Friday 28 July 2023

A Barge Made of Ice


My Erotic Double, by John Ashbery

He says he doesn’t feel like working today.
It’s just as well. Here in the shade
Behind the house, protected from street noises,   
One can go over all kinds of old feeling,
Throw some away, keep others.
                                             The wordplay
Between us gets very intense when there are   
Fewer feelings around to confuse things.
Another go-round? No, but the last things
You always find to say are charming, and rescue me   
Before the night does. We are afloat
On our dreams as on a barge made of ice,
Shot through with questions and fissures of starlight   
That keep us awake, thinking about the dreams
As they are happening. Some occurrence. You said it.

I said it but I can hide it. But I choose not to.   
Thank you. You are a very pleasant person.   
Thank you. You are too.

From As We Know (Viking Press, 1979)

I'm not a big John Ashbery fan – I could never get past that fundamental optical error in "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (assuming it is an error, and not a false trail laid to entrap and infuriate us lefties – if so, it works) – but I came across this one quoted on an agreeably bonkers blog that I visit most weeks (BLCKDGRD – now he is a massive Ashbery fan) and it echoed the most recent revision of one of my digital collages so closely that I couldn't resist.

I had given the picture the title "Summer Night", but I might reconsider now, and call it "A Barge Made of Ice". It never hurts to make some highfalutin' literary reference, does it?

Sunday 23 July 2023

Out of Order

My desk, March 2010

During my span of working life I participated in pretty much the full four-decade story of library computerisation (no, please, don't stop reading yet...). From a standing start in the mid 1970s (i.e. none at all) it all began with the introduction of a few green-screen "dumb" terminals linked to an in-house mainframe computer, dedicated pretty much to the automated reproduction of what had gone on before: the purchase, cataloguing, issue and return of stock. After the arrival of the first stand-alone personal computers and a period of experimentation and innovation we stabilised for quite a few years with a succession of systems made up of dedicated, locally-networked PCs – the "online public-access catalogue" (OPAC) was our Big Thing [1] – until finally (in the last chapter of my story, at least) we were broadcasting everything and anything we had to pocket-sized sci-fi wonders which most people no longer even thought of as computers at all, and had become just one competing component in an entire universe of freely-available information, misinformation, and amusing cat videos. Arthur C. Clarke's declaration that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" had never seemed more prescient.

Looking back, you begin to realise you have been living through an extraordinary period in human history. Well, sure, OK, who hasn't? But, just as my generation's grandparents were born into a world without aircraft and ended up having bombs dropped on them from a great height, so those of us who were not "born digital" are entitled, I think, to feel things may be getting out of hand. Slow down! Can't we just think about all this a bit more?

Along the way I learned to work with a number of now-obsolete operating systems: DOS, of course, but does anyone else remember Pick, for example? (and can there really ever have been a time when the name of its developer, Dick Pick, wasn't hilarious?). I also taught myself to program in several languages, but my main task was to learn how to wrangle the complex blend of technologies employed in a university library, and to "manage" the people using them, who were often resentful, unwilling, or just plain unsuited to the task. Sigh... (There's a famous Norwegian TV sketch about the introduction of the new "book" technology into a monastery that always makes me laugh). Above all, however, what I learned was to dread "upgrades" and – ultimate horror of horrors – the implementation of an entirely new system, especially one using yet another underlying operating system. Which, until Unix had become something of a standard, was every time. Every bloody time, every five years or so. What a nightmare that was. Every time.

Most of us who found ourselves moved sideways (rarely promoted) into a systems management role in the 1970s and 80s ("Congratulations! You're about to become the most unpopular person in the building!") had no training or computer-science background whatsoever. It was very much a "sink or swim" experience, and in the beginning learning to swim was surprisingly enjoyable. There was a pioneering, exciting period – let's say, from about the late 1970s to the early years of this century – when an enthusiastic "systems librarian" (and I imagine the same went for most other office-based industries) could learn how to get under the bonnet of their computerised setup and tinker with it, in the same way it used to be possible to tinker with cars. You figured out a bit of programming, read your way through the manuals, established a relationship with your supplier, and then got "hands on" whenever necessary. It was fun, most of the time; communities and friendships formed around user-group meetings, and many of us discovered latent technical talents; quite a few were recruited into the industry side as developers and go-betweens, able to speak the language of both supplier and customer without too much eye-rolling or sarcasm.

