Monday 31 January 2022

Ice Dream

So far, down here on the Channel Coast, we've been having a pretty mild winter. I mean, look at these two crazy people, splashing around in the Itchen late on a Sunday afternoon in January, as if it were July. Whoever started this "wild swimming" fad (probably Roger Deakin, and his book Waterlog) has a lot to answer for. [1] I think I've counted five mornings so far when there was frost on the lawn, and two when the car windows were iced up. In my memory, my working winter mornings seem to have involved an awful lot more scraping, cold-numbed fingers, and aching arm muscles.

It's a bit sad, really, when a bit of frost on the car first thing in the morning seems like a photo opportunity. I suppose I shouldn't complain, given the problems severe winter weather can bring – you've got to feel for those poor devils in the north-east and Scotland who have lost all power again, following yet another storm –  but a mild winter does make for dull photographs. So here is an image of someone comfortably asleep, dreaming of icier, snowy days.

1. Although the spectacle of  professor Alice Roberts taking to the water in a documentary on the subject did rather compensate, I have to admit.

Sunday 23 January 2022

Talking the Talk

In pursuit (I presume) of "diversity" and the ears of the young – not to mention fending off accusations of broadcasting exclusively for and by a "metropolitan elite" – BBC Radio 4 has been introducing more and more variations on accent and pronunciation – fine – but also intelligibility: not so fine. With the result that, without naming names, we now have a morning news presenter who gabbles like an over-excited teenager, a continuity person whose fruity bass rumble rattles the tea-cups but who badly needs remedial sessions with the Pronunciation Unit (sorry, there really is no such thing as the "Bayou Tapestry"), along with an assortment of croakers, growlers, and monotone mutterers, many of whom also haitch their aitches and throttle their glottals, because, like, it's what we do, you know, where I come from, so why should I change?

Superficially, I suppose, this might seem to be about social class. After all, what isn't? And why should anybody be required to change their native way of speaking? I set out my stall on the question of British accents and their relationship to class in the post Waterloo 2.0, back in the days when it was Brexit rather than COVID-19 that was monopolising the UK headlines. Nothing has happened since to change my mind on the subject of "posh" pronunciation (a dialect as distinct as, say, Geordie) and the way it is used to fudge the supposed links between high social class, ability, and "natural leadership"; Boris Johnson is something of a type specimen in that regard. But, despite my egalitarian instincts, I'm finding that the increased difficulty in understanding what some distinctly un-posh voices on the radio are actually saying is a problem for me. I concede that I have tinnitus and some hearing loss, it's true, but I have never had a problem understanding Paul Mason or Winifred Robinson, both of whose BBC careers have allegedly been affected by snobbery about their "regional" accents in the past (although the former's politics and the latter's kind nature may have been factors, too).

In a previous post, I mentioned an old work colleague who, like Winifred, was a proud Liverpudlian. Geoff was an educated and intelligent man, and for many years headed the University Library's archives and special collections. Like increasing numbers of people who came from "provincial" backgrounds in the post-War years, he had refused to play along with the presumption of institutions like universities and broadcasters that an educated person in a professional role ought to adopt the southern so-called "received pronunciation". Instead, he spoke with a distinctive but clear and easily understood accent we might describe as Degaussed Scouse. There was no doubt where he was from, but also no doubt about what he was saying.

It's easy to think of similar cases. Public figures like John Arlott, Harold Wilson, Melvyn Bragg, or Michael Parkinson all retained distinctive elements of their native speech – mainly the vowels – but took care to enunciate clearly the all-important consonants, to respect the spaces between words, and to speak in carefully weighted sentences. They also cultivated a pleasing and often idiosyncratic rhythm and musicality to their speech so that, as public voices, they would both be a memorable "brand" and a pleasure to listen to, not to mention prime material for impressionists and satirists.

