Saturday 29 May 2021

All the Fun of the Fair

The weather has suddenly "improved" [1] and as I'm two weeks past my second anti-Covid inoculation [2] I set out on Thursday, fortified with my new superpowers, for an afternoon walk on Southampton Common, there to mix freely and fearlessly with the Common people. These are usually mainly dog-emptiers [3] and joggers but, with the University back in action and the sun out, there were also a lot of young folk chasing balls and generally lazing about. It's amazing how much knowledge you can apparently absorb passively from sunshine [4]. Perhaps the pursuit of wisdom is why so many of us seem so desperate to assert our human right to a couple of weeks on a sunny beach somewhere overseas. It couldn't be that we're just a bunch of selfish, self-indulgent, entitled, first-world idiots with no sense of proportion or propriety, could it?

After walking for a bit I realised I was becoming aware of a strangely familiar sensation. No, not stepping in dog shit, or even envy for the youth of the youthful (although I am increasingly perplexed by the abundance of gym-honed bodies – nobody went to the gym in my day – together with what we used to be allowed to call "very fat people", also pretty much unheard of back then; autre temps...). No, it was that thing you first feel reverberating in your chest: that unmistakable feeling that someone, somewhere is playing bass-heavy music, or possibly dropping rocks from a great height into an enormous metal skip. Boom! Boom! Followed by muffled scraps of amplified voice – "One two! One two!" – and smears of indeterminate instrumental sounds blowing on the breeze. It could only mean one thing: an open air event, possibly a music festival. My pace quickened, as if I already had a ticket for whatever it was in my back pocket, and I made my way through various familiar wooded shortcuts to the large open space where such events are always staged on the Common.

It turned out not to be a music festival, though, but a bank-holiday weekend funfair. Disappointing, but nonetheless a photo opportunity. Also, on reflection, clearly a potential Covid super-spreader event: what on earth were they thinking? Mind you, with entry set at twenty pounds for twelve tokens ("most rides & attractions one token") I can't see this being exactly packed out, even on a sunny Sunday afternoon. These things always used to be free, but I realise I've already complained about that before; in fact, now I come to re-read it, it seems I've already written in that 2018 post on "festivals" exactly what I intended to write today, so I won't bother to repeat myself: just follow the link if you're interested.

I must admit it might be fun to watch socially-distanced dodgems, or a Covid-secure coconut shy, but not for twenty quid. In fact, what I enjoy most about fairgrounds (and TBH I've never really enjoyed fairs since the time my date threw up all over my lap in a particularly bumpy ride) is the view from behind the garish facades, where the ride owners have their trailers and trucks, and the real life of the fairground folk goes on, whether working, taking a break, or hanging out the washing to dry.

1. One of my pet peeves is the way weather forecasters on the media salt value terms into their meteo-gabble – a "far nicer day spreading from the west", "some lovely sunshine", etc. Hey, I'll be the judge of whether this is going to be a nice day or not, thanks very much!
2. Another thing: the way "jab" has established itself as the accepted term for an injection. I suppose it is easier to spell and to say, but it's as if "quack" had become the standard way of referring to a doctor, or "quid" had replaced "pound" on the BBC news.
3. Yet another peeve, this time actually about pets: suddenly it seems that a dog is becoming a mandatory accessory, particularly those stupid little lapdogs that have lost all gene-memory of ever having been wolves, and are now more like animated soft toys. My daughter will probably never forgive me for refusing to get her one, but I knew I'd still be picking up the damn thing's excrement today, while she's off enjoying her grown-up life in London. Man, I thought I was turning into a grumpy old sod, but maybe I always was...
4. In my student days knowledge was absorbed passively by falling asleep on an open book at 3 a.m., or by bending over a photocopier. I know: four footnotes in one paragraph! Is this a record?

Tuesday 25 May 2021

The Proverbs of Hell

For me, the last week or two have turned out to be a time for harvesting some of the fruits planted during lockdown, if I can get away with using such a hackneyed agricultural metaphor. Since the first indications that something unusually unpleasant was heading our way back in the early months of last year, like everyone else I've been spending a lot more time at home than usual. More untypically, perhaps, I've been able to put this time to good creative use, although there have been many hours of staring out of the window, too; the two are not necessarily unconnected, of course.

Now that I look back, I discover that during this period I have managed to accumulate at least four substantial and coherent bodies of work that can now be assembled into book sequences, plus a whole lot of stuff that has no obvious connection with anything else as yet. For obvious reasons, fresh photography as such has had to take a back seat to the sort of digital imaging that can be made by playing around with what is already in the bag. Some of this stuff has turned out pretty well, too, I think. It would be nice to get an exhibition somewhere, sometime, if only to get a sense of what other people might make of it all, but I have to grudgingly accept that 67-year-old, white, heterosexual, cis-gendered men are not where the smart crowd are looking for inspiration these days. Too bad. I yam what I yam, as Popeye used to say [1].

