Monday, 28 September 2020

New Forest

Last weekend we met up with a couple of old friends we've managed to stay in touch with since our university days. Socially-distanced, of course. They had escaped from London to spend a couple of nights in a hotel in Lyndhurst, just over the other side of the estuary from Southampton, and self-styled "capital of the New Forest". Which, although technically accurate, is quite a boast for a town with just one main street. I'd call it a one-horse town, except that it's one of the few places where traffic can be halted by equine jaywalkers: the ubiquitous New Forest ponies have no road-sense at all when in town.

It's been some time since we spent any time in the Forest, but for a decade or so it used to be a regular venue for walks and outings when the kids were small, not least because it housed various animal-oriented attractions that seemed to change their name and emphasis every few years but remained essentially the same: World of Badgers seeming pretty much identical to Otters 'R' Us, which had strongly resembled Just Deer, the uncannily similar successor establishment to Nature Farm [1]. I don't suppose the assorted animals in their pens and paddocks ever noticed or cared that there had been a change of management or which of them was receiving star billing this year.

Although there is no shortage of trees, a lot of the "forest" is actually heathland patrolled by free-range ponies and sullen cattle, although it is nowhere near as desolate as the Radnor Forest in mid-Wales, which is effectively a treeless tract of bleak upland. The word "forest" can be misleading: it often designates a royal hunting-ground, set aside (in the sense of "cleared of indigenous peasants") in the days when the preferred leisure activity of the aristocratic class was chasing deer and wild boar around the landscape on horseback. In these lazier times, of course, they prefer to have witless game-birds driven towards them, to be shot out of the air like some upscale fairground entertainment.

However, although a lot of Robin Hood era stuff does still cling to the place –  inherited rights like "pannage", i.e. the right to let your gigantic pigs roam free in the woods and terrorise picnic sites, are still enjoyed by true-born Foresters, and policed by "verderers" and "agisters" – for most non-residents it's an open-plan leisure resource. To be honest, never mind the word "forest", I begin to suspect that too many of my fellow citizens have misunderstood the meaning of the word "park" in "national park". Like a lot of quaint corners of England, the infrastructure of the New Forest simply cannot cope with the seasonal onslaught of leisured pleasure-seekers, which has clearly increased dramatically since we last visited the area. I was amazed at the volume of traffic on a late September Sunday afternoon passing through Lyndhurst's narrow one-way system, a solid line stretching back along the single-carriage A35 most of the way to Southampton. To the best of my knowledge, there are just two small carparks in Lyndhurst. And nowhere near enough litter-bins or public toilets, evidently.

I suppose it shouldn't be such a surprise. The Forest is not exactly an up-market holiday destination: people have always been coming to the area for a cheap holiday, camping and caravanning, and in this plague year cheap trips abroad to the sun are out of the question. So, come September, and a wave of pensioners starts heading out in camper-vans or with caravans in tow for a cut-price, child-free break. Which must be trying for the permanent residents, some of whom are very up-market indeed: Lyndhurst may be small, but it's the only town I know which has sustained a Maserati dealership for several decades. Although why anyone would want a Maserati deep in the woods is mystifying, not least because a strict 40 m.p.h. speed limit is in force in an attempt to lessen the number of fatal nocturnal pony-collisions. As I say, no road-sense at all.

Talking of holidays, cars, and up- and down-market entertainment, our London friends reminded us of a holiday long ago, in 1981, when the four of us drove in an overstuffed Ford Fiesta through France to the north of Spain, in that strange post-Franco, pre-EEC interlude, when much of rural Spain seemed preserved in a pre-industrial peasant economy where bullock-carts were a more frequent sight than tractors. We had a great time, playing cards at night in Basque-country and coastal bars, and were often the only tourists in town, because of a widespread fear of ETA's Basque separatist terror campaign. Spirits were high everywhere, though, and many towns were in a summer fiesta mood: indeed, nearly everywhere it seemed the same celebratory folk-dance was being performed to the same, perky, faintly Germanic folk-tune, played by small bands or through PA systems strung up around the village square. It may have been corny but, as with the bullock-carts and hand-flailed threshing floors, you felt these people were still in touch with a deeper, unselfconscious sense of continuity and community, something that we had lost along the way in Britain. I don't recall now, but I'm sure we shared many profound reflections on the gains and losses of modernity over the Rioja.

It was only when we got back home that we discovered that this very same perky, faintly Germanic folk-tune and its accompanying dance had in fact been the euro-pop sensation of summer '81: El Baile de los Pajaritos, De Vogeltjesdans, Der Vogeltanz, La Danse des Canards, or in plain English "The Birdie Song", with its accompanying Chicken Dance. Ah... Right... Hilarious, horrific, or humbling, according to taste. The bloody thing was even on Top of the Pops. So, not so much tradition, continuity, and community, as an early taste of the McDonaldization of cultures already unstoppably underway. Come on everybody, all together now, one-two-three...

