Thursday, 28 July 2022


There was recently a feature on Italian photographer Ferdinando Scianna in the Guardian, an interview in which he explains how he's finally given up photography at age 79, and claims that, out of over a million photographs he has taken, only fifty are "good". I know exactly how he feels, even though I've still got a decade to go by that measure. To be honest, it took me a little while to realise who Scianna is, but the penny finally dropped that one of his fashion shots from the 1980s has long lived in my file of Good Stuff downloaded from the Web, in the form of a postcard to promote a series of portfolios by Magnum photographers produced by American paper manufacturer Domtar in order to show off their photographic paper Bravo.

I love that picture. It is both sexy and self-parodying: both the model and the boy are self-consciously "doing" a fashion shoot. Here is another version, in a slightly different crop and contrast:

Marpessa, Caltagirone, 1987

I must admit I originally took the skinny girl in black as some local beauty, doing model-style moves for the boy pretending to be a photographer, perhaps her little brother; half mocking, half playing up to the real photographer behind the real camera. In fact, it turns out the image is from Dolce & Gabbana’s 1987 ad campaign, featuring model Marpessa Henni, a.k.a. "the Catwalk Contessa", but no less brilliant for that. In photography, appearances are everything.

Talking of which, on Scianna's Magnum profile page (well worth a visit) there is a wonderful quote:

A photograph is not created by a photographer. What they do is just to open a little window and capture it. The world then writes itself on the film. The act of the photographer is closer to reading than it is to writing. They are the readers of the world.

Of course, some readers of the world are better than others, and the best readers show those of us who care about such things how to read with closer attention.

Seen from an Anglo-American perspective, it can sometimes seem that European photography constitutes a separate genre of activity, despite the pervasive influence of major names like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Josef Koudelka. So many outstanding photographers are virtually unknown to the English-speaking world; primarily, I suppose, because of the one-way valve of language sitting between the Anglosphere and the rest of the world. Speak, write, and publish in English, and you will become an honorary Anglo; stick with your native tongue, and remain "obscure". [1]

Of course, translation doesn't guarantee comprehension. A while ago I had a little fun with the bizarre translation of the foreword to the English-language version of Luigi Ghirri's oustanding book Kodachrome, which led me to take a closer look at what that hilarious Anglicized verbiage might really mean (in my post Not So Fast, English). But consider that byword of photography, the decisive moment. As is well known, that expression – and the whole associated philosophical package of "street" photography – comes from Henri Cartier-Bresson's seminal book, The Decisive Moment, with its lovely cover design by Henri Matisse, no less, and its dozens of truly "iconic" images. But: that is the English title of the book. In its original French, the book is called Images à la Sauvette, which is very far from meaning "the decisive moment".

So,what does "images à la sauvette" mean? Well, it is sometimes translated as "images on the fly" or "on the run", but that doesn't really do it justice. Basically, sauvette is an adverb meaning "hastily". My schoolboy French is far from current or idiomatic, but it seems that to do anything à la sauvette has distinctly negative overtones. For example, vendre à la sauvette (to sell stuff in the 'asty manner) is what unlicensed street traders do, and generally speaking the expression seems to be used to indicate undue haste, such as rushing something like legislation through without proper scrutiny or on the sly: see the examples given in that useful linguistic resource Linguee. So, I humbly propose that any future English edition of HC-B's masterpiece should be entitled Grab Shots. [2]

1. Not to mention the rest of the world. Japan in particular seems to be a bottomless well of creative photographers. My problem (and I concede this may be ethnocentric to the point of linguistic racism) is that I can't remember most of their names, seemingly assembled at random from the same small handful of parts. I'm never sure whether all linguistic-cultural groups have the same difficulty with each other's names, or whether this is peculiar to the Anglophone world.

2. I'm being more than a little facetious, obviously. The French equivalent of "decisive moment" (le moment décisif) does occur in the book: it's the opening quote of the preface, although – bizarrely – extracted from the memoirs of Cardinal de Retz (who?), published in 1717: «Il n’y a rien dans le monde qui n’ait son moment décisif» ("There is nothing in this world that not have its decisive moment"). Quite what Retz and/or HC-B actually meant by "the decisive moment" is, not unlike Roland Barthes' elusive concept of "punctum", much misunderstood and a matter for debate. Personally, as my parents tended to complain when I was a kid, I just like to look at the pictures in a book.

