Sunday, 31 May 2020

On the Road to Nowhere

A while ago I was reading something, an essay or a review probably, in which the author referred to Theodor Adorno's idea of "open thinking" as it applies to poetry, which was characterised as "seeking those thoughts that are not yet in the world because they lie in the future of thinking, as coming moments of poetic truth". I liked that a lot. It seemed to encapsulate much of what I have felt and thought, in an inchoate way, about the sort of poetry, and indeed photography and art in general that I enjoy.  Unfortunately, I wrote down the quote without noting its source, so I'm not sure whether these are the words of Adorno, the writer, or some third party under review. But if you think I'm going to wade through Adorno's work looking for the original quotation, or to determine how far these words reflect his actual intended meaning of "open thinking", you've clearly never read any Adorno.

Then it occurred to me that, like so many would-be profundities, it might also be seen as a statement of the bleedin' obvious: that a new idea – or the poetic framing of a space where a new idea seems to be lurking – belongs to the future. Well, no shit, Socrates; where else? In fact, I'd suggest it is the fate of most of today's profundities to become tomorrow's platitudes. The only exceptions are genuinely difficult ideas – I can't see String Theory ever being taught at primary school – and authentic art, what Ezra Pound called "news that stays news". Plus the sort of eternal truths that need to be rediscovered and restated for every new generation, because people never learn, do they?

It put me in mind of two rather well-worn nuggets from the Big Book of Inspirational Quotes. The first is Keats' famous idea of "negative capability", as expressed in a letter to his brother:
Brown and Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
Sunday 21 Dec. 1817
There are two quite incidental things that I love about that letter. Primarily, of course, there is the bizarre but wonderful idea of John Keats at a Christmas pantomime ("He's behind you!" [1]) which is not the bit of the letter usually polished up for the mental mantelpiece. And then there is the fact that one of the great and abiding ideas of literary criticism came to one of the great and abiding English poets in one of those intense, happy post-gig chats, walking home through the late-night streets, or waiting for the bus. We've all been there, I think, albeit usually minus the great and abiding idea.

The second bit of literary pokerwork is from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:
You are so young, all still lies ahead of you, and I should like to ask you, as best I can, dear Sir, to be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future.
16 July 1903 (translation by Charlie Louth)
"Live the questions for now..." Isn't that great? Definitely news that has stayed news. Rilke's ten letters to Franz Xaver Kappus are worth reading, if you don't know them: the Penguin edition quoted is less than 100 pages in length, but packed with quotable wisdom (he's surprisingly interesting on sex, for example). Indeed, it seems these letters are far more widely read than Rilke's actual poetry, which is notoriously difficult, and the very embodiment of that Adornoid idea of "seeking those thoughts that are not yet in the world because they lie in the future of thinking, as coming moments of poetic truth". Which is both humbling and hilarious: in 1903 Rilke was just 27 years old, had not yet published any of the work for which we remember him now, and the "young poet" Kappus was 20. Ah, the wisdom that comes with age! But then Keats was a mere 22 at the time of the "negative capability" letter. Twenty-two! It's just not fair, is it?

Which reminds me of yet another quote, one which is probably less famous in the Anglophone world:
Dreiundzwanzig Jahre, und nichts für die Unsterblichkeit getan!
Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos, 1787
That is, "Twenty-three, and I ain't done nuffink!", or something like that [2]. Well, I'm sixty-six now, and have been trying to live the questions, done my best to be in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, and have patiently waited for those coming moments of poetic truth since I was twenty-something myself. Now, I have achieved some things over the years, if nowhere near as many or of the quality I'd hoped or intended, and have certainly had my share of moments and, yes, even found some answers, but the prospect of any immortality is still impossibly far out of reach. But that is hardly the point. Although I've always been a Coleridge fan, and don't mind a little reaching after a reassuring bit of fact and reason myself, I think it's true to say that – as on a very long car journey – the most irritating, irritable question ever heard coming from the back seat is: are we there yet?

So, listen, next generation back there, here is an eternal truth: we may never get there, I don't even know where "there" is, and I'm not even sure we'll know it if and when we do, so settle down and enjoy the ride, and I can promise that there'll definitely be some wonderful things along the way... Meanwhile, there are some biscuits in that bag on the floor. And don't eat them all.

1. The tradition of the British Christmas pantomime is, by common consent, a unique and splendid cultural treasure ("Oh, no it isn't!" "Oh, yes it is!"). Those of you unfortunate enough not to have drawn a winning ticket in the Lottery of Life can read about it here
2. Literally, "Twenty-three, and done nothing for [my] immortality!"

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Free With This Issue

I mentioned recently that there was a story I should tell, which I was pretty certain was already in a post I had written and published some time ago. I thought the simplest thing would be to find and repost it, but I cannot now find it anywhere in the blog, despite being able to recall phrases and references used in it (at least, so I thought) that should have made it easy to retrieve. I am therefore confused. Where's it gone? Am I going mad? Perhaps I am even further down the forgetful road of old age than I had thought. Except, of course, that I am remembering in this instance – albeit falsely, it seems – rather than forgetting. It's very strange. But, never mind: write again, write better!

So. Cast your mind back to 1978. The world was a very different place. We still used to have winters, then, for a start: real ones, with snow, ice, and everything. They didn't call it the Winter of Discontent for nothing. Well, actually, that did have rather more to do with some outbreaks of industrial action, which was also something we used to have a lot more of back then. Late capitalism was clearly in its death throes, and quite a few of us felt that just a bit of a push was all it needed to get us over the hump into the socialist utopia that would surely follow. At the time I was in my first years of employment, and an active member of NALGO, the local government trade union. In fact, I was Education Secretary of our local branch [1], which represented all the clerical staff in the University of Bristol.

