Friday, 31 January 2020

Brexit Day

Chin up, little Remainer, says Britannia, I've got a poem for you! All written on this big piece of paper. It goes like this:
Say not the struggle naught availeth,
     The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
     And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
     It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
     And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking
     Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making,
     Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
     When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
     But westward, look, the land is ... um ... decidedly foggy.

Arthur Hugh Clough(ish)
I like that bit about chasing stray leaflets in the smoke! Very evocative, very Brexit-y, don't you think? Reminds me of that other bit in his chum Matthew Arnold's poem, Dover Beach:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
There's certainly been a lot of ignorance and clashing about! But, what's that you say? It's all over? We're leaving today?? Oh dear, I'm so sorry about that. It seems like the struggle availed naught, after all, and that as things have been they will not remain... Which is not what you wanted, is it? Hmm, maybe the poem was intended for the other lot? I suppose they did rather want to look westward... Certainly, this is not the outcome I'd hoped for – I rather enjoyed getting together with my Euro-sisters – but you can't win 'em all, can you? And your side didn't exactly play a blinder, did they?

Well, at least you can stop wearing that idiotic hat. And think about me: I suppose I'm going to have to start carrying that stupid shield and that useless fucking toasting-fork around again. Anyway... Fancy a chlorinated English muffin, dirt-cheap, and all the way from America?

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

New Guardians

You may recall encountering these characters before, fairly recently in fact, but not in this guise. As soon as I met them – the first in the British Museum, the second on a ceramic drinking fountain in Bristol, and the third in the yard of a bric-a-brac shop in Clevedon – I knew they were destined to become Guardians.

That first one is an nkondi, from the Congo region of Africa or, in the condescending language of anthropology, a nail-fetish. According to the label in the BM, you can only get the undivided attention of the spirit residing within an nkondi statue by hurting it badly enough, which is achieved by driving iron shards or nails into it. It seems like a cruel alternative to the usual pleadings, offerings, and sacrifices, and to western eyes, I suppose, it's an embodiment of that Conradian encounter with the "heart of darkness". Apparently, nkondi statues tend to have reflective material placed in the eyes and cavities in the belly, which have clearly gone missing from the BM's example. I have restored the eyes (they're actually mini-moons) but left the other absences as unhealed wounds.

In fact, when I stood before him / her / it, I realised I had a long-standing relationship with this particular guardian. Or, at least, with one of his / her / its close relatives. When I was a child, my older sister had a set of the 12-volume Oxford Junior Encyclopaedia (1957) – essentially the only work of reference in the house, other than the telephone directory – and I spent countless hours leafing through it. It was illustrated with sections of black and white plates, in the classic manner of pre-1960s books, and in one of these was a photograph of just such a "nail fetish". Someone must have told me it was a picture of "a god", or perhaps what somebody thought god looked like, because thereafter any mention of "god" invoked this image of a crudely-fashioned, log-like being, bristling with spikes, a rebarbative presence that haunted my dreams for many years. Of course, say what you like about Christianity, but the savage idea of hammering nails into your so-called "god" is a pretty alien concept. Um, no, hold on a minute...

As for the other two, it seemed to me they would best be deployed as guardians of a particular magic portal that I had discovered hiding in plain sight on the doors of a friend's wardrobe in Oxford (well, of course, where else are you going to find a magic portal? [1]). I reckon that grumpy goblin is a salutary warning against the dangers of identifying too closely with one's work...

1. C.S. Lewis aside, the place seemed to be rotten with them, during my 3-year stint there. Thankfully, unlike some, I never quite fell through into another dimension...

Saturday, 25 January 2020

This Is Not A Drill

Here is the latest evolution of that idea of a "concertina" book presented in a frame. To be honest, I think I have come to prefer the idea of a printed trompe l'oeil mockup to creating an actual object. I also like the idea of combining words and pictures in this way.

The words are mine. Like anyone who enjoys poetry, I keep notebooks full of bits of language that pop into my head, just in case one day I decide to sit down and actually do the hard work of making some poems myself. Any fellow tinnitus sufferers will know what I'm talking about, in this case. The title "This is Not a Drill" refers, on the one hand, to the phantom noises that plague us in the deep silence of night, and on the other to Magritte's famous painting, The Treachery of Images (probably better known by the text inscribed below a painted tobacco pipe: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe").