1. The names have been changed to protect the insolvent.

Thursday, 24 September 2020


Photography is generally regarded as a medium of record, with an "indexical" relationship to visual reality. I was there; I saw this; I recorded it; this is what it really looked like. To most people, I'm sure, this is the whole point of any photograph: it's all about the subject matter, and a "good" photograph is one that shows the subject – whether it be a child's birthday party or the aftermath of a bombing – with clarity and the sort of visual tact and grammar usually referred to as "composition". This is why the name of the reportage photographer usually gets relegated to a tiny by-line, or is subsumed into the name of some photo-agency: photographers as agents of record are regarded as mere facilitators of the direction and angle of the many thousands of convenient little windows we have opening onto the world at large.

After all, who knows or cares about the name of the camera operators on the evening news, until, say, one of them becomes the news by getting injured or killed in the line of duty? It's as if we think there is a direct, multi-stranded, unauthored audio-visual pipeline from reality to our eyes and ears, and anything which distracts from, interferes with, or questions the veracity of the flow of information is necessarily bad, in the same way that a scratch on a vinyl record, radio interference, or a corrupted file are bad: when the medium foregrounds its own materiality at the expense of the message it's not doing its job properly.

However, photography as an art medium is different, in the same way that sound recording as an art medium is different. Obviously, there are many ways in which "pure" visual or sonic data can be used or manipulated to artistic ends, ranging from the subtle enhancements that create the illusion of a hyper-perfect reality to downright distortions and sampling. This has always been the case, but the toolboxes made available by digitisation have thrown open whole new worlds of possibility. Nonetheless, one constant among the art-minded has been a fascination with the intrinsic properties of any particular medium, best defined by its characteristic limitations, and these are often best revealed in turn by conditions of "error". This is not unconnected with certain strands of contemporary thought [1], but should not be mistaken for philosophy by other means. Artists just like playing with stuff, and finding out what unexpected things will happen once you've thrown away the instruction booklet.

An aspect of the photographic medium that has always fascinated me is the "lensiness" of photographs, always a factor in even the most straightforward photographs, of course, but revealed most obviously in "bad" or failed photographs, whether as flare, distortion, or – in the "error" that has piqued my interest recently – a drastic failure to achieve sharp focus. An out-of-focus photograph is, for purposes of record, a failed photograph. But it can also be a highly expressive image, one where the medium itself has conspired with the photographer's incompetence to subvert the original intention and to create a new, unintended, collaborative message.

This has nothing to do with the deranged fixation of gearheads on creating background blur or "bokeh", although this, too, is a property of imaging with lenses. As a general rule, I prefer my photographs to be sharp from back to front, and wish the camera developers would forget about functions like "smile detection" and instead install a simple "hyperfocal" setting [2]. I also find the use of "intentional camera movement" by many wannabe artist-photographers  – invariably referred to solemnly as ICM – annoying; I think it's the defensive, preemptive use of the word "intentional" that annoys me. An interest in unintentional FUF ("fucked-up focus") is, of course, an entirely worthy and serious matter.

Recently, I've been trawling through my backfiles, looking for examples of such expressive, out-of-focus (OOF?) photography. It turns out there are quite a few, and my lazy reliance on autofocus is clearly the main cause. The autofocus algorithm of a digital camera is easily fooled by distractions like an intermediary translucent surface, a distant object with sharp edges, or a bright light at the periphery of the frame, and generally cannot find anything to latch onto in low light conditions, but the idiot photographer will probably ignore its beeps of exasperation and go and press the button anyway. Result: OOF. It also seems a lot of my most agreeably blurry images have happened when photographing in museums and galleries, or in the street at night, where all of these factors combine: a dimly-lit vitrine, a glazed picture, or a dark street punctuated by artificial light-sources are calculated to make the autofocus algorithm throw up its hands in despair. I could always have made the effort to focus manually as in the old days, I suppose, but where's the fun in that?

Many of these images are negligible, but the best of them have the same sort of chance-endowed charm as some "end of roll" photographs in the days of film, when you had to start a new roll or finish an old one by winding on and exposing a few frames, randomly pointing the camera, often at the ground, often while in motion. The resulting exposures got processed along with everything else, and at either end of a contact sheet there would generally be the photographic equivalent of "noise". But occasionally there would instead be the sort of aleatory jewel that stopped you in your tracks and made you wonder: how the hell did I do that?

1. Somewhere in an ancient notebook I have copied a quote from – I think – Heidegger that says, in effect, that the nature of the modern world is most tellingly revealed by machines that are out of order. Much of "French" theory is motivated by an obsession with the limits of language itself, and how these are revealed and concealed.
2. A basic optical property of any lens is that for any given combination of focal length and aperture there is a unique focussing distance – the hyperfocal distance – at which everything from half that distance to infinity will be in acceptably sharp focus.