By the time I retired, I was spending much of my time doing what most proper, professional programmers would love to be doing, but can't: just tinkering around, finding problems to fix, and writing Perl scripts to fill gaps in the functionality of our latest, Linux-based library system. My proudest moment was writing an entire suite of CGI programs that managed the transfer of 50,000 books from one library to another, in the process automatically reclassifying each item's Dewey Decimal shelfmark into its Library of Congress classification equivalent, printing a new spine label, and carrying out various other tweaks (changes of loan period, deduplication of stock, etc.). It reduced a massive and daunting task to a simple matter of scanning in the barcodes of a trolley-load of books at one end of town, hauling them across to the other end in a van, scanning the barcodes again, printing and attaching the new labels, and getting them swiftly up to the shelves, ready for use. Repeat until complete. Hey presto!

Sadly, such acts of labour-saving creativity – and there were many – did not earn me the rewards you might expect. Why not? Over the years I had been transformed from a typical humanities airhead, attracted to intangibles and mumbo-jumbo, into a notoriously intransigent, hard-headed number-cruncher. Universities, surprisingly, are full of people who think that believing something is possible is enough to make it so. Few ever bother to quantify a task – the time it takes, how often it must be done to achieve a certain target, how many people it would take to do that, how much those people will have to paid, and so on – before deciding it will be done, and what's more finished by, oh, shall we say Christmas? Those few that do make those essential calculations and are brave enough to deliver the bad news are, inevitably, never popular with senior management, and attract a reputation for "negativity": which is promotion poison, even – especially! – when your efforts have saved various incorrigible Pollyannas from serial self-inflicted humiliation. I learned never to expect gratitude from any ambitious high-flyer.

In the last years of my professional life, however, exactly as has happened with cars, ever more sophisticated products began to arrive on the scene that used the automation equivalent of tinker-proof sealed units, and these were usually a mystery even to their developers and suppliers. Who, but an ultra-specialised techno-geek, knew exactly how a network functioned, or WiFi, or even a smartphone "app", and could therefore fix them when they stopped working? Worse, who would dare admit that they didn't know? Besides, most serious programming had long ago come to depend on libraries of pre-written components – I doubt anyone has bothered to write anything as basic as a sort routine in decades – and these would be assembled together like Lego along with other proprietary stuff bought under license, all in the expectation that the resulting package (actually a Heath Robinson-ish monster beneath its glossy surface) would work under all circumstances, and – crucially – continue to work when one element in the chain of dependencies developed a fault or, argh, was "upgraded". What could possibly go wrong? Everything and anything at any time, that's what.

I retired a decade ago, and things have clearly continued to get even more mysteriously opaque and giddily interdependent, and as a consequence more precarious. Lately it has seemed that, wherever you turn, you encounter yet another automated system that is unreliable, poorly configured, or out of order. More often than not this turns out simply to be because a new system has been introduced, and no-one yet knows how (or whether) it really works. Obviously, a key driver behind automation has always been the saving of money, and there are few activities where the biggest cost by far is not staff wages. To employ technical staff of the proper calibre at the going rate is regarded by most non-technical enterprises as an unnecessary luxury (an impossibility, actually, in public-service contexts where salary scales are inflexibly tied to job descriptions and grades). So, in effect, once installed, a new or upgraded system is placed into the hands of its end users – usually poorly-paid clerical staff [2] – to "debug" in live use. "Hey, look, when I do this, the whole thing freezes!" "Really? We had no idea you would ever do that. This could be a problem... Could you try not doing that?" "But that's my whole job!"

Some examples.

