Sunday, 27 March 2022

Original Print 2

Kung Fu peacock

So, continuing from the earlier post, Original Print, why is it that the more conservative galleries and open exhibitions reject digital art work, especially "giclée" (inkjet) prints?  Apart, that is, from an innate mistrust of the new, and especially of computers as a tool for art-making? I have no wish to bash these self-styled gatekeepers simply for being fogeyish sticks-in-the-mud (oh, go on, Mike, why not?), and there are points on both sides of the arguments, as there always are. So here, for your consideration, are what I think are the major factors. Please feel free to share your own views.

1. Techno-Dread
That curious word "giclée" was originally coined back in the 1990s, apparently to avoid any mention of the dread word computer. That there are still people who are repelled by anything to do with computers, automation, digitisation, mobile phones, and so on, is hardly surprising. They are not necessarily tinfoil-hat wearers, but often people who find aspects of the modern technological world uncongenial and deeply suspect, an honourable tradition that goes back to William Morris and William Blake, and with which I can sympathise. I am fairly computer-literate, but reject social media entirely, and I consider entrusting your finances to some half-baked app on your phone idiotic. But to favour the procedures of some inky-fingered 18th-century engraver as somehow more artistically wholesome than the creation of a digital print is like insisting that a meal made from ingredients gathered from your own garden and slow-cooked on a solid-fuel Aga range is the only true way to cook supper; I suppose, to continue the metaphor, that by comparison a digital print must seem the equivalent of a microwaved ready-meal. Well, yes, there is an interesting contrast to be made there, but the aspirational Aga-artisan lifestyle is available only to a certain elite segment of society, and the rest of us have to do what we can within the constraints of modern urban life.

2. The Snobbery of Scarcity
If just anyone can own and enjoy a mass-produced object – a paperback book, for example – then its value as a possession is zero to the sort of person who demands and can afford exclusivity. A one-off painting by a big-name artist is the ideal, but a limited edition print, made by hand, is an acceptable substitute even in the most conservative corners of the art world. Traditional image-printing techniques, despite having been invented originally as a means to produce as many identical copies of a picture as possible, are now used solely to make these limited edition prints [1]. The limitation of the edition is meant to be strict: after the full intended run of an art print has been pulled – perhaps as few as 10 copies – the plate or block is (or is supposed to be) destroyed or scored through, thus guaranteeing that no more prints can be made from it. Also, wear and tear (not to say boredom and exhaustion) put a practical limit on the number of good impressions that can be made, especially from a delicate surface like a mezzotint, and of these the earliest impressions give the most faithful rendering. Hence the custom of numbering the pulls [2] and hence also the relatively higher value of early impressions. Although if you want really exclusive options there are usually also a few "artist's proofs" and hors de commerce prints to be had.

By contrast, the "editioning" of a digital print or a photograph is always a bit of a fraud. Quite apart from the fact that an unlimited number could be produced, the first and the last items in the edition will be (or should be) completely identical. A particularly peculiar practice, but not uncommon, is the escalation of the price upwards in bands as the edition of a digital print or photograph sells out. The psychology of this always seems a bit weird to me, but if scarcity is desirable, then scarcity will be provided, one way or another, although I have my doubts as to whether anyone ever actually destroys their negatives or digital files [3]. The harsh view would be that the numbered editioning of digital prints is redundant and essentially skeuomorphic i.e. an attribute which was functional in an older, original object but which has been retained for essentially ornamental purposes in a newer, derivative object, even though it is no longer either functional or necessary. The less harsh view would be, well, it's what people want, isn't it?

3. Genuine Imitation Leather
I suspect a core cause of the rejection of "giclée" prints in gallery circles is the person who has scanned or photographed their own non-digital artwork, kept the original, and is marketing high-quality digital prints of it as a limited or even unlimited edition. It's very common, and such items fill the print racks of framing shops and small galleries (not to mention eBay and Etsy). After all, if all you want is a nice picture for your wall at a reasonable price, and couldn't care less about its scarcity or authenticity – that would be most of us, I think – what could be better? I have a very attractive Eric Ravilious print made in exactly that way and sold by the Tate Gallery, no less. I suppose you could call it a "reproduction", but it's certainly a big step up from a poster of the same image. You do need to keep an eye out for pirates, of course; eBay, in particular, is awash with amazingly barefaced rip-offs (try searching for, say, "Hockney print").