Sunday, 20 September 2020


A subtle but important element in my digital imaging is the use of my own home-made patterns. They are incredibly useful, and can provide a background, a texture, or even a discreet colouration that can really lift and unify a composition. I tend to have favourites which I return to again and again, but eventually they become over-used and over-familiar, so periodically I make myself sit down for a few evenings to create some more. It's an absorbing, painstaking business, and surprisingly rewarding. I've got over one hundred to choose from now, mainly standardised to fill an A3 sheet.

The secret (apart from a high tolerance for repetitious labour) is to find the right "seed" from which to grow a pattern. The photograph above, for example – the reflection of a sunset-lit tree in a pool at Mottisfont Abbey – is an ideal source, from which I extracted this small section:

Which, with a fairly simple series of repetitions, became this exotic design:

Nice! It's like an Asian tiger-skin fabric print: I can imagine that selling well as a woman's headscarf, perhaps with the brightness tweaked a bit. The visual pleasure of such regularised irregularity is ancient, of course: there is archaeological evidence that block-printed fabrics were being made in India as long ago as 3000 BC. Even the least prepossessing material can yield an attractive design, when abstracted and repeated. How about this:

Which – again, after some manipulations, inversions, and repetitions – becomes this:

A rather fine carpet or even duvet cover design, I think, from the Atelier Idiotic Hat, and available only from the classiest retailers at "how much?!" prices. Hey, listen, this kind of quality doesn't come cheap! Of course, a more minimal design is good, too, and often the most versatile. I like this one, for example, using a single feather:

Among its many potential uses, it makes a very useful texture, as for example here:

As I say, subtle, but effective, and well worth a few late nights working on the assembly line.

Thursday, 17 September 2020


The theological and philosophical subtlety of the eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism is extraordinary, especially when compared to the primary-school simplicity of Christianity. I've lost count of the number of times I've come across and then looked up a term like samsara or bhakti and come away dizzy with all the overlapping systematic complexities developed over thousands of years. Usually, I've forgotten it all ten minutes later, too, so find myself stuck in an eternal cycle of terminological rebirth. But some of these concepts are so useful that we have adopted them widely into our western vocabularies, usually much misunderstood and oversimplified, of course; one such is karma.

Everyone knows (or at least thinks they know) what karma is, don't they? It's a sort of brownie-point system, where merits and demerits are accumulated by our actions, resulting in good or bad comebacks further down the line. Quite who or what is keeping the tally, why they or it care, and how it or they manage to intervene in our lives is passed over in silence: it's just a thing, innit? But a very useful idea, that encapsulates some innate sense we seem to have of a mysterious economy of "just deserts" [1] at work in the universe. Heh... If only that were the case.

Which is just a long way round to saying that I am currently reaping some "karma" myself, in the negative sense.

A long, long time ago – 1968, if memory serves – I borrowed a guitar that was hanging around in my friend Alan's house doing nothing. It was an old, cheap instrument – steel-strung for a right-hander and with an action so high you practically needed pliers to hold down a chord – but I was determined to learn, and the bleeding fingertips and the aching forearm go away after a month or so, anyway. I borrowed a teach-yourself book from the library (I don't think it was the classic Burt Weedon Play In A Day) and made enough progress to convince my parents that investing in a better guitar would not be a waste of money. But how they must have suffered over the months it took me to achieve competence, listening to the tentative picking and strumming coming from the room next door: a two-bedroom council flat is not the ideal place to cohabit with a self-teaching musician.

For decades thereafter, I was a pretty decent guitar "noodler". Which is to say, I loved to play in a spontaneous, therapeutic way, but never took the next step up to playing in a disciplined, musicianly manner in public. It didn't help being a left-hander who had learned on right-handed instruments, and therefore played "upside-down", which ultimately puts severe limits on your progress. It worked for Jimi Hendrix, obviously, but his determination and ability were clearly in a different league to mine. I was happy to entertain myself in private for many years, but a while ago decided I had to give it up, as I was developing arthritis in my finger joints. It was easier than giving up smoking, but for quite some time I felt a similar sense of an absence in my life.

But the thing is, like fans of loud music – which I also was once, before the inevitable auditory karma of tinnitus set in with a vengeance – I was constitutionally oblivious to what housemates or neighbours might be thinking, as they tried to read, sleep, or merely have a quiet moment to themselves, as the strum and twang of my noodling came through the wall. Well, you know, karma... Now I have a next door neighbour who is teaching himself guitar, through the party-wall in the room right next to the one in which I am typing these very words. He's one of a household of otherwise model tenants, all Filipino nurses, and so keeps odd hours. The twanging can start up at any time, which is usually OK, although I confess I did early on draw the line at 2 a.m., finally appearing at their front door, a dishevelled and angry apparition, and as incoherent as anyone would be, woken from sleep by a badly-held, repeatedly bashed C chord. He seems to have got the point, though.

