Sunday 31 December 2023

Getting There

It being New Year's Eve, and me being in a lazy mood, I'm going to repeat some rambling sententiousness I wrote a few years ago, in the hope nobody notices I'm repeating myself. Athough I may have given the game away already, I suppose.

Anyway, a while ago I was reading something, an essay or a review probably, in which the author referred to Theodor Adorno's idea of "open thinking" as it applies to poetry, which was characterised as "seeking those thoughts that are not yet in the world because they lie in the future of thinking, as coming moments of poetic truth". I liked that a lot. It seemed to encapsulate much of what I have felt and thought, in a fuzzy kind of way, about the sort of poetry and indeed photography and art in general that I enjoy.  Unfortunately, I wrote down the quote without noting its source, so I'm not sure whether these are the words of Adorno, the writer, or some third party under review. But if you think I'm going to wade through Adorno's work looking for the original quotation, or to determine how far these words reflect his actual intended meaning of "open thinking", you've clearly never read any Adorno.

Then it occurred to me that, like so many would-be profundities, it might also be seen as a statement of the bleedin' obvious: that a new idea – or the poetic framing of a space where a new idea seems to be lurking – belongs to the future. Well, no shit, Socrates; where else? In fact, I'd suggest it is the fate of most of today's profundities to become tomorrow's platitudes. The only exceptions are genuinely difficult ideas – I can't see String Theory ever being taught at primary school – and authentic art, what Ezra Pound called "news that stays news". Plus the sort of eternal truths that need to be rediscovered and restated for every new generation, because people never learn, do they?

It put me in mind of two rather well-worn nuggets from the Big Book of Inspirational Quotes. The first is Keats' famous idea of "negative capability", as expressed in a letter to his brother:
Brown and Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
Sunday 21 Dec. 1817
There are two quite incidental things that I love about that letter. First, there is the bizarre but wonderful idea of John Keats at a Christmas pantomime [1] ("He's behind you!"; "Clap if you believe in the Penetralium of Mystery!"), which is not the bit of the letter usually extracted and polished up for the mental mantelpiece. And then there is the fact that one of the great and abiding ideas of literary criticism came to one of the great and abiding English poets in one of those intense, happy post-gig chats, walking home through the late-night streets, or waiting for the bus. We've all been there, I think, albeit usually minus the great and abiding idea part.

The second bit of literary pokerwork that came to mind is from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:
You are so young, all still lies ahead of you, and I should like to ask you, as best I can, dear Sir, to be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future.
16 July 1903 (translation by Charlie Louth)
"Live the questions for now..." Isn't that great? Definitely news that has stayed news. Rilke's ten letters to Franz Xaver Kappus are worth reading, if you don't know them: the Penguin edition quoted is less than 100 pages in length, but packed with quotable wisdom (he's surprisingly interesting on sex, for example). Indeed, it can seem that these letters are far more widely read than Rilke's actual poetry, which is notoriously difficult, and the very embodiment of that Adornioid idea of "seeking those thoughts that are not yet in the world because they lie in the future of thinking, as coming moments of poetic truth". Which is both humbling and hilarious: in 1903 Rilke was just 27 years old, had not yet published any of the work for which we remember him now, and the "young poet" Kappus was 20. Ah, the wisdom that comes with advanced age! But then Keats was a mere boy of 22 at the time of the "negative capability" letter. Just twenty-two! The uneven distribution of precocious genius is simply not fair, is it?

Which reminds me of yet another quote, one which is probably less famous in the Anglophone world:
Dreiundzwanzig Jahre, und nichts für die Unsterblichkeit getan!
Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos, 1787
That is, "Twenty-three, and I ain't done nuffink!", or something along those lines [2]. Well, I'm going to be seventy in February, and have been trying to live the questions, done my best to be in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, and have patiently waited for those coming moments of poetic truth since I was twenty-something myself. I suppose I have achieved a few things over the years (if nowhere near as many or of the quality I'd hoped or intended), and have certainly had my share of moments and, yes, even found some answers, but the prospect of any immortality is now impossibly far out of reach. But that is hardly the point. To get truly sententious, it's the journey, not the destination, that matters, innit? I have always been a Coleridge fanboy, and don't mind a little reaching after a reassuring bit of fact and reason myself, but I think it's true to say that – as on a very long car journey – by far the most irritating, irritable question ever heard coming from the back seat is: are we there yet?

So, listen, you next generation sitting back there, here is an eternal truth for you: we may never get there, I don't even know where "there" is, and I'm not sure we'd know it if and when we did get there, so settle down and enjoy the ride, and I can promise that there'll definitely be some wonderful things along the way... Meanwhile, there are some biscuits in that bag on the floor. And don't eat them all.

Best wishes for 2024!

1. The tradition of the British Christmas pantomime is, by common consent, a unique and splendid cultural treasure ("Oh, no it isn't!" "Oh, yes it is!"). Those of you unfortunate enough not to have drawn a winning ticket in the Lottery of Life can read about it here
2. Literally, "Twenty-three, and done nothing for [my] immortality!"

Tuesday 26 December 2023

The Big Hole Re-Opened

When I look at my blog stats I often see that some posts from the past have picked up a bit of traction. Whether this is genuine interest or robotic Web-scouring it's impossible to say. Today, for example, I noticed that one from December 2010 has had a dozen or so reads, so I read it myself, was suitably impressed by my younger self (hey, this kid can write...) and, as it seemed as relevant as ever, thought I'd repost it as my little contribution to the spiritual confusion of the world. 'Tis the season... You're welcome!

The Big Hole 

I listened to a priest this morning, in the "Thought For The Day" slot on Radio 4's Today Programme, earnestly reminding us that this period is not only the run up to Christmas, but is also the period of Advent, when our thoughts should be turning to the Last Judgement, in anticipation of Christ's Second Coming; something which the priest said he couldn't quite believe in himself, literally, but without which nothing really made much sense, did it?

Well, make your mind up, mate. Despite the best efforts of hyper-rationalists, and the poor faith of such priests, many of us do seem to have an ongoing concern with a "God-shaped hole" in human life. For some it's a void that, unfilled, does have the potential to unravel the fabric of everything. It is as if we had evolved to crave a flavour that has never existed, or no longer exists – a spiritual umami.

I think we all sense the inability of religion to deal with this deep yearning. Religion is merely society's way of putting a solid safety rail around that God-shaped hole. If you have ever been to church – increasingly unlikely in Britain (although I'm speaking out of a "Christian" tradition, here) – it must have struck you how empty that experience is at its core. It can be beautiful if you like that sort of thing (I don't), and its rituals can be comforting to some, but even when – especially when – it manages to be electrifying, you are left with that feeling that your willingness to self-deceive is the real Main Act. The religious would say that's not the point, but they're the ones sitting in empty churches. And that Big Hole is still there.

Another fence around the hole is humour. Humour is a way of accepting gracefully the danger signals that things like an absurd coincidence, a sudden fright, or an inexorable and unpleasant fate set off. Whoah, mind that hole! British gallows humour has seen our ancestors through some difficult times, but in the end "You've got to laugh, haven't you?" is not much of a philosophy, really, is it?

More and more people are ignoring the imperative not to look into that Big Hole. They are home-grown seekers, who crave the sublime, not the comfort of the familiar. They want to experience transcendence, not hear ancient travellers' tales about it. When told that they could never withstand the unmediated presence of divinity they say, "I'll be the judge of that – do you actually know where can I get some?" Such people climb mountains, surf waves, take drugs, paint pictures, buy crystals ... All in pursuit of that elusive extra dimension to their lives. You'd think, though, given that the desire for it seems to be built in to human life, it would be rather easier to find.

Even the more timid, if pushed, will admit to a desire for "something more", which easily mutates into a vague belief that there must be something more.

Perhaps as a legacy from childhood, perhaps not, there is also a common desire to be watched over:
Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?
But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.

Luke 12:6-7
Good to know, given the price of sparrows.

This craving for a truly universal surveillance system is one of the faces of the profoundly human desire for and belief in justice. It is a wish that the perpetrators of unspeakably evil acts will have been observed, no matter how secret or dark their torture chambers; that their acts and motivations will have been noted, and that they will finally be held to account, judged, and suitably punished.

The other face of ultimate justice is the hope that humility, goodness, self-sacrifice and playing by the rules will eventually get the rewards that they so rarely do in life. In the absence of a Second Coming and a Day of Judgement (in which even the priests seem no longer actually to believe), however, and on the evidence so far, it's not looking too good, is it?

Not surprisingly, decent people can experience despair when they bring to the forefront of their mind the improbability of their most secret hopes. "All my life, I paid deposits of Goodness into this insurance scheme I was sold by the priests, and now they're saying it may not pay out anything at all!". It makes all those dodgy financial instruments look pretty small beer, doesn't it?

Increasingly, perhaps as an antidote to that despair, I think we are all becoming Epicureans, which has probably been the real default setting of intelligent human minds for thousands of years. With Epicurus, we hold that, if the gods exist at all, which seems unlikely, then they are very far away and care nothing whatsoever about us. Most of us think that death, unfair as it may seem, is the end of our personal stake and interest in the universe. And, if we believe anything, it is that fellow-feeling, endurance, moderation and simplicity are virtues that, with a bit of luck and a lot of mutual toleration, will lead to freedom from fear and pain, which is about as good as it gets.

So, perhaps "You've got to laugh, haven't you?" is not such a bad philosophy, after all.

Seeing as I'm in Rabbi Lionel Blue mode, here's a favourite religious joke, which I'm sure you've already heard:
A man prays to God to let him win the Lottery. God ignores the man's prayers. But the man is insistent: day after day, year after year, he prays and prays and prays: "Dear God, please let me win the Lottery!" God ignores him. But, eventually, God gets fed up, and decides to answer the man's prayers. "OK, OK," God says, "I'll let you win the Lottery. But, on one condition!" "Thank you, Lord! And what is your one condition?" "Meet me halfway – this time, BUY A BLOODY TICKET!"

Thursday 21 December 2023

Calling All Angels

Look out, here come Christmas and New Year yet again... We're taking our usual evasive action, moving between various locations and keeping a low profile. Blog-wise, I don't intend to be posting anything further until 2024 breaks upon us, but you never know. I'm easily bored these days, and just sitting around doing nothing much makes me restless and prone to dangerous behaviours, such as eating and drinking too much, as well as, you know, brooding about the sort of stuff that tends to end up in a blog post. I can even end up taking photographs of empty whisky bottles and the jug on the kitchen windowsill.

If you're taking an end-of-year break yourself, then do have a good one, but spare a thought for those who aren't or can't, and in particular for the wretched of the earth, of whom there have been far too many this year. If you don't do so already, and you are fortunate enough to be healthy, safe from harm, and reasonably well off (I somehow doubt many readers of this blog would describe themselves as wealthy), maybe this would be a good year to divert some of your seasonal generosity from a pointless potlatch exchange between friends and family into some form of charitable giving, whether in the shape of imaginary Oxfam goats, or direct donation to those doing essential work in tough and dangerous places. I'd also propose, in the words of the old rhyme, that we all put a penny in the old man's hat, but the only problem with that suggestion is that so few of the homeless or destitute have equipped themselves to deal with an increasingly cashless society. "Got any change?" "Um, no, sorry, in all honesty, I don't... Can you take Visa?" So, given the general absence of bank branches these days, you may need to find a cashpoint and draw out a few crisp notes to distribute. Although it's true that those who disapprove of the sort of Christmas treat their cash might be used for prefer to hand out actual food or a hot drink. But, listen, don't put food or pour drink into the hat, OK?

