Monday, 25 October 2021

The Good, The Bad, and The Innocent

An innocent, 1960

Something someone said on the radio about children's easy access to pornography and ultra-violent video on their phones made me wonder whether I had, in fact, grown up in an age of innocence. Looking back over 60-odd years, I think I was a fairly innocent boy, in the old-fashioned sense of "unacquainted with vulgarity", until I reached the age of about 12. My parents were self-consciously decent people who never swore and never got drunk – indeed, rarely drank alcohol at all – and I'll never forget being chased down the street by my grandmother (for whom the word "feisty" might have been coined) after I'd been encouraged to tell her to "buzz off!" by another boy. I may have been unacquainted with vulgarity, but was fairly familiar with corporal chastisement. Nothing ultra-violent, though.

In those far-off days, most of us were innocent in that sense, I think. It wasn't that children from decent working-class families were living within a protective bubble, far from it, but more that we were somehow immunised by the common culture against "adult" concerns. We were kids, and only interested in kids' stuff. The grown-up stuff was there, but hidden in plain sight behind a screen of innuendo. For boys, the ritual transition to long trousers from the shorts we wore even in winter, generally somewhere around age 11 or 12, marked the beginning of the end of innocence. But even as smut-seeking teenagers, you had to work pretty hard at coming across anything remotely resembling pornography, as until the mid-1960s the vaguest hint of "indecency" in sexual or bodily matters was heavily censored, to the point of hilarity: censors often detected filth and depravity where none existed, other than in their own inquisitorial, smut-seeking minds.

That said, I knew all about the mechanics of reproduction from a fairly young age due to my precocious interest in and reading about natural history – "the male inserts his penis", etc. – but these so-called "facts of life" aroused no prurience or erotic feelings at all. In a way that is very hard to imagine today, in our hyper-sexualised world, we children were strictly gendered but mostly asexual beings, unable to pick up on the cues that, in adolescence, would connect anything and everything to sex, sex, sex.

Mostly. A few – generally but not only boys – told "dirty" jokes in the playground that no-one else got, and sniggered at innuendoes that no-one else saw, and seemed to exist in a mental stew of unrealisable concupiscence. I suspect these would have been kids with older, sex-obsessed adolescent brothers, or perhaps even those poor devils who, as we now know, were suffering various types of abuse. For some reason, recently I found myself recalling some jokes told to me by one such lad among my primary school classmates, when we were around age nine or ten. We'll call him Frank, and he happened to be the son of one of our teachers. He seemed to have a bottomless fund of these jokes, which were all of the sort that (I imagine) get told in rugby club changing rooms and golf club bars. To find them funny, you need a reasonably sophisticated understanding of the mechanics of a range of sex acts, a fairly misogynistic cast of mind, a good grasp of racist and anti-semitic stereotypes, and a profound dread of homosexuality. Needless to say, they went entirely over my head at the time.

It then struck me: where had he been getting this stuff from? Frank had no older siblings, just a younger sister. Also, although they lived in a nearby street, he was kept on a short leash by his really rather scary father, a jowly disciplinarian with an unpredictable temper, and was rarely allowed out to play with us other boys, despite being friends with us in school. It dawned on me, with a certain mix of horror and bemusement, that those jokes might well have been – had most likely been – told to him at home, and most probably by his own father [1].

Now, the telling of the classic narrative-style joke with a punchline seems to have gone out of fashion in recent times, and was probably never in fashion in sophisticated circles. I cringe when I recall some of the appalling jokes I retailed merrily to my new, more politically-advanced friends in my first days as a student; let's just say that social idiocy is another kind of innocence. But I'm pretty sure that even back in 1963 it would have been, let us say, unusual for a professional-class man, a teacher, to be regularly sharing off-colour jokes with his nine-year-old son, who was then passing them on in the playground of his own school. Assuming, of course, that was the case; I suppose the guilty party might have been some creepy neighbour, relative, or regular adult visitor.

Whoever it was, surely that would have been frowned upon even then? I'm pretty certain that if my father had got wind of what was happening and who was responsible, he'd have been straight round to have words with Frank's father, deference be damned. And wouldn't we now regard it as a form of child-abuse, or at the very least as laying the foundation for a life in which sex, aggression, and repressed anxiety would form an unhealthy threesome? But then maybe I was, and maybe I still am more of an innocent than I like to think. In a wicked world, that may not be such a bad thing. Call me Candide.

An idiot, 2021

1. A classic example of this would be the set-up line, "It's nice out, isn't it?", frequently uttered by comedian Eric Morecambe towards the end of the ultimate British Saturday night family-viewing TV, The Morecambe and Wise Show, only to be quickly shut down by a flustered Ernie Wise. To know why this was funny, you needed the never-spoken punchline, "Yes, but put it away now, there's a policeman coming". Plus, of course, you needed to know what "it" was, and why on earth anyone would be taking "it" out in public, sitting with a friend. Frank, alone in our class, knew the punchline, and why it was supposed to be funny. I very much doubt he worked this out for himself.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

North View Parade

North View, Bristol

North Parade, Bath

Let's say I'm walking along a street, maybe out shopping and most likely without a camera (I need to think of a less loaded term than "proper camera") and suddenly right next to me there is a lovely jumble of stuff in a shop window, perfectly lit by the afternoon sun, or perhaps diffused by a beaded curtain of condensation and overlaid with reflections. At that point, as I stop to admire it, I used to think: wish I'd brought a camera! But I am learning to overcome years of prejudice and now remember to reach for my phone. In fact, increasingly I find myself choosing to go out with just my phone in a pocket; I need to have it with me, anyway, and what it can do well (which is not everything) it does as well as any pocketable "proper" camera. It's amazing, really, for a tarot-card sized slab of hi-tech wizardry.

Antique and junk shops are a favourite source of shop-window scenarios for me, reliably providing the sort of accidental still-life combinations that intrigue the eye with their hint of some deeper, layered, but elusive (and probably illusory) meaning. Curiously, it was only when putting this post together with these iPhone photos taken earlier in October that I realised the similarity of the names of these two very different streets in Bristol and Bath: North View and North Parade. Which is a coincidence as meaningless and yet as satisfying as the way those two mighty wooden heroes below might appear to be standing guard over a suburban street.

North Parade, Bath

North View, Bristol

Sunday, 17 October 2021

United We Stand

What seems a lifetime ago, back in January, I mentioned how I had entered some work for a magazine cover competition: 

Despite my previously declared indifference – indeed, positive hostility – towards competitions, I confess I got bitten by the competitive bug when my casually-submitted Royal Academy entry in 2017 proved so successful (and, ah, lucrative).  As a result, I now keep an eye out for the sort of open entry submissions where my sort of work might stand a chance of getting a showing and even a few sales. Why not?

Last year I spotted the Evolver Prize, a competition to design the front cover of a future issue of Evolver, "the Wessex Arts & Culture Guide", a really useful "what's on in Wessex" publication that I had come across in a Dorset gallery. The winner would get £1000 (no, really) and the top 50 entries shown in an exhibition. Naturally, I submitted an entry and, although I didn't win, I was selected for the exhibition. Result!

Yesterday, in the process of looking for something completely different, I opened the folder where the work I'd done for that competition is stored, and was struck by these pairings. My original purpose in putting two potential cover images onto one sheet of A3+ paper (actually US-style 13" x 19") was practical: I could run them through the printer at the same time, and then cut the sheet in two. But, seeing them with fresh eyes, I realised how well they work together as a single, undivided image. So they may yet get another run-out, together this time, next time I see a tempting open call.