Continuing the "cold" theme, the Cold War was still a permanent fixture, and the USSR was stuck in its so-called "period of stagnation" under Brezhnev. No-one on Britain's political left looked any longer to the Soviets for leadership, of course, not even members of the Communist Party itself, which was in the process of self-destructing, as a result of internal tensions and contradictions rather greater than those within capitalism. I had found myself a job cataloguing Russian and German books in the university library, and a tangible sense of that "stagnation" emanated from everything produced in the Eastern Bloc. Russian books in particular were incredibly shoddy, often using several different colours of paper stock within the same volume, and bound in some curious substance that resembled the textured rubber of a hot-water bottle. Dissident works that had been smuggled out for publication overseas after clandestine distribution within the USSR – generally referred to as samizdat ("self-published") literature – were becoming ever more prominent and seemed far more vital. As well as heavyweight, Solzhenitsyn-style revelations of the labour camps, and the work of older writers who had fallen foul of Stalinist disfavour like Bulgakov, Zamyatin and Pasternak, there were new, satirical accounts of everyday life, such as Vladimir Voinovich's Ivankiad, describing his attempts to get a new apartment, frustrated at every turn by bureaucracy and nomenklatura favouritism. Beneath the frozen surface of the stagnant pond, something was clearly beginning to stir.

So, yes, 1978. On most Sundays it was my habit to call home, to see how my parents were doing. They were not in the happiest phase of their lives – Dad had been made redundant and had his pension stolen by Tube Investments when they took over the engineering firm where he had worked for decades, and Mum had suffered a heart attack and had had to give up working – and as a result this phone call was always a bit of a chore, as their lives, never particularly adventurous, were now constrained and invariable, week after week. But one Sunday they had a curious novelty to share: some junk-mail catalogue had come in the post and, when they opened it out of curiosity, a couple of banknotes had fallen out.

These were not Pounds Sterling, however, but two crisp, brand-new notes covered in what Dad described as "Russian" writing. Which was strange, to say the least, and hardly the usual sort of thing to come as a free gift from a mail-order operation. I couldn't help decipher them over the phone, so Dad put them in the post for me to examine properly. When they arrived, it was clear they were not Russian Rubles, but actually Bulgarian Lev notes, each of 500 denomination. Naturally – though in retrospect naively – my first thought was to establish what 1000 Bulgarian Levs might be worth. Which, in those pre-internet days, necessitated a trip to the bank.

Disappointingly, the exchange-rate display at my bank did not include the Lev, so I had to enquire at the cashier's window. She was not able to help, and neither was the manager, but they took my details and said they'd let me know. In due course a letter arrived from the bank, informing me that no Eastern Bloc currencies were "convertible" in the West, and therefore the notes were effectively worthless, unless I intended to visit Bulgaria. Which made sense and, as I had no such plans to travel behind the Iron Curtain, the two Lev notes ended up in a drawer: curiosity value only.

However, my phone began to behave oddly for some while thereafter: there were strange noises, sudden changes in the ambient background "soundscape", occasional voices in the background, calls with no caller, and so on. It seemed possible that my phone was being tapped. To be honest, I was quite flattered, if puzzled, that the Education Secretary of the local NALGO branch might attract such attention. True, we were actively involved in planning industrial action ourselves, Tony Benn was our local MP and a frequent attender at our activists' meetings and training sessions, and some of our number were so-called "entryists" into the Labour Party from various Trotskyist factions (remember Militant?). As I say, to a certain frame of mind, some sort of revolution seemed imminent. Although, as it turned out, no-one had really anticipated the sort of sort-of revolution that actually did take place, in the 1979 general election.

Not being an avid follower of the news, it was only later that I realised that the Bulgarian secret services had been active in Britain at that time. The assassination in September 1978 of dissident Bulgarian author and broadcaster Georgi Markov by a poison pellet delivered on the tip of an umbrella as he crossed Waterloo Bridge is perhaps no longer as notorious as it once was. But it was a big deal at the time and, clearly, anyone in possession of crisp, new, high-denomination, but non-convertible Bulgarian Levs was likely to be a person of interest, or at least of mild curiosity to the security services. However, if that was the case, I pity any poor operative detailed to listen in on my weekly phone-calls home.

Of course, none of this explains what those mysterious bank-notes were doing in a mail-order catalogue sent as junk mail to my parents in Stevenage. Clearly, it can hardly have been the innocent error of some warehouse employee ("Now where did I put my nice new Bulgarian Levs? Oh, shit..."). No, I expect someone, somewhere, got it in the neck, perhaps quite literally, for their mistake. Unless, of course, someone, somewhere had a large amount of unusable, possibly incriminating currency they needed to get rid of in a hurry, and hit upon this novel, if rather over-elaborate method of distributing it. You'd have thought that simply burning it, KLF-style, would have been a lot easier.

And if this version of the story of the Bulgarian Levs goes missing, I'll have to presume that this blog is being bugged, too. Hello, you secret, silent lurkers, we know you're there! I just hope you're finding reading this more interesting than your putative predecessor will have found listening to my parents' account of their week. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it...

1. Not as Maoist as it sounds ("So, comrade Noreen, you don't agree with the Executive's decision to weapons-train the secretarial pool? Some re-education may be in order!"). In fact, apart from attending interminable executive meetings, and even more interminable regional and national conferences, the main role was distributing the bumpf that arrived continually from the union, in large fat packets and boxes. None of which ever contained any money of any sort.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Pages and Pages...

Somewhere in there is a book...

I did actually try writing the numbers of the 96 page-spreads onto paper slips, shaking them up in a bag, and drawing them out at random like a lottery [1], but the aleatory gods were not with me that day, and the result was thoroughly, um, random, as the young folk like to say. So, in the end, there's no real choice other than to do the hard work of staring at them until they start to speak to each other. This may take some time.

