Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The Trials of Travel

A blog I enjoy visiting regularly is Here Now, Gone Before Long, formerly known as "More Original Refrigerator Art", and run by One Who Goes By Many Names but, given that he signs his own comments on that blog as "Your Name Here", for the sake of clarity and brevity let's call this man of mystery "YNH". For some while – I haven't checked, but it feels like it must have been years – YNH has been posting photographs from his backfiles, and in particular those taken on an intensive, American-style tour of Europe (Paris, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Florence...) made in 2011. Now, I have to say that these are some of the best, most extraordinary "holiday snaps" I've ever seen: in the main a distinctive, quirky, well-observed set of "street" themes, documented and processed with a characteristic and consistent style and approach. Sure, he did also once document an operation on his knee joint, too, but we won't mention that gruesome interlude. Some people think it takes great courage to photograph in the street, which it does, but I think – no, let's be honest, I know – it actually takes equal courage (or at least an heroic indifference to the feelings of others) to incur the wrath of your travel companions, as you make your way to some much-anticipated touristic rendezvous, by stopping to compose yet another shot of yet another crumbling shopfront. "FFS, come on, and hurry it up, you – we're hungry!" [1]

Anyway, in a recent post YNH commented:

Most of our travel on this trip in 2011 was by sleeper/night train (Paris to Berlin, Prague to Vienna, Vienna to Florence, then back to Paris). Not doing that again.

Getting too old to schlep luggage—and that was ten years ago—, live in very confined spaces without being able to see the world we pass through outside. Not sure what is better, but this is no answer for us.

Then again, we may well not have another opportunity now. The memories, though, live on…most happily…through my pictures.
To which I replied:
Personally, I have come to dislike long-distance travel by any affordable means. A private jet would make all the difference. TBH I'm not even that keen on the hour and a bit it takes to take a train from Southampton to London, although now I haven't been able to do it for a year due to Covid lockdowns it has taken on a glow of nostalgia...

The only thing worse than European sleeper trains is the 24-hour car ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao in an aeroplane-style reclining seat. Never again. Actually, no, worse than that is being stuck at the roadside as night falls, trying to hitch a ride out of Amsterdam in 1971 -- some of those guys are probably still there.
Which sparked off my own personal mental showreel of traveller's tales. The horror, the horror! The delays, the boredom, the anxiety, the hitchhiked lifts and taxi rides from Hell, the wrong platforms, the incomprehensible PA announcements ("Wait, did she just say my name??"), the spilled luggage, the lost passports, the cockroaches and scorpions, the sleepless nights above 24-hour discos and beneath all-night rutting, shouting, and fighting hotel guests... All this and more, much more, despite the fact that, apart from one visit to the USA, I've never even journeyed outside the relative familiarity of Europe.

When you're young, of course, these things are the whole point of travel. No kid today who can afford a bit of crazy-time in exotic places wants to rock up at university without a decent fund of gap-year tales, and these days there is a whole third-world industry dedicated to meeting that very first-world need. The dangers of ending up raped, robbed, and bleeding by the dusty roadside seem impossibly remote to the young, and are, after all, probably statistically on a par with getting knocked down by a car or mugged on some drunken night back home, anyway. But those ordinary risks are not enough for some. A couple of years ago an old friend – someone I'd shared some youthful travel-time with in the 1970s, back when travel was travel – took some lengthy trips through South East Asia and India, in the aftermath of some turmoil in his life. This was not the remedy I would have chosen myself, but some people appear to find solace in rising to the challenges of discomfort and unfamiliarity; it's why men used to join the French Foreign Legion, after all. However, his reports back were entertaining, not least because of his astonishment at the sheer stupidity of some of the recreational activities laid on for young western backpackers.

The one that sticks in my mind (perhaps because it might just have appealed to my own youthful appetite for a dare) was so-called "tubing". It seems that in Laos you could ingest a quantity of magic mushrooms, chased down by any number of evil alcoholic and/or narcotic concoctions, get high as a very high kite, settle yourself into an inflated tyre inner-tube, and float off down the fast-flowing Nam Song river, destination presumably unknown. On your way downriver you would get pulled by a rope into riverside bars, where you could top up and complexify your high with various shots, smokes, whatever... Utter madness, frankly, and I suspect that it must have been the youth of Australia who were to blame for originating such lunatic displays of bravado. People died – actually died – when tubing with alarming regularity, and yet it was incredibly popular as a rite of passage until the Laotian government realised that this was far too stupid, even as a way of extracting cash from wealthy western kids in search of anecdote-worthy kicks, and decided to ban it. Or they tried to ban it, anyway; no doubt illicit tubing, or similar cheap thrills of an even more spectacularly ill-advised nature, continue to this day. Or would, had Covid not put a crimp in everybody's travel plans.