To my surprise, I have already received copies of the little Framework "booklet" I produced using Zno, which is much quicker than I had expected, and I'm bowled over by their quality and impact: they are superbly well-made, and a real pleasure to look at and to handle. Quite apart from the printing, which is spot on, I particularly like the thick pages and the way they fold out flat like a child's board-book, as well as the very tactile quality of the covers. So I thought: what else do I have that would suit that format? It took a while before I remembered one of these lockdown projects I had all but forgotten about, despite the intensity of my engagement with it at the time: the set of illustrations to William Blake's "Proverbs of Hell" that I was making back in November 2020. But it took just one very rainy afternoon to put together a selection of twenty paired illustrations (out of eighty or so) and assemble them into a slightly larger 8" square "layflat" booklet of ten double spreads. It's easy enough to do, using the downloadable templates that Zno provide. Here are some sample pages:

Blake is not as fashionable now, I suspect, as he was back in the 1960s and 70s. Even then, most people, myself included, engaged with him at a fairly superficial level as a sort of honorary stoner, a freak avant la lettre, a prophet of counter-culture. "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom"... Far out! "Every thing possible to be believ'd is an image of truth"... Right on! There was an obvious convergence of some of Blake's more vatic utterances with the aphoristic graffiti of May '68 in Paris: sous les pavés, la plage! has a definite Blakean ring to it.

But a deeper engagement reveals a mind that is both profoundly strange and original – disturbingly so in places – but also very much of its time, one which channels certain currents in "outsider" thought into a complex and radical personal belief-system that seems to reach back through the revolutionary ideas then emanating from France and America to a persistent, dissident strand in English popular social and religious thought; the Levellers and Diggers of the English Revolution come to mind, or even the 14th century Lollards and the Vision of Piers Plowman. The Songs of Innocence and of Experience will always be Blake's "greatest hit", but of all his work I still find The Marriage of Heaven and Hell the most compelling – with its "Proverbs of Hell", "Memorable Fancies", and sly, provocative wit –  nearly 50 years since first encountering it.

So, yeah, just some pictures by some old white bloke about some other crazy dead white bloke. Big deal, boomer; don't call us, we'll call you. On the other hand, as WB says, "Listen to the fool's reproach! It is a kingly title!"

In the end, I liked what I had done with the Zno booklet well enough to duplicate it as a Blurb 7" square paperback – an ordinary "perfect bound" book, though, not their layflat option, which is prohibitively expensive – which you can see here: I've kept it as cheap as possible, but can do nothing about Blurb's exorbitant shipping prices: I do wish they'd realise what a deal-breaker these are, especially when the price of the item and the cost of shipping it are nearly the same. If, on the other hand, you might like a copy of the Zno version this will have to be bought direct from me, and you'll need to get in touch ASAP: some proof copies of this are now on order, and I'm thinking I may limit the edition to twenty-five copies only.

DWMs: WB top left

1.  In Exodus 3:14, IIRC. Or maybe it was this cartoon.

Thursday 20 May 2021

Framework poster

Here's a DIY accordion-style booklet of the Framework book on a poster. I can't imagine anyone actually going to the trouble of making it, though. As it says in instruction No. 6: Why not just leave it as it is? It looks better that way.

Sunday 16 May 2021


Front cover, spine, and back cover

There's a company called Zno in the US that makes a range of the sort of tasteful photographic albums, souvenirs, and keepsakes that are popular with PR people, wedding photographers, and the like. Their prices seem very reasonable to me, and their production values are high. I used them once, a couple of years ago, to produce a little "layflat" book – a smaller and actually rather nicer version of my Blurb layflat book Trine – and ever since they have emailed me a stream of updates and offers. Until now, I've not felt the need to use their services again.

However, they recently drew my attention to some new products, including a layflat "booklet", which looked interesting. So I knocked out a quick 16-page 6" x 6" booklet using some of my "frame" pictures, which are perfectly matched to the format. Here are all of the eight 12" x 6" double-page spreads:

Obviously, this item won't be available on my Blurb bookstore, unless I decide it's worth making a Blurb version (unlikely: these are far too expensive), and I don't suppose I'll be making them in any quantity. I've only just uploaded the page images and ordered five copies, and it will be some weeks before they arrive, but if you think you might be interested in one send me an email and, if they turn out to be of a suitable standard, we can come to some arrangement.

Tuesday 11 May 2021

Straight Outta Compton (Lock)

I'm continuing to look into the blog-emailing conundrum, but I'll soon have some useful things to report, I hope. I'm still trying to figure out how many of the 685 email subscriptions listed in the Feedburner "gadget" are actually genuine. About a tenth at most, would be my current estimate, and from the lack of concern expressed so far, I'd guess rather fewer than that are active. Who knows? There may yet be opportunity for my favourite "both of them" quip. Heh...

