Monday 21 December 2020

Slow Down

People used to be fond of saying to procrastinators and pretenders, "This is not a dress rehearsal, you know: this is the real thing". It's something that can be quite a revelation the first time you hear it, but quickly loses its impact, especially if you're a truly committed procrastinator. I expect "a stitch in time saves nine" and "look before you leap" were eye-opening insights in their day, too. But you don't hear that "dress rehearsal" thing so much, these days. Largely, I suspect, because an all-encompassing virtuality has undermined our sense of the reality of the here and now, to the extent that the distinction between a dress rehearsal and the real thing has become quite blurred. We're all pretenders now.

Incredibly but undeniably, I will turn 67 early in 2021. I'm older than I think. I'm reminded of what a wise friend said to me a while ago: it's time for us to start thinking about endgames. This is something most people postpone, quite often until it's too late, like writing a will. [1] Understandably: an "endgame" does sound rather, well, final; it's nowhere near as fun to think about as some youthful, open-ended daydream of future, fantasy lives, or even yet another well-intentioned New Year's Resolution. But it's a simple fact that in our 60s rather more than half of our life is over, and a fair proportion of whatever may be left is highly likely to be unpleasant, painful, and humiliating. I've already had a preliminary taste of that, and we've all had more than enough reminders of our mortality this year, haven't we? So, as seventy hobbles into view, it's finally time to stop dreaming, stop imagining alternative realities, and make the most of this one. This is not a dress rehearsal...

Producing this blog has embedded itself in my day-to-day life, but it may be becoming a distraction from my reality. I'm not sure that writing pieces which were read, at peak, by 300 people – and recently far fewer and still diminishing, I'm sorry to say – is a serious part of any endgame that makes sense. In the end, it may simply be yet another excellent way of postponing some more important things that I really want to undertake, or attempt, before I get too old to remember what they were, and why they seemed important.

At the outset of my big blogging adventure, back in 2008, I was still in my mid-50s and had finally grown sufficiently disenchanted with my work in a university library to contemplate early retirement, and I think I had hopes that writing these pieces and showing these photographs might be a solid public platform for a second, late-life career, perhaps even a portal for opportunities to exhibit or to write columns and articles. But, twelve years later... Well, dream on. Such things are other people's reality, not mine. The sober fact is that, for most of us, the dress rehearsal is as far as it goes. You might even say that everybody is an understudy for the life they thought they were going to lead.

However, although I have no intention of shutting down the blog yet, regular visitors may have noticed that the interval between these posts is increasing, and it is likely to increase still further in 2021; strange as it may sound to people who don't themselves write, I need to learn the discipline of writing more, but "publishing" less. There may even be times when the blog goes dormant for extended periods, while I concentrate on other things. Obviously, I'll flag that up if and when it is going to happen. 

It's still fun and rewarding to do, most of the time, and I'm still enjoying the company of a handful of fellow-travellers.  It is astonishing, really, that like-minded people can still find each other among the noisy party of a billion rooms that is the Internet. Ironically, though, in the end that is the core of the distraction of blogging: if nobody at all read these pieces – certainly the fate of most blogs – how much easier it would be to put it aside and do something else.
But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub couch'd,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Fitzgerald translation
So, my best wishes for 2021 to you from this particular corner of the hubbub, as we back carefully and slowly out of 2020. That really was quite some year, wasn't it? Despite all the inconvenience, hurt, and heartache, despite everything you might want to forget about it, and everything that didn't happen as it was supposed to, 2020 is destined to be a year to remember. Even if you were one of the lucky ones, and not much of significance happened to you personally, or anyone close to you. So what did you do in the Great Plague Year, grandad? Well, I mainly worked hard at sitting indoors, scoffing at the news and the scrambling, serial incompetences of our political class, and enjoyed feeling like Butch Cassidy every time I masked up to enter the Post Office. ¡Esto es un robo! Manos arriba... Other than that, it was all a bit of a blur.

So, just to get the virtual seasonal party going, and seeing as the theme is "slowing down", I thought it would be an admirable opportunity to put "Slow Down" on the turntable, something that same wise friend mentioned above brought to my attention some years ago. I pride myself on having worked out that Keb' Mo' was "Kevin Moore" without being told. It's the little things...

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough

1. I know nothing worth knowing about chess, so for me an endgame is a metaphor, pure and simple. But on the subject of wills here's some golden advice from one who knows, i.e. me: don't let your elderly relatives, however poor, die intestate, especially if dementia runs in your family. Just don't. And if they're even moderately well off – do they own a house? –make them write a will NOW. And don't ever let them name a bank or a solicitor as an executor. If you're British, arrange "enduring power of attorney" NOW.  If you don't know what that is, FIND OUT. Seriously.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Working Hard

The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth

Like any keen observer of our language and its constant evolution, I tend to notice linguistic oddities as they escape from the confines of specialist or subcultural usage into the wider world, as well as those formulaic expressions that suddenly get taken up widely, as they meet some new or previously unmet need. It's natural that people enjoy spicing their talk with modish expressions, however weird or annoying this may sometimes seem, and there's not a lot of point in getting grumpy about it: language does what it does, because people. (Yes, that one's getting annoying, too).

It's been a good five years since I riffed on "sadly died" (see the post No, Mr. Bond, I expect You To Sadly Die), so I thought I'd point out some new-ish things that give me a perversely pleasurable pain whenever I hear them; mainly on the radio, as I'm not a big TV-watcher.

First, this has definitely been the year of people "working hard". Everywhere, politicians, doctors, nurses, scientists, civil servants, teachers, special advisers, negotiators, retailers, hairdressers, pub landlords – you name it – are said to be working hard to address the problems created by Covid-19. Certainly, the medics, the vaccine developers, and the teachers have been working hard under trying conditions. But the others? Haven't they just been doing their jobs? Have they been starting early and staying late, sleeping in the office, skipping meals, not seeing their families for weeks on end (we'll pass over the egregious "loved ones" for another time), in situations fraught with danger and trauma, actual and emotional? Probably not, and if I were their union rep I would strongly counsel against it anyway. But "working" and "hard" have become semi-permanently glued together during 2020, as if to be doing anything less is to be suspected of being employed in nothing more than clock-watching busywork, divided up by frequent lengthy chats at the water-cooler [1] and over-extended lunch-breaks. As if!