If my experience is anything to go by, it seems that the older you get (and the arithmetic, if not the inner sense of self, says I'll be 70 early in the new year) the more this time of year becomes an occasion for nostalgia [1]. As it happens, the "holidays" I recall with the most acute sense of longing are not those of my childhood but my mid-adolescent years, those times of self-discovery, good friends, and (in my case, anyway) the free-range liberties allowed by parents distracted by visits from and to delightful young grandchildren (my sister is eight years older than me). Happy days, enjoyed to the full in the incontestable Best Half-Decade Ever, 1967-71!

But it is nonetheless true that the Christmases of childhood, which now seem to me to have taken place on another planet far away, will always have a particularly strong gravitational pull on our lapsed sense of trust and wonder, and this poem, written as the First World War was getting into its grisly stride, captures that feeling better than any other I know:

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy (published in The Times on Christmas Eve 1915)

In signing off for the year, I'd love to be able to write something to match Robert Frost's "Christmas circular" poem, also originally from 1915, called Christmas Trees. Read it, and imagine finding it dropped onto your own doormat alongside the utility bills, takeaway flyers, and Christmas cards... Wow, thanks, Bob! But I don't know how to do that, so I'll simply offer you my best wishes for 2024. Which mainly comprise a wish for a rather greater distribution of peace on earth and good will towards all men, which really would be tidings of great joy, wouldn't it?

However, the angels seem to have given up on us – I haven't seen one for ages – so we may be on our own with that. And, sadly, it's tragically evident every night on the news that a childlike sense of trust and wonder is no defence at all against ruthless bombardment. The little town, the inn, and the nearby stable lie in ruins, the shepherds have been detained, and the magi have been stopped at the border crossing. It all looks pretty bleak. But, there's no harm in trying, is there? Calling all angels! Calling all angels!

1. In the late 17th century, a Swiss medic named Johannes Hofer observed that people forced to live far away from home, such as soldiers or those sent abroad in domestic service, sometimes experienced a psychological distress so acute that it could even prove fatal. Hofer named the phenomenon "nostalgia", combining the Greek words nostos (return) and algos (pain). The original, literal meaning of nostalgia, then, is the pain of a frustrated desire to return to one’s place of origin. As it happens, an enforced return to one's place of origin is an idea that lies at the very root of the Nativity narrative: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed ... And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city" (Luke 2). Which is an equal and opposite sort of pain, lacking a handy word, and not unrelated to what became of Christmas once the sentimentalists and business folk got their hands on it.

Sunday 17 December 2023

It's All About The Children

One of the (many) things that irritate me about Christmas is the way bloggers, journalists, sub-editors – really, pretty much anyone writing for public consumption – start to reach for the tired seasonal clichés, the written-word equivalent of sprinkling fake snow over everything, or wearing an ironic Santa cap all day at work. You know the ones: 'Tis the season... The most wonderful time of the year... Winter wonderland... I'm dreaming of a white Christmas... Have yourself a merry little Christmas... I wish it could be Christmas every day... Sleigh bells in the snow... Simply having a wonderful retch in the snow...

I gave that last one a twist, but I'm sure you'll know the song I mean. From a writer's point-of-view that's the usefulness of expressions that are sufficiently well-established in the public mind (or "memes", if you insist): it gives you something to play around with. In fact, all of those I mentioned have been derived from the opportunistic songs that play on a loop in most stores from November to New Year. I'm amazed the shop-workers' unions haven't taken action on mental health and safety grounds... "It's CREEES-muss!!" shrieks Noddy Holder for the tenth time that morning; "Oh no it's bloody not, it's still only November," groan the till operators and shelf-stackers. The fact that so many writers' Christmas clichés have been extracted from Christmas songs is a clear demonstration that Christmas has been eating itself, tail first. Have a merry meta-Christmas!

A little too tasteful...

That Christmas has been susceptible to being turned inside out by consumer capitalism should be no surprise: it's in the DNA of the festival. If there is one thing that characterised the success of the Roman Empire – aside from overwhelming military power, which always helps – it was the willingness to co-opt, appropriate, and adapt to local customs and belief systems. You've got a god of spring and rejuvenation? Hey, us too! No point in fighting over it: let's just agree she is now Flora-[your name here], so good we named her twice, OK? What's that, your local elite would like to live in relative luxury? We can help with that! Ever had a hot bath, chief? (aside: Clearly not, by Hercules! What a pong...). And so on. It was a good trick, and far more effective than crucifying anyone who looked like a troublemaker, although that was also a handy policy to have in your back pocket.

So after Rome had been officially Christianised under emperor Constantine, it's no surprise that various elements and traditions of the former Roman belief system were incorporated. I think it's pretty widely acknowledged that the actual birthday of the actual Jesus is completely unknown. So to make it coincide with the Roman festival of Saturnalia and in particular the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (The birthday of the Unconquered Sun) on December 25th was a shrewd move, not least because most northern societies will have had some sort of celebratory pagan ding-dong around the time of the Winter Solstice. Look, your Holiness, why don't we just rebadge the lot as "Christmas" and own it from now on? Genius!

It's not even clear where Jesus was supposed to have been born, whether in Bethlehem, Nazareth, or somewhere else. The Gospels are not altogether clear on this, despite what dozens of Christmas carols might suggest (yet more Christmas songs spreading more Christmas clichés, deeply, crisply, evenly covered in fake snow). More to the point, it seems to come as news to some that Bethlehem is a real place, and is still there, half-a-dozen miles south of Jerusalem, which is also a real place. It happens to be in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and mainly populated by Palestinians. For now, anyway. Uh oh! But I will step away from yet another Christmas sermon about what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank, and merely point you at the blog of ex-ambassador Craig Murray for a different perspective on an under-reported aspect of the "conflict".

The main thing I take away from Murray's admittedly parti pris remarks is that "In wars the general percentage of children among those killed varies from 6 to 8%. In Ukraine it is 6%. In Gaza it is 42%." Hmm... Let that sink in. In that other Christmas cliché, it really is all about the children, isn't it?

