Sunday 28 May 2023

The Avon Gorge

Stand by for another book. Well, I did say there were three (or maybe even four) more currently in the pipeline. This is the next one to pop out. There will be more.

Although we live in Southampton, in 2015 my partner got a job in Bristol, and so had to find accommodation there to ease the burden of commuting. She managed to find a nice, modern flat in a block perched on the top of the Avon Gorge quite near the Downs, and I got into the habit of joining her there. We had previously lived in Bristol in our post-university years from 1977 to 1984, and it was fun to reacquaint myself with the city. It has changed quite a lot in the intervening decades, although the Downs and the Gorge have changed very little, if at all.

Being so near the Gorge, I began taking regular walks along it, either towards Clifton, where Brunel's famous suspension bridge is located, or towards Sea Mills, where the steep-sided gorge opens out into a less dramatic valley, and the road and the railway to the port at Avonmouth are conveyed over the mudflats of the Avon's tributary river Trym on two rather less elegant structures. Naturally, I take photographs as I walk, and have built up a solid series over the past eight years of regular visits, in the vein of that now well-established photographic genre of "repeated visits to the same limited geographical location", which AFAIK has no name: "chorography", perhaps?

I'm wary of photographers who make work in landscapes they do not inhabit as a resident. But no-one really "inhabits" the Avon Gorge. For locals it's primarily a landscape of transition, passed through when commuting into Avonmouth or into the city centre by road or rail, or briefly traversed when driving over the suspension bridge. For others it's a leisure resource: rock climbers learn their ropes on the cliff faces, and on many nights we have watched the flickering lights of mountain-bikers descending down steep tracks through Leigh Woods on the far side of the Gorge from the comfort of our flat. Then there are the peregrine-watchers, who regularly occupy a little rocky platform with their tripods and telescopes, and various other hobbyists, not to mention those in pursuit of various chilly thrills under cover of darkness. But all of these folk, having done whatever they came to do, will go home to somewhere quite different within the city.

Consequently, I feel I am getting to know the area as well as it can be known, and that there is value in my particular take on the visual variety it offers. Being tidal, the Avon rises and falls dramatically twice every day, exposing or covering the mudflats, whose colour depends on the light, the weather conditions, and the direction of view. On a far slower, seasonal timetable, where the sides of the gorge are heavily-wooded the absence, presence, and colour of foliage is in constant flux. By contrast, the human elements in the Gorge change very little, apart from the density of the traffic: what little available space there is has already been fully occupied by road, rail, and other infrastructure of long-standing. The interaction of these elements in their differing periodic cycles is what gives the Gorge its ever-changing visual interest.

I have long been an admirer of the genre established by Hokusai with his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji – followed by such similar collections as Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, and Henri Rivière's Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower – so I was initially tempted by the idea of "X views of the Clifton Suspension Bridge". But the bridge is somewhat over-photographed, and as so many of the better photos in my files do not include that particular landmark I settled on a less specific "X Views of the Avon Gorge". The final value of "X" as yet remains to be determined: even now, each walk still seems to add something new.

But sometimes a line needs to be drawn under an ongoing project, however provisional, so that it does not become one of those never-ending accumulations of unexamined material that ends up too overwhelming and too various ever to bring to a satisfactory conclusion. So this book – actually a 56 page "magazine" (a format I have come to prefer) – represents the drawing of such a line, and is now available at £15.25, with the usual downloadable PDF version at £5.99. Clicking on the cover image below will link you to a full preview on my Blurb bookstore; have a look and see what you think. In this shop browsers are under no obligation to buy!

Talking of periodic cycles, it seems I have recently returned to straight photography as my main medium (which will come as welcome news to some of you, I know). This is almost entirely due to the iPhone. A while ago I bought a Panasonic GM1 on eBay, which is the smallest micro 4/3 camera ever made (and it really is hilariously tiny) together with its dinky little collapsible 12-32mm lens, and even that feels on the bulky side by comparison. There's really no arguing with the convenience of a phone now that the results are good enough to make you think twice about carrying even a doll's-house-sized camera. In fact, several of the pictures in the Avon Gorge publication are iPhone pictures, and I doubt anyone but me could say which they are, even as medium-sized prints.

Tuesday 23 May 2023

The Tourist from Mars Returns

In 2014 I was pleased to be invited to put on a solo exhibition at the FotoForum Gallery in Innsbruck, Austria by its director, Rupert Larl. As it happened, this would be my second exhibition there: the previous one (Der Widergänger / The Revenant) had been held 11th September to 10th October 2009, and was by all accounts a success, but unfortunately pressures at work (yes, in those days I had a proper job) meant I had been unable to attend in person. But in 2014 my upcoming retirement meant that I was free to travel to Innsbruck that summer, and so the gallery generously funded a ten-day residency for me during the first two weeks of the exhibition (6th June - 5th July).

I printed the ninety or so A3-sized images for the show myself and shipped them to Austria a month in advance of the exhibition's opening, but – just as a precaution against postal mishaps – I also sent the gallery a DVD containing the image files, so that as a last resort they could be printed locally. In the event everything arrived safely, and the backup was not needed. I myself arrived in Innsbruck on the day of the opening of the exhibition, "A Tourist From Mars" [1], and had an exhausting but memorable day being interviewed and filmed for the local TV station and newspapers in the afternoon, then in the evening reading out my statement-cum-manifesto at the official opening, something I had drafted in my schoolboy German, but which was then brushed into grammatical and idiomatic shape by a local teacher and photographer, Heinz Jürgen Hafele. It was the closest I have ever felt to "celebrity" before or since. Then for the following ten days I simply got on with exploring Innsbruck and the surrounding area in search of photographs. It was all an enormous pleasure, and a fitting climax to that phase of my life, and I will always be grateful to Rupert Larl for making it happen.

Then just a year later my computer suffered a backup drive failure and, despite the best efforts of a data recovery team, a great deal of my older work was lost, including many of the image files that had been shown in Innsbruck. Luckily, all of the photographs I had actually taken in Innsbruck during June 2014 had survived on the laptop I had taken with me, but I was kicking myself for not having kept a copy of that DVD. It then occurred to me that Rupert might have held on to it, so I emailed him, but it seemed that he hadn't. Oh, well, too bad; such is life with computers. But then, five years later in 2020, I got an email saying that he had after all found copies of those exhibition files on his computer hard-drive when tidying things up in advance of his own retirement from FotoForum, and would they still be useful? He was kind enough to transfer them to me, and I made several safety backup copies, but then – having no immediate use for the files – promptly forgot all about them.

In recent weeks I have been having one of my periodic book-making binges (there are at least three in the pipeline) and it occurred to me that – although at the time I did make a book from the blog posts I wrote and illustrated during and shortly after the Innsbruck residency – it might be worth compiling the pictures from the actual exhibition into a book in its own right. These were, after all, the best work I could muster from the productive five years following the 2009 show, and have held up pretty well, I think. Reassembled they would make a sort of retro retrospective, but – rather than attempting to recreate the layout of the two rooms of the exhibition itself from memory – I would arrange them using the folders as found on the backup DVD, which essentially contained selections from the sequences I had either already put into book form or was actively compiling at the time. For example, the largest selection, "Avalon", was still two years away from becoming the book England and Nowhere.

So a new "Tourist from Mars" publication is the result, and is available now as either a 108-page "magazine" at £26 or as a PDF download at £5.99. As always, I recommend the PDF as the closest rendering of the actual photographs, although the magazine is a much more satisfying object to handle and browse through [2]. You can click through on the image below to see a flip-book preview on Blurb (be patient, it can be slow):

It's a sobering thought that this exhibition was nearly a decade ago, now. Although I've had pictures in various group shows since (most notably, perhaps, I sold out the editions of two of my digital prints at the 2017 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition) and have produced a ton of work subsequently, that second solo Innsbruck exhibition at age 60 seems to have been something of a high-water mark. The clear lesson, forcefully pointed out to me in 2014 by Rupert Larl, is that it's simply not enough to make work, however good, and just wait for interest in it to materialize. It also requires persistent and time-consuming effort to be put into self-promotion, backed up by an unwavering, bullet-proof self-belief bordering on the sociopathic.

