Tuesday 28 March 2023

The Dock of the Bay

I have lived on the south coast in Southampton for ... (opens calculator) ... Good Lord, thirty-nine years now. That's twice as long as I lived in my home town, and over four times the length of time I have lived anywhere else. And yet, despite many years of exploration in pursuit of photographs, I feel I barely know the place and would hesitate to call it "home" (as, I suspect, would our children, both actually born and raised here).

It's that sort of place, I think: a city with an out-of-focus identity, which has never really come to terms with the destruction wrought upon it during WW2 or the collapse of the work market tied to the docks and commercial shipping after the 1960s. Where once crowds of skilled manual workers would troop down every day into the dockside area to load and unload (lade and unlade?) cargo ships of every description arriving from and destined to every part of the world, containerisation has meant that now it's just crane operators, lorry drivers, and office workers who get to penetrate beyond the security gates. If it wasn't for the massive cranes on the horizon, the occasional foghorns at night, or the more frequent crackle and bang of the fireworks let off by visiting cruise-liners (not to mention the endless to and fro traffic of container lorries and car transporters) you'd never guess you were living in one of the world's major ports.

I imagine the same is true of all modern sea-cities, now security concerns mean access to anyone not employed within the port perimeter is firmly closed off. When I first arrived here, in 1984, you could still cross a footbridge over the railway and stroll around the dockside on a Sunday afternoon, peer into the massive void of the dry dock, and experience the awe-inspiring sensation of standing next to the cliff-like hulls of moored ocean-going ships; I wish I'd been carrying a camera in those days. That said, unless you're some solitary soul intending to spend the day sitting on the dock of the bay, there's not much reason to want to make the effort. Ports tend to be situated on large river estuaries, and these are messy, tidal, marshy places lacking the easy charms of sandy beaches and accessible seafronts – Southampton Water is not anywhere a sane person would want to swim – and I doubt very much than many of today's inhabitants give even a passing thought to the maritime aspect of their city.

The Southampton I know best (or "Soton" as it tends to be abbreviated) is really just a partial cross-section, a sample defined by my habitual movements around the place. Like so many long-established trading settlements, the city is divided into two substantial halves by a river, in this case the Itchen, flowing south from Winchester. The eastern half is pretty much terra incognita to me: who knows what may be going on over there? Thrust through the middle of the more familiar western half is a massive wedge of green space, the Common, that divides it again into two: a boon for walks and fresh air, but a bloody nuisance if you need to drive from one side of town to the other. Again, I'm more familiar with the western side of that divide, although the university where I used to work lies just to the east. Although the docks are the obvious focal point, geographically and economically, the city as actually inhabited is really a series of suburbs and housing estates built in the 1930s and the post-war period, identical to those in pretty much any other British town you care to name: street after street of terraced and semi-detached houses.

On the western side these streets tend to slope down towards the docks and a soulless 1960s-built pedestrianised town centre – quite close to the waterfront, but absolutely separate from it – one which is also just like those in other bomb-damaged cities like Bristol or Birmingham, where it must have seemed like a good idea at the time to bulldoze everything and build anew. The town centre does still contain within it some evidence of the pre-war world it replaced, however: a few elegant Georgian terraces, now mainly occupied by legal firms, some Victorian streets and buildings of various sizes and states of dilapidation, and some intriguing remnants of the city's former historic and commercial glory, such as sections of the original massive town wall and the Bargate, once the main gateway into the mediaeval city. Inevitably, these city-centre shops have themselves since been usurped by an even more soulless enclosed shopping mall, West Quay, that sucks traffic in from miles around, at the same time as it sucks the life out of the surrounding area. So, to that extent Southampton is a fairly typical example of any British city with a bit of a past, you might say.