Hollybrook Cemetery, Southampton

Wednesday 13 December 2023


It has been unusually wet around here lately. Long spells of steady rain supplemented by truly torrential downpours have raised the water table so high that rivulets of water are springing from grassy banks, and drains that have been blocked with fallen leaves are creating lake-like puddles that in some spots have flooded right across the road. I went for a walk the other afternoon and was curious to see clear water running down across the main pavement and into the road from some houses up a small side-path. At first, I thought it must be a burst water main or that someone had left a hose running, but it turned out to be a streamlet that was gushing out of the boundary bank of the adjacent and steeply sloping graveyard. Hmm, I don't like to think of the ways that water might be, um, infused.

I ended up in the municipal Sports Ground, which – sitting as it does on clayey soil in a steep-sided valley – has become in large part a quagmire. Well-beaten paths through the grassy areas have become shallow water-filled ditches, and the very steep tarmacked path down one side of the valley was awash with shallow but fast-running water that would easily overtop ordinary shoes. However, the late-afternoon sun came out to illuminate everything briefly before darkness began to fall, and with the phone I managed to get some decent photos.

Incidentally, I have mentioned my use of the Halide app for the iPhone a number of times as a good way of getting usable "raw" DNG files. Annoyingly, that app malfunctioned on my phone a couple of weeks ago, so I downloaded the ProCamera app as a temporary substitute. Although Halide was quickly sorted out by a (much postponed) upgrade to iOS, I have now become a fan of ProCamera, which also delivers good raw DNG files. Why? Because, for me, it has one particular killer feature: basically, the focus point is represented on the screen as a blue square, and the metering point is represented by a yellow circle. Both can be moved around on the touchscreen independently, giving the most intuitive way of getting a properly focussed, properly metered image I've ever come across, especially compared to using the clumsy AE/AF button on a regular camera. Do any actual cameras with a touchscreen have this feature, implemented in this particular way? If not, it's so simple and yet so effective that they should do. So FWIW I recommend ProCamera, especially if, like me, you usually meter off the brighter areas (often the sky if there are good clouds), and sort out the darker areas "in post". The exposure latitude to do this, of course, is why we like raw files, even if the ones from a phone are a bit "noisy" in low light. Half the fun is rising to the challenge!

Saturday 9 December 2023

Ether Real

Few things are as hilarious as listening to British broadcasters from the 1950s and earlier (no choice here, we have a very old radio – authentic Dad Joke®). What counted back then as the only acceptable standard pronunciation for broadcasting – often referred to as "BBC English", or "RP" (received pronunciation) – now sounds incredibly artificial and painfully poshed-up; which it was, of course, especially when coming from those who had adopted it to replace an "unacceptable" regional accent. Here for, example, is Joan Bakewell, a native of Stockport who, like so many, permanently erased her Lancashire accent when she arrived at Cambridge in 1951. Note that this video dates from 1966, when things were supposed to have changed somewhat with regard to the acceptability in broadcasting of working-class and regional voices. Which they had, in principle, if you listen to this remarkable item. Women and Northerners? Good grief! Whatever next...

It's clear that in recent times the BBC has been promoting "diversity" in the accents to be heard on the radio, even on the flagship talk-radio station Radio 4, which can only be a good thing. But this policy can have a down-side, especially for those of us who were schooled at a very young age into abandoning certain speech patterns as ignorant. I have just about stopped wincing whenever I hear someone say "haitch", for example (as in the ill-fated "haitch ess two" rail-line). I have come to accept that it's a dialect marker of which some people are proud, and not the unmistakable sign of an unlettered know-nothing as I was brought up to understand, on pain of a tweaked ear. But things like "could of" and "somethink" still hit a tender spot – Oww, sorry, Miss! – although not as painfully as when, say, over-emphatic glottal stops are deployed showily and inappropriately by an academic or politician. I mean, why would anyone stick one into a word like "community", for example, as so often happens? To insist "that's just how I speak!" is the mark of a provocative inverted snob; it is also, I suspect, a giveaway of someone cosplaying as working class, which is doubly annoying.

What I find most perplexing, though, is when someone who is sufficiently "credentialled" to be invited onto the airwaves as a pundit fluffs a reasonably common word which they surely should have heard before, but clearly have only ever (mis)read. Not long ago, a woman reviewing a film on the Radio 4 arts programme Front Row referred to its "ether real" atmosphere. Say what? Are you serious? Then there was the guy who rendered "simulacrum" as "simmel-crum". Why, you pretentious, ill-informed twerp! Get off my radio!

I suppose I'm sensitive to these admittedly silly little things partly because of their association with tweaked ears and slapped legs (and, yes, those were still routine correctives in the primary classrooms of the 1950s and 60s: I'm sure they meant well...), but mainly because I can still recall every time I have similarly covered myself in embarrassment, mispronouncing some word or name I had only previously read in a book. Which reminds me of a post from a couple of years ago, on the subject of "shibboleths". Here it is again, if you didn't see it first time round, lightly revised:

You Shall Not Pass!

It's a funny old business, language, isn't it? It's amazing, really, the way the various grunting noises we can make have evolved into something so precise, and yet so elusive and changeable, when it comes to conveying real meaning in real life. As with, say, cars, the essential purpose of the thing remains constant, but the form it takes changes according to need, circumstance, fashion, and even accident. Anglo-Saxon never really recovered from its head-on collision with Norman French, for example, and you should have seen our little Skoda after the close encounter with a lorry we had recently. The sort of care and attention we pay both to our language and to our cars also varies enormously. My view of a few bumps and scrapes is pretty indulgent, and certainly not the same as that of our friendly garage owner, Luke, who managed to convey to me that he would be embarrassed to be seen driving around in anything in quite such a distressed condition. Although "distressed" as a way of saying "in a bit of a state" is not a word he would ever reach for, unless talking about jeans.