These are also, of course, the dreaded words that announce some impending disaster, like a major fire or some other dreadful incident, for which careful preparatory arrangements have been made and rehearsed. I know, I know... I'm a cheerful chap, really. Originally, I was playing with Leonard Cohen's words from Anthem (you know the ones, "There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in") but it's become such a cliché in recent times and, besides, why would I not use those words gifted to me in quiet minutes, which I scribble down before they're gone again?

So here it is again, served flat. Sorry if it's a bit too big for your device. I've a feeling there are going to be more of these.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Quiet Fun

One of the pleasures of spending time in libraries is the discovery of the weird and wonderful lurking in the margins of the dry and dusty. Indeed, if you are so-minded, these incidental, accidental pleasures can easily become your main reason for browsing the shelves. One of my earliest posts (Wake Up and Smell the Ozone) described what may have been the onset of this condition in my own case. I am, I confess, no scholar, and someone who probably spent much far too much time at university that should have been spent reading Dickens and Milton reading instead the likes of Carlos Castaneda and Erich von Däniken. But, where entertaining wonderful-weirdness is concerned, Castaneda & Co. are the plump, low-hanging fruit; the true discoveries are always made in the more arid places where no-one else has bothered to look.

Some of these discoveries are so wonderful (and/or so weird) that you keep them to yourself for as long as possible. Just thinking about these little bizarreries can warm you up on a cold day, give you a little inner boost when you're feeling down, or start you off laughing in highly inappropriate circumstances. More to the point, sharing such stuff always seems to diminish its potency. For example, incredibly, it seems that no-one else cares that King Arthur had, in addition to that attention-hogging sword Excalibur, a modest but steadfast spear called Ron. I find that wonderful, and try not to let the discovery that others don't reduce the pleasure I am able to derive from it. Ah well, "Lean On Me" is the wisdom-song of Reliable Ron.

So, with a certain deep sigh of self-sacrifice, there is one such secret from the dusty archives that I have kept to myself for close to 50 years, and which I will share with you now. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

In the long-ago days before Google and Wikipedia, school homework used to involve a lot of looking things up in books. Yes, that's right, in actual books. Given the essentially book-free environment at home, this meant regular evening trips to the local public library. This was not a burden, however, as it turned out girls were set homework, too. As a consequence, the reference section of our local public library functioned as a sort of rather hushed youth club for the bookish minority of the town's population, cruelly sundered by attending single-sex grammar schools. Or perhaps it might best be seen as an analogue prototype of Facebook, where gossip could be whispered and assignations arranged in real, actual face-time. Those sweet, teenage faces! I still remember most of them as they were then, although I suppose, like me, they will by now have aged 50 years. I'm sure they all wear it well, though.

Anyway. Sometimes you had nothing more urgent to do that evening than hang around the shelves trying to look cool. Pulling the odd random tome off a shelf and thumbing through it was all part of the look, but did occasionally lead to some interesting discoveries. One enchanted evening, across a crowded room, my eye was caught by, of all things, Palmer's Index to the Times Newspaper. After a minute or two's scrutiny, all thoughts of girls and/or homework had vanished from my mind. Nothing is quite as cool as buried treasure.

Hmm... Even now, I'm hesitating to share this. Once, I had thought I might get a book of some sort of out of Palmer's Index. A PhD thesis, even [1]. And the chances are that most people will care no more for this wonderful secret of mine than they do for Arthur's Ron. But, it's time. If you don't enjoy this, it's your loss. I'll always have Palmer's.

So, Palmer's Index, as I encountered it, was a staid-looking set of battered, slim, brownish, leather-bound volumes, produced quarterly from 1790, indexing the contents of The Times newspaper. Take a volume off the shelf, and bits of leprous, perished leather would fall off the spine; open it, and there'd be a knuckle-crack of snapping Victorian glue. An index? Dull as ditchwater, you might say. But, to quote G.K. Chesterton, "Is ditchwater dull?  Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun". You need to look closer.