But there is another Southampton. You wouldn't really know it was there unless you happened to be looking for the sort of meretricious nightlife that has become essential to the young, or simply rather wealthy. I certainly didn't know, until I decided that – living in a major port and all – I really ought to be taking more photographs of the waterfront. What I then discovered was that industry has retreated from down there, particularly from around the confluence of the Itchen and Southampton Water, and intensive development has been taking place. It's changed a lot since I used to drop my kids off at the Harbour Lights cinema, although not in my view for the better. There are now massive blocks of "luxury" apartments towering over what has come to be called Ocean Village, with its  numerous restaurants, clubs, and "leisure facilities", and a marina full of gleaming yachts. To me, the whole place reeks of a repellent glass-and-chrome ephemerality, like a flashy piece of 1980s hi-tech, replete with the sort of features that Alan Sugar, of Amstrad fame, used to call "the mug's eyeful". It must be like living inside an aquarium or, worse, an ultra-modern office block way up there, perched in an edifice that looms over the waterfront like some malevolent watchtower or panopticon. I suppose these must at least be some of the very few Southampton residents to have a view of the actual sea, several miles downriver. I hope they think it's worth whatever price they paid for the privilege.

So why am I telling you about this? Simply because it struck me that, despite having lived and worked and photographed here for nearly forty years, I have never really put a "Southampton" project together, or even managed to show much work locally. I have plenty of material, obviously, but it's never enough just to compile a "best of" selection of views of a location, if you want anyone to pay attention. These days, especially, some sort of thematic thread is needed, on which to string your pretty beads. I think I've come up with a good one, but I'm going to keep quiet about it for now, as nothing drains the life out of a new project quite like telling everyone all about it before you've really got started. Although if you read between the lines of what I've written above, you might get a hint of what I have in mind. For now, though, it will have to remain a case of sitting patiently on the dock of the bay, waiting for this particular ship to roll into port.

Friday 24 March 2023

Paradoxical Post

A while back, in 2021, all Blogger users who had installed the Feedburner "widget" (which was meant to email out copies of posts to those who signed up for it, but only ever seemed to work intermittently) were notified that the facility would soon cease to operate. At the time I explored alternatives (see the posts The Curious Incident of the Vole in the Night-Time and The Dust of Your Feet), but concluded that the only realistic options were either (a) to set up a bookmark and check in periodically (which I'd kind of assumed most regular readers did, anyway), or (b) to use a blog feed of some sort, e.g. Feedly (ditto).

In the meantime, however, a zombified Feedburner seemed to stagger on regardless for a year or so, at least for some, but has now finally stopped sending out emailed posts to anyone. Now, this wouldn't be much of a problem, were it not for the fact that some of my actual real-life friends have never read this blog without the stimulus of a fresh post popping up in their email. So – not being prepared to tolerate being ignored by people who really ought to know better – I decided to act, and set up a mail group so that I can forward on to them the emailed versions of posts that I receive from Blogger myself.

I call this a paradoxical post because I had intended to invite any unknown readers who had also previously been using the Feedburner service to join this group. But – logically, captain – you are almost certainly reading this post because, as above, you have either (a) set up a bookmark and check in periodically, or (b) use a blog feed of some sort. Either of which is superior in every way to the emailed version, which is poorly formatted, lacks comments and revisions, can be intermittent, and so on. So the chances are that – if the Unknown Readers are as unconvinced of the indispensable nature of the wit and wisdom of these posts as certain of my actual real-life friends – then they are not reading this post, and consequently wouldn't have been in a position to ask to be added to the list, anyway. Paradox!

Although I'm not sure why I'm bothered. Much as I'd like to increase the number of my readers, I suppose I shouldn't complain: compared to most low-ranking blogs I probably attract a respectable number, even if that number is statistically insignificant in a world where successful bloggers, influencers, tweeters, and whoever else must weigh rather than count their readers (and most likely have their people do it for them).

For example, here are my Blogger stats for a typical recent seven-day period, analysed by country:

Those 1492 hits are pageviews over the seven days rather than individual readers, I think, and Blogger's figures have never been entirely reliable, although they have improved over the years, and do now roughly match the returns from Google Analytics. I think this is probably because the click-bait robots that used to inflate the counts dramatically have finally given up on blogs as the preserve of unfashionable, unmonetisable, status-immune oldies like me.

