Wednesday 30 November 2022

Solvitur Ambulando

At my secondary school, as in all state schools before compulsory team sports went the way of elasticated plimsolls and girls in baggy gym knickers, one afternoon every week was dedicated to "games". This was never a problem for me: I was quite sporty for a "swot" (definition: one with an unnatural leaning towards academic study), and was usually chosen for the first or second teams in rugby, cricket, and hockey, despite having little interest in and only the vaguest understanding of the rules and strategies of any team sport. For others, though, I realise "games" were a weekly torment and a humiliation, particularly for the cack-handed, ill-coordinated, and bespectacled, with no interest whatsoever in chasing a ball or knocking each other over.

If we chose to stay on for the sixth form, however, another option became available, at least for a few: to join the Perambulators. This had nothing to do with pushing a pram [1].  I can't now remember how the Perambulators were chosen – it was something of a privilege, as I recall, with numbers restricted to about a dozen boys, drawn from both upper and lower sixths – but the arrangement was essentially that the group would be driven out to some rural spot, where we would go for a circular ramble, accompanied by one or more of our teachers. On the walk smoking was permitted (in fact encouraged, as in, led by example), and on the way back we would sometimes stop off for a drink in a pub. It was fun, although the smoking and drinking part was not widely advertised as a feature, obviously.

Strange as it may sound, I had never been "walking" before. Most families in places like Stevenage didn't (and probably still don't) "go for a walk". On holiday we sat on the beach, splashed about in the sea, or went for a ride of some sort. At weekends, we might occasionally go for a picnic, but that mainly involved driving, sitting, and eating. Recreational walking, involving special footwear, the use of maps, and getting cold and wet was something you might do in the Scouts, but was not a recognised family leisure activity. Besides, our parents and grandparents had done quite enough of that in the army to last a lifetime, thank you very much. So Perambulation was actually quite a good preparation for a certain sort of middle-class life. It meant I didn't laugh hysterically when a bracing walk was proposed on Boxing Day afternoon, for example, or wonder out loud why anyone would want to book a remote cottage in Wales, 25 miles from the nearest beach, for a summer holiday? Thanks to Perambulation, I passed these simple entry requirements when I encountered my future partner's robustly outdoorsy family; why, thanks to geography field trips, which were Perambulation writ large, I could even use an OS map in a high wind and driving rain.

 But walking also has a mental – I'm tempted to say "spiritual" – dimension that is hard to describe, but easily experienced. There's something about the physiological effects of keeping a rhythmic, steady pace over medium to long distances in the open air which can stimulate thought and a sense of well-being, and even a curiously meditative state of heightened awareness (unless you are wearing boots that are too loose, too tight, or insufficiently waterproof). As an extreme example I think of a strange little book written in 1978 by film-maker Werner Herzog, Vom Gehen Im Eis (translated as Of Walking in Ice, and still available). In a move typical of Herzog, when he heard that a friend and mentor was gravely ill – the 78-year old film historian Lotte Eisner – he decided to walk – yes, walk – from Munich to Paris, "believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot". Rightly, as it turned out [2]. In Herzog's account it took from 23rd November to 14th December 1974, which is good going for a non-stop journey on foot of 450 miles. The book recounts the journey in the form of a diary, as a sort of expiatory pilgrimage, or a real-life Winterreise. The whole adventure, as you might expect, is tinged with Herzog's characteristic super-intensity, constantly in danger of tipping over into madness. Whenever I dip into it, I am reminded of the poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" by Robert Browning, in which perfectly innocent stimuli like farm animals and implements become transformed into threatening objects of ill-omen, incorporated into the narrative of an increasingly hallucinatory personal quest [3]. But the belief that there is something special – sacramental, even – in the act of simply walking is widely held. As the saying goes: solvitur ambulando (roughly, "perambulation will get it sorted").

Anyway, most of my photography happens on walks, although nothing too strenuous these days, and in recent times I've taken to using my phone almost exclusively, and not just on the more routine, local walks. I have, on a few occasions, had reason to regret this, but not often enough to warrant always lugging something more substantial around, on a "just in case" basis. In case you haven't yet got the memo, phone photography is now way better than it has any right to be. I'm using an iPhone 12 mini and, by using the Halide app to get PNG "raw" files, I find that it can deliver results just as good as the fixed-lens Fuji X70 compact I was previously using as my "pocket" camera. Seriously: it's very impressive.

I've been selecting and arranging the pictures taken on these excursions into mini-sequences of three and four images, which I have inevitably named "iPhone Perambulations". The (so far) inviolable rule I have applied to these sequences is that all of the pictures must have been taken on the same walk, and must be shown in a chronological sequence, labelled to show how close or far apart in time they were taken. Photo-sequences benefit from such rules, I think, if only to avoid (or at least put a brake on) the temptation to resort to formulas or to the sort of semi-fakery that quietly adds the perfect complementary image taken on one walk into the sequence from another. Obviously, only I can know or even care about this, but it's a useful and creative discipline to follow.

Rather than print the photographs individually, I have been printing them all together on a single cut-down A2 sheet, with captions to indicate their time and location, mostly either full width (59.4cm) or trimmed to 50cm. The idea is that they should become a single, frameable, self-contained artwork. The ones I'm showing here are just a small sample: as you can imagine, as a committed daily perambulator I have already put together quite a number of these, retrospectively, although it's inevitable that not every walk yields a suitable sequential design. A majority have, though, almost as if – without getting too Herzogian about it – an unconscious thematic link had been driving my choices of photographic subject and approach all along. Which is not impossible: most walks do have their own mood and motivations, after all. Doubtless, now I'm aware of this, it may become a more conscious process, until it does eventually become too formulaic, and I get bored with it, at which point this new "perambulations" project will have finally run its course. In the mean time, though, this is proving to be productive, and, which is more important, good fun.