However, to acknowledge the truth of this is not the same as acting on it. I, like so many self-motivated amateur artists, have found it hard-to-impossible to turn myself into the kind of attention-seeking self-publicist who can unblushingly exploit the undoubted efficacy of pester-power. Rupert was surely right, though: if as an "unknown" you really want to get your work out there, you've really got to make that supplementary effort. But, even then, you'll still have to put up with more disappointment and frustration than any normal individual with a healthy instinct for self-preservation can be expected to bear. Is it really worth it? For a youngster hoping to make a living as an artist, it has to be; otherwise, get yourself a proper job. For the rest of us, I doubt it, and the older you are, the more I doubt it. Why put so much effort into making yourself unhappy?

But, cheer up, that's no reason to stop making the work! Although if making work neither makes you happy nor earns you any money, you probably should stop doing it. As for me, did I mention I've got another three books in the pipeline? And, actually, I've just thought of a possible fourth... I mean, really, in the end who has time for all that exhibitionist-publicist malarkey when there's so much fun to be had without it?

Mirror, mirror, on the tree,
Show the fairest view to me...

1.  Unlike 2009's "Der Widergänger" this was actually not my idea for a title, but borrowed by Rupert Larl from a post on this blog.
2. Relax... I realise you have no intention of buying anything! Hardly anyone ever does. The prices simply reflect what it costs to indulge in this low-risk (and addictive) form of vanity publishing, which I recommend. It's true that I have almost certainly produced more individual titles on Blurb than I have ever sold copies of them, and I've definitely given more away as gifts than I've sold (hmm, talk about "content wants to be free"...). But every year I am able to add a volume or two to the shelf of my stuff that has been accumulating in my old college's library and, who knows?, maybe future generations will find them of interest.

Friday 19 May 2023

Something for the Weekend

Oops, that's the front camera...
Accidental selfie going up Pilsden Pen

Until COVID arrived on the scene I had been in the habit of having a single, annual haircut, generally at the point in late spring when heat, humidity, and the still relatively generous head of hair my genes have bequeathed me started to become an unpleasant combination. In haircut week – which was generally some time around now – I would go from scruffy collar-length to neat above-the-ears in fifteen minutes. So, when COVID caution and the lockdowns began in March 2021 I was already due for that annual haircut. But, hairdressers having been declared a health hazard, I thought, WTF, I'll just let it grow. It would be fun, after all, to compare and contrast the beyond shoulder-length thatch of my youth with whatever my scalp could manage to put forth in my late sixties.

When I was working at the university library there was a hairdressing salon located in the Student Union building, and I would go there for the haircut. It was convenient, obviously, and there was also little alternative: old-fashioned men's barbershops had been vanishing from High Streets everywhere for years. So, having become accustomed to it, since retiring in 2014 I'd walk the pleasant 2.5 miles across Southampton Common to the campus, despite the fact that I'm sufficiently a boy of the "long 1950s" never to feel entirely comfortable in its unisex atmosphere; "unisex" here meaning "a female environment in which men are tolerated". As in all such salons, there were always rather too many mirrors, smells, lifestyle magazines, and haircare "products" for a graceless lump of a straight white male like me to feel at home. The constant pounding club-style music did nothing much for my tinnitus, either.

Oh, dear... They were doing well until the word "perfumery" intruded...
[image from the Advert Museum at historyworld]

In the meantime, though, barbershops for men have been popping up all over the place: there are at least four on our local suburban High Street. "Grooming" seems to have become important again to a lot of young men, although it seems to me that most of these establishments are working with a primped-up notion of "masculinity" that doesn't sit well with the older male. No, I do not want my beard oiled or my moustache waxed, thank you very much, and, no, I don't want my hair gelled, either. What I liked was the old-style barbershop that closed twenty years or more ago where I used to go with my son. It was a step up from a well-run car-maintenance garage in ambience, but only one step: functional, sparse, with tools laid out ready to hand, and reassuringly under-decorated. The elderly barber, George, knew his trade and how to match cut to head, and could read your personality like a psychiatrist. I never had to ask to have a bit more taken off, and the ritual enquiry "Would you like anything on it, sir?" was always a question expecting the answer "No". George's well-honed instincts also told him that I did not require interrogation about my holiday plans, or the prospects of England against Australia in the Ashes. He would work in a deep, austerely contemplative silence, broken only by the snip of scissors and the buzz of the electric trimmer.

When I was a small boy, we used to be despatched to an identical local barber clutching a half-crown coin (that's two shillings and sixpence, which is 12½ "new" pence) with strict instructions to ask for a "short back and sides". We'd sit in a row on a bench, shunting up one until it was your turn (an appointment? What's that?). The barber would place a padded plank across the arms of the chair, sit you on it, pump it up to get you to a convenient height, then drape you in a cloth tucked inside your shirt collar and get to work, usually chatting over his shoulder with someone more interesting than a seven-year-old boy, occasionally interjecting, "Oy, stay still, you, or I'll 'ave yer ear off!". It was oddly disconcerting, getting to stare at yourself in the big mirror over the sink, just a head sticking out of a cone of grey cloth. Back in those days, I imagine those ten minutes getting a trim were the longest most males, young or old, ever spent looking at themselves in a mirror. Doubtless, prolonged eye-contact with oneself does foster uncomfortable introspection: no wonder so many customers preferred to chat about the football. As a distraction I used to study the kit laid out by the sink: the scissors, razors, clippers and trimmers, and the leather strop hanging from a hook like instruments of torture. Which, in a way, they were: I hated getting my hair cut almost as much as, in later years, I hated shaving.

Obviously, in those days there was none of the compensatory "unisex" pleasure of having two young women in intimate contact with one's head – one to wash, one to "style" – something that no longer feels as mildly transgressive as it did at first. In the mind-set of the 1950s, though, that would have been verging on the scandalous: positively Profumo. I imagine there were sleazy joints in Soho where you could pay for that service, plus extras, but the systematic suppression of pretty much all direct expressions of sexuality meant that any physical contact fizzed with erotic charge. Male barbers were adept at avoiding unnecessary touching with their busy hands, and even a casual brush of the fingers when passing change in a shop was tantamount to an indecent proposal, deserving of an apology and carefully avoided. But sex was nonetheless always a silent subtext in the barbershop. Alongside the tubs of Brylcreem, boxes of Durex condoms were openly on display. The barber's famous final question – "Anything for the weekend, sir?" – was the cue to palm a "packet of three" discreetly to the customer.

[image from the Advert Museum at historyworld]

Where I realise I probably differ from those men of old, and most men even today, is in a willingness to be seen with radically different lengths of hair. It's curious how rigidly guys always seem stick to a chosen length and style, which seems an expensively high-maintenance approach to me. I lost the habit of "popping in for a trim" when I let my hair grow to its full natural length after leaving school, and have never regained it. Even before COVID, I enjoyed the shape-shifting effect of gradually changing demographic over the year, at least as seen in others' eyes, like a slow-mo werewolf. 

Your tacit approval or disapproval rating gradually shifts in the months following an annual haircut. You start off neatly barbered, bristly, and a little hyper-masculine. The suit-and-tie crowd acknowledge you, and people call you "sir", without a hint of irony. The edges gradually get knocked off that look, and you become Mr. Windblown-Casual, who lives for the weekend out on his boat, like the guys in the preppy clothes catalogues. Then, somewhere around three quarters of the way through the year, you pass through a barrier of respectability, and find yourself back in the fold with the sub-cultural types. You're suddenly "mate" to everyone again, or even – once you start getting visibly old – "young man" to patronising twerps [1]. I don't know whether my body-language adapts to mirror the hair, but I suspect it may: in the weeks before finally conceding I need to get my hair cut my partner always tells me I have a positively (or perhaps negatively) defiant, two-fingers vibe. After three years of unchecked growth, my hair is almost back at the length of my early twenties, except now completely white and very much thinner, and I suspect she's a little fed up with looking like a probation officer escorting me to an ankle-tag fitting when we're out together. I've had to admit, reluctantly, that it's not a great look any more.

So I finally booked myself in for a haircut on campus, and now, at least temporarily, I'm Mr. Respectable again! Although, in truth, "respectability" is a condition I have never aspired to or attained. I'm just one of those lifelong Pig-Pen guys, happily emitting an irrepressibly scruffy vibe. So, no need to call me "sir", but do watch it with the "young man" bit, mate...

1. I'm an easy-going sort of bloke, but that "young man" business really makes me bristle. Hilariously, I discovered recently that an old friend had been taking this as a compliment on his youthful appearance, rather than the condescending jibe it really is.

Sunday 14 May 2023

Cabinet of Curiosities

Now that I've been writing these blog posts for a while – 14 years, actually, which is rather more than a while – there are quite a few older ones that, if I were to write them now, I might well do differently. I've learned a lot about myself and my views by thinking about me and about them out loud and in public, as it were, and no doubt my ability to write has improved along the way, too. So at the moment I'm finding it an enjoyable exercise to find interesting posts that are more than a few years old and polish them up in the IH workshop to 2023 specifications. Expect to see more of these in future.

This one is a revised version of something I wrote in 2009. Our recent visit to Dorset, and the inevitable fresh haul of trophy rocks we brought back, reminded me of the central idea of that original post: that rocks and fossils can serve as both personal talismans and aides-mémoire. As with photographs, I find that in my case I can remember pretty much where and when and how each significant keeper was found, right back to the days of my childhood and the beginnings of my fossil-hoard ("collection" is far too grand a word for this unsystematic and unlabelled cabinet of curiosities).

A diabolical body-part

Six hundred or so years after the Reformation, the religious function of icons and relics is a distant and slightly queasy memory in England. The Protestant Tudors swept the whole paraphernalia of folksy religiosity into a bin labelled "Papist Nonsense", the lid of which was banged down firmly by the business-minded puritans of the English Revolution, and then sat on heavily by the puritanically-minded businessmen of the Industrial Revolution. The kissing of venerated bones is now about as un-English as you can get, although some – Ted Hughes, for one – have proposed that we have been in secret mourning for the loss of Merry Old pre-Reformation England ever since. Possibly; certainly, a few more public holidays would not go amiss. But getting intimate again with wizened body parts, ancient nails, and bits of timber, though? Not a chance. Although it will be interesting to see what our latest monarch makes of the latest Pope's coronation gift of two splinters of very old wood ("I saw[ed] these and thought of you").

Relics of the intimate life of celebrities past and present are still sought after by many, however. Locks of hair have always been popular for some reason, even before the advent of DNA paternity testing; I suppose that – unlike fingernails, bones, or teeth – hair is the only suitably flexible and non-compostable body-part to have hanging round your neck in polite company. Certainly, no visit to a stately home is complete without the opportunity to gaze into a glass-topped cabinet of "association" curiosities: a shrivelled orange that allegedly once passed through the hands (but not the digestive system) of Florence Nightingale sticks in my mind. The recent book by Warren Ellis inspired by a piece of gum chewed by Nina Simone and retrieved by Ellis at a concert in 1999 shows that the reliquary instinct is far from dead, even if the saints are rather more secular these days.

Personally, I have formed strong bonds with certain bits of rock; fossils, mainly. It all started when I was quite young. The glaciers that ground across England, smoothing off the gnarlier features of the landscape, eventually passed through the high chalk valleys where I grew up, before finally giving an icy shrug in the face of climate change and retreating back north, dropping flinty treasures from their overstuffed pockets into the topsoil as they went. As a boy with the innate collector's urge to gather up nature's leftovers I began to fill a bedroom drawer with them. A fossil sea urchin might turn up on a garden spade; I was given a perfect heart-and-star Micraster by my godparents, spotted in the chalky rubble of a new underpass being excavated near their house. More common were those ridgy shell ashtrays known as "devil's toenails", and the occasional spent bullet of a belemnite. Partial, perfect, or bumped and battered, they all went into the drawer.

On one memorable day, walking through the little copse behind our house, I knocked a stone lying at the side of the path with my shoe and it rolled over to reveal a fossil cockle shell, identical to the ones in the seafood man's van that trawled our street for business on a Saturday night, and just like the illustrations in my Children's Big Book of Fossil Porn [1], seductively half-concealed within its flinty matrix. I cannot exaggerate the importance to me of that accidental find; it felt like an almighty wink from the universe, a reassurance that something, somehow, was on my side. Or maybe, after I'd grown up a bit and learned a few life-lessons, that something, somehow, was inclined to have a bit of fun when it could spare me a minute.

My father had a stone, too. I still have it. It's a quartzite pebble, about the size and weight of a billiard ball, mottled with rusty reds and blueish veins. It lived permanently in our sideboard drawer, and always reminded me of the backs of his hands, in which slate-blue stone chippings were still milkily visible, embedded as a result of a war-time motorbike tumble in Egypt. Why had he kept this stone? It seems that one day in 1941 he had a close encounter when driving a lone truck in the Libyan Desert (he was a despatch rider, and they had realised pretty quickly that motorbikes were useless on desert terrain). Here it is as he told it in the memoir I encouraged him to write in old age:
A few days later I was approaching a slope which was the only way up an escarpment which rose sheer from the desert, a few burnt-out vehicles scattered around should have warned me to keep a sharp look-out, but as I got close to the slope a Gerry fighter-plane buzzed me. I went into the drill, hand brake on, ignition off and a running jump out and as much space as possible between me and the truck. The plane returned a few times and gave a few short bursts, but did no damage. I was tucked into the corner of the escarpment and as he came by I got off some shots with my revolver, until it was empty, he came back again and I was so angry that I picked up a stone to throw, but he turned and banked away and disappeared. For some reason I must have tucked the stone into my pocket, and later decided to keep it, which I have to this day. Much later I wondered how a polished stone shaped rather like a small hen's egg came to be in an area where everything was very hard and like slate (very difficult to dig through in a hurry, there were a few inches of sand on the surface, but underneath was a layer of hard packed shale, sometimes a pick would just rebound off it!). Near to this spot I found two graves with crosses and British steel helmets; they were two Hussars, I assume from a tank unit. The graves were well made and had large stones round the edges, with a note in German on each cross, so I assume that the Germans had carried out the burial.
It's not exactly a "lucky stone". I don't think Dad believed in luck, or that anyone would have characterised his post-war life as lucky, although he was easy-going enough (and perhaps wise enough) to have disagreed. So I doubt that stone acted as anything but a reminder of one of a number of occasions when the luckiest thing possible seemed merely still to be alive and in one piece. So, apart from his album of wartime photographs [2], it was pretty much the only object I had to make absolutely sure that I rescued from his residual belongings when he died in 2008.

Here is one of the photos from that album. The caption on the back, in my father's writing, reads: "Convoy, Pyramids in back, That's me waving". I have always found this a picture of pure exhilaration. When I was small, I could imagine that my Dad could see me, and was waving to me. Somehow, now that he's gone, and knowing so much more now about the truth and the magic of photography, I find I can believe that again.

1. Actually British Fossils, by Duncan Forbes, published in Black's Young Naturalist series, 3rd ed., 1961.

2. Not taken by him. Some other DR in his unit, or perhaps an officer, must have been a keen photographer, and documented their passage from Dunkirk, through the Western Desert, to India and eventually Burma. It's quite a document, which I will probably eventually donate to the Imperial War Museum in London.

Monday 8 May 2023

Not My Thing

"Look, stranger, at this island now"...
Down by the Itchen water meadows

So, did you manage to avoid the coronation? It seemed surprisingly easy, actually, around here. Provided you didn't turn on the TV or radio, life went on as normal. Nobody knocked on the door, to request and require the pleasure of our company at some hideous bunting-strewn tarmac picnic, mainly because there weren't any taking place within at least a two-mile radius. It poured with rain most of the day on Saturday, which must have helped, although there has been very little evidence of royalist fervour in the streets round about, anyway. A subset of the same houses that do Christmas lights in the front garden every year did string up a few plastic flags, but that was it.

By contrast Sunday was surprisingly hot and sticky, and we drove out to the Hockley Viaduct to check on the safe arrival of the swallows that nest beneath the M3 where it crosses over the Itchen Navigation. I saw no evidence anywhere of the dreaded street-parties, despite the ability of the media to stumble across isolated covens of Daily Mail readers wearing knitted crowns and union jack bowlers, and partying like it's 1953: "The royals aren't what they were, but what is? That Meghan? Words fail me. Mustn't grumble, though... Lovely cake, Doreen, nice and moist...  'Scuse fingers!" What with the drubbing the Tories took in the local elections, you might almost imagine that some profound change has been taking place in our national psyche. We'll see. Apathy is not the same thing as a demand for change. Besides, Charles and Camilla were never going to be a popular double-act: in the hearts of even the most fanatical royalists, the embers of suspicion around the highly-convenient death of Diana in 1997 smoulder on.