But, given how Anglocentric my focus is, what always surprises me is how many of my readers are based in the USA: it's usually somewhere around the 70% mark. My fantasy is that at least one or two of these readers are gallerists, and that one day I'll be invited to give an exhibition somewhere in America. They're not, of course, but it's such idle daydreams that sustain the solitary artist's morale and productivity. I could and probably should be more proactive, sending out portfolios and statements and all the rest of the self-promotional rigmarole, but at 69 just thinking about it makes me feel very tired [1]. Besides, for a late-starting, self-taught amateur I'm having a good-enough run: let those fashionable, monetisable, status-susceptible youngsters elbow their way to the trough. They'll be old, too, soon enough, and wondering what all the fuss was about.

1. Also, let's be honest, such fantasies can be more nourishing than the inevitable series of rejections and knock-backs that result from self-promotion. I was taken to task over this by Rupert Larl, the director of the Innsbruck gallery that hosted my two main solo exhibitions, which stung a bit at the time – not least because both shows had happened by his invitation, not my solicitation – and left me thinking, "Rupert, mate, have you not read my statement?". Nonetheless, he was right: if you really want to get your work out there, you've really got to make the effort. To adapt a meme, if all you do is build it, they bloody well won't come without an invitation.

Monday 20 March 2023

No, Really


I was, shall we say, entertained by this description of a photo-book in the photo-eye bookstore, which was recently highlighted in their newsletter:

Past Paper // Present Marks. Responding to Rauschenberg. Photographs by Jennifer Garza-Cuen & Odette England. Text by David Campany and Susan Bright.
Radius Books, Santa Fe, USA, 2021. In English. 160 pp., 70 duotone illustrations, 11".
Signed copies available!
Publisher's Description:
Photo-experiments in light and water with Robert Rauschenberg’s expired gelatin silver paper.
In 2018, photographers Jennifer Garza-Cuen (American, born 1972) and Odette England (Australian/British, born 1975) spent a week at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency in Captiva, Florida, collaborating on a series of nearly 200 photograms. The images were made in Rauschenberg’s swimming pool, using expired 1970s gelatin silver paper found in his darkroom. The two artists activated the paper by piercing or slashing the bags and envelopes using pens, scissors or knives; folding the silver paper at odd angles; or layering them inside the bags. Some sank to the bottom of the pool, while others floated on top or by the filtration units. Exposures were made overnight and throughout the day, allowing different levels and intensities of sunlight, moonlight and water to penetrate the paper. This large-format volume compiles their experiments.
Hardbound [Signed] $70.00

A book well worth seventy dollars of anybody's money, wouldn't you say? No? What kind of philistine are you? Oh, that kind. Yeah, me too.

Heh... Assuming the residency went out to tender, I'd really love to see the project proposal for this one. I'm tempted to write a version myself but, like so much in these Interesting Times of ours, the reality passes beyond the bounds of parody. I've read that summary a dozen times now, and it still makes me laugh.

Now, Robert Rauschenberg was a provocateur and something of a holy clown in his art, but these two seem to have been entirely straight-faced about their "experiments", although it's possible they were actually off their faces on something or other at the time – perhaps before they found the expired 1970s photo paper they found Rauschenberg's non-expired 1970s peyote stash – and had to do something face-saving with the resultant dripping-wet chaos. Hey, we've all been there.

But... Well, what more is there to say? Other than, "Artists, innit? FFS, LOL...". Although it's true that some of the actual photograms are intriguing, they are not in the same league as the more deliberate (and exquisitely beautiful) work of Susan Derges who uses similar "camera-less" methods (apart from the hilarious stabbing and slashing part, that is). So, if you were thinking of dropping that sort of money on a book, I'd recommend instead trying to find a copy of Elemental or perhaps Woman Thinking River, or indeed anything at all by Susan Derges. It's all wonderfully original work, not in any way a tribute or "response" to anyone else, and AFAIK any knives or scissors involved have been used in an entirely conventional way.