At the other extreme, I suppose the nearest I've ever come to the private jet experience referred to in my blog comment above was touring down through France one summer in the 1980s in a brand-new Audi 100 Avant CD estate, borrowed by one of my travelling companions from her mother. I'd never driven in a luxury car before – or rather, been driven, as I had yet to take a driving test – and the whole experience was rather like rolling through France on a soft, leather-upholstered sofa, complete with air-conditioning, top-end stereo, the works. Roadside police would sometimes salute as we cruised past, and whenever we pulled into some rural hotel for the night, the staff would hurry out to grab our bags from the capacious luggage compartment – presumably in anticipation of a substantial tip from these wealthy foreign tourists – only to recoil at the scruffy rucksacks and carrier-bags of unwashed clothes and half-eaten food they found stuffed inside. You have to wonder whether they suspected we'd stolen the car.

Ordinary commercial air-travel, of course, is an unspeakable foretaste of Hell. I can't imagine anyone anticipates it with any pleasure (unless, of course, they are en route to the Foreign Legion, seeking solace by rising to the challenges of discomfort and unfamiliarity). It wasn't always like that, however. I remember when my father was involved in the installation of some conveyors in the SIMCA car factory at Poissy, France in the late 1950s. To fly from London to Paris on a BEA Viscount airliner was an enormous privilege, and business passengers were treated like VIPs. He was only 40 then, and would return home from these trips bearing gifts and, as it seemed to me aged five, swathed in a Sinatra-like aura of masculine sophistication: I imagine these flights were highlights in a life not overburdened with experiences of luxury or privilege. And I bet they didn't have to hustle onto the plane with sharp elbows, just to make sure of getting a bag into the overhead locker before the inconsiderate dickheads on the other side of the aisle managed to stuff it with their bulky coats and excess duty-frees. Or await the inevitable announcement of the "brief delay" – waiting for take-off clearance, or a refuelling truck, or a replacement pilot for the one just led away in handcuffs – that ends up lasting an interminable hour or two. Grr...

So, whoever the idiot was who first said "it's not the destination, it's the journey", they had probably never used the equivalent of a budget airline, or – as I did once, in the days when I could still think of it as fun – stood much of the way from Athens to Paris in the corridor of an overcrowded train, a stopping service amusingly named the Orient Express, which peasant women clutching live chickens would join for a couple of stops, like the local bus service. Even more amusingly, the uniformed guards (of whom there seemed rather more than necessary) would squeeze up and down the train, selling desperate tourists tickets for guaranteed seats (not me, I'd more or less run out of money) once the train reached Belgrade. At which point, all the Greek personnel got off, to be replaced by rather fewer Yugoslavs, who denied all knowledge of any such arrangement. I'm not sure, now, how long that journey took – three days and two nights, I think – but rarely has a destination been so welcome, or a journey so unenlightening. Except, I suppose, into the ways of underpaid men in uniform. Admittedly, I did also see some spectacular fireworks as we finally emerged from the claustrophobia of the Simplon Tunnel, although on reflection I'll never be sure on which side of my exhausted eyelids that was really happening.

Mass travel and tourism are clearly Bad Things, environmentally-speaking, and charges of hypocrisy or elitism may embarrass a few, like me, into travelling less, but will not dent the scale of the industry. Regrettably, it's unlikely that even the experience of Covid will disconnect the idea of "holiday" from "faraway destinations" in most people's minds. Quite the contrary: the wheelie-bag [2] hordes will flood onto whatever absurdly cheap flights are on offer as soon as the boarding gates re-open. "We've earned it!", they will claim. The idea that the world is essentially a leisure resource has taken root, and "two weeks of sunshine abroad" has become an entitlement, virtually a right, that every first-world citizen expects to indulge freely; more freely even than the right to vote.

That expectation has been embedded deep in our minds by the holiday and air industries, of course. I don't watch much TV, but whenever I happen to wander into our capacious media suite I seem to see adverts featuring young people in swimwear on a palm-fringed beach that is definitely not in Dorset, or some model pretending to be a typical cabin-crew member on some budget airline. Even the weather reports on Sky News are sponsored by Qatar Airways ("Hate your filthy climate? It's time to get up, up, and away!"). In the end, the only realistic solution must be to require airlines – indeed, all forms of transport powered by fossil fuels – to charge the full, realistic cost of travelling from A to B, including some sort of "green travel tax". And, yes, that will probably return air-flight to the luxury category my father experienced, and perhaps the endless lines of hitchhikers will reappear outside major cities once more, all waiting for the next driverless electric car to appear on the sliproad, and – if "hitchhiker mode" has been turned on – for the algorithm to decide which hopeful to pick up.