I can only assume that this unasked-for inflation is intended to boost my standing with potential advertisers – it's hard to see any other angle or interest that it would serve – which, if true, seems like another example of our contemporary culture of hype and bare-faced lies. Like crypto-currencies, the endorsements of "influencers" on social media, or absurdly-priced makeovers on Prime-Ministerial lodgings, it's just more fake value conjured out of a bottomless pit of self-willed credulity. See how many readers I can claim to have? Now give me money to advertise stuff nobody wants or needs!

In the meantime, I've been thinking about the photographic benefits of behaving like that questing vole I described in a recent post. I have long been in the habit of repetitively walking certain routes, and photographing whatever tasty scraps happened to attract my attention along the way. This custom began while I was at work: what better way to spend a lunch hour than to step out of the office into the fresh air, and inspect what the weather, time, and chance have wrought along a familiar path, like a trapper checking his traplines? Usually nothing much but, often enough, something. This is exactly how several of my first consciously-made exhibitions and book-sequences came about, most notably, perhaps, Pentagonal Pool, Elevation, and Curriculum. Retirement has simply meant that my traplines have been laid out within walking distance of our front door.

During the week my walks are mainly local and solo, but at weekends we tend to venture out together and to go a little further afield, but usually following the same approach: there are a number of circuits we do from various starting points within easy driving distance, all of which include a variety of reliable points of interest. One of these is the curious body of water known as Compton Lock on the Itchen Navigation canal, near Winchester. It's no longer a lock, in the technical sense of a place where canal traffic could be raised or lowered by flooding or draining an enclosed chamber, just a stretch of clear, fast-flowing water that cascades through a single remaining sluice, and which has spread out into a circular pool over the years. In summer it's a popular spot for bathing and picnics; in winter, not so much.

A couple of shots of Compton Lock appeared in my England and Nowhere book, which was itself the result of these vole-like perambulations (volambulations?) through the area surrounding St. Catherine's Hill:

Seven Blues, One Red

The Headless Man

Last Sunday the weather was wet and far from sunny (it was a bank holiday weekend, after all), so we expected to find Compton Lock empty. Instead, we found a local Fire & Rescue team practising, well, we weren't entirely sure what they were practising. It looked like some sort of witch-trial by water. We did ask, but the poor guy who had just been "rescued" from the bone-chilling water was barely able to speak.

Thursday 6 May 2021

Feed Me

It occurred to me that I had better look into this blog-feed business, just in case I needed to do something. I'd sort of assumed that anyone who wanted to could add the URL of this blog to their feed, and hey presto, job done! But, as someone who has had to deal with computers since 1978, the incredible naiveté of that assumption was obvious as soon as I thought it out loud. Yeah, right.

So, if you already have a blog-feed reader set up, it seems the simplest thing is for you to add one of the following URLs to your reader, depending on whether it uses the Atom or the RSS standards:

  • Atom 1.0:
  • RSS 2.0:

If that's you, give it a try, and let me know if it works.

However,  I thought I should probably do something for the more computer-challenged constituency who have been enjoying the email service (all 685 of them? As above: yeah, right). Foolishly, I thought this, too, would be straightforward, but it's not (is there a "yeah, right" emoticon?). It turns out that the single readily-available gadget is Blogger's own, which offers Atom, a standard feed, but not RSS, also a standard. I've no idea why not both. It also offers the two services netvibes and My Yahoo!, about which I know nothing, and which I would not encourage anyone to sign up for simply in order to read this blog. But that's all that is available on what is, after all, a free blogging platform: it seems that all non-Blogger gadgets, widgets, and wotsits (of which there used to be many, such as the soon-to-be-obsolete mail service in question) have vanished from the Blogger set-up interface since the recent redesign.

Having installed the Blogger feed, briefly, I found that when I clicked on it all I got was a massive barf of XML code (which is what Atom or RSS send to a feed-reader). So I immediately took it off again. There's no way a naive user could be confronted with that and think, as I did, "Aha, this is a stream of XML code, and probably needs to be captured by something...  I wonder if my web browser requires an extension?" They're far more likely to think, "WTF? This thing's broken my computer!" and panic. 

Obviously, any solution I offer has to accommodate the new-but-naive reader, the one who thinks, "I like this blog! I'll just click that button there so I can be notified of new posts..." At which point, said new-but-naive user will inevitably be thrown into confusion if they are immediately overwhelmed by yards of computeroid gobbledegook. Because, as far as I can tell, none of the commonly-used web-browsers is equipped, by default, to handle the business of interpreting Atom or RSS XML feeds: you need to have chosen and added a third-party "extension" to your browser to enable this. But I suspect that this may be a step too far into techie territory for many. In the end, it's a conundrum: the only users who would be able to use a blog-feed would be those who are probably already doing so.