Lifting the veil
(moths all the way down)

[Obviously(?), but for the avoidance of doubt I should say that these two illustrations are neither from the book in question, nor by Susan Derges, but mine, from the same series of digital collages as used in this year's calendar]

Thursday 16 March 2023

A Very Modern Utopia

Chauncy House flats, Stevenage (demolished 2007)
We lived on the fourth floor, 1967-80

I read this in the Guardian earlier this month:
Recent(ish) history suggests there might be an alternative: council housing with lifelong, secure tenancies. Fifty or so years ago, thanks to investment by both Labour and Conservative governments, about a third of us lived in homes like that. This was not seen as proof of an over-powerful state, or people’s failure to stand on their own two feet: it was just a mundane and reassuring reality, and the foundation of millions of lives. If we are now a stroppy little island, full of a sense that precious things have been taken away from us, the deliberate decline of this way of living seems to me to be one of the key reasons. It is out there, waiting to be revived: if it was presented to the people currently locked out of the fading dream of property ownership, it might look like the basis of a very modern utopia.
John Harris, Guardian 5/3/2023
To say it rang a bell would be an understatement. Regular readers will know that I grew up in the first of the post-war New Towns: Stevenage, about 30 miles north of London, where an entire town was constructed on precisely the lines described by John Harris, on green-field sites in the windy, chalky hills of North Hertfordshire. Without doubt, Stevenage and the other New Towns were a first, substantial attempt to build a post-war utopia for the British working classes, in particular those looking for a better life than could be found in the blitzed slums of London. They were designed from scratch to be places with good council housing at sensible rents with guaranteed long-term tenancies, green spaces, safe pedestrianised shopping centres, reliable work in light industry, and above all good schools for children, who might even – following the opening up of full secondary and higher education to all – aspire to a university place and a professional career.

It worked and was wonderful for several decades but then, after the 1970s, things took a sour turn, and places like Stevenage became – in received opinion, at least –  a punchline to cynical jokes about nowhere places. Indeed, the whole idea of "town planning" fell into disrepute, seen as little more than brutalist prole-warehousing perpetrated by pipe-smoking architects who themselves chose to live in Hampstead. But I remember coming across a passage in a book which I copied into a notebook, now long-lost. In effect, it said, "we sociologists are studying these kids growing up in new-build estates and New Towns, and we see them as dystopic places, where only alienation and inauthenticity can flourish; but, one day, there will be a generation of adults who have grown up in such places, and for them these streets will have become sites of nostalgia and authenticity". Why, yes: hello! That would be me. 

Of course, our nostalgias are mainly false-memory constructs, and "authenticity" generally a fiction. The past is not somewhere we can visit, and the identity-based relativism that has become so dominant in academia insists that "the past" was an unknowable aggregate of millions of individually-experienced parallel and intersecting realities, anyway. I have no real idea of how different it would have been to have grown up as a girl, for example, born into the same family in the same town in the same year, with the same abilities and attributes. The typical "council-estate child" does not exist, any more than the typical "public schoolboy". Those of us born at the humbler end of society do tend to get studied more intensively, but our actual identities and experiences get processed into aggregated statistics and evidence that represent everyone and no-one. Nobody is as dull as their statistics.

So, not long before I retired in 2014, I was more than a little surprised when, opening a book being discarded from our university library shelves, I saw photographs of familiar faces and scenes I hadn't seen since I was ten years old. The book (Education For Living, by J.R.C. Yglesias, published by Cory, Adams & Mackay in 1965) turned out to be a study of my very own primary school, Peartree Spring Junior, illustrated with photographs taken by Margaret Murray during school activities before and during the time I was there (1961-5). I had no idea such a book existed. Amazingly, this was my school as I remembered it, described in exactly the way I had always thought of it. It is a book about a school as a lived experience and as a beacon of good practice, about ordinary children being valued and nurtured as individuals, and about good teachers being given the chance to do a good job with proper resources. It is a book about optimism. It is also, incidentally, a classic of terrible mid-60s book design.

Miss Hendey... Worth a whole post in her own right.