1. Tip: Don't let the mad photographer carry the tickets, then the rest of you can just walk away. Alternative tip: Photographer, make sure you have the tickets, then they can't abandon you.
2. It was many years before we realised that "trundler" was a coinage only understood within our family to mean "wheeled luggage"; nobody else had a clue what we were talking about.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Evolver Prize

 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!

Sadly, Covid has meant the exhibition is being shown in virtual form only, from 6th January to 6th March, but it has been done rather well, and you can see it here. It shouldn't be too hard for regular visitors to spot my contribution.

It goes without saying that Covid has trashed the hopes, expectations, employment, and earnings of anyone connected with the arts and entertainment world. I don't have the figures to hand, but "the arts" – considered broadly to include music and theatre – contribute many times more to the national economy than a tiny, almost entirely symbolic industry like fishing. And yet Brexit talks went to the wire over fishing rights, and failed completely to agree the sort of "passport" that would enable, say, musicians to tour in Europe. 

On which subject, I heard a brilliant phrase coined on Friday morning. The bass player of Radiohead, Colin Greenwood, was being interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme about the cancellation (yet again) of the Glastonbury Festival. He talked about the absolute necessity for many months of advance notice and planning in order to organise a successful band tour or festival, and how the last-minute approach to decision-making and legislation of the Johnson government – as evidenced by their handling of the fishing industry – made this impossible. Hence all the cancellations. He then said, "We seem to be governed by essay crisis at the moment".

Government by essay crisis! I love that: it encapsulates so neatly the kind of casual, reluctant, over-confident, late-night, last-minute approach that Johnson and his half-baked crew take to their meddling in our lives, and also exemplifies the kind of person who seems to get involved in senior Tory politics. Essay crises are not restricted to the ancient universities, of course, but it's a very Oxbridge syndrome, resulting from a combination of the need to submit two or more essays a week in tutorials with a conviction in one's own capacity to deliver them to an adequate standard with minimal effort. Which is fine when it comes to your own undergraduate studies, but not when it comes to other people's lives and livelihoods.


Tuesday, 19 January 2021

All Together Now

Suddenly, there came a cry from the crows nest: "Ahoy! Memes off the starboard bow!" Then, looming out of the fog covering the trackless ocean that is social media, there they were, like a flotilla of ghost ships crewed by disembodied heads singing as one: it seems sea shanties have become A Thing. On TikTok, too, whatever that is. Shiver me timbers! I think any old webdog could be forgiven for exclaiming: Haul about, shipmates! All hands to the blogpost [1], and heave!

A lot of the attention to the phenomenon of "ShantyTok" has focussed on Scottish postman Nathan Evans and his rendering of "The Wellerman", but these viral things rarely have quite such a neat origin story. For some reason the sharing of sea shanties via social media has met some deep-seated need, probably not unconnected with the isolation imposed by Covid, but possibly also to do with the corruption of honest simple truths in these Trump years, the continuing substitution of "McJobs" for real work, and perhaps even the exclusive, unattainable polish of slick studio music. Take this, another extraordinary example, from Bristol-based folk outfit The Longest Johns, with its hundreds of participants. Isn't that something? Although, to be honest, I'm not sure what.

I have always enjoyed sea shanties myself, and feel a deep, if entirely illusory connection to the world and worldview embodied in them. AFAIK there have been no sailors, dockers, or fishermen in my family, but the "folk revival" of the 1950s and 60s planted songs of the sea deeply into the curriculum of British primary education. We sang sanitised versions of them in school music lessons – songs like "Donkey Riding" ("Were you ever in Quebec?") or "Drunken Sailor" – and older Brits will only have to think of the theme tunes to the BBC's children's flagship Blue Peter or Captain Pugwash to feel the salt stir in their veins.

It must have been around 1969 when I first ventured into a folk club which was situated in the upstairs room of the Red Lion, a pub on the High Street of Stevenage New Town's "old town". The second folk revival was by then well under way – the one that gave us John Martyn, Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and a hundred other bands and singer-songwriters – but communal singing of shanties was still a feature of the evening's entertainment, usually led by some accountant or teacher in a distressed Aran sweater and playing a button accordion. Once you had overcome the initial embarrassment, it was actually a fine thing to feel part of such a rowdy choir. I have never been to a football match at a large stadium, but I imagine the feeling there is similar, and amplified 1000-fold. Sadly, although there are still a few such occasions when a like-minded crowd will raise their voices in full-throated song, pretty much everywhere else communal singing is a thing of the past. Which reminds me of a post I wrote way back in 2009, which I shall now proceed to incorporate in a modified form.