Of course, like anyone, I understand and can use a wide range of social "registers", and I am able easily to converge with Luke, and wouldn't think of saying "distressed" at the garage, either: "a bit of a fuckin' mess" does the job nicely, without causing anyone unnecessary awkwardness. But the fact that I might refer to the "um, passenger side?" of the car rather than the "near side" reveals me, nonetheless, as an outsider, fumbling for the right vocabulary. It's clear that I'm no more a mechanic than Luke is a librarian. Which is fine: this is an insider:outsider transaction. I'm happy to trust in and to pay him for his expertise, and he's happy to sort out for me whatever needs sorting out. But these little linguistic markers that distinguish insiders from outsiders interest me, particularly when they fall into the category referred to as a shibboleth.

Few people understand Biblical references these days. The original shibboleth was, in fact, the word "shibboleth" itself, as described in the Old Testament, Judges 12:

5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

In other words, the ability or inability to pronounce a word "correctly" – that is, as it falls from the tongue of an insider – is a quick and easy way to determine outsiders and then slaughter them ruthlessly, Bible-style, or at the very least to enjoy an inward smirk of superiority. Looking at the examples of shibboleths given in the Wikipedia entry, it seems the bloody Biblical option has more often than not been the consequence of even quite mild and perfectly comprehensible differences in pronunciation. "You say tomato, I say toma... Argh!"

The names of people, places, and foreign words are a particularly tricky set of silent intruder alarms to negotiate. I remember reading out an essay in a tutorial on Shakespeare's comedies – none of which I had ever seen acted on stage – where I pronounced the name of the character Jaques in As You Like It as "Jacques", in the French manner. My tutor tactfully let me know that the conventional pronunciation is, in fact, "JAY-kweez" or "Jakes". Well, who knew? Everybody on the inside, that's who; but come on in, lad, and shut the door behind you. Similarly, a friend who was studying politics mentioned the difficulty he was having getting hold of something called the "Grundle Gung", which sounded intriguingly Tolkien-esque to me. Of course, when he showed it written down, it turned out to be the single word "Grundlegung", German for "foundation" or "groundwork", and pronounced rather differently. I like to think my cruel laughter saved him from a deeper humiliation. Understandably, the ruthless slaughter of outsiders is frowned upon in university circles, not least because the whole idea is to turn outsiders into insiders, but the mortification of having revealed the true depth of one's ignorance can be quite wounding enough, especially when only realised later with humiliating hindsight (la honte de l'escalier, perhaps?).

Naturally, as with language in general, the insider's version of any shibboleth is really no more "correct" than the outsider's version: it's just that it's the only one that will get you across the river Jordan unscathed. It's no good insisting, "Look, mate, that is perfectly good Ephraimite!" when it is precisely your Ephraimitishness that is being tested. The difference between a shibboleth and simple pedantry about the "correct" pronunciation of a word is that pedantry gets you nowhere, whereas a shibboleth, like a secret handshake, opens doors.

When it comes to the pitfalls of pure linguistic pedantry, though, I have a good story which I'm sure I must have told before, but here it comes again.

Now, if you don't speak German you may not be aware that the vowel represented by the letter "a", when short, is pronounced rather like an English "u". Thus, for example, the surname "Mann" is pronounced "Munn" in German, and so the writer Thomas Mann is – in German, as it were – "Toe-muss Munn". However, to give foreign names their full native-language pronunciation when speaking English is both tedious and pretentious, and can have unintended consequences.

When I was in the sixth form, we were taught German by a brilliant but eccentric man, whose ability to turn on a sixpence from mischievous provocateur to outraged vengeful tyrant could be disturbing. You learned to read his mood quite closely. So one day, this man – a true pedant, one who habitually pronounced "questionnaire" as "kestionnaire" – decided we needed to know a little about the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. I think you can probably see where this is going. Few things are as painful as forcibly-suppressed mirth, so you can well imagine the agonies of seven 17-year-old boys, all trying not to catch each other's eye as their teacher solemnly expounded the philosophy of a man whose name, in his fusspot rendering, now rhymed with "blunt". I never knew whether this was a deliberate provocation on his part to make us squirm – I wouldn't have put it past him – but it makes me ache with laughter to this day whenever I recall it, and is also a useful lesson in the perils of misplaced pedantry; a self-inflicted anti-shibboleth, a vice that puts you in a category of unwelcome outsiders alongside bores, egomaniacs, anecdotards, and compulsive practical jokers. You shall not pass!

Sunday 3 December 2023

Loud Noises From Various Empty Vessels

It all started a couple of weeks ago when I decided I needed more colour in my digital work, and started playing around with ways of coaxing pure, saturated, and even clashing colours out of some perfectly ordinary photographs, in the process turning them into the sort of thing that someone who revels in colours for their own sake might want to hang on their headache-inducing wallpaper, right above their fever-dream sofa fabric. Zzzing!

This sort of project (if we can dignify a bit of experimental mucking about as a "project") always seems to work best with a theme, and I started out with the "Gates of Paradise" (beyond which everything turns psychedelic, as any fule kno) but really got into my stride with "vessels" of various sorts: bottles, jars, dishes, and so on. A trawl through the backfiles netted quite a few candidate images. What followed may have you reaching for the paracetamol, sunglasses, or perhaps even the phone to report me as having gone temporarily insane, if these hues are a little too much for you. But then you should see the ones I'm not showing: hey, we learn from our mistakes.

Most interesting to me, though, was the way various recognisable approaches to painting could be conjured from these entirely, um, photo-realistic photographs. Now, I'm sure I must have mentioned somewhere over the past fifteen years that I used to be quite a decent painter in my younger years. I was even entered for – and won – several national competitions for painting in primary school, and exhibited a few times in local shows in my teenage years. But, much as I like making pictures, I'm not one of those who revel in the paintiness of paints.

You've seen the people who do, I'm sure, in their paint-smeared overalls, the hands-on brush-wranglers who adore the textures, the messiness, and all the process and paraphernalia involved in getting pigment onto paper, board, or canvas. Above all, what I hated was that everything needed thoroughly cleaning up straight after you'd finished your session of dabbing, scraping, and splashing, which has to be one of the most tedious, mood-altering chores there is. Unless, of course, you have (a) a studio, and (b) an assistant or two. I have always preferred drawing, endured the darkroom, but digital photography and imaging truly hit the spot for me, in every possible way. But painting does still interest me, in the way sports might interest someone who used to be a natural athlete in their school years.