Saturday, 23 July 2022


I was sure there used to be a bank here...

Like it or not, unless you are some off-grid anarchist (and if you are, you are very welcome, but how on earth did you get in here?), your life is enmeshed with institutions. These might be schools, banks, shops, manufacturers, utility companies, broadcasters, universities, your employer, the social services, charities, national and local government, the armed forces, the legal profession, trades unions, whatever: for better or worse, these "corporate bodies" are how society works. They are how power and wealth are consolidated and privilege is protected, but also how these inequalities are challenged, and useful stuff like water, electricity, and broadband is delivered to your house. Which was most likely built by some well-established building firm, and if you own it, paid for by a building society [1].

This is no more than to state the obvious, really. But the thing is as I get older I find I am afflicted by an urge to carry out retrospective fact-checking, which means I'm increasingly aware that our journey through the many institutions we will have encountered over the years is very patchily documented, ranging from occasionally superb to generally non-existent. For example, I was astonished to discover, in one recent bout of fact-checking, that my current medical practice holds paper medical records dating all the way back to my infancy, and that these have patiently followed me through numerous changes of location and practice over nearly seven decades. My doctor and I had some fun paging through them, discovering what ailments I had suffered as a child. Ah, the dislocated thumb in primary school! The many earaches leading to the removal of my tonsils! I remember it all so well and, evidently, so does the NHS. But did they have any record of the rather more recent event I wanted to follow up? Nope. Why not? It seemed that, unlike that ancient sheaf of paper records, it had simply not survived the journey from the GP's computer upstairs to the admin staff downstairs to the "permanent" file on some server somewhere else.

Similarly, a few years ago, when it seemed that we might be contemplating a permanent move to Bristol, I thought it might be handy to get a reader's ticket at the university library there, where I had worked for a total of five years in two stretches: special privileges are available for alumni and ex-staff. However, a search in the digitised staff records drew a blank: it seemed lowly assistant librarians weren't deemed worthy of the disk space. Someone actually had to take the trouble to venture into the literal basement where the old paper records were in storage, to prove I had ever been employed by the university. Never mind fire, flood, or enemy action, all it would now take is an administrative decision to discard the paper records – they've all been digitised, after all, haven't they? – and any trace of my passage through that institution would be lost. That, after all, is what happened to the records of the 19th century Irish censuses: the statistics had all been extracted from the raw data, the thinking seemed to go, so why clutter the place up with all that useless paper?

Ironically, in an era when obsessive data-cumulation in the form of digital snooping is burgeoning – unless you have taken steps to protect your privacy, be sure that Facebook, Google, et al. know rather more about you than you might like – it seems the memory of institutions is getting weaker; a faculty strongly correlated, I think, with an institution's pride, or lack of it, in itself as an institution. People used to write histories of government departments, firms, schools, and colleges, in the same way that the buildings that housed banks, businesses, and even cinemas and factories used to be constructed to last and to impress. I own several volumes celebrating the publisher J.M. Dent's Temple Press in Letchworth, for example, where my grandparents happened to work, which are typical products of a corporate self-consciousness that now seems quaint, or even hubristic ("My name is Woolworth's, shop of shops..."). Today's institutional world seems more like a fairground: brash, inescapable while the money is flowing, then quickly disassembled, and gone with the wind.

Not all institutions are equal, however. One Sunday morning a while ago, half-awake, I was listening to BBC Radio 4's "magazine" programme Broadcasting House. The speaker was talking about the differences between state and private schooling, and how – much as he disapproved of the private school system – he couldn't help but admire individual schools as exemplars of educational excellence. So far, so routine. But he then said something interesting: that he especially admired the way the private sector, unlike the public sector, invested in the sense of a school as an institution, with a history and a sense of self.

The speaker was journalist Robert Peston, who was educated at a North London comprehensive, and is as proud of that as he should be. He then told a very striking anecdote. During his time at that school, there was a sense of pride in the achievements of ex-pupil Laurie Cunningham, the first English footballer to sign for Real Madrid, and the first Black footballer to play for England. On his recent return to the school, Peston had wondered why there wasn't, say, a building named after Cunningham? The current headteacher's response was, "Who?" [3]

"Who?", indeed. For those of us who were educated at public expense, the chances are that your primary and secondary schools have been renamed, merged, demolished, rebuilt, reorganised, and even moved to a new site, so that any sense of history or institutional pride will have been broken decades ago. Uniforms will have been abolished and reinvented several times over, games fields sold off and built over, and – in a best case scenario – any remaining archival material dumped into the care of an overstretched and underfunded local authority. So when it comes to enquiries about previous heads, teachers, and pupils – their names, their achievements, their reputations – the answer will inevitably be, "Who?"

The endless churning of policies, reconfiguring of priorities, outsourcing of services, and abolition, combination, recombination, and renaming of institutions in the public sector, mean that there is also no longer any continuity from generation to generation for the "clients" of public services. A community needs a sense of its own narrative to exist as a community, to have a history; at its extreme – I think of the mining villages of South Wales and North-East England – this constant disruption amounts to an erasure of identity.

The environment and infrastructure are in constant flux, too. Our water, gas, electricity, and telecomms are no longer supplied by dedicated national utilities. The banks and even the Post Office have closed most of their small local branches as "underused" – at least according to some crude, self-serving metric – and therefore "inefficient". In the name of competition and market forces and in the mad pursuit of ever-lower taxes, continuity has been replaced with endless empty "choice" between one unknowable quantity and another, each brightly wrapped in the same PR hype. It's all too faceless and too confusing to care about, so you choose the one offering the cheapest deal, and then they go out of business two years later, and you find yourself the client of one of the competitors you rejected last time round. My own copper-wire internet connection, for example, has so far been through five (or is it six?) purely nominal changes of supplier since we originally signed up with Compuserve back in 1990s, like mediaeval serfs transferred en bloc to a new absentee overlord.

There is a common dream, which most people find upsetting, in which you go back to your childhood home, and the current occupants have no idea who you are. Bruce Springsteen even wrote a song about it, "My Father's House". For the majority who cannot afford to buy themselves out of the nightmare, that is our contemporary world. It is a place where you are always becoming a stranger, someone whose name is unrecognised, whose files have been lost, whose account has expired, and whose key no longer fits the door. Why bother to vote, when all it means is more empty change? Why care about your community, when the raw material of its history is regarded as nothing more than clutter to be dumped into a skip several times a decade?

I know, I know... As the ITMA character Mona Lott so wisely used to say: It's the bein' so cheerful as keeps me goin'. I spent a working career patiently adding to the memory of one particular institution, and I'm well aware that a degree of selective curation is needed: not everything can be kept. But I hate to see this throwaway attitude becoming the norm. It seems to me that institutions have started to mirror the computers and software on which they have come to depend. All it takes is an update to an operating system (read: change of government or senior management) to render reliable old packages inoperable; a few years is the limited, supported lifespan of even the most expensive kit. When replacement time comes or upgrade catastrophe happens, whichever is the sooner, then there is a golden opportunity for a bit of corporate retail therapy at senior management level. Out with the old, in with the new! Why would anyone keep an obsolete mainframe, after all, or the software it used to run, even if a significant chunk of that institution's history is bound up with it? In the Marie Kondo formula, let's chuck out anything that no longer sparks joy! Or anyone, come to that. Thank you for your service, now clear your desk, and remember to return your locker key. You're history! (but not for long...)

Do I know you? The face is familiar, but...

1. In the UK a "building society" is (or was) an alternative to a conventional bank, a safe place to accumulate savings and to secure a mortgage against the purchase of property, run on a "mutual" basis. Like so many evil things that happened in the 1980s, building societies were "de-mutualised" and allowed to function more or less as banks, just with friendlier names.

2. Of course, the up-side of this is that lying about your past, whether it be exam grades, jobs held, or whatever, becomes quite tempting, or at least a gamble worth taking.

2. My own school's main and probably sole celebrity claim to fame is Ken Hensley, of Uriah Heep. I know: "Who?"...

Monday, 18 July 2022

Snow Globes

It's hot, and getting hotter, and it seems that the record UK high of 38.7°C is likely to have been, um, thoroughly incinerated by the end of tomorrow. Time to break out the snow globes, with apologies to that Escher bloke. Ah, that's better...

Thursday, 14 July 2022

June in July

Spearywell Wood, near Mottisfont

Here we are in July, suffering what passes for a heatwave in Britain [1], and I've still got some stuff I wanted to share from June. The simplest thing, I think, is to put up a gallery of a few photographs with commentary. So here we go:

In an earlier June heat wavelet that lasted just a couple of days we were in Bristol, and I took a walk down through so-called Goat Gulley, a precipitous and rocky defile that drops down from Clifton Downs into the Avon Gorge. The cute mini castle you see here is in fact a ventilation shaft for the light railway tunnel that runs beneath. The shade-hogging goats are the inhabitants who give the gulley its name, obviously, and are best given a fairly wide berth. Occasionally some idiot will let their dog off the lead in the gulley, and dogs seem to make the fatal error of mistaking truculent goats for easily-bullied sheep. According to the warning notice for dog owners, the score so far is dead goats 1, dead dogs 3.

As seems increasingly the case, part of Clifton Downs was being given over to some festival. I suppose it does generate income for the Council. The flare in the shot of the bins reminds me that (a) all of the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone 12 mini, and (b) I must figure out a way to fit it with a lens hood. If I could fix that, the quality and reliability of the photographs (using the Halide app), coupled with the portability and constant, unobtrusive presence in my pocket of the phone is a winning combination for me, and more than good enough for my everyday purposes. I'm especially impressed with its performance in difficult light conditions, such as dimly-lit galleries.

In the newly refurbished gallery rooms of the Royal West of England Academy, also in Bristol, there was a fine exhibition of artists' self-portraits. Of the contemporary items, I think my favourites were these two, an extremely simple but bold pen-and-ink drawing on a sheet of deckle-edged paper by sculptor Peter Randall-Page, very reminiscent of Van Gogh, and a hilariously "un-woke" rack of ten plates by Lisa Cheung with the title "I Want to be More Chinese". Of the older works, it was good to see a favourite picture I'd only ever seen reproduced before, William Orpen's WW1 painting titled "Ready To Start" [2]; its permanent home is the Imperial War Museum in London, which for some reason I have never yet got around to visiting. There was also a very striking self-portrait by Mary Somerville (1780-1872). They don't make frames like that any more, do they?

Meanwhile, back in Southampton, my customary walks through the nearby Sports Centre in June were enlivened, visually, by the effects of light and shade on full summer foliage, and the beautiful cloud formations that build up in warm weather near the coast. That was in June: this week, it's just too bright and too hot to do anything much outdoors (low 30s Centigrade, building to a possible record temperature over the weekend). Sure, that's far from unbearable by world standards – The highest temperature so far recorded in the UK was 38.7°C on 25 July 2019 in Cambridge – but if you're used to summer temperatures around 20°C it's exhausting and, for some, dangerous and even life-threatening. Those shade-seeking green and blue bollards clustered under a tree in the photo below have got the right idea, and seem considerably less intimidating than the gulley goats.

1. In the UK a heatwave is defined as "a period of at least three consecutive days with daily maximum temperatures meeting or exceeding the heatwave temperature threshold". That temperature threshold varies by county; way down south here in Hampshire, it was recently raised to 27°C. 
2. Ready to start as a War Artist, that is. Orpen was a well-connected society portraitist and ruthless string-puller, as you will discover if you read his Wikipedia article, but he also delivered some of the more shocking works by any War Artist. He needed to pull some serious strings to get them seen.

BY THE WAY: Blurb are offering 20% off all books over the weekend:
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Saturday, 9 July 2022

A Literary Discovery

"Never go back" is very wise counsel, especially where school and university reunions are concerned. So, when I was recently invited to a college reunion for the years 1972-76, a black-tie gathering known as a "gaudy" [1] in Oxford-speak, I was quite surprised to discover that several of my friends from that time were actually intending to go, and urged me to accept the invitation, too.

I have to say nothing – NOTHING – could have persuaded me to take part in such an occasion, even accompanied by the very best of good friends and with the promise of an excellent meal and plentiful drink. I have vivid memories from my student days of stumbling over formally-dressed and sometimes elderly men lying face-down in the quad, or having a particularly intense prayer experience on the big white telephone, and I found that whole sybaritic aspect of the Oxbridge experience mystifying, alien, and repellent. So I suggested to my chums that, yes, it would be great to meet up, but couldn't we instead (a) picket the event, so as to honour the true spirit of our time there, and then (b) all go to a restaurant for a nice meal with no dress code and thus avoid the utter pricks who would otherwise be turning up?

Sadly, they were unpersuadable. So I amused myself by imagining that I might turn up anyway to picket the event, standing alone on the hallowed spot by the steps up into the college dining hall where copies of Socialist Worker and Oxford Strumpet [2] were hawked in ancient times. But what sort of printed item might I press into the hands of the dinner-jacketed celebrants? The obvious thing would have been a fire-breathing tract calculated to shame my contemporaries into remembering who they once were, and to cast off the trappings of establishment convention. Repent, ye apostates and black-tied backsliders! But, fortunately, a sense of perspective intervened: nearly all of my old friends are far more politically-engaged these days than me. What right did I have to get on a high horse over the choices they make, however puzzling I might find them? But the only other thing that came to mind was a parody of the poem "Adlestrop" by Edward Thomas that had been buzzing around in my head for a while; not so much a hellfire sermon, then, as a mild-mannered, rather oblique apologia. Well, the choices I have made in my own life can be just as puzzling to me, after all, and have become more, not less so with age. Although I still won't wear a bloody suit or tie, much less formal dinner-wear, as a lifelong follower of the doctrine of principled scruffiness.

Obviously, I didn't actually go and picket – I'm not that much of an attention-seeking idiot – but I did finish the parody, and added some footnotes in the style of those scholarly editions where the annotations exceed the text in length, which I then distributed among my gaudy-bound "private friends" like Shakespeare with his "sugared sonnets", with the sole intention to amuse, rather than accuse. After all, I can't afford to lose any friends at this stage of my life.

But, now that its primary purpose has been fulfilled, and for what it's worth, you too can read it below. It goes without saying, of course, that "Adlestrop" is a poem of the first order, and provides the solid scaffolding without which my effort crumbles into abject dust. Apologies, ET; I meant well.

1. Apparently pronounced to rhyme with "bawdy", despite being derived from the Latin "gaude" (rejoice), and which I had always presumed therefore to rhyme with "Audi". By analogy, one of my witty friends has suggested that Lloyd Price's song might therefore be written "Laude Ms. Claude".
2. A leftist political 'zine for which I produced some controversial cover images and cartoons, not least for issue no. 69. Sorry about that.

Matriculation in subfusc, Michaelmas '73
(Huh? Call for a translator!)

A Literary Discovery
 Yes. I remember Balliol --
The name, because one afternoon
quite late our headmaster brought it up
Quite casually. It was late June.

The days passed. Most friends left for uni.
A very few endured the same:
an extra term. But what did I know
of Balliol? Only the name

Plus Arnold, Swinburne, and Clough,
Huxley, Hopkins, and Graham Greene
had all been there: with any luck
I'd find a literary scene.

And in that term I had a dream
That may have lasted half a century,
Stranger and stranger, a boy asleep
in Stevenage Public Library.

These verses are clearly a parody of the much-admired poem "Adlestrop" by Edward Thomas. The text of the original poem is reproduced below for purposes of comparison, and for the benefit of the unliterary. The author has been identified as Michael Chisholm (Balliol 1973), partly from internal references in the poem, but mainly from a signed but unprintable (and actionable) satire-cum-rant on the other side of the paper concerning various Balliol contemporaries, including a prominent QC, several academics, a sententious journalist, and a self-styled "philosopher".

line 1: Balliol is one of the oldest colleges of Oxford University. In its own estimation, an elite institution, a training ground and launch pad for the eminent. In the view of others, an asylum for bright but delusional nerds, wonks, and wastrels.

line 5: "Most friends" is questionable. It is known that a good many of the author's home-town friends were actually school-leavers, stoners, and slackers, for whom higher education of any kind was a laughably remote and unwished-for prospect. Also, absolutely nobody referred to "uni" in 1972.

line 7: The universities of Oxford and Cambridge ("Oxbridge") require candidates to sit an entrance examination in November. State schools generally wait until A-level results are received and sufficiently good (three or more at "A" grade, usually) before allowing pupils to prepare for and sit Oxbridge entrance. This means an extra term at school, followed by a two-term "gap year", in which employment is usually sought (Chisholm worked as art assistant and remedial English teacher at the local Catholic boys' secondary school). Thus state-school undergraduates are customarily a year older and considerably more worldly-wise than their public-school contemporaries.

lines 9-10: These are the names of some well-known but really rather minor authors who were Balliol alumni. The college is not famously literary. Thus:

lines 11-12: The sentiment is probably ironic. Balliol in those days (1966-1976) was a hotbed of student activism, and populated by scholarly leftists whose idea of literature was a multi-volume biography of Trotsky or some impenetrable and jargon-filled philosophical tract. Volumes of Deutscher's Prophet series (emphatically not sci-fi novels) or Feyerabend's Against Method were often seen carried under one arm, in the way others might carry the latest Pink Floyd album.
Note on this note: Curiously, in German Feierabend literally means something like "celebration night" and thus might be thought similar to the Oxford term "gaudy", as applied to a festive reunion of a cohort of students, but in fact merely denotes the end of the ordinary working day (Ich hatte um halb sechs Feierabend = "I got off work at 5:30"). Which is weird, rather like calling your lunch-break "carnival time".  
Further note on this note: It is a remarkable fact that Pink Floyd's album The Dark Side of the Moon was first released in March 1973, despite seeming, in retrospect, to have been orchestrating eyelid movies since, like, forever. What? We just thought it was worth pointing out. Write your own damned notes.

lines 13ff: The author seems to be suggesting that he may have fallen asleep in his local public library, and that the 50 subsequent years have merely been a very strange dream, from which he may yet awake. See perhaps Bottom's speech in MND IV, i  ("I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was") or even the Grateful Dead song "Box of Rain" ("For this is all a dream we dreamed / One afternoon long ago"). It is known that the author was inexplicably prone to identify with Bottom the Weaver. It is also recorded that although he often and loudly declared his dislike for the Grateful Dead he was extremely moved by the song in question when it was played in Balliol chapel at the memorial of a friend and Balliol contemporary in 2010.

line 16: Stevenage is a New Town, 30 miles N of London, built in the 1950s to accommodate blitzed and slum-cleared Londoners and other humble folk aspiring to indoor plumbing, a garden, jobs in light industry, and good schools. In the end, though, that too must be said to have been just another dream, one that lasted until the Thatcher Years and council housing was sold off cheaply in the 1980s. Like Caliban, when we waked from that sweet dream, we cried to dream again.


Adlestrop, by Edward Thomas (1917)

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Second lieutenant Edward Thomas was killed at Arras, 9th April 1917 (Easter Monday), by a bullet though the chest. He was 39. His poem "Adlestrop" was published in The New Statesman under the pseudonym Edward Eastaway, also in April, just weeks after his death. His first collection under his own name, Poems, was published later that same year. Along with Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorley, and so many others who had barely started on a literary career, he is one of the great "what ifs" of English poetry. For a poignant, if parochial insight into the scale of that great, unnecessary tragedy and its harvest of truncated lives, a browse through this Balliol College War Memorial Book is salutary.

Monday, 4 July 2022

A Midsummer Night's Dream

"I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream..." 

"Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was."