Back then I had been hearing a song called "Roots" by a folk duo called Show of Hands. It's a very catchy, shanty-inflected song, with lyrics that caught my mood at the time: basically, a feisty lament for the way we English have lost touch with our own native musical traditions, and by implication our national identity. Apparently it was written in reaction to the then Labour Culture Minister Kim Howells' remark that his idea of hell was three folksingers from Somerset in a pub.

After the speeches, when the cake's been cut
The disco's over and the bar is shut
At christening, birthday, wedding or wake
What can we sing 'til the morning breaks?

With the Indians, Asians, Africans, Celts
It's in their blood, below their belt
They're playing and dancing all night long
So what have they got right that we've got wrong?
As a veteran of the folk scene myself, it spoke to me very clearly. "You need roots" asserts the chorus; yes, indeed. But the more I thought about it, the more suspicious I became of the feelings the song aroused. The reason we have had at least four "folk revivals" in this country is that the patient is, frankly, dead. And every time we bring it back, it's a bit more of a Frankenstein zombie. And I'm also always uncomfortably aware that in Russia "rootless cosmopolitans" was Soviet-era code for "Jews".

The English folk scene nowadays, lacking the continuity once provided by the likes of the Copper family, for which even the Carthy/Waterson dynasty is no substitute, is about as authentic as chicken tikka masala. Which is to say, it's a perfectly decent reflection of our own times, but has little or no connection with the motivations and experiences behind the original source material. Some might say it was ever thus, and that continual renewal is precisely the point. But to claim these songs as "ours" and thereby somehow intrinsic to our national identity is to raise Balkan and reactionary questions about race, land, culture, and belonging. Let's be honest: for anyone born post-1945, "Smokestack Lightning" is even more "ours" than "Cold Haily Windy Night"; and "Smokestack Lightning" is not "ours" at all. We're all rootless cosmopolitans now.

So it didn't surprise me at all when I heard that Show of Hands had been obliged to take legal action to have their song removed from a video put out by the extreme right-wing British National Party. Well, of course. Billy Bragg and Show of Hands might talk of "taking back" the Union Jack and the flag of St. George, but – come on – does anyone really want them back, knowing where they've been? The fact is that the strong emotions aroused by talk of "roots" and "tradition" may be real, but they are not progressive, in the sense that they will not take us forward from here – this imperfect but really rather not at all bad place we call "England" – to an even better place.

In fact, when you think about it, isn't England leading the world in its casting off of the trappings of nationalism? Have we not perhaps muddled through to a society strong enough in its self-acceptance to find itself ludicrous, and post-modern enough to enable millions of Pick'n'Mix identities to rub along together? After all, why do so many people with rather different roots find this a congenial place to come and live? It sure as shepherd's pie ain't the food (though chicken tikka masala was definitely a step forward, except as a flavour of crisps). And why do so many of us not really mind all that much if they do come here? Apart, that is, from a few boneheads with a thing about the dilution of our mongrel "blood" and the preservation of "traditions" most of them are too ignorant even to identify.

I'd go so far as to say that I think the urge to poke fun at morris-men and all such solemn attempts to re-invent "traditions" is, ironically, one of the genuine and life-enhancing legacies to be found in our interesting island's sea-chest. It's our insurance policy against Kultur-peddling Nazis. Remember the 1983 film The Ploughman's Lunch? Scripted by Ian McEwan, it used the "ploughman's lunch" – an allegedly "traditional" meal of bread, cheese, and pickle sold in pubs, but which was actually invented within living memory as a marketing ploy for cheese – as a metaphor for the continual and self-serving rewriting of history by our masters, something we have every right to be cynical about.

Of course, apart from a few peculiar backwaters like Rottingdean, the singing of folksongs (other than in folk clubs) died out in most of England so long ago that no-one can actually remember when. People have always sung together, of course. In the late 70s my partner and I used to drink most nights in a pub called The Phoenix in Bristol: on certain weeknights the entire pub would resound with the communal singing of about thirty or forty well-oiled senior citizens. I never did hear them sing a single "traditional" song, though, whereas "Delilah" would reliably raise the roof. No longer: subsequent generations have lost the taste for the singalong, and that is something to be regretted.