Annoying, isn't it? It seems I may have to investigate third party solutions. Or, possibly, it may be time to consider a change of blog provider. Sigh... This is just like being back at work. Mysterious barricades at every turn; incompatible user needs and demands; inadequate software; the best, as always, the implacable enemy of the good. Of course, if there really were 685 followers inconvenienced by the expiry of the email service, I'd spare no effort. But I suspect that the likes of Damaris Salazar and Maria Antolin that I identified in the previous post are mere constructs of some feed-boosting algorithm.

So speak to me, you real people, either by commenting or by private communication: how much of a problem will it be for those of you who have been receiving new posts by email to set yourself up with a blog-feed using the URLs above or, like me, simply to go vole every now and then? I have few enough readers not to want to lose any to simple inertia.

Wednesday 5 May 2021

The Curious Incident of the Vole in the Night-Time

Llandegley Rocks from Bryn y Maen

I recently received this notification from Blogger:

 FollowByEmail widget (Feedburner) is going away
You are receiving this information because your blog uses the FollowByEmail widget (Feedburner). Recently, the Feedburner team released a system update announcement, that the email subscription service will be discontinued in July 2021.
After July 2021, your feed will still continue to work, but the automated emails to your subscribers will no longer be supported.

The “widget” referred to is the box labelled “Follow this Idiot by Email”, top right on a PC. If I have understood correctly – and it's hard to interpret unambiguously the words "your feed will still continue to work, but the automated emails to your subscribers will no longer be supported" – new posts will no longer be emailed to subscribers after July this year. This is a shame, as I know some of my most loyal readers rely on the emailed version to alert them to new posts (which is also in some ways superior e.g. for viewing images). In fact, most of the comments I receive via email (rather than directly onto the blog) come from users of that service. So I thought I'd better check the list, and it seems I have 685 such email "subscribers", which is a bit of a surprise, but on closer inspection it's obvious that an awful lot of those are clearly fake, algorithmic mashups of real names masquerading as Outlook users. Oddly, these are often Hispanic: things like "salazarcxdamarisfgm" (¡Hola, Damaris Salazar!) or "antolinylwmariato" (¿Qué pasa, Maria Antolin?). Who knows why? Hopefully I'm not unwittingly involved in some elaborate criminal enterprise.

Other, more general blog feeds are available that will alert you to new posts on all the blogs you want to follow, of course, and I know many readers do use those: I don't, so can't make any recommendations. The irony is that both email followers and blog-feed users are probably any blogger’s most loyal readers, but never figure in the blog statistics unless they (you!) click through to the actual blog. I "follow" a certain number of blogs myself, obviously, but do so by plodding through each of them each morning to see what's new (often nothing, with honourable exceptions) simply by serially clicking on my bookmarks. Which is inefficient, I know, but it gives a certain structure to my early morning routine. Wake up to Radio 4, make tea, have breakfast, turn on computer, see what's been posted overnight on blogs in other time zones... If nothing does get posted on a blog for months, as so often now seems the case, I relegate that blog to "dormant, possibly extinct" status, but do still check in occasionally. Optimism, or a refusal to accept reality? Some might say they’re the same thing.

This dogged attachment to routine reminds me of a curious incident, or rather, series of incidents. I recently described the cottage near Presteigne in the Welsh Borders that belonged to my partner’s parents. One night around 1979 we were sitting by the fire, when I noticed something moving on the uncarpeted slate floor near my feet. It was a tiny vole. Oblivious to the lights, the fire, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the two seated humans, it made its way under my chair, across the room, and disappeared under the door to the hallway. Strange! The next night, at the same time, the same thing happened: the vole appeared from under the door on one side of the room, crossed the room, and vanished under the door on the other side of the room, utterly unbothered by our presence or scrutiny. The night after, the exact same thing: in, out, oblivious. No doubt it repeated this ritual circuit every night: after all, the variety of invertebrates that can be found within a cold, dark, damp country cottage located near a stream is surprising, and occasionally revolting. Unless you're a vole, of course.

Anyway, this is important: if you are currently receiving emailed versions of these posts, and wish to continue with an uninterrupted service, you will need to have made alternative arrangements by July. I suppose you could join me in my old-fashioned, vole-style (but statistically significant) bookmark-clicking, but I imagine that wouldn't be ideal for you, so you probably need to sign up for some sort of new-fangled blog-feed thingy (yes, yes, I know perfectly well how long RSS has been around). Alternatively, if you have not been finding the nourishment you seek here, invertebrate or otherwise, then this may be exactly the opportunity you need to quietly disappear under the door for the last time, never to return.

Near Pen Offa