Incidentally, it was the top two I submitted to Evolver, and the one on the right that made it into the Top Fifty exhibition. Obviously, the original reason for the "empty" space in the top quarter of each was to allow space for the magazine's title and cover text, but I rather like it, especially with the subtly patterned texturing of the background.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Strange Behaviour

Blogger has been behaving strangely recently. On the one hand, I'm being told that comments are failing to make it through the system. On the other, it seems that at least one person who had signed up for the allegedly defunct Feedburner service (the one that used to send email notifications of new posts) is once again getting them. Is anyone else?

There have been various other little glitches that only a blog owner would notice. It's rather like the flicker of a lightbulb that is about to give out. Hopefully, it's just some fool at Blogger wiggling a wire or leaning on a button, and not the death throes of the service. I'd be curious to know whether anyone else who runs a Blogger blog is experiencing this.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Southampton, City of Culture


Sorry, I shouldn't scoff. But, seriously? It seems the longlist for the 2025 City of Culture goes as follows: Armagh City, Bradford, County Durham, Cornwall, Derby, Southampton, Stirling, and Wrexham County Borough. Setting aside the fine but distinctly honorary cities of, ah, Cornwall, County Durham, and Wrexham County Borough, it might seem that we are now fast approaching the bottom of the cultural barrel.

However, this bizarre competition is not really an acknowledgement of any actually-existing culture of "culture" of any distinction, beyond the usual theatres, galleries, and such that grace any moderately-sized town, but is a reward for the best bid essentially describing "what we would do with the money, if we got it". To individual artists, of course, this is a familiar experience: submit a bid that ticks the right boxes, and some committee might grant you the cash to do some piece of commissioned work. The skill lies in the writing of the bid, and the willingness to bend your efforts to match someone's pre-conceived set of criteria. Whether this is a matter of rising to "an exciting challenge" or an opportunity to eat shit probably depends on your independence of mind and need for the cash. As it is, the competitors for City of Culture 2025 were asked, apparently, "to explain how they would use culture to grow and strengthen their local area, and how they would use it to recover from the impact of Covid". Which do not strike me as the most self-evident "uses" of culture.

It's easy to be cynical. This whole impulse to boost cultural activity as a mean to other ends is often described as the "Bilbao Effect". That is, that a massive investment in culture, broadly defined (ideally plus some prestigious architectural project like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) equals economic transformation for some city or region formerly mired in a post-industrial slump. Well, it worked once, why not repeat it again (and again, and yet again, until it stops working)? And look, Liverpool seems to have benefitted a bit from being declared "European Capital of Culture 2008" so, hey, why don't we start a four-yearly UK "City of Culture" competition? It's bound to work, isn't it?

There is something profoundly ironic about the way this failure of imagination on the part of politicians depends on whipping up the creativity level in somewhere like, say, Southampton, where I happen to live, and which, like Glasgow, is miles better, culturally, than it was. Of course, ideas like "culture" and "creativity" are subject to very broad interpretation. Do you regard the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics in London as a pinnacle or a nadir of our national culture? Does having an enthusiastically-supported Premier League football team in your town, or a theatre that only puts on musicals, pantomimes, and MOR acts count as evidence of a thriving local culture? For you, is art seen at its best as popular entertainment, as grant-funded communal projects with an emphasis on "representation", or as the solitary practice of self-motivated but utterly unrepresentative (and quite possibly mentally unsound) individuals?

There's also a fundamental distinction to be made between the consumption and the creation of "culture". Broadly speaking, it's the consumption that drives the economic recovery, but the creation that drives the consumption. So a lot comes down to how far and what sort of culture-makers are prepared to buy in to this contemporary fashion for boosterism yoked to political and social-engineering ends. After all, how much worthwhile contemporary art is celebratory or positive in spirit, or created in line with current government policy?  And is someone like, for example, me (self-motivated, utterly unrepresentative, and quite possibly mentally unsound) a vital part of our town's culture, or am I just some "citizen of nowhere", an off-message outlier, and not part of the programme? As I haven't been able to show any work in Southampton so far this century, that last one answers itself, I suppose.

I think what I find most dubious about such competitions is their Bilbao-inspired instrumentality. In the words of recently appointed Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries – actually "Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport"[1] – put it in a recent statement: "Winning the UK City of Culture competition has a hugely positive impact on an area, driving investment, creating jobs, and highlighting that culture is for everyone, regardless of their background. This year's focus is on levelling up access to culture across the country and making sure there is a legacy that continues for generations to come." (BBC report). Really? It's going to deliver investment, jobs, and "levelling up" (this government's unavoidable but incomprehensible mission statement)? Evidence, please. And what exactly is supposed to happen in the cities that fail to win?

For a pretty accurate description of the current mid-pandemic cultural health of Southampton, I can't really improve on this report by Vanessa Thorpe from 2020. The so-called "cultural quarter" of Southampton is now essentially a wind-blown area of about 200 square meters, where youngsters can rehearse their skateboarding technique, and nothing much else is going on. Even before Covid it was still more of an ambition than a reality. As long ago as 1985 I can remember talking with an elderly colleague who said that in contrast to his home city, Liverpool, Southampton seemed to have little or no civic pride, or even any real awareness of its historic and continuing role as a major port, the self-declared "Gateway to Empire"; for him, it was a "nowhere place", without even a truly distinctive local accent. Whether any of this could be improved by a cash-inspired, year-long flurry of activities planned by a committee hobbled by some "levelling up" brief is an interesting question.

More interesting, though, is what will happen if, as seems the most likely outcome, Southampton does not emerge as 2025's victorious City of Culture. Will the ill-starred Cultural Quarter revive? Without its new theatre, which went bust early in 2020 and cannot find a buyer, it will certainly struggle. The John Hansard and City Art Galleries are still major assets, but probably rather niche with regard to drawing in more of the city's population. But most important of all, will any truly talented youngsters – in any cultural field, from any background – be content to remain in the city, or will they take the first train up to London, and never return?

1.  Now there's a portfolio. And "for digital"? Digital what?

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Going Postal

A few weeks ago we caught up over lunch with some old friends from our Bristol days [1], and the conversation inevitably turned to how different things are now for our children than they were for us back then, when we were their age; not necessarily worse or better, just different. Very different. Having broached the usual topics of senior reminiscence – phones (scarcity of), internet (absence of), typewriters (noisy ubiquity of), TV (absence of and indifference to), music (incontrovertible superiority of), and so on – we stumbled onto something we all had in common but hadn't before realised out loud, as it were: that when we were college-age and to an extent into our twenties, we all used to send and receive regular letters to and from our closest friends.

A letter, I should probably point out for the sake of younger readers, is (or was) a personal communication, usually written by hand on a sheet of paper but sometimes typewritten for the sake of legibility, which was then folded and placed into a paper enclosure known as an envelope onto which the name and street address of the intended recipient had to be inscribed, and which was sealed by licking the gummed flap (!). A postage stamp of a suitable denomination then had to be stuck on, also by licking the gummed back of the stamp (!!). The whole "letter" assemblage was then entrusted to the mail service by "posting" it into a post box, a sturdy receptacle usually situated within a few hundred yards somewhere on a nearby street. You may have seen these quaint relics of a former era round and about (no, not the ones with a door, those are phone boxes, another story altogether). Within a few days, and only occasionally more than a week later, the letter would (usually) reach its destination, and (usually) be pushed through the appropriate "letter-box", that is, that draughty aperture in the front door mainly used these days for pizza flyers and charity bags. Unless, of course, it was going abroad, in which case several weeks or more might well pass between posting and receipt.