There's definitely a book in there, though. But, like the book that idiots insist lurks inside everyone, unwritten, the real question is: is it a good one?

1. I can't have been the only child watching Saturday evening TV in the 1960s to ask, quite sincerely, "Dad, where is Random? And why do they always go there to draw the football pools winners an' that?" OTOH, I may have been alone in wasting most of an A-Level geography class (to the annoyance of some, and the delight of others) arguing, moderately sincerely, that to assign a numeric value to a "random distribution" was to ignore the very meaning of the word "random". Yep, there's one in every class, and I was it.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Gender Corrigenda

Influenced by the current precautions against infection by the Covid virus (recently changed by our government to "Stay Alert", whatever that might mean) we were tempted to keep a brazier burning by the front door, so that incoming mail might be fed straight into the cleansing flames with tongs. Most of what comes through the letterbox is junk, anyway. However, we were persuaded that visibility within the house would be substantially reduced by the resulting smoke, so we are just letting the letters, bills, and fliers lie there for a day or two, instead, on the assumption that a little carpet-quarantine will render them safe to handle before we open them, add them to the pile of unread mail, or drop them into the recycling bin.

Certain junk items still present a dilemma: should you open them, just in case, even against your better judgement – after all, there might be money inside [1] – or consign them directly to the bin? I've mentioned before the sinking feeling that accompanies the arrival of the Annual Record of my old college. It's really nothing more than an upscale school magazine, containing the sort of news and notes on academic achievements, sporting activities, and college societies that only lifelong "joiners" enjoy reading about. At least, I assume they do: never having been one I wouldn't know, and the Record barely nudges the needle on whatever mental meter measures the spectrum from "complete lack of interest" to "wow!". But in recent years the college has made a concerted effort to move with the times (it was founded in 1263, so has had a lot of experience of falling behind and catching up with the times) and now gathers the more eye-catching accomplishments of its graduates [2] into a colourful A4 brochure, primarily intended to stimulate cash donations. Sadly, all universities have gone down this dubious route. As a graduate of three universities and an employee of two more, I'm in a good position to compare and contrast their efforts, and my feeling is that for any elite educational institution to plead for monetary subsidy by rubbing your underachieving nose in the glossy, overachieving lives of a fortunate few is a really poor strategy. Oxfam does this sort of thing rather better, but then their cause is rather more compelling. So, on balance, into the bin it goes: there is definitely not going to be any money inside that one.

However, accompanying this glossy puff is another A4 brochure, which contains "news and notes" from old members (or "alumni", as we must learn to call ourselves), formerly included in the old Record, but now produced separately, reducing its interest still further to zero. In either form, these personal items have always had the grisly fascination of a car-crash: you know you shouldn't look, but... Inevitably, you scan them to see whether anyone you know or knew has had anything to report: it's simple enough, as the list is sorted by matriculation year. Oh look, this year there's a picture of old chum Paul, being presented with some fancy gong by the Czech ambassador. Meter reading: "medium interest". And isn't that the really odd guy from my English tutorial group, apparently now retired and volunteering at Citizens Advice, as well as helping to run some local arts setup? Well done, you! Meter reading: "mild interest". But, wait, what's this? Matthew is now Matilda? Ping! Now that is a definite "wow!".

Actually, that last one took a little time to sink in. There were no women at our college in 1973 – more catching up needed! – and Matilda's contribution makes no reference to having formerly been "Matthew", merely describing herself as "one of the first women at Balliol, even though nobody was aware of it". Eh? But how...? Ah... The surname. Crikey. Well I never... Naturally, an enthusiastic email exchange between various old college friends ensued (we're too old for Zoom), in which amusement and bafflement grappled with sympathy and lightly-held but politically-correct views on "the trans thing". My old friends may be grey-bearded patriarchs, but they are incorrigibly decent.

The years between 1973 and 2020 have seen many major changes, not least in attitudes to gender and sexuality, but changes like this happen gradually and unevenly, and not without struggle and opposition. After all, same-sex "acts" between males over 21 had only been legal in Britain since 1967, and most young men from my background paid little or no attention to the emerging feminist and gay scenes, not least because we were investing so much time and effort into discovering and, indeed, "performing" our heteronormative masculinity, as the current idiom has it. Which may account for why – as far as I know – I had no male gay friends at the time. That famous "gaydar" probably screamed "take cover, enemy approaching!" whenever the likes of me hoved into view. If so, I regret that. Matthew/Matilda was not and AFAIK is not gay, however: he has a female partner and children. As my fellow grey-bearded patriarchs speculated in our email exchange, hard as it must have been living with and suppressing such a potentially disruptive secret desire for so long, it may have been the wisest thing to wait until your children had grown up before making any profound changes. Parenting is quite difficult enough as it is.

I've explored my views on these identity issues before (see The Tallest Short Man & The Shortest Tall Man) and have nothing of substance to add. As for the latest, longest, ever more inclusive iteration of the "gender-queer" initialism – now LGBTIQA+, I believe – I never had any real problem with "LGB", whatever they may have made of me, but still struggle a bit with "T", although the personal stories of people known to me like the one mentioned here add substance to what is otherwise an abstract and rather alien proposition. I remain perplexed by the rest. In fact, the whole thing has clearly become something of a generational marker: feminists of my generation are often enraged by the demands of trans women to share women-only safe spaces (especially trans women who "feel" female but remain physically male), whereas those of my daughter's age have what seems to me a disproportionate commitment to the rights of some tiny if vociferous minorities. It has made for some lively discussions in recent years across the Christmas dinner table. I suppose in the end it's a case of "no-one is free until we are all free", although a lot depends on your definition of "free", and whether "all" might eventually include inclinations or behaviours still regarded as beyond the pale.

I was struck by an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (28th February) with Tom Holland, author of Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind, in which it was proposed that the impact of the period from the 1960s to the present day may be compared with that of the Reformation, but that we cannot yet know its full nature or dimensions, or even come up with a convenient name for it. After all, no-one in the 16th century would have imagined that, by countering the excesses of the Catholic Church, they were laying the foundations for capitalism and a secular-scientific worldview: from their point-of-view, it would all have been about the fate of your immortal soul. In the course of that radio discussion the baffling importance of trans identity to the young today came up, and the interviewer, Simon Jack, said, "It's as if the young had a town-hall meeting to decide something, and we weren't invited, or didn't get the email". Well, exactly. I suppose, put another way, that is a pretty fair description of what it feels like to realise you're getting old. Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

Meanwhile, I hear the clatter of more mail arriving through the letterbox. Who knows what fresh surprises it may bring? There may yet be money... Give it a day or two on the floor first, and then we'll find out.

Lisbon, 2015

1. I think I've already described how I still reflexively check Christmas and birthday card envelopes for stray banknotes. Also, I was certain I had already told the tale in this blog of the 500 Bulgarian Levs that fell out of a junk-mail catalogue sent to my parents in 1978, but I cannot find it anywhere. Mysterious. It's a good story, remind me to tell it sometime.
2. Strangely, these are often its most eye-catching graduates, too. Are chemists usually so glamorous? I wonder if they use actors?

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Fairies in the Garden

I'm not remotely interested in gardening, but I spend a fair amount of time leaning on the sink and gazing out of the kitchen window, coffee cup in hand, just watching the goings-on in the back garden. I note how the neighbour's cat seems to prefer our chaotic mini-jungle to their own neatly-trimmed garden, what routes he takes, where he pauses to check out the overnight olfactory news, and where he raises his tail to update his own daily bulletin. I observe the birds that barrel in for a frantic forage through the shrubs – great, blue, and long-tailed tits, dunnocks, wrens, blackcaps, and various indistinguishable warblers (the classic twitchers' "small brown jobbies") – and those that exercise some kind of complex overlapping feudal lordships over our patch: pairs of robins and blackbirds, and an annoying thrush given to relentless shouty vocalisations ("song" is far too generous). I notice that the resurgent house sparrows seem finally to have discovered that the houses in our street have a back as well as a front garden, and may be launching a hostile takeover bid.

As a sometime moth-collector, what I notice in particular is the insect life: the bees, wasps, butterflies, dragonflies, damsel-flies, hoverflies, and bog-standard fly-type flies that browse the plants, or flash through the sunbeams like tracer bullets. This year, however, something new, or at least never before noticed, appeared. A couple of weeks ago, whenever the sun came out, I noticed a strange dance going on above the shed roof, where some honeysuckle has established itself. About twenty or thirty blackish insects with extraordinarily long, white-tipped appendages were endlessly rising and falling in the sunlight. There was something simultaneously mesmerising and repellent about them. Their constant motion made them hard to make out, even with binoculars, and I couldn't get close enough for a proper look. My presumption was that they were some kind of ichneumon wasp, with their long antennae or perhaps twin tails, participating in an elaborate breeding ritual.

Now, much as I approve of regular wasps, the ichneumons are, frankly, revolting. They are parasitic, generally laying their eggs in or on the larvae of other insects, which are then gradually eaten alive. The common, upstanding wasps never speak of these shameful relatives. So, the experience of watching them in the preparatory stages of their disgusting life-cycle was ambivalent, to say the least, like watching some lively zombie-vampire disco. To be honest, my first instinct was Conradian: "exterminate all the brutes!"

I then tried to identify the exact species, but without much luck. There are thousands of the things, after all, and the Observer's Book of Repellent Insects only covers a few. Even the Web came up empty. Until, that is, I remembered the Successful Super-Searcher's Secret Strategy™, which is: play dumb. That is, don't presume you know what you think you know when actually you don't know what you're looking for. So I forgot about "ichneumon" and looked for ... well, some search terms so cunningly-but-idiotically simple that I won't embarrass myself (or compromise my Super-Searcher status) by revealing them. As a result of which I discovered these creatures are actually day-flying moths: fairy longhorn moths to be exact (probably the Green Fairy Longhorn, Adela reaumurella).

Knowing which, of course, their incessant dancing instantly lost most of its sinister edge; a classic illustration of Hamlet's startlingly po-mo maxim, that "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". Although I find there is still something a bit creepy about their appearance and un-mothlike behaviour. As with the stand-up regular wasps and the sleazy ichneumons, I suspect their respectable night-flying cousins struggle to find a good word to say about them. What's more, although their life-cycle may be blameless, they must taste revolting, even to an insect-eating bird: the various small brown jobbies that forage in the garden never touch them, despite their provocative aerial ostentation.

Sorry, this is the best I can do...
The things will keep moving...

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Four by Four by Four

Making paired pages is easy enough. It's quite fun, too. As you repeatedly scan through a large collection of images (well over 600 in this case) you gradually acquire a deepening awareness of them: an intimacy that is very different from familiarity. Echoes, affinities, and contrasts start to emerge, and an organic sense of their interconnections begins to grow. What starts as a simple matching process – "this one looks like that one" – gradually becomes something less mechanical: this one does obviously go with that one, but – wait! – it has a more interesting resonance with that other one, and this one really makes that first one sing, and so on, and so on. As a way to pass the time during a lockdown, it's hard to beat; a sort of open-ended, improvisational game of Patience.