Another one that I've been noticing is: "thank you for having me on the programme". At some point in the last year or so, it seems to have become customary for any guest expert or commentator invited onto a news or magazine programme to declare, "Good afternoon, and thank you for having me on the programme". What? There are so many ways this is strange. For a start, this is the language of well brought-up children after a birthday party or outing – "Now, what do you say to Sophie's mum, Rufus?" –  not that of professors of immunology, and especially not the representatives of ecologically-damaging industries, about to be taken to task for polluting a river. It is also utterly redundant: it's not as if the presenter, about to interrogate the "guest" with extreme prejudice, did the inviting in the first place. Any thanks, however ironic, will surely already have been delivered behind the scenes to (I'd guess) the producer or their PA. It also smacks of a prissily ostentatious adherence to the formulas of "good manners", and is a further elaboration of the tendency of candidates for trial by interview to exchange pointless social niceties on air, usually straight after the first direct question has been asked. Perhaps it's a way of gaining some thinking-time, or using up some of the allotted interview slot? Or putting some air-time insulation between the question and the evasive non-answer? Not to say implying in advance that the questioner is a graceless slob, lacking the most basic social skills. Which is bound to sway our opinion in favour of some PR flack defending the indefensible, isn't it?

I also notice that such people seem to have stopped saying, "So..." at the start of every sentence (see the post So So, also from 2015). I wonder if this is in any way connected with the rise of  "thank you for having me", or if it's simply that such speech-pattern fashions expire after a few years? I certainly hope so: the sooner young female arts-professionals stop croaking into inaudibility at the end of every sentence the better. What is that about? I thought nothing would ever irritate me quite as much as "upspeak" (the voicing of every statement as a question? As if talking to an idiot? Or pretending to be unsure of what you're saying?). But that terminal creak, a.k.a. "vocal fry"... Is it meant to sound less girlish or "gendered"? More relaxed, thoughtful, or world-wearily wise? If so, for me it doesn't do any of those things. What it does sound like is a pre-emptive plea for clemency: "I'm only feeble, go easy on me, I'm out of breath after ... saying ... all ... those ... words...". I suspect it is just another passing fad, however, adopted for no better reason than it's what certain fashion-forward speakers are doing. If so, may it pass quickly. Speak up, you people! Some of us can barely hear anything as it is.

The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man

1. Does your office have a water-cooler? No, neither did mine. Yet another little linguistic curiosity, probably imported from the USA.

Thursday 10 December 2020

The Devil's Party

Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ'd

The crow wish'd that every thing was black, the owl that every thing was white

The "Proverbs of Hell" keep landing thick and fast: nearly seventy now... Here are a few pairings I like. If they're a bit grotesque, well, that's just the way my imagination tends to swing and, besides, these are the proverbs of Hell, not Heaven. As Blake wrote: "Note: the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it". If you've ever had the pleasure of reading Paradise Lost, you'll know exactly what he is talking about. If you haven't, then you should read it, preferably out loud. Very loud; go on, turn it up to eleven.

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor:   One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.
(Satan speaks to the fallen angels, in Book I)

Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead

Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps

Thursday 3 December 2020

Ancient History

"The hours of folly are measur'd by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure"

Occasionally I get asked to help out with a bit of Latin translation: nothing as challenging as a chunk of Cicero or a Horatian ode (phew) but generally a few lines of an inscription, memorial, or some similar curiosity that someone has come across. Which always makes me nervous as, by the standards of a proper classicist, my Latin is pretty poor. But I know enough to feel my way through a few sentences, like someone trying to find the light switch in an unfamiliar dark room full of shin-bruising obstacles. Usually I do manage to find it, eventually, and usually the bulb comes on.

This is no major accomplishment on my part. Like nearly all A-stream pupils in state grammar-schools before the 1970s, I was taught Latin from the age of 11 to 16 in the traditional manner, pretty much as it was in Shakespeare's day, but with less beating. We chanted verb conjugations and noun declensions in class, starting with the first declension (mensa, a table: "O table!") and the first conjugation ("amo, amas, amat...") and progressing to tricksy things like the "gerundive of obligation" and the "ablative absolute" ("the having been killed barbarians were thrown in the having been dug ditches...").  As it happens, I was in the very last class ever to be put through to O-Level Latin by my school, as it had been decided that as a subject it was redundant in the modern world and, besides, Latin teachers of a suitable standard willing to work in what were now "comprehensive" state schools were no longer available. To the great relief of most of my classmates, more than happy to discard their previous four years of study, the subject was immediately dropped from the timetable, but a small group of us – eight potential Oxbridge candidates – were intensively drilled to exam standard in two terms during our lunch hours. I'm pleased to say that we all passed at the top grade [1]. However, I can remember very little of this crammed knowledge now – I discovered recently that I'd forgotten, if I ever knew, that there was a fourth and even a fifth declension – but ancient learning can be awoken from its slumber with the aid of a dictionary and an online grammar, even if it does remain quite drowsy.

I have often remarked that I was part of a last generation of state-educated kids to slip through a door that was closing on certain aspirations and opportunities, and which would henceforth be labelled, "No Admittance: Private Education Only". I was reminded of this by a recent post on Language Hat (no relation) in which jaws were dropped at the number of Latin "howlers" and general ignorance of the subject matter that had made it into a couple of editions of Wycliffe's Latin works in translation published by two university presses; for example – astonishingly – mistaking the frequent annotation "ed. pr." (editio princeps i.e. "first printed edition") for "editor prefers". It seems that even at the level of scholarship where one has been entrusted with the editing and translation of important source material a linguistic competence adequate to the task is becoming a rarity. It's not just Latin or languages, of course. At the other end of the scholastic spectrum, I have heard university mathematicians express dismay at having to teach remedial classes for new undergraduates, the standard required for a top-level pass at Maths A-Level having fallen so low. O tempora, o mores! as rather fewer people are likely to exclaim these days. 

Does this matter? Well, yes and no, but in the end it doesn't matter whether it matters or not: we are where we are, and nothing much can be done about it. State schools will never again teach Latin qua Latin, although people who wish to advertise their educational status will continue to drop poorly-understood expressions derived from Latin into their language, as I did just then. Access to the languages of the classical past has become and will remain the privilege of the privately-educated, or the result of the inevitably patchy, boot-strapped efforts of humanities postgraduates [2]. But, to be honest, I'd be much more concerned about the teaching of mathematics and science in a world where, for example, the unbelievably complex structures of proteins have been unravelled by artificial intelligence, as announced this week – opening the door onto whole new areas of research, knowledge, and beneficial outcomes – or where the rapid development, testing, and distribution of effective vaccines has become a globally-significant matter of life and death. By comparison, a kludgy translation into English of the Latin works of the first translator of the Bible from Latin into equally kludgy English may, quite justifiably, seem less than disastrous. Despite the fact that once it mattered enough to the Pope in 1428 to order Wycliffe's rebel protestant bones to be exhumed forty years after his death, burned, and cast into a nearby river. Priorities change.