I find it fascinating how, if "expressiveness" and "colour" are given the upper hand, the tricks and turns of various conventional manners of painting and print-making can be persuaded to emerge from the shadows of an ordinary photo, as if they'd been hiding there all along. So much so, I'm pretty sure that some of these would stand a very good chance of success in many open-entry exhibitions, as they look just like the sort of thing that always does get selected.

Except, it's an interesting question whether the judges would regard these as "authentic" pictures: they're prejudiced enough against digital imaging and photography as it is. It's an interesting question, but one which I'm not going to explore again today: if it interests you, why not follow the link in the previous sentence? It is curious, though, that the one true provocation of "conceptual" art – that craft skills, however hard-won, are not in themselves the same thing as art – is somehow never taken on board by so many self-styled gatekeepers in the art world. A safe, derivative painting of a jug, something you've seen a thousand times before, is decor, not art.

But, listen, if you're not a squillionaire looking for a unique investment opportunity and just after something suitable to hang on the wall above that razzle-dazzle sofa, look no further! What size would you like? Would you rather have it in red? Not a problem here at Mikea...

Tuesday 28 November 2023

When Black Friday Comes...

This is not a Black Friday offer, obviously, Black Friday having been and gone, but I couldn't resist the Steely Dan reference. I imagine, like me, you were getting pretty fed up with being pestered over the whole dismal racket in the weeks preceding. No, thanks all the same, I don't want to "grab" any of your fake bargains...

But, if you had ever been tempted in the past to buy one of my books in hard copy but hesitated on the brink – somebody out there must have been, surely? – this latest discount offer from Blurb may be enough to push you over the edge. If nothing else, it should take the sting out of the exorbitant shipping charge:

Save 25% off in the Blurb bookstore with code: GIVING25. Offer valid starting November 28 to November 29, 2023 (11:59 p.m. local time). Valid only for books purchased through the Blurb bookstore. The discount is applied toward your product total with no minimum or maximum order amount. This offer has a maximum value of £410. This offer is good for two uses, and cannot be used for ebook or PDF purchases.

I make very little profit on these books – a couple of pounds at most – so from a financial point-of-view I really don't care whether you buy anything or not. In fact, I add the least profit onto the base price of the biggest, most expensive books, and make most on the incredibly cheap e-books and PDFs, but those are excluded from this deal (but then they're so cheap, who cares?). But, as I always like to say, the sincerest form of flattery is not imitation but cash purchase. I would be sincerely flattered if you were to buy one of my books. If you bought two or even more I might even start to believe you, you silver-tongued devil...

The link to my Blurb Bookstore is here:

Check out my books

Go on, at least have a look... Each book comes with a full preview of every page-spread. You're welcome to browse in my shop, with no obligation to buy. It's warm in there, we're open 24/7, the guy at the till is very laid-back, and you might even be astonished at how productive a lazy man like me can be, over the years. I have just counted them, and there are thirty publications listed there. Thirty! Crikey, I've gone and impressed myself now...

Worryingly, though, and seasonal opportunism aside, the increased frequency of these discount offers from Blurb might suggest a little desperation on their part. It may be a sign that the boom in "on demand" self-publication is waning. To repeat what I said in a recent post, the disappearance of a service like Blurb would be a serious loss for those of us who have come to depend on a risk-free "publishing" model, one that enables at the very minimum the production of a single simulacrum of an actual published book, with at least the potential to sell copies to third parties like, for example, you (see the post How Blurb Works). I'd better make sure I've still got copies and decent PDFs of everything...

Sunday 26 November 2023


A while ago, on another blog, there was an interesting discussion of forms of address. That is, what you call someone, depending on context, relative status, level of acquaintance, and whatever other factors come into play in social interactions in your particular cultural setting. For example, around here I might be addressed as Mike, Michael, Mr. Chisholm, sir (respectfully), sir (sarcastically), mate, "Oi you!", and so on, right across the spectrum that runs from terms of endearment to outright terms of abuse.

Despite our (utterly unwarranted) reputation for politeness in Britain, our language is fairly unsubtle in this regard, at least grammatically-speaking, especially since the loss of "thou" and most of the inflection of our verbs. In more highly-inflected languages – European languages, that is, which are as deep as I can go, linguistically – there is often a nuanced interplay between the use of second person singular, second person plural, and even third person expressions as forms of address. I believe in these less hidebound times such distinctions are eroding, but it would still be unusual and quite possibly insulting to address an adult stranger as "tu" in French, for example, rather than "vous" [1]. We do have more than a few ways of being rude to each other – in fact, we're pretty world-leading at that, and we've come up with some new ones lately – but I'm not about to wander into the voguish etiquette minefield of the "pronoun / misgendering" thing, you'll be relieved to hear. As it happens, I have used "they" as a non-specific pronoun all my life – I assume it was a standard-issue part of my native dialect kit – but I had retired from work years before people started routinely adding pronoun prescriptions to their email signature blocks, something I find very odd. But then I'll be seventy in the new year, which means I'll be entitled to shake my head, walking stick, or even my fist at anything I choose to with impunity...

