Wednesday, 29 June 2022

No Success Like Failure

As anticipated in my post Sea City, Southampton failed to become City of Culture 2025 – no real surprise there, but come on, Team Soton, let's hear three muted and sarcastic cheers for Bradford! – and, more significant from where I stand, I failed to get either of my entries into the linked exhibition at the City Art Gallery. I'm not sure what difference this failure will make to the city, but I suppose you could say that at least my soul is getting the benefit of a decent work-out from the humility-inducing, hubris-squashing effects of serial rejection. Mmm, feel the burn!

There's a certain perception out there that, where the arts are concerned, rejection is a sort of back-handed compliment, something that will be rectified by posterity. Van Gogh didn't sell a single picture! People thought Blake was just a weirdo! Which rectification, in a very few exemplary cases, has indeed turned out to be forthcoming. But most failed artists and writers sink without trace, and with good reason: they weren't very good. Or, to put it another way, society had no use for what they made then, has so far found no use for it in the present day, and probably never will. Their labours have pleased no-one whose opinion counted then or counts now and thus, more grandly, will have added nothing to the story of art history. That is, unless a day comes when – as is happening now – some incidental feature of the artist's biography, say, such as their gender, race, or sexual orientation, bathes old work in a flattering new light. And, let's be honest, some pretty crappy new work is getting the spotlight right now, for precisely the same reasons.

So much depends on the tastes and motivations of those intermediaries such as the editors, the gallerists, and the judges of competitions – generally referred to as "gatekeepers" – and the narratives they want to impose on or derive from the raw material that hopefuls lay before them. It can be gratifying and amusing for us to see how dramatically the judgments of such gatekeepers have in the past failed to conform with the account we have subsequently come to accept as the "true" story. But this amusement is often no more than the superficial condescension of hindsight. I was reading a fascinating article in the New Yorker ("Modern Art and the Esteem Machine", by Louis Menand) which provoked the humbling thought that we, too, would most likely have scorned Matisse – Matisse! – as did sophisticated Americans in 1913:

The general American public, in the period when modern art emerged, around the time of the First World War, had no interest in it. Wealthy Americans, the sort of people who could afford to buy art for their homes, had no taste for it. Even the art establishment was hostile. In 1913, a Matisse show at the Art Institute of Chicago instigated a near-riot. Copies of three Matisse paintings were burned and there was a mock trial, in which Matisse was convicted of, among other things, artistic murder. The demonstrators were art students.
In another recent article, this time on literary rejection ("Good God, I Can't Publish This...", by Rosemary Jenkinson), I see that a publisher's reviewer of the manuscript of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse refused it, commenting,

"Self-publication may be your best hope. If your own milieu is anything like that of your novel, I trust you will have little trouble making connections or garnering finances..." 

Even accepting that Woolf's book is now an established masterpiece of Modernism, I think we can still see what he was getting at, and feel a certain sympathy. The innermost musings of the idle rich and the cultivated classes? With not a single murder or cab-chase? Next manuscript, please... Plus, the fact is that he was right! The Hogarth Press was indeed a very successful self-publishing imprint set up and run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

Anyway, FYI, FWIW, I've attached my own rejected efforts below. The brief for the exhibition was "What culture means to me" [1] and I adapted some existing work to meet the brief in what I thought was an interesting way. The framing texts are important, and in case you can't read them in the image I'll quote them here.

"Cultural Capital" has a (slightly adapted) extract from Marx's Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:

"The less you eat, and drink, the fewer books you buy, the less often you go to the theatre, the dance-hall, the pub, the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, etc., the more you will save, and the greater grows your treasure which neither moths can devour nor thieves take away: your capital. The less you are, the less you express your  own life, so the more you have; the more of your life you give up, the more you store up  ...  Well, what exactly?"
"Mr. Darwin Regrets" has two sentences of humblebragging from his autobiography:
"My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week."
Cultural Capital

Mr. Darwin Regrets

1. I do wish exhibition curators would stop insisting on "themes". It can only have a negative effect on the quality of the work submitted. Although worse, I suppose, is the imposition of an undeclared theme on the submissions. The only sensible theme for a really good open exhibition would be "the best work I've done in the last three years", wouldn't it? But then what credit would go to the curators, and their ability to craft a compelling and on-trend narrative out of the submissions?