Most of Palmer's is indeed very dull.  The index is broken into broad sections of interest – some of which are super-tedious, like "Bankruptcies" and "Civil Actions" – and within each section there are alphabetically-ordered lists, some of which are merely names, and some of which are a terse précis of an article, followed by a code denoting the day, month, page and column of the article.  These summaries can nonetheless be intriguing.  For example, randomly in the volume for Winter Quarter 1869, under "Leading Articles", we read, inter alia:
Liverpool ----- Fight in a Menagerie at, between a Wolf and the Monkeys, 9f 5b
Loss of £100 by a Lady from the High Wind in Edinburgh, 2f 7f
Lunatic Killed by a Lunatic at Birmingham, 10m 5f 
Curious, but not compelling.  But then, right at the very front of every quarterly volume you will find a section called "Accidents", and this is a vein of pure gold.  Never mind Chapman's Homer, when I first looked into the Accidents section of Palmer's Index to the Times,
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien. 
Or, more appropriately, "laughing, in a library in Stevenage".

So what is so good about these "accidents", then? Bear in mind that I have an odd, slightly cruel sense of humour, which was probably odder and crueller back then. But, in the spirit of "show, don't tell", here is a small, not quite random selection from the year 1847 [2]:
the Emperor of Russia, from his Carriage in Passing over the Ice of a River Sinking and Barely Allowing the Emperor Time to Escape.
Smart and Smith, two Young Men, Suffocated by Burning Charcoal in their Bedroom, at Basenhall.
the Grand Duchess Olga, and her Husband, from the Horses of their Sledge taking Fright, at Stutgard.
Henry Fowler, Roasted to Death while Drunk on a Lime Kiln, at Uplyme.
Levi Watson, a Lad, who Fell from a Barrow on which he was being Rolled into a Flaming Blast and Burnt to a Cinder, at the Bowling Iron Blasts.
Mr. Wallop, near Winchester, who in Clearing a Steep Fence fell into a deep Chalk Pit, but Providentially Escaped Harm.

at Rugby Station, the Horses of a Carriage with Three Ladies in it, taking fright were Miraculously Saved by a Young Man to whom they Offered Sixpence.
a Priest, in the Madelaene Church, in Bruges from the Marble Head of an Infant Jesus Falling on him Killing him.
Mr. Gypson, from the Model of the Royal Exchange attached to his balloon being burnt and narrow Escape of the Balloon.
at Mr. Turner's, the Baker of New Cut, from the Flooring of his Shop giving way from the rush of Customers and their Falling into the Bakehouse below.

Jefferys, a Fisherman, from a Fish Darting into his Larynx and Suffocating him, at Bognor.

William Rawson, Worried to Death by a Bear, at Newtown, near Carlisle.
Henry Ford, Sawn Asunder by a Circular Saw at St. Pancras Steam Saw Mills.

the Captain of a Vessel in London who Awaking from Sleep threw himself from a Railway Carriage near Birmingham but Escaped Unhurt.
All of Victorian life is there, from the highest to the lowest. People of all stations die or suffer injury from freak accidents, acts of stupidity and bravado, or the perils of everyday life, many of which seem to involve carriages, furnaces, and dangerous animals. There must be something in that small selection that tickles you? Talking of which, how about this classic from 1848:
a Man, who Searched the Sewers for Money, &c. having Lost his way but Happily Saved by Mr. Tickle, of Berwick Street, Hearing his Cries for Help.
Who knew that the Mr. Men were out and about and doing good in the sewers of Victorian London? Or how about this, also from 1848:
a Coal Porter, Killed from Burns Caused in his Carrying a Red Hot Poker between his Teeth.
Wait, what... Why? Why would anyone – however stupid, drunk, or susceptible to dares – even consider carrying a red-hot poker between his teeth?  Much less the esteemed composer of "Kiss Me, Kate" and "I Get a Kick Out of You"? The index is full of these little vignettes of hazard, so many of them unnecessarily detailed, stylish, and even literary. I mean, "Sawn Asunder by a Circular Saw at St. Pancras Steam Saw Mills"? "Worried to Death by a Bear"? This is the poetry of peril.