Which reminds me of one of the things that came up in that discussion about forms of address, which was the use of "young man" to address obviously elderly men. In a post about haircuts and barbers that I wrote back in May (Something for the Weekend) I referred in passing to the way this infuriating usage seems to have become established in Britain. Typically, at the garage the youngster handling payment for a service will address an obviously elderly man (me, for example) as “young man”. Now, I'm an easy-going sort of bloke, but to be addressed condescendingly as "young man" by some actual young man really makes me bristle. If I were larger, younger, and more aggressively-inclined I might even choose to make something of it, starting with some form of address from the abusive end of the spectrum. But then, if those things were the case, I don't suppose any patronising grease-monkey would be calling me "young man", would they? Hilariously, though, I discovered recently that an even older friend had been taking this as a compliment on his youthful appearance, rather than the smirking ageist jibe it really is. I was happy to disabuse him. [2]

But the main thing raised by the American owner of the blog as a pet peeve was the way that in medical contexts address by first name seems to be automatic and universal. Certainly, in my experience this seems always to have been the case in the NHS, no matter what the official guidelines may say [3]. It starts when you’re a child, of course, so you don’t really notice until one day you have reached the age when you are older than the typical GP, and you think: Hang on a second there, young man… Certainly, every receptionist at every hospital, health centre, or GP surgery I have ever used has always used my first name as a matter of routine. Having carefully identified myself by reciting name, date of birth, NHS number, or whatever else they have asked me for, the inevitable reply comes: “So, Michael, how can we help you?”. So far, I have resisted saying, "No, madam, until we have been properly introduced I remain 'Mr. Chisholm' to you, and the use of my first name is an infuriating presumption upon the dignity of a senior citizen!", but it's only a matter of time before I do. Did I say I'll be seventy in the new year? I probably did. If I say it often enough I might even begin to believe it myself.

I have always suspected that this custom began as a strategy back in the earliest days of our National Health Service, designed to ensure that users of the new “free at the point of use” health service still knew their proper place in the scheme of things. Doctors had a certain godlike status in working-class communities, anyway, not least because our parents and grandparents had grown up in a world where a visit to the doctor was a rare, often humiliating and costly experience (here's a good description of pre-NHS healthcare in Britain by the Nuffield Trust). I can remember being taken as a child to see our family doctor in the late 1950s, in his custom-built New-Town health centre, when my mother would dress her best and use the highly embarrassing vocal manner she had acquired as a telephone receptionist ("Hellay, kennay hep yoo?"), both to show the necessary respect and also to signal that we, unlike some people we could mention, were to be taken seriously as aspiring, responsible citizens. She was "Mrs. Chisholm" in front of me, Young Michael, but doubtless she was on one-way, asymmetric first-name terms when being seen in her own right by the doctor.

I do wonder whether doctors in private practice also routinely use your first name? I have no idea: perhaps someone reading this would know? But, even if they do, there must surely come a point where one's status and consequent command of respect outweigh any strategic familiarity on the part of medics. I recall that Bob Dylan sang, "even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked" [4], which is doubtless true, but, when he does, I bet the doctor doesn't say, "Now cough for me, please, Joseph!" And I'm absolutely certain he doesn't get called "young man" by anyone... Not yet, anyway.

1. I read an anecdote somewhere (by George Steiner, I think), that related how a woman with whom he was about to have sex was outraged by his shift at the, um, crucial moment from "vous" to "tu"... As I say, it's nuanced. 
2. I should confess that I suffered a similar disillusionment when I realised that the women working the tills in the Students' Union shop who used to call me "babe" or "hon" were not complimenting me on my attractive appearance. Although I choose to believe they were...

3. One of the commenters on that Language Hat post referred to this document from NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence): Patient experience in adult NHS services: improving the experience of care for people using adult NHS services (Clinical guideline [CG138] Published: 24 February 2012 Last updated: 17 June 2021), in which, under "Communication", it states: "1.5.3 Ask the patient how they wish to be addressed and ensure that their choice is respected and used"Oh, really? I don't think I have ever been asked that, not once. I should get a copy to wave in the face of the next presumptuous medic I have dealings with. That will go down really well, I'm sure... 
4. "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" from the album
Bringing It All Back Home.

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Pentagonal Pool on Issuu

For whatever reasons, few readers of this blog seem to click through on the links to my Blurb book previews, and even fewer (for all practical purposes "none") ever actually buy anything. Now, I don't have any serious designs on your money – I gave up on the idea of generating income from my efforts a long time ago – but I do like my work to be seen in its most congenial and coherent form, that is, as a book. I enjoy having my best work to hand "curated" in hard-copy book form – in fact, I've come to regard it as essential – and I put a lot of time and effort into designing and sequencing these books. It seems a shame that so few others ever get to appreciate them.  

For which reason I thought it might be worth signing up for Issuu, the online PDF "flipbook" service. Using Issuu means that I can embed the PDF versions of my existing and future Blurb books into my webpage or blog posts as high-quality flipbooks. Also, given that selling hard-copy versions seems to be a doomed enterprise (as I'm afraid Blurb itself may be, if the increasing frequency of discounted offers is any indicator, which would be a serious loss for us vanity publishers self-publishers) it also means that I could start to originate new books and book-like objects as PDFs only, and make them freely available as Issuu flipbooks. The quality of these flipbooks is much higher than Blurb's previews – you're seeing the real thing, not a downgraded rendering of it – and when run as a full-screen display they can be very impressive.

How well this would work within the design constraints of the blog can only be seen by publishing a test post live, and this post is it. So, as a "proof of concept" I thought the PDF of the revised edition of Pentagonal Pool would work well, as the book was designed to take advantage of Blurb's "layflat" format, which is ideal for images that are spread across two facing pages (a "double truck", in publishing-speak). The hard-copy layflat format does make for a very attractive publication, but also one that is prohibitively expensive; the PDF flipbook should work just as well for a double-truck presentation, if not better, and at zero cost to you.

Want to see how it looks? Here it is: you can either run it within the the blog page, or – if you click the little circular device in the centre – you should get the full screen view. From full screen press <ESC> to get back to the blog.

Until this post is published and live, of course, I won't know myself how well it actually works. I'm still figuring this out, and I'd be grateful to hear of any problems you experience in using it.

BTW, I do have two spare copies of the layflat hardback of this publication, both of which come in an utterly OTT foam-lined presentation box. I'd be prepared to sell them to anyone interested for £65 each plus p&p (they're currently £85 each via Blurb).