Culture is necessarily an endless process of forgetting and leaving behind; who now knows or cares how to flake a flint or fletch an arrow, or which god is thought to inhabit your local river and the necessary placatory measures to take when he, she, or it decides to flood your pastures? A once widely-shared body of classical literature and allusion is just another thing to be dumped into the waters of Lethe (and where exactly is that?). The churn does seem to be getting ever faster and more relentless, however. I think of the software I learned to use in the 1980s and 90s: will anyone in the future ever care about how we mastered and loved WordPerfect 5.1, despite having had to run it from two 5¼" floppy disks, or appreciate the inbuilt advantages for database-construction of the Pick operating system? Will any of the scripts and programs I wrote myself survive the next change of system in the library where I laboured over them for so many years? Of course they won't; once the plug is pulled they will vanish forever down the electronic drain into a river beginning with "L" whose name has already escaped me.

Most genuinely useful stuff gets updated and transmitted forward, of  course, constantly re-written for new operating systems and new circumstances in new languages. Something similar could be said for literature in translation, I suppose, despite the protestations of purists that traduttore, traditore (translator = traitor). But, unless and until the study of "ancient languages" is extended to programming, I doubt anybody will ever again care about the "original" version of some innovative sort routine, say, written in FORTRAN for a non-portable OS once used on an obsolete mainframe built by a firm that went out of business in the 1990s. Sic transit ... Oh, stop it.

"No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings"

1. Grade 1 O-Level seems like an impossibly high standard to aspire to in any subject at age 16 today. My daughter passed her French GCSE at grade A, and yet had never even heard the words "pluperfect", or "past historic", never mind learned those essential tenses across all regular and many irregular verbs by rote. The idea that "immersive learning" is a better route to language learning is probably true, if you are able to go and live in France for a year or two, but "immersive" is hardly how you would describe a couple of lessons a week from someone whose French is less than fluent. Grr.

2. One of my son's friends at Oxford was a lad from a Midlands Pakistani family who was teaching himself Latin at the same time as studying Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, which was an extraordinary feat – I'm amazed it was even contemplated – but you do have to wonder how he could ever match the standard of some public-school classicist who had been grappling with declensions since the age of 10 or even earlier. He made it, though, and my recollection is that he got a first, too.

Saturday 28 November 2020

Proverbial Wisdom

Here are a few more of these illustrations of Blake's "Proverbs of Hell". So far, I have made about forty... I know this may seem prolific, but, as regular visitors will spot, this has largely been an exercise in recycling collages that have not yet found a permanent place. It seems Blake may have permeated my sensibility deeply enough for there to be a Blakey-ness about much of what I have done.

Full marks to anyone spotting the wise man and in particular his tree in that last one. In keeping with the Blakean concept of "shewing the two contrary states of the human soul" (the subtitle of Songs of Innocence and of Experience) my intention is to create two versions of each of the "proverbs" that I choose to illustrate. These may be contrary, complementary, or merely reinforce each other, as in the example below. And, yes, another damn'd thick book [1] may be on its way.

1. "Another damn'd thick book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?" (Attributed to Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, 1781, upon receiving the second – or third, or possibly both – volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the author).

Tuesday 24 November 2020

The Proverbs of Hell

I can recall very vividly the day in 1975 when, one bleary-eyed afternoon – it must have been afternoon, as I rarely got out of bed much before lunchtime in those youthful days of very long nights – I crossed Broad Street in Oxford to have a browse in Parker's Bookshop, and came across a display of the newly-published OUP and Trianon Press facsimile edition of William Blake's illuminated book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I think it was probably one of the first books to awake my inner bibliophile: a perfect thing, a blue, cloth-covered hardback, about the size of a paperback novel, made up of proper sewn gatherings – already a rarity in the mid-70s – with blue-and-white end-silks, text and colour facsimiles of Blake's plates all printed on the same thick paper, and encased in a robust, cloth-covered slip-case with reproductions pasted on either side. I think it cost £7.50, quite a lot of money in 1975, but when destiny calls you just have to dig deep in your pockets [1].

Just this week I was tinkering with a collaged image of an owl that has gone through many versions but never quite found its rightful place, when it struck me that it would make an ideal illustration for one of the "Proverbs of Hell", as found in Blake's Marriage: "The crow wish'd every thing was black, the owl that every thing was white". Naturally, I reached for that perfect volume in its customary place of honour on my bookshelves, and within minutes a potential new project was born. Which was good, as I had been feeling a little at a loose end since the dissipation of the impulse that had resulted in the several Let's Get Lost volumes.

It has been many years since I opened The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and I was surprised by the wave of nostalgia evoked by the ancient bits and pieces that were entombed inside, mainly slips of paper serving as bookmarks, but also tiny fragments that had ended up in the page "gutters", something that can only really happen with sewn bindings, where the gaps are deep enough to trap debris, notably shreds of tobacco. Tobacco! Not many books have survived the journey from when I, like a large proportion of the population in those days, was a smoker. Like coal fires and boys in short trousers, smoking as a habit of the professional classes belongs to a world we have left behind. I remember the occasional visit to my school's Staff Room during the lunch hour: your tentative knock would be answered by some teacher, generally with a pipe clenched between his teeth, and you'd be enveloped in the choking haboob of tobacco smoke that rolled out of the door. A pipe and its accompanying rituals and paraphernalia were as much a part of the male teacher's kit, then, as the elbow-patched tweed jacket. It is hilarious, now, to look at university group photographs from before the 1960s, ranks of fresh-faced boys got up as middle-aged men, complete with tweed, pipes, grey flannel trousers, and serious spectacles, as if in a fancy-dress competition [2].

Which may well go to show that, as Blake puts it in the Proverbs of Hell, "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction"; certainly, as Jean Rhys knew, tigers are better-looking. It's also the case that, in those far-off days of 1975, there was a certain self-justifying truthiness to that other famous Proverb, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom". However, I'm afraid I got off the Excess Bus a stop or two before the Palace: I gave up smoking decades ago, and I'm in bed well before midnight, these days, and usually up by eight. I do still buy too many beautiful and expensive books, though [3] and, more to the point, keep on making these pictures and books of my own despite the fact that nobody else seems to want them. So, given another, lesser-known Blakean dictum, "If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise", there may be hope yet... Enough, or too much!

1. OUP obviously over-estimated the demand for Blake. For years afterwards this book could be picked up much cheaper in remainder shops, as could the substantial volume that followed shortly after from OUP, The Illuminated Blake, setting out the entire oeuvre, but in monochrome reproduction only, which was both overwhelming and surprisingly dull. I gave my copy to Oxfam a few years ago.

2. As opposed to the actual dressing-up box competition of my student days, which was really just a different kind of uniform...

3. A friend recently pointed me at the Japanese word "tsundoku", meaning "to buy too many books that lie around in piles, unread". Who, me?