There's a telling autobiographical passage in the book:
I was at school with Trevor Huddleston and Peter Pears. Neither shone in the eyes of their contemporaries half as much as did the captains of cricket and of football. Today I cannot remember the names of those athletic giants, but I follow with admiration the careers of Trevor Huddleston and Peter Pears ... At the same school there were others, equally sensitive, who took a long time to recover from an education which allowed boys to value games and 'good form' so highly and to mock at deeper human qualities. To be clever and artistic and sensitive was to be scorned and humiliated.
It's a story you often used to hear from those who had been privately-educated in single-sex environments, and that deep sense of resentment against the bullying Masters of the Universe seems often to underpin the commitment to social justice of many activists. We shouldn't knock it: without middle-class reformers, we'd still be sending our kids up chimneys. But it's not my story. I don't have those particular ghosts to lay, mainly because I had Miss Hendey, Mr. Guest, Mr. Davies, Mr. Ruston, and a whole team of other first-rate teachers whose task it was to spot and nurture those, like me, with particular talents and inclinations: we were never scorned or humiliated, but encouraged, and regularly had our work entered into national competitions which (ahem) I did actually win a couple of times. In fact, one of my paintings used to hang, framed, on the assembly hall wall, but the original school building has now been demolished, and I doubt that picture survives anywhere other than in my own memory.

So look, here is a true relic, as objective a witness of those years as one could wish for. I have owned this photograph since bringing it home from school, rolled in its tube, in 1962; it is roughly 14cm x 85cm in size.  Quite a few will have been printed, but I doubt many will have survived the last 60 years intact. It shows the entire staff and pupil complement of Peartree Spring junior school in the summer of the academic year I joined the school, 1961-2, plus the caretaker, Mr. Jarvis, and his dog.

I remember that summer well. There were refurbishments happening in several classrooms, so we had lessons and sat our end-of-year exams in a marquee on the playing field, with grass beneath our feet, hot sunlight filtered through white canvas, and the gentle clucking of the school's flock of free-ranging bantam hens outside. Those were the first exams I had ever sat – I still recall the light-blue type and shiny paper of the duplicated question sheets – and just as some children feel the bounce of a ball or the heft of a bat and realise their destiny, I knew this was something I could do well. Although, in truth, to go from that primary-school tent to the Examination Schools at Oxford University was a daydream pretty much on a par with getting a trial for Arsenal.

I have scanned this photograph and given copies to various ex-Peartree pupils, and discovered that a lot more detail can be extracted by the scanner than is visible to the unaided eye. The picture must have been made onto a huge negative by a rotating panoramic camera, and contact-printed using a rig that could include the school's name and the date. Compared to the class photographs my children brought home from school each year – mere colour snaps, with half the kids squinting or with eyes shut – it is a small masterpiece of assured, special-occasion photography. The image is proudly signed by the specialist firm Ray Studios, all the way from Braintree in Essex.

What is remarkable, I think, is the way the photographer has engaged an entire school's attention and created a "moment". Notoriously, such cameras scan from left to right across a large group gathering like this at a speed which is 
sufficiently slow that, if you are minded to, you can run round the back and appear at both ends of the final image; which is probably why Mr. Jarvis and his Alsatian are standing guard at the extreme right. But, somehow, every child has been persuaded to offer a characteristic expression to the lens at just the right moment, and there is hardly a single shut eye.

It's the faces, of course, that engage your attention. 1962 is a very long time ago, now. These are faces from another world; a new, interesting, and experimental world still in the process of definition, like a photograph emerging in the developing tray. Boys were leaner, their ears seemed much larger and more prominent; girls were dressed with far less attention to fashion, and their hair was cut into practical, rather middle-aged styles. These are, almost without exception, the children of the aspiring working classes from those parts of London devastated by the war, seeking a new life and a fair deal away from the city. I remember a lot of Irish surnames, too: the children of the labourers who came to build the New Town, and who decided to stay.

Ah, the names. They stay with you for life, those names. A few boys in this photo were in the same classes as me all the way through our school career but, even though I have no idea of what happened to most of this motley crew, so many of their names leap back into my mind whenever I scrutinise those faces, even after 60 years. These are all mythical beings from my personal creation story.