This has less to do with a lack of "roots" or national identity, though, than it has to do with the professionalisation and monetisation of entertainment, and the consequent embarrassment of being a less-than-perfect imitation of some highly-polished act. Music has become something we buy, rather than do or share. Sadly, you'll never hear supermarket workers singing shelf-stacking shanties as they work, or the girl at the till lamenting her lost love. At least, not in England, and even if you did there would probably be complaints.

But to return to the ShantyTok phenomenon. It might seem, at first glance, like a promising revival of communal singing: you can all join in! But the sight of all those isolated faces singing into their phones is really much more a sad reflection of contemporary life, with or without Covid, isn't it? It has the vibe of one of those artificial charity events where a string of celebrities each contribute a pre-recorded line or verse of a song. And no-one on TikTok will ever get to feel the vibration of many other voices raised in song deep in their own chest, that profound feeling that hovers somewhere between tears and laughter.

As to where all this started, not so long ago a butch bunch of singing Cornishmen – most of whom actually know one end of a boat from the other – made a splash in the folk world and beyond by singing sea-songs as The Fisherman's Friends (which happens to be the name of a well known brand of throat lozenge in the UK: we do love our self-deprecating irony on these islands). So if I wanted to identify the place where the current shanty craze first broke out, I think I might be taking a closer look at somewhere like Port Isaac in North Cornwall before wasting too much time searching the doldrums of TikTok. They've even gone and made a film about them, haven't they? And guess who it is singing the rousing chorus on Show of Hands' "Roots"?

1. Traditionally pronounced "bloggust".

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Let There Be Light

You can fairly accuse me of many things in this blog, but going on about the latest photographic gear is not one of them. Other blogs and webzines, of course, exist for no other reason, and some sites I could mention regularly resort to gear-talk as a lazy – perhaps desperate – form of clickbait. As many have pointed out, taking photographs and window-shopping for photographic kit are actually two quite different, perfectly legitimate activities that only partially overlap. I hear the same is true in other "creative" fields such as craftwork and painting, and this is understandable: the two aspects of such activities are linked but easily separated, and can be discussed in their own distinct idiolects. This is not universally the case, though: I'd be amazed if there was anything like the Web or social media presence devoted to, say, the actual experience of driving as there is to comparing and bloviating about the latest vehicles. A post on "The three-point turn: how I done it good" (as one of my sometime work colleagues would have parodied it) is unlikely to attract much attention.

So bear with me if, for once, I make a little excursion into gearhead territory.

When it was first announced as a project back in 2015, the "Light" camera seemed very much like the polite cough of The Future of Photography introducing itself. I was immediately intrigued. It was already clear that smartphones had supplanted "real" cameras in the life of ordinary citizens, and I had read a number of articles about the potential of computational photography to transform the photographic scene in the way digital cameras had already done. After all, most "serious" digital cameras were still really film cameras by other means. Most people would be hard put to tell the difference between a film SLR or rangefinder and its digital equivalent: same shape, same lenses, same bulky weight dangling around your neck. Unlike the telephone, the universal symbol for "camera" carried (and still carries) no real sense of obsolescence or quaintness.

This conservatism in design was not just a reluctance to embrace novelty or, more practically, a desire to preserve long-established families of lenses. The physics of optical design impose certain inevitable constraints of size and configuration on any device constructed around a bulky tube of glass lens elements intended to project an image onto a receptive surface. Also, the physics of that receptive surface itself mean that there is a direct correlation between its size and the quality of the resulting image. As with film, a bigger digital sensor means a better photograph, if detail, sensitivity, and an absence of "noise" are your priorities over simple convenience. Which, in turn, means bigger lenses. Or so ran the conventional wisdom. It seemed the engineers at Light were pioneering a radically different approach.

I'm not going to explain that approach here (not least because I barely understand it myself: try this), other than to say that the camera they designed, eventually known as the Light L16, is essentially an Android device – a non-phone phone, if you like – which captures the simultaneous exposures of ten out of an array of sixteen (sixteen!) small phone-type imaging devices, five of which are fixed at (the equivalent of) a focal length of 28mm, another five at 70mm, and a further six at 150mm. These overlapping small images are bundled into a "raw" file which must then be exported from the camera onto your computer and stitched together in Light's proprietary software Lumen to form a further single high-resolution image, which in optimal cases can be as high as 52 megapixels and which, despite being captured wide open at a fixed f/2.0, ends up by default at f/15, giving a handily deep depth-of-field. Don't ask me how. You can also change the DOF in the Lumen software; again, don't ask me how. This whole complex engineering miracle is crammed into a chunky but compact package (about 6" x 3" x 1") with no lensy projections or fiddly knobs at all other than the recessed power and shutter buttons – it's entirely operated by a touch-screen – and is covered on both sides by smooth, robust Gorilla Glass, like a fat, high-end phone. Nice!