Thursday 19 November 2020

Let's Get Illuminated

One of my Covid-year "lockdown" activities has been playing around with what started out as a "postcards" project, loosely modelled on Luigi Ghirri's Kodachrome, and eventually became a Blurb book, Let's Get Lost, a series of mainly topographic photographs extracted from my backfiles, arranged into pairs, and – following a quotation from Rilke [1] – sequenced around six simple, "liveable" questions ("Where On Earth Am I?", "How Did I Get Here?", "Are We Lost Yet?", etc.). I've reported periodically on the progress of this absorbing project, and it's been enlightening (for me, anyway) to look back on the blog-trail [2], from the first glimmerings of an idea in April to the finished book in August, followed by a calendar for 2021, and now the launch of a new version, Let's Get Lost: an Illuminated Selection.

This new item is a selection of twenty-six page-spreads from the original, complete book, which was a relatively plain 116 pages. For this smaller selection, I embedded each pair of facing photographs into a single unifying "illuminated" two-page frame, an approach that suggested itself when creating the twelve images for my 2021 calendar. The pages are presented in the order that they are found in the complete, sequenced book, but without the schematic framework of the six questions. I decided to use Blurb's "premium magazine" format, which is both larger than their standard photo-book and considerably cheaper.

I must admit I'm very pleased with it. So much so that – even though I don't anticipate selling more than a handful of copies – I've slightly madly assigned it one of the remaining ISBNs from my long-dormant Shepherd's Crown self-publishing imprint, and given it the official publication treatment i.e. sent a copy to the British Library's Legal Deposit Office, but in the hope that the other five copyright libraries won't be asking for copies, too. If nothing else, this means that at least one copy will go bobbing along into the future in the massive flood of published material. If you're interested, here is a full preview:
A copy will cost you £14.99 via Blurb (plus their charge for p&p). I've also made a PDF version on CD, in a hand-crafted sleeve: if you'd like one for £5.50 (p&p free in UK, anywhere else add £2.50), email me (see "View My Complete Profile" at top right for an address).

So why not join me on this photographic dérive? Come on, let's get lost!

To put this modest venture of mine into perspective, if you cast your mind back to my Christmas book recommendations in 2017 you may remember one of them was A Group Photograph, by Andrew Tatham, a remarkable 20-year project in which he not only tracked down every man in a particular formal WW1 group photograph in his possession, but also their pre- and post-war lives and careers, and even found their descendants. Well, Andrew has now followed that up with I Shall Not Be Away Long: the First World War letters of Lt. Col. Charles Bartlett, an equally remarkable adventure in research, book design, and self-publication, and well worth your consideration if you have an interest in that period. You can read about it on Andrew's blog here, which contains some interesting reflections on the costs, pleasures, and perils of proper self-publication, publicity, and promotion. Personally, I'm going to stick to Blurb and "print on demand": the prospect of selling enough copies of either version of Let's Get Lost even to cover the cost of the five extra copyright-deposit copies, should they be requested – that would be twenty, I think – is laughable.

1. "You are so young, barely a novice, and I would like to urge you, so far as I can, dear Sir, to have patience towards everything that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms, like books written in a very foreign language. For now, don't look for answers which cannot be given to you because you can't yet have lived them. And the great thing is to live everything. For now live the questions. Perhaps then you will gradually – one far-off day, without even noticing it – live your way into the answer." (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet).
2. The trail goes like this: April: PostcardsPostcards 2. May: Postcards 3Postcards 4Pages & Pages. June: Let's Get Lost. August: Let's Get Completely LostSpecial EditionSpecial Edition 2. September: Dummies. October: Calendar 2021Cover Story.

Monday 16 November 2020

Inscription, Part 2

The St. Petersburg fabulist ponders НАДПИСЬ

It's been a while since I wrote Part One of this "review". Partly because I've had other things to do, but also because, if I'm honest, every time I picked up the first issue of Inscription and started to read I quickly grew frustrated with its size and floppiness, and the calculated "challenge" of the slow rotation of the page orientation around the central hole. Not to mention the tricksy tête-bêche construction of the volume, which makes it surprisingly difficult to return to whatever you were reading ten minutes ago. I understand that there are spiral and other underlying structural metaphors at work here, but it's not easy being even-handed towards something that seems wilfully designed to obstruct its own use, like a non-absorbent towel (if this seems an odd comparison to reach for, then fast forward to footnote four).

I should say up front that, for the right audience, the contents of Inscription are well worth reading, with the proviso that a high tolerance for the academic writing style is needed, and also for that of first-person essayist-rhapsodists such as Kathleen Jamie or Robert Macfarlane. Obviously, as with all work produced for the consumption of fellow specialists, there is a certain threshold beyond which the general reader will not want to proceed. No matter how much you love, say, cars, you will find little in the International Journal of Automotive Engineering that is of interest or even comprehensible. And, despite appearances, Inscription is not a volume for the general reader: it is an academic journal which has expanded to fill the production values of an expensively-produced artist's book or "little magazine". You can make up your own mind whether it's for you, as it's freely available on the Web.

There are aspects of material culture touched on in these pages that the intelligent general reader would certainly find interesting. For example, that pre-19th century papers are made from the rags of the cast-off clothing of the poor, that the preparation of vellum or parchment is a grisly and time-consuming business that begins with a dead sheep (or, in the very finest cases, an aborted calf), or that the lithographic stone that enabled the graphical freedom of the posters of Toulouse Lautrec is the very same Solnhofen limestone that yielded the original fossil of Archaeopteryx. And, yes, that manuscripts often differ significantly from the final, printed product in instructive ways. But these pieces are written by and for those for whom any of that is old news, and under an obligation, as in any peer-reviewed journal, to make something novel out of those old familiar rags.

I enjoyed Alexandra Franklin's account of learning the lore and craft of printing in a hands-on project of personally typesetting a copy of Moby-Dick (!), but then I come from a family of bookbinders and printers, and benefitted from the flamboyant lectures of the British Library's Nicolas Barker on historical book production when at UCL's postgraduate library school. I also appreciated John T. Hamilton's piece comparing Kafka's manuscripts with the final published work, which takes the form of a close reading (a sermon, almost) riffing on significant family resemblances between certain words used by Kafka, and their etymologies. Although, again, it happens to be the case that I have studied both German and Kafka: I'm sure other readers will pass over Hamilton's reflections on subtle shifts in the use of different passive voices in versions of The Trial as quickly as I did the utterly baffling notes of the "Roland Barthes Reading Group". I thought I had studied Barthes, too, but clearly not closely or recently enough: I have absolutely no idea what those hermetic annotations are all about, or who would benefit from reading them.

But the thing is, grappling with these often challenging pieces of content is not made any easier (in the print version) by continually being nudged in the ribs by their container, like one of those tiresome po-mo novels that insists, "Hey, this is just a novel! This is not real! I'm making this all up!" Well, no shit, Shakespeare. If my willing suspension of disbelief is not going to be appreciated around here, then I guess I'll just have to take it elsewhere.