As you read on, compulsively, certain themes emerge. Men are endlessly falling into lime-kilns, women setting their clothing on fire, children being flung from carriages and trains. But one theme in particular started to catch my eye. Travelling zoos were clearly highly accident-prone, and in particular a certain Wombwell's Menagerie was an itinerant death-trap. Here is a selection of Wombwell-related accidents (inevitably partial, as these are merely the ones thought worthy of report in the Times, our national newspaper of record):
John Johnson Severely Lacerated by a Lion, at Wombwell's Menagerie at Bristol.

Wombwell's Menagery at Hastings by the over-turning of Two of the Vans.

at Wombwell's Exhibition in Woolwich from a Lion Tearing a Boy's arm and Hand.
at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Midlent Fair from a Mr. Martin in Stroking a Tiger's paw was Caught by him.

at Wombwell's Managerie, while at Stamford, from the Lion Biting the Face and Back of the "Lion Queen".

at Wombwell's Managerie, at March, to a Little Boy from the Bear Seizing his Hand.

Ellen Bright, Killed by a Tiger while Performing as "Lion Queen," at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Chatham.
a Youth, at Durham from touching the Paw of an African Lion, in Wombwell's Menagerie and Fearfully Lacerated by the Lion.


at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Chatham from the Lion Seriously Injuring its Keeper.

Samuel Harrison, Keeper of the Elephants of Wombwell's Menagerie, who Sleeping in their Den was severely Crushed by One of the Animals Lying down on him.

at Holywell, North Wales, from Three of the Vans of Wombwell's Menagerie Falling over from the Wind, Killing the Keeper and Three Boys.

Sophia Moorshed, Seized by a Lioness at Wombwell's Menagerie when at Kingsland.

to the Keeper of the Leopards at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Hertford.

Mary Jane Butterfield, by having her Scalp Torn away by a Lion during a Panic in Wombwell's Menagerie, at Bolton.
at Wombwell's Menagerie at Wrexham from the Lion Tearing off the Arm of an Attendant.


James Smith, Employed at Wombwell's Menagerie, at Edinburgh, Bitten by one of the Tigers.
If ever there was a case for an urgent Health & Safety inspection, Wombwell's Menagerie was surely it. And, ladies, should you ever see the job of "Lion Queen" advertised, do not even consider applying for it, however tempting. In fairness, I should point out that other travelling menageries were available, and also not entirely accident free.  A quick list:
at Redruth, at Hylton's Travelling Menagerie, from a Report that the Lion had Broken Loose whereby over 200 People where Injured more or less.

at Batty's Menagerie, Exhibiting at Huddersfield from one of the Tigers Seizing a Young Woman by the Hair of her Head.

to Mendee's Menagerie, from the Elephant Caravan Capsizing on a Horse and Crushing it to Death.

in the Reittenbash Menagerie, by a Panther Seizing the Manager's Daughter.

at Pearson's Menagerie, at Bradford Fair, from the Lioness attacking the Lady Lion Tamer.
It's a jungle out there!

As a source of amusement and bemusement the "Accidents" section of Palmer's Index is probably bottomless. No doubt you might find a different focus for your interest in those 100 years and more of mishaps and misadventures: flaming petticoats or acts of astounding stupidity may be more your thing. Curiously, no other section of the Index is anywhere near as fulsome in its descriptions, or as superfluously generous in its details as the accidents. There really is something there for everyone. One of these days I suppose I might actually get around to reading some of the articles referenced so tantalisingly, but what would be the point? Every one of the best index entries is a complete and perfect work of art in and of itself. To read that in 1847 Henry Ford was sawn asunder by a circular saw at St. Pancras Steam Saw Mills is to share a moment of pure alliterative Schadenfreude with an anonymous 19th-century clerk. To learn that at least one man in the history of the human race has attempted to carry a red-hot poker between his teeth, or that a priest was once felled by a marble head of the infant Jesus is ... well, I'm not sure what. Magnificent? Ironic? Tragical-comical-historical-pastoral? Certainly (I find it) hilarious. And if you don't, then my secret has been shared in vain, and I can't imagine what you're doing reading this blog.