4. Skeuomorphic Resonance [4]
There is a persistent regard for some kinds of mark-making over others. For reasons I appreciate but lack the insight to explain, the tentative marks made by the unaided human hand seem to resonate more than those made with mechanical help: even something as simple as a line drawn with a ruler seems to carry less artistic weight than one drawn freehand. Moreover, the marks made using an instrument like a brush, pencil, or stick of charcoal directly onto a traditional "support" like canvas or paper carry the most weight of all. Although even those may ultimately be carrying the inherited resonance of an ochre pebble rubbed on a cave wall (archival life: 15,000 years or more, if kept in cool, dark conditions).

It is no surprise, therefore, that all digital image-creation software packages provide a full suite of "brushes" that imitate these instruments and can be adjusted in size, texture, and even response to pressure from the same simple stylus on the surface of a graphical tablet. It's incredibly useful, efficient, mess-free, and a lot of fun but, like the editioning of digital prints, essentially skeuomorphic. If you want, your picture can look just like a pencil sketch on rough paper coloured with transparent watercolour washes, even though it's nothing of the sort, and I can understand why this makes some people unhappy. There's a reason David Hockney's iPad creations look so deliberately, cack-handedly digital; it's a sort of "truth to materials". Much worse than imitative brushes, though, are the built-in filters that can convert an entire photograph into something resembling, say, a watercolour painting or a pastel drawing. You see these abominations everywhere, often printed onto canvas, and offered for sale under the false flag of a sort of "art" which they clearly are not. I hate this stuff, and it gives both digital photography and honest digital art a bad name.

5. Follow the Money
Most exhibitions are intended to sell work. You won't be surprised to learn that I have no experience with straight-up commercial galleries: I presume they are mostly happy to show whatever their roster of name artists are coming up with, in whatever medium they happen to be working in. I have mainly shown in, or at least submitted to, the less commercial "open" shows that are typically held annually by an arts society or organisation. But these people need to pay bills and staff salaries and repair the roof, too, so fund-raising is an important aspect of what they do: that's why they charge their customary 30-40% commission on all exhibition sales. The temptation to show only work that, on past performance, will actually sell must be huge, so – if it is the case that photography and digital art do not sell well – it may be that it is buyers, not galleries, who are the indirect source of prejudice against them. Although my surprising success with a couple of digital prints at the 2017 Royal Academy Summer Show would at least partly argue against that (I think I may have mentioned My Finest Artistic Hour before, oh, maybe just once or possibly twice...). Which brings us to:

6. Taste
It's quite striking how widespread an agreement there is on what constitutes good taste, not so much at the stratospheric levels of art practice, where "good taste" is usually the unspoken enemy, but down here in the middle, at the shows where decorative art predominates, and people are looking for a picture for the living room wall that either makes them feel good (rather than "challenged") or that matches the new sofa; ideally, both. I have to concede that the prejudice against digital photography can be well-founded on grounds of taste: the tendency is for self-styled "fine art" photographers to produce garish, painterly kitsch. There's a certain unreal palette of peach and salmon pink that nearly always appears in sunset landscapes, for example, that makes me feel slightly nauseous whenever I see it. Similarly, it's easy to see why lovers of timid still-lifes of flowers and seed-heads and characterful pots are repelled by the way many purely digital artists converge on the sort of grungy, illustrative conventions that are familiar from album art and the covers of sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks. In fact, those grungy, illustrative conventions are a crime against good taste that I probably commit myself, a lot of the time. However, it would seem more than a little unfair to reject all work in a medium simply because some of its characteristic content is not to your liking.

In the end, imagination and originality are rare commodities, and conventional taste, kitsch, and slick illustration can all be acceptable substitutes for the real thing, even if, in the wrong hands, they are formulaic and often boring. Which is not a problem if your main concern is matching the sofa fabric or trying to enliven an expanse of blank wall. Making dull or even bad art exclusive also seems to work for some, especially if it's "hand-made" or the product of a famous name (see my post on Grayson Perry's truly horrible linocut, Overvaluation). But why some media used for boring and bad art are acceptable candidates for inclusion while others are rejected sight unseen is not so much a matter of taste as of discrimination, in the bad sense of that word.