It should go without saying that I am not some anti-intellectual despiser of academics. Had the job market for comparers of literature in the late 1970s been different, I'd probably have ended up doing homework for a living myself. But I also know only too well that the Oulipo Syndrome [1] has a fatal attraction for the academic mind, not least when that mind aspires to creativity. The lure of cleverness is a will-o'-the-wisp that can tempt the susceptible into the swamps of incomprehensibility and pretension. Example: a couple of weeks ago on BBC Radio 4 there was what sounded like it might be an interesting programme, "Trump: Backwards", in which archive footage would be played in reverse order, from the present day back to the beginnings of Trump's appearance on the American scene. Clever! The trailer included promising things like the voice of Alastair Cook describing the young Donald in one of his Letters from America. But I turned it off after 5 minutes. Why? Because the producer had decided to mash everything up into an infuriatingly jagged sound-collage of uncredited snatches of broadcast and music, shot through with the sort of "it's a fucked-up world" sound-effects that tell you what to think and feel even more insistently than an intrusive musical soundtrack. No doubt they had been encouraged to produce something really innovative. Instead, what resulted was something truly rebarbative: a train-wreck disaster of style over content.

Now, Inscription descends to nowhere near that level of misapplied ingenuity [2], but I do want to have a bit of a sustained moan about the format. Look, if you can imagine a very large paperback book, a slightly larger square than an LP sleeve, containing something like 130 pages printed on a heavy matte paper-stock that, in use, opens out into an unwieldy, sagging, two-foot by one-foot object which, in order to be read sequentially, has to be slowly rotated through 360° as you turn the pages, then you will understand how quickly one's mood can pass from amusement through bemusement to annoyance. I've complained about impractically large books before: see, for example, the 2010 post Oi, Nazraeli, No!!. I often wonder quite how much shelf-space, or what reading arrangements the designers of such books imagine are available in the typical household, or even at what distance they think reading glasses are optimised for, um, reading. Mine are set for somewhere between 12" and 18", so in the case of Inscription (which I'm reluctant to fold in half) it's rather like wrestling a fat newspaper that happens to weigh over 1½ pounds (800g). Worse, I also have the beginnings of arthritis in my neck, so do not appreciate being obliged to cock my head at an angle when reading for any length of time. I suppose it would help if you had a large, uncluttered, inclined surface, perhaps fitted out with a "lazy Susan" style turntable, two or more feet in diameter, ideally with ten-degree detents, a non-slip surface, and adjustable page-clamps. Or, failing that, perfect vision, exceptionally strong arms with excellent muscle stamina, and an awful lot of patience. But it does seem a lot to ask as the price of entry, doesn't it?

So, consider me successfully challenged. Obviously, one has to accept that this is, in large part, a physical embodiment of the whole point and purpose of the journal: to highlight and explore the materiality of inscribed culture. But how necessary or useful is it, really, for form to disrupt, to reflect, or to provoke reflections upon content? It can be effective, of course, and particularly if the content is both well-known and ripe for critique, and also has a strong, single personality – the Highway Code, say, or Scouting For Boys – but less so when the content is diverse and consists of dense academic prose or carefully tabulated texts spread over many pages.

Back in my student days, a book with the title The Book of the Book, by Idries Shah appeared. It was essentially a hardback book, equipped with all the usual publisher's bells and whistles – dustjacket, title-page, and so on – but was otherwise filled with 250 blank pages. Which you either thought was totally far out, or a complete rip-off. My friend Gerry bought a copy in Blackwell's Bookshop – we were fans of Idries Shah's Sufi tales of Mulla Nasrudin – and had to reassure the anxious sales-assistant that he would not be returning it due to its lack of content. As far as I understand it, that book was intended as a stimulus to spiritual awakening, a sort of bibliographic koan. [3] Other, similarly reflexive bibliographic or literary jeux d'esprit also tend to have designs upon our presumed complacency, as embodied by the boring old codex: wake up, sheeple! However, such would-be galvanising games, whatever their motivation, can only ever really be played once (or once in a generation, perhaps), and even then are best played in the sandbox of the imagination. How many blank, cut-up, randomly-shuffled, repurposed, redacted, or otherwise subverted texts – there has been no shortage of such "experiments" over the past century – have actually delivered a satisfying reading experience, enlightenment, raised consciousness, or pointed the way forward to a fruitful new direction for literature? [4] Very few, I'd say: Tom Phillips' Humument, of course, is one exception, but they're mostly famous dead-ends, like Raymond Queneau's Cent mille milliards de poèmes, or pure conceptual provocations, like John Latham's Still and Chew: Art and Culture 1966–1967. To the scholarly cast of mind, of course, there are no dead-ends, just under-explored and forgotten byways. Many of which, sadly, lead straight into the aforementioned swamps of incomprehensibility and pretension.

But, OK, that will do: end of sustained moan. Although...

No: I have said enough. I'm just indulging in some pet peeves at the expense of an excellent, well-produced, and thought-provoking endeavour, which I actually want to support and endorse (even if I do have a funny way of going about it). My prediction: it will survive and thrive, but online only. For all its bookishness, this is a project that wants to be a hyperlinked, multimedia website. Meanwhile, back in the material world, I haven't even taken the shrink-wrap off the vinyl record yet, or looked properly at any of the other generous printed enclosures. All of which puts me in mind of the fondly-remembered paraliterary phenomena of my childhood, things like the "free gifts" that occasionally came with a comic, generally yet another mask or "thunderclapper" (for the simple reason, I imagine, that they were flat and cheaply made out of printed card), but also the informative and beautifully-painted "cigarette" cards that came interleaved within the paper layers of a Brooke Bond tea-packet.

Suggestions for a future issue of Inscription, perhaps? I quite like the thought of the muffled crack of thunderclappers coming from behind academic office doors, or sundry profs trying out their scary Baudrillard masks for effect. Boo!

1. Oulipo = Ouvroir de littérature potentielle = the writing of literature with artificial constraints (such as a 300 page novel entirely lacking the letter "e") and described by the Oulipian Raymond Queneau as "rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape".

2. Although consider this: "The body text of this book [Inscription] is set in a collection of different versions of Garamond. There are 20 aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas, 20 bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbs and so on, which are sequentially ordered as the text is set. This sequence repeats every line." Ooookaay...

3. I was pleased to see that Inscription makes use of my favourite satori device as found in many instruction manuals: "This page intentionally left blank", which is repeated as "This page unintentionally left blank" at the other end/beginning of the volume. Heh... Did I mention that the whole thing is structured as a tête bêche publication?

4. Genuinely innovative and experimental design stands or falls by the extent to which it improves on the experience delivered by previous tried and tested formats, or offers a new, worthwhile experience. The Dyson Airblade hand-dryer (and its imitators) has taken over in most public toilets and washrooms for a simple reason: it's better. That is, better than those infuriating button press air dryers, which were better than a pull-operated towel dispenser, which was better than an actual towel with its ends sewn together on a roller, which was better than a towel hanging precariously on a hook (which was actually probably worse, not better, than nothing at all). The Airblade is quicker, more hygienic, more energy efficient, and completely unlikely to fall onto the floor. Of course, if the design brief had been to disrupt users' expectations of the hand-drying process – rather than dry their hands more quickly and more hygienically, with the added bonus of reducing cost and carbon footprint – then a towel made of non-absorbent cloth that consistently falls onto the floor into a puddle of piss might well do the trick.

Thursday 12 November 2020


I used to live here. That is to say, for about a year from 1980 I rented the top flat of 7 Gloucester Row, in Clifton, Bristol, which is the leftmost facade you see in this row: my flat was a kitchen and two rooms directly beneath that large triangular pediment. Clifton is one of those urban areas that has gone through cycles of grand and grim ever since it was developed in the Georgian boom times, financed largely by the, ahem, products of New World slavery like sugar and tobacco. In 1980 it was at the bottom of a grim cycle; now, it has swung back to grand. I see the three-bedroom basement flat is currently valued at £763,000, and the two-bedroom 2nd floor flat sold last year for £430,000. I don't suppose anyone will ever again occupy the whole edifice, however, as originally intended.

When I moved in, taking over the lease from some friends, every floor bar the top two was unoccupied, and the one beneath me was haunted by a pair of junkies, their two small children, and a large alsatian dog that roamed the communal staircase. Coming back at night, I dreaded the sound of its pattering claws on the uncarpeted, unlit wooden stairs. It was beyond grim, actually: that winter of 80/81 was the sort of long, cold, snowy, ice-bound freeze-up that we haven't seen in England for many years, now. My toilet bowl actually froze and cracked. Worse, snow somehow blew into the roof space, and when it eventually thawed it created a large, expanding bubble in the ceiling paper that eventually burst and sent water cascading everywhere. I moved out as soon as I could.

It's strange, revisiting such places, forty years on. There's a wonderful graphic novel, Here, by Richard McGuire, which imagines the goings-on in the space occupied by a single room over the decades, centuries, and millennia. As with the absence in the sky once occupied by my teenage bedroom, in a block of flats which was demolished a dozen years ago, one's own little stretch of time in a room is both incredibly significant from a personal perspective, and yet utterly without meaning or connection to previous or subsequent occupants of that space. Whoever lives in that top-floor flat now can have no idea of those cold winter nights when I sat reading in the tiny kitchen with the ancient gas oven turned on, just to keep warm. Why, I bet they've even got central heating.

A distant prospect of the Suspension Bridge

The edge of the Downs

Gloucester Row is a mere hundred yards or so from the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge at its most impressively craggy point. On Tuesday and Wednesday last week we were in Bristol, and I went for a couple of walks along the Gorge: one along the top into Clifton, the other along the bottom to Sea Mills. Unlike the surrounding city, the area has a certain air of permanence, at least viewed on a human scale. The timeworn rocky steps along the cliff-edge paths remain as treacherous in wet weather as they always were, and the open green space of the Downs appears unchanged: even in these Covid times it echoes to the barking of excitable dogs and the shouts of young lads chasing footballs. The lack of space within the Gorge means that infrastructural changes are slow and constrained: the Portway road and the light railways that run along on either side can never be expanded or diverted, and the river just keeps on being the river, and the cliffs and the woods, as I've noted before, have a primal quality, all of which is doubtless illusory, but nonetheless reassuring in a Wordsworthian kind of way. 

The Avon is a tidal river, and twice a day drains away into the Bristol Channel, leaving behind an expanse of slick grey mud, intricately patterned into herringbones by the runoff channels of the departing water. At Sea Mills, about half way from Clifton to the sea at Avonmouth, you can get good views of the gloopy wilderness, should you find that an interesting prospect, particularly where the tributary River Trym runs beneath the railway and Portway bridges, stranding small boats at low tide, and depositing rubbish onto the grassy edgelands when the river floods. I must admit it's my kind of place, although I wouldn't want to live there.

A rising tide lifts all boats
(but not this one any more)

Yes, that is a dumped motorbike, centre right

Sunday 8 November 2020


Although we live in Southampton, for reasons too complicated to explain we also own a flat in Bristol. Lucky us: it's a pleasant modern flat on the top floor of a low-rise block that overlooks the Avon Gorge, and the picture above shows the view from the kitchen window, surely one of the best breakfast-time vistas to be had anywhere. I can spend hours just watching the tidal river ebb and flow, the clouds passing, the buzzards circling above Leigh Woods on the far bank, and the occasional peregrine falcon throwing the other birdlife into fits of hysteria. If you ignore the busy traffic on the Portway down below (easy enough if you have double glazing) it has a certain primal quality, a landscape in which bears, wolves, and hunter-gatherers would not be out of place. At night you sometimes see the lights of daredevil mountain bikers braving the trails that descend through Leigh Woods to the water's edge.

Because a kink in the Gorge means we look more or less due south across it, the change of light from dawn on the left to dusk on the right is, for a photographer, a pure delight. Even though we're only there intermittently, the neighbours must surely be accustomed by now to the lunatic who leans out of the window at all hours clutching a camera. Being in an elevated spot, we get to see some spectacular sights invisible to those on ground level. It's one of the pleasures of life in a flat, as I know from my adolescent years spent on the fourth floor of a council block in Stevenage, gazing out from my bedroom across the town centre, due west towards the motorway and the countryside beyond. Elevation opens out the perspective, and there are few landscape photographs that couldn't be improved by finding higher ground to stand on (or, failing that, a stepladder). Or, indeed, a drone, for that buzzard's eye view.

The window-cleaner's hose has made patterns in the dewy grass

We drove over to Bristol on Sunday as we had to be there for a plumber, and also to enjoy a few days away before the new lockdown began on Thursday. Sunday and Monday were washouts, however: a deep low sent alternating bands of sunshine and truly torrential rain sweeping up the Gorge, which was spectacular to watch but not really ideal walking weather, even with a freshly waterproofed coat. High pressure came in on Tuesday, though, bringing with it the classic conditions for ground-frost and fog, and early on Wednesday morning a pink, dawn-lit snake of mist was winding up the Gorge, as if a low-flying plane had zoomed through, leaving a con-trail behind.

Unfortunately the extreme lighting temperature contrast between east and west meant that the colours in my attempted "stitched" panorama were too weird to fix, so I decided to render it in monochrome. With a bit more work – those highlights need lifting for a start – I think it could still be quite effective, even though the distortion is quite bad. It's a shame about the colours, though: one of these days I will remember that digital cameras have a built-in "sweep panorama" function. I should probably figure out how it works and give it a few tries before the next real opportunity presents itself. Or maybe even start using a tripod, establish the nodal point [1] of some lens and camera combinations, and do some proper stitched panoramas? Maybe, but don't hold your breath...