We could start at the top, with the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, the scandalous prosecution of nearly 1000 sub-postmasters for theft, false accounting and fraud, all because of a software system, Horizon, that didn't work properly, and reported non-existent accounting shortfalls. But that's a book-length story, and still ongoing. Suffice it to say that a number of perfectly innocent sub-postmasters were jailed and had their lives trashed entirely on the evidence of a faulty system that Fujitsu, the supplier, and the Post Office, the implementer, insisted until quite recently was not faulty. The idea that quite so many operators of village Post Offices were lying, thieving cheats seems not to have troubled anyone at senior level in the Post Office; quite the reverse, in fact.

Closer to home and with rather less consequence, it recently took me an entire month to make a simple change to a National Trust gift membership I had given to my son. I made multiple phone calls, but no-one ever answered the phone, despite the cosy northern-accented voice that interrupted the muzak every couple of minutes to reassure me that they knew I was there, my call was important, in a queue of unspecified length, and that someone was "on their way to me" (as if there might be a knock on the door at any minute). As so often, this lack of response was blamed on an "unusually high level of customer calls"(in other words, "Look, we're just too busy / understaffed / idle to answer the phone, so why not just go away?"). So I also sent emails, which also got no response. Then, after a week or so I finally did start getting through on the phone, and there were three attempts to make the same simple change by three different "agents", each of whom failed to negotiate their way to a satisfactory conclusion. It was frustrating. Then, replies started to arrive belatedly in response to my earlier emails which both contradicted each other and the "help" given by the people on the phone. Aaaargh! In the end, a customer services person had to admit, ruefully, that it was all really due to the introduction of a new call-handling and membership system which was having "teething problems"... Well, of course! Why didn't you say so? Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner... At least it is around here; you have my deepest sympathy. Let's hope you don't all end up in jail.

Then there was the medical appointment I had to make at a local hospital. I tried using the online booking system, but it claimed that there was just one appointment available during the coming months, at 8:30 a.m. one day the following week. This seemed highly improbable, so I made the customary odyssey through various switchboards to arrive at the relevant phone on the relevant desk, and – yes, you've guessed! – it seemed they were having problems with a new booking system. I was told that if, by some miraculous stroke of good fortune, I was able to see any appointment at all, then to grab it, and maybe ring next week to see if things had got properly sorted out in the meantime. They hadn't.

So then a short while ago I made my first return visit post-COVID to my old place of employment, the library of the University of Southampton. My "retired staff" identity card failed to open the turnstile. Huh? It seemed "iSolutions" (the university's utterly unironic name for its computing services and support operation) had mistakenly deleted me from the database at the same time as they shut down my old email account. No worries: my details were noted and would be passed through to be restored ASAP. Meanwhile, an old colleague (there aren't many of them left) had spotted me and we chatted: yes, there was a new library system now; no, it didn't really work; no, there was no longer any senior technical person who could sort things out in-house; so, yes, I was missed (hah, finally!). So when I returned a fortnight later, could I get through the turnstile? No, of course I couldn't.

Well, there are no surprises in any of those examples: that is exactly the sort of thing we have come to expect, isn't it? We anticipate incompetence, incomprehension, delays, and frustration, as the world is constantly reshaped to no great purpose by disruptive corporate swashbucklers, who always promise much but leave instead a trail of impractical, half-finished schemes in their wake as they sail on to more senior positions somewhere else. But listen, guys: if you must "fix" or "disrupt" things (because how else would we notice you had ever been in charge?) then at least let the people who are going to use, say, some shiny new automated system have a thorough look at it first, just to make sure it does actually work in every important respect before you sign the cheque and add that new line to your CV. The same goes for your addiction to organisational shakeups, such as centralising / decentralising / outsourcing / insourcing all clerical assistance (essentially reversing whatever situation you found when you arrived on the scene), or forking over thousands of pounds to consultants simply to change the name, font, and logo on all the official stationery, websites, and corporate clothing. Sure, you want to make your mark, but couldn't we just add your name in nice gold lettering to a list on a board somewhere when you go? Wouldn't that do?

But, heads up, people, here comes so-called AI (artificial, yes; intelligent, no), which promises to combine the breathtaking arrogance and heedless ignorance of both worlds, managerial and technical, at their very worst. Really, trust me, this is going to be bad. Not because humanity will be exterminated by killer robots, but because careless implementations of AI will fuck up so many things that were already working perfectly well. [3] 

"Hey, there, you techie guys: how can we save even more money and maximise profits?"

"Well, Mr. Manager, here's a thought: why not sack everybody? Bold, I know! But we've bought in a little package here that can do anything all those expensive, troublesome, lazy, disease-prone people can do, but faster, better, and 24/7! Most of it is incomprehensible to us, admittedly, but we've tested it pretty thoroughly in various scenarios and it seems to get most things right most of the time... Besides, as always, we can iron out any little problems as we go along. So, sign here, please. Plus this liability disclaimer, if you don't mind; just a formality, obviously. After all, what can possibly go wrong?"

Royal South Hants Hospital, June 2023

1. Impossible, now, to recapture the excitement of being able to search for stuff online by keywords. Once, back in the early pioneering days, I wanted to show off to a visiting class of 12-year-old schoolchildren how our new library system could find any book, just by entering the first four letters of both the title and the author's name, separated by a comma. I have no idea what made me choose to search for Hard Times by Charles Dickens on the spur of the moment. There is clearly some internal, malevolent imp that lives, like a comedian of genius, one beat ahead of the action in my head. I hadn't even read the damned book; still haven't. But I carefully entered "DICK,HARD" on the terminal keyboard. Hey, kids, what's going on? What? What's so funny?? Oops! Let me just quickly change that...

2. Although not always. I recently watched a consultant surgeon become completely baffled by a new login procedure, in a priceless real-life recreation of that Norwegian "book" sketch. He had to summon a nurse to bail him out. Mind you, I should probably have warned that nurse what this act of mercy would do to his promotion prospects...

3. Here's an interesting article about the future of books, AI, and reading. Spoiler: books are great just as they are!

Tuesday 18 July 2023

Previously on Idiotic Hat...

The current Hollywood screenwriters and actors strike reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago which seems to have become more relevant than ever. It may be that ARGH's moment has finally arrived. What do we want? Better scripts with more realistic and equitable treatment of minor characters! When do we want it? Now! Read on...  

A New Union (2021) 

In a post in 2020 (Mysteries) I wrote in passing:

It's curious how much current popular entertainment seems to be aimed at affirming and enlarging the mystery constituency: magic, superpowers, and alien life-forms are more or less standard issue on Netflix, along with deep-reaching conspiracies and textbook narrative arcs, all set in a glamorous world free of tedious workaday concerns like washing up, or even facing trial for a series of murderous assaults on life's extras: negligible, nameless folk like guards and henchmen.

Having watched more such streamed stuff over the last two years than is probably healthy or wise, I have become quite concerned about the casual and often lethal violence meted out to those nameless guards and henchmen. It seems that whenever some vengeful protagonist breaks into or breaks out of some villain's lair – be it an office block, a medical lab, a repurposed stately home, or some underground labyrinth – the inevitable exchanges of gunfire will result in a bloody massacre of inept "guards", usually dressed in sub-standard protective gear that clearly offers no protection whatsoever, and equipped with faulty assault rifles that could not hit a moving row of ducks at a fairground, never mind the sort of person who can outrun and dodge multiple sprays of automatic gunfire, clad in nothing but pyjamas.

Now, villains, criminal masterminds, and outright psychopaths deserve whatever comeuppance they get, which is usually some ironically symbolic obliteration involving a self-constructed petard-cum-MacGuffin. In films, that is; in real life, they get legal representation and a fair trial. Which brings me to my original point in the quoted passage. Yes, you, our hero ruthless protagonist: you have saved the world, solved the mystery, reaped vengeance, got your life back, whatever it was that drove you on so single-mindedly; but along the way you have killed and maimed dozens of mere employees. We saw you do it! But, look, these were actual people, who hoped to pay their bills and raise their families by patrolling the grounds and manning the CCTV monitors of some organisation that, as far as they knew, did something sorta high-tech and secretive but which was all so far above their minimum-wage pay-grade as to be invisible. It's boring work, and the hours are inconvenient, but like security staff everywhere, you do at least get to dress up and play at being police or soldiers without any proper qualifications, training, or exposure to real danger.

That is, until you turned up.

Of course, real police get mashed, too. That car chase, for example? The one when you drove way too recklessly, totalling the vehicles of several innocent civilians, not to mention the market stalls and fast-food stands you demolished on the roadside, before taking a short-cut through a plate-glass shop window? You remember? And then, FFS, when you careened at high speed the wrong way down a dual carriageway into heavy oncoming traffic... Well, all that resulted in multiple cop cars crashing, overturning, flying off flyovers, and bursting spectacularly into flames. Again, let me emphasise, driven by real people with families to support. And all because you knew you were right, and therefore had to evade police detention in order to pursue some idiotic self-imposed mission. But the thing is, tragic as their loss is, those guys at least have pension benefits to pass on, widow's insurance, and a union to press their case for compensation against their employer. Guards and henchmen? They've got nothing.

So, what I'm proposing here is proper trade union representation. Let's call it the Amalgamated Representatives of Guards and Henchfolk, or ARGH.

For a start, the union will demand proper protective clothing in the workplace, up to full military standards – and maybe not head-to-toe in baddie black? – as well as firearms that can do more damage than just knocking chips off concrete pillars and brickwork. Members will be required to undergo proper vocational training, so that they can detain a suspected invader or escapee without the situation escalating into a bloody one-sided massacre, or at the very least so that they can shoot straight. There will be full compensation for injury or death in the line of work, with benefits for bereaved fictional family members. The union will insist that those responsible for such injury or death be brought to justice, and face trial for their reckless actions: the ends do not justify the means, and any sinister cover-up of the serial assault and murder of union members will not be tolerated (unless this is the seed of a new multi-part thriller on Amazon Prime, securing further employment). Clearly, there is also a need for better pay, shorter hours, and proper breaks: there's a reason security staff keep losing concentration on the CCTV monitors at crucial moments, don't spot suspicious movement at the other end of the corridor, or fail to find the lethal dessert spoon tucked in a detainee's sock in a routine body-search.

Most of all, members will have a right to be fully informed about what the hell is really going on in that "secret" laboratory on Level 6, or in those maximum-security cells in the basement. They may work for monsters, but that doesn't make them monsters: they were only obeying orders! [Hi, ARGH Legal Dept. here: please don't ever use that argument in court; it really doesn't play well]. 

So watch out, Jason Bourne, John Wick, and all you other trigger-happy vigilantes and vengeance junkies. ARGH is coming for you. The movies are about to get a lot safer for everybody! And next, we'll be turning our attention to the organisation of the villain's lair cleaning staff: what an awful, messy job that can be...

Florence 2016

Thursday 13 July 2023

Boxes of Rain

Around this time of year my thoughts often drift back to an occasion in summer 2010, the memorial of an old friend who died far too young. John always comes to mind, even now, whenever a person is described as a "larger than life" character: it's hard to believe that someone so supercharged is no longer with us. Although, a decade-point-three on, it's an idea that no longer seems quite so unreasonable as it did back then, and I sense a rising nervousness among my contemporaries: who's next?

One of the permanent memories of that afternoon is, surprisingly, the Grateful Dead song "A Box of Rain", which was played at the end of the proceedings. Now, I am definitively not a "deadhead" – in the past, I was known to protest vociferously whenever a Dead album found its way onto a turntable – but hearing that particular track under those circumstances was an unexpectedly overwhelming experience. Thank goodness I need never listen to it ever again...

Anyway, the idea of "a box of rain" stuck with me, and eventually came to seem a natural fit with the half-abandoned "deconstructed packaging" idea. I liked the idea of a cube, inside which rain of various intensities was falling, a sort of temperate-climate relative of the "snow globe". So here are four variations on the theme.

As printed, these are A3 sheets. Assuming you can't read them reproduced at this size, the two texts are:
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. (Ecclesiastes 1:7)
Vapour brought to us by such a wind must have been generated in countries lying to the South and East of our island. It is therefore probably in the extensive vallies watered by the Meuse, the Moselle, and the Rhine, if not from the more distant Elbe, with the Oder and Weser that the water rises, in the midst of sunshine, which is soon afterwards to form our clouds, and pour down in our Thunder-showers. And this island, in all probability,  does the same office for Ireland: nay, the Eastern for the Western counties of South Britain.  (Luke Howard, The Climate of London, 1818-20)
Plus, of course, there are the essential assembly instructions:
1. Cut out the box template
2. Score along the [colour] lines
3. Fold along the scored lines
4. Apply glue to the tabs
5. Assemble into a cubical box
6. Or, why not just leave it as it is?
You'll be completely familiar with Ecclesiastes, of course, but Luke Howard's three tomes of meteorological data and observations may be less well-known. They are available online, however, and well worth a browse if you're a fan of observational, anecdotal science in the mode of Gilbert White. Here's something that caught my eye, for example, if only because in 1800 my maternal ancestors were living in Ampthill, Beds.:
Remarkable Hail Storm in Bedfordshire, 19th of Eighth mo. 1800
The following particulars of a destructive hail storm in Bedfordshire were communicated to me by my friend and relation, Richard Howe, of Aspley, who showed me the scars then remaining in the stems of fir trees in his plantation, from wounds inflicted by this hail several years before.
    There had been thunder showers early in the morning, after which the air cleared up and became very warm. About 7 p.m. after a very heavy clap of thunder and vivid lightning, the hail began, and fell for about ten minutes only; it consisted of balls of ice, of from six to eight or nine inches in circumference. A small one weighed above two ounces; the form was an oblate spheroid, the nucleus the more transparent part. The cloud had an uncommon, fiery appearance, and there was lightning all the evening after. The next evening, also, much thunder, with heavy continued rain. On the third day, the air much clearer and fine; afterwards showery.
    The storm appeared to originate about Fenny Stratford, and passed in a westerly [1] direction over Hogstye-End, Aspley, Crawley, (missing Woburn,) to Ridgemount, Ampthill, and Clophill, where it ceased, having gone fourteen or fifteen miles, with a breadth of, at most, a mile and a half.
    The repairs of glass, &c. in this space amounted to several thousand pounds. The corn in shocks, as well as that standing, was in many fields quite thrashed out of the straw.
Curiously, a family legend was that my mother, who had been an ATS sergeant in an ack-ack battery during the war and thus well acquainted with loud bangs, was nonetheless unreasonably afraid of thunder, as was my grandmother. Might some ancestral flinch have been passed down through the generations as a result of that notably destructive and prolonged storm? Probably not – it's no more likely than that my descendants several generations from now will have inherited a reflex distaste for flaccid West Coast guitar noodling – even though I believe Lamarckian evolution has regained some respectability as a theory. But it's nice to come across something that your long-dead, unknowable, direct forebears must have experienced as a remarkable event. It was bound to have been the talk of the village for years ("Hail, boy? That ent hail... Lemme tell you abewt that ol' storm we hed in 1800...").

1. Interesting use of "westerly" there, as all of these places lie further to the east, not west of Fenny Stratford. It seems in the early 1800s "westerly" meant "coming from the west", as still applied to a westerly wind, as well as "heading west". Confusing... It is a curious fact, though, and one often unremarked, that the arrow on a weathercock points to where the wind is blowing from, not in the direction in which it is blowing. Obvious really, but similarly confusing.

Sunday 9 July 2023

Professing Poetry

You are almost certainly unaware of (or at least unexcited by) the recent election of the next Oxford Professor of Poetry. It's a five-year post, appointed by a poll of those Oxford graduates who can be bothered to register to vote (a body termed, Oxford-style, "Convocation"). Last time round, I agitated on behalf of Alice Oswald (well, OK, I wrote a blog post and sent a few emails), who went on to win. You're welcome, Alice. There was no question in my mind that Oswald is a major contemporary poet with interesting things to say about poetry; there was also no doubting that most of those I knew who were qualified to vote in the contest would never have heard of her, or even given much thought to poetry in general. A little encouragement never hurts.

This time, I threw my utterly inconsequential weight behind candidate Don Paterson, although it's true that I forgot to post about it or send out emails, so it was just a case of my single vote: sorry about that, Don. Paterson, too, is a major contemporary poet with interesting things to say about poetry – I find his irreverent, working-poet's commentary on Shakespeare's sonnets indispensible – but I don't suppose many of my Oxford contemporaries will have heard of him, either. As I have said before, I fell among politicos and policy wonks, for whom poetry is not a priority.

TBH, it seemed a foregone conclusion to me; of the other candidates, only A.E. Stallings had much of a profile, and despite her reputation I couldn't really see her as a suitable candidate. Why not? I'd bought a copy of her recent selected poems, This Afterlife, and it seemed to me she is a one-note poet, playing up the resonances of the classics with the modern-day domestic scene, in a formally-patterned, ironic mode that links the broken washing machine to Homer, but that only rarely seem to achieve escape velocity from "light verse". Anne Carson, for example, does that gig a lot better IMHO, but she wasn't the candidate.

In the end, A.E. Stallings won. Which was (to me) an interesting surprise. Certainly, looking around the Web, there was a lot of campaigning for Stallings votes and very little going on for Paterson (who is, besides, male, Scottish, a jazz guitarist, and not an Oxford graduate – he left school at 16 – none of which will have helped his cause), and it's quite possible that a majority of poetry-reading Oxford graduates are precisely the constituency for one-note verse that plays up the resonances of the classics with the modern-day domestic scene. I prefer Paterson, but then I'm in the constituency for late-night brooding on the dark and dangerous questions, and have no problems with Scottishness or jazz. So it's possible a certain element of gender may have been in play here.

Anyway, for your enjoyment and edification, here's a good Stallings poem that I bookmarked: "After a Greek Proverb". The Greek proverb concerned is given as an epigraph to her poem, and transliterates as "Oudén monimóteron tou prosorinoú" which (according to Google translate) means something like "nothing is more permanent than the temporary". As a villanelle, the poem is inevitably reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop (in particular her "One Art"), but I do know exactly what she's talking about: "there are always boxes that you never do unpack"... Oh, yes. But, does it do more than flesh out the proverb, though?

And here's one from Don Paterson's extraordinary collection 40 Sonnets: "Francesca Woodman". Francesca Woodman should be well-known to photography enthusiasts, not least because of the recent publication of her "artist's books" by Mack, but if not you can read about her tragically short life here; in a way, she is the enigmatic Nick Drake of photography. For me, Paterson's "sonnet" really captures the haunted mood of those strange, posed photographs made in dusty, derelict rooms. Does it do more than your typical "ekphrastic" poem, though?

Answers in fewer than 500 words. You have two hours. Your time starts now.

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Dig It

It has been difficult for the last few weeks to concentrate during the day, as Southern Water (our local purveyor of leaky pipes and sewage dumps), has uncharacteristically decided to replace the entire water main running down our street, which has involved much digging, drilling, scraping, shouting, and general mechanised mayhem. The most impressive bit of machinery has been the "suction excavator", an incredible roaring behemoth the size of a dustbin lorry that literally sucks the earth and rubble out of the holes and trenches dug into the road and pavement. It's a beast, and as you can imagine, it is orders of magnitude louder (and doubtless a lot cheaper) than any team of men with spades, especially when operating just outside your front door.

I might have more to say about this when the dust has literally settled (including the exciting two-part quest for our elusive water meter) but for now I thought I'd just post these two recent revisions of items from a couple of project ideas I had a few years ago, the "poster bar book" and the "DIY cut out booklet". I think they're fun, and quite decorative, and I keep meaning to enter some for various open exhibitions (I've made quite a few since first coming up with the idea) but then I always lose my nerve, not least because they're too big to print on my own A3+ printer: the one at the top is ideally 50cm x 40cm; the one at the bottom 60cm square. Doubtless, as with the ill-fated "deconstructed packaging" idea, someone else has already done something similar, although I'd be surprised if they'd done it better. We'll see; maybe next time...