I wouldn't mind so much, but the guy is utterly unmusical, and his progress is glacial. He has no sense of rhythm, no innate feel for the length of a bar, and cannot seem to see how one chord is meant to lead, by a satisfying musical logic, to another. Few things are as frustrating as hearing the irregular strumming of, say, G major, then C major, without the lift of a third chord – F major is a tough one for a beginner, so D major would do it – followed by a return to G. Sometimes, as I sit here trying to write or edit photographs, I want to scream through the wall, "D! D! Play fucking D!"

But I don't, because, well, karma. Nobody ever complained about my playing, after all, although as a student I did once get a written note from the Master of my college, asking me not to play records late at night this week, as there was an elderly, honoured guest – Harold Macmillan, as it turned out – trying to sleep in the room below. Blimey, do you think I might have deserved tinnitus because I once gave Supermac a couple of sleepless nights? Probably not: that's not really how karma works... Besides, it's much more likely that he regularly lost sleep because of one or more of the many skeletons in his own overstuffed karmic closet.

1. Not to be confused with Just Deserts, the terraforming enterprise specialising in arid regions. Or even Just Desserts, purveyors of fine puddings.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

For A Dancer

Now that gender fluidity has been put firmly, if controversially, on the agenda by the young – in much the same seniors-unsettling way radical politics and recreational drugs were put on the agenda in my younger days – it's not surprising that one might end up wondering: what if I had been born the opposite sex? What differences would that have made?

In fact, it's a thought experiment that was carried out as long ago as 1928, by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own, in which she traces the life story of an imaginary sister to William Shakespeare: "She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school". Spoiler: it doesn't end well. Indeed, Woolf is quite a pioneer with respect to gender fluidity: in her novel Orlando the protagonist lives several lives over several centuries, and changes sex along the way. So these ideas have been around for a while, if not forever – see, for example, the Greek myth of Tiresias – but have only achieved their moment in the popular imagination in recent times. Well, as the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
Or, in the strangely eloquent LOLcat Bible version:
Has happen? Gunna be agin. Nuthing new undur teh sunz. Kitteh can not sez "OMFGZ sumthing new!" is jus REPOST!
Now, any single life is made up of an impossibly complex series of circumstances and choices, that only look inevitable and linear in retrospect. In the statistician's view we all get levelled out into typical examples of this or that category but, regarded as individuals, we're pretty much all crazy outliers in one respect or another. Certainly, to be born a boy in England in 1954 is to have certain broad characteristics in common with a cohort of hundreds of thousands of others, including, of course, all those born as girls in England in 1954. For a start, as I like to say in my autobiographical profile, none of us could ever have known the Land Before Rock'n'Roll, which distinguishes us from premier cru boomers, those born during or immediately after WW2.

But the standard differentiating factors start to pile in immediately after birth, of which sex is just one: these are obvious things like geographical location, social class, race, family stability, siblings, health, psychology, intelligence, schooling, height, appearance, and so on. There are, I am certain, many other men alive today who were born as white males in 1954 in English New Towns to aspirational working class families with one elder sibling, of robust health and high intelligence, with the good fortune to attend excellent state schools, and some of them will even have been short in stature, left-handed, and so on. But not one of them, as far as I am aware, has ended up as a clone of me. A thousand other circumstances and choices, less obvious ones and some quite possibly unique, have made us into entirely different people.

So, to imagine the consequences of changing just one of those factors is as absurd a proposition as it is fun to think about. I mean, what if I had grown as tall as my policeman uncle? It could have happened, but didn't. What if I had shown considerably less interest in homework, and left school at 15? Not impossible. What if I had had a bullying brother, eight years older, rather than a loving sister, one who persecuted our family's annoying little show-off? A deforming experience, I'm sure. Or what if my innate contrarian tendencies had developed into criminality? Or what about any or all of the above in combination? You can imagine any number of outcomes, none of which need necessarily have come to fruition in real life, due to some other balancing or distorting factor. Rather than Big Mick, the gangland mastermind, at one extreme, I might just as easily have become Old Wotsisname, the forgettable and dim delivery driver, at the other. Life is not so much a lottery, as a particularly complicated three-dimensional board-game, played with two chiliagonal dice and a set of truly life-changing chance cards.

But I suppose sex'n'gender is the fashionable and fun variable to play around with, so why not? One of these days, I might even write an alternative-reality, "Shakespeare's Sister"-style autobiographical account of my life as a woman. Damn, but I was a heartbreaker when I was young... For now, though, I'm just going to consider a few factors that I think would have been in play in the early years.

