon to be 2020, we are considerably closer to 2040 than we are to 1940, and yet to anyone over 60 the world of 1940 is just the day before yesterday, the vanished, war-torn planet of our parents' heyday. Do we still "happen to be the same person", though? It seems increasingly doubtful. I'm beginning to suspect I may not be the same person this afternoon that I thought I was this morning. Ah well, tomorrow is another me. Which is far from the pleasantly reassuring thought it once was. Memory and identity are closely linked, and both, it seems, are mutable.

At some point, it seems our mental flexibility and openness begin to ossify, and we start to lose patience with the flow of endless novelty and endless change, not least because this ceaseless churning causes us – once we have tired of swimming against the tide – to drift to the periphery, away from the lively centre, where the young congregate and the action is. We have come to like our world just as it is, thank you very much; it defines who we are, and any change to it threatens the stability of our identity. Than which – as you will know if you have ever suffered mental imbalance or "experimented" with psychoactive substances – few things are more terrifying. Which introduces the unmentionable spectre that flickers at the edge of every older person's vision: the prospect of dementia. Which is an outcome of advanced age that is quite explicitly not covered by the original guarantee [1].

It's natural for the robust young to advocate radical change and enjoy the inconveniences that accompany adventure. They're still just a preliminary sketch of who they will become, have little to lose, and some vigorous, random strokes and splatters of ink may reveal exciting new possibilities. If not, they still have time to bin the whole thing, and start again. We older folk, by contrast, are pretty much at the stage where we have to start thinking of ourselves as finished works, and worry that any more fiddling about may risk spoiling the whole thing, even if the completed picture is not quite the masterpiece we had hoped. And then there is always the underlying fear that the whole thing may have been carried out with materials so unstable that it will self-destruct or get scrambled before the final finishing touches can be applied.

Self-help gurus and "life coaches" are often advocates of risk, of life as permanent revolution. To what degree anyone actually lives, or could live a whole life like that, I couldn't say. It must be exhausting. But it's a half-baked philosophy that regards a reckless, narcissistic optimism as the highest, aspirational good. Live the dream, become your best self, whatever the cost! Which is fine, if you're young, strong and/or beautiful, have a trust fund or a bankable talent, or simply tend to land on your feet. None of the above? Then a more cautious approach to life may be appropriate in your case, especially if you hope to live a long life in relative comfort. Have you considered enhancing your pension prospects, for example?

One of the most quoted and yet most stupid poems ever written is "Come to the Edge" by Christopher Logue (whose adaptation of Homer, War Music, by contrast, is brilliant):
Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It's too high!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew.
The temptation to rewrite that last line is overwhelming. Perhaps as, "And his case comes up next Friday", or maybe, "But they pushed back, and said, 'No, you first...'" I mean, nobody needs to be encouraged to be an idiot. Even someone as level-headed, mild-mannered, and essentially grounded as me took foolish risks when I was young, coming perilously close to disaster and even an early death on several occasions. Did I really believe I was invulnerable? I may well have done, but I got away with it: even if I ticked none of the other lucky boxes, I have always tended to land on my feet.

I suppose that if there is one thing that divides age from youth, it is the inability of the young to hear the spectral shouting coming from within that ancestral, nattering meteor shower: "Get away from the edge! You CANNOT fly, you IDIOT! And do up that coat! It's cold: where are your gloves? And wear a vest, fasten that seatbelt, and don't play with matches, run with scissors, or have unprotected sex with strangers, and, and, and ..." Well, it seems I can certainly hear them now, reluctant as I still am to act as their ventriloquist's dummy. Let the young make and learn from their own mistakes, I say; meanwhile there is new, scary terra incognita lying ahead for us old folk to explore. And, yes, I'm about to quote that other stupid, much-quoted, but rather better poem, Tennyson's "Ulysses":
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are...
But, listen, Ulysses, let's get a few maps and Rough Guides before we leave, this time, yeah? And, by the way, has anyone checked whether the boat insurance has been renewed [2]? And, um, have you mentioned this plan to Penelope?

1. That's right, as Chico Marx says, there ain't no sanity clause.
2. But there definitely is a Ship of Theseus clause.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Second of All

Just in case you thought the photo-collages had finally gone away, here are a few I've been tinkering with this week. You may recognise many of their constituent elements: I do like to recycle. I have nothing in particular I want to say about them, or about anything much, it's been that kind of week. A busy week – I finally delivered about 150 Lego and Lego Technic sets [1] to a Lego dealer ("Hey, kid...") who gave me a very good price for them – but essentially unremarkable.

Although there's this: as an inveterate language-watcher, I've been annoyed by the use of the expression "second of all" which I keep hearing, especially on the radio in the mouths of political commentators like the ubiquitous Laura Kuenssberg. As in, "First of all, Boris Johnson is a narcissistic prat; second of all, he's a known and proven liar". Nobody used to say this ("second of all", I mean: the stuff about Johnson is well-established), and it makes no sense. "First of all" is surely a stand-alone expression, indicating absolute primacy in a list? And I suppose "last of all" is a useful alternative to "last but not least" as a list-finishing cliché, when "finally" seems a little too final. But no-one says "middle of all", do they? And what about "third of all" or even "thirty-third of all"? These are obvious and redundant nonsense. I wonder, did this start as a joke? One of those formulaic witticisms that lighten conversation? I suppose it could imply, "second and final item in a list of two", but, disappointingly, so rarely does. But, however it happened, it now seems to have established itself, like some invasive linguistic species, and being annoyed about it won't change anything.

1.  No, really, 150-odd sets, all carefully checked: they filled the entire back of our Renault Scenic, including the seats. 2019 turned out to be a memorable Summer of Lego.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Ancient Youth

I spotted these two in the British Museum on Wednesday. Unfortunately, I fumbled the focus and exposure, which doesn't leave much else to get right, so I've had to resort to various bits of magic to get a useful picture. In reality, I think these are some kind of funereal figurine (I forgot to take notes, always a mistake...) but, to me, they look like two girls who have just made the mistake of skinny dipping in the North Sea. Brrr... And, yes, the one on the left really does appear to have shades on and an interesting tattoo.

Not so much Celine and Julie Go Boating, then, as Tracy and Debbie go swimming. "S-s-sod this for a l-l-lark, D-d-debs! G-g-get yer kit on and w-we'll go for a latte"... Where they may well meet Mick and Rick, the jug-eared, idiot boys. Tasty! But, blimey, whatever happened to your nose, Mick?