Now, I might be accused of being a member of that reviled metropolitan elite myself these days, but I have never attempted to hide my tribal origins: I'm proud to be a product of the first and best New Town, a state-school, council-house, full-grant graduate of Britain at its best. I still speak with a smoothed-off version of the voice I grew up with, although I can shift registers when necessary: I'm a good mimic, and my parents and teachers always emphasised the importance of being able to "speak well" when required. That said, my mother had been a telephone switchboard operator in her youth, and was required to do that hilarious 1940s receptionist's voice ("Hellay, ken I hep you?"), and it embarrassed me deeply when she put it on for the benefit of teachers at school parents' evenings. But however carefully I speak – as I felt obliged to do when I used to give PowerPoint presentations or speak at conferences, for example – it's always pretty obvious that I'm faking it and, as I don't have a particularly attractive voice to start with, I'm pretty sure I would not enjoy listening to myself on the radio.

But here's the thing: it never once occurred to me to set my sights on a career in public broadcasting. Nobody ends up regularly on air on the BBC by accident or mistake, or without the deployment of sharp elbows and even the occasional sharper implement, slipped between the metaphorical ribs of real rivals. That so many people are now landing plum broadcasting jobs with the vocal equivalent of "a good face for radio" (a good voice for newsprint?) is baffling to me, given the fierceness of the competition. It's almost as if the possession of a suitable vocal talent is one of the least considerations on the interview panel's checklist. I must admit I cringe when I hear some prolier-than-thou reporter refer to the "Haitch Ah Department", or insert an over-emphatic glottal stop into the words "community" or "political". Most of all, though, I resent not being able to follow the argument of analysts who gabble and mispronounce and use annoyingly repetitive speech patterns. I keep finding my attention is being diverted onto the medium, not the message, by constant little flashes of annoyance.

I suspect my reaction is, as much as anything, an indicator of advancing age. Rather like my male work colleagues who began their careers in the 1950s and 60s and habitually wore a tie, both at work and at home and quite possibly in bed, it is inevitable that I have become a repository for attitudes and opinions that belong to my generation, seem a little antiquated now, and are no longer shared by the young. I am not writing this post on a phone or a tablet or even a laptop, for example, but on a proper desktop "tower" PC, with a separate screen, keyboard, and mouse, which dominates a large table populated by cabled accessories – printer, scanners, speakers, backup drives, etc. – in a cluttered room full of unmatched hand-me-down and junk-shop furniture, with piles of books and stacks of paper on every available surface, including the floor (it's no wonder we have silverfish), all calculated to trigger a panic attack in any style-conscious millennial. So, when it comes to the radio, I find I still want to hear broadcasters who have made the effort to craft their voice into a pleasing if idiosyncratic instrument of communication. I don't need it to be "posh", just pleasant to listen to; not so much an invisible servant to the content – who wants radio degree zero? – as its ideal companion. I also don't need to hear someone "relatable" (i.e. "just like me") to feel entitled to listen to a programme – is that really an issue for anyone? – and I definitely don't want to hear anyone pretending to be just like me.

Something of this generational divide pervades my reaction to art, too. I will never learn to love the sort of creative effort that foregrounds its lack of accomplishment as a hallmark of "authenticity", whether it be artless photography emulating a "snapshot" aesthetic, drawings that flaunt cack-handed draughtsmanship, paintings with zero paint-handling skill, or musicians with less than a full command of their instruments. Call me old-fashioned, but I admire skill, flair, and facility: as John Keats put it, "if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all". The assertion that "everyone is an artist", however well-intentioned, is surely as misguided as claiming that "everyone is a mathematician". Well, yes – I can just about work out what I will make after a gallery has deducted 40% commission plus VAT at 20% on a sale – but then again, no...