Mind you, I couldn't resist taking a peek. Penny Mordaunt in costume as a flight attendant on Valhalla Airways was brilliant, I thought, and Prince Louis in his mini Dr. Evil outfit is clearly shaping up to be the next right royal rebel. Somewhere out there is a five-year-old Epstein avatar, and their destiny has been written by the Fates: resistance is futile. But as for the rest of it: bleugh... I have a visceral dislike of that sort of carry-on, and I started making up facetious little poems in my head, mainly with rhymes for "Camilla" ("vanilla", "filler", "caterpillar", "scintilla", and so on). Listen, Chas 3.0, I'm so not going to accept a knighthood for services to blogging, so let's get that straight from the get-go.

More seriously, the disgraceful Metropolitan Police behaviour around anti-monarchy dissent must have seemed like a proper cunning plan to some Top Cop, but was, in effect, entrapment: hey, let's give permission for a demonstration in one particular place, then arrest anybody that shows up there before they so much as unfurl a banner! But this was so egregiously unfair and disproportionate that it will have lost yet more of whatever little public respect remains for the Met, although probably not as much as the shooting dead of two dogs on the same day. Now that, to the average Brit, is definitely a step too far down the road to a police state: Oi, coppers: no!

I have to say, though, that the slogan NOT MY KING is fairly ridiculous. "Not in my name!" made a certain amount of sense in relation to the Iraq War, although it always struck me as weirdly deluded, in an entitled, middle-class kind of way. It might as well have been "I say! Steady on, now!". But "not my king"?  Oh, yes he is... You might as well shout "Not my hapless Tory government!" Well, I've got news for you. It was somebody's hapless Tory government that rushed through the anti-protest legislation that ended up with you handcuffed in the back of a police van on Sunday. Some things cannot be wished away, simply because nobody asked you.

So would a Starmer-led government repeal the Public Order Act 2023? You do have to wonder: power does funny things to the people who crave it. After all, I'm still waiting for the anti-trade union legislation of the Thatcher years to be be taken off the books, despite three subsequent majority Labour governments...

Arrest that horse!

Thursday 4 May 2023

Miller Light

Two images from The Sea Horizon, with reflected gallery visitors

We were in Bristol over the recent bank holiday weekend, and as we had reason to be down on the waterfront I thought it would be a good opportunity to drop into the Arnolfini Gallery to see Garry Fabian Miller's exhibition Adore.

In my early post-student days in the late 1970s and early 1980s I was living in Bristol, and back then the Arnolfini housed an "art" cinema, which was where I encountered the films of Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky, Peter Greenaway, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, et al., all then in their inventive prime. It was an amazing time for cinema, and it seemed as if there was something new and exciting to see every week. "Exciting", of course, in the intellectual sense; exchanges of gunfire, car chases and crazy special effects were completely absent, and the cinematic mood was mainly one of an alienated languor. The ability not to scream with boredom when the camera lingered too often and rather longer than necessary on a face or scene or telling detail or on nothing in particular was the price of the ticket of entry. The cinema would gradually empty during a showing of, say, Mirror until, when the lights finally went up, you knew you had found your tribe.

That mood was very characteristic of the 1970s – perhaps less so of the more frenetic "post punk" and Thatcher-defined 1980s – or at least of that decade as experienced by a certain, mainly university-educated, art-oriented demographic. But, more important, those were the last years of a post-war world that was already passing into history, a time before personal computers, mobile phones, and the internet had begun to accelerate the pace of everything, and an extended, open-minded length of attention could still be presumed upon by artists of all kinds, from "prog" rock musicians to experimental film-makers.

An album like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or Wim Wenders' film Kings of the Road probably best encapsulate that end-of-an-era feeling for me. It was as if artists sensed we were poised at the top of the long slow climb up some societal fairground ride, and were urging us to relish the height, the view, and the stillness in the last moments before the imminent rush of descent. It is very hard, now, to recall or even describe a world in which, for example, "snail mail" or word of mouth were the only viable methods of communication between geographically-separated friends; the frequent changes of address of one's youthful years would break what had seemed strong links and result in mutual obliviousness ever after. The fact is that I have lost touch with more people I once regarded as friends than I can remember – even their names have started to vanish – although I'm pleased to say I have kept (and in a few cases regained) the very best of them.