One slightly uncanny phenomenon that I have been noticing is that a filename-sort of the items in the directory of "selected" items often brings good potential pairings together, side by side – quite often photographs taken in different years with different cameras. Wooo! I have no explanation for this, other than it's possible that proximity may induce affinity, entirely in the viewer's mind. We are connection-making creatures, after all. On the other hand, these pictures generally only become neighbours in the sort when the intervening deadwood has been cleared away. It's strange.

However, I find that the next step, sorting them into a book sequence, is neither easy nor fun. It requires a different level of effort and commitment, and a certain amount of projection into the mind of a potential reader. Will they be bored by too many pairs in the same orientation ("portrait" vs. "landscape") in a row? Are "mixed" pairs (portrait plus landscape) more or less satisfying to the eye? Which are the five-star pairings, and where should they be deployed? Should some single images, and perhaps even some texts be included to break things up a bit? And at what point will I realise that creating Kodachrome 2.0 is a silly idea and that I should be going my own way? These are not essentially photographic or aesthetic considerations, but may be the most important choices, if the final book is to be a success as a book.

To help with this task, I have been creating and printing out A3+ sheets (13" x 19") onto which a four by four grid of dummy page-spreads has been arranged. My intention is to cut these up into individual spreads, if only to disrupt that curious "proximity breeds affinity" phenomenon, but I must admit I do quite like the way they look, unsorted and uncut. This may simply be because a simultaneous, poster-style view of multiple images is a way of avoiding the hard work of deciding on a single, serial, book-style presentation. Perhaps some kind of random ordering process will give the best of both worlds?

So far, I have filled four and a half sheets, which will be a book of around 150 pages unless some further selection is applied. As ever, the choice is between creating something substantial and something affordable. Given no-one will buy the thing, anyway, I suppose it might as well be substantial. Perhaps even a sixth sheet would not be excessive...

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Not So Fast, English...

Another "Postcards" dummy spread

In the recent post Postcards 4 I had a little snarky fun at the expense of the introduction to Luigi Ghirri's Kodachrome, a book which is otherwise Holy Writ to me. As I suggested there, this was a very Anglo-Saxon response to the sort of involuted linguistic constructions that characterise "continental" philosophising in general. Even better, the translation was truly awful, and what is more amusing than the stumblings of non-native speakers? Hey, listen, I've tried speaking French in Paris and German in Berlin, not to mention Russian in St. Petersburg and Spanish in Barcelona, and my cheeks still burn with the humiliation. Yeah, yeah, very funny... Wait until you visit London, mate.

Nonetheless, as a person whose self-regard rests largely on a capacity for understanding language, in all its abused, elevated, or hyperventilated states, I dislike failing to understand a piece of writing that is clearly intended to be enlightening. So, let's give it another go. What was Piero Berengo Gardin really trying to say?

Now, even the best translations are fraught with cross-cultural misunderstandings, and simple errors. A couple of years ago, for example, as described in the post Gigantic Arabs, I found that the translator of some letters published in 1908 had mistaken "arbres" (trees) for "arabes" (arabs), resulting in the curiously Freudian sentence, "So there is nothing to do but deplore my sex and return to dreams of Italy and Spain. Granada! Gigantic Arabs, pure sky, brooks, rose laurels, sun, shadow, peace, calm, harmony, and poetry!" And let's not revisit the ill-feeling that certain attempts to translate that exhortation of George Clinton of Funkadelic, "free your mind, and your ass will follow", caused at my Innsbruck residency (see Lost in Translation). Let's accept that translation is hard, and see what can be done about it.

So, for the non-bilingual, the key to understanding poor translation is the bilingual dictionary. Not in the obvious sense that you can look up unknown words, but in the sense that you can reverse-engineer someone else's shoddy work, by finding the linguistic "false friends" and simple errors that may have led them down strange paths, when they looked something up in the dictionary (or, more likely, didn't).

Here are the two translated passages [1] from the introduction to Kodachrome that I quoted:
The elements composing the work are a large quantity of communication data and a large quantity of ambiguity. While the communication data are direct and immediate, the ones of the ambiguity are mediate by the presence of a very important element: the time going by and its progressive consumption till the limit point of the image congealment and its cancellation.
The Author, paging its picture-cards lets a large white space around the image. To all people asking the reason of a so algid, iconographical isolation I answer, in agreement with the Author, that the photograph has been deprived of a superfluos [sic] space. I mean the one where it is collected and filed the direct, explicit datum. The subtraction of this space is so corresponding to the cancellation of any possible presumption of truth.
Hmm. My Italian is poor, but I know enough to make a close comparison and, more importantly, I know enough Artspeak to penetrate Berengo Gardin's intentions, bearing in mind this was written in 1978, when even God was still scratching his head over the latest issue of Tel Quel. For a start, one very basic word that occurs frequently is cartolina, translated as "picture-card". Well, I think we already know what a cartolina is: it's a postcard! Which, if nothing else, suggests my own "postcards" project is on the right track. But what about "congealment"? In English, the verb "to congeal" has a quite specific meaning, and some unpleasant associations: it's what blood does as it dries, or fatty food does as it cools and sticks to the pan. It's not a word you associate with photographs (unless, I suppose, you're a wet-plate fanatic). So what, according to the dictionary, does congelamento actually mean? It seems it means "freezing". Aha! We have uncovered a "false friend"! Similarly, consumazione does not mean "consumption" (consumo in Italian), but – setting aside its more common, touristic meaning of "food or drink that one orders in a public establishment" – it means "consummation" or, I suspect, something not unlike the commercial term "fulfilment". Light begins to dawn.