I don't have many surviving samples of this obsolete mode of communication from that time in my life any more, and with any luck few of mine will have survived, either. Welcome as they were at the time, most were not worth keeping after a few years going stale in a drawer. Compared to the published correspondence of literary and political figures, the letters we wrote rarely rose above the juvenile, the facetious, and the ephemeral; we were, after all, little more than kids, and no-one in my circle was writing with even half an eye on posterity. Some, though – and these were always letters from female friends – did feature the kind of post-adolescent, introspective sincerity that can soar to a dizzy peak of emotion from a standing start, like a torch-song sung by Whitney Houston or Adele, or equally well sink into an abyss of abjection (ditto) [2]. The weight of the envelope was usually the best hint of what lay inside: the heavier it was, the more likely it was to be some late-night, multi-page threnody, fuelled by one too many spliffs, a faithless boyfriend, or even – I suppose I should admit the possibility – my own thoughtless words or behaviour. It can be tough learning not to be a complete dickhead, although I like to think I was what the Americans call a quick study.

However, from that lunch-time conversation it emerged that the regular exchange of letters with friends, however trivial or hair-raising the content, seems to have been an important feature of that phase of life for many of my generation; at least, based on a sample of four. People have always written letters, of course, long before the establishment of a reliable postal service or even the invention of paper – the clatter of a cuneiform clay slab coming through the tablet-box must have made the morning of many a Mesopotamian – but I think this was something new: ordinary young people – young men, in particular – staying in touch with the friends of their youth by written exchanges of news, views, and long-distance, long-delay badinage.

It's possible this had something to do with the epistolary habits encouraged by "pen-pal" and foreign exchange programmes, both essentially phenomena of the second half of the 20th century, set up to promote friendly relations across Europe after two devastating world wars. I have often been surprised to learn of friendships that began as stiff exercises in language-learning, nurtured over decades of home visits and letter-writing, with the eventual result that the mutual pen-friends became, in effect, members of each other's families. Surprised, I suppose, because nothing of the sort was ever going to happen in the case of my own German exchange partner, with whom I had absolutely nothing in common other than the fact that we both lived in flats, unusual in our "twinned" towns, and the only conceivable reason we'd been partnered. We couldn't stop writing to each other soon enough.

In fact, I suspect this letter-writing between friends probably had a lot more to do with the confluence of two other factors. First, the advent after 1945 in Britain of extended free schooling for state-educated children, up to and including university. In the memoir of his life that I encouraged my father to write in his last years, no mention is made of any friends before his war service, which began when he was 21. After all, he had left school at 14, and by 1939 had already been an apprentice and employed in a foundry and then an engineering firm for seven years, an eternity at that age. By contrast, I spent my entire youth until the age of 18 in the company of essentially the same group of thirty boys. The melodrama of friendships and loyalties might change over that time, but the cast remained the same. When some of us went off to university, staying in touch by letter seemed a natural thing to do. Especially for me, left behind at home for a "gap year" enforced by the peculiar timing of the Oxbridge entry exams.

Added to that were the close bonds formed within the youth counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. By 1970, the fashionable habits and attitudes of metropolitan bohemia had spread out to the young in even the dullest suburbs and villages, carried by pop-cultural vectors like records and magazines. As even the softest of recreational substances were heavy-handedly policed and frowned upon by even the most easy-going parents, a degree of secrecy and trust were a necessary feature of the close-knit home-town crews that were springing up everywhere, even though indulgence in anything stronger than an underage pint was more often a fantasy than a reality. Belonging to a secretive in-group possessed of forbidden knowledge and with its own home-grown myths and legends builds a special sort of bond, with the consequence that, when these small-town bohemian friendship circles were split up and scattered by higher education and social mobility, their half-life was rather longer than usual. Indeed, in my case I'm still in sporadic touch with a few of my old homies, although it's true this has everything to do with the magic of email, and nothing to do with the chore of letter-writing, which fizzled out decades ago along with the residual legibility of my handwriting.

I've already described how much I like email (You Have Mail) and I still do: for me, it's a perfect fit as a communication medium. Despite its use of snail-mail metaphors – right down to the open and closed envelope icons – email has few of the disadvantages of letter-writing. For a start, unless you had been writing with an eye on posterity and kept copies of your own letters (and how narcissistic would that have been?) you would probably have only the vaguest memory of what you had actually written in a letter, and in all probability would never see it again. By the time your correspondent felt sufficiently motivated to sit down and write you a reply, even that vague memory would have dissipated. They, of course, would have your actual letter immediately to hand, and would be writing a reply, quite specifically, to whatever had been set down on paper by you. Oddly, it seems rarely to have occurred to many respondents – myself included, I'm sure – that you might need reminding of what, precisely, you had written; it was as if they thought you were still somehow personally present, embodied in whatever illegible scrawl your hand-eye co-ordination had risen to deep into the small hours. So you would eventually get a letter, weeks or months later, that contained mystifying allusions, angry refutations, and baffling responses that, abstracted from their instigating source material, could seem like the free-form effusions of a lunatic. I do still occasionally get such ravings by email, but at least I now know why.

In the end, the only real redeeming factors of a letter over email are its dogged persistence as a material object (if kept well away from fire, the shredder, or the bin, of course, which is where most end up), and, primarily, its intimate connection to its author. That sense that someone has taken the trouble to follow the comparatively elaborate and time-consuming procedure of writing and posting a letter, leaving traces of their physical presence on paper in the process, does endow a certain magic, not to say value if that person has achieved some prominence in their life. By contrast, it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever pay several thousand pounds at auction for an email allegedly from some notable person, or for their comment on a blog or Twitter feed, much less go to the trouble of tracking them all down in ancient decommissioned mail-servers to compile into a volume or database of "collected e-correspondence".

Assuming that would even be possible. The idea that "everything is still out there on the internet" is an illusion. We seem to have passed into a time when ephemerality is taken for granted: it is the price we pay for convenience and immediacy and the relentless churn of technological advance. In terms of historical documents, these years – when, ironically, millions might seem to be busily documenting their every moment, their every passing thought  – may well turn out to be a new Dark Age, invisible to posterity.

When I retired I intended to preserve some of the hundreds of useful and important emails I had accumulated over my working life by downloading them selectively, but in the end sorting a bucketful of e-wheat from the mountain of e-chaff was too much: I had to let it all vanish when my account was deleted. Which, I have to admit, did feel as liberating, personally, as when I periodically empty into the recycling all the greetings cards, bills, payslips, and other redundant paper stuff that has come through my letter-box. But, say anyone wanted or needed to trace back any of the work-related projects I'd been involved in? What if they had to track down all the electronic back and forth between me, my colleagues, and the various third parties we had to deal with over the years? Well, tough: there is no equivalent to the grey steel filing cabinet full of memos, minutes, and correspondence I inherited from my predecessor. Everything was email and attachments, and everything has gone; which, I suppose, both simplifies and complicates matters. But, as we were saying a few weeks ago when we caught up over lunch with those old friends from our Bristol days, life today is not necessarily better or worse than it was 40+ years ago, just different. Very different.

Another letter-box

1. Late 1970s to mid-80s, in my case broken by a year in London: it all still seems like yesterday...
2. Sadly, two of my most voluminous correspondents are now dead. It's doubtful whether they would have kept any of my letters and, if they did, I'm sure their husbands would have quickly disposed of ancient mail from anyone who knew the bride when she used to rock'n'roll. Certainly, their letters to me have all long gone. Well, most of them...

Sunday, 3 October 2021

BSA21 Update

As only one of my two shortlisted pictures got hung in the 116th (!) Bath Society of Artists Open Exhibition, I had to go over to Bath for a second time on Saturday, this time to collect my unhung work. It was a very wet day, but luckily the Victoria Art Gallery is only a short walk from Bath Spa station.

While I was there I did get a chance to grab a shot of my picture "Descent (Southampton Water)" which has been hung rather sympathetically, and conveniently near the cash desk. Impulse purchase, anyone? And, look, that's me, No. 86 in the catalogue:

I presume some names are in bold because they are members of the Society, and not because of some random word-processing error. The overall standard of the 366 works on show is high – it's like a mini RA Summer Exhibition – even if, inevitably, something of a mixed bag. As always, though, I am prompted to question the sanity of many creators of 3-D work; mental unrest seems so much less disturbing when translated into two dimensions and displayed flat against a wall, rather than cast in knobbly bronze or wrought in tortured steel and placed on a podium. As for ceramicists, well, I blame Grayson Perry.

Update to the Update: I've been asked for the dimensions of the framed print of "Descent". It's roughly 55cm x 40cm (21.5" x 15.5").

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Fine At First, Rain Later

We were in Bristol over the weekend, as I had to transport a couple of framed pictures that have been shortlisted in an upcoming exhibition to Bath, and Bath is just a ten minute train-ride from Bristol, where we have a flat. It takes considerably longer than ten minutes to get to Bristol's Temple Meads station from the flat on a Saturday, though, especially since the council set about making the city centre impossible (impassable) for cars by blocking off most of the obvious through-routes. Google Maps wasn't kidding when it showed the optimal route from Clifton Downs to Temple Meads ran via the Portway, Southville, and Redcliffe (oh, look it up). 

As I'm sure I must have said before, one of the main attractions of our Bristol flat is the view from the kitchen window over the Avon Gorge. The changing seasons, the rise and fall of the tidal river, the bird's eye view of the birds (plus the squirrels, foxes, and occasional badger): it's spectacular, picturesque, absorbing, and a terrific way of being busy doing nothing for hours on end. Eating a leisurely breakfast with the spectacle above laid out before you at 7:30 in the morning can easily become a protracted business; before you know it, it's time for some mid-morning coffee.

The other thing that changes, of course, especially at this time of year, is the weather. Being situated high above a deep natural channel, you get to see it coming from miles away. Monday started as a gloriously sunny day, and I had every intention of going for an aimless ramble, but then the cloud started to thicken, rain began to fall in the distance, and finally swept in from the south-west with a little hail mixed in for good measure, obliterating the view. So, more coffee, then?

I heard today, incidentally, that one of my two shortlisted pictures will be hung in the show (the Bath Society of Artists Open Exhibition), to be held in the Victoria Gallery on Bridge Street from 2nd October until 20th November. Which is a distinct improvement over getting shortlisted but not hung, which has become my usual experience recently. The Chosen One is an old warhorse I've had hanging around framed since it was shortlisted but not hung for the Royal West of England Academy's open a few years ago, and then again in the Royal Academy's Summer Show. You may recognise it:

Descent (Southampton Water)

It will finally get its chance to shine, and with any luck it may sell, plus – who knows? – maybe even a few copies of the unframed print. If you're in the area, why not drop in and have a look at what sort of company it's keeping.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

RWA Secret Postcards


Remember what I was saying about artists with identifiable "brands" and the Royal West of England Academy's fund-raising Secret Postcard auctions (see Overvaluation)? Well, the latest auction has just concluded, and although the names of the 300+ contributing artists have yet to be revealed, I don't think anyone familiar with contemporary art will have had any trouble identifying two of the postcards above.

Did you notice the slight anomaly in the final prices realised? I rather like Grayson Perry's "Boomer Cat", although I have to say a bid of £8,105 is more than generous: it's actually 8.5% of the amount realised by the sale of all 398 postcards. OTOH to my eye it's only 90% certain that no. 014 actually is by Antony Gormley, which may be reflected in a final offer of only £4000... Try harder next time, Sir Antony; your brand recognition is slipping.

But well done RWA: the auction raised a total of £94,875.06, to be spent on art-related activities in the local community. A cynic might wonder whether these stand-out prices are achieved by wealthy artists and their galleries bidding each other up, in a brand-boosting exercise. Surely not... Whatever, the RWA benefits, and a few grand, whoever makes the final bid, is probably an excellent investment in Famous Artists Ltd., too. Win-win, I'd say.

If you're curious, the whole lot of 398 postcards can be seen here (not sure for how long). To be honest, I find the overall standard rather depressing: I mean, all of these people are sufficiently well recognised as artists to be invited to contribute. This is the best you can do? Really? What, because you were giving it away? Come on: think "brand forward"! And please: no more soppy dogs... That's just playing to the gallery.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Riverside Walk

St. Catherine's Hill

It was a fine, early autumn afternoon on Sunday, so we went for a walk along the river Itchen just outside Winchester where it skirts St. Catherine's Hill and, if you want to follow a circular route, you can cross the river and come back along part of the "Keats Walk" past the ancient St. Cross Hospital and some water meadows now maintained as a nature reserve.

It seemed like a good opportunity to test the photographic capacities of the iPhone, so I decided to leave any "real" camera at home: I've photographed this area enough already, and I knew I'd only end up doing everything twice, which is probably more than twice as annoying for one's walking companion. If nothing else, it's remarkable how inconspicuous you feel, staring at a small smartphone like pretty much everyone else you pass. And although various cameras are described as "pocketable", nothing of any real capability can match the pocketability of a small phone. The question remains: can the capability of a phone match that of a "pocketable" camera?

So far, the evidence is "pretty much", although there's a certain tension between accepting the over-processed native results and putting in the work to get the best out of the raw image data. The former look absolutely great on a phone screen, but the iPhone will try to turn every grey sky into a blue Californian idyll, turbo-boosts the colour saturation and contrast, and aggressively reduces noise so that a closer view reveals an almost cartoonish reduction of subtlety, resulting in that blocky "watercolour" look that marred many early digital cameras. I don't think these would print well, but I've not got around to testing that yet. But I'm generally happy to put in the work on the "raw" files – it's what I do routinely anyway – even if the results don't have that same instant eye-candy appeal.

The Itchen Navigation canal

A problem I've encountered with advancing age is that objects sometimes want to fling themselves out of my hands without warning. For example, when I'm washing up a fork may attempt to embed itself in the wall, or a cup to dash itself against the tap; so holding and operating an expensive phone delicately between thumbs and fingers is not exactly playing to my strengths. I have looked at add-on grips of various sorts, but there are surprisingly few that offer camera-style graspability, and of those that do most are ridiculously expensive.

But I came across the Ulanzi CapGrip and decided to take a punt on it, as it is cheap (only about £10 on eBay), is suitable for pretty much any smartphone, does not require the purchase of some special proprietary case, is simple to attach and remove, and as a bonus has a Bluetooth-connected shutter button that can be removed and used as a remote control. Even better, it has a standard 1/4" tripod screw on the bottom, so although it could be used to mount the phone onto some kind of support more important from my p-o-v is that I can attach a D-ring with a wrist-strap: the phone can then attempt to fling itself into the river, but won't get far!

The CapGrip had its first run-out on Sunday, and it seems just the job. How robust it is and long it will last remain to be seen, and I also suspect this may now be a discontinued item, available only through the sort of resellers who use eBay. Which would be a shame, as it offers exactly the basic functionality I imagine a lot of phone-photographers need. If it sounds useful you should probably get one while you still can.

Mr. Constable considers the Itchen water meadows

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Photographs Not Taken

It's been a while since I made a book recommendation, so here's something relatively cheap, but very interesting: Photographs Not Taken : a collection of photographers' essays, edited by Will Steacy (Daylight Community Arts Foundation, 2012). It's available in various formats; I downloaded it onto my Kindle. This is a good summary of the contents:

No printed images mar this page-turning collection of anecdotes from 62 working photographers. They are men and women like Mary Ellen Mark, Andrew Moore, Laurel Nakadate, Alec Soth, Todd Hido and the late Tim Hetherington, whose cameras are practically extensions of their bodies. Editor Will Steacy asked each to describe an irresistible photo op that they let pass, however great the temptation or ingrained the habit.
   Their "mental negatives," as Steacy terms their recollections, bring up a variety of ethical questions that stem from a common predicament: whether to shoot or not – or, in Hetherington's case, whether to expose an image of the dead to the public or not.
  Linda Yablonsky, Artnet

It's an interesting idea, getting eminent photographers to describe "the ones that got away", but which live on in memory. Not least because it's a sort of apophatic definition of their photographic aims: by describing the things they have not photographed, and why, they draw a defining boundary around their working "practice". Any keen photographer will have at least a few of these: opportunities lost because of a failure of nerve or instinct; by not having a camera to hand or only the "wrong" camera; because of a humane impulse or that measure of emotional literacy known as "tact"; or even a simple desire to be in the moment, rather than at one remove from it. Any of these can cause the most experienced and determined photographer to fail to rise to the occasion, or to deliberately turn aside, leaving a lasting and vivid impression in the memory that is somehow stronger than any photograph.

For those of us who are not professional photojournalists, of course, such lost opportunities are of far less consequence, but will nonetheless have significance. Thinking about my own mental album of missing photographs quite a few do spring to mind. Many, if not most of these are actually instances of a more general regret that I did not take more photographs, however, rather than specific occasions: I wish I had more records of the friends, events, and residences of my youthful years, for example. Although I did have a camera – a Russian Fed 3 rangefinder bought for my 13th birthday – I wasn't in the habit of carrying it around, and was still firmly the sort of amateur who used a mere handful of rolls of film in a year, to be ceremonially processed into a paper wallet of prints at the local chemist. Regrettably, when I did start to carry one around, albeit casually, it was a Kodak Pocket Instamatic, a convenient but truly awful fixed-focus, single shutter-speed, fixed-aperture plastic brick that used 110-format film cartridges. I tried scanning some of those tiny negatives recently, with mixed results. I suppose, if you wanted to be positive, you could say there's an appropriately nostalgic feel to scenes from the past glimpsed through a beaded curtain of film grain.

However, thinking of those times when I did have a camera but failed or chose not to use it some vivid examples do spring to mind. There was the time walking in mid-Wales when an aeroplane appeared over a nearby hill: an ancient Dakota, I think, almost silent and flying slower and lower than I would ever have thought possible. It was painted matt black all over, and apparently without any identifying markings. We watched it pass slowly through the valley like the dark ghost of an aircraft, but only after it had gone did it occur to me I might have used the camera dangling in my hand. Sometimes the uncanny spell of a spectacle is too strong to be broken.

Then there was the time when – on the first day of a 10-day residency in Innsbruck, Austria in 2014 – a striking young woman in full riding gear came down a path towards me on a magnificent bay horse. I brought up my camera and gestured at it with that universal raised-eyebrow expression that says, "Mind if I take your photograph?". In response, though, she twisted away in the saddle, making a startlingly strange, high-pitched squealing noise that was quite unsettling, pitched somewhere between a scream and a whimper and which definitely did not mean "yes, please do". I supposed she was either mad, an alien in human form, or some photo-shy Austrian celeb I wouldn't have recognised anyway, so I quickly stepped aside as the horse cantered towards me. It takes more courage than I possess to risk getting trampled or horse-whipped just for a photo opportunity with some crazy woman on a big brown horse. They did look very fine, though, coming down that track with the hazy blue mountains and bold pine trees in the background, and I should have just taken the damned photograph.

I also think of an unusual vista that, every time I see it, I think, "I must photograph that one day", but never have and probably never will, partly because it would require more forethought and preparation than it is worth to me, and partly because a large part of its impact is the surprise and pleasure of suddenly seeing it again, usually after hours of driving, and that element of time is something that can never be present in a still photograph. If you drive into Bridport in Dorset from the east, you generally get stopped by some traffic lights at the main junction in town. As you look down the street directly ahead of you at the lights, about 1.5 miles in the distance you will see the conical bump of Colmers Hill with its distinctive crown of trees nicely framed by the receding facades of the high street. Colmers Hill is an unmistakable landmark in south Dorset, visible from almost everywhere and much photographed, but I don't think I've ever seen it recorded from this particular angle. The trouble is, you need to be in a stationary vehicle, ideally one with an elevated seating position to see it to best advantage; I suppose you could hop out and onto the roof of a regular car, or even quickly erect a stepladder in front of the traffic temporarily halted at the lights. Yeah, right; feel free. You can have that one on me.

One final one. There are some houses near where I live which are of the same vintage and design as the council houses I grew up among in the 1950s and 60s. Once sold off to private ownership, as happened in the 1980s, British ex-council houses tend to have had extensions, new windows, and even tacky stone cladding inflicted on them, and very few houses these days have not had their front gardens paved over to provide hard-standing for cars. But on one corner a couple survive in their original state, and still have front gardens which are mainly scrubby lawn, separated from the public pavement by a simple rounded concrete edging, barely an inch high. Every time I pass them I get a rush of nostalgia, recalling happy years spent playing with friends in similar front gardens, whether crouched over intense scenarios constructed with toy cars and soldiers, splashing in and out of inflatable paddling pools full of tepid water and floating blades of grass in hot summers, or in the snowy winters we had then – 1962/3 was the Big One – scraping up snow into lumpy snowmen until our gloved fingers went numb. No simple photo of these unremarkable front gardens could convey any of this, though, even to me, so when I pass by I never bother to take the camera off my shoulder. Cameras capture light superbly, but feelings are always much more elusive.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Phoning It In

For quite a few years, now, I've been using an iPhone 4s which I inherited from my daughter when she moved up to a new phone plan and had no further need for it. I was pleased to have it, as a 4s had been my first revelation of the smartphone experience: back in 2011 the university loaned me one so that I could be involved in the development of this new-fangled thing called an "app" for our students, who seemed oddly reluctant to interact with us using anything other than their phones. Their phones? This, despite the generous quantities of PC workstation clusters we had only just thoughtfully scattered around the campus (see the post Phone Fun). Kids!

That iPhone has served me well and I have been reluctant to replace it, as it's a solid, reliable device, which I use almost exclusively as a phone, with a bit of texting and WhatsApp thrown in. True, it has also been a handy clock, calculator, and travel radio. Oh, and weather forecaster, train timetable, and world map. However, despite the occasional experiment, I have somehow never come to see it as a camera. The fact is that, despite the praise heaped on it at the time of its release, the output leaves an awful lot to be desired. In the proverbial event that Elvis were to step out of a flying saucer in our street, it would never have occurred to me to reach for my phone, in the absence of a "proper" camera. More to the point, the iPhone 4s is also now permanently marooned at a truly ancient release of the operating system – iOS 9.3.6 – and therefore cannot load the current incarnations of many apps, including (incredibly but thankfully) the NHS Covid-19 "track and trace" app. Pingdemic, what pingdemic?

While we were away in Dorset recently, however, I was impressed by the photographic results my daughter was getting on her iPhone 11, and I had to concede that cameras on phones are now more than good enough for many purposes; either that, or she is a better photographer than me, which is clearly unthinkable. So, given the cash surplus I have accumulated over the period of the pandemic – not catching trains up to London once a month or so, at £30+ a trip, must have saved me around £600 all by itself – I thought the time had finally come for a hardware upgrade. I swallowed hard (I hate spending money), and bought myself an iPhone 12 "mini", which is just a bit larger than the 4s, but has a lot more screen.

The various iPhone 12 models have been much trumpeted for their photographic abilities, but this is something I have taken with a large pinch of salt, coming as it does from people whose main picture-making activity seems to be photographing their own dinner plate, and whose main technical ambition is apparently to achieve a blurred background ("just like a pro!"). It seemed obvious I'd need something more sophisticated than the built-in camera app so, after some consumer research, I settled on the Halide app, with its capacity to create "raw" files from the iPhone data. The initial results have been promising, but I still need to do a lot of work on the reflex to use my phone as a camera.

Actually, the initial results are not so much promising as convincing. To be honest, I hadn't really expected to use my new phone's "camera" as anything much more than a note-taking device, for use as a stand-in when I didn't have an actual camera to hand: useful for recording things like textures for later use in digital collages, family snaps, or those unexpected little still-life compositions that crop up everywhere once you're attuned to them. It was obvious – to someone of my high standards – that a tiny 12 megapixel sensor with a fixed aperture of  f/1.6 and a rather wide angle of view wouldn't be adequate for anything more. I also expected to ignore the JPEG or HEIC output, and work exclusively with the "raw" files produced by Halide. After a few weeks of experiment and comparison, however, it seems I may have been wrong on most counts, although there are pluses and minuses in every direction you choose to look. So much depends on factors like light levels, acceptable amounts of "noise", whether a file is uploaded from the phone direct to a PC via a cable, or indirectly via iCloud, email, or social media, and so on. The main limiting factor for me, however, will always be the fixed wide angle lens, even though this is something I'd become accustomed to by using the Fuji X-70; I much prefer working with a "standard zoom" in the wide to mid-telephoto range.

So, there's going to be some "iphoneography" around here. My hope is that you won't even notice, unless I draw your attention to it, perhaps by making some comparisons. I'm not sure who I'd be trying to convince, though, other than myself. You have probably already come to your own conclusions about "phone versus camera". If worldwide sales of compact cameras are any indication, most people have already come down firmly on the "phone" side of the debate, which is not surprising, given the uses to which most people put their photographs. But it seems that even some entirely serious photographers have fallen in love with their phones. Who knows? I might yet turn out to be one of them.

Incidentally, something I have only just discovered but which is probably common knowledge in the smartphone community (i.e. pretty much everyone else on the planet) is that an iPhone with no SIM is still a working WiFi device, provided it has previously been "activated" (I imagine the same is true of an Android phone), so the 4s will continue to have its uses. For example, and ironically, perhaps, I now find I'm interested in its capacities as a lo-fi alternative camera... [phone displays "eyeroll" emoji].

All three of the pictures in this post were taken with the new phone, but this last is the one that really gave me pause for thought. Remarkable quality, I think, even compared with a good 12 MP compact camera (Fuji X20).

Thursday, 9 September 2021


As I seem to have kicked off September with a theme of "overvalued art", I suppose I'd better deal with my earlier tease about the thing I saw for sale in a Bristol gallery that truly expanded my ideas of how overvalued something could be. It was this:

Ignore the reflections and the frame, and consider that scrap of paper float-mounted inside the frame. Look closely. I mean ... Yikes. I wonder how far you agree with me that this is both the ugliest and the most incompetent piece of work you have seen for some time, compounded by the fact it is offered for sale at £7,750? That's SEVEN THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS [1]. I noted that this lino print is from a tiny edition of five, and discovered on the Web that No. 2 in the edition (this is No. 3) was sold at Sotheby's for £4,000, with an estimate of £2,000-3,000, so the Bristol price tag is optimistic, to say the least. Given that a gallery's commission is normally situated around 45%, I suspect someone is suffering buyer's remorse – who wouldn't? – and is trying to recoup their original outlay.

The actual block of lino the image is cut into is postcard sized, no larger, and the rumpled, inky-fingered sheet of paper it has been printed onto looks like it has been torn out of a sketchbook (if you can read the label, "wove paper" is the regular stuff you write shopping lists on, nothing fancy [2]). Setting aside the – presumably intentional – crudity of the draughtsmanship (not to mention the, um, subject matter), I think that to anyone who enjoys printmaking the most unattractive aspect of this item is that outlines have simply been cut into the surface, rendering them white on a black background; no attempt whatsoever has been made to use the inherent capacity of relief printing to produce contrasting blocks of solid colour and white paper, or bold graphical linework. It's a clumsy sketch cut with a minimal level of skill or imagination, like something scratched with a key into a public lavatory door, although it's true the word "love" has come out the right way round, which is something, I suppose. It reminds me of the beginners' efforts I saw when I worked as an art technician in a secondary school in 1972/3, although those generally involved football and glam-rock rather than transgressive sex. Of course, this may all be part of the artist's intention; a poke at the artsy-craftsy, tasteful preciosities of conventional printmakers. It might also be said that there's a subversive tradition being invoked here: art brut, punk, and even "zen mind, beginner's mind", stuff like that.

But this would be odd coming from Grayson Perry – for it is he – surely one of the most self-consciously artsy-craftsy artists working in Britain today. The man makes pots and tapestries, FFS! Isn't his artsy-craftiness in itself his sly poke at Art World snobbery? Although, admittedly, tastefulness does not figure large in his output. I'm not sure how well-known Grayson Perry is beyond these shores, but here he has achieved recognition as a National Treasure in waiting. His two Big Things are that he is a painter of pots, a cross-dresser, and has an obsession with his childhood teddy bear Alan Measles... Correction, his three Big Things are that he is painter of pots, a cross-dresser, has an obsession with his childhood teddy bear, and loves to talk about art ... OK, his four Big Things ... [3] And it has to be admitted, annoying as the transvestite-potter-with-a-teddy-bear performance is, that Grayson does have interesting things to say about art. His book, Playing to the Gallery : Helping Contemporary Art in its Struggle to be Understood is well worth reading. He may be a posturing provocateur, but he's no idiot.

The thing is, no matter what you think of him or his art, a great many people will have heard of Grayson Perry, whereas they probably won't have heard of many other artists, and certainly not accomplished but distinctly un-provocative printmakers like, say, Neil Bousfield or Sarah Gillespie, just to pick two artists whose work I have admired in recent years. He has made himself into a brand, and the whole point of a brand is to save people who want to buy art – or anything, come to that – from having to make their own judgements about it. A really successful art brand is one that can be instantly identified without any label. For example, in the Royal West of England Academy's annual "secret postcard" fundraising auctions the anonymous but unmistakable contributions from the likes of Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry immediately become the subject of bidding wars that soar away into the thousands, while the majority of contributors' efforts remain stalled below £100. Which is about what a hastily hand-painted 6" x 4" postcard is worth, whoever's signature is on the back.

In support of a cash-strapped institution like the RWA, of course, the absurd overvaluation of a small token artwork is fine and indeed admirable; the truism that something is only worth what someone is prepared to pay for it is not so much contradicted as exemplified when something intrinsically valueless has become an opportunity for charitable generosity. But that framed scrap of paper above is not inviting bids, it is asserting its own market value, hanging on a commercial gallery wall somewhat hubristically alongside beautiful (and cheaper!) original prints by Matisse, Picasso, and other notables. Had it been made by anyone less well-known, it would surely have gone straight into a drawer or even the bin; unframed, unwanted, at most a cack-handed curiosity, best forgotten. But it's "a Grayson Perry" and therefore must be worth a lot of money, mustn't it? It may look like shit, but it's an investment. Well, we'll see about that; only time will tell.

Frankly, I think Grayson Perry should be ashamed of himself (an unlikely scenario) for letting such a lazy, phoned-in effort out into the wild, but nowhere near as ashamed as any fool willing to pay that sort of money simply for the bragging rights of hanging the dismal thing on their wall. And, just think, when they grow tired of it and suffer buyer's remorse in their turn, the next gallery will have to offer it at £15,000 if the owner hopes to recover their outlay plus commission! Provided, of course, Grayson's stock doesn't takes a tumble in the meantime.

1. That's roughly 10,500 US dollars, or 9,000 euros.
2. I love the way giving something a technical or euphemistic name seems to elevate its status. I'm sure you have noticed the frequency of a substance called "aqua" in household products and cosmetics. And then there's giclée printing, so much more sophisticated than plain old inkjet printing...
3. Sorry, I recently saw the Monty Python sketch about the Spanish Inquisition ("Nobody expects..."), still quite funny after all these years.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Post-Plotnick Packaging Pictures

It seems there are so many wannabe artists out there, all looking for the stylistic edge that will be distinctively "theirs" – their brand, their trademark, their signature style – that, like the parallel evolution of sabre-toothed dentition or bristling defensive spines, even the weirdest novelties will be thrown up independently any number of times. If you have banked heavily on the uniqueness of your own innovations, then the unwelcome discovery of a stranger's footprints all over what you had considered your private turf can induce annoyance, and even paranoid, violent, and litigious thoughts. Alternatively, you can just let it go, and write it off to experience. I'm a porcupine, you're a hedgehog, that weirdo over there is an echidna: let's all get along!

More than a decade ago, I wrote about an instance of this that paralleled my own efforts, in the post Snails in Outer Space. Now I've come across an even more striking example.

You may remember me describing my interest in deconstructing cardboard packaging last year (Cut It Out; hey, listen, a man needs a hobby). It had occurred to me – how could it not? – that these oddly-shaped sheets of card would make an interesting series of surfaces for some visual art, whether as an actual "support" for painting or drawing, or scanned as an element in digital art. So I decided to scan a few, cleaned up the shapes, and then superimposed some digital patterns onto them, just to see how it would look. TBH, it wasn't anywhere near as interesting as I'd hoped, and the whole idea went onto the back burner, along with a dozen other such potential ways of occupying the hours between breakfast and bedtime. Maybe later, maybe not.

So, imagine my surprise when I opened the regular emailed newsletter from Photo-Eye, and saw the announcement of their latest "Showcase" artist, someone called Walter Plotnick (no, really) who – you've guessed it – is using scanned deconstructed cardboard packaging as the canvas for some digital art. My initial flash of annoyance was quickly replaced by amusement, however, when I saw quite how dreadful Plotnick's efforts are (IMHO, obviously, you'll have to follow the link). Not only is his scanning crude – nothing screams "scanner!" louder than those horribly abrupt shadowed edges, and that harsh overall contrast – but his taste for a pointless and superficial retro-surrealism is also, well, pointless and superficial; again, IMHO. The whole thing just reeks of "gimmicky art" to me and, if nothing else, it made me glad I had shelved my own packaging project.

Now, I suppose, this particular graphical real estate has been claimed, post-Plotnick, so – unless I come up with some truly compelling reason to pick it up again – those sheets of card will be going into the recycling bin where they belong. Although I will probably scan a few more first, just in case. Hmm, I'm seeing kimono patterns... And architecture... Or perhaps some parody product packages... But, then again: maybe later, maybe not.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Dorset is Full

Looking across Lyme Bay from Charmouth
(not so much chilling as getting chilly on the beach)

You expect Dorset in August to be lively with holidaymakers, and the roads to be busy, but I hadn't expected it to be quite as lively or as busy as it has been this summer. We were staying in a cottage near Beaminster with our son and daughter and their partners, and one afternoon headed to Lyme Regis in a two-car convoy. Knowing that the traffic was very bad on the A35, we took the "scenic" route, negotiating the maze of narrow sunken lanes and potholed, under-signed backroads, eventually approaching Lyme Regis through its less-used back door at Uplyme, and headed straight for the Holmbush car park, well away from the seafront. After so many visits over so many years in the area, we know the ropes.

However, to my amazement, Holmbush was full; there was not a single parking space available in the entire 400 capacity car park, which is unprecedented. In the past, at any time of year on any day of the week we have simply pulled in, and taken the most convenient space in the first few rows of an otherwise empty car park. To be honest, I had no idea Holmbush was so big; I had never had cause to explore its full extent before. So we headed for the fallback position: that is, to what I have always considered the semi-secret Woodmead car park, tucked away up a steep backstreet, and relatively expensive into the bargain. But it, too, was full... Crazy stuff! At which point, we gave up and headed for Charmouth, where we managed to squeeze into a couple of recently-vacated spaces on the rugged field that serves as a seafront car park. It's official: Dorset is full.

I suppose it's obvious what has been going on. Thousands of people who would normally head for the beaches of the Mediterranean and beyond in August have opted for a domestic seaside holiday instead, not wishing to endure the expense and inconvenience of multiple Covid tests and the possibility of a ten-day quarantine on return. As a result, coastal counties like Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall are jam-packed, and everything is under unaccustomed pressure: apart from a birthday celebration we had pre-booked weeks ago, we could not find a single restaurant with a free table all week. Which, again, is unprecedented. Dorset, with its unpredictable weather, few indoor entertainments, and mainly stony – not to say hazardous – beaches is normally the preserve of the hardier holidaymaker, wellington-booted and waterproof-clad. We may be few, we may look ridiculous, but we do know how to make our own entertainment, come rain, come shine. On a wet day – and it was very wet indeed on our first few days – Dorset has little to offer anyone whose idea of a good time is to stretch out in the sun with a succession of long drinks from a beach-front bar, in anticipation of a long night ahead clubbing. I suspect that many of these Dorset newbies won't be back next year, Covid willing, unless they've acquired the necessary tastes for long walks, National Trust property visits, and eating fish and chips in the rain.