1. In the 1990s I did once submit a book proposal to a publisher specialising in "artists' books", but never heard back. Perhaps they thought I was making it all up? I wish I were that inventive... Or perhaps they thought I was, you know, a little too far ahead of the curve...
2. I've omitted the date/page codes, which are baffling unless you know in which quarterly volume they are contained ("m" = March in "Winter", but May in "Spring", for example).

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Signs and Portents

After weeks of downpours, and overcast, unseasonably mild weather (does the word "unseasonably" really have any meaning now, I wonder?), a sudden burst of January sunshine yesterday afternoon revealed some oddities and anomalies wrought under cover of wetness. Streams and pools of water that have appeared where there were none before, rain that has seemingly permanently etched itself into a plate-glass window, and – perhaps the most alarming portent so far – a tree that appears to have given its shadow the slip.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Container versus Content

The Buddha's First Sermon
Chinese, 1422-36

In my former existence as a descriptive-bibliography guru, I would teach a key, initial lesson to young seekers after enlightenment who had found their way to my coenobitic retreat, whether by design or by malign fate: ignore the content, and concentrate on the container. You don't need to have read The Glass Bead Game, much less understood it, in order to make it available to those whose desire is to read it or, above all, to make manifest to those who wish to know what versions of it exist within your monastic walls. Perhaps the original German edition, published in Switzerland in 1943, or the latest English translation in paperback? Or even, in the future, a streamed Netflix adaptation (how about Game On!, starring Charlie Hunnam as Joe "Game Boy" Knecht?). But to be able to do that you do need to be very clear about the conventions of publishing, and about what bits of information go where, when, and why. Remember: concentrate on the container. There is much to learn there, Grasshopper!

So, for me, one of the most intriguing things about the British Library's Buddhism exhibition was to see the variety of containers from a non-Western tradition on display. Besides, the doctrinal content was entirely inaccessible to me, anyway, being written in various scripts about which I know nothing beyond how beautiful they look. It is actually a curiously enlightening experience, to be rendered as illiterate as some mediaeval peasant. On the one hand, you realise just how far the medium can be the message, and how the superficial, decorative appeal of the material is really a supplementary, subliminal, standalone rendering of the content. On the other hand, you also understand how the persistence of priestly power resides in jealously guarding the secrets of literacy from the populace. Not to mention keeping the sacred texts for as long as possible in some difficult-to-learn dead language.

Buddhas of previous world cycles
Burmese, 19th century

The Heart Sutra
modern calligraphy by Miyamoto Chikkei

The Flower Garland Sutra
Korean, c. 1400

Perfection of Wisdom Sutras
North-Eastern India or Nepal, late 12th century

Book of the Buddha's Names
China, 9th or 10th century

To get back to those containers, however. I was fascinated to learn how a palm leaf would be prepared into a writing surface as a single long, narrow "page", and how these pages were compiled, unbound, in a box, rather like a pack of cards. We did speculate how such, um, loose-leaf pages could be kept in their proper order, or whether, in fact, they needed to be. With the development of paper this curious medium evolved into the concertina-book format, which nonetheless retained for quite a while the traditional long, narrow size and shape of the palm-leaf page: a classic example of a skeuomorph. There were even palm-leaf-page sized wooden plaques, pierced so that they could be laced together like a doctrinal Venetian blind. Other formats on show included various types of scroll and wall-hanging and, of course, eventually the classic, edge-bound codex, or "book" as we generally know it. Among the later examples of books I was intrigued to see a modern Japanese eight-volume series of manga (graphic novels) by Osamu Tezuka, telling the Buddha's life-story. Indeed, at the risk of coming back in my next life as a fly, or worse, I have to say I was struck by the many connections between Buddhism and a Japanese pop-culture phenomenon like Pokémon, with its obsession with iterative transformational states, inventories of properties and powers, and so on. But perhaps, as seen from the outside, western popular culture is equally permeated by its Christian heritage.