Of course, what you see there is nothing more than a pretty good cross-section of average humanity; what you get once you have eliminated wealth, social class, and selection by ability. There are statistical outliers, of course. At least five children of exceptional intelligence, plus another twenty or so with what counted then as university-level academic ability. There are a similar number of gifted athletes and players of various sports. There are some very tough kids in there, too, who went on to build themselves a local reputation as hard cases (and at least two hard-hitting women, to my certain knowledge); those of us of a gentler inclination had to learn early on how to keep on their good side, but bullying was rare, not least because of headmaster Anstock's free use of the cane [1]. There is also a fair smattering of what would now be referred to as "special needs" children (check some of those faces in the extract above). I count just four Black and Asian kids; racially, Stevenage was far from diverse in those days. But the majority, the 90%, are just nice, ordinary people, born into an optimistic time, as yet largely unaware of the scale of the opportunities being opened to them that had been denied, systematically, to their parents. Such very lucky people!

But then the smug bastards all went and voted for Thatcher in the 1979 elections, bought up their council houses at knock-down prices, left or failed to support their trades unions, and generally set about trashing the place and its public services, so lovingly built by the previous generation, and bought by them at such a high price. Don't you just love nice, ordinary people? Personally, I find them difficult, and have always preferred the company of "outliers" of whatever stripe, hard-hitting women and all. Sadly, there are considerably more of them than us. It's the great unmentionable, irreparable flaw in democracy, isn't it? Clearly, to be in receipt of even the very best education available in the most auspicious of settings won't necessarily do the trick.

As a result my own story has two early chapters. First, it's an optimistic story about growing up in a brief window of opportunity when Britain came as close as it ever has to becoming – in some special places at least – a semi-socialist utopia, where resources were poured into public schemes: schools, housing, libraries, swimming pools, community centres, transport. Chapter Two is about how it was all taken away after the late 1970s, just as we came into adulthood. No more public investment, no more council housing, fewer jobs, not much future. Sorry. Were you expecting more? You did vote for this, didn't you?

So this is where my ghosts live. I'm 69 now, a graduate of three universities and retired from a rewarding (and, I hope, useful) professional career working in university libraries with a sideline as a trades union activist, and yet I still haven't really come to terms with the fact that Chapter One of that story was abandoned so easily and might never happen again. It's hard not to interpolate that national failure of nerve into a personal failure. Could I, could we – my generation – have done more to prevent this mass self-expulsion from Eden? Did we (as the accusation goes) enjoy the fruits of the post-war settlement without bothering to plan or plant for the future? I'm not sure. True, despite strong political views I have never belonged to any political party and, certainly, too many of the best of us were unwilling to make the uncongenial compromises required to take part in real-life politics, leaving the field open to the worst of us and the mediocrities. But, whatever the reasons, the failure of Britain to secure and build upon the social progress made in the 1950s and 60s is a remarkable and historic act of self-harm, not even matched by Brexit. We seem to have decided that we simply couldn't afford that Big Story any more. Despite an excellent start, we finally managed to become a nation as dull as our statistics, or – to adapt Oscar Wilde's formulation – a cynical society that knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

So, yes, John Harris, for what it's worth I applaud what you say about reviving the idea of mass social rented housing. It would be an excellent starting point, assuming all the legislative obstacles put in place precisely to prevent local authorities from building more council housing could be reversed. Clearly, "affordable housing" is not at all the same thing, and too much of the private rented sector is a swamp badly in need of draining. And let's not forget schools, libraries, swimming pools, community centres, transport, and the rest of the package while we're at it. But there is a wisdom in the Stevenage town motto: The heart of a town lies in its people. The real task ahead is to work on changing the minds of those nice, ordinary people so that they feel inclined to vote for changes that may not be in their own direct interest, the next time they're on offer. How, and how long this will take, I have no idea: I wish the current and future generations of activists lots of luck with that. You'll be needing it. I won't refer you to those over-quoted words of Antonio Gramsci, "Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will" (although I suppose I just have). Instead, remember these words quoted by saxophonist Charles Lloyd towards the end of his video, Arrows into Infinity [2]: "The winds of grace are always blowing, it is for us to raise our sails higher". Oh, and please don't live in Hampstead.

Stevenage Town Centre under construction
(image: Stevenage Museum)

1. I know those who did not see things the approved Anstock Way and were in regular receipt of a caning have very different memories of the school. What was that about "an aggregate of individually-experienced parallel and intersecting realities"?