Unfortunately, setting aside the highly unlikely event that anti-discrimination legislation might ever be introduced into gallery submissions, the prejudices of certain self-styled "gatekeepers" will remain an insurmountable barrier. Although... I wonder if it might be worth proposing and even drafting a Let's All Be Fair to Digital Artists law to my MP as a Private Members' bill? It would give her a chance to demonstrate that she's no friend to fogeyish sticks-in-the-mud, after all [5].

Some grungy, illustrative conventions...
(great cover, but what about the album?)

1. If you've never done it yourself, for a glimpse of how an intaglio plate is made and printed, try this video. It's a fairly sparse account, but you get the idea. Remember, kids: this process has to be repeated EXACTLY THE SAME for every freakin' print in the edition. It's a real test of your attention deficit threshold...

2. Something I confess I mistook for an instructor's rating when I first starting seeing prints as a teenager, as the fractional formula so closely resembled the marks out of ten for a returned spelling test. Just 4 out of 25 for this wonderful thing? Harsh!

3. I don't know how typical my own practice is, but I work up a digital image as a Photoshop PSD file which often contains dozens of layers, and these files can get very large: in my latest project, making fairly modest 30cm square images, the PSD files are typically between 250-350 MB. For printing purposes, the file is "flattened" as a high quality JPG file, typically 5-6 MB, and the contrast, colour balance, etc., adjusted so that the printed output matches as closely as possible the image on the screen. So which file is the equivalent of the plate? In fact, I rarely delete either file other than to free up space: the PSD especially may contain elements or techniques I will want to recycle in fresh images.

4. You see what I did there? Morphic resonance? No? Oh well...

5. Sticks-in-the-mud or stick-in-the-muds? Depends whether you think "stick" here is a noun or a verb. I prefer noun. Your metaphorical preference may vary, of course.

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Original Print

Despite everything that has happened in the past few decades to raise the profile of digital artwork, there still seems to be a widespread prejudice against digital prints in certain corners of the art world, one which seems to overlap with a similar prejudice against photography. If you look at the terms and conditions of various open submission exhibitions, you will often see wording like these real recent examples:

All work must be original (all prints must be hand pulled and NOT giclée). We regret we do not accept photography or other digital art forms.

Acceptable media: Paintings, drawings, pastels, original framed prints (excluding photography).

Submissions of work are invited from visual artists working in intaglio and relief printmaking. Including etching, lino prints, mezzotints, monotypes, lithographs, engraving, collagraphs, woodcuts and dry point. No giclée or photography.

A symptom of the problem seems to be the use of that word "giclée". Weirdly, we can blame the Hollies for this, or perhaps Crosby, Stills & Nash, or – to be absolutely fair – their common denominator Graham Nash. A keen photographer and collector of prints, Nash (in his guise as Nash Editions) was an early pioneer of high-quality inkjet printing, and one of his team coined the faux-French term "giclée printer" for the adapted Iris pre-press printer they had developed. I suppose it did sound more convincing than "squirty printer". I've never looked at any of those original Nash Editions "fine art" prints, but I'd bet that my humble desktop Epson inkjet (a SureColor P400) can knock spots off them, in terms of quality: things have moved on since the 1990s.

The term "giclée" has nonetheless stuck in certain circles, and I've always assumed that it was an attempt to throw a bit of magic French-fried fairy dust over the honest but mechanical-sounding "inkjet" print, rather like referring to "cuisine" rather than "cookery". Something similar happened in the past when screen-printing was referred to as "serigraphy" when used by artists, as opposed to commercial printers. If so, this attempt to posh-up "fine art" inkjet has clearly backfired: giclée has come to denote some sort of unearned, spray-on sophistication, lying somewhere between reproduction and fake. In gallery circles it seems to reek of a scam, a way of cheaply and mechanically reproducing and selling an "original" work – most likely a scanned or photographed real painting – to multiple suckers.

Which is ironic. Because, if I had to define what a "print" is (whether etching, lino-print, mezzotint, etc.), then "a way of cheaply and mechanically reproducing and selling an original work to multiple buyers" would do pretty well. After all, every one of these precious "hand pulled" techniques originated in the simple commercial desire to sell as many copies of a work as possible: just ask Albrecht Dürer or that Rembrandt bloke.

So what's the big deal here? From my distant academic past the phrase "petit-bourgeois skill fetishism" floats up. Reaching for my ancient copy of Christopher Caudwell's Illusion and Reality, I find:
... the development of capitalist production remorselessly turns the craftsman into a labourer. The machine competes with and ousts the product of his skilled hands in all departments and forces him into the “industrial reserve army” of the unemployed.

The effect is at first to make him revolt against the demands of a “commercialised” market by setting up his skill as a good in itself, detached from social uses. You will hear such a craftsman admire an old Napier car, for example, as a superb production of skilled craftsmen, and compare it with a modern mass production Ford, which fulfils the same social rôle and is cheaper. The old skill, although more wasteful of human labour, has acquired a special value to the craftsman because it is the condition for his existence as a class distinct from the proletariat, and is set over and against the market with its criterion of profit, which is the cause of the outdating of his skill.

Illusion and Reality, 1937
Marxist analysis and animus against the much maligned petit-bourgeoisie aside, the deep irony is that, as each successive new refinement of mechanical image-reproduction has rendered previous techniques redundant for commercial purposes, so these older skills have become revered and incorporated into the toolbox of acceptable artist's techniques. Resistance to industrialism has a long history, but is essentially a series of tactical retreats in the face of inexorable technical advances. Scriveners, hand-loom weavers, engravers, and even silkscreen-printers have all trodden the long road to the safe haven of Artencraft.

Now, we can all appreciate the time, effort, and skill that goes into any well-crafted object, but it's all too easy to confuse the value of, say, an engraving as a piece of craft with its value as a picture, and this nostalgia for difficult craft skills is a contradictory characteristic of the more conservative corners of the art world, especially where the making of  mechanically-reproducible, multiple pictures is concerned. That is to say, prints. I have taken evening classes in lithography and etching, and – fun as it is to make marks of various sorts on a metal plate and to discover how to etch it and ink it, as well as how to work and adjust the press – you quickly come to appreciate why it is so many successful artists delegate the actual work of making an edition of a print to a truly expert but anonymous press operator. Sure, there are thousands of kitchen-table printmakers who rub their own lino-prints with the back of a wooden spoon, but it's a much more expensive, complex, and, frankly, tedious task to get an intaglio print or a lithograph just right and then to get it consistently just right over an edition of, say, 50 or more "pulls". And yet, despite the esteem attached to the process, only one name ever appears on the finished print. The ultimate value is thought to reside in the artist's conception, the final picture, not the printer's labour in delivering it. The artist has bought that labour, just as a painter buys pre-prepared paints or some starchitect buys in actual building expertise [1], and thus, to all intents and purposes, owns it. It is just one labour-saving component in a process that results in, what? Nothing more or less than lots of identical pictures.

Something very similar happened in photography. From its very beginnings, there was always the suspicion that photography was too easy and too mechanical to be considered "art"; all you did was point the camera and press a button. Where was the skill? However, in the days of film and silver-based chemistry, every single print made from a negative had to be conjured up individually in the darkroom, and very repetitive and tedious it was, too (see my ancient post, Tears in the Stop Bath). That element of painstaking interpretive craft was what earned photography its grudging and still precarious place in the gallery world, even though, as with "proper" prints, it was always the photographer's vision that commanded attention, not the printer's careful realisation of it. Henri Cartier-Bresson's name is well-known; less so those of the artisans of Picto Laboratoires who actually produced most of his prints, often from less than perfectly-exposed negatives. But when it came to the undeniably mechanical business of making colour prints from negatives or transparencies – and who knows or cares what labs were used by the likes of Eggleston, Misrach, or Parr? – the gallery world backed away from the bad smell for a very long time. Until, that is, it became apparent quite how much money these glossy offences against handicraft could fetch. 

Enter digital. Everything that was tedious, repetitive, and labour-intensive about print-making and photography suddenly became straightforward, and the element of "craft" migrated back into the hands of artists who could create digital images from scratch and fine-tune them themselves on a computer screen. Which is not exactly simple, but all those fiddly bits of burning and dodging, developing and fixing, colour-wheel twiddling, plate inking and wiping, paper soaking, press pressure adjusting – in short, the whole tedious mechanical baggage of photography and printmaking – could be carried out without so much as putting on an acid-proof apron, and, best of all, saved as a single package: job done! Many more photographers and digital artists became highly-skilled at the whole end-to-end process, which could be done in the comfort of home with inexpensive kit, and with care could produce prints of great beauty and archival permanence on a wide range of paper surfaces. So, naturally, the art world looked at this fantastic new development with profound mistrust, and made the usual tactical retreat. No "giclée" here, thank you very much!

But, if the value of a picture truly does reside in the artist's own conception rather than the artisanal grunt-work of transferring it to paper, which it surely does, then why the snobbery about process? Yes, printing a digital image is relatively easy, from a technical point of view, but then so is drawing: what could be easier than making marks on a piece of paper? A toddler can do it. You may or may not like them, but anyone who thinks there is less skill, imagination, and artistry in, say, the creation of my own digital images as opposed to something I might scribble directly onto paper with a pencil is sorely mistaken. But the gallery world is still holding its nose. Why?

Good question! But, in order to avoid turning this post into a book-length study, I'll try to summarise what I think is going on in a follow-up post. Stay tuned. Your reflections on the subject would be very welcome in the meantime.

1. The most notorious example of this is probably Frank Gehry's "crumpled paper bag" building in Sydney.

Saturday, 19 March 2022

Mad March Weather

Sunshine & Showers, March 2014

April may be the cruellest month, at least according to T.S. Eliot, but weather-wise, March is usually the maddest month. Anything can happen anywhere on these islands in March, often all at the same time: there might be snow down south in Hampshire while up north the Hebrides bask in "unseasonal" sunshine. But there is nothing predictably seasonal about early spring in Britain: expect the unexpected. It can be very hard deciding what to wear, when the temperature veers wildly from day to day, and a sunny morning can transform into an afternoon of heavy rain. "Sunshine and showers" is the usual forecaster's springtime shrug of resignation.

It's all to do with the titanic push-and-shove between different planet-scale air-masses as the Equinox approaches. Stuck out here in an exposed position on the main North Atlantic battle-front we generally get a bit of everything going, reducing the weather forecasters to incomprehensible gabble and much arm-waving, as they try to fit a complex national picture into their allotted two minutes. When I was studying A-level Geography one of our teachers, Les Ransley, was a maestro at creating elaborate meteorological diagrams on the blackboard with coloured chalks. His signature move was a large "W" fronting a fat arrow coming in from the Atlantic containing three lines of text: "arm", "et", and "esterlies". Clearly, the source of an air current has a major influence on the weather: just the other day we had a "plume" of Saharan dust that came all the way up from Africa and turned the ski-slopes of Europe salmon pink, as well as leaving an orange-red deposit of dust over the parked cars and pavements of the south-east of England.

I really enjoyed studying Geography to "advanced" level. For much of my childhood I had wanted to be a naturalist, until it gradually dawned on me that I was really a collector, and would never make it as an actual scientist. It was clear that I didn't get any science which didn't involve using coloured pencils to draw things. I'm sure you have heard the cliché, "I must have been away from school the day X was explained." Well, cliché or not, I'm pretty sure I was off sick the day they explained the point of Chemistry, for example, at least as taught in my school (and assuming the point wasn't to try and covertly fill another boy's blazer pocket with distilled water from a lab-bench squeeze bottle). Above all, I found that I lack the crucial component in the human brain that enables mathematics to take place there. But there was one sort-of science in which an ability with coloured pencils was an asset, and that was Geography.

March 2018

March 2021

One of the themes that has sustained this blog is "paths not taken", and this is another one: in an alternative life, I might easily have become a geographer. Even at "advanced" level, entire lessons could be taken up happily copying Les Ransley's coloured chalk drawings from the blackboard: graphics that explained climate patterns, mountain formation, or population distribution in a digestible and memorable package. We often used to play a game, Hunt the Climate, which involved identifying a location from its typical annual climate data: rainfall, temperature, and so on. Once you had a grasp of the basic patterns it was surprising how accurately you could land on a spot. Seasonal climate, with summer in June-August? Northern Hemisphere, north of the tropics. Summer drought? "Mediterranean" climate. Temperature range moderate? Probably Europe, but, hmm, oddly cool in summer... Cold maritime current off a west coast? Sir! Sir! It's Northern California! We also got a basic introduction to statistics – mean vs. median, random distribution, etc. – and it was the nearest I ever came to exercising pure reason until, much later in life, I discovered an unsuspected facility for programming.

Even better, there were field trips into the landscape, where terminal moraines and hanging valleys could be rambled over, fossils collected, and the strike and dip of strata pondered. There is no question that those two years studying geography enhanced my later life just as much as studying literature or languages. I think there are few greater pleasures than being out in a striking landscape on a bright cold day either side of Easter, properly dressed and in good company, with a pub meal in prospect or even just a flask of tea and a fat sausage roll in your backpack. Perhaps on such a walk you might even come across a freshly dug quarry yielding museum-quality fossils to stuff in your pockets, like the one we found in mid-Wales a couple of years ago. Once a collector, always a collector.

Or you might be lucky enough to see something remarkable, some perfect alignment of landscape and light, and take the time and trouble to photograph it, hoping as always that what you have captured will not be just a pale reflection of what you saw, but a transmutation of it into something richer and stranger, a picture that might convey something of the depth of what you felt about being there to others; the magical reverse of a pretty pebble collected on the beach that turns into just another dull stone as it dries in your pocket.

Tracy & Debbie surprised by The Angel of the North

Tuesday, 15 March 2022


The Champion

I think it's true to say that most of us have been content to lead the sort of half-focussed, stop-start life that has been guided, if that is the word, by poorly-defined and sometimes contradictory goals; a life in which avoidance of personal risk and collateral damage to others have outweighed ambition, which will at least have had the beneficial side-effect of leaving few, or at worst fewer bodies and wreckage in its wake. If you could never bring yourself to believe that it's OK for special people like you to ignore the rules of the road, then you will have spent much time waiting patiently at every red light along the way while others speed recklessly ahead. I have never quite understood the fable of the tortoise and the hare, but I'm pretty sure we're all running out of road and heading for the same destination, and I'm in no hurry to get there before anyone else.

I recently heard from an old work colleague, a man who is deep in one of those intense period of transition between phases of life that inevitably become more familiar as one grows older: his wife was diagnosed with one of the worst cancers some while ago, survived beyond all rational expectation, but has now chosen to forgo any further chemotherapy. A big, brave decision, but understandable when the treatment is both brutal and highly uncertain to deliver a positive result. I can well believe him when he says they are now experiencing an unprecedented spell of peace and serenity. It's a proposition we've all heard, and may all come to live at some time or another: that life becomes more highly-coloured in times of crisis, and – if you are sufficiently prepared, spiritually – that there is no calm quite like the calm acceptance of the inevitable.

My friend also mentioned that he is still keeping in touch with some of the people we worked with, something I'm afraid I have rather neglected; this despite what he described as the increasing unreality of those years, and the fact that most of those colleagues have now left or retired and gone off in their different directions. I know exactly what he means about the unreality. One of my regular walks takes me through the Southampton University campus at Highfield, and every time I pass the imposing brick-built edifice of the library where I used to work I think: I spent decades of my life in there? "Unreal" is hardly the word. He also used a quotation from Joan Didion which really hit the spot: “I’ve already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be”. I retired in 2014 and have since become several new people in my stop-start progress through life, and it seems I've pretty much already lost touch with the man who worked in that building.

Although I had a Didion binge a year or so ago – as I get older, I find I enjoy reading essays more than I enjoy reading fiction – I didn't recognise that quote. I tracked it down easily enough, however, to her piece "On Keeping a Notebook". Here is the relevant passage:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing “How High the Moon” on the car radio.
Joan Didion, "On Keeping a Notebook", in Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Ah, yes, seventeen-year-old me... I, too, would dearly like to know again what it feels like, say, to be sitting on a playground swing late on a starry night after a dizzying encounter with a new girlfriend – at midnight, in fact, when all the streetlights in my town used to go off simultaneously – waiting for the high to subside enough to be able to face the prospect of going home. Impossible, though; that young lad was somebody I lost touch with a very long time ago, and that particular manifestation of "home" was reduced to rubble in 2008. His hopes, dreams, and fears are completely out of reach, intense as they were. I could look in his notebooks, I suppose – I know where he keeps them – but, like Joan Didion, I expect I'd find that they are full of some other person's baffling and cryptic notations.

All of which reminded me of a post from a few years ago, about the "elective family" of that youngster, which I thought I'd reread. And, as so often seems to be the case, I found that the person who wrote that post, just five years ago, seems to be a better writer than me. Which surely cannot be true, but then we are always less harsh on the efforts of a stranger than on our own, aren't we?


Friday, 11 March 2022

If On a Winter's Night a Traveller...

Actually, that's not a Morris Traveller – the rather tasty mini-estate with the wood-framed rear section – but a standard Morris Minor, found abandoned in a quarry in mid-Wales around 1984. But why would I pass up a classy literary pun, especially one that refers to a book I have never actually read?

Monday, 7 March 2022

Light and Circumstance

I was looking through the photographs I had been taking in the early weeks of using my new phone (an iPhone 12 mini, replacing an iPhone 4s inherited from my daughter) and came across these two from a visit to Bristol in October last year. They remind me of what I have always enjoyed most about using a camera – any camera – but what a decent phone camera is so eminently suitable for: seeing some little revelation of light and circumstance in passing, recording it, and moving on.

It's something I intend to give more attention to; I suspect it may be what I do  best. So, for once, I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Thursday, 3 March 2022

World Enough and Time

"In other words, the sped-up culture that delivers that novel to your doorstep overnight is the same culture that deprives you of the time to read it."
 Mark McGurl: Retail Therapy (an excerpt from Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon). Bookforum, September 30, 2021.

There, in one memorable sentence, is the paradox of First World cultural consumers: if we have even a modest income and an internet connection, we are able to surround ourselves – with no more effort than a few clicks on a website or an app – with more books, videos, and music than we will ever have time to read, see, or hear, in much the same way the young can bury themselves in dirt-cheap clothes, worn once or possibly never at all and then discarded. Apparently our unwanted clothing is being "recycled" by dumping it in Chile's Atacama desert. As with absurdly underpriced air-travel, the real price is being paid elsewhere, by very poor people in faraway lands, and in environmental damage. It has to stop.

We do try to lead a fairly "green" life, chez nous, at least as far as energy consumption, food, and consumer goods are concerned. We'll discreetly pass over the ownership of two petrol-driven cars; let's just say we're reconsidering that. We are fortunate enough to have sufficient income not to be unduly troubled by soaring energy bills (so far, at any rate) but at the same time it does help that we are not obsessed with keeping the house tropical – the heating is set well below 20° C and goes off at night – or with excessive bathing: once or twice a week is plenty. To be honest, we cannot sleep in a hot bedroom (the occasional bit of frost on the inside of the windows is a blast of pure nostalgia for us older folk), and in a temperate climate the idea of bathing or showering every day seems frivolous to me, but then I do always have my morning wash in cold water, year round, which probably seems a bit hair-shirted to most. I'm also one of those people who wears the same set of clothes to destruction, buying a new pair of trousers, a top, or a shirt once every few years. My current pair of shoes are so old I can't recall when I bought them, and have been re-soled twice, but will need replacing soon. The trouble with Chelsea boots is that the elastic sides eventually give out; I should probably go back to lace-ups, but probably won't.

As for non-necessaries, I usually buy things like my cameras and lenses second hand, but it has to be admitted that I do have a craving for books that almost amounts to an addiction. New, expensive photo-books... Large, beautifully bound, illustrated books... Stout bilingual dictionaries... Cute little pocket editions of classics... Well-produced exhibition catalogues... I love them all, and encourage them to come and live with me, and hang around as long as they like. Thank goodness I'm not German; even their literary novels are stitched and bound with real cloth, rather than glued and with boards covered with that cheapo paper cloth-substitute we use (or at least they were back in the 1980s when I used to catalogue them for a living). So for some while now, I've been trying to wean myself off my bibliomania greedy bibliophilia [1].

The first step, obviously, is to stop buying more books, especially photo-books. Helpfully, in recent years, there have been far, far too many getting published, and keeping up with what's new has become utterly unrewarding. So many of these new books seem to be half-baked projects by over-earnest wannabes, more interested in being an on-message / woke "artist" than a mere photographer (whatever one of those even is these days), and put out by specialist publishers who seem rather more motivated by book-design than photographs, as such. This bad situation is made worse by the desire of these publishers to manufacture scarcity by releasing small runs accompanied by even smaller "special" editions; usually the exact same book, signed and numbered, sometimes in a slipcase, and often together with a small original print. Which is an exercise in separating fools from their money that reminds me of the sort of kitschy ceramic "collectible" plates and mugs that used to be advertised in the Sunday colour supplements.

So, quite apart from any desire to downsize, I find that I have now bought one too many books that looked interesting on the basis of a few page-spreads displayed online, but which turned out to be yet another dud: more often than not, those few pages were the only good pages in the entire book. I have also bought one too many books that attempt to squeeze the last drops out of some notable's notably unremarkable back catalogue. Masahisa Fukase published Karasu (Solitude of Ravens) in 1986, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest photo-books of all time, but then fell down the steps of a Tokyo bar in 1992, suffered brain damage and went into a coma that lasted until his eventual death in 2012. Nonetheless, on the back of the reputation of that one book a steady stream of further volumes of his work continues to appear, most recently Kill the Pig (2021): photographs from his first exhibition in 1961, which interspersed slaughterhouse images with nude photographs of Fukase and his partner and which, despite being given the full over-designed, limited-edition, slipcased treatment, is not one of the greatest photo-books of all time. Especially at £80 for 84 pages. Enough!

The next, more painful step is to get rid of stuff. I've been sneaking up on actually disposing of any books by first chucking out the accumulated junk of thirty-plus years of family life. Now, some men are shed-men: they construct themselves a well-ordered refuge in the garden shed, probably equipped with a workbench, an array of power tools, and an implicit KEEP OUT sign. For the rest of us, a shed is a sort of holding place for the stuff that ought to have been dumped years ago, but which we're too idle to sort out. "Oh, just put it in the shed... What do you mean, it's already too full? A shed is never full!" So I've been clearing out the shed, rather than the bookshelves. It's a start.

Amazingly, amongst the usual stuff like pet paraphernalia, rusty tools, unidentifiable bits and pieces of wood, and ancient electricals, I discovered that we have four tents (I thought we had two), two inflatable paddling pools, and as many plastic buckets, spades, and sets of sand-moulds as we have had family seaside holidays; it seems we always forgot to take any with us, and always brought some new ones back. Maybe that's also the reason why we have four tents, though that does seem less likely. I also found enough bagged collections of beach pebbles, shells, and fossils to ballast a sailing ship, matched only by the extraordinary quantity of spider webs and the deep drifts of dead woodlice, which I'm pretty sure I didn't put in there.

The determined and vaguely green clearer-out has three friends. There is Oxfam (or the charity shop of your choice) for the useful stuff with resale value; it feels good to put put stuff back into circulation, and to put cash into the coffers of your favoured charity. There is Freecycle for the useful stuff with little or no resale value; it also feels good to put stuff back into circulation without seeking any benefit beyond whatever karma points are earned by doing someone else a favour. Then there is the last resort for the useless junk, the municipal dump (sorry, Recycling Centre); which feels bad, on the one hand, as you know most of those carefully labelled skips ("Ferrous metal", "Wood (NO MDF)", "Garden Waste", etc.) will probably end up in landfill, anyway, but on the other hand it still feels pretty good just to be rid of that useless crap. The fourth way – loading up a van and, under cover of night, fly-tipping on the verge of some country lane – is for professionals only.

Of these, I have found Freecycle the most interesting experience, not least because it means interacting with the kind of person who monitors the Freecycle bulletins for free stuff; the "Freecycle Community", I suppose. They're a very mixed bunch. There are cash-strapped families, happy to take away a paddling pool or a bag of frisbees. There are bargain hunters, many of whom, like scrap-metal dealers, are clearly hoping to sell on their freebies for a profit. There are opportunists, offering to take away your unwanted LP records and CDs. And then there are the strange ones, who pounce on "three broken panes of glass", or "one large bag of string". Lurking amongst all of these are the time-wasters – the ones who repeatedly message you "is it still available?" and then, when you decide to let them have whatever it is and mark the post as "taken", never show up; the disturbingly illiterate – the ones who cannot spell any word longer than four letters, and have never mastered the shift key or basic punctuation (I was quite tempted by "childs gardn gaol"); and, my personal least favourite, the abrupt and discourteous dickheads, who have abjured the use of "please" and "thank you".

I'm curious, though. I wonder if there would be any takers for a "large bag of dead woodlice"? You want it, I got it. It does make a rather pleasant rustling sound, it's true: maybe a deep-green substitute for maracas?

The Gift

1. To quote Wikipedia: "Bibliomania is not to be confused with bibliophilia, which is the (psychologically healthy) love of books, and as such is not considered a clinical psychological disorder." One bad habit that many of us could take a serious look at is the tendency to throw around the names of genuinely distressing mental disorders – things like OCD, bipolar, paranoia, and depression – to describe more-or-less healthy, everyday states. A person who likes a neat desk and to have order in their life does not therefore have OCD, for example. They are just annoying.