Saturday, 25 June 2022

Life as a Texture

The Three Magnets
(from Ebenezer Howard's "To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform")

Without doubt, there are thousands of good-to-brilliant photographers out there, most of whose names and work you or I will never have come across, and probably never will. Nonetheless, I feel I have a good grasp of the Who's Who of photography, admittedly with certain blind spots in areas that don't interest me, like fashion or sport. Despite having only really seriously engaged with the subject around 1984, at the age of thirty, it's very rare that I come across a major figure I have not heard of before. By contrast, I have been reading poetry since around 1970, when an anthology of modern verse featured on our O-level English syllabus, continuing into A-levels and a spell of intense study [1] at two universities that very nearly led to an academic literary career (phew! narrow escape...), followed by a casual but ongoing interest that continues to the present day: I'm one of that tiny minority who actually buy books of poetry. And yet: it seems that nearly every week I learn of some notable who clearly features prominently in the poets' Who's Who but is either unknown to me, or exists in that long but largely unexplored list of "I think I've heard of" names that includes the likes of Premier League footballers, rappers, tennis players, classical musicians, second-rank politicians, and most actors.

The latest of these pop-up poets is Peter Scupham, whose obituary appeared in the Guardian and elsewhere recently. I suppose I must have come across his name before – or am I confusing him with the drummer with one of those '70s Prog bands? – but had certainly never knowingly read any of his work, and had no conception of his place within the highly diverse, not to say intensely factional world of poetry-writing. But, beyond the thought, "Well, look, here's yet another one", there were three things that got my interest in that obituary.

First, it appears he taught at St. Christopher's School in Letchworth for thirty years. Letchworth is the first English "Garden City", built along Ebenezer Howard's utopian lines in North Hertfordshire in the early 20th century, and a forerunner of the post-WW2 New Towns like neighbouring Stevenage, where I was born and brought up. Letchworth became the location of publisher J.M. Dent's Temple Press, where my grandfather moved from London to find work as a bookbinder before the First World War, and where he met and married my grandmother – a local girl who also worked at the Press – and where my father was born in 1918. Yes, dear reader, I'm a third generation North Herts utopian.

St. Christopher's School is an example of what I only know as a British phenomenon, but may well be more universal: fee-paying private schools run along "progressive" lines, generally based on Montessori or Quaker principles. To an end-to-end state-educated person like me, the child of intelligent parents who were obliged to leave school for work at age 14 in the 1930s, such schools are an embodiment of the contradictions of Britain's class-bound society: if you want your children to be brought up in a free-thinking, happy, unpressured, child-centred environment, safe from bullying and the worst kinds of peer influence, then you'd better be in a position to pay for it. I note that St. Christopher's non-boarding senior school fees are £6,827 per term, in advance, plus "extras" [2].

Naturally, you might run into a few people who had been to such schools at university (although, unlike conventional private schools, university is not their natural destination) but, as it happened, those of us who played in our school sports teams would sometimes get a tantalising glimpse of these fee-paying educational utopias at weekends. For entirely snobbish reasons, in the 1950s my state grammar school for boys had abandoned football – the lingua franca of world sport – in favour of rugby and hockey. This idiotic decision meant that few other local state schools were in a position to offer us matches – for hockey in particular – so "away" games meant Saturday morning coach journeys to the more far-flung, rural corners of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, and Essex, where the private schools were located. Unlikely as it seems, I was the First XI hockey goalkeeper all the way through secondary school, so I got to visit these exciting Edenic enclaves where boys and girls mixed freely, uniforms were not worn, hair-length went unmonitored, and teachers were addressed by first name. One of these was St. Christopher's, and another was the Friends School at Saffron Walden, a Quaker establishment where, as I discovered a few years ago in an exchange of emails, photographer Pradip Malde was a pupil at the time.

The second thing that got my attention was this quotation from the Guardian obituary:

He was a brilliant teacher, moving effortlessly from scholarly close reading with the sixth form to verbal game-playing with younger pupils – for whom his guiding principle was “keep English sweet” – while treating all administrative chores with amused contempt. Once, during an especially tedious staff meeting, he decreed that we should each write a poem before it finished: mine ended up in the bin, his ("The Sledge Teams") in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry.

That's hilarious, I think. I can't say that any of my own marginal scribbles to library staff meeting minutes have ever achieved any kind of success, but I do know exactly how he felt. The tedium of meetings is an excellent spur to creativity; you need to find some distraction to prevent yourself from punching some waffling windbag in the face, or from falling asleep. Mind you, one of my more elderly ex-colleagues did use to fall ostentatiously asleep in meetings; his snoring would usually kick in somewhere around "matters arising". Boredom is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, and is something children need to encounter in their lives and learn to use or at least endure, and yet they so rarely do, these days. Sundays, which used to be so excruciatingly boring when everything was closed and nothing at all was happening other than dutifully dull visits to grandparents or church, are now just a day like any other. The motivation for kids to actually do or make something stemming from an inner creative impulse seems to shrink further every year, only to be replaced by the listless and complacent passive consumption of virtual entertainment. Or so says this grumpy old man, for what it's worth.

Anyway, the third thing was a quotation from Peter Scupham himself, also in the obituary:

The Hinterland (1977) is centred on a sequence of 15 interlinked sonnets that move between the outbreak of the first world war and the mid-1970s summer of Dutch elm disease. In a note written at the time, Scupham said: “I feel acutely ill-at-ease in places where now is the only dimension visible; life is a texture where past and present become each other.”

 I was initially intrigued by that idea: that we experience life as a texture, a sort of fabric where past and present are interwoven, and that the balance of the two elements can be wrong, leading to psychic discomfort. After all, where is more alienating than the nowhere-but-now spaces of airports and shopping malls? But then I realised that I am uncomfortable – "rubbed the wrong way", perhaps, to use a textural metaphor – with what I suspect is its underlying conservativism, not least as expressed by a man whose later life was apparently dedicated to restoring his very own Tudor mansion. Too much "past" in the weave is surely just as much of a problem.

Of course, if, like me, you spent your first eighteen years in an environment where nearly everything was new and made to a "good enough" specification, you are likely to develop a fascination with the persistence of the old into the present, whether it be architectural details like sash windows in the older buildings at school, or ancient churches surrounded by new estates, inhabited by incomers with no family connection to the parish or the occupants of the graveyard. But, if life can be said to have a texture made up of past and present, then, as with the "texture" of schooling, it clearly varies tremendously: from the plush, to the utilitarian, to the shoddy; from real wood and leather, to formica and plastic, to mouldy plaster and rotten floorboards. I think anyone, given the choice, would take the texture of "all now" over "all rotten" any day, however soulless it might appear to those living within a more privileged texture. And more and more of us are surely becoming wary, to use the words of that repellently textured old Etonian Jacob Rees-Mogg, of being ruled by those who are exclusively "used to being educated in beautiful old buildings" [3].

1. Well, "intense" is a relative term... I concentrated on poetry in my studies rather than drama or prose because (a) I like poetry, and am a very good "close reader", (b) poems tend to be short, and good ones are few in a poet's oeuvre, and were therefore (c) more compatible with my indolent lifestyle at the time.

2. Hardly cheap, but not outrageous, by private school standards (confusingly, these are called "public schools" in Britain). For comparison, a top school like London's Westminster charges £9.987 per term for "day" pupils, and academic hothouse Winchester College charges £11,330.

3. Quoted in the book "Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK", by Simon Kuper. 

Monday, 20 June 2022

A Message in a Bottle

I recently bumped into a fellow pensioner in the supermarket, someone whose line-manager I used to be, and we had a pleasant catch-up chat about this and that while blocking the aisle with our trolleys, as is the right of all pensioners. It was enjoyable, and made me realise quite how much I miss the everyday human interactions of the workplace, despite not missing the workplace itself at all.

But it also prompted the thought that, unless you are by nature extroverted and gregarious, or perhaps just single and child-free, you will most likely have stopped making new friends in mid-life. Sure, there are the people whose company you enjoy at work, and there are the parents of your children's friends, as well as the odd congenial neighbour – let's not even think about social media "friends" – but these are not and will never be friends like the friends of your childhood and youth. You won't ever share a first cigarette or heartbreak at midnight in the park with these people, you'll never listen to their music or their secrets in their bedroom, and you will never have so much in common with them that you are all in effect just different avatars of whatever circumstances and influences you grew up with or grew into. You don't choose those friends any more than you choose your parents: they are a given of your most formative years. As I have said before, they are your elective family.

In an idle minute some while ago – there must have been a reason, but I can't now remember what it was – I started to make a list of the names of everyone I could recall whom I would, at some point in my life, have counted as a friend. It took a while – surnames can be annoyingly elusive – but in the end there were about 80 solid names in the list. Like most state-educated kids, I imagine, a few friends have been a constant from primary or secondary school right up to the present day, but I was surprised to discover that I am still at least "sort of" in touch with over a quarter of the listed names. I have no idea whether that is typical or not.

At least a further eight have died that I know of, but most of the rest are probably still out there somewhere, and revisiting the list put me into a sufficiently nostalgic mood to think of posting it here, as a sort of message in a bottle, floating on the internet. Who knew? Maybe the next time one of them googled their own name, or that of a mutual friend, they'd find this post and get in touch. What harm could it do? But then I realised: there are some very good reasons why I'm still in touch with some people, and not others. For a start, you don't necessarily like the people you once counted as friends, nor they you. You didn't really choose each other: you were simply there when it counted. The fact is that it was more the custom casually to lose contact in those pre-internet days than it was to stay in touch. A simple change of address would do it, and I myself had something like fifteen addresses between the ages of 20 and 30, which is probably fairly typical. Besides, the harsh truth is that fifty sometime friends had presumably never felt the need to get back in touch with me, either. I'm not difficult to find, after all.

That said, it can take a fair amount of searching skill to triangulate the right person on the internet. A name that is unique in one setting can be extremely common in another, and the internet has a way of obliterating all meaningful context; you're not so much looking for a needle in a haystack (and what a curious expression that is), as a needle in a haystack of needles. Take my own name, for example: it seems there are dozens of men called "Mike Chisholm" out there, especially in Canada, some of whom are also photographers, or artists, or librarians, or bloggers; although I'd hope no-one would confuse me with the bagpipers, politicians, and ice-hockey players. Scrutinising the sort of passport-quality photos that turn up online doesn't help much, either: it's very easy to convince yourself that some ageing, balding, jowly visage is a possible mutation of the fresh-faced young person you once knew, even though it usually isn't. The opposite can be true, too: I have at least three times stood face to face with old friends or work colleagues and not recognised them for who they were (OTOH I concede that I must start wearing my glasses).

In the end, all forms of nostalgia are a hunger that cannot be satisfied, a nagging pain that can never be assuaged, which is why it's best to avoid them. Someone else now lives in your childhood home, the fields you played in have been built over, and your old friends are as old as you and as irreversibly changed by their lives as you have been by yours. The chances that you still have anything in common are small. Probably the only real remedy is to have done the hard work of staying in touch, and to have gone through life's changes in parallel; otherwise your elective family, like those blood cousins you never see now except at family funerals, will become at best polite strangers, with rather less to say than the ex-colleagues you occasionally bump into in the supermarket.

The most surprising people can be afflicted by nostalgia, though. How about this curious extract I came across this week, from Situationist Guy Debord's last film, made in 1978, called In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni? That bizarre title, incidentally, is both a Latin palindrome and a riddle, which translates roughly as "We go round and round in the night and are consumed by fire" (spoiler: the official answer is "moths", not "drunks at a bonfire party"). It's well known, apparently, but something I'd never heard of before (a large category, admittedly); once you start digging into that haystack of needles, it quickly emerges as an extremely popular text within a certain demographic, including makers of indie music and bearers of pretentious tattoos. Hmm, Situationists, moths, night, circles... OK, I admit I could be in there, too, now, somewhere.

Wednesday, 15 June 2022


The weather has taken a summery turn (well, it is summer), and I took a walk across Southampton Common to the Old Cemetery earlier in the week. The Old Cemetery is a classic Victorian burial ground, crammed with crumbling tombstones and the sort of elaborate memorials that few, if any, would contemplate as a worthwhile expenditure in these days of low expectations where personal survival, resurrection, judgement, and the whole Christian after-sales package is concerned. Although it's true that in the still active Hollybrook Cemetery there are now some very large memorials erected recently by traveller families, which include photographs, fenced astro-turf enclosures, and even benches. From a photographic point of view old cemeteries are a well-worked source of clich├ęs, but when the light is right they are irresistible.

Something that has always intrigued me, but which I had previously always forgotten to look up by the time I got home, is the frequency of the letters "IHS" at the top of many of the standard-issue tombstones, often as a gothic-looking interlaced monogram. I had presumed it stood for "in hope of salvation", or something of the sort. For once, though, I did remember to look it up, and was intrigued by what I found.