Back in the days of film I did have a bit of a fling with panoramic imaging: I actually owned one of those Russian swing-lens Horizont cameras, that records a 120° view onto 35mm film. I think I was probably inspired by Josef Koudelka's adventures with a panoramic camera. One of these days I should look out the negatives and scan a few. More to the point, in the early days of digital I did have a brief enthusiasm for some panoramic stitching software (Panorama Factory, I think it was) but, as you can imagine, getting suitable images is very dependent on the use of a tripod and, well, that's just not the way I work. My real successes were few and, besides, that exaggerated panoramic look quickly becomes its own cliché, and tends to dictate the sort of subject matter that is suitable, unless you are a Koudelka-scale genius.

In the end I realised that what I really liked was simply the wide, narrow format, such as the 16:9 ratio offered by a camera as portable as the tiny Panasonic LX3, which is not at all the same thing as a panorama. Or, when it came down to it, I thought, why not just place adjacent photos into a single frame, without any attempt to "stitch" them together, as I did with two pictures from another very rainy day in the Bristol flat? It seems somehow more honest, and also consciously incorporates an element of time passing into the image, something usually missing from a still photograph.

From rainy day to washout in two frames

Here's another using the same approach, from further down the Avon Gorge, on a day when the sun was alternatingly out, revealing the warm autumnal tones, then back behind the clouds, bringing out the cooler colours:

I like that a lot but, even so, a little more attention to parallax / nodal points and all that wouldn't have gone amiss: it was a lot of work getting the two halves to match up properly. Contrary to popular belief, I do own a tripod (not to mention a "nodal slider" attachment!) and might even consider getting it out of the broom-cupboard one day soon. Probably.

1. Don't understand the importance of nodal points / entrance pupils in panoramic photography? If you're curious, or having problems getting to sleep, let this guy explain it to you... Good Lord, why don't these self-appointed explainers on YouTube ever write themselves a proper script, and stick to it? This is surely no more than a four-slide PowerPoint presentation, six at most. Mind you, I've endured many a session where some windbag took 20 minutes to get through a single, four bullet-point slide...

Thursday 5 November 2020

Hey Jude


I was idly surfing the Web when I came across the arresting news that an old friend, Jude Woodward, had died earlier this year. Jude was only a "friend", however, in the highly-qualified sense of "someone I used to hang out with in my student days, but haven't seen or heard from since". It sometimes troubles me that I seem to have more friends of that sort than of the more conventional variety, but in that regard I don't think I'm unusual. Enforced proximity and common causes and concerns do seem to generate a special kind of closeness that doesn't often survive exposure to normal life: school friends, university friends, and work colleagues would be the typical time-limited comradeships that most of us experience. The intensity and the longevity of friendships might even appear to exist in inverse proportion. My father endured five precious youthful years, the entirety of WW2 from Dunkirk via the Western Desert to Burma, with the same small group of pals – a unit of despatch riders, all motorcycling enthusiasts – but none of them kept in touch once they had returned to civilian life. Which struck me as strange, and not a little sad, when I was young man, rich in friends, but now seems entirely normal.

If you took the trouble to follow the link in that first sentence, you'll have seen that Jude led a left-wing activist's life, and in the process accumulated a lot more "friends" of varying degrees of intimacy and – inevitably, in a political life – instrumentality than most of us can boast. Certainly, I don't expect any such effusion of public mourning when the time comes (not least because I intend to outlive everyone). When I first knew her, in 1974, she was installed as half of a couple known to all as "Toff 'n' Jude" in a room in a decrepit student house in Hurst Street, Oxford, a pair of Afghan-coated hippie-anarchists who held open court, often from their bed, like Lennon and Ono. Winters were cold in those days, and the only heating in those crumbling houses came from inadequate electric bar-heaters, or whatever could be scavenged to burn in the open fireplace. I remember long winter evenings sat on their threadbare carpet with a circle of those intensely temporary friends, rolling and passing joints, listening to music, and trying out personalities and opinions for size, as you do at that age. Bizarrely, Jude liked to call me "Ed", as for some unfathomable reason she thought I resembled Ed Marimba from Captain Beefheart's Magic Band (which I don't, and never have done [1]). Most notably, it was in that very house that I began a relationship with the young woman who occupied the room at the back, overlooking the enclosed rectangle of gardens behind the houses, and whose voice I can hear coming from the room upstairs in this house, fully 45 years later, as she conducts some Zoom meeting with colleagues from work.

Those were happy times, and for a while I thought I might have "found my tribe", as people say. As it turned out, it was less a tribe than an ephemeral gathering of nomads and transients; a few shared shining nights before moving on to our very different destinations. It wasn't obvious at the time that we were merely living out the fag-end (the roach?) of the "long sixties"[2], and that things were about to take a turn for the worse; and, as it now seems, might never turn back. At least, it wasn't obvious to me. As the disillusion of the 1970s progressed people's views began to harden and polarize and Jude, to the surprise of many, cast her lot with one of the more austere brands of the Trotskyist and Leninist left that dominated student politics at the time.

Personally, I found those self-regarding, self-styled revolutionary groups uncongenial, despite the amount of time I spent in the company of their members, and they in turn found me puzzling, I think, so any friendships I made there were distinctly short-lived. As so many of them had come from privately-educated, metropolitan, upper middle-class backgrounds, I think they couldn't square the things an actual, unreconstructed small-town headbanger like me thought and said [3] with their idealised notions of the revolution-ready proletarian masses they hoped soon to be leading in class struggle. Quite apart from what even I would now regard as the crude and unexamined attitudes I brought with me to university – a hardly untypical sample of my tribe of origin in those days, it has to be said – I have never been a joiner, am constitutionally resistant to "group think", and gravitate to the role of skeptical observer on the fringes of things, where true friends are sparse, but highly valued. My own subsequent activism took the form of two decades of trade union work, something regarded with more than a degree of suspicion by the more stiff-backed, doctrinaire Trots [4].

Unlike so many student politicians of the far left, Jude stuck by her youthful ideals and principles, and became something of an "influencer": not so much an éminence grise as an éminence rouge, perhaps. She was part of Ken Livingstone's core team as London Mayor, and developed an interest in China that may even – I'm guessing here – have had its roots in the Taoist texts and the Tibetan thangka posters I recall from that long-ago room in Hurst Street. To be honest, I doubt that she would even have remembered my name in latter years, unless it were perhaps as that teller of tall tales and dubious jokes, "Ed". But the death of yet another contemporary and sometime friend does concentrate the mind, doesn't it? Doubtless there will have been others, whose lives were lived less publicly, and whose passing has gone unremarked. Sadly, like land (or distant cousins) there's a limited supply, and they're not going to be making any more.