I can't now remember whether I saw Garry Fabian Miller's first exhibition at the Arnolfini in 1979, although I'm sure I must have done. What is certain is that I was very impressed by his show The Gatherer at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton in 1991, and – in my usual completist fashion that has filled our house with unnecessary but beautiful books – decided to buy anything he might publish. That earliest work – a sequence of 40 views across the Severn Estuary made from the roof of his house in Clevedon on the Bristol Channel – was first exhibited at the Arnolfini, but it was shown again in 1997 at the Hue-Williams Gallery, this time accompanied by a large and beautifully-produced catalogue on heavy paper with the images printed separately and tipped-in, with the title The Sea Horizon. But, despite every effort over many years, I could never find a copy for sale, which was strange. So, in the end, I actually wrote to Fabian Miller to ask whether he might still have any copies. It turned out that he did: just a very few. But his reply included this information:

750 copies were printed in 1997 of which probably 150 were sold. Of the remaining 600, most were destroyed in the MOMART warehouse fire. I have a very small number that remain. People occasionally tell me that copies sell for in excess of £2000 on rare book dealers websites. I last sold a copy in November for £1000.
Ouch! But patience is often rewarded, and the thing about very scarce books is that, because they do not figure on sites like AbeBooks, most run-of-the-mill booksellers have no idea quite how scarce they are or how to value them, and therefore pick what seems like a suitable price out of the air. So, eventually, and after a very long wait, this worked to my advantage and, incredibly, I now have two copies of The Sea Horizon – like buses, you wait for ages, etc. – both bought for very modest prices, and now probably the most valuable books I own by some margin.

GFM's recent move into textiles
(that's a carpet illuminated from beneath)

If Garry Fabian Miller is a new name to you and I have piqued your interest, you could do worse than buy a copy of the Adore exhibition catalogue, which is small (14.5 x 16.5 cm), chunky (256 pages), nicely cloth-bound (in a choice of three colours), packed with illustrations and text, and reasonably priced. It's an attractive little volume giving a very full summary of his career to date. His central fascination has been with the properties of light, and camera-less darkroom photography, but, in essence, I'd say his work has been an ongoing exploration of that very 1970s idea that repetition, patterned regularity (including the dreaded grid), and the use of simple natural and geometric forms have an intrinsic but unspecific "spirituality", one of those ill-defined hippyish terms which raised the hackles of the urban nihilists of the "punk" generation.

I am ambivalent myself about certain aspects of such art, in particular the privileged lifestyle and off-the-peg philosophy that too often seem to underpin much self-declared "spiritual" art. The retreat into spacious artisanal rural seclusion is not an option for most of us, and a certain pang of envy shading into scorn is unavoidable. I confess I am all too easily reminded of my own encounters in the 1970s and since with those folk sometimes referred to as "trustafarians", the well-heeled, financially-secure experimenters with alternative lifestyles, who nonetheless always seemed to me merely to be redefining the customs and shibboleths of aestheticised upper-middle-class life, passed down from Bloomsbury via Hampstead. Such people are simply not my tribe, and I have never felt more like a barbarian outsider than in their tastefully exclusive company.

Talking of exhibitions, I also dropped by the Royal West of England Academy to admire the red dot stuck beside my picture on show there. Which means, yes, it has sold, which is very gratifying. As I have often said, the sincerest form of flattery is not imitation, but cash purchase. The picture in question is "Pickaxe Cross, 23rd December 2021", taken with my iPhone on a solitary walk along a lane leading towards Golden Cap on the Dorset coast. It was an afternoon shortly before Christmas that was so unpromisingly dull and wet I didn't even bother to take a camera with me; but when the clouds suddenly lifted the late afternoon sunlight streamed through, illuminating the veil of mist over Golden Cap in an unforgettable moment.

It is the framed version that has sold: unframed prints were on offer for £175 in an edition of 50 – that price took into account the gallery commission, intended to leave me with about £100 – but there were no takers. So if anyone reading this would like a print, I'll happily sell you one for £75 plus P&P: email me (my address is in the "profile" at top right).