OMG, have I just made an inadvertent Black Friday offer? Sorry about that... 😎

Saturday 18 November 2023

Up on the Downs

We were in Bristol last week, and for the first couple of days were more or less trapped inside our flat by successive waves of torrential rain and hail. I took to photographing the view of the Avon Gorge as seen through raindrops on the kitchen window, especially as in between the showers brilliant sunshine would briefly break out, making everything sparkle. Double glazing is not the ideal photographic filter, though, it has to be conceded.

The storms had passed by midweek, and I went for several walks along the Gorge, on afternoons when the quality of the light seemed to be changing from minute to minute. It is getting dark around 4:30 p.m. now, even in southern England, so the opportunities for "available light" photography are quite limited; it's also fairly hazardous stumbling along the narrow rocky paths along the clifftop in the gathering gloom. But I like nothing better than just being out there, getting a fresh perspective on some familiar views, perhaps on the way to scoff a sausage bap from the Mall Deli in Clifton Village.

If you turn round and face the other way, though, you find that you're on the edge of Clifton Downs, a level but bumpy 200 acres of grass partly occupied by football pitches that only see games on Wednesday afternoons (students' playtime) and at weekends; the rest of the week, it's the preserve of joggers, kite-flyers, dog-walkers, and anyone else in need of some fresh air and time away from city streets. It's a good back yard to have when you're in a top-floor flat without a balcony.

But, pleasant as the Downs are, I find the pull of the Gorge to be irresistible. As do others. Quite often as I walk the path along the cliff edge I encounter bird-watchers hunched over their telescopes, for example, keeping an eye on the resident Peregrine Falcons, who have their habitual his 'n' hers perches in separate trees on the other side of the gorge. But not this time. The weather probably meant both watchers and birds were inside with Netflix and/or a nice plump pigeon to snack on.

Looking south-east

Looking north-west
(that's Wales on the horizon)

The Gorge is not only frequented by walkers, photographers, and bird-watchers, of course. It's something of a nursery for would-be rock climbers, too, with well established (but still hair-raising) routes. It's the second time this year I've come across someone guiding a novice up the Sea Walls cliff, using the same tree as a belay, or whatever it is he is doing. The giddy 100 foot drop is immediately behind him.

Back in the summer I was crossing back over the Suspension Bridge from the Leigh Woods side, when I saw some lunatic in casual clothes free-climbing the 300 foot cliff next to the bridge. I watched for as long as I could bear to, and was inevitably reminded of the wheelchair-bound teacher I knew in my gap-year days as a school art assistant who, being late for a wedding in Ireland, had ill-advisedly decided to take a short cut up a seaside cliff. He didn't make it to the wedding, suffering what these days are referred to as "life-changing injuries". Perhaps as a result, and despite a love of mountains and wild places, I have never been even slightly tempted to take up climbing, even under the exemplary supervision of someone like our friend below. Just walking and looking is good enough for me.

(N.B. All these photos were taken on the iPhone 12 mini, FWIW).

Monday 13 November 2023

A Hunger For Colour

As if any were needed, heavy hints that Christmas is on the way are everywhere. Need any lights, perhaps? I know a place where you can get them by the yard. I expect you do, too. No-one need go short of lights this winter, although the actual energy cost of dressing up your house like a fairground attraction may give many pause for thought this year. It's quite hard, now, to remember the austere days when a few paper chains, some strategically-placed Christmas cards, and a string of lights on a tree in a bucket were what counted as "decorating" the house for Christmas. That is, the inside of the house; nobody used to decorate the outside of the house. Leaving the living-room curtains open at night to show off the lights on your tree was about as extroverted as it got. Christmas was a private, domestic festival, not an opportunity for a public display of flashing, multi-coloured, competitive vulgarity.

Things have changed, of course. Christmas has pretty much thrown off most of its association with the Nativity, and is now the midwinter explosion of conspicuous consumption that had always been trying to erupt from beneath and overwhelm the more pious festivities. Understandably, there is a hunger for life, light, and colour in these northern latitudes as the weather worsens, sunshine steadily becomes a scarce commodity, and the drab tints of seasonal death and decay start to predominate. So I suppose you could regard those light-decked houses with their gardens full of illuminated gadgets as a public service to passers-by and stimulation-starved neighbours. TBH it's hard to see what actual benefit they bring to the occupants lurking inside who are paying for it all.

Personally, I've always enjoyed the shortening days: walking home from school at 4:00 pm in the dark had more drama than the exact same walk in the summer months, boosted by the thrills of Bonfire Night just past (Hallowe'en? Nah, not back then...) and with the excitements of the Christmas break lying ahead. Later, there was also the promise of assorted teenage kicks under cover of darkness to anticipate. But I waxed lyrical about all this in the 2012 post Whatever Happened to Donkey Jackets?, and won't repeat my seasonal and sartorial nostalgias yet again.

Even the smallest hints of colour will attract the eye in the darkening months. There has been major disruption by road works in this part of town, as our water mains are gradually being replaced. I suppose we should be grateful, really: you are spoiling us, Southern Water! (Even though I'm convinced the taste of our water has changed, and not for the better). But the bright primary colours and bold shapes of the associated infrastructural kit and appliances have been adding some mood-lifting festive notes to the scene, at least for those of us looking for things to point a camera at.

But, should you be really hungry for more colour, the more garish and saturated the better, then I can accommodate you. Look no further... A little layering, some tweaks on the sliders (actually, quite a lot of both) and voilà! Hmm, I wonder if I've just made this year's Christmas cards? Maybe even a double A-side this time? [1] These should brighten up anyone's mantelpiece!

1. This may be a baffling reference to younger readers. Back when 7-inch 45 rpm vinyl "singles" were the basic currency of pop, a release would have an A side – labelled as such, and the side intended to be played on the radio – and a B side, usually some forgettable filler, especially in the days before track-packed albums became the norm for pop and rock acts. A "double A-side" was when a record was released with both sides being considered equally poptastic, and the expectation that both would be featured on the radio. The Beatles, naturally, were standouts in this regard, starting in 1965 with We Can Work It Out / Day Tripper. Heady days... When this old hat was new.