Naturally, all these mysterious but eye-pleasing exhibits turned my thoughts to new possibilities for my own efforts. I was particularly attracted by the various beautiful examples of the accordion-fold book, a.k.a. the orihon in Japanese or, more technically (in Biblish, the language spoken by descriptive-bibliography gurus), a leporello. I did make a few leporellos myself, back in the late 1990s, when I first became interested in the idea of the hand-made "artist's book", but found them unsatisfactory. They're easy enough to make, but very hard to do well, both technically and aesthetically. Frankly, most accordion-books end up looking like school craft projects, a mess of poorly-judged folds and glue smears, and even the better ones tend to have perfunctory content that doesn't really match or make the most of the format. Which is hardly how one would describe, say, the Flower Garland Sutra above. So I've been looking again at this mode of presentation, and in particular at what could be created out of several sheets of A4 paper, or even a single sheet of A3. Which led me to create these two templates:

Template for 84cm x 21cm, 12-panel folded book, from 3 sheets of A4

Template for 70cm x 15cm, 10-panel folded book, from 1 sheet of A3

Which in turn led me to dummy up what one of my triptychs might look like as an orihon-style booklet:

I think something like that would actually look pretty good, similarly folded and partially spread out, and displayed in a deep box-frame to allow its 3D-ness to be apparent. So, if that's the container sorted, then what I now need to do is give the content a bit more attention. The Crow Gospel, maybe? It's a shame Faber are so reluctant to allow use of Ted Hughes' work: illustrated extracts from his long poem-sequence Crow would be ideal. Or might a Crashed Car Sutra be the thing, perhaps, using sections from the Highway Code or an insurance schedule as text?

However, I doubt I'm going to be the only one to have visited this exhibition and come away with such container-stimulated thoughts about content: so be on the lookout for a lot of false prophets and mountebanks peddling their bogus wares in the near future.
For in his bag he had a pillowcase
The which, he said, was Our True Lady’s veil:
He said he had a piece of the very sail
That good Saint Peter had, what time he went
Upon the sea, till Jesus changed his bent.
He had a latten cross set full of stones,
And in a bottle had he some pig’s bones.
But with these relics, when he came upon
Some simple parson, then this paragon
In that one day more money stood to gain
Than the poor dupe in two months could attain.

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, modern version by J.U. Nicolson
(Description of the Pardoner, General Prologue)

Saturday, 11 January 2020


Senate House from Russell Square

We were up in London this week to celebrate my partner's birthday. It would be ungallant to say which birthday, but the bingo-literate among you will already have guessed. We had a superb meal in the company of our children at Michelin-starred Scandi-restaurant Aquavit, stayed overnight near Russell Square in Bloomsbury, then visited the Buddhism exhibition at the British Library. It was an enjoyable and memorable couple of days.

Russell Square: Lime-tree archway

The area around Russell Square is an enchanted space, packed with cultural touchstones – quite apart from the British Museum and the various flavours of London's distributed collegiate university, blue plaques turn up on building facades everywhere, celebrating the residence, however temporary, of luminaries from Lenin to T.S. Eliot – and after dark the lighting adds a sprinkling of fairy dust, even on a damp January night. Although I suppose that could partly have been the drink, too.

If you get a chance to see it before it closes on 23rd February, the BL's Buddhism show is a must. Naturally, it is heavy on texts, but what texts! Ranging from fragile birch-bark items dating from the 1st century CE to a multi-screen video of a contemporary calligrapher inscribing Japanese characters onto a paved area with a brush the size of a broom, it encompasses a wide range of languages, traditions, and mediums. In fact, that was the main takeaway lesson for me: that, as a religious and social institution, Buddhism is just as diverse as Christianity, ranging from the austerity of Zen to the full-on golden-pagoda gorgeousness of South-East Asia. Well, that, and the story that Prince Siddhartha's horse, Kanthaka, died of a broken heart when Siddhartha became Gautama Buddha and renounced the world, ordering Kanthaka and his loyal servant Channa back to the royal palace. But, never mind, the faithful horse was reborn as a Brahmin, and achieved enlightenment. Hooray! In Buddhism, there's always the next life to look forward to (although not necessarily with pleasure...).

 The Flower Garland Sutra, Korean, c.1400

Incidentally, my interior and night-time photographic efforts have been helped considerably by one of my more practical Christmas presents, a simple vertical grip that screws into the tripod socket of whichever small black camera I happen to be using. It may look a bit weird – I believe they're used a lot by "vloggers" in one-handed selfie-mode – but it's amazing how much a substantial fistful of rubber and aluminium can improve the handling and stability of a tiny camera in the most challenging circumstances. I reckon it has at least doubled my hit rate.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Jul Knäcke!