As well as numerous dictionaries, the Web has gifted us various indispensable linguistic tools, chief among which I'd count Google Translate and Linguee. Translate is a blunt instrument, but surprisingly effective: its rendering of these two Italian passages is pretty good, if literal, and far superior to the original published versions. [2] The advantage of Linguee is that it gives multiple real-world contexts for a word or expression, which is like having an experienced interpreter at your elbow. As in English, it seems congelamento (freezing) and immagine (image) frequently occur together: it's what happens when you're watching a streamed video, for example: the picture freezes. More light!

But: to paraphrase the Incredible String Band's Hedgehog Song, we may know all the words, and have sung all the notes, but what in the name of Roland Barthes does it all mean?

I think this starts to become clearer once you realise "cancellation" (or "deletion", "striking out", "erasure") in the first passage refers back to time, and not to the photograph. He means that of the two major elements he identifies in the work as a whole –  its visual "data" and its ambiguity – the former retains its "indexical" significance (a tree still looks like a tree) but the latter is compounded by the freezing of a moment in time. Some situation was happening in and through time in front of the camera, but – once captured or "frozen" – we no longer have the information that would tell us, unambiguously, what it was, or what it became. We have a mystery, but no plot-line.

Similarly, in the second extract, he sets up a straw man, who says, "So what's with all the white space around the postcards?" ("algid", incidentally, despite being a lazy rendering of algidois a fairly obscure technical English word, meaning "cool, chilly"). The point, he seems to be saying, is that by embodying photography's removal of "superfluous" space (that is, the omission of everything outside the picture's frame) the white space emphasises the photograph's inherent truncation from any "truth value" we might naively presume it to have. We have a stage-set, but no play.

Or something like that. These are typical early skirmishes in the Theory Wars, and an attack on "grand narratives" and such. In the late 1970s this sort of hand-waving towards profundities that might, translated into blunt Anglo-Saxon terms, seem no more than statements of the bleedin' obvious was still very much a work in progress. I know, I was there. So how far did Luigi Ghirri (l'autore) understand or endorse the verbal flights his work had stimulated? Pretty much all the way, I'd say. Ghirri himself was a thoughtful, articulate writer, with a philosophical bent. When Berengo Gardin writes, "in agreement with the Author", this is no rhetorical flourish. Ghirri's Complete Essays 1973-1991 (Mack, 2016) are well worth reading, and the book happens to contain a decent re-translation of his own foreword to Kodachrome, which includes these words:
So I am not interested in images and "decisive moments", the analysis of language in and of itself, aesthetics, the concept or all-consuming idea, the emotion of the poet, the erudite quotation, the search for a new aesthetic creed, or the use of a style. My duty is to see with clarity, and this is why I am interested in all possible functions – without separating any of them out, but taking them on as a  whole, in order to be able, from time to time, to see the hieroglyphs I have encountered and make them recognisable.
[Per questo non mi interessano: le immagini e i momenti decisivi, lo studio o l'analisi del linguaggio fine a se stesso, l'estetica, il concetto o l'idea totalizzante, l'emozione del poeta, la citazione colta, la ricerca di un nuovo credo estetico, l'uso di uno stile.
Il mio impegno è vedere con chiarezza, per questo mi interessano tutte le funzioni possibili, senza separarne nessuna, ma assumerle globalmente per potere di volta in volta, vedere e rendere riconoscibili i geroglifici incontrati.]
Which is still a little obscure, certainly, but interesting, and yet I'd go so far as to say the photographs are actually rather better than that. In fact, they would seem to contradict almost every word he has written about what he is not interested in. But, as that reluctant, recusant Anglo-Saxon D.H. Lawrence said: never trust the teller, trust the tale.

Another "Postcards" dummy spread

1. Here are the original Italian versions:

Gli elementi del lavoro sono una grande quantità di dati di comunicazione e una grande quantità di ambiguità. Mentre i dati della comunicazione sono diretti e immediati quelli dell'ambiguità sono mediati dalla presenza di un elemento importante, il passare del tempo e la sua consumazione progressiva fino al punto limite del congelamento dell'immagine o della sua cancellazione.

L'autore, impaginando le proprie cartoline lascia molto spazio bianco attorno all'immagine. A tutti coloro che si chiedono il perchè di un tale algido isolamento iconografico rispondo, d'accordo con l'autore, che alla fotografia è stato sottratto uno spazio superfluo, quello, cioè, dove si raccoglie e deposita il dato diretto, esplicito. Alla sottrazione di questo spazio corrisponde dunque la cancellatura di ogni possibile presunzione di verità.

2. Here are Google Translate's versions:

The elements of the work are a large amount of communication data and a large amount of ambiguity. While the communication data are direct and immediate those of ambiguity are mediated by the presence of an important element, the passage of time and its progressive consumption up to the limit point of the freezing of the image or its cancellation.

The author, by paginating his postcards, leaves a lot of white space around the image. To all those who wonder why such an icy iconic isolation I reply, in agreement with the author, that a superfluous space has been subtracted from photography, that is, that is, where the direct, explicit data is collected and deposited. The removal of this space therefore corresponds to the cancellation of any possible presumption of truth.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Idiotic Hat Selections 1 & 2

As I mentioned previously, I've been compiling some "best of" selections of posts from this blog, concentrating on the written rather than the visual side. There's no real need for this, obviously, given everything is sitting there online for anyone to read, but at the back of my mind I'm aware that a plug somewhere needs only to be pulled once for the whole Blogger edifice to vanish without trace. I'm also aware that nobody has the time or inclination to go back through nearly 2000 posts in someone else's blog, looking for the good bits. Blogs, after all, are like newspapers, a variety of ephemeral information and entertainment. So I'm doing the job myself. If nothing else, it's a way of ensuring that something of the effort I have put in over the years since 2008 will survive.

So far, I have produced two themed volumes. The first compiles some of the surprising number of posts I have written that touch on the subject of music, one way or another. It's a 6" x 9" (15cm x 23cm) "trade" paperback of 144 pages, printed on the cheapest black and white only paper stock. I'm afraid it's not a thing of typographical beauty, as I put most of the design effort into getting as much text onto as few pages as possible, whilst juggling the page-count to meet the mandatory "multiples of twelve" requirement (I knew learning those times-tables would pay off one day). To be honest, it does look rather like a school magazine. But one packed with good stuff!
The second selection I have called "Dreamtime", as it collects anything to do with childhood, family history, schooling, and my home town of Stevenage New Town. It is identical in format, apart from the fact it is even bigger at 156 pages.

My intention all along has been to make these cheap, and they will cost £5.49 each, which is actually less than the postage that Blurb will charge. If you would like to buy a copy, but balk at the shipping charge, do let me know by email, as I will probably have to buy a bulk batch at some point myself: most of my friends are too bloody cheap actually to buy a copy, and will mostly be expecting to receive one gratis. Luckily (?) I don't need more than two hands to count my friends.

Future volumes will probably include Art & Photography, Feeble Attempts at Humour, and The Meaning of Life. As far as possible, I will be trying to avoid duplication, so that, for example, a "humorous" post using photography to elucidate the meaning of life (and I can think of at least two) should only find itself in one of these collections. But if the page count of the "humour" volume in particular starts to look a little thin (it will need to have at least twelve pages) I'm not promising anything.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Postcards 4

Some pairings are made in Heaven...

I've been trying out some dummy "postcard" layouts. Any resemblance to Ghirri's Kodachrome is entirely intentional. I suppose I had better use my own photographs, though... [1] I have been studying Ghirri's sequencing quite closely, and have come to the conclusion that whereas the facing-page pairings are cleverly made, and often very witty, visually, the sequencing, as such, is non-existent. Sure, sometimes one pair leads to the next – a repeated shape or motif links them together – but there is no through-sequencing beyond that mild formal linkage. At least, nothing that reveals itself to me. In the best sense, Kodachrome is a book of random associations, a strange dream conjured from the sensibility and sub-conscious of an individual with a remarkable eye for the poetry of those spaces where the "natural" and the man-made are brought into dialogue with each other. So, yes: a tough act to follow.

Others are made elsewhere...

I confess I had never before read the textual content of the book, or, if I had, I must have abandoned the attempt after a paragraph or two. In the effort to better understand Ghirri's intentions, it seemed like Piero Berengo Gardin's introduction might be a good place to start. However, I have rarely felt so impatiently Anglo-Saxon as when grappling with his impenetrable slabs of Rococo Italianate gobbledegook, poorly translated into a funhouse-mirror style of English. Sample:
The elements composing the work are a large quantity of communication data and a large quantity of ambiguity. While the communication data are direct and immediate, the ones of the ambiguity are mediate by the presence of a very important element: the time going by and its progressive consumption till the limit point of the image congealment and its cancellation.
Well, obviously. And this was especially helpful:
The Author, paging its picture-cards lets a large white space around the image. To all people asking the reason of a so algid, iconographical isolation I answer, in agreement with the Author, that the photograph has been deprived of a superfluos [sic] space. I mean the one where it is collected and filed the direct, explicit datum. The subtraction of this space is so corresponding to the cancellation of any possible presumption of truth.
I have grappled with that explanation for what seems a not especially bold design element (lots of white page?), but to no avail. I do love that final sentence, though. Truth? Pah! Va funculo! It's still a great book, though, if you stick to the pictures.

One little problem (oh, all right: challenge) is that the aspect ratios of my photographs vary quite considerably, not just between camera brands, but also depending on the shape I happened to favour at the time, not to mention the severity of any cropping. This was at its most extreme with that perfect little camera, the Panasonic LX3, which features an external dial capable of switching the picture proportions between 4:3, 3:2, and a very tempting "panoramic" 16:9, all without changing the chosen angle of view. I suppose I could crop everything into a consistent 3:2 ratio (the classic 6" x 4" postcard), or only pair up images of a similar ratio, but I'm not intending to. The difference is most obvious in "landscape" pairs, but I think this is exacerbated by the flatness of an on-screen mockup: in a real, curvy magazine held in the hand this will look less odd. Probably. So much depends on the limit point of the image congealment and its cancellation, doesn't it?

1. I think most people, these days, are aware of the story by Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote". If not, you can read about it here. I must guard against becoming "Mike Chisholm, Author of Kodachrome"...

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Hoxton Mini Press

Some of the nicest photo-books of recent times have come from the small East London imprint, Hoxton Mini Press. In fact, their title On The Night Bus by Nick Turpin is one of my all-time favourites (I featured it in my Christmas 2016 "Book Club" post), and the more recent London Underground 1970-1980 by Mike Goldwater is a real grit-in-the-eye, air-blast of nostalgia for anyone who remembers the Tube in those days. Why, there's even a picture of the Oxford Street "Less lust from less protein" placard man [1] having a tea-break in Oxford Circus station. Their books are small, reasonably-priced, well-produced, and thematically coherent. In my view, Hoxton Mini Press is a Really Good Thing in a photo-publishing world dominated by over-priced, over-sized books containing nothing very much. However, like so many small businesses, they're in trouble now, due to the lockdown.

Consequently, co-founder Martin Usborne has launched a Kickstarter appeal to help them through this rough patch, with some some interesting rewards for backers: you can read all about it here (or see the video below). If you can afford it, I think they're well worth your support. Go on, why not?

If you're not familiar with Kickstarter, the basic idea is that the party seeking funding sets a goal and a deadline (in this case, £10K and May 20th: far too low, far too soon, IMHO [2]) and usually offers an escalating series of rewards linked to the amount of money a backer is willing to pledge. If the funding goal is met or exceeded, your pledge is paid, and you get your chosen "reward"; if not, it is void, and no money changes hands. Obviously, some Kickstarter campaigns are for startups with daft ideas and poorly-conceived business plans; this is one of the worthwhile ones.

Martin is an amusing guy, as you will see from his Kickstarter video. You won't catch Gerhard Steidl pretending to trip over a pile of stock, or keeping his awards in the office loo. The Hoxton Mini Press email newsletter has temporarily mutated into The Hoxton Corona Diaries, and is savagely funny (and includes a 20% discount code); it's well worth signing up for (you can do so here). Of course, the most straightforward way you can support them is by buying their books direct from their website. I'm really looking forward to receiving my advance-ordered copy of Hotel Carpets, by Bill Young. Doesn't that look gorgeous? And just £9.95!

from Urban Gypsies, by Paul Wenham-Clarke

1. Anyone who visited Oxford Street (London's main department-store shopping street) between 1968 and 1993 will have seen Stanley Green and his placard, warning against the evils of too much protein, with its hilarious dangling addendum, "AND SITTING".
2. Turns out I was right. I wrote this yesterday, and that £10K target was met within 12 hours... But just keep throwing money into the hat: they're worth it!

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Rook Heads

I remember coming across these guys, decapitated and on display in London. No, not on spikes in the Tower, but in the Natural History Museum, demonstrating the development of the rook's beak and facial "bald spot" over time. I thought they deserved the full-on graphical treatment, came up with a number of these variations, but then put them to one side.

Coming across them again, I rather like them. I wonder if there's a greetings card niche I could exploit in these troubled times? "Keep calm and carrion"? "Rook after yourself"? "Corvid Commiserations"? I mean, come on, aren't you sick of bloody hares? Hares, hares, hares... What is it with hares? [1] Give crows a chance.

1. Actually, I think I know what it is. As I wrote in an earlier post: Hares are threadbare glove-puppets that say, "I'm a bit of a pagan, in touch with folkways, and the feel and flow of the land and its seasons. I'm earthy and yet spiritual. My kitchen is filled with the smell of baking bread, and the laughter of friends and children..." What could be more annoying? Crows, on the other hand, are just fine. Crows may be glove-puppets, too, but they're saying, "Get over yourself, big ears!" to moonstruck hares.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Postcards 3


At times like this, there are many occasions for inconvenience, regret, and ultimately, grief. By one of those peculiar psychological mechanisms, it seems that – primed by the media with their daily tales of death and disease, misjudgement and maladministration – inappropriately strong emotions can attach themselves to the merest inconvenience. In recent weeks I have seen people fly into a rage over empty supermarket shelves, the length of an orderly, well-spaced queue, or the interpretation by some of "exercise" as a rowdy, drunken picnic in a public space. Within the general grey cloud of acquiescence, flashes of anger and despair are building.

I felt something of this disproportion myself yesterday. Having assembled a preliminary batch of provisional pairings of "postcards", simply by downloading images directly from this blog and dragging them onto A4 pages in Photoshop, the next task was to find the original source files, so that a print-resolution version could be made. This is one of those super-tedious tasks that, at work, one would happily delegate to a junior colleague, but, no matter how hard or how often I look, there is no-one else in the house other than the Prof, who is several notches above my pay-grade, and appears to be running a busy one-woman call centre in the room next door.

Now, an essentially simple task – find the original file from which the screen-resolution JPEG was made, and copy it into a new directory – is complicated by the fact that (a) these files go back to 2008, (b) quite a few different cameras have been used, (c) each brand of camera has its own, different file naming convention, and yet (d) each new camera within the same brand resets the numbering, resulting in multiple files with the same or similar names, and an unhelpfully broken numerical sequence in time, and finally (e) my files are reasonably well organised, but spread slightly chaotically over a number of backup devices. Sigh. As I say, complicated.

However, the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and the trick is simply to get down to it. Which I did, working out and refining an efficient modus operandi as I went along. I'm sure you're aware of the 80:20 rule, which I learned in a library context (20% of stock account for 80% of loans, 20% of purchases account for 80% of expenditure, etc.) but which is a generally-applicable Great Teaching, and certainly applied here. Most of the files were readily identifiable, but a minority required multiple, time- and patience-consuming searches across several devices. And a few simply would not reveal themselves, no matter how hard I looked.

The truth gradually dawned on me. These recalcitrant files – some of them "essential" images, among the best of the best, but not yet safely collected into a book – no longer existed. They had disappeared, irretrievably, in the Great Backup Drive Disaster of a few years ago. Despite the best efforts of a local data-recovery firm, entire years had been erased within certain ranges, and indeed one entire camera had gone, an Olympus DSLR I used for a mere 2 months, but which yielded some beautiful photographs before I sold it on. It was the first time the scale of the loss had truly revealed itself, and I was appalled, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Argh!

For about ten minutes, anyway. Then I saw the funny side: nobody cares! Even if I failed entirely to compile a book of these particular photographs, nobody – not even me – would be negatively affected. As it is, I've still got well over 90% of the ones I had selected, only 30% of which would end being used, anyway. Life goes on. For most of us, that is: two of the Prof's colleagues have succumbed (as in "sadly died") to Covid-19 recently, and I doubt there are many of us who will have been unaffected, directly or indirectly, by this wild-card virus and society's fumbled but well-meaning attempts to deal with it [1].

But, nonetheless, I suspect I may need to take a deep breath and keep a tight grip on a surge of turbulent emotions next time I fail to find bread-making flour or Bircher muesli in the supermarket, after queuing for 20 minutes, or some lycra-clad prat jogs a little too close to me in the street.


1. This recent article in the TLS by Paul Collier on the limits of modelling is well worth reading.