As I say, I was intrigued, and signed up for Light's newsletter. Sadly, things did not go well. The launch of the Light L16 camera was delayed for several years, and the gap filled with the kind of repetitive puff and hyperbole ("The death of the DSLR is imminent!") that always conceals difficulties, whether technical, financial, strategic, manufacturing, or corporate. The newsletter went ominously quiet quite quickly. When the camera did eventually arrive in late 2017, it was far too expensive (around £2000) and received at best lukewarm and at worst hostile reviews. It didn't seem to deliver on the hype, sold poorly, and the company abandoned it at the end of 2019. End of story.

However... A certain number of them are still out there, and can now be bought second-hand at a much more reasonable price from the kind of early-adopter willing to drop £2K on a novelty and quickly move on the next Big Thing (reminder: "taking photographs and window-shopping for photographic kit are actually two quite different, perfectly legitimate activities that only partially overlap"). The L16 had been foolishly over-hyped and marketed variously as a journalist's tool, or a high-quality snapshot camera, or a "street" camera, or a substitute for a DSLR, none of which it proved to be, due to various quirks and shortcomings, hence the poor reviews and sales. But: what it is, in reality, is an innovative, proof-of-concept device that is as convenient and useable as a smartphone, but only if you are into the slower, more considered aspects of photography, not looking for instant results, prepared to work with and at times work around a quirky piece of apparatus, and don't mind going through a slightly cumbersome workflow to achieve the best outcomes. Bearing in mind that some people are prepared to use sheet film or even wet-plates in a view camera, develop and print the resulting negatives in a darkroom using noxious chemicals, all in pursuit of a certain perceived quality, then by comparison getting to grips with the Light L16 seems relatively straightforward and painless. Assuming, of course, that the Light's combination of convenience and quality hits the spot for you.

So, yes, I have bought one to play with, and, yes, I am aware that support for both hardware and software is now non-existent, but I am still intrigued and sufficiently impressed by the results so far, despite the current lack of opportunity to get out in the landscape where – I hope – the thing will come into its own. I'll keep you posted. If nothing else, this feels like the future, and it's clear that smartphones that already incorporate some less ambitious version of multi-lens computational photography are coming from the other direction to put the squeeze on conventional cameras. Although the day when I would ever pay over £1K for a phone like the iPhone 12 Pro Max because of its photographic potential is still very far away indeed, especially when – hilariously – the equivalent of a 65mm focal length lens in its three-lens camera array is branded by Apple as a "telephoto".

Tiny detail of the photo above viewed 1:1 at 52MP.
Printed at 300 ppi this would cover 9x6 cm of the whole at 70x50 cm.

Same day, a dull January morning threatening rain.
(Cropped square, converted to monochrome and toned).

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

A New Year


Christmas Day

Yes, yes, I realise New Year's Day was nearly a week ago, and Christmas two weeks ago, but I did warn you that the interval between these posts was going to increase. Besides, this blog isn't a newspaper; if you want to keep up with current events I hear the BBC does a pretty good job, and if for some bizarre reason you need access to my hectic appointments schedule then you should subscribe to the Idiotic Hat Lockdown Circular, which can be nailed onto your door or handed over by our exclusive six-foot-cleft-stick service for a modest, non-returnable fee, payable one year in advance by direct debit. Or, under the current circumstances, in exchange for a negotiable quantity of toilet rolls and / or hand sanitizer. Only the good stuff, though: I'm beginning to suspect that the sanitizer offered as you enter a supermarket is really just hair gel. Certainly, if you rub it in your hair – often the only way to get your hands dry – the styling effect can be dramatic.

Anyway. By bending some rules and generously interpreting various guidelines we succeeded in escaping from Southampton and spending Christmas in Dorset with our daughter (spirited away in a carefully co-ordinated, daring, and quite possibly irresponsible joint operation from an obscure carpark somewhere on the M25), but were unable to meet up with our son as originally planned, as his intended accommodation cancelled the booking when London went into Tier 4, and he had to remain in the capital. Then Southampton also went into Tier 4 while we were away, so our usual retreat to the Bristol flat at New Year seemed inappropriate, even for rule-bending, guideline-interpreting scofflaws like us. So we stayed at home, where it now seems we will be remaining until mid-February, at least.

Weather-wise, Christmas in Dorset was a game of two halves. Christmas Day dawned bright, still, and slightly frosty: we went over to Lyme Regis on Christmas Day (for exercise, honest!) and the afternoon was beautifully clear and sunlit, and the sea as calm as it is possible for the sea to be. Apart from a listless flipping and flopping at the very edge, there were no waves to speak of: it was like looking at a very large lake. Then Storm Bella blew in and by Boxing Day the waves were crashing magnificently onto the beach at Burton Bradstock. More exercise! Well, Exercise Plus: we had a superb takeaway lunch from the Hive Beach Café which had to be eaten in the car to get out of the blustery wind and seaspray, not to mention keeping a safe distance from the other exercisers-plus. I unreservedly recommend the Hive Beach Café if you're ever down that way: the Boxing Day takeaway special was beef brisket in ciabatta with a side of roast potatoes... Yum.

Christmas Day, Lyme Regis

27th December, Seatown

By contrast, New Year's Day in Southampton was pretty dreary: cold, dull, and overcast. Nonetheless, it is my habit to go out on the first day of the year and try to find one decent photograph, no matter what the weather. It was a bit more of a challenge this year, given the leaden skies, flat light, and general air of lassitude pervading everything, like a communal hangover. In the end, some semi-derelict garages and a post-Brexit-y council flat were the best I could do, but they seemed to capture the mood pretty adequately. I'd say "things can only get better", but after last year we should all know better than to tempt fate like that. I think it's OK to think it quietly to yourself, though, with fingers crossed and your spirit cautiously dialled to the setting "hope for the best, plan for the worst". Or, in its Gramscian version, "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will". [1]

New Year's Day, Southampton

1. According to subsection CMXVII (xiii) ii of chapter 47 of the Brexit document, all European-language quotations must now be provided in English translation, and any alternative British source, however dubious, given precedence where one is available. It's the law!

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Some Assembly Required


As I was counting the parts and contemplating the assembly instructions of an IKEA table last night, I was reminded of a favourite post from this time of year a few years ago. So I thought I'd revise it lightly, and re-post it, just like that recycled Christmas present that you were sure you had given a few years ago to the very same person you've just received it from. Here it is:

There's a film (I can't remember which) where someone says that Christmas, for them, always smells of oranges. For me, it always smells of Airfix glue. I always imagine thousands of small boys, high as kites on solvents, bent over plastic model kits on Boxing Day. That thought set me off down a very pleasant seasonal chain of associations, and I spent a couple of idle hours googling in the World Wide Curiosity Shop – surprisingly successfully – for items from my own personal remote past. It's shocking, really, how much easier it is to retrieve trivia like toys from oblivion than it it is to find, say, the actual friends you used to play with.

Anyway, think of this as an Idiotic Hat Christmas Special, reeking of butanone. I'm pretty sure my very first "plastic assembly kit" was a Frog brand WW2 propeller-driven American fighter aircraft, the Republic Thunderbolt, which someone must have bought me for Christmas around 1960. Going on six years old, I was clearly too young to build it unaided. It was the sort of unthinking present for a minor relative that is snatched off a peg in Woolworth's at the last minute (well, we've all been there). Nevertheless, it happened to spark a lasting enthusiasm.

My father, being a practical man with a love of engineering, was only too ready to help. He was still young enough to feel the attraction of toys, and he liked the novelty and precision of combining the tiny plastic pieces into "assemblies", in a way which mimicked real-world engineering. I adored my father, and we spent many happy hours hunched over the dining room table together, sticking Part A to Part B. I think those times, with him patiently explaining the differences between jet and prop-driven aircraft, or the significance of the wooden construction of the De Havilland Mosquito, were probably the closest moments we ever spent together. There was also the added thrill of learning that the tiny 1:72 representation in his hands was the self-same Stuka dive-bomber or Messerschmitt ME-109 that had attacked him repeatedly and in deadly earnest on the beach at Dunkirk or driving through the Western Desert 20 years previously. I have no idea how he really felt about this, but he didn't seem to take it personally. [1]

Above all, there was the shared satisfaction of getting it right. My Dad was a bit of stickler for doing things properly, and model-making was an ideal opportunity to induct me into the ways of bloke-ish perfectionism. To blow gently on a propeller and see it spin freely, or to get the undercarriage to set at just the right springy angle, or even simply to attach a cockpit canopy of clear plastic without smearing it with gluey fingerprints was, I came to see, a source of deep and lasting satisfaction. After a couple of years, I was ready to go solo. But we kept up our Christmas ritual for many more years. One of my most-anticipated presents would always be a special model kit, which we would make together over the long holiday afternoons. I can still remember most of them: the Red Knight of Vienna, a Bald Eagle with spread wings atop a mountain peak, a Kodiak Bear's head, a Mammoth Skeleton (crikey, that one was fiddly!), the Revell HMS Beagle, a pair of duelling pistols and, our final outing together in 1968, the Revell 1:32 "Werner Voss" Fokker DR1 Triplane. After that, girls and records were all I wanted at Christmas.

It's only in retrospect that I realise the intensity of my engagement with this hobby; not so much with the objects themselves, but with the processes and peripherals. I came to love the analytical flair and representational clarity of a good sheet of instructions, for example, and still do. No words needed. [2] Is there anything more insightful, more brilliant in its just-right simplicity, than a carefully-drawn "exploded" view? If nothing else, it was all a good preparation for IKEA self-assembly furniture in adult life, I suppose. But I think you learn a lot about analysing a problem from such things: how a large problem can be broken down into its constituent parts, and how these parts relate to each other, and in what order various processes must be completed. This is not trivial stuff.

There is also poetry and art in model-making. There is the rich vocabulary of engineering in miniature: fuselage, nacelle, chassis, strut, cockpit, canopy, sprue, sprocket, propeller and aileron. Wonderful, evocative, precisely-meaningful words. Done properly, you also learn, literally and metaphorically, what is "fitting" and what is not. You learn the functional poetry of form, you acquire the ability to interpret and honour the intentions behind a design, and – in time – you learn the pleasure of going beyond those intentions to create something new, even if it is merely to paint your Spitfire pink. You also come to appreciate the artistry of the original model maker, too, as well as the finer points of manufacture. The better modellers pay close attention to matters of texture, surface, volume, and moulding, and the better manufacturers manage to convey all this in pieces of mass-produced injection-moulded plastic.

My own favourite thing was often the little sheet of transfers (decals) that came with most kits, to enable insignia and other markings to be added to the model. These were often masterpieces of design and, before they were cut up, items of pop art in their own right; variations in branding (nationality, arm of service, etc.) might have to be accommodated on the same sheet, resulting in complex, interlaced layouts with exciting bold patterns of echoes and symmetries. But for sheer, open-mouthed, pre-teen, gawping pleasure, there is little to beat the magnificence of model "box art", depicting the aircraft or vehicle in question imagined in context – guns blazing, soaring through clouds, or crashing through mountainous waves, with every strut and rivet correctly placed. As with movie posters, an evocative painting can seem so much more enticing than a bland photograph of the box contents. All model-making requires a significant investment of imagination to make the thing come alive, and box art is the nudge that most of us need. I understand that artists like Roy Cross, Jo Kotula, Jack Leynwood, Brian Knight, and many others are much admired and collected. Google their names and you'll see why.

Then, of course, there's that glue. Or rather, "polystyrene cement", for as any fule kno plastic kits are welded together by melting the plastic in a solvent, rather than "stuck". Hence that never-forgotten sensation of sliding a lug into an aperture that had seemed too snug before applying the lubricating solvent [That's enough of that! Santa's elves are getting the giggles. Ed.]. Hence also those disfiguring fingerprints gluey young fingers can leave etched into a smooth wing or subtly rippled ship's sail. So I suppose at least some of the absorbed contentment of those long-ago Christmas holiday afternoons may have been due to being "glue happy". Some, but by no means all. In more recent years I rediscovered that very same sensation of shared concentration, when helping my son with his own favourite Christmas treat: an enormous Lego set, preferably Star Wars related, with a fiendishly baroque complexity of construction. Lego, of course, being famously glue-free.

In the end, happiness is happiness, however achieved, but "getting in the zone" of absorbed concentration is one of its truest and most rewarding forms. I hope that you, too, have managed to find some spells of true contentment yourself, by whatever means necessary or available, over these end-of-year holidays and will throughout the coming New Year. I think we've all earned it. But now, excuse me, I've got a table to assemble.

1. Buying Japanese goods was a different matter. Most Burma veterans seemed to feel similarly. Dad would have loved to have driven an Audi, if he could have afforded it, but you couldn't have given him a Honda, free.

2. Just as well: in my "girls and records" years, I had a good friend who was still building models, and he was keen on the classy Japanese imports that were coming onto the market in the late 1960s. We would have hysterics trying to understand the Japlish instructions concerning "supu-rocket wheels" (sprocket wheels) and the like. They were great kits, but it was a good thing I wasn't asking my father to buy any of them for Christmas.