One of the pleasures of spending Christmas in Morecombelake, Dorset, is the proximity of Felicity's Farm Shop, which occupies a barn-like structure immediately next to the A35. It's one of those places that thrives by stocking the kinds of food and drink you just can't find in a supermarket, from extremely locally-sourced cheeses and cured meats, to exotic seasonal treats from overseas. This year, the surprise hit for us was the discovery of Swedish Jul knäcke.

My partner had noticed them on our first Farm Shop visit, and I was instructed to pick up some of "those round Scandinavian crispbreads" when I next walked down that way. At first, I couldn't see any. There was a large range of biscuits and crackers on the shelves, but nothing corresponding to that description. Then I spotted a tottering pile of what looked like family-packs of frisbees, wrapped in brown paper. Surely not? But yes: the things were fully 30cm in diameter, the size of an LP record, but weighed virtually nothing.

On opening the pack, I was astonished to find a stack of what amounted to a rendition of one of my "ring" images, a foot across and baked in Ryvita, complete with a hole in the middle. Sadly, the remaining knäcke haven't survived the journey home unbroken, so my photo is a bit of a jigsaw with some pieces missing. I imagine in Sweden these things are about as exotic as a mince pie in Britain [1], but I'd never come across them before and, as well as being hilariously huge, they are rather tasty. They are supposed to contain a special aromatic Christmas spice mix, but none of us could detect anything much beyond the usual rye crispbread flavour and smell. It seems you can get a special tin to keep them in – I have a weakness for tins – but this is also a seasonal, designer item that sells out quickly. Maybe next year!

1. There is an internet "meme" out there concerning an American cookery show on TV that attempted to follow a mince pie recipe using minced beef rather than, um, mincemeat.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

NYD 2020

Clevedon Pier, New Year's Day

 The view from Clevedon Pier...

I've never really been able to get into the factitious revelry of New Year's Eve – the last one I can remember truly enjoying was the transition from 1971 to 1972, as an underage drinker in a packed Stevenage "old town" pub, when "Maggie May" was still fresh on the juke box – and most years since I have managed to avoid it, whether by accident or design. In recent times this has meant retreating to our Bristol flat, with perhaps a midnight excursion to the viewing area at the top of the Avon Gorge, weather permitting, where fireworks may be admired bursting over the city.

My own little end-of-year / start-of-year tradition is a New Year's Day excursion in order to take at least one New Year's Day photograph, whatever the weather, and when in Bristol this has usually meant a trip down to the Bristol Channel at Clevedon. This year the dismal Dorset Christmas fog had followed us, but its effect at north-west-facing Clevedon was delightful: a pearlescent shimmer that endowed everything with a liminal sense of mystery and insubstantiality. A very suitable beginning, I think, to a new decade in which the hollow sound of empty promises hitting the solid wall of reality, like birds flying into a windowpane, looks to be the likely keynote.

Round the back of the seafront houses and cafes, we stumbled across the yard of a curiosity shop, full of the most wonderful, grotesque garden statuary I have ever seen. If I had a decent-sized garden, a few grand to spare, and a lorry, I'd have bought the lot. Whoever makes these – they appear to be castings made in some sort of stone-dust and resin mix – is a genius of taste. In better light on a longer afternoon I could happily have spent hours in there. Come the summer, I probably will.

On New Year's Eve we had the bizarre experience of seeing a number of vintage Yoko Ono videos from the 1960s – including the famous "Cut Piece", in which a passively-seated Ono has her clothing cut away with scissors by the participants – which were looped on TV sets on pedestals, one plonked in each of the rooms of the Georgian House Museum. Than which a more unlikely combination of aesthetics it would be hard to conceive. A fitting end, I suppose, to a year of conflict, cunctation, conspicuous cowardice, and confusion.

My attention was drawn by one of the samplers on permanent display in the museum, carefully stitched by a girl housed in a Bristol orphanage in 1794, the year of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, as it happens:

Mary Ann may be long gone, but her needlework lives on. Let's hope her hopefulness was properly rewarded in life. And may I wish you all a happy and, yes, a hopeful New Year!