It seems that despite being so universally present, there is no actual agreement on what it means. That may be going a little too far – it clearly doesn't stand for "Idiotic Hat Services" or "Indecipherable Handwriting Syndrome" – but there does appear to be more than one interpretation. The most basic version is that this is a "Christogram", i.e. the first three letters of Jesus Christ’s name in Greek: iota eta sigma (when capitalised, the letter eta looks like an "H"). However, the memorial masons were clearly not classical scholars, and often rendered the letters in a gothicky black-letter lower-case (lower-case eta does not resemble "h", more a swashed "n"), so it can also be seen as a Latin initialism for Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus saviour of mankind), or In Hoc Salus ("Salvation / Safety in this"), or In Hoc Signo (sometimes expanded to IHSV, for In Hoc Signo Vinces i.e. "In this sign you shall conquer", a reference to the vision of Constantine before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge). Alleged English-language interpretations include "In His Service" and "In His Steps", but I prefer my instinctive "In Hope of Salvation". In the end, I think the words we are looking for here are "overdetermined" and "backronym".

Whether or not this symbol on a headstone marks a Catholic grave is debatable, but I find it hard to believe the population of 19th-century Southampton was quite so numerously un-Protestant, unless I'm just drawn to the more decorative headstones, which happen to be in an area reserved for Catholics. Certainly, in both the Old Cemetery and Hollybrook there is a reserved Jewish section, whose gravestones have their own conventions. The most admirable of these, to me, is the custom of placing a stone or pebble on the grave whenever it is visited. Like all customs, the origins and purposes behind this are obscure, but I like this explanation which I came across on the Web:

A beautiful answer takes it cue from the inscription on many gravestones. The Hebrew abbreviation taf, nun, tsadi, bet, hey stands for "teheye nishmato tsrurah b’tsror ha- chayyim", a phrase usually trans­lated "May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life".

Yet tsror in Hebrew means a pebble. In ancient times, shepherds needed a system to keep track of their flocks. On some days, they would go out to pasture with a flock of 30; on others, a flock of 10. Memory was an unreliable way of keeping tabs on the number of the flock. As a result, the shepherd would carry a sling over his shoulder, and in it he would keep the number of pebbles that cor­responded to the number in his flock. That way he could at all times have an accurate daily count.

When we place stones on the grave and inscribe the motto above on the stone, we are asking God to keep the departed’s soul in His sling. Among all the souls whom God has to watch over, we wish to add the name — the “pebble” — of the soul of our departed.
(Why Jews Put Stones on Graves)

Other methods of "disposal" are available, it seems...

Friday, 10 June 2022

Squaring the Circle

When it comes to digital imaging, I tend to have intermittent but intense bouts of productivity. These usually develop from some simple seed of an idea that somehow takes, germinates, and proliferates into a series of variations, which often seems to involve recycling elements of old work into new configurations. There's something analogous to evolutionary "pathways" about the way it works, and I imagine this is how most creative types who aren't working to commission get new things made. You feel a push or a pull in a certain direction, and just see where it takes you; sometimes nowhere, of course, but the ride is always fun.

In one of these bursts of activity over the last few days I have made about thirty new images – quite a few of them in several satisfactory alternative "states", so more like eighty – all stemming from the simple observation that the background of much of my digital work often has as much standalone visual interest as whatever figurative or decorative business I might have plonked down in front of it. So I started going back over old work, stripping out foreground detail and laying bare and re-emphasising the underlying colours, shapes, and patterns. In effect, I was de-cluttering; if only I could bring the same impulse to bear on our house...

It is very satisfying, and I can sense a new "pathway" forming. Inevitably, after a while this speculative, minimalist approach morphed into something less exploratory and more focussed, and I have had to resist the temptation to re-clutter. What seems to be emerging is a series mostly linked by the simple visual appeal of combining a square and a circle, one enclosing the other: "squaring the circle" and "circling the square", so to speak. Whether this is going to go somewhere or nowhere remains to be seen, but constructive fun is being had, and in the end what more can you ask?

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Whole Lotta Logging

In the woods out near Romsey, there's been a whole lotta logging going on. We were in Spearywell Wood at the weekend, and large areas of tall, straight beech and pine trees have recently been felled, leaving stumps and "brash" everywhere, and creating huge piles of logs. Many of the woodland trails have been churned up by tractor-sized wheels, leaving deep, water-filled tyre tracks. In places it looks rather like a war zone.

Trees can just fall over all by themselves, too, of course, even without anybody around to cause or witness the event, or to process the resulting vibrations into "sound" (there, solved that old philosophical chestnut for you). When they do fall over in an uncontrolled way, however, they have a habit of not reaching the ground, as in the example below. Or, worse, they leave large snagged branches behind dangling on neighbouring trees; a dangerous condition known to forest-workers as a "widow-maker".

Someone has a sense of humour...