Skill, flair, and facility are not the same thing as "slick", though. I'm usually turned off by the sort of crowd-pleasing, easy-to-consume stuff that is merely a rehash of well-established conventions: the over-processed landscape photograph, for example, or the formulaic pop hit. If I've seen or heard it many times before, I really don't need to see or hear it yet again, just with added gloss and better packaging. It can be a thin line, though: Eddie Mair's confident patter, verging on the slick, was so much better to listen to on the afternoon news magazine programme PM than the stop-start wittering of Evan "um, er" Davis, despite the latter's superior authority in economic and political matters. I know, I know: it's hopeless, really, trying to satisfy both egalitarian and elitist ideals simultaneously. But that's the core dilemma of "meritocracy", isn't it? Which is a whole different subject, and probably best left to the likes of Michael Sandel.

So please, BBC, when recruiting new faces and voices, give some thought to why someone like David Attenborough is a living national treasure, and has been for over half a century. Is it because he is an ultra-posh toff with a commanding manner? No. Or is it because he is a salt-of-the-earth type, who likes to use demotic locutions, and is happy to f-bomb his commentaries ("Fuck me! Check the fevvers on that fuckin' parrot! Gorgeous, or what?")? Certainly not. Maybe it's because he is so relatable, someone "just like us", a really ordinary guy? Hardly. No, it is surely because, as senior ambassador for the natural world, he is transparently sincere, authoritative, and benign, and his entire personality embodies these qualities. But it is also not irrelevant that we can understand every word he says, and can enjoy (and even enjoy parodying) the unique way he has of saying them; it really does make all the difference. But again, "unique" is not the same thing as "weird": see Robert Peston or Jon Ronson [1].

So, look, why not bump "outstanding vocal talent" back up the person-specification interview checklist into the "mandatory" category, especially for talk radio? Regional accents are fine, but no more croakers, growlers, or mutterers, please... Oh, and whatever did happen to the Pronunciation Unit? Assuming it still exists, do you think we could get them to rule on and enforce the pronunciation of – just to pick a example at random – the name of the country that used to be known as Burma? Just a thought.

Tall tales of big feathers

1. Apologies to my non-British readers for all these names which probably mean nothing to you. I'm sure you can substitute your own examples, though.

Monday 17 January 2022

Avon Calling

[insert "ding, dong!" doorbell sound effect]

I know... But I've been resisting using that title for a blog post ever since we started spending more time in Bristol. Younger readers will not recall the TV adverts for Avon home-delivered cosmetics ("Ding dong! Avon calling!"), any more than – when they eventually come to discover The Clash – they are able to perceive the echo of "London Calling" with radio broadcasts during WW2, both out of London into Europe and into Britain by Lord Haw-Haw ("Germany calling"...). Time passes, and the felt resonances that are the invisible scaffolding of art become the stuff of scholarly footnotes. So it goes.

The idea of the receding echoes of passing time is very appropriate to my relationship with Bristol. The city has been a background constant in my life for a long time, although the longest I've ever actually lived there was a five-year period between 1977 and 1983 when I worked in the university library, interrupted by a year in London. My first ever visit, though, was pretty much exactly 50 years ago, early in 1972: I took a solo train journey there, all the way from my home town of Stevenage – it seemed quite an adventure at the time – in order to attend an interview for an undergraduate place in the university's English department.

I remember a very cold night in a hotel on St. Paul's Road behind the Victoria Rooms, followed by a friendly but probing interview with professor Henry Gifford, who seemed far more interested in my German than my English A-level studies, as well as my faltering efforts at learning Russian: I didn't know at the time that he was a pioneer of Comparative Literature, whose own keen interest in Russian literature would lead him to found the Russian department at Bristol. As it happened, it was the book purchases of that department that created a backlog of unprocessed Cyrillic acquisitions in the library, which in turn led to my eventual employment there in 1977 as a cataloguer equipped with that scant knowledge of Russian I had acquired at school. And, just to add another echo, I had spent the previous academic year studying Comparative Literature at UEA in Norwich, another city that has been a background constant in my life.