1. A wheeled baby-carriage is known as a "pram" in Britain, shortened from "perambulator", i.e. what in the US would be called a "stroller", apparently.
2. In an interview at Stanford University's Another Look Book Club (here, about 20 minutes in), Herzog claimed that 8 years later she complained to him of her infirmities and said: "I am saturated with life (in German: Lebenssatt). There is still this spell upon me that I must not die – can you lift it?" He says that he did, and that she died 8 days later. Hmm. It must be great, to live so comfortably within your own mythology like that.
3. Extreme exertion can induce altered states. A good friend did the 95 mile endurance run from Milngavie north of Glasgow to Fort William in the Highlands, the so-called West Highland Way ultra-marathon, in his 50s, twice (I know... Talk about "super-intensity, constantly in danger of tipping over into madness"...). The first time very bad weather intervened, underlining the "ultra" part, and he found himself hallucinating an accompanying ship escort halfway along the course.

Saturday 26 November 2022

A Cage Went in Search of a Bird

When I was young I remember arguing with George Steiner about an essay in which he said old men don’t read fiction. Well, I’m an old man and I don’t read much fiction; whatever fiction gives you, I don’t seem to need it any more.
novelist John Banville, interviewed in Guardian, 12/11/2022

Well, I'm almost an old man (I reckon "old" starts at 70) and I have to say I agree with old man Banville, 76, and very old man Steiner, who died in 2020, aged 90. I no longer feel any great desire to keep up with contemporary "serious" fiction, as if that were even possible. Even ignoring the "90% of anything" that is rubbish, there are hundreds of allegedly good-to-brilliant novels published every year in the English language, of which, on current showing, I might at most read a dozen – I may even be exaggerating there, thinking of the past few years – and of those a quarter or more will turn out to have been a bit of a waste of time. Been there, read that. As the old man says, whatever it is that fiction gives you, it seems I don't need it any more.

I certainly used to need it. My parents were intelligent working-class people but, denied the benefits of post-war state education, were about as far from bookish as it's possible to be without manifesting active philistinism. My father would probably have liked to have read more, but my mother resented being in the same room as a reader – I think she felt she was being ignored – and would quickly make her displeasure known. It was far easier for them both to settle down to watch the TV all evening, and most nights I would retreat to my bedroom to read, under cover of "homework".

But I had become a reader well before the advent of the grammar-school burden of three sets of homework every night. I suppose in many perfectly normal, un-bookish families there's some outlier like me, who – as the un-bookish like to say – always has his nose in a book. It wasn't always so, but when I started winning the annual prize for English at my primary school, these prizes would inevitably take the form of a book, and at my school in the 1960s they were usually entertaining accounts of his adventures by the naturalist brother of novelist Lawrence Durrell, Gerald: My Family and Other Animals, The Bafut Beagles, and so on. I loved them, and, I suppose around the age of 9, discovered that I simply loved reading. Pretty much every night my parents would find me fast asleep in bed with my bedtime reading spread across my face: literally with my nose in a book. It became a family joke.

However, a few years after Gerald Durrell had switched on the reading lamp, so to speak, my reading matter changed, along with my hormones. I think it's difficult for those brought up in homes where reading "proper" literature is a normal and well-established habit to realise how hard it is to know what to read. So, as an adolescent, financed by my book tokens and pocket money, I would scan the shelves of W.H. Smith looking for promising-looking paperback covers, or for the sort of books that were being passed around or whispered about at our all-boys school, which were never "literary", and often American. In this way I read Catch-22 multiple times, The Dice Man, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Slaughterhouse-Five, the schlock-horror oeuvre of Dennis Wheatley, the brutal war tales of Sven Hassel and Jerzy Kosinski, and so on. I can honestly say that – quite unlike most of my contemporary students of English when I arrived at university – I had never read a single classic "literary" novel other than those we were required to read for exam purposes. Which, as I recall, were Dandelion Days for English O-level, of all things, a volume in Henry Williamson's "Flax of Dream" tetralogy and about which I can remember absolutely nothing, Little Dorrit for English A-level, plus Middlemarch and most of Virginia Woolf for Oxford entrance.

So I had the need to read, but the resort to the official canon of "great novels" as a source of wisdom, inspiration, and pleasure had never quite been installed in me; it was rather too much like extra homework, I suppose. But my appetite for semi-junk novel-reading continued into the years when others were taking their deep dive into the canon. Instead, I was reading my way through the rival classics of the counterculture, from Kerouac and Burroughs to Richard Brautigan and Tom Wolfe, not to mention entertainingly wacky stuff like Erich von Däniken and Carlos Castaneda. Literary novels were not and have never been my thing: in the subsequent 60 years I have yet to read another Dickens, have never read a single Jane Austen, or indeed most of the prose classics that form the bedrock of the Western literary mind. This is not a boast, or a confession, just a fact. I suppose I might get around to them, some day, but, to repeat: whatever it is that fiction gives you, it seems I don't need it any more.