Charmouth beach

The area around Lyme Regis has been given an added boost for some by the fact that Mary Anning has been having a moment: there's a film, Ammonite, a proposed sea-front statue, and a certain amount of accompanying hoo-hah about her alleged obscurity and neglect. This is almost entirely factitious. Doubtless, there was injustice in her treatment at the time, mainly due to social class and gender, but – like any child with an interest in natural history and fossil-hunting – I have known about Mary Anning and her role in discovering the marine reptiles in the cliffs at Black Ven since I was about eight years old, nearly 60 years ago. Frankly, I would have said she is and has always been more widely and enduringly celebrated than establishment figures like William Buckland or Gideon Mantell, or even William "strata" Smith (also studiously ignored by the palaeo-toffs, and whose pioneering geological maps have recently been made available in a magnificent book). Sadly, the practical upshot has been a great deal of pointless and dangerous whacking of rocks and even the notoriously unstable cliffs with blunt instruments by assorted ill-advised idiots. Quite apart from the hazards to unprotected eyes from flying rock fragments and to bare feet from the consequent jagged edges left lying around – wear wellies, people! – it seems pretty certain that yet another major cliff fall must be brewing, given the alarming amounts of water and liquid clay I saw seeping out of the cliffs at Charmouth. To climb ten feet up the cliff and bang away with a hammer at the hard layers is to invite disaster. Even more so than those Streep-inspired meme-seekers, following Lyme's previous moment in the 1981 film of The French Lieutenant's Woman, who used to stand perilously on the end of the Cob in stormy weather.

A curious aspect of our rented cottage was that the walls were hung with a number of very large limited-edition prints by Elisabeth Frink. Frink is no longer as famous as she was in the 1960s, and I have to say her obsessions with fascistic male figures and badly-drawn horses are not to my taste, but it's not often you find a holiday let decorated with such upscale artwork. Maybe the owner didn't really like the prints much, either, and decided to stash them somewhere out of his daily sight. Whatever, I couldn't resist checking out their value, and managed to discover that a copy of one of them – from a series of lithographs of "green men", about 30" x 18" in size and all pretty hideous – is currently available from a dealer for £3,500. It's funny how knowing that causes one to scrutinise the ugly thing more closely for hidden virtues... Maybe the overall composition is strong? Do the muddy colours work well together? Or perhaps the draughtsmanship is good? Or even just the underlying idea? But, nope, none of the above; it was still irredeemably grim, and to my mind that price-tag is an inflated overvaluation of what is surely the result of no more than 30 minutes of Dame Elisabeth's time; a lot less, anyway, than the time and effort that would have been required from whoever did the actual work of printing the edition of 70 lithographs (certainly not Frink herself). Mind you, in a future post I will show you something I saw in Bristol recently that really expanded my conception of "overvaluation". It's a shocker. Stay tuned.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Solent Moments

Time for a short blog-break, I think. I hope you have a good summer, despite everything. See you later.

[UPDATE: back in September!]

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Telescope 2

There, that's rather better, with a bit of a wipe. Still can't see anything but mist, though. Issa was right.

Suddenly it's too hot for anything but tinkering, and I've got one of those annoying summer colds, which at first I thought might be you-know-what; either way almost certainly an unwelcome takeaway from that recent wedding. I think it may soon be time to reconsider the traditional Summer Blog Break.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021


The guest with the effortless small talk

At the weekend we attended a family wedding in Bristol, between our nephew, a tattooist, and his barista girlfriend, who was originally from what I'm told is quite a traditional rural Catholic background in Northern Ireland. The resulting contrasts of friends and family made for some interesting people-watching on what turned out, despite the forecast, to be a very sunny afternoon. Which was just as well, as the timetable of events was, for some of us older folk, more than a little over-extended. After a 4:30 ceremony in a community centre that was as close to a full-on wedding as you could get without a vicar and hymns – I have never understood the point of bridesmaids, for example – there was a three hour wait in the grounds – three hours of drinking, making endless small talk, drinking some more, talking some more, and listening to a poorly-amplified but decent Irish folk duo on guitar and fiddle – before a sit-down meal at 8:00, followed by live music at 9:30. As a fully-qualified introvert, my batteries were already running very low by 6:30 [1].

As you can probably imagine, our nephew's friends and elective family belong to that particularly Bristolian tribe that is heavily-tattooed, pierced, and given to curious hair-stylings, up to and including some Keith Flint lookalikes, whereas his wife's family-sized family are from a rather different tribe, and were clearly somewhat bemused by some of the spectacle they had found themselves involved in. The bride's father in particular, a farmer, looked baffled throughout, and although this may have been the anxious frown of a man on unaccustomed leave of absence from his livestock, you had to suspect he hadn't quite realised what his daughter had been up to in recent years, and who with. There was no hint of trouble, though, at least not up until the point we made our excuses and left, well before the speeches, music and dancing kicked off.

At the meal – pie and mash with gravy and mushy peas – I found myself seated next to one of our nephew's old housemates, who was acting as the official photographer. Now here was someone with whom I was actually keen to make some small talk. He'd been using a lens that I was pleased to get a closer look at: one of those white monsters that declares "professional event photographer" as soon as it heaves into view. It turned out to be the Canon EF 35-350mm, which covers an extreme zoom range from moderate wide-angle to serious telephoto when mounted on a full-frame body, and from normal to "blimey!" on a body with a smaller APS-C sensor. There is a price to pay for this sort of versatility, however. I'd never handled such a beast before, and was surprised by its weight: a full 1.385 kilos. If you are susceptible to well-made precision engineering, though, it's a lens that exudes that reassuring heft, fit and finish that says, trust me, use me, I'm built to last, I can take whatever you throw at me! Which is a sort of wedding vow in itself, I suppose, although I have to say that it's not a union I'd ever be seeking: simply not my type. I wasn't surprised that the poor guy was exhausted after carrying that weight (not to mention that responsibility) all afternoon, with the lively evening yet to come.

Some people enjoy weddings, but I'm afraid I'm not one of them. It's not just that I find socialising exhausting: I have a strong aversion to any formal occasion of the sort that encourages men to wear suits and women to wear hats. Despite having gained four degrees from three different universities I had never even considered attending a graduation ceremony until, finally, it was my own children's moment in the scholarly spotlight; it seemed churlish not to go, if that was their choice [2].  Mind you, if you want to experience extreme tedium, perhaps as a sort of spiritual exercise, I can recommend a degree ceremony, an endlessly repetitive parade of more or less identical small events, framed by speechifying, and lightened only by the occasional spectacular tumble on the steps up to the stage, and the single shining minute when it is your child's turn to step up and shake hands with whoever is handing out the certificates; in my daughter's case comedian and actor Sanjeev Bhaskar, which did liven things up a bit.

Which may go some way to explain why it was, a couple of weeks ago – after 40 years together, raising two children, and paying off several mortgages – that we finally booked ourselves into the local Register Office, and – in a ten-minute ceremony that had all the romance of taking out a bank loan – signed a Civil Partnership. The pandemic had offered the perfect opportunity for a no-fuss, pared-down, guest-free experience, witnessed by two neighbours, a retired nurse and a French neuroscientist, whom we treated to a no-expense-spared ice cream in a nearby park afterwards. No, go on, have a chocolate flake! Extra sauce? Why not! It was fun, it was quick, it was inexpensive (and will be, um, tax-efficient), and we have no regrets that, after all this time, respectability has finally been achieved.

"We don't need no piece of paper from the City Hall..."
(but we've got one now, anyway)

1. A useful definition of an introvert is someone whose psychic energy is sapped by social life and restored by solitude, whereas an extrovert is the other way round. Most people are somewhere more moderate on the spectrum between the two extremes.
2. Some might say it was churlish not to have given my own parents the dubious pleasure of attending at least one degree ceremony, and in hindsight I probably agree.