I think my parents' "policing" of gender would have been conventional, but not oppressive. In the 1950s, ideas of what was appropriate for girls and women were changing, but not yet radically. My parents were liberal in their views but relatively uneducated: both had left school at 14 and spent their formative years either at work or under military discipline. My mother had, in fact, been a sergeant in the ATS during the war in charge of an anti-aircraft battery, and was out at work from the time I started at school, so was clearly uncomfortable in the role of "housewife", which was never a problem for my easy-going father. From memory and from the photographic evidence, my sister was allowed to be "tomboyish", often wore trousers, and had her hair cut quite short. Indeed, I can remember my parents scoffing at the doll-like get-ups forced on a cousin, and her parents' fussing about dirt on clothes. So, there would have been no major complaints about gender stereotyping, although my toys and games would surely have been different: no guns, no "army games" in the woods. Instead, I expect skipping ropes, chalking on pavements, giggling in corner confabs, and ceremonially burying dead birds [1] would have figured large.

Actually, I think my main recreation would have been reading. Whatever gene it was that made me into a "reading boy" would surely have been amplified up to eleven as a girl. Those were the golden years of the public library service, and I would have been a familiar face at the issue desk, clutching this week's fresh batch of loans, quickly working my way up from Enid Blyton to Jane Austen. "She's always got her head in a book!" Nobody would have had to worry about what to get me for birthdays or Christmas: no dolls or dresses, just book tokens, please! And what do you want to be when you grow up, Michele? A writer, Miss!

After the co-educational, comprehensive days of primary school, the transition to secondary school marked a first, definitive fork in the road. Recently, I was surprised to be contacted by someone who had been in my primary school class, and whom I literally haven't seen or heard from since 1965. Jean, it transpired, is now an academic, fully equipped with a PhD and publications, and works at a "Russell Group" university. I wondered which secondary school she had been to, and what mutual friends we might have had: I was amazed to discover that she had in fact gone to a secondary modern, not grammar school, as I had presumed. In our county of Hertfordshire in 1965 state secondary schools were still divided into grammars for the "academic" minority, and sec mods for the rest. However, your destination was no longer determined by the notorious Eleven Plus exam, but by headteacher's recommendation alone. You have to suspect some gender bias was at work here, and it would go some way towards explaining why I never again met any of the brighter girls from my primary class [2]. However, let's assume a girl of my high-swottage readiness for three hours of homework a night would have been a grammar-school no-brainer, so to speak, and therefore there was a further choice to be made: the all-girls grammar school, or the mixed-sex grammar school? A tough one, but – on the grounds that at age ten I probably despised boys and that my older sister had already been to the girls' grammar – I think I would have chosen to go to the girls-only school and regretted it for the next seven years.

Doubtless, the long leash I was allowed in my teenage years as a boy would have been shortened considerably. There would have been bitter quarrels over clothes – "You're not leaving this house looking like that!" – what time to be home, unsuitable boyfriends, makeup, and so on. Although how far a lively social life would have been a priority for an academically-able "nice girl" in the late 1960s / early 1970s is an interesting question. Those long hours of homework aside, fear of pregnancy would have been a real party pooper. The routine prescription of contraceptives to teenage girls was still some years off, and an unplanned pregnancy was an emphatic full-stop to any girl's freedom and ambitions; as it happened, I had some very close-to-home precedents to learn from. It had never occurred to me until speaking to my old classmate Jean that another reason we boys met so few of the very brightest girls socially may have been that we represented the single most serious threat to their future plans. Certainly, many of those girls seem to have decided to postpone the distraction of romantic involvements until university. So, in those crucial mid-teen years, I think I would have given the actual, male me a very wide berth indeed, and cultivated a small, all-female coterie of BFFs, mocking the other girls for their pathetic obsessions with boys and clothes. [3]

I would have hated my hair. This seems to be standard: I have yet to meet the teenage girl who did not hate her own hair. But mine... Reddish-mousy, thick, dry, with an unruly wave, like a hatful of straw. Argh. I imagine when I was a kid my mother would have tugged it into a thick plait every morning that resembled something left over at a harvest festival. It will have driven her mad when I let it hang loose, long, tangled and knotted, as a teen. Probably even more so than the regular rows over the growing length of my actual scruffy male hair: she was a firm believer in the moral virtue of a proper "do" for a decent woman. I can remember hurtful words like "rat's tails" and "bird's nest" getting thrown about in heated arguments with my older sister. As for the rest of my body, we'll just pass over that dangerous and volatile territory in silence, except to remark that, hey, my face is up here, matey. 

Music is an interesting one. Things may be different now, in these culturally homogenised, pick'n'mix days, but boys and girls used to live their young lives to different soundtracks in the 1960s and 70s, or at least enjoyed the same sounds in different ways. You only have to watch footage of the audience at a Beatles concert to realise how "gendered" music can be. Crikey! So which one would have been my Beatle at age ten? Paul? That bimbo? John? He looks mean to me. Ringo? You must be joking... Quiet, intense, skilful George, though: I choose you to haunt my tweenie dreams. Later – going on the evidence of the record boxes of the young women I knew then – I'd be listening to Joni Mitchell and Carole King, of course (Tapestry was clearly handed out in class at girls' schools), but probably also other soulful singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen or James Taylor, glam-era David Bowie and Roxy Music (Bryan Ferry seems to have had a powerful effect on girls you would have expected to have known better), although very little "rock" as such, and no "prog" at all, unless it was the ubiquitous Pink Floyd. I would have loved folk, and become a Liege & Lief evangelist: I probably fancied myself as a Sandy Denny lookalike, taught myself to play guitar, and wrote some embarrassingly earnest songs about doomed love and handsome rogues, which would never be heard outside of my intensely private bedroom. But mostly there would have been 45rpm singles: a good solid helping of soul and Motown and even disco and the sort of one-hit wonders that brighten and define a summer: girls are far less nerdish about music than boys – unafraid to like what they like just because it's "uncool" – and above all love to dance. Which is what pop is for, isn't it? Not analysing and taxonomising as if it were Holy Writ. I would have loved to dance for sure, in the improvised, solo styles of the time. Yes, you've seen me, swirling like a dervish in a strobe-light in a darkened hall, tranced-out and untouchable, and thought: is she just stoned, or completely nuts?

Then there is the small question of actually getting to university. Men are often dismissive of the eager-to-please "swottiness" of clever women, always turning in 10,000 word essays when one side of A4 would have done the job and, incredibly, actually having followed the advice to "read around" a subject. But the British attitude that to try too hard to win is somehow cheating is essentially an aristocratic ploy to ensure the entitled stay entitled: gentlemen versus "players". Or, in this case, gentlemen versus "bluestockings". But in 1970 there were, for example, only five women's colleges at Oxford, versus over 30 for men: only 16% of Oxford undergraduates were female. The picture was even worse at Cambridge. So, to gain admission to Oxbridge at the time I sat my A-levels and subsequent entrance exam, a girl had to compete not against a large field of lazy men, but a small subsection of her own most brilliant peers. Set this alongside the fact that in 1970 only 33% of 621,000 students in higher education overall were women [4], and the chances of success were comparatively slim. No wonder the brightest girls had to try so hard; no wonder so many were discouraged from even bothering, especially those from families like mine with no history of higher education. At this crucial point, my life could have taken various, very different directions. A lot would have depended on the support and encouragement at school and at home, and on the value set in both on women's higher education. [5]

But, let's assume that, against the odds, I made it to university. It would be too big an assumption, I think, to imagine that I would have made it to Oxford with any ease. The most likely outcome, in reality – assuming I had not been firmly discouraged by my teachers from applying in the first place – would have been disappointment, a held-over place at some respectable alternative venue for literary studies like Nottingham or York, and a lifelong suspicion of "Oxbridge types" [6]. But a girl can dream, can't she? Whatever the outcome, and as was certainly the case with my male incarnation, I'm sure I would have undergone some major changes when I arrived at university, but for very different reasons.

I would have left my home-town as a conflicted young woman – a hippyish earth-mother-in-training draped around a serious scholar like an unflattering Laura Ashley dress, and trailing a misty back-story of half-understood encounters and epiphanies – one who quickly discovered radical politics and then feminism, jettisoned the flowing fabrics and joss sticks, and realised with Damascene force that the problem was not me, or my hair, or even my sharp tongue, but men. Men! Obviously the oafish ones who tear your favourite blouse, or bruise your body in terrifying displays of sexual urgency. And obviously the arrogant ones who belittle, ignore, or talk over you in seminars and meetings. And also the tongue-tied and awkward ones who stare at you with a unsettling mix of desire and contempt. But especially the ones who put themselves forward as leading lights of left-radical factions, but expect "the chicks" to do the shopping, the cooking, the housework, the leaflet-distribution, the tedious administrative tasks, and yet still to be there for them when they have their regular dark nights of the soul. Oh, and for clumsy, unsatisfying sex. Prescription contraception having turned up just in time to make "no" a really petty-bourgeois downer, Mish, yeah?

So the auspicious night when copies of the SCUM Manifesto and The Dialectic of Sex were pressed into my hands by a new, better-informed friend was the point at which another crucial divergence in this alternative life as a woman began. But that is another story, and one for which the world is not yet ready. And I fear that, as with the tale of Shakespeare's sister, it may not end well.

1. Why did girls do that? Do they still? I doubt it.
2. Unusually, my primary school was streamed by ability, so you would have expected a fair few of those "A" stream girls to have gone on to grammar school. I have no idea how many, if any, did.
3. These things are relative, of course, and not always as "gendered" as we might think. The famous Isle of Wight Festival took place in August 1970, when I was 16, but there was no question of me being allowed to attend by my parents. However, I was astounded (and not a little jealous) to discover recently that a good female friend from those days had gone – with a boyfriend! – with the full blessing of her parents. However, they were out-of-town middle-class academic liberals, and an entirely different species to most New Town parents.
4. Figures from Social Trends No. 40. This includes full-time, part-time, under- and postgraduates. Compare with 2,383,970 overall in 2018/19  of which 1,025,107 were male and 1,358,860 female (57%)! Things have changed in the last 50 years...
5. My partner tells me that at her London girls' grammar, there was a typing pool in the sixth form, to prepare girls for secretarial careers... I'm not sure what the male equivalent would have been, but whatever it was it didn't exist at my all-boys grammar.
6. As it happens, the same remarkable young woman as in note (3) did go up to Oxford at the same time as me. In fact, her father drove us there in his van.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020


I have been fiddling around a bit more with these fantasy page-spreads. I have been quite tempted to make an alternative, more decorative version of the Let's Get Lost book: probably not the whole thing, just some selected pages, perhaps even fewer than the condensed Let's Get (a little) Lost. However, as I have sold the princely total of one copy of the original (thanks, whoever you were), it's probably not worth converting this fantasy into hard-copy reality.

In fact, my preference is to make them into these large, framed pairs of faked page-spreads, as mocked-up below, in a sort of dummy dummy book-dummy. (Hey, isn't that a song?)

That's not my real signature, by the way... Far too legible. Mind you, with the decline of cheques into historical memory, I sign my my name so infrequently now that I might well end up using the wobbly "X" that authenticates the birth / marriage / death certificates of some surprisingly recent forebears. Odd, really, that all illiterates seem to have used that same "X" as their mark, rather than something more personal or even creative: I expect that's what they were told to do, and saw no reason not to comply. Literacy is liberating in more ways than one.

Friday, 4 September 2020


As the sun-earth relationship begins to approach the autumn equinox, the view from our Bristol flat at sunset becomes ever more spectacular. At a certain moment on some evenings (in this case, around 8:30 pm), the tops of the trees on either side of the Avon Gorge become rimmed with warm light from the setting sun, and the whole spectacle takes on an improbably picturesque aspect. Sometimes, I can even be bothered to photograph it.

From the sublime to the rather less sublime. Down below, next to the busy Portway road that runs along the bottom of the Gorge beside the Avon and out towards the docks at Avonmouth, there are a couple of long, narrow meadows, known as Bennett's Patch and White's Paddock, which are now a nature reserve. This is also the home of an incongruous pair of wickerwork whales, originally made to celebrate Bristol's year as European Green Capital in 2015, but now pretty much rotted away to reveal their rather less "green" steel skeletons. Recently, a strange new apparition has been installed in the meadows near a field-studies hut, a giant head which glowers across the grass at the passing traffic:

Apparently, it's called "Ruth", and was made by the same Bristol creative team that made the wicker whales, called Cod Steaks (no, really). It is meant as a tribute to the work and courage of the women of Bristol during WW2. Well, obviously. It's also intended to be wildlife friendly, being made out of hundreds of wooden dowels about the thickness of a rolling-pin which, it is hoped, will offer shelter of various kinds to insects and other invertebrates, assuming they're not frightened off by that face. Mad as it looks, it's not an entirely barmy setting for such a thing, though, as buried beneath these very meadows are the tons of rubble from the buildings destroyed in the Blitz, 1940-41. Although compared to the many substantial monuments to the Trümmerfrauen ("rubble women") of Germany it's a little ... underwhelming, shall we say?

It's the modern British way, isn't it? Have a halfway decent idea, let a committee do its worst, underfund and outsource the resulting brief to some half-baked "creative" or entrepreneurial setup, and get back precisely what you deserve: a half-baked, underfunded result that pleases no-one but ticks all the right boxes. Which will then be briefly over-praised by those with an interest in its success, perhaps provoke a minor social-media storm, go on to under-perform or fail miserably, and then be quickly and conveniently forgotten about. Covid Track and Trace app, anyone?

Tuesday, 1 September 2020


Philosophical investigations
"All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but which we cannot altogether understand. Eloquent because it touches something fundamental. How do we know? We do not know. We simply recognize. Art cannot be used to explain the mysteries. What art does is to make it easier to notice. Art uncovers the mysterious. And when noticed and uncovered, it becomes more mysterious. I suspect writing about art is a vanity, leading to sentences like the above. When words are applied to visual art, both lose precision. Impasse."
John Berger, Berger on Drawing

 Ah, yes, incommensurability: dancing about architecture, the algebra of pancake batter... But, more fundamentally, mysteries. Some like mystery, some don't. Most of us take some level of childish delight in a conjuring trick, but some cannot rest until they have worked out how the trick was done, and a few take it as their mission in life to rid the world of conjurers. A matching minority have closed their ears to any explanations: they don't just want to enjoy the trick, they want the world to be re-enchanted by magic. They can't get enough mystery, and resent those who would blow it away as much as the mystery-dispersers despise them in return.

It's curious how much current popular entertainment seems to be aimed at affirming and enlarging the mystery constituency: magic, superpowers, and alien life-forms are more or less standard issue on Netflix, along with deep-reaching conspiracies, and textbook narrative arcs, all set in a glamorous world free of tedious workaday concerns like washing up, or even facing trial for a series of murderous assaults on life's extras: negligible, nameless folk like guards and henchmen. There is clearly a widespread hunger for life to be more than it is, and an accompanying manipulative industry determined to nudge the dial of that hunger ever higher. I suppose, if nothing else, it means more people suffer from an insatiable but non-specific craving and just end up buying more stuff, which makes sense, if you're selling stuff. At worst, however, it means that more and more people's grasp of truth becomes increasingly subjective, and shaped by formulaic aesthetic criteria: tweet by tweet, film by film, series by series, the ground is prepared for truthiness to win out over truth.

There are real mysteries, of course. You surely cannot stand beneath a starry sky and not feel that the more we know about what goes on "out there" the more mysterious it becomes. According to taste, this may result in an urge to discover yet more or, alternatively, to retreat indoors for a stiff drink. Similarly, you cannot experience one of those dizzying flashes of self-awareness (you know the sort of thing: when the absurdity of your personal existence in a cosmos considerably larger than your head poses an ineffable question to which you yourself are the self-evident answer) without either a humbling sense of existential vertigo, or the overwhelming desire to seek out yet another stiff drink. The connection between such mysteries and humanity's urge to explore and exploit various forms of intoxication – whether as stimulant, analgesic, or distraction – is time-honoured and probably too obvious to be worth dwelling on.

So there are plenty of genuine mysteries, but then there is mystification. That is, the deliberate deployment of hocus-pocus and woo-woo to confuse and rule. The Enlightenment was all about de-mystifying the world, like shaking off some oppressive anaesthetic in the clear light of day, and exposing those who would like to keep topping up the dose, in order to exercise power over the rest of us. As exemplified by my favourite (mis)quote from Diderot [1] : mankind will never be free until the last king has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest. A bit extreme, but you can see his point. The priests and kings are less obvious, these days, but they're still out there.

I'm not sure where the likes of Diderot stood on the question of art versus science, if indeed this is really a question. Art is not the same thing as hocus-pocus, although it's true Plato wanted to turf all artists out of his ideal community, because art (according to Plato) is made, at best, out of poor simulacra of reality, and at worst of downright lies. John Berger is clearly of the opinion that the best art – "genuine art" – is a form of knowledge, but of a different order to science or philosophy: endowed with the power to reveal mysteries, but not to explain them. To show but not tell, perhaps. Which is an important prelude to enlightenment, in both the rational and the mystical senses. As Francis Bacon put it in The Advancement of Learning, "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties". Or, even more succinctly, the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Rumi: "Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment". Although to what extent, say, Cubism is a bold step down the road towards the discovery of antibiotics is anybody's guess. In the end, I suppose, one has to believe that everything humanly "true" is somehow connected; if not, well, where does that leave us?

Which may be why so much contemporary art fails to satisfy: it attempts neither to show nor to tell nor even to connect, having swallowed whole but failed to digest some fashionable relativistic philosophising that appears, superficially, to cast doubt on the very possibility of establishing any lasting or universal truths. As a result, such art ends up merely illustrating the unhelpful idea that the artist's task is to flounder about, cluelessly, in search of something new to grab our attention, however briefly. For example, turning the lights on and off in an empty room, or encrusting a platinum cast of a skull with real diamonds. Which is surely art for art's sake, in the most reductive sense possible, and mysterious indeed, although probably not the sort of mystery John Berger had in mind.

Mystery investigators

1. Probably derived from Diderot's poem "Les Éleuthéromanes":

La nature n'a fait ni serviteur ni maître;
Je ne veux ni donner ni recevoir de lois.
Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre,
Au défaut d'un cordon pour étrangler les rois.

Nature made neither servant nor master;
I don't want to be a law maker or law taker.
And her hands would braid the entrails of the priest
In the absence of a rope with which to strangle kings.

(An "éleuthéromane" is someone who loves liberty to the point of madness).