For sources of wisdom and inspiration, as opposed to entertainment, I tend to look elsewhere. Primed, perhaps, by the sort of attention demanded by the lyrics of songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell, poetry has always "spoken" to me, and I have always appreciated the short, the weird, and the challenging (don't look at me like that, I'm 5' 6"). I'll take a double shot of poetic spirits over a litre of prose beer any day. So it was a stroke of great good fortune to find myself studying A-level German in a year when a book of Franz Kafka's short stories was one of the set texts, rather than some turgid novel. Somehow, it seemed like fate, as if my path had been heading that way all along. It turned out that a familiarity with Erich von Däniken and William Burroughs might even have been a better preparation for this than a devotion to, say, George Eliot or Jane Austen: "Kafka" was clearly where the more seriously far-out counterculture hung out with canon culture. Like, say, Rothko or Zappa, to Anglo ears the very name Kafka had more than a hint of the exotic; so much so you couldn't help but wonder whether – like Houdini, or Groucho, Chico, and Harpo – it had actually been made up as a literary stage-name.

Now, most literate people will have heard of Kafka, and many think – without ever having read a single word – that they know what his writing is all about; "Kafkaesque", after all, has entered the language and the dictionaries. Frustrating encounter with a bureaucracy? Kafkaesque! Nightmarishly bizarre and illogical experience? Kafkaesque! See: Orwellian! See also: Bad trip! None of which is altogether wrong, but is like reducing Shakespeare to men in tights and the confusing proliferation of titles of nobility: "Get thee to Gloucester, Essex. Do thee to Wessex, Exeter, etc." [1]; it's both superficial and an evasion of the actual experience on offer.

Kafka is much more complicated than that. This is not the place to write a semi-scholarly essay on why and how Kafka is complicated (I'm not sure I could do that any more, anyway); suffice it to say that he is a multifaceted author, an insurance company clerk who combines the qualities of a comedian, a storyteller, a secular mystic, an adept of the via negativa, a neurotic self-doubting nerd, a genius truth-teller, a womaniser but a bottler and bolter when it came to commitment, all wrapped up in a German-speaking Jew from Prague who was only too aware of living under an impending death-sentence, finally carried out by TB at the age of 40 in 1924.

Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean (sorry, Elton)... I've increasingly found myself revisiting old literary haunts, rather than looking for new ones. In particular, recently I've been rediscovering Kafka's 109 numbered bits of gnomic reflection, collected as the Zürau AphorismsZürau – now Siřem in the Czech Republic – being where Kafka went to stay on a farm with his sister after his TB diagnosis in 1917. I actually have these so-called "aphorisms" on my shelves in four versions: a volume of a Secker & Warburg "definitive edition" collected works in translation by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, bought when it was discarded by my home-town public library; the original German in the Bibliothek Suhrkamp series as edited by Roberto Calasso; a tiny little Penguin "Syrens" series version, translated by Malcolm Pasley; and a very nice small hardback from Schocken, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir and Michael Hoffmann.

Some of these are quite well-known:

16. A cage went in search of a bird.
18. If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing up it, that would have been permitted.
84. We were created to live in Paradise, and Paradise was designed to serve us. Our purpose has been changed; we are not told whether the same has also happened to the purpose of Paradise.

If you know a little German, it can be instructive (and at times baffling) to compare the translations. But, in order not to prolong a post which is probably of limited interest to you, anyway, I simply want to draw your attention to no. 32:

Die Krähen behaupten, eine einzige Krähe könnte den Himmel zerstören. Das ist zweifellos, beweist aber nichts gegen den Himmel, denn Himmel bedeuten eben: Unmöglichkeit von Krähen.
(The crows like to insist a single crow could destroy heaven. This is incontestably true, but it says nothing about heaven, because heaven is just another way of saying: the impossibility of crows).

That head-spinning, Escher-esque paradox is typical of the Zürau Aphorisms. So many of them resemble a sort of Jewish koan, a Möbius strip of twisted logic in which the absence of divinity or ultimate human purpose are also proof of  their existence, and vice versa. And what are the chances Ted Hughes had read no. 32 before writing Crow? Or, come to that, what are the chances it has been perched patiently in the back of my own mind for half a century? Unlike the contents of Dandelion Days, Little Dorrit, or even Catch-22.

Oh, and look, this week sees what is possibly the most Kafkaesque SMBC yet: Give Me a Sign...

The Metamorphosis...
"Ein ungeheures Ungeziefer" (a monstrous verminous bug")
(I reckon one of these little bastards is what FK really had in mind)

1.  Beyond the Fringe, "So That's the Way You Like It".

2. One of the more difficult ones to translate, as "Himmel" wobbles between singular and plural (i.e. Heaven and the heavens), and "beweist gegen" ("prove against") feels wrong in English. FWIW I'd offer: Crows reckon that just one crow could destroy heaven. True, but heaven is unaffected, because the meaning of heavens is precisely: the impossibility of crows.

Tuesday 22 November 2022



I'm aware that some people who would seem to meet the requirements to leave a comment here (in theory, anyone with a Google account) are nonetheless unable to do so. I don't know why this is, and even if I did I have absolutely no control over it. All I can do is open the comments to "anybody", which is just an invitation to spammers, and to publish or not publish the comments that I do receive (I certainly can't edit them, for example, fun as that might be). So if this includes you, and you haven't previously contacted me about it, then why not drop me an email describing your experience? But do try to be a little more helpfully specific than, "I can't leave a comment"... My address is in the "View My Complete Profile" gadget at top right.

Of course, if you don't have a Google account, but would still like to comment or get in touch, then you are welcome to send me an email anyway. It won't get "published" on the blog, so you can speak freely (and, believe me, people do...). Please bear in mind, however, that I have learned the hard way not to get involved in lengthy private dialogues: I already have all the friends, mentors, critics, and confidantes I need, and I am not a therapist, or a well-connected player in the art world; so please don't ask me to tell you whether your work is any good, or how to get it exhibited. You think I know? If only... OTOH, if you are a well-connected player in the art world, anxious to tell me how good my work is, and how to get it exhibited, go for it...

Friday 18 November 2022

Avon Mud

As always, when I go back to look at photographs from even the quite recent past, a relatively fresh eye can see things I thought worthy of notice at the time, but failed to re-see when looking at them shortly thereafter. In this case, my file for August includes a number of shots of Bristol's Avon Gorge at low tide, made on a lengthy walk along the Portway, which I had mainly ignored in favour of some new river- and roadside finds. I suppose, when you see it fairly often, the mud of the Gorge does seem over-familiar, a bit of an easy win, with its photogenic sheen, ripples, and rivulets. Well, I'm all for easy wins.

Tuesday 15 November 2022

Cheap Thrills

I was moved to comment on a recent post on Mike Johnston's TOP blog which centred on computer monitors recommended for photography. Frankly, I was amazed that monitors costing two thousand dollars were being discussed as if they were an affordable essential for the serious photographer, and that one coming in at around one thousand dollars might even be regarded as a bit of bargain. My (admittedly sarcastic) comment was: "A thousand dollars plus for a monitor? I have to say it's a relief to see there are so many ways photography can be restored to its preserve as a rich man's hobby..."

Now, I'm aware that Mike doesn't enjoy being mocked or contradicted (who does?), so I did give it some thought before hitting return (or whatever we are calling the big bent button these days), but he took it well, and even featured the comment with a thoughtful reply. But one reason Mike's regular flights into gear-head fantasy-land bother me is that his income is largely propped up by widow's mite Patreon contributions from the likes of me. It does not sit well when that money – and, to my mind, often eye-wateringly large chunks of it – is spent on quixotic gear purchases, like the recent purchase of a Sigma FP kit (cost: ~ $2000) for conversion to a monochrome-only sensor (cost: $1200). All because he has some quasi-mystical thing about the difference – allegedly felt at the time of taking the freakin' photo – between knowing whether there is a colour sensor or a monochrome-only sensor in the camera. Well, OK, call me mean-spirited, but  – as I have commented out loud before on TOP – it seems to me that Mike is a rich man trapped in a poor man's body (or, at least, in a poor man's bank account) [1]. A man's gotta learn to cut his coat according to his cloth, and all that. Tough love, c'est moi.

Look, gearsplaining just annoys me, especially when it strays into the stratospheric region where the finer points of comparison between the gold-plated and the platinum-plated Best of the Best are debated, like connoisseurs discussing the character of wines that cost rather more than my customary limit of £10 (rising to £15 at Christmas). Mike runs one of the best photo-oriented blogs available on the Web, but there seems to be an increasing amount of this sort of upscale hi-tech window-shopping. Which may appeal to his typical readership, of course, who (if the comments are any measure) are largely men who never seem happier than when engaging in upscale hi-tech window-shopping. I suppose that to maintain the popularity and longevity of a blog a high degree of convergence with the majority audience is probably required. Which may go a long way to explaining the paucity of visitors here.

As many have observed, running in parallel with photography as a means of making pictures is a related but essentially different pastime which mainly involves comparing and justifying the purchase of the latest offerings from the photographic industry. Popular websites like Digital Photography Review exist for no other reason. Now, I am by no means a poor man – when my various sources of retirement income are added up, I'm on something like our national median wage without even getting out of bed – but I am still far from rich, and (more to the point) notoriously reluctant to part with money. Certainly, the cost of most new photographic equipment is way beyond what I am prepared to spend. I bought my main camera, a second-hand Fuji X-T1, in November 2016, and as yet see absolutely no reason to consider "upgrading" to its latest iteration, the X-T5, priced at £1,689, body only. Ouch! My X-T1 still works as well as it ever did, still takes the same excellent photos, and at 16 MP does not fill up my hard drive at the rate the 40 MP images of the X-T5 would. And who, in the name of Sandisk and Western Digital, actually needs a 40 MP camera? True, in moments of weakness I do occasionally lust after the Hasselblad X1D, possibly the sexiest camera ever made, but the ludicrous price of those Hasselblad lenses is a sufficient bucket of cold water to bring me back to my senses. Nearly £5,000 for a standard zoom? Oof! Forgive me, Fuji, my darling, what was I thinking? Could I have a towel, please?

When it comes to my computer kit, I'm still using the perfectly adequate HP 2011x monitor I originally bought for my daughter rather more than a decade ago (having failed to notice that she, like most of the population, was entirely happy with her laptop screen). The price of its equivalent today is about £150; in other words, I could buy ten of them for the price of one of the monitors discussed in Mike's post. It is attached to my ancient HP Pavilion 500 "tower" PC, with a wire-connected keyboard on which the labels of various letters have worn off, hampering my two-fingered "hunt and peck" typing somewhat. I use an old cut-down version of Photoshop from 2011, Photoshop Elements 10, as my primary photo-editing software, along with Photo Ninja for raw conversion and image "library" browsing. My most extravagant purchase has probably been my A3+ Epson SureColor P400 printer: I felt I owed it to any potential print-buyers to at least sell them an archival pigment-ink print. At some point, no doubt, it will all need to be replaced, but I'll still be shopping at the "budget" end of the market, even though I don't really need to. When it comes to conspicuous consumption, I'm a black-clad puritan, frowning at designer labels and disdaining hi-tech ostentation.

I concede that, in a world on fire, there's an element of self-serving hypocrisy there: I'm not exactly living an off-grid life of eco-friendly simplicity. My bike is rusting in the shed; I can't now remember where our wind-up torch and radio actually are; I buy stuff from Amazon. But, the politics of consumerism in a world of finite resources and impending climate disaster aside (now there's a subordinate clause to conjure with), the real point is this: are my photographs and digital images inferior to those produced on state-of-the-art equipment? In some technical respects, yes, of course they are; but nobody other than a gear-head would ever notice. Would I be happier and more fulfilled if I walked out of the house carrying ten grand's worth of camera, and returned home to process the resulting images on twenty grand's worth of computer kit? Absolutely not. No more than I'd be happier driving a brand-new Jaguar rather than our Skoda Citigo [2]. Of course, anyone who does regularly spent megabucks on their gear-accumulation hobby will, understandably, disagree. But have they ever got around to producing any actual photographs that are worth a second look? And, if they have, are they in any meaningful way "better" than mine? Well, modesty (an essential puritanical trait) forbids...

1. Plus, whisper it, as a serial bolter when it comes to his enthusiasms, I give it a year, max, before that camera joins its predecessors on the shelf, despite any professions of eternal photo-fealty to the new toy tool. But then, why should we care? It's such fun to watch!

2. The Citigo, like many of today's small petrol-driven cars, is remarkably fuel-efficient. It has just three cylinders (!) but will travel from Southampton to Bristol at motorway speeds without the fuel gauge needle moving from "full": I was convinced it had jammed, the first time we made the trip.

Wednesday 9 November 2022

The Bonfires of Yesteryear

I've always liked Autumn, it's my favourite season. As a child I used to look forward to those first nights after the clocks had gone back an hour, bringing the darkness on to around the time you headed home from school. There would be an edge of frost and smoke in the air, and you would think, "Bonfire Night is coming soon!" Except now the early autumn nights are generally mild and wet – very mild and very wet lately – and nobody at all lights a bonfire in their garden on the 5th November. It's not just that a lot of the energy has been drained out of the occasion by Hallowe'en: the very idea of filling the streets with smoke from fires and fireworks belongs to a world that has now passed into history, along with the open-hearth fires in every house in every street with their sooty smoking chimneys, and a morning harvest of cold grey ash to be cleared and dumped.

In the 1950s and 60s, as they had for so many decades previously, the children of every household would have scavenged every scrap of combustible material for miles around to build a bonfire heap at the end of the garden or, where this was impractical, helped to build an enormous communal pyre on any suitable green or wasteland. By 9 o'clock at night on the 5th the smoke would be drifting in thick layers illuminated by fires, flashes, and haloed streetlamps. You could point a torch up, and its clear-cut beam was a stiff, smoky wedge, like an anti-aircraft spotlight. In our town – a New Town largely populated by people cleared from the slums of East London, devastated in the Blitz not so long before – strong memories and emotions were evoked by the sights, smells and sounds. You might say that the War was the invisible guest at everyone's firework party.

Or perhaps, the Wars. The stuffed "guy" that burned on top of everyone's bonfire was Hitler, the Kaiser, Napoleon, Guy Fawkes, the King of Spain, Harald Hardrada, and maybe even Julius Caesar: every bogeyman who had ever chanced his arm against the truculent tribes of these islands. It was a night for telling tales, as rockets crackled and popped overhead, and potatoes baked in the bonfire embers; "swinging the lamp", as my father's generation called it, a naval expression that implied such stories might have acquired a little exaggeration and polish over the years.

There are still fireworks, of course, although nowhere near as many, and there are official public bonfires, but somehow the spirit of it all has been lost, when children haven't spent the preceding weeks scouring the woods for sticks, or making a stuffed effigy with a moustachioed paper-maché mask for a face out of an old shirt and trousers, in order to squat beside it and beg small change for fireworks: "A penny for the guy!". The tribal memories are weaker, too. "How I endured the Great House Price Collapse of 1987" or "Tales from Lockdown" are hardly worth swinging a lamp for, compared to hair-raising yarns from the Somme, Dunkirk, or Monte Cassino. Our world seems that bit thinner, more disposable, slightly fake; even the weather no longer lives up to the occasion, and every year the frosts that make the moon shine and the stars glitter seem to come a little later, and the equinoctial gales that shake the sticks and conkers down from the trees a little wilder and more unpredictable.

What was originally known as "Gunpowder Treason Day" – but then successively became known as Guy Fawkes Day, Bonfire Night, and now most generally as Fireworks Night – is supposed to be all about remembering – "Remember, remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot!" – but is now almost entirely about pyrotechnic spectacle. What little we do remember of the actual causes of the commemoration has lost practically all of its historical flavour, reflected by those changes in name. I can't speak for the inhabitants of more sectarian cities like, say, Belfast, Liverpool, or Glasgow, but I don't think the original anti-Catholic and royalist element has been particularly prominent in living memory. However, you don't have to be a practising neopagan to think that a bonfire festival at this time of year does have deeper roots and resonances. It is notable that November 5th falls exactly midway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, and thus coincides nicely with the Celtic Samhain festival (pronounced "sar-win"), generally marked on 1st November. It is also an unlikely coincidence that practically everything known about that ancient festival seems like a mash-up of Hallowe'en and Bonfire Night, if you substitute turnips for pumpkins and the ritual sacrifice of some scapegoat figure for burning a "guy".

But I should resist this slide into melancholy reflection, or I'll end up thinking about what has happened to Christmas: difficult to avoid, now that the mince pies and Christmas puddings have already been crowding the supermarket shelves since mid-October. I don't think this feeling is merely the reflex nostalgia of a man approaching old age. So many of us in the "first world"  live with the paradox that the more materially comfortable our lives have become over the years, the more widely Good Things are available to more of us, the less sweet they seem to taste. Like the very wealthy, even we ordinary folk can get bored with the uniform OK-ness of our lives, and look back with something resembling regret to a time when the Good Things were tasted just two or three times a year.

Well, OK, perhaps this is just the reflex nostalgia of a man approaching old age, remembering when simple things like oranges, nuts, and even baked potatoes were seasonal treats, and beef and chicken were luxuries, reserved for special occasions, not a cheap staple bought ready-jointed in multi-packs from the supermarket. Nobody in their right mind wants to go back to smoke-filled streets, unappetising meals, or lives shortened by endless, repetitive, unrewarding labour.

So you might justifiably say that this bitter-sweet regret is a down-market, own-brand, off-the-peg version of nostalgie de la boue, an aristocratic vice in which we can all now afford to indulge. But I prefer to think that I am remembering with pleasure a time when we in Britain were passing out of some very bad times into some very good times, with just enough of the best of the bad times still surviving to add piquancy to the transition. When, for example, for the first time a nasty accident with a bonfire or a firework, however idiotic, led straight to hospital, with all necessary treatment free of charge, and even the poorest could depend on the state for housing and financial support. How miraculous that must have seemed to the pre-War generations, how heady the transformation must have felt, and how tenaciously we must now fight to prevent this precious legacy from going the way of Bonfire Night.

Saturday 5 November 2022


The lowing herds of the annual pumpkin migration

I was thinking I'd better grab this opportunity to write a Hallowe'en post before it crumbles into dust like a vampire in the sun – writing a blog can sometimes feel like battling with the undead – but then I thought I ought first to exhume my efforts from previous years, just to be sure I wasn't needlessly reviving dead posts. So, for example, ten years ago, I wrote:
Much as I resent the imposition of Halloween (or "Hallo, Ian! Trickle treat!" as one of our neighbour's kids used to have it), I have no desire to be known as the grumpy old man who lectures kids on the doorstep about cultural imperialism. No siree, Bob!

So, today is the day to get out the ceremonial trickle-treat pot, which spends most of the year leering out of the Red Cupboard. Actually, it is known in our family as the Skanky Sweets Pot, as it has traditionally been our way of disposing of all the disgusting sweets our own kids had, wisely, decided not to eat that year.
Not much has changed in the ensuing decade, other than the departure of our own sweet-eaters from the premises, and the further escalation of the cash-bonanza that the end of October now represents for the supermarkets, selling everything from "pumpkins for a pound" to mini living-dead costumes for five-year-olds (with actual dangly eyeball; aww, bless!). TBH, I don't think I'd ever so much as seen a pumpkin in real life before about the year 2000, but now they're "traditional", innit, and stacked high in the entrance lobby of our local M&S Foodhall. Clearly, compared to a couple of boxes of cheap fireworks [1] for Bonfire Night, this is a little Christmas-come-early for the shops, and it's the shops who determine our beliefs and lifestyles, these days, like our robber-baron overlords of old. So we're all Goths now, apparently, at least for one day.

We have had a pleasant two-year respite from those early evening knocks on the door – one of the few up-sides of COVID and lockdown – but this year, despite the wind and rain, Hallowe'en was back, like the umpteenth sequel to some tacky horror-movie franchise. I have to say, either they're bussing them in from somewhere, or there are a lot more small kids living in the area than there used to be. I missed the posse of witchy teenage girls that used to rock up most years around 9 o'clock, but I suppose it's not unlikely that these tiny kids in their zombie makeup are theirs... After all, I do remember being taken for a grandparent, in my mid-forties, when waiting to collect our two in the school playground. Anyway, and mysteriously, the Skanky Sweets Pot was still sufficiently full of mouldering chews, jelly babies, and flumps to see them all off happily. "See them off" as in depart from our front door, not ... You know what I mean. Nothing can be proved.

Looking through those old Hallowe'en posts, I then discovered that just three years ago I had written most of what now follows, realised that I had nothing much to add to it and, worse, that it seemed unlikely that anything I could come up with today would be an improvement on it. It's possible I'm running out of things to say, or even running on empty, brain-wise, like a [oh, do stop the ghouly-ghosty similes. Ed.]. So, like the BBC – my mission also being to "inform, educate, and entertain" – I find myself resorting to repeats, owing to lack of resources. Is it possible this is becoming a zombie blog? [I said stop it! Ed.] Anyway, here we go again, with a partially revenant Frankenpost:

It would be pretty much impossible to ignore the fact that Monday was Hallowe'en. You can hide in the kitchen with all the lights off, but out there on the street godless young fools are flirting with powerful forces they wot not of, in pursuit of ... Well, cheap sweets, mainly. What a price to set on your immortal soul! As I have complained before, this orange, sugar-tacky American import has now largely supplanted our thoroughly wholesome native celebration of certain 17th-century, anti-Catholic, pro-royalist hangings, drawings, and quarterings, as well as an unspecific, but all-encompassing joy in public burnings at the stake in days gone by. Ah, the world we have lost!

Most people these days think of Hallowe'en as a one-night-only license to dress up and/or score sweets off their more gullible neighbours. We're not completely against this sugar-led corruption of our youth, much as we'd rather they were collecting firewood to burn some guy called "Forks" in effigy in a few days' time. I have already mentioned our household's venerable Skanky Sweets Pot, annually-resurrected from its crypt in the Red Cupboard, which is full of alarmingly out-of-date, but durable items like Haribos and jelly babies (but which, I have to admit, are starting to look a bit too zombified to avoid potential future legal action). However, it is less widely known that Hallowe'en (or All Hallows' Eve) is actually just the first of a three-day binge of Christian observances known, in British tradition, as Allhallowtide.

So we know all about Day One, All Hallows' Eve, or at least we think we do, which is, to the contemporary mind, much the same thing. But Day Two, November 1st, is All Saints' Day (no, idiot, not them), on which occasion we, which is to say "they", honour all the saints and martyrs, known and unknown. I really like the idea of the unknown saints, the ones who just got on with being saintly, and didn't go on about it all that much. If you must have saints, those are probably the best sort to have. Then comes Day Three, All Souls' Day, on which the faithful dead are honoured, especially friends and family. In Mexico November 2nd is, of course, a Big Thing: El Día de los Muertos. But it seems that in many other Catholic countries the two latter days tend to get rolled into one big November 1st "let's all remember the dead" holiday; something that is quite therapeutic, I imagine, but with which we've completely lost touch in the chilly Protestant north. I don't suppose many young Hallowe'en celebrants give much thought to dear old granny, the day after they've pestered the neighbours and begun the ruin of their teeth. Besides, in the past we were all too busy in early November gathering combustibles into a tottering heap to burn Catholics, if only by proxy, to take off the chill.

I'm not sure if or when the unfaithful, pagan, agnostic, atheistic, or even the grateful dead get honoured, but there must be an awful lot more of them out there by now, wherever they are. Maybe a democratic movement of the dead will eventually emerge, assert the rights of the faithless, and finally get this diary-issue sorted out? Let All Souls be for all souls! They've got all the time in the world to sort it out, after all, even if we haven't. Not yet, anyway. So, in my customary fashion, I set aside a few moments on Wednesday evening to remember some of my own dear, departed elective family: happy heathens and earnest atheists, all of them, to the very end. So may I propose the traditional toast: To absent friends!
Ah, make we the most of what we may yet spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and – sans End!
FitzGerald version of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Quatrain 23


1. Actually, fireworks have become amazingly expensive. In the heyday of Bonfire Night, back in the 1950s and 60s, boxes of assorted fireworks used to appear towards November in closed glass cabinets in most newsagents and sweet shops, but rarely if ever anywhere else, and vanish immediately after the 5th. Now there are year-round specialist firework shops, selling elaborate, high-explosive items that would probably come in handy in Ukraine, such as the £375 box "monster of fireworks. Consists of four cakes, 1 x 58 shot and 3 x 50 shot cakes retrospective". I assume "cake" here is a pyrotechnic term, and not some tactical baked item.

Tuesday 1 November 2022

Turned On All the Time

I've returned several times to the idea that photography is too easy in these posts, most recently in the revived post Return of the Slacker. It's certainly true that taking photographs is easy: anyone can do it, and millions upon millions do, every day. But too easy is a different sort of judgement. What is generally meant is that photographs are too easily achieved to be considered "art"; that in some way the results have not been properly earned. But making marks on paper with a pen or pencil, the basis of so much art, is easy, too – much easier – and millions do that every day as well, whether by making a shopping list, keeping a diary, or making notes and doodles at a meeting.

Few people would regard these artefacts, photographic or scribbled, as anything approaching the state of "art". Most of those billions of photographs perform much the same function as pencilled notes: annotations in the margins of a life, aids to memory, records of events, and even of meals eaten. And yet we can see shopping lists and snapshots presented as art on gallery walls, the same walls that have also displayed breathtakingly skilful drawings by acknowledged masters. Moreover, the Web is full of other very skilful drawings – usually photo-realistic portraits of people or their pets – that are regarded as little more than kitsch, and would never be considered worth hanging on those gallery walls, unless in a spirit of irony.

So what's the difference? How is it possible for work in one medium to be dismissed by some as too easy to qualify as art, and yet for very skilful work in another, more respectable medium to fail to make the grade, as judged by others? Does the "art-ness" of art reside in properties other than its difficulty, or the skill of a practitioner? The answer, self-evidently, is "yes".

Art is an idea, not a thing. The cave painters at Lascaux were not creating "art"– no-one has a clue what they were really up to – any more than the craftsmen who made the Sutton Hoo treasures, or even the painters of the Renaissance, filling the churches of Italy with devotional frescoes and paintings. Those people were highly-skilled tradesmen and artisans, on a par in society's estimation with furniture-makers and masons. Their place in the story of what we have come to call "art" is entirely retrospective: they were earning a living and competing with each other for patronage, not vying for a place in the art history books. Art as we now know it was "not even a thing", as we say, until somewhere around the 18th century in Europe, when a romantic idea of "art" as a quasi-religious human endeavour began to emerge, elevating its practitioners several social notches above other craftsmen.

The achievement of 20th century conceptual art (if "achievement" is the right word) was to complete the separation of the idea of art from the objects embodying it. Art – or what we might call art-ness –  has become a free-floating property, able to be endowed on pretty much anything by acknowledged practitioners, who – despite any posturing as rebellious outsiders – have generally passed through an accreditation process in an institution of higher education similar to that undergone by any middle-class professional. A shopping list dropped in the street becomes art because someone like Martin Creed says it is. You or I might disagree, but what do we know, and who cares about our uncredentialed opinions?

The contents of the idea of art-ness change, of course, as society changes. These changes are not progress, though, in the way that advances in technology or medicine are progress, so much as changes in fashion. Currently, many artists are concerned to be seen to be "interrogating" certain cultural norms of identity – gender and sexuality, or race and colonialization, for example – rather than creating simple objects of beauty or exploring the spiritual or psychological aspects of existence. As a consequence of such shifts in fashion, art history gets a regular makeover: overlooked artists who better match current concerns emerge from the background, and the importance of previous "greats" is reassessed. So it goes. You might say artists are priests of a religion whose core beliefs change with every new generation. Although it's also true that an awful lot of self-styled artists – mainly older and unqualified amateurs, it has to be said – are complacently content with the gospel as received a century or so ago.

Some photographers are artists by any measure – artists whose medium is photography – and there are thousands more every year who graduate with that ambition. But most professional photographers are not artists, strictly speaking, except in the broadest sense of "people who make pictures". Their practices vary tremendously – photojournalism, sports, fashion, corporate publicity material, and so on – and can be superb visual acts of witness or illustration, but a sustained engagement with the idea of art-ness is not what they do for a living. In its strictest modern-day sense, an artist is precisely someone whose main activity is a critical engagement with whatever the current ideas of art-ness are, and whose work is regarded by the relevant gatekeepers as significant, interesting, and ideally highly monetizable.

The main problem, though, where the estimation of photography as a medium is concerned, is not the millions of phone-users snapping their latest meal or selfie, but the existence of a vast infrastructure of hobbyist photographers – let's call them "enthusiasts" – who far outnumber the professionals and practising artists, are far more visible on the Web, and who have constructed criteria for the assessment of photographic "quality" which substitute equipment and technique for sensibility, imitation for originality, and have little or no awareness or regard for any of the concerns of contemporary "art-ness". To all but the most discerning eyes (that would be us, dear readers, obviously) these people are photography, and in their own minds what they do is art. But it's not.

This fundamental split between species of "serious" photographers has always existed – in Britain, it used to be between readers of Amateur Photographer vs. readers of Creative Camera or The British Journal of Photography – but the internet has amplified the imbalance in favour of the enthusiasts by several orders of magnitude. This is exemplified by the inward-looking world of self-styled "fine art" landscape photography, a particular bugbear of mine, where the "me too" imitation of popular models is reinforced by the feedback loop of validation provided by regular competitions whose judges claim to be looking for originality, but never seem to find it. I had a rant about this last year (see Extreme Locations and Iconic Conditions) so won't repeat myself. Let's just say I don't care if I never see another nocturnal shot of a glowing orange tent in a frozen wilderness spread out beneath the Northern Lights, or of anything silhouetted against a perfectly-exposed Milky Way. The first half dozen of such images might have been some sort of morphic resonance spreading through the collective enthusiast consciousness; the next hundred were definitely not.

Obviously, people are free to spend their time and money however they wish; there is a certain pleasure to be had, I imagine, from following the crowd, and it is not altogether surprising that the vast majority of enthusiasts fail to engage with photography's history and the work of its outstanding practitioners, past and present, or even to distinguish outstanding practitioners from self-publicising opportunists. Not everybody values taste, discernment, and independence of mind. But it is a shame that this enormous barrier of parochial indifference, incuriosity, and imitation can overshadow what is truly rewarding about photographs and the practice of photography, even more effectively than the disdain of some of art's more blinkered gatekeepers.

I like this quotation from G.K. Chesterton:

Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.

G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

The great thing about the habitual use of a camera is that it can accelerate that process of de-familiarisation, assuming that is a "danger" to which you are happy to expose yourself. And why wouldn't you be? It's a lot less risky than microdosing, for a start. Whether what follows is or isn't "art" is beside the point.

Yes, photography is easy; but it can enable the more difficult act of actually seeing what is in front of you. And nothing is more calculated to prevent seeing what is in front of you than camera-club nonsense like "the rule of thirds", "leading lines", "blurred backgrounds", or "a full range of tones", not to mention a diverting obsession with window-shopping, disguised as guy-talk about gear, or the bamboozling complexity of most digital camera menus. These are all good ways to make photography seem more difficult, by making it more rule-bound, more technical, and more expensive than it actually is, or needs to be. But it's really very simple: look, see, click. Repeat.

As one very good photographer puts it in the closing words of his book:

It's not that you can just turn on your looking when you're shooting. It must get to the point that it's always on, no matter what you're doing.

It's what will make you aware of life around you. It's what will allow you to intuitively appreciate the light, the wall, the expressions on the faces of people around you, the graphics and typographics of your books, the quality of air around you.

It's being turned on all the time just by looking and being aware.

Jay Maisel, It's Not About The F-Stop