[insert a couple of "ping!" sound effects from "Echoes" by Pink Floyd]

Anyway, that's enough wandering down Memory Lane for one day (as usual, only to discover that it has now been re-routed through a new estate of houses and no longer leads to the echoing green but to a Tesco superstore). What I really want to describe is a Bristol-related project that has been accumulating in my files since we established a second base in the city in 2015, a flat in a building situated practically on the edge of its most spectacular feature, the Avon Gorge.

Whenever we spend time in our Bristol flat I usually end up taking a walk along the Gorge, either towards Clifton, where Brunel's famous suspension bridge is located, or towards Sea Mills, where the gorge opens out into a less dramatic valley, and the road and the railway to Avonmouth are conveyed over the mudflats of the Avon's tributary river Trym on two rather less elegant structures. Naturally, I take photographs as I walk, and have built up quite a solid collection over six and a half years. However, I'm wary of photographers who make work in landscapes they do not inhabit as a resident, and that includes myself.

In 2016, for example, I made a chastening calculation of actual time spent on our annual Easter visits to mid-Wales versus that of a pub landlord who had recently moved into the area: 

 Talking one night this Easter to the landlord of a pub who had taken over the premises just 18 months ago, having moved into Wales from Surrey, I had the unsettling revelation that in actual elapsed time he had already spent longer in the area than I had; seventy-five continuous weeks versus my sixty or so spread over thirty-five years. He might not yet have a clue about the local history or geography, and may never know very much about where he has fetched up – running a pub is not a job for anyone who values their leisure time – but he already has a greater stake in the local community than I will ever have. Does that also mean that the glorious ridge rising above and behind his pub, which I visit every year, and which he may never find the time to climb, is more "his" than "mine"?
(A Stranger Comes to Town, 23/10/16)

But no-one really inhabits the Avon Gorge. For locals it's primarily a landscape of transition, passed through when commuting into Avonmouth or into the city centre by road or rail, or briefly traversed when driving over the suspension bridge. For some it's a leisure resource: rock climbers learn the ropes on the cliff faces, and on many nights we have watched the flickering lights of daredevil mountain-bikers descending down steep tracks through Leigh Woods on the far side of the Gorge from the comfort of our flat. Then there are the peregrine-watchers, who regularly occupy a little rocky platform with their tripods and telescopes, and various other hobbyists, such as the cruisers and cottagers, in pursuit of chilly thrills under cover of darkness. But all of these folk, having done whatever they came to do, will go home to somewhere quite different within the city.

Consequently, I feel I am coming to know the area as well as it can be known, and that there is value in my particular take on the visual variety it offers. The challenge, as always, is what to do with a couple of hundred photographs, roughly linked by their geographical location, and not much else. In the run up to Christmas I had been experimenting with accordion-fold booklets made from cut-down A2 sheets (see You've Got To Know When To Fold Them), and the idea of a folded sheet of four A5 panels quickly emerged as both an efficient use of an A2 sheet divided in half, length-wise, and a handy way to show a mix of panoramic, portrait, and landscape oriented images. Better, once constructed as a single composite image, it could also either be printed by me, folded into four panels, and glued into an A4 cover as a handmade product, or uploaded as two facing A4 pages in a panoramic "layflat" book.

So, as I have long been an admirer of the genre established by Hokusai with his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji – followed by such projects as Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo [1], and Henri Rivière's Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower – I was initially tempted by the idea of "thirty-six views of the Clifton Suspension Bridge", using the "four A5 panels" layout. But, as so many of the better photos in my files do not include that particular landmark, I have now settled on aiming for Thirty-Six Views of the Avon Gorge. There don't have to be thirty-six, of course, although I doubt if there'll be one hundred. However, it's still very much a work in progress, so here are some sample spreads:

1. An extraordinary work of graphical inventiveness, and available as an incredibly good-value hardback book in Taschen's "Bibliotheca Universalis" series – highly recommended.

Monday 10 January 2022

Census Censure

 In common with a lot of people with a degree of curiosity about their family history, I recently signed up to get access to the online 1921 Census records, released this week. Sadly, this will be the last census to be made available in the likely lifetime of anyone over 60 (at least under the current 100 year rule) as the 1931 Census of England and Wales was destroyed by bombing in WW2, and there was no census in 1941 for obvious reasons.

The census is being made available exclusively by, who were contracted to do the scans and transcriptions, and I'm still getting to grips with the quirks and shortcomings of the user interface and indexing. However, the fact that the very first record I brought up had major transcription errors does not inspire confidence  – I'm sorry, but my grandfather did not share the middle name "Matilda" with his wife – as these transcriptions will be the basis of the indexing. Assuming this is human error, though, I suppose it should be more accurate, on the whole, than relying on the sort of automatic OCR that plagues newspaper digitisation.

Another problem is that it is impossible to see the street name or even partial content of household records beyond a list of names without paying £2.50 for a transcription or (more reliably) £3.50 for a scan of each household record, which puts severe limits on one's willingness to take stabs in the dark or to establish context – who were the neighbours? etc. – and what possible use is an "address search" that merely gives a list of house numbers in a street, with no indication of who lived there? I cannot imagine anyone would start randomly opening households in a typical city street, at £2.50 / £3.50 a shot.

Most of this came up as an issue with one of my first searches. My mother was born in 1923, but I was able to find my maternal grandparents easily enough and her older sister. To my surprise, they were living in a pub, the Seven Stars in Charlton, a tiny hamlet near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. One of the innovations of the 1921 Census was to include the name and address of a worker's employer, so a further surprise was to discover that my grandfather was working as a fitter in a "Portland cement" factory situated in some large chalk quarries at Arlesey, north of Hitchin. I was curious to know who else was living in the Seven Stars, but an "address search" failed to find anything at all. Despite being recorded as their address, it was not recognised as such by the indexing.

Moving on, then, I searched for my great grandmother, and quickly found her, too. She was living with her second husband George, the son of her first marriage Herbert, 20, her step-son Charlie, 23, plus her two children with George, Edna and Eric, 11 and 9 respectively. All the working age men were labourers, with Charlie working in a tannery (a notoriously stinky job). When I looked at the location, I was amazed to discover that they, too, were all living in the Seven Stars: all nine of them in three rooms, with one shared room, presumably a kitchen space of some kind.

Despite using large-scale contemporary Ordnance Survey maps (provided online by the National Library of Scotland), I could not identify the actual location of the Seven Stars.  As it happens, an old school-friend is a well-regarded researcher, writer, and blogger about the very important subject of beer, so I asked him what he knew. He replied almost instantly:

"In fact the Seven Stars closed that same year, 1921 - it was one of several places in the area that had their licences taken away by the licensing magistrates as "surplus". (This was a nationwide movement that had been going on since the early 1900s. Brewers paid into a fund to compensate pub owners whose pubs were closed.) The Seven Stars was only a beerhouse, that is, licensed to sell beer and cider only, not wines or spirits, and it was leased to the local brewer, Lucas of Hitchin (which closed itself a couple of years later after having been sold to Green's of Luton)."

However, he was also unable to locate it within the village. Not that it really matters: I have no intention of ever visiting the place.

It then occurred to me to look for great-grandmother Eliza's daughter Edith, who had married by 1921. The suspicion had begun to form that she and her family might also be hanging out in the same establishment. Perhaps her husband was the landlord? A search under her married name turned her up, born in – yes – Charlton. But the scan of the original document gave the location as "Great Green", not the Seven Stars. Ah, well; nice try. But where was that? It does not appear on even the most detailed contemporary OS map for Charlton.

Now, the only indication of the geographical location of an address on a scanned census document are the registration district (generally the nearest town), the sub-district (a number), and the enumeration district (another number). It is not entirely obvious how to interpret these, as there is no available index to consult. In fact, what you need to do is look at some supplementary scans that are made available free of charge as "Extra Materials": that is, the document's "cover" and "front", plus a couple of original annotated maps that do explain where a scan is located, but only if you're prepared to give them very close scrutiny; none of this is obvious, and took me quite a while to figure out. In fact, the most obvious way to get that information is to buy (or pay another £2.50 for) a transcript, but these, as my grandfather "Matilda" and, hilariously, Edith's daughter "Town" (Joan) would attest, are not exactly reliable data. No doubt there are "how to" tutorials available somewhere on the website, but with a bit more effort this information could so easily have been provided as metadata on the scans, perhaps as a "mouseover". Anyway, after I'd finally figured this out it transpired that Great Green is not in Charlton at all but in Pirton, another nearby village, and the place destined to become Maternal Family Central in later generations.

So, if you're intending to use the 1921 Census, be warned: unnecessary obstacles have been placed in your path, and you will almost certainly end up spending more money than you had anticipated, especially if you're not sure about who you're looking for, what name they were using, or where they might have been living in 1921. "Fuzzy searching" looks to be impossible, and there's not even an "all you can eat" subscription available, which is strange, and surely calculated to annoy the professional genealogists.

But strangest of all, though, is to realise that the 2021 Census – which I must admit I'd forgotten had ever taken place – was arranged under the direction of a guy of exactly my age with whom I used to sit for many years on our local trade union executive, now the National Statistician, Professor Sir Ian Diamond. I suppose we'll have to wait 100 years to find out whether or not he and his people did a good job.

Wednesday 5 January 2022

New Year's Day, Post-Dated

Clevedon, looking towards an invisible Severn Bridge

As is my custom – come rain, shine or, as this year, murky mist – I head out on New Year's Day to photograph whatever presents itself to be photographed. Who knows or remembers why I do this, now, but personal customs like this do establish themselves, and it feels right to honour them in the observance rather than the breach. As we now usually find ourselves in Bristol at New Year, it also seems right to honour another relatively new ritual observance, and drive over to Clevedon on the Bristol Channel coast to walk along the pier and gaze across the sea to Wales.

I don't know whether some "influencer" has been talking up this "going outdoors" thing, but we were surprised quite how many more people were milling about aimlessly this year, many accompanied by their children and, inevitably, their dogs. Owning a dog, it seems, is now a compulsory family accessory; thank goodness this wasn't the case when our daughter was agitating for one (I dislike dogs, much as they seem to like me). Dogs, of course, need no third-party persuasion to go walkies, and are pretty effective influencers in their own right. Walkies, right now, or it's crap on the carpet: up to you... Woof! Good choice!

As I'd hoped, my favourite spot in Clevedon was open, an antique shop behind the seafront with a walled garden full of an amazing jumble of garden ornaments, and I spent a happy quarter of an hour pottering about in the fading afternoon light looking for things I may have missed last time we were here, as well as new additions and juxtapositions. I was particularly pleased with that angel below, snoozing over a pool of water, just like the Professor (or is it the Writer?) in Tarkovsky's mesmerising film Stalker. I think you'll be seeing more of him/her/it in future collages.

Do you know what I miss, though, as a new year begins? I miss writing cheques, and getting the date wrong. In fact, I can't remember the last time I wrote out a cheque ("FIVE THOUSAND POUNDS ONLY") and have almost forgotten the whole cheque-lore of crossing, signing, post-dating, bouncing, and the rest of it; I'm not even sure whether I still have a cheque-book lurking in a drawer somewhere, with its stubs narrating the dull tale of bills paid, cash withdrawn, and extravagances indulged. Certainly, the bank long ago stopped sending me new ones. Now I'm going to have to go and have a look (a check?) just to satisfy my curiosity. I suppose somewhere there must be a terrible, laboured pun to be made about the cheque being in the (blog) post, but let's not get 2022 off to a bad start.

Tribute to Tarkovsky

Landscape in a rusty bucket

Message for Molitor!