2. Apparently adapted from the 19th century guru Ramakrishna.

[Apologies to long-time readers: you're not going mad, parts of this post were recycled from a couple of earlier ones, one of which has been getting a lot of views lately, presumably from ex-Peartree pupils (such as Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton).]

Saturday 11 March 2023

A Change in the Weather

I was going through the photographs I took during my exhibition and residency in Innsbruck back in summer 2014, when I came across this previously overlooked snap of an old, slightly skeletonic weathercock leaning against a wall. It's a nice enough photo, if slightly oddly framed – it must have been stashed in an awkward corner – but, looking at it nearly nine years later, I thought it had potential to become something a little bolder.

I'm still mucking about with it, but this is the current state of play:

A change in the weather

If nothing else, it's an interesting illustration of the two contrasting creative personalities that seem to co-habit quite happily within me, one in the guise of a photographer, the other a digital artist. The first is an inquisitive introvert, drawn to noticing the odd, the strange, and the overlooked, and the second a show-off with a liking for over-the-top effects and showmanship.

I can't deny that this reflects aspects of my broader personality, too, although the show-off doesn't get out to play in real life these days as much as he used to, but that's probably just as well: he can be pretty intolerable when he gets going. Psychologically, I believe this is not an uncommon combination where performers of various sorts are concerned, and I read somewhere that even Elton John is really just a shy kid behind those ridiculous glasses. Thank goodness I never learned to play the piano. But, offer me a stage, and I will do my best to entertain you...

Sunday 5 March 2023

The Little Camera That Could

Spring is just around the corner [1], and this not-so-young / almost-old man's thoughts turn not to love or even to pilgrimages, but to the pressing matter of what unnecessary household clutter to hold on to, and what to sell on, dump, or give away on Freecycle. Which explains why I found myself in Southampton Old Cemetery on a sunny afternoon this week with a shoulder-bag full of "small black cameras", taking comparative test pictures in one of the few places both packed with visual interest and where absolute stillness can be guaranteed between shots.

I won't bore you with my conclusions – this isn't Gearhead Corner – but I will show you a few pictures taken with my Fujifilm X20, the little camera that could. Obviously, under the circumstances, any decent camera could have delivered these shots, but I'm not aware of any other that is so small, so solid, and with a focal-length range from 28mm-112mm (35mm equivalent) at a fast-enough f/2.0-2.8, all packed into a manually-operated pancake zoom. Should you be lucky enough to come across one, pick it up, and I'm pretty sure you'll be smitten, too, despite its age (released 2013) and its sensor size (12 MP 2/3"-type). As I've said before, it's a real shame Fuji didn't continue this line of development, and it's no surprise that used examples of the X20 and its slightly-improved successor the X30 command prices north of £300. Needless to say, it's a keeper.

On the way back, though, with all the small black cameras safely back in the bag, I resorted to the iPhone's convenience and capabilities. Which, as I keep discovering, are also remarkable. The well-equipped sports ground of King Edward VI School, one of Southampton's very few private schools, always offers a nicely complex interplay of elements, especially in late afternoon sun, and what I like about small sensors is the effortless rendering of deep focus, front to back; the pursuit of blurred backgrounds (a.k.a. "bokeh") is not of any great interest to me.

No, that's not an aviary, by the way: those are "cricket nets", where batting and bowling can be practised without offering any threat to the windows of the houses just across the road, or even to the traffic on nearby Hill Lane. Cricket balls are very hard and can do serious damage, especially when given a solid whack on the sweet spot of a cricket bat, as anyone who has played the game as a close fielder will attest (in our school team I used to play regularly in the semi-suicidal position known appropriately as "silly mid-on"). Ouch! Needless to say I haven't played cricket since, or any team games, come to that. Despite a willingness to join in compulsory sports at school with a certain degree of enthusiasm, I am not by nature what managerial types like to call a "real team player", and abandoned them ASAP. Besides, chasing balls around like an idiot is a pastime best suited to dogs, isn't it?

1. I refuse, absolutely refuse, ever to say or write "spring has sprung", as if this were the most witty seasonal coinage since Geoffrey Chaucer smiled quietly to himself, as he drafted the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales.