Saturday 29 February 2020

Leap Year Bonus Track

What, it's still February today? Why, of course, it's a leap year! Being born in February is reason enough to feel special, I think, but it must give a sense of true exceptionalism to be born on this most elusive day; not quite on a par with being the seventh son of a seventh son, but pretty cool, nonetheless. Put the two together, of course, and you've got the makings of an insufferable sense of entitlement. I wonder if such a person has ever existed?

It's quite odd, though, listening to earnest folk on the radio exhorting us to make the most of this "extra day". What extra day? As far as I'm aware, an extra spin of the earth has not somehow been shoehorned in, or our regular circuit around the sun – or indeed our lives – somehow magically prolonged. It's not even comparable to that glorious extra time in bed when the clocks are turned back an hour in Britain at the end of October.

More severe adjustments to the calendar do tend to play badly in people's heads. It seems surprisingly few of us are now aware of the Calendar (New Style) Act of 1750. That is, when Britain belatedly joined the rest of Europe in declaring January 1st to be the start of the year (as opposed to Lady Day, 25th March) – which resulted in a "short" year in 1751, which ran from 25th March to 31st December – followed by the "loss" of eleven days in September 1752, removed in order to bring the old Julian calendar into alignment with the new-fangled Euro-Popish Gregorian calendar. Naturally, 1752 was also a leap year, just to add to the confusion. Apparently, the so-called "calendar riots" are a myth (What do we want? Eleven days! When do we want them? Um.... Anybody got a calculator?), but I bet people were pretty discombobulated by the whole thing.

It also means that every anniversary of any event that took place before 1751 isn't actually an anniversary, technically speaking. This must have caused havoc with people's birthday arrangements in the second half of the 18th century. Being British, of course, and having ignored those Euro-Popish Gregorian calendar reforms for 170 years, many people persisted with "old style" or "O.S." dates, well into the next century. That very British expression, "that's X in old money" (where X is some more readily understandable or sympathetic alternative to Y, not necessarily a quantity) – one that you will still hear today, nearly a half-century after decimalisation and metrication – speaks to a deep-seated, small-c conservative sense that worthy and time-honoured Old Things are continually being forcibly replaced by highly-suspect New Things, purely at the whim of "them". You can read across from Reformation to Brexit fairly directly.

Talking of Old Things, I'm calling the picture above "The Horseman's Word", for reasons you will understand if you have read this old post, or share my fascination with the rural mysteries of the Old Weird Britain. Plus, of course, frogs and toads are into leaping, aren't they?

Friday 28 February 2020

Pentagonal Pool Revisited. Again

Here are two more of these "poster books", both derived from my ancient Pentagonal Pool project (which you can read about here). It's been enjoyable to revisit this old work, rather like discovering and trying on an old pair of jeans, and finding that they still fit (sadly, a very imaginary comparison in my case). It's poignant to recall not only how precious a daily hour of solitary daylight freedom (a.k.a. the "lunch break") was in those time-poor days of employment and family life, but also how this gave a high level of concentration to my photographic efforts, revisiting the same locations day after day. As many have observed, creativity thrives under constraints.

The first example is a relatively straightforward, decorative presentation of three of the multiple-image blocks from the original book, together with one of the quotations from Francis Bacon (no, not him, the other one, the frozen chicken man) that I used in the book. The second is more like a set of panels from a graphic novel, incorporating a frog skeleton I photographed in Paris a few years ago, and vaguely referencing the "Batrachomyomachia" ("The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice"), a comic (?) Ancient Greek epic, once attributed to Homer, that I used in an even earlier effort at sequencing my photographs of the bodies of water on Southampton University campus.

I know, I know... "Never knowingly unpretentious" is our motto. [1] Or at least it was back then: I seemed incapable of framing a photo-sequence without linking it implicitly or explicitly to some heavyweight cultural touchstones, quite often things I had come across in the course of my background "research", and had almost certainly never read before. Native ostentation aside, it's probably a reflection of my professional formation as a university librarian: you know about many times more fascinating things than you could ever absorb, where to find them, and how they fit into the broadest possible picture of human knowledge: you become a human signpost. In a favourite quotation from Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson:
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.
Those catalogues don't make themselves, of course. You're welcome, Sam. But right now it's my lunch break, and I have places to go, photos to take...

1. Non-British readers will probably not recognise the allusion to the motto of the John Lewis department stores: "never knowingly undersold".

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Return of the Revenants

Vistaprint were having one of their "50% off everything" flash sales on Monday this week (these are not infrequent but, I have to say, not as worryingly frequent as those of on-demand publisher Blurb), and this prompted me to think that – given my own printer can handle at most so-called "A3+" (48.3cm long) sheets – perhaps a straightforward way of producing the concertina-style booklets I was discussing in a previous post might be to have A2 or even A1 posters produced (59.4cm or 84.1 cm long) bearing multiple copies of a booklet, which could then be cut out as single strips.

I like having my work printed commercially, as I do with the calendars and cards. I suspect this is a result of having seen most of the art I absorbed in my formative years printed in books or on posters, rather than "live", as it were. To me, it always looks more convincing that way, and is also both more durable and rather less precious than, say, a beautiful but easily-damaged original pigment print on classy paper. It's a lot cheaper, too: done in moderate bulk, you're talking pence per item, not pounds.

So, I laid up an A2-sized image of three copies of my test title, This is Not a Drill, and uploaded it. The cheapest poster paper that Vistaprint do is 125gsm in weight, which is relatively light and should therefore fold quite nicely when scored, provided the "grain" of the paper is not too resistant. Vistaprint's print quality is usually pretty good, so even at full price this could be an economic way of producing something worthwhile. We'll see.

However, having done that, I found that I liked the visual impact of those three bars of images on a single sheet. It reminded me that, way back when I first started doing digital photography and cameras were only really capable of producing a 7" x 5" image at print resolution, I used to play around with arrays of multiple photographs, as a way of overcoming this limitation and produce something that could still be seen to advantage framed on a wall. In that retrospective cast of mind, I went back to one of the more successful efforts from that time, The Revenants (2007), and quickly bashed out another A2 sheet, this time as a work in its own right (above), a sort of "poster book". I finished it in time to catch the midnight deadline for the Vistaprint sale, and I'm curious to see what the printed result will look like.

I then remembered that one of my earliest self-published books, Pentagonal Pool (2006), is actually largely made up of such multiples (examples above). Revisiting it, I found I was still pleased by the quality of the work. That kind of repeated, serial imagery has become a bit of a cliché now, but 15 years ago it still had a bit of excitement about it, and something of that has persisted (due, I'd like to think, to the mastery with which it was carried out). So, even though the current Vistaprint sale has finished – there'll be another one along soon enough – I decided I'd opened a sufficiently interesting and fresh avenue of exploration to continue wandering down it.

Having started by simply stacking some Pentagonal Pool rows onto a blank A2-sized background, I spent a rainy Tuesday afternoon playing around – is there any other kind of afternoon, lately? – and ended up with the result you see below. I'm still quite pleased with it, and think it would look pretty good mounted in a sympathetic frame about 65cm x 50cm. Or even – given it would probably share the sad fate of most commercially-produced "posters" – blu-tacked to a wall.

Sunday 23 February 2020


Having seen the picture above, you may well already be way ahead of me, but: bear with me and let me tell the tale. As the Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi might have put it, my bewilderment is the point, not your cleverness.

Down near the docks in Southampton there is a pedestrian underpass that goes beneath a busy dual-carriageway. It is narrow, dark, litter-strewn, and susceptible to flooding – for all I know, it may even be below sea-level – but it's the only convenient way to get from one side to the other without a major detour. Going through it a couple of weeks ago I was struck by this unusually elegant bit of graffiti at one end, which has a distinctly Arabic feel to it. Having passed a number of women in hijabs on the way, this seemed quite likely. Might it even be, to slightly paraphrase Paul Simon, the words of the Prophet written on a subway wall? I was curious about it and, although I realise calligraphic script is not always easy to read, I have an old friend whose Arabic is good, and thought it was worth a try. "Can you read the attached?" I asked in an email, sending him the photograph.

Now, to put it mildly, I am not a fan of most "tag" style graffiti. Frankly, it's moronically imitative at best, and makes a lot of ugly places even uglier. People might be delighted to discover a Banksy has appeared on their wall overnight, but few are equally as pleased to find some local kid has tagged their front door, like a cat peeing on a bush; even less so, I expect, when the target is that actual Banksy. It seems someone has only to put up a half-decent bit of wall-art for some little prick with a spray-can to scrawl their initials or wannabe gang-name over it. But I thought this one had a definite aesthetic appeal and, besides, it's nice to see a bit of diversity emerging in vandalism.

Anyway, my friend replied to my email, and the following dialogue ensued:
HE: Does it say "fuck" perhaps?
ME: I was thinking it was Arabic. Presumably not, then?
HE: No, doesn't look like Arabic to me. Where is it? Maybe it is the tag of a graffiti artist called Rich?
ME: It's in an underpass near the docks. Looking at it, you may well be right. And there was me thinking it meant something like "Bow down before the One God, crusaders dogs!" or "Ali is a bumboy"...
Which is only mildly humiliating: I mean, it does look Arabic, doesn't it? At least, it does to the untutored eye. What is more, I suspect it is meant to. So I thought I'd help out "Rich" (or "Fuck", "Puck", "Rilke", "Puch", or whatever handle this calligrapher goes by), and get my people on the case. First up, the tapestry team:

Not bad, guys, a nice bit of weaving, embroidery, and appliqué work there, and as a wall-hanging it definitely has a certain grungy authenticity: a perfect backdrop for a falafel-workshop video. But then who should drop by for a chat but Banksy himself and we ended up making a stencil that really hits the spot, even if it did involve tweaking the tag a bit:

"Awesome" is the word, I think. Of course, no sooner will we have installed it on a suitable wall, than some little prick with a spray-can will pass by...

Friday 21 February 2020

Loo Lino

A (very) still life

As some of you lucky people will know, every year I send out cards to a select few to mark Christmas and New Year, which I generally have professionally printed by VistaPrint, so as to at least sustain the illusion that I am a serious player in the art game. In fact, most years I make two cards, one of which is usually an easy-on-the-eye picture, the other being something a little more demanding for the cognoscenti. In 2010, the picture above featured on one of those cards. As I explained at the time, that accidental still-life arrangement is something I contemplate every morning through the open door of our downstairs loo (I know! The sheer luxury of being a two-toilet family...). That orange bowl with its fortuitously-coloured carrier-bag has long moved on, only to be replaced by a series of other transient characters (currently a shoe-box of paperbacks, destined for Oxfam), but the other elements are constants.

The painting in the background was done by one of my partner's great aunts, who was an accomplished painter (in fact, she was a member of the Bloomsbury "Friday Club"), and dozens of her oils on board were stacked in the garage of another elderly relative, all slowly going mouldy. This one was given to us, and stands propped against the wall. Gradually, in the relative warmth and dryness of our house, a superficial milky bloom has disappeared, the colours have strengthened, and more details have emerged. It's almost been like watching the painting paint itself, day by day, week by week. Which is why you won't be hearing me use that tired cliché "like watching paint dry" as the epitome of tedium.

However, the other main, more prosaic object of my daily seated contemplation is the lino beneath my feet. It's a light beige in colour, with a regular pattern of diamonds and squares in greys and a reddish brown. It's not something I'd normally have chosen  anything beige always reminds me too much of my parents' conventionally timid taste in decor  but after we'd had the house extended (not least to add the downstairs toilet in question) some floor covering was urgently needed, and this was a cheap offcut of just the right size. I have now been staring at it for many years and have found that, like any good decorative pattern, it is repeated in a sufficiently complex way as not to become boring. I don't think I'm unusual in finding pleasure in letting my eye roam around ornamental geometric patterns like this, looking for the points where the tessellation links up: there's clearly some important and satisfying game going on there, as far as the brain is concerned, which it's happy to play at any opportunity.

Many times over the years the thought has arisen that this pattern on the lino could be a useful template for some picture-making, but  like so many such ephemeral notions  I have never actually done anything about it: the thought seems to arise exclusively in that space, and to fade immediately on exit. But yesterday, for some reason, the idea persisted, and I finally decided to act: I came back, and sketched out the pattern, trying to find the smallest chunk of it that would give an adequate impression of the whole. It's hardly a page from the Book of Kells (now available online, incidentally), but it took most of the rest of the morning to figure it out and then re-render it satisfactorily in Photoshop. Here it is:

I'm not sure yet what I'm going to be doing with it, if anything, but in the mornings to come  now I've got the basic skeleton to work with  I shall inevitably be mulling it over as I gaze at the original, spread out beneath my feet in my contemplative cell. Some decent colours would help, for a start. But, isn't it curious, how – abstracted like that – it looks like it must mean something? Even if it's only a flow chart for operating the washing machine.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Museology Cards

It's curious, how a project can consume your attention for a while, come to some sort of fruition, then drop out of your awareness. Something of the sort happened to a "museology cards" theme I was working on about four or five years ago. I've had an ongoing interest in photographing museum specimens for some while, and this was a particular offshoot of that longer-term project: a set of gilt-edged cartes de visite intended to foreground the expressiveness I could see, whether intentional or accidental, imbued into dead, empty skins by the intervention of a taxidermist or taxonomist. I put together quite a few of them, but then that confluence of approaches and techniques morphed into the "Guardians" series using life-like representations of humans, and I forgot about them.

Now, there is a concern with the nature – indeed, the existence – of non-human consciousness, a concern intimately connected with the assertion of animal rights, and it's an interest I share. No-one (other than a theologian) would surely deny the consciousness and agency of, say, a dog or a cat; as if any self-respecting cat would give a fuck as to whether you did or you didn't. This is not really a scientific question, determinable by anatomy or experiment, but a matter of fellow feeling: it's "obvious", in the way a lot of things that may or may not actually be true are obvious. But how far this sympathy should extend down the evolutionary chain (especially the edible parts of it) is a conundrum, as is the question of how this should affect human behaviour. Which is not an idle speculation, in the case of a species that at one extreme will joyfully torture an enemy to death, and at the other literally refrain from hurting a fly.

Coming across these cards again this week, I realised that these images display the other side of this "alternative consciousness" question. Despite their subject matter, none of the expressiveness on show here represents any actual non-human awareness, emotion, or intention. These "creatures" are long-dead, empty vessels, no more capable of feeling or motivation than a leather purse or a shoe: everything we can see and read here of pride, terror, contentment, and abjection has either been manipulated for effect by a taxidermist, or projected onto them by me. Which is what makes them fascinating to look at, and is also the source of their pathos. These once-conscious, living entities, that ought long ago to have returned to dust, float in formaldehyde or stand stuffed and wired into life-like postures for our education and entertainment. Why such grim simulacra should attract, rather than repel us (OK, me) is probably one of those unresolvable psychological questions, and one reason our species has developed this thing we call "art".

Older British readers may recall the Chimps' Tea Parties at various zoos, or the similar TV adverts for PG Tips tea. Like the Black and White Minstrel Show, it's a memory that may cause you to recoil in hilarity or shock (probably both) in recognition of a recent past we'd now choose to disown. But when it comes to misplaced, projected expression, I think of the wide, toothy grin of those chimpanzees, which we for so long mistook for a smile of pleasure, when it seems it was really a rictus of terror. Not an inappropriate emotion, really, having fallen captive into the hands of our pious, torturing, dissecting, all-consuming species.

Saturday 15 February 2020


Southampton Water at low tide

After a week of birthday-related disruptions, life now returns to normal. If you can call normal a week in which the son of my local paracetamol pusher unexpectedly became Chancellor of the Exchequer (no fantasy this: until quite recently the Sunak pharmacy used to be situated next door to my dentist [1]). Bobbing about in the wake of an event like a birthday is always a little anticlimactic, but especially so this year, when unpredictable storms with silly names keep rocking up uninvited out of the Atlantic, and wrecking any well-laid weekend plans. Forced to stay indoors and watch the rain (which, if only for those of us aged between 60 and 75, inevitably invokes the melancholic introspection of Dark Side of the Moon – "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way..."), the only remedy is to crank up the creative machinery to eleven and see what happens.

One little strategy I've found to work reliably for me is to pretend I'm going to enter whatever competitions have recently been announced. Clearly, the whole idea of photographic and artistic competitions is ridiculous, both in principle and practice, not least when you see the sort of thing that wins the prizes. The very idea of a "best" photograph or painting, selected by a panel of usual-suspect gatekeepers out of thousands of submissions, is a category error of major proportions. The need to grab attention means that competitions are either dog-shows for imitative amateurs where the rules and the leeway within them are well understood, or fashionista catwalks for the MFA crowd, where the idea is to flatter the judges' sense of their own originality, and I'd be amazed if any artist of real standing ever submits work. If they do, it seems they never win. To adapt Noel Coward's remark about television, competitions are for being asked to judge, not entering.

However, few things energise creativity like constraints, and the existence of a stern competition brief with a tight deadline is quite a stimulating discipline (this is beginning to sound as if art is some kind of BDSM practice, but I'm sure you know what I mean). To behave as if you had every intention of entering work into "Housework Photographer of the Year" or "Stains On The Wall 2020" – but to stop short of actually submitting the results – is to get all the creative benefit without reaping any of the inevitable humiliation. You also get to keep the entry fee, of course (and there's always an entry fee). As I mentioned in a recent post, the mere declaration of "hinterland" as the theme for an open exhibition was sufficient for me to kick off a fresh round of picture-making. I didn't submit anything, in the end, even though I consider bona fide "open calls" for exhibitions to be a more worthy undertaking than straightforward prize "competitions". I will definitely be having another shot at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition this year, for example.

Quite apart from simply getting some new work done, I think the main benefit of these dress rehearsals is the opportunity for some self-knowledge. You end up asking yourself the hard questions in a useful, pragmatic way, rather than staring forlornly at the ceiling at 3 a.m. Instead of "why am I doing this?" you ask "how should I be doing this?". Rather than "am I any good?", the question becomes "is this work any good?". Above all, the concern that perverts all work produced for competitive purposes – "will other people like this?" – becomes "is this the best I can do?". As they say, if you want a better answer, ask a better question.

So, as there's nothing particularly stimulating out there at the moment, I thought it might be interesting to pretend to enter "Landscape Photographer of the Year", which (if the winning entries from previous years are indicative) is pretty much a camera-club dog-show, where "best of breed" is a photograph showing to best advantage the characteristic attributes of a particular, well-established, crowd-pleasing genre of pictorial photography with, ideally, some acceptable novel twist thereupon. Awe-inspiring vista? Check. Balanced composition? Check. Dramatic weather? Check. Blurred water flowing around sharply-defined rocks? Check. Well-deployed foreground JCB? [2] Check. And so on. Given my declared skepticism about landscape photography, and yet my persistence in making photographs in and of the "landscapes" I happen to find myself in, I thought it could be a useful exercise. After all, I do have a mighty portfolio of landscape photographs, virtually none of which have been processed to a completed state. Perhaps there's something worthwhile in there? I do keep promising and postponing a "Welsh Borders" porfolio, for example, and Southampton itself is under-represented in the popular imagination, compared to other cities.

Incidentally, talking of generational divides (oh yes we were, five paragraphs above, pay attention) the current "Corona Virus" thing is an interesting case. For the young folk, "Corona" is a popular brand of Mexican beer. For me, however, it will always be the disgustingly sweet and lurid fizzy pop sold in the shop in the village where my grandparents and cousins lived, and in those days still contained in those wonderful, resealable and recyclable swing-top ceramic-stopper bottles. As the later TV adverts claimed, "every bubble's passed its fizzical"!

Abandoned car in Millbrook, Southampton

1. However, it seems Sunak Jr. attended the prestigious Winchester College, and not our local comp, unlike my children and those of Southampton MP Alan Whitehead. 
2. No, not a mechanical digger, but a "Joe Cornish Boulder". Not my coinage!

Monday 10 February 2020

Clickety-Click Take Two

Portrait in the Jacobean Manner

This week sees my 66th birthday, so I hope you don't mind this little annual self-indulgence in self-portraiture. For reasons that should be self-evident I'm not especially vain about my appearance, but I have always admired Tudor and Jacobean portraiture – the sheer mastery of Hans Holbein as a portraitist has rarely been surpassed – so I enjoyed mocking this up from a recent, arm's-length "selfie". Taking selfies is not something I'm in the habit of doing – more than a couple of times a year and it starts to seem excessive – and I think I'm probably too old to really grasp the significance of the contemporary selfie obsession; it surely can't just be unbridled narcissism, can it?

Recently, I was hanging around my partner's London office, which has a less than spectacular view across one of those desolate institutional-architectural voids, directly into the adjoining library. As I stood by the window, I was intrigued to watch a Chinese girl, sitting at a study desk by the window opposite, repeatedly posing for her phone, tossing her hair, smiling, simpering, frowning, turning this way and that, all presumably in pursuit of the perfect selfie. This went on for ages: I'd go away, make a coffee, come back, and she'd still be at it. In the end, I felt like throwing open the window and shouting across the void, "Oi, you! Yes, you! Stop that ridiculous preening, and get on with some bloody work!"

It never ceases to surprise me how much more weather-worn – not to say old – my face looks when photographed than when seen in the mirror above the bathroom sink (there are very few other mirrors in our house). Maybe there's some "Haggardiser" filter in the camera I've somehow managed to turn on, together with "Thinning Hair" and "Mad Eyebrows"? Or maybe it's that I simply continue to see the same face I've been seeing for 60+ years – brains are complex mechanisms dedicated to self-delusion – whereas the simple-minded camera records the stark, unmediated reality. I wrote about this five years ago (such wisdom from one so young!) so here it comes again, slightly revised:

I recently read something in an essay by John Berger on Rembrandt's self-portraits that intrigued me. He wrote:
A painter can draw his left hand as if it belonged to somebody else. Using two mirrors he can draw his own profile as if observing a stranger. But when he looks straight into a mirror, he is caught in a trap: his reaction to the face he is seeing changes that face [...]  It is the same for all of us. We play-act when we look in the bathroom mirror, we instantly make an adjustment to our expression and our face. Quite apart from the reversal of the left and right, nobody else ever sees us as we see ourselves above the washbasin. And this dissimilation is spontaneous and uncalculated. It’s as old as the invention of the mirror.
Nobody else ever sees us as we see ourselves above the washbasin.  A troubling thought, that. I've been trying to catch my own "real" face in the mirror ever since. Or, at least, one or two of the many real faces we all wear. I think of the way I must have looked in countless meetings, struggling with boredom or irritation or slipping quietly away into a rapt doodling session. Or when giving presentations beneath the PowerPoint screen, or telling a funny story over coffee, or sharing outrageous get-outta-here gossip. Then there are the faces I make when driving, or playing with my children, or just buying stamps in the Post Office, or any number of public or intimate circumstances. Face it (sorry...), to everyone else you are that person (or those people) and virtually never the one you imagine yourself to be, gurning winningly at the bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand.

As W.B. Yeats put it, with a conscious level of irony:
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity's displayed:
I'm looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.
Yeah, right. So are all those other truth-seekers, checking themselves out in the shop window, or taking endless samey selfies by a window in the library.

1975... I suppose in our day photo-booth
strips were the nearest thing to a selfie.
Sadly, you couldn't see what you
were going to look like...

By the way, should you feel inclined to join in the world-wide celebrations of this event (my 66th birthday, that is, not Lucy Liu's selfie session) then you could do no better than to encourage your like-minded friends and acquaintances (even your social media "friends") to read this blog. Seriously: I enjoy writing it, but the real pleasure lies in knowing it is being read. Read, that is, by people other than the relatives, ex-colleagues, long-standing friends, enemies, and old school chums who are closely monitoring it for possible legal action. Thanks!

Friday 7 February 2020

First There Is A Mountain...

When I first arrived in Southampton in 1984, I was surprised to discover from my parents that we had a family connection with the city. It seems my grandparents had moved here in 1939, leaving jobs in the publisher J.M. Dent's Temple Press in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, for Southampton's Shirley Press. They lived in an area known as Millbrook, close to the docks. However, after both they and the Shirley Press were bombed out in the 1940 Blitz, they began to work in the construction of Spitfires instead, elements of which were distributed around various factories and facilities in the Southampton area as security against further bombing, and included a dairy and a local stately home.

My grandfather, who had survived WW1 as an infantry sergeant, must have felt it was a bit much, getting such an intense second round of unfriendly attention later in life. As, presumably, did many thousands of others: the Home Guard they formed under threat of imminent invasion was no joke, however it may be parodied in retrospect, but was a well-organised local militia of experienced, angry, and determined men. Millbrook and the docks were my grandfather's unit's patch to defend.

A walk that I do every once in a while takes me on a 4 mile circuit down through Millbrook towards the waterfront, where there is another sports ground, much smaller than the one mentioned in the previous post – about the size of a generous school playing-field, in fact – squeezed between an industrial estate and a major road intersection, and separated from the docks by railway lines. It's not a place you'd choose to engage in aerobic sports, frankly. In a window of bright weather on Thursday I took the opportunity to get down there, and was rewarded with some raking, late-afternoon sunshine, and dramatic long shadows stretching across the grass; the sort of conditions where the photographs pretty much take themselves, really. There was just me, some dog-walkers, and the usual noisy congregations of seagulls. I imagine it's rather different at the weekend.

Back in 1984, you could still cross various footbridges over the railway lines directly into the docks and wander about, within touching distance of the mighty steel hulls of moored cargo ships. In the days before containerisation, I imagine hundreds of dock-workers would stream over these bridges every morning. No longer: lading and unlading container ships is not a labour-intensive business, and the docks are a high-security area, fenced off and rigorously policed. So, for the majority of the population of this once proudly maritime city, those gigantic cranes are merely a constant sight on the skyline, and not a reassuring signifier of identity and employment.

In fact, I expect most people have stopped even noticing them, in the same way you can stop noticing any permanent landscape feature, even something as dramatic as a mountain range. I remember collecting my hire-car at Innsbruck airport in Austria when I arrived there for a photographic residency in 2014, and enthusing about the spectacular backdrop to the reception guy. He was a German, and said, "Yes, they are amazing, aren't they? But once you've been here for a while, they just seem to disappear... You seeing them for the first time has reminded me how amazing they really are!"

Tuesday 4 February 2020


Cricket "screen" at Southampton Sports Ground

"Games" – that is, team sports played outdoors, usually on grass, as opposed to chess, poker, or tiddlywinks – no longer seem to feature as prominently in the curriculum of schools as they did when I was at school. Back in what it's useful to think of as the "long 1950s" – i.e. the period from 1945 to about 1965 – the idea of mens sana in corpore sano (roughly, "mud is good for you") dominated educational thinking, to the extent that an entire afternoon every week would be dedicated to compulsory "games", usually played in teams ranked by ability. Having no interest in sport whatsoever, but having inherited a degree of instinctive sporting competence, my school years were mainly spent as a blue-shirted "possible" (as opposed to a red-shirted "probable" [1]) in the top-team games, so I never got to witness what must have been the strange, and quite likely hilarious spectacle of the matches lower down the pecking order, where the ill-coordinated, the clumsy, the mud-adverse, and the downright unbiddable were forced to enact parodies of games of rugby, cricket, or hockey (the rather elitist games favoured by our state grammar school, in emulation of the private "public" schools). I imagine those weekly rituals of humiliation still play out in the nightmares of their most reluctant participants.

Nowadays, it seems that fewer state schools any longer have their own playing fields, which, after all, occupy valuable real estate, and require constant maintenance by dedicated ground-staff for the appropriate season: mowing, rolling, and re-seeding, and repeatedly re-defining the same old boundaries, touch-lines, and penalty-boxes with white paint. That is, if they ever did: it's possible we may have been spoiled, sports-wise, by growing up in a New Town equipped with custom-built, modern schools, each with at least one large, flat grassy field, laid out so as to get as much edifying mud onto as many pupils as possible. Not to mention gymnasiums, where classmates could monitor and mock each others' physical prowess and differential rates of progress into adolescence [2]. But, if my own children's experience is typical, these days you can go through an entire primary and secondary education without ever suffering the agony of playing the first games of a new season in last year's size-too-small boots, or getting a maternal earful for yet again forgetting to bring home your stinking, wet, and muddied games-kit to be washed. In fact, today it seems school team sports are no longer a compulsory rite of passage for all, but the preserve of the athletic, sport-minded kids only, which must come as a profound relief to everyone else.

This lack of playing fields means that our municipal sports ground is much used by the local school jockocracies during the week, not least for hockey, a game which has seen a resurgence in interest in recent years. One of my regular perambulations takes me through the sports ground, which can be a strangely nostalgic acoustic experience: the shouts of young voices echoing around a playing field on a February afternoon accompanied by the click-clack of hockey sticks, in particular, can still give me chills of anticipation. Not because I'm a hockey fan, but because for every year of my secondary school career I was the First XI goalkeeper.

No, really. I was pretty good, too. As in football, the role of goalkeeper is undemanding for the majority of the game – you simply stand in the goalmouth or lounge against a goalpost – but requires an instant switch to total, undivided attention when the opposing team launches an attack. In a "good" game this hardly ever happens, of course, so the main thing is to stay just alert enough, on a hungover Saturday morning, to notice when this is happening. If you've never played hockey (or indeed cricket) you've probably never wondered what it is like to be hit by a hard ball about the size of a fist, struck with malevolence and travelling at speed. Well, I can tell you: it really fucking hurts. As does taking a knock from a flailing hockey stick. Consequently, the goalie is equipped with protective padding. This, for the entire time I defended the honour of our school on Saturday mornings, consisted of a pair of cricket batsman's pads, a pair of strap-on padded "kickers" to cover my boots, and, um, that was it. I provided my own track-suit and a pair of leather work-gloves, and at some point I bought myself a cricket "box" (rather like a hard, pink, plastic oxygen mask) to slip inside some swimming trunks, but beyond that I faced the enemy onslaught more or less naked. Which, I have to say, does wonders for your ability to be in the moment and react with speed, if only in panicky self-defence.

The path I usually take through the sports ground takes me immediately behind several hockey goals, and I can't help raising an eyebrow when I see how generously the school goalkeeper of today is kitted out: massive, deeply-padded and wide leg-and-kicker combos, an external "box" the size of a car's radiator grille, padded gauntlets, and a helmet – a helmet! – with a barred face-mask like some Cromwellian trooper. Most amazing of all, when a "short corner" is called – a perilous situation usually amounting to the goalie taking a bullet for the team – even the full-backs don protective plastic face-masks, which are kept lying around next to the goal. What wimps! Next thing you know, they'll be playing with a tennis ball and foam-rubber sticks.

My main problem as a goalkeeper – and possibly at least one of the reasons our team had the most abysmal record in years – was that I was easily distracted. Let an attractive girl appear on the touchline, or even an interesting cloud formation start to build up overhead, and my attention might wander. Although, in fairness, occasional inadvertence at one end of the pitch cannot be blamed for a dearth of goals at the other. But I'd certainly have been distracted by that wonderful, map-like image above, which is the late-afternoon sunlight blazing through the cracks in a battered vinyl sign lashed to the fence behind the goal, as seen from the goalie's side. Mesmerising! Mind you, even though I did manage to remain sufficiently alert and quick-witted to stop enough goals to keep my place in the team and, more important, avoid serious injury, the potential hazards of my long-past sporting career have proved useful in, of all places, the dentist's surgery.

Whenever I have needed to explain why I have two missing upper front teeth and one chipped lower front tooth, it has generally been easiest to say, airily, "Oh, I used to be our school hockey goalkeeper... No face-masks in those days!" Your typical dentist can understand, and even approve of that: honourable sports injury, no problem! Whereas the honest truth – that I lost them, aged 17, to a single sucker-punch from an Irish labourer I had unwittingly offended around the back of a pub – has never seemed to go down quite as well. It seems dentists – a conservative bunch, in the main – disapprove of brawling, however one-sided, almost as much as they do of muesli and sugary drinks.

Sports Ground skip

1. This curious nomenclature referred to the likelihood of boys in the top game being picked for the school team. We were all supposed to have two rugby-style shirts, one red with a blue collar, one blue with a red collar. These were much sought-after by the local girls' grammar students for some reason, however, especially the red ones: which gave an unfair advantage, perhaps, to those of us habitually blue-shirted as "possibles", or who, like me, had to improvise their own team kit.
2. This was not as entirely one-way as you might expect. One poor lad in my first secondary class was extremely well-advanced into puberty at age 11 (and well-endowed even by adult standards), which caused much hilarity in the showers among his pinkly pre-pubescent classmates. But only for the first two years...