1. You may recall that I have also been known as "Roy", for much the same reason. But you can call me "Al".
2. The "long sixties" in Britain are regarded as running from 1954, the end of rationing and the year of my birth, to 1973, the Oil Crisis, and my first year at university.
3. It took me a while to adjust to what would now be called the "woke" view of things... ("It is considered unwoke to laugh incredulously when the subject of veganism arises in conversation"; "However hilarious, a joke is not to be considered funny, if it is racist, sexist, or relies on lazy national stereotypes: probably safest to avoid telling jokes altogether"; "
The Sun is not a newspaper", etc.).
4. The reluctance of professional academic Marxists to get involved in campus trade unions has always been a source of bemusement to me.

Saturday 31 October 2020

Zip Solutions

Stormy weather, Clevedon Pier, January 2017

Ever had a favourite coat, bag, or other zip-up item where the slider broke off and you thought, "Well, that's it, my favourite coat, bag, or other zip-up item is now destined for landfill..."? This happened to me recently: for some reason the top slider on a waterproof with a double zip I've worn for years suddenly developed metal-fatigue and broke away in my hand. "Well, that's it...", I thought, and began to research replacement rainwear.

Which was frustrating. It seems the fashionistas who design our clothing have decided that a wet bum and wet thighs are not, after all, the problem we pathetic wimps had thought they were for all these years, with the result that practically all wet-weather gear sold as coats – even from specialist "outdoors" manufacturers like North Face or that most traditional of purveyors of waxy kit to the huntin' and shootin' set, Barbour – now stop short just below the waist. Really? What, you weren't selling enough waterproof leggings? Or does keeping dry but looking like a dork offend your fashion sense? Well, excuse me...

These so-called "coats" – actually jackets, surely – have also become bloody expensive, what with the multiple layers of "technical" fabrics, taped seams, and all the rest of it. Which wouldn't necessarily be a problem, if they actually kept your important middle bits dry. I must admit I was quite tempted by the products of Swedish firm Tretorn, not least because the idea of a coat made out of "regenerated nylon from fishing nets and consumer waste found in the oceans" has a certain green cachet, but I was saved from an uncharacteristically large outlay of cash by the discovery that broken zips can easily be fixed. Wow!

I had no idea. I'd assumed that, at the very least, the old zip would have to be removed and a new one sewn in, probably by a specialist in repairing waterproofs and thus quite time-consuming and expensive. But then I stumbled across a little YouTube video, "How to Repair a Zipper With Two Sliders", put up by a firm called FixnZip. As people like to say, the clue is in the name. Basically, FixnZip (and doubtless other manufacturers of similar zip-oriented solutions) sell replacement sliders, which you simply open up with a screw mechanism, slip over the zip's teeth, and screw shut. So I bought one, put the favourite coat through a Nikwax wash cycle to re-waterproof it, and fixed the zip. Good as new! Job done.

The other useful thing I learned from this is that zips have standard sizes, and this is nearly always moulded onto the slider as a number [1]. You'll probably need to use a magnifier to find it, but it's there. Who knew? Who cared, until now?

Favourite coat, courtesy of Caterpillar,
hanging on my old office door, 2014

1. The most common sizes are 3, 5, 7, and 10. The number corresponds to the width of the teeth when closed, in millimetres. A size 5 zip, for example, has teeth that measure 5mm across when the zipper is zipped.

Tuesday 27 October 2020


We went down to the sea at Meon Shore on Sunday afternoon, where we encountered an exhilarating autumnal mix of sunshine, strong wind, and torrential downpours. The Solent often seems to generate spectacular cloud formations and rapidly changing light conditions, and Sunday was no exception. On such days the photographs take themselves. Well, almost.

Meanwhile, however, completely unknown to us, or to the dogwalkers, the bird-watchers, or the hardy windsurfers riding the waves, a high-seas drama was taking place just over the other, south-east side of the Isle of Wight (that's the IoW on the horizon in these photographs), where seven stowaways from Nigeria were intimidating the crew of an oil tanker sufficiently violently for them to lock themselves in the so-called "citadel", a safe strongroom installed in tankers for just such eventualities. Unfortunately for the stowaways, the Special Boat Service – the maritime equivalent of the SAS – are based just down the coast in Poole, and the attempted takeover was extinguished fairly rapidly.

Quite why stowaways would choose to make themselves known in such an attention-grabbing way in such an odd location is a mystery. And, let's be honest, the idea of hijacking an oil tanker in the Solent is the stuff of comedy, not high-tension drama. "Quickly, as fast as you can, turn this tanker around..." If you've ever taken the car-ferry from Portsmouth to France, though, you'll know how easy it is to mistake the island for the mainland, so perhaps they thought they were about to head into the Fawley refinery, and hoped somehow to escape from the ship by bullying the crew. But – like those desperate people who have concealed themselves in an airliner's outer cavities, and occasionally plummet down from the skies when the aircraft lowers its undercarriage as a dead, frozen block of ice – you have to think this was a plan that had not been thoroughly thought through.

Most mysterious of all, though, to many Brits is why this constant stream of refugees and economic migrants want to come to our overcrowded, increasingly squalid and fractious little country in the first place, to the extent of paying huge sums of money to people-smuggling gangs, who eventually pack them into death-trap container-lorries, or consign them to overcrowded rubber inflatables, in which they are sometimes given spades to row with – spades, FFS! – in what generally turn out to be ill-starred attempts to cross the Channel from France, bobbing about on the open ocean over what is said to be the busiest waterway in the world.

Apart from speaking our own parochial variety of that world language, "English", a marginally less racist culture – questionable – and a more generous benefits system – also very questionable – what on earth do we have that the French or the Germans or even the Italians do not, that is worth risking your life for? You do have to wonder whether our TV and movie exports paint a false picture of what to expect here, or perhaps some boosterist body like the British Council has been over-selling our brand somewhat. Come to Britain and... Well, what? Languish for months, sometimes years in some asylum-seekers' detention camp? Hot-bed it with a dozen other illegals in one room, cleaning hotel toilets or harvesting vegetables? Vanish into the sleazy underworld of the sex trade? It's a shitty old world, one ravaged by conflict, persecution, and injustice, where the prospect of any of that is enticing enough to cross half the globe at great expense and enormous risk, isn't it?

But on Sunday it was all happening on the other side of the island, miles out to sea, and resolved under cover of darkness, so we were oblivious until we saw the evening news. We had a really nice afternoon, and I expect the SBS lads had a terrific time, too; the tanker crew and the stowaways, not so much. So, welcome to Britain: your cell awaits you. Aren't you glad you came?